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Authors: Leslie Tentler

Edge of Midnight

BOOK: Edge of Midnight
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The collection isn’t complete without her.…

The writer becomes the story when crime reporter Mia Hale is discovered on a Jacksonville beach—bloodied and disoriented, but alive. She remembers nothing, but her wounds bear the signature of a sadistic serial killer. After years lying dormant, The Collector has resumed his grim hobby: abducting women and taking gruesome souvenirs before dumping their bodies. But none of his victims has ever escaped—and he wants Mia back, more than he ever wanted any of the others.

FBI agent Eric MacFarlane has pursued The Collector for a long time. The case runs deep in his veins, bordering on obsession…and Mia holds the key. She’ll risk everything to recover her memory and bring the madman to justice, and Eric swears to protect this fierce, fragile survivor. But The Collector will not be denied. In his mind, he knows just how their story ends.

The writer becomes the story when crime reporter Mia Hale is discovered on a Jacksonville beach—bloodied and disoriented, but alive. She remembers nothing, but her wounds bear the signature of a sadistic serial killer. After years lying dormant, The Collector has resumed his grim hobby: abducting women and taking gruesome souvenirs before dumping their bodies. But none of his victims has ever escaped—and he wants Mia back, more than he ever wanted any of the others.

FBI agent Eric MacFarlane has pursued The Collector for a long time. The case runs deep in his veins, bordering on obsession…and Mia holds the key. She’ll risk everything to recover her memory and bring the madman to justice, and Eric swears to protect this fierce, fragile survivor. But The Collector will not be denied. In his mind, he knows just how their story ends.

“The shivers are worthy of a Lisa Jackson.”

Publishers Weekly
on
Midnight Caller

Praise for Leslie Tentler’s
Chasing Evil trilogy

MIDNIGHT CALLER
“A smooth prose style and an authentic
Big Easy vibe distinguish Tentler’s debut…
the shivers are worthy of a Lisa Jackson.”

Publishers Weekly

“Filled with suspense and mystery and
centered around a compelling plot with a
terrifying villain…this is one riveting read.”

RT Book Reviews

“A romantic thriller that continually
keeps you on the edge of your seat.”

Fresh Fiction


Midnight Caller
is a heart-thumping page turner…
Ms. Tentler’s debut plants her solidly into the
romantic suspense genre with a bang.”

Romance Junkies

MIDNIGHT FEAR
“…Mesmerizing… Tentler’s ability to draw out suspense while wrapping it in captivating,
visceral fear is amplified in this exceptional thriller…impossible to put down.”

Examiner.com

“The chilling look inside the mind of a
serial killer will haunt readers long after
[it] reaches its stunning conclusion.”

The Reader’s Round Table

“It isn’t too often that I read a good mystery
where I don’t see the ending coming…
all of the twists and turns make this story
a roller coaster of a ride [and] well worth the read.”

Nocturne Reads

“An amazing story.
The murders and mystery are chilling.…”

Romance Books Forum

Also by Leslie Tentler

MIDNIGHT FEAR
MIDNIGHT CALLER

For my husband, Robert.
I love you.

Prologue

 

Atlantic Beach
Outside Jacksonville, Florida

 

O
fficer John Penotti took a sip of his rapidly cooling coffee, fighting the drowsiness that always came in the last remaining hours before daybreak. Listening to the command radio’s static, he peered through the cruiser’s windshield as it traveled along a remote portion of state road A1A. His partner, Tommy Haggard, was behind the wheel, humming a tune that had been playing at the all-night diner they’d recently departed. The rain had ended and beside them, the endless stretch of the Atlantic appeared to be nearly one with the blackened sky, with only the foamy whitecaps of ocean waves breaking through the darkness.

“You taking vacation this summer?” Tommy asked.

“You sound like my wife. I keep telling her we already live at the beach.”

Tommy kept his left arm poised coolly on the window’s rim as he used his right hand to steer the cruiser. He was younger than John by a decade and still had the energy to do more than sit in front of his television with a cold beer on his days off. “So do something different. Go hiking in the mountains, or take the kids to Disney World.”

“They’re getting too old for it.”

Tommy gave him a look. “Too old? I had my
honeymoon
at Disney, man.”

A snide comment formed on John’s tongue, but he let it pass as he placed his foam cup in the holder and nodded toward the road ahead of them. “Look up there.”

“Great,” Tommy muttered, annoyed. He slowed the cruiser and activated the light bar on the roof as they approached.

The silver Acura had taken out a good ten feet of wooden stake fencing that separated the environmentally protected sand dunes from the highway. It had veered off the still-wet road and plowed into one of the mounds, its crumpled front end embedded into white sand. The driver’s side door hung open. They’d had a quiet night so far, John thought, with only a minor traffic violation and some teens trying to buy beer at the local Gas ’N Go with a fake ID.

“Probably a DUI,” he surmised. “Idiot’s probably passed out on the beach.”

Tommy cut the engine but kept the cruiser’s light bar on, staining the Acura with rhythmic blue streaks. Getting out, John pulled his flashlight from his utility belt and trained its beam into the car’s darkened interior.

“Empty,” he confirmed as he moved to the open door. The air bag had deployed in the crash and hung from the steering wheel like a deflated balloon. “Tennessee plate. Want to call in the tags?”

Tommy headed back to the cruiser as John leaned into the car for a closer look. Blood droplets, still wet, were visible on the air bag. Frowning, he raised the flashlight higher, illuminating more of the interior. While it was possible the bag’s release had broken the driver’s nose, there was a lot of blood on the seats—drying brown smears that looked as though rusty fingers had been wiped against the leather.

“The car’s stolen.” Tommy returned to John’s side. “The owner’s vacationing here and reported it missing two days ago.”

“We’ve got blood.”

Tommy peered inside. “Any open containers?”

“No.” Straightening, John walked around to the front end of the car. He put his hand on the hood. It was still warm. Squinting onto the darkened beach, he filled his lungs with briny sea air, then sighed in resignation. “Let’s go look for the driver.”

As they crossed one of the walkovers—plank bridges that provided access to the beach while protecting the dunes from foot traffic—John unsnapped his holster. He noticed that Tommy—always in search of excitement—had already unsheathed his firearm and held it poised in front of him as if he were part of a SWAT team conducting a raid. Normally, he gave his partner hell about his gung-ho tendencies, but this time he acknowledged that the car’s stolen status did increase the possibility of an armed perp.

“Footprints,” Tommy noted as John’s flashlight swept the packed sand at the bottom of the wooden steps leading onto the beach. The prints were narrow with only a shallow indention, indicating that whoever had abandoned the crashed vehicle wasn’t too remarkable in size, and was also barefoot.

They followed the trail for a couple hundred feet before it veered into another village of sand dunes anchored by thick ocean grasses and vegetation. John raised the flashlight, sweeping the area. A shadowed form crouched behind a scraggly cluster of oak trees, barely visible and as still as a rabbit trying not to end up as quarry.

“This is the Atlantic Beach Police,” John announced in an authoritative tone, removing his weapon. Tommy stood beside him, already in shooting stance, his gun’s barrel pointed into the trees. “Come out slowly with your hands on your head!”

The form remained motionless.

“Come out now!” John stepped carefully closer and focused the flashlight’s beam directly on the figure.

“You think we won’t shoot you, asshole?” Tommy yelled. “There’s two of us and only one of—”

John laid a hand on his partner’s arm, pushing the gun’s nose down. “Christ. Put that away.”

The huddled form was a woman. She squatted on the ground, her slender arms wrapped around herself in a protective gesture. A curtain of sleek, dark hair concealed her face, but the flashlight illuminated her skin and the dried blood on her hands, arms and legs. At first, John thought she wore a bathing suit, but realized with a jolt it was only a skimpy pair of panties and a lace bra. She trembled in the beam’s filmy swath.

“Ma’am? You all right?” He came a few steps closer, one hand stretched toward her. To Tommy he said, “Go back to the car, get a blanket and call for an ambulance.”

Once Tommy had taken off, John sank on his haunches to the woman’s level. If she was aware of his presence, she gave no indication.

“Ma’am?” he asked again. His fingers grazed her shoulder, which seemed to break the trance she was in. She cried out and scrambled backward, her chest rising and falling rapidly with her ragged breathing.

“It’s gonna be all right. I’m a police officer. We’re sending for help.”

Her brown eyes were wide with fear or confusion, her pupils dilated, a likely indication of a head injury, or possibly drugs. Her nose was bleeding a little but didn’t appear to be broken, and John wondered how badly she was hurt. She had a lot of blood on her, but he couldn’t ascertain its source. Her wrists, however, were red and badly abraded.

Wherever she’d come from, she’d been tied up.

“What’s your name?”

The woman blinked at him warily.

“M-Mia,” she managed to say after a long moment. She sounded uncertain, her voice barely audible above the roar of the ocean waves behind them. Even in her current distress, she appeared pretty and a little exotic, with an oval face and delicate features, and was maybe in her late twenties or early thirties. John noticed the fresh bruise shadowing her jawline.

“Can you tell me what happened to you, Mia?”

A fresh wave of tremors racked her body as she squeezed her eyes closed. “I—I don’t know.”

“You don’t remember?”

She shook her head, biting her lip. Her long, dark hair lifted in the ocean breeze. John noticed a wide section of it was several inches shorter than the rest, as if a handful of it had been carelessly lopped off.

She jumped at the sound of Tommy bounding back across the walkover toward them.

“It’s okay,” John assured her. “That’s my partner, Officer Haggard. I’m Officer Penotti. You’re safe now, all right?”

Tommy appeared beside him, out of breath from his speedy trip to the cruiser. “There’s a bus on the way.”

She recoiled as he moved forward to wrap her in the blanket he’d brought back.

“Sorry…I’ll just hand it to you.” Tommy held it out. Her left hand shook as she inched forward, tentatively reaching out to take it.

Two of her fingernails were completely missing, the exposed nail beds raw and oozing blood. Had they been ripped out in some kind of struggle? John swallowed hard. What appeared to be the number eight—or maybe the infinity sign—had been carved into the pale skin of her stomach, the wound angry and red. He watched as she managed to drape the scratchy blanket around herself, her petite frame nearly disappearing inside it. She continued to shiver and rock.

“You think she was raped?” Tommy asked a short time later, voice low. They had stepped several yards from the dunes and allowed the paramedics to take over.

“I don’t know. Maybe.”
Probably.
A female medic had coaxed the woman onto a gurney, and John could only catch glimpses of her through the gaggle of emergency workers. Overhead, blue-and-red flashing lights from the road reflected into the still-dark sky.

“Hey, Carl,” John called to an EMT as he went past, headed back to the ambulance. “What’s the deal?”

“We won’t know until we get her to the E.R. for a tox screen, but my guess is she’s on something. She’s pretty out of it. Doesn’t even remember driving here.”

“What about all the blood on her?”

“Other than her fingers and stomach, there are no other wounds—at least none significant enough to account for all that blood. I gotta get something out of the bus, all right?” Carl trotted away.

Which meant what? That some of the blood belonged to someone else? John removed his uniform cap and ran a hand through his hair.

Nearby Jacksonville was no stranger to violence. Like any large city, it had its share of assaults and homicides, drug deals gone wrong. But for the large part, the surrounding beach communities were quiet, with occasional rowdy teenagers and drunken tourists their most typical problems.

He thought of the two women who had gone missing in Jacksonville over the past two weeks and wondered if there was a connection. Neither had been found, but to his recollection neither of them had been named Mia, either. John had heard the young woman telling the female medic that her last name was
Hale.
It rang some kind of bell, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it.

Regardless, he didn’t like what was going on here.

BOOK: Edge of Midnight
7.39Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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