Authors: Kay Hooper
Tags: #Mystery & Detective, #Women Sleuths, #Thrillers, #Suspense, #Fiction
This one is for Jeff and Tommy,
my shopping buddies.
Mostly because they didn’t believe
I’d put them in a book.
This time out, Bishop and his Special Crimes Unit owe even greater thanks than usual to the fantastic Team Bantam, whose members worked above and beyond the call of duty to put this story into your hands.
A grateful author wishes to thank Irwyn Applebaum and Nita Taublib, Bill Massey and Andie Nicolay, Kathy Lord, and all the other hardworking professionals in production who made this book possible.
Words aren’t enough, but they’ll have to do.
HE VOICES WOULDN’T leave him alone.
Neither would the nightmares.
He threw back the covers and stumbled from the bed. A full moon beamed enough light into the house for him to find his way to the sink in the bathroom.
He carefully avoided looking into the mirror but was highly conscious of his shadowy reflection as he fumbled for a drinking cup and turned on the tap. He drank three cups of water, vaguely surprised that he was so thirsty and yet . . . not.
He was usually thirsty these days.
It was part of the change.
He splashed his face with the cold water, again and again, not caring about the mess he was making. By the third splash, he realized he was crying.
Wimp. Spineless coward.
“I’m not,” he muttered, sending the next handful of water to wet his aching head.
You’re afraid. Pissing-in-your-pants afraid.
Half-consciously, he pressed his thighs together. “I’m not. I can do it. I told you I could do it.”
Then do it now.
He froze, bent over the sink, water dribbling from his cupped hands. “Now?”
“But . . . it’s not ready yet. If I do it now—”
Coward. I should have known you couldn’t go through with it. I should have known you’d fail me.
He straightened slowly, this time looking deliberately into the dim mirror. Even with moonlight, all he could make out was the shadowy shape of his head, dark blurs of features, faint gleam of eyes. The murky outline of a stranger.
What choice did he have?
Just look at yourself. Wimp. Spineless coward. You’ll never be a real man, will you?
He could feel water dripping off his chin. Or maybe it was the last of the tears. He sucked in air, so deep his chest hurt, then let it out slowly.
Maybe you can buy a backbone—
“I’m ready,” he said. “I’m ready to do it.”
I don’t believe you.
He turned off the taps and walked out of the bathroom. Went back to his bedroom, where the moonlight spilled through the big window to spotlight the old steamer trunk set against the wall beneath it. He knelt down and carefully opened it.
The raised lid blocked off some of the moonlight, but he didn’t need light for this. He reached inside, let his fingers search gingerly until they felt the cold steel. He lifted the knife and held it in the light, turning it this way and that, fascinated by the gleam of the razor-sharp, serrated edge.
“I’m ready,” he murmured. “I’m ready to kill her.”
The voices wouldn’t leave her alone.
Neither would the nightmares.
She had drawn the drapes before going to bed in an effort to close out the moonlight, but even though the room was dark, she was very conscious of that huge moon painting everything on the other side of her window with the stark, eerie light that made her feel so uneasy.
She hated full moons.
The clock on her nightstand told her it was nearly five in the morning. The hot, sandpapery feel of her eyelids told her she really needed to try to go back to sleep. But the whisper of the voices in her head told her that even trying would be useless, at least for a while.
She pushed back the covers and slid from her bed. She didn’t need light to show her the way to the kitchen, but once there she turned on the light over the stove so she wouldn’t burn herself. Hot chocolate, that was the ticket.
And if that didn’t work, there was an emergency bottle of whiskey in the back of the pantry for just such a night as this. It was probably two-thirds empty by now.
There had been a few nights like this, especially in the last year or so.
She got what she needed and heated the pan of milk slowly, stirring the liquid so it wouldn’t stick. Adding in chocolate syrup while the milk heated, because that was the way she liked to make her hot chocolate. In the silence of the house, with no other sounds to distract her, it was difficult to keep her own mind quiet. She didn’t want to listen to the whispering there, but it was like catching a word or two of an overheard conversation and
you needed to listen more closely because they were talking about you.
Of course, some people would call that paranoia. Had called it. And at least part of the time, maybe they weren’t wrong.
But only part of the time.
She was tired. It got harder and harder, as time went on, to bounce back. Harder for her body to recover. Harder for her mind to heal.
Given her druthers, she would put off tuning in to the voices until tomorrow. Or the next day, maybe.
The hot chocolate was ready. She turned off the burner and poured the steaming liquid into a mug. She put the pan in the sink, then picked up her mug and carried it toward the little round table in the breakfast nook.
Almost there, she was stopped in her tracks by a wave of red-hot pain that washed over her body with the suddenness of a blow. Her mug crashed to the floor, landing unbroken but spattering her bare legs with hot chocolate.
She barely felt that pain.
Eyes closed, sucked into the red and screaming maelstrom of someone else’s agony, she tried to keep breathing despite the repeated blows that splintered bones and shredded lungs. She could taste blood, feel it bubbling up in her mouth. She could feel the wet heat of it soaking her blouse and running down her arms as she lifted her hands in a pitiful attempt to ward off the attack.
I know what you did. I know. I know. You bitch, I know what you did—
She jerked and cried out as a more powerful thrust than all the rest drove the serrated knife into her chest, penetrating her heart with such force she knew the only thing that stopped it going deeper still was the hilt. Her hands fumbled, touching what felt like blood-wet gloved hands, large and strong. The hands retreated immediately to leave her weakly holding the handle of the knife impaling her heart. She felt a single agonized throb of her heart that forced more blood to bubble, hot and thick, into her mouth, and then it was over.
She opened her eyes and found herself bending over the table, her hands flat on the pale, polished surface. Both hands were covered with blood, and between them, scrawled in her own handwriting across the table, was a single bloody word.
She straightened slowly, her entire body aching, and held her hands out in front of her, watching as the blood slowly faded until it was gone. Her hands were clean and unmarked. When she looked at the table again, there was no sign, now, of a word written there in blood.
“Hastings,” she murmured. “Well, shit.”
Hastings, South Carolina
Monday, June 9
AFE SULLIVAN ROSE from his crouched position, absently stretching muscles that had begun to cramp, and muttered, “Well, shit,” under his breath.
It was already hot and humid even just before noon, the sun burning almost directly overhead in a clear blue sky, and he absently wished he’d had his people put up a tarp to provide some shade. The effort wouldn’t be worthwhile now; another half hour, and the coroner’s wagon would be here.
The body sprawled at his feet was a bloody mess. She lay on her back, arms wide, legs apart, spread-eagled in a pathetically exposed, vulnerable position that made him want to cover her up—even though she was more or less dressed. Her once-white blouse was dull red, soaked with blood and still mostly wet despite the heat, so that the coppery smell was strong. The thin, springlike floral skirt was eerily undamaged but blood-soaked, spread out around her hips, the hem almost daintily raised to just above her knees.
She had been pretty once. Now, even though her face was virtually untouched, she wasn’t pretty anymore. Her delicate features were contorted, eyes wide and staring, mouth open in a scream she probably never had the chance or the breath to utter. From the corners of her parted lips, trails of blood ran down her cheeks, some of it mixing with the golden strands of her long blond hair and a lot of it soaking into the ground around her.
She had been pretty once.
“Looks like he was really pissed this time, Chief. Bit like the first victim, I’d say.” Detective Mallory Beck made the observation dryly, seemingly unmoved by the gory scene before them.
Rafe looked at her, reading the truth in her tightened lips and grim eyes. But all he said was, “Am I wrong, or did this one fight him?”
Mallory consulted her notebook. “Doc just did the preliminary, of course, but he says she tried. Defensive injuries on the victim’s hands, and one stab wound in her back—which the doc says was probably the first injury.”
Shifting his gaze to the body, Rafe said, “In the back? So she was trying to turn—or run—away from him when he stabbed her the first time. And either he turned her around so he could finish her face-to-face or she turned herself trying to fight him.”
“Looks like it. And only a few hours ago; we got the call on this one earlier than the others. The doc estimates the time of death as around five-thirty this morning.”
“Awfully early to be up and out,” Rafe commented. “Caleb opens his office between nine-thirty and ten as a rule. She was still his paralegal, right?”
“Right. Normally went to the office around nine. So she was out very early. What I don’t get is how he was able to lure her this far away from the road. You can see there are no drag marks, and two sets of footprints—we have good casts, by the way—so she walked out here with him. I’m no Daniel Boone, but I’d say from her tracks that she was walking calm and easy, not struggling or hesitating at all.”
Rafe had to admit that the ground here looked remarkably calm and undisturbed, for the most part, especially considering the violence of what had been done to the victim. And after last night’s rain all the tracks were easily visible. So this murder scene, like the last one, clearly illustrated what had happened here.
From all appearances, twenty-six-year-old Tricia Kane had gotten out of her own car around dawn at an unofficial rest spot off a normally busy two-lane highway and then walked with a companion—male, according to all likelihood as well as an FBI profile—about fifty yards into the woods to this clearing. And then the companion had killed her.
“Maybe he had a gun,” Rafe suggested, thinking aloud. “Or maybe the knife was enough to keep her docile until they got this far.”
Mallory frowned. “You want my hunch, I say she didn’t see that knife until they reached this clearing. The instant she saw it, she tried to run. That’s when he got her.”
Rafe didn’t know why, but that was his hunch too. “And it’s the same way he got the other two. Somehow he persuaded these women to leave their cars and walk calmly into the woods with him. Smart, savvy women who, from all accounts, were way too careful to let any stranger get that close.”
“Which means they probably knew him.”
“Even if, would
leave your car and just stroll into the woods with some guy? Especially if you knew two other women had recently died under similar circumstances?”
“No. But I’m a suspicious cop.” Mallory shook her head. “Still, it doesn’t make sense. And what about the cars? All three women just left their cars on pull-off rest areas beside fairly busy highways and walked away from them. Keys in the ignition, for Christ’s sake, and not many do that even in small towns these days. And we don’t know whether he was with them when they stopped or somehow flagged them down and
persuaded them to come with him. No tracks out at the rest stop to speak of with all that hard dirt and packed gravel.”