THE SEVENTH VICTIM
If At First You Don’t Succeed
It’s been seven years since the Seattle Strangler terrorized the city. His victims were all young, pretty, their lifeless bodies found wrapped in a home-sewn white dress. But there was one who miraculously escaped death, just before the Strangler disappeared. . .
Lara Church has only hazy memories of her long-ago attack. What she does have is a home in Austin, a job, and a chance at a normal life at last. Then Texas Ranger James Beck arrives on her doorstep with shattering news: The Strangler is back. And this time, he’s in Austin. . .
And Kill Again. . .
He’s always craved her, even as he killed the others. For so long he’s been waiting to unleash the beast within. And this time, he’ll prove he holds her life in his hands—right before he ends it forever. . .
THE SEVENTH VICTIM Excerpt
Texas Ranger James Beck’s black truck kicked up dust and heat wafted on the horizon as he wound his way up the back road toward Lara Church’s home. Without Raines, it would have been a bitch to find Lara Church, who resided in a house still under her grandmother’s name. Raines got points for the tip.
Raines shared a single-minded dedication with Beck. Firsthand experience had taught Beck that the trait was as valuable as it was volatile.
Beck slowed at the entrance of the driveway and noted the name on the mailbox. Bower. The Bower name tickled his memory, and for a moment he paused, staring at the scratched lettering on the rusted box.
The more he mined for the memory the more elusive it became so he tabled the search and drove down the winding gravel driveway. He shut off the engine, got out of the car, and surveyed the house.
Made of stone, the one-story house had to have been a hundred years old. Rustic with a bit weather-beaten charm, the house had a low, wide front porch furnished with a couple of bright blue rockers and a scattering of painted planters filled with flowers. Lara Church didn’t know much about Texas summers if she thought keeping those flowers alive was going to be an easy task. Last summer’s heat had cracked foundations and dried out wells. One missed day of watering, and the heat would burn up those pretty little flowers.
A rustic wind chime dangling from the porch jingled gently in a breeze. Twin sets of windows decorated with faded red curtains flanked the front door. A new stained-glass oval hung above the door.
Before he’d headed up here, he’d run a check on Lara. There’d been no priors in the system, but a quick Internet search led him to the 101 Gallery located on Congress Street in Austin. According to the gallery site, Lara Church was having her first photographic exhibit opening this Friday. It was entitled Mark of Death. It didn’t take a shrink to figure out what lurked behind her subject matter. The gallery site included several of Lara’s black-and-white images, but there’d been no picture of the artist herself.
In the distance he heard a dog bark. Judging by the animal’s deep timbre, it was big and running in Beck’s direction. Absently, he moved his hand to the gun on his hip. Nice places like this could turn nasty or even deadly in the blink of an eye.
The dog’s barking grew louder. Tightening his hand on the gun’s grip, he scanned the wooded area around the cabin until his gaze settled on a path that cut into the woods. In a flash, a large black and tan shepherd emerged from the woods, its hair standing on end. The animal glared at Beck, barking and growling. The animal was a beauty, but he’d shoot if it attacked.
Seconds later a woman emerged from the woods. She carried a shotgun in her hands and the instant she saw Beck she raised the barrel.
Beck didn’t hesitate. He drew his gun and pointed it directly at the women. “Texas Ranger. Drop the gun now!”
The woman stared at him, her gaze a blend of surprise and wariness.
“Put. The. Gun. Down.” Each word was sharpened to a fine point.
She lowered the tip of the barrel a fraction but didn’t release the gun. “How do I know you’re a Texas Ranger?”
The Texas Ranger uniform was easily recognizable to anyone who’d been in Texas more than five minutes. But that discussion came after she released the weapon. “Put the gun down, now.” He all but shouted the command over the dog’s barking. “Now!”
Carefully, she laid the barrel down and took a step back as if she was ready to bolt into the woods. The dog bared its teeth, but she made no move to calm the animal. She might have surrendered the gun, but the dog remained a threat.
He braced his feet. “If your dog lunges at me, I will shoot him.”
Her gaze flickered quickly between the dog and his gun. She understood he’d meant it. “Okay.” She looped her fingers through the dog’s collar and ordered him to heel close at her side.
“You and the dog step back.”
“Do it!” He glanced at the shotgun, knowing he’d not breathe a sigh of relief until he had it in hand.
“I am not turning around.” Her raspy voice stutter- stepped with panic. “I want to see your badge.”
He studied her. If this was Lara Church and she’d survived the Strangler, fear would be a logical response. “Step away from the gun.”
She drew in a breath and moved back with the dog. He picked up the shotgun and holstered his gun. Slowly, he pulled his badge from his breast pocket and held it up to her.
“Sergeant James Beck,” he said.
He opened the break-action shotgun and found two shells in the double-barreled chamber. The safety was off. He removed the shells. “You always greet people with a shotgun?” He glanced from her to the growling dog.
“When I’m alone, yes. And it is registered, and I am on my land, so I’m well within my rights to carry a weapon.”
As he held her rifle, he glared at her and the barking shepherd. “You know how to shoot it?”
Blue eyes held his. “I sure do.”
As the adrenaline ebbed from his veins, his brain processed the details he’d only skimmed over moments ago when she’d been holding the gun. She was a slight woman, not much more than five feet tall. Long light brown hair gathered in a loose ponytail that left strands of hair free to frame a narrow face. Peaches-and-cream skin, a high slash of cheekbones, and blue eyes combined to create a face that would have made any man look twice.
“Why are you here?” Her raspy voice, seductive in quieter tones, was powerful when rising above the dog’s barking.
“Quiet that dog.”
She tugged gently on the shepherd’s collar, and he stopped barking. “What can I do for you, Sergeant Beck?”
“You are Ms. Lara Church?”
Her slim frame tensed, as she released the dog’s collar and scratched him between the ears. “That is correct. Can I have my gun back?”
He ignored the question. “I came to ask you a few questions.”
Her lips flattened as if she already sensed where this conversation was headed. “About?”
“We had a murder outside of Austin yesterday. A woman was strangled to death.”
She stopped stroking the dog between its ears. “What does that have to do with me?”
He snapped the shotgun barrel closed with a firm click. “I think you know why, ma’am.”
Her jaw tensed, but as if the words refused to be voiced.
“You were attacked in Seattle about seven years ago. Strangled nearly to death by a man police believe was the Seattle Strangler. And you are the lone survivor.”
Lips compressed into a fine line. “Seattle’s over two thousand miles from here. And seven years is a long time ago.”
He took a step toward her. The dog growled. Beck met the animal’s gaze and held it until the dog looked away. “This woman was wearing a white dress, and there was a penny in her hand.”
Absently, she curled the fingers of her right hand closed. Drawing in a careful breath, she released it slowly. “I still don’t know how I can help you.”
He wondered what shrink had taught her the self-calming trick. “Tell me what you know about the man that attacked you.”
The involuntary shake of her head told him she did not want to revisit the past even for a second. “If you found me here then you know people in the Seattle Police Department. Did they also tell you that I don’t remember my attack?”
“It’s been seven years, ma’am. Something’s got to have stirred up over that time.”
She cocked a brow. “Yeah, you’d think, wouldn’t you? But I’ve remembered nothing.” Reading his doubt, she added, “I know you don’t believe this, but I’d actually want to remember . . . even the dark and scary stuff. At least if I remembered this guy I’d know if he was standing in front of me. Maybe then I could take a walk in the woods without a shotgun.”
“You always carry it?”
“I walk with it. It’s close by when I eat, and it sits by my bed when I sleep.”
“You said yourself you are two thousand miles and seven years away from Seattle.”
“I think I don’t want to be a victim ever again. So I’ve learned to take care of myself.”
He handed the shotgun back to her. “Would you be willing to come into town and talk to our forensic psychologist? She’s sharp and might do you some good.”
She crossed her arms. “How did you find me?”
“I spoke to the Seattle Police.”
Her expression showed her distrust. “They don’t know where I am.”
“Mike Raines does.”
Her gaze narrowed. “Detective Raines. How?”
Beck rattled the shells in his hands. “He’s kept tabs on you.”
She tightened her fingers around the gun barrel. “If you talked to Raines then you know he had me speak to every doctor he could find.”
What Raines had done was of no interest to him now. “My doctor is top notch.”
A cynical smile curved the edge of full lips. “This doctor might be good, and she might think she’s different and smarter than the rest, but she’s not. I’ve seen more doctors than I can count, and I’ve talked to countless cops. I suffered a concussion during the attack and don’t have memories to share; otherwise I’d have shared them years ago.”
A dozen questions condensed to one. “What’s the last image you do remember before the attack?”
She slowly shook her head from side to side. “I don’t want to answer your questions. Now get off my property, Sergeant Beck.”
The abrasive clip in her voice thinned his patience. Deliberately, he kept his voice even and precise. “I came all this way to see you.”
“You’ve wasted a trip, Sergeant Beck.”
He managed a smile that didn’t feel the least bit friendly. “This visit was a courtesy because I did not want to put you out, ma’am. But I have come here for answers.”
Her hand tightened around the gun barrel. “You have come to the wrong place. I can’t give you what I don’t have.”
“I could detain you and drive you into Austin, where we could have a more formal chat.”
“Cops . . . so predictable,” she muttered as she rubbed her temple with her fingertips. “You’ve no cause to take me anywhere.”
“Ma’am, you are a material witness in an active murder case, and I have every right to take you in to Austin.”
“I don’t remember.” She sounded weary.
“Appears to me you haven’t even tried that hard.”
She tipped her head back as if struggling for patience and control. “If I had any detail I would tell you. I really would. But I don’t.”
“It’s in this morning’s paper.”
“I haven’t had the chance to read it.”
“Then I suppose you haven’t read about the woman in San Antonio?”
“The paper never said how she died.” And at his questioning look she added, “I do read the papers, Sergeant.”
The Austin paper and television stations had spent several days covering the unknown San Antonio body, trailing the story through the discovery and the identification. When the leads had run dry, the articles had stopped. “We don’t know how she died, but believe she was dressed in white.” He rested his hands on his belt, the heavy leather creaking. “She’d been exposed to the elements. Sun and animals took most of her away.”
Tension flattened her lips. “There was no mention of any of that in the paper.”
“That was deliberate on the part of the local police. They don’t want to show their cards until they have to.”
The pink he’d seen in her cheeks when she’d come out of the woods had faded. “The first woman’s name was Lou Ellen Fisk. Mean anything to you?”
“What about Gretchen Hart? She’s the one that died yesterday morning.”
Her clipped, almost defiant answers shortened his temper to breaking. She wanted to stay out of this game. Wanted him to walk away. Not happening. “You remember having that man’s hands around your neck? Remember what it’s like to have your wind slowly cut off?”
Her eyes widened. Fear and then anger shot back. “Is that supposed to shock a memory from me? Or make me go rushing to your doctor? Because if it is you’ll have to do better than that.”
“I got two dead women and I expect a little help from you.”
She sighed her frustration. “All I remember is waking up in a hospital room. My throat burned, and I could barely talk. I remember my face and neck were bruised and my eyes were so bloodshot it was hard to see my pupils when I looked in the mirror. The doctors said the Strangler just about crushed my windpipe. My voice is still hoarse today because of the attack.”
Imagining her face battered and bruised cooled the fire in his belly. “Any idea how you got away?”
“I was told someone passed by and saw what was happening. I must have blacked out by then, but I’m told the guy and his girlfriend called the cops and my attacker ran away.”
“Where were you attacked?”
“If you’ve spoken to Mike Raines then you have more details than me.” Impatience nipped at each word.
When he had a spare moment he’d read the Raines files cover to cover. “I want to hear what you have to say, ma’am.” His tone remained cool, even.
“There’d been a party, and I’d had too many drinks. I took a cab to my apartment, and I remember putting my key in the lock. And then my next memory starts in the hospital.”
“The other Seattle victims were killed by the highway.”
“It was in all the papers at the time. All women, including me, were thinking twice before heading out on Route 10. It never occurred to me that he’d be in my apartment building.”
He dug into his own memories of the crime. “The other victims had police records.”
She rubbed the side of her neck with her hand. “And I did not. Yes, I know. Some of the cops were certain I was lying and went to great lengths to dig into my past. In the end, they found out what I told them they’d find: one speeding ticket, which I got when I was sixteen. What I know is in Detective Raines’s files.”
“Except who attacked you. That detail is locked in your head, Ms. Church.”
She wiped a bead of sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand. “The key is gone, sir. There is no way to reach the memories. Now I need to ask you to leave. I’ve got to be in town in less than an hour.”
“You have a show opening, don’t you?”
He dropped the shells in his jacket pocket and pulled out a couple of Polaroids taken of the body at yesterday’s crime scene. “They look like this?”
She took the pictures and glanced at crime scene images of Gretchen Hart. Immediately her face paled and she swayed before she handed him back the images. “You’re full of nasty questions and tricks.”
He suffered no remorse. “Thought if you could see firsthand what I’m dealing with you might be more open to helping me.”
“Get off my land, Ranger. I have no more to say to you.”
He slowly tucked the pictures back in his breast pocket. “I’ll leave for now, Ms. Church, but you are gonna see me again. That I do promise you.”
Gripping the shotgun by the stock, she turned toward the house, her dog following.
As she reached for the front door, he said, “If the Seattle Strangler is active again, don’t you find it a bit odd that he’d take up his work only twenty or thirty miles from where his last victim lives? I don’t know about you, but I’ve never put much stock in coincidence.”
She turned partway toward him, unwittingly giving him a view of her slim neck. “You’re assuming it is the Seattle Strangler. I am not.”
Tension rippled through his body. “It’s a solid assumption.”
She hesitated as if a blast of frigid air cut up her spine and then vanished with her dog into her house.
Lara Church wasn’t the timid artsy type he’d expected. She had steel running down her spine. Getting her help wouldn’t be as easy as he’d hoped. But in the end he would get it.
Bestseller Burton (Before She Dies) delivers action-packed tension as a cold case becomes new again… a compelling romantic thriller.”
— Publishers Weekly on The Seventh Victim.
An excellent thriller, as well as a blooming romance, the author does a wonderful job of drawing readers in with the rapid pace and plot that include exciting and interesting back stories on all the victims. This is really a very twisted saga that readers will find unbelievably hard to put down!”
— Suspense Magazine on The Seventh Victim
Burton’s latest novel has a calculating villain at its center, plus a strong yet vulnerable heroine and a tough Texas Ranger who is determined to protect her and root out a killer. Burton’s crisp storytelling, solid pacing and well-developed plot will draw you in, and the strong suspense will keep you hooked and make this story hard to put down.” – RT Book Reviews, 4 stars
“Dark and disturbing, a well-written tale of obsession and murder.”
— Kat Martin, New York Times bestselling author