In a scorching novel of obsession and revenge, New York Times bestselling author Mary Burton ignites fear in the heart of a woman targeted by a killer who knows her secrets.
Forensic psychologist and single mother Ann Bailey has joined forces with Montana Highway Patrol officer Bryce McCabe. An expert in untangling the motives of depraved minds, Ann is tasked to help solve the mystery of two murdered women doused with gasoline and set aflame.
It’s not hard for Ann to be reminded of the charismatic Elijah Weston, who served a decade in prison for arson—a crime that nearly cost Ann her life. Elijah may have been exonerated, but the connection to these rage killings is impossible for Ann to ignore. One of the victims has been identified as an obsessed Elijah groupie. Elijah has obsessions, too. Ever since Ann returned to town, he can’t take his eyes off her. And as a mother with a secret, she’s the perfect victim for an infatuated psychopath.
The deeper Ann and Bryce’s investigation goes, the nearer they get to each other and to danger. After another murder hits close to home, Ann fears a clue is hidden in her own past. Only one thing terrifies her more than the reveal of her long-held secret. It’s that the secret itself has put Ann into a killer’s line of fire.
Near You Excerpt
Tuesday, March 30
The call from dispatch was a jolt to homicide detective Jordan Poe’s system. After a fifteen hour shift, she had arrived home, eaten a quick dinner and settled on the couch to watch a movie. She had immediately fallen asleep.
Now as she bolted up to the shrilling phone, she shook off the sleep and reached for her phone. “Detective Poe.”
“Detective, a woman’s body has been found in east Austin.” Dispatch rattled off the familiar cross streets and address less than ten blocks from her house.
“Tell me.” Jordan cleared her throat as she moved through her darkened house illuminated only by the television screen’s light toward the kitchen.
She listened patiently as the dispatcher told her about the discovery of a woman’s body. No details about manner of death, but the body was in an advanced state of decomposition. Translation: the smell would saturate anything porous that came within fifteen feet. Full PPE was suggested.
She made a strong pot of coffee, and as it brewed, she brushed her hair, refashioned it into a bun and splashed water on her face. Ten minutes later, coffee in hand, she pushed out of her front door wearing yesterday’s clothes. She slid behind the wheel of her SUV parked in a small graveled driveway by her bungalow home. She had inherited the one story, fifteen hundred square foot house from her mother twelve years ago, and she had spent a lot of that time renovating it. Many of the homes on her block still had original owners and had not been updated. But the east Austin neighborhood with wooded lots had been discovered by the rush of newcomers to Texas, and it was a matter of time before the elderly residents sold.
When she arrived on the scene ten minutes later, she had drained her coffee and convinced herself she was not exhausted.
The one level rancher was painted a mint green. It was surrounded by a chain link fence encircling a yard filled with tall weeds. Across the street was a heavily wooded empty lot that had turned into a dumping ground filled with discarded tires, an old stove and piles of brush.
Four cop cars parked along the curb, their blue lights flashing in the darkness. The forensic van was parked in the short driveway and the two techs were setting up a tent and table. Normally the techs used tents to shield them from the hot Texas sun, and seeing as the sun had nine more hours before showtime, the setup told her they expected to be here well into tomorrow.
Before her mom, little sister and she had moved to Austin, they had lived in Boston. She remembered the snow had come up to her waist on her sixteenth birthday and the January air was so cold the wind chill drove the temperatures below zero. That was the day her mother had mumbled something about “Being done with this shit,” and the three of them had packed the family’s blue Subaru and driven to Austin.
No reporters were on the scene yet, but crime in this area was standard.
She rose up out of her vehicle, grateful to stretch her long, stiff legs. She was craving a good workout, but that was going to have to wait.
Jordan’s low heeled boots, dusted with dirt from yesterday’s crime scene, crunched against the freshly paved graveled street as she moved toward the back of her SUV and opened the hatch.
Shrugging off her jean jacket she tugged on the lightweight PPE suit over worn jeans banded by a leather belt, and a black T-shirt. Next it was shoe coverings and latex gloves. Maybe it was a good thing she had not had time for breakfast.
She looked up at the ramshackle rancher. A sign in the front window indicated it was marked for remodeling by a developer who had done dozens of projects in the area over the last year. No doubt, the landowner hoped to sell the property to a newly relocated young professional willing to pay a premium.
A couple of forensic technicians wrestled a large light up the two concrete front stairs and into the house. After a moment, they reappeared, faces grim as one plugged in a long extension cord to a generator. A press of a button, and the generator jolted to life and the interior of the house lit up.
A deputy moved toward her. He was tall, lean, a bit gangly, but he had the look of a guy that would fill out.
She guessed he was in his mid-twenties.
“Detective Poe?” he asked.
“That’s right. And you are?” Hints of her Boston accent drew out the last word.
“Officer Wilcox.” They shook hands. “I was first on the scene.” His face was stoic, but his hands flexed involuntarily. Easy to control reactions on the face, but there was always another body part that gave the nerves away.
First seconds on a scene were precarious and tense. And if you should be so unlucky as to come across a suicide, murder or infant death, the emotional gut punch was inevitable. “When did you arrive?”
“Two hours ago. The renovation crew chief called it in. He’s still in his truck. Not happy about having to wait for a detective.”
“We all could think of better things to do, including the victim.”
A slight smile tweaked his lips. “That’s for sure. The crew chief figured the dead person was a squatter or drug addict who had died. It’s not rare in this area.”
“I was told the victim is female.”
“Any idea of the cause of death?”
“Offhand, I’d say suffocation. But who knows? It’s nothing like I’ve ever seen.” He shifted his feet and flexed his fingers.
“How long have you been on the job?” she asked.
This scene likely was now in the officer’s Book of Firsts. All cops had a book like that, and no matter how full it got, there was always room for a new horror. “Okay. Let me have a look.”
“Want me to come with you?” Officer Wilcox asked.
“Stay in the yard. Fewer people in the house, the better.”
His relief was palatable. “Understood.”
She slid her mask over her face and crossed the graveled driveway, and as she climbed the two front porch steps, the scent of decomposition hit her hard. She stopped, raised her hand to her nose.
“Jesus,” she muttered. Her first year on the job, she had swabbed Vicks under her nose, but learned menthol does not conceal rot. These days, she sucked it up, knowing the brain would cancel out the smell after a few minutes.
She turned toward Andy Lucas, the senior forensic technician in the department. He was short, had a round face and belly, and ink black hair showed no signs of graying despite his recent fiftieth birthday.
“When you get inside, follow the yellow cones to the body. There’s a lot of dust in that room, so I have a prayer of getting a shoe impression.”
“Hey, and thanks for the case of beer,” Lucas said.
“A man only turns fifty once.”
“Thank God,” he joked. “Took me days to get over the surprise party.”
She had helped host the event, which was just as much a department morale booster as it was a celebration of Lucas’s half century milestone. Because she did not drink, she had left early, but the stories, some of which were pretty damn funny, still circulated two weeks later.
She stepped over the extension cord, walked heel to toe beside the yellow cones, which led her into the small main room. Artificial light shone on faded rose wallpaper peeling off old shiplap, four barred broken windows, and clumps of hay nestled in shadowed corners.
She moved toward the illuminated area and the victim. Female, slight frame, and naked, she was wrapped in a thick layer of plastic. Her hands were bound, and there appeared to be another bag over her head and a gag in her mouth.
The manner of death stirred memories Jordan had worked hard to forget. Closing her eyes, she drew air into her lungs, her desire to avoid the stench overruled by the need to fill her lungs fully. Tight bands of anxiety squeezed her chest. She closed her eyes, pushing away the past and allowing her mind to settle. This was now. Not two years ago. And she had nothing to worry about.
Slowly, her thoughts collected, and she opened her eyes. Chalk up another experience for her Book of Firsts.
As she did at all fatality scenes, she mentally reclassified the dead person from Human to Evidence. This woman could no longer speak, but her body still might have secrets to share.
The body was badly decayed. Gases had already built up in the belly and burst through the skin, leaving a real oozing mess encased in the plastic. The covering around the body had slowed the bugs attracted to decomposing flesh, but a few had found a small opening and begun nature’s work. Another two weeks and there would not have been much to find.
The second plastic bag over the victim’s head was secured in place with a thin drawstring tied in a double knotted bow.
Jordan had responded to a couple of accidental autoerotic asphyxiation deaths. The people who played this dangerous game cut oxygen off to the brain, sexually stimulated their bodies and then seconds before orgasm, released the bag or neck restraints. The rush of oxygen was supposed to heighten the pleasure, but the trick was to remove the bag or rope in time. In both the prior unrelated cases, the victims had been men. One wore a belt around his neck, whereas the other had chosen a thin cord. In both cases, each had passed out before the big O and suffocated to death.
Even if this woman had started this dangerous trek willingly, it was clear she had not been alone at the time of her death. Had the dead woman’s sex partner panicked, wrapped and dumped the body?
At this stage it was impossible to tell the victim’s ethnicity. Decomp had turned her skin brown. Her hair had been icy blond, but the color looked as if it could be found on any drugstore shelf.
Age was another detail that was hard to call. But if Jordan had to guess, she would have said the victim had been young.
Footsteps behind her had her turning to see Andy and the other tech, Marsha Brown, enter the room. In the full PPE, they looked more alien than human.
“We’d like to get started on the footprints,” Andy said. “They’ll be the first ruined.”
“Sure, go ahead,” Jordan said.
“Are you sticking around?” Lucas asked.
“Just standing back and observing.”
As Jordan backtracked her steps to the front door, she imagined other motives behind this killing. With the border two hundred and twenty miles away, human trafficking was common here. Though coyotes raped and sometimes killed their victims, they generally discarded the bodies on a barren patch of earth in the open sun. Some might take the time to cover the remains with a little dirt or brush, but she had never seen any wrappings this elaborate. Drug dealers and pimps were not strangers to violence, but they rarely took such lengths with their dead, unless they were making a statement or sending a message.
The house was marked for renovation, so whoever left Jane Doe here had known she would be found eventually. Maybe he wanted her found. Maybe it was a sign of misguided respect or contrition for what he had done. Maybe it was a message to someone. Or maybe he simply wanted his work displayed.
But until she could find out more about the victim’s identity, any stab at motive would be conjecture.
Her attention was drawn back to the bound hands tied with precise tight knots. Like the drawstring, they were double knotted.
Before he had killed her, she guessed he had played with the tension on the bag. How many times had he brought her up to the point of death and then carefully loosened the drawstring so she could suck in enough oxygen to stay alive? Was she a willing participant or a victim? Jordan had seen a lot of crazy shit over the years, but her money was on murder.
Near You Reviews