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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
Forty miles east of Missoula, Montana
Wednesday, August 18
When Sergeant Bryce McCabe of the Montana Highway Patrol received the call from the local sheriff in Deer Lodge County, he was at his ranch, stringing barbed wire along a hundred-yard stretch of pastureland. He hoped to be stocking cattle by next spring, but days off had been rare in the last few months, so progress was slow. The cattle might have to wait another year or two.
He tugged off his work gloves as he cradled the phone between his head and shoulder. “Bryce McCabe.”
“Bryce, this is Sheriff Harry Wexler.” Anxiety sharpened the lawman’s voice. “I need your help with a case.”
Bryce dug his bandanna from his rear pocket and rubbed the sweat from the back of his neck. “What do you have, Sheriff?”
“Homicide. And as much as I’d like to tell you about it, seeing is believing.” Wexler was a steady-as-she-goes kind of lawman, and for him to request assistance meant trouble.
“Is it like the last one?” Bryce asked.
Bryce shoved the bandanna back in his pocket. “I’ll be there in about an hour. Text the directions.”
“Will do. Thanks, Bryce.”
Bryce climbed into his ’86 Ford ranch pickup and drove the dirt-packed road to the homestead he and his brother, Dylan, now shared.
The two-story house was constructed of hand-hewn logs resting on a stone foundation and sealed with chinking wedged between seams joined by notched corners. A weather-rusted red tin roof arrowed to a sharp peak to keep hefty winter snows off load-bearing beams. The eastward-facing front porch was shaded by a ten-foot overhang and outfitted by two handmade rockers made of Lodgepole pine.
The house had been left to Bryce and Dylan by their late stepfather, Pops Jones, a former rodeo rider. Their mother had spent most of her life dragging her boys from job to job and town to town until she had hooked up with Pops. No one gave the union much hope, but as it turned out, Pops had been a real ray of sunshine for twelve-year-old Bryce and ten-year-old Dylan. And when their mother passed, the three had remained together on the rodeo circuit, wintering here at the cabin, until Bryce had turned eighteen and joined the marines. Dylan remained with Pops two more years and then followed his brother into the service.
Coordinated holidays were rare, but the brothers both made it to the ranch three Christmases ago and enjoyed the last holiday the old man would see on this earth. There had been a good bit of barbecuing, bourbon drinking, cigar smoking, and more than a few jokes about the lady friends Pops had juggled.
The house was not fancy by any stretch, but it was built solid, set on fifty acres of decent land chock-full of good memories.
As he got out of his truck, three old German shepherd dogs came around the side of the house. The tall gray one that looked more wolf than dog was Chase. He was eight. The black one beside him was Max, seven years old, and the smallest, Conan, was six. They were retired military service dogs with handlers who were either dead or unable to care for them.
When Dylan’s marine canine had been killed in an IED explosion in January, he had opted not to re-up. Shortly after he had separated from the marines and was preparing to return to Montana, his commander had approached him about Chase. Dylan had accepted responsibility for the dog without a second thought, and together they had moved back to the ranch. Word spread that Dylan had the space and fortitude to take military dogs, and Max and Conan had arrived by March.
Each animal eyed Bryce warily, and he was careful to keep his body language relaxed. The trio was acquainted with Bryce, but each had been chosen by the military because aggression came naturally. Best not to tempt their natural propensities or training.
“How’s it going, guys?” Bryce asked smoothly. He paused at the top step and let each sniff his hand. “See, we’re all still friends, right?”
When Bryce had been in Afghanistan a dozen years ago, a soldier in his platoon had found a puppy in one of the villages. Scrawny and tied to a stake in the ground, the pup had barked when he had seen Bryce and his men come into the village. His sergeant, a bear of a man, had pulled out a switchblade and cut the rope. One of the village elders had started yelling, and Bryce had offered him several MREs for the dog. A deal had been struck, and the mongrel, dubbed Buddy, was along for the ride.
Damn dog had turned out to be an island of sanity for the coming months. Almost none of the men could resist a smile when they saw Buddy trotting across the lot. When the time had come for the unit to ship stateside, Bryce had created military service canine paperwork for Buddy, who now lived somewhere in the Virginia Blue Ridge Mountains.
Dylan came around the side of the house with a toolbox in his hand. His eighteen years of service had embedded a deep sense of routine, and he still rose at four, ate his chow three times a day at the kitchen table, and spent the rest of his time working with the dogs or building the new barn, which he intended would be fully heated and insulated by winter.
“You’re back early,” Dylan said.
“Got called in. There’s a homicide,” Bryce said. “Need to take a quick shower and head over to Deer Lodge.”
“Anything I can do?” Dylan asked.
“Not really. If this case is like the one in Helena, it’ll be a long day, so I can’t say when I’ll be back.”
Dylan removed his hat and ran his hand over shorn dark hair. “Two is a pattern.”
“Time to call in the FBI?” Dylan’s tone turned suspicious, as it did when outsiders were tossed into the mix.
“Rather not have the feds involved, but I’ll have to see.”
“We got the ranch covered.”
Rusted front-door hinges squeaked as Bryce opened it. “I appreciate that. Nice having the company.”
“By the way,” Dylan said. “When you get back, there might be a new dog living here.”
Bryce paused. “Another one?”
“Her name is Venus. She’s a Malinois and has a reputation as a hard-ass. Unadoptable. A real bitch.”
Bryce shrugged. “The more the merrier.”
It took Bryce less than twenty minutes to shower and change into clean jeans, a fresh T-shirt, and worn cowboy boots. He had left his suits at his Helena apartment because he had banked on having a full day or two off. Nevertheless, if he was heading toward the mountains near Anaconda, a suit would be more trouble than it was worth.
In his state-issued black SUV, he drove west on US 12 for thirty minutes before turning south on I-90 toward Anaconda. Wexler’s directions took him from the interstate to a series of progressively smaller roads. Sixty minutes after leaving the ranch, he spotted flares and the deputy’s car.
Bryce parked behind the marked vehicle, reached in the compartment between the seats, dug out his badge, and looped it around his neck.
The deputy looked barely out of high school. Tall and scrawny, he had a long, thin face, dark-brown eyes, and olive skin. Efforts to look solemn did not hide his edgy, amped-up energy.
“Sergeant Bryce, Sheriff Wexler is waiting for you,” the deputy said. “Follow the dirt road up the side of the mountain.”
Bryce angled his vehicle up the barely paved road around tire tracks marked off with yellow crime scene tape. He drove up the hillside, gravel crunching under his tires, as he eased toward a sharp turn that brought him to a dead end. The land around him was covered in a swath of blackened scrub grass swooping over the hill like an eagle’s wing.
Bryce parked and reached for his worn black cowboy hat on the passenger seat. Out of his truck, he settled it on his head and tugged the brim lower toward mirrored sunglasses. The wind carried persistent trails of smoke threaded with the scent of scorched flesh. He opened the back of his vehicle, grabbed a fresh set of latex gloves, and then walked beside the singed grass that had been drier than bone until yesterday’s soaking rain.
His gaze swept the hillside’s base toward defined tire tracks. If not for the rain, the marks would have been faint, and obtaining an impression would have been difficult. Had the killer realized he had left this critical piece of evidence behind?
When he approached the ridge, he looked out toward the city, the foothills, and the jagged Anaconda Range beyond. The sun sent a fine trickle of sweat down his back as he strode toward yellow caution tape staked in a large square around the fire’s point of origin, concealed with a blue tarp. If this was like the Helena case, the tarp covered a body, and he was not getting back to fencing anytime soon.
Resettling his hat, he strode toward Sheriff Harry Wexler, who was tall, broad shouldered, and sported a full belly earned in countless hours behind the wheel of a car. Bryce extended his hand, “Sheriff Wexler.”
“Sergeant McCabe.” The older man’s weathered hands still packed a heavy-duty grip. “Caught you on your day off, didn’t I?”
“It happens.” He could not remember the last time he’d really kicked up his heels. Was it that Christmas with Pops and Dylan three years ago?
“I hear you inherited Pops’s ranch,” Sheriff Wexler said.
Montana was about 150,000 square miles, but Bryce had been in the field six years, enough time to meet most of the state’s lawmen and women. And if he was not acquainted personally, there was always someone to tell him what he needed to know. The flip side was his personal business had a way of making the rounds as well, which had not bothered him much until lately.
“Means a commute to Helena, doesn’t it?” Wexler asked.
“Less than an hour. I don’t mind the drive. And I still have several months left on my Helena apartment lease.” A breeze rushed up the hill, and yellow tape rippled. “Who called it in?”
“A mountain biker who rides these trails every evening after work. He was finishing up his run when he smelled the smoke and saw the flames. He called my office as soon as he rode down the mountain and hit cell phone service.”
“What time was that?”
“About ten p.m.”
“Did he see anyone up here?” Bryce asked.
“Said sometimes he sees kids or tourists on the ridge taking pictures. Selfies, you know. But he didn’t see anyone last night. I have his name if you want to interview him.”
“Thanks.” Bryce stared toward the fire’s epicenter and braced. “I best have a look.”
“I ain’t seen a body like that before, but I heard about the other in Helena. Jesus H. Christ.”
With a nod, Bryce worked his hands into the gloves. “Have any of your deputies been walking around up here?”
“No, sir,” Sheriff Wexler said. “The responding deputy was focused first on the fire. We’ve had rain, but it’s still dry. When the deputy saw the body, he suspected this case was connected to the other one, roped off the scene, and backed away. I’m afraid in the dark he trampled the tire tracks and the area around the body pretty good. He also had to wait for the body to cool before he could cover it.”
“And the mountain biker? Did he come up here?”
“Said he didn’t get near the scene. Just called in the fire.”
Cases like this could be made or broken by a first responder. The scene could be altered and valuable evidence destroyed by untrained ignorance or police personnel struggling to secure the scene. In the latter case, there was no blame to hand out.
Bryce moved toward the blue tarp and with the sheriff’s help removed it. Carefully, he crouched for a better look. The charred remains lay on its back, its head pointed toward the valley and the distant mountains. The now-heavy smoky scent of burned hair, flesh, and bone swirled in the breeze. The blackened, marbled remains had withered appendages with snubbed fingers and toes consumed in the flames. The featureless face had a gaping jaw frozen in a ghoulish, toothy laugh.
Sheriff Wexler’s voice rattled with unprocessed emotions. “Don’t know what kind of person does this. I’ve seen bad things in my years, but this might be the worst.”
“Always amazes me what humans do to one another.” Bryce searched for clothing or jewelry. There was none.
Sheriff Wexler pulled off his hat and rubbed his forehead with his sleeve. “The medical examiner’s office is sending up a death investigator. She should be here any minute.”
Bryce rose, favoring his right knee twisted on an Afghanistan march a decade ago. He took a moment to let the joint settle before he moved around the corpse to view what remained of the face. If he did not know what to look for, he might have missed the facial mutilation below the char.
“Did he do this to the other one?” the sheriff asked as he popped a mint in his mouth.
The other one had been found near Helena in mid-July. The medical examiner in Missoula had determined the victim had been female, Caucasian, and in her late twenties to early thirties. She had been stabbed multiple times, and her body had been stripped clean of clothing and jewelry; however, there were no signs of sexual assault. The killer had also removed the skin from the victim’s face before dousing the body with gasoline and setting the remains on fire. The inferno had done an expert job of destroying forensic evidence and the victim’s identity. DNA had been extracted from back molars and submitted for testing, but so far the victim had not been identified.
Gravel rattled under Bryce’s kneecap as he flexed it. “It looks pretty damn similar.”
The sheriff’s radio squawked. The deputy stationed at the roadside below announced the arrival of the medical examiner’s death investigator, Joan Mason. A former Philadelphia cop, Joan had relocated to Montana a year ago and taken the job in the medical examiner’s office shortly after the New Year.
Approaching footsteps had Bryce turning to see the brunette with a lean, athletic build. She wore jeans, weathered boots, and a navy-blue wind slicker that opened to a white T-shirt. She pulled on disposable gloves as she moved with steady steps toward the scene. When she saw the body, her pace faltered a beat before she steeled herself and continued forward.
“Harry.” Joan’s Philadelphia accent drew out the sheriff’s name as she shook hands with him and then Bryce. “Bryce, good to see you. Wish it could be under better circumstances.”
“Unfortunately, it’s rarely a good day when we cross paths,” Bryce said.
Joan was not a sworn officer in Montana, but ten years in the Philadelphia Police Department as a beat cop and then later as a homicide detective had equipped her with keen investigative skills and a no-nonsense urban street cop directness that won her praise in Montana’s law enforcement community. “Like the Helena victim.”
“Seems to be,” Bryce said.
As Joan circled slowly around the body, her expression turned grim. She cleared her throat. “Animal. No, I take that back. That isn’t fair to animals.”
She was right. Wilderness predators hunted for food and survival, not for sport.
Silence settled around Joan as she absently pushed up her sleeves, revealing the pink, puckered flesh on her forearm. Arson had been Joan’s specialty when she had worked back east, and the burn scars were living reminders of the monsters she had tracked.
Bryce remained silent, giving her time to mentally shore up her resolve brick by brick. There were scenes like this that they all needed time to process.
Bryce had been called to the first crime scene, which at the time had been classified as a violent anomaly. The rescue and police crews that had worked the case had been stunned by the way the body had been savaged. The theories floating around included domestic violence, drug cartels, and human trafficking. No conclusions had been reached, so he’d had the body sent to Missoula, to Joan’s boss, the state’s best medical examiner, Dr. Peter Christopher.
Joan cleared her throat. “I assisted Dr. Christopher when he did the autopsy on the first victim. The doc determined the cause of death was stabbing.”
“There’s a lot of blood on the rock near the overlook and on the ground around it,” Sheriff Wexler said.
Joan squatted near the victim’s head and examined the skull. The slow rise and fall of her chest, coupled with unsettling uneasiness, suggested she was replaying her last brutal hunt for the arsonist who had nearly burned her alive.
“It looks like the face was removed in this instance as well.” She pointed to a slight cleft along the hairline. “In my opinion, here’s where the killer cut. Of course, that’ll be for the doc to officially confirm. I assume you want the body sent to him?”
“Yes,” Bryce said.
She rose with enviable ease. “The doc and I have had several discussions about this killer.”
“He’s crazy as hell. And the consensus is to call Dr. Ann Bailey. Her background in forensic psychology could be of real use untangling this killer’s mind.”
“She’s back from summer vacation?” Bryce asked.
“And moved back into Missoula and starts teaching at the university in a week,” Joan said.
Dr. Bailey was in her early thirties and a professor at the University of Montana in Missoula. She was well respected in her field and had lectured to Bryce’s police recruits in late May on the topic of abhorrent behavior. If the class she had taught was any indication, this case was right up her alley.
Red and blue lights flashed as the state’s forensic van pulled off the gravel road and lumbered as far as it could before parking. The crew unloaded a tent and tables and established their base of operations.
“The forensic team is here mighty quick,” Sheriff Wexler said. “Takes pull to get them up here pronto.”
Bryce had made one call on the drive over. The fast results attested that this case did not require influence. Any officer who’d seen the file understood a dangerous killer was preying on their state. “Joan, what do you need from me?”
“Nothing either of us can do until I’ve processed the body and the forensic techs do their job,” she said, nodding to the three-person crew. “I need to radio my office and have my appointments canceled. It’s going to be a long day.”
“Most are,” Bryce said.
As she stepped away, Bryce stared at the hate-fueled devastation unleased on this individual. Motivations for violence had never been much of an interest to him. Like any good hunter, he focused on following the physical evidence left behind by the killer. He left the higher reasoning to the doctors, defense attorneys, and judges. But if this scene was like the last, there would be precious little physical evidence, and he would need a specialist like Dr. Bailey to point him in the right direction.
He checked his phone and was not surprised to see he had no service up here. He would have to be nearer to the road for that. The silence this land offered had been the reason he had returned home twelve years ago. Far from the choppers, explosions, and endless gunfire, he had gladly disconnected.
But as he walked down the hillside, opened his contacts, and stared at Dr. Ann Bailey’s name, the idea of isolation was not so appealing.
Near You Reviews
“Thrilling novel… fans of romantic suspense will be enthralled.” –Publisher’s Weekly STARRED review
“Scorching action. The twists and turns keep the reader on the edge of their seat as they will not want to put the novel down.” —Crimespree Magazine