The building manager’s gaze dropped to the creased bills carefully smoothed out so they did not look like they had been jammed in a pantry mason jar. “I could lose my job.”
Nikki’s cash reserves were on vapors, and her credit cards bumped against their respective limits. What resources she still had needed to last until the end of the month, when her corporate freelance gig coughed up the two grand needed for rent. “No worries. Open the door, and no one will be the wiser.”
A string of sixty-watt bulbs skimmed along the top of the low, dark ceiling, dribbling light on the storage units housed in the basement of the Alexandria apartment complex they served. Moisture clung to the walls, and a musty scent filled the air. God only knew what the mold count was down here, and because Nikki’s medical insurance expired at the end of the month, she did not need some kind of bullshit allergic reaction.
The manager quickly pocketed the money and thumbed through a collection of keys until he found the right one. He jammed it in the lock and twisted. It did not budge. He removed the key, inspected the worn ridges and teeth, and then tossed her a baffled expression.
Nikki grinned but sensed her attempt to appear patient fell flat as the man’s brows knotted, and he refocused on a second attempt. He wiggled the key back and forth. This time he teased the tumblers into alignment. The lock clicked open.
His expression triumphant, he pushed open the door. “What are you looking for?”
“A trunk,” she said.
She had received a tip through her website, Crime Connection, which she had set up two months ago after she’d left the news station. The purpose of the site was to turn cold or hot case tips into stories that would earn her another job in television. So far, the tips had either been bogus or so vague they had been unusable, but this one was so specific it gave her hope it would be different.
The sender had detailed the building’s address, this specific storage unit, along with a note to open a gray trunk. A little digging into the building’s history, and the unit’s owner revealed a Helen Saunders rented this space. By all accounts the eighty-eight-year-old lived quietly and had been retired for over two decades. She still volunteered at a food bank, had no criminal record, and always paid her rent on time. When Nikki had visited her yesterday, the woman had had trouble concentrating and had admitted she did not own a computer. Clearly, Helen had not sent the message via Nikki’s website.
Look in the gray trunk.
Nikki studied the dusty brown boxes covered in what looked like a decade’s worth of dust. She fished her GoPro from a large black purse and clipped it onto the V of her blouse, between her breasts. Back in the day, she would have had her cameraman, Leo, do the filming. But Leo, along with the steady paycheck and insurance, was gone. “Can you find Helen Saunders’s original rental application?”
“Those records would be in the warehouse, if we still have them.”
“There’s five hundred bucks for the guy who can find it for me.”
“I don’t know. I could lose my job.”
She leveled her gaze on the guy, sensing that despite his worry, he would be looking for that application. “Thanks for your help. I can take it from here.”
“I should stay. I got an obligation to my tenant.”
“I’m not here to steal,” she said. “Just following up on a tip.”
The manager eyed the camera and its strategic placement several beats before he raised his gaze to her face. “Do I know you?”
“I don’t think so.”
He shook his head, wagging his finger. “You do the news.”
Nikki switched the camera on. “Did.”
“You got canned, right?”
She had been chasing a story on political corruption and government contracting. The deeper she had dug into the systemic graft, the more committed she had become to the story. In the end, she had been damn proud of the final draft, which was some of her best work. However, the politically savvy station manager had not been as thrilled, and his heavy-handed edits had gutted the story. The stubborn streak that had propelled her up the career ladder now demanded she dig in her heels. Despite her manager’s ultimatum, she had read the story on the air during prime time. The next morning, when she had arrived at the station, her manager had canned her on the spot and had had her escorted out of the building. She had been taken aback, though not surprised, but as she had marched out of the office with her box of belongings, she had been optimistic because she’d believed her credentials would land her a job in another market. What she’d discovered was that her story had offended some powerful people who had seen to it that every major and minor news market was closed to her.
Refusing to let her temper rise, she angled her camera toward the building manager’s face. “Make sure I don’t accidently film you when I go live.”
He turned his face away. “I can’t be on camera. We’re not supposed to be here. I could get fired.”
“Take it from me—you don’t want that.”
The manager eased away from the door. “I’ll be back here.”
Of course, she wasn’t actually going live. Given her luck, this entire adventure could be a stunt designed to humiliate her.
She plucked her phone from her back pocket and held it up, knowing a second camera angle might come in handy during editing. In selfie mode, she began to record. “I just received an anonymous tip through my website, Crime Connection,” she said, loud enough for the camera to pick up her voice. “My source tells me to look for a gray trunk in this particular location.”
She panned around the space and then propped her phone on an old dresser mirror and continued to move boxes filled with crap that should have been tossed a decade ago. Dust soon coated her jeans and very expensive turquoise top. The grime would enhance the television drama but would be hell on the dry cleaning bill.
The camera jostled when she bumped it with a dusty box. “It’s an average storage unit that most of us who’ve lived in an urban apartment would have used at one time or another.” She moved a lamp from an ugly 1970s-style end table and angled her body around the table.
Nikki looked directly into the frame, wanting the lens to catch her pensive look. As she turned, she spotted the gray trunk.
After grabbing the leather side handle, she hefted the trunk and found it much lighter than expected. She set the trunk in the hallway, where the light was marginally better. Though she felt a rush of excitement, she did not hurry the opening. The buildup could be as important as the payoff. “A gray trunk.”
She picked up the phone and angled it toward the tarnished brass lock. Multiple angles always worked well in editing. Her fingers hovered over the lock.
As she adjusted the lens in for a close-up the manager peered over her shoulder partly blocking her shot. She swatted him back as she pressed the release button on the lock. To her delight, it popped open. She lifted the lid. The box was filled with stained, brittle tissue paper, which crumbled on contact. Her insides tingled. She still lived for this and remembered how much she missed investigative journalism.
As she scooped up paper, she froze as she stared at the box’s contents. “Is this a joke? Did Rick put you up to this?”
“My former boss at the news station.”
“I don’t know Rick,” the manager said. “It looks like a Halloween decoration.”
It was a complete skeleton that was discolored and darkened.
Special Agent Zoe Spencer stepped back from the clay bust she had been working on for weeks. The woman’s likeness featured an angled jaw, a long narrow nose, and sculpted cheekbones. She had chosen brown for the eyes, a guess based on statistics. And it was not lost on her that the most telling part of who this woman had been was conjecture.
Zoe’s attention to detail was both her superpower and her Achilles’ heel. Many questioned her ceaseless fretting over the minutiae such as a chin’s dimple, the flare of nostrils, or the curve of lips into a grin. Some in the bureau still believed her work was purely art and not real science.
Her sculptures were not an exercise in art and creativity. The point of her work, like this bust, was to restore a murder victim’s identity and see that they received justice. But instead of arguing with the nonbelievers, she simply allowed her 61 percent closure rate do her talking.
Sculptor, artist, and FBI special agent were her current incarnations, but she had others. Dancer. Wife. Young widow. Survivor. Each had left indelible marks, some welcome and some not.
On a good day, Zoe would not change her history. Her past had led her to this place, and she was here for a reason. But on a bad day, well, she would have killed to get her old life back.
She had been with the FBI criminal profiler squad for two years and almost immediately had put her expertise to work. She caught the cases requiring forensic sketches or sculptures, not only because of her artistic abilities and expertise in fraud, but because of her keen interview skills. Armed only with questions, a sketch pad, and a pencil, she burrowed into the repressed memories of witnesses and victims, penciling and shadowing those recollections into useful images.
She certainly did not have a master artisan’s skill, but she was good enough. And from time to time, local law enforcement brought her a skull and requested a forensic reconstruction. Such was the case of her latest subject.
The lab door opened. “How’s it going?”
The question came from her boss, Special Agent Jerrod Ramsey, who oversaw a five-person profiling team based at the FBI’s Quantico office. Their team specialized in the more unusual and difficult cases.
In his late thirties, Ramsey was tall and lean with broad shoulders. He had thick brown hair cut short on the sides and longer on the top, a style reminiscent of the 1930s. His patrician looks betrayed his upper-class upbringing that had financed his Harvard University undergrad and Yale law degrees. Naturally skeptical, he was considered one of the best profilers, and though many wanted him in the FBI’s Washington, DC headquarters overseeing more agents, he had skillfully maneuvered away from the promotions.
Zoe raised the sculpting tool to the bust’s ear and shaved down the lobe a fraction. The artist always wanted more time to tinker. The agent understood when good had to be enough. “I’m ninety percent of the way there.”
Ramsey approached the bust and studied it closely. His expression was unreadable, stern even, but interest sparked in his eyes. He was impressed. “This is better than ninety percent.”
Ramsey leaned in, closely regarding Jane Doe’s glassy stare. “It’s really remarkable that you could create this likeness given the damage.”
Nikki McDonald had done Zoe no favors when she had handled and then dropped the scorched skull. “I’ve worked with worse.”
“I understand standard skin depths and predetermined measurements for determining facial structure, but how did you decide that she had brown eyes?”
Ah, always back to the eyes. “Over fifty percent of the world’s population has brown eyes.”
He grinned slightly. “So, a guess?”
“A calculated guess, Agent Ramsey.”
“I stand corrected. How long did this take?”
“On and off, about six weeks. I had to work it around other cases.”
“We all juggle. Nature of the beast.”
“Not complaining. I like the work.” Married to it was more like it.
“What else can you tell me about Jane Doe?” he asked.
Zoe shrugged off the smock she wore over her white tailored shirt and black slacks and exchanged it for her suit jacket hanging on a peg. “Bone structure tells me she was a Caucasian female in her late teens. The few teeth that remain indicate she enjoyed good nutrition and dental care, which suggests she had resources when she was alive.”
He walked around the bust, getting a 360-degree view. He pointed to the hair tucked behind the ear, as a girl in her teens might do. “Was the hair also a calculated guess?”
“In part. Given her bone structure, I assumed it was a lighter color.”
“Do you know how she died?”
“Knife marks on her ribs indicate she was stabbed at least once in or near the heart.”
“The bones were badly burned. Could a fire have killed her?”
“We’d need soft tissue to determine. There are marks along the sides of the skull suggesting someone took a blowtorch to it.”
“Why torch the skull?”
“Your guess is as good as mine. Perhaps the killer wanted to minimize the smell of rotting flesh. Or he wanted to destroy DNA, which he did accomplish when he also pulled most of her teeth. Or he could have been exorcising extreme rage.”
“He wanted to obliterate the woman’s identity,” he said, more to himself.
“That’s what I think.”
“The killer or someone messaged the tip to Ms. McDonald’s website,” Ramsey said. “Why now?”
“Another guess? The killer is tired of hiding,” she theorized. “He wants recognition for a job he considers well done. Maybe he’s sending a message to someone else?”
“An accomplice.” She sighed. “Or a witness who now feels secure enough to act.”
“How long has Jane Doe been dead?” Ramsey eyed the bust, as if the face troubled him.
“No way of knowing. Though Jane’s dental work is modern.”
“Any personal items found with the skull?”
“No.” She was Jane’s last and best hope for identification.
Ramsey straightened. “Impressive work, Agent Spencer. The bust will be a significant help to Alexandria police. You’re working with Detective William Vaughan?”
“He attended several of the profiling team’s workshops in the spring.”
The spring training sessions had been designed to help local cops solve crimes. Detective Vaughan had been one of her best students. She had discovered he had a master’s in theoretical math, a reputation for thinking outside the box, and, over his ten years on homicide, a closure rate edging toward 90 percent. Her respect for his work had grown into desire, and when he had asked her out for coffee, saying yes was easy. It was not long after that that they had started sleeping together.
“I’ll send Vaughan a picture of the bust so he can cross-check it against any pictures he has on file,” she said. “His department’s public information officer is arranging a news release. If we can publicize her face, we might get an identification.”
“Ms. McDonald has called my office several times,” she said. “I haven’t taken her call, but her voicemail messages make it very clear she wants access to the case. Kind of a finder’s fee.”
“She’ll get the news along with everyone else.” His mouth bunched in curiosity as he regarded the still face. “I understand the apartment building where the skull was found is a half mile from I-95.” The north-south interstate’s twelve hundred miles of roadway ran through a dozen states and was a main artery for running drugs, weapons, and human trafficking.
“Correct. Jane Doe could be from anywhere.”
Ramsey stood back from the bust, folding his arms over his chest. “Her face is familiar.”
Zoe looked again at the bust. “You’ve seen her before?”
He leaned forward, his eyes narrowing. “Ever had a name on the tip of your tongue, but you couldn’t quite grasp it?”
Instead of pressing him for the name, she took a different tactic. “You’ve worked hundreds of cases.”
His gaze cut back to Zoe. “Yes. And I’ve seen the faces of a thousand victims.”
“Given she was in the basement for up to twenty years, you could have been a new agent when you saw her.”
“Remember, she’d have been a girl of means and likely missed when she vanished.”
He flexed his fingers and then suddenly straightened, snapping his fingers. “I can’t believe I didn’t see it right away. This is Marsha Prince.”
“Prince?” Zoe said. “Why is that name familiar?”
“She was a rising sophomore at Georgetown University and was in Alexandria working in her father’s business. She was days away from returning to school in August 2001 when she vanished.”
Tumblers clicked into place, and the memory unlocked. The case had been profiled at the academy. “She was living at home with her parents, who lived in Alexandria. She literally vanished, and the cops never figured out what happened to her.”
“That’s the one,” Ramsey said.
There had been search crews scouring the region. Cadaver dogs had canvased the parks, fields, and riverbeds, dry from drought that summer. As Zoe studied the face, more fragments of the forgotten case slid together into a cohesive picture.
Young, blond, smart. With the world before her, Marsha Prince’s disappearance had set off a firestorm that had rippled through all levels of law enforcement, local politics, and television news shows. Her name had been kept alive for a few years until finally time had cast Marsha Prince into the sea of lost souls.
“Should we notify her family that we may have found her?” Zoe asked.
“Mom and Dad are both deceased,” he said. “She does have a sister, Hadley Prince, but last I heard, she’d moved away.”
“Without DNA, we’ll need a visual identification from family.”
“Turn it over to Detective Vaughan. The ball’s in his court now.”
The instant Turner had opened his front door, his expression had shifted from mild curiosity to pain. The man had understood immediately why Nevada was there.
Tobi Turner hadn’t been Nevada’s first death notification, but as the old man had wept, he’d felt gutted and angry and prayed he could find the girl’s killer.
“Sheriff, can you hold the plaque a little higher?” the student photographer asked.
“Of course.” Nevada couldn’t remember the last time he’d been around kids who weren’t abused, beaten, or dead.
As the kid took a dozen more pictures, Nevada kept smiling. He wanted this dog-and-pony show over.
When the group finally broke up, he grabbed his gear, ready to change and get back to working the Turner case. The board of supervisor’s chairman, Sam Roche, cut off his exit. Sam was a retired university professor who’d settled in Deep Run and had been on the board five years.
“Sheriff Nevada, how’s your investigation going?” Sam asked.
Sam frowned and dropped his voice a notch. “The board is concerned about this case. The optics aren’t good. Who’s going to send their son or daughter to the local university or relocate a business in Deep Run if we can’t promise law and order?”
“Deputy Brooke Bennett and I have been in constant contact with the forensic lab in Roanoke, and I’ve also reached out to the FBI’s profiling team.”
“FBI?” Sam asked.
“If you want this case solved quickly, then we can’t ignore the truth. We had a serial offender who operated in this area in 2004.”
“What’re the chances that this person is still here?” Sam asked.
“I have no way of knowing,” Nevada replied. “I’m still trying to determine if we’ve identified all his victims.”
Sam held up a hand. “There could be more?”
The naive question would have been amusing if this weren’t so damn serious. “Not all women who are raped report the crime. Yes, there could be more.”
Sam rubbed a hand over his thinning gray hair. “The media is calling me for a comment. I’m not sure what to say.”
“I strongly advise you to not speak to them,” Nevada said. “The FBI agent will be here in a few hours, and she and I will coordinate communications to the public.”
“What about Greene?”
“What about him?” Nevada was still pissed about Greene’s inaction on the DNA kits. If the lazy, dumb son of a bitch had made an attempt to solve the rapes in the summer of ’04, he might have saved Tobi Turner’s life.
“I don’t want the FBI taking over the case,” Sam said. “I don’t need the world thinking we can’t manage our own problems.”
“The bureau doesn’t take over.” He’d never taken credit for the cases he’d solved. Instead, he’d always stood off to the side when local law enforcement had made an announcement to the media. Now Nevada was the local guy and was on the receiving end of the FBI’s help.
“Just stay on top of this.”
He would swallow every last bit of his pride and accept whatever help was offered to catch this killer. He owed that much to Tobi Turner and the rape victims. “I will.”
“You’ve chased killers like this before?” Sam asked.
Nevada sat at the desk in his home office and turned on his computer. As he waited for it to boot up, his thoughts turned to Special Agent Macy Crow. He respected the hell out of her because she was one of the best.
But when he thought about Macy, the most primitive neurons of his limbic system demanded sex. A few times when she hadn’t been looking, he had glanced at her breasts, her lips, and the curve of her hips. She’d dropped weight and muscle tone, but as far as he was concerned, she was still hot as hell.
When he had arrived back at his grandfather’s farm, he had taken a hot shower and changed into clean jeans, a blue pullover that read SHERIFF over the left pocket, and his steel-tipped boots. As the coffee had brewed, he had attached his gun and badge to his belt.
At his computer, he searched the case he’d worked with Macy in Kansas City. A few photos featured the two of them standing side by side in the background as the local police chief spoke at the podium. He remembered that day and the sex they had shared that evening.
Shifting the Internet search to Macy, he pulled up familiar pictures. The first image caught her descending a long set of marble stairs in a Virginia courthouse. She was wearing a poker face, but the wind caught her long blond hair and it gleamed in the light. She wore heeled boots, not the black, thick-soled boots she now favored. That image vibrated with a youthful sense of invincibility . . .
Nevada checked his watch. Realizing time was getting away from him, he finished his coffee and got in his car. At eight a.m., he pulled up in front of Macy’s motel room. She came out seconds later and slid into the front seat.
Macy gathered her belongings and, thanks to too much coffee, excused herself to the restroom before she reappeared to find Nevada waiting by the front door. She nodded to Deputy Sullivan on the way out and followed Nevada to his older black SUV.
She set her backpack on the back seat, dug out her yellow legal pad and a pen, and then slid into the passenger seat. The interior of the car was neat, and his supplies were carefully stored in bins in the back. Unlike in her vehicle, there were no stray french fries or candy bar wrappers on the floor.
Behind the wheel, Nevada slid on sunglasses and started the engine. A glance in his rearview mirror, and he began to back out. He reached for the radio, turning on a country western station. She played music constantly, but her choices tended toward loud, rude rock music.
He turned right and then made a quick left onto the interstate. “The Oswald house exit is ten miles north.”
“Did you get back to Deep Run often when you were with the bureau?” she asked.
“I visited when I could, but you know how the job is. I was lucky to get a break once a year.”
“Sounds familiar,” she said.
“Did you get to see your folks much?”
“After my mother passed, I never returned to Alexandria until the bureau sent me back. Visits to see Pop in Texas were rare.”
“I remember your father calling you in Kansas City.”
“He called more that last year than he ever had. Must have known the end was close.”
“And he never told you about your birth mother?” Nevada asked.
“Only in a message from the grave.”
“My birth father, the monster, was still alive. I think Pop was afraid for me. The man who raped my birth mother had money and power.”
“Your father thought this man would retaliate against you?”
“I suppose so.”
“He was trying to protect you,” Nevada said.
“In his way, yes.”
Once they were a couple of miles north of Deep Run, the interstate skimmed through open farmland dotted with billboards. “Do you still have your place in DC?” Macy asked.
“I do,” Nevada said. “But I’ve spent less than a handful of nights in the DC place during the last three years.”
They passed a rolling pasture with a herd of cows grazing beside a red barn. Macy had lived in slower-paced communities during her career, but preferred the larger cities so full of much-needed distractions. “And you really like it here?”
“It’s growing on me.” He shrugged. “I’ve been sleeping in the same bed for the past five months straight and recognizing everyone I pass on the street.”
“And here I am busting my ass to get back in the fray.”
“Be careful what you wish for.”
“Don’t be too quick to judge. I’m still not convinced you’ll stay here in Mayberry after this case is solved. You were one of the best.”
“I could have worked Ellis’s case without leaving the bureau. I left for several reasons. Like an old FBI agent once told me, you got to know when to fold.”
She dropped her head back against the headrest. “Jesus, Nevada, now you’re quoting country western songs.”
He laughed. “I didn’t die, Macy. I’ve shifted gears.”
“To what, reverse?”
“To a path that doesn’t always lead into darkness.”
As they approached the upcoming exit, he slowed and took the westward route along a four-lane road that quickly narrowed to two. They passed more fields dotted with farmhouses, cows, and lots of nothingness. It was too damn far from civilization.
Nevada and Macy had been running in opposite directions since they had met.
The man grew silent for a moment as his shoulders stiffened. Reality had chased away the pleasant last moments. Neither Macy nor Nevada spoke. Each knew the man needed to tell his story in his own time.
Turner cleared his throat. “Tobi had only been driving on her own for six months, and we got worried when she drove off by herself.” He shook his head. “But there comes a time when you have to let them grow up, right?”
“Tobi never made it to the high school, did she?” Macy asked.
“The cops found our van at a parking lot a mile from the school. Sheriff Greene interviewed all the kids at the study session, but they said Tobi never came into the school.”
“Was she dating anyone at the time?” Macy asked.
“She’d gone out a few times with a kid from the debate team, but he’d been in Ohio at a math competition when she went missing. The cops cleared him right away.”
“Are you sure there wasn’t anyone else?” Macy pressed.
“I’ve been asked that question a lot. And the answer is always no. Tobi was focused on school, not boys.”
Macy knew young girls could and did hide many things from their parents. “When did you know something was wrong?”
“We had given her an eleven p.m. curfew. At half past eleven, I called her friend Jenna Newsome,” he said. “They were close that last year.”
“And what did Jenna say?”
“She said she didn’t know anything,” Turner said. “Jenna still lives in town, but I don’t know the exact address.”
“Was there anyone else close with Tobi?” Macy asked.
“She was friendly with the kids in the band. But she didn’t have much time for socializing. Are you going to talk to Jenna?” he asked.
“Okay, you speak to Jenna, then what?” Turner demanded. “It’s been fifteen years, and the cops came up with nothing. My girl was only found by accident.”
Macy sidestepped the comment. “When did you call Mr. Greene?”
“It was past midnight.” He shook his head. “I should have called the sheriff five minutes after eleven. It wasn’t at all like Tobi to be late, but my wife said to give her a little more time.”
“And did the sheriff launch a search?”
“The sheriff didn’t sound worried, and I remember I lost my temper. He said he’d look into it.”