Missoula, Montana May 13, 2010 1:00 a.m. Ten Years Ago
The college campus bar was packed with students celebrating the end of another school year. All eyes were on the small stage, now flashing with blue and white spotlights as a singer gripped the mike and hit the high notes on the song’s last chorus. Everyone was mesmerized, including Joan and Ann who were standing near the bar.
He had been watching the two women for weeks. He knew where they lived, where they hid the spare key to their house, their class schedules, and even what they ate for breakfast. He had been in their house several times, lain on their beds, inhaled the scent of their perfume from their clothes and dreamed about this night. Over the course of the last few weeks, the rhythm of their lives had become second nature to him.
Now as Joan and Ann seductively moved to the music’s beat, he removed a small vial from his jean pocket and moved closer to the bar. When the bartender turned to fill a drink order, he quickly squeezed several drops of a sedative into each woman’s drink. The drugs would not knock either woman out immediately, but the dosage was enough to coax each back across campus to the safety of their home.
As he melted back into the crowd and the song ended, Joan and Ann turned back to the bar and gulped from their beer mugs. Their bodies glistened with sweat and they were laughing. They were so confident and sure of their bright futures.
He had only five minutes to wait before Ann set her drink down. She yawned, said something to Joan, who shook her head as if she wanted to stay. He thought for a moment Ann might leave alone. Having only Ann at the house was not part of the plan. For it all to work, Joan needed to be in the house as well. Tension rippled through him as he thought about all his plans crumbling. Maybe he should have put more drops in their drinks.
And then minutes later, Ann spoke to Joan again and the two stepped out into the cool night air. He followed, careful to keep a safe distance. “I just need a minute,” Ann said as she walked toward the middle of the parking lot. “I’m dizzy.” “I’m a little tired myself,” Joan said yawning. “Would we be wimps if we called it a night?” Ann said. “No. We’ll both head home.” Joan’s words sounded a little slurred. Ann blinked and gently patted her own cheeks with her hands. “But you have been looking forward to hearing this band.” “I’ve heard enough,” Joan said. “And you look dead on your feet.”
They walked the three blocks to their small one-story house located at the edge of the campus. He followed, careful to remain in the shadows. Several times, they paused, drew in breaths as if to clear their heads, and then continued walking.
When they arrived home, Joan fished out the key from under the front doorstep mat and pushed it into the lock. “I didn’t think I was that drunk. But I feel like I’ve been kicked by a mule.” Ann leaned against the house. “We’re tired, is all. We’ve both been burning the candle for weeks.”
Joan opened the door and clicked on the light. Ann said something he could not hear, and they both giggled as they moved into the living room and plopped onto the couch by the bay window.
Anticipation burned in him as moved toward his truck parked across the street. He was anxious to get this party started but knew patience and the details mattered. He pushed back a surge of desire. “Focus,” he whispered. “Stick to the plan.”
Joan rose and moved toward the kitchen. She tripped, righted herself, and then opened the refrigerator door. While she stared, her body swayed as if standing up straight required too much concentration and effort. Finally, empty handed she closed the door and moved past Ann, who had now passed out on the couch.
She shut off the light in the living room and seconds later a beside light in her room clicked on. She all but fell down on the purple bed spread. She tugged off her shoes, tossed them on the floor and shut off the light.
He waited another ten minutes before reaching under a tarp covering the bed of his tuck. He grabbed the handles of two gallon sized plastic jugs stowed side by side. The containers were each filled with gasoline and the tops were sealed with fragments of a torn gym sock.
The night’s inky blackness offered him the cover he needed, as he moved with practiced efficiency. He had planned this night for weeks and pictured each and every detail down to the last moment. Crossing the small front yard, he ducked around the side of the house. He set the first unlit device under Joan’s window and then moving around the house place the second jug by the back door. There was a third gasoline styled bomb under the house’s crawl space and positioned under Joan’s bedroom.
As he reached for his lighter, he noticed that the backdoor was unlocked. “Sloppy, girls. Sloppy.”
The temptation to see Joan and Ann unconscious and helpless was too strong to resist, so he carefully pushed open the back door. The house was silent as he moved into the small living room toward Ann, who lay on her belly, her hand draped over the side of the couch. A part of him was sorry for her. Ann was sweet by nature and so pretty. “You should have listened to me.”
He moved more confidently across the room and carefully pushed open Joan’s bedroom door. She lay on her back, her body relaxed and boneless. Her breathing was deep and steady. He stood by her bed and gently brushed back her dark hair. She had a pretty face. A very nice body. But she was bossy. Loud. Had a real mouth on her. “This is all your fault. Ann will suffer because of you. You just don’t know when to stop pushing.”
As if something deep inside of her sensed the danger, she drew in a deep breath and rolled on her side toward him. He stood very still, watching and waiting for her eyes to open. Even as he feared discovery, a part of him wanted her to see him standing over her. He imagined her shock and then her fear. God, how he wanted to see her tremble.
“Joan,” he whispered. “Guess who?”
Dark urges burned inside him. It would be so easy now to strip her naked, shove inside of her and show her just how badly she had underestimated him. But that was not part of the plan. His fire would dish out the perfect punishment.
He rose, crossed the room and closed her bedroom door. He closed and locked the kitchen door behind him, carefully centered his device by the door and adjusted the torn sock deeper into the gasoline. He fished a lighter from his pocket and dragged his thumb over the spark wheel. A flame flickered. For just a moment, he stared at the pretty flame that danced and undulated as it whispered promises of destruction.
He lighted the gasoline-soaked cotton cloth, and it caught fire immediately. Practice had taught him that this was the critical time. There were only seconds before the flame reached the gasoline reservoir, so he had to move quickly to the second device, light it and hurry to his truck.
As he slid behind the wheel and started the engine, the first bomb exploded. Though it was tempting to stay and watch his fire roar to life, he pressed the accelerator and slowly drove down the street. The second explosion under Joan’s window pulled his gaze to the rearview mirror now illuminated with orange and yellow flames licking up the side of the house. The blaze on the backside of the house cast off dark billowing smoke that threaded up and through the flames.
God, it was beautiful. Pride swelled in him. He grew hard, sorry now he had not taken Joan.
As he turned the corner, the third bomb denoted, and more flames shot up as a fire engine’s siren blared in the distance. Help was on the way. Too bad it would not be in time.
Nashville, Tennessee Monday, August 17, 10:30 p.m.
Heat and humidity punched up the bleach’s faint scent in the van’s dark interior. It made his eyes water, his throat burn, and his palms itch under the latex.
Scrubbers and fine brushes cleaned surfaces well enough, but disinfectants seeped into unseen crevices and obliterated pesky droplets of blood. Trace evidence sowed the seeds of a cavalier man’s downfall.
Perhaps the second dousing of cleaner had been overkill, but his belt-and-suspenders approach never failed him. He had many faults, but carelessness was not one of them. Better this temporary irritation than a lifetime in a jail cell.
He rolled down the driver’s side window, knowing next time he would rinse out the vehicle with more water after the bleaching. He turned his face toward the warm, fresh air. He inhaled and closed his eyes, pretending the whoosh of cars on Interstates 24 and 40 was the ocean. Some of his best Date Nights had been on secluded beaches.
He had enjoyed traveling up and down the East Coast because he had decided long ago the women at the beach were the prettiest. Accustomed to warm air and sunshine, they tended toward short skirts and revealing tops and, for the most part, stayed in shape.
As much as he loved the ocean, he had sensed it was time to move on to new territory. Maybe it was because he was getting older, but he had felt a pull toward Nashville, his hometown. His parents were long dead. Any friends he’d once had would not recognize him. Repatriation was good for the soul. It reinvigorated the senses. Challenged the mind.
Nashville, Tennessee. Music City. Home of the Country Music Hall of Fame. He had forgotten that it was such an exciting, bustling city filled with beautiful ladies who did not disappoint.
What Nashville lacked in beaches it made up for with out-of-the-way spots. The houses he had found were all located at the end of winding roads on the tops of hills. Their views were amazing. In the five weeks he had been back, he had enjoyed two Date Nights with women he had chosen from the streets. Online shopping for a date was efficient, but it also left a digital trail. Old-school cruising left less evidence.
Once he’d made his selection, it was off to his hilltop, where he and his Lady Loves had had all the time in the world to get to know each other.
Good relationships needed privacy. They could not be rushed. Yes, sir. He had enjoyed two very fine dates recently. He should have been satisfied by now. But instead he remained ravenous and craved a third date.
He blinked and then rubbed his nose. The smell was fading, which was good. First impressions mattered.
The strong scent was due to two cleansings in as many days. Generally, he allowed more time. But he was not getting any younger. And each day he realized how precious time was becoming.
He had parked his van in the shadow of an abandoned South Nashville warehouse in an area called the Bottom. This industrial section was nestled between the Nashville airport and the juncture of Interstates 24 and 40. It was the workmen’s world by day and the playground of prostitutes and johns by night.
A couple of miles north, the skyscrapers shimmered over Music City’s business district. Nestled among the tall buildings was Lower Broadway, where red, white, and blue neon lights charmed tourists into cowboy boot shops, honky-tonks, and the Grand Ole Opry.
Only a stone’s throw separated Nashville’s vibrant downtown from the Bottom, but the worlds could not have been more distant.
In the Bottom, revving cars, shouts, and gunfire replaced the sound of live music. The air carried the odor of fetid garbage rather than smoky barbecue. Instead of smiling tourists strolling Lower Broadway, junkies needled heroin into exhausted veins while hookers slid into an endless supply of cars.
This was his tenth trip to the Bottom in the last month. Down here the lineup changed from day to day, week to week. Always a fresh face. Familiarity could make a man sloppy, but he approached each trip as if it were his first, careful to avoid aggressive pimps or the very rare cop.
Most of the women down here had a hard, worn look that did not appeal. He did not care for the experienced ones. Too jaded. Tough like gristle. Not just any gal would do for Date Night.
Tonight, he felt lucky. In control.
On the corner across the street stood two women. They had arrived about a half hour ago and seemed to know the area well. The women were constantly adjusting their outfits and scanning the area. A third girl arrived. She spoke to the duo, and the other girls did not appear to welcome her.
New Girl was not tall, but she was slim and very fit. Long black hair draped shoulders clad in a white button-down shirt. She had twisted the shirttails around her narrow waist and tied them into a knot above a brass belt buckle. The top four buttons were unfastened to the edges of a lacy white bra filled with ample, perky cleavage. Some men liked legs. Others, ass. He was a breast man.
Skinny jeans perfectly hugged legs rising out of red cowboy boots studded with silver rhinestones. She had a fresh look that was pleasing. His Date Night girl needed to have some experience, but he also did not want rode-hard-and-hung-up-wet.
This one looked young. Body of a teenager, but her demeanor suggested she was a few years older. Hard to tell. The streets aged girls like her.
This was not the first time he had seen this one down here. Three nights ago, he had glimpsed her laughing with several of the girls, but before he could make his move, the priest who operated the Mission had engaged her in a lengthy discussion.
He leaned forward, resting his forearms on the steering wheel. The glow of the streetlight shadowed Date Night girl’s angled chin. Her back was straight. Tits out. Good posture. This girl was self-assured and would do nicely.
He imagined the sound of bones crunching. Screams. The feel of warm blood on his face.
The strong and healthy ones could sustain a great deal of abuse. It was always disappointing to go to the trouble of finding a date, arranging a first outing, and then having them die too soon.
He had had thirteen girlfriends in all. A couple of girls had made it beyond a week, but the others had barely survived a few days. His longest relationship had lasted sixteen days.
New Girl ran long fingers through her hair, arching her back seductively as if she knew he was watching. His attention focused on the trim waist and then roamed over her full breasts and slim neck.
He imagined her stripped down, her tanned skin glistening in the moonlight and a tight collar around her throat. Dangling from the collar was the key to unlock the cuffs that restrained her. He had high hopes for this one. He imagined her breaking, submitting to him.
Growing hard, he palmed his johnson. Anticipation crept through him. “Ready to play in my van, Ms. Perky Breasts?”
He was tempted to walk up to her, but with the other girls close, he did not. Moving in the open was a recipe for trouble. Even if the other girls did not remember him, there were unseen cameras or witnesses lurking. Lots of traps in the game he played. And he knew them all.
He scratched above his ear where some of his real hair had slipped the confines of the blond wig. Tugging at his gloves, he was anxious to be done with it, as well as the colored contacts and glasses, but he could not reveal himself until he and his girl were alone. It was the belt-and-suspenders approach.
New Girl fished in her purse, pulled out a cell phone, and raised it to her ear. She ducked her head, as if in deep conversation. Pimps kept a tight leash on their girls. Most texted every half hour and expected a quick response, or there would be hell to pay. Always better to avoid the pimps. The priest was also a problem. She watched out for the girls like they were her flock.
Date Night girl ended her call as a black early-model Cadillac pulled up. It had chrome wheels and a white convertible top with Tennessee plates. The first two girls approached the car and leaned inside to chat with the driver.
“Don’t you leave me, girl.” He whispered the words over and over as anxiety crawled up his back.
As Date Night girl lingered back, the two women laughed at something the driver must have said. The passenger door opened, and the two women slid inside, nestling close to the driver. His Date Night girl took a step back and watched the vehicle drive off.
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.”
It was the sound of fingers clawing against the dirt, and it had echoed through Special Agent Macy Crow’s dreams last night. She was accustomed to nightmares, which had plagued her since she was a small child. But this one had been agonizingly real.
Still unsettled, Macy opened the driver’s side door of her four-door Toyota. She tossed a worn black backpack into the passenger seat, slid behind the wheel, and shifted the pressure off her right side and away from the annoying pain. The discomfort had been a daily part of her life since a hit-and-run five months ago in Texas.
The attack had broken her right leg, cracked her skull, and flatlined her heart for nearly a minute. By rights, she should be dead. She shouldn’t have walked again. She shouldn’t have returned to work.
But here she was, ignoring not only the lingering discomfort but also the crazy dreams that had followed her back from the other side of the rainbow.
Scratch. Scratch. Scratch.
She started her engine, slid on her sunglasses, and drove out of the apartment building lot onto Seminary Road. She followed side streets to the I-95 south entrance. The morning traffic was already heavy and, like always, pissed her off.
Following a familiar route to the FBI complex, she was more anxious than most days. She juggled jolts of worry and excitement as she visualized her upcoming interview with Special Agent Jerrod Ramsey.
Ramsey headed up a small team that tackled violent crimes. His group had cracked several high-profile cases in the last year. Details about their deeds were scant, but their results made them legendary.
After cutting through the traffic sludge, she took her exit and slowed as she approached the guard station at Quantico. She reached for her badge, flipped the leather case open, and handed it to the marine on duty. “Morning, Corporal.”
The marine looked at her picture and then at her, frowning as he’d done almost every day since her return three weeks ago. He handed back her identification and waved her through. She drove to the main FBI building, parked, and presented her badge to the familiar FBI security guard while her backpack was x-rayed.
“Crow, what you call a pen with no hair?” he asked with a straight face.
Every day it was a new joke about her short hair.
“Shoot me now, Ralph, and just get it over with.”
A neurosurgeon had shaved her head minutes before he had cracked open her skull and relieved pressure on her brain. Yes, she currently looked like a cross between Twiggy and a bristle brush. Desperate hunts for hair ties were gone for the near future, but she was aboveground.
“Come on, Special Agent, I bet you know,” he gently coaxed with a shit-eating grin.
“What?” She carefully tucked her badge in her jacket breast pocket.
“A bald point.”
Despite herself, she laughed. “Jesus, Ralph, you need help.”
“Who loves ya?”
Ignoring the Kojak reference, she took the elevator up to the third floor, where Special Agent Jerrod Ramsey worked. She made her way to his corner office and knocked.
She pushed open the door as a leather chair swiveled toward her, offering her first up close look at Jerrod Ramsey.
Thick brown hair was cut short and swept off a striking face that conjured images of East Coast prep schools, old money, and the Hamptons. He wasn’t classically handsome, but the sharp green eyes and olive skin coupled with tailored suits had to be kryptonite to the ladies.
Ramsey rose and adjusted his blue tie before he crossed the room to her.
“Special Agent Macy Crow,” she said.
A faint smile hinted of a welcome. “Good to meet you, Agent Crow,” he said, extending his hand.
She accepted his strong grip, clasping his hand firmly. “And you as well, sir.”
When Macy had declared her intentions to return to the bureau, she had been temporarily assigned to the ViCAP computer section because her former position had been filled. If she wanted back in the field, she would have to apply for another position.
When she had heard Jerrod Ramsey’s profiling team had an opening, she had thrown her name into the hat. She had expected a quick no to her request but instead had received what amounted to a “Let’s talk.”
Either returning from the dead had earned her points, or someone with juice was pulling strings. Whatever the reason, she hadn’t looked a gift horse in the mouth and had agreed to the meeting. Last night a courier had delivered a file from Ramsey. He’d instructed her to review the case and be prepared to discuss.
Ramsey offered her one of the two seats in front of his desk. When she sat, he took the remaining one.
“How do you like being back at work? Working with tech in the ViCAP unit must be a change,” he said.
“It’s been great.” In truth, staring at the four walls of a cubicle and a computer screen sucked. But it was the price of readmission.
He allowed the pause to linger, expecting her to fill in the silence with nervous chatter. It was a good trick. And one she used when she interviewed suspects.
When she didn’t speak, he said, “I heard you’ve set a few recovery records.”
“Queen of rehab,” she said with a smile. No agent wanted a weak partner. “Ready to rumble.”
His eyes narrowed. Either he had decided she was too flippant, or he liked her moxie. Or maybe the pointed stare was supposed to make her second-guess and worry while he figured her out.
She again absorbed the silence. What the hell. She was her own person and wouldn’t tone herself down for him or anyone else. Near death had a way of cutting through petty worries cluttering everyday life.
He reached across his desk and retrieved a file. Her name was marked on the tab in precise block letters. She imagined he already knew her professional credentials and her Texas origin story. Reading the file now was for show.
“Ten years with the bureau,” Ramsey said. “You worked in Denver, Kansas City, Seattle, and Quantico. Human trafficking is your specialty. You led several successful undercover operations.”
“Blessed with a slight frame, and in the right light, I pass for a teenager.”
He closed the file. “Why not go back to that?”
“The miniskirts and halter tops don’t fit as well as they used to,” she quipped.
“They’d also showcase your scars.”
“Honestly, the scars would have added to my mystique on the streets. But with or without the red racing stripe running up my leg, my days of passing as a teenager are over.” Climbing back-alley fences was also no longer in the cards for her. “Time for a new challenge.”
“I’ve heard good things about you,” Ramsey said. “Texas Rangers said you cracked a big case for them. ViCAP also likes having you.”
“The Rangers solved the case in Texas. I just gave them the crowbar to pry open the cracks.”
“Tell me about Texas.” Ramsey wasn’t going to make her return easy. No slam dunks in this room.
Reciting the story wasn’t easy, despite lots of practice. “You have a reputation for being prepared. You must know as much as I do.”
“I’m not interested in the facts in a report. I want to hear your version.”
She shifted in her seat. “I returned to Texas when my father was murdered. Pop left a message for me. Basically, he said there was a grave in the desert. The grave belonged to my birth mother. Turns out there were three graves. All girls who’d been kidnapped, raped, and murdered after they gave birth.”
“Did you know you were adopted?”
“Hard to hide it. When both parents have black hair and brown skin, it’s difficult to pass a pale blond kid off as their own.” She shrugged. “They were always up front about the adoption. But they left out the part about my birth mother being murdered.”
“That must have been a gut punch.”
“Learning I’m a child of rape and that I’m half-monster wasn’t pleasant. Gut punch sums it up.”
Her adoptive mother had once whispered that Macy had bad blood. When a girl in her third-grade class had been kidnapped and murdered, the other children had been afraid. Macy hadn’t. She had been fascinated by the cops, the cadaver-sniffing dogs, and the blue wave of law enforcement sweeping over their community.
“No one but Macy dare goes near that alley,” her mother had whispered to her father. “It’s not normal.” Her mother hadn’t relaxed until the fourteen-year-old murderer had been arrested.
The Texas trip had driven home the true meaning of bad blood. Since then, its full weight had rested heavily on Macy’s shoulders.
“Violence is forged in my DNA,” Macy said. “Maybe it explains why I’m good at hunting monsters.” Modesty didn’t become her, so she didn’t bother with it. “I’m good at what I do, or I wouldn’t be here now.”
“Do you think you’d have been injured in Texas if you’d had backup?” Ramsey asked.
Macy refused to apologize or backpedal. “I take risks. It’s the secret sauce behind my high-profile arrests, and yes, it set me up for the HNR.”
“Sorry, shorthand for hit-and-run. The incident has come up a few times, so I abbreviate it. Federal employees love acronyms.”
Ramsey wasn’t amused. “Did your injury teach you any lessons?”
“To be more careful. But I can’t promise. No agent really knows what they’ll encounter in the field or how they’ll react.”
A muscle pulsed in his jaw. “How are you physically?”
“Solid and better every day.” She could lie without blinking, thanks to the undercover work.
If he didn’t buy her assessment, he didn’t give any hint. “Technically, you’re to remain on desk duty for another month.”
She decoded the thoughts lurking behind his dark eyes. Instead of wondering, she asked, “Are you saying you want me on your team?”
A smile tugged at the edge of his lips. “Do you want to be on it?”
“Yes, I do.”
More silence settled between them as they played an invisible game of chicken. Would she stay silent? Or would she admit that catching monsters was how she justified her existence and eased her crushing sorrow for the brutalized girl who’d died giving birth to her in the desert?
“All I can say is that I love the work,” she said.
“Working on my team isn’t easy, Agent Crow.”
Membership on his team meant long hours and unearthing evidence in horrific cases. Ramsey’s agents had a front-row seat to a brand of darkness that most law enforcement officers never saw.
“No one outworks me,” she said. “I settled so many cases in Kansas City, Seattle, and Denver because I took risks and didn’t give up. I’m here now because I don’t give up. I’m the proverbial dog with a bone when I get my hooks into a case.”
He didn’t speak for a moment. “In the weeks you’ve been with ViCAP, you’ve picked up on several patterns in cases around the country.”
She wasn’t here for a pat on the back. “Are you going to ask me about the case file you sent me? The one I studied last night until one a.m.?”
Intrigued, he sat back in his chair. “Tell me about the case.”
She was relieved. They were sailing into the safe waters of murder. “Last week, the skeletal remains of Tobi Turner were discovered in a Shenandoah Valley barn. The teenage girl went missing fifteen years ago. Sheriff Mike Nevada, the new county sheriff and a former member of your team, requested the FBI’s assistance after DNA found on the girl’s backpack matched the DNA of an unknown serial rapist active in the summer of 2004, three months before Tobi vanished.”
Ramsey didn’t look impressed. “Continue.”
Macy carefully crossed and uncrossed her legs. “Unfortunately, this offender isn’t in the CODIS system.” CODIS, the Combined DNA Identification System, was a database of DNA collected from prisoners and arrestees. “Tobi Turner and the rape victims all had a similar look. Slender, dark hair, and petite.”
“I did a data search of the Deep Run area in 2004. There was another girl who also vanished two weeks after Tobi. Her name was Cindy Shaw. She was mentioned in a two-paragraph article. The headline read ‘Second Girl Missing?’ There were no follow-ups to that article.”
He frowned. “Cindy Shaw was not in the file I gave you.”
“I always dig deeper than the file.”
“Why is Cindy Shaw significant?”
“Ms. Shaw may not be, but she attended Valley High School with Tobi Turner, she had long dark hair, and she vanished. No missing person report was filed on her behalf. Her last known address was a low-income trailer park. I suspect she was an at-risk kid, and when she disappeared, no one cared.”
“Not all poor girls who go missing are kidnapped, raped, and murdered.”
The reference alluded to her birth mother. And if it was meant to sting, it did. But a little more pain in an overflowing bucket didn’t really matter. “Every case surrounding the time period of Tobi Turner’s disappearance has to be questioned and examined.”
Ramsey looked almost impressed. “What do you suggest I do?”
So there it was. Her shot.
Discipline kept her from scooting to the edge of her seat. “I’d like to go to Deep Run and look into all these cases. I’m a fresh set of eyes, and as you’ve already suggested, I have a knack for detail and pattern.”
Ramsey regarded her for several beats before he said, “I’ll send you to Deep Run for five days. I want to see what you come up with.”
The green light warranted a fist pump, but she resisted. This was a test. Ramsey didn’t care about a personnel manual’s BS question or boxes that needed checking. The field would tell him.
“Should I check in with my superior downstairs?” she asked.
“No. I’ll clear it with him,” Ramsey said.
“You won’t be disappointed,” she said.
He raised an index finger. “I’m not looking for a cowgirl who’s going to ride into town, shoot it up, or get herself killed. I want you to dig up solid intel, and then you’ll debrief the team at Quantico next Monday. I still don’t know if you’ll make the cut,” Ramsey warned.
She hadn’t scored, but she had the ball. Time to take her best shot. “Like I said, you won’t be disappointed.”
“I saw just the slightest limp as you crossed the parking lot. You do a hell of a job hiding it.”
She glanced out his window, which overlooked the lot. “I qualified for the mile run time and retained my expert status at the shooting range.”
“Both scores have dropped since the attack.”
“I can hold my own.” She would not apologize or make excuses. She was done talking.
He studied her. “Hell, I can’t think of many people who would come back after what happened to you.”
“That’s ancient history. All that matters now is this case and me proving I belong on your team.”
“Glad you feel that way, because I can’t cut you any slack. Five days, Special Agent Crow. We’ll both know if you make the grade.”
She resisted the urge to uncross her legs and relieve the pressure on her nerves. Instead, she grinned. “I’m up to the challenge.”
“You’ll be working with Sheriff Mike Nevada.”
“I assumed as much.”
“Didn’t you work with Nevada when he was with the bureau?”
“Our paths crossed in Kansas City. He was searching for a serial killer who preyed on prostitutes trafficked along I-35. I was trying to catch the man pimping the girls. Turned out we were hunting the same guy.”
Crossing paths with Nevada. It was a nice euphuism for sex between two commitment-phobic agents. They had ended whatever it was they’d had on good terms, but walking away from him had been the only time she’d resented the job. “Nevada was a first-rate FBI agent, and I imagine he’s just as good a sheriff.”
“I’ll let him know you’re on your way. Stay in contact,” Ramsey said.
She rubbed her hand over her right thigh. “When do I leave?”
“Today. Pack your bag and hit the road.”
She checked her watch. “Will do.”
Ramsey’s smile was polite, but he clearly had his doubts.
Though they were Jack’s legacy, there was no real connection between the two. They shared no childhood memories, or even DNA since she was adopted.
“Who told you about Pop?” Dirk asked.
“The Texas Rangers. And you?”
“Got a voicemail from Ledbetter.” A small muscle pulsed in his jaw.
“You live on the property, and I bet the cops still had a hard time finding you,” she said.
“They did.” He shifted, his gaze narrowing as he looked at the lawn chair. “Ledbetter tells me Jack is at the morgue.”
“He wouldn’t want a funeral.”
“I know. I’ll have him cremated.”
“Do you want to do it?” she asked.
“No. If you know anything about me, you know I don’t like to get into town, and last I checked the funeral home is in town.”
“Fair enough. That’s why I’ll do it.” Her brother lived somewhere on the property and from what Jack said was good at keeping an eye on things and keeping the varmints away. “Where were you yesterday?”
He rubbed his temple. “I was in El Paso on business. I came back as soon as I got the message.”
No sense asking what he’d been doing in El Paso. He’d not been here, and that was enough.
“Jack trusted you with all the paperwork,” he said. “Is there a will?”
“That’s the last thing on my mind right now. I want to know who killed Pop. Do you have any idea?”
Dirk’s nostrils thinned and he drew in a breath, and then he scratched the black-and-gray stubble on his chin. “How the hell am I supposed to know?”
“Because you’re the one who stuck around. You saw him all the time. And you’d know better than anyone if he’d done something to piss someone off.”
“I hadn’t seen Jack in over a week.”
“And if Jack were into something he shouldn’t have been, you wouldn’t try to hide it, would you?” she asked.
“What do I have to hide from an FBI agent, sister?” he asked.
“I doubt we have time to talk about all that you’re hiding, but unless it related to Pop, I don’t care.” She’d learned to bluff really well as an agent, knowing if she went in hot with a suspect and acted like she had the answers, they’d give up more than intended.
“Aren’t you the badass agent?” He shook his head as he rubbed a splintered spot on the deck with the tip of his worn boot.
“When’s the last time Jack went into Austin?” she asked.
“I have no idea.”
“What about the local diner near here?” she countered. “Had he been there lately?”
“He barely left the yard in the last year. Why are you so worked up about where he’s been? He was killed right here.”
“Our old man was tortured and murdered. Everything he did in the last few weeks matters to me. What he did and who he saw is all a part of the puzzle.”
Guilt, sorrow, and remorse were dull, consistent pains she endured, but the physical agony now jerking her toward consciousness was something she’d never felt before. Liquid fire scorched every cell and sinew, trapping her breath as she expanded her ribs and attempted to draw in air. Her heart raced, and she swallowed as she waited for the vise grip on her midsection to ease before she tried to breathe again.
When the pain dulled to a throb, she lay still until the screaming in her body stopped. Had the monster from fourteen years ago returned? Panic made her heart beat faster. A deep-seated urge to survive goaded her to open her eyes so she could get her bearings.
Instantly the harsh glare of the fluorescent lights smacked her square in the face. Her head throbbed. She closed her eyes and regrouped before she slowly reopened them. Her head still throbbed, but she adjusted to the pain.
The beep, beep of a monitor had her slowly turning her head left toward the machine’s green and red lights. An IV ran from a half-full bag to the thick blue vein in her arm.
Hospital. She was in a hospital? What had happened?
Her vision focused on the monitor, while she searched through the mental haze for her last concrete memory. She blinked while trying to scrape together the last images.
She had been at Erika’s house. She’d stepped inside . . . and then whatever happened next danced out of reach. She had no idea what happened to her.
She turned her head toward the deep-baritone voice heavy with fatigue. Detective Adler sat in the chair by her bed. Dark stubble covered his chin, and his starched white dress shirt was wrinkled. Sleeves were rolled up, revealing hair covering muscled arms. His gun, as always, was holstered at his side along with cuffs and a phone.
He rose and leaned over the bed, staring at her with piercing gray eyes. Detective Adler. City of Richmond Homicide. But she wasn’t dead.