The evening anchors covered a robbery, a mall fashion show, and a dammed high school football game. Finally the anchor cut to a reporter on the side of the interstate. The neatly coiffed woman was on the other side of the highway, standing on the northbound access road, a good distance from the car.
He leaned forward and in the background saw police milling around the site as the reporter talked about an unexplained death.
“Unexplained, my ass. She was shot in the chest.”
On another television, Channel Two projected Gloria’s face. As the newscaster listed off her accomplishments, images appeared of her with politicians, school children, and in front of her car dealership.
Why hadn’t the cops told the media more?
Gloria wasn’t some low-class hooker or a junkie. She was the kind of woman people missed. All he could surmise was that the cops were scrambling as they tried to figure out if they’d arrested the wrong man or if there was another Samaritan. He didn’t care if they were confused or bumbling around as long as they’d spoken to Kate. The point of the text was to alert Kate. She was the one who needed to be on the scene. It wasn’t right if she wasn’t in the mix.
Frustrated, he rose and paced around the basement room. He flexed his fingers as he tried to expel the nervous energy cutting through his body. Times like this, it was all he could do to contain the feelings and racing thoughts. He paced. Clenched and unclenched his fingers.
It would be so easy to upload the video he’d taken and show the world what he’d done. His footage would send a ripple effect through the city, the state, and even the country. The Samaritan would again be feared and respected. Think of the panic!
But as tempting as it was, he paused.
He didn’t care about publicity or public fear. The goal was to control one particular person. He had to believe his text had reached Dr. Kate Hayden and she’d soon return to San Antonio.
This game, like chess, had to be played patiently and carefully. He didn’t need to rush. All the pieces were in position, ready to play. Though the media wasn’t covering him yet, they soon would.
He picked up the worn notebook, flipped to one of the last clean pages, and scribbled down the day’s date.
You have no idea how long I have planned our meeting, Kate. It has been a long journey, and now the final match is upon us.
He studied the note and circled the word final several times with a steady hand.
It was a matter of time before Kate’s return home.
Novak watched as Natasha photographed and bagged the rope. “Dr. McGowan, be on the lookout for any marks on the bone that might suggest blunt force trauma or a knife wound.”
He followed the pair to the stairs, and when Dr. McGowan moved to heft her end of the stretcher, he nudged her aside and took the weight. It was unwieldy more than heavy and slow going up the stairs. It took maneuvering to get the stretcher around the tight kitchen door corner. When they cleared it, he and the assistant carried the gurney out to the sidewalk.
“Thanks,” Dr. McGowan said. “I’ll never say no to a bit of brawn.”
“How well do you know Agent Vargas?”
Since Novak and Julia had started sleeping together, he had resisted the idea of learning more about Julia Vargas. He respected her privacy and halfheartedly believed she would eventually open up to him about herself. Now, asking about her didn’t feel as intrusive. She was part of his case, so it was business. And when it came to a case, all bets were off.
“She’s worked with my husband, Agent Sharp, on a couple of cases. She’s new to the criminal investigations unit. She’s dedicated. Did a couple of years’ worth of undercover work near Virginia Beach. We’ve been out for drinks once, so I can’t say I know her well.”
“Does she ever say much about herself?”
Dr. McGowan cocked her head. “If you want to ask her out, then do it.”
“It’s not like that. We found evidence connecting her to this body.”
“This body? She would have been a kid when the woman died.”
“What did you find?”
“A picture of her with her father in the victim’s wallet.”
Dr. McGowan brushed a strand of hair from her eyes. “Did you ask her?”
“I did. She didn’t recognize the woman’s name or face.” And if she had, he wasn’t sure she’d have told him. She guarded her thoughts closely. “I thought you might know about her family.”
“Like I said, we went out the one time, but she never mentioned her family.”
“What’s she like in general?”
“When it comes to a case, Julia’s a straight shooter. She’ll tell you what she thinks. If she says she didn’t know the victim’s name, she didn’t know.”
“I’m not questioning her integrity. Have you heard about her father?”
“She doesn’t talk about family, but I know he was a cop. I was at the awards dinner when she went to pick up his award.”
“I was there as well. She didn’t stay long.”
“Can’t be easy. Not everyone was happy that Jim Vargas received recognition.”
The Medical Examiner Arrives at the Site of a Killing
Julia Vargas approached Dr. Kincaid and Tessa. They listened to the agent give her report on the body before moving toward the crime scene tape. When they ducked under it, he followed.
Dr. Kincaid extended her hand to Martin Thompson and smiled as she introduced Tessa. “Dr. McGowan is a forensic pathologist. You’ll be seeing more of her.”
Martin shook her hand and only tossed a quick questioning glance at Sharp. “Welcome.”
If Tessa read Martin’s questioning gaze, she gave no sign of it. “Thanks.”
The older man’s normally banal expression actually softened, and he held her hand an extra beat. “Glad to have you on the team.”
“Good to be on it,” Tessa said.
Sharp caught a couple of young officers looking at Tessa. Their gazes weren’t curious, but lewd. They didn’t realize Tessa was his wife. A primitive impulse demanded he punch each guy in the face.
“Who found the body, Agent Vargas?” Tessa asked.
“An early-morning jogger. He said he didn’t touch her. Thought she might have been a mannequin at first. He called the cops right away, and we had a first responder here within five minutes to secure the scene.”
“May I touch the body, Martin?” Dr. Kincaid asked.
“Yes. I’ve collected every bit of evidence I can find, so the body is ready to remove,” Martin said.
Dr. Kincaid knelt and with a gloved hand touched the victim’s face, circling her finger around the red circle, a cartoon version of a blushing cheek.
“It’s a tattoo,” she said, hints of surprise in her tone. “And judging by its color and skin texture, it’s recent. I’d say she only finished healing days ago.”
“Have either of you ever seen anyone with this kind of tattooing?” Julia asked.
“I’ve seen facial tattoos within the gangs,” Dr. Kincaid said.
“Some of the cultures in Asia tattoo the females’ faces, but that’s dying out,” Tessa said.
“I’ve seen women who’ve had permanent makeup applied to their faces. Eyeliner, blush, even lip color,” Dr. Kincaid said. “Even had a woman on my table who had her boyfriend’s name inked on her forehead. But a doll face is a new one.”
“It’s fine workmanship,” Tessa said. Her expression telegraphed a mixture of fascination and sadness.
Tessa pushed up the sleeve of the oversize doll dress. “The white stippling tattoo work that’s on her face also extends from her fingertips to her wrists. Her eyes are expertly lined in a dark ink, and very precise freckles dot her cheeks.” She touched the victim’s mouth. “The red heart-shape tattoo here redefines the shape of her lips.”
“She’d have to be out cold, otherwise the work couldn’t have been done to her face,” Vargas said.
“The injection site isn’t infected, and there’s no bruising, suggesting whoever inserted a needle in her arm knew what they were doing,” Tessa said.
Sharp folded his arms, trying to envision the woman before this work was done, but he couldn’t see past the ink.
Tessa pulled the sleeve back over the victim’s arm. “Look at the detail around her eyes,” she said. “It’s hard enough to do with pen and ink, let alone with a tattoo needle.”
“Only a monster would do this to an unwilling woman,” Vargas said.
“I didn’t say the person who did this was sane,” Tessa said. “I was simply commenting on the skill.”
He watched as Tessa absently rested her hand on the victim’s arm as if assuring her it would be okay, and she was now in good hands. He suspected if he weren’t standing there, Tessa would have spoken to the victim, issuing words of reassurance.
He cleared his throat. “Dr. Kincaid, do you have any idea how she died?”
Dr. Kincaid checked the victim’s neck for signs of strangulation and tipped her body forward to look at her back. “Dr. McGowan, what’s your opinion?”
Frowning, Tessa studied the body. “There are no signs of trauma on the body. We’ll have to check her blood levels for signs of asphyxiation and drug overdose.”
“Why the frown, Dr. McGowan?” Vargas asked.
“Her shoulder blades and the back of her hands are discolored.”
“What does that suggest, Dr. McGowan?” Dr. Kincaid asked.
“After her heart stopped pumping, the blood settled in the lowest part of her body, which was her back.” She rolled down the knee socks and inspected the back of the victim’s calves. They were also bruised. “If she’d died here, her shoulder blades would not be discolored.”
“Correct,” Dr. Kincaid said.
“On her back,” Vargas said, shifting as if uncomfortable with the idea. “I don’t want to think what that suggests.”
“We’ll determine if there was sexual activity,” Dr. Kincaid said. “Though I might not be able to determine if it were pre- or postmortem.”
“Jesus,” Vargas muttered.
Dr. Kincaid ran her hands over the dead woman’s arm. “The skin is smooth, and there are no signs of hair on her arms or legs. She’s been waxed recently.”
“Do you think it’s murder?” Tessa asked.
“She didn’t die here,” Dr. Kincaid said. “But that doesn’t mean she was murdered. She could have overdosed.”
“The second party panicked,” Vargas said. “She could have been into some kind of weird shit, and it went sideways. Whoever she was partying with dumped her here.”
“She wasn’t dumped,” Sharp said. “She was carefully posed.”
“A final sign of respect?” Vargas asked.
Sharp shook his head. “Or a final statement from the killer. Right now, I don’t know. We’ll let the evidence lead us.”
“How long would it take to tattoo her face and arms?” Vargas asked.
“I can’t speak to how long the tattoo work took,” Dr. Kincaid said. “There are no signs that infection ever set in. That means the wounds would have to be washed, there would have been extensive bandaging of her face and arms, and the dressings would have to have been changed daily to avoid infection.”
“We’re looking for someone who could have gone missing a month ago?” Sharp asked.
“I’d say so,” Dr. Kincaid said.
Tessa studied the back hem of the victim’s doll dress. “This appears to be a bloodstain,” she said.
Martin nodded. “I saw that. Don’t know if it’s her blood, but it’s marked for DNA testing.”
Needing a moment, Sharp turned from the scene and walked back to his car. He dug his cigarettes out of his pocket as reached for the door handle. But as he shook loose a cigarette from the pack, he felt Tessa’s gaze on him. He let the packet fall back in his pocket. “What is it, Tessa?”
For a moment she didn’t speak, and then in a voice that was both tender and harsh, “You’re thinking about Kara.”
He flinched at the sound of his sister’s name. Their last big fight was over Kara. He’d been so angry when she’d tried to talk to him about letting his sister go. He’d blown up at her, dumping all his anger for his lost sister on her. Tessa had absorbed his pain to a point, and then she’d gotten angry. Two days later she was on a plane to Southeast Asia.
“So you’re psychic now?” he asked.
“I don’t need to read your mind.” An edge honed the words, telling him she would not tolerate his temper. “I know you. She’s never far away when you’re investigating a case.”
Medical Examiner Dr. Addison Kincaid in conversation with newly hired forensic pathologist Dr. Tessa McGowan just after hearing that a murder victim is about to arrive.
“What makes the case unique?” Dr. Kincaid asked.
“Vargas said you’d need to see it to believe it.”
“Thanks, Jerry.” Dr. Kincaid checked her wristwatch. “Looks like our day isn’t over yet.”
“I’ll get changed,” Tessa said.
Dr. Kincaid stopped, as if she’d caught herself. “You both were so professional this morning, it was easy to forget you two know each other.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment.”
Dr. Kincaid rubbed the side of her neck. “Why accept this job here? You knew you’d bump into him sooner or later.”
“It’s my hometown, too. And it’s not like I hate the guy. He’s one hell of a cop.”
“He’s intense. I like him, but I’d hate to cross him.”
“Not a good idea when he’s on a mission to solve murder cases. He’s possessed.”
“Because of his sister?”
She’d never heard Dakota talk about his sister to anyone. “You know about Kara?”
“He asked me to review her autopsy file a couple of years ago. I went over it with a close eye but didn’t discover anything that made me think the cause of death wasn’t an accidental overdose.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. I’m not sure he’ll ever know any peace.”
“Did you know his sister?”
“As a matter of fact, I did. Both of us were local girls, and we ended up at the college here together. We had a lot in common. And we got along well until that last night.” Tessa drew in a breath, knowing she was opening a door that had been so hard to close.
“Look, I don’t mean to intrude.”
“It’s okay. Might as well tell you. Kara and I and a couple of our friends went to a fraternity Halloween party together. It was a warm Friday night, midterms had just ended, and we were ready to have a good time. I left the festivities early. I ended up getting hit by a car blocks from the party. I don’t really remember the accident or the days surrounding it. My aunt told me later friends visited me in the hospital and told me Kara’s mother was looking for her. My aunt said my cousins were there, and they offered to call around, but they all agreed what could be done to find Kara was being done. I was released on a Wednesday, the same day she was found dead.”
“I’m sorry,” Dr. Kincaid said.
She balled up her cap and tossed it in the trash. “The whole family fell to pieces. I was on pain meds, so I really don’t remember. My cousins tell me the funeral was one of the saddest moments of their lives. Dakota couldn’t get home until a month after the funeral, and by then I was in rehab. Dakota and I didn’t meet up again until about two years ago.”
Talking about this felt oddly disloyal to Dakota, but she wanted it out in the open. Life was full of enough drama without secrets. “We fell for each other, rushed into a marriage that imploded all in the course of one year.”
Dr. Kincaid didn’t comment, but she was listening.
“As you know, Dakota is totally dedicated to the job. He doesn’t rest when he has an open murder case, especially when it’s a young person. I understand somewhat where he’s coming from, but there came a point when it came between us. When I learned about the opening on Project Identify, I took it. Now I’m back.”
Tessa and Dakota meet for the first time since their separation.
“Why the meeting, Tessa?”
“I wanted to let you know I’m back in Richmond. I’ve applied for a yearlong fellowship at the medical examiner’s office. In fact, Dr. Kincaid just offered me the job. I start in the morning.”
A muscle pulsed in his jaw. “She’s smart. Manages a good shop. Why tell me?”
Ice coated each word. He wasn’t attempting cordial. But then it had never been easy with him. “We’re going to run into each other. In fact, the medical examiner’s office has one of your cases on the docket for tomorrow.”
The muscle in his jaw pulsed again. “You could have told me all this in a text.”
“I know you don’t like texts.”
As he sat back, his jacket opened a fraction, offering a glimpse of his badge clipped to his belt, inches from the grip of his weapon. He waited.
She tucked another strand of hair behind her ear. “I understand this victim is young.”
He impatiently tugged at the edge of his jacket. “When you officially start, we’ll talk about it.”
Old frustrations stirred, and she remembered he could be abrupt, his tone blunt when he was upset. She knew he was angry with her. She’d blasted out of his life on a rush of emotion and little thought.
Now, she wanted to say the right words to mend a once-strong connection now shattered into so many pieces, words alone felt inadequate.
Dakota’s question was as piercing as a honed blade. “So that’s it? You wanted to give me a heads up?”
“That was part of the reason.”
He didn’t speak. Barely seemed to breathe.
“I wanted to see you. To see for myself you’re doing okay.”
He shook his head, as if he were bracing for a second shoe to drop.
“I also wanted you to know I remembered today is Kara’s birthday. I haven’t forgotten.”
He didn’t blink. “Okay.”
“She was my friend, too. What happened to her changed my life as well.” Her thumb rubbed the underside of her ring finger as if expecting to feel her wedding band.
“Yes.” She’d hoped mentioning Kara would chip away at the wall between them, but it only added more bricks. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to rub salt.”
A weary sigh leaked from his lips. “I assume you’re now making small talk and screwing up the courage to talk about a divorce.”
Their broken marriage dangled between them like glass shards. Hardly anyone would have noticed any hope glinting around the jagged edges. “No, I’m not.”
“No, you’re not what?”
This was the moment she’d rehearsed a hundred times on the long plane ride home. “I’m not filing the papers.”
His gray eyes narrowed. “You want me to?”
“No,” she blurted.
Wariness flashed as his eyes narrowed. “Why not? A clean break means you can get on with your life.”
If this had been a tug-of-war game, she’d have been digging in her heels. “Is that what you want?”
Staring. Silent. Still. He was giving her no glimpse of his thoughts. She’d have to work for every inch of progress.
“I’ve done everything I can think of to get free of you. I was sure ten thousand miles would do the trick. But no luck.” As the words rushed over her lips, she regretted them immediately.
Challenge sharpened already keen features.
A cold chill swept over her and threatened to scatter whatever hopes she’d painstakingly collected over the last weeks as she continued, “I thought eight months apart would mellow us both.”
“I haven’t changed and neither has my job, Tessa. It never will. I don’t know why you imagined I’d change.”
Shaking his head, he rose as if he could no longer stay still. “Do yourself a favor and move on with your life. File the papers, and I’ll sign them.”
She stood quickly, again bumping the table, sloshing more coffee. As he turned away, she fired back, “I never figured you for a chicken, Sharp.”
His face in profile now, a muscle again pulsed in his jaw. He might recognize her outburst as one of the investigative techniques he used interviewing a hostile witness, but that didn’t mean he was immune when the tables were turned. “Provoking my temper won’t work, Tessa.”
“Figured you were more of a fighter,” she pressed. What the hell did she have to lose now? “Never pegged you for a quitter.”
Unruffled, he reached for his sunglasses. “I’m a realist. We are not suited for each other. I know. You know it.”
She moved a step closer to him, knowing the sunglasses were one of his tells. He put them on when he was rattled. She’d hit her target. “I’m not filing papers.”
“And then what? We remain in limbo?”
“No. We figure it out. We make our marriage work.”
Virginia State Police Agent Dakota Sharp confronts The Dollmaker’s handiwork for the first time—
A tall, lean woman in her early thirties approached him. She was dressed in jeans, a loose T-shirt, leather jacket, and booted heels. Ink-black hair skimmed her jaw, a delicate cross on a chain hung around her neck, and a detective’s shield was clipped to her belt. Her lips were fixed into a grim line.
He recognized her. She was new to the Richmond division of the Virginia State Police, having transferred in from the Tidewater area.
Sharp pulled his badge from his breast pocket, held it up for her to see, and attached it to his belt. “Agent Dakota Sharp.
She extended her hand. “Agent Julia Vargas. Thanks for coming so quickly.” Her handshake was firm, her gaze direct.
“What do you have?”
Agent Vargas rubbed the back of her neck as she glanced back toward the body. “I received a call from the local deputy because this scene is so odd. One look and I knew I needed a second set of eyes.”
“Male or female?”
“Body of a young female. I’ve seen a lot of heinous acts, but this one takes the cake.”
“What’s different about her?”
She shook her head. “You’re going to have to see it for yourself.”
“Okay.” He tugged a set of black latex gloves from his pocket and slid them on over his hands. “Lead the way.” She turned toward the yellow tape, raising it to allow him to pass first. A ring of officers and forensic technicians parted as he approached.
For a moment, he simply stared at the scene. His brain didn’t quite process what he saw until he brushed away the shock and refocused.
Leaning against the tree was the body of a woman, dressed like a doll. White billowy dress, knee socks, shiny patent-leather shoes. However, it was her face and eyes that took his breath away. Her eyes were tacked open, revealing unnaturally large pupils staring sightlessly at him. Her face was painted white, cheeks tinted a blush red, with eyebrows arched in a thin line. The hair, twisted into twin braids, was a wig.
His gut clenched. When he spoke, his voice sounded ragged, rough.
“No, it’s not paint,” Agent Vargas said. “It’s ink. All tattoos.”