Don’t Look Now

Don’t Look Now

Mary Burton, Don't Look Now Cover

Don’t Look Now

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A homicide detective in the dark. A serial killer on the loose. Both have their obsessions in a nerve-twisting novel of suspense by New York Times bestselling author Mary Burton.

Austin homicide detective Jordan Poe is hunting a serial killer she fears is the same man who assaulted her sister, Avery, two years ago. The details line up: the victims are the same age, same type, dead by the same grim MO. Luckily Avery survived. But the terrible memories linger, making Jordan more determined than ever to stop this monster in his tracks.
Texas Ranger Carter Spencer isn’t one to poach on a detective’s territory. Yet no matter how resentful a capable lone wolf like Jordan is, when she is attacked at a third crime scene and suffers a trauma that leaves her with limited vision, it’s up to Carter to help Jordan navigate a world she no longer recognizes. He needs her instinct, her experience, and her fearless resolve to crack this case. A case that’s about to get even darker.

A stranger is watching. He’s closing in on his ultimate prey. And no one but the killer can see what’s coming.

Don't Look Now Excerpt

Chapter 1

Tuesday, March 30
10:00 p.m.

The call from dispatch was a jolt to homicide detective Jordan Poe’s system. After a fifteen-hour shift, she had arrived home, eaten a quick dinner, and settled on the couch to watch a movie. She had immediately fallen asleep.
Now, as she bolted up to the shrill ring, she shook off the sleep and reached for her phone. “Detective Poe.”
“Detective, a woman’s body has been found in Southeast Austin.” Dispatch rattled off familiar cross streets and an address less than ten blocks from her house.
“Tell me.” Jordan cleared her throat as she moved toward the kitchen through her darkened house, illuminated by only the television screen’s light.
She listened patiently as the dispatcher told her about the discovery of a woman’s body. No details about manner of death, but the body was in an advanced state of decomposition. Translation: the smell would saturate anything porous that came within fifteen feet. Full PPE was suggested.
She made a strong pot of coffee, and as it brewed, she brushed her hair, refashioned it into a bun, and splashed water on her face. Ten minutes later, coffee in hand, she pushed out of her front door, wearing yesterday’s clothes. She slid behind the wheel of her SUV, parked in a small gravel driveway by her bungalow. She had inherited the one-story, fifteen-hundred-square-foot house from her mother twelve years ago, and she had spent a lot of that time renovating it. Many of the homes on her block still had their original owners and had not been updated. But the rush of newcomers to Texas had discovered the East Austin neighborhood with wooded lots, and it was a matter of time before the elderly residents sold.
When she arrived on the scene ten minutes later, she had drained her coffee and convinced herself she was not exhausted.
The one-level ranch was painted a mint green. It was surrounded by a chain-link fence encircling a yard filled with tall weeds. Across the street was a heavily wooded empty lot that had turned into a dumping ground filled with discarded tires, an old stove, and piles of brush.
Four cop cars were parked along the house’s curb, their blue lights flashing in the darkness. A forensic van was parked in the short driveway, and two techs were setting up a tent and table. Normally the techs used tents to shield them from the hot Texas sun, and seeing as the sun had nine more hours before showtime, the setup told her they expected to be here well into tomorrow.
Before her mom, little sister, and she had moved to Austin, they had lived in Boston. She remembered the snow had come up to her waist on her sixteenth birthday, and the January air was so cold the windchill drove the temperatures below freezing. That was the day her mother had mumbled something about “being done with this shit,” and the three of them had packed the family’s blue Subaru and driven to Austin.
The day’s growing heat brought her back to the moment. She noticed there were still no reporters on the scene yet, and she was relieved. Crime in this area was standard, but sooner or later the press would catch on and this would all get more chaotic.
She rose up out of her vehicle, grateful to stretch her long, stiff legs. She was craving a good workout, but that was going to have to wait.
Jordan’s low-heeled boots, dusted with dirt from yesterday’s crime scene, crunched against the freshly graveled street as she moved toward the back of her SUV and opened the hatch.
Shrugging off her jean jacket, she tugged on the lightweight PPE suit over a black T-shirt and worn jeans banded by a leather belt. Next it was shoe coverings and latex gloves.
She looked up at the ramshackle ranch. A sign in the front window indicated it was marked for remodeling by a developer who had done dozens of projects in the area over the last year. No doubt, the landowner hoped to sell the property to a newly relocated young professional willing to pay a premium.
A couple of forensic technicians wrestled a large light up the two concrete front stairs and into the house. After a moment, they reappeared, faces grim as one plugged a long extension cord into a generator. A press of a button and the generator jolted to life, and the interior of the house lit up.
A deputy moved toward her. He was tall, lean, a bit gangly, but he had the look of a guy who would fill out.
She guessed he was in his mid-twenties.
“Detective Poe?” he asked.
“That’s right. And you are?” Hints of her Boston accent drew out the last word.
“Officer Wilcox.” They shook hands. “I was first on the scene.” His face was stoic, but his fingers flexed involuntarily. Easy to control reactions on the face, but there was always another body part that gave the nerves away.
First seconds on a scene were precarious and tense. And if you should be so unlucky as to come across a suicide, murder, or infant death, the emotional gut punch was inevitable. “When did you arrive?”
“Two hours ago. The renovation crew chief called it in. He’s still in his truck. Not happy about having to wait for a detective.”
“We all could think of better things to do, including the victim.”
A slight smile tweaked his lips. “That’s for sure. The crew chief figured the dead person was a squatter or drug addict who had died. It’s not rare in this area.”
“I was told the victim is female.”
“That’s right.”
“Any idea of the cause of death?”
“Offhand, I’d say suffocation. But who knows? It’s nothing like I’ve ever seen.” He shifted his feet and flexed his fingers.
“How long have you been on the job?” she asked.
“A year.”
This scene likely was now in the officer’s Book of Firsts. All cops had a book like that, and no matter how full it got, there was always room for a new horror. “Okay. Let me have a look.”
“Want me to come with you?” Officer Wilcox asked.
“Stay in the yard. Fewer people in the house, the better.”
His relief was palpable. “Understood.”
She slid her mask over her face and crossed the gravel driveway, and as she climbed the two front porch steps, the scent of decomposition hit her hard. She stopped, raised her hand to her nose.
“Jesus,” she muttered. Her first year on the job, she had swabbed Vicks under her nose but learned menthol did not conceal rot. These days, she sucked it up, knowing the brain would cancel out the smell after a few minutes.
“Detective Poe!”
She turned toward Andy Lucas, the senior forensic technician in the department. He was short, had a round face and belly, and his ink-black hair showed no signs of graying despite his recent fiftieth birthday.
“Andy.”
“When you get inside, follow the yellow cones to the body. There’s a lot of dust in that room, so I have a prayer of getting a shoe impression.”
“Roger that.”
“Hey, and thanks for the case of beer,” Lucas said.
“A man only turns fifty once.”
“Thank God,” he joked. “Took me days to get over the surprise party.”
She had helped host the event, which was just as much a department morale booster as it was a celebration of Lucas’s half-century milestone. Because she did not drink, she had left early, but the stories, some of which were pretty damn funny, still circulated two weeks later.
She stepped over the extension cord, walked heel to toe beside the yellow cones, which led her into the small main room. Artificial light shone on faded rose wallpaper peeling off old shiplap, four barred broken windows, and clumps of hay nestled in shadowed corners.
She moved toward the illuminated area and the victim. Female, with a slight frame, and naked, she was wrapped in a thick layer of plastic. Her hands were bound, and there appeared to be a bag over her head and a gag in her mouth.
The manner of death stirred memories Jordan had worked hard to forget. Closing her eyes, she drew air into her lungs, her desire to avoid the stench overruled by the need to breathe fully. Tight bands of anxiety squeezed her chest. She closed her eyes, pushing away the past and allowing her mind to settle. This was now. Not two years ago. And she had nothing to worry about.
Slowly, her thoughts collected, and she opened her eyes. Chalk up another experience for her Book of Firsts.
As she did at all fatality scenes, she mentally reclassified the dead person from Human to Evidence. This woman could no longer speak, but her body still might have secrets to share.
The body was badly decayed. Gases had already built up in the belly and burst through the skin, leaving a real oozing mess encased in the plastic. The covering around the body had slowed the bugs attracted to decomposing flesh, but a few had found a small opening and begun nature’s work. Another two weeks and there would not have been much to find.
The plastic bag over the victim’s head was secured in place with a thin drawstring tied in a double-knotted bow.
Jordan had responded to a couple of accidental autoerotic asphyxiation deaths. The people who played this dangerous game cut off oxygen to the brain, sexually stimulated their bodies, and then, seconds before orgasm, released the bag or neck restraints. The rush of oxygen was supposed to heighten the pleasure, but the trick was to remove the bag or rope in time. In both prior, unrelated cases, the victims had been men. One had worn a belt around his neck, whereas the other had chosen a thin cord. Each had passed out before the big O and suffocated to death.
Even if this woman had started this dangerous trek willingly, it was clear she had not been alone at the time of her death. Had the dead woman’s sex partner panicked and wrapped and dumped the body?
At this stage it was impossible to tell the victim’s ethnicity. Her skin appeared to be brown, but Jordan knew that could be from decomposition. Her hair had been icy blond, but the color looked as if it could be found on any drugstore shelf.
Age was another detail that was hard to call. But if Jordan had to guess, she would have said the victim was young.
Footsteps behind her had her turning to see Andy and the other tech, Marsha Brown, enter the room. In full PPE, they looked more alien than human.
“We’d like to get started on the footprints,” Andy said. “They’ll be the first ruined.”
“Sure, go ahead,” Jordan said.
“Are you sticking around?” Andy asked.
“Just standing back and observing.”
As Jordan backtracked her steps to the front door, she imagined other motives behind this killing. With the border 220 miles away, human trafficking was common here. Though coyotes raped and sometimes killed their victims, they generally discarded the bodies on a barren patch of earth in the open sun. Some might take the time to cover the remains with a little dirt or brush, but she had never seen any wrappings this elaborate. Drug dealers and pimps were not strangers to violence, but they rarely went to such lengths with their dead, unless they were sending a message.
The house was marked for renovation, so whoever had left Jane Doe here had known she would be found eventually. Maybe he wanted her found. Maybe it was a sign of misguided respect or contrition for what he had done. Maybe it was a message to someone. Or maybe he simply wanted his work displayed.
But until she could find out more about the victim’s identity, any stab at motive would be conjecture.
Her attention was drawn back to the bound hands tied with precise, tight knots. Like the drawstring, they were double knotted.
Jordan guessed the killer had played with the tension on the bag before he killed her. How many times had he brought her up to the point of death and then carefully loosened the drawstring so she could suck in enough oxygen to stay alive? Had she been a willing participant or a victim? Jordan had seen a lot of crazy shit over the years, but her money was on murder.
Had she been the killer’s first victim? Had he been playing out this erotic scenario for months—if not years? The thick plastic wrap and packing tape, even finding this location, required planning. Forethought. Jordan remembered the woman she had found bound, gagged, and struggling to breathe two years ago, when she’d still been a patrol officer. She’d saved that one, but she had been minutes away from losing her.
“Christ,” she muttered. “What do the footprints look like, Andy?” she asked. “Any idea how many sets?”
“From what I can see, there’re the deputy’s prints as well as another set.”
“Only one other?”
“Yep. The contractor smelled the decomposition and didn’t enter the house.”
“We can assume they are the killer’s prints, and he likely carried her in here?” Jordan asked.
“She’s barefoot and has small feet. I don’t see any prints like that.” Andy killed the big light, and they were plunged into darkness before he shined his flashlight over the dusty floor. Shadowed footprints appeared. “We lost a lot of the killer’s initial foot strikes near the body, but in the corners and around the perimeter we have traces of his footsteps. Lucky for us the place has been abandoned for a while, and the dust was thick.”
Picturing the scene, she imagined a killer carrying in his unconscious victim. That gave him time to get his plastic, tape, and whatever other toys he had brought to this party. By the time the victim had woken up, she would have been naked and immobilized with rope and perhaps under the weight of his body. How long had her struggles to live lasted? Minutes? Hours? Days? For the victim, time must have stretched for an eternity.
“I’ll leave you to it,” Jordan said. “The medical examiner can take the body.”
“Right. Should have a report in a few days, week at the most.”
“Thanks.”
Tightness fisted in Jordan’s chest as she stepped onto the porch. The eyes of the four other deputies settled on her. How many bets had been placed on the newest homicide detective’s reaction? She squared her shoulders and slowly walked down the steps and crossed to the forensic van.
She wanted to rip off the PPE and scrub the stench off her. Suddenly, the protective gear reminded her of the plastic encasing the dead woman. But again, she moved slowly, drawing her gaze up to the nearly full moon before she removed her mask. There were enough women in Texas law enforcement, so she was not an anomaly, but freaking out at a crime scene earned any officer a black mark, regardless of gender.
She dumped the gloves and booties, and then the suit, in the disposal bin. There was no breeze to cool her skin, but with the outer layer shed, she felt lighter.
As she crossed back to her vehicle, she saw Officer Wilcox eyeing her. It was a matter of time before he churned up the courage and asked whatever question was on his mind.
She kept moving, opened the back of her SUV, washed her hands with sanitizer, and from a cooler grabbed a bottle of water as Officer Wilcox approached. She handed the first bottle to him and took a second for herself.
She twisted the water bottle’s top open. “What’s on your mind, Officer?”
“I’ve seen shootings and car accidents. But nothing like that.” Absently, he scraped the water bottle label with his thumb. “This killer took pleasure in what he did.”
“You’re right. Some kill for sport, Officer.” As he drew in a breath and nodded slowly, she added, “It takes planning to find the woman, this location, and assemble the supplies.” She raised the bottle to her lips, savoring the cool liquid in her mouth. “Even if the killing was meant to be a lesson, this killer enjoyed his work.”

Don't Look Now Reviews

“With plenty of possible suspects, Burton’s (Never Look Back) latest will appeal to readers who want light romance and heavy suspense.” Library Journal

Near You

Near You

Mary Burton, Near You Cover

Near You

Available Now:

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In a scorching novel of obsession and revenge, New York Times bestselling author Mary Burton ignites fear in the heart of a woman targeted by a killer who knows her secrets.

Forensic psychologist and single mother Ann Bailey has joined forces with Montana Highway Patrol officer Bryce McCabe. An expert in untangling the motives of depraved minds, Ann is tasked to help solve the mystery of two murdered women doused with gasoline and set aflame.

It’s not hard for Ann to be reminded of the charismatic Elijah Weston, who served a decade in prison for arson—a crime that nearly cost Ann her life. Elijah may have been exonerated, but the connection to these rage killings is impossible for Ann to ignore. One of the victims has been identified as an obsessed Elijah groupie. Elijah has obsessions, too. Ever since Ann returned to town, he can’t take his eyes off her. And as a mother with a secret, she’s the perfect victim for an infatuated psychopath.

The deeper Ann and Bryce’s investigation goes, the nearer they get to each other and to danger. After another murder hits close to home, Ann fears a clue is hidden in her own past. Only one thing terrifies her more than the reveal of her long-held secret. It’s that the secret itself has put Ann into a killer’s line of fire.

Near You Excerpt

Chapter One

Forty miles east of Missoula, Montana
Wednesday, August 18
7:15 a.m.

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

Near You Reviews

“Thrilling novel… fans of romantic suspense will be enthralled.”  –Publisher’s Weekly STARRED review

“Scorching action. The twists and turns keep the reader on the edge of their seat as they will not want to put the novel down.” —Crimespree Magazine

Burn You Twice

Burn You Twice

Mary Burton, Burn You Twice

MaryBurton, Best of 2020 Suspense MagazineBurn You Twice

Available Now:

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Ten years ago, undergrad Joan Mason escaped an arsonist’s fire. Shaken, she fled the small collegiate Montana town, leaving behind friends and not looking back. Now a Philadelphia homicide detective, Joan’s trying to put her traumas to rest. It’s not easy. Elijah Weston, the classmate who torched her house, is out of prison and returning to Missoula. Gut instinct tells Joan he’ll strike again. To stop him, she must return to the past as well. To face not only the man she fears but Detective Gideon Bailey, too. The man she loved and left behind.

When a local woman dies tragically in another fire, it can’t be a coincidence. Can it be Elijah? He has a solid alibi for the night of the blaze. Reunited by the tragedy, Joan and Gideon have their doubts. So does Gideon’s sister, Ann—Joan’s old college roommate.

The investigation draws Joan and Gideon together, but it also sends them down a dangerous path—into a troubling history that Joan, Elijah, and Ann all share. As more lives go up in flames in Missoula, this town’s secrets are just beginning to rise from the ashes.

 

“Burton does a good job balancing gentle romance with high-tension suspense.” Publisher’s Weekly

Burn You Twice Excerpt

Prologue

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.

Burn You Twice Reviews

“Burton does a good job balancing gentle romance with high-tension suspense.” Publisher’s Weekly

“Mary Burton’s writing is compellingly readable as she spins a tale of arson, lust, and murder.” CriminalElement.com

“A solid story with well-written characters and a plot that keeps readers engaged.” RedCarpetCrash.com

“The plot has scorching action. The twists and turns keep the reader on the edge of their seat as they will not want to put the novel down.” MilitaryPress.com

“This story consumed me…I highly recommend this book to all of you, thrilling mystery fans out there.” Baronessbooktrove.com

“This was a great story.” ManhattanBookReview.com

“Best Romantic Suspense” for SuspenseMagazine.com’s Best of 2020

MaryBurton, Best of 2020 Suspense Magazine

Never Look Back

Never Look Back

The Hangman

Never Look Back

Available Now:

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A Criminal Profile Novel . . .

After multiple women go missing, Agent Melina Shepard of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation makes the impulsive decision to go undercover as a prostitute. While working the street, she narrowly avoids becoming a serial killer’s latest victim. As much as it pains her to admit, she needs backup.

Enter lone wolf FBI agent Jerrod Ramsey. Stonewalled by a lack of leads, he and Melina investigate a scene where a little girl has been found abandoned in a crashed vehicle. They open the trunk to reveal a horror show and quickly realize they’re dealing with two serial killers with very different MOs. The whole situation brings back memories for Melina—why does this particular case feel so connected to her painful past?

Before time runs out, Melina must catch not one but two serial killers, both ready to claim another victim—and both with their sights set on her.

Never Look Back Excerpt

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.

Ms. Perky Breasts was now alone. Another sign.

It was just the two of them.

Now or never.

Never Look Back Reviews
“Burton grabs the reader from the first chapter and doesn’t let go…. The plot is captivating, and a great twist makes the package complete.” Bookreporter.com

“Never Look Back is another book I would recommend from this author. I have enjoyed everything of hers I have read so far.” Booksofmyheart.net

I See You

I See You

The Hangman

A Criminal Profiler Novel . . .

FBI special agent Zoe Spencer uses skeletal remains to recreate the faces of murder victims through sculpture. Though highly scientific, the process is also sensitive and intimate; she becomes attached to the individuals she identifies, desperate to find justice for each.

As Zoe examines old remains, she sees a teenage girl looking back at her—the victim in a cold case from over a decade ago. Zoe wants nothing more than to tell this young woman’s story and to bring her killer to justice.

Zoe’s case leads her to the victim’s hometown and to homicide detective William Vaughan, Zoe’s on-again, off-again lover. As the two become more involved in the case, they quickly realize that it isn’t as cold as they first believed: someone’s still out there hunting women. And with more women gone missing, time’s running out. Can they work together and stop this madman before he kills again?

I See You Excerpt

Image of suspense author Mary Burton

 

 

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.”

“Thank you.”

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?”

“Who?”

“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?”

“Correct.”

“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.”

“Good.”

“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.”

“Early 2000s.”

“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.”

©2019 Mary Burton

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I See You Reviews

“Get ready to experience some chills and thrills. Author Mary Burton treats her readers to a turn-the-page experience in her latest release.” Harlequin Junkie

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