The second book in the Bigler County series, 2011
Thanks, as always, to the lovely women writers known as The Romance Bandits (www.romancebandits.blogspot.com). A special nod to my critique partners Kelly Kerns and Cindy Munoz (Loucinda McGary) and to my husband Boyd, as well as my excellent copy editor Megan Banks.
Here's to many, many Happy, Happy Fun Days with my girls – Shannon, Kennan, Megan, and Sandra.
This book is dedicated to my oldest daughter Shannon Elizabeth Spicer, who's read everything I've written multiple times and deserves the highest praise for her insightful comments and unfailing support.
Oakland, California, Seventeen Years Ago
Fourteen year old Livvie Morse didn't believe in true love. All that stuff she'd read about in fairy tales when she was a kid was dumb, she thought.
The prince didn't rescue the princess, waking her up from a pretend death with a magical kiss. Or climb up the strong strands of her braided hair – oh yeah, that made sense, hair like rope – to whisk her from the tower prison. Or fit a glass slipper on her tiny foot to prove she's the only girl in the kingdom for him.
Anyway, wouldn't that shoe break all the hell to pieces with the first step the princess took?
Stupid. Dumb. Nonsense.
No, Livvie didn't believe in the true love of fairy tales. What she knew all about was the real-life monsters that lurked in the dark crannies of her nightmares and the dim hallway outside her bedroom. The ones that came out when her mother wasn't around. That crept down the hall and tapped on her door when they knew she was alone.
But that spring night proved her wrong about fairy tales and true love.
Livvie's mother worked the graveyard shift at Mercy General Hospital in east Oakland while her stepfather Roger Strong watched Letterman and guzzled his eleventy-millionth bottle of beer. When her mother left at ten-thirty, Livvie locked herself in her bedroom, a kitchen chair pushed beneath the door knob for good measure.
The chair wouldn't keep Roger out if he really wanted to break down the door, but maybe he'd be drunk enough to give up if the knob didn't budge with his first sneaky twist. The trick had worked before.
Livvie frowned and pressed her ear to the door.
Silence, except for the muffled drone of the television and the faint percussion of the radiator.
Stripping down to her panties, she rummaged through her dresser until she found a faded blue pullover and the oversized tee shirt that had belonged to her long-gone father. She pulled a sweatshirt on top of the two shirts and stepped into jeans and bulky sweats. She felt like a friggin' snowman, but the layers of clothing made her feel safe. Roger would have to rip off a lot of stuff if he wanted to get at her.
She giggled nervously, then clapped her hand over her mouth as panic rose like birds' wings in the cavern of her chest. Grabbing a pair of scissors from her nightstand drawer, she switched off the light and crawled under the covers. She sat with her back propped against the scarred headboard, the scissors hidden beneath the blanket and the covers pulled up around her neck.
She thought about the poem they'd studied today in Mrs. Wright's tenth-grade English class. Dylan Thomas. Livvie sure as hell wasn't going to go gentle into any old damn, dark night. Rage, rage. Rage against the monster called Roger. She smiled grimly and slunk deeper into the bedcovers.
Hours later the soft rattling of the doorknob woke her with a start. Adrenaline pumped through her body like a jolt of electricity, and right behind it, cold slippery fear. She jerked up and peered through the room, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the gloom.
After long moments, her heart roaring in her ears, she tossed back the bedcovers, padded on bare feet across the room, and pressed her ear to the door. She willed the noise in her head to stop and drew in a deep breath, holding it as she strained to hear the sound again.
She waited endlessly, hot and sweaty inside the layers of clothing, the scissors glued to her hand.
Finally she heard shallow, ragged breathing through the thin particle board. Roger! The damn son of a bitch hovered inches from where she stood, slithering outside her door like the snake he was. The tremor started in her hand and traveled up her arm, downward to her knees until her whole body shook like an earthquake.
She listened to the raspy breathing for a long minute, her helplessness something sour at the back of her throat. Did Roger mean business this time? Had he decided tonight was the night his step-daughter needed the "lesson" he always threatened to give her?
She clamped down on her lip and ran her tongue over the coppery taste of blood. Suddenly she felt foolish, a child playing at being a kung fu girl-warrior. Even if she could get a stab in before he overpowered her, she'd only make him madder. She pictured the red puckering of his face and imagined those paws of his cuffing her head. "Smack you up-side the head," he'd bluster in his menacing tone.
What was she thinking? Roger was a burly six-two and outweighed her by more than a hundred and fifty pounds. Did she really imagine she could outmaneuver him? He'd squish her like a bug.
In that instant Livvie made her decision. She retrieved her gym shoes from the closet, tucked the scissors in the waistband of her sweats, and raced to the window. She turned back toward the bedroom door as she heard a series of rat-a-tat-tat knocks and a gravelly voice whispering her name.
"O-liv-ee-uh, O-liv-ee-uh," he taunted her.
Panicked, she clamored awkwardly over the sill and out the window. Slid down the sloped roof. Scraped her butt on the old shingles and landed with a thwack on the damp leaves below. She ran as fast as she could, arms pumping, legs like pistons, gym shoes slapping the wet cement.
Instinct taking over, she raced toward her best friend, the only person who knew her awful secret. The only one she could trust. By the time she reached the corner, her body dripped with cold sweat and she'd lost the scissors.
She rounded left on Granville for another five blocks. Right on Amhearst until she reached the shabby yellow and white house at the end of the street. It abutted a neighboring house on one side and a chain-link fence on the other that separated the Holt property from the abandoned glass factory.
Thunder ravaged her chest and fire burned her legs as she ground to a halt. She hunkered beneath the drooped branches of a low-hanging willow beside the familiar wraparound porch. She glanced over her shoulder. Roger might leap out of the darkness at any moment, drag her back home, and… her mind shut down.
Livvie wasn't sure what would happen next, but she knew it would be the worst kind of punishment.
One eye on the street behind her, she gathered pebbles and tossed them against Jackie's window until a dim light showed through the blinds. She saw his shaggy head poke out the window, and a minute later the front door opened. She flew into his arms while he held her until the shakes stopped.
"Shh, shh, Squirt. You're okay now," he crooned.
Safe, she thought, finally safe. In Jackie Holt's twin bed, she sank into a fitful sleep, curled up against his strong, young body. Safe, for now, but she knew she'd have to go back.
She woke up with her backside pressed against the hard length of muscled body and a band of iron draped protectively over her chest, a hand curved round her cheek. She sighed and wiggled into the firm strength at her back.
"Livvie, wake up," Jackie whispered at her temple, tickling her ear with his warm breath. "You have to go before your mom finds out you're missing."
"No," she murmured, drugged with sleep and snug in the safe, narrow confines of the bed. "Can't go home yet."
Jackie turned her over and brushed the unruly mass of dark hair from her face. "Come on, Squirt, you can't stay much longer. I'll walk you back and make sure Roger's dead drunk." He grinned and showed strong, white teeth in a dark face. "And if he's not, I'll help him along with a little knock to the head."
She stared up at his suddenly beloved face and felt the seismic shift in her small world. Why hadn't she realized before how beautiful he was? Her face flushed and her heart began an unfamiliar staccato in her chest. She saw the answering emotion in Jackie's eyes and felt a sudden hard thrust against her thigh.
This is what the princess in the fairy tale felt when the prince rescued her, she thought.
Driven by budding confidence and pure instinct, she wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled his mouth down on hers. His soft, warm lips opened to hers as a fierce jolt jarred her whole body like fire and ice and floods and desert all jumbled together and centered in her lower body. She kissed his lips and face and neck in a fever accompanied by incoherent words she didn't even understand.
And finally, when she pressed against him and urged him so sweetly, Jackie gave in. He was the one person who could understand her convoluted logic. If she was going to lose her virginity anyway, she didn't want Roger with his grabby hands and stinking breath to be the one.
She wanted her best friend to be the first because maybe – just maybe – she was beginning to believe in that fairy tale after all.
Southeast Africa, Present Day
The Zichecola jungle of southeast Africa's coast lay in dank tangles around the man's crouched, naked body. The susurration of insects and the buzzing of tiny living things sounded loud in the humid silence.
A hunter in search of human prey, Jackson Holt moved stealthily through the forest, the air's heavy moisture slick against his bare flesh. Vines and foliage dangled from trees like the crazed scribbling of a madman. Sweat ran off his muscles and bunched under his armpits and beneath his testicles. His body settled into the familiar, dense wilderness like one who'd returned to his primordial self.
The man-turned-hunter lifted his face to the purpled sky and sniffed cautiously. There, upwind of him. Three hundred meters. A faint whiff of man-odor. Man-sweat. Fear, laden with the subtle tremors of panic. The scent of the quarry awaiting the predator.
They'd been expecting him for so long they'd grown inured to the smell of their own fear. Holt barred his teeth and crept steadily forward.
He reached the secret camp just as the mottled sky gave way to the pink tinge of dawn. The rain had ceased, and the muffled humidity blanketed the area of packed dirt where Idi Kanumba pushed back the flaps of his tent and walked to the river's edge.
A giant beast of a man, Kanumba yawned loudly and scratched his bare chest. He stretched in the morning air and glanced toward the two stations where his guards stood at attention. Satisfied, he unzipped his trousers and urinated a steady yellow stream into the water.
Watching, Holt curled his lip. Even animals don't piss in their drinking water.
He reconnoitered from his hiding place, noting with care the number of bodyguards, the weapons they carried, and the level of alertness they showed. Smaller than their leader, the guards looked quick and wiry. Each carried a.45 Auto GLOCK and a hunting knife on his belt. Even with the accuracy of the GLOCKs, Holt figured he could easily take out the first two guards with a single blow.
The third man dangled an Uzi from his right hand and carelessly slung an AR-15 assault rifle over his left shoulder. Though his posture was casual, his eyes had the wary look of a veteran fighter. He'd be the man to watch, the only one who'd put up a decent fight.
The fourth man was Kanumba. The beast who'd assassinated over one hundred thousand of his own people and buried them in mass graves outside Zichecola City. Some of them were healthy, young rebels. Most were women and old men. Many of them were children.
Why had he murdered them?
Better to ask why the winds blow or the rains fall. He murders because it is his nature. And he can get away with it. But no more.
Holt uncoiled his body and braced the knife blade, his single weapon, between his teeth. First, the Uzi guard. Just as the ebony-faced man snarled and lifted his weapon, Holt buried his dagger hilt-deep in the guard's right eye socket.
He pounced on Kanumba before the leader could react enough to zip up his fly. Slashed his throat in a gnashing of steel against muscle and tendon that nearly severed the head from the body. An arterial spray gushed onto the attacker's face, arms, and torso. By the time he turned to confront the remaining two bodyguards, his body was as slick as an ancient sacrificial offering.
Slippery and wet, he slid on his ass along the grassy marsh at the water's edge, and with a swipe of one leg toppled the two remaining guards. Both men landed with a thud. He stepped behind each, and in a practiced motion, yanked their necks to the right. They crumpled at his feet.
Holt stared at the carnage around him, then retrieved his weapon and wiped it in the tall grass. Already the flies began to hover around the sticky, darkening pools of blood. The man inside the warrior struggled to overcome the wave of nausea that swept through him, but the beast within howled in triumph.
By the time he'd finished digging shallow graves for the bodies, dismantling the tent, and dispersing the supplies, the sun shone high in the eastern sky. The temperature had risen twenty degrees, and the sounds of insects pierced the silence of the forest like angry wasps. He washed in the river, sluicing blood from his arms and face, rinsing his torso. He welcomed the cool relief of the water against his fevered flesh, the return from the dark place.
The miniscule changes that heralded his transformation back to the man he'd been when he set off from Johannesburg yesterday had already started by the time he finished cleaning up. The muscles contracted, the skin color stabilized, the indefatigable strength ebbed. When he sniffed the air, he no longer detected the heavy coppery odor with the fine olfactory senses of the animal.
His nerves prickled as human feeling returned.
At last Jackson Holt dressed in clothes he'd uncovered in the tent and set off toward Zichecola City, twenty miles to the east. The sun dappled in his eyes as he marched. With each step he relived the thrill of the knife blade to the vulnerable flesh, the strength that coursed through his body, the heady adrenaline rush of victory. But, as always, when the warrior's body returned to itself, he felt a terrible reckoning. At the final return of his humanness, he stared at his hands and observed their mortal trembling.
In his mind Holt repeated the mantra that grounded him as he moved silently to the rhythm of the chant. It became a roar in his head, gradually banishing every bloody image of his mission.
Invictus. Invictus. Invictus.
Our Lady of Fatima University, Sacramento, California
Teddy Burrows was an irresistible ass.
If Olivia had been a fraction more pugnacious or a smidgen less charmed by him, she'd have passed him off to another professor. This time she gave him a verbal set down.
"I'm sorry you don't agree with the morals clause," she said with a specious smile, "but this is a private Catholic university. We all have to sign the paper. Even me."
"I just don't get it," Ted argued. "It's not like I'm aiming for the priesthood."
The remark brought a ripple of laughter from the other doctoral candidates enrolled in Olivia's seminar. She suppressed a sigh and decided to pick her battles. Ted was famous for walking to a different drummer.
"Anyone can opt not to sign the proper paperwork, of course," she reminded them, looking around the room. "It's up to each individual candidate to decide if he or she wants to pursue an advanced degree here at Fatima."
She checked the clock on the wall at the back of the classroom and decided to let them go early. "Your advisors will be listed on the department bulletin board by noon tomorrow." She smiled broadly. "Good luck."
Watching them shuffle out the door, all seven masters and doctoral candidates in the Department of Ancient Studies, she stuffed her papers into her worn briefcase. Had she ever been that young and innocent? She thought briefly of the miserable little house on Main Street and her mother's drinking bouts.
Ted Burrows waited for her outside the classroom door.
"What question can I answer for you, Mr. Burrows?" She walked briskly down the hall toward her office as Ted scurried after her.
Burrows quirked his lips in a lopsided smile. "I was wondering, hoping actually, if you could assign Dr. Randolph as my mentor."
She hesitated. She'd planned to assign Christopher Waverly as Ted's mentor. The young professor seemed a better fit for Ted than the stuffy Howard Randolph, whom she shared an office with.
"Please?" Ted had a puppy dog look on his face.
Maybe Randolph could knock some cockiness out of Ted, she mused. "I'll think about it." She slipped into her office, closing the door firmly behind her.
Olivia ignored the stack of papers on her desk and stared out her office window to the university's grassy quad. Matching candidates for advanced degrees with the most suitable mentor was no easy task. She wanted to do a good job, prove herself to the Chancellor.
A soft knock sounded on the door and a curly-haired girl pushed her way in. With skin like creamed coffee and a smile too sweet for a person going into law enforcement, Keisha Johnson was a favorite advisee. She was also a freshman in one of her advanced history classes.
"Dr. Gant?" said Keisha. "Are you busy?"
"Not with anything very interesting. Come on in." Olivia gestured toward the plastic chair angled across from her desk.
The girl lowered her voice and glanced over her shoulder. "I'm sorry to bother you, Dr. Gant." She eased her backpack to the floor before perching on the edge of the chair, looking poised for flight.
"No bother. What can I help you with?"
Keisha remained silent, chewing on her bottom lip with small white teeth.
"Do you need a program change?" Olivia knew being a freshman in an upper division course could be problematic.
Keisha gave a small shake of her head and remained as mute as the statue of Nefertiti resting on the shelf behind the desk. Her bronze features reminded Olivia of the ancient Egyptian queen. Olivia frowned. The girl had visited several times and was usually a chatterbox. What was different now?
"There's this guy," Keisha whispered after several long moments. "Well, a man really."
Boy troubles, then, Olivia thought, holding back a smile. "Is he a student here?"
Olivia smiled gently. "How can one be 'sort of' a student?"
"He works here. On campus, I mean." The girl tugged at a long ebony strand of hair as if she'd straighten the natural curl out like a ruler. "I don't want to say more about that."
Something a little off with the boyfriend. "What do you want to say?"
"We're involved. Sort of."
There was that phrase again. How was a couple "sort of" involved? Olivia nodded encouragingly although she wasn't sure she was qualified to give relationship advice. Her own record with men was disastrous.
"He wants me to… to do things," Keisha said.
An alarm clanged in Olivia's brain. This was something she understood all too well.
A surge of protectiveness washed over her. "Look at me, Keisha," she ground out, unable to keep the edge out of her voice. "You don't have to do anything you don't want to." When the girl refused to look at her, Olivia punched each phrase, "Nothing – you don't – want – to do. Do you understand what I'm saying?"
Tears spilled down the girl's cheeks, powdery streams against her smooth skin. "Yes," she whispered. "You're right." She smiled, and her face became a rainbow bursting through the wet splatters.
Olivia reached for her referral pad. "I'll give you a pass to the clinic," she said. "You can talk to someone trained in this kind of situation." She wasn't sure what the situation was, but she knew in her gut it was trouble.
Keisha shook her head, picked up her backpack, and hoisted it onto her shoulders. "Thanks, Dr. Gant. You've helped me a lot."
"Keisha, wait," Olivia said, rising from her chair. "Please, you really should – "
"No," Keisha said firmly, "I know what to do now."
With a swish of her skirt and the scrape of a chair leg, the girl was gone before Olivia could say another word. Keisha had vanished by the time Olivia reached the hall. Troubled, she resolved to call Keisha out of class first thing in the morning.
Tomorrow, she thought. Surely one more day wouldn't matter.
The dirty Dodge truck made its way down the winding road off Interstate 80 near the Utah-Nevada border. A quarter mile ahead squatted a single guard house where a barrier gate blocked the entrance and a solitary soldier manned the tiny wooden enclosure.
Mammoth Proving Grounds, once used to test military weapons, now consisted of little more than a few Quonset huts and a rudimentary landing field. The facility wasn't guarded securely, the truck driver thought, half expecting to drop coins in a metal repository and sail on through like in a toll booth lane. The guard stepped from the booth, his M-16 held diagonally across his chest, a serious expression on his smooth face. He looked like he was still in high school.
The driver rolled down his window, his face grimy from the dust kicked up on the drive from the highway. The soldier took in the man's appearance, ignored the friendly greeting, and stared at the truck, inspecting the wide blue sign on the door. Houseman's Pumps, it read.
"This is government property, sir. What's your business?"
The driver gestured vaguely toward the distant buildings. "Water pump's down. Got a request from… let's see." He reached for the clipboard lying on the passenger's seat. "Major Redding? Says the water pump in building two needs repair."
The soldier stepped back inside the guard house and ran his finger down a list clipped to the podium. "Sorry, sir. I don't see Houseman's Pumps on the list."
"Got the request late last night," the driver said. "Maybe he didn't have time to call it down." He peered at the sun just breaking to the east and slanting its glow through the passenger window. "Can you phone up to verify?"
"The major's not on base today."
The guard shook his head, covering a smile. "Opening day of deer season."
The truck driver looked around at the white, glaring stretch of packed salt and rock. "No hunting in these parts," he joked.
The soldier visibly relaxed under the easygoing, friendly manner. "No sir, the high Uintas, up the canyon."
"Well," the driver sighed theatrically. "Guess I can come back tomorrow. Major Redding sounded in a hurry, but if he forgot the paper work, I guess it can wait." His voice trailed off as he shifted the truck into reverse and glanced over his shoulder.
"Hold on a minute," the soldier said, looking first to the right and then left as if the answer to his dilemma lay in the bleak landscape. The salt flats shimmered in the morning light, casting water mirages all around. "Heck, just go on in." He pressed a button inside the booth that triggered the barrier lift. "Just be sure and get a signature from whoever's in there."
"And that would be…?" the driver asked, glancing again at his clipboard.
"Should be Lieutenant Murphy."
"Right, will do." The driver saluted as he passed by, heading the truck another mile up the road. "Have a good day."
Odds were the guard wouldn't even look at the paperwork on his return trip.
He should've waited until dark to do this, but it'd be harder to get past the guard at night. Anyway, he'd done his homework and wanted to take advantage of the major being gone. Typically people used any excuse to get out of work. Deer season was a perfect excuse for a skeleton force.
The driver didn't encounter anyone else as he pulled around to the back of the farthest building at the base of a rock outcropping. Traveling along a worn path, he approached the aircraft landing runway. Against a shallow enclave in the rocks a natural barrier hunkered between the runway and the salt flats beyond.
He stopped and pulled his truck alongside the largest ridge. When he stepped from the truck, he could see that he'd made a good choice. The shelter effectively hid him from the view of anyone glancing out the windows.
Walking to the back of the truck, he lifted the tarp that covered a metal container. He rolled it off the tailgate and hauled it closer to the rocks. Pulling a wrinkled handkerchief from his hip pocket, he swiped at the sweat drizzling down his cheeks. He grunted as he shoved the barrel on its side and pried open the cover with a crowbar from the truck bed.
The woman tumbled from the container, her arms and legs freed from their cramped positions, her pale skin damp and slick. He checked her eyes beneath the lids, and watched as they rolled back in her head until only the whites gleamed against the ghostly hue of her face.
Pressing two fingers to her carotid, he grunted. Good, she was still alive.
He began to dig.
A hot, white thrill shot through Jack's veins like liquid fire. The muscles in his arms bulged with strain while a faint sheen of sweat beaded across his forehead.
Good, she was still alive.
He jerked up in the unfamiliar bed, feeling the humid Mediterranean air wafting in through the open window.
Good, she was still alive.
Unbidden, the thought ripped through his mind again, and along with it, the image of a wide alkaline sweep of flat sand and rocky terrain.
He'd recently travelled through Jordan to his favorite Recovery site here by the blue, blue sea in the busy, crowded city of Tel Aviv. Was the image a memory of the Dead Sea he'd just gone by? Or something else?
Good, she was still alive.
A flash of dark hair tangled around a pale face. A body tumbled onto packed, sandy ground. Undeniable pleasure tightened his groin, but it wasn't his own lust. Jack pushed it away, not understanding the source, but intuiting that it was bad. Really bad. His heart skittered in his chest, erratic and painful, as he pulled on shorts and walked out onto the balcony.
The Mediterranean Sea stretched in front of him stories below. He poured water from a carafe, leaned against the railing, and drank deeply, wondering what the hell the dream mirage meant this time.
As he turned to go inside, a sharp pain sliced through his right temple, ugly and relentless, and he staggered, braced himself against the glass pane of the sliding door. He groaned as agony seared through his head and left him panting.
After a few minutes, he recovered enough to stumble to the bathroom where he splashed cold water on his face. When he looked at his reflection in the mirror, the ghostly face of a green-eyed girl with long, dark hair stared back at him. God, he hadn't thought of her in years.
What did it mean? Was she in trouble?
In just a few months Olivia Gant had made a comfortable life in Sacramento. She trailed her fingers down the mahogany railing of the ancient staircase. The worn wood smelled of lemon polish and antiquity. Sunlight glinted off the stained glass windows in the foyer, refracting red, blue and gold images across the tiled entry floor.
Heading toward the bedroom, she removed her jacket and slacks as she went, stripping down to her underwear by the time she reached the bathroom. A shower, a nice hot shower, to ease her tired muscles. The first month of the school year always left her feeling a little ragged, her voice hoarse from repeated instructions to new students.
Standing under the hot shower, she let the water work its magic into her sore muscles and puzzled over the task of which staff member to place with which post-grad candidate. She decided her office mate, Dr. Howard Randolph, might be a good mentor to Ted Burrows, after all. Howard had taught at the university for years and was likely experienced at handling a charismatic, but lazy student like Ted.
That problem settled, she stepped out of the shower, slipped on a robe, and padded downstairs to pour a glass of wine. Always mindful of her mother's drinking problem, Olivia permitted herself one glass a day.
For the next several hours she pattered around the house she'd inherited last spring from her grandmother. The grandmother she hadn't even known about until her last year of graduate school when the elderly woman had contacted her out of the blue. Sarah Morse had died last spring and left Olivia this beautiful old home in Sacramento. At first she hadn't been sure she wanted the house. She'd built a solid career at Cal Berkley and was inching toward tenure. A move to the Sacramento area had been the farthest thing from her mind.
Then her floundering marriage had taken a precarious nose dive, and she'd felt both abandoned by and freed from her philandering husband. Rather than become a cliché, she'd taken a year's leave of absence and scooped up the offer from Our Lady of Fatima University. Not a practicing Catholic, she still had a healthy respect for the history and tradition of the ancient church.
In her spacious home library she began unpacking the rest of her research books. After a few minutes the door knocker sounded from the front of the house like a bomb in the quiet evening. Olivia glanced at the antique clock on the mantle. Nine-thirty. Who in the world?
Now a firm rapping set up from her porch landing. She peered through the slatted window by the front door, but saw nothing more than a shadowy shape. She hesitated, her bare feet chilly on the cold tiles of the foyer, the old fear sneaking up on her again.
Another riff of knocking caused her to jump back. "Who is it?" she asked.
"Olivia? Open the door."
"Bill?" Relief and then irritation swept over her as she unlocked the dead bolt.
Her ex-husband stood in the faint light of the landing, his brown wavy hair ruffled by the breeze. Bill Gant lived in an apartment in Oakland over his family's dry cleaning business.
"What are you doing here?" she exclaimed suspiciously. "Did you follow me?"
"I just wanted to be sure you got settled in." He jammed his fists in his jeans pockets and gave the boyish smile that had captured her heart seven years ago.
She didn't invite him in. "Surely you didn't drive from the coast in the horrible Friday-night traffic."
He shrugged. "Like I said… "
Even though Bill's marital affairs had been legend in their small circle of friends, he'd had a hard time believing the marriage was over. He'd taken nearly eighteen months to sign the divorce papers. Olivia shook her head and made her voice sharp. "You can't stay, Bill. You know that."
His pretty face tightened and his blue eyes went hard. "And you know I didn't want our marriage to be over."
"You signed the papers," she reminded him.
"You forced me into that. I told you we could work it out. I offered to go to counseling, whatever you wanted."
She was tired of the old argument. At first she'd worked hard to save her marriage. It'd taken her five years to figure out that Bill was a narcissistic womanizer, completely incapable of being faithful to one person.
"I've always given you whatever you wanted," Bill cajoled.
"Let's not go over that again." Olivia started to close the door. "It's finished, Bill. You have to accept that."
His demeanor changed in a flash. "You stuck-up, cold bitch." His voice was low, but deep with a viciousness she hadn't heard before, and for a moment a sliver of alarm chilled her. He looked around her shoulder to the interior. "You think inheriting a fancy house in a new city makes you better than me?"
Olivia clamped down on her temper and spoke in an even voice. "Get off my property or I'll call the police."
"I taught you everything you know," he snarled, raking his eyes over her. "You wouldn't even let a man get near you until I taught you a few tricks. I can't believe I wasted seven years on you."
She slammed the door in his face, turned the lock and hooked the chain. Her fingers trembled and she balled them tightly at her sides. She reached for her cell phone on the small entry table where she kept her keys and mail. Punching in the "nine" and the "one," she paused, waiting for Bill's next move. A second later she flinched at the sound of a foot crashing against the sturdy door. Shortly afterward, a motor revved up and a car squealed away.
She spent half the night reading the instruction booklet and figuring out how to reset the code on the very excellent security alarm system her grandmother had installed shortly before her death.
After using the only code she was certain Bill couldn't figure out – 101274 for October 12, 1974 – a special birth date in her memory, she was finally able to sleep.
The Judge was too clever to show his surprise, but Jack caught the flare of caution in the faded blue eyes as he brushed past the assistant and stormed into the Invictus office.
"What the -?" Warren Linders, director of Invictus Organization, swiped a hand over his bald pate and quickly pasted a smile on his broad face. "Jackson Holt, son of a gun!" The Judge extended his hand, indicating the seat in front of his desk. "You look great."
Jack watched the keen eyes rake over him, taking in the finely-cut jacket and polished cordovans. He'd started to pay attention to his wardrobe after his first year in the Organization. A homeless boy jockeying for position in a rich kid's club. Or so he'd thought back then.
"Thanks, but no thanks, Warren, after the flight from Tel Aviv my ass can't handle anymore sitting." He looked out the east window at the gentle movement of the Chesapeake Bay and the rich foliage of eastern Maryland.
"The African matter?" the Judge asked.
"It's resolved," Jack said shortly.
"Good." Warren turned to the assistant who'd followed Jack in and closed the door quietly. "Get the fella a drink, Higgins."
Jack shook his head at the offer. "I returned early from Recovery because your message said it was urgent." He allowed the reproof to settle in the air between them.
"Hell, you look like you've been relaxing in Bermuda." The Judge reached for a box in the top drawer and held it out. "The best cigars we can make in this country. Not Cuban, but at least they're patriotic. Try one."
Jack's eyes flickered to the bottom desk drawer where he knew the Judge kept the habanos. "I gave those up years ago." He didn't allow his smile to reach his eyes. "Can't be a warrior and a smoker too."
Warren patted his large gut. "'Fraid I'd have to give up more than cigars to get in your shape."
Jack sat down, crossed one leg over the other, and tried to hide the unexpected surge of energy behind a casual pose. Hoping that Warren wouldn't notice something vaguely off in him, something that'd begun long before he got on that plane from Tel Aviv. "Let's get to the point, Warren. Your message was… cryptic."
The Judge reached for a manila folder stamped "Invictus" in large red printing across the front, and beneath that the initials DLK in capital letters. Without a comment he pushed it across the desk. Jack glanced at the tab.
"Your next assignment," the Judge said.
"The last one was grueling. I need more Recovery before another one." Jack wouldn't voice the fear that had battered at him since the Africa mission. That he couldn't accept another assignment, that something was going wrong in his body that even the drugs couldn't fix.
"I understand," the Judge answered calmly, "but this is an old case, revisited. It'll look familiar to you. Take a look at it, Jack. You don't want to pass it up."
Jack opened the folder and scanned the contents. He removed the pictures from a clasped envelope attached to the inside cover and gazed at them for a long moment before letting them slip from his limp fingers to the glass desktop. The grainy pictures glared in the fluorescent light as a deep sense of foreboding washed over him.
"You didn't get him, Jack," the Judge accused. "He's doing it again. Maybe he's taking up where he left off four years ago, or maybe he's starting all over again. I don't know." He paused before adding, "But if we turn it over to the locals, they'll just screw it up."
"It's the same as the Peterson girl," Jack murmured.
"You need to stop the son of a bitch this time," the Judge retorted. "Permanently."
Jack read the clear subtext beneath the words. What happened four years ago was his fault. He felt a twitch spasm in his jaw as he reached inside his jacket pocket to pull out the vial of small white pills. Three weeks ago he'd begun taking the medication so necessary for his Recovery. They seemed ineffectual so he'd begun increasing the dosage.
He hesitated. "I need more time to recuperate."
"Hell, no one could blame you for washing your hands of the whole shitty mess, but you know the case, the victims."
Jack uttered a muffled curse as he met the Judge's implacable stare. For a wild moment he considered refusing, standing up to Invictus, storming out the door. But resignation weighted his shoulders like a heavy mantle. He replaced the white pills and extracted a slender bottle from his other pocket. The dark red tablets inside gleamed like tiny poisoned apples.
He drew in a deep breath. "When?"
"Body was uncovered two days ago, but the victim's been dead longer than that."
Jack shook a single small red tablet from the bottle, eyed it thoughtfully, knowing it would counter the white Recovery pills. "Where?"
"Utah, near the northeastern Nevada border. A military testing facility located in the Utah salt flats."
Jack popped the red pill in his mouth and swallowed it dry. "Military? That's gutsy."
"No one ever claimed he didn't have the balls of a bull."
"I'll start there. Make sure it's identical to the Peterson killing, not a copycat."
The Judge retrieved a paper from his middle drawer. "If you find another note, there's a woman in California who can translate." He shoved the page across the desk. "The broad's a first-rate linguist and expert in all that Latin and Greek crap."
California? Jack reached for the paper and read the full name – Dr. Olivia Gant. Olivia? Electricity sizzled through his body as he thought of the vision he'd experienced in Tel Aviv.
Olivia? Had to be a coincidence.
Did the Judge even remember the girl's name all these years later? Hell, it'd been a lifetime ago. It was on the tip of his tongue to ask right out, but instead he said, "Ancient Studies."
"All that Latin and Greek crap – Ancient Studies."
"Oh, yeah." Warren scraped his knuckles over his bald scalp and lifted his brows to meet his receding hairline. "Damn women, hard as hell to work with. Gant keeps turning Higgins down. If you can get her on board, fine, but if not, there's a short list of backup names." He jutted his jaw towards the paper.
Jack stared without seeing across the room to the distant scene framed by the window, the Judge's words a rumble in the background. It'd been nearly two decades since Jack had left California. What'd happened to her? Was she still there?
After another moment's silence, the Judge asked sharply, "Are you on board with this?"
"Do I have a choice?"
"Hell, Jack, I want all my agents to feel they can refuse if they want to. Sometimes I wish I could say no myself." The Judge braced his fists on the desk top, his color high. "But there's too many bad guys out there waging war against good people, against America! We can't afford to withdraw just yet." The inflated language underscored the Judge's passion for the Invictus cause.
Jack rose and straightened his jacket lapels. "Last mission took me nine weeks to recover, Warren. You don't want to fuck me up on this."
The Judge's face remained impassive, but Jack caught the flicker of concern cross his broad features. In a moment it was gone, and he was sure he'd imagined it. The Judge wasn't afraid of anyone, he thought. Even his protégé with all his damned extraordinary gifts.
Jack strode out the door, ignoring Myron Higgins' startled look. Standing in front of the elevator doors, he got a full look at his reflection in the shiny chrome. The signs of the Change were evident already from the one red pill. He didn't know what he'd find in the salt flats or California, but he wanted to be ready. The darkened skin, the pupil pinpricks in the bright light, the slight extra weight and inches of hard, muscled flesh on his already fit body were noticeable only to him.
Too damn soon for another Change, but what choice did he have?
Jack's Prima phone rang while he waited to board his flight to Salt Lake City. He checked the display and depressed the call button. He didn't waste time identifying himself. Warren Linders' deep voice rattled over the line. "Change of plans."
"Got a lead shows our boy might've made it to California. Damn convenient of him. Contact the Sheriff in Bigler County, get his cooperation."
"Are you sure it's our man?"
"Maybe, maybe not, but you gotta go to California anyway. Check it out."
"What about the Utah scene?"
"Make it brief. Rent a car in Salt Lake." A pause while Warren no doubt checked his facts. "It's a ten-hour drive to Sacramento. You can approach the Gant woman there. I have a feeling you'll be in the hippie state for a while."
Jack snapped the phone shut without commenting.
On the flight to Salt Lake, he sank into his first-class seat. Traveling over twenty-four hours straight – from Tel Aviv to Baltimore to Salt Lake – was grueling and reinforced his concern about another assignment. He stared at the tremor in his hands, knowing – drugs or no drugs – his body was unprepared to rev up again. Instead of reverting from hunter to normal state, he was transforming into a predator again. The mere idea of a hunt fueled the adrenaline, boosted oxygen and glucose levels. This see-sawing was dangerous, but the Invictus doctor had happily reconfigured Jack's drug dosage.
Lucky Jack. He was a human medical experiment.
After the plane reached its altitude and leveled off, he removed his PDA from his pocket, checked for messages. Nothing. He breathed deeply, pressed his fingers into his temples, and contemplated the single failure of his career.
He'd been stupid to believe the killer had stopped so suddenly four years ago. Three victims had been killed in a six-month period. Then no activity at all. Jack had made an uneasy peace with himself. And now it looked like the son of a bitch had started again.
Occupying a window seat, he glanced across the aisle to the opposite seats. Empty. The adjoining spot also was vacant. The high seatbacks provided sufficient privacy. Reaching for the briefcase wedged beneath the seat in front of him, he extracted the first of three caramel-colored folders. He pulled out an envelope, untied the clasp, and shook the photos onto his laptop tray.
Case number SX-28904, Laura Jean Peterson, Caucasian female, age nineteen, DOD approximately August 7. Cause of death: suffocation. She was a freshman at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
Laura Peterson's body had been discovered fourteen days after she was reported missing. Traces of a sedative were in her bloodstream. Her naked body was dumped in a wooden box and the crate buried in a tobacco field outside Richmond, Virginia.
She'd ripped the nails off both hands, trying to claw her way out of her crude coffin. Her knees and feet showed skin scrapes and dried blood. Buried alive, Laura Jean Peterson had taken nearly four hours to die.
He fingered the photo of her at her high school graduation. Others of her body in the ignominious, shallow grave like an indigent in Potter's Field. No signs of physical assault, no rape, no possible reason why someone drugged a nineteen-year-old girl and buried her, still breathing, in a remote, shallow grave.
Rummaging through his briefcase, Jack retrieved the thin file the Judge had given him. It contained little beyond the coroner's report and the photographs. The girl found at Mammoth Proving Grounds in Utah hadn't yet been identified. Nevertheless, the similarities between her and the Peterson girl were unmistakable. Both girls were drugged and stripped of their clothing.
Both were buried alive and died of suffocation. Jack didn't need more convincing.
By the time Jack investigated the death at Mammoth and drove as far as Reno, he decided to grab a motel and a few hours of sleep. Refreshed and feeling more himself, he rose early the next morning and ordered room service. While waiting for breakfast to arrive, he showered and shaved, then set up his laptop to work at the businessman's desk tucked into the corner of the motel room. By the time the food arrived, he'd reviewed the first murder case again.
The perpetrator of the initial three cases had chosen victims whose families filed missing persons reports. A college student, an attorney, a waitress. But there was no such report on the unidentified woman buried on the Utah federal property.
After the room service attendant set up breakfast and left, Jack sat at the desk, chewing on a bagel with cream cheese and sipping black coffee while he examined the second victim's folder. Case Number SX-29201. Henry Walker, male, age twenty-nine, death by exsanguination, January 23, the year following the first murder.
The body was discovered hanging on a crude cross, made of intersecting pairs of two by fours. Walker had been drugged and strapped to the beams with bailing wire, and he was very much alive when the first nail pierced his wrist. Autopsy showed that a minute nick in the femoral artery quickened the slow bleed from wrists and feet and hastened death. Walker's remains were found in an auto dismantling yard thirty-five miles southwest of Las Vegas.
Jack shoved the breakfast plate away and added several comments into his laptop.
The third victim was Angela Buckley, beaten to death with a hard, metal club, possibly a tire iron or pipe. Metal shavings were found in the wounds. Her head and torso were so badly damaged that she had to be identified through dental records. The body was discovered less than forty-eight hours after she was reported missing May 15, the same year as the Walker man. She was a thirty-one-year-old waitress from South Bend, Indiana.
They'd believed she was the killer's final victim.
Jack put the file aside and opened a fourth, slender envelope which contained copies of the Latin notes they'd received from the killer, notes the Gant woman could help with – the woman whose first name Olivia had to be a coincidence because even the Judge wasn't that manipulative.
As the lead investigator, Jack hadn't believed the cases were connected until the notes arrived. The first one came after Henry Walker's death and was mailed from Plano, Texas. No useful prints on the letter or envelope, no clues of any kind. The note was word-processed on standard bond paper with an ink-jet printer.
The Quantico profiling team speculated that the killer, impatient with the behavioral unit's slow investigation, was taunting them. Inside their ranks, they named the UNSUB the DLK for Dead Language Killer. The profilers pointed out the inherent dark humor in the old chant, "Latin is a dead language, dead as dead can be, it killed all the Romans and now it's killing me."
Having never studied Latin, Jack figured the bastard was just showing off.
He had no way of knowing which note referred to which death, but Jack decided to take another look at the victims' backgrounds. Both Walker and Buckley were squeaky clean in every way – finances, criminal background, relationships – but the Peterson girl had an astonishing sexual history. It was a slim lead, but Jack took it. They interviewed boyfriends, girlfriends, ex-boyfriends, ex-girlfriends. Anyone with whom Laura Jean had a relationship, sexual or platonic.
They discovered that at least half a dozen young men and two young women admitted to some kind of sexual encounter with the victim. Each one, however, had a solid alibi for the time in question. Jack's slim lead ground to another halt.
He mentally ran through the first three cases – Peterson, Walker, Buckley. Finally, a fourth death, mimicking the first – the woman buried alive in the salt flats of Utah. No evidence, no note, no toxicology yet. Were they connected? Was this a copycat? Or was Jack's old nemesis starting again?
Jack pushed back from the desk, saved his data, and closed his laptop. He sucked in a deep breath as he felt another rush of adrenalin enhancing his body's chemical changes. He turned his hands, palms upward. Piano fingers, he'd once considered them – long ago when he entertained such youthful fantasies. The slender fingers that used to play with such fluidity were now fleshy pads, calloused and swollen.
He glanced at his wristwatch. He had a moment to peruse the Gant woman's dossier. PhD in Ancient Students, Greek and Roman history and culture. Linguist extraordinaire, according to Myron Higgins, the Judge's assistant who had approached Gant two months ago. She refused in June and again in July, cited school bylaws prohibiting outside consultations by their professors. She was supposedly some kind of whiz kid in her field, on sabbatical from the University of California at Berkley to teach at Our Lady of Fatima University, a private Catholic college in southeast Bigler County.
Jack looked over her teaching schedule. He still had a two-hour drive to Sacramento and thought he could catch her on break. He'd drop in without an appointment. Although he had no leverage to use on the Gant woman, he knew everyone had skeletons in the closet. If he couldn't persuade her with his charm, he thought wryly, he'd find another way to get her assistance.
He always did.
Dr. Gant's office at the university was the second door down a well-lighted hallway in St. Joseph's Administration Building. Jack lingered at the entrance and examined the small, crowded office.
The woman bent over a file drawer, her light gray sweater riding up from the waist of a black skirt to expose a strip of smooth flesh. From an ancient boom box resting on a corner file cabinet, James Brown crooned about not wanting to be alone tonight. The view and the music jarred some ancient, buried memory that Jack briskly put aside as he rapped on the open door.
He recognized her the second she turned to face him. A giant fist squeezed his heart, his throat spasmed and choked off air, and the soul he'd been sure he no longer had shriveled with momentary shock. He saw at once the gangly girl inside the self-possessed woman who turned to greet him, and another long-suppressed image slammed him with gale force. The young girl who'd whispered his name in the night. Bundled in layers of clothing that she removed one item at a time, all sad innocence and sure purpose. The soft pleading in her voice when she begged him to…
For an endless moment, his feet riveted to the spot. A sickening fear smacked him in the gut. Fear that every dirty misstep of his life dangled in plain view – hung out like so much soiled laundry – and barred any hope of salvation.
Not that he'd believed in heaven or redemption for a long time. But still…
"Oh my God," Olivia said, her pretty face a mask of stunned confusion.
Not pretty, he thought, but striking, interesting. High cheekbones and clearly defined brows. Green eyes set far apart, wide and large in a smooth face. Dark hair now wound tightly in a knot at the back of her head, but which he remembered tangling riotously around slender shoulders. A small woman, with fragile bones covering a steely determination.
Time resumed as Olivia sank into the worn office chair behind a utilitarian desk and regarded him with a wide-eyed expression. "Jackie Holt."
Astonishment, bewilderment, and another indefinable emotion crossed her face until she shut it down. Shut it down hard, he could see by the set of her jaw and the flash of those brilliant eyes sharp as cut glass. Impossible that the full, soft lips he remembered now thinned to taut rubber bands, stretched so tight they threatened to snap back viciously.
"Jackson Holt," she repeated.
Under the visual indictment, he remembered with regret the throb of his youthful desire. But God, she'd been so desirable. So sure as she'd insinuated herself into his life in a way neither of them realized would change him forever.
Anger flashed across her face before she narrowed her eyes and shut that down too. "What do you want?"
As the facts clicked into place, Jack berated himself for being the worst kind of idiot. He wondered if his subconscious had deliberately tricked him. But he hadn't known an Olivia Gant. Only Livvie Morse, at a time when the sun rose and set in a fourteen-year old, too-skinny girl with doe eyes and a haunted look.
Had the organization discovered Professor Gant was the same girl from Jack's childhood? Impossible to think the Judge wouldn't check every small detail. No coincidence then that they ended up here together. But why?
He looked around the room, at the desk, the bookshelves, the order surrounding Olivia. If he had any decency left, he'd march out the door and leave her to her neat, organized life. But Invictus training was too deep. He told himself he could use their former friendship, use her for the mission. After all, that was probably what Warren intended all along.
Yeah, the Judge knew exactly what he was doing when he sent Jack to California.
Olivia seemed to recover, stood, and braced her knuckles on the desk top. "Answer me. Say something." Her voice was ice even as it rose several decibels. "Why are you here?"
She stumbled over the last question, but he suspected the urge to shred him to pieces lay just beneath the cold, composed surface of her perfect face. He tried to look unaffected, despised himself for thinking that if she'd forgiven him, his task would be easier.
"I came to see you," he said simply after staring at her another long moment. He sat down and laid his Invictus badge on the desk.
Her brilliant eyes widened, and for a moment she looked confused. "Invictus? You're with the government?" Her eyes cooled even further.
"I've risen in the world," he joked with a wry twist of his mouth. "I have friends in high places."
"Oh, those friends." She drew the words out, giving them a lethal edge as understanding dawned on her.
Jack shrugged. "See, you already know why I've come."
She'd refused the Invictus offer twice, he remembered. He should move on to a backup name on the Judge's list and leave her the hell alone. But now that he'd seen her, he couldn't and realized he didn't want to.
"Knowing you, I'm surprised you rejected Myron Higgins' offer," he said.
"You don't know me at all," she snapped, her eyes level and unreadable as she sat down heavily.
He shrugged again, conceding. "Maybe not."
"And really, Jack," she continued sarcastically. "You don't see why I'd like to avoid living other people's nightmares?"
"Livvie…" he murmured, and Olivia heard the chagrin his voice.
Collapsed in her chair, she felt light-headed and disoriented, but deliberately forced out the helpless feeling and sat up straighter. She searched the face she barely recognized. Took in the height he'd grown into, the weight he'd gained, most of all the darkness that surrounded him.
She'd thought he was dead, had mourned for him.
His rugged face had lost the gentleness of boyhood, the soft mouth and kind face that he'd once had. Now the harsh facial lines spoke of experience and pain, and the faint lift of his lips failed to soften the calculated look in his eyes. Maybe he was dead, after all.
She cleared her throat, afraid to trust her voice as suspicion wormed its way into her mind. Avoiding his dark, penetrating eyes, she stood and stepped to the window overlooking the grassy campus quad. "Jackson Holt, a government agent." She hated that his name on her tongue was still a warm satisfaction. "You bastard."
When she turned from the window to face him, the prickle of unease at the back of her neck increased and a warning chill slipped down her spine to meet the squiggle of distrust.
"How did you find me?" She infused her words with sarcasm. "I take it you didn't stumble on me in the yellow pages."
"Were you hiding?" His large body shifted in the plastic molded chair as he flashed that slow smile she remembered.
She crossed her arms and leaned against the window sill, dug her fingers into her palms because she wanted to rake them across his face. He acted as if she were a casual acquaintance he'd run across by accident. As if they hadn't once meant everything to each other.
She reminded herself they'd been little more than children. What had they known of love and loyalty? By sheer will she forced a casual tone into her voice. She wouldn't give him the satisfaction of knowing how much his unexpected visit upset her.
"There's no way I can help you or your organization." She stared into those hard obsidian eyes as she returned to her seat and folded her hands on top of the desk.
"Even if I fill in the last seventeen years?" he bargained.
She wanted to snort, but since she'd never snorted in her life, she remarked, "What would be the point?"
"Right." He contemplated the tip of a polished shoe crossed over one long leg. "Well, I'll have at it then."
She lifted her brows and remained silent, an action she'd found very effective in quelling students.
"I've just come from Maryland," Jack recited. "Sent by the Invictus Director. It's critical that you lend your expertise in a government matter." He spoke the words with such little emotion that they acted like a wet slap in the face.
She frowned, concentrating to remember the letters she'd gotten and dismissed so easily. "That Higgins fellow," she said flatly, "sent you all the way across the country to recruit me. To use me." She laughed without humor. "What a waste of your valuable time, Jack."
"Livvie – "
Olivia held up her hand like a traffic cop, barely controlling her fury. "Don't call me that name. Don't." She swallowed hard, feeling the sick rush of warm water fill her mouth and hoped she wouldn't throw up. She took several deep, cleansing breaths. "You're the one person who knows I have enough fodder for bad dreams."
"Roger," he said quietly.
She nodded imperceptibly. She'd concede that much, but she wasn't going to let him use that careless charm to worm his way back into her life. She felt her cheeks color. She wasn't going to let him love her and abandon her again.
Jack leaned across the desk. "Roger was a monster and he deserved the worst kind of punishment." He paused, looked down at his hands. "And I'm sorry for… what happened."
But it was Jack's betrayal that hung between them, not Roger's fumbled attempts to molest her. She let him see the accusation in her eyes. The distrust, the rancor, the long-simmering desire to retaliate.
He shoved out of the chair and examined her massive rows of books lining the right wall, his back angled toward her. "But that doesn't mean that the man we're chasing should get off. He's a monster too, and we need the kind of help only you can give us."
"You think I owe you?" Her voice sharpened with disbelief.
He erupted in a quick shot of anger. "Hell, no, Olivia. You don't owe me a thing. I'm the one that left."
She smiled grimly. "That's right. You did." She walked to the door and held it open in dismissal. "But that's ancient history that I have no intention of revisiting."
Olivia stood by the door long minutes after Jack had left, feeling as if she'd fallen down a rabbit hole and everything that appeared one way, wasn't what it looked like. She felt relieved, she told herself, as if she'd escaped a seismic tidal wave.
Gathering materials for her next class, she couldn't stop thinking of that long-ago summer she'd turned fourteen.
Her mother never kept track of her so Olivia escaped the house as often as possible, particularly when Roger began drinking. Jack and she and Ben were always together. Like three peas in a pod, her mother had claimed derisively. The guys had taught her how to pitch quarters against the school's brick wall, shoot marbles with a steelie, and hit cans at fifty paces with a.22 rifle. Self-defense, too, because Jack knew how much she needed protection from the monster.
She smiled sadly at the distant memory and glanced at her watch. Scooping up her lecture notes, she stuffed them into her briefcase and hurried out the door. She almost bumped into Ted Burrows, reminding her uneasily of his unsolicited call this morning.
Not yet used to the settling noises of the old house and the outside whispers of street sounds that permeated the thick old walls, she'd slept badly and awakened as the first rays of weak fall light sifted through the long, narrow windows of the second story bedroom. She'd just programmed the coffee maker when the kitchen land line rang. She couldn't think of anyone she'd given her new number to and stared stupidly at the phone for several moments before picking up the receiver. "Hello?"
"This is Ted, Ted Burrows, in your post-grad seminar for teaching assistants."
How had Ted gotten her private number?
"Yes, Mr. Burrows. I know who you are. How did you get this number?" Charmed some university secretary, no doubt.
"Oh, yeah, sorry." He'd flung out the words sheepishly.
Her bull-shit detector had been honed with years of teaching and the meter jumped into the red zone, but she'd sighed into the receiver. "What do you want, Ted?"
She remembered how he'd stumbled over the words. "Well, uh, I talked to Dr. Randolph last night and he was pretty hot about being my doctoral advisor and me teaching one or two of his courses."
"Good," she'd said. "I'll talk to you later." She'd hung up before he could respond, thinking that was one more thing on her to-do list – get an unlisted phone number. Ted was a little twerp, going around her like that, but what did it matter? She'd already decided to assign him to Randolph.
Little harm done, she thought now, eyeing his classic good looks.
Ted grabbed her arm to keep her from falling. "Sorry, Oliv – uh, Dr. Gant."
"My fault, Ted. I'm late for class. Were you coming to see Dr. Randolph?" She glanced toward Howard's desk which occupied the prime spot by the window.
Ted waved the paper in his hand. "I just finished my doctoral proposal for Randolph."
"Already? Well, leave it on his desk, why don't you? He's not in today."
A furrow creased the high forehead where a lock of chestnut hair fell artfully. "Darn, he was in a hurry to get the proposal today," he complained. "I stayed up all night working on it."
Olivia smiled. "That's the life of a college professor," she said, tossing the words over her shoulder.
Ted watched the slender legs and firm ass of Olivia Gant as she rushed out the door and headed down the corridor. As she turned the corner, he admired the light bounce of her breasts under the sweater. Wouldn't he enjoy getting a piece of that?
Entering Randolph's office, he jammed the paper into the professor's in box. Damn! He shouldn't have bothered working all night. Now the old fart wouldn't get his proposal until at least tomorrow. Fucking waste of time. He could've taken the brunette up on her invitation last night. The girl lived in the apartment over him and wore tight belly-baring skirts and low-necked tank tops.
He'd just have to make up for it tonight. The pretty blonde in Randy's Monday-Wednesday Medieval History class would do nicely. She sat on the front row and crossed and uncrossed her legs, flashing quite a view. He wondered if she knew what she was doing, but quickly amended the thought. Of course the little bitch knew. She liked playing with fire, liked seeing how close she could get without burning.
They all liked to play that game.
Keisha Johnson's cell number went directly to voice mail. Olivia had already left three messages, had tried all weekend to reach the girl with no response. Wherever the girl had gone, at this hour on a Sunday night she ought to be back. Olivia sat at her desk in the library, gnawing on the tip of her thumb and wondering what to do. Call the police immediately, or stop fretting about a normal college student who'd probably gone off for the weekend to Tahoe or Monterey?
Fingering the embossed card Jack had left during his visit, she stared at it. His name was raised in bold black letters with a phone number beneath it. That was it. No organization, no title. Very covert ops and hush-hush, and very unlike the open and light hearted boy she'd known. Her hand hovered over the phone. Then quickly, before she changed her mind, she punched in the number, relieved when it went direct to voice mail.
The message was brief to the point of rudeness. "Leave a number."
"Uh, Jack, this is Olivia. Call me." She didn't leave a number. She was pretty sure he knew the details of her life. "Please," she added and quickly disconnected.
For her student, she told herself, for Keisha. If not for the girl's disappearance, Olivia would never have called Jack. He'd be able to find out if the girl was okay faster than the local police and without alarming her roommates or parents.
Otherwise, she'd never ask for his help in a million years.
Jack easily found a gym that suited his needs, one where he could pay a weekly fee with no registration. Fairly seedy and populated with a rough-looking bunch of men. No women allowed. With lots of punching bags and a satisfactory ring, the gym was modeled after the early Gleason's Boxing Gym in Brooklyn. The basement room was large, dank and concrete, and stank of sweat and blood.
It was perfect.
Jack's nostrils flared at the scent as he laced up his gloves and went to work, needing to pound flesh and spill blood. He put in several hours of hard work and bloodied the nose of an asshole who'd overestimated his prowess and underestimated Jack's skill. Feeling more in control – though not necessarily better – he headed for the motel.
Twenty-five minutes later he pulled the rental car into the motel parking lot and climbed out, swinging his laptop over his shoulder. Taking the stairs two at a time, he reached the second-floor room at the end of the landing. Never the lower level. Always at the end of the hall.
He headed straight for the bathroom for a hot shower. Draping a towel round his waist, he frowned at his reflection in the mirror above the small sink. The effect of the gym workout had abated the ragged look, but his facial hair continued to grow rapidly. His beard, heavy at normal times, was a pain in the ass during the Change.
Slowly he applied lather to his cheeks and scraped off the scraggly growth with a straight razor. He preferred the sharp edge and accuracy of the old-fashioned implement, a throw-back to his grandfather's era. Somehow it made him feel more human. Finishing up, he rinsed his face and applied after shave.
He angled his head for another look in the mirror. Still too dark, too rough, too shaggy, he thought. He sighed and checked his watch. Time to make the call.
That's when he saw Olivia's message on his phone. Not the Prima phone – that was reserved strictly for Invictus business – but on his normal cell phone. He knew instinctively she'd changed her mind. But why, he wondered? His chest constricted momentarily before he pressed mail and listened to her voice. He wasn't sure whether to feel relieved or apprehensive.
Collapsing on the bed, he pulled his Prima phone from his briefcase, and punched in speed dial number one, the special line that went directly to the Judge, day or night.
"Yeah?" The voice sounded wakeful even though at this hour on the east coast the Judge had to have been sleeping.
No need to identify himself. Even if Warren didn't recognize his voice, the special sound recognition feature would identify him. Agent Number Thirteen on the display. And if that number wasn't a hell of a curse, Jack didn't know what was.
"No." Jack hesitated. "The Gant woman's on board."
Did he detect curiosity in his mentor's voice? Jack considered again that contacting Olivia hinged on design rather than chance. "Are you surprised?"
Warren chuckled. "Hell, nothing surprises me anymore."
Jack heard the long draw of breath over the line, most likely the Judge sucking on one of his cigars. He had to ask. "Did you know?"
"About the Gant woman." When dead air traveled the length of the line like something spiteful, he continued, "That she was the one. Back then. The one who started it all."
"Is that going to be a problem?"
"For me or for Invictus?"
Another long pause while Jack collected his thoughts. Hating to admit a weakness, he dropped the subject. "I'm concerned about the Change. It's different this time."
Jack thought about Olivia. That too. He sensed the sudden alertness over the line, knowing Warren weighed the potential danger of the special medications against the possibility of the aggression getting out of control. "Yeah," Jack said at last. A small lie. And not entirely false.
"I stopped the whites, started the red regime, but they're making me feel weird."
"In what way?"
"Headaches, olfactory mismatches." Jack paused and continued meaningfully. "Rough, angry, aggressive." He thought of Olivia again, all that she'd stirred up in him.
"That's not good. The MM's will screw you royally." They both knew it wasn't the olfactory mismatches that were the real problem. "Supposedly Davis eliminated the side effects with the new batch of reds."
Jack paused, mused again about the lusty intensity that being around Olivia brought out. "You need to send the Phens."
When he'd first entered the Invictus program, his medications had been a serious complication. The medical team discovered Jack's body didn't work the same as the other agents, whose natural skills were enhanced with a variety of established drugs, including steroids, so Dr. Davis had concocted powerful cocktails tailored especially for Jack. The Phens were supposed to mitigate the aggression.
And wasn't he the lucky one?
"Are you sure?" the Judge asked.
"Yeah." He paused again, suppressing a sigh. "The aggression's a bitch."
Jack could almost hear the Judge calculating the odds, measuring an innocent's life against a completed mission. Collateral damage or a job well done.
"Did you kill anyone?" the Judge asked finally.
Jack tunneled his fingers through his damp hair. "Jesus Christ! No."
He thought of the bruiser at the gym. "No one that matters."
The Judge's voice over the line was calm and practical. "Then why do you need the Phens?"
Jack's voice hardened before he clicked the disconnect button. "Just send the damn pills."
Only afterward did he realize the Judge never answered his question about Olivia.
They met for breakfast because Olivia wouldn't agree to Jack coming to her house. He didn't blame her. She suggested a little mom and pop place near the capitol building. When he walked into the brightly lighted Country Kettle Restaurant a little after eight-thirty, Olivia was already seated at a booth by the window, gazing out at the crowded traffic on Tenth Street.
Sunlight dappled dust motes through the wooded blinds and across the oiled tablecloth. Tension darkened Olivia's eyes to the color of primeval forests and she clenched her fists on the vinyl tablecloth, warily examining him as he sat opposite her.
"What's wrong?" he asked after the waitress brought water and left menus.
Olivia didn't answer immediately, but hunched her shoulders beneath the salmon-colored sweater set that complemented her dark hair. Jack noted her ringless fingers and the utilitarian watch on her left wrist.
The waitress, a lanky, bleached blonde, whose black and white uniform strained against her breasts, returned to take their order. She pulled a pencil from behind her ear. "What can I get you folks?"
"Just coffee and sour dough toast," Olivia said.
"Make that two," Jack added.
The waitress nodded and walked away to place their meager order on the metal roundel.
Apparently Olivia wanted to make small talk before she broached the subject on her mind because after a few moments, she led with, "What made you go into government work?"
"The condensed version is college, marines, government service."
She glanced at his hands. "No wife? No children?"
He shook his head, taking her meaning. "I wouldn't wear a ring anyway."
She looked surprised. "Why not?"
"Too revealing. I prefer to give as little information as possible about myself."
Olivia stared at him over the rim of her water glass, reminding him of a time when keeping secrets was foreign to both of them, and they'd virtually poured out their young hearts to each other. "Tell me about the case," she said, setting down her glass.
"First, why don't you tell me why you called?"
A pretty flush crept up her neck into her cheeks. He waited easily while she struggled with her words. Patience had always come easy for him. Patience and a stubborn doggedness that made him a tough opponent.
The waitress set their toast orders down and poured coffee. "Anything else?"
Jack shook his head and kept his eyes trained on Olivia.
She cleared her throat. "I think a student of mine is in trouble."
He'd expected many things. Her tearing into him was high on the list, followed by anger, accusation, questions. God, lots of questions. She had the right to ask and demand answers. But the unexpected twist caught him off guard.
"Her name is Keisha Johnson and no one's seen her since Friday." She leaned across the table, desperation in her voice. "I'm afraid something awful has happened to her."
"Has anyone filed a missing persons report?"
"I thought there was a waiting period."
"Not in California."
"Jack," she said, a hitch in her voice, "she's barely nineteen, a freshman. I don't think she'd take off like this without telling anyone."
Olivia could see Jack's razor-sharp mind calculating the possibilities. She breathed out a sigh of relief. Jack knew what to do. He'd help.
"You talked to her friends?" he asked. "Her family?"
"She's from New York. She wasn't planning to go home until winter break." She stirred the coffee and ignored the toast. "I didn't want to be hasty and worry her parents." She lifted one shoulder. "You know, in case it turns out to be nothing."
"But you don't think it's nothing."
She shook her head. "Keisha's very responsible. Her roommate said she went out Friday night, wouldn't say where, just that she'd be back late."
Jack narrowed his eyes. "Sometimes girls go to a party and don't come back for a few days."
Olivia held his eyes stubbornly. "This girl's not flaky, she's fast-tracked in her department, and she's on a full-ride scholarship. She's the golden girl. She wouldn't go on some wild, unplanned trip without telling someone. I know something's happened to her."
Jack nodded as if he believed her and took a small spiral notepad and pen from his inside jacket pocket. "Description?"
The waitress swept by their table, poured more coffee, and slapped the check on the table.
"Mixed race, African-American and Islander, I think," Olivia said. "She's about five-foot two, long dark hair, naturally curly, brown eyes."
"I'll check it out, see what I can find," he said after she'd given him the rest of the particulars. He put the pen and notebook back in his jacket. "Now what are you willing to do in exchange for my help?"
She'd expected nothing less than bartering, but Jack's words, stated so baldly, made her flinch. She leveled a hard look at him, feeling her temper rise. The chasm of the lost years and their disconnected lives widened another mile.
"You really are a bastard, aren't you," she said evenly.
His smile didn't reach his eyes. "Didn't you expect a quid pro quo?"
Two could play this game, she thought, and put on her bitch face. "Of course," she said smoothly, "I wouldn't expect you to do a favor without getting something in return."
"Good, then," he said. "You won't be sorry."
"I doubt that," she muttered. She was sorry already. "Okay, tell me about this Invictus. A kind of government organization, right?"
He nodded. "Of sorts."
"You wanted to change the world," she murmured, feeling a little sad, "work for the rights of the underdog. Now you're part of the establishment."
"Life changes a man."
"That sounds like a bumper sticker," she chastised, frowning. "So, what exactly do you want me to do?"
"I need your specialized help with the notes."
"The killer left behind two notes, both written in Latin."
"That's odd. Latin's so – "
"No one speaks it, but English is rich in Latin references, not to mention the cultural influence." She set her lips in a serious line. "I wasn't putting Mr. Higgins off when I said the university doesn't allow outside consultations."
"I'll take care of that."
"How?" she scoffed "By strong arming the Catholic Church?"
"Don't worry about it. I've got it covered."
Exasperated by his arrogance, she caught her lower lip between her teeth. "What exactly do you think I can do for Invictus?"
"Work with us on the translations, maybe create a profile of the writer. There's probably something we've missed from the original cases, maybe a clue in the notes. We had our own people on it, but they're profilers, not linguists."
He paused as if weighing his words. "Four years ago, we had three… unusual murders. Recently we had a similar murder in Utah. I just came from that crime scene. Finally, we got a lead that the killer may be in California."
A sliver of ice ran down Olivia's spine. "But no one's died, right?" Her words fell over themselves. "I didn't hear anything in the news. Could this be related to Keisha's disappearance?" She heard the raw panic in her voice and fought to control it.
Jack examined her calmly. "Not likely, that'd be a monumental coincidence, don't you think?"
"I never used to believe in coincidence." Olivia's mind rattled with dread, and the clutch of irrational fear grabbed at her throat. She looked into his hard, obsidian eyes.
Until you came back here, she thought.
Tuolumne County, California
Dragging the body down the basement steps was no easy task. Long and bony, the body was heavier than it looked and handling it strained the Avenger's muscles. Avenger. A self-appointed title, but an apt one. He smiled behind the Inquisitor's mask.
Dumping his awkward load in the basement alcove, he gazed around.
He trailed his fingers over the thick, moist walls. Even if someone lived within a five-mile radius of the building – and no one did – the sounds would be muffled by these ancient, fortified barriers. The access windows high at the north end of the room were boarded up with strips of lumber criss-crossed in irregular patterns. A solitary light bulb dangled from the ceiling, casting a dim glow over the room.
Trudging up the rail-less, wooden steps, he retrieved his tools from the first floor rectory. By the time he returned to the basement and finished positioning his captive correctly, the young man was awake, eyes wide below the gray slash of tape covering his mouth. The Avenger removed the tape in one quick yank.
The kid coughed and choked on his saliva as he hung in his upside-down position. Whining like a child already, even though he was at least nineteen or twenty. "Why are you doing this?" His voice was the high pitch of a girl.
Blood coursed furiously through the captive's body in an attempt to thwart gravity as he hung in his awkward upside down position. It pooled in his cheeks and jutted his forehead into a mass of thick blue veins. The Avenger put forth a finger covered with a purple surgical glove and pushed gently on one ropey pulse at the man's temple.
How weak and puny, thought the Avenger. A roar stormed though his head, disgust mingling with barely controlled fury.
"Please, why are you doing this to me?" the kid whimpered.
"Why do you think?" The Avenger released the words through the mouth cutout of the hooded mask. He wore the Inquisitor's disguise solely for the macabre effect, to terrorize the kid, who would never survive to identify his punisher. It worked beautifully.
"Why do you think you're here… " He waved both arms around the church basement room. "Why this holy place?" He peered closely into the kid's mottled face and smirked, "Or should I say this unholy place?"
"I don't know, man. You're talking crazy. Please let me go. I don't know why you're doing this." Snot and tears mingled as they streamed from his face and nose, downward to gather in his hairline.
"You don't know why I'm doing this," the Avenger mimicked, voice pedantic, lecturing like a school teacher. He tapped a wooden peg against the gloved palm of his left hand. "Because I can," he continued softly, "because I'm the only one who can."
The kid's blue eyes flashed momentarily, showing a fleeting remnant of spirit. "That's not an answer," he spat. "That's an excuse."
"Whatever you call it doesn't matter, Carl."
The captive's body jerked in surprise, and his freckles stood out in stark relief on his pale face. "How do you know my name? Who the hell are you?"
"Tsk, such language. Do you kiss your mother with that mouth?" The hooded man laughed. "No, you've done far worse things with your mouth. Hmmm?" He shook his head. "It doesn't matter anyway, Carl," he repeated. "The only thing that matters is that your eternal soul is no longer in jeopardy. You'll be saved." He gestured broadly with both arms, a ringmaster opening the circus.
A flicker of hope danced in the kid's eyes. "Saved? What do you mean? Saved from what?"
The Avenger moved to the wooden table top where he'd placed his tools. He caressed the instruments, picking them up and examining them one by one, his fingers finally coming to rest on the particular tool designed to complement the wooden peg he already held.
The hammer was crafted entirely from oak, not a single piece of metal used in the making of it. Although it was clumsy by modern standards, he liked the heft of it in his palm. The other two pegs matched the one he held. All three had been fashioned with precision for size and sturdiness and were flat at one end, wickedly pointed at the other.
"Saved from what?" the kid screamed.
"From your sins, of course. What else?"
The Avenger angled the spiked end of the peg so that the overhead light caught it and cast its shadow against the eastern wall of the basement. The image loomed like a Bunyanesque peg leg. Carl's eyes jumped from the shadow to the wooden nail and back again.
"What are you going to do?" The bright white of his eyes was illuminated by the single light bulb. "Wait a minute, you said I was saved," he screamed. "What did you mean?"
The Avenger tested the weight of the hammer.
"You can't do this! Help, somebody help me!" Carl's voice reverberated off the cement walls of the musty room while he struggled against his bindings. His voice finally fell to a whimper as he shrank from his attacker. "Somebody please help me."
The Avenger bent toward the kid's face, turning his head at an awkward angle so he could stare into the boy's eyes from the upside-down position. Arms splayed straight out from his sides and feet bound with a thick strand of rope tied to the other end of the wooden beam, he hung like a perverted icon.
"I was going to do this in the traditional manner," the Avenger explained, indicating Carl's upended position on the cross, "but the message needs to be very clear."
"What message? What are you friggin' talking about?"
The man appeared surprised. "Why, the message of redemption, what else? The blessed message of salvation. Are you a good Catholic, Carl? If you are, you should know all about redemption and atonement. Sinners have to pay the price for their sins."
"What sins? What did I do?" he babbled. "For God's sake, man, I didn't do anything."
"Shush, Carl. Calm yourself. You don't want to meet your Maker like this."
The man reached for the wide gray electrical tape and replaced the thick strip over the kid's mouth. "Sorry I have to do this, Carl. This old church is pretty isolated, but I don't want to risk someone hearing your noise."
The victim thrashed around, straining at the thick ropes that bound his wrists and ankles to the crude wooden cross. The man carefully placed the first wooden peg at the center of the right wrist. Two pegs left for the task ahead, one for the other wrist, the final one for the feet. He hoped the third peg, the longest and thickest, was strong enough for the crossed feet.
Raising the hammer, the Avenger began his work.
Just as he reached the turnoff to Placer Hills, Sheriff Benjamin Slater's pager beeped. He flipped open his cell phone and punched in the number of his dispatcher and all-around assistant. "What's up, Connie?"
"Barrington wants you to call him ASAP."
"How's he sound today?"
A snort came over the line. "Prissy as usual. And a little pissy to boot."
Slater liked Connie Glens. She cut right through the bull crap and told it exactly like she saw it. "I'm almost at Blue Canyon Road. Be there in twenty minutes, give or take. Think he can wait that long?"
"Why not? Give the little prick something to squawk about."
Slater grinned as he severed the connection. Nobody much liked the recently-elected district attorney of Bigler County, but Connie was outspoken enough to voice her opinion. Slater was forced to be more circumspect. As the county's senior law-enforcement officer, Charles Barrington was his direct superior. And that was just damn bad luck.
When Slater reached the office shortly after ten, he found Barrington seated behind the sheriff's desk. Ben leaned against the door jamb and amused himself by watching Charlie Barrington's bantam body try to fill up the space of the comfortable leather chair Ben had hauled out of storage when he took over the position as sheriff last year.
Someone must've told Charlie that all up-and-coming district attorneys wore three-piece Brooks Brothers suits. Today the man was clad in his gray edition, complemented by a maroon striped tie and light paisley handkerchief peeking from the pocket. In the overhead glare of the fluorescent light, his bare head gleamed whitely around the pathetic strands of a sandy-haired comb over.
Barrington crossed his legs at the knee and fiddled with the mouse on Slater's desk, glancing at the computer screen as it lighted up to reveal last year's budget report.
"Can I help you with something, Mr. District Attorney?"
Barrington jumped like a high-strung yapper dog and shoved the mouse away as if it were a dead rat. "Uh, Slater. I, uh, I need to talk to you immediately."
Barrington rarely called Slater by his title, almost as if he disliked conceding the position held by former Sheriff Xavier Marconi, who'd left office suddenly before his term was over. Slater didn't mind the disrespect, but he noted it.
The district attorney frowned, the expression making him look like a chubby-faced baby about to throw a temper tantrum. "Didn't you get my ASAP message?"
"I'm here now. What do you want?" Slater eased into the room and towered over the little man. Barrington stood, but immediately sat down again when he noticed the disparity in their heights. Slater grinned and threw himself into the guest chair opposite his desk. Once he was seated, apparently Charlie felt secure enough to rise. He bounced his fingertips together several times like a professor ready to launch a lecture. Slater sighed, recognizing the signs, and not eager to waste time listening to Barrington's drivel.
"The government wants our help in a matter," Barrington said, pacing around the office and tapping his fingertips together.
"The federal government?"
"Of course." Barrington frowned. "What else?"
Slater shrugged. Nothing else, but he liked getting a rise out of the little man.
"Whatever. The call I got came directly from Washington." He slipped a sly look Slater's way, apparently expecting him to be impressed.
"D.C.," Barrington snapped. "I want to be sure you understand how important cooperating with federal agencies is to Bigler County."
Slater figured Charlie was hinting at the case last year when the sheriff's office had moved ahead to track down a serial killer without consulting the FBI. Deputy sheriff at the time, Ben had used his resources to rescue Kate Myers, their forensic psychiatrist and his lover. Kate was on assignment in LA now and he missed her like hell.
"Sure, I get it." He nodded pleasantly at the DA, wondering mildly what Charlie was getting them into with the feds.
"Your contact is an Agent Holt, Jackson Holt."
"What?" Slater leaned forward, thinking Barrington wasn't smart enough to play with his mind like that. Thinking he must've heard wrong. Or at least, the name was a colossal coincidence. Except, he reminded himself, he didn't believe in coincidence. "Are you sure of the name? Jackson Holt?"
Barrington flashed an impatient look. "Of course I'm sure. Do you know him?"
"If it's the guy I'm thinking of, there's a little history." Hell, he and Jack boasted a millennium of history between them, but Slater wasn't about to share that information with Barrington. Anyway, hadn't he heard Jack was dead?
"Whatever it is," Barrington warned darkly, "don't let it get in the way. Agent Holt will organize and head a task force. I expect full cooperation. ADA Torres will help."
"Isabella won't be happy about that. She's working on the Vargas case."
Barrington narrowed his eyes. "That investigation can wait. Anyway, Vargas is Sac County's problem, not ours."
"How do I get hold of Holt?"
"You don't. He'll contact you."
Slater watched Barrington mince his way across the polished linoleum and out the doors of the courthouse. Previous district attorneys had made their offices in this impressive historic building, but not him. The day after he assumed office, Barrington moved his staff into the sleek new complex across the freeway.
Asshole, Slater thought. Barrington knew the Diego Vargas case was important to Isabella Torres.
He sighed and leaned back in his over-sized chair, pondering this new information. If the DA was allocating all his resources, including ADA Torres, to the federal case, it must be important. Agent Jackson Holt couldn't possibly be the kid he'd known in high school.
Coincidence or not, the news was a bitch.
The call about the dead body at Lake Tahoe's North Shore came in while Jack sat in the Bigler County Sheriff's office. Slater eased his solid length into a worn leather chair that spoke more of comfort than décor, and eyed Jack across a desk unit that looked ridiculously small. When he'd shaken Slater's hand a few moments ago, a surge of testosterone flared between them and he'd imagined the two of them arm wrestling like they used to in high school.
"Who'd have thought," Slater drawled as he raked his eyes over Jack's physique. The desk phone buzzed. Slater ignored it. "Heard you'd gone back to Texas, got killed in a knife fight."
Jack didn't speak, just opened his credentials and held them up for inspection. He was taller and thinner than Slater, and he knew his clothes hung on him as if they were tailored to a mannequin in contrast to his old friend's casual jeans and shirt. Slater was broader, probably stronger, and had about twenty-five pounds on him. He had even teeth set in a square jaw, and right now his gray eyes were suspicious in a way that took Jack back in time.
Someone had gone looking for him, Jack thought, and wondered who had cared enough.
"So, the feds, huh," Slater commented after a lengthy silence. "Never expected you to end up there."
Jack laughed harshly and without humor. "You probably thought I'd be on the other side of the law." He leaned backward in the chrome chair until the front legs tilted upward.
"Frankly, I didn't think of you at all until the district attorney got a call from Washington."
The jibe rankled. "Good, then I can expect your full cooperation."
"Why not?" Slater paused, and like a dare added, "As long as you don't disappear on us." The again was implied and set Jack's teeth on edge.
"What can I do for the federal government?" Slater asked before Jack could react.
Jack stretched his long legs out in front of him. "I have an old cold case."
"What's a federal cold case got to do with my office?"
"We have intelligence that our killer might've run to ground in this area."
"Out of fifty states and thousands of counties, you think he's holed up in mine?" Slater lifted both brows and lazily rested his chin in his large hand.
Jack opened his mouth to explain, but the insistent buzzing of the phone stopped him.
"Hold on." Slater lifted one finger in the air and punched the speaker button. "What's wrong now, Connie?"
"Dispatch reports a 187 at North Shore, about a half mile past marker 19, two hundred yards from the water."
"Yep, got him on the other line."
"Patch him through," the Sheriff instructed, looking at Jack with mild curiosity.
The voice came through the speaker phone, tinny, but deep. "Harris, here, Sheriff. Got a nude body off the highway, laying behind a log near the shore, female, possibly African-American."
"Say again. Possibly?"
"Yes sir, body's badly beaten. Can't be sure."
Jack went very still, all senses on full alert. This time as the headache slammed into him, he managed to control the pain of it. Still, the sounds of crushing bone and spattered blood echoed in his ears. Cries, young female cries, and the whimpers of fear and desperation, terror and pleading.
He smelled the bone, heard the blood, felt the cries. Mismatches, he thought, and battled back the sensory overload.
"Goddammit," Slater muttered. "I'll be there in forty." He depressed the call button. "Conn, get the techs out there ASAP." He slammed the phone back in its cradle.
Not possible, Jack thought, at the same time he mentally calculated the distance between the Utah border, where the fourth body was found, and northern California. It was his man. He felt it in his bones. Pulling out the notepad where he'd taken notes on Olivia's student, he read his own broad scrawl. Keisha Johnson, five foot two inches, African American-Islander, nineteen.
Slater watched Jack's movement as he reached for his jacket.
When he reached the office door, Jack stood. "Mind if I tag along?"
Slater lifted his broad shoulders. "Why the hell not?"
A little less than an hour later, Jack and Slater stared down at the mass of bloody flesh nestled in the brush around North Shore, the California side of Lake Tahoe. A tall, burly deputy crouched beside the body, looking pale beneath his dusty black skin.
"Bus is on the way," Slater said to his deputy, his gray eyes unreadable. "How'd you come on it?"
Harris pointed to the square of red fabric flapping in the cool morning breeze. It was virtually unnoticeable from the highway. "That caught my attention and I pulled off to investigate, climbed down to the rock by the shore."
"Damn good eye," Slater complimented.
The headache remained, but Jack couldn't feel the screams and wails up here, this close to the body. It was like the victim could rest now that she'd been found. He turned toward the peaceful, clear waters of the Lake Tahoe for a moment and then looked down at the body again.
The small mangled flesh was a dusty pink, a hue that might've begun as scarlet and was now pretty enough for a little girl's bedroom. If you didn't look at the tangled pieces of bone and flesh along the length of the body. The Dead Language Killer's handiwork, he was sure of it.
Harris had secured the scene, although on this section of the lake not a soul was around. Then he'd walked out a second, larger perimeter down to the lake shore, which consisted of brush and rock and very little sand on this side of Tahoe.
Slater stepped under the yellow crime scene tape of both perimeters and squatted down to examine the body. He snapped on disposable latex gloves. "Be sure to get close-ups of the head and chest areas, Waylon. See this indentation?" He indicated the right side of the smashed head which faced them.
"Yes sir. You think it was a fall?" Harris looked back toward the road. "She took a tumble down the embankment?"
Not a fall, Jack thought. The body looked like raw meat, something off the butcher's block, deliberately executed, not accidental. He ducked under the tape and pointed toward several pulpy sections of the torso. "What about these?"
"I'm thinking blunt force trauma," Slater said. "See these fragments? Slivers of wood."
"Somebody beat her with a wooden stick?" Shock registered on Harris' young face.
"I'd guess a hard wooden object, maybe a baseball bat or hockey stick." Jack moved down the torso to the legs. Under the mass of flesh and gore, the legs lay at an unnatural angle.
"Legs are broken," Slater said.
"Yeah," Jack said, but there was no satisfaction in his voice. He rose and dusted off the knees of his pants. "Looks like somebody beat the hell out of her."
Harris took a deep breath and ventured a quick look at Slater. "She hasn't been dead long. The blood's partially congealed, and she's African-American cause of the hair. It's kinky."
Jack lifted his brows and shifted his eyes to the deputy's closely cropped head. Harris smiled, rubbing his palm over the wiry bristles. "Mine grew out, you'd see what I mean. And I think under all the… stuff, the skin tone's darker than a white person."
"He killed her here." Jack pointed to the ground. "Blood loss is too great."
"Looks like the killer went nuts and kept on smacking at her," Harris added.
Slater looked around. "How'd she get here?"
Harris frowned. "Someone drove her?"
"Doesn't make sense," Slater muttered. "Why would somebody go to the trouble of taking a naked girl way up here and beat her to death? Where are her clothes?"
"Forced her to disrobe?" Harris asked. "Took the clothes?"
"This looks like a crime of passion," Jack observed, "but – "
Slater finished the thought. "It has all the earmarks of carefully planned, premeditated murder."
Jack was pretty sure he knew who had done the planning.
On the way back down the mountain Jack made a pitch for joint jurisdiction even though he didn't need to be diplomatic.
"Why do the feds want to get in on a local matter?" Slater's arm rested lightly over the top of the steering wheel and his voice was mild as if he were talking about the weather.
"We've got lots of resources, manpower, databases. We could be very useful."
"That's assuming this case and yours are connected."
"Look, we need local cooperation to move ahead on our case and your dead body might be connected to it."
Slater drummed his fingers on the steering wheel and slanted a stubborn glance at Jack. "And if not, what then? Are you going to pull those resources out?"
Jack warned himself that Slater, in spite of his easy-going demeanor, was no fool. He tried another tactic. "I don't mean to step on your toes, but I'll be honest with you. We've ground to a halt in our investigation, gave up hope of finding the suspect."
"You sure it's the same one?"
Jack nodded. "Why don't you take a look at my files when we get back to the office? Maybe you'll see something I missed."
Slater shrugged noncommittally, but Jack saw the quick flash of interest in his gray eyes. He was on board whether he knew it or not. All they needed now was a quick identification of the body. Jack would lay odds it was Olivia's missing student. His gut told him so, but he didn't relish breaking the news to her.
They rode back to the courthouse in silence. Jack wanted to mention Olivia, but didn't. Did Slater know she was teaching at the university, part of his jurisdiction? Had he kept in touch with her through the years? Jack felt on the edge of some bizarre reunion, the three of them back together again.
Slater tagged Connie on their way into his office. "Could you bring us two coffees?" He raised his eyebrows at Jack.
"Two blacks, Connie."
"Now, Sheriff, you know I don't do coffee." Connie's voice came through the open office door.
Slater smiled and broke through the grimness of the morning.
"Oh, all right," Connie mumbled, "but you owe me big time and I'm not like to forget it."
While they waited for the coffee, Jack tossed the first folder on Slater's desk. He picked it up and flipped through the pages. "Three cases?"
Jack nodded. "That's the first DLK victim, Laura Jean Peterson."
"Dead Language Killer."
Slater sighed. "I suppose there's a story behind that."
By the time the coffee arrived, he'd riffled through the first case file. After Connie set the coffee mugs down with unnecessary clatter and left, Slater opened the second folder and perused it. He looked up from the file. "What the hell? Crucifixion?"
Jack nodded and motioned for Slater to read on.
"Good God, he was alive when he was – holy shit."
Jack pulled a photo from the bottom of the stack. The crime scene photo showed a naked body with dark pools staining the wrists and feet.
Slater stared a long moment before reaching for the next folder. "Something tells me I don't want to read another one." He opened the file anyway.
Jack inclined his head toward the folder. "We thought Angela was the final victim."
Slater scanned the report. "Blunt force trauma." He looked at the pictures. "Resembles the unidentified body at North Shore."
"She was a thirty-one-year-old waitress from South Bend, Indiana," Jack added, as if that were the important detail. He sipped his coffee and stared emotionless out the office window into the bullpen where deputies were gathering for the shift change.
"You've got these memorized?" Slater asked with a sweep of his hand across the desk.
Jack didn't acknowledge the question. "After Angela, all the leads dried up and my investigation took a nose dive in the toilet."
"And you're looking for a new lead here."
Jack threw a fourth folder across the desk. "First this one."
Slater checked the date on the tab and raised his eyebrows. "Current?"
"Discovered a few days ago."
"You think they're all connected." A statement not a question. "And you think my DB at Tahoe is the fifth victim of the same killer."
In frustration, Jack shoved his fingers through his hair as he rose. "Shit, I don't know if this is the same guy or if it's a damn copycat."
He grabbed his briefcase, needing to get out of here, needing a break. "When you follow up on your victim, I expect full cooperation." He turned toward the office door and shot his parting words over his shoulder. "I don't want to put the screws to you on this, Slater."
"Then don't," Slater replied.
Jack lifted his hand in acknowledgment without turning around, feeling Slater's hard gaze like a target on his back as he made his way through the squad room and out the door toward the metal detector. A queasy feeling ran through his stomach.
Late that afternoon Olivia and Jack began their uneasy alliance in her office at the university.
"Did you learn anything about Keisha?" she asked right off.
He shook his head. "Nothing concrete."
Olivia looked as if she'd like to say more, but put it aside and folded her hands as she faced Jack across the battered width of her desk. "Tell me about the Latin notes."
"First the basics," Jack said. "Serial killer, four deaths so far that we're sure of. The UNSUB stopped four years ago, and we thought he'd finished, died or was incarcerated." He paused and reached into his briefcase. "Hopefully dead."
"Sorry, criminal code for unknown subject, the person whose identity we don't know. Several weeks ago, we discovered another body similar in M.O. to the first one. M.O., that's modus – "
"Operandi. I know that one." Olivia tapped a forefinger against her temple. "Latin expert, remember?"
"Didn't mean to be condescending."
"Come on, Jack." She flashed that enigmatic expression she'd always had and did the slow blink that was surely unconscious, and which he'd always found intriguing and slightly arousing. Her dark hair glistened in the overhead lighting. The shape of her mouth and the fullness of her lower lip reminded him of their velvet softness against his neck and cheek. Dangerous to go there, he warned himself.
"The notes," Olivia prompted.
He shook himself back to reality. "They came after the first two murders," he began and filled her in on the details.
"And all three notes were penned in Latin?"
He handed her the plastic bag. The notes were inside, arranged back to back. Each side was labeled with date and location in the lower right corner.
She peered curiously at one side and then the other. "'Nunca fidelis,' means – "
"Never faithful," Jack finished, wryly. "Opposite of the Marine Corps motto."
"There are how many murders now?"
"Four." He hesitated, picking his way through the mine field of her worry. "But I need to tell you something."
A quick flash of concern furrowed her brow. "What?"
"Did you know the Bigler County Sheriff is Ben Slater?"
The surprise on her face was genuine. "Our Ben Slater?"
"You didn't know?"
"I just moved from the Bay Area a few months ago. I'm still new to the Sacramento area." Her face lit up with delight. "Slater, here? And sheriff? That's bizarre."
"You haven't kept in touch?"
"No, he went away to college and… well, we lost track of each other, I guess."
"He's helping me on the DLK case," Jack said, watching her reaction, "but he doesn't know I've enlisted your aid, too."
Olivia eyed him cautiously. "Is my involvement a secret?"
"No, but I'd like the three of us to meet at the end of his shift today."
He frowned. "When I visited him this morning, a one eighty-seven call came through dispatch."
"It's code for murder."
Her face paled with alarm. "Oh, God, you think it's Keisha?"
"It's too early to worry, Olivia. Slater will let us know as soon as she's identified."
Jack nodded. "She's probably not your student, and the body's not related to the case."
Olivia touched his hand. Even in that brief moment he was conscious of the roughness of his skin beneath her cool fingers.
"Thanks," she said and he heard the reluctant gratitude in her voice.
Thanks, she'd whispered when they'd made love, that one and only time. After she'd stopped crying and he'd hidden the blood-splotched towel at the bottom of the clothes hamper. After his own tears spilled into her silky raven curls in the same way he'd spilled himself into her young, untried body.
Jack felt himself at the edge of a dangerous precipice, his footing giving way on the slippery slope of memory. His jaw tightened and suddenly he felt like hauling off and punching something. Or someone. The urge to violence unsettled him. He struggled to control the side of his nature that fought to leap out like some bestial Mr. Hyde.
What the hell was he getting himself into?
When Jack and Olivia arrived at the courthouse, she touched his arm briefly. "I want to see Ben alone for a minute." Jack saw by the determined set of her jaw that it wasn't a request.
"All right." He'd allow her this small reunion, he thought, and wandered toward the coffee urn in the corner of the bullpen while she knocked on the closed office door.
All Jack heard was a brusque "Enter," and the soft clicking of the door behind her.
When Slater strode out some fifteen minutes later and waved him into his office, Jack took in the man's sun-darkened face, high with color. Seated in the visitor's chair, Olivia looked… hell, she looked happy, even though tears lay like frozen drops at the edges of her eyes.
He shut down the idea of Livvie and Slater making each other happy, tapped down feelings of jealousy. Slater had always seen Olivia as a kid, a little sister, someone he was honor bound to protect. That wouldn't have changed.
"I got a call from your boss," Slater grumbled, waving Jack toward a padded folding chair, "and I'm about to get another visit from mine. Apparently your organization seems to think they're the only big dogs in the pack."
Jack guessed immediately what'd happened. The Judge had weaved his magic, made the proper contacts, and gotten the official support of the Bigler County District Attorney Charles Barrington. A county D.A. was the sheriff's boss, and Jack sensed that Slater and Barrington had antagonism between them.
Before Slater could sit, his intercom buzzed again.
Connie's throaty voice came over the system. "D.A.'s here, Chief. I put him in the waiting area," she cackled.
Slater smiled thinly. "Make him wait a few minutes and then send him in." He turned to Jack and looked pointedly at Olivia. "You didn't say she was involved in this."
Jack shrugged. "The Invictus Director insisted on her assisting with the case." Not exactly true, but close enough.
At that moment the door swung open and a short man in his late thirties stormed into the office. "I've been waiting." Barrington snarled.
When Jack stood and introduced Olivia and himself, however, Barrington's face turned beatific. He pumped Jack's hand enthusiastically. "We're happy to help the federal government in any way we can, Agent Holt." He threw Olivia a dismissive glance, and she sank back into her chair, an unreadable expression on her face.
"The Organization appreciates your support, Mr. Barrington."
"Great!" The district attorney rubbed his palms together like a chef ready to serve up his specialty. "You have our absolute cooperation, Agent Holt. Anything you want, anything at all, it's yours – deputies, Sheriff Slater, Dr. Gant."
Jack wondered how Olivia liked being a bartered item and caught her rolling her eyes.
Silence reigned for a full minute after Barrington left.
"Okay, Jack," Slater said. "Tell us what we need to know."
Two hours later, Jack had outlined the basic facts of the Dead Language Killer case. With chilling concern Olivia watched him present the details of the murders as if the victims were nothing more than faceless people whose violent deaths were a puzzle for him to solve. She scanned his features for an indication that he had a personal connection with them. The Jack she'd known and loved would've suffered with his victims, but this Jack was a hard, cold man without empathy or compassion. Was this detachment a persona he affected to do his work?
Or had Jack actually turned into this remote, unfeeling man?
"Any questions?" he asked as he concluded.
"I know Charlie Barrington promised heaven and earth for you, Jack," Slater warned, "but the facts are that we're a small county. I don't have that kind of manpower."
"I'll manage." Jack stood and looked at Olivia. "Ah, would you mind stepping outside a moment?"
They wanted to talk about the dead body up at Lake Tahoe, but she wasn't going to let Jack soften the news for her. "No," she answered quietly. "If I'm helping on this case, then I'm in all the way." When Jack looked like he'd argue, she lifted her brows. "All or nothing, Jack."
"All right, then." He turned back to Slater. "Have you formally ID'ed the body at the lake?"
Slater's gaze bounced from Jack to Olivia and back again.
"One of my students is missing," Olivia explained, "and I thought… maybe… " She trailed off. Then she sat down again, expecting the worst kind of blow.
Slater reached for a slender file on his desk. "We used dental records," he said softly, looking at Olivia with tenderness on his rugged face. "A student at Fatima University named Keisha Johnson."
Even though she'd expected it, the words were sharp punches to her stomach. Olivia felt herself pitch forward. Or rather, felt Jack push her head between her knees.
"Steady now," he said, his voice kind too, something she hadn't expected. "Steady."
For no reason she could name, anger replaced grief in an instant. She sat up, batting at his large hand, warm and rough at the back of her neck. "I'm okay. I'm all right."
She stood and swayed, disproving her confident words.
"Like hell you are." Jack shoved her back into her chair, this time none too gently. "Water?" he said to Slater.
But Ben had already rung his assistant and Connie pushed through the door with a paper cup of water. Olivia drank thirstily and then dipped her fingers into the cup, running them across her forehead and down her temples.
Fifteen minutes later, feeling a little better, she hoisted her purse over her shoulder, gave Ben a fierce hug, and walked with Jack to the door. She looked back to catch Slater's serious gray eyes locked on them.
At her side Jack watched her with an intense frown, but whether from concern or irritation, she couldn't tell. She stepped through the metal detectors and out the double doors of the court house, shivering even though the early evening was quite mild.
By the time they reached the parking lot, the street lamps had winked on. Jack walked her to her car. She crossed her arms over her chest and turned to face him. "We should talk."
He dragged his eyes from her lips. "We'll spend more time together on this case than we ever thought possible." He forced a laugh. "We'll be sick of each other by the time we're finished."
"You know that's not what I mean."
"You're right, we need to talk." He rested his arm against the car roof and caught her scent. "Now's just not the right time."
She frowned. "You owe me an explanation. You can't just brush over the facts as if they never happened."
He shook his head impatiently. "Do you even know the facts, Olivia? Do you know what happened graduation night? What happened to Roger Strong?"
Confusion crossed her face. "My stepfather?"
"Yeah, that drunken lump of humanity who made your life hell."
"What's he got to do with it?" She rushed on. "He… mom said he left her." She caught her bottom lip between her teeth. "He just took off and we never heard from him again."
"And your mother was always so reliable," he said sarcastically.
"If you know something I don't, tell me. I've been waiting a long time for the truth."
He wanted to build a barrier between them out of her anger, but he couldn't. Instead he traced a knuckle down her smooth cheek and felt her lean involuntarily into his hand. He breathed deeply as her silky hair brushed against his jaw, feeling the pull of her like a magnet.
"Tell me," she whispered.
He dropped his hand. "Right now we've got to concentrate on the case. Until it's solved, we can't let personal issues get in the way."
She turned away, slid into the driver's seat, and stared over the steering wheel as if the fight had gone out of her. "It feels like we never… finished. Like we need to settle whatever was between us back then."
"We were just kids."
He leaned into the car interior and a breeze blew strands of her hair across his mouth. The urge to touch her was painful. "It didn't mean anything," he lied.
Olivia nodded stiffly. "We were just kids," she repeated and changed the subject. "Where are you staying?"
He stepped back and shifted his briefcase to the other hand. "The Brooksfield off Interstate 80 below Rocklin, but I need to other arrangements."
A primitive force surged through him as he took in her face bathed in the soft glow of the dash. The pure animal attraction was so strong he felt his control slipping. Why did she bring out this… urge in him? She looked so damned appealing with her makeup all gone and her hair tangled in the way that reminded him of how she'd looked that morning.
He was on the verge of doing something stupid when he heard Slater's voice at his back. "Need directions?"
Jack felt an irrational desire to mark the territory around Olivia.
"Why are you being such a tease?" Ted Burrows accused.
The girl hiccupped softly and hunched her shoulders, her face in her hands. "You said a movie. That's all. I thought that's what you meant. Nothing else."
He stared straight ahead through the windshield. "You're acting like a high school kid."
Disgust transformed his handsome face. She'd been so flattered, bragging to her roommates about gorgeous almost-to-be Dr. Burrows. She'd preened around the apartment in her underwear, laughing about how she was going to score big points in Randolph's class because she knew the T.A.
"Like know in the Biblical sense?" Carrie had teased. Her overweight roommate with the big boobs was smart so she didn't have to worry about currying favor to get good grades. Dani had just learned that word, curry, and that it didn't just mean something to do with food.
Ted's face softened a little and he patted her shoulder. "Look, kid, it's okay. Just a misunderstanding. I was thinking one thing." He traced a finger down her bare arm. "And you were talking about something else." He patted the hands clenched tightly on her lap and turned to start the ignition. "No harm, no foul, kid. Don't worry about it."
Dani hated when he called her kid. She dried her tears with the palm of her hand and swiped her finger under her nose. God, she must look awful. She'd worked so hard to dress sexy and sophisticated, the way Ted liked his girls.
Women, she amended.
How was she going to face that smirk on her roommate's face, the superiority she showed whenever Dani asked for help on an assignment? At least Dani had looks and wasn't overweight. Well, not fat anyway like Carrie. And she had great legs, even if she said so herself. Good skin. Pretty hair. She made up her mind.
"Ted, I'm sorry. I just didn't understand." She placed a tentative hand on his arm. "Can we just start all over?" she asked with a bright smile.
"Are you sure? I don't want you changing your mind later when it's… you know, too late. In the heat of the moment, so to speak." Ted grinned the broad, beautiful smile that she loved.
God, he was so beautiful.
He would put the note where the idiot-cops could find it without looking up their asses. He was still pissed as hell that the crime scene techs missed the original note four years ago with their piss-poor autopsy. He'd stuffed it in the girl's throat. Probably destroyed through sloppy forensics, confirming his suspicions that federal agents need only have a pulse to qualify for government service.
There would be no mistakes this time.
He circled slowly around this elegant, old neighborhood in Sacramento, searching for a place to leave his car where it wouldn't draw attention. Finally, he reached a dead-end area that abutted against the outermost portion of the park. He locked the car and checked the trunk once more.
The young woman's breathing was shallow, but the pulse at her neck thrummed steadily. Good. The man closed the trunk and took off on foot, skirting the perimeter of the gated park, looking for an entrance.
Security was extremely lax at the Samuel Brannan Community Park and Zoo. When the man approached the main gate, he had no trouble bypassing the code. He pulled the gate open and closed it behind him. The park was cool and dark, and the earthy smell of the animals in their cages assailed him as he crept along the black-topped path toward his destination.
The lions' habitat.
He peered beyond the railing into the abyss of the lions' cave. At this hour of the night, the animals slept or paced their cages on padded feet, housed quietly until the noisy squalls of gawking children intruded on their peace tomorrow morning.
No matter, he'd rouse the beasts for a special treat, a little night-time snack.
He retraced his steps, leaving the gate ajar. As he approached the patch of birch trees where he'd left his car, he paused and looked around, searched the area, alert to any indication that something was amiss. Silence cloaked the night. Not even the bark of a dog or the screech of a cat disturbed the quiet. The closest houses lay dark and noiseless at the other end of the curved, deserted street.
He opened the car trunk and looked at the young athlete still decked in running shorts. Not so bright-eyed and bushy-tailed any more, hmmm, Danielle? Tucking the edges of the thick carpet around the body, the man hoisted the girl onto his shoulder. Swinging the light load easily, he made his way back through the deserted grounds of the park.
Getting down the rocky incline of the lions' habitat was tricky. Good thing he was in top physical shape. He knew he looked weaker than he was and that suited him just fine. His natural stamina was one more secret he liked keeping.
Although the lioness and her cub were caged inside their cave for the night, he'd have no problem with that. He knew a great deal about locks. He placed the unconscious body carefully by the rock wall that separated the animals from the incline and the railing above where visitors watched. Tomorrow there'd be quite a show, rather like a circus. He glanced at the body and chuckled silently. Danielle in the lions' den – quite a Bible story here in Sam Brannan Park Zoo.
Carefully unwrapping the two-pound package of ground sirloin, he dug a hole in the center, pulled his latest note from his jacket pocket, and placed it inside the beef. He formed the meat into a large ball, the paper hidden at the center, and rewrapped the beef in the butcher paper. Laid it on the ground beside his backpack. He raised the girl's body into a sitting position, anchored against one of the rocky ledges. Pressing two fingers to the carotid artery, he smiled in satisfaction. A steady thread still pulsed there.
Now, where to cushion the ground meat? He lifted the jersey and smeared the sirloin over the soft flesh of the stomach. Then he extracted a vial of animal blood from his backpack. He dribbled the blood liberally over the chest, arms, and neck.
The Avenger stood back to survey his handiwork. That should do the trick. The woman, the lions, the meat. He'd rather arrange the tableaux when the sacrifice was awake, but that was an impractical wish. The important point was that the lions consume the meat and swallow the notes. And the police discover the location of them this time.
Now to let loose the animals.
He felt an overwhelming desire to blow a trumpet or signal the applause of an unseen audience. Damned shame so few people appreciated his work and his mission. There should've been a large crowd to view the spectacle. Some apocryphal, revelatory heralding before the commencement of the entertainment.
Never mind. Jackson Holt, the agent in charge last time, had bungled the job. This time he'd have to work harder.
He surveyed the scene and turned to the cages. By the time he finished fiddling with the lock, the lioness was sniffing quietly at the gate. Languid from sleep, she was still alert enough to gobble the hunk of ground beef that he dropped inside the bars. Good, the old girl was hungry.
The man hoisted his backpack onto his shoulder and slowly scattered a trail of the remaining meat into the arena. He eased backwards from the gate he'd left ajar. When he deemed it safe to turn his back on the animal, he ran like hell and clamored up the rock side to hang from the spiked iron railing.
A few moments later, the lioness ambled gracefully from the den, her magnificent sinews and muscles rolling smoothly beneath her pelt. Her cub trailed behind her. Within minutes they found the athlete's body and began to feast upon the rich sirloin smeared on her tender, vulnerable belly. The Avenger watched as the animals devoured the beef. Good, when the vets put the animals down, the autopsy would produce his message. He'd see if the authorities could extract meaning out of it this time.
The animals finished with the meat of the cow. And then turned to the meat of the young woman.
"You stupid bitch," Diego Vargas snarled.
He lifted his arm and swung backhanded at the young hooker standing by the motel’s circular bed. The edge of his heavy emerald ring cut into her lip.
"Mister, I didn’t mean nothing by it," she said, pressing her hand to her mouth to stem the trickle of blood. "I was just wondering why, that’s all."
She anchored her legs on the carpet, bracing herself for the second blow, and when it came, the force of it toppled her backwards onto the mattress. "Please don’t hurt me," she moaned, blood gushing from her nose.
The blood always excited Vargas.
Santos observed from the doorway as his boss pounced on the girl, pinning her beneath his bulky body. The bodyguard stepped outside the room. At the sounds coming from inside the motel room, he curled his lip in distaste. Pinche cabron! Knowing the girl was barely eighteen, he thought of his little sister Corazón in Mexico, and knew what he’d do if un hermano did such a thing to her. Such a man would no longer have the equipment to hurt young women.
Santos sighed heavily. Diego Vargas paid him well, so what business was it of his? Still, what a pig! Cerdo de mierda!
Muffled sobs echoed softly from behind the door. Eventually, when Diego grew tired of the excitement caused by the girl’s fear, they would subside. Next, Santos would hear the distinctive snoring of his boss. And then, when sufficient time had passed, he would enter and see if the girl was alive. This time there would be a mess.
Sometimes Diego did not control himself sufficiently and the cleanup was complicated. Santos thought of Vargas' wife, the beautiful Magdalena. Better that his boss take out his lusts on the hooker than on her.
Dios, what a pig!
Still, the man paid him very well.
Jack had recruited Olivia, met with the county sheriff and Charles Barrington, and by sheer will he'd brought the beast under control again. Almost.
Barbed shreds of it still flicked over his flesh like slivers of glass as he stripped and stepped into the shower. The hot water sluiced over his worn flesh and the steam clouded the under-sized bathroom. He shaved – yet again – and brushed his teeth before reaching for the bottle of blue tablets, giant pills the color of the sky on a spring day.
He popped one instead of the usual dosage into his mouth, hoping if a vision came on, he'd be ready. He pulled back the spread and fell naked onto the clean sheets of the motel bed, his muscles nearly boneless beneath the remaining pricks of the beast.
He's back in the African jungle. Running, but this time, he's the quarry, and his pursuer a ferocious monster, swifter and more relentless than any enemy he's ever faced. Heat thunders in his head like ancient tribal drums as he zigzags through the undergrowth. The stinging nettles are miniature shards of glass on his feet and legs. Within seconds tiny cuts open into chasms and he looks downward at the torrent of blood gushing from his body. Twin wounds surface on his wrists and feet in catholic retribution.
Jack glances over his shoulder, a rookie mistake, for in that moment a gnarled scrub oak with its toothed leaves rises up to thwart his escape. He tumbles and rolls in one quick movement, grabbing vainly for the knife at his waist. Gone, he realizes at the same moment that he takes in the sight of his naked body, slick with sweat and blood. He blinks moisture from his eyes as he tumbles toward the sudden precipice. Seconds later he's falling, twisting in the air, trying to turn his body into a half-assed dive so he won't break his goddamn neck.
In the irrelevance of dreams, he wonders where he's summoned the temerity to swear so close to entering the presence of the God he doesn't believe in any more. Right before his plummeting makes contact with the torrent of water, he glimpses diaphanous, but distinctly female features and a hand reaching toward him from the edge of the cliff above.
Jack woke up to sheets drenched with the acrid stench of his own sweat. His mouth tasted like cardboard and coffee grounds, and his body ached from the lumpy mattress. He swung his legs over the edge of the bed, staring gloomily at the inadequate length. Even angled sideways, his long body didn't fit. He definitely needed to make other sleeping arrangements.
The sun's dull glare peeked through the motel's nondescript drapes, casting dust motes that danced through the stuffy air. Another motel room, but essentially the same furnishings. He reached for the medication vials on the nightstand, tapped out another blue tablet – half the dosage again – and washed it down with water.
Swiping his hand over his rough beard, he stumbled again to the shower, waiting for the blue tab to fire up the brain synapses so he could make connections from the abstract symbols in the dream-vision. The blue pills were another delightful concoction made especially for the Wonder Boy by Dr. Davis. Trouble was, they sometimes caused anterograde amnesia.
Not that he was so hot to create memories, considering his line of work, but any kind of forgetfulness was troubling. As the water pounded over his sweat-slicked body, he began to deconstruct the dream. The Judge wouldn't approve but Jack was determined to wean himself from the blue meds, so the details of the dream remained fuzzy.
When the dreams first began shortly before his eighteenth birthday, he'd ignored them. During the nights before his high school graduation, he'd experienced a recurring dream that ended in an act of violence. The events on grad night showed him the dreams actually meant something because that particular night culminated in fear and death.
After putting on a clean pair of shorts, he lay down and continued the deconstruction process. First, the jungle. Easy enough. He'd just come off assignment in Africa. Mere thought proximity, having just returned from there. Okay, that could work, but what about the barbs? Thorns, spiny nettles, shard-like leaves – all things that pricked, cut, or tore. He assumed the dream related to the current case, but didn't see a connection. The killer had never used a knife as a weapon. For a few minutes he let his mind wander at will in free association. Nothing.
He moved on to the second point. In a strange paradox, in the dream he was the prey, not the hunter. He scanned his memory for prior assignments. Again, nothing. Could this dream foreshadow a twist of the hunter-quarry theme? Would the DLK hunt Jack? Or would the killer target someone Jack cared about? He had no family, no friends outside of colleagues. Not the Judge, even though Jack was a favored tool of Invictus. In his mind he saw Olivia's face, the dark brows and high cheekbones. She was a possibility. Since he'd been near her, he'd felt his powers increasing at an alarmingly rate as if she were a trigger. Maybe. Everything seemed to come back to Olivia.
The final point in the dream – a woman stretching her hand to save him. The filmy tenor of the vision was too indistinct for him to be sure, but presumably it was Olivia. Yeah, he thought, Olivia would reach out to him before he plummeted to his death. Even now, after the distance of years and the stench of betrayal, she'd try to save him. But what the hell did any of it have to do with the case? Something he couldn't see? Nothing?
He forcibly voided his mind of the dream and thought about the team he'd have to pull together for the investigation. Olivia, helping because she'd given her word. A reluctant Slater and what deputies he could spare because the D.A. forced him to. He'd see if Slater would release Waylon Harris, the deputy who'd found the latest body. The Judge boasted a vast budget and unlimited supply of idealistic young men eager to serve their country, but Jack knew he was on his own for this mission.
He thought of the Invictus motto from an old World War I poet. "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori." Personally, Jack had started to question how sweet and noble dying for one's country was. Especially if the country was just plain wrong.
Unexpectedly his cell phone rang and he fumbled to retrieve it from the nightstand. He glanced at the readout, a local number he didn't recognize. "Holt."
Jack waited, not minding the dead air of silence over a phone.
"If you're going to be in Bigler County very long, I thought you might want a more hospitable place to stay besides a hotel," Slater offered. Of course, he'd run a check on Jack and knew exactly where he was staying.
Jack glanced around the motel room, thought about having every meal out or ordering room service, the stale stuffy odor of the place. "What'd you have in mind?"
"I have a guest house out back of my place."
"Fancy. Didn't know county sheriffs made that kind of money."
"You don't have to accept the invite."
"Are you being kind hearted or do you just want to keep me in your sights?" Jack asked.
"What do you think?" Slater rattled off an address not far from the university and hung up.
Olivia had been a bitch when he'd married her, and her successful career had only made her more of one. An uppity, frigid, freeze-your-balls bitch. From the start she'd thought she was too good for him, and now with a fancy PhD, she acted like she was the queen bee.
He had news for Miss Fancy Pants.
Bill Gant tipped the bottle back and felt the last dribble of Jack Daniels trickle down his throat. Fuck! Now he'd have to get dressed and go out. Forgetting why he needed to move his ass, he sprawled across the saggy hotel mattress a moment. At last his brain climbed out of its stupor. He struggled into his pants and threw a sweater over his wife-beater shirt.
He always got a kick out of that name – wife-beater. Like a man put on a particular kind of undershirt to beat the hell out of his wife. He knew a wife he'd be happy to pound the shit out of. Stuck up Olivia Gant, even though she wasn't legally his wife any more. Gant, because she hadn't taken back her maiden name after he signed the divorce papers. No matter what she said, no matter what the law said, Bill knew that meant she still wanted him.
It meant she was still his.
Groping his way down the hallway, he fumbled for his car keys as he headed for the parking lot. He'd seen a liquor store on the west side of Sacramento and drove at a crawl towards it. Wouldn't pass a breathalyzer, he thought, better go real slow. He cruised the streets, passed barred store windows. Several women teetered on mile-high heels under the garish street lights.
He found the open liquor store and made his purchase, throwing in a carton of milk and cold cereal before handing over his money to the clerk. Back in his car, heading for the seedy hotel room, he stopped at a corner where a girl lounged against a brick wall.
She sidled up to his open passenger window. "Hey, mister, wanna have a good time?"
She looked barely sixteen and Bill Gant had standards. He didn't mess with kids. "Get lost," he growled.
"Come on, honey, don't be like that." She opened the top button on her bright green blouse, thrusting her breasts over the lip of the car window. "Like what you see?"
"Shove off, kid."
"Screw you," she said and flipped the bird as she sauntered off, stumbling in the stilettos like a child playing dress up in mommy's shoes.
The second woman's face sagged beneath vacant eyes, her breath reeked of liquor, and Bill wanted to throw up. He clenched his fists on the steering wheel and thought of Olivia. She'd shoved him out of her life, reduced him to hooking up with sluts on the streets. He eased his car around the corner, parked in an alley outside the range of the street light, and waited, remembering his wife's soft pale skin and small waist. Imagined himself tightening his fingers around her pretty neck while he came inside her. He felt his erection tighten against his jeans.
The third woman was just right. Like Goldilocks, he thought, smirking cruelly inside the dark interior of the car. With long black hair that reminded him of Olivia, although this broad's was clearly a dye job, the woman was pretty in a gaudy, street-wise way. She had an edge that let him know she could take care of herself. They agreed on a fee and she jumped in the car, directing him to a pay-by-the-hour hotel several blocks off Manzanita.
Bill placed the money on the dresser before she asked for it, letting her see there was more than the negotiated fee. "I might get a little… rowdy," he said, watching her face carefully, gauging if she'd be game or not. "Are you good with that?"
He thought he saw a gleam in her eyes. It was always easier when the women liked it. Frigid bitch Olivia always whined if he got rough.
"Sure, honey. I'm into anything you want." She glanced at the bills on the dresser. "I'm Goldie. What's your name?"
Bill barked out a harsh laugh at the irony. "Not necessary." He shoved her down on the bed.
"You're payin' for my time whether it's a little or a lot."
He was sure the prostitute had put up with much worse, but when Bill finished with her, ugly bruises dotted her upper arms and thighs, and finger marks showed angry and red at her neck. Standing naked by the dresser and counting the bills, she seemed not to notice or care.
She glanced over at him as he slipped on his shorts. "That was a wild ride, sweetie. Come see me again when you're up for more. I'm usually at the same corner." A tiny fleck of blood appeared on the woman's bottom lip. She casually licked the drop from her mouth, and he wondered who it belonged to – her or him. She liked it, he thought.
As he staggered back to his car, he thought he'd feel better, but the rage continued to build as he drank. Olivia liked it rough, too, although she always pretended otherwise. Complained he was hurting her. The bitch never let him do the things a normal man expected. He thought of making her sorry she'd ever crossed him and smiled in the dark motel room, clutching his bottle of Jackie D.
"Get him on the goddamn phone!" the Judge roared.
Higgins jumped so high Warren would've thought he'd have a heart attack if he hadn't known the little man was fit as a fiddle.
"Sir, the motel where he was registered checked him out and he's not answering his cell or Prima phones."
The Judge forcibly lowered his voice. "Myron, we pay you a great deal of money to see that things run efficiently around here." He watched as Higgins bobbed his head up and down like a yo-yo. "Good, now do what you're paid to do and track him down."
"Yes sir, I'll try the Prima phone again."
Calmer now, Warren sat back in his chair and swiveled to look out the window. "Did you get the Phenobarbital compound mailed off?"
"Yes sir, Agent Holt signed for it the day he checked out of the motel."
"That's good," the Judge murmured. Chewing on his unlit cigar, he stared out the window and wondered where the hell Jack had gone. "One more thing, get Dr. Davis up here. I need to talk to him ASAP. In person."
"Certainly, sir," Higgins said softly and closed the door with a soft click.
The Judge had spent the seventies training soldiers in 'Nam and then more years as a district court judge. Years of appellate court decisions based on laws that set guilty men free had disillusioned him and propelled him toward an organization like Invictus. He'd personally recruited every agent in his stable, and Jackson Holt was the best he'd ever seen. The Judge had known from the start that Jack's stellar performance came from far more than Dr. Davis' designer medications.
He pushed himself out of the soft leather chair, rolling the cigar around on his tongue. Opening the top drawer of his filing cabinet, he pulled out a key taped to the metal bottom. He opened the door to the only closet in the room and reached on the top shelf for a heavy duty, steel enforced metal container about the size of a boot box. He fitted the key in the lock and carefully removed the contents – several inch-wide portfolios.
Placing the stack on his desk, he pressed the call button on his phone. "Heard from Davis?"
"He's on his way from Washington, sir. He should be here within the hour."
"Good," he grunted and opened the first file.
The top page listed vital statistics: Jackson Samuel Holt. DOB: 10-12-74, El Paso, Texas. Parents: Samuel J. Holt and Roxanne Rivers. Juvenile Record: Sealed.
He'd decided to let Jack keep his birth name and date. Social altered, of course. The boy had no family, foster parents wouldn't look for him, and as for friends – well, there hadn't been many. Who could've imagined at the time that the Morse girl would have any future part to play in his new life? The Judge was beginning to suspect he'd underestimated her.
He paused to stare across the room at a blank wall. His wife nagged him to put a picture there, something with flowers, but he'd resisted. He liked the blank canvas to write his thoughts on.
Right now those thoughts whipped him back to a day when hair still fringed his head and he could see the toes of his shoes over his gut. When he was a vital man and Jackson Holt was a frightened boy. He painted the boy's shaking frame on the wall, quivering under the glare of the lights while a medic stitched up his arm. An arm that'd miraculously already begun to heal. Jack shook, but by God, the boy never made a sound while the fellow made tiny, perfect stitches along his bicep.
Afterward, Warren had helped him off the stretcher in the back of the van. "You can get a few things from your house," he'd told the boy, "but don't talk about any of this." He stared up into the dark, questioning eyes and admired the healthy breadth of the boy's shoulders, the latent strength in his arms and knew he'd found someone special.
"We took care of Roger." He'd squeezed the boy's arm in warning and promise. "And we'll take care of you, too."
For the next two hours, Warren poured over the documents surrounding the life and ostensible death of Jackson Holt. He knew them by heart, but he searched anyway. The clinical trials from Dr. Davis' research were included in the dossier, along with the adverse reactions. Jack had always been an anomaly. He didn't really need the meds for enhancement as much as for control of his abilities.
Walking to the window again, the Judge looked out at the trees, the scurrying people who shoved their way around the edges of Roosevelt Park. If people were privy to half the secrets he knew, they'd do a lot more than quicken their pace. Evil walked among them. No need to conjure up some kind of biblical devil to plague mankind. Men were malevolent enough on their own account. The new breed of soldier trained by Invictus was a pre-emptive solution to combat the evil running rampant among them. But Jack was different from all the other agents. And now he was in trouble. Warren knew that as surely as he sucked on this cancer-causing stick.
Their golden boy had gotten himself into some kind of mess. He should've reported in again. Yep, this favorite son was ass deep in some kind of serious trouble.
Olivia’s patience was running thin. Since eleven this morning the newly-formed Dead Language Killer Task Force had been assembled around the conference table in an incident room in the county courthouse. She thought uneasily of the stack of papers she’d left ungraded on her desk and the lesson prep left undone.
In addition to Jack and Slater, a pretty young Latina woman, whom Ben introduced as Assistant District Attorney Isabella Torres, joined them. She glanced at her watch every few minutes as though she’d rather be somewhere else. After they finished their initial assessments, Jack outlined the basics of the case and the roles each of them would take. "I’d like to keep the task force small for the time being, just the four of us."
Olivia watched Jack gesture with those long fingers. He’d been a handsome boy, but he’d become a compelling man with hair like heavy black silk, burnished complexion, and dark eyes that glistened like obsidian. She couldn’t tell if the hitch around her ribs was from memory or from gazing at him now. He’d grown into assurance and command, she realized, the mantle of leadership resting comfortably on his wide shoulders.
"We’ll add team members later on for the grunt work," Jack continued.
Slater nodded and ADA Torres lifted her shoulders negligently. When introduced to Olivia, the woman had seemed friendly enough, but preoccupied. She was a small woman, like Olivia, but in a graceful, long-limbed way.
Finally Torres cleared her throat and spoke up. "I want it known for the record that I'm opposed to discontinuing the Vargas assignment. I’m close to getting him on the assault charges." She threw a defiant look at Jack. "I don't want to lose the momentum."
Uneasy silence followed while Olivia wondered how they were supposed to work together with all the land mines lying around.
"Maybe you can do both," Jack suggested in friendly compromise that surprised Olivia. "We’ll start with the notes and Olivia’s expertise while you continue on the Vargas case."
Isabella looked relieved as she gathered up her materials and stuffed them in her briefcase."Okay, then, that’s settled."
After the ADA left, Slater took a deep breath and said grudgingly, "Thanks for letting Isabella work the other case. Barrington won't make it easy for her."
"What’s the deal there?"
"I've heard of him," Olivia said as she rose and swung her purse over her shoulder. "He's a city councilman in Sacramento."
Slater nodded. "They're looking at him for campaign fraud at the loud insistence of the Latino community, interestingly enough."
"Why's that Bigler County's problem?" Jack asked.
"Several months ago, Vargas’ wife Magdalena walked into my office and asked for confidential police protection."
Olivia felt a sliver of apprehension as she remembered her ex-husband's late-night visit. "Why didn’t she go to the local police?"
Slater shook his head. "Said her husband's influence was too deep and she couldn't be sure which officers were in his pocket. Claimed her husband’s been mentally and physically abusing her for years. Came to me off the record because she went to school with an old law school friend of mine."
Jack spread his palms. "Still, it’s domestic abuse."
"Magdalena contends that Vargas is heavily involved with local gangs and is a major player in drug running, prostitution, and gambling from Stockton to the Nevada and Oregon borders."
Jack understood. "Ah."
"I convinced her to talk to Isabella Torres. Magdalena issued a large number of allegations against her husband, but few provable facts."
"But Torres believes her," Jack prompted.
"Isabella wrangled a voluntary meet with Vargas, thinks she can rattle his cage."
"Voluntary? That doesn’t sound like a guilty man."
Slater shrugged. "Internal affairs is running a parallel investigation on the money sources, so he probably thinks he’s safe on the assault."
"Still, isn't that a waste of your resources?"
"Magdalena insists Vargas is a violent psychopath, so Isabella's following that lead." Slater paused. "She has a particular hatred for men like Diego Vargas."
Jack had liked the efficient young ADA and figured she owed him a favor now. "I’d like to watch her work," he mused. "Maybe I’ll sit in on her interview with the Councilman."
Slater lifted his brows. "Yeah, that’ll work."
"I'm sure she can be persuaded." As Olivia made her way to the door, Jack closed his briefcase, and followed her.
"There's more," Slater said to their backs. "Earlier this year, the Maidu City PD contacted me about someone targeting young prostitutes in that area."
Jack turned back. "Maidu?"
"College town near San Francisco. Anyway, they initially thought the women were being attacked by college frat boys as part of an initiation prank, but had no physical evidence."
"But Mrs. Vargas implicated her husband in the attacks," Jack guessed, seeing where Slater was going.
"Magdalena might not be a reliable source, but Isabella believes her." Slater ran a large hand over his shadowed jaw. "The fact is that three prostitutes were raped and brutally beaten, and although they're looking at a serial rapist, I thought of your boy."
Jack shook his head. "Not likely."
Slater glanced at Olivia before continuing. "All three girls were beaten pretty bad after the attacks. They survived, but one won't walk again, another's in a coma, and one lost her sight."
"My UNSUB didn't rape any of his victims and he wasn't gender specific. One of the victims was a man. Plus, he keeps a low profile. I doubt your Diego Vargas is my suspect."
"At least one weapon in the rape beatings was the metal end of a golf club," Slater pressed.
Olivia stepped around Jack toward Slater, understanding on her face. "You think there's a connection to my student Keisha."
Jack doubted multiple assaults on hookers were related to his Dead Language Killer, but he could follow the lead while the deputies did the knock and talks. "How far away is this Maidu?"
"Not far, about a three-hour drive."
A day, he thought, that's all it'd take to check it out. And two of his victims had been beaten to death by some kind of club. He studied Olivia's face for a moment. She would want to come along, he guessed, determined as she was to find her student's killer. "We could make a day trip," he offered, clearly addressing her. "Might be worth the trip."
Slater frowned, but remained silent.
Olivia looked surprised. "Maybe."
Suddenly the day seemed a little brighter and Jack refused to wonder why.
Before going home, Olivia swung by the university to pick up a set of essays. The campus was quiet and the quad lights cast dim shadows as a few students hurried home from late classes. Crossing the campus to the faculty parking lot, Olivia pressed the remote unlock button on her car, preoccupied with Jack's strange suggestion that they travel to Maidu together.
The faint sound of footsteps startled her and she whirled around, bumping against the car door. Ted Burrows loomed behind her. "Ted, what are you doing here so late?" she blurted out.
"I could ask the same thing of you, Teach."
"Excuse me?" Olivia frequently found Ted amusing, sometimes irritating, but never threatening. Now she wondered if she'd underestimated the graduate student.
"Sorry, didn't mean to surprise you. I stayed to finish up some research for Randy's class."
She eyed him thoughtfully. She didn't think Howard Randolph would appreciate Ted's use of the disrespectful nickname. Randy, indeed. Somehow Ted managed to infuse the name with a tone more snide than affectionate, toying with a double entendre that might be deliberate.
Ted watched her slid into her car. "I'll wait until you leave," he offered with a smirk. "Wouldn't want anything to happen to you."
His tone made her feel uneasy. Ted had a reputation as a player. Every week a different pretty girl trailed after him. Olivia wondered if he'd ever crossed any lines in the teacher-student relationship. Close to a doctoral degree in Ancient Studies, Burrows was taking longer than most graduate students to finish, evidently liking his play-as-you-go plan.
Even though he was handsome in a bad boy sort of way, she wondered how he attracted so many different girls. She almost laughed. That was a no-brainer. They were freshmen and sophomores, after all, and the sense of danger probably titillated them.
"Oh, wait." Ted pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket. "Someone called while you were out."
"You were in my office?"
"It's Randy's too, isn't it?" He thrust a pink message paper in her hand and hurried off.
Frowning, Olivia locked the doors, and pulled out of the parking lot onto Newcastle Road, then headed west on Highway 50 toward her house in Willow Park, an upscale Sacramento neighborhood near the zoo. Clearly she needed to set some boundaries for the young, flippant grad student. Although he might be annoying, she was sure he was completely harmless.
As she pressed down on the gas pedal, her car surged ahead on the nearly empty highway. At the first opportunity she read the message by the glow of the dashboard light.
Pick you up at 8:00 a.m. Jack.
Her heart fluttered in the region of her stomach and she forgot about reprimanding Ted Burrows. If he hadn't snooped around her office, she wouldn't have gotten the message. Feeling like a schoolgirl, she turned up the car radio and tapped her fingers to the music.
A discreet knock drew the Judge’s attention from the files spread on his desk.
"Yeah?"Myron Higgins’ voice sounded through the door. "Dr. Davis is here, sir."
The Judge glanced at the wall clock. Where had the time gone? He'd been ruminating like an old fart who didn’t have better things to do than think about past triumphs and failures. He wasn’t sure which category Jackson Holt fell into. He drummed his fingers on the desktop, wondering why the hell life couldn’t be simpler. He’d brought the boy in, trained him, and discovered how unique he was. Now it looked like something was messing Jack up, and things were getting out of hand.
The knock at the door sounded firmer.
"All right, all right," he grumbled. "Give me five minutes and send him in."
He gathered the files and stacked them neatly in one pile, thought better of it and scooped them into the bottom desk drawer. The office door swung open as he rose to greet Dr. Spencer Davis, research scientist and practitioner for the Invictus’ drug program.
A lanky, boneless man in his early fifties, Davis towered over the Judge. He extended his hand and gave a cordial shake, then sat in the chair opposite Warren’s desk. Davis crossed his legs at the knee and jiggled his foot as his eyes jumped around the room, lingering here and there, but avoiding Warren’s gaze. The Judge realized this was the first time the doctor had been in his office. Usually, their meetings took place in laboratories or medical facilities, where the doctor displayed the confidence of a man at home in his own element.
"Good of you to come, Doctor."
"Sure, sure." Davis rubbed his chin and then pushed his glasses up on his nose. "I’m not sure why you wanted to see me. Has anything gone wrong in the field?"
"Why would you think that?"
"Just wondered." Clearing his throat, he hurried on, "You've never asked me here before."
The Judge leaned back in his chair. "You’re right. We have a problem with Jackson Holt."
"Agent Thirteen? Oh, sure, how’s the new medication working on him? We tweaked his meds several missions ago." He opened his PDA and worked the screen. "The benzoids – they're the white ones that bring him down during Recovery – are up to 50 mg, the lysergic – the reds – to 150 micrograms."
"A hundred fifty? Won’t that fry his brain?"
Davis frowned and looked up, as if the fact they’d been experimenting on a human being had never crossed his mind. "It’s a heavy dosage, but we sent him the Phenobarbital compound."
"You're sure the Phens will counteract the aggression side effects?"
Davis nodded and scrolled the hand display. "Actually, Holt has tolerated the increase surprisingly well. Previous subjects died on that dosage and subsequent specimens had deleterious effects with a lesser dosage."
"So his body can handle it?"
"If he follows the correct drug regimen and dosage." Davis tapped his forefinger on his lips. "Of course, Holt’s, uh, pre-existing condition skews the normal results, but he can take a far heavier dosage than the other agents."
"What if he increases or cuts back on any of the dosages?"
Davis raised his brows like he’d never considered the possibility. "Why would he go off protocol? He understands the risk, knows the drugs must be taken in tandem."
Warren leaned back in his chair, his fingers laced over his gut. "Pretend I don't know anything. Explain it all to me again."
"Lab rats given extra dosages of the lysergic underwent extraordinary adrenal changes. Without a proper dosage of the benzodiazepine and Phenobarbital compounds, they couldn't slow down their metabolism."
Warren waved an impatient hand. "Bottom line it, Spencer."
The doctor shifted in his chair and let his eyes wander toward the door as if he couldn't wait to get out of the room. "They became aggressive, violent, and unpredictable. Within seventy-two hours, they were dead."
"That's what I thought."
It was far too late for an unexpected visit, Jack told himself, glancing at the gym's wall clock. Olivia had said she was going to work at home on the Latin notes, but it was now past 11:00 pm. She'd probably gone to bed.
He spent several hours working out his frustrations. Normally satisfied only by hunting, the burgeoning need inside him quieted down after thirty minutes on the speed bag. Then he'd done a full hour on the punching bag. Even through the protective gloves, his knuckles ached. Punch it down, kick it out, he muttered with every blow.
Even with the Phens and the benzoids, the Change felt like liquid fire running through his veins. Unless he hunted soon, or satisfied its equivalent, his blood would ignite like an accelerant-driven explosion. He continued taking the reds, but he didn't think that was fueling the Change. It was Olivia, but how or why he didn't understand.
In the car, almost as if he had no conscious will of his own, Jack set the GPS instructions to Sacramento and Olivia's home. He hadn't a clue what he'd say to her, but urgency pulsed in his blood like wild jungle drums. He had to see her.
Had to be near her. Had to be with her.
After Olivia ate and showered, she rang Jack's cell number which went straight to voice mail. Disappointed, she messaged him, and an hour later set to work in the library, her favorite room in the century-old house. Furnished with the traditional desk and a deep leather chair in a buttery hue, the room's colors complemented the drapes hanging from the wall-to-ceiling bank of windows to the right. A large oval rug covered the hardwood floor, a small television provided white noise, and a chaise lounge in a cheery print sat in the corner.
She retrieved her research materials, placed the books on the floor by the chaise, and immersed herself in her study of the Latin notes. Arranging books and papers around her, she sat cross-legged and examined the texts. Her first priority was to determine if the writer had "borrowed" his messages from another source as opposed to constructing them.
She began with Caesar's Gallic Wars, but quickly realized the phrasing of the killer's notes wasn't in the Roman general's style. Caesar had written of battles and wars, conquests and liberations. The abyss phrase from the DLK case was too flowery for Caesar's rather boring, but concrete, writing style.
After an hour's search she found the first quote in an innocuous list of common Latin quotes and phrases attributed to no particular writer. That could mean the writer of the notes was simply copying lines from textbooks. Tired, and finally giving up on Jack returning her call, Olivia went to her bedroom and propped herself against the headboard to read for a while. She promptly fell asleep amid dozens of lavender and tan floral pillows.
The knock from downstairs was a soft swooshing that barely pierced her consciousness as she fluttered her eyes open. Groggy and half asleep, she padded down the thick carpeted stairs to the front door. Through the distorted image of the peephole, she saw Jack standing on the porch. A bird's wings fluttered in her chest and she breathed deeply to steady herself before opening the door.
Dressed in a black tee shirt and jeans, Jack looked as dazed as she felt. His gun was still holstered under his left arm, his hair was damp and awry, and dark circles smudged the skin beneath eyes as black as the night. "Sorry," he whispered, shifting awkwardly. "I didn't mean to wake you. Just wanted to be sure you'd gotten home all right."
Olivia watched his gaze travel over her bare legs, take in her man-shorts and tank top, her breasts loose beneath the thin ribbed material. She saw the hesitation in his face, the struggle and longing in his eyes, and knew he wanted her to invite him in. Knew he wanted her.
"I've been getting home all by myself for a long time."
She tried to hold on to her irritation, but a flash of clarity made her realize she'd seen the same look of indecision in Jack – years ago, in another time, another place. Had watched him struggle between his love for her and his need for her. She'd seen the desire win.
Until now, she'd never realized how hard she had made it for him.
It was too late to weep for the children they'd both been, to tell him that being with him was what she'd wanted. For the first time she understood what a sacrifice their act of lovemaking had been for him. All along she'd thought of her pain, her loss. Nothing of Jack's.
Still, she warned herself, he'd abandoned her, run off when she needed him most. That wasn't something she could ignore or easily forgive. She turned away, feeling his dark eyes follow her down the hall. "Coffee?"
"Maybe a little," he said behind her. "I know it's late, but I wanted to give you my change of address."
"Oh?" He could've called, she thought, a heated thrill she didn't want to acknowledge sliding down to settle at the base of her spine.
"Slater offered his guest house for the duration."
"He must want to keep an eye on you."
He laughed. "Probably." He hesitated. "I'm going to visit the police chief in Maidu tomorrow. I thought you might take the drive with me, make sure I don't get lost."
"I got your message." Olivia thought a moment. "Before we work together, we should discuss… our issues." She reached for the coffee mugs and saucers, feeling her boy-shorts hike up in back, and turned in time to follow Jack's eyes.
He sat on a bar stool at the kitchen island and dragged his eyes back to her face, scraping at the rough looking bristles of his beard. Feeling suddenly uncomfortable, she hurried down the hall to grab a long sweater out of the hall closet.
When she returned, he asked, "Now that you know what happened to your student, are you still willing to help with the case?"
She felt her lip quiver. "Keisha, her name was Keisha. And unlike you, I keep my promises." She finished the coffee preparations and placed the brimming cups on the counter.
"Okay," Jack said slowly, "I deserve that, but I don't know how much I can tell you."
"Invictus, it's… complicated."
"I bet." Her eyes never left him and he squirmed under her scrutiny.
"Jesus, Olivia!" He exploded at last, crossing the room to stare out the kitchen window. "What do you want from me?"
"The truth is always a good place to start."
Jack turned around and took in the whole of her – bare legs beneath skimpy panties under the open sweater, the curve of one breast barely visible from the deep green lapel that nearly matched her eyes, the creamy skin of the flesh on her belly.
"I'm sorry you waited," he said at last.
The flash of knowledge in her eyes showed she knew what he was talking about. Graduation night, years ago. He remembered looking down at her from the stage where he'd sat in his graduation cap and gown. Her arms and legs were tan and smooth from the summer sun. The white dress she wore had reminded him that he was the one who'd taken her virginity – like a horny youth with no consideration for his partner.
After the graduation ceremony ended, she would have waited for him at the agreed-on place. He thought of her sitting in the dugout, still warm from the day's heat, perching on the dusty bench in the pretty dress. He imagined her looking around the baseball field one last time, hopeful, patient, until the sun began its steady rise in the eastern sky. Even when she finally left, she would've been certain that he had a good reason for disappointing her.
Beyond that he didn't want to imagine. Had she gone to his foster parents' house? Had they told her he had packed his things and gone? Had she searched in his upstairs bedroom? Found the empty dresser drawers and closet? Looked again at the bed on which she'd given herself to him? Cried over his desertion?
He wanted to tell her the whole story, explain why he hadn't kept his promise, why he hadn't shown up at the dugout on graduation night. Tell her what'd happened to Roger, the wicked stepfather in their grim fairy tale. He shoved the what-ifs out of his mind. Irrational meandering was pointless and completely out of character for the hard, calculating Invictus soldier he was now. And if he ever came clean with her, she might hate him even more.
Olivia eyed him cautiously over the rim of her cup. "If you're truly sorry, you'll explain what happened."
He raked his fingers through his hair, still damp from the light drizzle outside. "You don't understand," he muttered. "There's so much I can't tell you."
Her lovely lips thinned. "Is the case an excuse, Jack?" she accused. "Did you really come here to disrupt my life again?"
"No, Livvie, God, no." The old name slipped inadvertently from his lips. "I swear I had no idea the Olivia Gant I was supposed to recruit was… was the Olivia I once knew."
"But you never really knew me, did you?" Her voice vibrated with censure. "If you had, you wouldn't have gone off and left me at Roger's mercy. You couldn't have known he would disappear the day you left."
"Something happened that I had no control over. I had to leave."
She swatted his explanation away with a wave of her hand. "Without a word? Without a note or phone call?"
He nodded slowly. "Yes."
"And you never explained."
"I'll tell you why as soon as I can."
"No," she said through clenched teeth. "Never mind. It was too many years ago, a lifetime ago." She shook her head, reached for his cup, and placed their dishes in the sink. "It doesn't really matter now, does it? We're no longer the same people."
Even as she spoke the words aloud, Jack was struck by how true they were. Everything was different between them now. He understood perfectly. He still loved her. She probably cared for him. But loving each other wasn't enough to break down the barriers between them. Jack had changed in ways she couldn't begin to fathom.
"I want to tell you anyway. Some day."
Olivia watched the guarded look enter Jack's strangely dilated eyes, the dark irises melding with pupils in a black maelstrom. She suspected that whatever he told her would be half-veiled truths and artfully constructed lies. Instinct told her that since Jack left all those years ago, he'd traveled murky paths she couldn't begin to understand.
She turned her back to him, rinsing out the cups at the sink and feeling his eyes on her, but his touch still came as a shock. Don't touch me, she begged silently. Don't tear down the last defense I have against you. Don't break my heart again.
His fingers running down the sleeves of her sweater were light as feathers, gentle as a summer breeze. His breath at her neck was warm and scented with mint. Her heart galloped in her chest like runaway horses. Surely he could hear the thump-thump of it knocking against her ribs. "Don't," she whispered, but whether she meant don't start or don't stop she didn't know.
The lean length of him pressed against her back. He'd grown so much broader, so muscled and scarred since she'd known him as a boy. Part of it thrilled her, but some terrified her. A barely contained fierceness lurked beneath those muscles, ready to be unleashed at the slightest provocation, arousing and frightening at the same time.
As he nuzzled her neck, his mouth was as soft and sweet as she remembered. She felt her bones melt and gripped the sink edge to steady herself. "Don't," she moaned again.
"You don't mean that." He lifted the heavy hair from her nape and breathed in deeply.
Her eyes fluttered as she quavered beneath the touch of his hands and lips on her body. His arms slid under the sweater and around her, his fingers spreading over the quivering mass of her stomach. His hands moved up to her breasts to cup them through the filmy material of her tank top, his thumbs gently circling the nipples until they hardened against her clothing. Carefully, as if she'd break like a delicate piece of Dresden china, he turned her around.
Cupping her face between his large hands, he rubbed his lips softly against hers. "God, I've missed you."
He breathed the words into her mouth and she pressed back, eager for more, desire outweighing fear. His groan smothered her as his kiss grew more insistent. He parted her lips and bit the lower one in a tender nip that had her pulse racing. His tongue dipped into her mouth, exploring the soft flesh.
As her tongue met his, the sensation plunged straight to her lower stomach. She heard his ragged breathing, and her arousal dampened her panties. "Jack," she cried, clutching his back. She couldn't get enough of him. She wanted to crawl inside him, be such an intimate part of him that he'd never leave again. He was so beautiful, so strong and beloved. The hard jut of his erection thrust against her belly, sending shivers through her. Unable to stop herself, she reached for his hard length.
Suddenly he froze, buried his face in her hair, and groaned like a man in pain. His arms tightened around her in a fierce hold for several long moments. Carefully he stepped back, removed her hand, and held her at arm's length. Dazed and frustrated, she stared up at him. His eyes darkened with a predatory gleam. Her lips parted and she ran her tongue over them.
He took another faltering step back, looking rattled, not at all the cool, distant agent who'd stood in her office doorway a few days ago. "I should go now," he muttered. "I have to leave."
She slumped against the counter. "I don't understand. Wh – why? What's wrong?"
"Goddammit, Olivia, I'm sorry." The words were contrite, but the tone was angry, the growl of lust, not the whisper of regret.
Moments later she stood alone by the kitchen island as the harsh slamming of the front door sounded from the foyer. An ache deep and low in her belly made her want to weep.
He had no choice, Jack told himself as he opened the car door.
If he stayed with Olivia, he didn't know what might happen. He felt as if his entire world was ripped inside out. His powers and temperament unpredictable, his emotions upheaved in a way they hadn't been since he was a teenager. No, he amended. It wasn't quite true that he didn't know what would happen. He had a fair idea of the chaos this uncontrolled energy could cause. The beast in him would unleash like an electric maelstrom in front of Olivia.
He could never allow that.
God, what madness made him think he could be around her, be with her? Even now he felt his body morphing, sinking deeper into the morass as he put the car in gear, burned rubber, and skidded down the street toward the freeway.
Sunday morning Jack and Olivia met at the university where she left her car in the parking lot and climbed into his rental. They traveled east on Interstate 80 past Vacaville, the home of two California state prisons, and finally turned onto State Highway 12 toward Napa.
They talked little.
Jack had never visited California's wine country. The scenery was beautiful, but he was aware all the time of Olivia sitting rigidly in the passenger seat, answering his questions monosyllabically and avoiding his eyes. "I know you're still hurt and angry," he began after twenty minutes of silence.
The look she gave him would've scorched the sun. "Hurt? Angry? Is that what you think, Jack?" She crossed her arms, the safety belt hampering the gesture. "What I am is pissed." She turned her head to stare out the window. "And I don't want to talk about it."
So much for that.
When they arrived in Maidu, they used the GPS to locate the police station, a squat brick building in the older downtown section. Hector Alvarez, the police chief, met them in the lobby. Jack towered over Alvarez, a round cherub of a fellow with a ready smile and dark, lively eyes.
"Hola! Recepción a mi oficina." He beamed and waved them into his office and toward chairs near his desk. "Welcome to my office. My good friend Sheriff Slater told me to expect you. How can I help you?"
Alvarez sank into a wheeled desk chair and turned to punch a key on his computer. "You have come about the assaults, sí? I would be most grateful for any help." He chattered away like a happy chipmunk.
Olivia tossed a glance Jack's way as a smile hovered on her lips.
After glancing at the computer, the police chief wheeled his chair toward a low filing cabinet, rummaged around a minute, and extracted three folders. "Ah, here they are." He rolled back to his desk and handed the files to Jack. "Any help at all," he reiterated. "Muy confuso. I'm completely stymied. This is an ugly case."
Jack flipped open the first file and scanned the contents. The notes were surprisingly neat and detailed. "Would you mind if I copied these?"
"Not at all." Alvarez switched on the intercom and requested his assistant.
A moment later, a uniformed female officer stuck her head in the door and he asked her to make copies of all three files.
"Can you add anything that might not be covered in the reports?" Jack asked, crossing one leg over the other. "Any impressions, gut feelings?"
"Ah, instinct?" Alvarez frowned and fingered his short black goatee. "I found it strange that the perpetrator was able to get these experienced prostitutes to go with him. Perhaps he was a man who appeared to have money?" He shrugged. "College students are not so wealthy even in our affluent community."
"So you abandoned that lead?" Jack asked.
"Yes. There was nothing there anyway."
The female cop returned, carrying both the copied files and the originals. Alvarez handed them over. "I am not usually so eager to share confidential information." He stared at Jack and his friendly eyes took on a dark hardness. "But in this case Slater has vouched for you."
The words held both a compliment and a warning.
"Why didn't we look at the cases at the police station?" Olivia asked after they climbed back into the car.
"We could have, but I prefer making my own evaluation. Having Alvarez peering over my shoulder makes that harder."
Feeling the protest of her stomach, Olivia looked up and down the street. "I saw a coffee shop around the corner when we came into town."
"Then let's make it a late working lunch."
Jack obtained a booth in the back of the sparsely-occupied restaurant. Too early for the dinner crowd, too late for lunch. After they'd eaten and the dishes cleared, he handed one folder to Olivia and kept the others. They read the contents in silence. He was much faster than her, and she'd scarcely finished the file on Ann Boyle when she looked up. He'd already perused both of the remaining folders.
"It's not a competition." A smile curled his mouth.
She frowned, but didn't pretend not to understand. "I know that. Did you find anything?"
"No. This particular perp is vicious and violent, but he's not our killer."
"How can you be so sure?"
"Other than the beatings and possibly a similar weapon, there's no other link."
She nodded, understanding immediately. His thoughts mirrored her own. "No suffocation by burial, no crucifixion."
"Exactly," he agreed.
"And no Latin notes," she added, remembering her purpose in being on the case in the first place. Remembering that this trip was about business and she wasn't a silly schoolgirl. "I guess we wasted a trip." She glanced around. The restaurant was beginning to fill up again.
She rose abruptly. "We'd better start back." Gathering her purse, she walked out to the car and stood by the passenger door while Jack paid for their lunch.
He unlocked the doors and slid in. A few moments later she told herself it wasn't destiny at all, but some kind of perverse fate that caused the engine to sputter and stall. Finally only the click of the key in the ignition remained.
A stalled car. How ridiculously clichéd, she thought.
"Shit," Jack exclaimed from under the hood of the car.
"Do you know anything about cars?" She stood beside him and peered into the maze of black hoses, fat tubes, and assorted metal shapes.
He glared at her over his shoulder. "I'm not a mechanic, but I know the basics. This is more complicated than a battery or spark plugs." He pulled out his cell phone, glanced at a slip of paper, and punched in the numbers. "Chief Alvarez," he began.
"How did you know we'd need the police number?" she asked suspiciously when he'd clicked the cell phone shut.
"I was a boy scout." He grinned and looked years younger. "Always prepared."
Since it was now after six, the repair shop recommended by Alvarez was closed. The car was towed to the shop where the Chief promised to get the mechanic on it first thing in the morning. He recommended a motel several miles away and gave them a lift there.
"Call me in the morning when you need a ride back to the shop," Alvarez said, handing Jack a slip of paper with the garage number on it. "Sorry for the inconvenience."
"Now what?" Olivia asked after the Chief had driven away.
"Now we get rooms and hope for an early phone call."
Jack strode into the motel lobby and registered for both of them. "I got adjoining rooms," he said when he returned, handing her a key card. He had a strange look on his face. "That way we can work a little on the case."
"Good, at least the trip won't be a total waste." She felt sticky and tired and wanted nothing more than a hot shower, but remembered that she had no extras with her, no toothbrush, no underwear, no sleepwear. "I'll need to make some purchases first."
The clerk at the registration desk directed them to a store close by, but it was late before they finished shopping and stumbled back to their rooms.
"The case can wait," Jack said. "You look bushed."
Olivia stifled a yawn and closed the door behind her. A half hour later, her hair still damp from the shower, her newly purchased gym shorts and tee shirt serving as pajamas, she sprawled into the crisp motel sheets and slept.
Jack glared at the glowing digital numbers on the nightstand. Two-forty-five. He'd lain wide awake over two hours. Sleep seldom came easily to him, but tonight he couldn't banish Olivia from his thoughts, couldn't relax thinking of her a thin wall away.
Big mistake to bring her. He knew the trip wouldn't be fruitful from the get go, and he hadn't really needed her along, but he couldn't resist the chance to spend a few private hours with her. The sweet memory of her long legs and soft breasts lingered in his mind. He felt himself growing hard. Shit!
Pulling a pair of cotton sweats over his naked hips, he turned on the light and rummaged around until he found the coffee decanter and packets of instant coffee and sugar. A few minutes later, mug in hand, he slid open the balcony door and stepped outside. The temperature had dropped and the cool air felt good on his fevered body. The tree leaves twisted and fluttered in the breeze that shifted across the grass. He caught the scent of roses growing up a lattice at the edge of the concrete patio below him. Breathing deeply, he finally relaxed.
He's running again, tripping over a gnarled tree root. He reaches the ledge and prepares himself for the inevitable fall. His feet dangle over the edge. At the final moment, just like in a cartoon, he grabs for a tree limb and clutches it. He hangs there helplessly.
Suddenly, Olivia peers over the ledge. "Why are you running away, Jackie?" Her young voice is melancholy. As she stands, he sees that her body is naked, her breasts mere buds on her slender chest, the pubic hair downy. She stretches out her hands and he reaches upward to catch them. Almost, almost.
Then she cries out and lurches from a blow to her back. She staggers from a second blow to the legs. Blood courses down her slender body. From behind her a lumbering, indistinct shadow steps. While she lies helplessly on the ground, the figure raises its arms above its head and strikes downward with unnatural strength. A piercing scream gushes from her mouth like blood from a grievous wound.
She screams again.
As he clawed his way out of the dream, the remnants wound around Jack's consciousness like fog tendrils. He knew instinctively that an anomaly had occurred, for he hadn't taken any medication, and he couldn't be sure if he'd actually slept or fallen into a kind of trance.
He glanced at his wrist watch. Twenty minutes had passed since he'd smelled the roses. The coffee cup rested on his thigh, his finger still inserted through the handle. He tested the brew.
In the bathroom he stared at his reflection in the mirror. Under the harsh light, the changes were more pronounced. The dilated pupils like large black holes. The heavy jaw, the thickening beard. The stretching and throbbing beneath his skin.
He returned to the sitting area, sank onto the sofa, pressed a thumb and forefinger between his eyes as he strained to remember. To wean himself off the meds and deconstruct the dream without relying on the blue tablets.
He'd lain down, remained awake for several hours. Then he'd prepared the coffee and sat on the balcony to enjoy the rose garden… and suddenly he was racing in the African jungle as if jackals were after him. And then Olivia appeared, attempted to save him, was injured.
Damn, he didn't think the dream was about the case at all.
"Jack, what are you doing sitting in the dark?"
Almost as though his thoughts had conjured her, Olivia entered through the connecting door and pressed the button for the lamp by the sofa. Soft light flooded the room. Jack blinked twice as his sensitive eyes shrank from the glare. The last thing he wanted was for Olivia to see the transformations, however subtle. "Turn off the light," he growled.
"But it's not brigh – "
"Goddamn it, turn it off!"
Olivia quickly turned down the dimmer.
Feverish and wracked with a bizarre kind of pain, he hunched on the sofa and tried to control the Change. It was useless. It was coming on without the red pills.
Avoiding Olivia's eyes, he sniffed like a predator scenting its quarry. His muscles twitched with the urge to pounce, to hunt, to mate. With superhuman strength, he searched for the slender thread of humanity he prayed was still there and clung to it for dear life.
In the near darkness Olivia watched Jack hulk like a wounded animal, his back toward her. The soft glow from the moon barely reached the table in front of the sofa. She walked determinedly forward, her hands groping like a blind person. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing." The voice didn't sound at all like Jack.
"You can't fool me. I know you too well. Something's wrong."
He barked out a bitter laugh. "If you know what's best, you'll leave me alone."
Eyes adjusting, she advanced further, knelt in front of him, and placed her hands on his thighs. Although she couldn't see his face, she sensed the difference in him. Heat emanated from his body, hot and dry through the clothes beneath her fingers.
She snatched back her hand. "You're burning up with fever!"
"Go away," he snarled. "Leave." When she hesitated, he roared, "Now, for Christ's sake!"
"You're crazy if you think I'm leaving you alone like this." When he didn't answer, she reached for the phone. "All right, I'm calling a doctor."
"No!" He grabbed her wrist, jerking it hard. There'd be an ugly bruise tomorrow, she thought. Uneasiness fluttered in her chest.
"Okay, okay," he conceded. "I… I'll take some aspirin and lie down. It's just a flu bug."
She looked at him dubiously, but marched to her room, retrieved aspirin, and returned with a glass of water. Jack swallowed the pills, his face hidden in the shadows.
"You're frightening me, Jack. What's wrong with you?"
"I'll be fine," he mumbled, and as if to prove it, he stumbled toward the bed, stripped off his sweats, and lay down on top of the covers.
She saw only a distinct outline of his form, the shadows of chest and groin, but enough to know he was naked. The not-so-subtle hint meant he'd already withdrawn. Anything she said now would fall on deaf ears. Since his arrival, she'd seen Jack shut down like this – the hooded eyes, the step backwards even when no movement took place as he erected an impenetrable wall between them.
A moment later she closed the door between their rooms.
Jack stretched out on the bed, his arms and legs flung wide. The crisp chill of the room whirled around his burning body. The aspirin began to reduce the heat, but it couldn't slow down his adrenaline. Close. He sensed how close he'd come to harming her. Lust and desire, rage and energy set his nerves thrumming like crazed violins. Skewed his moral center and strangled clear thinking.
What was happening to him? His preternatural powers were out of whack. What had started as a small blip after Africa had gone wild since he'd been around Olivia. Like something stronger, more vicious – more immediate – had been unleashed. Years ago he'd promised to protect Livvie from her stepfather. He'd kept that promise, but at a price she'd never known, couldn't begin to guess. Now he'd put her in danger again.
Relenting, he stumbled to the closet, retrieved his duffle bag, and removed the packet of Phens. He popped several into his mouth, hoping they'd control whatever darkness struggled to get out of him. He added two blue tablets and lay down to wait for their magic to work.
An hour later his body temp had returned to normal, his heart rate steadied, and his respiration slowed. But the sound of Olivia's frightened voice still rang in his mind. He stifled an invective, pulled on the sweats, and opened the connecting door between their rooms. She hadn't locked it against him. What did that mean?
Olivia sat on her bed, vacillated between going to Jack again and locking the connecting door between their rooms. She stared at it, trying to imagine what was happening on the other side, trying to process the events of the last several hours. Whoever – whatever – was in the other room wasn't the Jack she knew. Didn't sound like him, didn't look like him. She let out a shudder and pulled the spread over her bare legs.
Suddenly, she froze, hearing the faint scratching from the other side of the wooden barrier. She waited. Silence.
More scratching and then Jack's voice. "Livvie, I'm sorry."
He sounded normal, didn't he? Olivia didn't trust her own ears. Was she fooling herself because she wanted him to be okay? Wanted to fling open the door, wanted to hold him, just hold him tight.
"Livvie, are you awake? Are you all right?"
Her mouth was a swollen tongue wrapped in cotton. She wet her lips to speak, but the words stuck in her throat. The door swung slowly open.
She eyed Jack cautiously as he stood endless moments in the door frame. A line of downy fur ran from the middle of his chest to disappear beneath low slung gray sweats. He gripped either side of the door jamb as if he held himself there by sheer will. She shivered and waited, fists clutched tightly at her thighs. Her breathing stuttered erratically and a wave of lightheadedness enveloped her.
Long moments passed. She didn't dare speak, afraid she'd send him back to the dark place where he couldn't or wouldn't take her.
His eyes bored holes into her. "I never intended to scare you," he whispered. "I didn't want you to see me like that."
She exhaled on a ragged sigh. "I was worried, not frightened."
He made an impatient gesture. "God knows, I haven't made good on my promises in the past, but I swear it'll never happen again."
"I want to help, Jack. I want you to tell me – "
He held up his hand, warding off her words. "You don't understand, Livvie. It's… dangerous."
She swung her legs to the floor. He backed up, his hands held palms outward as if to keep her at bay. "Dangerous?" She approached him, frowning. "You've said that before, but it doesn't make any sense."
"It's all the sense I can make."
She stopped a few feet from him. She wasn't going to let Jack off the hook so easily. Not this time. "Don't you think you owe me an explanation?"
"Probably. But I can't give one. Not now."
Suddenly she decided she didn't want to hear complicated explanations after all. What she wanted was to live in the here and now. In this moment with Jack, regardless of what'd happened years before or what happened afterward. The single truth remaining after all these years was that she still wanted him. She didn't fully understand him, she was a little afraid of him despite her proclamations, but she still wanted him. That need obscured everything else.
She placed her hands on his chest, fingered the crisp hair and the solid mass of muscles beneath.
"Livvie," he groaned, holding her at arm's length while he breathed heavily and stared at her with questioning eyes.
Smoothing her hands up and down the taut flesh of his upper body, she wrapped them around his waist and slid them up his back. The muscles tightened beneath her hands and the vein at his neck pounded desperately. Suddenly she felt the wrenching surge of sexual confidence. Jack had come to her room for no other reason than this.
He wanted her.
She stood on tiptoes and placed a gentle kiss beneath his jaw. He lowered his head so she could feather tiny kisses across his high cheekbones, the gray specks at his temples, the tiny scar at the corner of his upper lip. His large hands wrapped around her waist and moved downward to grip her hips, pressing them into his groin. Naked beneath her shorts, she was aware of the huge swell of him through the thin material.
While he lifted her up as if she weighed nothing, she wrapped her legs around his waist. His lips covered hers, his tongue thrusting possessively into the soft folds of her mouth. The intensity of the kiss increased as he sucked, bit, urged her on, and she responded as fire danced in her veins. She gripped his thick, dark hair in her fists, pressed his face into her breasts.
Impatient, he shoved up her tee shirt and teased one breast with his mouth, circling with his tongue until she was mindless with desire. Until she was damp between her thighs and insane with the need to feel him inside her.
"Jack, Jack, now."
She tried to reach down and touch him, but he shoved her hand aside. Control slipped away as his strong fingers moved beneath her shorts, surprisingly gentle when they caressed and stroked her, urged her to a frenetic peak until she clamped down on her bottom lip to keep from screaming out. He fastened his mouth to her nipple and suckled while his clever fingers worked their magic between her thighs. She rode the tide of passion that swept her higher and higher to a shuddering peak that drove her over the edge to oblivion.
When she came, it was hard and fast. She throbbed urgently and clung to him for dear life, every muscle in her body straining with each delicious wave. She wanted the thick stretch of him inside her and he accommodated with his long fingers, gripping her tightly as she climaxed around him in shattering, throbbing pulses.
Olivia didn't know what she'd expected from Jack, but certainly not this heart-skittering, mindless pleasure. They collapsed side by side on the bed, his labored breathing matched hers, and their skin slicked wetly with the heavy sheen of sex. Still fluttery and languid from the force of their passion, she folded her body into his, eager for more. For cuddling, for tenderness, for words murmured in the dark. And because she felt his hard erection against her side, for the inevitable release of his desire.
But with a calm she was sure masked lust, he pulled her tee-shirt down over her breasts, adjusted her shorts, and traced a finger from her lips to the juncture of her breasts.
"Sleep with me tonight," she whispered, feeling the steady thumping of his heart beneath her hand.
He shook his head sadly a moment while icy stone settled in the place where her heart should be. "I can't, Livvie."
"I don't understand."
"I can't be with you until this mess of a case is settled, until it's over and done with."
She trailed her lips softly along the fingers that caressed her neck. "Why? Am I that much of a distraction?"
"Hell, yes," he moaned and kissed her hard on the lips for a long moment. Then he broke off and held her by the shoulders. "But that's not the problem, Squirt. There are things I have to tell you. Confessions I have to make."
The long-ago nickname warmed her. "I don't care about – "
"Shush." He placed his fingers over her mouth. "Trust me, Livvie. I can't be with you completely until you know everything, where I've been, what I've done, what I'm dangerously close to becoming." He added with a bitter laugh, "What I'm scared shitless I can't control."
"Then tell me," she urged, nestling closer. "Tell me now."
Although indecision crossed his face, he answered with a tone of firmness and a voice full of regret. "No. I have to wait until this DLK thing is finished."
His lips against her forehead were feathery soft. He pushed off the bed, still wearing his sweats, his erection outlined clearly beneath the fabric. He'd pleasured her, but not taken care of his own needs. Why?
"Why didn't you… I know you want to."
His face darkened and turned hard. "Getting close to me is lethal, Olivia. I may not be able to control myself. It's dangerous for you, me… for both of us."
She remembered the barely contained aggression he'd shown their first time together. This time had been skillful, but ardent with an underlying intensity she'd come to associate with him. Was she responsible? Did she bring out something dark in him? Was that why Jack fought being with her?
With a crooked smile he looked back for a second, then closed the door firmly behind him, and left her alone. She heard the firm click of the lock that signaled he'd closed her out. His withdrawal was a cramp deep in her very center. She wrapped her arms around herself and stared a long time at the spot where Jack's head had dented the pillow beside her. He'd called her Squirt and then left. She had an aching sense of déjà vu.
At 7:45 the next morning Jack walked into the hall and knocked on Olivia's door. After last night the connecting passage between their rooms seemed too intimate to use. He needed to put their relationship back on a professional level. He rapped again while balancing several coffees in one hand.
When Olivia opened the door, she was dressed, packed and ready to leave. "Thanks," she said, her gazed aimed at a spot on his shirt.
"I thought we'd get an early start," he explained.
"Sure, no problem. I have an afternoon class anyway."
"No," he said, "actually you don't."
"What do you mean?"
"I've arranged for someone to fill in for you."
The brilliant eyes he admired flashed like green fire. "You got someone to fill in for me?" Her lips thinned and a tiny muscle in her jaw tightened. "How thoughtful. Is there any other rearrangement of my life you'd like to make?"
Good, he thought. He liked her anger better than her disappointment. "I know you don't like it – "
"Hate it," she interrupted.
"Hate it," he corrected, "but it's not practical for you to carry on with your full teaching load while you assist with the case." He eyed her stiff back as she sat at the desk sipping her coffee. "If you want to back out… "
"Not on your life," she said between clenched teeth.
She finished the coffee, left a few bills for house cleaning, and wheeled her luggage out the door. She waited for him by the elevator. "I've already checked out."
"Good. Let's get going then."
They traveled down to the parking garage in silence. "A deputy delivered the car early this morning." Jack unlocked the trunk and stowed their luggage.
For the first hour on the drive back to Sacramento they seldom spoke and when they did, they tap danced around the real issue. He didn't blame her for being angry. He'd opened a door for her and then slammed it in her face. She had every right to be furious with him. He hadn't explained a damn thing about his life during the past seventeen years. Given her no inkling of his true nature. Of the violence he'd committed. Or the blood on his hands.
The call from Slater came just as Jack dropped Olivia off at the university to retrieve her car. After a short exchange, Jack disconnected. "There's been a new development."
Olivia flung a startled glance his way as if she'd been deep in thought on another matter. "What? What development?"
"Another death. Get your stuff settled here and at home and meet us at the court house," he instructed. "I'll get there as soon as I can. ADA Torres and I are interviewing Diego Vargas this morning." He hesitated. "A woman's body was found in the lions' habitat at Samuel Brannan Zoo."
"My God," she whispered.
He took in her shocked expression and pale face. "You know the place?"
"It's around the corner from my house."
Jack’s federal badge easily got him into the Bigler County District Attorney's Offices, a brand-new building where he took the elevator to the fourth floor. He stood at the entrance to a conference room where Isabella Torres sat in one of several cushy chairs around the table, waiting for the meet with Councilman Diego Vargas.
"Got a minute?" Jack asked, standing in the doorway. He quickly filled her in on the death of the young woman at the zoo, the latest one in the DLK case.
Shock registered in Torres' dark eyes. "So soon?"
"Still, it could've been an accident," she suggested after a moment. "The girl slipped and fell over the railing?"
"You don't believe that."
He watched her cover her eyes with her hand as he stepped into the room. "Another thing."
She looked up, checked her watch. "You’ll have to make it quick, Agent Holt."
"Jackson," he corrected, smiling. "Here's the deal. When you interview Vargas, I don't want you to mention the hookers from Maidu."
After a long pause she said, "What do you know about my interviewee and why shouldn’t I ask him about the prostitutes?"
"Vargas could be involved in my case, and if he is, I don’t want to give him a heads up." "That’s ridiculous. I'm looking at Vargas for domestic violence."
"Ah, but Sac County's investigating for campaign fraud and there's some other stuff, right, some of it pretty kinky? Wouldn't you like to get a wire tap on him?"
She frowned in disapproval. "You like playing loose with Fourth Amendment rights, don’t you, Agent Holt?"
"I don’t mind getting my hands dirty when it’s necessary. One of those hookers was nearly beaten to death with the metal end of a golf club."
Torres rose, shoving back from her chair. "Vargas may have beaten a prostitute, but that doesn’t tie him to your Dead Language Killer." She angled her head at him. "Are you suggesting that Vargas is your killer?"
He didn't answer her question. "Doesn't it intrigue you that Diego Vargas’ reach is so extensive and so uncontrollable?"
He gripped the chair back and leaned forward. "Wouldn't you like to nail him for every illegal act he's ever committed?"
Jack knew Torres wanted Vargas badly. During the tape of her single interview with the councilman, he'd been suavely polite, acting the perfect gentleman, revealing absolutely nothing. "Come on, drugs, gangs, and violence. Why not murder hiding behind that slick mask?"
He watched her face as she gave in. "All right." She held up a finger like an instructor. "But I ask the questions."
Vargas was late, and from the beginning, the interview was rocky. The city councilman sat stiffly across the table from them. A behemoth identified only as Santos leaned against the wall near the door, his arms folded across a massive chest, one foot crossed over the other at the ankles. A bodyguard, Jack suspected. For a man like Santos hands alone were enough.
Torres introduced Jack as her assistant. Vargas bowed his head in an old-world gesture. An American-born Mexican of migrant farm workers, he had the distinction of being the first in his family to attend college. According to his campaign advertisements, he was a true man of the Latin community.
Around five-ten, with a burly girth, he carried his size solidly. On his meaty hands, he wore a wedding band studded with baguette diamonds and a stunning emerald ring. He dressed nattily in a three-piece light-weight wool suit and a white dress shirt with cuff links that matched the stone in his ring.
Vargas brushed a manicured hand through a mass of thick black hair and then tugged at his mustache. He had the broad, flat nose of a Mexican peasant coupled with the high forehead and cheeks of a Castilian descendant, but underneath it all Jack recognized a civilized bandido, a thug beneath the fancy clothes and manners.
"Su desear ser mi commando." Vargas spread his hands broadly. "Your wish is my command, Ms. Torres. I want to cooperate in every possible way with the authorities."
"Of course." Torres fiddled with her pencil for a moment, and after a few benign questions, said, "Tell me about your childhood, Councilman."
"Yes, your family. Tell me about life growing up the youngest son of alien workers."
Jack noted the negative connotation of the term "alien."
The ruddy flesh of Vargas' neck deepened and he made a circular gesture with his head, as if to release the tight collar of his shirt. "My parents were migrant farm workers, hardly alien."
She'd touched on a sore spot, Jack thought. Now she was getting somewhere. He glanced at the bodyguard who stared back flatly, but otherwise hadn’t moved.
"And did you work with your parents in the fields?" Torres continued.
"They wanted me to be educated. They did not wish for me to do menial labor."
"How do you feel about women, Mr. Councilman?"
"Women?" Vargas smoothed first his hair, and then the thick bush of his mustache in a habit Jack recognized as buying time to formulate an answer.
"Yes, Mr. Vargas, women. Your mother, your wife, your sister. How about the women in your employment?"
"My mother is a saint." His voice held a tone of near reverence. "Likewise my sister." Was the sister an afterthought? Secondary to the esteem he obviously held for the mother?
"And your wife, Magdalena? Is she a saint too?"
Vargas curled his lip. "My wife, she has… issues."
The man leaning against the wall shifted. The burning coal of his eyes revealed nothing, but it seemed the dialogue had caught his interest.
"What kind of issues does Mrs. Vargas have?"
"Let us say that Magdalena has a very fanciful imagination."
"She claims that you’re abusive toward her."
Vargas snorted. "As I said, mi esposa es muy imaginativa, very fanciful."
"Are you saying you’ve never hit your wife?"
"Dios, of course not. I do not harm women. All my life I have treated the women in my life as queens." He spread his hands in an innocent gesture. "Princesas."
Torres flipped open a file lying on the table between them. At the sudden movement, the bodyguard took a step forward and stood directly behind his boss.
Jack tensed in his chair and spoke for the first time. "Mr. Santos, please step back."
Santos’ face remained impassive as he moved to his position against the wall and Torres snapped a warning look at Jack. He shrugged. It was possible Santos had gotten a knife or a small caliber pistol past security. There were ways, and Jack knew a man like Santos wouldn’t want to be armed with only those brutish hands.
Torres pulled out the first picture and accompanying hospital emergency room record. "January 22, this year, Placer Memorial Hospital. Mrs. Vargas was treated for a broken ulna, right arm, along with contusions to her torso and legs."
She slapped another photo and hospital report on the table. "August 19, Bigler Memorial Hospital. Bruises to her forearms and back. March 29 of last year – shall I continue?"
"You bitch," Vargas spat, leaning so close the garlic on his breath wafted across the table. "You think you can intimidate a man like me? These reports mean nothing." He swept his hands disdainfully across the span of documents. "They prove nothing. Magdalena is a very clumsy woman. She frequently falls or stumbles, often when she has been drinking."
"Drinking?" Torres sounded surprised.
"Ah, you did not know about her alcoholism. That is too bad. It is well-documented." Vargas stood to leave, straightening his lapels and adjusting the knot of his tie. "You should have done your homework, ADA Torres."
Torres stared at Vargas’ retreating back, anger and disappointment on her face. Santos uncurled lazily from his position on the wall and leaned across the table to whisper in her ear before he followed his boss. When he reached the door, he turned back to appraise her with an inscrutable expression. Then his large, scarred face split into a grin, revealing strikingly beautiful white teeth.
"What was that about?" Jack asked. "What’d he say?"
Before answering, she rubbed her neck as if to warm a chill. "He said it’s not a good idea to cross a man like Mr. Vargas."
"Someone in your office should've caught the alcohol charge."
Torres glared at him."Yeah, if it's true."
At the court house Olivia and Jack gathered in Slater's office while Jack brought them up to date on Torres' interview with Vargas. He removed his jacket and loosened his tie while Olivia took off her sweater and draped it over the chair back. She wore jeans and a white short-sleeved top which draped softly over her breasts. Her hair was fastened in a loose knot at her nape. He ignored the fact that she looked about sixteen.
Slater had set up a small white board against a portable easel and provided dry erase pens. He explained the grisly scene that had awaited the first workers at the zoo early this morning. An unidentified young woman had been trapped in the lions' habitat and mauled by a mother lion and her cub. "Both animals ingested portions of the woman's stomach."
"That's new," Jack said calmly. He glanced at Olivia who rubbed her hands up and down her arms.
Slater continued in low tones. "After the animals were euthanized, a necropsy exam was performed on the mother lion. That's compulsory in this county when a captive animal kills a person."
"Anything?" Jack asked.
"Bastard wants recognition for his handiwork," Jack growled. "He made sure there'd be an autopsy of the animals. He's letting us know what idiots we are."
"Why the zoo? Why this kind of death when he hasn't used it before?" Slater asked.
"Death by wild animal?" Jack speculated, raising an eyebrow at Olivia.
"No, not a wild animal," she corrected. "A caged one."
"Makes no sense," Jack muttered. "Why so public? So immediate? A zoo, for God's sake? What the hell does that mean?"
"Is it a coincidence it happened by my home?" When no one answered, Olivia paled and bolted for the door.
Jack reached her just outside the restroom. Her drawn face and wild eyes tore at him.
"Look, I'm sorry I dragged you into this." He kept his tone cool, distant so he wouldn't haul her into his arms and try to kiss the injured look off her face.
"I just need some water."
He took her elbow and guided her inside the ladies room where she splashed cold water on her face. He handed her a towel.
"I'm fine." She batted his hand away. "I'm fine," she repeated as they returned to Slater's office. Looking more composed, she sat down and reached for the briefcase on the floor, waved a small yellow legal pad. "My research notes. I did some work this weekend."
Jack saw the color return to her face and felt relieved. He'd already decided to take off for a day or two – she'd likely consider it abandoning her again, he thought wryly – and liked knowing she'd be okay while he was gone. The vague restlessness that always meant he needed to get away by himself had started to jitter over his body. Isolated, he could let the Change take over completely – no holding back – and insinuate himself into the killer's mind.
Not just yet. But soon.
Olivia held up copies of the notes from the original case. "I've been studying these at home, and even though they're written in Latin, I don't think the writer knows that much about the language."
"What do you mean?" Jack asked.
She flipped through pages of the legal pad. "The messages are simply common phrases or portions of classical writings. For example, the first one… "
"It's simplistic. Even you got it."
"Even me." Jack smiled.
She ignored him, all business now. "And the mailed note, Abyssus abyssum invocat, or 'hell calls hell,' is a common aphorism. It means loosely that one misstep can lead to another one." Olivia gestured toward a reference book she'd hauled in with her. "A person could find that phrase in any etymology book like this one with little understanding of the language itself."
"So the notes don't tell us the writer's level of Latin expertise," Jack said flatly, wondering why the first linguists hadn't suggested that.
"Not specifically," Olivia countered, "but they do show his focus – Latin. I think he has an affinity for this time period. The fact that he uses Latin at all indicates some kind of connection to the language or the world that fostered it." Olivia continued earnestly. "And, Jack, I believe there were four notes in the original case, not three."
"Four?" he scoffed.
"I've been thinking about this. You said the first note was mailed after the second body and note were discovered. But why send it through the mail instead of leaving it with the first body? What if he did leave one with Angela Buckley and the police didn't find it?"
Intrigued, Jack stared at her. He'd entertained the same thought, but had dismissed it early on. Pathologists rarely made that kind of mistake.
"All the bodies had a note with them," she continued. "Do killers change their basic – what do you call it?"
Olivia nodded. "Look at this latest murder. The killer forced you to find the note. It's important to him." She leaned forward in the chair. "They missed the first note."
Was it possible, Jack wondered?
"Olivia might have something," Slater said. "Let's go over each murder again and see what correlation we can find." He stood, retrieved a marker from the desk and turned to the dry erase board.
"First," Olivia said, "the girl who was buried alive in Virginia." Slater wrote the name, place and method of death on the board.
"Second, the lawyer, beaten to death in Las Vegas," Jack added.
"The crucifixion death was next," Olivia said.
Slater leaned against the wall. "Then after four years your UNSUB started over again."
Jack nodded. "The Utah woman and then the beating death of Keisha Johnson."
Olivia flinched but remained stoic as a stilted silence came over the room. Slater walked into the bullpen and poured fresh coffee for all of them.
Jack reached for his coffee. "Okay, if the killer kept his pattern, the next death should've been crucifixion."
"But it wasn't," Olivia said.
Jack's frustration crept through. "Yeah, instead we've got a new method. Death at the hands of a caged animal."
Slater glanced thoughtfully at the jottings on the chart. "That assumes you've discovered all the victims." He chewed thoughtfully on his lower lip. "Maybe he didn't change his pattern. Maybe you missed someone."
Jack didn't want to imagine an infinite number of bodies spread around the country. "You think he killed someone between the Salt Lake murder and now?"
Slater shrugged. "Could be."
"That would mean he's accelerating his behavior." Jack thought a moment. "If he's as arrogant as I think, he wants credit for his work. We have to assume he left notes at all the crime scenes." He scruffed the hair back from his forehead and blew noisily through his mouth. "We'll have to look at the Johnson crime scene again."
He turned to Slater. "Can you spare Harris to check North Shore?"
"Let's try another attack," Jack said, straightening up. "What elements connect all these deaths?"
"The language and the culture," Olivia said promptly.
"The notes all sound like warnings," Slater added.
"One more point," Jack said, turning toward Olivia. "What about the note found in the mother lion?" He pulled the facsimile out of his briefcase and pushed it across to her, then wrote the words on the board below the other Latin phrases.
"Quam ferocissimus leo bestiarium oppugnavit. Facilis descensus averno," she read and thought a moment. "Actually, it's two sentences that translate literally, 'As fierce a lion as possible attacked the beast-fighter,' and 'easy the descent to hell.'" She paused. "Doesn't make a lot of sense, but it is different from the others. It demonstrates a working knowledge of Latin grammar. He's not just copying from a book."
Jack bulleted these characteristics in another column on the dry erase board. "Okay, so this last note shows the killer really knows Latin. Plus, he's becoming more confident. This death is close in time to the last one."
Olivia frowned. "But what does it mean? Is the beast-fighter the woman killed at the zoo? Or the killer?"
Jack contemplated the question, came up with nothing.
"And what about the second half of the message?" Olivia added. "It's ambiguous. Whose descent is it? Does he refer to himself or the victim? Does he believe the victim deserves to be in hell or is he bragging about how easy the killings are for him as a murderer?"
"Lots of questions, no answers," Jack muttered.
"This note was found inside the mother lion's stomach, right?" Olivia asked. "What about the cub?"
"You think there might've been another message at this crime scene?" Slater asked.
"Something seems left out of the message," Olivia replied.
"Like 'easy for… ' or 'easy but…?'" Jack asked.
Olivia nodded slowly, looking off into the distance. "You know, in addition to gladiatorial games, the Romans liked to watch a staged hunt. They called it a venatio, and bestiarii were beast-hunters who tracked down wild animals in the arena."
"So the killer thinks of himself, not the victim, as the beast-hunter," Jack concluded.
Olivia shook her head. "Not necessarily. In Roman times, the victim could be a political prisoner hunted for sport and punishment."
"I'll personally supervise the exam on the cub," Slater said, "and assign Harris to relook at the Lake Tahoe crime scene."
Jack glanced around. "That's it, then," he said. "Tomorrow at eight." He kept his back to Olivia while she gathered up her papers.
At the door she turned and looked back, locked eyes with him. Slater glanced back and forth between them as if he'd guessed their relationship. Shit. No keeping secrets from Slater.
Jack's blood thrummed in his veins, hot and heavy and anticipatory. Desire scrabbled his brain and lust scratched at his loins. God, he was desperate for her again.
Jack's aloofness had irritated Olivia all day. What had it meant? A quick release of the sexual tension that crackled between them like jolts of electricity? Part of her wanted to get in his face, confront him about last night. But another part of her was afraid of the answer.
After several restless hours, she finally slept.
Sometime later the jangle of her phone roused her. Groping for the receiver, she pressed the talk button and spoke groggily. Jack's voice from the other end of the line jerked her upright. "What's wrong?"
Oh, no. "Where?"
His voice sounded strained. "A town called Grantsville in Tuolumne County. Slater just called me. Be ready in fifteen minutes. I'll pick you up."
Olivia was waiting on the porch ten minutes later. She'd pulled her hair back into a ponytail, slipped on jeans and a sweatshirt, shoes and socks, but otherwise hadn't taken time with her appearance. As they drove off, Jack's face looked drawn in the greenish light from the dashboard. He looked frazzled, like he was running on sheer adrenaline.
During the drive north to the sheriff's office, he filled her in on the details. "The victim was a male, older teenager or young adult."
"How was he killed?"
Jack slapped the heel of his hand on the steering wheel. "Like victim number two, he was hanged, crucified, but this one was hung upside down."
Olivia stared at him, feeling the horror of it. An upside down crucifixion had particular significance in theological circles. "Where?"
"I told you, Tuolumne County."
She shook her head. "No, I mean where did they find him?"
"In the basement of an unused country church."
"Was the scene like the other one, the Walker man?"
"Slater thinks so. The call came in from the sheriff down there. They called him because the man's driver's license lists an address in Elysian Hills. That's Bigler County's jurisdiction."
During the rest of the drive, an uneasy silence hung between them like the cloying weight of regret. Olivia breathed a sigh of relief when they finally pulled into the courthouse parking lot.
Slater waited for them in the conference room where they'd met previously. He'd transferred the case data onto the large white board that covered the narrow end of the room. Jack could tell from his disheveled look that he'd been up all night. His first words confirmed it.
"The Sheriff in Tuolumne County called around two this morning," he said, yawning and stretching his arms high over his head. "I just got back from Grantsville. About an hour and a half south of Sacramento." He added the latter for Jack's benefit.
He handed Jack a copy of the police report. "Victim's a twenty-year-old male student at Bigler Junior College, name of Carl Bender. Body was found at 12:45 this morning by some high school kids camping out at an abandoned church located off Highway 99. Teens go there to fool around, make out, do dope."
Slater looked from Jack to Olivia and back again, and if he wondered why Olivia had come along, he was wise enough not to ask. "The murder occurred out of my jurisdiction, and I had no way of knowing it'd be related to this case until I got there."
Jack nodded but remained silent, merely stared at the report of Carl Bender's death, thinking another dead body, another mistake.
"This incident looks a hell of a lot like the murder of the Walker man in your original case," Slater said, spreading an array of crime scene photos across the conference table and tapping one of the pictures. "The body was naked, hung upside down in the basement of the church."
Jack picked up the top photo. Although the scene wasn't anything more than he'd expected, the effect still jarred him. The macabre display showed the victim splayed and hung on a makeshift cross with ugly holes through the wrists and ankles. Only the inverted position was different.
"COD the same?" he asked routinely.
"He bled out at the scene," Slater replied. "Lots of blood evidence. Some of it could be the UNSUB's."
"If we're lucky."
He handed the photos to Olivia who blanched at the grisly displays before she held one close to her face, eyeing the enlarged image of the wrist piercings.
Then Slater dropped the bombshell. "The thing is Carl Bender's been dead for at least a week."
"That means he was killed before the girl at the zoo," Jack said.
"So he hasn't gone out of order in the killings," Olivia murmured. "Just added a new method."
"Something else," Slater added. "The coroner recovered a note stuffed inside the Bender kid's mouth."
Olivia looked from Jack to Slater. "That's good, isn't it?"
"Hope so," Jack mumbled, taking the dry erase pen and moving toward the board.
The burial deaths were circled in black and a number one written beside them. The beatings, number two, circled in blue. He drew another line around the crucifixion deaths with a red pen and wrote number three beside them.
"And the death at the zoo." He circled the words unknown female with a green pen.
"What did the note say?" Olivia asked.
Slater handed the paper to Jack who wrote the words on the board: PONTIFEXMAGNACUMCURAVICTIMAMOBTULIT.
Olivia stared at the letters for a moment, then taking the pen from Jack, drew vertical lines, separating them into what he assumed were different words.
"Why caps on this one?" He frowned and jabbed at the letters on the board. "That's different."
"It's the correct way to write Latin. The Romans wrote in capital letters," Olivia explained. "No spaces between the words either. This note actually is more authentic than the previous ones."
"Clever bastard," Jack mused. "He's using a more sophisticated language."
"But why?" she asked.
"Hell if I know." He smarted under the question. "Because he's intelligent enough. Because he wants to toy with us. Because the son of a bitch can."
Olivia examined the letters again. "It translates to 'The priest offered the sacrifice with great care.'"
"What does this mean for the case?" Slater asked.
"He's evolving and will be harder to figure out." God damn it all to hell!
Olivia's office mate, Dr. Howard Randolph, entered the university office that afternoon with a dramatic bang, a large caffè latte, and a nod her way. Olivia looked up from her computer screen where she sifted through her email, answering the urgent messages and deleting the spam. After a cursory glance at his desk, Howard stood at his office window, sipped his coffee, and gazed out the office window where students bumped and jostled their way across the quad's concrete sidewalks to their classes.
Olivia continued to scroll her email. The university's policy of furnishing students with professors' email addresses was a good idea except when the teacher ran into a needy student who used every minor problem as an excuse to contact his teacher. She sighed and continued the task, something she noticed wryly, that Howard never bothered with.
Fifteen years Olivia's senior, Howard stood for a few minutes like a captain surveying his crew. Then he finally riffled through the stack of snail mail on his desk in the opposite corner of their shared office. The desk squatted beneath the single window in the room and offered the gorgeous view that Howard had appropriated. A lopsided smile hovered at the edge of his lips.
"Good weekend, Howard?"
"Fair to middling," he answered coyly.
She remembered his teaching assistant. "Ted Burrows dropped off some papers."
Howard grimaced. "Oh, I forgot he was coming by. Bet he wasn't happy to miss me."
A year-round tan, remarkable even in California, gave Howard's face and forearms a golden sheen. His short, blond hair spiked fashionably over a high, intelligent forehead below eyes so blue Olivia suspected tinted contact lenses.
"He seemed okay," she said. "But he did say he'd stayed up all night to finish them."
Howard rolled his eyes as Olivia glanced up to take in the vigorous look of him. Bermuda shorts, which he wore year round, showed off well-developed calves that glinted with fine, sun-bleached hairs. "More likely he got one of his minions to do it for him," he said.
She gaped at him. "What do you mean?"
"You know his reputation, don't you?"
"I've heard he's quite a ladies' man."
Howard crossed the short distance between them and planted his hip on the edge of Olivia's desk. He leaned forward confidentially. "I'd say Teddy-boy is more than a ladies' man."
"Oh?" She shifted uncomfortably in her chair, regretting her comment. She didn't want to get caught up in university gossip.
"Let's just say Theodore Burrows isn't very discriminating in whom he chooses to… ah, date."
She instinctively eased away. Sometimes Howard's familiarity made her cringe. Something smarmy lurked beneath the surface of his affability. He lived extremely well in spite of a professor's salary and had once mentioned a grandmother who lived in one of those old and very expensive homes overlooking San Francisco Bay. Olivia had the impression that he came from an old moneyed family used to living by their own rules.
Howard's smirk evolved into a wide grin. "I suspect one or two of Ted's… amours are more than willing to relieve him of his onerous paper load."
She didn't consider herself naïve, but the implication astonished her. "He wouldn't."
"He does." He examined his manicured nails. "I have it straight from the horse's mouth."
"What are you going to do about it?"
"Absolutely nothing. Why should I care who scores my papers as long as the work gets done?"
Olivia tried to mask her shock. Ted Burrows exchanging sexual favors for the price of a good score on Howard's student papers? Surely not.
After he returned to his desk, she observed Howard discreetly as she looked through a stack of student essays. He threw himself into a fine-grained leather chair which he'd purchased himself. Definitely not standard university issue. The chair made an excellent complement to the cherry wood desk, also an import, and the matching bookcases that flanked the wall on either side of the window.
"Oh, by the way, Olivia," Howard said after a moment. "I heard about your missing student. What was her name, Kendra or Kennan…?"
"Keisha Johnson," Olivia supplied, keeping her eyes trained on her papers.
"That's right. Keisha. I'm very sorry about what happened to her. One of the staff told me the police were nosing around here and asking questions."
Jack had emphasized the necessity for secrecy. "Oh, not about Keisha," she lied. "Something else."
"Well, it's a tragedy, her dying like that." His eyes glinted with curiosity. "Is it true someone actually beat her to death?"
Olivia felt grief snag at her throat.
Howard rolled his chair closer. "I know you were fond of her. Is there anything I can do?"
She didn't want Howard's false sympathy. Keisha had been in the office several times while Howard was here, and he hadn't paid her the slightest attention. In fact, now that she remembered, he'd gone out of his way to avoid her.
"I'm fine, Howard." She scooted her chair closer to her computer. "I need to finish my mail," she said, hoping he'd take the hint.
He didn't. "Such a heinous, senseless crime. Do the police have any clue who could have done it?"
"I don't know," she answered sharply. "The police don't keep me apprised of their cases." She offered a tiny smile to take the edge off her words. After all, Howard Randolph was her office mate and she was stuck with him for the rest of the year.
He pulled his chair back to his space and reached for a handsomely-bound leather volume. "I suppose the police won't be all that interested in finding her killer," he mused.
Olivia looked up from her desk. "What do you mean?"
"Well, considering her rather reckless reputation… " He let the words hang unspoken as he flashed a sly look.
"Keisha was a very nice girl," she protested. "Why do you think her reputation is in question?"
"Oh, come on, Olivia, a pretty girl like that. You know the rumors." A knowing expression crossed his face. "New York City girl, loose in sunny California, away from mommy and daddy for the first time."
She didn't bother to temper her tone this time. "You're presuming a great deal about a girl you know absolutely nothing about."
Randolph glanced up from flipping through the pages of his book. "I'm sorry if I've offended you, my dear. It wasn't my intention."
Without a word, Olivia snapped off her computer and removed her purse from the drawer. As she exited the office, she turned back. Howard's brows were still lifted and he had that silly pretend-surprise look on his face.
"You should speak cautiously about the dead, Howard. Keisha was a nice girl and doesn't deserve your insinuations about her character." She closed the door behind her with a sharp click.
So much for diplomacy.
The man reverently touched each artifact arranged on the small altar. Then he lighted exactly seven virginally white candles and placed them strategically around the room so as to produce the most dramatic view. Next, he pinned the photographs to the tag board wall at the altar's right-hand side because, of course, the offering of the Man of Holiness must stand at the right hand of God.
Black and white photos, all of them very startling, in his modest opinion. He'd taken the pictures and developed them himself, all sharp and crisp tableaux, unmarred by the muddy brilliance of color. How could one see the clear beauty of absolutism when the photographed objects were saturated with image gradients and hues? Color obscured meaning. Only the starkness of black and white indicated the unvarnished truth.
The persons in these photos showed naked reality.
He hung them in strict chronological order according to when he'd taken them and then stood back to admire his collection. He caressed the third photo, his favorite. He believed the grainy texture captured the moment of death's realization the best.
The woman had been an aspiring actress, reduced to the waitressing common among girls gone to Hollywood. Lowly work, for which she was paid a pittance. He thought she showed extraordinary potential, but her fate was inevitable. He particularly enjoyed running his fingers over the picture's germane sections and reliving the sticky reality of the event.
"Sweetheart," he whispered aloud, "you were one of the best." She hadn't known, of course, that he had photographed her. By then she was too far gone to be aware of such trivia as cameras.
The man placed a velvet cushion on the floor before the altar and knelt, genuflected, and folded his hands in front of his chest. A surge of foolishness rose up in him. Despite his religious ties, he wasn't sure God existed. But it didn't really matter because a moment of incredible peace descended on him, and a shiver akin to religious fervor – or an orgasm – shook his body with the force of a surging river.
The closing of the front door drew him out of his meditation. Instantly he became as alert as a fox. Who had a key to this apartment? It was unthinkable that anyone had access to his quarters… possibly to this private room.
Agitated, he pushed up from the cushion and put out the candles one by one with the eighteenth century candle extinguisher he'd discovered by chance at an antique store in Oregon. When he exited the room, he triple locked the door and replaced the plain panel which fitted easily into the door frame. He re-hung the cheap art deco painting, giving it one last glance before he started down the stairs.
"Hi, there," the woman said, smiling broadly up at him where he paused at the landing. "Long time, no see."
"Didn't know you had a key," he said mildly.
"Silly guy, I don't, but I remembered where I'd left a spare from… before… " She fumbled with the words, and he knew she was suddenly aware of how bold she'd been.
She'd made a copy? He trembled with anger at the possibility.
"… when I used your key once," she finished.
He pushed down the rage and grinned in a way he knew she found charming and cosmopolitan – she'd actually used that word one time to describe him after one of his sessions of wild sex with the silly bitch.
He stepped up to greet her. "It's fine," he said. "I'm just surprised to see you."
"I finished early today," she added, as if by explanation, and hung her coat on the oak clothes tree which, along with a ceramic-topped entry table, was the only piece of furniture in the foyer. She dropped her keys into the glass bowl. "I thought we could order pizza."
Conjuring up images of the heavy meal, his mind revolted at the idea of red sauce mingled with stringy white substances and brown animal meats. Maybe with the correct wine. He sighed and began the descent. He reached for the heavy bag she struggled with and dropped a quick peck on her cheek. For now, she'd expect that much.
Oh, well, at least she'd be good for a quick fuck. She was hardly up to any intellectual stimulation, but didn't he keep her around for the occasional time when a good screw was just what he needed?
"You order," he suggested, "and I'll pick up a bottle of wine when I get the pizza."
"Cool," she answered, moving to the kitchen and the drawer beside the sink where he kept the take-out menus.
She'd become far too familiar with him, he thought, as he watched her bend unnecessarily to adjust her shoe strap, her back toward him. Giving him a full view of her lack of underwear. He rethought his position on giving her the immediate boot. Maybe a few more trysts for old times' sake. Did the vapid girl even know what a tryst was?
"No anchovies," she said, holding the phone to her ear and covering the mouthpiece with a hand that sported rings on every finger.
"You remember." He smiled like a shark.
"I remember everything about you, honey," she answered coyly, "and I mean everything." Her heavily mascaraed eyes dropped to a spot below his waist.
Definitely good for a few more rounds. Even if he had to tolerate pizza and cheap, empty-headed conversation.
"Back in a minute," he said, grabbing his coat from the rack and heading out into the brisk night, tugging the collar close around his neck.
At the liquor store he chose a moderately-priced bottle of Burgundy before picking up the pizza and walking the quarter mile back to his apartment. The food would be cold by the time they got around to eating it – rather, before she devoured it – but he had no intention of letting the heat of the moment slip by.
She might get one slice eaten while he set up the camera. She would need the extra energy because he had every intention of keeping her very occupied tonight.
Olivia didn't look at all surprised when Jack showed up on her doorstep without warning. He hadn't meant to see her alone again before he left for the mountains, but her accusing eyes had wounded him all day. He told himself he'd explain what little he could and beg her forgiveness.
Those sharp green eyes darkened several shades as she swept them over his casual clothes – jeans and a black tee shirt under his leather jacket. She stepped back and opened the door wider. Barefoot and looking very young in jeans and a collared shirt, she took a seat on the sofa in the living room. Jack chose a wing chair in the opposite corner, putting distance between them.
"I never meant to take advantage of you." The the words spewed out of his mouth sounding common and inadequate.
"You left me," she said after a painful pause.
The truth stung. "You think I used you."
"I may have been young, Jack, but I always knew what I wanted." She tucked her bare feet under her legs. "What I didn't know was why you left after… well, you know." She lifted her slender shoulders. "It was my first time. I suppose I was immature enough to dramatize the whole event, but I felt as though you'd saved my life. I thought it meant something." A small smile crossed her lips. "Very foolish of me."
A white, hot jab of anguish stabbed Jack's gut.
Moving to Oakland from Texas at the age of fifteen actually had saved his life, he reflected, considering his father was in prison and his mother ran through men and alcohol at the fast pace. He'd been a mess when he came to live with his foster parents, kicked out of juvie and given one last chance to reform.
Turns out his one last chance had been Olivia. She'd saved him then and he couldn't help wondering if she'd save him now. "It's complicated," he said, looking at his interlocked hands dangling between his legs. "I wanted to call you, let you know what happened, send a postcard, but – "
She placed her feet flat on the hardwood floor and leaned forward on her elbows. "Instead you showed up at my office seventeen years later talking about dead bodies and a murder case."
Jack swiped a hand over the scruff of his jaw. "All I wanted was to protect you from that bastard stepfather of yours." For years he'd been stumbling around the truth like a blind man. He stared into Olivia's steady eyes and knew with a wrenching knife-wound to the gut that he had to start being honest with her.
Restless, he slammed out of his chair and began pacing the room, his fists jammed in his pockets. "Graduation night," he began, "I looked for you, thought you'd left early." He remembered how he'd walked off the stage, clutching his diploma in one hand and holding his cap on his head against the stiff breeze with the other. His car keys were tucked in his dress slacks and he searched the crowd.
Olivia nodded for him to continue.
"I couldn't wait to meet at the dugout like we'd arranged." He smiled, thinking of how pumped up he'd been. "I had to see you. Right then." But he couldn't locate the top of her dark curly head among the staff and families that pressed toward the graduates. "Someone said you'd gone home early, so as soon as I could, I drove to your house."
Her surprise was genuine. "I didn't know."
"No one answered, and it occurred to me that you'd already gone to the dugout like we'd planned. As I turned to leave, the front door swung open. Your step-father stood there. No shirt, no shoes. A bottle of Jim Beam in his hand."
He saw it as clear as a picture, Roger scratching his bare belly with the hand holding the liquor bottle, drunk as a skunk and mean as a rabid dog. Pure ugliness around his mouth.
Jack sank into the chair and leaned on his forearms. "I didn't lie to you when you asked what I'd done with my life. I just gave the short version."
Olivia sat up straighter, steel in her eyes. He couldn't tell if she believed him or not. "Give me the long version," she ordered.
He sighed, staring down at his hands. "I went to college just like I told you, but it was a Special Forces training school that crammed five years of academic studies and intensive training into three."
Her beautiful green eyes widened. "Military school?"
He nodded. "Invictus. Right after that the Marine Corps. Did time in Kuwait and South America."
Shock layered her face. "You were just a kid."
"I'm not sure I was ever a kid." He smiled without humor. "I finally went back to Maryland, to Invictus." He spread his hands, palms upward. "Pretty soon, the Organization was the only home I ever knew. The only place where I felt half-way normal."
"I don't understand. What did they do to you?"
Jack didn't answer and cradled his head in his hands.
Olivia rose and knelt in front of him, but not touching him, he noticed. "That still doesn't answer why you left so abruptly."
He looked up into her face, closer now. "After the night when you and I… after that night I felt different, changed."
"Emotionally? So did I."
He shook his head, unable to meet her eyes, and rose again, left her sitting on the carpet. He gazed through the wide glass window into the night as if he'd find the words there to explain that long-ago time. "I swear to God, Livvie. I loved you. From the moment I first saw you, I loved you." First as a friend, then… "
In fact, Jack recalled the exact moment he ceased to think of Olivia Morse as a nuisance and tagalong and saw something in her that sparked his interest. The promise of womanhood in her budding breasts and skinny hips and legs, of something alluring that drew him to her like a magnetic force field.
At the first blush of spring that last year the three of them were together all the time – Olivia, Ben, and Jack – like the three musketeers. They'd driven Ben’s pick-up truck to the rock quarry north of the city. They wore tank tops and shorts, and relished the pale sun beating on their bodies for the first time since winter. After rummaging for empty beer and soda cans, they lined them up on the largest rocks and took turns shooting the rifle.
Jack's arms wound around Livvie, demonstrating how to hold the rifle butt against her right shoulder and sight down the barrel before squeezing off the shot. He bent his head to see the sight line for himself, and Livvie shifted her hip into his body and turned her head into his face. Jack inhaled the sweetness of peppermint on her breath and the smooth skin of her cheeks tinged with the sun’s warmth. She peered upward through impossibly thick lashes and stared unblinking at his mouth while something inexplicable shifted inside him, a turn down a divergent road from which he couldn't return.
If he’d known that the force of their attraction would nearly destroy him, would he have acted on it anyway? Or was his destiny decided long ago by some cosmic force he didn’t understand and over which he had no control? Determined by the unique arrangement of his genes?
Jack had seen a matching emotion in Livvie’s face, and he knew she’d felt it too, that shift in their friendship. As he gazed at her, all those years ago, a placid serenity seemed to descend over her. She’d reached a momentous decision, but he didn’t know what that meant until much later. When it was too late to go back.
Then Ben shouted up at them from the creek bed, and the moment was lost.
Jack turned from the window, saw Olivia brush her fingers against damp cheeks, and continued his story. "Within a week of that night I noticed changes in myself," he continued, "significant ones. I moved up a weight class in wrestling because my body bulked up so much. I became strong – so damned strong – my muscles developed overnight, and I grew five inches that spring."
Olivia crossed to the window to stand beside him while they both searched the inky night. She still avoided touching him, but he felt her soothing warmth. "I didn't notice," she whispered.
"Every one of my senses heightened – sights, sounds, smells so acute I thought I'd suffocate. I pushed you away because I wanted you all the time and didn't want you to think I was some lust-crazed maniac."
"But we never… " she protested, "after that."
"Yeah." He tried to smile, faltered. "The most bizarre thing was the healing."
"Healing?" He sensed her confusion.
"Amazing powers, a cut, a wrenched ankle, a scrape or burn – all healed freakishly fast. I must have injured myself a dozen times that spring and never saw a doctor once."
She wet her lips and touched his shoulder so that he turned toward her. "You… you can't expect me to believe that."
He went on anyway. "After that the dreams started, weird psychedelic images and nightmarish stories, like someone had slipped me acid. But none of them made sense the next morning. Night sweats, headaches, nausea, blurred vision… "
"That sounds like drugs." Accusation registered in her voice.
"God, Livvie, something much worse."
She shook her head in bewilderment. "What could be worse?"
But Jack wasn't ready to talk about that yet. Instead, he pulled out the one fact he knew he had to tell her. "Like I said, it was grad night and I couldn't find you, so I went to your house, but you weren't there." He hesitated. "Roger was."
Roger Strong, who'd made a believer of him long before anything else.
Jack rushed the words out on a single breath. "I killed him."
She jerked back from him and sank into the wing chair. "Oh my God."
Silence filled the room while the magnitude of his confession hung between them.
Finally Olivia spoke, her voice frantic, a light sheen of sweat on her upper lip. "But… it was an accident, right? Roger was always getting into drunken brawls." Her fingers clutched the arm of the chair. "Tell me it was an accident, Jack."
"Not exactly an accident," he said disgustedly. "More like him swinging a broken whiskey bottle at my face and me avoiding it the best way I could."
"What do you mean?"
"He was an ass, Livvie," he insisted quietly, not wanting to excuse his actions, but needing to explain them. He'd been horrified by what he'd done, but not sorry. "Roger deserved everything he got. It wasn't only you he bothered. He went after any girl who wasn't smart enough, or old enough, to stay clear of him."
She stared up at him and shook her head as if denying the facts.
"He smashed the beer bottle on the porch railing and came after me with it. Opened up a vicious gash on my bicep. Then I made the mistake of turning my back on him. He tackled me from behind. It all happened so fast."
Jack looked away, still horrified at what he'd done next. "I swung around, got him in a choke hold. And then… I heard his neck snap."
Stunned silence filled the room for long moments.
Horror and shame flitted across Olivia's face. "My mother told me he left her," she said slowly, "deserted without a word. I was glad he was gone." Her lips twisted in a wry grimace. "The police investigated and said he probably ran off with another woman like my mom suggested. Nobody cared, least of all me."
Her voice slowed to a crawl. "If you killed him, what happened to his body?"
"I went home to clean up. I was terrified. I didn't know what to do. When I went back, Roger was gone."
Hope flared in her eyes. "Maybe you didn't kill him. Maybe what my mother said was true. Maybe he was stunned and just got up and walked away."
"I killed him," Jack insisted dully. "I heard his neck snap. He was dead." He remembered how afraid he'd been, the confrontation with Roger, the fear of getting caught and serving time like his old man.
"Then that healing power kicked in. My arm was dripping blood so heavy I thought he'd hit an artery, and the next thing I knew, the bleeding had almost stopped. Twenty minutes later an eight-inch long, inch-deep gash in my upper arm was starting to heal." Jack paused and looked her square in the eye. "All. By. Itself. It's been happening ever since."
She looked as if she'd been sucker punched. "That's not possible."
His body's regenerative powers still amazed Jack after all these years. How could he expect Olivia to believe?
"This weird strength and the healing factor began after we'd been together," he said and watched her sink under the weight of this strange knowledge. "That's one of the reasons I didn't dare be with you again."
"Even though we both wanted it," she murmured.
"There's more," he added.
It was really too much to take in all at once, Olivia thought, her head swimming with Jack's wild tale. "I need a drink." She walked on shaky legs into the dining area and retrieved a decanter and two glasses.
Jack shook his head. "Not for me, not tonight."
When she looked askance at him, he added, "I – I have to keep a clear head."
She poured herself a stiff drink while Jack watched her carefully. "I know you don't want to hear this," he said, "but I have to go away by myself for a little while."
She choked on the swallow of burning liquid. "Why?"
"It has to do with Invictus."
"And – let me guess – you aren't going to explain, right?" The bitterness in her voice sounded ugly to her own ears.
"What else do you want to know?" he asked in a reasonable tone that made her angrier.
She gulped another drink and waved her hand in empty gracelessness. "There's more, you said. What more?"
Jack looked weary, and for a brief moment all she wanted was to hold him in her arms and comfort him, but she steeled herself against those tender feelings.
"I'll be gone a few days, no more," he said, "and when I get back I'll tell you the rest."
She glowered at him, glad she hadn't succumbed to the momentary weakness. "Go then." She turned her back to him. "Get out. Keep your secrets. I don't care about them." She felt dizzy and realized she'd drunk the alcohol too quickly.
"I promise I'll tell you everything," he repeated.
His words were so soft she almost missed them, thought he'd gone. Suddenly his hands lightly touched her shoulders. He dropped a kiss on the top of her head and ran his fingers gently up and down her arms. "Don't be angry."
Olivia melted into his body, feeling for a brief moment as if she'd come home. Her breath hitched and her blood pounded at her temples. God, she wanted him. Her body vibrated with the need to touch and be touched by him. He gently nuzzled her neck. His hot breath on her skin sent shivers of pleasure through her. When he turned her around and captured her mouth in a sweet kiss, she was so hungry for him that she moaned silently.
The intensity of the kiss pounded through her veins like an unleashed dam. She wrapped her arms around his neck and slid her fingers into his thick hair, pulling him harder, closer to her. The resonating pulse of his desire hummed between them. He wanted her as much as she wanted him, she thought, feeling the electric shock of need spark between them. He pulled away for a moment, dark fierce eyes staring into hers as if asking permission. She tugged his mouth down and nipped at the beautifully carved bottom lip. He responded by plundering her mouth until she couldn't think, couldn't breathe, couldn't stop.
With a groan like a man in pain, he released her lips to trail a line of ravaging kisses down her neck and across her collarbone. He slipped his large warm hands under her shirt, up her bare back, and reached around to cup one of her breasts through the flimsy lace of her bra. Delicious tingles began in her nipples and moved down to pool between her legs as he ground his hips into her. He fumbled with the clasp at the front of her bra and she felt the sweet release of her breasts and the unbearable pleasure of his fingers caressing her nipple.
She ran her hands underneath his tee shirt, slid them up the smooth hard muscles of his back, and felt him tremble at her touch. Fumbling with his jeans, she undid the buttons and shoved at the garment until it hung low on his hips. A sigh of pleasure escaped her as she felt the texture of his skin, the furred dip below his waist. She reached for him, burning to take the hard hot length of him in her hand.
Without warning she heard him growl, a low feral sound that rumbled from his chest up into his throat. In the dim light she saw his dark eyes gleam, black slits set in even blacker pupils. As she tightened her arms around his waist, she registered the changes in him: the muscled flesh of his back and chest, the thickness of his thighs and the stockiness of his body. The heavy jutting of his groin against her stomach. He seemed different.
"For God's sake, Livvie." He shoved away from her and she lost her balance, landing hard on the carpet. "Don't make me hurt you!"
She gazed up at him from her position on the floor, shuddering at the changes in him. She'd always known Jack was trouble. From the beginning he'd been different from the other boys in school. Something dark and foreboding had always lingered near him, something that'd intensified during his senior year.
But she'd briefly known another Jack, the boy-man who'd saved her from the demon named Roger. As a teenager, she'd loved him with all the sentimental ardor of youth. As a grown woman, she understood the desires of her body and knew what she wanted. Even after all these years, Jack's claim on her was a giant fist gripping her heart.
With a groan that was like an animal's cry of pain, Jack knelt on the floor beside her. "Let me go, Livvie," he whispered in her ear. "Let me go before something awful happens." He pulled her to her feet, holding both her hands in his.
Unable to speak, she nodded mutely.
Jack heaved a relieved sigh and then he was gone.
Although Olivia was exhausted, she couldn't rest, and in spite of the chilly night, she opened the bedroom window and watched the shadows on the street below. A soft breeze ruffled the curtains, making the coldness inside her more chilling. A shudder ran through her, but not from the night air.
Hours ago she'd watched Jack get in his car. The temptation to race down the stairs and beg him to stay had been so intense she dug her fingernails into her palms to keep from giving in to it. He'd sat there for a long time like a man in a trance before he'd turned on the lights, put the car in gear, and driven off.
When her cell phone rang, she grabbed it from the nightstand, certain it was him.
Waylon Harris' deep bass sounded over the line. "Uh, sorry to bother you so late, Dr. Gant, but I can't get Agent Holt on the phone, and I thought maybe… " His voice trailed off and Olivia wondered if he'd noticed something pass between her and Jack. Had they been so transparent?
She glanced at the clock. "Is it important?"
She could almost see his dark face blush, heard the embarrassment in his voice. "Uh, well, ma'am, I think he'd want to have my report right away. I just got back from the Lake Tahoe crime scene."
Where Keisha's body was found.
"I took a crime tech up there with me," Harris continued. "We enlarged the perimeter, and after about four hours of searching, we found another note. That's why I'm calling so late. Uh, you want I should read it to you?"
"Yes," she answered, grabbing a pen and paper from the dresser.
Haltingly, one letter at a time, Harris read the note and Olivia carefully repeated the letters as she wrote them down.
"We found the paper caught in the brush down a ways from the body site," Harris added. "The wind must've blown it off."
After hanging up, Olivia examined the note. Like the note on Carl Bender's body, this message had all capital letters, no spaces or punctuation. She drew vertical lines between certain letters, dividing them into words, and then separated them into two separate sentences. The first half of the note translated to 'She has been ruled' and the second, 'Fame lives in great things.'
She jotted down the translations even though she had absolutely no idea what they meant in relation to poor Keisha's mangled body.
Olivia managed to pull into her campus parking space with nearly half an hour to spare before her first class. Hurrying up the concrete steps, she hurried across the crowded campus toward her office in Vincent Hall. The door was closed. Good, apparently Howard hadn't arrived yet. She slipped her key into the lock and noisily entered the room.
Howard Randolph jumped back from the edge of her desk, a guilty look on his face. Every part of her body must have showed the shock that rippled through her at Howard invading her privacy. "Howard! What are you doing?"
Her officemate's normally unflappable demeanor slipped. He'd been caught snooping through her private materials. What excuse could he offer?
Howard made a weak attempt at humor. "Olivia, my dear, you frightened the bejeezus out of me." He laughed weakly. "Sorry for the language, but you really shouldn't sneak up on a person like that."
When she continued to stare at him, he rushed on. "I've run out of those little yellow sticky pads. I thought you might have an extra packet in your desk drawer."
Did he think she was an idiot? Her eyes slid to the spot where he'd let his hand linger on her in-box, and she noticed that her computer was turned on, the home page brightly lit as though someone had recently touched a random key. She hadn't left so hurriedly yesterday that she'd forgotten to turn it off, had she? No, she distinctly remembered closing it down. Anyway, the screen saver wouldn't be flickering if it'd been in sleep mode since yesterday. She frowned, enraged at both his transparent attempt to cover up the fact that he was spying on her, and at herself for questioning her memory.
"I don't have any," she answered sharply. Better to grab the bull by the horns and confront the man straight on. "Why did you turn my computer on?"
Howard looked flustered and turned to the monitor, gaping as though he'd just noticed the light from the screen. "I'm sure the computer was on when I came in, Olivia." His voice took on a priggish tone. "You don't think I did that, do you? I assure you I didn't. And I'm sorry I was searching for the note pads. I'll be sure not to disturb you again."
His self-righteousness irked her, but she refused to be put on the defensive. Howard was the trespasser. "You need to respect my boundaries, Howard."
"Of course, you're absolutely right." Stiff-lipped, he strolled over to his desk and dipped his head into the open book that lay on his desk, effectively ending the discussion. Olivia sat behind her desk and covertly watched him.
No more than a few moments of awkward silence had deepened between them, when Ted Burrows entered the office, bearing a batch of papers. He glanced at Olivia once before he pulled up the extra chair close to Howard's desk.
Olivia turned to her computer, her back to them, and began a search of last-visited sites. She didn't believe Howard's story for a second, but what could he be looking for on her computer? Uneasiness crept up her neck. How could she be comfortable around the man any more?
"Got these papers, Dr. Randolph," she heard Burrows say with sly familiarity, the words followed by the soft plop of papers landing on a hard surface. Ted wasn't as innocent as his charm suggested, but she reminded herself, what exact harm had either done?
What provable harm.
Olivia didn't want to eavesdrop on the two men, but shreds of their conversation wafted to her through the space of the small office. They appeared to be arguing quietly, Ted's voice wheedling and coaxing until Howard's rose in agitation.
She heard something like, "Back off" and "You don't want to go there, Ted."
Finally, she heard the shuffling of papers, the scrap of chair wheels on linoleum, and Ted's final words. "Don't fuck with me, Randolph. I know too many secrets."
Olivia glanced over her shoulder to meet the stormy eyes of her office mate. Something dangerous she'd never seen before raged on the icy surface of the blue irises. However, before anything was said, Howard grabbed his briefcase and hurried out the door, shooting a final grim look her way. What was going on between the two of them? Their relationship seemed far more intense than professor and teaching assistant, especially ones who'd just begun working together? And what was Howard really looking for when he rifled through her desk?
The team met in Slater's office later that morning. Deputy Harris was there, and no one mentioned the absent Jack. Isabella Torres was trying to make her case for another interview with Diego Vargas. "The whole Vargas family has ties to the Norteños." Torres rested a hip on Slater's desk.
"You're messing with a dangerous bunch," Slater argued.
"That’s why I have to take him down."
"The Mexican Mafia – the Sureños – keep to the southern part of the state," Slater explained for Olivia's benefit, "but the Norteños run the north."
"Diego Vargas is a vicious man," Torres said. "In my interview with him he was almost completely devoid of affect. He enjoys playing little mind games with people."
"See – a full-blown sociopath," Slater said.
"Could he be involved in something deeper than campaign fraud?" Olivia ventured.
"Like what?" Slater asked.
Torres threw up her hands in exasperation."His wife’s claims of abuse? Vargas likes to hurt people – women – he’s ruthless, and he has absolutely no boundaries."
"You'd better get your hard evidence shored up, counselor," Slater warned.
"I'm setting up another appointment with Vargas." Isabella glanced at Olivia. "I thought Dr. Gant could accompany me."
"Vargas is a dyed-in-the-wool Catholic." Torres shrugged. "You might see something I don't."
Olivia smiled although she didn't feel like it. "Why not?" What else did she have to lose?
When the conversation turned back to the DLK case, Olivia could tell Slater was pleased with the translation of the latest note, although no one had any idea what it meant in relation to the case. Minutes later they finished up and Isabella and Harris left.
"Be careful around Vargas," Slater warned Olivia.
She remembered the yellowing bruises and frightened eyes of Magdalena Vargas' photos and thought of her ex-husband's violent tendencies.
"Diego Vargas is a dangerous enemy, and like a cornered animal, he'll attack desperately and viciously if pinned against a wall," Slater warned. "Torres is young and sometimes she gets a little cocky. Be careful around Vargas."
Olivia and Isabella Torres sat across from the Councilman Vargas as guests in his office. Olivia suspected he’d arranged the meeting here as a psychological advantage.
An imposing and taciturn giant named Santos leaned against the wall in a pose that reminded her of a crouching tiger toying with a small animal. Vargas was a bull, charging straight on and goring his enemy with a single powerful thrust, but Santos was the one who meted out indifferent violence as warnings, the cost of running the smoothly oiled machinery of Vargas’ activities.
Olivia had done her homework on the councilman.
She glanced around the spacious office at the trappings of power and position. A flag of Mexico hung behind Vargas' desk, its green, white, and red vertical stripes oddly unsettling beside the red, white, and blue of Old Glory and the California Bear Flag. In a picture of César Chávez at a rally with his arm draped around a dark-skinned boy who surely must be the young Vargas, both grinned into the camera. The usual municipal code books aligned against the wall behind her. All photos were political in nature, one of Vargas with the current governor, another of him shaking hands with the head of the United Farm Workers of America. Noticeably absent were pictures of Vargas’ wife and family.
The councilman allowed them several moments of gazing around the room. She understood this, too, was a power ploy. Vargas controlled the meeting. He determined when it began and when it ended. When she met his eyes, he was smiling with the bearing and stance of a proud and confident leader.
"So, the beautiful and persistent ADA requests yet another interview with me." Vargas inclined his head in an old-world gesture, inviting them to sit in one of a pair of dark leather chairs. "How can I extend the service of my office?"
"Just a few more loose ends if you don’t mind." Isabella reached into her briefcase and retrieved a pen and notepad along with a small recorder. "I’ll record this conversation." She paused and raised her eyebrows in question. "If you don’t mind, that is."
The flush began in his bull’s neck and crept steadily up to the snowy collar of his shirt where a blue tie with red flecks threatened to choke off his air. "Of course, I do not mind. Only someone with secrets to hide would object." Vargas spread his beefy hands in a parody of apology. "But alas, my attorney would absolutely forbid it." He let his gaze slide to Santos, who'd straightened up from the wall.
Olivia was surprised by the implication that Santos was both bodyguard and lawyer. Surely the brute of a man to whom they’d turned their backs hadn’t the patience or intelligence to study for the bar. But the crafty gleam in his eyes told her Santos was cleverer than she’d believed. She felt ice deep in her bones.
Isabella cleared her throat. "What can you tell me about the Mexican Mafia?"
"The Sureños? What have I to do with those thugs?" He seemed genuinely surprised, and if so, that meant the two rival gangs were not forming alliances, and drug money hadn't funded Vargas' campaign.
"I heard rumors," Isabella murmured.
"Nonsense." Santos intervened for the first time. "Councilman Vargas is a respectable businessman. He has no ties to gang activities. If you wish to turn these allegations into criminal charges – "
"Silencio!" Vargas said. "Of course, ADA Torres does not wish to accuse me. She knows as well as I do that when any Latino goes to prison – or so I have heard – he must choose: either Sureños or Norteños." He smiled expansively, "I do not understand such blood oaths and allegiances, but an alliance seems unlikely."
"Jefe," Santos warned, closing the gap between Isabella and him. His high cheekbones and aquiline nose contrasted with the broad, peasant features of Vargas. A thin line cleft through the left side of Santos’ brow, down through the upper and lower lips and ending in the middle of his chin. A knife fight souvenir, Olivia guessed, staring at his massive hands. "Por favor, es imprudente decir más."
Vargas commanded him back to his station with an insolent wave of his hand. "I decide whether to say more or not." Turning to Isabella, he continued, "You have heard of this, yes? No neutral ground in the gangs. Blood in, blood out. Gang in, death out."
Olivia understood the message all too well. Vargas was speaking of more than gangs.
After a moment of silence, a grin split Vargas’ face and he spread his hands. "Que muchachas bonitas! How pleasant to have a visit by two lovely women." Vargas let his eyes slide over to Olivia. She folded her hands church-like on the table top and held back a shiver. "Such beautiful skin," he observed, "the joining of fair flesh with fine silk."
Vargas inclined his head for Isabella to proceed with her questions, but his eyes remained on Olivia. She lifted her chin, reminded herself to show no emotion, to remember why she was here.
Isabella extracted a red file from her briefcase and glanced at her notes, "Mr. Vargas, the last time we spoke, you mentioned your mother, Consuelo Maria Vargas – "
Santos held his massive hand up like a traffic cop, leaned over and whispered in Vargas’ ear. After a moment, Vargas nodded. Santos knew. He understood that the mother was a weak link in his client’s armor. Olivia met his eyes and saw the unspoken menace written there. She wondered how much the lawyer would interfere while Isabella pushed Vargas’ buttons.
"I only ask," Isabella continued, "because your mother sounds like a wonderful woman. She donates time and money to many charitable causes."
"Si." Vargas pushed his lawyer’s hand away. "Mi madre, she is a saint." He crossed himself and kissed the right thumb of his closed fist. The religious gesture was automatic and clearly meant something to the man.
"I’m sure she is, Mr. Vargas, but I’m looking at a report that indicates she was the largest contributor to your campaign this election year." Her fingers played over a picture of Consuelo Vargas that she’d clipped to the inside flap.
"That’s no crime." Santos answered for his client, his voice reasonable. "Family contributions."
"Yes," Isabella answered in a measured tone, "but the records indicate that Mrs. Vargas used business funds for the contributions. Considering the amount, that could be construed as illegal."
The effect on Vargas was instantaneous.
He jumped up from his seat, his face turning beet red. The chair crashed into the wall behind him as Santos leapt toward the women, grabbing Olivia by the upper arm as she and Isabella rose, startled at the manic reaction.
Santos’ voice was low and menacing. "You had better leave now." His grasp on her upper arm was punishing.
Olivia met Vargas' gaze. He moved his lips, but no words came out. His dark eyes focused on her alone. But the impassive calmness with which Santos urged them toward the office door chilled her to the bone. Santos was the one to watch out for.
When they reached the car, Isabella opened the doors and scooted into the driver’s seat. Ten minutes later, by mutual agreement, they pulled off the road and into the parking lot of a café off I-80. By the time they’d been seated and ordered coffee, both had reclaimed their composure.
Olivia looked around the restaurant at the nearly empty booths, the brightly waxed linoleum, and the array of plants lining the window sills. She ran her fingers through her hair, feeling messy, wondering why Isabella had insisted she wear it down.
Finally, she fixed on Isabella’s calm demeanor and steady eyes. "How do you do it?" Thinking of the flat darkness of the henchman's face, the lewd gleam in Vargas' eyes, sent a sliver of ice down her spine. A memory flashed through her mind, of Roger's small malevolent eyes roaming over her childish face and figure.
Isabella shrugged. "Did you notice the way Vargas ogled you?"
"How could I miss it?"
"I wanted you to wear that kind of dress on purpose."
Olivia frowned, recalling Isabella's insistence that she change into a specific dress – a white dress that was low cut and revealing – before they drove for the interview. She’d been so anxious about the meeting, she hadn’t questioned why.
"You're his type. I wanted you to look… virginal," Isabella explained. "I wanted to observe Vargas’ response to an attractive woman dressed like that, sexy and don’t-touch-me at the same time."
Understanding flooded Olivia.
"But that’s not all he reacted to," Isabella continued, motioning for the waitress to bring the menus. "You noticed his reaction to the negative suggestion about his mother?"
Olivia nodded and perused the menu.
When the server left, Isabella continued, "Vargas likes women to look slutty, but he wants them to be virginal like his mother."
"Saintly, like he considers her."
"Combine his obvious attraction to you with his adoration of his mother, well, that’s a classic Madonna-whore complex. He has fantasies that women are pure, but when he discovers otherwise, he unleashes his fury on them. He loves his mother, but can’t have sex with her."
Olivia wrinkled her nose.
"His dilemma is he can’t love the 'bad women,' the hookers he has sex with, so he turns his rage on them." She leaned back in the booth as the server refilled their coffee cups and left with their order. She grinned. "At least that's my working theory."
"I noticed something too," Olivia offered. "Did you see the sign he made when he spoke of his mother?"
"He crossed himself, which I expected because he had a Catholic upbringing."
Olivia shook her head. "What was important was that when he spoke the name of his mother, he made a movement as if he were going to genuflect."
"I thought only priests did that."
"It’s a sign of extreme reverence and devotion. Some parishioners used to genuflect when they passed the Eucharist or another holy emblem." Olivia leaned forward eagerly. "The point is that Vargas began a genuflection when you praised his mother, and then stopped. For Vargas to consider his mother a true holy woman, like the Blessed Virgin – " Olivia gestured with her palms up and left the implication hanging.
"Means he’s a fanatic," Isabella finished.
"He also made the sign of the cross to perfection, placing thumb, forefinger, and second finger together to symbolize the Trinity." Olivia demonstrated. "Keeping the two smaller fingers flat against the palm. That signifies both the human and divine incarnations of Christ."
"So Vargas knows his ritual," Isabella concluded. "I saw his lips moving too."
"I believe he was repeating the words of the sign, In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti."
"In the name of the father, the son, and the holy spirit."
"Vargas understands more than a smattering of Latin and quite a bit about his religion."
"A religious extremist?"
"Shite Muslims, Khmer Rouge, tons of that kind of nut in history." Olivia smiled wryly. "Fanatical religious beliefs breed all kinds of maniacs." She reached for her purse, hesitated. "We both agree that Vargas is capable of a serious level of viciousness, that he has motivation, but you can't be thinking he's the Dead Language Killer."
Isabella shrugged."I don’t know. He’s such an evil bastard that I want to believe it. But I’m not sure he could control himself in such a calculated way. Vargas is hot-blooded and hot-tempered. He seems more likely to go berserk when provoked rather than murder someone coldly and methodically like Slater's UNSUB does."
"The crucified men and the women buried alive," Olivia said slowly, "that’s deliberate and calculated." A wave of light-headedness made her feel queasy and she recognized the first signs of delayed shock.
"I want her to pay for what she insinuated about my sainted mother," Vargas said, slipping into the back seat of the limousine while Santos held the door for him. Santos dismissed the driver and slid behind the wheel. All the way back to the mansion, he thought about how to make his boss see how foolish it would be to harm either of the two women. It was the ADA who had made the insult, but Santos knew it was the other one – the beautiful gringa – who had offended his boss the most. Because she was the one who looked like an angel.
Santos was certain the federal prosecutors could not make their case on the RICO charges, and the grand jury was unlikely to indict Vargas. His reach extended very far indeed, but one thing he could not do with impunity was murder officers of the court. Nor could he corrupt incorruptible persons such as the two women seemed to be. Jackson Holt and Sheriff Slater also were honorables hombres. And they were stubborn as well.
Santos did not fear anyone. He had lived too long in the barrio, had fought too hard in many quarters to allow fear more than a mild consideration. No, he did not fear either Sheriff Slater or this new man, Agent Holt. But Santos was un hombre practico, one who did not go against his enemy unnecessarily. However, his boss was not a practical man. For too long now Diego Vargas had allowed his brain to be ruled by his dick.
Santos pulled the long car into the turnaround in front of the wide steps leading to the double doors of Vargas’ palatial home. He gazed thoughtfully for a moment, assessing the way to approach Diego about the matter. As he jumped out of the car and leaned forward to open the door, he spoke to the councilman.
"Senor Vargas, you pay me very well for my services."
"That is true, Santos."
"For my attorney skills."
Vargas nodded. "As well as for my… other specialties."
Vargas’ face hardened. "Say what it is you wish to say, Santos. Do not waste my time beating about the bush."
Santos cleared his throat. "The two women, they should not be bothered."
"Humph. It was not your mother they insulted."
"Now is a dangerous time for you, el jefe. There will be plenty of time later to take care of these women, to pay them for the insult to your family."
"Do you promise me this, mi amigo?"
"Su prometo." Santos placed his hand over his heart. "I promise I will deliver the women to you. When the time is right. And in such a way that their bodies will never be found."
Vargas smiled slowly. "I should like to spend some time with the pale-faced woman before you take care of the matter, eh?"
He leaned forward to lay a hand on his bodyguard’s shoulder. "You have been with me a long time, Santos. You always know how to cheer me up." Vargas climbed from the cool, leather-seated interior as his houseman opened the front doors and stood waiting for him. "Much longer than anyone else." He lifted his chin toward the steps where the houseman stood patiently waiting for his employer. "And you always keep your promises."
Santos watched his boss climb the stone steps. For now he'd pacified Vargas, had held back his thirst for blood and violence, but Santos was certain Diego Vargas would quench his thirst with the innocent-looking el doctor sooner or later.
After the hassle of exchanging the rental sedan for the more versatile Blazer, Jack headed for the mountains. The problem he'd pushed out of his mind until now began to gnaw at him. His recent images of the Dead Language Killer were as elusive as smoke, and Jack felt no closer to the man now than he had four years ago. He hadn't been able to crawl inside this killer's mind as he usually did. He believed his messing with the pills and his involvement with Olivia had altered his abilities. He'd been skimping on blue tablets and increasing the reds, a dangerous combination since he'd eliminated the white pills that eased him into Recovery. Around Olivia the Phens seemed to have no effect, doubly lethal.
Seventeen years ago he'd attributed the eerie increase in strength to a natural growth spurt. That is, until the Invictus people had intervened the night of Roger's death. A few years after that he realized he'd been targeted as a potential candidate for Invictus all along. The Organization liked to track juvenile delinquents with natural physical potential along the line of Olympic athletes. Jack had come across their radar when his father went to prison and the teenage boy had starting getting in trouble with the law.
Tonight he'd felt a surge of increased sensitivity and the edginess that overcame him when his body's instinct clamored to hunt. His senses were alert, his reflexes acute. He wondered if unburdening himself to Olivia might've eased the paralysis he'd been in these last few days. He drove fast, needing to get away from her and put his mind in order, needing to go to a dark, quiet place and listen to the new sounds and urgings of his body. His job was to track a killer, and his natural powers and the small red pills to enhance them would do the job much faster than the local police could find answers.
The danger, of course, was allowing the beast to reign too effectively. If that happened, he'd cross into territory he was afraid he wouldn't be able to come back from. Wouldn't be able to traverse the distance back to his humanity, or his soul. And if he continued increasing the reds without managing the aggression, his organs would attack themselves one by one.
And he'd die.
Bill Gant leaned forward in the driver's seat of his battered Volvo to stare at Olivia's front door. He'd been here since yesterday, moving his car from time to time so he wouldn't draw attention. A tall, lean man had left her house last night. Walked out the front door at an hour too late to be innocent. Looking like he lived there, but distracted as he stepped into a black rental sedan and sped off.
The little slut hadn't wasted any time.
Obviously she was banging him. Bill clenched his fists and felt the anger boiling up. Thinking of Olivia with someone else twisted in his gut like a hot knife. Bitch! She was making a serious mistake screwing over Bill Gant. But then Olivia had always underestimated him. Looked down her pretty nose at him. They'd both been spawned by the same trashy kind of neighborhood, but she'd always thought she was better than him. With her fancy college degree, cushy job, and classy manners, she treated him like something thrown out with the trash.
He stared through the windshield at the tidy, brick house across the street. From the look of it, she also had money to burn. The inheritance from an aunt he didn't even know she had. Money that by rights should be shared with him. He removed a flask from the glove compartment, tilted the bottle and took a deep swig. The liquor relaxed him and he rested his head against the seat, closing his eyes against the anger and pain of Olivia's betrayal. He'd never let her get away with this. She was his. He'd rather see her dead than with another man.
A few minutes later he eased the car away from the curb, drove around the corner, and pulled into the empty driveway of an unlit house halfway down the street from where she lived. He killed the ignition and continued his vigilance.
The late night air in the foothills hung with the promise of an early winter. Jack camped near a fork of the Feather River and spread his bedroll on the ground, even though by the time dawn came, his toughened body would no longer feel the hard, packed dirt beneath it.
After setting up camp, he walked to the water's edge, filled his canteen, and popped four more of the red pills. On an empty stomach, they'd metabolize quickly in his system. He'd skipped dinner, but he wasn't hungry, at least not for food. He wanted to purge his body so that when he entered the killer's mind nothing would hinder the link.
He settled down beside the sleeping bag, poked at the small fire, and listened to the sounds, his hearing at maximum capacity. The scurrying of insects reached his ears along with the soft, distant tread of an animal, coyote or wolf, maybe even a mountain lion. A snake hissed a quarter of a mile away, slithering through the underbrush and rustling the foliage. Beneath the rotting logs and brush of the forest he smelled another scent, the odor of a small animal recently dead, beginning the process of decay. As the fire began to burn to embers, he stared across the narrow slice of water and made out a night owl in a tree and a worm burrowing its way into the rich dirt.
Lying down on his bedroll, he cradled his arms beneath his head, and gazed up at the stars. His lids grew heavier, his mind went blank, and the transformation took over his human form and mind.
Although she taunted the Avenger in the way the others had, perhaps she was the true holy vessel. Perhaps she had not broken her sacred vows, but was the guardian of hearth and home. Perhaps she was a true vestal virgin. Perhaps even The Virgin.
He'd dismissed his driver and now observed Olivia Gant from an empty classroom window as she walked briskly across the university campus. Her hips flexed beneath the tan slacks, her arms were filled with books and papers, and a bag was slung over her shoulder. She looked straight ahead, ignoring the waves and greetings from passing students, her lips thinned in a determined line.
The pale, aloof beauty was upset. A smile hovered around the man's lips, and a trickle of excitement began to build in his stomach and move upward to his chest where it thudded against his sternum. He replaced his dark glasses and broke off his scrutiny. Taking her here, in the place where she worked, where so many people knew her, would be foolish.
He was not a foolish man.
He'd carefully calculated the next offering, the final sacrifice on the altar of humanity's wickedness. The seven sacrifices to holiness had been completed. Seven because it was the perfect Biblical number, the sacred number of ancient creation. Of course, she wasn't the original oblatio, the oblation he'd planned for, but she'd prove worthy as a final substitute. The grand finale, so to speak.
Perhaps, all along and unbeknown to him over the last four years, he'd been speaking to her – to this woman, who was a connoisseur of the ancient languages. Perhaps on some subconscious level he had intended the notes for her eyes and mind all along. Perhaps her heart alone could understand his mission.
Slipping behind the wheel of his car, he drummed his fingers on the steering column. How to get Dr. Olivia Gant where he wanted her? How to approach her without arousing suspicion? Although taking her wouldn't be easy, he would ponder the matter and come up with a strategy. Olivia Gant was a woman, after all, as easily manipulated as all weak vessels were. She was little more than the lamb being led to the slaughter.
Ted Burrows dropped his ring of keys on the landing. "Shit!"
Hurriedly he snatched them up from the porch and inserted the house key in the lock. Glancing over his shoulder to reassure himself the girl still lay in the front seat of his car, he spied her head lolling on the headrest of the passenger side. Good. He wanted the girl to stay passed out until he set up the scene upstairs. Otherwise, she'd freak out. Once everything was arranged, she'd be a compliant, even a willing participant in the fun.
The door gave way and he took the steps two at a time, entered a small room next to the master bedroom, and slid aside the picture that covered the peephole. He pushed the button to begin the recording equipment. Before leaving the room, he gazed once around the room at the walls lined with bookcases that held his collection of videos. He paused at the pictures he'd tacked up on the opposite wall. Their lurid colors stood out in the drab room. He smiled in satisfaction and snapped both locks in place as he exited. Then he moved on to the master bedroom.
First, he adjusted the camera hidden in the top shelf of the armoire. The red light near the lens glowed like the single eye of a Cyclops, but when he closed the door, he saw it wasn't noticeable from the bed. He divested the bed of its pillows and jerked back the duvet, revealing satin sheets in a rich crimson hue. He lighted candles around the room. Perfect.
When everything was arranged to his standards, he returned to the car where the girl was just beginning to rouse from her stupor. "Hey, baby," he whispered as he half lifted, half dragged her out of the car. "Are you ready for our exciting night?"
He slung her over his shoulder and carried her into the house, slammed the front door, and carried her up the stairs. The girl's body made a light load since he made a point of working out every day at the university gym. As he positioned her on the bed, he glanced over his shoulder at the camera, at the peephole. The idea of any kind of audience aroused him.
The girl's eyes opened, wide green orbs fringed with thick lashes. Her skin was freckled and her cheeks were flushed. She smiled prettily up at him. "Oh, hi, are we there yet?"
She slowly batted her eyelids, and he realized she was still under the effects of the drink. Good. Rohypnol was his favored choice, but tonight the brandy had worked very effectively. He smiled as he slipped the straps of her dress off her shoulder. A drink of brandy for a girl named Brandy.
Olivia had felt an uneasiness she couldn't shake off since she returned home. Silly, but she sensed someone was watching her, possibly following her. She told herself it was nonsense prompted by Howard Randolph's poorly disguised snooping, coupled with Ted Burrows and her new awareness of his slick familiarity. The professor and his assistant were quite a pair, apparently two of a kind.
Driving home, she remembered what Keisha had said the day she disappeared. Her student had hinted that she was involved with someone who worked for the university. An older man? A completely inappropriate liaison? Howard had been sly in his aspersions on the girl's character. Ted Burrows was a well-known Casanova, with quite a reputation around campus. As ludicrous as it sounded, could either man have been her secret lover? Olivia had thought Keisha was – had been, she corrected herself – a level-headed young woman with clear goals and long-range plans. Was it possible that she never really knew her student?
Could either Howard Randolph or Ted Burrows have anything to do with Keisha's disappearance? Did that mean either man could be the Dead Language Killer? Impossible. The enormity of that implication overwhelmed her. Professor. Teaching Assistant. She thought of the two of them in her office today, the undercurrent of secrecy. She remembered how Howard had studiously avoided Keisha whenever she visited Olivia. How Ted enjoyed adding young coed after coed to his stable of girls.
When Olivia arrived home, the house looked forlornly empty. She punched play on her answering machine. Nothing. Where had Jack gone? What was he doing? She wanted to know more about what had happened after Invictus snatched him away all those years ago. She wanted him to convince her that he could do what he claimed.
According to Jack, he possessed extraordinary abilities that sounded like throw-backs to a primitive state. His senses heightened – like a steroid freak on PCP. His increased strength and size probably intensified when he worked on a case. But he hadn't told her the how of it. What gave him these powers?
Jack had hinted at dreams that presaged events. Was that how he hunted the killers in a case? By tracking them like an animal? By invading their minds? What a nightmare to walk through the mind of a man like the Dead Language killer. Feel his warped lusts, share his twisted thoughts. What kind of government entity would subject someone to such a waking nightmare? How could Jack survive such intimate connection with evil
What was Invictus really about?
Olivia ate, cleared the dishes, and showered before setting to work on the Latin notes. Although she had no idea what they meant in relation to the deaths, she was beginning to believe they were related to the victims themselves. She ran her fingers over the array of reference books on the library shelf, considering the volumes at her disposal. A slim volume at the end caught her attention: Ancient Methods of Execution by a little-known writer named Thomas G. Hornbower. The man wasn't a serious scholar, but the title gave her pause. Ancient methods of execution.
She flipped open her copy of the DLK file. Four murders, all bizarre methods of death. Riffling through the book's index, she found the usual topics. Christian martyrs, Nero's excesses, gladiators, vestal virgins. Vestal virgins. She searched her memory before finding the chapter about these ancient women who took vows of chastity for life. At the end she found what she was looking for.
Their punishment for breaking their vows of chastity was being buried alive.
Unlike the DLK's victims, the vestals were encased in a crypt and given bread and water, but eventually died of starvation. In the killer's mind were the victims who were buried alive similar to these ancient vestals? She had to take this information to the team. Tomorrow, she thought, feeling a headache coming on.
Relaxing with a glass of cabernet, she leaned against the desk, her mind whirling with ideas. Without warning, a noise at the back of the house roused her from her reverie. The sharp rapping on the glassed window of the back door. Jack! In her hurry she attempted to set the wine glass on the desk, but knocked it off, watching sightlessly for a second as the red stain beaded up in tiny bubbles on the carpet. Ignoring the spill, she hurried to the kitchen. Eagerly, she flung open the back door without thinking.
Her brain had less than a split second to register that it wasn't Jack who stood there waiting for her. A bright light and the shadowy form of a stocky figure that loomed on her back porch steps froze her to the spot. Before she could react, an unexpected blow landed to the side of her head. And then her brain shut down.
When the lysergic cocktail of the red pills kicked in and Jack's sensory perceptions heightened, the vision he'd waited for burst from his mind's quiet like a hurricane. The storm in his head belched gales of images that whipped through his brain like fallen power lines.
He tossed restlessly in his bedroll, his body slick and sour with a rank sweat. As he slinked through the enemy's mind, invading his thoughts, Jack saw the sudden jerking of a head as if the prey sensed his thoughts had been invaded. That someone else shared his dark desires.
With a harsh gasp and a sharp stab behind his eyes, Jack wrenched back into consciousness. Except for the heavy rasp of his breathing, the night air was hushed. The cold ashes of his fire told him several hours had passed. He listened intently for the sounds of animal and insect life. The quiet chatter of noises undetectable by human ears broke the night's tranquility.
Shoving aside the bedroll, he walked naked to the stream, hunkered down, and drank deeply from the cold water. He stood and gazed at the opposite bank for several moments and then turned to make his way up to the top of a ledge some fifty yards away from his camp.
The moon dangled a sliced pumpkin's smile above him. The dark, clear sky reflected in the water's sparkle below him. Plunging into the lake with a clean, smooth dive, Jack ate the water with his hands for several minutes before he made his way to the surface. This high up the lake was an arctic bath and his teeth clacked and chattered uncontrollably. He climbed from the lake, shook himself dry like a wet dog, and crawled back into the sleeping bag.
A kaleidoscope of images whirled in his thoughts, but nothing made sense yet. His human-mind wasn't prepared to dissect the dream. His animal-mind couldn't. He couldn't tell yet whose sight he was about to invade. The killer? His victim? A third party?
Jack downed more red pills, sprawled on his back, and stared at the stars until his eyelids drooped once again. This time he smelled the enemy before he heard or saw him. His nostrils filled with rotting decay and he exhaled sharply like a dog wheezing out a bad scent. Then he heard a bestial growl as he sniffed out the trail.
Himself or his prey?
He felt the hideous intent of the killer. Tasted the thick desire that spurred him on. Smelled the lust that propelled his dark needs. Then he saw a man peer through a peephole, light candles, adjust a camera lens. He glimpsed the border of a red ripple of cloth. Through the man's eyes, he descended concrete steps in a fast gallop, opened a car door. Saw a pretty redhead with pale, freckled skin that glowed in the evening light. Heard a muffled word. "Baby?"
And saw the front of a house, the lighted number clearly visible – 2776.
But what street? Turn, damn it, Jack mouthed silently to the man whose mind he now inhabited. Pass a mirror. Cast a reflection. Let me see your face.
But the man rushed into the house carrying the pale-skinned girl, her fiery curls dangling down his back. Jack could feel the slight weight of her, how easily she flopped over his shoulder, how supple and pliant her body was. As he passed the entryway, he glanced down, saw the envelopes lying on the wooden surface of a half-circle table. Yes, there!
Occupant, 2776 Mitchell Avenue.
Now he passed the table and climbed the stairs, entered a bedroom and deposited the girl on sheets the color of spilled wine.
Spilled wine. He jerked out of the vision. Something else, he thought, not the red-headed girl. Why did the image of spilled wine strike such terror in him? He saw deep-piled carpet, a dark red stain. Momentarily the image vanished and Olivia stood at an open door, her perfect mouth a round oval of surprise. He sensed her surprised gladness and then… darkness.
A threat to Olivia? But he could see nothing else through the black-out curtain of his mind. The image remained stubbornly hidden.
Instead, the original vision returned and he felt eager carnality as he stared down at the helpless redhead. The man's lechery rippled through Jack. A white, hot flame erupted in his head, pierced his right eye with a jolt that roused him awake. He clutched the side of his temple, dug the heels of his hand into the eye socket, and writhed on his bed roll until the pain eased.
He jerked upright, his body clammy with sweat even though the night temperature had fallen again. Shivering, he pulled a jacket over his shoulders. When he was half-way warm, he crouched again at the water's edge and drank his fill, then returned to camp and climbed into his bedroll, hoping for another vision.
Nothing happened. In the morning he packed up his gear and set off on the long walk back to the clearing at the base of the mountain where he'd parked the Blazer.
Someone was in danger. But he had no way of knowing who, how, or even when.
As he hiked down the mountain, he had plenty of time to think about how he'd gotten himself into the mess of Invictus life.
Graduation night nearly twenty years ago. The sheer shock of returning to the Morse house only to find Roger's body had gone. The broken beer bottle gone, not even a shard left on the steps. The puddle of blood from his laceration gone, not even a stain on the cement sidewalk.
His seventeen-year old self had stood dazed and wide-eyed at the spot where a half hour before the broken body had lain. Jack remembered thinking that he must've been wrong. That he hadn't heard the loud snap of the neck, that he hadn't been strong enough to kill a man nearly twice his size, and that in a drunken stupor, Roger had stumbled back into the house.
Cautiously, Jack had pushed open the door and crept inside.
He counted at least five of them.
Burly figures dressed in black gear with masked faces and armed with some bad ass kind of guns that Jack couldn't identify but knew instinctively were deadly enough to blow a giant hole in him. Instinct made him turn and run, but two of them blocked his escape. He felt a sharp prick at his neck and then… nothing.
That was the beginning, Jack thought, of a long descent into the murky realm of Invictus.
Now, fueled by the insight of his latest dream and the possible address of the killer, Jack stowed his gear into the rear of the Blazer and started to climb into the vehicle. At that moment another vision slammed unexpectedly into his brain, doubling him over with pain. He fell to his knees and clutched his temples.
Olivia. Olivia, bruised and bloody and cold. Scrabbling barefoot on gravel and mud. Pitch black night. He swiped at the sweat on his forehead. Olivia was in trouble, but where and how? God, was the image past or future or present?
He must've blacked out for several minutes for when he roused himself, the slice of agony in his head had subsided to a dull throb. He slid behind the wheel, dazed by the multiple visions and their confusing implications. The first visions had given him an address. Whose? The Dead Language Killer's? Had Olivia somehow been caught up with the killer?
As Jack drove the forty miles from the foothills, the address he'd seen in his dream-vision thrummed through his mind: Occupant, 2776 Mitchell. He made a decision. This part of the mission belonged to him alone. He saw no point in sharing the information with Slater. The visions were iffy at best and the address could mean a lot of things – a benign slice of the present, a memory from the past, or the killer's address. As yet he had no idea.
When he reached the base of the mountains, the sun had long ago pushed its pinkness over the Sierra Nevadas. Arriving at Slater's guest house, he grabbed his laptop and went straight to work. He waited impatiently for the address check to come through the reverse directory.
When the world righted itself again, Olivia opened her eyes. She was cold. Her hips were numb. Pitch surrounded her. Thunder rushed through her temples and lingered as a throbbing pain behind her eyelids. Her shoulders ached as if someone had tried to jerk her arms out of their sockets. She realized she was bound to a hard folding chair, her arms tied behind her.
As the black shadows sharpened into gray shapes, she had a sense of a wide open space. A breeze slid over her bare arms and legs with ghostly fingers. She tried to rub her forehead, but her arms pulled against the restraints. She shuffled her feet. They were free.
The light weight of her bedtime clothing reminded her that she'd gone to her back door to answer a knock she'd thought was Jack's. She'd flung open the door without checking. A bright light had flashed in her eyes right before the crushing blow to the side of her head.
Stupid, stupid. How could she have been so careless?
Tears stung her eyes. Stop that, she scolded silently. Stay calm. Think.
Where was she? Who had taken her? Why?
Her mind raced to the meeting with Councilman Vargas, and she remembered the hot fury in his eyes and the cold disregard of his henchman Santos. She shuddered.
A ray of light suddenly gleamed through a slit that opened to her right. She bit down on her lip and fought against the urge to scream.
"Good. You're awake."
The realization of whose voice spoke through the dark momentarily calmed her. Bill! She almost felt relieved that it was her quick-tempered ex-husband. He had never hurt her – never hit her before. Verbal abuse was his forte.
What did he want? Did he actually think he could get away with kidnapping? Her heart beat double time in her chest. Bill always claimed he loved her, but beneath his ardor was a possessive desperation that unnerved her.
She realized no one knew where she was. Jack was gone and she wouldn't be missed at school until late morning at the earliest, possibly longer. Terror bubbled up inside her, choking her. She tapped it down hard, fighting the urge to struggle against her bindings. Bill would smell her fear and enjoy it. She knew instinctively that it would arouse him. Lifting her eyes to the light, she squinted and stared toward the sound of his voice.
"Always so calm, so in control," Bill taunted. "But not in charge right now, huh, babe?"
She heard the quiet tread of his steps moving closer and finally saw the shadowy outline of his bulk in the doorway's light. In his hand he held an object that glinted as he swung it idly back and forth. A knife, for God's sake?
The trembling started in her jaw, worked its way downward to her shoulders, and ended in her bare knees which knocked gently against one another. She told herself it was the chill of the vast, unheated room, but she knew better. Her heart sped around inside her chest like the rapid beating of a new-born infant.
What was he going to do with the knife?
"Nothing to say, Olivia?" Bill knelt in front of her and placed one hand on the inside of her knee.
His mouth twisted into the semblance of a smile and his lips were slack with lust. She clenched her jaw and willed her thighs to stop trembling. She reminded herself that Bill would feed on her fear. His eyes were round dark holes in a fleshy face. She smelled the liquor heavy on his breath. Glaring at him through the darkness, she summoned up anger, imagined her thumbs grinding into those empty pits.
His fingers inched up her leg. "You should have been nicer to me when we were married, Olivia." His voice hardened and he pinched the tender flesh of her inner thigh.
She bit her lip to hold back a cry of pain.
Without warning, he stood and walked around to the back of the chair. He rested his hand on her shoulder and toyed with her hair, tangling his fingers in her curls. Not seeing him made her feel more vulnerable.
She inhaled the astringent odor of the cheap cologne that he'd always saturated himself with. His hot breath was at her ear, his lips moist. "You act so coy, so frigid, so virginal. But you're a whore." He grabbed her hair with a vicious tug and pulled her head back. "A slut!" he spat and released her with a jerk.
Unexpectedly, the door banged open and a wider slash of light streamed into the room. The knife pressed into her neck. "Make a sound and I'll slit your throat," Bill growled close to her ear.
A series of noises, shuffling feet and the sound of boxes or crates being shoved around. No one appeared to see Bill and her, and she realized they were hidden in the shadows.
"You're mine, Olivia," Bill whispered. "You'll always be mine. If you're screwing that man who left your house tonight, I'll kill you both."
Olivia knew with certainty that Bill had it in him to hurt her. Viciously. A beating? Rape? His grip on her hair squeezed involuntary tears from the corners of her eyes, and twisted her neck back. He ground his lips into hers. She tasted blood from the jab of his teeth, felt the ugly thrust of his tongue inside her mouth.
He lifted his lips from hers and stared over her head, panting with arousal. "You're mine," he said again, "and if I can't have you, no one can." He gripped her jaw in one hand and squeezed viciously. "This isn't over yet."
The sound of voices grew louder. Olivia realized this was her last chance and opened her mouth to scream. Without warning, Bill's hand slashed through the air, and the night curtained around her brain again.
She roused long enough to remember being carried and dumped in the back seat of a car. When she woke, perhaps some minutes later, she was blindfolded again, her wrists tied in front of her this time. She felt the smooth pursuit of the tires on pavement. He was taking her somewhere else. Was he going to kill her and dump her body in some god-forsaken place? Bill was vicious, but pragmatic. Wouldn't her death create an investigation that pointed toward him, the ex-husband?
After some time, the car slammed unexpectedly to a halt. Olivia lurched forward against the seat. The back door opened and he dragged her from the car, flung her to the ground where rough cement scraped her bare knees. She balanced herself on one elbow while silence reigned for several long moments.
This was it then. He was going to kill her.
Seconds before she heard the growl at her ear, she smelled his hot breath. "You can go now, you little whore," he taunted, "but I'll be back. You remember that I'm just as far away as your next nightmare."
A few moments later, she heard the slamming of the car door and the soft whirring of an electric window. Olivia didn't move for long minutes, certain he'd return and finish what he threatened. When her wrists lost feeling and her shins burned, she stumbled to her feet. Working the blindfold with her bound hands, she gradually loosened the fabric until it dangled around her neck. When she glanced down at her flimsy clothes and bare feet, she burst into frustrated tears.
At last the weeping segued into deep breaths and then subsided into hiccups. When she gained control of her emotions, she glanced around to get her bearings.
Bill had driven her to the dark underbelly of the freeway, where concrete roads and supporting beams criss-crossed above her. She could hear the roar of traffic above her head. So close, but so far from where she stood in the muddied tangle of debris hidden beneath the overpass. She tugged at her wrist bindings for some minutes, but finally realized they only tightened with the struggle. With determination, she turned toward the freeway and awkwardly climbed up the incline toward the freeway. Her feet made slippery purchase on the moist dirt, and with her hands tied, she lost her balance and slid to the bottom.
The rushing of vehicles thundered at warp speed all around her.
"Hold still, sweetheart," Ted Burrows said, even though he knew the pretty blonde coed was too far gone to hear him.
He slipped behind the armoire and adjusted the camera. Then he lighted the red tapers and placed them around the room. The candles weren't necessary in the daylight, but he thought they enhanced the seduction scene. "A few more minutes. We want everything to be just right."
He smiled down at the petite blonde. She wasn't nearly as attractive as the redhead who was the star of his film escapade last night, but Buffy's surgical augmentation made up the difference. What kind of mother saddled her daughter with a name like Buffy, anyway? He grinned. Two women in less than twenty-four hours was a spectacular record.
The woman lay partially clothed on the bed, her legs artfully arranged for maximum sensuality. Her bikini panties wrapped around one ankle, and her bra pushed up to reveal the fake fleshy breasts with their dainty areolas. Her head rolled to one side, her mouth open unbecomingly.
Ted frowned, walked around the bed, and pushed the slack jaw shut. "There, that's better." He smirked and readjusted the angle of the camera. His erection bulged against his pants. "Much, much better."
When he was satisfied with the artistry of his production, he returned to the bed and gazed down at the semi-conscious girl. "What was it you said, Buffy? Oh, right, you wanted to have a good time. I think you said, 'A night to remember.' The night's long gone, but I find a little afternoon delight just as memorable."
He unbuttoned his shirt. "Did you know the phrase 'a night to remember' was the title of a book? About the sinking of the Titanic? No, probably not."
He tossed the shirt on the floor. "It's the story of an unsinkable ocean liner that hit an iceberg and plummeted to the bottom of the ocean." He looked down at himself and laughed. "I'm quite unsinkable, too, don't you think?" He unsnapped his jeans and chuckled quietly. "I don't know how much you'll remember, but this delight will be an unforgettable experience for me."
He smiled and trailed his hand up her thigh.
Removing the last of his clothing, he knelt between the girl's outstretched legs, positioning himself comfortably between her thighs. He brushed the tangled hair from her face. "You're going to really enjoy this, sweetheart. Even if you don't remember a thing."
Fully aroused, he began a frenzied suckling of her breast, his engorged erection pressed against her bare flesh.
Suddenly a thunderous crash resounded from below, and he heard the unmistakable sound of footsteps tromping up the stairs.
Jack's visions were careening out of control.
Usually his visions channeled through the eyes of the man he hunted, but sometimes the victim or a third person provided the conduit. Whose head had he been inside in this latest vision? The killer? His victim? Or someone watching the killer?
He didn't know if his overloaded brain circuits or the transposed sensory images caused the confusion. But he was certain of one thing – he'd seen a red-haired girl, not a brunette, with her attacker. The killer?
Last night, he believed, not this afternoon, but he couldn't be sure. Not Olivia, he thought, not with the hideous hair color. His pulse raced with dread that he might be wrong. Pray God, not Olivia.
While Jack waited for the reverse address information to come on his laptop, Slater knocked on the guest house door. Jack waved him into the kitchen, eyed him thoughtfully, and thought it was time to come clean with the man who'd once been like a brother to him.
Slater was a man driven by reason rather than instinct. A man of rational thought would have a hard time believing someone could change physically like Jack had in such a short time. Even with the explanation of the special designer drugs pumped into his body, Slater would scoff at the idea.
"I need to talk to you about… about what happened when I left," Jack began. By the time he finished fifteen minutes later, Slater was pacing the living room, looking agitated and horrified. "Damn it, Jack! We all thought you were dead. I heard your foster parents got a death certificate from Texas."
He threw himself into a kitchen chair. "I can't… I don't understand it."
"You were meant to think I was out of your life. Permanently. They didn't want anyone to come looking for me."
"Shit," Slater said, jumped up and began his pacing. "Shit, shit."
"Invictus held me in isolation three months, used me as their own private guinea pig, told me I was unique."
Jack remembered the white-walled, clinical cell and the endless questions and interviews, the blood draws, the x-rays, and the recently developed Magnetic Resonance Imaging, the MRI. The incessant psychological and endurance tests.
"When they finished with me, I understood who I was, what I had to do, where my future lay. I couldn't go back."
A pregnant pause dominated the kitchen for long moments.
Finally Slater said, "That story's too damn bizarre to be made up."
Jack felt dizzy with relief. Olivia had believed him. Slater believed him now.
He took a few minutes to explain his unexpected "lead" and offered the name that'd just come through from the reverse directory. A man named Theodore Burrows had just jumped to the top of the suspect list.
Slater frowned. "You want to explain how you came up with this lead?"
"Nope," Jack said calmly. "You probably don't want to know."
As they walked to his truck, Slater glanced across the top of the truck and spoke without inflection. "Jack, if you hurt her again, I'll kill you."
Jack didn't answer. What would he say to that? After a moment he spoke quietly. "I'd like you to have a deputy check at her house. Can you do that?"
"I guess you're not explaining that either."
"Just a gut feeling. I'm probably wrong."
Slater used his shoulder mike to order Waylon Harris to drive to Olivia's house.
They arrived at the Sacramento address of Burrows thirty minutes after the call to Harris. Slater had a judge who owed him a favor and agreed to a no-knock wire warrant. Jack wouldn't have followed protocol even without the warrant. Not when he couldn't be sure Olivia was safe.
"On three," Jack said, taking the lead as they hovered at the front door of 2776 Mitchell, their weapons drawn. He gestured for Slater to take the backup position behind him. On three, Jack turned the door knob. It was locked. He waited fifteen seconds, kicked in the door, and let Slater go in low, while Jack wrapped himself around the entryway. Left, then right.
"Upstairs." Slater indicated with his head toward the staircase.
Jack raced up the staircase two steps at a time, reaching the landing seconds before Slater. He nodded toward a room at the far end of the hallway where a reddish glow emanated from the partially-open door. He pointed with his left hand, keeping his gun hand firmly wrapped around the handle.
If Burrows was in the house, he would have heard them by now, but they crept carefully forward anyway. Slater nudged the door open with the barrel of his gun, placing his body to the right of the door frame. Jack slowly pushed the door open wider.
He saw the woman first. Confusion froze him for a second. Not a redhead, but a blonde. This girl was a new conquest, and that meant Burrows had been with another woman last night, a redhead. Not Olivia.
The blonde appeared unconscious or dead as she lay on the bed, her legs and arms spread in a grotesque caricature of obscenity. The man sprawled between the girl's legs sprang off the bed, stumbling onto the carpet in a comical parody of the cheating husband. Jack would've laughed if the situation hadn't been so revolting.
Slater checked the woman's vitals and called the EMTs. Jack kept his weapon carefully trained on the man he presumed was Theodore Burrows. "Got a strong pulse," Slater said.
Burrows' handsome face twisted in protest. "Hey, man, she's not dead. We're just having a little fun. Private fun," he added growing bolder. "You have no right – "
Slater growled, "A warrant's our right, asshole."
Jack picked up a pair of pants from the floor and tossed them to Burrows. "Get dressed. You look pathetic."
Slater lifted one of the woman's eyelids. "She's got a pulse, but I can't rouse her." He reached for a blanket lying next to the bed and covered the woman, then turned toward Burrows who was struggling to get into his jeans. "You drugged her, you bastard."
"No man, no way. She's into this kind of thing. I promise." He gestured toward the unconscious girl. "This is what she wanted."
"Oh, she asked you to drug and rape her?" Jack holstered his gun and jerked Burrows' right arm around his back, twisting harder than necessary. Then he yanked the other arm around and handcuffed him.
"Ow, man, take it easy."
The familiar stripping away of human emotion descended on Jack, the animal preparing to hunt with a deadly, calculated purpose. He batted the feeling away, strained to hold on to his humanity in the face of a punk-ass reprobate like Theodore Burrows.
He shoved the man into a chair next to a large mahogany cabinet.
"Shut up." Jack leaned forward, withdrew his weapon, and dangled it carelessly in front of him, piercing his captive with a hard look. "Where is she?" he asked on a hunch.
"Where is who?"
"Burrows frowned and began shaking his head. "I don't know what you – "
"Shh." Jack softened his voice. "Here's how this is going to go, Teddy-boy. You're going to tell me where the other girl is." He smiled grimly. "And then I won't bust both your knee caps."
"Hold on, Jack," Slater said. "There's something over there." He walked closer and peered around the back of the cabinet. "It's a red… what the hell?" He examined the unit and retrieved the camera hidden behind the console. "It's still operating." He pointed toward the bed where the unconscious girl lay. "Take a look at where the lens is aimed."
Slater pulled the camera out of the cabinet. "Well, what have we here? Looks like Mr. Burrows is into the whole art photography scene."
"You've been videoing her?" Jack clamped down on the instinct to rip the man's throat out with teeth and claws.
Burrows darted his tongue out to moisten his dry lips. "I haven't done anything illegal."
"Maybe, maybe not." Jack heard the sirens wailing in the distance. Then the subsequent slamming of feet through the downstairs.
"Upstairs," Slater yelled to the paramedics.
Jack turned back to Burrows. "You'd better hope nothing shows up in the girl's bloodstream, Teddy. GHB, Rohypnol, whatever you used to subdue her hasn't passed through her system yet, and toxicology will find it."
"I want a lawyer," Ted demanded, narrowing his eyes.
"Good move," Jack snarled, dragging him from the chair and shoving him towards the bedroom door. "You sure as hell are gonna need one."
Within a short time, the ambulance had stabilized the drugged woman and transported her to Sutter General Hospital in downtown Sacramento. Slater dispatched a squad car to transport Burrows to the county jail.
"I thought he had Olivia," Jack confessed as they watched the ambulance pull away. He slid a glance sideways at Slater who stood on the front steps of Burrows' house.
"She's probably safe at home in bed."
Jack stared at the cloudy sky. "Yeah, she wasn't ever here. I've been running down the wrong lead. Burrows isn't the UNSUB, but it doesn't mean he's innocent."
"Hell, no," Slater rejoined. "I figure we've got any number of charges to bring him up on." He slanted a knowing look at Jack. "And you're not going to tell me about some redhead, are you?"
"Nothing to tell," Jack said.
The raid had been an absolute fiasco as far as the DLK case was concerned. But if not Burrows, then who the hell was the Dead Language Killer? Were Jack's visions failing him?
He thought back to the interview Isabella Torres and Olivia had with Diego Vargas. Torres was convinced Vargas was capable of that kind of violence, but that didn't make him Jack's suspect. No physical or circumstantial evidence tied the Councilman to the DLK, and Jack couldn't rely on an ADA's instincts.
The two-way radio jangled as Slater pushed Burrows into the waiting patrol car. He jabbed the mike key.
"Chief?" Waylon Harris' voice over the radio sounded rattled. "Dr. Gant's not here, sir. The house is empty."
He knew before Slater spoke that something had happened to Olivia.
God, he should've paid attention to the fleeting warning he'd had about her, Jack thought. Panic rippled through him. Where was she?
"We're on our way," Slater said, turning to Jack. "Check the university. She might've left without Waylon seeing her."
But Jack was sure the sharp-eyed Harris wouldn't have made that kind of mistake.
Slater and Jack jumped in the truck and drove the scant seven miles to Olivia's house while Jack tried calling her cell and the university office phone. No one had seen her since she left school last night. She'd missed her morning classes. Minutes later they stood on the neatly clipped lawn at the front of her house and stared at the brick façade of the outside walls. The ivy curled charmingly over the red and gray stones toward the second floor.
During the perimeter walk Harris showed them the unlocked back door, but when they searched the house from top to bottom, they found nothing to indicate foul play. Although the bed was unkempt, nothing seemed out of place.
Only the unsecured back door.
"She would've locked up," Jack said. He turned to Harris. "You're sure the door was like this?"
"Yes sir, I knocked at the front and when I got no answer, I went around to the back, tried the knob first… uh, you know… I didn't want to damage Dr. Gant's… "
"Thanks, Harris, we'll take it from here," Jack said, effectively dismissing the deputy.
Inside the house, Slater stood in the kitchen looking around thoughtfully. "We'll do another sweep. See if we missed anything the first time through."
"Yeah." Jack leaned against the kitchen counter, his gun dangling by his side. What next? He holstered his weapon and noted the slight tremble of his hand. He glanced quickly at Slater. He'd noticed too.
"Don't worry. We'll find her."
"Yeah," Jack repeated. They'd find her, but would they find her in time? Someone had taken Livvie, but if not Ted Burrows, then who? Diego Vargas? A suspect he hadn't even thought of?
In the second sweep through the library, Jack found the evidence. The stain from the spilled wine spread across the carpet behind the desk. The long-stemmed crystal glass lay on its side, the splotch of wine a blood-red cry of warning.
Something or someone had interrupted Olivia. A phone call? She would've cleaned up the spill. A knock at the door? It had to have been the back door. Whatever it was, she'd knocked over the glass. Or dropped it. Didn't matter which, but he thought it showed that she'd been startled, not overpowered. No sign of a struggle. He'd have Slater's people print the back door, see what they found.
Jack walked to the foot of the stairs. "Slater, down here." The tone of his voice – loud, but calm – sounded normal. He returned to the library and stared at the ugly stain. It reminded him of the blood of the killer's victims, shocking stigmata clamoring for justice.
Slater stepped into the library at the moment the cell phone rang. He grabbed it from his waistband. "Sheriff Slater," he barked into the receiver. "When? Where?" He snapped the phone shut and turned to Jack, his face solemn. "A patrolman just found Olivia."
Jack felt himself stagger. Not a physical movement that Slater would notice, but an internal collapse of his heart, his bones, muscles, and flesh melting with the hot pain of grief.
Slater must've read the emotion in his stance. "No, man, she's okay. They found Livvie, not her body."
Jack couldn't process the information. For that split second, he'd felt his world tilt and spin around, upheaved by some cosmic earthquake, and it couldn't right itself again for several long moments. He dragged in an agonizing breath, as though his ribs had been crushed and his lungs couldn't pull in the requisite air.
"I – I thought… " Jack recovered and slowly pushed away from the desk. "Where is she?"
"Under the Falcon Street Overpass off I-80."
Jack worked his jaw. "Some bastard left her there?"
Slater nodded. "She's dressed in her underwear, cold and a little scraped up, but she's okay."
"He took her when it was still dark."
"Here's the thing, though. Where was Burrows? With the blonde?"
Jack nodded, thinking of the redhead in his vision.
"He didn't use all that elaborate filming equipment and his perverted video games with Olivia," Slater pressed.
Jack echoed that line of reasoning. "Right."
Jack turned toward the door. "Let's find out," he threw over his shoulder.
Olivia sat in the back of the ambulance, wrapped in a scratchy gray blanket. An earnest patrolman, freckled-faced with glasses and jutting ears, hovered on the periphery, waiting to get her statement. She couldn't imagine anyone she'd like less to tell what happened.
She felt stupid. Kidnapped by an ex, how clichéd.
With shaky hands she took the cup of coffee the EMT handed her. Another medical attendant worked on cleaning the scrapes on her legs while a third tilted her head backward and flashed a light in first the left, then the right eye. "Some uneven dilation," he murmured.
Possible concussion was what he meant. She must've banged her head on the ground at some point during the abduction, either at her house or during captivity. She thought of Bill's twisted expression and possessive hands. Bastard!
She turned away from the EMT and leaned her shoulder on the edge of the open van door. A wave of nausea engulfed her right before she threw up.
Gradually, she brought her queasy stomach under control, and she found the methodical workings of the paramedics calmed her. She was safe now. She had survived and everything that could be done for her was being done. Even though the reprieve was brief and by sheer chance, Bill hadn't killed her. But she'd read in his eyes the hard knowledge that he wanted to, that he'd come close to it, and that he'd try again.
She knew that with absolute certainty. Not today or tomorrow. Maybe not even next month, but sooner or later, she'd look over her shoulder and find him stalking her. Or carelessly open her door and feel the bottom drop out of her world again.
When Jack and Slater arrived minutes later, their faces looked strained and worried with an underlying anger that unsettled her. As soon as Jack spied her, he reached her side in an instant and briefly touched her shoulder. He didn't speak, but the heat of his large hand on her bare skin made her feel safe.
After she gave a brief statement to the patrolman, Jack tried to bully her into going to the hospital, but she refused. Merely bruised, scraped, and sore, with nothing broken, she had no intention of spending wasted hours in an emergency waiting room.
"I want to go home and clean up," she insisted, pulling the blanket closer around her.
"Ma'am, they'll want to do a rape kit," the young EMT cautioned, his steady hazel eyes kind. "You really should go to the hospital."
Olivia flinched at the words and felt Jack stiffen beside her. "It's not necessary," she said firmly and repeated, "I want to go home." She clamped her teeth together to keep her jaw from quavering.
"Olivia," Jack began.
"No!" She heard the near hysteria in the rise of her voice. She felt as though she were holding herself together with nerve and sheer will, which was ironic, she thought. She hadn't been seriously hurt, hadn't been assaulted, or…
The fragile control she'd maintained began to unravel. "Get me out of here."
"Okay, I'll drive you home," Jack muttered, no doubt eyeing the stubborn set of her jaw.
Good. She wasn't the young girl he'd once known. She wouldn't be pushed around by a baby-faced EMT or a man who no longer had a real place in her life. As she eased into the truck, mindful of her sore ribs and abraded legs, she saw Slater draw Jack aside and speak quietly to him. Jack nodded once, glanced her way, and said something back.
"What did he say?" she asked suspiciously when Jack slid into the driver's seat.
"Nothing. Just business."
Sure, she thought. Business, my ass.
"Did they find him?" She'd identified her kidnapper as her ex-husband and given the particulars. A judge had issued an arrest warrant and deputies were attempting to serve the warrant right now.
Jack shook his head. "No luck so far. Slater's riding back in a patrol car. I'll take you home." His eyes flashed like volcanic glass. "Christ, Olivia, why didn't you tell me about Bill Gant?"
"It was nothing," she retorted snidely, "just business – my own business."
His hands clenched on the steering wheel. "You could've been hurt, raped, killed." He glanced at her and his voice softened. "I was worried about you."
"I'm a big girl," she reminded him, feeling like a child instead.
"So you keep saying," he muttered and fell silent.
At her home in Sacramento Jack walked Olivia around to the rear of the house and fidgeted on the porch while she fumbled to find the spare key. If possible, she was edgier than ever. She'd overheard the patrolmen talking about Ted Burrows and the way he'd been caught. How could she have been such a bad judge of character about both her graduate student and her ex-husband?
Once inside she went straight to her bedroom upstairs, leaving Jack in the foyer. She wanted a hot shower, needed to scrub off the slimy feeling Bill had left on her. It was so strange, she thought, that she'd slept next to her ex-husband for nearly a year, had eaten countless meals across the kitchen table from him, made love with him, laughed sometimes, argued more frequently.
And now all she wanted to do was wash the scent and touch of him off her body. In the shower, after she scrubbed with soap and shampooed her hair, then washed all over again with a light lemony scented liquid, the shock of it all finally hit her. She collapsed to the floor, the water pounding on her from above, unable to control the sobs that overtook her.
Jack found her huddled under the running water of the shower. "Livvie." He grabbed a towel off the rack, reached in to shut off the now-tepid water, and wrapped her body tightly. "You're freezing." He rubbed her arms and legs vigorously.
By now her crying had subsided to sniffles and he set her on the toilet seat to flick on the heated overhead lamp and blot her hair dry with a smaller towel.
She shoved at his hands. "I'm not a baby. You don't have to treat me like an infant."
"Then stop acting like one," he answered in a controlled, matter-of-fact voice.
Her face hardened and he knew that he'd used just the right tone to pull her back from the edge of hysteria. She straightened her shoulders.
"I'll give you time to dress," he said quietly and closed the bathroom door behind him.
Downstairs he prepared hot chocolate. No coffee, she didn't need a stimulant. He'd try to give her a tranquilizer so she'd get some rest, but he suspected she'd resist. Slater promised to put a deputy on her door in case her ex-husband came back.
When Olivia slipped down the stairs twenty minutes later, she looked calmer, her hair was smoothed back from her forehead and twisted at her neck, and she wore jeans and a long-sleeved shirt. She didn't look at all like she was going to bed even though her smooth face was free of makeup. He frowned, but said nothing, and handed her a mug.
They sat at the kitchen table while he explained about the guard and tried to reassure her. "Here," he said, handing her a capsule. "This will help you sleep."
She stared at the pill in his hand. "I'm not taking drugs and I'm not going to bed."
"Stop being so damn stubborn."
She shook her head. "I'm going wherever it is that you're going."
"How do you know -? Never mind," he said, jamming his fingers through his hair. "I'm going back to the police station and you're not."
She stared hard at him, her eyes darkening to the forest green they took on when she prepared for battle. Oh, he knew her mind. She'd heard about Burrows' arrest. He tried another tactic. "Be reasonable, Olivia. You can't sit in on the interrogation of a murder suspect."
"I want to hear what Ted Burrows says."
"No, that's police business."
"I knew him, thought he was a harmless overgrown boy," she argued. "I want to know why he… why he did what he did. And if he's the one who hurt Keisha."
"You don't know that for sure."
Jack shoved back from his chair. "Burrows is just another pervert who gets off on using helpless women." He swiped his hand over his jaw, noting the thick growth. "He had nothing to do with Keisha's death."
She narrowed her eyes. "I'm going. You can't stop me."
That damned stubborn look on her face made him lose control. "You're just pissed because of what your ex did to you," he shouted.
She gripped the mug so hard he thought she'd break it. "You bastard," she whispered. "You don't even know what he did or didn't do."
"Then why don't you tell me, Olivia?" Sarcasm was heavy in his voice. "In fact, why didn't you even tell me Gant was still in your life?"
"Why don't you tell me about what's really going on with you, Jack?" she countered, standing and leaning against the sink, challenging him with her set jaw and beautiful, angry mouth.
A mouth he suddenly wanted to ravish.
"Dammit, Olivia, now's not the time. Slater's holding the interview with Burrows. I need to be in on it."
"You enlisted my help, remember? You came to me, persuaded me to assist in the case."
He felt the fight go out of him. Reaching for her, he ran a finger down her cheek. She'd always had skin as soft and smooth as silk. God, how he'd loved touching her.
"Did he hurt you?" he asked softly. "Did he -?" He couldn't bear the thought.
He trailed his fingertips down her neck and across the smooth, fine collarbone at the vee of her shirt. Her heart seemed to pulse beneath his touch like the wings of a trapped butterfly.
"He – no, he just wanted to terrify me." She swallowed and his eyes followed the movement of her throat. "He did. He scared the hell out of me." She offered a small smile. "He decided he wasn't as ready as I was to end the marriage."
"Then he's not as stupid as he sounds." He grasped her shoulders and pulled her toward him, inhaling the faint scent of lemon and soap and the familiar smell of her skin. She sank into him and shuddered long and hard, so he held her tight for a moment, the soft wisps of her hair tickling his chin.
"Please let me go with you," she whispered against his chest. "I need to hear what he says."
He felt his head bob in assent as he gave in.
Olivia observed the interrogation of Ted Burrows through the two-way glass in the largest of Bigler County Jail's interview rooms. She couldn't believe the graduate student in her mentoring class, the one she'd thought she knew, was this creepy man who acted so unrepentant for what he'd done to that poor girl.
He lounged indolently, his right arm slung over the back of a metal folding chair, and stared at a spot on the wall just beyond Jack's head. "Hey, don't I get an attorney or something?" He tilted his Adonis frame back in the chair. "You've got to provide one for me, right?" He smiled slyly as though he were in on a secret the rest of them weren't privy to.
"Shut up, Burrows," Jack remarked in a mild voice. He batted languidly at a fly that buzzed around his head, his eyes fixed on the file that lay on the table between them. Slater lounged against the entry door, letting Jack take charge.
Olivia wanted to sit in on the actual questioning, but Slater had adamantly refused and finally relented enough to let her watch from the observation room. If Jack had his way, he'd shuttle her home, tuck her in bed, and force her to drink chicken soup. Or better yet, stick her in a hospital bed under heavy guard, with orderlies and nurses in attendance.
Her bitter laugh resounded eerily in the small area. After the police told her the details of what Ted had done, she wanted to confront the slimy weasel with the full force of her wrath.
How could she have been so wrong about him?
Olivia sighed, wrapped her arms tightly around her body, and turned her attention back to the interview. As soon as they began interrogating Ted about the crime he was likely to be charged with, they had to Mirandize him. But Olivia knew Jack had broad federal powers that could skirt around the issue of Ted's right to counsel.
Jack glanced up from his papers and smiled negligently at Burrows, a smile that said gotcha. "Teddy, you've been quite a naughty boy. And a busy one."
"What about that lawyer?" Ted spouted in defiance.
Slater slammed away from the wall, placed his knuckles on the table, and forced Burrows to look up at him. The chair clattered to the floor. Olivia was surprised Ben's casual demeanor hid such ferocity. She saw the rapid jerking of Ted's left eye.
"Look, you bring a lawyer in here now, and your ass will be fast-tracked to Folsom Prison," Slater spat. "Trust me, you want to cooperate with the feds." He tilted his head towards Jack. "Because," he continued, "if the state brings charges against you instead of the federal government, I get my hands on you, and it'll be a cold day in hell before you ever see the light of day again."
"That's right, Theodore." Jack smiled maliciously. "You know why they call it Club Fed? That's because federal time's a helluva lot easier to do than state time."
"In state prison, you get to mix it up with all the rapists and murderers." Slater stared hard at the suspect. "Not to mention the gang bangers. They're going to enjoy exchanging dialogue with an educated white boy like you."
The door swung open before Ted could respond and Deputy Harris, a happy grin on his handsome black face, walked in with a cardboard box.
"That's all of them?" Jack asked.
"Every last one, sir."
Jack pointed to the far end of the table. "Put them there."
Burrows eyed the box and wet his lips. "What's that?"
Jack scraped back his chair and walked to the edge of the table. He split open the tape that secured the top edges, removed the chain of custody envelope, and peered inside. "Why don't you tell me, Teddy?"
The pleasant smile never left Jack's face. He removed several video tapes from the box. "Should we take a look at some of these, Sheriff Slater?"
Slater leaned closer and whispered in Burrows' ear. "What do you think, Ted? Interested in watching some homemade videos?"
Jack began to pull tapes out of the box one by one. "This one says Connie. Oh, and here's Missy… and Stephanie."
Ted's face blanched and his eyes blinked furiously. "I don't know anything about those. They're not mine."
Jack shrugged. "Didn't say they were. But, as a matter of fact, we recovered them from your house. This is only one box. You have quite a stash of videography projects, Ted."
Ted's eyes widened, but he quickly recovered. "You've just violated about a dozen search and seizure laws," he blustered.
"Oh, we stayed well within the law," Jack said. "No knock warrant signed by a judge, exigent circumstances, probable cause with the girl obviously in danger of great bodily harm. Not hard to get a full warrant to search the house."
"You tore my house apart!" Ted exclaimed.
"That's the cool thing about search warrants. We're not limited to a plain view search," Jack sneered. "You weren't as clever as you thought with that hidden peephole."
Through the two-way glass, Olivia felt sick as she watched the furious working of Ted's jaw. "So? Nothing in either room is illegal."
"Oh, not the candles or the secret room," Jack agreed. "Not even the pictures plastered all over the walls. But the camera and these tapes – having nonconsensual sex with unconscious women? These tapes are going to connect you to the murders of Dani Rydell and Keisha Johnson."
Olivia covered her mouth and breathed deeply through her nostrils. She'd seen Ted nearly every day and had never imagined him capable of this level of depravity.
He began babbling. "Who? What do you mean? What the hell are you talking about?"
Jack watched him dispassionately for a moment and then jerked his head towards the door, a silent signal to Slater.
"Think about the tapes a while," Jack advised Burrows as they left the room. "You've got a lot of explaining to do."
Olivia met Jack and Slater in the hallway outside the observation room. "What's going on? What happened?"
"He's not the one," Jack said flatly.
"How do you know?" Olivia protested.
"No way in hell you're releasing him," Slater objected. "You want to explain why you're so sure Burrows isn't your suspect?"
"I just know." At the incredulous look on their faces, Jack added, "In a nutshell, he's too panicky. The UNSUB is cold and calculating. He'd never sweat like that." He stepped into the observation room and Olivia followed, Slater close behind.
Jack pointed through the two-way mirror as Burrows pushed out of his chair and paced the perimeter of the small room. "The killer wouldn't pace like that. He's not our guy. Ted Burrows is a depraved rapist, but he didn't kill anyone."
Slater sighed heavily. "I guess you know what you're doing."
"What about those girls? What about the tapes?" Olivia felt panic rise in her throat, followed quickly by the acrid burn of bile. God, she hoped she didn't vomit again.
"Don't worry, Livvie. He'll pay for that." Slater touched her arm briefly before he called a deputy to guard the interview door.
Drained, Olivia slumped against the wall. Irrationally, she wanted to blame Ted for the way her ex-husband had terrorized her. She wanted to blame him for all of it. That's the only way she'd feel safe again.
Jack peered at Olivia, examined the pallor of her skin. He took her arm. "Let's get out of here."
"What about Ted?" she asked, tugging away from him.
"You've had enough," he snapped. He'd never have let her watch the interview in the first place except for her damned stubbornness.
"Don't worry," Slater told Olivia. "We've got plenty of charges to hold him on." He glanced Jack's way. "Could be you're wrong about him."
"We could find physical evidence in the house to tie him to one of your victims," Slater speculated.
"He's not the guy," Jack insisted.
"We'll book him and put him in a holding cell, let him stew a while." Slater peered through the glass window into the interview room where Burrows had buried his head in his arms, face down on the table. "I have to let him call an attorney. I can't stall any longer."
"We're done here," Jack said. "I'm taking Olivia home." When he felt her body turn rigid against his side and sensed a protest rising to her lips, he insisted. "No argument." Her lips thinned in mutiny.
"Just this once, Livvie, don't be so goddamn stubborn."
Her face collapsed and she suddenly looked exhausted. She nodded once and let him take her arm. They'd just started toward the exit doors when Harris appeared.
"Bill Gant just crossed the Canadian border," the deputy said.
"He's got family there," Olivia said.
"Of course he does," Jack answered wearily.
Slater sent Harris to the interview room to escort Ted Burrows to the main jail where by law he could make the first of his three phone calls.
"After he makes the call, put him in holding cell three," Slater said.
Harris frowned. "Three, sir? Are you sure? In the Norteños holding?"
Jack knew most jails separated gang members to minimize the inevitable fights. He didn't need to ask why Slater wanted to put an upper-class, white guy in a Mexican gang holding cell. He wanted to put pressure on the detainee so he'd be more than eager to talk.
All Slater said was, "I think Burrows needs to experience a little cultural exchange."
Harris escorted Burrows toward the two phones for inmate use, but when Ted saw Olivia, the teaching assistant glared at her, twisting his lips in an ugly grimace. Harris restrained him with a firm hold on the man's left arm and twisted him away from her, but the cuffs didn't thwart his ugly words.
"You bitch," Ted snarled. "You sicced the cops on me, didn't you?"
As Harris dragged him down the hall, Ted continued shouting. "This isn't over. You haven't heard the last of me. You'll be sorry."
Jack leapt in front of Olivia, breaking him loose from Harris's grip, and gave Burrows a shove. He pushed him against the wall, his forearm tight against the man's throat. "Not a good idea to make a threat like that, Teddy."
"Holt," Slater warned.
Jack threw off the restraining arm. "This scum-bag isn't in a position to make threats." He scowled at Burrows and pressed harder on the man's Adam's apple. "You even think of coming near Dr. Gant, you little prick, and I'll hunt you down and rip your heart out."
Fear swept across Ted's face as he lapsed into a coughing fit. Slater pulled Jack off. "Go on now," he ordered. "Take Livvie home."
Minutes later, Jack sat with Olivia in the car, still shaking with rage. He glanced at her pale face and his trembling hands. What a pair they were.
Starting the engine, he drove her home.
By the time they arrived at the Sacramento house, a cooling wind had whipped up and Olivia's scent was strong in Jack's nostrils. She shivered and turned the heat on while he offered to build a fire. In the living room he knelt and stuffed starter chips and newspapers beneath an almond log, while Olivia prepared tea in the kitchen.
She was stalling, he thought, stalling because she wanted him to stay. Her scent wafted to him from the kitchen – the scent of nascent sexual interest – and the sound of her skittering heart echoed like thunder in his ears. With his heightened senses, he also felt her anxiety and indecision, but under both, her arousal pulsed stronger with each passing moment.
Minutes later she lounged on the sofa, her fingers wrapped around a steaming cup of tea while he adjusted the log with a poker that leaned against the brick of the hearth.
"I want to talk about the notes and the case." Olivia's tone was soft and musing, not at all like the objective words she spoke.
"You've had a rough time," he said over his shoulder. "We can talk in the morning."
"No, I need to solve this damn case as fast as I can and move on with my life."
He smiled. "You're going to solve the case all by yourself?"
"You know what I mean," she snapped. "I want this experience behind me."
Her bulldog retort amused him, but he picked up her empty cup, and went to the kitchen for a beer. He retrieved one for himself and another for Olivia and when he returned, he shoved her gently into a reclining position on the sofa. Handing her a beer, he sat beside her and pulled off her shoes. He began to massage her feet.
She eyed him suspiciously. "Why are you treating me like I'll break?"
He ignored her question and worked his thumbs into the delicate flesh beneath the arch of her feet, kneading the heels and toes. Like everything else about her, her feet were small and delicate and very smooth. He felt her relax beneath his touch.
"Thanks," she murmured after a moment, closed her eyes, and leaned her head against the sofa arm. He reached across her calves to take the beer from her loose fingers and set it on the end table.
Because he thought she'd fallen asleep, her words surprised him. "He terrified me," she admitted. "And then I was furious that I allowed him to terrify me."
He looked up from caressing her bare legs beneath the hem of her jeans. "Why'd you marry a man like that?"
She grimaced. "I was young and stupid and… lonely. And Bill was very charming." She reached for her drink and took a deep swallow. "He was jealous of my success from the start. I knew after six months that it wasn't going to work."
"But you stuck it out." He smiled, thinking how typical that was of her.
"Yeah, for eighteen god-awful months." She frowned. "I didn't figure he'd retaliate like that. I didn't see it coming."
His hand worked upward, massaging her legs through the denim of her jeans, feeling the muscles quiver under his touch. As she propped one arm behind her head, her sweater rode up to expose a tempting slice of bare flesh. Abruptly, he pushed her legs aside, stood up, and reached for the fireplace poker, jabbing at a log that didn't need tending.
He came back to her, but didn't sit down. "Okay, let's work on the case then."
She shook her head, pulling him down beside her. "Later," she whispered, "I've changed my mind."
He pressed his face into the warmth of her neck and shoulder, inhaled deeply, and tried to control his rising desire. "You're easy. One foot rub and you fall like – "
"Don't even say it."
Her lips against his were smooth satin, her breath warm and heady as she explored his mouth. He deepened the kiss, felt himself wanting to ravish her, and pulled back. Holding her face between his palms, he stared into those amazingly brilliant eyes, sharp with longing that matched his own. "Are you sure this is what you want?" he asked.
For answer her breath came in sweet little pants that begged him to kiss her again. His tongue invaded her mouth and his teeth nipped at her bottom lip until she moaned and pressed her body closer. Sliding his hands down her back, he pulled her shirt from her jeans and slipped his fingers around the smooth flesh of her stomach.
"Upstairs," she gasped, grabbing his hands and tugging him toward the staircase.
He was painfully hard. The rush of blood to his erection felt like hot needles as he followed her into the bedroom. He told himself he could be with her, but not be with her, satisfy her needs without the actual risk of being inside her.
Being inside her would undo him, he thought, and unleash a power he was terrified he couldn't control. An image of himself came to mind, of him slugging away at the punching bag or running frenetically until the stitch in his side doubled him over. His body felt lethal, strong and hard and completely capable of tearing Olivia apart.
She landed on him and winced as they fell onto the bed. He ran his hands carefully over the firm curve of her bottom while she tugged her fingers through his hair and took his mouth in sweet aggression. Kissing her felt like he'd come home, and if he'd been capable of such emotion, he'd have wept.
After a few moments, she jumped off him, her breathing appealingly shaky, and hurried into the bathroom. "I'll just be a minute."
Jack swallowed hard and watched her cross the room, an expectant look in her eyes, a tender smile on her lips. As distance lessened the heady scent of her, he told himself to leave, get away from her before it was too late. But the roar of the beast yowled in his head. Nothing mattered but his need to have her. The rush of lust rooted him to the bed.
When the bathroom door opened, the light reflected behind her, and a calm, confident look shone on her face. She was his. She'd always belonged to him. He reached for her and shouted down the roar of the beast.
Their lovemaking was nothing like the very first time of heated groping and inept earnestness. Back then Jack's touch had been unsure, but sweet and gentle on her frightened body. This time, clearly an experienced lover, he knew all the right places to kiss and caress. His body was hard against the softness of her flesh and the urgency of their last encounter vanished in the tenderness of the moment.
She felt herself riding a wave of arousal that comforted her, enveloped her in a cocoon of security and solace. He knew exactly the kind of loving she needed to banish the ugly memory of Bill's touch. Jack's long, dark fingers grazed the bruises on her thighs and the scrapes on her knees. He kissed the abrasion on her hip where she'd landed hard on the pavement. She quivered when his mouth moved gently across her stomach.
As his lips moved lower and his tongue swirled around her navel and then trailed a moist fire down to the juncture of her thighs, she shuddered with hot need and lost all desire for caution. She arched urgently against him when his fingers entered her and one hand caressed her breasts until she cried out in the exquisite sensation of pleasure and pain. The first wave of climax pounded over her helpless body.
"Inside me," she groaned, feeling herself peak again as he continued to assault her senses with his beautifully carved mouth, his clever sculpted hands. "I need you inside me. Now!"
He entered her slowly, agonizingly. When he held back as if she'd break, she urged him on. "I'm not fragile," she growled into his ear and thrust her hips hard to increase the rhythm. Unloosening himself, he pounded into her, face buried in her hair, at last meeting her ardor with his own.
"Oh God," she moaned as a wave of unbearable pleasure rose to a peak and took her over the edge in another shuddering climax.
He emptied himself into her with a final violent thrust and then collapsed on her, his heart thundering against her breasts, his body slick with sweat.
After a moment, he rolled off her and lay quietly while their damp bodies cooled. He linked his fingers with hers and stared up at the ceiling. "Did I hurt you?" he asked at last.
She turned on her side to peer at his dark, almost angry face. "No! No, of course you didn't hurt me. Why would you ask such a thing?" She gripped his jaw and turned his face toward her. "What's going on, Jack? Why are you afraid to be with me?"
He took a deep breath and let it out on a straggled sigh. And then the whole fantastic story spilled out. He'd already explained why he hadn't met her at the dugout graduation night, but now the rest of the incredible story spat from his mouth like a bitter herb.
A story of how Invictus had cleaned up the evidence of Roger's death and then whisked him away. The death missions of the last ten years, although she suspected he held back the more egregious things he'd done. The preternatural powers that he unleashed when he hunted a killer during one of the missions. All the pieces of the puzzle that she'd already suspected.
"When I'm with you, Livvie," he added, "somehow these powers intensify. I'm deathly afraid I'm going to hurt you."
She took a giant leap of faith. "You didn't," she said simply. "You didn't hurt me."
The kiss he gave her was more tender than anything she'd known. A vow and a benediction. Her heart began to hope again. After he'd finished the story, Jack held her and dropped gentle kisses on her forehead and temple. She sighed and snuggled closer.
"I still want to talk about the case," she mumbled as her brain drifted off to a dark resting place. "Don't think you can shut me out of it now that I know everything."
When Olivia woke two hours later, Jack was rubbing her back with small gentle circles. He propped himself on one arm and over her shoulder watched the long play of her dark lashes against her cheeks. He didn't think the danger to her had completely vanished. He sensed the power barely restrained beneath the surface of his love for her and believed that somehow being with her both unleashed and tamed the beast within. A crazy paradox he didn't quite understand. He hoped he was right. What the hell was he going to do if he couldn't control it?
A satisfied groan escaped Olivia as she opened her eyes and smiled. "That feels good," she said, swinging her legs over the edge of the bed, "but I'm ready to get to work now."
"Later," he whispered, nuzzling her neck.
"No." She smiled and softened the rejection. "I want to go over it while my mind's fresh."
"Livvie…" he groaned.
A stubborn set to her face told him this wasn't the time to argue. "Fine," he grumbled, "but don't expect me to service you like a stud any time you ask."
Her laughter trickled behind her from the bathroom.
Twenty minutes later, they'd set up an area downstairs in the library. Olivia sat on the chaise surrounded by resource books, papers, and files. Jack leaned against a plush arm chair, his legs stretched out in front of him, and balanced a yellow legal pad on his knee while he took notes.
"As I said before," Olivia explained, "the earlier notes don't indicate much facility with Latin." She picked up one of her texts and opened it to a page marked with a post-it note. "The writing is clichéd and uneven, and there's no logical segue from one note to the next."
Jack pulled a typed paper from his file. A vertical line split the page, with the words of each message in the left column and their translations in the right. He scrutinized the paper. "The first note was 'Hell calls hell,' but we don't know if it goes with the Peterson girl or the Walker man."
Olivia shrugged. "Maybe the killer sees himself as the keeper of the gates of Hell." She tapped a pencil against her teeth. "But if hell is his theme, so to speak, wouldn't he repeat the message?"
Jack massaged his neck. "Okay, here's the next note: 'Never faithful,' found with the waitress, Angela Buckley."
"The first victim, Laura Peterson, was promiscuous, but I was thinking of something else." Olivia told him about the vestal virgins, how breaking their vows meant death by burial.
Jack puzzled over the idea. "Unfaithful could mean another kind of betrayal, like unfaithful to an ideal to an ideal or goal."
When Olivia nodded, he continued, "That could go along with the note found with Keisha." He trailed a finger down the list. "Here, 'fame lives in great things.' Sounds like he's praising someone who accomplishes something."
Olivia ran her hands through her hair in frustration. "Or the notes could be all out of order."
Before Jack could respond, the doorbell rang, and moments later Slater walked into the library. "I just got the cub's autopsy," he said, sitting down in an occasional chair opposite Olivia. "The results were sent to the zoo instead of my office."
He dug in his pants pocket and pulled out a folded note. "It's long so I wrote the message down. The page was small and the writing degraded, but here's what the lab pulled off."
He read aloud, "'us est ad portas.' The first part was torn off and never recovered." He looked at Olivia. "What do you think?"
"First, 'us' isn't complete," Olivia answered. "It's the ending of a word. The rest translates, 'is at the gates.'" Tiny lines formed between her brows. "Someone is at the gates, I think, and 'est' is singular, so the person at the gates is singular."
"I am at the gates?" Jack guessed.
"No, that'd be 'sum,'" Olivia answered. "It's third-person singular, and masculine, so it'd have to be… " Her eyes widened dramatically. "Deus!" she exclaimed triumphantly. "'God is at the gates.' That's what it says! That makes sense."
Jack wrote the translation on his note pad. "The message with the two lions, then, is a warning, 'As fierce a lion as possible attacked the beast-fighter' and 'God is at the gates.'"
"And if a section of the note in the cub is left out, there could've been a 'but' in between the two notes: 'As fierce a lion as possible attacked the beast-fighter, but God is at the gates,'" Olivia concluded.
"That makes sense to me," Jack said.
"That's good," Slater grumbled, "because it makes no sense at all to me."
Olivia took the paper from Jack's hand. "You know what it sounds like to me," she said staring at the writing. "Sounds like his messages sort of evolved. The first one was lost, maybe a warning about infidelity, maybe not. But the second one about hell is general, almost like he was trying to get attention rather than send a message."
"He got our attention, all right," Jack said. "But the rest are specific to the victims. What about that?"
She held up her hand. "Just hear me out. The killer was learning his craft as he continued to murder. By the time he got to the latter victims, the notes make more sense because he became more efficient in his delivery. The last two notes are more sophisticated than the first ones."
"What about the other kinds of deaths?"
"In ancient times crucifixion was reserved for criminals or political prisoners," Olivia murmured.
Slater raised his eyebrows. "The lawyer? The way they twist the law around – that's gotta be a crime." He laughed ruefully.
"And the beatings?" Jack asked.
Olivia thought a moment. "The Roman legions had a practice called decimation. They instilled discipline by beating every tenth legionnaire to death. Brutal, but effective."
Jack stood abruptly and looked out the front window, his back to the other two. "I know what he's doing. They're all warnings." Turning around, he continued, "The son of a bitch is punishing the victims for supposed crimes and he's warning them. But after the fact. After he's already killed them."
The Avenger was sure she knew, that he could read the knowledge in those bright green eyes as surely as he read a storm brewing on the California horizon. He'd seen the emotions flit across her face – speculation, mistrust, suspicion. Clever girl that she was, she'd soon fit the puzzle pieces together.
And if his cohort were arrested, further chaos would ensue. He didn't think his trusted accomplice would crumble under the thug-like interrogation methods of the police, but one never knew.
Now the Avenger had a dilemma. He wanted to destroy the woman, but the man was learning too much about him. They both were clever enough in their own way. The woman was a corruptible vessel. The man possessed knowledge that could damn the Avenger.
Because panic was alien to his nature, psychiatrists would claim he was incapable of normal, human empathy, but they were wrong. The first bubble of alarm wormed its way into his mind. He ignored it. Fear of being trapped belonged to the lower species. He had no intention of being caught. This time, however, he'd be required to draw on the full force of his foresight and intelligence to extricate himself from this tangle.
To eliminate his two primary concerns.
The Avenger pulled his car off the highway and onto the winding, dirt road that led to his refuge – the only place where he could gather his wits about him, refresh his soul, and rejuvenate himself. He turned off the ignition of his McLaren F1 sports car, pulled the side hatch, and jumped out. He wouldn't use the driver this time.
Before he walked up the short steps to the wide double doors etched with stained glass windows on either side, his butler swung open the doors and ushered him into the Penteli marble-floored entry. He tossed his coat to the man and stormed up the circular staircase to the main suite on the second floor. Then he made his way through the passage hidden at the end of the master suite's walk-in closet and upward to the third-level gable-fronted dormer room.
The secret chamber – his Holy of Holies.
He lit seven white candles, one for each day of the week. Seven was the perfect Biblical number. The venerable number of ancient creation. His mother had taught him well.
Mounted on heavy pewter candlesticks, each candle varied in height from votive to a twenty-inch taper. The other relics lay scattered on a velvet cloth of a rich, blood-red hue. He fingered the items one by one and then gently repositioned them in their exact individual places.
One of his favorite artifacts was the watch that had belonged to the lawyer. An old-fashioned pocket watch with a 14k gold chain and tiny diamonds to mark the hours of the clock face, it was a fitting memento for one who made his living by inflating the billable hours in a case. He scrutinized the item religiously before putting it down.
Henry Walker, the first male sacrifice, was an attorney by profession. The Avenger hated lawyers. What was it Shakespeare had said about killing all the lawyers first? The man chortled and continued his work. He'd certainly fulfilled the Bard's suggestion.
He pulled the thick, white, leather-bound album from a free-standing closet under the alcove and sat in a wing chair positioned by the dormer window. Maintaining the scrapbook was a worrisome burden, but a record was the heart of religiosity and common sense told him he couldn't continue his work forever. No one could sustain this frenetic pace. Pulled so many directions with work and special work. He carefully pasted in the latest entry. This would, in fact, be the final entry: Olivia Grace Morse Gant.
He thumbed through the pages of the album. An attorney, a waitress, a student. Was his nemesis putting the fragments together even as he sat here in the comfort of his father's old recliner, book on his lap, additional photographs ready to insert into the black photo corners? He touched the pictures of his sacrifices, traced his fingertips over each one as he removed and reinserted it in the book. As he did, he relived the grittiness of the real-life scenes. The splintery boards and cement floors, the drip, drip gooiness that puddled steadily on abandoned fields and the earthiness of fresh-turned dirt.
The lawyer had begun life with such bright promise, but his destiny changed the moment he manipulated the law for his own purposes. "Henry," he whispered aloud in the still room. "You didn't perform to the best of your ability." What if Beethoven had allowed deafness to stifle his music, or Michelangelo had been content to paint landscapes in his backyard?
Fingering the artifacts stirred him to ferocious heights.
Several hours later, calmed and centered once more, he exited the consecrated, sacrosanct place. He cast a final look around, his gaze lingering on the photos pinned at various angles around the room, their smoky colors dancing in the flicker of the candles.
He extinguished the candles one at a time. Then he secured the double locks, replaced the false panel and art deco print of Cassandre's Normandie, and entered the bedroom.
The next morning Slater set up an incident room for them to work in. Jack asked Waylon Harris and Isabella Torres to join them and had commandeered Deeds and Coleman, two federal agents from the Sacramento office.
Jack stood at the head of a long conference table, leaning forward on his hands, elbows rigid, and explained to the newcomers what they'd figured out last night. "The killer thinks he's a messenger or prophet of God and the notes are warnings."
"He's deeply steeped in religious iconoclasty," Olivia added, "but he's warning his victims after the fact."
"Punishing them for the bad behavior he thinks they've already engaged in," Jack said. "He's a sociopath with a god-like sense of omnipotence, and he believes he can't be touched by the authorities."
"Religion – that why he crucified two of the victims?" Harris asked.
Jack nodded. "This is the way I see it." Using the white board at his back, he reviewed each of the cases, along with the notes and their translations. "Any questions?" he asked the newcomers.
After a moment's silence, Olivia spoke, appearing to choose her words carefully. "I thought about this last night." She flashed a quick glance at Jack, and he knew she was thinking it wasn't all she'd done last night. He'd kept her quite busy after Slater left.
"I think we've been looking at the notes from the wrong angle," she said.
"What do you mean?" Slater asked.
"We've been looking at the meaning of the note in relation to the victim." She shook her head. "But we also need to look at the notes as a whole. The first notes are simple, but the later notes, the ones that are connected to California victims are much more sophisticated."
"I don't understand how," Agent Coleman said, speaking for the first time, his fresh young face turning pink when all eyes turned toward him.
"The latter notes are actually constructed," Olivia explained, "and that requires more than a cursory knowledge of Latin grammar."
"So the second notes are… smarter?" Deeds asked.
"That's one way to put it." Olivia smiled and looked around the room right before she dropped the bombshell. "I don't believe all the notes were written by the same person."
"Are you saying we have two killers?" Slater asked.
Olivia bit her bottom lip. "I'm not positive, but I think so."
Jack straightened from where he leaned against the wall. Two killers?
Coleman peered from behind bottle-glassed eyewear. "But according to guidelines this is clearly the work of one serial killer."
"How can you be sure if there's no physical evidence?" Slater argued.
"Psychopaths rarely work in pairs," Coleman answered. "Two killers working in tandem is very unusual."
"But it can happen," Harris interjected.
"How about if the original killer hooked up somehow with another person," Jack suggested, "and the other person is involved only in the California murders?"
"Serial killers who work in pairs," Deeds said slowly, "usually start out together."
"I don't know about any of that, but it's a linguistic certainty that these notes were not composed by the same person," Olivia insisted. "I'd stake my reputation on it."
"But they both understand the culture and history of the time, right?" Jack asked, thinking that the list of suspects capable of that kind of expertise would be very short.
"Presumably," Olivia responded.
"Okay, if we have two killers, and I'm not saying we do," Jack warned, holding up a hand to forestall any objections, "that means the UNSUB picked up his partner here in California." Even as the words came out of his mouth, Jack knew he'd hit on something.
A partner. Here in California.
"In my county," Slater muttered.
"The second person would have to be the submissive partner," Coleman said, "and he may not know what the UNSUB did before they hooked up."
"Ted Burrows," Jack ground out, slamming away from the wall and slapping the flat of his hand against the table. "That son of a bitch knows something. I felt it during the interview. He was scared about getting caught, blustered about his rights, but I sensed something else too."
"What are you going to do?" Olivia asked.
Jack looked across the table at Slater and saw the answer in his eyes. "We're going to re-interview the little bastard."
Slater turned to Waylon Harris. "Get Burrows and bring him up to interview room two."
Olivia sat down and leaned across the table toward Jack. "I'm in on this one," she warned.
Slater intervened before Jack could speak. "She's right. We need her, especially if Burrows throws something at us that's Latin, or Roman, or whatever."
"You know it's the smart thing to do," Olivia added, looking directly at Jack. "And it's the right thing to do."
He held her gaze for what seemed like an eternity, but she narrowed her eyes and he felt the full force of her defiance. And the pleading underneath it.
Annoyed, but resigned, he looked away. "All right then, let's go."
Unlike the first interview with Theodore Burrows, Jack conducted the second one clearly as an interrogation. As was his right, Burrows had his court-appointed attorney in tow. The man looked barely out of law school, but Jack knew that underestimating the lawyer would be a mistake. Slater had explained that Arthur Landis was a vehement proponent of civil rights.
Jack figured he hadn't broken Ted's Sixth Amendment right to counsel during the previous interview since the man hadn't seriously squawked for a lawyer. With the magistrate-signed search warrant, they stood on good legal grounds. Burrows wouldn't wiggle out of prosecution on a search and seizure technicality, and the evidence at his house was damning.
With Burrows' attorney present and advising him, he might incriminate another person to cut a deal. Jack would take care to tread cautiously during this questioning.
Along with Isabella Torres, District Attorney Charles Barrington watched the interrogation through the observation window. Olivia, Slater, and Jack sat on one side of the table in this larger interview room, Burrows and his attorney opposite them. A deputy stood inside the door.
Before Slater could switch on the interview tape, Landis threw out his first objection. "Wow, we feel a little like David and Goliath," he smiled, ignoring Jack. "Really, Sheriff, four of you against two of us. Is all this police power necessary?"
Slater scowled and pushed the record button. "Not if your client has nothing to hide." He spoke into the microphone, stating the date and time, and identifying himself and the others in the room. Then he read Burrows' his Miranda rights. "The primary questioner in this interview," he continued, "is Special Agent in Charge Jackson Holt."
As Jack opened his mouth to form his initial question, Landis immediately interrupted. "My client invokes his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination."
Jack didn't have first-hand knowledge of the public defender's ability, but he trusted Slater's forewarning that the man was sharp as a tack in spite of his callow appearance.
"Further, you have… " Landis made a production of looking at his wristwatch. "Exactly twenty-one hours and sixteen minutes to charge my client or release him."
Jack saw what Slater meant about the youthful attorney, but the prosecution clearly held the cards in this case. No way was Burrows going to weasel out of the rape charges. Jack wouldn't even be wasting his time on a degenerate like Ted except that he hoped to get a bigger fish – the Dead Language Killer.
Jack decided charming was the way to go with Landis and Burrows rather than the bulldog approach he preferred. He glanced at Olivia, wondering if he still knew how to do charming. Evidently she thought so because the returned look spoke volumes, and he thought he detected a glint of humor.
He took a deep breath to begin his interrogation right before Burrows blurted out, "I want a deal."
His lawyer placed a restraining hand over his client's clenched fists. "Ted, we talked about this," he warned.
"Aw, come on, counselor," Jack cajoled. "Your client's dead in the water on the rape charges. Here in California, that's a sentence of… what, Sheriff," he asked turning to Slater, "eight to ten?"
Slater lifted one eyebrow and his voice was calm. "Nah, unfortunately, three to eight, but he'll get the higher term, that's eight years." He stared off into the reflection of the two-way mirror as if mentally calculating. "Plus the enhancements, the drugs, the tapes. Multiply that by the kidnapping charge and what else we find on the tapes, and Ted could easily do ten years." He paused before adding, "For each victim."
"Rape? Rape!" Burrows sputtered, starting to leap from his seat. "Those women were willing. I explained that."
From the corner of his eye, Jack caught the rise in color in Olivia's cheeks. He could feel the heat of her fury as she sat beside him, her hands folded on the table top.
"Ted!" Landis' voice was sharp and the hand he placed on Burrows' fists tightened in what looked like a death grip, forcing him back down. The deputy edged forward.
"I don't care, man," Ted shouted. "You're just a public defender. What the hell do you care about my best interests? You probably work for them."
Landis' eyes were icy and his jaw tight as he leaned to whisper in his client's ear. After a moment, Burrows relaxed and sat back in his chair, although his face still looked pinched, and Jack caught the twitch in his left eye.
Good. Teddy was getting nervous.
"What's on the table?" Landis asked.
"Nothing's on the table yet," Jack answered.
Slater chimed in. "You see a D.A. in here, Landis?" He looked around as if expecting one to pop in at any minute.
Good move, Jack thought.
"No, you don't." Slater paused a moment, then continued, "You wanna know why?"
Jack jumped in. "No D.A., Ted, because there's nothing to negotiate. Straight up, you're going to do the full time on multiple charges of kidnapping and rape." He shook his head in mock sympathy. "Shouldn't have kept those tapes, Burrows. Pretty damning evidence."
"Oh yeah, then why am I here?" Ted blustered. "You must want something from me."
"Maybe, maybe not. The point is, just like we said before, you can do either state time or federal time on these charges. If I decide to kick your case back to the state… "
Jack paused, let the threat linger, and smiled, feeling like the fox that had just caught the juiciest hen in the house. "See, I'm the one who gets to decide how you'll spend the next thirty years of your life."
He grinned broadly as the final understanding of his predicament showed on Burrows' face. "That's right. I decide if you get to do your thirty plus years in a state prison instead of Club Fed. Hell, by the time you get out, you'll be too old to be interested in girls anymore. In fact, you might find an increased interest in the fellows."
"Hey, there," Landis protested, "there's no need for that." But Jack saw in the lawyer's speculative look that he understood the score even if Burrows didn't.
"Without acknowledging any guilt," Landis said, inspecting his nails, "we want to know what you expect to learn from Mr. Burrows."
Jack almost laughed out loud. Mr. Burrows. What a joke. As a boy Jack had an old hound dog that treated the bitches around the farm better than Ted had treated these women.
"Don't know what we'll learn yet. We just want a little conversation." Jack stood, walked around the room, and ended up standing behind Burrows. He leaned over his shoulder, his mouth close to Burrows' ear. "Conversation like… who else knew about Mr. Burrows'… uh, proclivities."
"No one – " Ted began before Landis nudged him sharply with an elbow.
"My client admits to nothing. Is that clear?" he asked, glancing toward the recorder. "Off the record?"
Olivia watched Jack switch off the recorder. Were they going to let Ted get away with what he'd done to all those girls?
"Sure. Now, who knew?" Jack's growl was a steel rapier that sliced through the room like a clap of thunder.
Olivia shivered and observed him intently. Now he's going for the jugular, she thought, and Ted didn't have a chance. Jack knew how to handle punks like Ted Burrows.
"No one," Ted stuttered, floundering under Jack's glower. "Uh, well… I – I don't know. I – I didn't think anyone knew. Maybe another grad student? Or someone in the building?" he suggested as if expecting Jack to supply the answer.
At that moment Olivia caught the sudden spark of knowledge on Ted's face and knew he was hiding something. That he'd just made a connection in his mind between what he was hiding from them and what Jack wanted to know.
She rose and moved over to lean against the opposite wall where she could study Jack's face. His eyes met hers across the room and she knew he'd seen the same knowledge.
"Come on, Ted," Jack said, drawing the words out slowly, "you would've wanted to brag, tell someone about the girls. Another man, I'd guess, someone you could share your interesting extracurricular activities with."
Ted shrugged, trying to assume a casual pose, but after a long moment, blurted out, "Cur me rogas?"
A startled moment passed through the room before Jack looked at her. "Olivia?"
A thrill of shock confused her, but she steadied herself against the cool stucco of the wall. Ted had spoken in Latin. Cur me rogas?
Why are you asking me?
Immediately Jack changed his line of questioning. "You know Latin, Ted?"
A slow fusion of color started at the spot where the white of Ted's shirt met his neck, a dull red that inched its way up to his cheeks. He drew the back of his hand across the corner of his mouth before answering. "Maybe. A little," he amended.
"Just a little?" Jack asked, looking at Olivia, sending an unspoken message across the room.
Her mind whirled with the possibilities of Ted's fluency in Latin. She'd have to test him, play him, if she hoped to gain information. Walking back to the table, she sat down, leaned forward, and spoke earnestly to him.
"Prima facie tu es innocens." At first sight you are innocent, she said, lying straight to his face, willing him to believe her. Jack had explained that lying to suspects was allowed unless she was a prosecutor so she didn't feel a bit guilty about prevaricating.
Ted's eyes grew round as balls that matched the circle of his mouth. She realized that he didn't know about her own Latin expertise, probably because she wasn't currently teaching a linguistics class.
"Putasne?" he said carefully. You think so?
"Dic mihi ab initio," she spoke softly, although she knew the others wouldn't know the translation. Tell me from the beginning.
"Sum innocens," he pleaded. "Crede mihi."
You haven't been innocent in a long time, she thought, and there's no way in hell I'll believe you. But she strained to keep her features inviting and receptive.
"Scio," she said, I know. She pushed false sympathy into her voice. Ted Burrows was everything but innocent, was in fact heinously guilty of acts that were beyond her comprehension.
"Vera. Cupio vera," she whispered. I want the truth.
But instead of telling her the truth, he laid his head on his folded arms. "In calamitate sum," he said, his voice muffled within the folds of his shirt sleeve.
I'm in serious trouble.
Sine dubio, Olivia thought, giving Ted a speculative look. Without a doubt. Jack's about to trap you and you're going straight to hell where I hope you burn eternally. You're in very big trouble.
At that moment, a sharp rap sounded on the door and Charles Barrington stepped in, gesturing for their attention. The deputy stayed with the suspect while Jack, Olivia, and Slater met Barrington and Isabella Torres outside the door.
Without preamble, Barrington said, "No deal for Burrows."
"What the hell?" Jack said, clearly annoyed at losing the momentum of the interview. He narrowed his eyes and loomed over the little man.
Barrington took a step back.
Isabella Torres spoke apologetically. "Charles thinks if Burrows is the Dead Language Killer, a deal would be bad publicity for the D.A.'s office."
"I can't risk that," Barrington whined.
"Prick," Slater mumbled under his breath.
"Idiot," Jack growled. "I can get him on federal charges without your cooperation."
"Ted knows somethi – " Olivia began as her cell phone vibrated inside her jacket pocket. She retrieved it and turned away from the others, flipping open the phone before looking at the readout.
A coarse voice boomed from the tiny receiver. "You gringa bitch. You are dead."
Jack must have heard the message because he whipped quickly around. "Bill?"
She shook her head in confusion. "The voice was muffled. I'm not sure, but I don't think so."
"Shit!" He took the phone from her boneless fingers and scrolled the calls received. Blocked.
While Barrington slinked off, Isabella stepped forward and put a sympathetic hand on Olivia's arm. "A threat?"
Olivia nodded while Jack looked as if he'd like to punch someone. He turned to Slater. "That settles it. She has a crazy ex-husband, Diego Vargas, that henchman Santos. Who else?" He rammed his fingers through his glossy black hair, overlong now, she thought irrelevantly. "She can't stay at her place. It's too dangerous. We need to find a safe house for her."
"Don't talk about me as if I'm not… " But suddenly, a growing buzz in Olivia's ears sounded as if she were clawing her way through a swarm of hornets. Don't throw up, she warned herself as clamminess washed over her.
Torres put an arm around her waist.
"You're thinking it was her husband?" Slater asked Jack.
"My ex-husband," Olivia muttered from a distance.
Slater shook his head and continued, "Why bother? He's in the wind and can't make good on any threats."
"Because he's possessive and vicious," Jack snarled.
"At least we know it's not Burrows." Slater said.
Olivia steadied herself and took her phone from Jack's hand. "I'll stay in a hotel for a few nights."
"No, come home with me," Isabella Torres suggested quickly. "I've got plenty of room and only we four will know where you are."
"Oh, no, I couldn't impose," Olivia said, looking to Jack, wondering why he didn't offer to stay with her or let her share Slater's guest house.
Jack frowned and stared at Isabella. "You'll watch out for her?"
"Sure," she replied. "And it's no trouble at all," she assured Olivia.
Olivia let her eyes wander around the small living room of Isabella Torres' duplex. The sofa where she sat faced the window in a ground-floor apartment and offered a spectacular view of a wooded area across the street.
She felt uncomfortable staying in the home of a virtual stranger, but Isabella's friendly eyes met hers from across the room where she stood by the window. "Pretty, huh? The area is environmentally protected so developers can't throw up another set of apartments."
Both women were silent, watching the late afternoon sun play over the small brook that trailed through the foliage across the narrow street. A child rode by on his tricycle, head helmeted like a soldier. Olivia liked the quiet here, but she missed the familiarity of her own home.
After Olivia had translated Ted's words for the team, she and Isabella had driven to Sacramento where Olivia packed a small bag and vanity case. The others continued Ted's interrogation while the two women came straight here and Olivia settled her belongings into the guest room.
"It's awfully nice of you to offer your home to a stranger, but I don't need a babysitter."
Isabella smiled wryly as if she agreed with Olivia. "Your Agent Holt insists you're not safe in your own home."
"He's not my – " Olivia began abruptly and stopped. Was Jack hers? Had he always been?
Isabella walked into the small kitchen off the living area where she reached into a high cabinet for a bottle of pills. "Don't worry. I'm not sticking around very long. No one's going to figure out where you are so you can get some rest, okay?"
Olivia followed Isabella into the kitchen and sat on a bar stool near the counter that divided the two rooms. "I appreciate it."
"De nada. No problem. Just promise you'll get some rest." She handed Olivia the bottle of sleeping pills. "These will help. You've been through a lot during the last few days."
Olivia blew her breath out and tried to get her mind to focus. "Ted Burrows talked about being in big trouble, but he said he was innocent… "
"They all say that." Isabella reached for a towel under the sink. "Charles thinks Burrows is trying to minimize his own part in all this. His lawyer will probably call a halt to further questioning unless a deal's on the table."
A sudden wave of exhaustion swept over Olivia. A good night's sleep sounded appealing right now even though the sun hadn't set.
Within an hour after Isabella left, Olivia had showered off the grime of being in the same room with Ted Burrows, and tucked herself into the guest bed. Her lids drooped from the effects of the sleeping pills Isabella had foisted on her. As she drifted off, her mind scrolled through the words Ted had used in their short conversation. Casual talk, words that were benign and meant nothing.
Drowsy and fuzzy-brained, she forced herself to think. Although his words meant nothing, they demonstrated his expertise in spoken Latin. Ted's Latin conversation was perfect. He was almost as good as she was, definitely had the ability to… to… to what? She couldn't remember.
Just as the curtain of sleep fell over her consciousness, she recalled that, in addition to his assistant status at the university, Ted taught a Latin rhetoric class.
A class for Howard Randolph. She almost laughed through the haze of drugs. Silly Howard wasn't much of a threat.
The police were on to his accomplice! May already have him in custody!
The Avenger sped as fast as he dared on Interstate 80, taking the Capital City Freeway just south of the Madison Avenue exit. Although he hadn't yet formulated a plan, speed drove him relentlessly. He rubbed the clammy flesh at the back of his neck and turned the air conditioning on high, letting the cool air blast his heated body. A spasm tightened his cheek and he massaged the spot hard with two fingers.
Never one to panic, he beat down the flutters of concern, breathed deeply, and considered his options. The situation necessitated action. Still, he doubted his assistant could reveal anything very incriminating. For all the man's high IQ, he proved remarkably dull-witted when it came to covering his ass.
Momentarily, he lamented involving the man, but little could be done now. He sighed and shook off his regret, a wasteful enterprise at best. At the time he'd needed the release their little adventures brought him. Especially when the latest punishments he meted out failed to satisfy him. Failed to tether the pulsating urges that overtook him.
No, the accomplice knew enough about the Avenger's business, but not the most damning – the notes. He wouldn't make a connection between the case and the Avenger. And whatever he did remember would be lost in the enormous maze of other guilty activities.
So, his plan – clear away the artifacts first, the most egregious evidence. The thought of destroying his mementoes wrenched his gut with an almost palpable blow, but it was necessary. Leave no testament to what he'd done. Expunge all traces that the sacrifices had any link to him.
Next – destroy all connections with his assistant. That would be more difficult, but manageable. If the police arrested the man, let him take the full weight of the law.
He began to relax. No need to panic. The situation was unfortunate, but not insoluble. Let the authorities do what they would. Let the system run its natural course. Their focus on his assistant would take the heat off the Avenger. Renewed boldness surged through his body.
Over to the right, off the freeway, he spied the lighted sign of a sports bar and cantina. Luis, it shouted in large florescent letters. The green glow winked seductively at him like a woman beckoning from a warm bed. Impulsively, he pulled off the freeway, drove into the packed parking lot, and edged into a free spot at the rear of the building. He needed a drink, something to settle his nerves, put him back on track so he could continue his work.
Twenty minutes later, he'd finished his third highball when the woman sidled up to the barstool next to him. Her nails caught his attention first. Long and curved, painted bright red, they looked lethal, like enamel-coated Samurai swords extending from the tips of her fingers. A stirring in his groin prompted him to follow the line of her arm to the neckline of a dangerously low-cut black dress. Sleeveless and tight. She had the full-bodied figure no longer popular among today's anorexic women. He enjoyed the lushness of her body as she edged even closer to him.
"Buy you a drink, mister?" Her throaty voice slurred the words. This was not her first drink.
Suddenly a surge of sanity ripped through him, and with it, fury. A common whore! She sought to drag him into the iniquities of her flesh. She wanted him to grab her and do all kinds of dirty things to her in the back seat of a car, in an alley, even on the floor in front of these strangers. Disgusting, vile creature!
The bulge in his trousers expanded.
The Avenger blinked furiously. He must leave before he did something foolish. He'd come too far in his journey to fall into a woman's trap. He tossed several bills on the counter and slid off the barstool.
"Hey, whass wrong?" The overhead lighting caught the woman's features and cast them in a greenish hue, made her blonde hair brassy and her face mannequin plastic.
Without answering, he hurried toward the door, out into the cool night, and around the corner where he'd parked the sports car. As he fumbled with the unlock button on his remote, he sensed her behind him. He turned. She tottered in impossibly high heels, her skimpy black dress hiked up to her thighs, a stupid grin on her face.
"Hey, baby, come on. I just wanna have a good time." She reached him and ran her talons down the sleeve of his jacket. "I know how to have a real good time. Wha' cha say?"
He took her capture of him as another sign and herded her into the McLaren.
Jack had the federal agents checking on Latin experts in northern California, starting with the universities. Jesus, how many could there be? Too many, he thought. He'd like to get Ted Burrows alone for five minutes, just five. He ran both hands through the hair at his temples and linked his fingers behind his head as he leaned back in the extra office chair in Slater's office.
"We're not gonna get anything else out of Burrows," Slater declared with finality.
"Maybe not, but there was something in the little prick's eyes. If he wrote those notes," Jack eyed Slater as he fiddled with his computer keyboard, "he didn't write them in a vacuum. He knows the person he wrote them for."
Slater logged off the computer and turned around. "But he may not know why he wrote them. Or what they mean."
Jack ran with the idea. "On the other hand, if he did know what the notes were being used for, he could be charged with accessory to murder. Hell, even murder one. Would your district attorney go for that?"
Slater winced. "Charlie Barrington isn't a risk-taker. He wants to be sure he can win the case before he files charges. Wouldn't want to ruin his conviction rate." He smirked. "He'd rather pass the case off to the feds – to you."
Jack blew out a disgusted breath, pissed as hell that Burrows might stand between them and a madman. "I won't settle for a pawn in the killer's game. I want the DLK himself."
Slater squinted off into the distance and spoke slowly. "Burrows knows he's going to go down on multiple assault charges. Why would he hold back on the notes?"
"Unless he doesn't know anything about the murders," Jack mused slowly.
"It's been all over the news," Slater argued. "How could he not know anything?"
"Oh, he knows about the murders," Jack explained, sitting straighter in his chair, "but we didn't release the information about the notes to the press. If Ted wrote them for someone else, he probably has no idea what he's done or what deep shit he's in."
Slater relaxed and smiled. "You thinking we could make little Teddy piss his pants?"
Jack swiped his hand over his jaw and walked to the window where he could see his reflection staring back at him. He badly needed a shave. And a nice hot shower. He thought of Olivia, hidden away and sleeping safely, and put the image aside before turning back to Slater. "Let's get Burrows back in here. See what we can sweat out of him."
"Without his lawyer?"
Jack kept his expression inscrutable, hoping that Slater wouldn't argue civil rights crap. "A lawyer always complicates the situation."
After a moment, holding Jack's eyes in a neutral stare, Slater nodded. "True. And we don't really care about tainting the evidence against Burrows because we've got him solid for assault." He paused and lifted an eyebrow. "Unless you think he's good for the murders too?"
"Nah, he's not that clever, no matter what his opinion of himself is."
Jack thought of the pretty blonde still in the hospital since they'd rescued her from Burrows' house. And the redhead from his vision whom they'd likely never find. "What about the girl?"
"She's awake now and singing like a sweet little bird about Ted's kinky sex practices."
"Let's go for it," Jack said. Hell, whatever information they squeezed out of Burrows wouldn't alter the assault convictions. But he might lead them to the person he wrote the notes for. "A little pressure would go a long way with Burrows, don't you think?"
Slater rose from his chair and reached for his shoulder holster. "Hell yes."
Jack smiled and the twisting of his lips felt feral. "If we threaten him, he'll cave like a piece of wet cardboard."
Less than thirty minutes after Jack and Slater decided to re-interview Ted Burrows, he entered the interrogation room dressed in an orange jumpsuit and flanked by two deputies. He shuffled into the room like a broken puppet, uncertainty supplanting his former cockiness. Jack almost felt sorry for him. Until he recalled the calloused way he'd used half a dozen women, filming them in their most vulnerable positions and likely getting off on watching those tapes over and over.
He pulled out a chair and eyed Burrows with disgust. "Have a seat, Ted." Jack turned on the recorder and took the chair opposite him while Slater stood behind him. They agreed that Jack would spearhead the interrogation.
"For the record, Ted, we reiterate that you have waived your right to have an attorney present during this interview." Jack paused. "Is that correct?"
"Asshole wasn't doing me any good," Ted mumbled.
Jack decided to play good cop, at least initially. "Would you please speak up?" He turned the recorder in Ted's direction. "Is that an affirmative response?"
"Please state your name for the record," Jack went on, "and make a statement to the fact that you've waived the right to counsel for the duration of this questioning unless you stipulate otherwise."
After Burrows made the requisite acknowledgments into the recorder, Jack began. "We're here to help you, Ted."
"Sure you are." Burrows slouched lower in the chair, likely trying to summon sarcasm but instead sounding pathetic.
"There's a problem, though," Jack continued as if Ted hadn't spoken. "We're pretty sure you know something about the person who killed Keisha Johnson."
He checked for a reaction, but Ted slumped forward against the table, all fight gone out of him. "Do you understand what I'm saying?"
Jack tossed a look at Slater, now leaning against the south wall and shaking his head in disgust. Jack tried again. "Keisha was your girlfriend, isn't that correct?"
Surprise flitted across Ted's face. "How'd you know that?" Under Jack's steely stare, he lowered his eyes and mumbled. "Yeah, all right. So what?"
"Did you ever film her while you were having sex?"
Ted shook his head.
"Answer verbally please."
"No," he muttered. Then, understanding that more was required of him, he added, "Keisha wasn't into that kind of stuff. She was a straight-up prude."
"All right then, let's talk about the Latin notes."
Burrows squirmed in his chair, crossed one leg over the other, and jiggled it back and forth. The fingers of one hand tapped a staccato beat on the table. "I don't know what you're talking about."
Jack contradicted him. "Sure you do. We know you wrote the notes, Ted." He reached across the table and clamped down hard on the hand Burrows rested on the table.
The movement stopped.
"We have concrete evidence to that fact," Jack continued. "We just don't know who you wrote them for."
Burrows looked up, a flash of fear crossing his face. Was he afraid of whoever he wrote the notes for?
"We can give you police protection, if that's what you're worried about," Slater said.
"Are you worried about Diego Vargas?" Jack asked, taking a stab in the dark.
"I don't know who the hell you're talking about." Ted began shaking his head, back and forth, until Jack thought it'd jerk right off his neck.
With an impatient slap, Slater stepped away from the wall, squatted down beside Burrows, and placed a hand on his shoulder. "Snap out of it. We know you wrote the notes." His voice had taken on the bad-cop tone. "If you're afraid of Vargas, you can get protective custody."
"If you don't give up the name of your accomplice, we'll charge you with the murders," Jack warned, "and you'll take the rap for the whole thing."
Ted jumped up from the chair and backed into the corner, his eyes wild with shock, his face twitching like a cornered rat. "Murder?" he shouted, spittle forming at the edges of his mouth. "Murder? What the fuck are you talking about?" His eyes darted about the room like a trapped animal as he sank to the floor.
Slater took one arm and Jack the other and manhandled Ted. Tired of the subtle approach, Jack shoved him down hard into the chair. As far as he was concerned, Ted was as guilty as the actual killer. "Three people have been murdered in my jurisdiction." He spat out the words. "Either you give us the name of the person who asked you to write the Latin notes or… "
Jack pounded his fist on the table and watched Ted flinch. "Or we'll charge you for all three murders. You'll do federal time, Teddy, and it'll be straight time." He circled the prisoner, leaning over him so his voice was close to Burrows' ear. "We feds don't do early parole or time off for good behavior. You'll do every single year of twenty to life on three separate counts. That's sixty years minimum."
Burrows' eyes blinked rapidly and he worked his mouth like an old man gumming his food.
Jack continued circling the chair, letting his size threaten as much as his words. "I'll see to it that you serve your time in the hardest federal penitentiary we have." He paused and brought his face nose to nose with Ted. "Do you think I'm talking out my ass?"
"N- no, man, no." Ted sputtered.
Jack hissed through his teeth. "Then who the hell is the fucker you wrote the goddamn notes for?"
Burrows crossed his arms in front of his face as if afraid Jack would punch him. "It was Randy!"
"Randy?" Jack and Slater spoke simultaneously, and Jack heard the surprise in Slater's voice echo his own.
"Who's Randy?" Jack asked.
"Randolph, Dr. Howard Randolph." Now that Ted had begun, the words tumbled out of his mouth unchecked. "I'm his T.A. I grade his papers and teach a few classes for him. He asked me to write some sentences in Latin for him. I didn't think anything about it, it was no big deal, I swear, he's not so good with Latin grammar, he's more the culture and history expert, so I figured why not?"
He stopped suddenly in a great whoosh as if he'd run out of breath.
From the guilty look on Ted's face, Jack figured there had to be something else between him and the professor. "What else did you and Dr. Randolph do together?"
Burrows' eyes darted around the room, lighting everywhere but on his interrogators. "We – he – sometimes he'd watch when… " Ted's voice trailed off.
Icy fingers ran down Jack's spine as he realized what the relationship between the two men was. Understood the purpose of the room adjacent to Ted's bedroom, the room with the peephole in the wall.
"Son of a bitch," Slater said.
"You sick excuse for a man," Jack snarled. "You drugged women, lured them to your apartment, and Randolph watched while you had sex with them."
While blood roared in Jack's ears, hot and heavy, Slater's deep baritone sounded calm. "Just who is this Dr. Randolph? Where can we find him?"
"I don't know where he lives, somewhere south of here. He's a hella rich dude, lives in a big mansion or something." Then, as if the thought had just occurred to him, Burrows dropped the other shoe.
"Maybe Dr. Gant knows. Randy shares an office at the university with her."
For a moment Howard Randolph forgot where he was. Forgot about the blowsy blonde who lay beside him on the stained sheets of a two-bit motel in a run-down section of West Sacramento.
He stared at the thick, dark fluid on his hands. Splattered on his naked torso. He raised his eyes to the mirror across the room and the face that looked back was speckled with drops of gore and something else. Bits of flesh? He dropped his eyes to his fists, scraped and bloody.
The woman from the bar had bedeviled him, spun a spell around his civilized brain that unleashed the basest part of him. He could think of no other explanation.
His eyes skipped down to his shriveled penis.
If she hadn't giggled…
Hurriedly, he showered and wiped down everything he'd touched – the headboard, the dresser, the stained sink in the bathroom where the toilet had run throughout the entire episode. He gathered his clothes and tossed one last look around the room. The whore's pulpy face mocked him from her position on the bed.
She shouldn't have laughed.
He performed a few deep breathing exercises, calmed himself, and eased out of the room. Nothing but a speed bump in the road. A short foray into the randy enticements of a low-born slut wasn't his fault and he wouldn't allow it to sidetrack him.
The drive south of Sacramento to his isolated, three-story home offered plenty of time for him to finalize his plan. When he arrived, he destroyed every trace of his sacrifices, all evidence of his punishments. The furnace in the basement of the stone mansion roared for a long time with the flames of his deeds.
His decision to eliminate everything calmed him further, made him feel untouchable again. As peace washed over him, he poured a glass of Pinot Noir and relaxed in the den. He hadn't felt such serenity since the first time, over four years ago. A girl, he remembered. She was one of the many who broke their vows of chastity and fidelity.
After he'd dug the shallow grave and placed her body in it, the vein at her neck still pulsating with life, he'd experienced a satisfaction he'd never known before, the greatest tranquility. He knew he'd taken the first step on his Path, the first rung on the ladder of his holy mission.
He'd ignored the thundering arousal the experience brought.
The answer to his current dilemma was so simple he wondered why he hadn't thought of it before. Only one obstacle thwarted his chosen Path, only one person stood in the way between mortality and transfiguration. Olivia Gant.
She'd plagued him from the beginning, he now realized. With her sensuous body and her come-hither looks, she'd wanted nothing more than to seduce him. Desired nothing less than complete capitulation from him. He'd thought her cute, innocent, harmless. Virginal, even.
And he'd held her at bay for several months. But no more. In a flash of revelation, he understood that Olivia was meant to be his final sacrifice. His greatest offering.
The deputies escorted Burrows to his jail cell while Slater dug in to find out everything they could about Dr. Howard Randolph. Torres, whose computer skills were much better than anyone else's, pitched in to help. The only thing she muttered while hunched over the keyboard was "Damn, I really liked Vargas for this."
Apparently Diego Vargas and his henchman Santos had crossed the southern border on an unexpected trip to Mexico. "I'll get the bastard sooner or later," Torres said.
Jack left the precinct while she cross-referenced the university's school calendar over the past five years against the dates for the deaths of the first five victims. Jack knew his own time was better used another way. Tracking.
Finding a timeline for the deaths and referencing that against the professor's leaves of absence or sabbaticals, or hell, just plain sick days made no difference to Jack.
He knew what he knew.
Although he had no hard evidence to persuade a skeptical district attorney, his infallible instinct told him they'd found the Dead Language Killer. Not Bill Gant, not Diego Vargas, but Howard Randolph. Let Slater and Torres check for alibis and addresses. Let them find the probable cause necessary for a judge to sign an arrest warrant. Let them get a search warrant and tear Randolph's house apart to find enough evidence for Barrington to bring charges.
Jack had a better plan.
Since he'd been in California, he'd gradually altered the drug dosage Invictus had tailored for him. He believed that was why he'd been able to control the Change around Olivia even while his mind and body wracked with the animal's need to hunt. Now was the time to unleash the beast. Olivia was safe. The quarry had fled, but the beast would find him.
First, a double-dose of the red pills to increase the primordial state. Then, hopefully, the blue pills to promote the necessary visions to track the killer back to his den. A man capable of what Randolph had done wouldn't be trapped by ordinary police procedure and written records. The secret to his dark fantasies lay in a distorted mind and twisted psyche. And that's where Jack intended to go.
Into the monster's mind.
Now that Olivia was safe, he had one less distraction. He wouldn't have to worry about her witnessing the full effect of the Change. The last thing he needed was her watching his transformation when he hunted the killer. Although he'd tried to explain it to her, even he had trouble voicing the degradation and bestiality of it all.
In Slater's guest house he dragged his briefcase into the kitchen where he took the dosage of red pills along with a glass of orange juice. Fifteen minutes passed. Nothing at first. Then the tiny thrill of an endorphin release in his brain, an ever-so-slight altering of mind and mood. He returned to the kitchen and swallowed several more of the reds and, after a moment's hesitation, a handful of the large blue capsules. After memorizing the layout of the living room, he turned off the lights, opened the drapes, and sat on the sofa. He gazed sightlessly through the window pane out into the dim gloaming of the night.
Then he waited. And waited some more.
Minutes passed. Or hours. He had no sense of time or place as his brain accommodated the altered sensory perceptions. The heavy odor of freshly mown lawn wafted to him through the open window. He breathed deeply and steadily.
The man who occupied his body metamorphosed into another creature as he gave himself over to the vision. Vines wrapped around his legs and their tendrils crept steadfastly upward to his thighs and waist. Something was wrong.
He jerked at the entangling greenery, but it tightened like sodden leather dried in the sun. Tugging at its vise-like clutch, he finally broke away and ran. Ran faster than the wind, his legs and arms throbbing with the exertion. Bare feet pounding on hard, packed earth, lungs gasping for every breath, he galloped on.
This was wrong, he thought. He was supposed to be the hunter, not the hunted. He remembered his earlier dream. Was that when it had changed? He stopped abruptly in confusion. All wrong. He'd never felt so… mortal in a vision.
What the hell was wrong?
The clanging of his cell phone jarred him awake. He fumbled with the contraption, flipped it open, and barked into the receiver. "What?"
"Jack?" Slater asked.
Jack swiped his hand across his brow and pulled his fingers away dripping wet. He was drenched with sweat. His heart raced in his chest, and a blinding, debilitating pain pierced his right eye socket. He coughed and cleared his throat. "Yeah, what's up?"
"I have information on Randolph."
Jack heard the shuffle of papers over the line. He rose, stretched his body, and struggled to shake off the aftereffects of the dream. "What?"
"Each of the first four murders coincided with a time when Randolph was out of town on school business or holiday."
"Did you get an address on him?"
"A little place called Sequoia Falls, south of Sacramento off Highway 99. Torres says matching the dates to Randolph's absences is enough to obtain a search warrant. Deputy Harris and your two agents are getting Judge Davis' signature on a night-time warrant right now."
Slater paused. "Will that work for you?"
Hell, Jack didn't care if Slater called out the entire National Guard. Randolph wouldn't be found at his residence. He'd be hiding in some den he'd specifically chosen for this occasion.
"Sure, check it out and get back to me," Jack said, fidgeting with the phone, wanting to get back to the only productive action. "They might not find evidence at the house, not enough for an arrest warrant."
"If Randolph's the DLK," Slater mused, "he'll destroy anything incriminating."
"Yeah, but try anyway."
After Slater disconnected, Jack slumped on the sofa, his hands dangling between his legs. Randolph's dungeon wouldn't be in Sequoia Falls. It'd be somewhere no reasonable person would think of searching.
That's why Jack had to track him through a lysergic vision.
This time he prepared by drinking a huge glass of water to hydrate himself. Then he removed his clothing except for his underwear. He pulled the living room drapes shut so that the room was plunged into absolute darkness. He stretched out on the sofa, his head on the arm rest, his fingers interlaced at the back of his neck.
The second vision plunged him into immediate chaos.
Bells chimed in the distance, and Olivia shifted beneath the covers. Damn ringing, go away. Miraculously, it did, and she slipped comfortably into the very realistic dream she'd been enjoying. A dream about Jack's beautiful face hovering…
This time a buzzing, long and persistent, jarred through the dream. Dragging herself out of a lazy stupor, she sat up, rubbed her eyes, and listened.
She'd just decided to lie down, when the clamor started again. Banging this time. Loud, dull pounding as if someone were beating, first with the flat of his hand against a solid object, and then with his fist. Relentlessly, over and over like the monotonous thundering of an entire percussion section in her sleep-addled brain. Damn sleeping pills!
She felt so lethargic, so tired.
Fumbling, she reached for the bedside lamp, switched it on, and swung her legs gingerly over the edge of the bed. Her feet seemed to respond to her commands and she padded to the front of Isabella's apartment. Just as she reached the door, the noise stopped. She waited and listened, her ear close to the chain guard.
Faint breathing on the other side?
Without warning her rubbery limbs threatened to give out under her and she leaned her head against the smooth coolness of the door. "Who's there?" she croaked, her voice sounding gravelly in the quiet apartment.
"Dr. Gant? It's Howard Randolph here." A pause. "Olivia? Are you all right?"
During a second pause, she tried to gather her wits through the foggy veil of the sleeping pills. Tried to concentrate on an ephemeral idea that danced at the back of her mind, a basic instinct of self-preservation. Something about Howard? And the vague mystery of how he knew she was here at ADA Torres' apartment. But her muddled brain wouldn't focus.
"Olivia," Howard spoke through the door, his voice a low siren's sound.
She strained to hear him.
"Bishop Cantrell sent me to check on you. He's very worried. He wanted to make sure you're fully recovered from that awful ordeal."
The magic words, Bishop Cantrell, the university's chancellor, the Church's representative at Fatima University.
In reality, her boss.
Every precaution fell away and catholic obedience born of long conditioning took over even though she hadn't attended a mass in years. Shakily, she unbolted the double locks, leaving the chain in place. She cracked the door, just so Howard could see she was okay.
An agreeable smile covered the earnest face that peered through the space between the door jamb and the chain's inside hook.
"Olivia, my dear, we've all been so worried about you."
An omen, a warning. A picture of a sheep in wolf's clothing.
She smiled faintly. "As you can see, Howard, I'm fine."
Doubt crossed his handsome face. "But such an experience. To be kidnapped by your ex-husband… " His voice trailed off. "You need someone looking after you."
How the hell did Howard know that? Was the gossip mill so fast? She couldn't think clearly with the sleeping pills in her.
"I'm fine, Howard," she repeated more firmly.
He gazed speculatively at her, a frown drawing the well shaped brows down. "May I come in? I know it's late, but the Bishop wants to know when you'll return to your classes."
What time was it anyway?
He craned his neck, straining to look around her. "And Bishop Cantrell, well you know how he is, expects a full report from me." He smiled disingenuously and spread his hands in a helpless gesture. "You wouldn't want me to get in trouble with the Boss, would you?" He grinned and jokingly pointed an index finger straight up.
The last thing she wanted was Howard intruding. Sharing an office with him was annoyance enough. Another warning flapped in her groggy subconscious, some danger she'd almost forgotten.
She sighed. On the other hand, the sooner she let him see she was none the worse for her experience, the sooner he'd leave her alone. She leaned against the door and lifted her hand to slide back the chain.
A weak wave of adrenaline tried to fire up her body.
Through the tiny crack, Howard wheedled, "We're all concerned about you, my dear."
Olivia began to unhook the chain as if her fingers had no will of their own. At the exact moment the round ball of the chain hovered between hooked and unhooked, the curtain over her mind lifted and she had a clear, stark image of Howard rummaging through her computer files. How did he find out she was here at Isabella Torres' apartment? Was he stalking her? Had he followed her from the precinct? She remembered him in their shared office, sitting on the edge of her desk, his face solemn and solicitous. She remembered thinking what a phony he was. The idea that this puffed-up, overblown ego of a man could be dangerous was ridiculous.
But had anyone investigated Howard? Howard, who knew next to nothing about Latin language. An icy sliver of alarm wormed through her blood as the truth of the situation slammed into her.
Ted Burrows was Howard Randolph's teaching assistant. Ted Burrows taught Howard Randolph's Latin rhetoric class. Ted Burrows was an expert Latin scholar and grammarian. And Howard was not.
She scrabbled to replace the chain, and for a moment, it swung crazily against the jamb right before Howard forced his weight against the door.
"You're so very easy to follow, my dear," Howard said with a grin.
Then she flew backwards into the wall, slid down its rough-textured surface, and felt the hard, cold entry floor rise up to meet her.
Even through the frenetic prowling in his mind, Jack embraced the Change. The muscles in his body bulged and rippled like those of an animal ready to pounce. His sinews thickened, his pupils constricted to pinpoints beneath his lids, and his nostrils flared with the myriad scents around him as his olfactory neurons activated exponentially.
No mixed sensory perceptions, but straight-forward sensations – sight, sound, and especially smell, his strongest sense. But he hunted in an unknown tangle of woods that confused the animal in him. He detected three distinct scents that diverged into three different paths.
He wavered momentarily. All three smells connected to Olivia, but which one involved the killer? He sniffed and held at bay the howling in his throat. To the south the night air was redolent with a man-smell, rank and fetid, but laced with weakness and indecision.
Not that way.
Directly northeast lay an enemy, vile, sensually decadent, but ultimately a slinking hyena like the Swahili Fisi that preys on the weak, the helpless, and the dead. A coward.
Not that way either.
The western scent beckoned, musty and dank with blood-violence. He started down that path, his padded feet silent on the fecund earth. After several miles at a steady pace, he halted and lifted his nose to the light wind.
The enemy lugged ahead, five hundred meters or more, traveling awkwardly through the thick woods. Under a heavy burden, he staggered on, flanked by the fetid odor of his malevolence.
Olivia crawled backwards away from the front door. Her brain jabbered messages, but she was a slug, slow and boneless. A phone, a weapon, something, anything to use against him.
Get up, move, run!
But the sleeping pills had slowed her reflexes and she watched in horror as Howard Randolph closed the door behind him and slowly leaned back against it.
"Olivia, dearest Olivia." He shook his head in mock sadness, a tiny smile on his lips. "Why do you fight the inevitable? Confusa sum."
He loomed over her, bulky and menacing. Why hadn't she noticed before how athletic he was for a man his age? Bookish and affected, he'd seemed like someone's harmless uncle.
She remembered catching him at her office computer, browsing through her files, and prying around the papers on her desk. She scuttled backward until her shoulders reached a corner where the baseboard dug into her hip.
Half a dozen clicks tumbled in her head like the fitting together of giant puzzle pieces. This man had access, through her office and computer, to all her personal data. Had used that access deliberately and thoroughly. This man she thought was a respected colleague was…
Howard Randolph was going to kill her.
Terror ripped through her like an electric shock and permeated the drug-induced fog. Hysterically, she wondered which method he'd use on her. What punishment did Howard think she deserved? The horror of someone finding her mutilated corpse like one of his previous victims almost sent her over the edge.
Howard was the Dead Language killer.
His next words confirmed the thought. "Alea iacta est." The die is cast. He smiled slyly.
"What's that supposed to mean, Howard?" She raised her voice to drown out the roar in her ears and bit her lip to keep from screaming. "That makes no sense!"
His nostrils flared and he snarled, "Putasne?"
You think so?
Olivia realized she should've flattered, not challenged him, acted impressed with his Latin facility, poor as it was. She shouldn't have called him on his out-of-context remark. His face twisted in an ugly grimace right before it shut down like a smooth slate erased of all emotion.
"If you turn yourself in, they'll give you leniency," she reasoned. "You have to let the police help you."
"Putasne?" he repeated and barked a harsh laugh.
"I know Sheriff Slater and Agent Holt. They'll see that you get a fair deal."
He bent over her as she sprawled on the floor. "No one will give me a fair deal, Olivia," he spat. "No one will understand my mission."
"If you stop now, explain yourself," she argued, "things will go easier for you."
"Nunquam!" he shouted as his sinewy arms reached for her. Never!
Olivia scrambled to her feet and tried to make it down the hallway, to the bedroom where she could lock the door against him. But she tripped on her own awkward feet.
Never. The single word resounded like a death knell as she crashed to the floor, her body pinned beneath the suffocating weight of him. A quick, sharp sting in her thigh baffled her and her limbs flopped cloddishly as he turned her over. Howard's face leered above her, his lips close to her mouth.
She ceased struggling and then… nothing.
Jack catapulted himself down the last path – westward. Ten miles down that road he smelled his nemesis. This adversary was his target. The scent of Olivia was strong this way. Unrelenting, the enemy had hunted and had her in captivity.
Invigorated by the lust of the hunt, Jack leapt forward, closing the distance between them. Ahead, he spied the vehicle and caught the Olivia-scent laden with sweat and anxiety. He smelled fear coursing through her veins, but underlying that, resilience and determination.
Good, she was keeping her wits about her.
Olivia wouldn't be the goat sacrificed on the altar of the killer's ego. She'd fight back. And when her efforts were useless against her monstrous abductor, she'd fight some more.
Jack's dream-eyes made out the vehicle license plate and caught the highway signs that showed the direction the car traveled. He glimpsed the thick, straw-colored hair that lay at the back of the enemy's neck. Sensed the malevolent purpose that blackened his heart.
Every instinct commanded Jack to race toward the killer who held Olivia captive. But he couldn't. First, he had to be released from the dream-vision state. With wrenching effort, he forced himself back into his own body.
He awoke, prostrate on the living room floor.
Shaking his head like a wet dog, he tried to rouse his lobotomized brain from the combined effect of the drug cocktail he'd taken. He should have taken the Phens, but he was afraid they would counter his ability to find Olivia. He fumbled for his discarded cell phone and punched in the number, but his voice was controlled when he spoke.
"Where the hell are you?" Slater shouted and then continued without waiting for an answer. "Based on Ted's testimony, we got a judge to sign an arrest warrant for Randolph, but he's nowhere to be found. And that's not all."
"I know. Olivia's no longer at Isabella Torres' apartment," Jack said, his voice flat.
"You should get back here, Jack. I've got a BOLO out on both of them, but we have no idea where Randolph's taken her." Pause. "Or if he's the one who's taken her. Could be that ex-husband. Or even Diego Vargas."
Jack carried his phone into the bedroom where he wrestled with a pair of cut-off sweats and a gray, sleeveless tee shirt. "No, it's Randolph. Don't worry. I'll get her. I know where she is."
"How the hell… where?"
Jack flipped the phone closed without answering and pressed the off button. Better that he wasn't interrupted during the next several hours. He retrieved the medicine vial and swallowed half a dozen more red pills. He wanted his hunting instincts to be rapacious. Not dulled by human feelings.
He told himself that this hunt was just another assignment, nothing more. Not the most important mission of his life. Not the one to save the only woman he'd ever loved.
Less than a minute later, clothed only in shirt, shorts and athletic shoes, he grabbed the car keys to the Blazer and followed his instincts. Sooner or later, he'd have to abandon the vehicle and track by foot, but for now, his instincts would guide him to Olivia and the killer.
Glancing up through the windshield, he grimaced at the thin jack-o-lantern grin of the moon swinging insanely in the sky.
One madman chasing another madman, he thought wildly, while a third one watched from above. He stepped on the accelerator and the car sped forward.
When consciousness returned, Olivia's eyes fluttered open to complete darkness. She sensed rather than saw a cramped interior and felt the claustrophobic confinement around her. She lay on her right side, her arms clasped around her knees and her knees pushed up against her chest.
When she tried to stretch her legs, her feet banged against a hard surface. She groped over her head to feel cool, smooth metal. Beneath her, she touched what felt like coarse woven fibers – carpet, she guessed. She inhaled the distinct odor of gasoline and exhaust fumes. She was lying in the trunk of a car. Not her car, she surmised. Not Howard's little sports car either. The smooth, quiet murmur of the engine belonged to a larger automobile.
A surge of adrenaline shot through her body and drove out reason. Too many movies about kidnapped women stuffed into car trunks where they couldn't move or breathe. Where they died. She had to get out of here!
Breathe. Stay calm. Don't panic.
Obeying her own commands, she inhaled deeply through her nose and slowly blew the breaths out of her mouth until she gradually relaxed. Contrary to what she imagined, the air in her tiny prison, though redolent of oil and gasoline, was clean. No noxious fumes wafted up to choke off the oxygen. She felt cramped, but otherwise, seemed unharmed.
The car suddenly lurched. Then the steady thrumming of the wheels beneath her. For about five minutes – though she had little sense of time in her dark box – the car traveled steadily on smooth pavement. She tried to identify passing landmarks. At intervals, a tiny stream of light signaled the passing of lighted areas, a gas station or restaurant. She peered through the darkness at her wristwatch, but there wasn't enough light inside the trunk for her to see the non-luminous dial.
What seemed like an hour later, the terrain changed and she felt the rougher bump of a different road, the frequent start-and-stop jerks of the vehicle. Stop signs? Had they left the city? Were they driving through a residential area? Or were they traveling on county roads, notoriously less well paved?
In a little while, she noticed a gradual climb, the automatic shifting of the gears as the car made its way up an incline or a sloping mountain. Howard drove steadily upward, the speed moderate, the road rough. Not freeway, she thought although their speed seemed fairly fast, over fifty miles per hour.
Where was he taking her?
The bastard had drugged her, she thought, in a rush of fury. She recalled the needle prick high on her leg. How did Howard know about drugs and syringes? Her naivety emphasized how little she knew about her kidnapper.
He must've followed her or someone at the jail had leaked the information. But why had he chosen her for his sick games? What part did she play in his crazy religious scheme?
Did he count on her staying asleep during the entire journey? Or would he be expecting her to pounce from the trunk and fight back once he released the lid? He'd have to open the trunk at some point. Else, why kidnap her? Jack said the DLK was organized, planned. She was sure Howard would have a plan for her. But what?
Cramped, sticky, and exhausted, she listened to the relentless drumming of the engine's motor and the rum-rum-rumming of the wheels on asphalt. Hours must have passed by now. She dozed at one point, and was finally roused from her stupor by the slowing of the car and the distinct crunching of tires on gravel.
He was stopping! Suddenly alert, she strained to listen. The sound of the engine dying, the faint clank of metal, the gurgle of liquid, like water being poured from a jug. He was filling the gas tank.
She forced herself to think logically. Distance. He'd driven far enough to require another tank of gasoline. What was that? Two hundred miles in a big sedan? Less, if he'd started without a full tank. No, Howard was far too methodical not to have planned for this.
Without thinking of the consequences, propelled only by the need to survive, she twisted from her side to her back and thumped her bare feet against the trunk top as hard as she could. If they were in a public place, someone had to hear the noise. But her leverage and angle were all wrong, and in the small space, she couldn't put enough power into the kicks.
She yelled as loudly as she could. "Help, someone help me! I'm in here!"
"Shut up, Olivia." Howard's voice was close and so deadly calm that she instantly closed her mouth and abandoned all hope of attracting attention.
"No one can hear you," he continued in the same speciously controlled voice, "and if you continue with such unseemly behavior, I will open the trunk and slit your throat."
Howard's words, spoken with such aplomb, such cheery declaration, chilled her far more than any ranting or screaming could have done. She froze. She hardly breathed. Sweat dripped from her hairline and pooled in the creases of her neck. Her hands were clammy and her stomach roiled in the first waves of nausea. She felt hopeless for the first time since Howard had burst through Isabella's front door.
A few minutes later, the car eased across gravel and began its steadily increasing speed toward what would surely be Olivia's slow and painful death. Her brain worked feverishly. Where would he take her? Someplace private, isolated. She shivered in the cooling trunk interior.
Howard would want to be alone for whatever he had in mind.
The Judge and Myron Higgins were the only passengers on the plane besides the pilot and copilot. Warren wasn't happy making this unplanned trip to California. He'd given up field assignments years ago, and he was too damn old to start up again, he thought, as he patted the shoulder holster under his arm. But he was still a crack shot and he'd do whatever needed to be done. He scowled and puffed on his cigar.
The Learjet 29 had been specially modified by expanding the long-range fuel tank. The alterations diminished the passenger capacity, but Warren wasn't taking a crew anyway. With a strong tail wind, the plane landed in record time – four hours after leaving Baltimore.
Dr. Davis' recent findings alarmed the Judge. If, as he suspected, Jack was taking mega-doses of the lysergic acid compound, he could be in serious trouble. Damn fool probably wasn't taking the Phens either, which would intensify the problem.
Fortunately, the mad scientist had developed an antidote. Trouble was, Jack needed to take the serum within twelve hours of his last stepped-up dosage of the red pills.
Holt was the best agent Warren had ever recruited, and he had no intention of losing such a valuable commodity.
As soon as they landed at the Sacramento International Airport, he put a call through to the Bigler County Sheriff. When the connection went through, a deep voice barked into the phone. "Slater."
"Sheriff Slater, this is Warren Linders."
A pause during which Warren imagined the Sheriff was putting the name with the position. "What can I do for you, Judge Linders?"
Warren liked the calm, easy-going tone of the Sheriff and the fact that he knew him. It'd make cooperation easier. "I think we can help each other. I need to find Jackson Holt ASAP."
"And that would be because…?"
"I'm gonna save the damn fool's life."
An hour later four of them, including a pretty young ADA, were in a patrol car headed for a reclusive spot where Slater speculated the killer had property. Sheriff had better be right because Warren had no idea where Jack was.
He wanted this ended today. The DLK assignment had gone too damn long.
The sudden absence of noise – the thrum, thrum of the tires on asphalt followed by the crunching of gravel and jarring of wheels dipping in ruts – ceased. The silence was deafening.
Olivia strained to listen, taking in shallow puffs of breath, alert for the tiniest sound, but heard only the smooth, gentle hum of the engine. Nothing else, not even the opening of a door or the crunching of footsteps on gravel or the rustle of leaves in the wind. The anticipation of impending doom held her fixed like a deer caught in headlights.
She tensed her muscles and waited.
Suddenly the engine turned off. She thought she heard the slick whisper of cloth against leather. Slacks sliding across the car seat? Then the slamming of a car door. She tightened her body, gauging how quickly she could lash out at Howard with a strong, swift kick. She curled her hands into themselves, tightened her legs, and readied herself for battle.
She strained again to hear his footsteps. What was he doing standing there? Waiting for something? Someone? Did Howard have an accomplice? Ted Burrows! Was that pervert Ted part of her abduction? She remembered the ugly anger of his threat at the jail house. Was this her payback?
No, couldn't be. No matter what, Slater wouldn't let Ted go free.
After what seemed like endless minutes, she heard the quiet tread of soles on hard ground, the sound diminishing by the moment. He was walking away from the car, away from her. She heard the altered noise of the steps, a crunch and rustling as if he'd walked from packed dirt into leaves or underbrush. The sounds grew fainter and fainter until she couldn't hear anything at all.
Then silence descended like the weight of a boulder on her chest.
The scent assailed Jack's nostrils like a steaming layer of freshly dropped dung. The odor of the killer's blood lust gagged him. Jack had never experienced fear on a mission. Never once since his initial training had he been afraid, not for himself, not for anyone else.
The human part of him wondered what this said about the kind of man he'd become, that he was able to remain completely detached during these hunts. But as Olivia's terror melded with the killer's scent, a terrifying fist of dread choked him. The fear wasn't for himself, but for Olivia, and he knew that his worry for her meant danger to both of them. He pushed the image of Olivia at the mercy of a madman out of his mind. No good would come of going there.
He willed his animal instincts to deepen and strengthen, he beckoned the dark psychosis of the killer's mind, and he plunged into the dank evil of his appetites. Jack compelled himself to conceptualize, explore, and absorb the cabalistic drives of Howard Randolph.
Within a few minutes, the killer's aberrations became Jack's. His hungers invaded Jack's mind and body until the dark urges took over and he was one with the murderer. Now he was ready. Only a few more miles.
Howard hadn't expected such resistance from Olivia. Hadn't anticipated the strength that came out of her small body. He'd left her in the trunk and taken less than thirty minutes to wend his way through the overgrown weeds to the church. Even less time to complete the preparations inside, to gather up the robes, the holy water, and the cloths for the altar. He wanted everything to be perfect for his unblemished sacrifice.
Originally, he hadn't planned on performing the final ritual here – in the church where he'd spent so many childhood hours in the company of his mother and her God. But at some point during his drive from the university to his home in Sequoia Falls, he remembered the unused church, lying on fallow land. He now knew he'd been led here, guided back on his Path.
Another part of his brain, the linear, logical side, screamed that Olivia was not a virgin, not unblemished, but he refused to listen. The base part of his nature found her desirable, and if he succumbed to those appetites, she'd be a whore and end up like the blonde from the bar. No, Olivia was his – the perfect sacrifice.
By the time he returned to where he'd hidden the sedan in a clearing fifteen miles off Highway 70, darkness had deepened and the air had chilled. Dressed as scantily as she was, she'd be cold in the trunk of the car. The image of Olivia half-naked and at his mercy stirred him again, just as the woman from the bar had. No! He banished the lustful thought from his mind. Olivia was the offering, the final immolation that would purge him.
He listened carefully, his ear to the trunk lid and heard deadly quiet. No rustling, no shifting, no breathing. Nothing! Could she have passed out? Suffocated? If she were dead… no, he wouldn't allow himself negative expectations. He needed Olivia alive.
A dead sacrifice was unacceptable.
Carefully, he inserted the key in the lock. Panting hard with anticipation, he turned the key, expecting the slow, gentle spring of the trunk lid as it swung open.
With unexpected force, the truck blasted open.
She attacked him immediately and ferociously. Shoving at his stomach with both feet, she caught him off balance. He never imagined such power in those small feet. He stumbled backward and while he was partially down, she leapt from the truck, brandishing some kind of weapon.
When the blow glanced off his arm, he recognized the weapon as the tire iron from the trunk well. Fortunately, her aim was off and the second blow struck him high on the shoulder. He fell against the fender, blood dripping from his temple, and lashed out blindly.
He cuffed her hard on the side of the face and followed up with a half-assed blow to the stomach. She flew backward and dropped the iron. Instantly, she clambered away from him, staggered to her feet, and swirled around to flee through the wild weeds in the direction from which he'd just come.
Bitch! She shouldn't have fought him. Although his plan called for a noble sacrifice, he could just as easily butcher her. That was one execution he hadn't tried. Maybe, after all, he'd do to her what he'd done to the whore from the bar. Barefoot and half-naked, she wouldn't get far.
His nerves tightened like piano strings and he took deep, calming breaths as he staunched the blood with a rag from the back seat. He pushed the trunk lid down, leaving it slightly ajar, retrieved the tire iron from the dirt, and started after her.
Sheriff Slater drove the patrol car with lights flashing, but no siren, while the Judge sat silently in the passenger seat, feeling no need to be friendly to the natives. ADA Torres and Myron Higgins rode in the back. Slater had given him the bare facts as he knew them. Warren figured the Sheriff knew precious little, but at least he had a suspect, a warrant, and a man searching the suspect's residence.
Slater finally veered off Interstate 80 to Highway 99 south, and ten minutes later, the radio squawked. "What's up, Deputy Harris?"
A deep mellow voice broke through the static. "Just finished the search, Sheriff. At first, we found nothing, but then I checked the desk in the study. The drawers was all locked."
"But you didn't let that stop you." Slater glanced at the Judge who lifted his brows in expectation.
The deputy's laugh boomed over the phone. "No, sir, wouldn't let a little thing like a lock stop me."
"What'd you find?" Slater asked.
"Looks like some kinda property book tucked away in the bottom drawer."
"Yes, a ledger that lists a lot of property the family must own. Let me read some entries."
The ledger listed what Warren guessed were the numerous properties belonging to the suspect's family estate.
"Stop," the Judge ordered when Harris named a property that lay west of Marysville about fifteen miles. "Church property?"
"Yes sir, the land belonged to the Catholic Church," Harris explained, "but shut down when the old priest died and mass attendance dropped off."
"What's important about a church?" Slater wondered aloud.
"In the late eighties," Harris continued, "the Randolph family bought up the property, the church and its adjoining grounds, but it hasn't been used for the past twenty years."
"Why would a family buy church property?" Slater asked after he'd snapped shut the cell phone.
"Run a check on Randolph's family," Warren suggested, "especially the mother. There's some religious fanaticism there. Maybe they wanted a private place of worship. An isolated church makes sense. That might be where he's taken the Gant woman."
Slater barreled off the freeway, made a complete circle back, and headed west on Interstate 80 toward Marysville.
"What most people don't understand," said the good-looking ADA leaning from the back seat, "is that almost all serial crimes are sexual in nature."
"Even though no sexual acts are committed on the victim?" asked Slater.
"The killer may not behave in a sexual manner at the crime site, but he gets aroused and has the greatest sexual release at the moment of his victim's death," Torres answered. "When it's over, he can relive the experience in his memory, or with the trophies he takes from his victim."
"Son of a bitch!" Slater struck his fist on the steering wheel.
"And this killer's changing," the Judge added. "He's becoming more aggressive."
"Rape?" Slater asked.
The Judge shrugged. "And torture. He's going to make her suffer and he'll enjoy every minute of it."
"Why change now?" Slater asked. "What happened that's different?"
"Probably a psychotic break," Torres answered. "Prior to this, he's seen himself as a kind of avenger, a disciple punishing those who've committed transgressions."
"And now?" Slater asked.
"Now he's straddling the line between being the religious center in his own morality play and being the demonic figure," Warren sneered, "and I'll bet he enjoys playing the devil.
"If he gets away with killing Olivia – " Torres began from the back seat.
"He won't get away with it," Slater said. "We'll catch the bastard."
Warren glanced over at the Sheriff. He didn't have Slater's confidence. He didn't figure saving the professor was all that important, but they'd better reach the property in Marysville in time to save Jack.
Olivia ran like the devil. Prickly weeds tugged at her legs and branches dipped low to scratch her arms. Damn it! She'd blown her chance, maybe the only one she'd get. She'd found the tire iron by sheer, dumb luck under the carpeted trunk floor and planned a well-placed blow. Lying in the trunk all those long minutes, she'd fantasized about using it on Howard.
When she'd heard the first raspy footfall through the undergrowth, she positioned herself, knees bent, feet facing outward. She clutched the tire iron tightly in both hands, her arms bent over her head. Waiting, her muscles quivering with strain, she scarcely breathed. She kicked outward as hard as she could, catching him in the gut and when he'd gone down, she swung the iron with all her might.
It had glanced off his body like a fly swatter on an elephant.
She swung again, meaning to aim a killing blow. She didn't care if that made her a murderer. Her survival instinct kicked in and she wanted Howard dead. But the blow hit his shoulder and before she could swing again, he punched her, once in the head and then again in the stomach.
The breath whooshed out of her like a balloon deflating noisily. All she could think of was to run. Run! She galloped off into the brush with no idea of where she was going. She just knew she had to get away from him.
The scrapes on her arms, legs, and face stung. She stopped a moment and bent at the waist, hands on knees as she tried to catch her breath. She heard thrashing behind her. How had he gotten so close so fast?
She took off again, pumping arms and legs as hard as she could. A stitch spasmed in her side and her bare feet felt swollen, sliced, and wet with her blood. She ran harder, adrenaline spurring her on, ignoring the cuts of face and feet, the burning in her lungs.
Just as the woods opened into a clearing at the edge of what looked like a parking lot and an abandoned building, a knotted tree root tripped her. She sprawled gracelessly to the ground, her arms outstretched to brace herself, her elbows taking the brunt from wrist to shoulder. Mud, dirt, and leaves covered her bruised and bleeding body.
As she jumped to her feet, poised for flight, Howard slammed her from behind and threw her to the ground. He was on her in seconds, slapping her face open handedly, grabbing her hair in his fist and pulling until tears ran down her cheeks.
His breath was hot and heavy at her temple, and even though he panted, his voice was oddly detached, even calm. "Don't ever run from me again, Olivia. You'll regret it."
She would've been less afraid had Howard raged at her.
Moments later he dragged her to the building and shoved her down three cement steps. She lost her balance and received another abrasion to her knee as she landed at the bottom. Hauling her to her feet, he pushed her toward a corner of a wide, open basement where an industrial sink took up space.
"Remove your clothes," he ordered, brandishing a small, but nasty-looking knife in one hand and the tire iron in the other.
Hysteria bubbled up in her. No shoes, boy shorts for underwear and a skimpy tank top, she could hardly be described as clothed. What was left?
He tossed away the tire iron and his fingers pinched her upper arm while the knife nipped at her ribs. He hauled her closer to the sink. His eyes dilated wildly as if he were on drugs. A nasty snarl hurled from his mouth. "You really don't want to make me ask twice, Olivia."
The fighting strategy hadn't worked against Howard. She'd have to be more cunning if she were going to outmaneuver him. If she could just reach the tire iron or get him to discard the knife.
Olivia jerked the tank top over her head and pushed the shorts down to her ankles where she stepped out of them and kicked them aside. Goose bumps rose on her body and she rubbed her crossed hands up and down her arms. What now? Howard's eyes glittered and his body tensed. Angry because she'd hit him and nearly escaped? Or crazy with lust?
He reached behind her and grabbed soap and a rag from a shelf she hadn't noticed. With the other hand he turned on the water faucet. "Wash," he commanded.
The madness in his eyes clambered to the surface. "Because you are filthy," he said. "Because you are unclean." Spittle spewed from his mouth and spattered her face as his voice rose to a shout. "Because I command it and you dare not disobey."
Not sexual frustration, but insanity.
When she still hesitated, he threatened, "Unless you'd rather I do it myself?"
Undressing in front of Howard and performing such an intimate act as bathing disturbed her more than if she'd done the same things before a complete stranger. She wet and soaped the rag under the icy stream. Wringing out the cloth, she wiped her arms and legs. The sting of the soap burned in the raw cuts and scratches. She bit back a wince while Howard watched her carefully.
When she finished, he tossed her a large, clean towel which she used to dry off. Her skin was red from the abrasive soap and the freezing water. She dropped the towel to the floor, put her arms down, and stood defiantly before him.
Bastard! She wouldn't show him her fear.
Grabbing her upper arm, he dragged her to the bottom of a flight of wooden stairs. After climbing to the landing, he opened the door at the top and whirled her around to face him, pressing her close against him. She felt his growing erection against her naked body.
His mouth hovered over hers. "My intention was to use you, Olivia, use that perfect little body that you've been enticing me with all semester." He ran his fingers across the top of her naked breast. "You'd be good for a quick fuck, right?"
She flinched at his crude language and he laughed. "And I may do that yet. But you're such a perfect specimen I couldn't resist offering you as the penultimate sacrifice."
Forcing calm she didn't feel, she summoned the courage to fight Howard in a way that might give her an advantage. "You'll never do it, Howard," she jeered. "You didn't rape the other victims. You don't have the balls."
He ground his mouth into hers, his teeth cutting, his tongue trying to push through her tightly-closed lips. Then he released her abruptly. "Maybe we'll do both." He smiled and pinched her cheek viciously. In a flash his manner changed from the vicious would-be rapist to the mild-manner professor. "Now, wouldn't that be fun?"
Although she didn't see the hand that held the syringe, she should've anticipated it. Right before she lost consciousness again, the prick of the needle told her what he'd done.
Jack left the Blazer at the foot of an inclined wooded area off the highway, and hiked on foot the rest of the way. The Blazer could've made it up the narrow dirt road, but he didn't want the engine to alert his prey.
When he arrived at the clearing, the trunk of the sedan was partially open. He nudged it with the tip of his knife blade, and it swung smoothly upward without resistance. He ducked his head into the empty trunk and inhaled deeply.
Beneath the Olivia-scent and the fetid animal-scent, his heightened faculties imbibed the faint residue of an unfamiliar smell, the odor of incipient life, the human zygote. The implication drew him back from the trunk's gaping maw. It wasn't possible for Olivia to be pregnant, his human mind insisted. But the beast growled, a deep guttural sound low in its throat, a warning call to the predator, the animal's protection in defense of its young.
He turned around slowly, his cat-like vision scanning the woods for signs of them.
That way, he decided, and crouching low, followed the scent of Olivia and the enemy. The sunken footsteps in the moist dirt and the small, lighter prints indicated two people – a heavier person and a lightweight one – running fast.
Less than a quarter mile down the overgrown path, he glimpsed what looked like the front of an abandoned church rising like Hawthorne's seven-gabled house some hundred yards off a narrow, paved road. But that was not where the enemy had accessed the building.
An empty parking area, overgrown with weeds pushing up through the cracks and crannies of cement, stretched in front of the edifice. The entire erection looked like a giant dollhouse, tossed into the wilderness and forgotten, only to be taken over by the encroaching forest.
Jack padded carefully around the perimeter, sniffing cautiously, seeking the strongest scent left by the killer. He nosed his way around to the side of the building where a short flight of concrete steps led below the ground level. A basement.
When he jiggled the knob, it turned beneath his hand. Unlocked, though a barred door wouldn't have stopped him. As he stole inside, he found himself among a series of pipes and storage cages, dust and cobwebs and general clutter. A set of wooden steps in the corner wound upward. Even from the outside entrance he could hear the clear sound of footsteps above him.
She was naked.
The pungent odor of incense filled the room where Olivia lay on her back, her head cushioned by some soft material, her legs straight out, and her arms crossed over her breasts. The dim room was lighted by dozens of candles that cast eerie shadows on the walls. The vaulted ceiling stretched far above her head and domed in a set of paneled religious carvings.
She lay naked inside a church.
"You're awake." The disembodied voice echoed off the walls. A figure rose up from the floor to her right.
A priest, she thought at first, even though she knew. Not a priest, but Howard dressed in a priest's double-breasted black cassock and white clerical collar. He came closer and peered at her curiously. She shifted to cover her nakedness and realized that her legs and arms were immobile. She couldn't move. Couldn't speak. She blinked her eyes rapidly and tried to open her mouth.
Was she dead already?
No, he'd given her something. Something in addition to the initial pinch of the needle. Some kind of drug that affected her muscles and rendered her helpless. Panic as strong as a tidal wave smashed over her. He'd paralyzed her! Her respiratory system would shut down and she'd die. She gulped in a series of harsh gasps. Sweet air filled her lungs and fury settled in her mind.
The son of a bitch! For months, he'd worked alongside her, used his slick, cloying manners and arrogant airs to fool her. And all the while, he'd been on a murderous spree, leaving all those helpless victims in the wake of his insanity.
She slanted him a look from the corner of her eye. No, she amended, Howard wasn't insane. She took in the costume he wore, his sacrilegious posture as a priest, a holy man of the clergy. Howard was driven by religious mania, not madness. By sexual perversion, not lunacy.
Olivia realized now that the maniacal glint of his eyes, the twisted leer of his lips had always been there, but gone unnoticed. He believed he was a holy avenger punishing sinners for their evil deeds and using ancient modes of execution.
What had Jack said? For a serial killer, it was all about sex. Howard wanted to have sexual power over her, not mete out punishment for her sins. She saw the dichotomy that he wrestled with. Needing to rape her and wanting to offer her as a religious sacrifice. Coveting both, but realizing he'd have to choose one or the other.
Howard's lips moved minimally in a face set in carved stone. "Feeling the effects of my little drug concoction, are you, my dear?"
His eyes ran up and down her body, and she felt the arrows of a thousand stings against her flesh, the humiliation of every one of his victims. She opened her mouth to speak, but her throat muscles remained locked.
"Never mind," he chortled, "the effect is short-lived. You'll be chattering like a jaybird in a few moments."
Indeed, a moment later she felt the numbness receding, the particular tingling that meant the return of feeling. But how to handle him now that he seemed practically giddy with anticipation?
When her speech returned, Olivia wet her parched lips. "Would you please cover me up?" She forced herself to remain civil, and mildly subservient. Her anger would only make matters worse as it had before.
He hesitated, brows lifted. "Of course, my dear." He reached behind him for a pristine white cloth – a surplice, she thought – unfolded it, and draped it across her body. The brief surge of gratitude she felt for the man who'd kidnapped and drugged her annoyed the hell out of her.
Howard loomed over her. If all her muscles had been working properly she could've clawed his face. Spat at him. As it was, she could only muster up a frown. "What are you… " Her voice cracked like a rusty pipe and she tried again. "What are you going to do?"
"Something holy." He swept one hand around the spacious room. Then he dipped his fingers in a small stainless bowl she hadn't noticed resting beside the platform on which she lay.
"In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti," he intoned, his solemn voice echoing in the vast room.
"What's happening?" The oily moistness of his fingers touched her forehead, her chest, and her shoulders. Anointed oil. Was he baptizing her? She gazed into the face hovering over her and knew she was looking into the face of moral and psychic aberration.
"I'm giving you a new name. Henceforth and forever, you will be known by this name. When God calls you up into his sacred presence, this is the name He will use." He closed his eyes and tilted his head backwards, raising both hands and uttering the phrase. "Deo volente. Deo volente. Deo volente."
God willing. God willing. God willing. Repeated three times representing the Holy Trinity, she realized.
"Introib ad altare Dei." He uttered what sounded like random words cobbled together as gibberish until she recognized disconnected words from the opening phrase of a Catholic mass.
I shall go to the altar of God.
Her head and neck now mobile, Olivia glanced around her to confirm that she indeed lay on an altar, its faux marble hard beneath her hips and shoulders.
"Magnificat anima meas Dominum," he intoned.
Her best hope for survival lay in pretending to accommodate Howard's religious fervor. She repeated his last words in English, "My soul does magnify the Lord."
A look of surprise crossed his face. "Deus vobiscum." God be with you. His lack of proficiency in Latin was clear now. Howard used only common Latin phrases, apparently all that he knew, with only vague understanding of their applications.
Trance-like, he pulled the white cloth down to her waist and placed the flat of his hand on her chest, nestled between her breasts. As she felt the return of sensation to the rest of her body, she twisted her head. At some point he'd unbuttoned the bottom of the thirty-three fastenings of the cassock. The robe fell open to show his nakedness and the undeniable evidence of his arousal.
And the unmistakable point of the knife in his other hand. A bulge in the left full pocket that could mean another weapon.
"Ave Maria," he whispered. "Beata Virgo Maria." Hail, Mary, blessed Virgin Mary. Did he mistake her for another vestal virgin? Or did he think she was Mary, the Mother of God?
"Mater Dei," she spoke softly, letting the words trail from her tongue in what she hoped imitated religious rapture. Mother of God.
"Amen," he answered. So be it. He reached both hands toward her, pulling her up from her prone position on the altar. As she sat up, the cloth clung to her loins. Putting modesty aside, running only on the instinct of survival, she stood and allowed Howard to take her left hand and escort her naked down the two steps from the altar podium to the carpeted runner that divided the congregational aisles.
"From now on, you will be called Mary – Maria – and to this name you will answer for the rest of eternity." He looked slantwise at her, a hard look that brooked no disobedience. "Do you understand this great honor, Maria?"
She inclined her head in proper servitude. "Fiat voluntas tua." She caught the fleeting look of confusion on Howard's face. As she'd thought, he was incapable of interpreting Latin constructions.
Hoping he wouldn't notice the cover up, she hurriedly repeated, "Thy will be done."
"Deus vult," he answered. God wills it.
As they began the interminable march down the center aisle, Howard continued, "You are with child, Maria. Gloria Deo."
Olivia jerked back, nearly pulling her hand from his light grip. Why did he suspect that? She'd just gotten her period. There was no way she was pregnant. There was no child.
She opened her mouth to say as much and clamped it shut again. If Howard thought she was pregnant, she wouldn't disillusion him. She'd play into whatever bizarre religious scenario he was acting out. Modestly she placed her right hand on her belly. Howard smiled in approbation as they continued down the aisle to the imitation statute of Pietà, the Mother of God holding her son's broken body.
Howard smiled beatifically, while she wondered what dark desires lay beneath the hallowed duplicity. She knew he desired her. No, he wanted to inflict pain on her, and struggled between hurting her and sacrificing her on the altar of his monstrously deluded ego.
A moment later, if he hadn't been so intently focused on her, he would've seen what Olivia glimpsed from the corner of her eye. Beside the pillared Doric column, the faint shade of something animate.
A shadow that might mean rescue.
When Olivia glanced again a few moments later, the shadow was gone, but she knew it was Jack. Suddenly embarrassed by her nakedness, she turned toward Howard.
"I should be clothed," she commanded, indicating her bare body with a sweep of her hand from head to foot. "Agnus Dei, Mater Dei." The Lamb of God, the Mother of God. She hoped he'd understand her use of the simple Latin phrases.
A flicker of hope at the possibility of rescue made her knees weak and her hands tremble. Please, God, she thought, give Jack and me another chance.
The gas station attendant knew the property and its exact location. While Warren shifted impatiently, the pimply-faced kid whose nametag said Wayne, seemed intent on explaining the entire history of the church and its surrounding land.
"Look," the Judge snapped, "just give us the goddamn directions."
The attendant pouted for a moment as if he'd lost a big tip and then shrugged and pointed out the road that led to the unused church.
Arriving at the turnoff a few minutes later and following the rutted asphalt road for a mile, they spotted an SUV with rental plates. It'd been pulled off to the side and leaned dangerously close to the edge of a one-foot ditch embankment.
"I recognize the vehicle. Jack's been here." Slater pulled the squad car alongside the Blazer, ran a quick check to confirm the Blazer, and jumped out. He looked around and spied another smaller dirt road that wound westward into the trees and brush. "It's his. He's gone that way." He pointed toward the dirt road.
"Why did he leave the car here?" ADA Torres asked.
"Because," Warren said grimly, "he didn't want Randolph to hear him approach." Because he's the most brilliant agent I have, he thought silently, and sick as he is, he runs on all cylinders.
While Torres placed a call for backup and Higgins clutched the medical bag, Slater started in the direction indicated by the teenager. The Sheriff drove fast on the one-lane, rutted road, clearly worried they wouldn't get there in time.
"If anything happens to Olivia," Slater said, flashing Warren a meaningful look, "I'll look for who's to blame in this mess."
Warren didn't have the luxury of worrying about the woman. He had to prioritize his objectives. First, get the antidote to Jack. Second, kill the DLK. Then, rescue the doctor.
In that precise order. And his conscience be damned.
How dare she challenge him! Randolph opened his mouth to speak, raised his hand to strike the impudent whore whose voice demanded rather than begged. But he looked again at her face, her imperial manner, her majesty.
Maria, not Olivia. She struck his heart with the stark purity of her gaze. Surely she was the Mother of God. He'd chosen well this time, and of course, she was correct. The clouded veil over his mind lifted.
Suffer not the woman to behold her nakedness. Had he read that somewhere in the Old Testament? Or had he made it up? No matter, the words were profound, and as God's true, pure messenger, he had inherited the call to compose scripture.
He picked up a hooded cloak that lay on the cathedra positioned behind the altar, and wrapped it around her shoulders, tying the tassels loosely and slipping the hood over her dark head. The luminous pools of her eyes stared at him briefly before dipping in modesty. Good, she understood her role in the miracle play they'd begun enacting.
He hadn't yet decided to keep his original intention and sacrifice Maria as the others had been. He glanced sideways at her. After her earlier burst of fury, she appeared submissive. Had she fallen under the strength of his righteousness, under the power of God's will?
Or was she trying to trick him? Evil abounded everywhere and suspicion ran high in his nature as was the nature of any true Avenger of God.
Whichever, Maria was magnificent, small, with long dark hair. The Mother of the Lamb of God descended from the Tribe of Judah. To imagine her as blonde was blasphemy. The Mother of God was darkly regal like this woman, his Maria.
He hesitated briefly. Except for the green eyes. They disturbed him in a way he didn't comprehend. He pushed the thought of those blazing emeralds aside. She might carry the child… then who could deny her nobility proved by immaculate conception?
He raked his eyes over her again, imagining the naked body beneath the robe, the luscious breasts, the supple arms and legs. Briefly he imagined himself enveloped in that embrace, lying between those legs, thrusting…
No! Blood pounded in his head and he pressed the heel of his hand to his temple. Was she the mother of God? Or a Jezebel who tempted him to break his own vows?
Part of him longed for the former while a powerful rage of desire tormented him. He clenched his fists at his sides. If she turned out to be other than who she pretended to be, by all that was holy, he'd extract an awful penance.
He thought of the package he'd bought at a drug store on the way here. When he required her to perform the test, he'd know for sure. If she didn't now carry a child, if the test was negative and she was barren, her falseness would be proved by the results.
When they reached the parking lot of the abandoned church at 10098 Winding Ranch Road, Warren pulled a weapon from his shoulder holster and advanced to the front of the building. Slater followed closely.
"They're in there." Slater had drawn his own weapon and it dangled at his side.
"Olivia's my friend," Slater said. "I'm not waiting for backup."
"I figure the two of us are enough."
Slater squinted and looked over at the slight form of Higgins standing some yards way.
Warren glanced at his assistant. "Let's just say some folks fare better behind a desk."
"Let's do it then," Slater said without argument.
With Jack's keen hearing he detected the rattle of wind and whisper of voices, and in the distance the scream of sirens. He judged how far away by the wailing that rang in his sensitized ears. Seventeen minutes, two patrol cars.
The Judge's bullish scent reached Jack's nostrils strong and clear. So Warren had come and was close by. Not that it mattered. The whole situation would be over before anyone had a chance to enter the church.
Olivia's higher-pitched but soft voice tinkled through the musty air like chimes in a breeze, and it was followed quickly by the oily sound of Randolph's words. Jack moved stealthily toward the source of the sounds, his knife blade clenched between his teeth. The sweat of the hunt slicked his flesh and he flashed back to the jungles of Africa and his last mission. It might all end here, he thought.
The aroma of incense and smoking candles wafted through the building as he edged carefully through the dim room. The hollow slap of Olivia's bare footsteps and the much heavier tread of the killer's shoes resounded through the church.
Jack darted behind a sleek column and peered into the large vault of the church's interior. Randolph held Olivia's left hand. Although her eyes had a heavy look, she appeared unharmed. Her bare feet showed from beneath the hem of a brown robe that covered her body and fell to the floor. In a single moment, she looked up and then quickly away as he jerked behind the column.
Good. She'd seen him.
He removed the knife from his teeth and hefted it once, twice. Grasping the knife by the blade, he raised his hand over his head and aimed for the vulnerable eye socket where the tip would pierce the brain and bring instant death. He darted another look around the column. Olivia stood between him and the target, an inadvertent barrier protecting Randolph.
In the moment that he wavered, the quiet creak of a door opening in the foyer alerted him to someone entering the church. The Judge.
Stupid move. There was a reason Warren avoided field assignments at his age.
Howard Randolph reacted to the sound immediately, pulling Olivia in front of him and using her as a human shield. He eased backward one pace at a time. Jack stepped from the shadows in full view, his back to the foyer of the church. Olivia strained against the vise of Howard's arm around her waist.
"Bitch!" Randolph snarled and cuffed her hard on the face with his free hand.
From the pocket of his robe, he pulled a.32 caliber Baretta and pressed the barrel against her temple, his left arm still secure around her waist. The weapon was so small it looked like a toy, but Jack knew its lethal capacity.
"Back up, Agent Holt," Randolph ordered.
Had the threat to Olivia been a knife to her throat, Jack would've thrown his dagger straight for Randolph's exposed eyes. And he would've enjoyed watching the life drain out of the man as the blade penetrated the frontal lobe of the cerebral cortex. He was that sure of his skill.
But even as fast as his reflexes were, he couldn't outrace the speed of a bullet. Livvie would be dead while his knife still flung through the air. His heart tripled-hammered in his chest, a fearful staccato wholly unfamiliar to him. He glanced once at her as her fingers dug into the powerful arms clutching her waist while rage flooded through him like the roar of a waterfall.
The risk was too great.
Slowly, he lowered the knife, crouched down, and laid it on the marbled floor.
"That's a good boy," Randolph taunted. "Are you wondering how I know who you are, Agent Holt? Wondering how I knew where you'd hidden her." He indicated Olivia with a jerking of his chin. "While you've followed me, I've followed you." He grinned. "And her, of course."
"I suppose you must be a very smart man, Randolph." Jack bared his teeth and growled quietly. "A computer search, an informant who knew, or you followed her. What does it matter?"
"It doesn't. My, look at you, Agent Holt dressed like a cast member of… what? The Lord of the Flies?" His shrill laugh revealed his disintegrating mind.
"Which character are you, I wonder?" he continued. "Are you Jack, Jack? Or Ralph? I'd have guessed Ralph when I saw you years ago, dressed so tidily in your federal costume of suit and white shirt. So sure that the rules would save everyone."
The gun wavered in Randolph's hand while Jack considered rushing him. A mere leap and he'd be on him, ripping his throat out with gnashing teeth.
"But now," Randolph continued, "seeing you in your primordial state, I realize you're not Jack. Not even Ralph. But Roger." He nodded as if answering his own question. "Yes, Roger of the simian brow and the jutting jaw. Man at his most primitive."
Jack thought of Roger Strong, Olivia's stepfather, and tamped down the fury. "Shut the fuck up." The words came with a calm and coldness he didn't feel. As if he were the one who held all the cards, but the emotion was that of a beast in pain.
Then the reflection of red and blue lights – from a patrol car, probably – flashed through the stained glass windows.
"Cops are here, Randolph," Jack snarled. "You'll never get out alive." And if you put down that gun, you'll be dead in less than a second. I'll gut you faster than a hog for slaughtering.
At Jack's warning, Livvie's expression changed and he imagined he saw revulsion fixed there, not for her captor, but for him, her would-be rescuer. The thought jarred him deeply.
Randolph's eyes darted to the vestibule. "She dies first," he threatened, digging the pistol harder into Olivia's temple. "Kick the knife this way," he ordered.
Jack heard the footsteps that crept through the vestibule into the church interior. Two men. He inhaled deeply and caught the familiar scent of his mentor and the steady odor of his old friend. The Judge and Slater.
Suddenly a white, hot pain jabbed his right eye and he felt the burning sensation in his kidney. He nearly gasped aloud. Oh shit! Now he knew why Warren had showed up. The overdose of lysergic was shutting down Jack's systems.
Not yet, he begged silently.
He shook his head and forced himself to focus. He needed a single swipe to topple his enemy, but he couldn't risk that Randolph's involuntary jerking would release the hair trigger of the gun and discharge the weapon. He nudged the knife closer to where the man stood, still shielding himself with Livvie's body.
Randolph crouched, dragging his captive down with him until they both squatted on the floor. "Get it," he ordered, shoving Olivia forward so that she could grasp the knife where it had landed mere inches from her feet.
Instinct shouted that this was the moment. Would Olivia know what to do? Jack caught her eye, gave her a silent message. Without considering the consequences, he leapt forward and caught Randolph under the chin. A sharp blow to the throat with an elbow toppled him.
Olivia flung herself flat on the floor while the gun discharged, loud as a cannon shot in the vast, vaulted room. The robe slid off her shoulders and fell to the ground. She lay on her stomach, knees curled up beneath her, arms straight out for balance. She stared at Jack over her arm, her face reflecting horror and shock.
That she witnessed him like this – carnal and primed for the kill – wounded him.
Jack's forearm pressed against Randolph's throat and he waited to hear the distinct crunch that signaled the crushing of the small bones of the neck. Her eyes wide with shock, Livvie stared as he tightened his strangle-hold on Howard Randolph.
Easing back, gazing into Olivia's stunned face, Jack wormed his way into her mind, and saw himself through her eyes. A wild brute, fierce, lustful, without reason or rationale. A creature driven by instincts and the basest desires. One which could kill without conscience or qualm.
The latest model of the Invictus soldier.
Jack remembered when Olivia had promised to love him no matter what. But how could she love a man like that? His heart thundered, the blood burned in his veins, and his muscles collapsed with fatigue. Loosening his grip on Howard Randolph, Jack rolled over onto his back.
The last thing he saw before his eyesight narrowed to a small, dark tunnel was the Judge's florid face hovering over him.
Slater slammed the suspect to the floor and jerked his hands behind him, kneeling hard with his right knee in the center of the man's back. He then tightened the cuffs in a vicious twist. The DLK suspect coughed and sputtered, his throat an angry red blotch.
Warren knelt over Jack, whose face and arms were clammy to the touch. His eyes rolled back in his head, and his body temperature had plummeted. Warren placed two fingers on the carotid artery and felt the pulse, erratic and faint.
From the corner of his eye, he assessed the situation inside the church. The Gant woman sprawled naked on the floor. The Sheriff grabbed the fallen robe, covered her, and gently led her to the row of hard wooden benches. Held her in his arms like she was crystal.
Warren checked Jack's eyes for mydriasis. His pupils were blown, a clear symptom of the overdose. He wasn't a doctor, but he'd seen enough men die that he knew Jack was in trouble. Any moment his internal organs would shut down one by one. The kidneys first, then the circulatory system, and finally cardiac arrest. The distant whine of the ambulance siren reached his ears and he estimated their ETA about five or six minutes.
Not soon enough.
"Bring the damn medeport," he yelled to Myron Higgins.
Higgins, who had hovered in the foyer, scurried over, opened the medical portage unit, and reached for the syringe and the first bottle of serum.
"Straight into the veins," the Judge instructed while Higgins filled the syringe and tapped the raised needle. "Use the neck."
Higgins injected the first vial into the vein at Jack's throat as the Judge prepared the second one. "We'll use the femoral artery for this one."
His assistant looked up in surprise. "Sir, that's a dangerous spot for the injection site."
"Hell, take a good look at him. He's no good to me if I can't bring him completely back. We don't want a goddamn vegetable. We don't have any choice."
Reaching into the medeport box, Higgins pulled out a length of rubber tubing which he wrapped around Jack's thigh, and quickly injected the second antidote. Temporary measure, Warren knew. If Jack didn't get a steady dose of specific drugs in a regimented order, he'd slip into a coma and no amount of miracle workers could bring him back. The third and final injection of this first series was administered into the vein of Jack's right arm.
Warren removed his jacket and tucked it under the unconscious man's head, sat back on his heels and waited. If the Judge was a praying man, he'd likely think of all sorts of fancy bargains to make with God. But sometimes life was a shitty little affair, so he reached for Jack's hand and clasped it firmly in his own.
Then he hunkered down and prayed a little anyway, though he'd given up the notion of God years ago. Couldn't hurt, he told himself, and if it helped… well, it was a small inconvenience. He waited for Jack to snap out of the systemic shutdown of his internal organs.
Warren was peripherally aware of the bustle around him. Two patrol cars arrived a few minutes later with several deputies and federal agents who raced around securing the scene and suspect. Slater took the Gant woman to a patrol car. Howard Randolph was shackled and locked in the back of another car.
The ambulance finally arrived and carted the patient off. By the time they reached the hospital, Jack had begun to recover his color, his breathing stabilized, and his blood pressure normalized. The Judge could tell, however, that the agent was still in a lot of pain, and he knew Jack would need continued medication for at least a week before the recovery journey would begin in earnest.
"Damn, Jack, I'm too old for a rescue mission," he grumbled, standing beside the bed where the agent lay in the emergency room.
Warren understood Jack's refusal to let the ER doctor do more than take blood pressure and pulse. When the doctor left to examine Olivia Gant, Warren administered an injection of fentanyl intravenously. He saw the curtain of pain begin to lift from Jack's eyes.
His agent was returning from the dead.
Olivia couldn't bear to look at him. Through the police custody of Randolph, finishing up at the abandoned church, and the emergency medical attention, she had studiously avoided Jack's eyes. He didn't blame her.
He'd lived with what he'd become – what he was further capable of becoming – for a lifetime. Even though he'd felt the gentle tug of what he'd once been pulling at him again, even though he knew she loved him, he couldn't expect her to accept the kind of life he lived.
The hospital released him quicker than they approved of, but Jack's own body would heal faster than anything civilian doctors could do.
"Are you heading back to Baltimore?" Jack asked the Judge.
"We both need to wrap it up as soon as we can." The Judge eyed him speculatively as if he expected an argument. "I'll be in on the interview with Howard Randolph."
Jack kept the surprise from registering. Warren had never been in on an UNSUB's arrest, never participated in an interrogation. Hell, there'd hardly ever been an interrogation anyway what with the suspects dead for the most part.
"You okay with that?" Warren asked.
Jack twitched a shoulder and immediately regretted it when a pain shot through his ribs. "Why not?"
"I'll meet you there," the Judge said and turned to go.
"One last question," Jack said. He met Warren's faded blue eyes with a steady gaze. "Have you always known about Olivia?"
The Judge hesitated, indecision flitting across his face. "You were always different, Jack. I suspected it was because of her, but I underestimated the, ah,… connection."
With that he and Higgins hustled out of the hospital.
Hadn't they all, Jack thought.
Considering what he'd been through, he didn't feel too bad. The drugs and his body's own healing powers, weak as they'd been recently, were now working their recuperative magic.
He overheard the emergency room physician suggest Olivia stay overnight for observation, but stubborn even in crisis, she squelched the idea quickly. "No, I'm leaving now, no overnight stay."
Jack heard her bewilderment and scented the underlying pain as he watched from the sidelines while the nurse cleaned cuts and scrapes and applied bandages to Olivia's slender body. Someone – probably the ever-vigilant Higgins – had provided clothing, which hung baggy on her small frame. Finally Slater led her down the hospital corridor and pulled a patrol car around to the emergency room pickup circle.
She hadn't once looked Jack's way. Sitting outside on a cement bench, she stared straight ahead, refusing to acknowledge him as he sat down beside her.
"Are you okay?" he asked.
After a long moment she lifted her shoulders in answer.
"Olivia," he began, "I'm sorry. Sorry you had to… to see that."
"No," she said, her voice eerily calm, "it's better that I know the truth. See it for myself." She looked down at her hands folded tightly in her lap. "I know you told me about the Change, but it's not the same. Not the same as seeing it firsthand."
"I'm sorry," he said again. "I'd undo it all if I could." He scooted closer and put his arm around her, ignoring the slice to his heart when she jerked involuntarily.
"We've got to find a way to get past this, Livvie." He turned her face gently toward him. He dipped his head to touch her forehead softly with his lips. "I love you."
Her eyes shimmered with emotion, but she didn't cry. "I don't know how I feel, Jack. I need some space… and time. I need to figure things out."
He told himself she was still in shock, that later she'd acknowledge her feelings for him. She loved him, of that he was certain. But he didn't know if that was enough for her.
He nodded and minutes later watched the taillights of the patrol car until their red glow dwindled to the same size of the nothingness in his own dark heart. Stuffing his hands in his pockets, he hunched his shoulders and crossed the parking lot to the Blazer a deputy had retrieved for him.
Inside, he folded his arms over the steering wheel and rested his head on them. Jack was terrified that nothing – even time – could undo what Olivia had witnessed in the abandoned church. He started the patrol car and accelerated onto the freeway, exorcising his frustration through reckless driving as he sped toward Bigler County.
Deputy Harris had arrived an hour before Jack and already processed Howard Randolph. The Judge waited in the bullpen. He explained that Jack had a seven-day grace period before he must start Dr. Davis' continuing drug regimen. After that, permanent damage to major organs would compromise his long-term health. Probably kill him.
That wasn't Jack's main concern right now. As primary on the DLK case, he had a responsibility he wouldn't shirk, and he had no intention of leaving the interrogation to the Judge or anyone else. Only Jack would know for certain which crimes belonged to the man they now had in custody. Legally they couldn't be positive that all seven murders had been committed by Randolph until they'd sifted through endless tons of forensic evidence, necessary proof for a conviction. Seven counts of murder with special circumstances.
Jack knew in his gut, knew with his extra senses, that Randolph was his man, and eagerly prepared himself to confront his long-time nemesis.
In the interrogation room Jack bit back a wince from the pain in his right kidney that fentanyl. The Judge leaned his heavy bulk against the wall. Slater and the ADA watched from the viewing room.
Howard Randolph sat opposite Jack as he slapped the grainy photos one picture at a time onto the interview table in front of him. Randolph's sneer grew with each photo.
"Laura Jean Peterson." Slap.
"Henry Walker." Another slap of slick cardstock on wood.
"Angela Buckley." Slap.
"Susan Evanston." Randolph shifted and his eyes wandered with curiosity to the Judge behind him. "Pay attention, you slime ball," Jack ground out.
Randolph swung his gaze back to Jack. A chilling smile curled his lips.
"Carl Bender." The sharp smack of Jack's palm on the table resounded through the room like a firecracker.
"Keisha Johnson." Jack tapped his finger against the picture. "Remember her, Howard? Course you do. She's the one you saw from time to time in Dr. Gant's office. She's the one you wanted to watch having sex with Ted Burrows."
Randolph's voice dripped with superiority. "You have nothing on me, and even if you did, you couldn't possibly fathom what happened with these… " His hand swept over the array of photos. "… offerings." He laughed softly. "Your precious Olivia understands. She was willing to be the greatest sacrifice of all. She wanted it."
Jack catapulted across the table, his chair slamming to the floor with a resounding crack. He grabbed the orange fabric of Randolph's inmate jumpsuit and jerked him to a standing position. "You sick son of a bitch," he growled, breathing heavily into the prisoner's face. "I should've killed you back there in the church."
Recovering quickly, Randolph stretched his neck and eased out of Jack's grasp. "Yes," he smirked, "but you didn't, and even if you manage to prosecute me successfully on one or two of those charges, I'll very much enjoy my reminiscences. They bring me such pleasure."
Jack shoved him back in his chair. His hands itched to throttle Randolph, to unleash the beast and rip this monster to pieces. But he glared instead, barely holding his fury in check.
"You had your chance to kill me," Randolph taunted. "I wonder why you didn't?"
His eyes glinted with amusement. A smile played at the edges of his mouth. "Did you decide that the role of Roger was too dark even for your black soul? Too bad you intervened, Jack. I had a special debitum naturae reserved for Olivia."
Unexpectedly, Slater entered the room and placed a hand on Jack's arm. He shrugged it off.
Slater gave the Judge a knowing look. "Judge Linders, I know you're going to respect the fact that this is my station house, and for the moment at least, my prisoner."
After a long, steady look, the Judge left. Slater took Jack's place in the chair opposite Randolph while Jack turned his back to them, breathing deeply to gain control.
With his cuffed fists, Randolph smoothed back the hair that had fallen over his forehead. After a moment, he held his hands. "Remove these and I'll tell you about them."
Jack turned back, wondering what game Randolph played now.
Randolph gestured with his head to the grisly display of photographs on the table. "Wouldn't you like to know the how? The where? The when? All the gory little details that Jack didn't garner from the crime scenes? The details to make your case? Wouldn't you like to know if that's all there is?"
"You sick bastard," Slater said. "No one's going to take those cuffs off."
The request had fostered an idea in Jack's mind and he stepped forward, nodded toward the door and stepped outside ahead of Slater. "Why not uncuff him?" he suggested. "Let's give him a chance to explain."
"Has he lawyered up yet?" Slater asked.
Jack shook his head. "He doesn't want a lawyer," he snorted. "He wants an audience. No decent attorney would let him run his mouth like that."
He drew in a deep breath and waited until the Judge and Waylon Harris disappeared around the corner. "Randolph is evil. He doesn't want to ease the pain of the victims' families." He glanced meaningfully at Slater to gauge his reaction.
Understanding crossed his old friend's face. "All kinds of dangerous things happen when a suspect's cuffs are taken off." He eyed Jack thoughtfully.
"Things like attempted escape," Jack agreed. "Attack on a police officer. The stress of interrogation often takes its toll on someone."
"Stroke or heart attack?"
Jack returned the stare. "What do you propose?"
His friend bent his head and nodded as though he were coming to a personal conclusion, and Jack knew what it would cost a man like Slater.
He laid his hand on Jack’s shoulder and spoke quietly in his ear. "I’m going to take a break now," he explained carefully. "Barrington’s on his way. You’ve got maybe fifteen, twenty minutes before the D. A. arrives and makes sure Randolph gets his public defender."
Jack kept his gaze steady and voiced with his eyes the unspoken message. Fifteen minutes then. Whatever Jack did would be covered up just like when he'd killed Olivia's stepfather seventeen years ago.
But at what personal cost?
There were a hundred ways to kill someone and make it look like something else, and Jack was an expert at every single one. He told himself that if Randolph expressed a single iota of remorse, guilt, or contrition, he wouldn't do it. He'd let him serve out multiple life sentences in a cage.
Imprisoned, but alive.
He knew it was an empty bargain. Psychopaths were incapable of such emotions.
After a few minutes, Jack returned to the interrogation room. He turned his back to the prisoner, reached up to switch off the video recording camera in the corner at the juncture of the wall and the ceiling, and removed the plastic handcuffs. When he turned back to Randolph, Jack saw pure terror on the man’s face.
He’d give Randolph one more chance. He sat down opposite the prisoner. One more chance, you fucking monster, he thought, one more chance at redemption. He fought through the euphoria of the fentanyl and forced himself to step into Howard Randolph's mind one last time.
A ghastly montage raced through his head like the jerky movement of a silent film. The sexual thrill Randolph experienced even in the face of his death sickened Jack. Blood and death, gore and violence. Pain beyond imagination, exultation and sheer primal pleasure in the suffering of another human being.
Jack knew what he had to do.
He stared impassively at the Dead Language Killer, remembered the years of suffering he'd caused, the fear and pain of his victims. He read the lust in Randolph by the slackness of his mouth and the glitter in his eyes and tried to conjure up the beast inside himself.
No regret at all.
Randolph sat calmly, a pleasant expression on his face, and clearly had no idea what Jack intended for him. "That bully posturing won't work on me," Randolph said as he rubbed his wrists theatrically. "But I'd love to tell you all about my exploits."
Seven minutes later the Judge's words reverberated in Jack's head as if he were actually in the room. Finish the mission, Jack, one last detail to take care of. Do whatever you have to.
Revulsion swept over him. Disgust at himself, at the Judge, at the whole self-righteous organization that'd sucked the humanity out of him.
"Go to hell, Warren," he spat and walked out of the interview room.
When they were childhood friends, Olivia had always known when Jack was lying to her. Right now his right eye jerked in a telltale movement so miniscule that if she hadn't been looking for it and straight at him, she would've missed it. His face was composed, his hands were steady, and his voice was calm.
But Jack was lying to her.
She had agreed to try, no conditions attached. They loved each other, and she believed against rational thought that they belonged to each other, always had. She couldn't envision a deeply satisfying life without Jack.
But still, she was afraid of the future. And Jack was lying to her.
They stood in her kitchen. She leaned against the counter by the sink and he sat on a bar stool, his hands dangling between his knees. He looked weary and defeated and she wanted more than her next breath to go to him. Hold onto him.
Instead, she rooted her feet to the floor.
She freely admitted that she didn't know quite how her life could go on without him in it. But she wasn't blind. Jack had to care more about her than his Invictus family, and right now she was afraid that he'd done something terribly wrong.
"A heart attack?" She caught her bottom lip between her teeth and looked again for the minute jerking of his right eye. Gone now. "I don't understand. Howard was so fit, so healthy."
A shiver ran through her, a premonition of doom. Why are you lying to me?
She could take the job, she thought. She could adjust to it, but not to the lies.
Jack shrugged. "Stranger things have happened. The local police are handling the details with the medical examiner."
"Did Howard confess?"
"Oh yeah, he confessed all right." Jack slid off the stool and stood close to her, his arms braced on either side of the counter, pinning her in. "He confessed to everything." He nuzzled her neck, sending a different kind of shiver running through her.
"My student? Keisha, too?'
Jack nodded and tucked a lock of hair behind her ear, his fingers trailing across her cheek.
What wasn't he telling her?
"Carl and Henry and Susan?" She spoke their names respectfully as if the victims had become personal friends even though she'd never known them.
"All of them," he confirmed. The heat of Jack's body brushed against hers, inviting her to bury herself in the security of it.
She fixed upon his chin, arms wrapped around her body, afraid to let go. "Howard confessed and then just keeled over from a heart attack?"
He lifted his hands, palms upward in a what-else gesture.
"You're lying to me," she said flatly, scooting under his arm. "You're lying to me and I don't know why." She hurried down the hall and started up the staircase to the master bedroom.
Jack caught up with her at the door to the bathroom, wrapped his arms around her waist from behind, and swung her around to face him. "What do you want me to say, Olivia? Tell me, and I'll say the words. Randolph's dead. The Dead Language Killer's violent rampage is finished. Isn't that all that matters?"
Uneasiness hovered at the edges of her mind. "When I saw you back there in the church, that look on your face I… " She shook her head. "I'll never forget it, Jack. You were a stranger, someone I've never known."
"I told you what happens when I go through the transformation, how the drugs enhance the Change."
"But that… that was something different. I know I said I could live with it, but I don't know if I can live with the secrets."
"You won't have to," he said and pulled her close.
His lips whispered against her temple and, oh God, a thrill of desire shot through her. He had such power over her. It frightened her at the same time it rippled hot waves of pleasure through her blood.
"What do you mean?" Her words came out unsure and breathless.
"I don't want to keep secrets from you." He slipped his clever hands beneath the waistband of her shorts.
"But – "
He slid his hands over her hips and lifted her up, pressing her into his groin. She couldn't think clearly. Her heart thundered in her chest, the pull of need for him stronger than anything she'd ever known. Flames of fire danced along her nerves. God, how had she lived without this all those years?
She pulled back, held his face in her hands. "You want me to trust you."
He covered her hands and rubbed one thumb over her lips. His voice was kind and gentle. "Yes, Squirt. You have to trust me."
"I do," she answered, breathing into his mouth. She trusted him, believed in him, she thought. What else mattered?
She opened her lips and probed his mouth with her tongue in urgent, desperate jabs. His big hand cupped her breast and teased the nipple through her thin cotton top while his fingers tangled in her hair.
"I want you so much," she whispered beneath his lips. "I've waited so long."
Jack moved his hands over her gently at first and then with increasing ardor. He groaned a deep growl of desperation. "God, Livvie, I promised myself I'd go slowly, be considerate, prove I could control my lust for you."
His fingers tugged at her slacks, slipping them over her hips. She ripped the buttons from his shirt and trailed her fingers over his chest, down his hips and thighs to take him in her hand.
"But I can't," he moaned. "When you… hell, I lose all control around you."
And that was perfect, she thought, because this wasn't the time for tenderness.
Jack was sure Olivia didn't trust him completely. Why should she? He had a history of abandoning her and never explaining why. Sorry was a sorry word, he thought. It didn't nearly describe the ripping of his heart when he realized how he'd hurt her.
She slept with her back to him, her small, perfect body curved into his. He thought how odd it was that his long, broad body accommodated her slender form so perfectly. Her head lay within the circle of his arm as he stroked the dark strands of hair that tangled like black silk across the pillow. The smooth length of her back and the gentle curve of her hip delighted him as his fingers traced the outline of her body.
Morning's light had just peeked through the bedroom window slats when she stretched drowsily and turned in his arms. She wrapped her arms around his waist and pressed her face into his chest.
"You've got to stop watching me while I sleep," she complained grumpily.
"Make me." He trailed his fingers down the sleek line of thigh and cupped his hands over her flawless ass.
"I'll make you all ri – " She laughed softly. "Oh ho, what's this?" she joked, encircling him with her slim, cool fingers.
He took her mouth and felt that primitive urge to mate. Mine, he thought, she's always been mine. No matter who she'd been with she never belonged to anyone else. Desire heated his blood, lust tightened his muscles, and love swamped his heart.
"What did I ever do to deserve you," he muttered at her ear, his tongue teasing the soft flesh of her jaw.
"Absolutely nothing." She smiled dreamily and, in an unexpected movement, flipped over until she was straddling him. "But I'm going to extact recompense right now."
Palms flat on his chest, she dipped her head and took his mouth in a possessive plundering. Her long hair enveloped him, a dark curtain surrounding them, while her busy hands caressed his flanks. "You have the most gorgeous body," she murmured. "So strong and elegant, so powerful."
"So scarred," he continued, "so battered, so worn."
"Hmmm, so… mine." She continued her assault on him, batting his hands away whenever he tried to touch her, caress her. "My rules, this time."
She slid down his aroused body, kissing her way across his chest, circling his nipples with her tongue, trailing along his still bruised ribs. "Ah, gently, sweetheart," he groaned, half in pain, half in passion.
"Hmm, sorry." She glanced up at him, those brilliant eyes dark as rich green velvet.
She pushed over his midsection, farther down his body, her breasts brushing sweetly against his groin. And then she took him in her mouth, sweet mother of God.
He tried to pull back. "No, Livvie, don't… " He ended on a moan and his control lasted half a minute as he pulled her roughly up, flipped her over, and lay panting between her legs. "Much of my strength has diminished, love, but not my ability to tame you."
He touched her between her thighs, seeking the wet, sweet core of her and found her slick and hot. He clamped down on his need and stroked her until he felt the first climax lift her over the edge and shatter her against his hand.
"Oh God." She dug her fingers into his hair and hung on tightly while he worked his fingers inside her.
"Look at me," he muttered. "Open your eyes and look at me, damn it. I want to watch you."
Those amazing emerald eyes fluttered open, glazed over blindly, but clung to his as she shuddered and slowly relaxed.
"Again," he whispered. "And again." He plunged into her hard and furious at first, but when he felt his imminent release, switched to slow, agonizing strokes that tested his will to its zenith. He watched as her mouth opened, her eyes fluttered, her breath panted in gentle puffs of air. He felt her inner muscles clamp furiously around him and climaxed a moment after her in a furious explosion of pleasure, pain, and love.
"God, I love you," he whispered as he collapsed on her, "love you to the ends of the earth."
Their bodies were slick with sweat, their hearts thundering like a herd of wild horses, their breathing an exercise in agony. Afraid of crushing her small body, he rolled off and gathered her close against him.
They slept the deeply satisfied sleep of lovers long familiar with one another's needs and desires.
Jack woke hours later to the odor of coffee and bacon wafting up the stairs from the kitchen. He smiled. Olivia, being unusually domestic, he supposed. Showering quickly, he dressed in jeans and a tee shirt.
As he shaved using one of Livvie's pink disposable razors, he caught his reflection in the bathroom mirror. He looked lighter, he thought, less ragged, more relaxed. He frowned, knowing the hardest part was still ahead of him.
How to explain to Olivia what he'd done? How he'd planned for this day? What he had yet to do? Would she understand?
He sighed heavily and padded on bare feet down the stairs to the kitchen.
Baltimore, Maryland, Invictus Headquarters, Six Months Later
Already alerted by Higgins, the Judge rose to meet Jackson Holt as he strode through the office door in his usual brash manner. The agent looked better than he had in a long time, but a kind of raw edginess showed in the way he jerked his head at the director and threw his long body into the leather guest chair.
Warren extended his hand. "Excellent work, Jack."
Jack ignored the proffered hand.
Warren coughed to cover the awkward moment. "You look well," he said. "Fully recovered?" He didn't need to ask. He'd gotten daily updates on Jack's health from Dr. Davis, who supervised the fragile and dangerous recovery in a specialized wing at Bethesda Naval Hospital.
Jack nodded briefly, steepled his fingers, and waited until Warren had seated. Shuffling papers across the desk, the Judge covertly sneaked looks at his young protégé. He'd never seen the agent look so calm, yet agitated at the same time.
Shit, something serious was in the wind.
"I haven't received your DLK report yet," he mentioned, keeping his voice casual. "Will I have that soon?"
Jack merely continued to stare at a spot directly over the Judge's right shoulder, out the window at the sprawling expanse of Baltimore and the Chesapeake Bay. Warren shifted uneasily in his chair, following the direction of Jack's eyes.
He reached into his bottom drawer to remove a cigar from the lacquered box. A gift from the president of Columbia on Warren's last visit there. He started to offer one to Jack, but remembered he'd given them up. What was it he'd said months ago when he began the assignment?
Something about being a warrior.
Jack didn't look much like a warrior now. The battle scars were there, sure, but there was quietude beneath the tanned flesh, composure below the furrowed brow, satisfaction around the mouth. Not at all the Jackson Holt the Judge was accustomed to interviewing upon return from a complicated mission.
His concern and curiosity were now thoroughly piqued. "Would you prefer to give an oral report?" he asked.
"No, I think not, Warren. You'll get the written summary. Tomorrow, maybe later." Jack reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a legal-sized envelope. "But first… "
Tossing it on the Judge's desk, Jack rose and meandered to the window, his hands stuffed in his pants pocket, his back towards the room.
"What the hell…?" Warren sliced open the envelope and unfolded the single sheet of paper. He read the paragraph three times before commenting.
"A letter of resignation? After all these years with the Organization, you think you can just walk in here and resign?"
Warren's blood pressure rose in tandem with his anger. "What the hell kind of a fool do you think I am?"
The Judge hadn't seen this coming. He'd expected a request for an undefined leave of absence, a recruiting assignment, hell, even temporary non-field assignments. But not this complete severance.
"We're the only family you've ever had, Jack," Warren sneered. "What the fuck you think you're gonna do instead of Invictus?"
Jack turned to face the man who'd been a father-figure to him for nearly twenty years, the person who'd become his whole family from the age of seventeen when he'd been ripped from his foster family and Slater. From Livvie.
He felt the sick bile of betrayal, both given and received, burn his throat. The Judge was right in more ways than he knew. Jack vacillated between remorse and fury. Pissed that he showed any reaction, he unclenched his fists.
Warren wouldn't miss the signs.
Sure enough he didn't, and the knowledge seemed to curb the director's temper. "You know as well as I do that there's no going back from where you've been," he reasoned.
With considerable effort, Jack reined in his emotions. He had to believe otherwise if he intended to have any kind of future with Livvie. "You think so? I've served Invictus nearly twenty years and – "
"You're a valuable commodity, Jack, and we own you," Warren snapped. He took a calming breath and continued, "And besides that, it's nigh impossible to go back to the real world." He stepped forward tentatively. "Come on, Jack, you know that."
A commodity, Jack thought, all these years he'd been a product, and he would continue to be bought and sold until his usefulness ended.
The Judge stood close to Jack near the window. "Jack, men like us… we're not good with civilians." He sniffed the cigar and put it in his jacket pocket. "We're hell on families. We're not made to be husbands and fathers. You said it yourself. We're born to be the warriors in this sorry-assed world."
Suddenly weary of the battle, Jack decided he wouldn't explain further. The letter said it all. He wasn't returning to Invictus. The confrontations with Howard Randolph and Ted Burrows had been the death knell to his work.
From the moment that Olivia had stared wide-eyed and terrified into his eyes, he knew he'd never be able to return to the messy work of the Organization, no matter how noble or necessary the Judge made the cause seem. He couldn't stand the agony of living with himself if he did. The anguish of never having Livvie in his life.
That price was too high and he damn well wasn't paying
He smiled when he felt like grinning and caught himself
"What the fuck are you smiling for?" Spittle gathered at the corners of the Judge's mouth, his breath matched his mood, stinking and foul, and his eyes were unfeeling pits.
Jack gazed at Warren, saw the rage and exhaustion running through every line and crease of the map drawn there. The dark cast to the eyes, the knowledge not only of what he'd done himself, but what he'd ordered his agents to do. And the horrible necessity that required that kind of work. Those kinds of decisions.
Jack knew one day he'd look into a mirror in some god-awful third-world country and see those same signs etched on his own face. If he didn't quit right now. While he had the chance.
That's why he smiled when he felt like grinning. Hell, felt like laughing out loud. But of course, he wasn't about to tell the Judge that.
The director stood within inches of Jack's face, his florid complexion threatening apoplexy. He jabbed a thick forefinger at Jack's chest, punctuating each word. "We own you, Jack. Don't. You. Forget. That."
Warren barely reached his shoulder and as Jack looked down at him, he wondered how he'd ever respected this puppet of a man who stood before him, issuing his puny threats. Well, maybe not so puny. The Director of Invictus could make good on many of his threats.
But he didn't know about Jack's ace in the hole.
"There's a Swiss bank account," he began. "Unnumbered, of course."
A cloud of serenity floated over him as he spoke the words. "But that's not important, Warren. What you need to know… " In imitation he punched a finger into Warren's shoulder. "is what's in the safety deposit box associated with the account."
Understanding crawled slowly across the Judge's face, but instead of speaking, he clasped his right hand over his chest and sank into his chair. His movements were so dramatic that Jack nearly laughed aloud until he realized the man was truly shocked, his face ashen, his lips slack, his eyes vacant.
Jack pressed two fingers to Warren's carotid artery. A fine steady pumping drummed gently beneath his fingers. He felt surprisingly relieved the old man hadn't croaked. He pushed the button to summon Higgins.
Maybe Jack was beginning to heal after all.
Warren looked up at him, twisted his lips. "You won't make it," he wheezed. "In a month, a year, you'll come crawling back."
Jack bent close to the Judge's ear. "Remember how I said not to fuck with me, Warren?"
The Judge shrugged and managed a weak smile. "Sorry, Jack, but I'm afraid that happened a long time ago."
Jack straightened up. "It'll work." He pushed past the doubt. "I can make it work."
Higgins rushed in, took in the situation, and offered the Judge pills and water. His color returned after a few moments. "Get out," he snarled to Higgins.
"You're a goddamn fool if you think it's that simple," he told Jack after Higgins left.
"The documents make it that simple. The meticulous accounting of every single one of my missions. Names, dates, places, all chronicled in neat little notebooks." Jack jerked his head angrily. "Extremely damning evidence. I think you'll leave us alone."
"Documentation means jack," Warren snorted. "You think that'll protect you if I want to go after you?"
Jack balled his fists and jammed them in his pockets, wanting more than anything to smash something until his hands were bloody stumps.
"This is really about that broad, isn't it," Warren jeered. "You think that's gonna last? You think she won't wake up every morning and see the blood on your hands? Be disgusted by you?"
With Warren's taunts ringing in his ears, Jack turned on his heel and marched out the door of the Invictus office, down the long flight of stairs to the lobby, and out into the brisk Maryland spring. Hailing a taxi, he directed the cabbie south on I-95 toward Washington, D.C.
He slouched in the back of the cab, thinking furiously all the way to Washington. Damn it all! Damn the whole Invictus Organization! The Judge was wrong.
Olivia waited for him at the Lincoln Memorial, standing at the base of the statue, reading for the tenth time the immortal words carved there. She hadn't wanted to wait in Baltimore where Invictus had its home. She much preferred this place with all its history, the bustling, but elegant old city with stirring monuments and memorials. Californians spoke of antiquities in terms of decades, but this place reached back into the centuries. She wanted to savor it before she returned home.
She heard Jack before she saw him. Slow in turning to greet him because she was afraid. What had he told the director? Was his contract with Invictus like membership in a gang? What had Diego Vargas said about gangs? Blood in, blood out? But hadn't Jack sacrificed enough blood, both his and others?
Would Invictus let him go? Or would they hunt them for the rest of their lives? Jack knew the kinds of men who'd be sent to chase them. Expert killers, relentless in their pursuit. Now Olivia knew them too.
That night in the abandoned church, she'd seen the kind of man Invictus sent. That night Jack had turned into something that'd shaken her very being.
The Jack she'd known the last six months – the Jack she'd come to love all over again – that Jack was the man she was willing to sacrifice everything for. She'd told him she would follow him wherever he went, whatever he did, even though it scared her to death.
"Like that 'whither thou goest' thing?" he'd asked.
"Exactly," she'd answered.
But, God, she now prayed, please let him go because she didn't really know if she could carry out her promise. If she could live like that.
"Olivia." His word was a mere whisper on the frosty air of Washington, D.C.
She couldn't hear the answer she sought in the tone of his voice. She'd never asked him directly what had happened with Howard Randolph in that interrogation room, but she realized now she'd have to know to move on.
She couldn't help it. She got to the point right away. "Before you say anything, I have to know about Howard Randolph. Did you… did you hurry that along?"
"You really want to know?"
"No… yes. I have to know."
"Randolph's death is not on my hands." A small vein tightened at his temple and she realized how much the case has tormented him. How much he'd lost over the years with Invictus.
"I… did he suffer?"
"No," he whispered, "He didn't. I made sure of that. Even if he deserved it."
"I can't bear to think of that. I can't be with you like that."
"Randolph's been gone for six months. He has nothing to do with us anymore. He probably got much less than he deserved, but he's gone."
Not the definite answer she'd wanted, but good enough, she thought. "Did the Judge release you from your contract?" The final break, she had to know he'd severed all connections with Invictus.
Jack remained silent, his expression blank. But she read the doubt in his eyes and her heart crashed like a bird with a wounded feather as she turned away.
The words stumbled around Jack's mind like a foreign language. He couldn't speak. What could he say, he thought? What would he do with a woman like Olivia anyway? He knew the kind of man he was. A proficient killing machine, relentless in pursuit of murderers and assorted madmen. And Olivia knew what he was, what'd he'd been. She'd seen the monster he'd become.
He touched her shoulder and she whirled around, a pretty pink color heightening her high cheek bones. "They're not going to let you go, are they?" she whispered, tears in her voice.
Her hands tightened into fists as if she'd pound him even while those wet brilliant eyes flooded. He reached for her again, but she batted his hand away. "Livvie," he began.
"Damn you, Jack." She was crying openly now. "Damn you all to hell."
She stormed off before he could speak again, but turned back at the bottom of the steps and nodded, coming to a serious understanding. Then she walked steadfastly away from him toward the Reflecting Pool, her figure rigid in the light breeze.
"Olivia," he whispered as her figure receded, a mere puff of air in the cold, clear spring of Washington, D.C. Shock froze him to the spot for a brief moment.
And the wind or fate or sweet kismet caught the word. She turned around and saw his face. He grinned as he strode toward her. At once her expression was bright and clear, the pretty, carefree face of the girl he'd loved for so long.
Olivia raced toward him, leapt into his arms as he swung her around. "Damn you, Jack Holt, you frightened me," she laughed on a sob. "I was so afraid."
"I know that I can't have you and a normal life along with the job," he said matter-of-factly. "I choose you." He buried his face into her neck, inhaling the sweet scent of her. "Squirt," he murmured.
Their kiss was tender and sweet beyond any imagining. As the kiss deepened, as passion rose like a powerful magnet between them, she whispered huskily into his ear.
"I want you now. Close. Inside me so tight you'll never leave again."
He laughed with the light-hearted gift of a lover who'd found his lost mate. "Now that sounds like a plan."
Jo Lewis-Robertson, a former English teacher, makes her home in northern California, with her seven children and sixteen grandchildren whose lives make the world a beautiful place.