Kill for Me
The third book in the Daniel Vartanian series, 2009
To Martin, for always believing in me even when I don’t. I love you.
To Sarah, for achieving your dreams despite all the obstacles. You inspire me. Life, Prosperity, Health.
Danny Agan for answering all my questions about police procedure.
Shannon Aviles for all her support and wonderful ideas.
Doug Byron for his help in DNA procedure.
Kay Conterato for going above and beyond the call of duty when she researched radio ID badges while hospitalized!
Marc Conterato for all of his medical expertise-my drugged, shot, stabbed, and poisoned characters thank you, too.
Myke Landers for sharing his experience as a survivor of a POW camp in Vietnam. I was honored and forever changed. Thank you.
Angela Maples for her guidance in the tracking of pharmaceuticals.
Shirley McCarroll, Tommy Gianides, Suzanne Verikios, and Jan Sarver for all their priceless information on Greek families and customs.
Frank Ouellette for answering my questions on the Chattahoochee River.
Nate VanNess for his help on tracking ISPs.
Terri Bolyard, Kay Conterato, and Sonie Lasker for helping me get unstuck. You all are awesome.
Karen Kosztolnyik, Vicki Mellor, and Robin Rue for all you do to make my dreams come true.
As always, all mistakes are my own.
Port Union, South Carolina, August, six months earlier
Monica Cassidy felt a flutter in her stomach. Today would be the day. She’d waited for sixteen long years, but today the wait would be over. Today she’d be a woman. Finally. And wasn’t it about time?
She realized she was twisting her fingers together and forced herself to stop. Calm down, Monica. There’s nothing to be nervous about. This is, like, natural. And all her friends had done it. Some of them a lot more than once.
Today, it’s my turn.
Monica sat on the hotel bed and brushed the dirt off the keycard, which had been hidden exactly where Jason said it would be. She shivered, her lips curving in a small smile. She’d met him in a chat room and they’d clicked right way. She’d meet him in person soon. In the flesh. He’d teach her things. He’d promised. He was a college guy, so he’d be a lot better at it than the gross boys that tried to cop a feel every time there was a crush in the hallway between classes.
Finally she’d be treated like an adult. Not like her mom did. Monica rolled her eyes. She’d be a forty-year-old virgin if her mother had her way. Good thing I’m smarter.
She grinned to herself, thinking of all the steps she’d taken to cover her tracks that morning. No one friend knew where she was, so they couldn’t blab if they wanted to. She’d be back home, well and truly fucked, before her mother made it home from work.
How was your day, honey? Mom would ask. Same old, same old, Monica would answer. And as soon as she was able, she’d come back. Because she was sixteen years old for God’s sake and nobody was going to tell her what to do ever again. Bells trilled and Monica dug furiously in her purse for her cell. She drew a breath. It was him.
RU there? she read.
Her thumbs were actually trembling. W8ing 4 U. WAU. “I’m waiting for you. Where are you?” she murmured as she entered her reply.
POS. PITA. SYS. ILY, he answered. His parents were watching him over his shoulder, she thought, rolling her eyes again. His folks were as big a pain in the ass as hers. But he’d see her soon. She smiled. He loves me. This would be so worth it.
ILY2, she typed and snapped her phone shut. It was an old phone. It didn’t even have a camera. She was the only one in her crowd without a damn camera on her phone. Her mom had one. But did Monica? No. Mom was such a control freak. You’ll get a phone when you bring up your grades. Monica sneered. If you only knew where I am. You’d shut up. She stood up, suddenly restless. “Treat me like a fucking kid,” she muttered, taking her purse to the dresser and staring in the mirror. She looked fine, every hair in place. She looked pretty, even. She wanted to be pretty for him.
No, she wanted to be hot for him. Monica rummaged in her purse, pulling out the condoms she’d pilfered from her mother’s ancient, never-used supply. But they hadn’t hit their ex-date, yet, so they’d still be good. She looked at her watch.
Where was he? She was going to be late getting home if he didn’t get here soon.
The door creaked open and she turned, the feline smile she’d practiced firmly in place. “Hello there.” Then she froze. “You’re not Jason.”
It was a cop and he was shaking his head. “No, I’m not. Are you Monica?”
Monica lifted her chin, her heart pounding. “What’s it to you?”
“You don’t know how lucky you are. I’m Deputy Mansfield. We’ve been tracking your ‘boyfriend’ Jason for weeks. Your ‘boyfriend’ is really a fifty-nine-year-old pervert.”
Monica shook her head. “No way. I don’t believe you.” She rushed for the door. “Jason! Run, it’s a trap! They’re cops!”
He caught her shoulder. “We arrested him already.”
Monica shook her head again, slower this time. “But he just IM’d me.”
“That was me using his phone. I wanted to be sure you were in here and that you were unhurt.” His face gentled. “Monica, you really are a lucky girl. So many predators out there are trolling for girls just like you, pretending to be boys your age.”
“He said he was nineteen. A college boy.”
The deputy shrugged. “He lied. Come on, get your things. I’ll take you home.”
She closed her eyes. She’d seen stories like this on TV and every time her mom would wag her finger. See? she’d say. Perverts out there everywhere. Monica sighed. This can’t be happening to me. “My mom is going to kill me.”
“Better your mom than that perv,” he said evenly. “He’s killed before.”
Monica felt the blood drain from her face. “He has?”
“At least twice. Come on. Moms never really kill you.”
“Shows what you know,” she muttered. She grabbed her purse, furiously. I am so dead. She’d thought her mother was crazy protective before. She’ll lock me up and throw away the key. “Oh God,” she moaned. “I can’t believe this is happening.”
She followed the deputy to an unmarked car. She could see the light on the dash when he opened the passenger door. “Get in and buckle up,” he said.
Grimly she obeyed. “You can just take me back to the bus station,” she said. “You don’t have to tell my mom.”
He just gave her an amused look before slamming her door shut. He got behind the wheel and reached behind the seat, grabbing a bottle of water. “Here. Try to relax. What’s the worst your mom can do?”
“Kill me,” Monica muttered, twisting the top off the bottle. She drank a third of it in great gulps. She hadn’t realized she was so thirsty. Her stomach growled. And hungry. “Can you stop at MickeyD’s at the exit? I haven’t eaten today. I have my own money.”
“Sure.” He started the car and pulled onto the stretch of highway that went back to the interstate. In a few minutes he’d covered what had taken her an hour to walk that morning after the last ride she’d hitched let her off at a gas station at the exit.
Monica frowned when the world went spinning. “Whoa. I must be hungrier than I thought. There’s a…” She watched the golden arches disappear behind them as he got back on the interstate. “I need to eat.”
“You’ll eat later,” he said coldly. “For now, just shut up.”
Monica stared at him. “Stop. Let me out.”
He laughed. “I’ll stop when I get to where you’re going.”
Monica tried to grab the door handle, but her hand didn’t move. Her body didn’t move. She couldn’t move.
“You can’t move,” he said. “Don’t worry. The drug’s only temporary.”
She couldn’t see him anymore. She’d closed her eyes and now couldn’t open them. Oh God. Oh God. What’s happening? She tried to scream, but couldn’t. Mom.
“Hey, it’s me,” he said. He’d made a call on his phone. “I have her.” He laughed softly. “Oh, she’s very pretty. And she just might be a virgin like she claimed all along. I’m bringing her in. Have my money ready. Cash, like always.”
She heard a sound, a terrified keening, and knew it came from her own throat.
“You shoulda listened to your mama,” he said mockingly. “Now you’re mine.”
Ridgefield House, Georgia, Friday, February 2, 1:30 p.m.
The ringing of Bobby’s cell phone brought an abrupt halt to their chess game.
Charles paused, his forefinger hovering over his queen. “Do you need to get that?”
Bobby checked the caller ID and frowned. It was Rocky, calling from her private phone. “Yes, I do. Excuse me, please.”
Charles gestured his assent. “By all means. Should I leave the room?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Bobby said, then into the phone asked, “Why are you calling?”
“Because Granville called me,” Rocky said tensely, road noise in the background. She was in her car. “ Mansfield ’s with him at the river place. Mansfield got a text from Granville saying Daniel Vartanian knew about the product, that he’s coming with the state police. Granville says he didn’t send the message. I don’t think he’s lying.”
Bobby said nothing. This was far worse an outcome than expected.
After a moment of silence, Rocky hesitantly added, “Vartanian wouldn’t have warned them. He would have just shown up with a SWAT team. I… I think we were too late.”
“We were too late?” Bobby asked scathingly and there was silence.
“All right,” Rocky said quietly. “I was too late. But it’s done now. We have to assume the river place has been compromised.”
“Fuck,” Bobby muttered, then winced when Charles lifted his brows admonishingly. “Clear out by the river, not the road. The last thing you want is to meet the cops coming in as you’re driving out. Call Jersey. He’s moved shipments for me before.”
“Granville called him and he’s on his way. Trouble is, we can only fit six in the boat.”
Bobby scowled. “ Jersey ’s boat is big enough to fit twelve in the cargo hold, easily.”
“That boat’s elsewhere. This is the only vehicle he had available.”
Dammit. Bobby glanced at Charles, who listened avidly. “Eliminate what you can’t carry. Make sure you leave nothing behind. Understand? Nothing can remain. Use the river if you don’t have time to make other arrangements. There are some sandbags behind the generator. Bring them here. I’ll meet you at the dock.”
“Will do. I’m on my way down there to make sure those two don’t fuck it up.”
“Good. And watch Granville. He’s…” Bobby glanced at Charles again, saw he now appeared amused. “He’s not stable.”
“I know. One more thing. I hear Daniel Vartanian went to the bank today.”
This was far better news. “And? What did you hear that he came out with?”
“Nothing. The safe-deposit box was empty.”
Of course it was. Because I emptied it myself years ago. “That’s interesting. We’ll discuss it later. Now move. Call me when the job is done.” Bobby hung up and met Charles’s curious gaze. “You know, you could have told me Toby Granville was unraveling before I took him on as a business partner. Freaking crazy SOB.”
Charles’s mouth curled up in a self-satisfied smile. “And miss all the fun? I don’t think so. How is your new assistant working out?”
“Smart. Still gets a little green around the gills when she has to process orders, but never lets the men see it. And it’s never stopped her from getting the job done.”
“Excellent. Glad to hear it.” He tilted his head. “So is everything else all right?”
Bobby sat back, brows lifted. “Your business is fine. Nothing else is your business.”
“As long as my investment continues to pay dividends, you may have your secrets.”
“Oh, you’ll get your dividends. This has been a very good year. Base business profits are up forty percent and the new premium line is just flying out the door.”
“But you’re about to ‘eliminate’ stock.”
“That stock was at the end of its useful life anyway. Now, where were we?”
Charles moved his queen. “Checkmate, I believe.”
Bobby swore lightly, then sighed. “So it is. I should have seen that coming, but I never do. You’ve always been the master of the chessboard.”
“I’ve always been the master,” Charles corrected, and pure reflex had Bobby sitting up a little straighter. Charles nodded, and Bobby swallowed back the annoyance that rose every time Charles tugged the reins. “Of course, I didn’t drop by simply to beat you at chess,” he said. “I have some news. A plane landed in Atlanta this morning.”
An uneasy shiver skittered up Bobby’s spine. “So? Hundreds of planes land in Atlanta every day. Thousands even.”
“True.” Charles began putting the chess pieces in the ivory case he carried with him everywhere. “But this plane carried a traveler in whom you have a vested interest.”
Charles met Bobby’s narrowed eyes with another satisfied smile. “Susannah Vartanian is back in town,” he said, holding up the white ivory queen. “Again.”
Bobby took the queen from Charles’s hand, trying to appear blasé, when inside a geyser exploded. “Well, well.”
“Well, well, indeed. You missed last time.”
“I didn’t try last time,” Bobby snapped defensively. “She was only here a day when the judge and his wife were buried last week.” Susannah had stood at her brother’s side at their parents’ grave, her face expressionless even though turbulence had churned in her gray eyes. Just seeing her again after all this time… The turbulence in Susannah’s eyes was nothing compared to the seething rage Bobby had been forced to swallow.
“Don’t you snap the head off my queen, Bobby,” Charles drawled. “She was hand-carved by a master craftsman outside Saigon. She’s worth more than you are.”
Bobby placed the queen on Charles’s palm, ignoring that last jab. Calm down. You make mistakes when you’re riled. “She went back to New York too quickly last week. I didn’t have time to adequately prepare.” It sounded whiny, which made Bobby angrier.
“Planes fly both ways, Bobby. You didn’t have to wait for her to return.” Charles snuggled the queen into her velvet slot within his ivory case. “But, it would appear you now have a second chance. I hope you plan more effectively this time.”
“On that you can depend.”
Charles’s smile was cagey. “Just promise me a ringside seat when the fireworks begin. I’m partial to the red fireworks myself.”
Bobby’s smile was grim. “I can guarantee lots of red. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some pressing business to attend to.”
Charles stood. “I have to be going anyway. I have a funeral to attend.”
“Who’s getting buried today?”
“Well, Jim and Marianne Woolf better enjoy it. At least they won’t have to fight the other reporters. They’ll have a ringside seat, right on the family pew.”
“Bobby.” Charles shook his head in mock outrage. “Such a thing to say.”
“You know I’m right. Jim Woolf would sell his own sister for a byline.”
Charles settled his hat on his head and picked up his walking stick, his ivory box tucked under his arm. “And someday, you may be able to say the same.”
No, Bobby thought, watching Charles drive away, not for something as insignificant as a byline. Now for a birthright… that was an entirely different matter. But there would be time for dreams later. Now there was work to be done.
“Tanner! Come here. I need you.”
The old man appeared, seemingly from nowhere, as was his way. “Yes?”
“Unexpected guests are on the way. Please prepare accommodations for six more.”
Tanner gave a single nod. “Of course. While you were in with Mr. Charles, Mr. Haynes called. He’ll be coming by tonight to secure a companion for the weekend.”
Bobby smiled. Haynes was a premium client, a rich man with depraved tastes. And he paid cash. “Excellent. We’ll be ready.”
Charles stopped his car at the end of the street. From here the turrets of Ridgefield House were still visible. The house had stood in that place for nearly a hundred years. It was a strong house, built the way they used to be. Charles had an appreciation for good architecture, having lived in many places a rat wouldn’t call home.
Bobby used Ridgefield to house “inventory,” and the location was ideal for this purpose. Situated far off the main road, most people didn’t even know the house still stood. It was close enough to the river for convenience, but far enough away that it was safe if the river swelled. It wasn’t large enough or beautiful enough or even old enough to be on any conservator’s list, which made it simply perfect.
For years Bobby had spurned this house as old and ugly and beneath consideration, until maturity had revealed what Charles had learned long ago. Flashy packages draw attention. The mark of true success is invisibility. Being able to hide in plain sight had enabled him to pull the strings of the flashy, the pompous. Now, they are nothing but my puppets. They dance to my tune.
It made them angry, powerless, but they didn’t know the true meaning of powerlessness. They lived in fear of losing the possessions they’d accumulated, so they surrendered their pride, their decency. Their morality, which was merely a religious man’s farce. Some surrendered with barely a nudge. Those people Charles viewed with contempt. They had no idea what it meant to lose everything. Everything. To be stripped bare of physical pleasure, to be deprived of the most basic of human needs.
The weak feared losing their stuff. But Charles did not. Once a man was stripped to the bone of his humanity… then he had no fear. Charles had no fear.
But he did have plans, plans that included Bobby and Susannah Vartanian.
Bobby was a level higher than all the others. Charles had molded Bobby’s quick mind when it was young and molten and full of fury. Full of questions and hate. He’d convinced Bobby the time would come for revenge, for claiming the birthright that circumstances-and certain people-had denied. But Bobby still danced to Charles’s tune. Charles simply allowed Bobby to believe the tune was original.
He opened the top of his ivory box, lifted the queen from her slot, and pressed the hidden spring that had a lower drawer sliding out. His journal was on top of the belongings he never left home without. Thoughtfully he thumbed to the first blank page and began to write. Now is the time for my protégé’s revenge, because I wish it to be. I planted the seed years ago. I’ve only watered it today. When Bobby sits down at the computer to work, the photograph of Susannah Vartanian will be waiting.
Bobby hates Susannah, because I wish it. But Bobby was indeed correct on one score: Toby Granville is becoming more unstable every year. Sometimes absolute power-or the illusion thereof-does corrupt absolutely. When Toby becomes too big a danger, I’ll have him killed, just like I had Toby Granville kill others.
Taking a life is a powerful thing. Sticking your knife into a man’s gut and watching the life seep from his eyes… a powerful thing indeed. But forcing another to kill… that is the ultimate power. Kill for me. It’s playing God. Charles smiled. It’s fun.
Yes, Toby would soon need to be killed. But there would be another Toby Granville. In time, there would be another Bobby. And I will go on. He closed his journal, replaced it and the queen in their proper places as he’d done countless times before.
Dutton , Georgia , Friday, February 2, 2:00 p.m.
She hurt. All over. They’d beaten her head this time, and kicked her ribs. Monica firmed her lips in grim satisfaction. But it had been worth it. She’d get away or die trying. She’d force them to kill her before she let them use her anymore.
Then they’d lose a depreciable asset. That’s what they’d called her. She’d heard them, talking on the other side of the wall. They can kiss my depreciable asset. Anything, even death, was better than the life she had lived for… how long had it been?
She’d lost track of how many months had passed. Five, maybe six. Monica had never truly believed in a hell before. She sure as hell did now.
For a while she’d lost her will to live, but thanks to Becky, she’d gotten it back. It was Becky who’d tried to escape so many times. They’d tried to stop her, to break her. They’d broken Becky’s body, but not her spirit. In the short time they’d whispered through the wall that separated them, Monica had drawn strength from the girl she’d never seen. The girl whose death had rekindled her own desire to live. Or die trying.
She drew what she’d wanted to be a deep breath, wincing before her lungs fully inflated. Her rib was probably broken. Maybe more than one. She wondered where they’d taken Becky’s body after they’d beaten her to death. She could still hear the crunching blows, because they’d meant for her to. They’d opened all their doors so they could hear every punch, every kick, and every one of Becky’s moans. They’d meant for them all to hear. To be afraid. To learn a lesson.
Every girl in the place. There were at least ten of them, in varying degrees of depreciation. Some were newly initiated, others old hands at the oldest profession in the world. Like me. I just want to go home.
Monica gave her arm a weak shake and heard the resulting clink of the chain that held her to the wall. Just like every girl in the place. I’m never going to escape. I’m going to die. Please, God, just let it be soon.
“Hurry, you idiots. We don’t have time to fuck around.”
Someone was out there, in the hall outside her cell. The woman. Monica’s jaw clenched. She hated the woman.
“Hurry,” the woman said. “Move. Mansfield, put these boxes on the boat.”
Monica didn’t know the woman’s name, but she was bad. Worse than the men-the deputy and the doctor. Mansfield was the deputy, the one who’d kidnapped her and brought her here. For a long time she hadn’t believed he was a real deputy, had thought that his uniform was just a costume, but he was for real. It was when she’d realized he was a real cop that she’d given up hope.
As mean as Mansfield was, the doctor was worse. He was cruel, because he enjoyed seeing them in pain. The look in his eyes when he was doing his worst… Monica shivered. The doctor wasn’t sane, of that she was certain.
But the woman… she was evil. To her, this horror, this so-called life… it was “just business.” To the woman, every girl in the place was a depreciable, renewable asset. Renewable because there were always more teenaged girls stupid enough to be lured away from the safety of their families. Lured here. To hell.
Monica could hear the grunts as they moved the boxes onto… what? She heard squeaking and immediately recognized the sound. It was the gurney with the rusty wheels. It was where the doctor “fixed them up,” got them ready to go “back in the game” after a “client” had beaten the ever-living shit out of them. Of course sometimes the doctor did the beating, then all he had to do was lift them from the floor to the gurney, making his job that much easier. She hated him. But she feared him more.
“Take the girls in ten, nine, six, five, four and… one,” the woman said.
Monica’s eyes flew open. She was in cell number one. She squinted, willing her eyes to get used to the darkness. Something’s wrong. Her heart started to beat faster. Someone was coming to help them. Hurry. Please hurry.
“Cuff their hands behind them and take them out one at a time,” the woman snapped. “Keep your gun on them at all times and do not let them get away.”
“What do we do with the others?” It was a deep voice. The doctor’s guard.
“Kill them,” the woman said flatly, without hesitation.
I’m in cell one. She’s going to put me on a boat and take me away. Away from the help that was coming. I’ll fight. By God, I’ll get away or die trying.
“I’ll take care of them.” It was the doctor, whose eyes were so eager. So cruel.
“Fine,” the woman said. “Just don’t leave their bodies here. Dump them in the river. Use the sandbags behind the generator. Mansfield, don’t just stand there. Get those boxes and girls on the damn boat before we have cops crawling up our asses. Then bring the gurney back for the good doctor. He’ll need it to get the bodies to the river.”
“Yes, sir,” Deputy Mansfield sneered.
“Don’t get smart,” the woman said, her voice fading as she moved away. “Move.”
Silence hung in the air, then the doctor said quietly, “Take care of the other two.”
“You mean Bailey and the reverend?” the guard asked in a normal voice.
“Sshh,” the doctor hissed. “Yes. Do it quietly. She doesn’t know they’re here.”
The other two. Monica had heard them, through the wall. The doctor’s office was next to her cell, so she heard a lot. The doctor had beaten the woman he’d called Bailey for days, demanding a key. A key to what? He’d beaten the man, too, demanding a confession. What did he want the reverend to confess?
In a few seconds Monica forgot about Bailey and the reverend. Shrieks and sobs filled the air, louder even than the blood pounding in her ears. The screams scraped at the inside of her mind as one girl was dragged away, then another, then another. Stay calm. She had to stay focused. They’re coming for me.
Yes, but they have to unlock the chain before they cuff you. For a few seconds, your hands will be free. You’ll run, scratch, claw their goddamn eyes out if you have to.
But even as she tried to bolster her courage, she knew it was useless. Before the last beating she might have had a chance. And once she got out, then what? They were miles from anywhere. She’d be dead before she got to the hallway.
A sob rose in her throat. I’m sixteen and I’m going to die. I’m sorry, Mom. I should have listened to you.
Crack. She flinched at the gunshot. More screams, terrified, hysterical screams. But Monica was too tired to scream. She was almost too tired to be afraid. Almost.
Another shot. And another. And another. Four shots so far. She could hear his voice, the doctor. He was taunting the girl in the next cell.
“Say your prayers, Angel,” he said, laughter in his voice. Monica hated him. She wanted to kill him. She wanted to see him suffer and bleed and die.
Crack. Angel was dead. And four others.
The door flew open and Deputy Mansfield stood in the opening, his face hard and hateful. He was on her in two strides, unlocking the chain that held her to the wall, none too gently. Monica squinted at the light as Mansfield yanked the shackle from her wrist.
She was free. So fucking what? She was trapped, just the same.
“Come on,” Mansfield grunted, dragging her to her feet.
“I can’t,” she whispered, her knees giving out.
“Shut up.” Mansfield jerked her to her feet as if she weighed no more than a doll. At this point, that wasn’t too far from the truth.
“Wait.” The woman was in the hallway, right outside Monica’s door. She stood in the shadow, as she always did. Monica had never seen her face, but still she dreamed of the day she could claw the woman’s eyes out.
“The boat’s full,” the woman said.
“How can it be?” the doctor asked, from out in the hall. “It holds six. You took five.”
“The boxes took up a lot of the space,” the woman answered, her tone short. “Vartanian will be here any minute with the state cops. We need to be downstream before he gets here. Kill her and get the bodies out of here.”
So it’ll be now. No need to run or fight. Monica wondered if she’d hear the gun fire or if she’d be dead instantly. I won’t beg. I won’t give him the satisfaction.
“This one’s not that bad off,” the doctor said. “She can still work for months, maybe a year. Toss some of the boxes overboard or burn them. But make room for her. Once I break her, she’ll make the best asset we’ve ever had. Come on, Rocky.”
Rocky. The woman’s name was Rocky. Monica committed it to memory. Rocky moved closer to the doctor, so that she emerged from the shadows and Monica had her first look at the woman’s face. Monica squinted, trying to block out the spinning room as she memorized every feature. If there was a life after death, Monica would come back and haunt her until the woman was a drooling lump of insanity.
“The boxes stay on the boat,” Rocky said impatiently.
The doctor’s mouth twisted in contempt. “Says you?”
“Says Bobby. So unless you want to tell Bobby why you left incriminating records behind that would ruin us all, you’ll shut your mouth and kill this bitch so we can get out of here. Mansfield, come with me. Granville, just do it and hurry. And for God’s sake, make sure they’re all dead. I don’t want them screaming as we chuck them in the river. If any cops are close, they’ll come running.”
Mansfield released Monica and her leg buckled. She dropped to her knees holding on to the dirty cot for support as Mansfield and Rocky left the room, leaving her staring at the end of the doctor’s gun.
“Just do it,” Monica hissed. “You heard the lady. Hurry up and do it.”
The doctor’s mouth turned up in that cobra smile that turned her gut to water. “You think it’s going to be fast. You think it’s going to be painless.”
Crack. Monica screamed as the pain in her head was drowned out by the burning in her side. He’d shot her, but she wasn’t dead. Why am I not dead?
He smiled at her as she twisted, trying to make the pain stop. “You’ve been a thorn in my side since the day you got here. If I had time, I’d slice you to ribbons. But I don’t. So say good-bye, Monica.” He lifted the gun, then jerked his head to one side, his face darkening in rage at the same moment another shot rang in her ears. Monica screamed again as fire burned across the side of her head. Squeezing her eyes shut, she waited for the next shot. But it never came. Blinking back tears, she opened her eyes.
He was gone and she was alone. And not dead.
He missed. Goddamn him to hell, he missed. He was gone. He’ll be back.
But she saw no one. Vartanian will be here any minute with the state cops. The woman had said this. Monica didn’t know anybody named Vartanian, but whoever he was, he was her only chance at survival. Get to the door. Monica pushed to her knees and crawled. A foot. Another foot. Get to the hall and you can get away.
She heard footsteps. A woman, beaten and bloody, her clothes torn, was staggering toward her. The other two, the doctor had said. This was Bailey. She’d gotten away. There was still hope. Monica lifted her hand. “Help me. Please.”
Bailey hesitated, then yanked her to her feet. “Move.”
“Are you Bailey?” Monica managed to whisper.
“Yes. Now, move or die.” Together they staggered down the hall. Finally they came to a door and stumbled into daylight, so bright it hurt.
Bailey came to an abrupt stop and Monica’s heart dropped to her stomach. In front of them stood a man with a gun pointed straight at them. He wore the same uniform as Mansfield. The badge on his shirt said “Sheriff Frank Loomis.” This wasn’t Vartanian with the state police. This was Mansfield ’s boss and he wouldn’t let them get away.
So this is how it would end. Tears seeped down her face, burning her raw skin as Monica waited for the next crack of gunfire.
To her shock Sheriff Loomis put his finger to his lips. “Follow the trees,” he whispered. “You’ll find the road.” He pointed to Monica. “How many more in there?”
“None,” Bailey whispered harshly. “He killed them all. All except her.”
Loomis swallowed. “Then go. I’ll go get my car and meet you by the road.”
Bailey tightened her hold. “Come on,” she whispered. “Just a little bit longer.”
Monica stared at her feet, willing them to move. One step, then another. Freedom. She’d get to freedom. Then she’d make them all pay. Or die trying.
Dutton , Georgia , Friday, February 2, 3:05 p.m.
Susannah Vartanian stared at the passenger side mirror as the house in which she’d grown up grew smaller as each second passed. I have to get out of here. As long as she remained here, at this house, in this town, she was no longer the woman she’d become. She was no longer a successful New York City assistant district attorney who commanded respect. As long as she was here, she was a child, alone and afraid, hiding in a closet. A victim. Susannah was damn tired of being a victim.
“Are you all right?” The question came from the man behind the wheel. Special Agent Luke Papadopoulos. Her brother’s partner and best friend. Luke had driven her here an hour before and then the growing dread in the pit of her gut had made her wish he’d slow down. Now that it was over, she wished he’d drive faster.
Get me away from here. Please. “I’m fine.” She didn’t need to look at Papadopoulos to know he watched her. She’d felt the weight of his gaze from the moment they’d met the week before. She’d been standing next to her brother at their parents’ funeral and Luke had come to pay his respects. He watched her then. He watched her now.
But Susannah’s gaze was fixed on the passenger side mirror. She wanted to look away from the rapidly shrinking house of her youth, but her eyes would not obey. The lone figure standing in the front yard compelled her to keep watching. Even from a distance she could feel the sadness that weighed down his broad shoulders.
Her brother Daniel was a big man, as their father had been. The women in their family were small, but the men were hulking and large. Some larger than others. Susannah swallowed back the panic that had lurked at the base of her throat for the past two weeks. Simon’s dead, for real this time. He can’t hurt you anymore. But he could, and he would. That he could torment her from beyond the grave was an irony Simon would find hilarious. Her older brother Simon had been one son of a bitch.
Now he was a dead son of a bitch and Susannah hadn’t shed a single tear. Her parents were dead as well, because Simon had killed them. Now, only the two of them remained. Just me and Daniel, she thought bitterly. Just one big happy family.
Just she and her oldest brother, Special Agent Daniel J. Vartanian, Georgia Bureau of Investigation. One of the good guys. Daniel had built a career trying to make up for the fact that he was Judge Arthur Vartanian’s spawn. Just like I have.
She thought of the devastation in his eyes when she’d walked away, leaving him standing in the front yard of the old house. After thirteen years, Daniel finally knew what he’d done, and more importantly, what he had not.
Now Daniel wanted forgiveness, Susannah thought bitterly. He wanted atonement. After more than ten years of total silence, her brother Daniel wanted a relationship.
Her brother Daniel wanted too damn much. He’d have to live with what he had done, and what he had not. Just like I have.
She knew why he’d left, so long ago. Daniel hated the house almost as much as she did. Almost. She’d managed to avoid the house the week before, when they’d buried their parents. After the funeral Susannah walked away, vowing never to return.
But a phone call from Daniel the day before had brought her back. Here. To Dutton. To this house. To face what she had done, and importantly, what she had not.
An hour ago she’d stood on that front porch for the first time in years. It had taken every ounce of her strength to walk in that door, up those stairs, into her brother Simon’s old bedroom. Susannah did not believe in ghosts, but she did believe in evil.
Evil lived in that house, in that bedroom, long after Simon died. Both times.
The evil had settled around her as soon as she’d entered Simon’s room, sending panic clawing up her throat along with a scream she kept silenced. She’d drawn on her last reserves, keeping the illusion of serenity and control intact as she’d forced herself into the closet, dreading what she feared lay behind its walls.
Her worst nightmare. Her greatest shame. For thirteen years it had remained hidden in a box in a hidey-hole behind Simon’s bedroom wall, unbeknownst to anyone. Even me. Especially me. After thirteen years, the box was out of the closet. Ta-da.
Now, the box resided in the trunk of the car belonging to Special Agent Luke Papadopoulos, GBI. Daniel’s partner and friend. Papadopoulos was taking the box back to GBI headquarters in Atlanta where it would be entered into evidence. Where CSI techs and detectives and the legal team would sort through the contents. Hundreds of pictures, hideous and obscene and very, very real. They’ll see. They’ll know.
The car went around a bend and the house disappeared. The spell broken, Susannah eased back against the seat and drew a quiet breath. It was finally over.
No, it was only beginning for Susannah, and nowhere near the end for Daniel and his partner. Daniel and Luke were chasing a killer, a man who’d murdered five Dutton women in the last week. A man who’d turned his murder victims into clues to lead authorities to what was left of a band of rich-boy thugs who’d wreaked their own evil on Dutton’s teenaged girls thirteen years before. A man who, for his own reasons, wanted the rich boys’ crimes made public. A man who hated the band of rich-boy bastards almost as much as Susannah did. Almost. No one hated them more than Susannah. Unless it was one of their twelve other surviving victims.
Soon they’ll know, the other victims. Soon everyone will know, she thought.
Including Daniel’s partner and friend. He still watched her, his eyes dark and brooding. She sensed Luke Papadopoulos saw more than she wanted anyone to see.
He’d certainly gotten an eyeful today. Soon, everyone would. Soon… Her stomach pitched and she concentrated on not throwing up. Soon her greatest shame would be the chatter around water coolers and coffee pots all over the country.
She’d overheard enough water cooler chatter to know exactly how it would go. Did you hear? they’d whisper, pretending to look horrified. Did you hear about those rich boys down in Dutton, Georgia, who drugged and raped those girls thirteen years ago? One of them even murdered one of the girls. They took pictures. Can you imagine?
And they’d all shake their heads, imagining it and secretly wishing those pictures would get leaked to the Web where they might “accidentally” stumble upon them.
Dutton, another would muse, unwilling to be left out. Isn’t that the town where all those women were murdered and left in drainage ditches? Just in the last week?
Yes, another would confirm. It’s also that Simon Vartanian’s hometown. He was one of the rich-kid rapists-he took the pictures thirteen years ago. He’s also the one who killed all those people up in Philadelphia. Some detective up in Philly killed him.
Seventeen people dead, including her own parents. Countless lives destroyed. I could have stopped it all, but I didn’t. Oh my God. What have I done? She kept her expression cool and her body stationary, but in her mind she rocked like a scared child.
“That was difficult,” Papadopoulos murmured.
His rumble of a voice brought her back and she blinked hard, remembering who she was now. An adult. A respected attorney. One of the good guys. Yeah. Right.
She turned away from him, fixing her gaze once again on the side mirror. Difficult was far too sanitized a word for what she’d just done. “Yes,” she replied. “Difficult.”
“Are you all right?” he asked again.
No, I am not all right, she wanted to snap, but kept her voice cool. “I’m fine.” And outwardly, she was. Susannah was skilled at maintaining the illusion, as she should be. She was Judge Arthur Vartanian’s daughter, after all, and what she hadn’t inherited through blood she’d learned by watching her father live a lie every day of their lives.
“You did the right thing, Susannah,” Papadopoulos said quietly.
Yeah, right. Thirteen years too late. “I know.”
“We’ll be able to put away three rapists with the evidence you helped us find today.”
There should have been seven men going to prison. Seven. Unfortunately, four of them were already dead, including Simon. I hope you’re all burning in hell.
“And thirteen women will be able to face their attackers and get justice,” he added.
There should have been sixteen women facing their attackers, but two had been murdered and the other had taken her own life. No, Susannah, there should have only been one victim. It should have stopped with you.
But she’d said nothing then, and she’d have to live with that for the rest of her life.
“Facing one’s attacker is an important part of dealing with an assault,” Susannah said levelly. At least that’s what she’d always told the rape victims who were uncertain about testifying in court. In the past she’d believed it. Today she wasn’t so sure.
“I guess you’ve prepared your share of rape victims to testify.” His voice was incredibly gentle, but underneath she heard the tremble of a barely leashed fury. “I imagine it will be more difficult when you’re the one in the witness box.”
There was that word again… difficult. It wouldn’t be difficult to testify. It would be the most terrifying experience of her life. “I told you and Daniel that I’d stand with the other victims, Agent Papadopoulos,” she said sharply, “and I meant it.”
“I never thought anything different,” he said, but she didn’t believe him.
“My flight to New York is at six. I need to be at the Atlanta airport by four. Can you drop me off on your way back to your headquarters?”
He shot her a frown. “You’re going back tonight?”
“I missed a lot of work with my parents’ funeral last week. I need to get back.”
“Daniel had hoped to spend some time with you.”
Annoyance flared and her voice hardened. “I think Daniel has his hands full with picking up the three surviving…” She faltered. “Members of Simon’s club.” But the word she used daily on the job would not roll off her tongue. “Not to mention catching whoever’s killed five Dutton women in the last week.”
“We know who the killer is.” His own annoyance came through. “We will find him. It’s just a matter of time. And we’ve got one of the rapists in custody already.”
“Ah, yes. Mayor Davis. That one surprised me.” Thirteen years ago Garth Davis had been a dumb jock, not the type to lead a gang of his peers to assault his classmates. But he’d certainly followed along. The pictures didn’t lie. “But Deputy Mansfield escaped, killing his tail.” Randy Mansfield had always been a weasel. Now he wore a badge and carried a gun, a terrifying prospect considering he was still roaming free.
A muscle twitched in Luke’s jaw. “ Mansfield ’s tail was a damn good agent named Oscar Johnson,” he said tightly. “He left behind three kids and a pregnant wife.”
He was grieving. He was also Daniel’s friend, and obviously loyal. “I’m sorry,” she said more gently. “But you have to admit you and Daniel do not have the situation under control. You don’t even know who the third…” Say it. Now. She cleared her throat. “Who the third rapist is.”
“We’ll find him,” Papadopoulos repeated stubbornly.
“I’m sure you will, but I still can’t stay. Besides, Daniel has a new lady friend to hold his hand,” she added, hearing that edge in her voice she despised. That Daniel had found happiness out of all this mess seemed… unfair. Of course that was childish. Life wasn’t fair. Susannah had learned that long ago. “I wouldn’t dream of intruding.”
“You’d like Alex Fallon,” he said, “if you’d just give her a chance.”
“I’m sure I would. But Miss Fallon’s had a hard day, too, seeing her sister’s picture in that box with all the others.” Including mine. Don’t think about it. Instead, she focused on Alex Fallon.
Daniel’s new girlfriend was connected to their lives in a very real way. Alex’s twin sister had been murdered thirteen years ago by one of the boys who’d assaulted so many. Susannah might be childish enough to resent Daniel’s happiness, but she could not wish anything bad on Alex Fallon. The woman had suffered a great deal in her life.
Luke grunted in reluctant agreement. “True. And her stepsister’s still missing.”
“Bailey Crighton,” Susannah said. One of the four dead rapists was Bailey’s brother. On the way out to the house, Luke had told her that Bailey’s brother Wade had written a confession letter of sorts and shortly after its receipt, Bailey had been abducted. They believed one of the rapists had gotten nervous about what Bailey knew.
“Bailey’s been gone a week now,” Luke said.
“It doesn’t look good for her then,” Susannah murmured.
“No. It doesn’t.”
“So, like I said before, Daniel has his hands full. As do you. So…” She blew out a quiet sigh. “Back to my original question, Agent Papadopoulos. Can you drop me off at the airport on your way back to your headquarters? I need to go home.”
His own sigh was weary. “It’ll be tight, but yeah. I can.”
Dutton , Georgia , Friday, February 2, 3:20 p.m.
Luke stole a look at Susannah before fixing his eyes on the curving road ahead. The first time he’d seen her she’d stood next to Daniel at their parents’ funeral wearing a conservative black suit, her face so pale he’d wondered if she’d remain standing. But she had, exhibiting a calm strength that impressed him and a delicate beauty that had him looking twice. But under her calm façade was a darkness that drew him like a lodestone. She’s like me, he’d thought, unable to rip his eyes away. She’d understand.
Today she sat in his passenger seat, dressed in another black suit, this one a bit trendier. Once again her face was pale and once again he sensed the darkness that vibrated within her. She was angry. She had every right to be.
I’m fine, she’d said, but of course she was not. How could she be? She’d just come face to face with her worst nightmare in a brutally graphic way. An hour ago she’d marched into Simon’s bedroom and pulled the box from the hidey-hole behind his closet, as calmly as if it had been filled with baseball cards instead of vile photos of rape. Her own rape. Luke had wanted to punch a wall, but he’d maintained his control. He’d done his job. And so had she, with a composure that would put any cop to shame.
Still, Susannah Vartanian was definitely not “fine.”
And neither am I. Then again, Luke had not been “fine” in a very long time. He could feel his own fury, way too close to the surface. It had been a very bad week. It had been a very bad year. Too many faces stared at him from the depths of his mind. All taunting him. Haunting him. You were our only hope, and you were too late.
They’d been too late once again, thirteen years too late this time. A shiver slithered down his back. Luke was by no means a superstitious man, but he’d been his mother’s son too long not to have a healthy respect for the number thirteen. Thirteen surviving rape victims, the crime perpetrated thirteen years before.
One of the thirteen survivors sat in his passenger seat, her eyes haunted.
She blamed herself. It was clear. If only she’d said something… the other victims would have been spared. There would have been no band of rapists on which a present-day murderer could seek revenge and five Dutton women might still be alive. If she’d said something back then, Simon Vartanian would have been arrested with the other rapists and never would have gone on to kill so many himself.
Of course she was wrong. Life just didn’t work that way. Luke wished it did.
He wished that her coming forward thirteen years ago would have erased the box of photos he carried in the trunk of his car. But he knew if she’d said anything, Arthur Vartanian would have bailed Simon out and brought his son home, as he had every other time. Simon would have killed her, of this Luke was certain. There had been no way out for Susannah then, and no way of knowing Simon had orchestrated the rape of others.
Now that she knew, she’d come forward in a way that inspired his profound respect. She’d been hurt and angry and scared. But she’d done the right thing.
“You know you’re not to blame,” he said quietly.
Her jaw tightened. “Thank you, Agent Papadopoulos, but I don’t need the pep talk.”
“You’re thinking I don’t understand,” he said mildly even though he wanted to snarl.
“I’m sure you think you do. You mean well, but-”
Dammit, he didn’t think he did. He did. The lid on his temper rattled. “Four days ago I found three kids dead,” he interrupted, the words out of his mouth before he knew he planned to say them. “Nine, ten, and twelve. I was less than a day too late.”
She drew a deep breath and let it out quietly. Her body seemed to settle. Her fury seemed to rise. “How did they die?” she asked, her voice ominously quiet.
“Shot in the head.” And he could still see their small faces every time he closed his eyes. “But before they were murdered, they’d been molested in front of a Webcam. For years,” he spat. “For money. For perverts all over the world to see.”
“Bastards.” Her voice trembled. “That must have been horrible for you.”
“More horrible for them,” he muttered and she made a small sound of agreement.
“I guess I’m supposed to say you’re not to blame. Obviously you think you are.”
His hands gripped the wheel so hard his knuckles ached. “Obviously.”
A few moments passed, then she said, “So you’re one of those.”
He could feel her studying him and it made him feel unsettled. “One of what?”
“One of those guys who works Internet sex crimes against kids. I’ve worked with a few, through the DA’s office. I don’t know how you guys do it.”
His jaw tightened. “Some days, I don’t do it.”
“But most days, you do what you have to do. And a little more of you dies each day.”
She’d articulated the state of his life very well. “Yeah.” His voice was rough, unsteady. “Something like that.”
“Then you’re one of the good guys. And you’re not to blame.”
He cleared his throat. “Thanks.”
From the corner of his eye he saw she still watched him. Some of the color had returned to her face and he knew he’d given her something else to think about. He didn’t want to talk about this, wished he hadn’t mentioned it, but it was distracting her from her shock and to accomplish that, he’d talk about anything she wanted.
“I’m confused,” she said. “I thought you and Daniel were Homicide, not Internet.”
“Daniel’s Homicide. I’m not. I’ve been on the Internet task force for over a year.”
“That’s a long time to have to live with such filth. I know guys who’ve worked Vice for ten years that didn’t last a month on the child porn task forces.”
“Like you said, we do what we have to do. I’m not normally Daniel’s partner. This is a special assignment. After Tuesday, when I found the kids, I asked for a temporary reassignment. Daniel was chasing this guy that’s been killing Dutton women and everywhere he turned he kept running into Simon. Simon was everywhere in this case. This killer wanted us to find Simon’s club. Simon’s pictures. Simon’s key.”
“The key to the empty safe-deposit box where you thought you’d find the pictures.”
He’d told her that much on the way out to the Vartanian house. “Yeah. This killer ties keys to the toes of his victims, so we knew the key was important. The Philly detective found a safe-deposit box key among Simon’s things, but when Daniel took it to the bank today, the box was empty. If the pictures had ever been stored there, somebody took them.” He looked over at her. “But you knew where to find Simon’s stash.”
“I didn’t know about the box. I only knew Simon had a hiding place.”
Because she’d had a similar hidey-hole behind her own bedroom closet, he thought bitterly. Simon had left her there, drugged unconscious, after his friends had assaulted her. He couldn’t even imagine waking up in that dark little space, afraid, in pain. That she hated the house had been apparent. That she hated this town was also apparent, which was why he wasn’t sure if he had the right to ask her to stay, even for Daniel.
“The bastard is really dead this time,” he said bitterly, “but he won’t stay buried.”
“Even dead, Simon’s a pain in the ass.”
His lips curved, her wry observation venting some of his steam. She’d approached her fear with humor, and he respected that. “Well put. Anyway, Daniel was tracking this killer and needed a data analyst. That’s what I do, so I joined the team. Yesterday we got a tip, leading us to the O’Brien family. Their oldest son was part of Simon’s club.”
“Jared,” she murmured. “I remember him. He thought he was God’s gift to women in high school. I had no idea he was one of the ones who…” She let the thought trail.
Who’d raped her. Luke shoved his anger aside. She was coping. So would he. “Jared went missing a few years ago. We think the others in the club got rid of him because they were afraid he’d talk, give them up. I was up all night gathering all the information I could find on Jared O’Brien and his family. This morning everything looked good. I found out his younger brother Mack was just released from prison. Mack had grudges against all the dead women. He’s our primary suspect. We were ready to roll. We had tails on the two rapists we’d ID’d and a BOLO out on Mack O’Brien.”
“Why didn’t you just pick up the mayor and the deputy?”
“Two reasons. One, we still don’t know the identity of the third man.”
“If you arrested the mayor and the deputy, they’d likely roll on the third man.”
“Maybe. And maybe he’d go under and we’d never find him. Mostly we didn’t bring them in because Mack O’Brien has been using his victims to draw out the surviving club members. They killed his brother. He wanted revenge.”
“And once you’d arrested them all, he’d figure he was finished and go away.”
“Basically. We’d planned a simultaneous sweep, once we’d located O’Brien, but Mansfield changed that. Sonofabitch.”
“He killed his tail. Agent Johnson. I am sorry.”
Me, too. “We’ll find Mansfield and we’ve got teams out searching for O’Brien. I just hope when we find Mansfield, he leads us to Bailey.” And if not, I’ll make the toad tell us where she is.
“You told Alex Fallon not to give up hope, but do you really think Bailey is still alive?”
He shrugged. “She’s been gone a week. Like you said before, it doesn’t look good.”
A cell phone trilled and Susannah leaned forward to get her purse.
“It’s my phone,” Luke said and frowned at the display. “It’s Daniel.” He listened, his frown deepening, then hung up, turning to Susannah. “You’ll have to take a later flight.”
She grabbed the armrest as he did a fast U-turn. “Why? Where are we going?”
“Back to Dutton. Daniel said he got a call from Sheriff Loomis.”
“And?” Susannah said, clearly irked.
“Loomis says he knows where Bailey Crighton is being held.”
“The same Sheriff Loomis who’s being investigated by your state attorney’s office for tampering with evidence in the murder of Alex Fallon’s sister thirteen years ago?” she asked sarcastically. “I saw it on the front page of the newspaper on your desk.”
Luke punched his accelerator. “The same Sheriff Loomis who’s blocked every attempt to find Bailey? Yes, that’s the sheriff I’m talking about.”
“For God’s sake. And you believe him?”
“No, but we can’t ignore this lead. Bailey’s life could very well depend on it. Daniel’s supposed to meet Loomis at the mill site. He said you’d know where that was.”
“The O’Brien mill? That would certainly be ironic.”
“Wouldn’t it? But we’ve had teams combing the current mill looking for Mack O’Brien all day. Daniel said out past the old mill. Do you know where that is?”
She bit at her lip. “Yes, but I haven’t been out there since I was in fourth grade and we went on a field trip. Nobody goes there anymore- it’s a pile of rubble and too dangerous. Plus, there’s a sulfur spring nearby and the whole area smells like rotten eggs. I don’t think even kids go there to smoke or make out anymore.”
“But can you find the road?”
“That’s all I wanted to know. Hold on, it could get bumpy.”
Dutton, Friday, February 2, 3:30 p.m.
Too much time had passed. Rocky checked the restraints on each of the five girls, careful not to meet their eyes. They were looking at her. A few with defiance, but mostly with desperation and despair. But she didn’t look back. Instead she climbed to the deck and frowned at Jersey Jameson, the old man who owned this boat. He’d been fishing this river his whole life, quietly smuggling whatever contraband was in vogue at the time. The river patrol never gave Jersey a second glance, so he was good cover.
“Why are we still here?” she hissed.
Jersey pointed to the retreating form of Deputy Mansfield. “He said to wait for him to bring the doctor back. I told him he had five minutes, then I was moving this cargo.” He slanted her a disgusted look. “I’ve hauled a helluva lot of shit for you, Rocky, but nothin’ like this. Tell your boss I ain’t doin’ this again.”
“Tell Bobby yourself.” Jersey ’s jaw tightened and she laughed. “I thought not.” Bobby didn’t take kindly to being told no by anyone. “Where are those guys? I’m about ready to go in after them. They’re supposed to be hauling out what we couldn’t pack.”
“I don’t want to know any more,” Jersey said.
They waited another two minutes and there was no sign of Mans-field. “I’m going after them.” She’d stepped onto the dock when a gunshot cracked the air.
“That came from the road out front,” Jersey said.
Rocky hopped back on the deck. “Let’s move. Now.”
Jersey was already pulling back the throttle. “What about the doc and the deputy?”
“They’re on their own.” Bobby wouldn’t be happy that she’d left bodies behind, and the thought of facing Bobby’s rage made Rocky nauseous. “I’ll be below.”
Dutton, Friday, February 2, 3:35 p.m.
Susannah watched as Luke’s speedometer climbed. This was likely a wild goose chase, she thought darkly as they hit a pothole and went momentarily airborne. Then she remembered the agonized fear in Alex Fallon’s eyes. The woman’s stepsister had been missing a week, her disappearance all wrapped up in this mess Daniel and his partner had been dragged into. They owed it to Bailey to check every lead.
I can catch a flight first thing in the morning. She’d just need to call the kennel and ask them to keep her dog a little longer. Nobody else was depending on her return. Nobody would be waiting for her. It was a dismal truth.
“Daniel called Sheriff Corchran in Arcadia,” Luke said tersely, his eyes focused on the road. “ Arcadia ’s only twenty miles from here, so Corchran should get there soon. Daniel trusts him, so you and Alex will go with him, to where it’s safe. Understood?”
Susannah nodded. “Understood.”
He lifted his brows. “You’re not going to argue?”
“Why would I?” she asked evenly. “I don’t have a gun and I’m not a cop. I’m quite content to let you guys do what you do and take the baton hand-off in court.”
“Fine. Do you drive?”
“Can you drive?” he repeated, enunciating each word. “You live in New York. I know New Yorkers that never get a license.”
“I have a license. I don’t drive often, but I can.” In fact, she only drove once a year, always to the same place, north of the city. On those rare days she rented a car.
“Good. If something goes wrong, you get in the car with Alex and drive. Got it?”
“Got it. But what-?” Susannah blinked, her brain not initially accepting what her eyes saw on the road ahead. “Oh my God. Luke, watch-”
Her shout was lost in the squeal of tires as he threw on his brakes. The car fishtailed and swerved, coming to a stop inches from where a body lay in the road.
“Shit.” Luke was out of the car before she caught her breath and hopped out after him.
It was a woman, crumpled and bloody. Susannah thought she was young, but her face was too battered to be certain. “Did you hit her? My God, did we do this?”
“We didn’t hit her,” he said, hunkering down beside the woman. “She’s been beaten.” From his pocket he pulled two pairs of latex gloves. “Here, put these on.” He yanked on his, then ran his hands down the woman’s legs, his touch gentle. When he got to her ankle, he stopped. Susannah leaned forward to see a tattoo of a sheep, barely visible beneath the blood. He lifted the woman’s chin. “Are you Bailey?”
“Yes,” she said, her voice rough and raspy. “My baby, Hope. Is she alive?”
He smoothed Bailey’s tangled hair from her face. “Yes, she’s alive and she’s safe.” He handed Susannah his cell phone. “Call 911 for an ambulance, then call Chase. Tell him we found Bailey. Then call Daniel and tell him to come back.”
Luke ran to his trunk for a first aid kit and Susannah dialed 911, then Special Agent in Charge Chase Wharton, her hands fumbling the keypad in Luke’s oversized gloves.
Bailey grabbed Luke’s arm when he began to bandage the gash on her head that was still bleeding profusely. “Alex?” When Luke looked up the road the way Daniel had gone, Bailey’s eyes filled with new panic. “She was in that car that just went by?”
His eyes narrowed. “Why?”
“He’ll kill her. He has no reason not to. He killed them all. He killed them all.”
He killed them all. Susannah’s heart stumbled as she found Daniel’s number on Luke’s speed dial. Daniel’s phone rang as Luke tried to get Bailey to say more.
Luke squeezed Bailey’s chin. “Who? Bailey, listen to me. Who did this to you?” But the woman didn’t speak. She only rocked in a way that was terrifying to behold. “Bailey. Who did this to you?”
Daniel’s voicemail picked up and Susannah left a terse message. “Daniel, we found Bailey. Fall back and call us.” She turned back to Luke. “I called for an ambulance, and Chase says he’s sending Agent Haywood for backup, but Daniel doesn’t answer.”
Luke stood, a muscle twitching in his cheek. “I can’t leave you here. It’ll be another ten minutes before Corchran gets here. Stay here with her,” he commanded. “I’m going to have him send as much local backup as he can muster.”
Susannah knelt by Bailey and smoothed her gloved hand over the woman’s matted hair. “Bailey, my name is Susannah. Please tell us who did this to you.”
Bailey’s eyes fluttered open. “They have Alex.”
“Daniel’s with her,” Susannah soothed. “He won’t let them harm her.” Whatever her issue with Daniel, Susannah believed that. “Did Deputy Mansfield hurt you?”
Bailey’s nod was faint. “And Toby Granville.” Her lips twisted. “Dr. Granville.”
Toby Granville. The missing part of the surviving trio. Susannah started to rise, to get Luke’s attention, but Bailey grabbed her arm. “There’s a girl. Down there.” Weakly she pointed. “She’s hurt. Help her. Please.”
Susannah stood and peered down the embankment but saw nothing. Wait. She squinted at a light patch just inside the tree line. “Luke. There’s someone down there.”
Susannah heard him shout her name, but she was already scrambling down the embankment, stumbling in her high heels and narrow skirt. It was a person, she could see. She started running. A girl. Oh my God. Oh my God.
The girl lay still as death. Susannah dropped to her knees and pressed her fingers to the girl’s neck, feeling for a pulse, and drew a breath, relieved. She was still alive. Her pulse was thready, but there. She was a teenager, petite and so thin her arms were like sticks. She was so covered in blood it was hard to see where she was wounded.
Susannah started to stand so she could wave Luke down, when the girl’s bloody hand shot up and gripped her forearm. The girl’s eyes flew open and in them Susannah saw fear and intense pain.
“Who… are you?” the girl choked out.
“My name is Susannah Vartanian. I’m here to help you. Please don’t be afraid.”
The girl fell back, gasping. “Vartanian. You came.” Then Susannah’s heart stopped in her chest. The girl was staring up at her like… like she was God. “You finally came.”
Susannah gingerly pulled at the girl’s tattered T-shirt until she saw the bullet hole. Panicked, she let the shirt fall. Oh, God. She’d been shot in the side. Now what?
Think, Vartanian. You remember what to do. Pressure. She needed to put pressure on the wound. Quickly she stripped off her jacket, then her blouse, shivering when the cold air hit her skin. “What’s your name, honey?” she asked as she worked, but the girl said nothing, her eyes again closed.
Susannah lifted the girl’s eyelids. No response, but she still found a pulse. Rapidly she wound her blouse into a tight ball and gently pressed it to the wound. “Luke!”
She heard the footsteps behind her a second before his snarled curse. A look over her shoulder had her eyes widening at the gun in his hand.
“I told you to stay-Holy Mother of God.” His eyes flicked briefly to her lacy bra, then focused on the girl. “Do you know who she is?”
She dropped her eyes back to her hands, pressed to the girl’s side. “No. Bailey told me to help her while you were on the phone. She also said Granville and Mansfield were the ones holding her.”
“Granville.” He nodded. “The town doctor. I met him this week at one of the crime scenes. So he’s the third rapist.”
“I think so.”
“Did the girl say anything to you?”
Susannah frowned. “She said my last name, then ‘You came. You finally came.’ Like she was expecting me.” Then she looked at me like I was God. It made her uneasy. “She’s been shot and she’s lost a lot of blood. Give me your belt. I need to wrap it around her to put pressure on this wound.”
She heard the whistle of his belt being drawn through his belt loops. “Put on your jacket,” he said, “and go wait with Bailey.”
He dropped to one knee, briefly met her eyes. “I’ll take care of her. Whoever did this might still be around. I don’t want Bailey alone.” He hesitated. “Can you handle a gun?”
“Yes,” Susannah answered without hesitation.
“Good.” He drew a pistol from an ankle holster. “Now run. I’ll carry her.”
Susannah grabbed her jacket and shoved her arms in the sleeves. “Luke, she’s just a kid. She’s going to die if we don’t get her help soon.”
“I know,” he said grimly, slipping his belt around the girl’s body. “Now go. I’ll follow.”
Dutton, Friday, February 2, 3:45 p.m.
Luke was tightening the straps on his Kevlar vest when two Arcadia squad cars pulled up. A man got out, taking in the scene. “I’m Corchran. Where’s Vartanian?”
“Right here.” Susannah looked up from where she knelt between Bailey and the girl. The jacket she’d buttoned up to her throat was covered in blood, as was her skirt. The pair of plastic gloves Luke had given her dwarfed her small hands, which continued to put pressure on the hole in the girl’s side. “Where’s the damn ambulance?”
Corchran frowned. “En route. Who are you?”
“This is Susannah Vartanian, Daniel’s sister,” Luke said. “I’m Papadopoulos.”
“So where is Daniel Vartanian?” Corchran asked.
Luke pointed. “He went that way and he’s not answering his cell or his radio.”
Corchran’s brows bunched in obvious concern. “Who are these two?”
“The woman is Bailey Crighton,” Luke said. “The girl’s a Jane Doe. Both are unconscious. I have a chopper coming to airlift them to Atlanta. It’s possible whoever did this is still holed up wherever these two women escaped from.” He drew an uneasy breath. “And I think Daniel’s in trouble. Now that you’re here, I’m going after him.”
Corchran pointed to the two officers from the second squad car. “Officers Larkin and DeWitt. I have six more officers plus another ambulance on the way and reinforcements standing by. Larkin and DeWitt can stay and direct the incoming vehicles. I’m with you.”
“Agent Pete Haywood will be here soon. When he gets here, send him after us.” He nodded to Corchran. “Let’s do this.”
“Agent Papadopoulos, wait.” Susannah handed him his backup pistol. “I don’t need it anymore and you might.” She went back to putting pressure on the girl’s wound.
She’d been calm and courageous and level-headed. When he had a chance to breathe, Luke knew he’d be impressed as hell, once again. And he knew he’d be mentally replaying how she looked kneeling in the forest in her bra. But now he needed to focus. Daniel’s life could depend on it.
“If Bailey comes to, get her to tell any details she can. Number of men inside, doors, weapons she saw. Have Larkin radio us with anything, no matter how small.”
She didn’t look up. “All right.”
“Then let’s roll.”
They approached silently, Luke in his own car and Corchran following behind. He rounded a bend, and Luke’s heart simply froze. “Oh my God,” he whispered. Ambush. Frank Loomis had set Daniel up.
Luke was looking at a concrete bunker, at least a hundred feet long. Behind the bunker he could see the river. In front of the bunker were parked three cars. Two were Dutton squad cars. The third was Daniel’s sedan, its rear crashed up against one of the Dutton squad cars, which was parked across the road, blocking Daniel’s escape.
Both front doors of Daniel’s car stood open and Luke could see Daniel’s driver side window was streaked with blood. Quietly Luke approached, gun drawn, his heart thundering in his ears. He silently motioned Corchran to the passenger side.
Luke silently exhaled the breath he’d held. Daniel’s car was empty. Corchran leaned in the passenger side. “Blood,” he murmured, pointing to the dash. “Not a lot. And hair.” He picked up a few strands from the floorboard. It was long and brown.
“It’s Alex’s,” Luke said quietly, then saw the male body on the ground, about forty feet away. Running, he dropped to one knee next to the body. “It’s Frank Loomis.”
“Dutton’s sheriff.” Corchran looked pained. “He’s involved in all this, too?”
Luke pressed his fingers to Loomis’s throat. “He’s been blocking Daniel’s murder investigation all week. He’s dead. How long before your six guys get here?”
Corchran looked back to the three squad cars pulling around the bend. “Now.”
“Position them around the structure. Weapons on ready and secure cover. I’m going to check for available entrances and exits.” Luke started walking. The bunker was bigger than it looked from the front, an L-shaped offshoot pointing toward the river. There was a window at one end and a door at the other. The small window was too high for even a tall man to see through.
Then he heard the shot from the other side of the wall. He could hear voices, muffled and indistinct. “Corchran,” he hissed into his radio.
“I heard it,” Corchran said. “The second ambulance just pulled up in case we have casualties. I’m coming around the other side.”
Luke heard another shot from inside and started running. He met Corchran at the door. “I’ll take the top, you take the bottom.” He began to move, then jerked back. “Someone’s coming.”
Corchran backed around the corner, waiting. Luke crept away, keeping his eyes on the door. Then it opened and a woman emerged, covered in blood.
Ridgefield , Georgia , Friday, February 2, 4:00 p.m.
“Hurry.” Rocky shoved the last of the girls off the boat. “We don’t have all day.”
She ran her gaze over the five she’d gotten out, assessing their worth. Two were on the scrawny side. One was tall, blond, an athlete. She’d command top price. The other two were reliable performers when they were healthy. If she’d had to pick, at least she’d chosen well. The five girls were kneeling on the ground, pale. One of them had gotten sick all over herself in the hold and the others had turned their faces from her.
That was good. Camaraderie among the assets was bad. They’d had a few girls develop relationships and Rocky had nipped that in the bud. She’d had to sacrifice a top performer to do so, but having Becky beaten to death in view of the others had done the job. Becky had gotten a few of the girls to talk, and talking invariably led to escape planning and that would not be tolerated.
A horse trailer pulled up, white and nondescript, Bobby at the wheel. Rocky braced herself for the storm of temper she knew would erupt once Bobby did a head count.
Bobby got out of the van, eyes narrowed. “I thought you were bringing six. And where are Granville and Mansfield?”
She looked up, meeting Bobby’s cold blue eyes, her heart thundering in her ears. Still, the girls were listening and how she responded would impact how she’d be perceived in the future. Ninety percent of handling these kids was fear and psychological intimidation. They stayed because they were too terrified to leave.
So Rocky held her ground. “Let’s get the cargo loaded and then we’ll talk.”
Bobby stepped back. “Fine. Do it fast.”
Rocky herded the girls into the horse trailer quickly, ensuring their cuffs were fastened to the wall. She slapped a strip of duct tape over their mouths, just in case any of them got the bright idea to yell for help while they were stopped at a traffic light.
Jersey made no eye contact as he stacked the boxes on the hay. When he was finished, he turned to Bobby. “I’ll move whatever else you please. But no more kids.”
“Of course, Jersey,” Bobby said silkily. “I wouldn’t dream of making you feel uncomfortable in any way.” Which Rocky knew meant Bobby would now ask Jersey to move all their human cargo, blackmailing him with what he’d already done.
From the look on his face, Jersey knew it, too. “I mean it, Bobby.” He swallowed hard. “I’ve got granddaughters their age.”
“Then I recommend you keep them out of chat rooms,” Bobby said dryly. “You do of course realize all the other ‘stuff’ you move winds up in kids way younger than these?”
Jersey shook his head. “That’s voluntary. Anybody who pays for smack does it because they want it. This ain’t voluntary.”
Bobby’s smile was sarcastically indulgent. “You have a strange and faulty moral code, Jersey Jameson. You’ll be paid in the usual fashion. Now go.”
Bobby closed the trailer doors and Rocky knew her time was at hand. “Granville and Mansfield are still back there,” she said before Bobby could ask again. She braced herself, closing her eyes. “Along with the bodies of the girls Granville killed.”
There was silence for what seemed like an eternity. Finally Rocky opened her eyes and every ounce of her blood went cold. Bobby’s eyes were sharp and furious.
“I told you to make sure nothing remained.” The words were quietly uttered.
“I know, but-”
“But nothing,” Bobby snapped, then walked away, pacing back and forth. “Why did you leave them behind?”
“Granville was still in the bunker and Mansfield had gone in to get him, to help him bring the bodies out. Jersey and I heard shots from the road. We figured it was better not to be caught with live cargo on our hands.”
Bobby stopped pacing and abruptly turned to rake her with an icy glare. “It would have been better to do your job and leave nothing behind. What else?”
Rocky met Bobby’s glare head-on. “On the way here, I was listening to Jersey ’s scanner. The police found Frank Loomis’s body outside.”
Bobby’s brows bunched. “Loomis? What the hell was he doing there?”
“I don’t know.”
Rocky shook her head. “How many what?”
Bobby grabbed her, lifting her to her toes. “How many bodies did you leave behind?”
Rocky struggled to stay calm. “Six.”
“Are you sure they’re dead? Did you see their bodies?”
She hadn’t, and she should have. She should have watched Granville kill each one and dump the body in the river. Truth was, Rocky had found she had a weak stomach for murder when the rubber hit the road. But Granville was a sick bastard and if he’d done nothing else, he’d killed them all. “Yes, I’m sure.”
Bobby’s grip loosened and Rocky’s feet hit the ground. “All right.”
She swallowed hard, still feeling the pinch of Bobby’s knuckles against her windpipe. “The girls we left behind can’t be identified. We’re safe, unless Granville or Mansfield decide to talk. That is, if they got caught.”
Bobby let go, pushing her away. “I’ll deal with them.”
Rocky stumbled, quickly catching herself. “But what if they did get caught?”
“I will deal with them. Mansfield ’s not the only cop I have on my payroll. What else?”
“I made sure we left no documents. Granville hadn’t shredded them.”
Bobby scowled. “Sonofabitch. I should have killed him years ago.”
Bobby leaned in close and murmured, “I could kill you now. With my bare hands. I could snap your neck in two. And you’d deserve it. You totally fucked up, Rocky.”
Again Rocky’s blood went cold. “But you won’t.” She forced her voice to be steady.
“And why won’t I?”
“Because without me, you wouldn’t have access to the chat rooms and all the ‘pretties’ we have in the pipeline would be lost. Your supply would dry up faster than spit on a fryin’ pan.” She leaned up on her toes until they were chin to chin. “And that’s bad business. So you won’t kill me.”
Bobby stared at her, then laughed bitterly. “You’re right. And you’re lucky. Right now, I need you more than I hate you. But it’s a real close call, kid. One more fuckup and I’ll take the chat room hit. I can find someone to replace you, and the base business will keep me flush enough to stay afloat until I build a new pipeline. When we get to Ridgefield, you get these girls cleaned up. I have a client coming over tonight. Now get in.” Bobby got behind the wheel, cell phone in hand. “Hey, Chili, it’s me. Gotta a coupla jobs for you, but they have to be done fast. Like, in the next hour.”
Rocky could hear Chili’s rather boisterous protests when Bobby held the cell phone at arm’s length with a wince.
“Look, Chili, if you don’t want the job, that’s fine. I’ll find someone else…” Bobby smirked. “I thought so. I need you to torch two houses for me. Usual pay, usual way…” Bobby’s smirk flattened. “All right. Double. But I want them both burned to the ground, nothing saved. Nothing should remain.”
Dutton, Friday, February 2, 4:15 p.m.
“Alex.” Luke rushed the door when Alex Fallon stumbled out of the bunker into the sunlight, covered in blood. “She’s hit. Corchran, get the medics.”
Alex pushed Luke’s hands away. “Not me. Daniel’s been hit. He’s critical. He needs to be airlifted to a level one trauma center. I’ll show you where he is.”
Luke caught her arm as she went back through the door. “He’s alive?”
“Barely,” Alex snapped. “We’re wasting time. Come on.”
“I’ll radio Larkin to have the chopper coming for the girl wait for Vartanian,” Corchran said, motioning for the paramedics. “You go.”
Alex was already running back through the bunker. Luke and two paramedics with a squeaky gurney followed. “Bailey escaped,” Alex said when he caught up with her.
“I know,” Luke said. “I found her. She’s alive. In pretty bad shape, but she’s alive.”
“Thank God. Beardsley’s in here, too.”
“Beardsley? You mean the army chaplain?” Captain Beardsley had been missing since Monday-since he’d gone looking for Bailey in her Dutton home.
“Yeah. He’s alive. He may be able to walk out on his own, but he’s bad, too.”
They got to the room at the end of the long hall and Luke stopped dead in his tracks. Two paramedics pushed around him to get to Daniel, who lay in the corner on his side, a makeshift bandage covering his chest, probably Alex’s handiwork. His face was gray. But he was breathing.
That was more than Luke could say for the three dead bodies littering the floor. Deputy Mansfield lay on his back, two shots to his chest. Mack O’Brien was crumpled in a heap, a neat bullet hole in the middle of his forehead. A third man also lay on his back, five gunshots to his chest and one to his hand. His bloody wrists were cuffed behind his back. His face was gone, blown away by a high-caliber weapon.
A fourth man sat against the wall, breathing hard. His face was covered in blood and grime and his eyes were closed. Luke assumed this was the missing army chaplain, although he looked more like Rambo at the moment.
“Holy Mother of God,” Luke breathed, then looked over at the slim woman who was the only participant in the action still standing. “Alex, did you do all this?”
Alex looked around as if seeing the destruction for the first time. “Most of it. Mansfield shot Daniel, then I killed Mansfield. Then Granville came in.” Grimly she looked over at the man with no face. “Dr. Granville was the third rapist.”
“I know,” Luke said. “Bailey told us. So you killed Granville, too?”
“No, I just wounded him. O’Brien killed Granville. It was O’Brien’s revenge.”
Luke nudged O’Brien with his shoe. “And this one?”
“Well, after O’Brien killed Granville, he put his gun to my head. And then Reverend Beardsley took O’Brien’s gun and Daniel made the head shot.” A sudden grin lit up her face. “I think we did good.”
Her silly grin had Luke smiling back, despite the sick clenching of his stomach at the sound of Daniel’s groan as the medics moved him. Daniel was groaning, which meant he was alive. “I think you did good, too. You took care of all the bad guys, kid.”
But the army chaplain shook his head. “You were too late,” Beardsley said wearily.
Alex instantly sobered. “What are you talking about?”
He killed them all, Bailey had said. Dread swept away any momentary satisfaction Luke had felt. “You stay here with Daniel,” he told Alex. “I’ll go see.”
Alex looked over at the medics. “His vitals are steady?”
“Steady, but weak,” one of the men said. “Who sealed this sucking chest wound?”
“I did,” Alex said. “I’m an ER nurse.”
The medic gave her a nod of approval. “Nice job. He’s breathing on his own.”
Alex’s nod was unsteady. “Good. Let’s go,” she said to Luke. “I need to know.”
Luke supposed she would. Her stepsister, Bailey, had been held in this place for a week and though everyone had told her that Bailey was a junkie who had probably just disappeared, Alex had never given up hope.
Beardsley pushed himself against the wall until he stood. “Then come with me.” He pulled on the first door to their left. It was unlocked, but not empty.
Luke drew a breath, dread becoming horror. A young girl lay on a thin cot, her arm chained to the wall. She was gaunt, her bones clearly visible. Her eyes were wide open and there was a small round hole in her forehead. She looked about fifteen.
He killed them all.
Luke slowly walked to the cot. Dear God, was all he could think. Then the shock of recognition punched his gut. I know her. Dammit, he’d seen this girl before. Pictures scrolled through his mind, vile, obscene pictures that he could never forget. Faces he could never forget.
This face, he knew. Angel. Her abusers, the subhumans who’d paraded her across their Web site, who’d committed acts so depraved… They’d called her Angel.
Bile rose in his throat as he stood, staring down at her. Angel was dead. Emaciated, tortured. You were too late. The shock began to fade as the fury that simmered inside him boiled over and he clenched his fists, trying to keep it inside. Controlled. He couldn’t let the fury keep him from doing his job.
To protect and serve, his mind mocked.
But you didn’t protect her. You failed. You were too late.
Alex dropped to her knees next to the cot, pressing her fingers to the girl’s thin neck. “She’s dead. Maybe an hour ago.”
“They’re all dead,” Beardsley said harshly. “Every one that was left behind.”
“How many?” Luke asked, his voice hard. “How many are dead?”
“Bailey and I were locked up at the other end,” Beardsley said. “I couldn’t see anything. But I counted seven shots.”
Seven shots. The girl Susannah had saved had been shot twice, once in the side. The other bullet had grazed her head. So five other shots. Five dead. Dear God.
“What is this place?” Alex whispered.
“Human trafficking,” Luke said succinctly and Alex stared at him, open-mouthed.
“You mean all these girls…? But why kill them? Why?”
“They didn’t have time to get them all out,” Beardsley said tonelessly. “They didn’t want the ones left behind to talk.”
“Who’s responsible for this?” Alex hissed.
“The man you called Granville.” Beardsley leaned against the wall and closed his eyes and Luke noticed the dark stain on his shirt. It was spreading.
“You got shot, too,” Alex said. “For God’s sake sit down.” She pushed him down and knelt next to him, peeling his shirt away from the wound.
Luke flagged one of the paramedics, a serious-faced kid whose badge said Eric Clark. “Captain Beardsley was hit. We need another gurney.” He visually assessed Daniel from the doorway. His friend was still deathly pale, his chest barely moving. But it was moving. “How is he?”
“As stable as we can get him in here,” Clark replied.
“Then radio for another crew,” Luke said, “and come with me. We have one dead teenager. There may be four more.” Rapidly Luke and the young medic checked every small cell. There were an even dozen, each dark, dirty. Fetid. Each had a filthy, rancid mattress on a rusted cot frame. The one right next to the office was empty, but a sweep of Luke’s flashlight revealed a trail of blood leading from the door. The steady drips of blood continued down the hall. “This is the one that escaped,” he said. “Next cell.”
The next cell held another body, as emaciated as Angel. Luke heard Eric Clark suck in a horrified breath. “Oh my God.” Clark started to rush in, but Luke held him back.
“Careful. For now just see if she’s alive, but don’t touch anything else.”
Clark tried to find a pulse. “She’s dead. What the hell happened here?”
Luke didn’t answer, methodically leading Clark from cell to cell. Out of twelve cells they had five dead. The other seven were empty, but a few of the mattresses were damp, the smell of bodily fluids still heavy in the unventilated room. These rooms had been recently occupied. Now they were not. One cell had belonged to the girl Susannah had saved. That meant up to six had been taken. Six.
There were no leads, no way of knowing how many or who the girls were. No descriptions. Nothing, except the girl Susannah had saved. She might be their only hope.
Like Angel, the other four victims were shackled to the wall of their cells, each staring vacantly at the ceiling, a bullet hole in the center of each forehead. Careful not to disturb the scene, Clark checked each girl. Each time he shook his head.
At the end of the hall, Luke drew a breath, but his insides didn’t calm. It was just as Beardsley had said. No survivors. None except the girl Susannah had discovered in the woods. What had she seen? What did she know?
Clark was breathing hard, visibly shaken. “I’ve never… Oh my God.” He looked up at Luke, his eyes horrified and suddenly very old. “They’re kids. They’re just kids.”
It was a scene that would have turned the stomachs of most seasoned cops. Eric Clark would be forever changed. “Come on. Let’s check this back hall.”
There were only two cells in the back, older and more fetid, if that was possible. One of the doors was open and a body lay across the threshold. Another sweep of Luke’s flashlight had him fighting the urge to gag. The man was dead, gutted like a pig.
The cell was otherwise empty, but Luke could see a hole had been dug under the wall to the next cell and realized that Beardsley had pulled Bailey from the other cell through the hole and together they’d escaped.
“Do we break down the door?” Clark asked unsteadily.
“No, it’s empty. Go back to Vartanian. I’ll call the ME for the dead men.” Luke swallowed. “And the girls.”
The innocents. Young girls the same age as his nieces. They should be going to school dances and giggling about boys. Instead they’d been tortured, starved, and God only knew what else. And now they were dead. They’d been too late.
I can’t do this anymore. I can’t look at this kind of depravity anymore.
Yes, you can. You will. You have to. He tightened his jaw and straightened his spine. Then you’ll find who did this. It’s the way you’ll stay sane.
The medic went back to Daniel and Luke returned to the first cell where Alex knelt next to Beardsley, her hands pressing fresh gauze pads to his side.
“How many girls did they get out?” Luke asked quietly.
Beardsley’s eyes were weary. “Five or six. I heard them talking about a boat.”
“I’ll notify the local police and the water patrol,” Luke said. “And the Coast Guard.”
Out in the hall, Daniel was being wheeled out on one gurney as a second gurney was brought in for Beardsley. Alex thanked him for saving her life, then left the small cell to join Daniel. Luke took her place, crouching next to Beardsley, careful not to get in the way of the paramedics. “I need to know exactly what you saw and heard.”
Beardsley grimaced as he was lifted to the gurney. “I wasn’t that close to the office, so I didn’t hear much. They kept Bailey and me in the cells at the other end of the bunker. Kept us separated. Every day they took us to the office. For questioning.”
“You mean the room where Mansfield and the others died?”
“Yeah. They wanted Bailey’s key. They beat her and…” His raspy voice broke. “Oh, God. Granville tortured her.” He gritted his teeth fiercely, anguish in his eyes. “All because of a key. You have no idea how much I wanted to kill him.”
Luke looked over at Angel, dead on the cot, then thought of Susannah Vartanian and all the other innocents victimized by Dr. Granville and his club. “Yeah, I think I do.”
He needed to call his boss. They needed to regroup. They needed a plan.
They needed Susannah’s girl to survive.
Luke followed Daniel’s gurney out into the sunshine. He was met by Agent Pete Haywood, one of Chase’s team. “What happened in there?” Pete demanded.
Luke gave Pete the short version, Pete’s eyes growing larger with each detail. “Now I’ve got to talk to that girl. She might be the only one who knows who took the others.”
“You go,” Pete said. “I’ll stay. Call me with news on Daniel.”
“Secure the scene. Nobody in and radio silence until we inform Chase and the Bureau.” He started running toward his car, dialing Chase Wharton as the medics loaded Daniel into the waiting ambulance.
“Goddammit,” Chase snarled before Luke could speak. “I’ve been trying to get you for twenty minutes. What the hell’s going on down there?”
The ambulance pulled away. “Daniel’s alive, but critical. Alex is unhurt. O’Brien, Mansfield, Granville, and Loomis are dead.” Luke filled his lungs with fresh air, but the taste of death remained on his tongue. “And we have one hell of a situation.”
Dutton, Friday, February 2, 4:40 p.m.
Susannah watched the medics load the girl into the helicopter. “Can I ride with her?”
The older of the two medics shook his head. “Against regs. Plus there’s no room.”
Susannah frowned. “An ambulance took Bailey. The girl’s the only one in there.”
The medics shared a look. “We’re waiting for another patient, ma’am.”
Susannah had opened her mouth to ask who when another ambulance appeared, Luke’s car behind it. Luke jumped out of his car at the same time Alex Fallon climbed out of the ambulance. She was covered in blood, but she appeared unhurt.
“What happened?” Susannah demanded. Then she could see for herself. Daniel.
Her brother was strapped to the stretcher, an oxygen mask covering his face. She watched, frozen, as they wheeled him past and loaded him into the waiting helicopter.
He’d always seemed strong, invincible. Now, strapped to a stretcher, he seemed frail. And in that moment, all she had left in the world. Don’t die. Please don’t die.
Luke put his arm around her shoulders, lifting her, and she realized her knees had gone weak. “He’s alive,” Luke said into her ear. “He’s in bad shape, but he is alive.”
Thank God. “Good,” she said. She started to move away from Luke, whose support suddenly seemed too important, but he grabbed her arms, looking her in the eyes.
“The girl. Did she say anything else?”
“She regained consciousness only a minute or two. She kept saying, ‘He killed them all,’ then asked for her mother. What did she mean? What happened back there?”
Luke’s eyes were intense. “Did she say anything else? Anything. Think.”
“No, nothing else. I’m sure. She started gasping for air and then the medics intubated her. Dammit, Luke, what happened? What happened to Daniel?”
“I’ll tell you on the way.” He guided her to the front seat, then helped Alex into the back. “Maybe Jane Doe will be awake by the time she gets to the ER.” He gave Susannah a sharp glance as he drove away. “Do you have any open cuts?”
“No.” The dread in her stomach twisted like a snake. “Why?”
“There were five others back there, other teenage girls. All dead. Looks like some kind of human-trafficking operation. Somebody moved some live girls away from here. But we don’t know who. Maybe Jane Doe is the only one who does.”
“Oh my God.” That her girl had been so victimized… Then Luke’s query hit home. “We’re covered in her blood,” she said quietly. They’d worn gloves, but Susannah’s jacket was blood-soaked, as was Luke’s shirt. “If she’s got anything, we’re exposed.”
“They’ll test us for everything when we get to the ER,” Alex said. “They’ll be more worried about hepatitis than HIV. We’ll get gamma globulin shots for the hepatitis.”
“How long for HIV test results these days?” Susannah asked levelly.
“Twenty-four hours,” Alex answered.
“Okay.” Susannah settled in her seat, willing her stomach to settle. Twenty-four hours wasn’t too bad. Faster turnaround than the week it took last time I got tested.
“Luke,” Alex said suddenly, “Granville said something, right before he died.”
Excuse me? Susannah twisted around to look at her again. “Granville’s dead?”
“Mack O’Brien killed him.” Alex studied Susannah’s face, then her eyes flickered in sympathy. “I’m sorry. You never got to confront him.”
Daniel’s new lady friend was perceptive. “Well, that still leaves two.”
Alex shook her head. “No. Mansfield ’s dead. I killed him after he shot Daniel.”
Gratification warred with frustration. “Did they at least suffer?”
“Not enough,” Luke said grimly. “Alex, what did you mean? What did he say?”
“He said, ‘You think you know everything, but you don’t. There were others.’ ”
Luke nodded. “That makes sense. Somebody kidnapped the remaining girls. There had to have been others working with him.”
Alex shook her head slowly. “No, it wasn’t like that. He said, ‘Simon was mine. But I was another’s.’ ” She grimaced. “Like it was some kind of… cult or something. Creepy.”
I was another’s. A nasty shiver raced down Susannah’s spine as a memory nagged, an overheard conversation, so long ago.
“Did he say who the others might be?” Luke was asking.
“He might have, but that’s when O’Brien came in and shot his head off,” Alex replied.
“Tick,” Susannah murmured and Luke turned to her with a puzzled frown.
“What did you say?”
“Tick,” she repeated, remembering now. Now it made sense. “I heard them.”
“Simon and someone else. A boy. I didn’t see his face. They were in Simon’s room, talking. Arguing. The other boy had apparently bested Simon at some game and Simon accused him of cheating. But the boy said he’d been taught how to win by another.” Mentally she put herself back to that day. “Something to the effect that he knew how to anticipate his opponent’s moves, manipulate his opponent’s response. Simon was still going to beat him up. But the boy convinced him to play another game.”
Alex leaned forward. “And then?”
“Simon lost again. Simon was a bully, but he was also very smart. He wanted to learn how the other boy had done it. I think he was already trying to figure out how to use the skill. He demanded to be taken to the person who’d taught the boy. The boy said it was his tick. His master. I thought at first he was joking, and Simon did, too, but the other boy was very serious. He spoke so… reverentially. Simon was intrigued.”
“So what happened?” Luke asked.
“The boy said if Simon went with him, he’d be forever changed. That he’d ‘belong to another.’ Those were his exact words. I remember because it made my skin cold and I shivered even though it had to have been a hundred degrees in… where I was. Then Simon laughed and said something like, ‘Yeah, yeah. Let’s go.’ ”
“How did you overhear them?” Luke asked.
“I was hiding.” Her wince was involuntary.
“In your hidey-hole?” His voice was gentle, but his jaw was taut.
“Yeah.” She drew a breath. “In my hidey-hole. When I was hiding behind the closet I could hear every word that was said in Simon’s room.”
“Why were you hiding that day, Susannah?” Luke asked.
“Because earlier in the day Simon had told me to be home. He said he had a friend coming who wanted to ‘meet’ me. I was only eleven, but even then I understood what that meant. It was a good thing I’d hid. The boy said he’d take Simon to his tick, but he wanted to visit my room first. He was very angry when I wasn’t there.”
“Who?” Luke asked. “The boy or Simon?”
“Simon didn’t know about the hidey-hole at that point?”
“I guess not, but I’m not sure. He might have known, but let me think he didn’t so I’d think I was safe. Simon was big on mind games like that. Being able to manipulate his opponent’s responses would have been very attractive to him.”
Luke frowned. “What the hell is a tick anyway? Like an insect?”
“I don’t know. I tried looking it up in the library the next day, but couldn’t find it. And I couldn’t risk asking anyone.”
“Why not?” Alex asked warily.
She hesitated, then shrugged. “Because my father would have found out.”
“Your father wouldn’t let you talk to librarians?” Luke asked, very carefully.
“My father wouldn’t let me talk to anyone.”
Luke opened his mouth, then closed it again, opting against saying whatever was on his mind. “Okay. So is it possible the boy that day was Toby Granville?”
“Highly possible. Toby and Simon were friends back then. Simon had just lost his leg and most of the kids were spooked by his prosthesis, but Toby thought it was cool.”
“So let’s assume it was Toby. He had a mentor, a teacher. Someone who instructed him in the art of manipulation. The other he belonged to. His tick. It’s something.”
“That was years ago,” Susannah said doubtfully. “That person may not even be alive. And if he is, he might not be Granville’s partner.”
“True,” Luke said. “But until our warrant for Granville’s house is signed or Jane Doe wakes up, it’s all we’ve got.” He took out his cell phone. “Susannah, call Chase and tell him what you told us. Ask him to start researching ‘tick.’ ”
Susannah obeyed, taking her laptop from her briefcase. Chase had gone to meet Daniel’s helicopter. By the time she’d explained to his clerk, her laptop was awake.
“Any word on Daniel?” Alex asked expectantly.
Susannah shook her head, quelling the pitch of her stomach. He’s strong. He’ll be fine. The girl’s status should worry her more. “Not yet. Chase’s clerk said the helicopter is expected to land in about fifteen minutes. Until then, we can keep busy.”
Luke glanced at her laptop. “What are you doing?”
“Your research. I have a wireless card.”
He looked impressed. “Cool. So google ‘tick’-with a k, c, and ck-and ‘master.’ ”
“I already did.” She waited impatiently, then frowned at the result. “Well, ‘tik’ is crystal meth in South Africa. And it means ‘land and sky’ in Cambodian. But nothing else pops. Unless…” Cambodian jogged another memory to the front of her mind, a page from a college textbook.
“Unless?” Luke prompted.
“Unless it’s just pronounced ‘tick,’ ” Susannah said, revising her search. Pronounced tick master, she typed and nodded at the result. “It’s a Vietnamese word, spelled t-h-í-c-h. A respectful title for a Buddhist monk.” She looked at Luke, dubious. “But Buddhism is all about peace and harmony. That would have to be one hell of a twisted monk.”
“True, but one twisted monk is a hell of a lot more than we had a half hour ago.” His brows lifted. “Well done, grasshopper.”
She pushed back the sudden flutter of pride. “Thank you.”
Dutton, Friday, February 2, 6:00 p.m.
Charles turned off his police scanner and sank against the cushions of the sofa in his upstairs parlor. He’d known this day was coming. Still, the news was hard to bear.
Toby Granville was dead. Dead. His jaw hardened. Dead at the hands of an amateur like Mack O’Brien. Mack had shown imagination and cruelty, but no finesse. Which was why Mack was dead, by a bullet from Daniel Vartanian’s gun. At least Toby had not died at Daniel’s hands. That would have been impossible to bear.
Toby. He’d been such a brilliant boy. Always seeking, searching. Always experimenting. Philosophy, mathematics, religion, human anatomy. Toby had been first in his class at med school. Why wouldn’t he be, when he’d done his own dissections right in Charles’s own basement? No cadavers for Charles’s protégé. No, sir. Charles had provided his pupil with live subjects and Toby had derived such joy from their use.
Charles thought of the subject strapped to the table in his basement at this very moment. Toby hadn’t finished with him. The subject still had secrets to spill. I guess I’ll have to finish him myself. Anticipation shivered down his spine despite his sadness.
Because Toby was dead, and under the most dire of circumstances. There would be no proud funeral procession, no well-attended service in the church, no tears in Dutton’s cemetery. Toby Granville had died in shame and would receive no honors after death.
Charles stood. So I’ll see you off, my young friend. From his closet he pulled the robe that had first caught Toby’s attention. Donning it, he lit the candles around the room, sat in the special chair he’d had made just for his sessions with Toby. The boy had been so easy to lure, yet so hard to keep. But Toby had served his master well.
Charles began the intonations that meant less than nothing to him, but that had opened the world of the occult to a thirteen-year-old with a thirst for knowledge and for blood. Charles believed none of it, but Toby had and it had made him sharper, crueler. Perhaps, ultimately, it had fed his mental instability. Farewell, Toby. I will miss you.
“Now,” he murmured aloud. “Who can I find to take your place?” There were always others, waiting, anxious to serve. Charles smiled. To serve me, of course.
He rose, blew out the candles, and put the robes away. He’d use them again very soon. His clients who wished to see signs and portents liked him to dress the part.
Atlanta , Friday, February 2, 6:45 p.m.
Luke stood at the glass, staring into the interview room where two men sat at the table in silence. One was Dutton’s mayor, Garth Davis, the other, his attorney. Garth’s unsmiling face was bruised and the right sleeve of his coat was dusty with red Georgia clay.
Luke glanced over at Hank Germanio, the agent who’d arrested Davis earlier that day. “Did he resist arrest?”
Germanio shrugged. “Not too much.”
Luke thought of Susannah and Alex’s twin sister and all the other women Garth Davis had violated thirteen years before and was relieved he hadn’t been the one to arrest the man. One little bruise wasn’t nearly enough. “Too bad.”
“I know. I kinda wished he had.”
“Has he said anything?”
“Only to ask for his lawyer. Slimy little SOB. The lawyer, too.”
Luke checked his watch. “Chloe said she’d meet me here.”
“And she has.” State’s Attorney Chloe Hathaway closed the outer door. She was a tall, curvy blond with an eye for style, but anyone who believed that’s all she was, was mistaken. A shrewd mind ticked behind her pretty face, and Luke was happy she was on this case. “Sorry I’m late. I’ve been drafting your warrants for Granville’s, Mansfield ’s, and Davis ’s houses and businesses.”
“Are they signed?” Luke asked.
“Not yet. I wanted my boss to check them over. I don’t want anything being excluded when you all finally search. The fact that you have a doctor, a deputy, and a lawyer-turned-mayor presents all kinds of confidentiality issues depending on how you search and what you find. I don’t want any evidence slipping through our fingers.”
“I don’t want five kidnapped girls to slip through our fingers, either, Chloe,” Luke said, trying to control his impatience. “The longer it takes to search Granville’s house, the farther away his partner could be.”
“I understand,” Chloe said. “I really do. But once you find the partner, you don’t want to lose him on an illegal search, do you?”
Luke gritted his teeth. She was right, but so was he. “How long?”
“An hour. Two tops.”
“Two hours? Chloe.”
“Luke. Let’s focus on Davis for now. Out of seven original rape club members, he’s the only one left alive. What do we have to tie him to these five murdered girls, besides the photos you found in Daniel’s old house?”
“Only his social connection to Granville and Mansfield. They were all community leaders. We haven’t had an opportunity to question any of his constituents, neighbors, coworkers, anything.”
“How about his family?”
“His wife left town with their two kids yesterday when one of Garth’s cousins was murdered by Mack O’Brien. She was afraid for their safety and said Garth wouldn’t come to the police. We don’t know where she is, exactly. Her sister-in-law, Kate Davis, told us Garth’s wife was going ‘somewhere out west.’ ”
“Well, once this hits the airwaves, she’ll know it’s safe and she’ll probably come back,” Chloe said. “What about Davis ’s parents, siblings?”
“Parents are both dead, one sister’s living-Kate Davis. We’ll talk to her again.”
Chloe sighed. “So we don’t have anything.”
“Not yet,” Luke admitted.
“Garth Davis might not know anything about Granville’s side business. If he does, I’m expecting that his attorney will want to cut some kind of deal on the thirteen-year-old rapes.”
Luke had thought the same thing. “And will you?” he asked, mildly.
She shook her head. “I sure don’t want to. And I won’t even consider a deal without knowing what information he has and if it’s genuine. I’ve got a dozen victims to consider here. They deserve their day in court. But…” She let the thought trail.
Thirteen, Luke thought, but didn’t correct her. Susannah’s name hadn’t been on Daniel’s original list because he hadn’t known at the time. Luke decided to let Susannah contact Chloe on her own. One more victim would not make Garth Davis any less guilty. “But you might have to cut him a deal.” The thought made him sick. “We can search his house, his office. Find out if he had any dealings with Granville.”
“That’s the kicker, Luke,” she said. “And that’s why I’ve worded these warrants so carefully. I can only include on the warrant evidence you find relevant to the rapes unless I have probable cause to link Davis to the trafficking. If you find anything in your search that implicates him, I can’t use it otherwise.”
“At least we’d be a step closer to finding the girls.”
“That’s true, if he has something incriminating in his home or office. You’d have to find it first. And I know I don’t have to tell you this, Luke,” she added gently, “but the clock is ticking. We’re in a damned if we do, damned if we don’t position.”
“I don’t want this bastard to walk, Chloe. I don’t care what he knows.”
“You won’t know what he knows until you ask him,” Germanio inserted reasonably.
Chloe adjusted her briefcase strap on her shoulder. “Also true. So let’s ask, Papa.”
Garth Davis waited until Luke and Chloe sat at the table before opening his mouth. “This is a ludicrous charge,” he said. “I raped no one. Not now, not thirteen years ago.”
Luke said nothing, simply sliding a folder across the table. It contained only four of the photos graphically implicating a teenaged Davis. Davis took one look at the pictures, drew a breath, and closed the folder, stone-faced and pale.
His attorney scowled. “Where did you get these? They’re doctored. Obviously.”
“They’re genuine,” Luke said. “These were the first I came across while sorting through the several hundred we have in our possession.” He picked up one of the pictures and studied it. “You’ve aged well, Mayor Davis. Some men might have developed a gut in thirteen years. You’re in as fine a shape now as you were then.”
Davis ’s stare was hate-filled. “What do you want?”
“Garth,” his attorney cautioned.
Davis ignored him. “I said, what do you want?”
Luke leaned forward. “To see you rot in jail for the rest of your miserable life.”
“Agent Papadopoulos,” Chloe murmured and Luke sat back in his chair, still staring Davis down. “We have fifteen victims here. Fifteen counts of your client engaged in nonconsensual sexual relations with minor females, drugged and helpless. At a mandatory ten a pop, that does equate to the remainder of your natural life, Mayor Davis.”
“I said,” Davis said through his teeth, “what do you want?”
“Tell him what you want, Agent Papadopoulos,” she said.
Luke watched Davis ’s face. “Tell me about Toby Granville,” he said, and for an instant saw a flicker of fear. Then it was gone, replaced with contempt.
“He’s dead.” His smile was smug. “Kind of bad for you.”
Luke’s smile was congenial even though he wanted to knock the smirk off Davis ’s face. “One could say that. One could also say that Granville’s death concentrates the venom of your surviving victims. More hate to focus on you. You’re the only one left of the seven. You’ll be taking the fall for the other six bastards, Mayor Davis. And I guarantee, your surviving victims will be pissed, and totally out for their pound of your flesh. Yours and yours only. Because you’re not dead. Kind of bad for you.”
Davis ’s attorney whispered something in his ear. Davis ’s jaw went taut, then his expression smoothed, almost as if he’d slipped into his politician skin. “Granville was the town doctor. Coughs, colds, skinned knees. That’s all I know.”
“Come on, Mayor Davis,” Chloe said. “You know better than that.”
Davis and his attorney whispered again. “We want a deal.”
She shook her head. “Not till I hear what you’ve got.”
Davis ’s attorney sat back. “Then he’ll have no leverage.”
Luke spread the four photos across the table. “I have dozens of these, with Mayor Davis smiling in every one as he rapes another girl.” He met Davis ’s eye once more. “You have no leverage. You have only the mercy we opt to give you. And right now, the quality of my mercy is very strained indeed. So stop wasting my time.”
Davis glanced at his attorney and the attorney nodded. “The club was Toby and Simon’s idea. It started out as a game, but then took on a life of its own.”
“Did you ever meet or talk to or see anyone other than the club members?”
“Where did these rapes occur?”
“Depended on the weather. When it was warm, outside. When it got cold, indoors.”
“Where?” Luke asked again, more harshly. “I want a location.”
“Different houses, depended on whose parents weren’t home at the time.”
“Was there ever a time when you used a house or other structure not belonging to one of the club members?” Luke pushed.
“Once. We’d had it all planned to go to Toby’s house, but Jared O’Brien’s mother came down with something and canceled the party she was throwing that night. That meant all our parents would be home, so we needed another spot. Toby found us one.”
Luke pushed out a breath. “Where and to whom did it belong?”
“I don’t know and I don’t know. Toby had us all get in the back of a van he’d borrowed from his mother’s gardener. No windows and he hung a sheet up, so we couldn’t see out the front. Simon sat in the back, making sure nobody peeked. And with Simon on guard, nobody peeked. He was a crazy SOB, even then.”
“How long did you drive?”
Something cagey moved in Davis ’s eyes. “I don’t remember.”
Chloe’s annoyed huff let Luke know she’d seen it, too. “I think you do, Mr. Davis.”
“I’m ready to go back to holding.” Garth turned to his attorney. “Keep looking.”
Keep looking for what? Or who. “Must be rough, having your wife desert you that way,” Luke said mildly. “Not knowing where your kids are, or if they’re okay. Two boys, right? Seven and four. Awfully little to be on the run. So many dangers out there.”
A muscle in Davis ’s unbruised cheek twitched. “You know where she is.”
Luke lifted a shoulder. “I don’t remember.”
Davis sat down. “I want to see my wife and my children.”
“I may be able to arrange that,” Luke said quietly. “How far did you drive that night?”
Davis ’s cheeks hollowed as his eyes grew ice cold. “Less than an hour. It was a cabin. Up in the mountains.”
“That’s all?” Luke asked. “That’s not nearly enough.”
“It was a goddamned cabin, all right?” Davis snarled, eyes blazing. “It had a fireplace and a kitchen. Like every other goddamn cabin up there.”
“Any knickknacks, anything to tell you whose it might have been?”
Garth’s eyes grew cold once more. “Yeah. And you’ll get it when I see my kids. And not before. I don’t know why that cabin’s so important to you, Agent Papadopoulos, but it is and that’s all the leverage I’ve got right now.” He stood up. “I’m done.”
Chloe waited until they were back in the viewing anteroom. “You mind telling me what that was all about?”
Luke sighed. “Granville’s last words were ‘Simon was mine. But I was another’s.’ Someone was mentoring him. Guiding him. Maybe even pulling his strings.”
“Could be his trafficking partner,” Chloe said. “Or not. Could have been the owner of that cabin. Or not.” Then she smiled. “But that was a good Hail Mary, Luke. You got us some leverage without dicking around with a plea. I may still deal, but I’d rather hold that card as long as I can.”
Over my dead body that asshole gets a deal, Luke thought. “Thanks. I only hope we can get Mrs. Davis back here before those missing girls are so far gone we never find them.” He turned to Agent Germanio, who’d been watching the entire interview. “What was Garth doing when you picked him up?”
“He was on the phone with the airport.” Germanio looked at Chloe. “Just don’t ask.”
Chloe rolled her eyes. “Hank, how many times do I have to tell you the phone is off limits until I get a damn warrant?”
Hank was unapologetic. “I told you not to ask.”
“So who was he talking to? When you hit redial,” she added in a mutter.
“A lady named Kira Laneer. She works check-in at one of the smaller airlines.”
“Sounds like a stripper’s name,” Chloe groused. “I’ll find out if Mrs. Davis and her boys boarded a flight, either yesterday or today. You keep away from Kira Laneer until I get a warrant for Davis ’s phone records.”
“Did you get enough to beef up the warrant to cover anything we find in Davis ’s house linking him to trafficking?” Luke asked, unsurprised when she shook her head.
“No. But look anyway.”
“I will. Pete Haywood is waiting with his search team at Granville’s house for your call. As soon as that judge signs his name, call Pete and let him know he can go in. It’s been almost three hours since we discovered the girls were missing.”
“If they’re headed out of the country, they’ve got a good head start,” Germanio said.
“I know,” Luke said grimly. “We’ve posted advisories with the Coast Guard and border patrol, but until we get a description, either on the partner or the girls, we got nothin’. I’m going back to the bunker and see what Ed and the crime lab have found.”
Atlanta , Friday, February 2, 6:45 p.m.
Susannah stood at the hospital waiting room window, trying to block out the constant stream of activity behind her. It seemed every cop in Atlanta had heard about Daniel and had come to sit with the family. Her lips lifted, but bitterly. She was the family. I’m it. For all the good that does either of us.
Everyone who came wanted to tell her how wonderful her brother was, how brave. How honorable. Susannah’s face hurt from the smile she’d forced while thanking each cop for their kind words. Alex had arrived a half hour ago, after visiting her stepsister, Bailey, so Susannah was letting her greet the well-wishers and retell the story of how Daniel had yet again vanquished the evil foe.
And Susannah had escaped to this window. From here she could see city lights, the movement of cars as rush hour subsided. If she pretended hard enough, she could believe she was home in New York and not here in Atlanta caught up in this nightmare.
Because after the initial adrenaline of the drive from Dutton, of the search for thích, reality had intruded. She’d been poked with needles, fore and aft. They’d taken her blood and shot her in the behind, just as Alex had said they would. Some kind nurse had given her scrubs to wear as her clothes had been ruined.
Luke’s boss, Chase Wharton, had questioned her about the events of the afternoon. The girl was in surgery, never having regained consciousness in the helicopter.
Susannah thought that was just as well. Her heart quailed thinking of the horrors the girl had seen, endured. Her heart froze thinking of the girls Granville’s partner had spirited away. What they’d be subjected to if they weren’t found quickly.
She didn’t need imagination to know what they’d do to those girls. She’d seen the aftermath of prostitution and rape. Up close and very personal. The hum of activity around her faded as her mind brought back one very personal victim. There had been blood that day, too. And a body battered beyond saving.
Darcy, I’m sorry. I was afraid. I failed you. But Susannah knew her apologies were worthless. Darcy would never hear them. Darcy would never hear anything ever again.
The soft voice yanked her back from an old nightmare to this new one. She straightened, ready to greet yet another well-wisher. This one was a petite blonde.
“I’m Felicity Berg,” she said. “I’m with the medical examiner’s office.”
Susannah’s mouth dropped open and the woman quickly patted her arm.
“Nobody’s dead,” Dr. Berg said, then winced. “Well, that’s not true. Lots of people are dead, actually. But not Daniel.” She leaned closer. “And not the girl you saved.”
“How did you know?” Susannah asked. Chase and Luke were keeping the girl’s existence as closely guarded a secret as possible.
“Luke called me, told me what happened this afternoon at the bunker. We’ve had a busy week, with Mack O’Brien’s victims, and now these. They’ll start arriving soon and I won’t have a chance to see you after that. I just wanted to tell you that your brother is a kind man. I’m praying for him. And for you.”
Kind. No matter what Daniel had done, and what he had not, that he was a kind person was a fact Susannah could never deny. Her throat tightened and she had to swallow before the words could escape her throat. “Thank you.”
Dr. Berg glanced at the noisy cops. “My mother was here for surgery last year, and the waiting room was one big party with her friends from bingo night and her clogging class.” She made a face. “Let’s not even discuss the friends from Chippendale night.”
Susannah smiled and Dr. Berg smiled back, shyly pleased. “I escaped to the chapel,” Berg confided. “It’s always quiet there.”
Suddenly, that seemed the natural place to be. “Thank you.”
Dr. Berg squeezed her arm. “Take care. And all those loud guys? They’d go to the wall for you, just because you’re Daniel’s sister. If you need anything, don’t hesitate to ask them. I’d say you could ask me, but…” She sobered. “I have a job to do.”
So do I. It was why she’d boarded a plane that morning. She still needed to give her statement regarding the rapes thirteen years before. Everyone had been so focused on the events of the bunker, there hadn’t been time to discuss events of the past. But before she spoke with the state’s attorney, she needed to call her boss in New York. Her involvement would likely make the news. He deserved to hear about it from her and not CNN. “Your job may be the hardest of all, Dr. Berg.”
“No. Luke’s will be. Once we identify all the victims, he’ll have to tell their families that their daughters are never coming home. The chapel’s on the third floor.”
Friday, February 2, 7:00 p.m.
I have to get out of here. Ashley Csorka clutched the towel around her body. She was no longer in the concrete hellhole, but this was no better. It was a house, but it was a prison just the same. There were no windows in this room. There weren’t even any air vents, even if she’d been small enough to fit into one, which she wasn’t. The house had to be a hundred years old. The bathtub was old and cracked, but surprisingly clean.
She was clean now, dammit. The woman had forced her to bathe. Ashley’s dad had always told her if she was attacked to throw up on herself-it was one way to deter a would-be rapist. When they’d been shoved into the boat she hadn’t needed to force her stomach to spew-she’d never been able to tolerate boats. Her father had always found that strange, seeing as how she was such a strong swimmer.
Dad. Ashley struggled not to cry. Her dad would be looking for her. But he’d never find her here. I’m sorry, Daddy. I should have listened to you. All his restrictions and rules now seemed so right. But now it was too late.
They’ll whore me. I’ll die here. No. Don’t give up. She made herself think of her dad and little brother. They needed her. Her team needed her. A sob rose in her throat. I’m not supposed to be here. I’m supposed to go to the Olympics.
So find a way out. Any way out.
Someone was looking for them. She’d heard the woman talking to the crazy doctor. Someone named Vartanian had been coming with the state cops. Please find us.
She had first wakened from that drugged sleep chained to the wall like an animal. But she’d managed to leave something behind, scratched into the metal cot frame at some personal cost. She ran her tongue over her teeth, felt the raw edge of her broken incisor. Please find my name. Tell my dad I’m still alive. And find me. Find all of us, before it’s too late.
Dutton, Friday, February 2, 7:45 p.m.
Luke stood at the door to the bunker, ignoring the reporters’ shouts for a comment. TV news vans parked along the road and a helicopter made sweeps of the area.
Chase Wharton would be giving a press conference in less than an hour in which he’d relate all the events of the day, including the murders of the five dead teenagers and the abductions of the unidentified others. Until then, they’d maintained radio silence on everything but the capture and death of O’Brien, Granville, Mansfield, and Loomis, as well as the unidentified guard Luke had found at the far end of the bunker.
Five dead, guilty men. Five dead innocent girls. His mama would say the numbers were an omen. He wasn’t entirely sure she’d be wrong.
But they’d had some luck, managing to get the helicopter bearing Daniel and the girl off to Atlanta before the first reporter arrived. They hoped to keep the surviving Jane Doe’s existence under wraps until she woke and told them exactly what had happened.
After the press conference, they’d move the bodies of the five teens to the morgue and the media would be like rabid dogs. Luckily Chase was handling the media. Luke always came too close to telling them all to fuck off, and that wouldn’t do.
“You can go in, Agent Papadopoulos,” the officer guarding the door said. He was a state trooper, one of many called in to maintain security.
“Thanks. I’m trying to work up the energy.” More like the nerve. They were still in there, waiting. Five dead girls. You have to face them. But he didn’t want to.
The trooper’s face creased in sympathy. “Any news on Agent Vartanian?”
“He’s okay.” Alex had called him with the news. So get in there and get this done. It had been three hours since he’d first entered the bunker. In that time they’d moved the dead men to the morgue. They’d fielded questions from reporters who still thought the capture and killing of Mack O’Brien was the day’s big story. How little they knew.
Hell. Mack O’Brien was old news by now. But in a twisted way, it was O’Brien who had blown the lid off Granville and his depravity, both now and thirteen years before.
He still stood at the bunker door. Stop procrastinating, Papa.
Which of course he was. Every time he closed his eyes he could see Angel’s dead eyes staring. He didn’t want to see her again. But rarely did Luke get what he wanted. He’d opened the bunker door when his cell rang. “Papadopoulos,” he said.
“I know,” the familiar voice said dryly. “You said you would call. You never called.”
Luke thought of his mother sitting by the phone, waiting for word on Daniel, who she considered her adopted son. “I’m sorry, Mama. I’ve been a little busy. Daniel’s fine.”
“Well, that I now know, no thanks to you,” she said mildly, and he knew she wasn’t angry. “Demi finally came to get the children and I drove myself to the hospital.”
“You did? On the highway?” His mother was terrified of I-75 during rush hour.
“I did. On the highway,” she affirmed, sounding pleased with herself. “I am sitting in the ICU waiting room with Daniel’s Alex. She’s strong, no? She’ll be good for Daniel.”
“I think so, too. So what did the doctor tell you, exactly?”
“He said Daniel is in the ICU, but stable, and you can visit him tomorrow.”
“That’s good. How will you get home, Mama?” She didn’t drive well at night.
“Your brother will come get me when he closes up his store for the night. You do what you need to do, Luka, and do not worry about your mama. Bye-bye.”
You do what you need to do. “Wait. Have you seen Daniel’s sister yet?”
“Of course. I met her at her parents’ funeral last week.”
“No, I mean she’s there, right now, in the hospital.”
“She is hurt, too?” his mother asked, alarmed.
“No, Mama. She may be waiting with another patient who was also hurt today.”
“But Daniel is her brother,” she said, her ire clearly up now. “She should be here.”
Luke thought of the expression on Susannah’s face when they’d loaded Daniel into the helicopter. She’d looked stricken and conflicted. And so incredibly alone.
“It’s a little more complicated than that, Mama.”
“Complicated! There’s nothing compli- Oh, wait.” Her voice abruptly slid from outraged to approving. “Alex has told me Daniel’s sister is in the chapel. That is good.”
Luke’s brows lifted. Somehow the thought of Susannah Vartanian in a chapel didn’t quite click. “Make sure she knows about Daniel, please.”
“Of course, Lukamou,” she said quietly, and the endearment soothed his soul.
“Thanks, Mama.” Luke straightened his shoulders and entered the bunker. A heavy quiet hung over the place, broken only by an occasional hushed voice. Shadows filled the hallways, but the rooms in which the crime lab teams worked were brighter than day, lit by CSU’s big lights. Ed Randall’s people knew their jobs and did them expertly.
Luke slowly reexamined each cell as he passed, the horror of looking at the five dead teenagers freezing his gut all over again. Their hands and feet had been bagged by the ME, and a body bag sat neatly folded beside each body, waiting to be used.
Look away. But he wouldn’t allow himself to. He hadn’t arrived in time to save them, but the dead still needed him. Who were they? How did they get here? Had they been abducted, or like Angel, had they been victims long before arriving in this place?
Luke found the ME tech bagging one of the girls’ hands, his head bent low. In the quiet Luke heard a single muted sob that tore at his own heart.
“Malcolm?” Luke said.
Malcolm Zuckerman stilled, then placed the girl’s hand carefully at her side. When he looked up, the man had tears in his eyes. “I’ve seen a lot of shit on this job, Papa, but this… never anything like this. She can’t weigh more than eighty pounds. Her hair came out in my hand,” he whispered harshly. “What kind of animal could do this?”
“I don’t know.” Luke had seen victims just like this, way too many times, and had asked that same question, way too many times. “Have you printed them?”
“Yeah. Trey took the prints up to the lab. He’s driving the five dead guys to the morgue.” Malcolm’s smile was twisted. “He won the toss.”
“Lucky bastard. We’ll run the girls’ prints through NCMEC and cross our fingers that they’re in the system.” The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children kept the prints of missing kids in a database-when prints were available. So many parents meant to get their kids printed, but for various reasons never did. Luke had made sure his sister Demi’s six kids were printed. It was the least he could do to protect his own.
“Fingers crossed. When can we take these victims out of this place?”
“Forty-five minutes. Maybe an hour. After Chase’s press conference.”
Malcolm snorted, back to his old demeanor. “Chase’s gettin’ to be a regular celebrity. This is what… his third press conference this week?”
“With all the press conferences on the O’Brien case, this one will be his fourth.”
Malcolm shook his head. “Goddamn crazy week.”
“For all of us. I’ll let you know when it’s okay to take the bodies.”
“Luke?” It was Ed Randall, his voice muffled. “Come here, quick.”
Luke found the head of the crime lab crouched next to an empty cot frame. The mattress sat on the floor on a plastic sheet. “What is it?” Luke asked.
Ed looked up, his eyes sparkling. “A name, part of one anyway. Come see.”
“A name?” Luke crouched next to where Ed was shining his flashlight. The name had been scratched into the metal, barely breaking the rusted surface. “Ashley,” Luke murmured. “Ashley Os-that’s all she wrote. Osborne, Oswald? It’s a start.”
“I think Ashley wanted to hide that she’d done it. The etching was covered with a paste of dirt mixed with something else.”
“Something else?” Luke asked, his brows raised. “What else?”
“I’ll know when I test it,” Ed said, “but probably urine. There were definitely at least three other victims held here, Luke. Their mattresses are soaked with fresh urine.”
Luke’s nose had supplied him with the same information. “Can we get DNA from any of the mattresses or from this dirt paste you scraped off Ashley’s name?”
“Chances are fair. That they’re all postpubescent girls will make it easier.”
“Because the DNA from urine comes from epithelial cells shed by the skin in passing, not from the urine itself. I’ve already sent samples back to the lab for testing.” Ed rocked back on his heels. “Before you ask another question, how is Daniel?”
“He’s okay. We can visit him tomorrow.”
“Thank God. Did Daniel see anything this afternoon, before he was shot?”
“We’ll ask him when he wakes up. What else have you found here? Chase is going into a press conference in thirty minutes and needs an update.”
“A box of prefilled IV bags, a box of syringes, an old gurney, and an IV pole.”
Luke frowned. “This was some kind of hospital? That doesn’t make sense. These girls were held in filth and look like they didn’t have proper nutrition for weeks.”
“Just telling you what I found,” Ed said. “We have eight guns, seven cell phones, two homemade knives, one switchblade, and a kit of wicked-looking scalpels.”
“What about the cell phones?”
“Excepting the phones belonging to Daniel, Alex, and Loomis, all the rest are throwaways. I noted all the calls on the logs, in and out.”
Luke scanned Ed’s notes. “Mansfield and Loomis both got texts from Mack O’Brien.” He looked up. “Luring them here.”
“The only call that stood out was from Granville to a number that doesn’t match any of the others. He made it about a half hour after Mansfield ’s text from Mack O’Brien.”
Luke’s eyes narrowed. “He called his partner.”
Ed nodded. “That’s what I thought.”
“This is more than I thought we’d have. I’ll call Chase with the update. After that, I’m going to Granville’s. Pete Haywood’s doing the search of his house as soon as Chloe gets us a signed warrant. Let’s meet in Chase’s conference room at ten tonight.”
“Agent Papadopoulos!” The urgent shout came from the door, echoing in the hall.
Both Luke and Ed ran to the entrance where the state trooper beckoned. “Urgent call from an Agent Haywood. Toby Granville’s house is on fire.”
Atlanta , Friday, February 2, 8:00 p.m.
Sitting alone in the quiet of the chapel, Susannah had finally sorted through her thoughts and knew what she had to do. She’d known since that morning when she’d boarded the flight in New York. She was going to testify, lend her voice to the outcry of the others. She was going to see justice done, no matter how high the cost.
The cost would be very high indeed, but the return had dropped substantially. This morning she’d been prepared to see several men sitting at the defendant’s table. Now, after the dust had settled, there would be only one. Mayor Garth Davis was the sole survivor of Simon’s club. Only one man would face those whose lives he’d ruined.
Only one. But the cost had not dwindled an iota. Her life, her job… all would be forever changed. Still, she would testify, for the fifteen other rape victims whose lives might have been spared such pain had she spoken sooner. For the five girls Luke had found dead in that bunker, and for the ones who were still missing. For the Jane Doe who’d looked up at her like she was God. And for you, too, Susannah?
“Yes,” she murmured. “For me, too.” For my self-respect. I want my self-respect.
“Excuse me. May I sit here?”
Susannah looked up at a tall woman with dark hair and intense eyes, carrying a purse the size of Susannah’s briefcase. The chapel was empty except for the two of them. There were many other seats. Susannah opened her mouth to say no, but something about the woman’s eyes stopped her. Perhaps she needs company, Susannah thought, and silently nodded her assent.
The scent of peaches tickled Susannah’s nose as the woman sat and settled her purse on her lap. She was familiar, somehow. I’ve met her before.
“You are a Catholic?” the woman asked, surprise in her thickly accented voice.
Susannah followed the woman’s gaze to the rosary she clutched in her own hands. “Yes.” Much to her parents’ chagrin, which had been the original point years ago. “I found the rosary up by the podium. I didn’t think anyone would mind if I used it.”
“You’ll take one of mine,” the woman pronounced, digging in her enormous purse. “I have extra.” She was Eastern European. Or… Greek. Okay. Now it made sense.
“You’re Mrs. Papadopoulos,” Susannah murmured. Luke’s mother. “You came to my parents’ funeral.”
“I did.” She took the borrowed rosary from Susannah’s hand and replaced it with her own. “You’ll call me Mama Papa. Everyone does.”
One side of Susannah’s mouth lifted. Somehow she couldn’t see Luke’s mother taking no for an answer on anything. “Thank you.”
“You are welcome.” Mrs. Papadopoulos drew a second rosary from her purse and began to pray. “Do you not pray for your brother?” she asked abruptly.
Susannah dropped her gaze. “Of course.” But she hadn’t been, not really. She’d been praying for the strength to do what needed to be done. No matter what the cost.
“Daniel is out of danger,” Mrs. Papadopoulos told her. “He will be all right.”
Thank you. Her heart whispered the prayer her mind would not allow. “Thank you,” she murmured to Luke’s mother, still feeling the woman’s probing stare.
“Complicated,” the woman finally muttered. “So why are you really here, Susannah?”
Susannah frowned. Nosy woman. “Because it was quiet. I needed to think.”
She looked up, her eyes cool. “It’s not really your business, Mrs. Papadopoulos.”
She expected the woman to flounce away. Instead she smiled, gently. “I know. I ask anyway. Daniel is my family. You are Daniel’s family.” She shrugged. “So I ask.”
Sudden tears burned at Susannah’s eyes and again she dropped her gaze. Her throat grew thick, but the words seemed to bubble up. “I’m at a crossroads.”
“Life is full of crossroads.”
“I know. But this one is a big one.” It’s my life, my career. My dreams.
Mrs. Papadopoulos seemed to consider this. “So you came to church.”
“No, I actually came here because it was quiet.” She’d escaped here. She’d done so once before, escaping to a church after she’d committed a deed so contemptible…
She’d hated herself then, had been too ashamed even to confess to a priest. But still she’d escaped to a church and had somehow found the strength to go on. To do something that approximated the right thing. Today she would do the one right thing. This time there would be no turning back. This time she’d have her self-respect.
Luke’s mother looked at the rosary in Susannah’s hands. “And you found peace.”
“As much as I…” Deserve. “As much as I can expect.” More than peace, she’d found strength, and of the two, strength was what she needed most today.
“When first I come in, I thought you were a doctor.” Luke’s mother tugged at the scrubs Susannah wore. “What happened to your clothes?”
“My clothes were messed up. One of the nurses loaned me these until I can get some more clothes.”
Mrs. Papadopoulos grasped her enormous purse in both hands. “Where is your suitcase? I will get your clothes and bring them here. You stay here with Daniel.”
“I don’t have any more clothes. I, um, didn’t bring any with me.”
“You came all the way from New York City and brought not one stitch of clothing?” The woman lifted her brows and Susannah felt compelled to explain.
“I came today on an impulse.”
“An impulse.” She shook her head. “Complicated. So you did not plan to stay?”
“No. I’ll go home…” Susannah frowned, suddenly unsure and uncomfortable to be so. “I’m waiting for another patient to wake up. When she’s all right, I’ll go home.”
Mrs. Papadopoulos stood up. “Well, you cannot go anywhere dressed like that. You have not even any shoes.” It was true. Susannah wore hospital slippers. “Give me your sizes. My granddaughter works in a clothing store at the mall. She is a fashionable girl. She will get pretty things.” She stood up and Susannah followed suit.
“Mrs. Papadopoulos, you don’t have to-” A fierce look had Susannah backpedaling. “Mama Papa, you don’t have to do that.”
“I know.” Mrs. Papadopoulos stared down at her and Susannah could see where her son got his probing black eyes that seemed to see too much. “Daniel’s Alex told me what you did for that girl, the one you saved.”
Susannah frowned. “I don’t think anybody is supposed to know about her.”
Mrs. Papadopoulos shrugged. “Already I have forgotten her.” Then she smiled kindly. “You didn’t have to save her.”
Susannah swallowed hard. She’d had blood drawn and cultures taken, knowing every possible test would be run to ensure her health. Still it was possible she could pay dearly for what she had done today.
But Jane Doe had paid dearly for what she had not done all those years ago. “Yes, I did. I really did.”
“Then yes, I do,” Mrs. Papadopoulos said, so gently that new tears sprang to Susannah’s eyes. “I really do. So say thank you and allow me this good deed today.”
The need to do a good deed Susannah could understand. “I’m a seven petite,” she said. “Thank you.” Luke’s mother gave her a giant hug and left her alone in the chapel.
Susannah squared her shoulders. She’d done what she needed to do this morning when she’d found the box. She’d done what she needed to do that afternoon, when she’d saved Jane Doe from bleeding to death. Now she’d do what she needed to do tonight. Daniel’s boss had given her the phone number for Chloe Hathaway, the state’s attorney who’d be prosecuting the sole remaining survivor of Simon’s club.
Susannah picked up her briefcase and left the haven of the chapel. She had things to do. Calls to make. Her self-respect to regain. But first she’d check on Jane Doe.
Ridgefield House, Friday, February 2, 8:00 p.m.
“They’re ready,” Rocky said.
Looking up from the personnel files on the computer screen, Bobby stowed the fury that bubbled up at the sight of Rocky, who’d put everything in jeopardy. I should have gone to the river place myself. Now Bobby had to find a new doctor to issue health certificates on each shipment and a new cop on the inside of Dutton’s sheriff’s office.
At least Chili had come through. Finally. The scanner was abuzz with calls for every available firehouse to converge on Granville’s house. Mansfield ’s should be next. Who knew what incriminating evidence those two had kept in their homes?
The business would be protected. And tonight there was money to be made.
Bobby looked over the five young women standing in a row. Two were brand new pretties from the river place and they were clean again, dressed and presentable. The other three were old hands. Every one had her eyes downcast. Every one trembled, two of them shaking so hard their dangling earrings swayed. Good. Fear was good.
The outcome of tonight’s business venture was a foregone conclusion in Bobby’s mind. Haynes liked blondes with that healthy, tanned, all-American look. That look was Bobby’s niche in an ever-expanding market of foreign imports. They offered their clients a chance to buy American. “Haynes will choose the blonde. Ashley, right?”
“No.” The blonde shrank away while the other four slumped in relief. “Please.”
Bobby smiled pleasantly. “Rocky, what is Ashley’s home address?”
“Her family lives at 721 Snowbird Drive, Panama City, Florida,” Rocky replied instantly. “Her mother died two years ago and her father works the night shift. Now that she’s ‘run away,’ her father’s hired a sitter to stay with her brother while he’s at work. Her brother sometimes sneaks out at night to hang at the-”
“That’s good enough,” Bobby said when the blonde began to cry. “I know everything about your family, Ashley. One misstep, one dissatisfied client, and someone in your house will die. Painfully. You’re the one who wanted adventure and now you have it. So stop crying. My clients want smiles. Rocky, get them out of here. I have work to do.”
Bobby reopened the personnel files and was deep into review of a very promising medical candidate when the throwaway cell phone trilled. This was the number given to contacts and informers, those who could be convinced to become Bobby’s personnel because they’d done some very naughty things they didn’t want made public.
Information was power. Bobby liked power. The incoming number had an Atlanta area code. “Yes?”
“You said to call if anything happened at the hospital. I have information.”
It took Bobby a few moments to place the voice. Oh, yes. Jennifer Ohman, the ICU nurse with the drug problem. Informants usually had a drug problem. Or a gambling problem. Or a sex problem. Whatever the secret addiction, the result was the same.
“Well, go ahead. I don’t have all day.”
“Two patients were airlifted from Dutton. Special Agent Daniel Vartanian was one.”
Bobby abruptly straightened. That Vartanian had been shot had been on the police scanner, along with the deaths of Loomis, Mansfield, Granville, and Mack O’Brien, plus the guard they hadn’t identified. Chatter regarding any other dead bodies the police might have found in the bunker was noticeably absent. “Who was the second?”
“She’s a Jane Doe, sixteen or seventeen. She was critical but survived surgery.”
Bobby slowly stood, the swirling, bubbling fury within becoming flat dread. “And?”
“She’s stable. They’re keeping her secret, with a guard posted at her door, 24/7.”
Bobby drew a very deep breath. Rocky had been very clear that all the girls left behind were dead. So either this girl was a modern-day Lazarus, or Rocky had lied. Either way, Rocky had made a serious miscalculation. “I see.”
“There’s more. Two others came in by ambulance, a man and a woman. Bailey Crighton was one. She’s the woman who’s been missing for a week.”
“I know who she is.” Granville, you asshole. Rocky, you idiot. “And the man?”
“Some army chaplain. Beasley. No, Beardsley. That’s it. They’re both in stable condition. That’s all I know.” The nurse hesitated. “So now we’re even, right?”
Now there were three people to neutralize and one lone nurse would not be sufficient, but the nurse would still be a valuable asset. “No, I’m afraid it doesn’t work that way. I want the girl dead. Poison her, smother her, I don’t care. I do not want her to wake up. Do you understand?”
“But… No. I won’t do that.”
That’s what they all said, initially. Some had to be pushed harder than others, but in the end the outcome was the same. Every one did as they were told. “Yes, you will.”
“But I can’t.” The nurse sounded horrified. They all said that, too.
“Let’s see…” The file on the nurse was thorough. Bobby’s cop on the inside of Atlanta PD had done well, as usual. “You live with your sister. Your son lives with his father, because you lost custody. You let your husband have your son if he wouldn’t expose your little problem. How considerate of him. You can’t watch them all the time, dear.”
“I’ll… I’ll go to the police,” the nurse said, desperation pushing the horror aside.
“And tell them what? That you were caught with drugs you stole from your hospital with intent to both use and sell, but my cop let you go and now some evil villain is blackmailing you? How long do you think you’ll keep your job when the truth comes out? The day my cop let you go with a warning, you belonged to me. You’ll kill the girl tonight or by this time tomorrow one person in your family will be dead. For every day you delay, another person in your family will die. Now go do what you’re told.”
Bobby hung up, then placed another call. “Paul, it’s me.”
There was a beat of silence, then a low whistle. “Hell of a mess you got there.”
“Really?” Bobby drawled, annoyed. “I had no idea. Look, I need you. Usual pay, usual way.” Paul was a useful man-a no-nonsense cop with a wide, reliable information network and absolutely no moral compass other than unwavering loyalty to the highest bidder. “I want to know who in GBI is working the Granville case by midnight, down to the lowest admin assistant.”
“Or the guy emptying the trash. Yeah, I got it.”
“Good. I want to know which local departments are supporting them and if any of the locals are deep enough to be an ear. I want to know their steps-”
“Before they take them,” Paul finished. “Got that, too. Is that all?”
Bobby studied the photo Charles had left that afternoon in an oh-so-clever parting jab. In it a stone-faced Susannah Vartanian stood next to her brother at their parents’ funeral. Dealing with Susannah would have to wait for now, thanks to Rocky’s blunder. But when all the threats to the business were neutralized, it would be Susannah’s turn.
“For now, but stay ready. I’ll be waiting for your call. Don’t be late.”
“Have I ever been?” And not waiting for an answer, Paul was gone.
“Rocky! Come here.”
Rocky’s footsteps thundered down the stairs. “What’s wrong?”
“Everything. I have some extra duty for you. It’s time to start fixing your mess.”
Dutton, Friday, February 2, 8:20 p.m.
Luke bolted from his car to where Agent Pete Haywood stood grimly watching Dr. Toby Granville’s house-and every speck of evidence inside it-burn. The girls could be anywhere and any links to Granville’s partner were going up in smoke.
“What the goddamn hell happened here?” Luke demanded, but Pete didn’t respond. He didn’t move at all, just kept watching the flames as if hypnotized. “Pete.” Luke grabbed his arm and had to leap back when Pete whirled, fists clenched at his sides.
Luke backed up a step, hands out. “Whoa, Pete. It’s just me.” But it was then Luke saw the devastation in Pete’s dark eyes and the bandage that ran from Pete’s temple halfway around his shiny, bald, ebony head. “What the hell happened?”
Pete shook his head. “I can’t hear you,” he bellowed. “My ears are still ringing. It was a bomb, Luke. Tossed three of us ten feet like we were made of balsa wood.”
Pete Haywood was six-four, 250 pounds. Luke couldn’t imagine the sheer force it had taken to toss a man his size. Blood was already soaking through Pete’s bandage. “You need some stitches,” Luke yelled.
“The medics got others to fix first. A shard of flying metal hit Zach Granger.” Pete swallowed. “Might have lost his eye. Chopper’s on its way to take him to the hospital.”
It just kept getting worse. “Where’s the fire investigator?” Luke shouted.
“Not here yet. The local fire chief is standing over there by the truck.”
Luke’s brows shot up when he saw the man standing next to the fire chief. “Corchran’s here, too?”
“Got here about fifteen minutes after our call went out.”
Luke led Pete to his car, away from prying ears. “Sit down and tell me what happened, and you don’t need to yell. I can hear you just fine.”
Wearily, Pete sank sideways onto the passenger seat. “We were waiting for Chloe’s call that the warrant was signed. Nobody had gone in or out since we arrived. Chloe called at 7:45 and we went in. I opened the door and all hell broke loose. Literally.”
Luke frowned. “What about Mansfield ’s house?”
“Nancy Dykstra’s waiting with her team at Mansfield ’s. I called her as soon as I picked myself off the ground, told her not to go in. They’re waiting for the bomb squad to make sure our little pyro didn’t rig both houses to blow.”
“Good thinking. Have you seen Granville’s wife?”
“If she was in the house, she wouldn’t come out when we instructed her to. Zach and the rest of the team got here at 5:15 and had all the exits covered.”
“Okay. So whoever planted the bomb did so between 1:38 and 5:15.”
Pete frowned. “Why 1:38?”
“That’s when Granville placed a call to the person we think was his partner. The news that Granville was dead hadn’t hit the media by 5:15. Only Granville’s partner would have known he didn’t leave the bunker with the rest of them.”
“And the partner would be afraid Granville would talk if he got caught or that he’d left incriminating evidence in the house. So he blew it up. What now?”
“Now you get that hard head of yours stitched up. Let me take it from here. We’re meeting at Chase’s at ten. If you can, join us. If not, try to call in.” With a reassuring squeeze to Pete’s shoulder, Luke started walking toward Corchran and the fire chief.
The two men met him halfway. “I came as soon as I heard the first calls for fire and rescue over the radio,” Corchran said.
“Thanks,” Luke said to Corchran. “I appreciate it.” He turned to the fire chief. “I’m Agent Papadopoulos, GBI.”
“Chief Trumbell. We’re fighting this from the outside. Given the explosions, I haven’t sent my men inside. I didn’t want them stumbling across any other wires.”
“So that’s how this bomb was triggered?” Luke asked. “Wires?”
“Your arson guys will need to confirm it, but I saw wire tied to the front door’s inside doorknob, about six or seven inches left hanging. Looks like a real simple setup. Open the door, wire yanks, bomb detonates. This fire was well in progress by the time we arrived. I’d bet your investigator finds the house doused with some kind of accelerant.”
“Got it. Look, Granville has a wife. We don’t think she was in the house.”
“That’s what Haywood said.” Trumbell looked over his shoulder at the blaze. “If she’s in there… I can’t risk sending anybody in after her.”
As if to punctuate his words, there was a giant crash and everyone instinctively ducked except Trumbell, who ran toward the house, radio in hand, yelling orders for his men to back away.
“I’d say one of the ceilings collapsed,” Corchran said.
And any links to Granville’s partner with it. “Goddammit,” Luke said quietly.
Corchran pointed down the street. “The vultures caught the scent.”
Two TV news vans were pulling up. “The cherry on top,” Luke muttered. “Hey, thanks for coming out tonight. I know Dutton is not your responsibility.”
Corchran looked uncomfortable. “No it’s not, but their police force is in… disarray.”
“Their sheriff and lead deputy are dead, so I’d say that’s an understatement.”
“If you need support, call, but I don’t want to be stepping on any jurisdictional toes.”
“Thanks. I expect the governor is appointing a new sheriff as we speak, so hopefully we’ll get some order restored in Dutton. Now I need to set the crime scene boundary.”
Corchran sent a scathing look toward the TV vans. “Make sure it’s real far back.”
“You can bet on that.”
Luke pushed the reporters back, citing concern for their personal safety as well as the safety of the emergency personnel. He endured the occasional muffled personal epithet, proud he hadn’t told one reporter to fuck himself. He’d posted a state trooper patrol to maintain the crime scene line when his cell buzzed in his pocket.
He frowned at the 917 area code on his caller ID, then remembered it was Susannah’s Manhattan cell number. Don’t let the girl be dead. He looked at Granville’s ruined house. She may be all we have left. “Susannah, what can I do for you?”
“The girl is awake. She can’t speak, but she’s awake.”
Thank you. “I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
Ridgefield House, Friday, February 2, 8:45 p.m.
“Time to party, Ashley,” Rocky said, unlocking her door. “Mr. Haynes is-”
Rocky stopped in Ashley’s doorway, shock momentarily robbing her of thought. Then the rage came, blistering and hot, and she rushed into the room to where Ashley lay on the floor, curled in a fetal ball.
“What the fuck have you done?” Rocky snarled, grabbing Ashley by the hair she had left. “Goddammit, what have you done?”
Ashley’s lip was bloody where she’d bitten it clean through. Her scalp was red, with at least eight bald patches the size of silver dollars visible along the top of her head. The bitch had pulled her own hair out by the roots.
Ashley’s eyes were wet with tears, but full of defiance. “He wanted a blonde. Does he want me now?”
Rocky slapped her hard, knocking her to the floor.
“What the hell are you…?” Bobby stopped. “Holy shit.”
Rocky stared down at the bald spots, breathing hard. “She pulled her own hair out. Haynes won’t want her now.”
“Then he’ll just have to take one of the others.”
Bobby was not pleased. Which meant Rocky would pay the price. “You want me to give her to one of the guards?”
Bobby studied the girl, eyes narrowed. “Not yet. I don’t want her bruised, just compliant. Put her in the hole. No food, no water. A few days down there will knock some of the defiance out of her. When you bring her out, shave her head. She can wear a wig. Hell, all the rock stars are doing it, why not our girls? And, Rocky, find me some blondes fast. I promised Haynes one tonight, so I’ll have to give him a discount on whoever he does choose. I want to be able to deliver what he wants next time. A quarter of our new business comes through him.”
Rocky thought of the girls she’d been chatting online. “I have two, maybe three I can pull in now,” she said.
“And they’re blond?”
She nodded. “I’ve checked them out myself. But who’s going to pick them up? That was Mansfield ’s job.”
“You get them ready. I’ll arrange for pick-up. Get this one out of my sight before I change my mind and beat the shit out of her myself. And don’t be late for your meeting. I’ve given you a chance to earn your way back. Don’t fuck it up.”
Rocky bit the inside of her cheek. She’d known better than to argue over the “extra duty” Bobby had assigned. Didn’t mean she had to like it, though. She checked her watch. She had to get this girl in the hole or she’d miss the shift change at the hospital.
Atlanta , Friday, February 2, 9:15 p.m.
Susannah lifted her eyes to Luke’s reflection in the glass that separated her from Jane Doe’s ICU bed. He looked tired. “They let me see her for a few minutes.”
“Was she lucid?”
“I think so. She recognized me, squeezed my fingers. Her eyes are closed now, but she may be awake.”
“She’s still got a breathing tube.”
“Like I said on the phone, she can’t speak. The doctor said she has shock lung.”
Luke winced. “Oh, shit.”
“You know what that is?”
“Yeah. My brother Leo was a Marine and he had it from a battle injury. More than three broken ribs on one side of the body and the lung collapses.” His dark brows furrowed. “Did I do that when I carried her?”
His concern touched her heart. “I don’t think so. She had bruising all over her rib cage. A couple that the doctor said looked like the toe of a boot. He said she might be intubated for another few days.”
“Well, I’ve interviewed witnesses with breathing tubes before. If she’s lucid we’ll use a letter board and she can blink. But I have to find out what she knows.”
He took a step closer until he stood right behind her, the heat from his body warming her skin, making her shiver. He leaned over her shoulder to peer through the glass and if she turned her head there would be a scant inch between her nose and his stubbled cheek. This afternoon in his car, before everything had gone to hell, he’d smelled like cedar. Now, he smelled like stale smoke. She kept her eyes locked straight ahead.
“She looks younger than she did this afternoon,” he murmured.
“She was covered in blood this afternoon. She’s cleaner now. What burned down?”
He turned his head and she could feel his stare. “Granville’s house.”
Susannah closed her eyes. “Dammit.”
“That’s what I said.” He stepped back and she shivered again, chilled without his heat. “I’m going to try to talk to her.” He held out a shopping bag. “This is for you.”
There were clothes in the bag and Susannah took them, looking up at him with a puzzled frown. “How did you get these?”
His mouth quirked slightly. “We had an informal family reunion in the lobby. My mother was leaving and my brother and niece had come to pick her up. Leo had picked Stacie up from her job at the mall where she bought your things. Leo’s going to drive Mama home and Stacie’s going to drive Mama’s car home because last time Mama drove at night she got stopped by a cop for doing thirty in a sixty-five zone.” He shrugged. “Cops are happy, Mama’s happy. So it’s all good.”
Susannah felt rather sorry for any cop having to give Mrs. Papadopoulos a traffic ticket. “Um, thank you. I’ll write your niece a check.”
He nodded once, then pushed past her into the small ICU room.
The nurse stood on the other side of the girl’s bed. “Two minutes. That’s all.”
“Yes, ma’am. Hey, honey,” Luke said, his voice smooth. “Are you awake?”
Jane Doe’s eyelids fluttered, but she didn’t open her eyes. He pulled up a chair and sat. “Do you remember me? I’m Agent Papadopoulos. I was with Susannah Vartanian this afternoon when we found you.”
Jane Doe stirred and the number on the blood pressure monitor began to rise.
Susannah saw his gaze flick to the monitor before returning to the girl’s face. “I’m not going to hurt you, honey,” he said. “But I need your help.”
The girl’s pulse jumped, sending another monitor beeping. She pitched her head, growing agitated, and Luke looked at Susannah with concern as the nurse looked as if she’d throw them out right then.
“I’m here, too,” Susannah said softly. She set the shopping bag on the floor and brushed her knuckles softly over the girl’s cheek. “Don’t be afraid.”
Jane Doe’s blood pressure began to decrease and Luke stood up. “You sit and I’ll wait on the other side of the glass. Talk to her. You know what I want to know. I’ll make you a letter chart.”
“Okay.” Susannah leaned close, covering the girl’s hand with her own. “Hey, you’re all right. You’re safe. Nobody’s gonna hurt you anymore. But we need your help. The other girls, they weren’t as lucky as you. Some of them have been taken away and we need to find them. We need your help.”
Her eyes opened, her expression one of helpless fear and dazed awareness.
“I know,” Susannah soothed. “You’re afraid and feel powerless. I know what that feels like and it totally sucks. But you can help us win. You can get back at the bastards who did this to you. Help me. What’s your name?”
She took the piece of paper Luke handed through the doorway. On it was the alphabet and she held it up in front of Jane Doe’s face, running her finger across each letter slowly. “Blink when I get there.”
Susannah kept her eyes fixed on the girl’s face, feeling a surge of satisfaction when the girl blinked. “M? Your name starts with M? Blink twice for yes.”
The girl blinked twice, some of the fear in her eyes was replaced with determination.
“Next letter then.”
“I’m sorry, your two minutes are more than up,” the nurse said.
“But-” Luke tried.
The nurse shook her head. “This patient is critical. If you want any information, you need to let her rest.”
Luke’s jaw tightened. “With all due respect, the lives of maybe five girls are at stake.”
The nurse’s chin lifted. “With all due respect, the life of this girl is at stake. You can come back tomorrow.”
Susannah could see the fury snapping in Luke’s eyes from where she sat, but he kept his cool. “One more yes/no question,” he said. “Please?”
The nurse blew out a breath. “One.”
“Thank you. Susannah, ask if she knows an Ashley.”
Susannah leaned in close again. “Do you know a girl named Ashley? Blink twice if you do.” The girl blinked twice, very deliberately. “Yeah. She does.”
He nodded once. “Then we’re on the right track.”
Susannah caressed the girl’s face, swearing the brown eyes that stared up at her snapped in frustration. “I know. I’ll be back tomorrow. Don’t be afraid. There’s a guard right outside and he won’t let anyone in that’s not supposed to be here. Sleep now. You’re safe.”
Luke retrieved her shopping bag from the floor. “I’ll take you to Daniel’s house,” he said when they were outside of ICU.
Susannah shook her head. “No, that’s okay. I have a hotel. Please,” she said when he opened his mouth to protest. “I appreciate your concern, but… this isn’t your concern.” She smiled as she said it, trying to soften her words.
He looked as if he wanted to argue, but he nodded. “Fine. Do you want to change?”
“I’ll wait. I’m… I want to clean up a little first.”
“Fine,” he said again and she knew it was anything but. “I’ll take you to your hotel, but first I want to check on Daniel.”
She followed him across the ICU floor because she knew she’d feel ashamed if she did not. He entered the room while she stood at the doorway, watching Daniel’s big chest rise and fall, still shallowly. He’d nearly died today. And I would have been alone.
Which was ridiculous, because she’d been alone for the past eleven years, ever since he’d walked out of their house, her life, never looking back. But deep down, she’d always known she was never truly alone. Today, she almost had been.
“How is he?” Luke murmured to Alex, who’d been keeping vigil by Daniel’s side.
“Better,” Alex said. “They had to sedate him. He started thrashing, trying to get out of bed. He nearly pulled out all his tubes. But he’s only here for observation now that the breathing tube’s been removed. They’ll let him go to the floor tomorrow.” She turned, looked over her shoulder with a tired smile. “Susannah. How are you?”
“I’m fine.” And if her words were abrupt, Alex Fallon didn’t seem to notice.
“Good. I wouldn’t care to live through another day like today. I have the keys to Daniel’s house. I know he’d want you to be comfortable there.”
“I’m going to a hotel.” She forced her lips to curve. “But thank you.”
Alex’s brow furrowed slightly, but she nodded. “Get some rest. I’ll watch over him.”
You do that, Susannah thought, unwilling to deal with the tightness in her throat. “And the girl,” she murmured.
“And the girl. Don’t worry. Susannah, tomorrow will be better.”
But Susannah knew differently. She knew what lay ahead, what needed to be done. Tomorrow would be, to borrow Luke’s word, difficult. Very difficult. “Yes. Better,” she said quietly, because it was the socially appropriate response.
Luke touched her arm, the briefest of contact, and when she looked up, it was understanding she saw in his dark eyes and not the criticism she’d expected. “Let’s go,” he said. “I’ll drop you off at your hotel on my way back to the office.”
Ridgefield House, Georgia, Friday, February 2, 9:45 p.m.
Bobby hung up the phone, satisfied. It was wise to have one’s eggs in multiple baskets. Luckily there were several hospital employees on the potential personnel list. One of them had been dispatched to take care of Captain Ryan Beardsley and Bailey Crighton. Bailey’s demise would please Bobby on a number of levels.
It would have been more pleasing to kill Bailey myself. But it was best to keep personal feelings out of such things. Passion led to mistakes and enough mistakes had been made for one day.
In a matter of hours all the loose threads would be snipped and business could return to normal. A car door slammed outside. Speaking of which…
Haynes was here. It was time to make some money.
Atlanta , Friday, February 2, 9:50 p.m.
“Luke, these are for you.” Leigh Smithson, Chase’s clerk, put a stack of folders on the conference room table. “Dr. Berg sent these over. And Latent identified your dead guard. I pulled his priors for you.”
“So who’s our mystery man?” Chase asked, putting two cups of coffee on the table.
“Jesse Hogan,” Luke read. “Assault, B &E. Beardsley did the world a favor.”
“He’s awake,” Leigh said. “Captain Beardsley, that is. His father called a few minutes ago. Beardsley says you can come interview him any time. I gave him your cell.”
“I’ll go back over to the hospital when we’re done. Anything from Missing Children?”
Leigh shook her head. “No. They’re supposed to call you or Chase directly if they find any matches to the prints of the victims. But they said it might take a while. Most of the prints were taken at schools and shopping malls when the kids were smaller and if they were younger than four or five…”
“Their prints can change,” Luke said. “We’re crossing our fingers. What about missing girls named Ashley O-s-something?” He’d phoned her with the partial name from the cot frame as he’d driven to the fire scene.
“They’re searching. I also sent requests to missing persons departments in the surrounding states.”
She turned for the door. “I’ll stay until your meeting is over, then I’m going to call it a night. I’ll be back tomorrow and three stenos just came on shift, answering calls. The phone’s been ringing off the hook since the press conference.”
“We expected that,” Chase said. “I’ve assigned more admin coverage for tomorrow. We’ll need to evaluate every call that comes in.”
Leigh tilted her head, the argument between two people growing steadily louder-one deep booming voice and one quieter, more melodious. “Pete and Nancy are back.”
She left as the two came in, Pete giving Nancy an exaggerated “after you” gesture. “He’s a stubborn fool,” Nancy declared. “The man has nine stitches in that cueball of his and he won’t go home.”
Pete rolled his eyes. “I got worse playin’ football. Chase, tell this woman to hush.”
Chase sighed. Pete and Nancy bickered like old married people. “What did the doctor say, Pete?”
“That I’m cleared for duty,” Pete said, disgruntled. “I even got a goddamned note.”
Chase shrugged. “Sorry, Nancy. Doctor trumps.”
Pete sat down, satisfied, and Luke leaned sideways to mumble, “Did you really get worse playing football?”
“Hell no,” Pete mumbled back. “And this hurts like a bitch. But I’m not telling her.”
“Smart.” Luke was saved from Nancy ’s ire by the appearance of Ed, Nate Dyer, and ASA Chloe Hathaway.
Chase seemed surprised. “Chloe. Didn’t expect you.”
Chloe sat, crossing her long legs. Luke thought the move was habit on her part, but he was certain she knew the stir it created. “My boss says I’m part of the team now. He wants to be sure every piece of evidence we bring in will stand up in court.”
“We want that, too,” Luke said, thinking of the five dead, the five missing, and the girl in the hospital bed across town. “Does everyone know Nate?”
Nate was already studying the autopsy photos and had pulled Angel’s photo aside. He looked up and nodded at the group. “Nate Dyer, ICAC.”
Chloe frowned. “ICAC? Why is Internet Crimes Against Children involved?”
Luke tapped the photo of Angel that Nate had set aside. “This one is one we’ve seen before. Hold on to the question, Chloe. We’ll get there. We’re all here now. Let’s get started.”
“I’ll start,” Chase said. “The brass has been informed, all the way up through the governor. I don’t need to tell you all that they will be following every move we make. I’ll handle the administrative floor and the press. Tonight I informed the media that Mack O’Brien had been killed and broke the news of the thirteen-year-old rapes. As of seven p.m. tonight, all the victims had been informed of the status of the investigation. Whether any or all choose to testify will be between the victims and the DA’s office.”
“I’ve already received calls from six of the victims on your list, Chase.” She lifted a brow. “And a voicemail tonight from a victim who wasn’t on your list.”
Susannah. Luke opened his mouth and closed it. That was between Susannah and Chloe now. But she’d kept her promise. A stirring of pride eased a little of the tightness in his chest. Good for you, Susannah.
Chase gave Luke a short nod, acknowledging he, too, understood and would keep Susannah’s name out of it until she chose to put it in. “Of course when we described the scene at the bunker, there was a furor of questions. We answered what we could, but it was pretty clear we didn’t have a lot of information to give them. Pandora’s box is officially open, people. Be watchful for the press. We’ll control what is communicated from my office. Do not talk to any reporters.”
“Aw, man,” Ed whined. “And that’s my favorite thing.”
Chase smiled briefly, as Ed had intended. “Your turn, Ed. What have you found?”
Ed’s forced levity disappeared. “Hell on earth, Chase. The filth, the stench… It’s indescribable. We’ve gathered samples of blood and other body fluids from every cell. From the state of the cots and waste left behind in the cells, we think there were five more girls taken. The waste in the twelfth cell was not as recent-we don’t think it was occupied, but we took samples just in case. We also found IV bags and syringes-some of them still have legible production lot codes. We’re tracing those back to the manufacturer. The manufacturer will know where their products were initially shipped. After that, we’re going to have to dig to trace how they ended up in that bunker.”
“Good,” Chase said. “What about the victims?”
“This one we’ve seen before,” Nate Dyer said, holding up Angel’s picture. “On a Web site Luke and I shut down eight months ago. We’ll send the photo to our partners worldwide. Maybe they’ve seen either Angel or the other two girls who were with her on the Web site.” He looked at Luke. “We need to go back over our records, see if there is anything we missed the first time.”
Luke nodded heavily. “I know. And that was my case. I know it better than anyone. I’ll be in tomorrow to look through the old files.”
“I’ll work on it some tonight,” Nate said, then sighed. “Either way, it’ll be a bitch.”
Luke knew what he meant, because the same thoughts had been flying around his own mind. What if he found something he had missed the second time around? That meant he might have helped Angel and the others then. What if he didn’t find anything new? They’d be stuck at square one. A man could drive himself crazy.
Luke straightened his spine. “So far we have two leads on the female victims in the bunker. Angel and the scratched name, Ashley O-s-something.”
“I’ve got my team looking at that cot frame more closely,” Ed said. “Under better lighting, we may be able to see more. I did find what she used to scratch her name, though.” He held out a plastic bag. “A chip of broken tooth.”
Luke’s brows lifted. “Resourceful girl.”
“Let’s hope she stays that way,” Chase said. “Do we have anything on the girl who got away? What’s her name? Where is she from?”
“Her first name starts with M,” Luke said. “That’s all we were able to get. She’d just woken up from surgery and has a breathing tube, so she can’t talk. We submitted her prints and photo to NCMEC. So far, no hits, but it’s only been a few hours. Worst case, we wait until tomorrow to get the rest of her name.”
“Good,” Chase said. “Pete, what did the fire investigator say?”
“He’s still sifting through the wreckage, but he found traces of accelerant. He hadn’t found the detonator as of about twenty minutes ago. When he does, he’ll call me.”
“How’s Zach Granger?” Luke asked, and was relieved when Pete smiled.
“They saved his eye. He may still have some vision loss. We won’t know for a few days. The rest of the team has some cuts and bruises, but we’re all cleared for duty.”
“At least we got some good news,” Chase said. “ Nancy?”
“The bomb squad had just arrived at Mansfield ’s when I got here,” Nancy said. “If they rigged both houses to blow, we’ll have the device to study. Hopefully our arsonist left some kind of signature. If we find the arsonist, we just follow the money.”
Chase held up his crossed fingers and turned to Chloe. “And you?”
“I’ve got the warrant in process for Garth Davis’s phone records. I can hold him till Monday, tops. I’ll ask for remand, but I’m not holding my breath.”
“I’ll put somebody on Davis the minute he’s released,” Chase promised.
“Not Germanio,” Chloe said darkly. “Chase, y’gotta stop your guys from picking up the phone and hitting redial unless they have a phone warrant.”
Chase winced. “Again?”
“Yeah. You have to make him stop. Especially the phones in Davis ’s office. Davis is a lawyer. He could have been talking to a client and we’d be hit with a dismissal based on violation of his Sixth Amendment rights. I’m serious, Chase. Fix this.”
“I will. You have my word, Chloe.”
“Okay.” She sighed. “I checked out the name Germanio gave me. Kira Laneer.”
“Was she a stripper?” Luke asked dryly.
“Not in recent years, but I’m still betting she was in her misspent youth. She’s thirty-four, makes about twenty-five grand a year, and drives a brand new Mercedes. Her car loan was cosigned by Garth Davis. The loan came from Davis Bank in Dutton at well below the going interest rate. She might know something.”
“Does she know where Garth’s wife went?” Luke asked. “Because right now that’s what I want to know. I checked the airlines and there were no tickets sold to Davis ’s wife or kids and their minivan isn’t in their garage, so I’m assuming wherever she went, she drove there. She contacted Davis ’s sister once, maybe she will again. I’ll find out.”
“Why is Garth Davis’s wife so important?” Ed asked.
“Because Davis knows about a cabin Granville had access to thirteen years ago,” Luke said. “They used it for one of the rapes when they had to find a new location.”
Ed’s brows went up. “And why is the cabin so important?”
“Because Granville had a mentor thirteen years ago. Someone who was teaching him to manipulate others, to control their responses. The cabin’s owner could be a link to the mentor. Davis won’t give up that information until he sees his kids.”
“You think this mentor is his partner?” Nancy asked.
“Maybe.” Luke shrugged. “Either way, it’s the best we’ve got right now.”
“What about Granville’s wife?” Pete asked. “She’s still in the wind.”
“I checked the airports for her, too, but she hasn’t taken any planes,” Luke said. “Chase, let’s get photos of Mrs. Granville to all the bus stations.”
“Daniel grew up in Dutton,” Chloe said. “Maybe he knows about this cabin.”
“He’s still unconscious, isn’t he?” Pete asked.
“Sedated actually. But his sister might know,” Luke said. “I’ll ask her.”
Chase nodded. “Sounds like we have a plan. Let’s-”
“Wait,” Ed said. “What about Mack O’Brien?”
Chase frowned. “He’s dead. Daniel killed him.”
Luke drew a breath. “Oh my God, you’re right, Ed. Remember, Mack O’Brien found out about the rape club because he stole his brother’s journals from Jared’s widow. We never found where Mack hid the journals. Jared’s widow told Daniel that he wrote about each rape in detail. What if he also wrote about the one night they went to the cabin? What if those journals have the same information Garth Davis refuses to tell us?”
Chase smiled, a genuine smile for the first time all night. “Find them.” He pointed to Pete. “You find Davis ’s wife, just in case we don’t find those journals. She had to have left a trail. Nancy, you get back to Mansfield ’s and as soon as the bomb squad disables the detonator, you search that house from top to bottom. Ed, keep searching the bunker. Nate, you’d be helping us a lot if you could track Angel.”
“And I’ll interview Beardsley again,” Luke said. “He might remember something now that he’s had a chance to recover.”
“Then let’s go. Be back here tomorrow at eight a.m. And be careful.”
Atlanta , Friday, February 2, 10:15 p.m.
That’s her, Rocky thought, relieved she’d come a little early. The shift didn’t change for a while. Nursey must have left early and her step was brisk as she walked toward her car. Not the step of a woman who’d just committed her first murder and not a good sign at all. Rocky was now responsible for making sure this nurse killed the girl. It was a test, she knew. If she succeeded, she’d earn her way back into Bobby’s good graces.
She pulled next to the nurse and slowed to match the woman’s pace. “Excuse me.”
“Not interested,” the nurse snapped.
“Yes, you are. Bobby sent me.”
The nurse stopped abruptly and turned, fear in her eyes. But no guilt. Rocky sighed. “You didn’t do it, did you?”
The nurse stiffened. “Not exactly.”
“What does that mean, not exactly?”
Desperate fury flared in the woman’s eyes. “It means I didn’t kill her,” she hissed.
“Get in.” Rocky drew the pistol from her pocket and pointed it. “Draw a breath to scream and it will be your last,” she said calmly, even though her heart was pounding. Please get in. Please don’t make me shoot. The nurse obeyed, shaking visibly, and Rocky let herself breathe.
“Are you going to kill me?” the woman whispered hoarsely.
“Well, that depends. Start by telling me exactly what ‘not exactly’ means.”
The nurse stared straight ahead. “I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t kill her. But I made sure she wouldn’t talk to anyone else.”
“Else? What do you mean, anyone else?” Shit.
“She had two visitors tonight. A man and a woman.”
Bailey and Beardsley. Damn that Granville. Rocky had had no idea he’d brought them to the bunker until Bobby’d confronted her with it-and her lie. You said they were dead. You said you were sure. You lied to me. This girl could ruin us all.
She’d thought fast, but her lie that she had checked but simply missed the girl’s thready pulse hadn’t been good enough. Rocky resisted the urge to waggle her jaw. Bobby had hit her hard. Her jaw wasn’t broken, but it throbbed like a bitch.
Still, she knew she’d hurt a lot more if the girl talked. The damage would be worse depending on which girl had escaped. Angel had been there the longest, but Monica was the boldest. Don’t let it have been Monica. “Who were the visitors?”
“He was GBI. Special Agent Papa-something. Papadopoulos. The woman was the one who found her, down at that bunker on the river. Her brother is also in ICU.”
Rocky blinked. “Susannah Vartanian found the girl on the side of the road?”
Wonderful. It was, actually. Rocky didn’t know why, but Bobby hated Susannah Vartanian. There was a photo of the judge’s daughter next to Bobby’s computer with a red X penned through her face. Dealing with Susannah might be a way to regain favor. At a minimum the guaranteed wrath that would be generated when Rocky shared this tidbit of news might take some of the heat off herself.
“Did the girl say anything to Susannah?”
“I heard that she only got a few words out when they first found her, that someone had ‘killed them all.’ I assumed this meant the girls they found in the bunker.” The nurse glanced nervously from the corner of her eye. “I heard it on the news.”
She’d seen Granville kill the others. This was very bad. “And later, in the hospital? What did she say then?”
“Nothing. She still has her breathing tube in. They used a letter board and found out her name started with M. But their time was up and they had to leave.”
Monica. This was going from bad to worse. I should have shoved her in the boat. I should have made room. I should never have left her behind. “What else?”
“The GBI agent asked her if she knew a girl named Ashley and she blinked ‘yes.’ ”
Ashley? How the hell had Papadopoulos known about Ashley? What more did he know? She kept her voice level. “So how did you keep her from saying any more?”
The nurse sighed out a breath. “I put a paralytic in her IV bag. When she wakes up, she won’t be able to open her eyes, blink, move, or say anything.”
“How long will it last?”
“About eight hours.”
“And what had you planned to do then?” Rocky asked sharply, then laughed bitterly. “You hadn’t planned to do anything, had you? You were going to run.”
The nurse looked straight ahead, her throat working. “I can’t kill her. You have to understand. GBI posted a guard outside the ICU, 24/7. He checks every ID. The minute she stops breathing alarms will go off. They’ll catch me.” Her jaw cocked slightly. “And when they do, what should I tell them? Your description? What kind of car you drive? Your name, maybe? I don’t think you want that, either.”
Panic mixed with rage. “I should kill you right now.”
The nurse’s lips curved. “And in eight hours your Jane Doe’s paralytic will wear off and she’ll sing like a bird. What will she tell the cops? Nothing about me. She didn’t see me.” Her head turned slightly. “Did she see you?”
Maybe. Dammit, yes. In that last moment at the bunker. She’d stared at her face, memorizing every feature. The girl had to die, before she spoke to anyone. And Bobby can’t find out I was so damn careless. “How long before she’s out of ICU?”
Satisfaction and relief flickered in the nurse’s eyes. “She’ll stay in ICU until the breathing tube is removed and they won’t do that until they’re certain she can breathe on her own. Whoever beat her up did too good a job. She’s got four broken ribs on her right side. Her lung is collapsed. She’ll be in the hospital for several days, at least.”
Rocky ground her teeth. “How long before she’s out of ICU?” she repeated.
“I don’t know. If she weren’t paralyzed, maybe in twenty-four or forty-eight hours.”
“How long can you keep her paralyzed?”
“Not long, a day or two, max. The staff will start to suspect and someone will order an EEG. The paralytic will show up.” Her chin lifted. “And I’ll probably be caught-”
“Yeah, yeah,” Rocky interrupted. “Then you’ll tell on me and we all go to jail.”
Heart racing, Rocky considered her options. The situation was rapidly snowballing from bad to worse to devastating. Bobby can’t find out about this. She’d made enough mistakes today. One more fuck-up and… her stomach rolled over. She’d seen the results of Bobby’s “employee separation.” She swallowed hard. The last guy who messed up this badly was separated from his head. There had been a lot of blood.
So much blood. She could run. But realistically she knew there was nowhere to hide. Bobby would find her and… She made herself focus, made herself remember everything she knew about Monica Cassidy. And a plan began to form. I can fix this. It would work. It would have to. Unless she was prepared to walk into the ICU and smother the girl herself, which she was not. “All right. This is what I want you to do.”
Atlanta , Friday, February 2, 11:15 p.m.
This statement is hereby given freely by Susannah A. Vartanian and is witnessed by Chloe M. Hathaway, Assistant State ’s Attorney. Sitting at the desk in her hotel room, Susannah’s hands paused on her laptop and she reread the statement she’d prepared. In it were all the details she recalled from that day thirteen years ago, from the most sordid to the most benign. She and Chloe Hathaway had traded voicemails, but they’d meet tomorrow morning to discuss Susannah’s statement and subsequent testimony.
Subsequent testimony. It sounded so brisk, so impersonal… so like somebody else’s life. But it’s not. It’s mine. Restless, Susannah pushed away from the desk. She would not change a word. Not this time. This time she’d do the right thing.
It was just a matter of time before her involvement in what the media had already dubbed “The Richie Rich Rapists” hit the news. She’d already spied someone with a camera taking pictures as she’d checked in to the hotel. They must have followed Luke Papadopoulos’s car when he’d driven her from the hospital.
Luke. She’d thought of him often this day, each time a little differently. He was big, strong enough to carry Jane Doe up a steep hill without breathing hard, but he’d been so gentle with the girl. Susannah knew there were gentle giants out there, but in her experience they were rare. She hoped the woman in Luke’s life appreciated his value.
That he’d have a woman in his life was a given. Coupled with his dark good looks, the man vibrated with an intensity most women would find sexually enticing. Susannah was honest enough to admit that she did, that her stomach had gone all tight when he’d stood so close in the ICU, and that she’d thought about pressing her mouth to his jaw.
But Susannah was smart enough not to get involved. Ever. Involvement led to questions, and questions ultimately would require answers. She wasn’t prepared to give answers to Luke Papadopoulos or anyone else. Ever.
Still, she remembered the devastation in his black eyes when he’d come out of the bunker. And even then he’d held her up when her own legs buckled. He felt things deeply, but seemed able to partition those feelings away to focus on what needed to be done. She respected that because she knew just how difficult it was to do.
Luke had dropped her off at the hotel without further argument, respecting her wishes, even though he disagreed. Then he’d gone on his way to meet with his team, focused and intense, which seemed to be his resting state.
She envied him. Luke Papadopoulos had things to do, important things, while she’d been sitting on her hands all day. In reality that was less than accurate. She’d had a very busy morning and afternoon. It was the evening that had been empty as she’d sat waiting, powerless, with too much time to think. Tomorrow, she’d do something. She’d sit with the girl with no name, because there was no one else to do so. Because she’s my responsibility. But first she’d give her statement to Chloe Hathaway.
She glanced at the newspaper she’d bought in the hotel lobby. The headlines screamed of a serial killer at large in Dutton. Old news. But below the fold was an article on the Dutton dead, as of the day before. One name caught her eye. Sheila Cunningham. They shared a bond, she and Sheila. Tomorrow Sheila would be laid to rest and Susannah knew she needed to be there. So tomorrow she’d stand in the Dutton cemetery once again.
Tomorrow would be a difficult day.
Her stomach growled, mercifully derailing her thoughts and reminding her of the time. She hadn’t eaten since breakfast and room service was late. She’d picked up the phone to check its status when there was a knock at her door. Finally.
“Thank y-” Her mouth fell open. Her boss stood outside her door. “Al. What are you doing here? Come in.”
Al Landers closed the door behind him. “I wanted to talk to you.”
“How did you know to come here? I didn’t tell you my hotel.”
“You’re a creature of habit,” Al said. “Every time you travel you stay in this hotel chain. It was just a question of calling around until I found the right one.”
“But you came to my room. Did the front desk give that information?”
“No. I overheard a reporter trying to bribe the concierge for your room number.”
“I guess this was bound to happen. Vartanians are big news in Atlanta right now.” Simon had made sure of that. “So did the concierge tell him?”
“Yes, that’s how I knew your room number. So I reported him to the manager. You may want to consider a different hotel the next time you come to town.”
When this was over, there wouldn’t be a next time. “You said you wanted to talk.”
Al looked around. “Do you have anything to drink?”
“Scotch in the minibar.” She poured him a glass and sat on the arm of the sofa.
He went to her desk and glanced at her laptop screen. “I’m here because of that.”
“My statement? Why?”
He took his time answering, first sipping at the scotch, then downing it in a gulp. “Are you sure… very sure you want to do this, Susannah? Once you are cast in the role of a victim, your life, your career will never be the same.”
Susannah went to the window and stared out at the city. “Believe me, I know. But I have my reasons, Al. Thirteen years ago I was…” she swallowed hard, “… raped. A gang of boys drugged me, raped me, and poured whiskey all over me, just like they would do to fifteen other girls over the course of the next year. When I woke up, I was shoved in a little hidey-hole behind my bedroom wall. I thought it was my secret hiding place, but my brother Simon knew about it.”
Behind her she heard Al’s careful exhalation. “So Simon participated?”
Oh, yes. “Simon was the team captain.”
“Wasn’t there anyone you could tell?” he asked carefully.
“No. My father would have called me a liar. And Simon made sure I didn’t tell a soul. He showed me a picture of me being… you know.”
“Yeah,” Al said tightly. “I know.”
“He said they’d do it again. He said there was nowhere I could hide.” She drew a breath, the terror as fresh as if thirteen years had not passed. “He said I had to sleep sometime, that I should stay out of his affairs. So I did. I never said anything. And they went on to rape fifteen others. They took pictures of all of us. Kept them as trophies.”
“Do the police have these pictures now?”
“GBI does. I found them this afternoon, in Simon’s hidey-hole. A whole box full.”
“So the GBI has incontrovertible proof. There’s only one of those bastards left, Susannah. Why put yourself through this now?”
Anger bubbled and she whirled to face the man who’d taught her so much about the law, the man who’d been a shining example. The man who’d been everything Judge Arthur Vartanian had not. “Why are you trying to talk me out of doing what’s right?”
“Because I’m not so sure that it is right,” he said calmly. “Susannah, you have been through hell. Nothing will change if you come forward. The facts will be the same. They have pictures of this man… what’s his name? The only one left?”
“Garth Davis,” she spat.
His eyes flashed dangerously, but his voice remained level. “They have pictures of this Davis raping you, raping others. If you come forward, you will be known as the victim who turned prosecutor. Every defense attorney you go up against will question your zeal. ‘Is it the guilt of my client Ms. Vartanian is trying to prove, or is she trying to get revenge for her own assault?’ ”
“That’s not fair,” she said, tears close to the edge.
“Life isn’t fair,” he said, still calmly. But his eyes were tormented and she could keep the tears at bay no longer.
“He was my brother.” She glared at him, blinking away the tears in frustration. “Don’t you get it? He was my brother and I let him do that to me. I let him do it to others. Because I said nothing, fifteen other girls got raped and seventeen other people are dead in Philadelphia. How do I ever make that right?”
Al gripped her upper arms. “You can’t. You. Can’t. And if that’s why you’re testifying, it’s the wrong reason. I won’t let you ruin your career for the wrong reason.”
“I’m testifying because it’s the right thing to do.”
He looked her square in the eye. “Are you sure you’re not doing this because of Darcy Williams?”
Everything inside her froze. Her heart stopped. Dropped to her stomach. Her mouth moved, but no words would come out. In a blink, she saw the scene. All the blood. Darcy’s body. All that blood. And Al knew. He knows. He knows. He knows.
“I’ve always known, Susannah. You didn’t think a smart cop like Detective Reiser would take an anonymous tip on something so important, did you? Not on a homicide.”
Somehow she found her voice. “I didn’t think he ever knew who’d called him.”
“He knew. He set up a second call, saying he wanted to verify your initial information. He’d traced your first tip to a public phone booth and when you called a second time, he was waiting down the block, watching.”
“I’m a creature of habit,” she said dully. “I went back to the same phone booth.”
“Most people do. You know that.”
“So why didn’t he ever say anything?” She closed her eyes, mortification mixing with the shock. “We’ve worked on a dozen cases since then. He never let on he knew.”
“He followed you home that night. You were working for me then and Reiser and I go way back, so he came to me first. You were only an intern, but I already could see the promise in you.” He sighed. “And the rage. You were always polite, always in control, but behind your eyes was rage. When Reiser told me what you’d witnessed, I knew you had to be into something very dark. I asked him if he believed you’d done anything illegal yourself and he didn’t have anything to say you had.”
“So you asked him to keep my name out of it,” she said stiffly.
“Only if he found no evidence of your having done anything wrong. He was able to use your tips to get a warrant and found the murder weapon in the killer’s closet along with shoes with Darcy’s blood in the laces. He made his case without you.”
“But if he hadn’t been able to, you would have let him call me to the stand.”
Al’s smile was grim. “It would have been the right thing to do. Susannah, you visit Darcy’s grave every year on the day of her death. You still grieve for her. But you turned your life around. You’ve prosecuted offenders with a passion we rarely see. There was nothing to be gained from your coming forward on Darcy Williams’s death.”
“That’s where you’re wrong,” she said. “I have to look at myself, every day, and know I did a passable copy of the right thing. This time, I want to be able to live with what I’ve done. I have to do this, Al. I’ve lived with the shame of the wrong thing for almost half my life. I want to live the rest of my life able to hold my head up to anyone I meet. If I have to sacrifice my career to do that, then I will. I can’t believe you, of all people, are trying to talk me out of this. You’re an officer of the court, for God’s sake.”
“I took off my DA hat the moment I walked in this door. I’m here as your friend.”
Her throat closed and she resolutely cleared it. “There are lots of other prosecutors out there with pasts like mine. They make it work.”
Again his smile was grim. “Their last name wasn’t Vartanian.”
She winced. “Point made. But my decision is the same. The SA and I have an appointment tomorrow morning at nine. She’ll come here. I’ll give her my statement.”
“Do you want me to be here?”
“No.” Uttering the word was reflex. But it wasn’t true. “Yes,” she said.
He nodded steadily. “All right.”
She hesitated. “Then I’m going to a funeral. In Dutton.”
“Sheila Cunningham. She was one of Simon’s gang’s fifteen rape victims. This past Tuesday night she was going to give my brother Daniel some information about the assaults thirteen years ago, but she was killed before she could talk to him. One of the gang members was our hometown deputy. He arranged for Sheila to be killed, then killed the hit man to keep him quiet. Today the deputy shot my brother.”
Al’s eyes widened. “You didn’t tell me your brother had been shot when you called.”
“No, I didn’t.” And she was too mixed up in her mind about Daniel to understand why she had not. “Daniel will be all right, thanks to his girlfriend, Alex.”
“Is the deputy in custody?”
“Of a fashion. After he shot Daniel, he turned his gun on Alex. She shot him dead.”
Al blinked. “I need another drink.” Susannah pulled another little bottle of scotch from the minibar, along with a bottle of water for herself.
Al tapped his glass to her bottle. “To the right thing.”
She nodded. “Even when it’s the hard thing.”
“I’d like to meet your brother Daniel. I’ve read a lot about him.”
Even when it’s the hard thing. Like it or not, ready or not, Daniel would be part of her life for the foreseeable future. “He can have visitors starting tomorrow.”
“Do you want me to go to this woman’s funeral with you?”
“You don’t have to,” she said and he gave her a look, as if he were counting to ten.
“You don’t have to do this alone, Susannah. You never did. Let me help you.”
Relief had her shoulders slumping. “It’s at eleven. We need to leave right after I talk with Ms. Hathaway.”
“Then I’ll let you sleep. Try not to worry.”
“I’ll try. You…” Her throat tightened. “You made me believe in the law, Al. I know it works. It didn’t work for me before, because I never gave it the chance.”
“Tomorrow at nine. We’ll give it a chance this time.”
She saw him to the door. “I’ll be here. Thank you.”
Atlanta , Friday, February 2, 11:30 p.m.
Luke stepped into the elevator in Susannah’s hotel, the aroma of food smacking him hard. A white-coated waiter stood behind a room service tray set for two. Luke glanced down at the room service tray longingly. It had been a long time since he’d eaten and all he’d get tonight was a burger from whatever drive-thru was still open.
You could be eating that burger right now. You could have just called her to ask about the cabin. Of course he could have, and should have. Yet here he was.
The elevator dinged and the doors slid open. “After you, sir,” the waiter said.
Luke nodded and headed for Susannah’s room. She’s probably asleep. You should just have called. But if he’d called, he definitely would have woken her. Now, he could listen at the door. If he didn’t hear anything, he’d leave. You go right on thinking that, Papa. You just want to see her again, make sure she’s all right.
Just to make sure she was all right. Yeah, that was it. Uh-huh.
A door opened at the end of the hall and an older man emerged, someone in the room closing the door behind him. The man was about fifty-five, dressed impeccably in a suit and tie. He scrutinized Luke, directly meeting his eyes as they passed.
Frowning, Luke turned to watch the man and almost collided with the waiter pushing the room service cart-who stopped at the door from which the man had emerged.
Luke frowned again when Susannah answered the waiter’s knock. She’d started to sign the bill when she realized Luke was there. “Agent Papadopoulos,” she said.
Luke nudged the waiter out of the way. “I’ll get this for you. Good night.”
Susannah watched as he pushed the cart into the room and closed the door. “What are you doing here?” she asked, though not unkindly.
“I needed to ask you something.” But then he got a look at her clothes and a sudden pulse of heat burned his skin. A tight skirt hit her legs midthigh and a clingy sweater dipped low. She looked utterly young and almost carefree. And I want her. Now.
“Looks like my niece Stacie bought what she wanted for herself,” he said, forcing his voice to be amused. “My sister Demi won’t let her dress like that.”
Her smile was rueful. “I thought as much, but I had to get rid of those scrubs.” She gestured at the cart. “Would you like to join me?”
“I’m starving,” he confessed. “But I don’t want to take your dinner.”
“I’ll never eat all this,” she said and pointed at the small table in the corner. “Sit.”
He maneuvered around the cart, hitting the desk with his hip. Her laptop cleared of its screensaver and he stopped when he saw what filled the screen. “Your statement.”
She put the tray on the table. “I’m meeting ASA Hathaway tomorrow morning.”
“She said you’d called.” He narrowed his eyes at the two sets of silverware on the tray, thinking of the man who’d come from her room. “You ordered dinner for two.”
“I always do. I don’t want anyone to think I’m here alone.” She shrugged, slightly embarrassed. “It’s the irrational fears that get you at three a.m. Eat before it gets cold.”
Three a.m. fears he understood. Three a.m. rarely found him asleep. They ate in silence, until Luke’s need to know overwhelmed. “Who was the man who left here?”
She blinked. “My boss. Al Landers, from New York. I’d called him earlier, told him about the box, and my statement. He came to make sure I was okay.” Her eyes widened. “You thought-? Oh, no. Al’s married.” Her jaw set. “He’s a good man.”
Luke’s gut settled. “That was nice of him to come all this way,” he said quietly.
She seemed to settle as well. “And it was nice of your niece to go shopping for me.” She got up and got her purse. “Here’s a check. Will you give it to her?”
He slid the check into his shirt pocket. “That’s not what you would have bought.”
“No, but that doesn’t make it any less kind. When I go back to New York, she can have this outfit if her mom will let her. I’m sure it would look better on her. I’m too old to dress like this.” She sat down and met his eyes. “What did you want to ask me?”
For a moment he couldn’t remember, then his good sense kicked in. “Did you ever visit a cabin up in the mountains?”
She frowned. “A cabin? No. Why?”
“I talked to Garth Davis tonight and he mentioned that they normally used one another’s houses for the… assaults, but that one night they used a cabin in the mountains. Granville made the arrangements and drove them there in secret.”
Her eyes had flickered at his hesitation. “Does Davis know who owned it?”
“I think so, but he’s not saying until we find his kids. His wife took off with them yesterday when she found out Mack O’Brien had targeted their family.”
“Garth’s cousin was murdered. I read about it in the paper.” She sat back, thinking. “My father didn’t have a cabin that I knew of. He bought a ski chalet in Vale, but to my knowledge he never used it.”
“Why did he buy it then?”
“I think to torment us, especially my mother. She wanted to go out West, but he wouldn’t take the time. He bought the chalet so they owned it, but she couldn’t use it.”
“But no cabin in the mountains here?”
“No. But I do remember him going fishing with Randy Mansfield’s father.”
“He and Mansfield ’s father were friends?”
She shrugged. “When it suited either of them. Mansfield ’s father was the county prosecutor and would come around when he had a case that wasn’t going well. They’d whisper in my father’s office and suddenly the tide would turn the prosecution’s way.”
“So Mansfield ’s father bribed your father.”
“Sure. Lots of people bribed my father. My father bribed lots of people. Blackmailed others.” Her eyes flashed. “I wanted to tell, but nobody would have believed me.”
“Who could you have told? You had no idea who wasn’t in your dad’s pocket.”
The rage in her eyes subsided. “I know. They were all in it together.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t mean to dredge all this up.”
“It’s okay. You were asking about the cabin. When my father and Richard Mansfield went fishing, they did go to a cabin.” She looked down, thinking, then abruptly looked up, meeting his eyes. “Judge Borenson. It was his cabin.”
“I know that name. I’ve heard it recently. Can I use your laptop?”
He sat down at the desk and she stood behind him, watching him type.
“Oh my God,” she murmured, reaching over his shoulder to point at the screen at the same time the words jumped out at him. “Borenson presided over Gary Fulmore’s trial.”
“The man falsely convicted for killing Alex Fallon’s twin sister thirteen years ago,” Luke muttered, focusing on the computer screen and not on her clingy sweater that brushed his shoulder or her scent that filled his head. “Coincidence?”
“No,” she murmured. “It can’t be a coincidence.” She stepped back, lowering herself to the edge of the bed. “Gary Fulmore served thirteen years for a murder he didn’t do.”
“Mack O’Brien’s older brother Jared killed Alex’s sister,” Luke told her, both relieved and disappointed at the distance she’d put between them. “But nobody else knew that back then. All the boys in the gang thought the other had killed Alicia Tremaine, because she was alive when they left her after raping her. Jared O’Brien went back, raped her again, and killed her when she tried to scream for help.”
“Frank Loomis was the sheriff then. He tampered with evidence. Framed Gary Fulmore for the murder. Why?”
“I know Daniel wants to know.”
“Frank treated Daniel like his own son, gave him his first job at the police station. Finding out Frank had done such a terrible thing must have killed him.”
Luke looked over his shoulder abruptly. “Frank treated Daniel like his own son. Could he have treated Granville the same way?”
“Frank Loomis as Granville’s thích?” she asked doubtfully. “I guess it’s possible.”
“Were Sheriff Loomis and Judge Borenson friends?”
“I don’t know. They could have been. Dutton politics forged strange bedfellows.”
Luke searched through the rest of the Borenson search hits. “He’s pushing seventy, but I don’t see a death notice, so he’s probably still alive. We need to talk to him.”
“If Borenson’s cabin was known to Granville, it could be known to whoever is his partner now.” She drew a breath. “And…”
“The girls could be there. It’s a long shot, but it is a possibility, and right now, it’s all we have.” He looked over his shoulder. “Do you know where Borenson’s cabin was?”
“Somewhere up in North Georgia. I’m sorry. I wish I knew more.”
“No, you’ve been a big help. I can find the cabin if it was in his name.” He typed in another search and sat back. “The cabin’s up past Ellijay on Trout Stream Drive.”
“That area is remote. It’ll be hard to find, especially in the dark. You’ll need a guide.”
“I’ve fished at cabins up in Ellijay. I should be able to find my own way.” Luke paused at the door, then gave in, turning for a last look. “You’re wrong, you know.”
His mouth was suddenly dry. “You’re not too old for that outfit. Stacie chose well.”
One side of her mouth lifted. “Good night, Agent Papadopoulos. Good hunting.”
Ridgefield , Georgia , Saturday, February 3, 12:30 a.m.
Bobby smiled at Haynes. “It’s always a pleasure doing business with you, Darryl.”
Haynes slipped his money clip back in his pants pocket. “Likewise. I have to say I’m disappointed the blonde took sick, though. I kind of had my hopes up, there.”
“Next time. I promise.”
Haynes’s lips curved into a politician’s smile. “I’ll hold you to it,” Haynes said.
Bobby walked the rich man to the door and watched as he drove away, his new purchase stowed safely on a fluffy blanket in the trunk of his Cadillac Seville.
Tanner appeared. “I dislike that man.”
Bobby smiled. “You just dislike politicians and so do I. Haynes is a good customer, and once he’s elected, we’ll have one more powerfully placed… personnel.”
Tanner sighed. “I suppose. Mr. Paul is on your business line.”
“Thanks, Tanner. You can go to bed now. I’ll ring if I need you again.”
Tanner nodded. “I’ll check on our guests before I retire.”
“Thank you, Tanner.” Bobby smiled as the old man made his way up the old stairs. Tanner had a mile-wide streak of southern gentility, despite his rather checkered past. Tanner had been Bobby’s first “personnel acquisition,” at the ripe old age of twelve. Tanner had been old even then, but still young enough not to want to spend the rest of his life behind bars. They’d forged a relationship that had lasted more than half of Bobby’s life. There wasn’t anyone Bobby trusted more. Not even Charles.
Especially not Charles. Charles was a cobra, slithering around in the underbrush, hanging from trees, waiting for the optimal moment to strike.
Shrugging back a shiver, Bobby picked up the phone. “Paul. You’re late.”
“But I got your information, plus a few extras. Take down these names. Luke Papadopoulos is lead agent on the Granville case. He’s reporting to Chase Wharton.”
“That I knew. Who’s the support staff?” Bobby frowned as Paul recited all the names. “I don’t know any of them.”
“Oh, I do,” Paul said smugly. “One of them will fit your needs nicely because one of them has a secret worth hiding. It should have been a major arrest for me, but I figured I’d just bide my time.”
“Smart. This one is more useful to us on the job than in prison.” Bobby recorded the name and the secret. “Now I’ll have a well-placed mole on the GBI team. Fantastic.”
“And if you play your cards right, not just for this case, but for years to come.”
“You did well, Paul. What about the other matter?”
“That you’re going to be less happy about. Rocky met the nurse in the hospital parking lot and they chatted in her car.”
“And you were where?”
“Two rows over. I had to get that close for my mike to pick them up. Turns out your nurse hasn’t done the deed. She had your assistant pretty rattled.”
Bobby’s jaw tightened. “I thought as much. Where is Rocky now?”
“Driving north on I-85. I’m trailing about a half mile behind.”
“That I don’t know because she didn’t say.”
“Did Rocky at least get a description of the girl?”
“All the nurse knew was that her name started with M.”
Fuck. Monica. “I see. So the girl is awake and talking?”
“No. The nurse made it so the girl is paralyzed, gave her something in her IV. She can’t open her eyes, move, or speak.”
Bobby breathed an easier breath. “So at least the nurse isn’t a total failure.”
“Rocky told the nurse to give the girl one more dose, which would keep her paralyzed until about two this afternoon. She said she’d be back with more instructions, then let the nurse out. Rocky waited, then followed a car to one of the local hotels. A woman went into the hotel, the car kept going. Rocky started driving north.”
“What did the woman look like?”
“A doctor. She got out of the car wearing scrubs and carrying a computer bag in one hand and a shopping bag in the other. I can keep following Rocky. Your call.”
“I’ve got her car wired. Just use the GPS. I have other things for you to do tonight.”
“Can’t. Rocky must’ve ditched the transmitter because I’m not picking her up.”
Bobby sighed. “I’ve always known she was bright. I’ll just have to have Tanner hide the transmitter better next time. Follow her. I want to know every move she makes.”
“It’s your dime. Oh, one more thing. Rocky was very interested when the nurse said the woman who found the girl was Susannah Vartanian. She saved the girl’s life.”
Bobby tensed. “What did the doctor look like, the one that went into the hotel?”
“Thirty. Dark hair in a ponytail. Maybe five-three. Real pretty,” he added slyly.
Susannah. “How nice. Call me when Rocky gets to where she’s going.”
Bobby hung up and stared at the photo of Susannah that Charles had left, wondering if he’d known about Susannah finding the girl, then rejected the notion. Charles would have been here, playing chess when the girl escaped. Charles knew a lot, but even he didn’t know everything. Damn the old man, playing with my mind. Susannah Vartanian. The woman had been a festering thorn for years, simply by breathing. Today she’d done a hell of a lot more than breathe. Because of Susannah, the girl had survived. The girl could bring them all down.
For now the girl was neutralized. The nurse would need to be brought into line, that was a given. But Susannah had crossed the line. It was way past time to pull out the thorn. Way past time for Susannah to stop breathing.
But first, Bobby would deal with Rocky. It would not be pretty. Father always told me it was a mistake to go into business with family. I really should have listened.
Ellijay, North Georgia, Saturday, February 3, 2:15 a.m.
Luke, wake up. We’re here.”
Luke blinked his eyes open. Special Agent Talia Scott was slowing the car to a stop at the edge of a tree-lined dirt road, which according to their map should lead to Judge Walter Borenson’s cabin. “I wasn’t asleep,” he said. “I was just resting my eyes.”
“Then you are the loudest eye-rester I’ve ever heard. Your snores could wake the damn dead, Papa. No wonder you can’t keep a girlfriend. So wake up.”
“Maybe I did sleep a little.” That he had was testament to just how much he trusted Talia. They’d been friends for a long time. He glanced in his rearview. Chase was behind them, and two vans brought up the rear.
One van was filled with the SWAT team Chase had assembled, the other held a crime lab team from the local GBI field office. “We got a signed warrant?” Luke asked.
“Yeah,” Talia said. “Chloe grumbled about some early morning meeting and needing her beauty sleep, but she came through.”
Chloe’s morning meeting was with Susannah, Luke knew. He’d almost told Talia about Susannah’s statement before he’d fallen asleep. Talia had been interviewing the surviving victims of Simon and Granville’s rape club for the past two days. At some point she’d know that Susannah had been a victim, too. But he’d held his tongue. Susannah deserved her privacy until she formally signed that statement.
“Chloe usually does come through,” he said and got out of the car. “If Granville’s partner is here, he’s boxed himself in. There isn’t any way out, except this road.”
Talia shined her flashlight across the dirt. “The ground’s too hard to show any tire tracks if a vehicle did come through.” She sniffed the air. “No fire in any woodstove.”
Chase came close, tightening the straps on his Kevlar vest, two pairs of night goggles and two earpieces in his hand. “For you two. Let’s approach through the trees. I’ll go left. Talia, you go right, and Luke, you come around and cover the back. If they are in there, I do not want them to see us coming.”
Luke thought of the bunker, the vacant eyes, the bullet holes centered on their foreheads. No, he didn’t want to give the bastards any advance notice. “Let’s go.”
They organized, splitting the SWAT team into three groups, and set out, creeping through the trees. As they grew closer to the cabin, Luke could tell no one was there. The place was dark and had the feel of abandonment. No one had been here in days.
Luke came out of the trees on one side of the road as Chase emerged on the other. Silently, Chase pointed around to the back of the house and Luke followed the order. All was quiet until he got about five feet from the house, then he heard a low growl.
A bulldog struggled to stand, a low growl coming from its throat. The dog limped to the edge of the back porch, its teeth bared.
“We’re in position,” Chase’s voice murmured in his ear.
Luke carefully approached. “Easy, boy,” he said softly. The dog began to back up step by step, teeth still bared, but made no move to strike. “We’re ready, Chase.”
Luke knocked the back door in, then gagged at the stench. “Oh my God.”
“GBI, freeze,” Chase ordered from the front door, but the cabin was empty.
Luke hit a light switch and immediately saw the source of the odor. Three fish lay on the kitchen counter, rotting. One looked like it had been in the process of being deboned. A long, thin filleting knife lay on the floor, covered in dried blood.
“Bedroom’s clear,” Talia called.
Chase looked at the fish, his mouth twisted in a grimace. “At least it’s not Borenson.”
“Looks like he got interrupted,” Luke said. “Somebody was looking for something.”
Drawers in the living room had been yanked, contents strewn. The sofa had been slashed, stuffing everywhere. Books had been pulled from the shelves. Pictures had been pulled from the walls, the glass shattered in the frames.
“Hey, Papa,” Talia called from the bedroom. “Come here.”
Luke winced. Blood covered the bed, soaking the linens. “That had to have hurt.”
Again, drawers were pulled, contents strewn. A framed photo lay in a pile of broken glass on the floor next to the bed. It was an old man holding a fly-fishing rod, standing next to a dog. “It’s the bulldog from outside,” Luke said, “and the old guy is Borenson.”
“Talia, stay with the crime lab,” Chase said. “We’ll fan out and see if Borenson’s been dumped anywhere around the cabin, then we’ll talk to the folks in town, see if anyone saw anything. The girls are not here, nor do they appear to have been here. We’re not back to square one, though. Somebody didn’t want Borenson to talk.”
A whimper had them looking down. The bulldog had lain down at Luke’s feet.
“What about the dog?” Talia asked wryly.
“Find him something to eat,” Luke said. “Then have the lab crate him and transport him back to Atlanta. Maybe he bit a suspect with those teeth.” Luke hesitated, then crouched to scratch behind the dog’s ears. “You’re a good boy,” he murmured. “Waiting for your master like that. She’s a good dog,” he corrected, then jumped when his cell phone buzzed in his pocket.
His heart quickened when he saw the caller ID. “Alex, what’s happened?”
“Daniel’s fine,” Alex said. “But three minutes ago they rushed Beardsley to ICU.”
“Beardsley’s in ICU,” he said to the others. “What happened? He was stable.”
“None of the medical staff are talking, but I’m standing here with Ryan’s father, who said they’d just changed his IV. A minute later he was convulsing.”
“Oh, hell,” Luke muttered. “You think he was poisoned?”
“I don’t know,” Alex said, “but his father said he’d remembered some things you’d want to know. His father said he called your cell, but got your voicemail.”
Luke’s jaw tightened. He’d fallen asleep in the car and missed the call. Dammit. “I’m ninety minutes away. I’m going to call Pete Haywood to come. He’s one of Chase’s.”
“I’ll wait with Daniel and keep an eye on Ryan Beardsley. Tell Agent Haywood he’ll want to take that IV bag in for testing. You should hurry back, Luke. Beardsley’s dad said he flatlined. They had to bring him back with the paddles.”
“I’ll be there.” He hung up. “Looks like someone tried to kill Ryan Beardsley.”
“In the hospital?” Chase asked incredulously.
“In the hospital,” Luke confirmed grimly. “I have to head back.”
“You two both go back,” Talia said. “I’ve got this covered and I’ll start looking for neighbors at daybreak. Don’t worry. We’re good here.”
“Thanks.” Luke started for the door and the dog followed at his heels. “Stay, girl,” he said firmly. The dog obeyed, although she quivered, ready to follow at a word.
“Yes,” Talia said, her tone longsuffering. “I’ll take care of the dog, too.”
Luke slumped in Chase’s car. “It just doesn’t stop.” He grimaced. “And I reek.”
“A little sweat, a little smoke, a little rotting fish. Chicks love it.”
Luke snorted a tired laugh. “No woman would come within a mile of me.” But Susannah had. She’d come within inches. If he concentrated, he could still remember how she’d smelled. Fresh. Sweet. Just leave it alone. “I’ll call Pete. We still have a guard on ICU. I’ll post a guard outside Bailey’s room, too. Dammit, I was hoping this was it. But it’s been ten hours and we still have no idea where those girls are.”
“Granville’s partner is still pulling the strings,” Chase said quietly.
Luke glared at the passing trees. “Well, I’m damn tired of being his puppet.”
Dutton, Saturday, February 3, 3:00 a.m.
“Tell me,” Charles said, his mild voice covering up a fury that was almost ready to explode. Still his hands were steady as he held a new scalpel Toby Granville had given him just last Christmas. It was important to have the best tools. “Tell me where it fits.”
Judge Borenson shook his head. “No.”
“You’re a stubborn old man. I’ll just have to start cutting deeper and perhaps cutting off things you might otherwise like to keep. I know the key fits a safe deposit box. And I know Toby hurt you pretty badly up at your cabin and you still wouldn’t talk. I’m prepared to do much worse.” Charles sliced a ribbon deep into Borenson’s abdomen as the judge cried out in pain. “Just the name of the bank and the name of the city. Box number would be nice, too.”
Borenson closed his eyes. “Bank of Hell. You’ll never find it.”
“That’s a sad attitude, Judge. I need that statement you prepared. You know, the one that could ruin us both if it falls into the wrong hands?”
“Like I give a shit.”
Charles’s lips thinned. “You like pain, Judge?”
Borenson moaned as the knife dug deeper, but he said no more.
Charles sighed. “At least I love my job. I wonder how long you’ll hold out.”
“Check your crystal ball,” Borenson said from between his teeth. “I’m not telling you.”
Charles laughed. “It says you’ll die by Sunday noon. And I’ll make sure my prediction comes true, just like I always do. Some might say I’m cheating, but I just call it strengthening the house advantage. You can die quickly and painlessly or very slowly. It’s your choice. Give me what I want and I’ll go away. So will you, but you knew that was going to happen as soon as either I or Arthur Vartanian died, didn’t you? You made a deal with the devil, Judge. Free lesson-the devil always wins.”
Atlanta , Saturday, February 3, 3:00 a.m.
Susannah got out of bed and turned on the light. Sleep would not come and she’d learned long ago not to fight it. She sat down at the desk and turned on her laptop.
She had briefs to write. Work to catch up on. But none of that seemed real tonight.
She thought of Luke Papadopoulos and wondered what he’d found in Borenson’s cabin. If he’d found the missing girls, he would have called her, of that she was sure.
She thought about the way he’d looked at her when he’d walked out the door tonight and a shiver ran down her back. He was a potent man. She was sure of that, too.
What she wasn’t so sure of was the way she felt about it.
But that wasn’t something she had to settle tonight. Tonight Luke was out there, doing something, while she sat, doing nothing. From her briefcase she pulled her cell phone and studied the photo she’d snapped of M. Jane Doe.
What’s your name, girl? she wondered. Mary, Maxine, Mona? If only I’d gotten a second or third letter. Had M. Jane Doe been a runaway? Kidnapped? She knew the girl’s fingerprints had been taken when she’d arrived at the hospital. The nurses had confirmed that much. But so far M. Doe’s identity was still a mystery.
Is someone waiting for you, M? She’d asked for her mom, just before she’d been placed in the helicopter, so she had at least one parent who, one hoped, loved her.
Susannah brought up the Web site for missing children and searched the database for girls. There were hundreds and hundreds. She narrowed the search to those whose names began with M. Now there were fewer than fifty. She studied every face with a heavy heart. Every girl on the screen was gone.
No matter how bad it had been at home, she’d never been taken away. At least not for longer than the one night Simon and his friends had… raped me. It was still no easier to say, even in her own mind. She wondered if it ever would be.
She got to the end of the pictures and sighed. M. Jane Doe was not listed. Most of the girls listed in the database were classified as “endangered runaways,” and runaways weren’t investigated in the same way abducted teens might be. It was sad, but in a world of strained budgets and overworked resources, it was reality.
She wondered if M. Jane Doe had been a runaway, endangered or otherwise. There were online clearinghouses for teen runaways. Some of them had photos. She brought up a Web site for runaways and sighed again. Lots of photos. All individually listed. There would be no searching based on age or gender or names that began with the letter M. She settled back and began opening each photo file, one at a time.
It was going to be a long night.
Charlotte , North Carolina , Saturday, February 3, 3:15 a.m.
Rocky slowed as she pulled into the parking lot, grateful for her nearly photographic memory. She hadn’t wanted to go back to Ridgefield House to check her notes. She hadn’t wanted to face Bobby. Not until I’ve fixed this. Luckily she was able to remember the facts on all the girls she’d lured from their beds during the past eighteen months.
Tonight’s prey would serve a dual purpose-she’d give Bobby a new blonde and she’d ensure Monica Cassidy’s silence, until the girl could be moved out of the heavily guarded ICU, at which point Rocky would make the nurse kill her.
She wasn’t sure how she’d do that, but she’d cross that bridge when she got there.
She’d made good time, but the four-hour drive had left her no more prepared to do this thing alone. She released her grip on the steering wheel to check her pocket. Her gun was still there, of course. But it was reassuring to know for sure.
Don’t be stupid. You’ve done this before. But not alone. Twice she’d accompanied Mansfield on pickups, but he’d done all the work. Rocky had simply navigated the drive.
Tonight she went solo. Oh, God, there she is. A teenaged girl had inched her way out of the shadows and stood waiting. This is it. Don’t fuck it up now.
Ridgefield House, Saturday, February 3, 3:15 a.m.
The ringing of the phone pulled Bobby from sleep. A few blinks had the caller ID coming into focus. Paul. “Yeah? Where the hell are you?”
“In the parking lot of an all-night diner in Charlotte, North Carolina.”
“Because that’s where Rocky stopped. She’s sitting in her car, headlights off. Wait. Somebody’s coming.”
“Can they see you?”
He made a scoffing sound. “You know better than that. Nobody sees me that I don’t want to see me. It’s a girl, about fifteen. She’s coming toward Rocky’s car.”
“Is she a blonde?”
“Is she a blonde?” Bobby carefully enunciated each word.
“Yeah. Looks like it.”
Bobby yawned. “Then it’s business. Rocky said she had a few blondes ready to harvest. I told her I’d arrange for pickup, but it looks like she’s trying to make amends. I wish she’d followed my instructions on the nurse. I’ll deal with her when she returns.”
“Then I just turn around and go home?”
“Turn around, but don’t go home. I need one more job.”
Paul sighed. “Bobby. I’m tired.”
“Don’t whine. I need a body found tomorrow morning.”
“Anybody I know?” Paul asked dryly.
“Yeah, the nurse’s sister. I need it to look like she fought off a mugger. But make sure she’s found. I’ve sent the sister’s address and photo to your hotmail account. She should be leaving her house around eight. Be there a little early. Make it hurt.”
“So Bobby takes the gloves off,” Paul said, amusement lacing his tone.
“Absolutely. I always keep my promises. The nurse will be far more willing to follow my instructions in the future. So how is Rocky doing with the blonde in the parking lot?”
“Not bad. The girl struggled a little, but your kid wonder was prepared. Looks like she knocked her out. She’s got a great right hook. No wonder you call her Rocky.”
Bobby laughed softly. “No, that’s not why. Thanks, Paul, I’ll make sure you’re paid well for this evening.”
“Always a pleasure, Bobby.”
“Text me when the sister’s dead. I have a special delivery for the nurse.”
Atlanta , Saturday, February 3, 4:30 a.m.
Luke’s brother Leo brought his car to a stop outside the gated GBI lot. “We’re here.”
Luke opened his eyes, refreshed by the brief rest. He gave his ID to Leo, who slid it through the card reader, sending the gate silently upward. “Thanks for driving me to get my car, man.”
Leo shrugged. “I wasn’t doing anything else.”
Luke grunted as he sat upright, working the kinks from his neck. “That’s sad, Leo.”
“Ain’t it though?” Leo studied him, eyes worried. “Are you all right?”
“I’m here.” He wasn’t going to lie to Leo. He couldn’t if he tried.
“Well, at least you don’t smell like a dog that’s been rolling in rotten fish anymore.”
“There is that. I appreciate the breakfast.” Luke had been unsurprised when Leo had silently materialized from the shadows of his living room as soon as Luke had let himself into his apartment. Leo had seen Chase’s press conference and knew Luke would come home sometime, tired and hungry. Leo was good about anticipating the needs of others. Luke wished his brother was as good about taking care of himself.
“You’re lucky. Those two eggs were the only thing in your fridge that were edible.”
“I haven’t been to the grocery in a while.” Not since his Internet Crimes unit had picked up the scent of those three kids for whom they’d been too late last Tuesday. “I think the milk’s expired, too.”
“It’s solidified. I’ll run by and get you some bread and milk when I take your suit over to Johnny’s later today. He’s getting good at salvaging your clothes.”
That their cousin Johnny had his own dry-cleaning business was both a bane and boon. “Tell him to go light on the starch on my shirt, okay? Last one was so stiff it almost rubbed the skin off my neck.”
Leo smirked. “He did that on purpose.”
“I know.” He needed to move, but his body wasn’t cooperating. “I’m so tired, Leo.”
“I know,” Leo said quietly, and Luke knew his brother understood it was more than physical fatigue.
“Those girls could be anywhere. God only knows what they’ve had done to them.”
“You can’t think like that,” Leo said brusquely. “You can’t think of them as Stacie and Min. So stop it.”
As he had been. Luke pushed the pictures of his sister Demi’s pretty, smiling, teenaged daughters from his mind. “I know, I know. Eyes on the goal. It’s just that…”
“You’re human,” Leo said quietly. “You see their faces. And it eats you up.”
And a little more of you dies each day. How right Susannah Vartanian had been. “It’s like a sea of faces. They’re always there. Some days I think I’m losing my mind.”
“You aren’t losing your mind. But you can’t be human right now. If you think of them, of their suffering, you’ll lose your edge and you’ll be no good to any of them.”
“How do you do that? Stop thinking of them?”
Leo’s chuckle was void of humor. “I have no idea. That’s what they used to tell us before we went door to door, but I never learned how to.”
Luke thought of his brother in full battle gear, searching out insurgents in Baghdad. It had been a very tense time for his family. Their mama. Every day they’d waited for word that Leo had been one of the lucky ones, that he’d survived another day. The day he came home, they’d rejoiced. But one had only to look at Leo’s eyes to know he had not been one of the lucky ones. A piece of his brother had died over there, but it was not something Leo ever discussed, even with me. “So you got out?”
Leo’s eyes shuttered. “You thinkin’ of getting out of the GBI?”
“Every goddamn day. But I don’t.”
Leo tapped his steering wheel lightly. “And that’s what makes you a better man.”
But Leo shook his head. “Don’t. Not today. You don’t need my shit piled on top of yours.” He settled in his seat and Luke knew that topic was closed. “So how is she?”
“Susannah Vartanian.” Leo shot him a look. “Come on, it’s me you’re talking to here. I saw how you looked at her at her parents’ funeral. You didn’t think you were hiding anything, did you?”
Not from Leo’s eagle eye. “I guess not. She’s…” Fine. Of course on a physical level that was true. Susannah Vartanian was very fine. Too fine. Too tempting. On an emotional level it couldn’t be more false. “She’s holding on.”
“Why did she come back today?”
“I can’t tell you. I’m sorry.”
Leo’s expression turned contemplative, then he shook his head hard. “No. No way.”
Luke sighed. “What?”
“In that press conference, your boss said that you’d broken the case of those thirteen-year-old rapes today, that they’d happened in Dutton. She was one of them.”
“I can’t tell you.” But in not denying it, he’d confirmed it and they both knew it. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. Are you okay?”
Luke blinked. “Me?”
“You’re interested in a woman who comes with heavy baggage. Can you deal?”
“Before or after I do what I want to do to the one sonofabitch that’s still standing?”
“I’ll open up the range day or night if you need to take out a paper man or two.”
“I appreciate it.” Luke had taken out many a paper target at Leo’s shooting range. Many days it was all that enabled him to keep a lid on his temper. “But not right now. I’ve got too many things I should have already done.” First of which would be a visit to the hospital where Ryan Beardsley was, thankfully, in stable condition. He also needed to get to the morgue to check autopsy results before the eight-o’clock meeting.
“You’ve got a couple things going for you,” Leo said when Luke got out of the car.
Luke grabbed his gym bag full of clean clothes from Leo’s backseat. “Like what?”
Leo grinned. “Mama likes her. And she’s Catholic. Everything else is just details.”
Luke threw the bag in the trunk of his own car, chuckling. “Thanks. I feel better now.”
Atlanta , Saturday, February 3, 4:40 a.m.
Monica woke up. It was dark. And quiet. And she couldn’t move. I can’t move. Oh, God. She tried to open her eyes and… couldn’t. Help! Help! What’s happening to me?
I’m dead. Oh, God, I’m dead. Mom. Susannah.
“Doctor.” It was a woman’s voice, urgently calling.
She wanted to drag in a breath, but couldn’t. The tube was still in her throat. No, no I’m not dead. I’m in the hospital. That’s a nurse. She’ll help. She’ll help.
“What’s going on?” A deeper voice. A doctor. A doctor.
Stop. He’s a real doctor. He won’t hurt you. Still her heart raced like a wild horse.
“Her BP’s up. So is her pulse.”
“Let’s get her comfortable. Call me if her pressure doesn’t go down.”
I can’t move. I can’t see. Help me. She heard the rattle of instruments, felt the quick prick of a needle. Listen to me. But the scream wouldn’t come, echoing only in her mind. Susannah, where are you?
She started to drift, to calm. And then she heard a voice, low and gruff, and right next to her ear. Male? Female? She couldn’t tell.
“You’re not dying. You’ve been given a drug to make you paralyzed.”
Paralyzed. Oh my God. She fought to open her eyes, to see who spoke. But she could do nothing. Say nothing. Oh God.
“Sshh,” the voice said. “Don’t fight it. They’ll just give you more sedative. Now you listen to me. In a few hours, this is going to wear off. When it does you’ll be able to move, to see again. When the cops come back, you will tell them you remember nothing, not even your name. You will say nothing of your time in the bunker. They have your sister and they will do to her what they did to you if you say anything.”
She could feel warm breath against her ear. “Say nothing and your sister will be free. Say one word and she’ll be their whore, just like you were. It’s up to you now.”
The heat disappeared and Monica heard the shuffle of shoes as the person walked away. Then she felt the wetness on her temples as tears leaked from her eyes.
Genie. They had Genie. She’s only fourteen. Oh, God, what do I do?
Atlanta , Saturday, February 3, 4:50 a.m.
Pete Haywood was waiting in the hospital lobby when Luke came in.
“Status?” Luke asked.
“Beardsley’s awake and lucid, asking for ‘Papa.’ We thought he wanted his father, but then I realized he was asking for you. He wouldn’t talk to me.”
“What about the IV bag?”
“Sent it to the crime lab a couple hours ago. Haven’t heard anything yet. The doctors did a CT scan and a tox screen. The scan was negative, but the tox screen hasn’t come back yet. I interviewed the nurse who changed the IV bag. She’s ripped up. Every doctor and nurse on the floor has vouched for her, but I’ve got Leigh pulling her financials, just in case. I don’t think she did it. The nurses stage their IV bags up to two hours ahead of time, so anybody who went into that room could have had access.”
“Not so bad, actually. The hospital has a tracking system. See those blue antennae?” Pete pointed to what looked like two blue stalactites hanging from the ceiling outside the gift shop. “They’re everywhere. Employees wear a badge that tracks their location 24/7.”
“Holy Big Brother, Batman,” Luke murmured, and Pete chuckled.
“Hospital security was running a list of everyone in the area. They should be finished any minute. I think the doctor who responded to Beardsley’s attack suspected foul play, too, and that he took Beardsley up to ICU because he knew there was a guard up there. But nobody’s confirming that. I think the hospital admin is being careful about liability.”
“We’ll know more when that bag is analyzed. Where are you going?”
“I just got a call from the fire investigator at Granville’s house. He’s found the bomb’s trigger. Now that you’re here, I’ll head to Dutton. I’ll be back by the eight-o’clock meeting.”
Pete headed out and Luke headed up, stepping out of the elevator to find a new state trooper standing guard. “I’m Papadopoulos,” Luke said, flashing his badge.
“Marlow. I just put a call in to Haywood. He said you were on your way up.”
“Your Jane Doe had some kind of seizure or something. Her BP spiked and they sedated her. The doctor said it was nothing unusual, that this kind of thing happens after surgery, but given Beardsley’s condition, I thought you all should know.”
Alex met him at the door. “Ryan Beardsley has been asking for you.”
“I heard. Has he said anything to you?”
“No. He’s waiting for you.”
“What about the girl?”
“She woke up very agitated. Sometimes that happens when a patient wakes up in a strange place after surgery. And who knows? She might have been having a nightmare about the bunker. I know I’ve had a few. She’s resting comfortably now, but her nurse is that one over there, the tall woman with gray in her hair. Her name’s Ella. She can also tell you more about Ryan Beardsley.”
“Thanks. How’s Daniel?”
“Still asleep, but stable. I’ll call you as soon as he wakes up.”
Luke glanced into Daniel’s cubicle as he walked by, wondering how much his friend knew about Judge Borenson, if anything. He wondered if they’d find Borenson alive.
But Beardsley was still alive. Luke approached the tall nurse named Ella. She hadn’t been on shift earlier when he and Susannah had talked to Jane Doe. “Excuse me, I’m Special Agent Papadopoulos. I’m here to see Ryan Beardsley. How is he?”
“Stable. The team that worked on him downstairs got to him quickly and that’s in his favor. Plus, he’s in good physical condition. He’s up here primarily for observation.”
And for the guard. “Does that mean he’ll go back to a regular room?”
Ella nodded. “Yes, but when he does, we’ll be sure to tell you first.”
“Thanks. Please call me if there’s any change in condition on any of our patients up here.” Luke went into Beardsley’s cubicle. “Ryan, it’s Luke Papadopoulos. Can you hear me?” Beardsley’s eyes opened and Luke was relieved to see he was coherent. “Agent Haywood said you wanted to talk to me. You could have talked to him. I trust him.”
“I didn’t know him,” Beardsley said, so faintly Luke had trouble hearing him. “Someone tried to kill me. Under the circumstances, I thought it best I wait for you.”
Luke leaned closer. “I suppose I can understand that. So what did you recall?”
“A phone call that Granville got on the third day. From somebody named Rocky.”
“Rocky?” Luke murmured. “Like the fighter?”
“Yes. Rocky was a boss, gave Granville orders. Made the doc very unhappy.”
Luke’s pulse shot up. Finally. “Granville didn’t like getting orders from this Rocky?”
“No. Made him angry. He beat me harder.”
“What order did Rocky give Granville that he didn’t like?”
“Don’t know, but when he hung up he said he wouldn’t take orders from ‘a little shit.’ ”
“Okay. That’s helpful, Ryan. Did you hear anything else?”
Beardsley’s face grew grim. “Yeah. The first day I was there, I woke up and heard noises outside my wall. On the outside, not in the hall. Sounded like digging. Burying.”
Luke got a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. “Burying something or someone?”
“Someone.” Beardsley’s gaze was weary. “One of the men called her Becky.”
“Hell.” Luke sighed. “Anything else?”
“No. That’s all I remember.”
“Can I get you anything? Do anything for you?”
Beardsley didn’t respond at first. Then, just when Luke had thought he’d drifted back into sleep, he murmured, “BBQ. I’m so hungry I could eat the whole pig myself.”
“When you’re out of here, I’ll bring you all you can eat.” He got up to go, but Beardsley grabbed his arm.
“Is Bailey okay?” he asked, serious again.
“Bailey’s fine. I put a guard on her door. Don’t worry.” He squeezed Beardsley’s hand and went back out to the nurse’s station. “He wants a barbecue sandwich.”
Ella nodded. “It’s always a good sign when they start asking for food.”
“Can you tell me where I can find the head of security?”
Luke was headed for the elevator when his cell phone buzzed in his pocket.
“It’s Chase. We have a match on one of the homicides. Kasey Knight. Sixteen, five-eight, red hair.” He hesitated. “The one that only weighed eighty pounds.”
The one he’d found Malcolm Zuckerman crying over as he’d gently bagged her hands and feet. The one whose red hair had come out in Malcolm’s hands. Luke cleared his throat. “Have her parents been notified?”
“Yes. I just got off the phone with the father.” Luke could hear Chase draw an unsteady breath. “I asked them to bring her hairbrush or some other DNA source. They, um, they want to see her.”
“God, Chase. They don’t want to see her. They really don’t.”
“It’s closure,” Chase said. “You know that as well as I do. They won’t believe their daughter’s dead until they see her for themselves. She’s been gone two years, Luke.”
Two years of waiting, agonizing. Hoping for the best and visualizing the very worst. “I’m on my way to the morgue. I’ll ask Felicity Berg if she can make her look any better. I’ve got news, too. We have a potential sixth homicide.”
“Aw, Christ,” Chase muttered wearily. “Who?”
“Only a first name. Becky. Have Ed’s team check for a body buried in the area outside the cell where Ryan Beardsley was being held.”
Chase’s sigh was heavy. “Do we know there’s only one?”
“I thought the same thing. Have them do a scan before they start digging.”
“God, this gets better every hour.”
There was dread in Chase’s voice. And grief. “What happened?”
“Zach Granger’s dead.”
Luke felt the air leave his lungs. “But it was just an eye injury.”
“He had a brain hemorrhage about an hour ago. His wife was with him.”
“But… I was just in the hospital. Nobody told me.”
“We’re keeping it quiet.”
“Does Pete know?”
“No, not yet. Don’t tell him. I will.”
“He’s on his way to meet with the fire investigator in Dutton.”
Chase’s oath was hoarse and vile. “I wish I’d never heard of that damn town.”
“Join the ever-growing club. But we do have a lead on Granville’s partner. Beardsley heard Granville talking to some guy named Rocky.”
“That’s delightfully vague,” Chase said bitterly.
“It’s better than we had an hour ago. I’ll see you at eight. I’m going to the morgue.”
Atlanta , Saturday, February 3, 6:00 a.m.
Ma’am? We’re here. Ma’am? This is the airport. Ma’am?”
Susannah woke up, momentarily disoriented. She’d fallen asleep, finally. Too bad that it had been in the backseat of a taxicab and not in her hotel bed. “I’m sorry. I’ve had a long night.” She paid him and slid from the backseat. “Thank you.”
“No, I’m actually here to rent a car.”
“You’ll have to take a shuttle to any of the rental car joints.”
“I wasn’t thinking.” When she’d left her hotel room, she’d had one purpose-to escape the faces of the hundreds of runaways she’d been searching for nearly three hours. But there was no escape. She still saw the faces, some happy, some miserable.
All gone. What a waste. Of potential. Of hope. Of life.
She’d started out comparing each face to M. Jane Doe, but at some point her mind had wandered and she realized it was Darcy Williams’s face she saw in each picture.
Rattled, she’d pushed away from her computer. She’d needed a break and a car if she was going to get to Dutton for Sheila Cunningham’s funeral. So here she was.
“I can drive you there,” the cabbie said. “Get back in.”
She got back in, shivering. “Thank you.”
“It’s okay.” The cabbie was quiet as he drove the short distance to the rental car row. But when he stopped the cab, he sighed loudly. “Lady, this ain’t none of my business, but I think you gotta right to know. We’ve had a tail since we left the hotel.”
Annoyance had her frowning. Another reporter. “What kind of car?”
“Black sedan, tinted windows.”
“How original,” she said tightly and he glanced up in his rearview mirror.
“I just thought… maybe you were running from somebody.”
Only from myself. “I don’t think they’re dangerous. Probably just a reporter.”
He squinted at her as he took her money. “Are you some kind of a celebrity?”
“No, but thank you for telling me they’re back there. It was kind of you.”
“I got a daughter your age. She travels all the time for her job and I worry.”
Susannah smiled at him. “Then she’s a lucky girl. Take care.”
As he drove away she looked back. Sure enough, the black sedan hovered back, but definitely close enough to be seen. She’d turned to go inside the rental car office, when the sedan began to move, slowly. Susannah backed up, one step, then two, then stopped. The sedan wasn’t stopping. Instead, it continued by at a slow roll, and a shiver of apprehension raced down her spine.
Georgia license DRC119. Committing it to memory, she turned again for the rental car office, then it clicked. She whirled, her heart pounding, but the sedan was gone.
DRC. Darcy. It might have been simply a coincidence. Except for the number. One-nineteen. Six years ago, on January nineteenth, was the day she’d found Darcy, beaten and bloodied and very, very dead. And thirteen years ago, on January nineteenth, she’d woken in a hidey-hole covered in whiskey, raped and terrified.
Charles smiled. He’d finally gotten her attention. Susannah had always been the aloof one, sophisticated. At least that’s what everyone thought. But he knew better.
He’d always known there was a dark side to Susannah Vartanian. He could always tell. There was a look. A smell. An aura. He’d tried to lure her, all those years ago, but she’d gotten away, far away. At least that’s what she thought. But he knew better.
He knew everything about little Susannah Vartanian. Everything.
Wouldn’t the world be shocked by what he knew? Tsk, tsk, naughty girl. He chuckled. Soon he’d have her, one way or another. But he’d play with her a little first.
He waited until she exited the rental car garage, driving a sensible sedan. Nothing flashy for the good Vartanian girl. He pulled out behind her, knowing she saw him. He followed her to a Wal-Mart. Well, she had left New York the morning before with only the clothes on her back, so a little shopping trip made sense.
Staying back just far enough, he waited until she parked and started walking into the store before gliding past her one more time. He laughed aloud. The look on her face was priceless.
Charles had planned to wait one more year before taunting her with the DRC license plates, making it an even seven since Darcy’s death, but Susannah was here and vulnerable and he’d be a fool to waste the moment. When she was in the store, he parked, having no fear that she would call the police. She’d never tell what happened on January 19, either time. He opened his ivory box, this time pulling out one of his greatest treasures, a simple photograph. But it was so much more. It was a moment in time, frozen forever.
A younger version of himself smiled in black and white, standing next to Pham. Pham was old in the picture and knew he was nearing death even then. But I was blissfully unaware he was so sick. I was simply enjoying the day. Pham had been a big believer in enjoying the day but he’d also preached patience. The patient bird breakfasts on the juiciest worm.
But Charles believed in the American ideal of striking while the iron was hot, and over time, Pham had come to see the usefulness in the concept as well. An amazing team, the revered Buddhist monk and his Western bodyguard were admitted to homes everywhere they went. Whether Pham told fortunes, held healing services, or simply dealt in the fine art of blackmail, the homes in which they stayed were always much poorer after they’d departed.
I miss you still, my friend. My mentor. He wondered what Pham would have done if Charles had died first, as Toby had. Then Charles laughed aloud. Pham would have been whoever and done whatever would have made him the most money on that day, as if it were no different than any other. Pham was all about cold, hard cash.
Charles no longer needed the money, so his enjoyment at Susannah Vartanian’s expense was purely pleasure. Pham would have approved.
Atlanta , Saturday, February 3, 6:15 a.m.
Dr. Felicity Berg glanced up briefly when Luke entered, then again focused on the body on the table. “I was wondering when you’d get here. I was about to call you.”
“I’ve been a little busy,” Luke said, unoffended at her brusque tone. He liked Felicity, although many considered her cold. Luke imagined many considered Susannah cold as well, but he wondered how many people truly knew her. “What have you got so far?”
“A hell of a mess,” she snapped, then sighed. “Sorry. I’m tired. I know you are, too.”
“Yeah, but I haven’t had to look at this all night,” he said softly. “You okay, Felicity?”
Her swallow was audible in the quiet. “No.” Then she continued in a businesslike tone, “You have five females, all between the ages of fifteen and twenty. Two suffer from extreme malnutrition. Victim two and victim five here on the table.”
“We think we have an ID on number five,” Luke said. “Kasey Knight. Her parents are coming to do an ID. They should arrive sometime around two.”
Felicity abruptly looked up, horrified. “They want to see her? Luke, no.”
“Yes.” Luke came closer, steeling himself, then swallowed the bile that rose in his throat. “Can’t you… Can you make her look any… better?”
“Can you convince them not to look at her? I can do a DNA ID in twenty-four hours.”
“Felicity, they’ve been waiting two years. They need to see her.”
She stood glaring at him, then her sob broke the silence. “Goddammit, Luke.” She stepped back, crying, her bloody gloved hands held stiffly in front of her. “Dammit.”
Luke pulled on a pair of gloves, pushed her goggles up to her forehead, then dabbed at her eyes with a tissue. “You’ve had a long night,” he said quietly. “Why not go home and get some rest until the parents get here? She’s the last one, right?”
“Yeah, and I’m almost finished with her. Fix my goggles, would you?”
Luke did so, then stepped away. “I won’t tell anyone,” he said conspiratorially, and her laugh was watery and self-conscious.
“I don’t usually let them get to me, but…”
“I feel the same way. So what can you tell me besides two were malnourished?”
She set her shoulders, and when she spoke, it was all business again. “Victim five, Kasey Knight, has gonorrhea and syphilis.”
“But the rest don’t?”
“Right. Victim one has sickle cell, so that might help narrow down her ID. Victim two has had her arm broken, in the last six months. It wasn’t set very well. The other arm had radial fractures and looks like the events occurred in the same time period. I’d assume the breaks are due to abuse.” She looked up again, her brows bunched. “It’s weird. The two emaciated girls had high levels of electrolytes in their blood. And I found needle marks in their arms-like someone had administered fluids via IV.”
“We found IV bags in the bunker and some syringes and needles.”
“So this doctor that was killed, Granville. He was treating them?”
“I’m wondering if he wasn’t trying to get them ready for resale. Anything else?”
“Yeah. I saved the best for last. Come here.”
He came closer as she gently rolled the body of Kasey Knight to one side. He squinted, then bent closer to see the small area high on the right hip and his jaw tightened. “A swastika.” He looked up. “Is that a brand?”
“It is. All of them have one, same place, on the right hip. Size of a dime.”
Luke straightened. “Neo-Nazis?”
“There’s a bag over on the counter that might help.”
Luke held it up to the light. It was a signet ring with the AMA snake symbol. “So?”
“It came off Granville’s finger.”
“Okay. He was a doctor, this is the AMA symbol. Not to be obtuse, but so?”
Her brows lifted. “It’s got a false front. Trey found it by accident when he was taking it off the good doctor. There’s a little button on the side.”
Luke flicked it and inside the bag, the top of the ring swung open revealing the same swastika design. “I’ll be damned. Did this make those brands?”
“I don’t think so. The design is set too deep and there doesn’t appear to be any cellular residue on the surface, but the lab can tell you for certain.”
“I’ll see if I can track down this design. Felicity, one of the others can do the ID.”
“I’ll do it.” Carefully she pulled the sheet to cover Kasey Knight. “I’ll see you at two.”
Atlanta , Saturday, February 3, 7:45 a.m.
Susannah stood at the door to Luke’s office, willing her hands not to shake. After the black sedan had disappeared, she’d rented her car and driven to the local Wal-Mart to buy toiletries. Then she’d driven back to the hotel, growing more rattled with every mile, because DRC119 had appeared in the store parking lot, on the highway as she was driving back, even passing by the hotel as she gave her keys to the valet.
For a split second she wondered if Al Landers had told someone, but she instantly dismissed the possibility. Besides, if Al had known she visited Darcy’s grave every year, someone else might, too. She had to find out who’d registered that license plate.
Luke. She trusted him. So she’d stopped the valet, taken her car, and driven here.
She knocked and he looked up from his computer, the surprise in his dark eyes quickly followed by interest. For a moment their gazes locked and her mouth grew dry. Then his eyes grew shuttered and polite and the moment was broken. “Susannah?”
It didn’t matter if she wasn’t sure how she felt about his interest, she thought, because it would disappear if he knew the truth. He wouldn’t want me anymore. No decent man would. “I met Leigh coming in from her break and she walked me up.”
“Come in.” He moved a stack of folders from the chair on the other side of his desk. “I have some time before our morning meeting, so I’m doing paperwork from yesterday. Have a seat. I’ve been meaning to call you all night, but things got crazy. We got to Borenson’s cabin last night and he was gone. There was evidence of a struggle.”
Her chin jerked up as she sat down. “Do you think he’s dead?”
He slouched in his chair. “The struggle was a few days ago, minimum. If he’s wounded somewhere, it won’t be good. He’d have to have lost a lot of blood by now.”
“A few days ago was before all this broke loose with Granville. You were still tracking O’Brien then.”
“I know, but I can’t ignore it. He was connected thirteen years ago. He could very well be connected now.” He frowned. “Speaking of connected, did you notice any kind of mark or scar or anything on Jane Doe?”
He hesitated. “Like a swastika.”
For the second time in two hours Susannah’s blood ran ice cold. “No. She was gowned and under a sheet by the time I saw her in ICU.” Good, you’re staying calm. “I would’ve thought the hospital would have pointed something like that out.”
“Me, too, but they were a little busy yesterday saving her life.”
“I suppose they were. Why not just ask them today?”
“Because.” He hesitated again. “Because someone tried to kill Beardsley last night.”
“Oh my God. Are you sure?”
“I have the crime lab’s analysis right here. Someone tampered with his IV.”
“Is he okay?”
“He’s fine. He had a bad few moments there, but he’s fine.”
“What about the girl? And Bailey?” And Daniel?
“And Daniel?” he asked quietly, with only a trace of reproach.
Which I deserved. “And Daniel. Are all of them all right?”
“Yes, but I’m not sure who I can trust. I hoped you’d seen a mark on Jane Doe.”
Her heart was pounding, but her voice was calm. “What’s the significance?”
“Every girl in the morgue has one branded on her hip.”
She swallowed hard, forcing her heart back down to her chest. It’s not possible. This is not happening. But it was possible. It was happening. Tell him. Tell him now.
In a minute. First, DRC119. “So it was Granville’s mark.”
“It appears so. But, you came all the way down here. What can I do for you?”
Calm, Susannah. “I hate to bother you with this, but a car followed me this morning.”
His dark brows crunched. “What do you mean?”
“I went to the airport to rent a car this morning. I’m going to Dutton for Sheila Cunningham’s funeral today.”
“Sheila Cunningham. I’d almost forgotten about the funeral,” he murmured, then looked back at her. “So what happened with the car that was following you?”
“I took a cab from the hotel to the airport, and a black sedan followed me. I went to the store afterward and it followed me there, too. I have to admit… I was a little rattled.” Utterly unnerved. “Can you run a check on the license plate?”
“What is it?”
“DRC119. It wasn’t the normal layout, you know, with the peach in the middle. All the characters were together.”
“A vanity plate, you mean.”
“Yeah. I guess so.” Holding her breath, she waited as he typed it into his computer. And waited some more as he stared at the screen, his expression inscrutable. Finally she could stand it no longer. “Luke?”
He looked up, eyes guarded. “Susannah, do you know a Darcy Williams?”
Don’t you dare run away this time. “She was my friend. Now she’s dead.”
“Susannah, the vehicle is registered to Darcy Williams, but the picture in her DMV record… it’s yours.”
Her throat closed. No air came in. No words came out.
“Susannah?” He lurched to his feet and came around his desk to take her shoulders in his hands, his grip firm. “Breathe.”
She sucked in a breath, nauseous. “There’s something you need to know.” Her voice was no longer calm. “It’s the swastika. I have one. On my hip. It’s a brand.”
He exhaled carefully. His hands remained on her shoulders, kneading. “From the assault thirteen years ago.” It wasn’t a question. It should have been.
She gently pulled away and walked to the window. “No. It happened seven years later. On January nineteenth.”
“One-nineteen,” he said. “Like the license plate. DRC119.”
“January nineteenth was also the day of my assault by Simon’s gang.”
In the glass, she watched him go still. “Susannah, who was Darcy Williams?”
She leaned her forehead on the cool glass. Her head burned, but the rest of her was ice cold. “Like I said. She was my friend and now she’s dead.”
“How did she die?” he asked gently.
She kept her eyes fixed on the parking lot below. “I’ve never told this. To anyone.”
“But somebody knows.”
“At least three people. And now you.” She turned around, met his eyes. “Whoever followed me today knows. Last night I found out my boss has known since it happened. Part of it anyway. The other person is the detective who led the investigation.”
“Investigation into what?”
“Darcy was murdered in a cheap hotel room in Hell’s Kitchen. I was in the next room.” She kept her eyes on his, an anchor. “I was in law school at NYU. Darcy was a year or so younger, a waitress in the West Village. We’d meet in a bar. That night, we’d met some guys.”
“In Hell’s Kitchen? Did you go there often?”
She hesitated for a fraction of a heartbeat. “It was a one-night thing.”
Liar. Liar. Liar.
Shut up. I have to keep something secret.
“But something happened,” he said.
“I passed out. I think the guy put something in my drink. When I woke up, I was alone and…” I had sticky thighs. He hadn’t used a condom. “My hip burned like fire.”
“Yes. I got dressed and knocked on the room next door, where Darcy was. The door just… swung open.” And suddenly she was there again. Blood. Everywhere. On the mirror, on the bed, on the walls. “Darcy was crumpled in a heap on the floor. Naked. She was dead. She’d been beaten to death.”
“So what did you do?”
“I ran. I ran to a phone booth two blocks away and called 911. Anonymously.”
“I was in law school. I was clerking in the district attorney’s office. If I’d gotten mixed up in that kind of scandal…” She looked away. “I sound like my mother. She used to say that to my father when Simon would screw up. ‘We just can’t have a scandal, Arthur.’ And my father would go ‘fix’ it.”
“You are not like your parents, Susannah.”
“You have no idea what I am,” she shot back, then stopped, startled. She’d said the same thing to Daniel. Word for word.
Why did you come back? he’d asked.
The others will testify, she’d told him. What kind of coward would I be not to do the same? He’d insisted she wasn’t a coward and she’d nearly laughed in his face. You have no idea what I am, Daniel. And he didn’t. She’d like to keep it that way, but her secrets were leaking out, one by one.
“What are you then?” Luke asked quietly.
She drew a breath, returned the conversation to the past. “I was a coward.”
His eyes flickered. He’d caught her parry. “You called 911. That was something.”
“Yeah. Then I followed up with another anonymous call to the detective who’d landed the case. I described the guy who’d picked Darcy up at the bar and gave him the bar’s address. He said he’d need to verify some things, and for me to call him back in four hours. I did, and he was watching for me to make the call.”
“You used the same phone booth.”
“All three times.” She forced a taut smile. “That’s why we catch so many bad guys, Agent Papadopoulos. They do stupid things.”
“Luke,” he said levelly. “My name is Luke.”
Her taut smile faded. “Luke.”
“Then what happened?” he asked, as if she weren’t telling him something sordid.
“Detective Reiser caught the guy based on my leads. He was able to corroborate independently once he knew where to start. He didn’t need to bring me in, but told my boss, I think more to cover his ass. So my reputation, and my career, were saved.”
“It’s a good reputation, a good career. Why are you beating yourself up over this?”
“Because I was a coward. I should have faced the guy who killed Darcy then.”
“So you’re facing Garth Davis now? To make up for what happened then?”
Her lips thinned. “That seems to be the popular conclusion.”
He slid his finger under her chin, nudging until she met his eyes again. “What about the other guy?” he asked, his eyes intense. “The one that drugged you.”
She lifted a shoulder. “He left. I never saw him again. I got over it.”
“Did he rape you?” he asked, his voice carefully controlled.
She remembered the blood, the stickiness of his semen on her thighs. “Yes. But I went to that hotel room willingly.”
“Did you hear what you just said?” he asked, his tone just shy of a snarl.
“Yes,” she hissed. “I hear it every time I think it. Every time I tell a victim she didn’t deserve to be raped. But this was different, dammit. It’s different.”
“Because it happened to me,” she cried. “Again. I let it happen to me again and my friend died. My friend died and I was a coward and ran away.”
“So you deserved to be raped?”
She shook her head, wearily. “No. But I didn’t deserve justice either.”
“You Vartanians are so fucked up,” he said, the fury snapping in his black eyes. “If your father weren’t already dead, I’d be tempted to kill him myself.”
She raised up on her toes, holding his gaze. “Stand in line.” She took a step back, pulled her emotions into check. “So, what does this mean? The same night my friend is murdered in New York, I get assaulted and branded. Six years later five homicides are branded with the same symbol in beautiful, scenic Dutton. Connected? I vote yes.”
She watched him bank his fury, partitioning it away. “Let’s see it,” Luke said.
Her eyes widened. “Excuse me?”
“Let’s see it. How will we know if it’s the same symbol?”
“Show me yours first and I’ll tell you if they’re the same.”
“Mine are in the morgue,” he snapped. “For God’s sake, Susannah, I saw you in your bra yesterday. My meeting started a few minutes ago. Just do it. Please.”
He was right, of course. This was no time for modesty and she had no right to it anyway, given what she’d just disclosed. “Close your eyes.” Rapidly she unzipped the skirt and pushed her underwear down far enough to show him. “Look.”
He crouched, staring at the mark, then closed his eyes. “Zip back up. It’s the same design. Slightly larger in diameter.” He straightened, eyes still closed. “You decent?”
“Yeah. So, now what? Somebody here in Atlanta knows about Darcy. Somebody in Dutton has a swastika brand. Did that same someone brand me and kill my friend? If so, who and why?”
“I don’t know. All I know is that we need to start looking at white supremacy groups.”
“Because of the swastika? Maybe, maybe not.”
He stopped, his hand on the knob of his office door. “Why not?”
It was easier to think details than dwell on an act she could not change. “My brand isn’t a German swastika. This swastika is bent at the tips. It’s a symbol used in many Eastern religions.” She lifted her brows. “Including Buddhism.”
“So we’re back to Granville’s thích.”
“Maybe. Maybe not. I can research it for you if you want.”
“Yes. Sit here and do it while I’m in my meeting. I’ll come back for you.”
“I can’t stay. I’m meeting Chloe Hathaway at nine.”
“She’s here in the eight-o’clock meeting. She can meet with you when we’re done. It’ll save her a trip to your hotel.”
“But my confession is on my laptop. I left it in my hotel room.”
“We have a small army of stenographers out there answering calls from the tip line,” he said impatiently. “We’ll pull one of them in to take your statement. I have to go.”
“Luke, wait. My boss, Al-he was going to sit in on the meeting.” Her lips curved in a self-mocking smile. “For moral support.”
His eyes softened. “Call him then, and tell him to come down. But I don’t want you driving around by yourself until we understand who that person was in the black sedan. It all fits. We just have to figure out how.” He hesitated. “I’ve tried to keep your name out of the investigation until you gave your statement.”
“Why?” she managed, knowing what was coming. He’s going to have to tell. Everyone will know what I’ve done. And what I have not. It was what she deserved.
“You deserve your privacy. Just like you deserve your justice.”
She swallowed, his choice of words striking her hard. “Tell them whatever you need to. Tell them about thirteen years ago. Tell them about Hell’s Kitchen, Darcy, and the brand. I’m so damn tired of my privacy. It’s been choking the life out of me for thirteen years.” She lifted her chin. “So tell them all. I don’t care anymore.”
Ridgefield House, Saturday, February 3, 8:05 a.m.
Bobby picked up the phone on the first ring. “Is it done?”
Paul sighed. “It’s done.”
“Excellent. Go to bed, Paul. You sound tired.”
“Y’think?” Paul asked sarcastically. “I’m on duty tonight, so don’t call me.”
“Got it. Sweet dreams. And thanks.”
Bobby flipped open the cell, checked the photo of the eight-year-old boy whose mother was about to discover that nobody disobeyed Bobby and walked away unpunished. The note was to the point. Obey or he’ll die, too. Bobby hit send. And it was done. “Tanner, can you get my breakfast, please?”
Tanner appeared from the shadows. “As you wish.”
Atlanta , Saturday, February 3, 8:10 a.m.
Luke stopped at the door to the conference room. He was so angry he was shaking.
I didn’t deserve justice either. He’d wanted to scream, shake some sense into her. But he hadn’t. He could only do what needed to be done. So here he stood.
He’d been shocked yesterday to learn she was one of the gang’s victims. He’d been shocked even more to learn she’d been raped again. On the same date, no less.
He wondered why she hadn’t connected the two events. And he wanted to know what the hell she’d been doing, going to cheap hotels with one-night stands. And he wondered how he could possibly tell a room of other people her most intimate secrets.
“What’s wrong?” Ed came around the corner carrying a box. “You look whipped.”
“I am. What’s in the box?”
“Lots of stuff, including the keys we found in Granville’s pockets yesterday.”
Luke straightened. “Why?”
Ed’s brows waggled. “Open the door and we’ll all find out.”
The conference room table was already crowded. Nate Dyer from ICAC was there, along with Chloe, Nancy Dykstra, and Pete Haywood. Next to Nate sat Mary McCrady, one of the department psychologists. Hank Germanio sat next to Chloe, jerking his chin up when Luke entered. He’d been staring under the table, probably at Chloe’s legs. Chloe wore a look of general distaste. There was no love lost between the two.
Chase looked mildly perturbed. “You’re both late.”
“It’ll be worth it,” Ed promised.
Chase tapped the table. “Now that we’re all here, let’s get started. I asked Mary McCrady to join us. She’ll be building a psych profile of Granville’s partner. I’ll go first.” He held up a leatherbound volume in a plastic bag. “Jared O’Brien’s journal.”
Luke stared. “Where did you find it?”
“Mack’s last victim,” Ed said. “She had GPS on her car and we traced it. We found where Mack had been holed up and that journal was with his things.”
“It’s fascinating reading,” Chase said. “I did find mention of Borenson’s cabin, Luke. Seems like all the boys knew where they were once they’d arrived. Toby Granville hadn’t bothered to take any of Borenson’s personal pictures or plaques off the walls. I’ll be going through the journal today to see if we can glean any more on Granville’s mentor. More updates? Luke?”
Luke needed to lead with Susannah’s brand, but somehow he couldn’t make himself. Not yet. “I got the lab report on the fluid in Ryan Beardsley’s IV. The concentration of stimulant in his IV was enough to have killed him. Hospital security says a guy named Isaac Gamble’s ID was tracked close to Beardsley’s room.”
“We’ve got four agents out looking for Gamble,” Chase said.
“Good. When we find him, charge him with attempted murder. If they hadn’t gotten to Beardsley with the paddles when they did, he’d be dead. He’s okay now, luckily. He remembered hearing the name Rocky. We think that’s Granville’s boss.”
“ ‘Rocky’ isn’t very specific,” Nancy said doubtfully.
“Since it’s a nickname it could indicate body size, or lack thereof,” Mary said. “He could sound like Rocky Balboa. It’s a piece of the profile.”
“And it’s better than we had,” Chase said. “Beardsley also remembered hearing men digging outside the wall of his cell. The men said the name ‘Becky.’ ”
“God,” Chloe murmured. “Now we’ve got bodies outside, too?”
“I’ve got someone from the university coming out to Dutton,” Ed said. “They’re going to do a scan with ground-penetrating radar to see where the grave is.”
“Try to hang a tarp,” Chase said. “I don’t want the media seeing anything with their flyovers. We also have an ID on one of the homicides, Kasey Knight.”
“Her parents will be here by two,” Luke said. “Felicity will have her ready.”
“She’s finished the autopsies?” Ed asked.
“Yeah. Besides one of the girls’ having sickle cell, there’s nothing specific to identify any of them. She did find that the two most emaciated girls had high electrolyte levels, consistent with the IV bags we found in the bunker. One of the girls had some pretty serious STDs. Beyond that the autopsies showed nothing.”
“But one of the homicides we’ve seen before-Angel,” Chase said. “Anything, Nate?”
“I was up all night reviewing case files. I couldn’t find anything new on Angel or the two other girls she was with on the old Web site we shut down. I’ve sent a photo of her face and her description to partnering agencies. I’ll keep looking.”
Nate looked drawn and Luke understood. There were few things as emotionally draining as having to view pictures of human beings being violated. When they were children… It was a million times worse. “I haven’t been able to help,” Luke said, apology in his voice. “I’ll be there today to look with you.”
“I could use a break,” Nate admitted wearily. “But I can keep looking if you’re needed elsewhere. It’s not like you haven’t been busy, too.”
“We all have,” Chase said. “Pete, what did the fire investigator say?”
“He found the timing device used in Granville’s house,” Pete said, very quietly, but there was menace beneath the calm. One of his team was dead, and Pete was pissed.
Luke frowned. “I thought it was set off with a wire connected to the front door.”
“It was,” Pete said. “But this guy wanted to be certain the firebomb went off. His double planning tripped him up. The fire investigator said the mistake was a common one among arsonists. Sometimes they’ll leave an extra starter just to be certain, and one doesn’t go off, leaving the investigator with a trail to follow.”
“And we were this lucky?” Chase asked.
“We were. This arsonist left two devices, one with a timer and one connected to the door. The one with the timer wasn’t set to go off for another two hours.”
“Did the fire investigator recognize the timer?” Chase asked.
Pete nodded. “He thinks it belongs to a Clive Pepper. He’s got two priors for arson-for-hire. He goes by Chili.”
Nancy rolled her eyes. “Chili Pepper? Puh-lease.”
Pete’s eyes flashed. “Sonofbitch better hope I don’t find him first.”
“Pete,” Chase cautioned, and Pete drew a breath, his expression still menacing. “Tone it down.” Chase looked at Chloe. “Can we charge him with murder?”
She nodded once, hard. “You bet.”
“Murder,” Germanio said disbelievingly. “Why?”
Everyone but Pete and Chloe looked confused. Chase sighed. “Zach Granger died tonight.” There was a hush around the table. Even Germanio looked stunned. “He hit his head in the explosion. Apparently it caused a blood clot and… he’s gone.”
Nancy paled. “Pete, I’m so sorry.” She reached across the table and covered his clenched fists with her hands. “Not your fault, partner,” she whispered fiercely.
Pete said nothing. Luke wasn’t sure the big man could without losing it.
“So we’re charging him with murder,” Chase said. “I’m sorry, Pete.” Clearing his throat, he redirected the conversation. “ Nancy, what did you find at Mansfield ’s house?”
“Lots of porn,” she said grimly. “Whips and chains. Rape. Kiddie porn, too.”
Luke steeled his spine. “I’ll look through it.”
“We both will,” Nate said. “Where is it, Nancy?”
“On his computer mainly. Computer forensics is checking it out now. We also found a very well-stocked arsenal in a concrete bomb shelter in his basement. Guns and ammo and enough food to feed an entire town for a month. I’m checking through his bills and other files. Nothing’s popped so far. Except…” From next to her chair she grabbed an evidence bag. “I found this right before I came back for this meeting.”
“A highway atlas?” Luke asked.
“You got it.” It was the large variety, dog-eared and very well used. “He’s marked routes on the pages for Georgia, the Carolinas, Florida, and Mississippi. One hundred thirty-six routes are marked,” Nancy said. “I’ll have each route detailed. I don’t know what all the destinations are for, but I’m assuming none of it’s good.”
“We’re going to find out,” Chase said. “Good work, Nance. Hank?”
“I may have found Granville’s wife,” Germanio said. “Helen Granville bought a train ticket for Savannah.”
“Does she have family there?” Luke asked, and Germanio shook his head.
“I checked with neighbors and nobody seemed to know where her family was from. They said she was a quiet woman who didn’t say much. Almost all of them said they were shocked by all the events, except for one neighbor who said she wasn’t surprised to find that Granville was so depraved. She suspected Granville abused his wife.”
“Why did that one neighbor think differently?” Mary asked.
“She was an attorney in a legal aid clinic before she retired. Did lots of work with abused women. She said she never saw any bruises on Helen Granville, but that there was something ‘off’ about the woman. She once asked her if she needed help and Helen never spoke to her again. Here’s her card if you want to talk to her.”
Mary wrote down the woman’s name and number. “I will. Thanks, Hank.”
Germanio threw an arch look at Chloe. “I requested a warrant to check Helen Granville’s cell phone records, since none of the house phone calls look odd. And now that I got a warrant for Davis ’s phones, I’ll be following up on Kira Laneer, Davis ’s mistress. And when I get a warrant, I’ll check Mrs. Davis’s cell phone records to see where she’s gone. It’ll be harder for her to just disappear with two sons. I went to see Davis ’s sister Kate, but she wasn’t answering the door. I’ll go by again tomorrow.”
“Drive to Savannah first,” Chase said. “I want Mrs. Granville here. Ed, you’re next.”
Ed opened his box and pulled out a rusted piece of metal. “This is part of the cot we found in one of the bunker rooms. We cleaned it and looked at it under the microscope. That O isn’t completely closed.”
“So it’s not Ashley O-s, it’s C-s-something,” Luke said excitedly, and Ed nodded.
“Leigh’s doing a check with Missing Kids and the tristate missing person divisions.”
“Excellent,” Chase said, looking into the box. “What else?”
Ed looked at Pete, who’d pulled himself together. “Granville’s keys.”
Pete moved a copy paper box to the table. “Which hopefully fit Granville’s fire safe.”
Pete lifted the firebox to the table. Its outside was charred, but the lock was intact. “The fire investigator found this when he was poking around what used to be Granville’s study.” He tried the smallest key and everyone at the table leaned forward as it turned.
“This could be your ticket to fame, Pete,” Nancy teased lightly. “Geraldo tried this once, and look what happened to him.”
Pete gave her a ghost of a smile as he lifted the lid. “Passport.” He lifted his brows. “Another passport.” He opened them both. “Both Granville’s face, but two different names. Michael Tewes and Toby Ellis.”
“Our boy was mobile,” Ed drawled.
“Looks like. Stock certificates and a key.” Pete held it up. It was small and silver. “Maybe to a safe deposit box.”
“Simon Vartanian had a box at the bank in Dutton,” Luke said. “Granville might, too. Hopefully it’s not as empty as Simon’s was.” There had been no incriminating photographs documenting the gang’s rapes in Simon’s box as they’d hoped. “I’m going to Dutton for Sheila Cunningham’s funeral later this morning. I’ll check while I’m down there. Does the warrant cover the safe deposit box, Chloe?”
“No, but it won’t take long to get a new warrant as the key is covered under the original. What else, Pete?”
“Marriage license. Helen’s maiden name is Eastman, by the way. In case you want to track her family. Birth certificates, and last, this.” He pulled out a flat amulet on a silver chain and Luke’s eyes narrowed. The amulet was engraved with the swastika. Susannah had been right, the edges did bend. Each side was topped with a heavy dot. It was not a Nazi design.
“Oh, hell,” Chase muttered. “Neo-Nazis.”
“I don’t think so,” Luke said. “I have a lot more to tell. That design matches a brand Felicity Berg found on the hip of each of our homicide victims.”
Everyone around the table perked up.
“This amulet is too flat to make a brand,” Pete said, studying the engraving.
“Felicity also found a ring on Granville’s finger. Same design, also probably not the branding tool.” Luke drew a breath. “The symbol has shown up once more. On Susannah Vartanian.”
This drew surprised glances from everyone.
“Perhaps you’d better explain,” Chase said quietly.
Ridgefield House, Saturday, February 3, 8:20 a.m.
Rocky pulled her car into the garage. She was so tired. An accident outside Atlanta had brought traffic to a standstill for over an hour, during which she’d been on tenterhooks, just waiting for someone to hear the thumping in her trunk. Luckily it had been cold and everyone stayed in their vehicles with their windows up.
She would undoubtedly have found it difficult explaining the bound and gagged teenaged girl in her trunk. And like on the old Mission Impossible show, she knew Bobby would have disavowed any knowledge of her had she been caught. But I wasn’t caught. Perhaps now Bobby would believe in her again.
Before she explained all to Bobby, she needed an update from the nurse. Rocky hoped the nurse hadn’t given Monica Cassidy another dose of the paralytic. The sooner they got Monica out of ICU and into a regular room, the sooner they could kill her without all the fuss. Then the gem in her trunk would be just another item on the inventory. She dialed, anticipating the approval in Bobby’s blue eyes.
She’d done quite a lot for that approval over the years. Luckily she’d always been able to avoid murder. The thought of murder left her sick.
“You bitch,” the nurse screamed before Rocky could say a word. “We had an agreement. You fucking bitch.”
Her stomach rolled over. “What? What happened?”
“My sister,” the nurse hissed. “As if you didn’t know. Bobby killed her.” The nurse began to sob. “Beat her to death. Oh God, this is all my fault.”
“How do you know it was Bobby?” Rocky asked, trying to stay calm.
“Because of the picture, you damn idiot. On my phone. Of my son. He’s eight.”
“Bobby sent a picture of your son to your phone?” Rocky repeated.
“With a note. ‘Obey or he’ll die, too.’ Too,” she spat. “I rushed over here and… I just found her. I found her in the alley like the garbage. They left her like garbage.”
“What are you going to do?”
The nurse laughed hysterically. “What do you think? Whatever Bobby wants.”
“Did you give the girl another dose of paralytic?”
“No.” Rocky heard the nurse take deep breaths, trying to calm herself. “There was too much security in ICU last night after they brought that army chaplain in.”
“What did you say?”
“The army chaplain. Somebody tried to kill him last night, but they failed.” Her chuckle was raw. “Didn’t know about that either? Your boss must trust you, Rocky.”
The sarcasm fell flat because Rocky knew her boss didn’t trust her at all. Rocky was smart enough to know where she stood. That cop Paul was higher on the totem pole than she was. A lot higher. A fact Bobby had made abundantly clear on many occasions. Rocky’s temper began to boil. “So have you spoken to her? To Monica?”
“I told her what you said to tell her.”
Rocky popped the trunk, snapped a picture of Genie Cassidy. “I’m sending a picture to your phone. Show it to Monica. It’ll keep her quiet until you can kill her.”
“If I go down, I’m taking you down with me.”
“Tell the police. You can’t prove anything and the cops will just think you’re insane.”
“I hate you. And I hate Bobby, too.” The phone clicked as the nurse hung up.
Rocky sighed. I was handling this. That nurse’s sister didn’t need to die. It would just bring more attention to them and that they didn’t need. She found Tanner in the kitchen, preparing Bobby’s tea. “I’ve got a new guest in the trunk of my car,” she said. “Can you get her warm and clean? Where’s Bobby?”
“In the study.” Tanner raised a bushy gray brow. “And none too happy with you.”
“Feeling’s mutual,” Rocky muttered. She knocked on Bobby’s door and entered before being given permission.
Bobby looked up, eyes ice blue. “You’re a little late. I sent you on a simple errand last night and you return eight hours later.”
“You had that nurse’s sister killed.”
Bobby’s brows lifted. “Of course. The girl’s still alive.”
“Yeah, she is. And so is Beardsley.”
Bobby shot up, furious. “What?”
Rocky laughed. “So the swami doesn’t know everything.” Then her head was knocked sharply to the left as Bobby’s hand connected with her cheek.
“You little bitch. How dare you?”
Rocky’s cheek stung. “Because I’m angry. I guess I just got angry enough.”
“Sweetheart, you don’t know the meaning of the word. I gave you a job. You failed.”
“I reconvened. There was no way the nurse was going to be able to kill Monica Cassidy in ICU.”
“So she told you. And you believed her,” Bobby said with contempt.
“And I found another way to achieve the goal, which is more than I can say for whichever flunky failed to kill the army chaplain.”
Bobby sat slowly, features like granite. “Beardsley flatlined.”
“Obviously they brought him back,” Rocky said coldly. “Now ICU is locked up tighter than Fort Knox.”
“Tell me what you did.”
“I drove to Charlotte and snatched Monica’s little sister. She’s in the trunk of my car.”
Bobby actually paled, sending Rocky’s pulse skyrocketing. “You did what?”
“I took her sister. I’ve been chatting her up for two months now. Monica sold so well, I thought her sister would sell well, too.”
“Did you stop to think about the repercussions? One child running away with a guy she met on the Internet is believable. Two… Now the cops will be all over this. You’ll have a grieving mother on the TV sobbing for her child’s safe return. We might as well kill the sister now. Nobody’s going to want her with her face on every damn milk carton.”
Rocky sank into a chair. “I hadn’t thought about that. But it’s okay. I went to the bus station wearing her hoodie and bought a ticket to Raleigh, where her father lives. If the cops do investigate, it’ll look like she went to live with him.”
“I see,” Bobby said coolly. “I see that I gave you a simple task-to ensure the nurse’s compliance. I see you failed to do so. And I see you’ve taken a failure and compounded it with this unauthorized procurement. I will deal with the new girl and the nurse myself. You are dismissed.”
Rocky stood, willed her body not to tremble. “The new girl is here. You might as well use her. She’s even prettier than her sister. You can ship her out of the country where they don’t have milk cartons. She’ll bring a good price.”
Bobby tapped the desk, thinking. “Perhaps. Now go.”
Rocky stood her ground. “What will you do to the nurse?”
“What I promised.”
“No. You promised to kill her son next. He’s only eight. Just like your-”
“Enough.” Bobby rose, eyes ice blue with fury, and Rocky could no longer control her trembling. “I will have obedience, from the nurse and from you. You are dismissed.”
Bobby waited until Rocky was gone, then redialed Paul.
“I thought I told you not to call me again today,” Paul snapped.
Insolent man. I’d kill you, but I need you. “I need you to go up to Raleigh.”
“I’m on duty tonight.”
“Call in sick. I pay you triple what Atlanta PD does, anyway.”
“Dammit, Bobby.” Paul’s sigh was frustrated. “What do you want me to do?”
“I need you to clean up Rocky’s mess.”
“Rocky’s made quite a few messes lately.”
“Yes, I know. When you’ve cleaned up this one, we’ll discuss disposition of Rocky.”
Atlanta , Saturday, February 3, 8:40 a.m.
Luke told the team Susannah’s story about the black sedan, Darcy Williams, and the day six years ago in Hell’s Kitchen. Hardly anyone breathed until he was finished.
Chase sat back, stunned. “You mean to tell me that Susannah was assaulted twice on the same freaking day, seven years apart? And nobody thought this was strange?”
Luke hesitated. “She never reported either assault.”
“For God’s sake, why not?” Chase thundered.
“She was a victim, Chase,” Mary McCrady said in her psychologist voice.
“None of this is easy for her,” Luke said, “and now she’s got some creep in a black sedan following her around. She’s planning to go to Sheila Cunningham’s funeral today and I’m concerned for her safety until we find out who this guy is.”
“So you’re going to the funeral to see if black sedan man shows up,” Ed said. “You’ll want video surveillance. I’ll take care of it.”
“Thanks,” Luke said. It wasn’t the only reason he’d decided to go to Sheila Cunningham’s funeral, but it was the main one. “Susannah also said this swastika with its bent edges is a common symbol in Eastern religions. Like Buddhism.”
“The thích we were searching for,” Pete murmured. “It all falls together somehow.”
“Let’s figure out how,” Chase said. “Hank, get down to Savannah and find Helen Granville. We need to know the truth about her husband. Pete, I want you to take over the search at Mansfield ’s house, and Nancy, you track down this Chili Pepper. I want to know who hired him.” Pete opened his mouth to protest and Chase shot him a warning look. “Don’t try it, Pete. You’re not getting within a mile of this guy.”
“I can handle myself,” Pete said tightly.
“I know,” Chase said, gently. “But I’m still not putting you in the situation.”
“I’m still tracking the medical supplies we found in the bunker,” Ed said. “We’re also running PCRs on the hair samples we found when we swept the bunker’s office area. Maybe something will match with the DNA patterns we have on file. We’ll search the area outside the bunker for more victims. And we’ll dust that road atlas for prints.”
“Good,” Chase said. “What else?”
“I want to talk to Susannah Vartanian,” Mary said.
“I’m meeting her at her hotel in a little while,” Chloe said. “I’ll tell her to call you.”
“She’s not at her hotel,” Luke said. “She’s in my office. She drove here when the black sedan was following her. She’s researching the swastika symbol.”
Chase waved at the door. “Now go, and good luck. We meet again at five. Luke, stay.” When the door was closed and they were alone, Chase met his eyes with a troubled frown. “Why didn’t Susannah report either of those rapes?”
“The first time, she was terrified of Simon, who told her she had to sleep sometime.”
Chase’s jaw hardened. “Sonofabitch. So what about the second time?”
I didn’t deserve justice either. “She was scared, and being Daniel’s sister, has felt guilty all these years that her friend died and she didn’t.”
“They are alike, aren’t they?”
“Two peas in a fucking pod.”
“Is her story documented?”
“Documentable, I imagine. Her boss has known for years and he’s an ADA.”
“Why are you going to that funeral, really?”
Luke frowned. “What do you mean?”
“I mean I don’t have resources to waste babysitting Susannah Vartanian. And from what I can see, she’s the last person who’d expect me to.”
“You think I’d do that?” Luke felt his blood pressure rise. “Waste resources?”
“I think you wouldn’t see it that way. Look, I feel sorry for Susannah, too, but-”
Luke struggled for patience. He was tired and irritable. Chase was, too, and neither one of them wore that combination well. “I’m not babysitting her. Am I concerned? Yes. Think about this. She’s raped at age sixteen. The only people who know are either dead or Garth Davis. She leaves home, goes to college. Then at age twenty-three, she’s raped again, on the same fucking date. She’s branded, her friend beaten to death. She’s ashamed and scared and says nothing. Six years later, that same brand turns up on Granville’s amulet and on the hips of five girls Granville murdered.”
Chase’s eyes sharpened. “So?”
Luke’s fist clenched under the table. “So there’s a connection, dammit. The man who killed her friend was convicted. The man who raped her the second time hasn’t been caught. What if that man was Rocky? What if Rocky or Granville orchestrated it? What if the man sitting in prison for killing her friend knows Rocky? What if the driver of the black sedan was Rocky? Do I have to draw you a goddamn map?”
Chase leaned back. “No. I’d already drawn it myself. I just needed to make sure you had, too. Go to the funeral. It’ll be a media zoo, coming on the heels of yesterday.”
Luke stood, vibrating with temper and annoyed Chase had treated him like a junior G-man. “I’ll be sure to pack my chair and whip.”
He was ready to slam out, when Chase stopped him. “Good job, Luke.”
Luke shuddered out a breath. “Thank you.”
Ridgefield House, Saturday, February 3, 9:00 a.m.
Ashley Csorka lifted her head, listening in the dark of the “hole.” It was a root cellar, underneath the house, not even big enough to stand up in. Dank and cold. I’m so cold.
Her stomach was growling. It was breakfast time. She could smell food cooking upstairs. I’m so hungry. She forced her mind to do the math. She’d been huddling in this corner for almost twelve hours.
The woman said they’d keep her here for a few days. I’ll be crazy in a few days. Plus there were rats. Ashley had heard them scurry behind the walls during the night.
Ashley hated rats. Panic welled, huge and terrifying. I have to get out of here.
“Well, sure,” she murmured aloud, her voice lessening some of the panic. “How?”
They were near a river. If she could only get to the river, she was certain she could swim across. Her swim team trained in the ocean sometimes, where the currents ran stronger than the river’s. And even if she drowned, it would be preferable to what was in store for her when they decided to let her out of the hole.
How do I get out of here? There was only one door at the top of the short staircase and it was locked. She’d tried it already. And even if she did manage to open the door, there was that skinny creepy butler, Tanner, who carried a gun.
Outside there was a guard. She’d seen him when they’d brought them in yesterday. He carried a bigger gun. It was no use. I’ll die here. I’ll never go home.
Stop. You will not die. She got on her hands and knees and began to feel her way around. Her jaw clenched against the pain in her hand where she’d caught an exposed nail when she’d been shoved down the stairs. Just ignore it and look for a way out.
The first wall was cinderblock, as was the second and third.
But the fourth wall… Ashley’s fingers brushed against something rough. Brick. Someone had bricked in this wall. That meant there was something on the other side. A door? A window?
So what? It’s brick. Solid brick. Discouraged, Ashley slid down, her back against the wall. She wrapped her arms around her knees. She couldn’t claw her way through brick.
She’d need a sledgehammer to bust through or a file to chip at the mortar. She had neither. Slowly she lifted her hand. But there was an exposed nail on the stairs.
But they might hear me chipping at the mortar.
So what? If they hear you, they’ll just drag you out sooner. Her future would be the same unless she got away. So you might as well try.
Never say try. She conjured the voice of her coach. Set your goal. Then do it.
“So do it, Ashley,” she whispered. “Do it now.”
Atlanta , Saturday, February 3, 9:20 a.m.
Is it complete?” Chloe asked as Susannah reviewed the stenographer’s transcript. Al Landers sat at her side, silent. His hand gripped hers, supportive.
“Yes,” Susannah said. “Give me a pen before I change my mind.”
“It’s not too late, Susannah,” Al murmured, and she smiled at him.
“I know, but this is bigger than just me, Al. This is all tied up in what happened in that bunker. Five girls are still missing. I have to do this.”
“Thank you,” Chloe said. “I can only imagine how difficult this has been.”
Susannah huffed a wry chuckle. “Difficult. Yeah. That about sums it up.”
“How long before the press gets hold of this?” Al asked.
“We won’t tell them,” Chloe said. “We never disclose the names of victims of sexual assault, but it’s going to get out. One of the other victims, Gretchen French, has already mentioned scheduling a press conference. She wants to control her announcement.”
“I don’t know her,” Susannah said. “I suppose I will, soon enough.” She rose and tugged the short skirt, trying to cover another inch of her legs. “We should give Agent Papadopoulos his office back. And I have to get to that funeral. I wish it had been scheduled for noon. The department stores don’t open till ten and I didn’t have time to shop for clothes this morning.” She’d been too unnerved to do so, had there been time.
Chloe frowned. “You look fine.”
“I look like a teenager, but my clothes were ruined yesterday and this is all I have. I wish I had something more sober to wear. It is a funeral. This feels disrespectful.”
Chloe studied her a moment. “I’m way too tall, so my suits won’t fit you, but I have a short black cocktail dress that might hit you below the knee. You could use a belt to cinch the waist. I only live a few minutes away. I’ll run home and get it for you.”
Susannah opened her mouth to politely decline, then changed her mind. “Thanks. I appreciate it.” When she was gone, Susannah turned to Al. “Thanks for being here.”
“I wish I’d known the rest of it. I would have been there years ago.”
“Excuse me.” Luke stuck his head in. “I saw Chloe leave. Are you finished?”
“We are.” She rose. “Luke, this is my boss, Al Landers. Al, Special Agent Luke Papadopoulos. He’s a friend of my brother Daniel.”
“You’re the guy I saw in the hotel hall last night,” Al said as they shook hands. “What are you doing to catch this guy in the black sedan?”
“We’re setting up surveillance at the funeral this afternoon,” Luke said. “And we’d like to talk to the guy who was convicted for Darcy Williams’s murder.”
“I can arrange an interview. What about the other guy, Susannah?” Al looked grim. “The one who assaulted you. Did he know Darcy’s killer?”
Susannah’s cheeks grew hot. “No. They were strangers, too.”
“How do you know for sure?” Luke asked gently, and his implication hit her hard.
“I guess I don’t,” she said. “How stupid were we?”
“Pretty damn stupid,” Al said sadly. “What were you thinking, Susannah?”
“I wasn’t.” She looked away, crossing her arms over her chest. “I met Darcy when she was a waitress in the West Village and I went to NYU. One night I went in for some carryout and we started talking. Turned out we had a lot in common. Both of us had bad relationships with our fathers and mothers who didn’t protect us. Darcy had run away at fourteen, done drugs, the whole nine yards.”
“Whose idea was it to meet the men?” Al asked, and again her cheeks heated.
“Darcy’s. She hated men and then, so did I. She said she wanted to be in control for once. She wanted to be the one to leave the guy in the middle of the night without a thank you. I was appalled at first. Then… I just did it.” And the second time was easier. And the third time a dark thrill. By the fourth time… it shamed her to even think of it.
Al and Luke were looking at each other oddly. “What?” she asked.
“What if Darcy was put up to meeting you?” Luke asked, his voice still gentle.
Susannah’s mouth fell open. “Oh my God. I never…” Her arms went limp at her sides. “That’s crazy.”
“Didn’t you think it odd that both assaults happened on the same day?” Al asked.
Susannah blew out a breath. “Of course. But I’d gone to that hotel of my own free will.” By then it had become a dark obsession. “I chose that date specifically. It was supposed to be my declaration of independence. Later, I told myself it was… an omen. God’s punishment, call it what you want. I’d royally erred and I was paying the price. The date was a message. Clean up or else. It sounds stupid when I say it out loud.”
“You were a victim,” Luke said. “Twice. You weren’t thinking like an ADA, you were thinking like a human being who had to make sense of something horrific. There isn’t any sense to it, though. Bad things sometimes happen to good people. Period.”
I wasn’t a good person. I wasn’t. But she nodded gravely. “I know.”
Luke’s dark eyes flickered and she knew he hadn’t bought her easy acceptance of his words. “What about the man who assaulted you? Can you describe him?”
“Of course. I’ll never forget his face. But what will that help? It was six years ago. The trail went cold a long time ago.”
“We’ll still sit you down with a sketch artist, just in case this guy is still around and involved with that black sedan.” He turned to Al. “How can I talk to Darcy’s killer?”
“Michael Ellis,” Susannah murmured.
Luke frowned. “What did you say?”
“Michael Ellis,” Al supplied. “Darcy’s killer. Why?”
Luke scraped his palms down his stubbled face. “We found two passports in Granville’s firebox. Both had his photo, but neither had his name. One name was Michael Tewes. The other name was Toby Ellis.”
“Sonofabitch,” Al muttered. “Granville set this up.”
“Either with black sedan man or he told him later,” Luke confirmed. “Sonofabitch.”
Susannah sat down, her heart in her throat. “It was all planned,” she said tonelessly, dropping her eyes to her lap. “I was set up. They’ve been laughing at me. All this time.”
Luke crouched in front of her, taking her cold hands in his warm ones. “Granville’s paid. This other guy will, too. Does the name Rocky mean anything to you?”
She shook her head. “No. Should it?”
“We think that’s Granville’s partner’s name.” He gave her hands a squeeze.
She looked up, met his eyes, another thought taking root, just as crazy as the others. But this wasn’t crazy. It was reality. “Simon stalked me. In New York.”
“What do you mean?” Luke asked.
“Daniel didn’t tell you?” she asked, and he shook his head. “When we were in Philadelphia the detectives had several sketches of Simon. He’d become very good at disguise, one of which was an old man. It was how he lured his victims. I recognized the picture. I sometimes saw the old man when I was walking my dog in the park. It was Simon. He’d sit five feet from me and chat, and I never knew it was my own brother.”
“But Simon can’t be Granville’s partner,” Luke said. “Simon’s dead.”
“I know. But…” She sighed. “I don’t know what.”
Luke squeezed her hands. “Just try to relax and keep your eyes open at the funeral. I’m going to be there, too.” He looked at Al over his shoulder. “You’re going?”
“You couldn’t stop me,” Al said grimly.
“Good. We can use all the eyes we can get.”
Ridgefield House, Saturday, February 3, 9:45 a.m.
Bobby hung up the phone, feeling elation and trepidation in equal measures. Paul’s analysis had been spot on as usual and now, after a minimum of persuasion, Bobby had a new informant on the GBI team. But the informant’s information was unsettling. Beardsley not only had lived, he’d talked. The police knew about Rocky. After the nerve she’d shown today, this was Rocky’s final straw.
“Mr. Charles is here to see you,” Tanner said from the doorway.
Meddling old man. “Show him in, Tanner. Thank you.”
Charles came in, dressed in a black suit, his ivory box under one arm. “I thought I’d stop by.” He patted the box. “Maybe play a game of chess.”
“I’m not in the mood for games.” Bobby gestured to a chair. “Sit. Please.”
Charles’s lips twitched condescendingly. “What’s stuck up your craw?”
“DRC119,” Bobby said, and had the pleasure of seeing Charles blink in surprise for the first time ever.
But he recovered quickly, his smile returning. “How did you know?”
“I have a source on the GBI team investigating the incident at the bunker.” Bobby suspected the GBI mole was holding out, but there had been enough information shared to establish an action plan.
“My star pupil,” Charles said mildly.
“Don’t change the subject. Were you driving that black sedan?”
“Of course. I didn’t want to miss the expression on her face.”
“What if you’d been stopped? Caught?”
“Why would I have been stopped? I wasn’t speeding.”
Bobby frowned. “That was an unacceptable risk.”
Charles’s expression went from genial to glacial. “You’re behaving like an old woman.” He leaned forward until their eyes locked. “I taught you better than that.”
Chastised and feeling five years old, Bobby looked away.
Charles settled in his chair, satisfied. “What else did your GBI mole tell you?”
“Beardsley heard Granville talking about Rocky, by name,” Bobby said, subdued. I hate you, old man.
“By Rocky or by her name?”
“Well, by Rocky, but that’s still too close for me.”
“I agree. What will you do?”
Exactly what you’d do. Kill her. “I’m not sure yet.”
Charles nodded, his expression now disapproving. “I drove by Randy Mansfield’s house. It’s still standing.”
Bastard. Just rub it in. “Yes, I know.”
“Why is it still standing?” He lifted his brows, reproach in his eyes. “It’s not like you to miss a detail as important as that.”
Bobby wanted to squirm. “I didn’t miss a detail. My guy didn’t do the job correctly.” And for that Chili Pepper would die as soon as he was located. GBI was already looking for him. I need to find him first. God only knew what Pepper would tell them.
“Then you failed.”
Bobby started to speak, then looked away again, deflated. “Yes. I did.”
“So what happened?” Charles asked, more kindly, in the way one rewarded a dog with affection after punishing it for bad behavior.
I hate you. “Mr. Pepper got too technical. In both houses he left a firebomb with a timing device, then wired the house to blow if the cops went in before the timer went off. The cops tripped the wire at Granville’s, which alerted them to the bombs at Mansfield ’s. The bomb squad disabled both devices at Mansfield ’s before they could blow.”
“There were cops all over Mansfield ’s place when I drove by.”
“I know, but all they’ve found is his gun collection and his library of kiddie porn.”
“His father was so smart,” Charles lamented. “Randy was such a disappointment.”
“I know. Granville’s house burned to the ground. The only thing they found was his fire safe with his fake passports inside.”
“Why didn’t your firebug just use gas and a match?”
“I don’t know. I’ll ask him when I find him.”
“But you know where Mr. Pepper is now,” Charles said.
No, but I’m not about to admit that to you. “Of course. Just like I know where Garth and Toby’s wives are, right now.” Which was, fortunately, very true. “The cops think the wives can lead them to the infamous Rocky, who they believe is Granville’s partner and the brains of the operation.”
“And what else?”
Bobby hesitated. “Did you know Susannah Vartanian was raped by Granville’s club thirteen years ago?”
Charles lifted a shoulder. “Let’s just say it was a… private performance.”
“Susannah Vartanian just signed a statement accusing Garth Davis of rape.”
“Interesting,” was all Charles replied. “Anything more?”
“You obviously knew about the incident with Darcy Williams.”
“Obviously. And what else?”
“Nothing.” Except that Susannah would be at Sheila Cunningham’s funeral today. And that there were probably a dozen things the GBI mole had not mentioned.
And I’m scared. There were too many unexpected and unwelcome developments. This had the feel of an iceberg lurking beneath the water. Impact was certain and imminent. Bobby hated to be scared. Charles could always sense fear.
Charles stood up, his lips curled in disgust. “I have to be going.”
“The Cunningham girl is being buried today,” he said. “I would be remiss were I not to attend.” He stepped closer, his shadow falling over Bobby’s chair. And he waited.
Despite sincere efforts to not meet his eyes, Bobby finally looked up, and as always, could not look away. I hate you, old man.
“You disappoint me, Bobby. You are afraid. And that, more than anything else, makes you a failure.”
Bobby wanted to speak, but no words would come and Charles laughed bitterly.
“Your ‘guy’ did not fail at Mansfield ’s house, Bobby. Your ‘personnel’ inside the hospital did not fail. Your assistant did not fail. You did. You sit in this relic of a house, believing you are pulling strings.” Contempt dripped from his voice. “That you are a master. But you are not. You sit here, hiding from the world. And from your birthright.”
Charles leaned forward. “You wish you were a master, but you’re no more than a shadow of what you might have been. All you command is a chain of mobile whorehouses that pander to truckers on the interstate. You play at being a high-priced ‘purveyor of fine flesh,’ but you’re nothing more than a glorified pimp. You were much more interesting when you were a high-priced whore yourself.”
Bobby’s heart was pounding. Say something. Defend yourself. But no words came and Charles’s mouth twisted into a sneer. “Have you found out why Susannah came back? Of course you haven’t. You’ll let her slip away, back to New York City, so far away.” He whined the last three words, mocking. “You could have gone to New York at any point and had your revenge, but you obviously don’t want it badly enough.”
Charles stepped back and Bobby’s eyes followed, like a bird hoping for the smallest morsel. I hate you, old man. Charles shoved his ivory box of chess pieces under his arm. “I’ll not return until you can show me you deserve my respect.”
Charles left and Bobby sat stewing. But Charles had been right. I’ve become insulated. Completely out of touch. The decision was clear. “Tanner! I need you. I’m going out. You need to help me dress.”
Tanner frowned. “You think this is a good idea?”
“I do. Charles was right. I’ve been hiding here for two days, pulling weak strings that keep snapping. I don’t have a lot of time. Where is that trunk of old clothes?”
“You’re going to wear your mother’s clothes? Bobby. That’s so wrong.”
“Of course I’m not going to wear Mother’s clothes, she was too short.”
“And she had hideous fashion sense.”
“Well, that, too. Grandmother was taller. Her stuff should fit. Where is Rocky?”
“Off licking her wounds, I would imagine.”
“Find her. She’s going with me. But first she’s going to show me all the girls she has in the pipeline. Glorified pimp, my ass. Charles will eat those words. But I have given Rocky too much power. I’ll oversee the new acquisitions from here on out.”
Tanner’s eyes gleamed. “I know all her passwords and screen names.”
Bobby blinked. “How?”
Tanner shrugged. “I’m a thief and always will be, but I keep up with technology. I sent a Trojan to her computer that logs all her keystrokes. I know every mark she’s been cultivating for the last six months and where they live.”
“You wily old man. I always underestimate you.”
“Yes, you do.” But he smiled as he said it.
Bobby started up the stairs, then stopped and looked back down at him. “Was I more interesting when I was a high-priced whore?”
“Infinitely. But you can’t do that anymore, so you adapt and move on.”
“You’re right. Make sure the girls are shackled to the wall. Who’s on duty today?”
“It was Jesse Hogan, but…” Tanner shrugged.
“But Beardsley killed him. Hogan was stupid to let a prisoner get the drop on him. Call Bill. If he whines about the overtime, tell him I’ll pay him double.” The guards were one group Bobby kept well-paid. “We need to hire another guard to take Hogan’s place.”
“I’ll take care of it. Anything else?”
Bobby looked around the foyer. “Charles called this house a relic.”
“About that, he was right. This place is drafty and none of the appliances work correctly, especially the stove. It’s impossible to make a good cup of tea when the water never boils.”
“So let’s find another house. I have enough money. Let’s blow this relic.”
Tanner’s gray brows went up cagily. “I hear the old Vartanian house is empty.”
Bobby laughed. “In good time, Tanner. For now, help me dress for this funeral. And make sure my gun is loaded.”
Charles looked in his rearview mirror as he pulled away from the curb. Tanner had given him the evil eye as he’d shown him out, but Bobby had become complacent and needed that kick in the ass. He thought of how far they’d come since the day they’d met. He’d known there was something there, something worth molding. The baggage Bobby carried made his job all the easier. There had been a drive, a need to dominate.
Part of it came from the man who’d raised Bobby with an iron fist. He was long dead, having raised his iron fist to Bobby once too often. Bobby raised an iron fist right back and beat the man to death with it, along with his wife. Tanner had somehow been involved, to what extent, Charles had never been able to determine. He did know that Tanner had been charged and Bobby had helped the old man escape. Since then, they’d been inseparable.
But Tanner was old, as much a relic as that house. Bobby needed to move on. To claim that birthright, because the lion’s share of Bobby’s desire to dominate was genetic. It was an indisputable fact to anyone who took the time to look, but surprisingly, no one had. No one but me. Charles often wondered why no one else had seen what had been so obvious the first time he’d looked into Bobby’s blue eyes.
It was as indelible as a brand.
Speaking of which, Charles had to admit he was a bit surprised at Susannah. She’d gone to the police and told them about Darcy Williams. He truly had not anticipated that. However, he was certain she’d said no more than she’d had to. Six years ago he’d led her to a place she never even conceived existed. He’d shown her the depth of perversion of which she personally was capable. Not once, not twice, but again and again until she couldn’t pretend it hadn’t been her idea, until she despised herself for the depths of obsession to which she’d sunk and clung.
That’s where Bobby and Susannah were different, he mused. Bobby yearned for the birthright. Susannah spurned it. Both were equally intense in their goal.
Intensity made for vulnerability. This he’d learned the hard way.
This morning he’d pushed Susannah and she’d responded by confessing. In hindsight, he should have seen that coming. She’d turned to her faith after the Darcy episode. Her faith and her career. And in both had convinced herself she was back in control. But Charles knew differently. His mentor Pham always said that once one tasted the forbidden, the flavor lingered. Tempted.
Charles could push Susannah where he wanted her to go. It was a challenge.
Today he’d pushed Bobby. Now he had to stand back and see how his star pupil would respond. He sincerely hoped Rocky would be dealt with. He’d been even less pleased with Bobby’s choice of recruit than he’d been with Granville’s.
Granville tagged Simon Vartanian young, but even then Charles had seen the insanity in the boy. Then Simon had been proclaimed dead by his father. Simon hadn’t been dead, of course, only banished. It was Judge Vartanian’s way of neutralizing the impact of Simon’s bad deeds on his own judicial career. The Judge told everyone Simon had been in a car accident. He’d even had some stranger’s body buried in Simon’s grave. And standing by Simon’s grave back then, Charles had been relieved. Simon had his uses, but given long enough, he would have brought Granville down.
When Granville tagged Mansfield, he’d been optimistic. But Randy Mansfield hadn’t become half the man his father had been.
As for Rocky, she wasn’t insane or worthless. However, she had a softness, a pathos that was a definite liability. And now she knew their secrets. She knows my face.
If Bobby doesn’t eliminate her, I’ll have to.
Atlanta , Saturday February 3, 10:15 a.m.
Monica heard the hissed words and struggled to obey. Her eyelids lifted.
My eyes work again. She moved her arm, gratified when she felt the tug of the IV needle. The breathing tube is still in. I can’t talk. But I’m not paralyzed.
She blinked and a face came into focus. A nurse. Panic sent her pulse scrambling.
“Just listen,” the nurse said hoarsely, and Monica could see the woman’s eyes were red from crying. “They have your sister. I have a picture.” She shoved her phone in front of Monica’s eyes and Monica’s scrambling heart seemed to stop.
Oh God, it was true. It was Genie, curled into a ball, her mouth gagged, her hands tied. She was in the trunk of a car. She might be dead. Oh God.
“She’s alive,” the nurse said. “But they mean business, make no mistake. I was supposed to kill you, but I couldn’t.” Tears filled her eyes and she dashed them away. “Now my sister is dead. They beat her to death. Because I didn’t kill you.”
Horrified, Monica watched the nurse inject something into her IV and walk away.
Dutton, Saturday, February 3, 11:05 a.m.
I can’t do this,” Rocky said. “I’ll be caught.”
“You’re afraid,” Bobby said scornfully.
“Yes,” Rocky said. “I am. You want me to walk into the middle of the town and shoot Susannah Vartanian in the cemetery? In front of everyone?”
“There is anonymity in a crowd,” Bobby said. “Once you fire, you drop the gun. There will be so much confusion, you’ll be able to walk away.”
Bobby grew very still. “I thought you trusted me.”
“I do, but-”
“You’ve shown fear at every occasion,” Bobby said harshly. “Yesterday at the bunker. With the nurse. If you plan to hide at every turn, I can’t use you.” Bobby’s brows lifted. “And Rocky, nobody just walks away from me.”
“I know,” Rocky said. If she refused, she’d die here. I don’t want to die.
Bobby was watching her. “You’re afraid. You’re a failure. You are of no use to me.”
Rocky stared at the gun Bobby pointed at her. “You’d shoot me? Just like that?”
“Just like that. If you have no more trust than this, after all I’ve done for you, all your life… You should be grateful. Yet you disappoint me again and again. I have no use for failures. I have no use for you. You’ve failed too many times. This was your opportunity to show me you’re worth saving. Worth keeping.”
Bobby sat calm, confident, and Rocky wanted to scream. Insecurity warred with fear. If she were cast aside, where would she go? She’d be alone. “Can I have a gun with a silencer at least?”
“No. A silencer is a crutch. You have to prove to me that you have the courage to be my protégée. If you are successful today, you’ll never be afraid again. That is what I need in my assistant. What I must have. So choose. Live and serve, or cower and die.”
Rocky stared at the gun in Bobby’s hand. Both choices sucked. Dying sucked more. And she was so damn tired of being afraid.
“Give me the gun. I’ll do it.” But when I fire, Susannah Vartanian won’t be the one to fall. You will. I’ll tell them who you are, what you’ve done. Then I’ll be free.
Dutton, Saturday, February 3, 11:35 a.m.
“Did anybody stay home?” Luke muttered. “Looks like the whole damn town’s here.”
“They are,” Susannah murmured. Standing in the cemetery behind Dutton’s First Baptist Church, she was flanked on one side by Luke, on the other by Al. Chase was somewhere in the crowd, watching, supported by ten plainclothes state cops.
“Do you see anyone that looks familiar?” Luke murmured.
“Just the same old people I grew up with. If you need running commentary, just ask.”
“Okay. Who was the preacher who did the service?”
“That would be Pastor Wertz,” she said softly, and Luke bent his head closer to better hear. He smelled like cedar again today, she thought, the odor of fire and death washed away. She took another breath, filling her head with his scent before turning her focus back to the cemetery in which she’d stood with Daniel barely two weeks before. “Wertz has been pastor since before I was born. My father thought he was a fool. That either meant he couldn’t be bought or that he wasn’t bright enough to play his games. Wertz doesn’t seem much different, except that his sermons used to be a lot longer. Today’s was barely twenty minutes.”
“He’s got a lot of them to do,” Al said. “Maybe he’s pacing himself.”
She thought of all the death inflicted by Mack O’Brien. “You’re probably right.”
“What about the older gentleman with the entourage?” Luke asked.
“That’s Congressman Bob Bowie.”
“His daughter was Mack O’Brien’s first victim,” Luke murmured, and she nodded.
“Standing beside him are his wife, Rose, and his son, Michael.”
“What about the thin, old man beside the son?”
“That’s Mr. Dinwiddie. He’s the Bowies ’ butler and has been since I can remember. The Bowies had live-in servants, and that made my mother jealous. She wanted a butler, but my father wouldn’t allow it. ‘Servants have big ears and wagging tongues,’ he’d say. He did too much business in the middle of the night to worry about a butler.”
“Anybody else I should know?”
“Do you see the older lady with big hair? She’s standing three rows back. That’s Angie Delacroix. She might be a good resource to talk to about Granville and anyone else. Angie owns the beauty shop. She knows everything that goes on in Dutton, and what she doesn’t hear, the barbershop trio see. That’s them, coming this way.”
Three old men had been sitting in folding chairs at the graveside. As one they’d risen and were now making their way across the grass.
“Barbershop trio?” Al asked as the old men approached. “Not a quartet?”
“No. There are always three, and they sit on a bench outside the barber shop all day and watch the world go by from nine to five, Monday through Friday. They take an hour for lunch in the diner across the street. They’re a Dutton institution. The old men in the town have to wait for one of the trio to die before a space on the bench opens up.”
“O-kay,” Luke murmured. “And I thought my great-uncle Yanni was weird for painting all the eyes of his yard statues blue. Which of these guys is Daniel’s old English teacher? He helped us with Mack O’Brien yesterday. He might be willing to give us information again.”
“That would be Mr. Grant. He’s on the right. The others are Dr. Fink and Dr. Grim. All three of them creep me out,” she murmured.
“With names like Fink and Grim, I can understand,” Luke said, amused.
“That’s their real names, too. Dr. Fink was my dentist. I still can’t hear a drill without panicking. Mr. Grant always talked about dead poets. He tried to get me to go out for theater. And Dr. Grim was my biology teacher. He was… different.”
“Different how?” Luke asked.
“He made Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller look like he had ADD.”
“That exciting?” Luke asked, a smile in his voice.
“More so.” She straightened as the three stopped in front of her. “Gentlemen, please allow me to introduce you to Special Agent Papadopoulos and Assistant District Attorney Al Landers. This is Dr. Fink, Dr. Grim, and Mr. Grant.”
The old men nodded politely. “Miss Susannah.” Dr. Fink took her hand. “I didn’t get the chance to express my condolences at your parents’ funeral.”
“Thank you, Dr. Fink,” she said quietly. “I appreciate that.”
The next man brushed a kiss against her cheek. “You’re looking lovely, my dear.”
“And you’re looking well, Mr. Grant.”
“We heard the news about Daniel,” Mr. Grant said, worried. “Is he improved?”
“He’s still in intensive care, but his prognosis is excellent.”
Mr. Grant shook his head. “I can’t believe twenty-four hours ago he gave me a volume of poetry, and now… But he’s young and strong. He’ll pull through.”
“Thank you, sir.”
The third man was studying her intently. “You’re looking peaked, Miss Vartanian.”
She straightened again. “I’m just tired, Dr. Grim. It’s been a long few weeks.”
“Are you taking B-twelve? You haven’t forgotten the importance of vitamins, have you?”
“I certainly could never forget the importance of vitamins, sir.”
Dr. Grim’s face softened. “I was so sorry to hear about your mama and daddy.”
Susannah held back the flinch. “Thank you, sir. Thank you very much.”
“Excuse me,” Luke inserted, “but I’m sure you gentlemen have heard about the death of Dr. Granville yesterday.”
All three grimaced. “It’s a terrible shock,” Dr. Fink said. “Before I retired, my dental practice was next door to his clinic. I spoke to him every day. I’d have lunch with him sometimes. My daughter took my grandkids to him for their shots. I had no idea…”
“He was one of my students,” Mr. Grant said sadly. “A brilliant mind. Skipped two grades to graduate early. What a waste. Fink’s right. It’s a shock to all of us.”
Dr. Grim looked most devastated. “He was my star pupil. Nobody absorbed biology like Toby Granville. Nobody knew he had such evil in him. It’s unbelievable.”
“I understand,” Luke murmured. “You three must see a lot that goes on in Dutton.”
“We do,” Dr. Fink said proudly. “At least one of us is on that bench at all times.”
Susannah lifted her brows, surprised. “I thought you had to sit there, nine to five.”
“Well, we don’t leave unless there’s a good reason, of course,” Mr. Grant said. “Like my weekly therapy on my knee or Fink’s dialysis or Grim’s-”
“That’s enough,” Grim said roughly. “He didn’t ask our daily routine, Grant. Do you have a specific question, Agent Papadopoulos?”
“Yes, sir,” Luke said. “I do. Did you notice Dr. Granville talking to anyone unusual?”
All three men frowned and looked at each other.
“Like a woman?” Fink asked. “Are you asking if he was having an affair?”
“No,” Luke said, “but are you saying he did?”
“No,” Grim said. “To say he was a God-fearing man seems ludicrous, but I never saw him in an inappropriate situation. He was the town doctor. He talked to everyone.”
“So he didn’t have anyone he was especially friendly with, or did business with?”
“Not to my knowledge,” Mr. Grant said. “Fink, Grim?”
The three men shook their heads, curiously unwilling to speak against a man who was now known to have been a rapist, killer, and pedophile. But their reticence could also be due to a general mistrust of outsiders, Susannah thought.
“Thank you,” Luke said. “I wish we could have met under different circumstances.”
The three gave Susannah a stern glare, then started back for their folding chairs.
Susannah let out a breath. “That was interesting. I would have expected them to be cool to Al, just because he’s a Yankee, but not to you, Luke.”
“I’m glad I didn’t say anything then,” Al said, mildly affronted.
Her mouth curved a little. “Sorry, Al, but the older generation still holds a grudge.”
“I didn’t expect them to be happy with my questions,” Luke said. “Granville’s scandal is a shock and reflects poorly on the whole town. Who’s the woman with the camera?”
“That’s Marianne Woolf. Her husband owns the Dutton Review.”
Luke let out a low whistle. “Daniel said she was voted most likely to do everyone. Now I understand. Whoa.”
Susannah quashed the spurt of jealousy. Men had always had that reaction to Marianne, and the years had been good to her. Susannah wondered if the plastic surgeons had been good as well, but dismissed the thought as petty.
“Marianne must be covering this for the Review,” she said. “Jim Woolf and his brothers aren’t here. His sister Lisa was buried yesterday.”
“Lisa Woolf was one of O’Brien’s victims, too,” Luke said for Al’s benefit.
Susannah didn’t want to think about Mack’s victims. That they were dead too closely tied to Simon, which too closely tied to her. “The man next to Pastor Wertz is Corey Presto. Mr. Presto owns the pizza parlor where Sheila worked and was killed.”
“Presto I know. I was at the scene with Daniel after Sheila was shot.” Luke lifted his head to scan the crowd and Susannah felt cold again. “Two-thirds of the people here are reporters. I thought your parents’ funeral was a media circus, but this is insane.”
She hesitated. “Thank you, by the way, for coming to my parents’ funeral. I know it meant a lot to Daniel to have you and your family here.”
He squeezed her arm. “Daniel’s family. We couldn’t let him go through that alone.”
She shivered, whether from the contact or the sentiment she was unsure. Studying the crowd, she frowned at the figure standing alone off to the side. “That’s odd.”
Al Landers instantly tensed. “What?”
“Just that Garth Davis’s sister Kate came. I didn’t expect to see her here, under the circumstances. I mean, Sheila was one of Garth’s victims. That’s her, standing alone.”
“Maybe she’s just here to pay her respects,” Al said.
“Maybe,” Susannah said doubtfully. “But how awkward.”
“Sshh,” Luke cautioned. “They’re getting ready to start.”
It was a short service, and sad. Next to Pastor Wertz, pizza parlor owner Corey Presto stood quietly crying. Susannah didn’t see any other family or friends. She wondered how many people here had actually known Sheila Cunningham.
Based on the avidly curious expressions of nearly every face in the crowd, not many. Sheila was news. She’d be gossiped about around water coolers for days to come.
Once the news of my statement hits, so will I.
Pastor Wertz began reading from the Bible, his face weary. He’d already officiated over two funerals in as many days and there were many more to come.
She thought about Daniel as Corey Presto put a red rose on top of Sheila’s casket. Her brother had very nearly died yesterday. Had Alex not acted so quickly Susannah might have been standing here again in a few days, burying the last of her family.
And then I would be as alone as Sheila Cunningham had been. More so, because at least Sheila had Corey Presto. I have no one. Susannah swallowed hard, startled to find her face wet. Embarrassed, she quickly wiped her cheeks with her fingertips, stiffening when Luke’s hand brushed her hair, settling on her back, warm and solid. For just a moment she gave in to the temptation to lean, resting her head against him.
And for just a moment she let herself yearn for a man like Luke Papadopoulos, decent and kind. But that was not in the cards. Not after what he now knew. He would be kind because Daniel was family, and he might even be attracted to her, but ultimately the man whose mama still carried a rosary around in her purse would never want… a woman like me. And who could blame him? I don’t want a woman like me.
Pastor Wertz said the “Amen” and Susannah pulled away from Luke, physically and emotionally. Al pushed a handkerchief into her hand. “Your mascara’s run.”
Quickly she wiped her face again. “Did I fix it?”
Al tipped her face up. “Yeah. You okay?”
No. “Yeah.” She turned to Luke. “You don’t have to babysit me. I’ll be fine.”
Luke didn’t look like he believed her, but nodded. “I do need to get back. I have an appointment at two. Call if you need me or if you see anyone who looks familiar.” He looked around. “I did want to talk to Kate Davis. Do you see her?”
Susannah didn’t. “She must have left. This had to have been uncomfortable.”
Luke looked at Al. “There are cops everywhere. If you need to, yell.”
Al watched him go, then looked down at her, brows lifted. “He’s very… nice.”
Way too nice for me. “Let’s go back. I haven’t spent any time with Jane Doe today.”
She’d only taken a few steps when a woman stopped in her path. She was tall, blond, and smileless. “Hi,” she said nervously. “You’re Susannah Vartanian, aren’t you?”
Al’s hand closed over her arm protectively. “I am,” Susannah said. “Do I know you?”
“I don’t think so. I’m Gretchen French.”
The victim Chloe Hathaway said was trying to organize a press conference. How could she have found out so quickly? “What can I do for you, Miss French?”
“I met your brother Daniel a few days ago. I heard he was shot by Randy Mansfield.”
The knot in her chest loosened. “He was, but he’ll be all right.”
Gretchen smiled, but it looked like it cost her. “I just wanted to ask you to thank him for me. He and Talia Scott made a very difficult time more bearable. He’s a kind man.”
Susannah nodded. “I’ll tell him.”
“It’s nice of you to come today, to pay your respects to Sheila in Daniel’s place.”
Susannah felt Al’s grip tighten, bolstering her. “That’s not why I’m here.”
“Then you knew Sheila?”
“No.” Just say it. Say it. Say it and it will be easier the second time.
Gretchen’s brows crunched. “Then why are you here?”
Susannah drew a breath. “For the same reason you are.” She let the breath out quietly. “I was a victim, too.”
Gretchen’s mouth dropped open. “But… I…” She stared. “I had no idea.”
“I didn’t know about you either, or any of the others. Not until Daniel told me on Thursday. I thought I was the only one.”
“So did I. Oh God.” Gretchen took a steadying breath. “We all did.”
“I gave my statement to ASA Hathaway today,” Susannah said. “I’ll be testifying.”
Gretchen was still stunned. “It will be difficult.”
Difficult. She was beginning to hate that word. “It will be hell for us all.”
“I suppose you know that better than any of us. I read that you’re a prosecutor now.”
“Now,” Susannah said, and Al squeezed her arm again. But maybe not later. Al was indeed correct that the defense would exploit her status as a victim. But she’d stand with the others now and cross each bridge as she got there. “Miss Hathaway said you’re organizing a press conference. If you tell me when and where, I’ll be there.”
“Don’t thank me, please. I’ll give you my card. Call me when the arrangements are made.” She’d bowed her head to search her purse when a sharp crack split the air.
In an instant Susannah was thrown to the ground, her breath leaving her in a rush as Al landed on top of her and all hell broke loose in the cemetery. Around her people screamed and ran as police mobilized to bring order to the crowd.
Dazed, Susannah lifted her head, her gaze locking onto a woman who stood still amid all the frenzied movement around her. She was dressed in black, from her veiled hat to the hem of her old-fashioned dress to the tips of her gloved fingers. The black lace of the veil fell below her chin, covering her face, but somehow Susannah knew the woman was staring. At me.
And Susannah stared back, momentarily mesmerized.
Red lips. She has red, red lips. The color showed through the black lace, creating a startling effect. And then the woman slipped into the crowd and was gone.
“Are you all right?” Al shouted over the panicked screams.
“Stay down another few- Oh, shit.” Al leaped up and Susannah pushed herself to her knees as he lowered Gretchen French to the ground. “She’s hit.”
Twenty uniformed police stormed the area, and Susannah found herself stemming blood flow from a gunshot wound for the second time in less than twenty-four hours. Gretchen was conscious, but pale and shaken. The bullet had pierced the fleshy part of her arm and blood was sullenly oozing from the wound.
“Stay put,” Susannah said. “Just don’t move.” She balled up Al’s handkerchief and pressed it to Gretchen’s arm. “Al, get me…” She looked up to find Al’s horrified gaze fixed straight ahead, and her heart stumbled to a stop. “Oh, hell. Oh, no.”
Kate Davis lay on the ground between two tombstones, staring skyward, her white shirt already red with blood. One arm lay flung outward, a gun still clutched in her hand.
Two officers were holstering their weapons. Susannah continued to stare, shocked. She hadn’t heard the shot. But Kate Davis was dead.
Al looked down, stunned. “She shot Gretchen French.”
“Step aside, please.” Paramedics were pushing her out of the way, again for the second time in twenty-four hours. She stood up, her legs like rubber.
His arms came around her, keeping her from crumpling to the ground again as her knees buckled. He shielded her with his body as cameras began to flash. “Just come with me.” He was breathing hard. “Susannah, this is one hell of a fucked-up town.”
“Yeah,” Susannah said breathlessly. “I know.”
Tanner slowed the car and Bobby slid into the passenger seat. “Drive.”
He obeyed and in ten seconds they’d cleared the cemetery gates. “Is it done?”
“Of course.” And exactly as planned.
“Did anyone recognize you?”
Tanner grimaced as Bobby removed the veiled hat. “That hat is hideous, but the lipstick is even worse.” He passed his handkerchief across the car. “Clean your face.”
“Sheila always wore this color. I thought it was a nice touch.”
Tanner rolled his eyes as Bobby wiped at the lipstick. “Where’s your gun?”
“I dropped the one I used on Rocky in the grass, just like I’d planned. The other one is still in my pocket.” Bobby fingered the small hole in the pocket’s fabric. “All that training with Charles finally paid off. Two targets hit, using both hands. Ballistics will have a field day doing the matchups.”
“So Susannah Vartanian is dead, too?”
“Of course not.”
Tanner’s head jerked, his frown fierce. “You said it was done. You missed?”
Bobby frowned back. “I don’t miss. If I’d meant to hit Susannah, I would have. I never intended to kill her that painlessly. If Charles can play with her a little, so can I.”
“So who else did you shoot?”
“I have no idea,” Bobby said cheerfully. “Just a woman unlucky enough to be standing next to Susannah at the time.” A laugh bubbled out. “I haven’t felt like this in… well, I don’t remember the last time. Maybe not since I killed that sonofabitch Lyle.”
“Your father had it coming,” Tanner said decisively.
He wasn’t my father. “So did Rocky. Let’s get back to Ridgefield now. We have some things to do before you leave for Savannah.”
Tanner tensed. “Get down. Police car at twelve o’clock.”
Bobby twisted, ducking below the dash. “I didn’t see any police cars.”
“It was unmarked, but it’s gone now. Let’s get out of here.”
Dutton, Saturday, February 3, 12:05 p.m.
Luke ran from his car, heart pounding. Shots fired, Dutton Cemetery. As soon as he’d heard the words on his radio, he’d U-turned and raced back. Susannah was sitting in the passenger seat of her rental car, parked in on all sides. Two state troopers were managing crowd control while an angry Al Landers paced the length of the car.
“What the hell happened?” Luke demanded.
Al shook his head. “I’m still not sure. I don’t think your boss knows yet either.”
Luke stuck his head in the car. Susannah sat, her hands folded in her lap. Her face, as well as the front of her black dress, was streaked red with clay. “Are you all right?”
She gave him a weary look. “The only thing that hit me was Al. Kate Davis is dead.”
Luke frowned. “Kate Davis? You’re kidding.”
“I wish. The police shot her after she shot Gretchen French.”
Luke shook his head to clear it. “Kate Davis shot someone? In the cemetery?”
“Yes,” Susannah said calmly. “Gretchen French. In the cemetery. With a gun.”
“The victim Chloe mentioned this morning? The one who’s mobilizing the other victims to do a press conference?”
“That’s the one. Gretchen’s not hurt badly. The medics have her now.”
Al stuck his head next to Susannah, his expression grim. “What she’s not telling you is that she was standing next to Gretchen at the time.”
Luke’s stomach rolled over. She could have been killed. “I’ll get an update on Miss French,” he said roughly. “Then you’re going back with me.”
She looked surprised. “Kate didn’t shoot me. She shot Gretchen. And now Kate’s dead. I don’t think she’ll be shooting anyone else.”
“Humor me. Please.”
Something shifted in her gray eyes. “You’ve been very kind, Luke, but you don’t have to babysit me. I’ll be all right on my own.”
She’d pulled away even though she hadn’t moved a muscle. “Humor me anyway,” he said, his jaw tightening. “Susannah, I’m so exhausted that it’s hard for me to focus. It’ll just be harder if I’m worried about you.” That seemed to make a difference.
She nodded. “All right then. Should I come with you now?”
“No. Stay here until I come back.” He and Al straightened and regarded each other over the top of the car. “Can you drive this rental car back?”
“Yes. That young woman, Kate Davis. Her brother Garth is the last surviving member of Simon’s club. Is it possible news of Susannah’s statement leaked out?”
“And that she was the intended target?” Luke had already considered it. “I’ll find out.”
Luke found Chase looking down at Kate Davis’s body. Chase looked up sourly. “I’m having a very bad day.”
“So’s Kate Davis,” Luke said. “Who shot her?”
“Don’t know,” Chase said, even more sourly. “Wasn’t any of us.”
Luke frowned. “You mean it wasn’t GBI?”
“No, I mean it was not any law enforcement officer on the premises. No one fired their weapon. Therefore, I do not know who shot this woman,” Chase said testily.
Luke looked around, frowning. “We have a second shooter?”
“The bullet hit her straight in her heart. Somebody has a good eye.”
“Yeah, I got that part. At least Kate’s eye wasn’t so good. Gretchen will be all right.”
“That’s what Susannah said. I’m taking Susannah back to Atlanta myself. So what did happen?”
“Kate Davis was in a pocket of people milling around the graveside. There was a huge line of cars waiting to get out of the cemetery and people were getting impatient.”
“I parked on the next access road,” Luke said. “I had to walk, but I got out fast.”
“You weren’t the only one, which was part of the problem. When bullets started to fly, people had already started leaving. It was almost impossible to lock the area down.”
There were still a lot of people in the cemetery, many lined up along the yellow tape one of the officers had strung, hoping for a real-life taste of CSI. “Witnesses?”
“The three old men on the folding chairs had a ringside view. They said they saw Kate with a jacket draped over her arm, looking ‘antsy.’ ” He pointed to the jacket lying on the ground about two feet from the body. “The next moment there was a shot fired and people started screaming. Al Landers tackled Susannah, knocking her down, but it was Gretchen French who was hit. Seconds later, two cops had their guns drawn and pointed at Kate. One told her to drop her weapon. The cops said she looked stunned.” Chase met his eyes. “And then she said, ‘I missed.’ ”
Luke’s blood ran cold. “Shit.”
“Yeah. The next second Kate drops like a rock. She was dead before she hit the ground. Like you said, somebody was a damn good shot.”
“And had a gun with a silencer.”
“Then the other shooter got away.” Luke refused to let the panic in his gut rise to choke him. She’d missed and Susannah was unhurt. Gretchen’s injury was minor. “I’m glad you’re handling the brass. This is going to make us look like fucking monkeys.”
“That about sums it up. You don’t have to stay, Luke. Ed’s got the scene and I’ll manage the press.” He grimaced. “They all got some great video for their newscasts.”
“I’m glad we were here,” Luke said pointedly, and Chase rolled his eyes.
“You were right. This was no babysitting job.”
“Thank you. I’m going back now. I have to meet Kasey Knight’s parents at two. You know, the parents of the first dead girl we’ve identified. I’m not looking forward to this.”
“Wait,” Chase said. “Weren’t you going to check to see if Granville had a safe deposit box at Davis Bank in Dutton?”
“I went by before the service, but the bank is closed,” Luke told him. “Rob Davis, the bank manager’s grandson, is being buried up in Atlanta today.”
“Because Rob Davis pissed off Mack O’Brien who then killed his grandson in retaliation.” Chase sighed. “Now his nephew Garth is in jail, Garth’s wife and sons are missing, and Kate is dead. I don’t think it’s healthy to be a member of that family.”
“Or a Vartanian for that matter,” Luke said quietly.
“Or a Vartanian,” Chase agreed.
Both Luke and Chase turned to find a pale Pastor Wertz standing behind them. “Yes, Reverend?” Chase asked. “What can we do for you?”
Wertz looked stunned. “I have another funeral this afternoon. What should I do?”
“Whose funeral is it?” Luke asked.
“Gemma Martin,” the pastor replied. “Oh, dear, this is not good. Not good at all.”
“Mack O’Brien’s third victim,” Chase muttered. “Are you expecting a large crowd?”
“The family hired security to keep the media out,” the pastor said. “But they’ve been flying overhead, sneaking through. It’s been horrible. Horrible.”
“We’ll be cordoning off this whole section of cemetery,” Chase said. “It’s a crime scene now. The funeral and burial will have to be postponed.”
“Oh my. Oh my.” Pastor Wertz wrung his hands. “I’ll tell Mrs. Martin, Gemma’s grandmother. She won’t be happy about this. No, not at all.”
“If it’ll help, I’ll tell them,” Chase offered, and the pastor nodded.
“It would, indeed.” He looked down with a sigh. “Poor Kate. She was the last person I would have expected to do this. But I suppose even clear heads can get muddied in times like these, with Gretchen accusing her brother of rape. Her parents would have been so disappointed to see how Kate and Garth turned out. So sad. So very sad.”
Dutton, Saturday, February 3, 12:45 p.m.
Luke glanced at Susannah before returning his eyes to the road. She’d had her eyes glued to her computer screen since they’d left the cemetery. “What are you doing now?”
“Checking runaway sites for Jane Doe. I spent about three hours on this last night.”
“We have people checking all those sites. Why don’t you sit back and go to sleep?”
“Because she’s mine,” Susannah said quietly. “Besides, your people only have pictures of her face all bruised up with her eyes closed. I saw her eyes open. I might see something they don’t see. And I’ll go crazy if I don’t have something to do.”
“That I understand. What did you find out about swastikas this morning?”
“Not much earthshaking. The swastika is used in Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism. In all cases, it’s a religious symbol and can represent anything from evolution of life to good luck and harmony. It can mean something different depending on whether it’s right or left facing. Mine faces right, which is strength and intelligence. Facing left,” she said wryly, “it means love and mercy.”
Luke considered it. “None of the brands faced left.”
“I didn’t think so. The Nazi swastika does point right, however.”
“So this could still be tied to a neo-Nazi group.”
“Possibly, but I don’t think so. The Nazi form is very straight and almost always presented at a forty-five-degree angle. The ends are never bent.”
He glanced at her. “Why did you never get yours removed?”
“Penance, I suppose.” She hesitated, then shrugged. “And nobody was ever going to see it, so it didn’t matter.”
He frowned. “What does that mean?”
“It means I don’t plan to show it to anyone ever again.”
His frown deepened. “At the beach, or in a relationship?”
There was a finality in her tone. “Why not?”
She made an annoyed noise. “You’re a very nosy man, Agent Papadopoulos.”
“Luke,” he said, more sharply than he’d intended, and she shrugged again, making him angry. “Earlier I was kind. Now I’m nosy.” He waited, but she said no more. “Is that all you’re going to say?”
“Yes. That’s all.”
He was relieved when his cell buzzed in his pocket. He’d been about to lose his temper, and that was the last thing either of them needed right now. “Papadopoulos.”
“Luke, it’s Leigh. I have some phone messages for you. Is this a bad time?”
Yes. “No, it’s a fine time,” he said. “What is it?”
“First is from the Knights. You’re supposed to meet them at two, but they won’t be here until three-thirty. Second, I got a match to your Ashley C-s name. A Jacek Csorka in Panama City, Florida, filed a missing-person report on his daughter. She’s been missing since this past Wednesday. She’s not quite eighteen.”
“Can you give me the number? Actually, give it to Susannah.” He handed the phone across the car. “Can you copy down the phone number she gives you?” Susannah did and Luke took his phone back. “What else?”
“Alex called. Daniel’s awake.”
He took his first easy breath in hours “Excellent. What about Jane Doe?”
“Can’t have everything, I guess. What about tips on the hotline?”
“Hundreds of calls, but nothing credible.”
“Thanks, Leigh. Call me as soon as Jane Doe wakes up. No change on Jane Doe,” he said to Susannah when he’d hung up. Her eyes stayed locked on her computer screen. “Maybe Jane Doe’s not in there, Susannah.”
“No, she asked for her mom yesterday. Her mother must have loved her. I can’t see a mother not doing everything she can to find her daughter.”
There was yearning in her voice he wondered if she heard. It cut at his heart. “I have another nosy question.”
She sighed. “What?”
“Have you ever had a boyfriend?”
She frowned. “That’s not funny.”
“I didn’t mean it to be. In college, before Darcy, did you have a boyfriend?”
“No,” she said coldly, but he was undeterred.
“In high school, before Simon and Granville, did you?”
“No,” she said, angry now.
“And since Darcy?”
“No,” she thundered. “Will you stop? If this is what I have to listen to so I can stay alive, then just throw me to the evil Rocky and be done with it.”
“Why didn’t you?” he asked, ignoring her tantrum. “After Darcy, why didn’t you?”
“Because,” she snapped, then her shoulders sagged. “You want my soul, Agent Papadopoulos?” she asked wearily, and for once he didn’t correct her. “Fine. God knows I don’t deserve it. More importantly, no decent man deserves it either.”
“Am I decent?” he asked softly.
“I’m afraid so, Luke,” she said, so sadly it broke his heart.
“So you’ll be alone forever? Is that the penance you’ll pay?”
Luke shook his head, unwilling to accept it. “That’s wrong, Susannah. You’re paying for something that was done to you. You were the victim.”
“You don’t know what I was,” she said bitterly.
“Then tell me. Talk to me.”
“Because I need to know. I want to help you.” He sucked in a breath. “I want to know you. Dammit.” His hands clenched the steering wheel, kneading it. “The first time I saw you… I wanted to… know you.” He, normally good with the words women wanted to hear, was stumbling. “I wanted you,” he finished quietly.
She said nothing for a long moment. “You don’t want me, Luke. Trust me.”
“Because you had a one-night stand? So the fuck what?”
“Not one,” she whispered so softly he nearly missed it. Then she swallowed hard. “I really don’t want to talk to you anymore. This is hard enough. Please.”
It was the desperate tremble in her voice that made him stop pushing her. “All right. Will you dial the number Leigh gave you?”
She did, and he talked to Mr. Csorka, who planned to leave right away from Florida, bringing DNA samples from his daughter Ashley. Luke was hoping for his first positive ID on one of the missing girls. Mr. Csorka would arrive sometime after six this evening.
Luke went over every detail of the case in his mind, trying to fill the silence in the car, but every few minutes he’d glance at her, wishing he knew what to say. In the end, he honored her request, and said nothing. When they arrived at the hospital in Atlanta, he hoped she’d say something, but she closed her laptop without a word and walked away.
Feeling very sad and helpless, he let her.
He’d parked so he could go in and visit Daniel, but his cell buzzed again.
“Luke, it’s Nate. I’ve been looking at the pictures on Mansfield’s computer.”
Luke felt a spear of guilt. “I’m so sorry to have left you with this, Nate. I’ve got time before Kasey Knight’s parents arrive. Let me talk to Daniel and then I’ll come help you.”
“Actually, I found something,” Nate said, his voice energized. “Come now.”
Atlanta, Saturday, February 3, 1:25 p.m.
Susannah had intended to go straight to Jane Doe, but her feet slowed as she walked past Daniel’s room. He was alone, awake, and propped up on the pillows.
Their eyes locked, his intensely blue. She didn’t know what to say or what he’d do. Then he held out his hand and the dam inside her burst. Stumbling forward she grabbed his hand and he pulled her close. Burying her face against his shoulder, she wept.
Awkwardly he brushed her hair and she realized he was crying, too.
“I’m so sorry, Suze,” he rasped. “I can’t go back. I can’t change what I did.”
“Neither can I.”
“You didn’t do anything,” he said fiercely. “I should have protected you.”
“And I should have told you,” she murmured, and he went still.
“Why didn’t you?” he whispered, his voice anguished. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Simon told me not to. He told me that you were gone and…” She shrugged. “Simon said lots of other things. He liked to play mind games.”
“I know. Just like Dad.” He sighed. “I should have guessed. Both of them were always so much crueler to you. When I took care of you, it seemed to get worse.”
“So you stayed away,” she murmured.
“I shouldn’t have.”
I forgive you. Say it. Say the words. But they stuck in her throat. “It’s done, Daniel,” she said instead. “I understand.” It was the best she could do.
She rose, averting her face as she searched for tissues. She wiped her face, then sat next to his bed. Then she winced. “Yikes. The nurses are going to be mad at me.”
He smiled weakly. Her makeup had stained his hospital gown and the red clay from her dress had streaked the sheets. “You’re dirty, kid.”
“I fell down, kind of. I went to Sheila Cunningham’s funeral.”
He blinked in surprise. “You did?” he asked, and she nodded.
“I met Gretchen French. She sends her regards and her thanks.” She lifted one shoulder. “I wouldn’t be surprised if she stops in after they finish with her in the ER.”
His eyes widened. “Gretchen’s in the ER?”
She told him what had happened and he was stunned. “My God. Kate Davis helped us find Mack O’Brien. She told us Garth’s wife had split with the kids because she was afraid for her life. I thought with Mack and the others dead she’d be safe, but now…”
“I guess Kate took issue with us accusing Garth. Daniel, I need to say some things and I need you to listen. Yesterday I told you that you didn’t know what I was.”
“I know. I didn’t understand then. I still don’t.”
“I’m going to tell you and if you want me to go, I will. But I realized standing next to Sheila’s grave that if you’d died yesterday, I would be all alone. I don’t want to be.”
“I won’t leave you again,” he said harshly.
One side of her mouth lifted sadly. “Well, let’s see how you feel when you hear the story. You’d hear it all from Luke at some point, but I’d rather you hear it from me.”
Atlanta, Saturday, February 3, 1:25 p.m.
Luke found Nate Dyer in The Room, the place they used to view the vile material that made decent people gag. Am I decent? he heard himself ask Susannah.
I’m afraid so, Luke. And she thought she wasn’t, because she’d done a one-night stand. Or more. He’d get her to tell it, if for no other reason than for her to hear a decent person tell her that she wasn’t hopeless. That she did deserve her soul.
But Susannah would have to wait. No matter how long he’d put this off, Luke had known he’d return to The Room as soon as he’d recognized Angel’s face yesterday.
The Room was windowless, with one door. Only those with a need to know, a need to see, were admitted. Luke wished he didn’t have the combination as he punched in the code. He’d spent far too many hours here. And a little more of you dies each day.
Yeah. Steeling his spine, Luke pushed the door open. “Hey, Nate.”
Nate looked up, no smile on his face. “You need to sit down for this.”
Luke did, preparing for the sick twisting of his stomach that occurred every time he opened a new Web page or viewed a new collection of obscenity. All the preparation, though, never made it easier. “Okay. I’m ready.”
“I’ve only started looking at the material from Deputy Mansfield’s computer,” Nate said. “The guy had five external hard drives, Papa. Each drive is five hundred gig.”
“Hundreds of thousands of pictures,” Luke murmured.
“This stash will keep us busy for months. The computer forensics guys imaged all the hard drives and I picked up the copies just a few hours ago. Mansfield’s hard drives are organized. A lot of the folder names are phrases. He’d marked one ‘Fine Young American Flesh, Inc.’ This is what I found inside.”
Luke sat in front of Nate’s computer and began scrolling through the pictures. Each was a girl, provocatively posed. Each was nude and each held a small American flag in one hand and in the other, a symbol of the state from which she came.
Each picture was labeled with a name and a profile and a “personal message” from the girl. “ ‘Hi, I’m Amy,’ ” Luke read. “ ‘I was born and raised in Idaho.’ ” Amy clutched a potato some sick bastard had computer-enhanced to resemble male genitalia. There was Jasmine, raised in sunny California, and Tawny, raised in Wisconsin. Each girl was smiling seductively, and Luke wondered what had been done to them to force the smile.
“There’s a price list at the end,” Nate said.
“It’s a catalog,” Luke said dully.
“Exactly. And the logo for the company is the swastika with the bent ends.”
“Buy American,” Luke said. “I had a feeling we’d be looking at supremacist groups.”
“Look on page twenty-four.”
Luke did. “It’s Angel.” But they’d named her Gabriela.
“And page fifty-two.”
Luke’s pulse spiked. “It’s Jane Doe. They call her Honey. I called her that last night. That’s why she got so agitated. Are there other editions, earlier ones?”
“Yeah, two more. Looks like the catalogs are done quarterly, and this one is dated about two months ago. Luke, further on in this catalog are the two girls that were with Angel on the Web site we shut down eight months ago.”
“We lost track of those girls. Couldn’t find them anywhere on the Web.”
Nate pointed to the screen. “Now, we know where they went.”
“So either Mansfield was somehow involved with that Web site or he knew who was. How else could he get all three girls?”
“Don’t know. George and Ernie are coming in so I can grab some sleep. Maybe they’ll find something that’ll take us to the perv that ran the site. I’d give a lot to get my hands on him.” Nate searched Luke’s face. “You look as tired as I do. Get some rest.”
“No. I’ve got an hour before I meet Kasey Knight’s parents. Give me one of those hard drives.” He sat in front of a computer and closed his eyes, mentally preparing.
“You need anything? Lunch, maybe?” Nate asked, and Luke realized he hadn’t eaten since Leo’s eggs almost twelve hours before.
“Yeah, I forgot to eat.”
“You always do,” Nate said, and gave him a container from their small fridge. “Moussaka.”
Luke blinked at it. “How…”
Nate smiled. “Your mother came by with food for the office yesterday. She was worried we weren’t eating right with you off helping Daniel Vartanian’s case.”
Luke’s heart squeezed. I love you, Mama. “She’s a good woman, my mama.”
“And a damn good cook. Eat, Papa. Then search. Your eyes are faster than mine.”
So, armed with his mama’s moussaka, Luke sat down to view the stuff of which his nightmares were made. He scanned the directory, looking for any name that popped out. Some of the folder names were more self-explanatory than others. Whips and Chains, No Means Yes, Boys Will Be Boys… Luke had a pretty good idea of what he’d find in those folders. Then his eyes froze on one of the names.
Sweetpea, my ass. He clicked it open and his heart rose to choke him. Slowly he put the plastic container of food aside. “Oh my God. Nate, come here.”
Nate peered over his shoulder. “Horrible quality pictures.”
They were, grainy and blurry and off center. “Mansfield probably took them with a cell phone or hidden camera. Look, it’s Granville. With a girl.”
“What’s he doing?” Nate leaned closer, then sighed. “Aw, fuck, Papa.”
“Goddamn bastard.” Luke scrolled, each photo more vile than the last. Granville had tortured these girls, unspeakably. And Mansfield had somehow captured it all.
“What does Sweetpea, my ass mean?” Nate asked, pulling up a chair.
“You know about the rape club, right?”
“Thirteen years ago. Daniel’s brother Simon was the ringleader.”
“Not exactly,” Luke said. “We think Granville was the leader, but Simon was his partner. Daniel talked to the widow of one of the men who’d been in the club and she told him all the boys in the club had nicknames. Mansfield was Sweetpea.”
“Why the ‘my ass’ part?”
“I don’t know. Everything went to hell and Daniel got shot before I could get any more information. I’ll go see him and find out, but my guess is that Mansfield took these pictures as protection, in case he needed to hold something over Granville’s head.”
Luke continued paging through the photos, then stopped, and what little he’d eaten threatened to come back up. It was Angel. In all the vile perversion he’d witnessed, what Luke now stared at might be the worst. “Aw, hell, Nate.”
Nate closed his eyes. “Shit.” He swallowed hard, pursing his lips. “Shit.”
“We missed something, Nate,” Luke said, his voice as dead as he felt inside. “We didn’t catch those assholes who ran the Web site, but Granville and Mansfield managed to. That’s why those three girls dropped off the face of the earth all of a sudden. Granville had them here. Doing that to them. How did they get them?”
“I don’t know. But if it’s on one of these five hard drives, we’ll find it.”
Five hard drives. Twenty-five hundred gig. A hundred thousand pictures. “Dammit.”
“We’ll figure it out, Luke.”
“In time for the five girls Granville’s current partner took with him?” Luke said bitterly. “We’ve been at this for twenty hours and nothing fits. We’ve got a missing judge and swastika brands. We’ve got a name, Rocky, that means absofuckinglutely nothing. We’ve got a six-year-old homicide in New York and thirteen-year-old rapes, and they’re somehow connected. And we’ve got a girl who won’t goddamn wake up and tell us what happened.” He looked away, his temper a second away from explosion.
Beside him, Nate drew a careful breath. “And we’ve got a dead girl named Angel who we should have saved,” he said quietly.
A sob rose in Luke’s throat and, horrified, he tried to shove it back. “Goddammit, Nate,” he choked. “Look what he did to her. To all of them.”
Nate squeezed his shoulder hard. “It’s all right,” he murmured. “It wouldn’t be the first time one of us let go in here. That’s why we’re soundproofed.”
Luke shook his head, slowly grappling for his control. “I’m okay.”
“No, you’re not.”
“Okay, I’m not. But I’ll do what needs to be done.” He checked his watch. “I’ve got enough time to see Daniel before the Knights get to identify their daughter. Maybe Daniel knows something more.”
“You need to sleep, Luke.”
“Not now. I can’t close my eyes now. I’ll see that.”
Atlanta, Saturday, February 3, 2:30 p.m.
Susannah turned in the chair next to Jane Doe’s bed, surprised to find Mrs. Papadopoulos holding a big shopping bag in each hand. “Mama Papa. Hello.”
“I thought I would find you here, with this girl.”
Susannah smiled. “I thought you’d already forgotten about this girl.”
Her dark eyes twinkled. “I am mute when I leave. For now, I bring you these. Luka told my daughter Demi what my granddaughter bought for you. Demi was not pleased.”
“It was still very kind,” Susannah said, but Luke’s mother shook her head.
“So I send my youngest daughter Mitra out this morning to buy you proper clothing.” She held out the bags. “You like, you buy. You no like, Mitra will return.”
Susannah looked through the bags and smiled. “It’s all beautiful. Truly appropriate.”
“And everything was on sale.” Mama’s eyes narrowed. “You’ve been crying.”
“I went to a funeral. I always cry at funerals.” Which was a lie, but Susannah had to keep some dignity. “Here, come meet M. Jane Doe.”
Luke’s mama covered the girl’s hand with hers. “It’s nice to meet you, Jane,” she said softly. “I hope you wake up soon.” Then she leaned forward and pressed a kiss to the girl’s forehead and Susannah felt new tears well. No one, ever, had done that to her. Luke’s mama turned to Susannah, her dark eyes shrewdly appraising. “Come, let’s change you out of that dirty dress. You’ll feel better.”
“All right.” Susannah brushed the hair from the girl’s face. “I’ll be back soon.”
Atlanta, Saturday, February 3, 2:45 p.m.
She wasn’t dead. Monica couldn’t move again, but she wasn’t dead. Whatever the nurse gave me wore off before. It will wear off again. So stay calm. It’ll wear off.
When it does, what will you do? Will you tell the cops? If you do, they’ll sell Genie.
If I don’t, they might anyway. They won’t let her go. I have to tell.
At least Susannah was back from changing her clothes, sitting in the chair next to her bed, but something was wrong there, too. I always cry at funerals, Susannah had told the woman, the one who’d brought her clothes. The one who kissed my forehead.
Funeral for who? They couldn’t be burying the others yet. It was only yesterday that they’d been killed. Who died? Susannah had left with the other woman, then had returned a few minutes later alone. She’d been quiet. Subdued. So very sad.
Monica tensed. Someone else was here now. “How is she?” a man asked.
It was the agent, the one with the black eyes. Luke. He sounded angry. Upset.
“She woke up for a little while this morning,” Susannah said, “but she slipped back under. I suppose it’s her way of dodging the pain for a while.”
A chair scraped and Monica could feel the warmth from his body. “Did she say anything when she woke up?”
“I wasn’t here.”
“What about yesterday? Did she say anything else?”
“No. She just looked at me like I was God or something.”
“You brought her out of the woods.”
“I didn’t do anything,” Susannah said, and Luke sighed.
“Susannah. You did not cause this.”
“I don’t happen to agree.”
“Talk to me,” he said, frustrated. Like he’d said it before.
“Because… Because I want to know.”
“You want to know what, Agent Papadopoulos?” Susannah’s voice had grown cold.
“Why you think this is your fault.”
“Because I knew,” she said flatly. “I knew and I said nothing.”
“What did you know?” he asked, soothingly.
“I knew Simon was a rapist.”
Simon. Who is Simon? Who did he rape?
“I thought Simon didn’t do any of the rapes, that he only took the pictures.”
There was a beat of silence. “He did at least one.”
Oh, no. Monica now understood. Whoever Simon was, he’d raped Susannah, too.
Luke sucked in a breath. “Did you tell Daniel?”
Who is Daniel?
“No,” Susannah said angrily. “And neither will you. I only know that if I’d said something, this might have been avoided. She might not be here right now.”
Nobody said anything for a long time, but Monica could hear them breathe.
Finally Luke spoke. “I recognized one of the bodies back there yesterday.”
“How?” Susannah asked, surprise in her voice.
“From a case I was working eight months ago. I failed to protect that girl. I failed to bring a sexual sadist that preyed on children to justice. I want another bite at the apple.”
He sounded so very angry. His voice shook.
“Granville’s dead,” Susannah said.
Dead? He’s dead? Hallelujah. He couldn’t hurt Genie.
“But there’s still the other. Someone who’s pulling the strings. Someone who taught Granville how to be very good at his job,” he said bitterly. “I want him. I want to throw him into hell and throw away the key.”
The other. The woman who’d given the doctor the order to kill them. The other had Genie. Monica’s elation fizzled.
“Why are you telling me this?” Susannah asked. There was a note of impatience in her voice, like tell me something I don’t already know.
“Because you want the same thing.”
There was a long pause. “What do you want me to do?”
“I don’t know yet. I’ll call you when I do.” He got up. “Thank you.”
“For not telling Daniel about Simon.”
“Thank you for respecting my decision.”
Then Luke was gone and Susannah sighed heavily.
Yeah, Monica thought helplessly. Tell me about it.
Daniel looked asleep, Luke thought as he stood in the doorway.
“I’m not asleep,” Daniel said, opening his eyes. His voice was raspy, but stronger than Luke had anticipated. “I was wondering when you’d come by.”
Luke’s gaze dropped to the smudges on the shoulder of Daniel’s hospital gown. “You’d think for what you’re paying that you’d at least get a clean gown.”
One side of Daniel’s mouth lifted and Luke saw an uncanny resemblance to Susannah. In no other way did they look alike. “Everything went to hell yesterday.”
“You have no idea. I don’t have much time, but I need some information.”
“Shoot.” Daniel grimaced. “Actually, on second thought, don’t do that.”
Luke chuckled, feeling a little better. “I’m sure glad you didn’t get yourself killed.”
“Me, too,” Daniel said. “But I gotta say you look as bad as I feel.”
“Thank you,” Luke said dryly, then sobered. “You may not have heard the news. Kate Davis was killed this afternoon.”
“Suze told me, but it doesn’t make sense. Kate didn’t seem like the type to start shooting people.”
“I agree, but nothing about this case is the way it seems.”
“Alex told me about the bodies you found and the live girls they took with them. She said Mansfield and Granville were into human trafficking.”
“She’s right. Too much has happened in the last twenty-four. I don’t have time to tell you all of it right now, but, Daniel, we found a file on Mansfield’s computer. Very graphic photos of Granville torturing these girls. The file is called Sweetpea, my ass.”
“Sweetpea is Mansfield. Granville gave him the name and he hated it.”
“That’s what I thought. What do you know about Judge Borenson?”
Daniel looked surprised at the question. “He presided over Gary Fulmore’s murder trial. Frank Loomis’s clerk said he retired and became a hermit up in the mountains.”
“That part I know. What do you remember about him? From when you were young?”
“He sometimes had dinner with us, then he and my father would go into his study and talk until the wee hours of the morning. Why?”
“He’s missing. We found his cabin ransacked, blood everywhere. Last I heard Talia was waiting for cadaver dogs to search for his body.”
Daniel winced. “Hell. They’re all gone, then. Randy Mansfield’s father was the prosecutor on Gary Fulmore’s murder case and he’s dead. The coroner who did the autopsy’s dead. Fulmore’s original defense attorney is dead-that was a suspicious death, by the way. He had a car accident on a dry road in the middle of the day.”
“And now Frank Loomis is dead, too,” Luke said, and Daniel looked haunted.
“I know. I keep seeing him die. He tried to warn me at the last minute. He did something horrible, Luke, falsifying evidence. Gary Fulmore’s spent thirteen years in prison for a crime he didn’t do and for the life of me I can’t figure out why Frank did it.”
“Loomis wasn’t a rich man, so there wasn’t any payoff,” Luke said.
Daniel closed his eyes. “He was the only father I really ever had.”
“Thanks.” His eyes still closed, Daniel frowned. “Fifty-two,” he said, then opened his eyes and Luke saw renewed vitality. “I was seeing the moment Frank died. He’d come to warn me that it was a trap. There was a gunshot and he just slid down my window.”
Luke remembered the bloody streaks on the window. “What’s fifty-two?”
“The boat. I tried to back away, but Mansfield had blocked the road and I crashed and hit my head. For a minute I thought Alex was dead, but she was just stunned. Mansfield made me carry her into the bunker and as we were walking around to the door I saw the boat as it passed. Those numbers were on the bow.”
“There should have been a GA, four numbers, then two letters.”
Daniel closed his eyes, concentrating, then shook his head. “Sorry, I only remember the fifty-two. I only glanced at it. It was moving really fast.”
“And you were seeing stars from the crash. This is the closest we’ve come so far.”
Daniel sagged back against the pillows. “Good.”
“I’ve just got one more and then I’ll go. Does the name Rocky mean anything?”
Daniel pondered, then shook his head again. “I’m sorry, but no. Why?”
“We think that’s the name of Granville’s partner.”
“There are no pictures of the partner in Mansfield’s Sweetpea file?”
“Not that I saw, but there are five hard drives to search, so we might find one.” Luke stood. “Get some rest. That nurse outside looks like she’s going to take off my head.”
“Wait.” Daniel swallowed. “I need you to tell me what’s going on with Susannah.”
“What do you mean?” Luke asked warily.
“Not like that.” His jaw tightened. “Although you make her one of your affairs and we will speak, and not kindly.”
“Relax, Daniel. Susannah’s made it clear she’s not interested.” Crystal clear.
“But you are?”
Luke considered, then decided he’d been friends with Daniel too long to lie. “I was from the moment I saw her at your parents’ funeral, but not in the way you think.”
“So not as a time-passer?” Daniel asked, very seriously.
“No. She’s been through too much.”
Daniel swallowed. “I know. She told me.”
Luke’s eyes widened. “She did? When?”
Daniel lightly touched the brown stain on his hospital gown. “Before you got here. She told me about her friend Darcy and everything else.”
No, my friend, Luke thought sadly. Not everything. Susannah would not tell Daniel that Simon had brutalized her. “She’s strong, Daniel.”
“Nobody’s that strong. But I know there was more. More she didn’t tell me.” His eyes narrowed. “You know.”
“She’s safe. At this point, that’s all I can tell you.”
“Because you don’t know or because you won’t tell me?”
Luke stood up. “Don’t push it, Daniel, please. Just know that I’m watching over her.”
“Thank you.” His eyes moved and a smile bent his lips. “Mama Papa. You came.”
Luke’s mama came in, her arms opened wide. “I just hear from that nurse that you are awake.” She arched an eyebrow at Luke. “Some people tell their mamas nothing.”
Daniel closed his eyes as Mama hugged him, and the look on his face was one of a man finally warm after months of winter. Luke remembered the yearning in Susannah’s voice as she insisted Jane Doe’s mother loved her and his heart hurt.
“Did you drive yourself, Mama?” Daniel asked, teasing reproach in his tone.
“No.” Mama sat in the chair, her huge purse in her lap. “Leo drove me.” She looked up at Luke with a frown. “Your refrigerator was disgusting, Luka.”
Luke’s lips twitched. Obviously Leo had called in the Special Forces to deal with his kitchen. “I know. Did you clean it?”
“I did. And stocked it with food.” Her frown became a sly look. “So if you bring home any visitors, she will not think you a pig.”
Luke’s smile faded. He knew what she insinuated and he knew it was unlikely to ever occur. “Thanks, Mama.” He kissed the top of her head. “I’ll see you later.”
Atlanta, Saturday, February 3, 3:30 p.m.
“I hate that this girl’s parents are going to see her this way,” Felicity said fiercely.
Luke forced himself to look at Kasey Knight’s grotesquely gaunt face. Her cheekbones were razor sharp, nearly protruding through her skin. A bullet hole was centered in her forehead. “They insisted. She’s been missing two years. It’s closure.”
“Then let’s get this over with,” she snapped, but he took no offense because her eyes were bright with unshed tears. “Go get the parents.”
In the lobby both parents sprang to their feet. “We’ve been waiting, dreading this call for two years.” Mr. Knight’s throat worked as he gripped his wife’s hand. “We need to know what happened to our daughter.”
Mrs. Knight was dangerously pale. “Please,” she whispered. “Take us to her.”
“This way.” Luke led them back to the viewing room. It was decorated in warm colors and comfortable furniture, small details aimed at easing the ordeal of grieving relatives. “Does your wife need a doctor?” Luke murmured as Mrs. Knight sank onto the sofa, her body trembling. She looked as though she might pass out any minute.
Mr. Knight shook his head. “No,” he said hoarsely. “We just need this to be over.”
Luke wanted to prepare them, but knew there was no preparation for what they were about to endure. “This girl doesn’t look like the picture of Kasey you gave the police.”
“It’s been two years. Kids change.”
“It’s… more than that. She only weighs about eighty pounds, but her height is five-eight, the same as your daughter was when she disappeared.”
Mrs. Knight stiffened. “Kasey weighed one-thirty.”
“I know, ma’am,” Luke said gently, and he could see they understood.
Mr. Knight swallowed audibly. “Was she sexually…” His voice broke.
“Yes.” Multiple times, but Luke didn’t say that. These parents were in enough pain.
“Agent Papadopoulos,” Mr. Knight asked hoarsely, “what did they do to my baby?”
Vile, unspeakable things. But Luke didn’t say that either. “You’ve asked to see her face and the ME will comply with your wishes, but please, focus on other parts of her body. Her hands, her feet, any birthmarks or scars.” He knew the waiting was making it worse, so he tapped the intercom button. “We’re ready, Dr. Berg.”
From the other side of the glass, Felicity opened the curtains. Mr. Knight’s eyes were tightly closed. “Mr. Knight,” Luke said softly. “We’re ready when you are.”
Clenching his teeth, Knight opened his eyes, and the strangled whimper that emerged from his throat broke Luke’s heart. Felicity had covered the torso with a smaller sheet, affording the victim as much decency as she could. And sparing the parents as much pain as she could.
“Oh, Kasey,” Knight whispered. “Baby. Why didn’t you listen to us?”
“How do you know this is your daughter, sir?”
Knight barely breathed. “There’s a scar on her knee from when she fell off a bike. And her middle toe was longer than the others. She had a mole on her left foot, too.”
Luke nodded to Felicity and she pulled the curtains. Mr. Knight knelt so that he met his wife’s eyes. Tears were running down her face. “It’s Kasey.” He uttered the words on a moan and she leaned forward, wrapping her arms around him. Her silent tears became anguished sobs and she slid from the sofa to kneel with her husband. Her sobs became his and together they rocked, leaning on each other through their pain.
“I’ll wait in the hall,” Luke said roughly. The Knights reminded him of his own parents. Married nearly forty years, they were each other’s bulwark, able to withstand every crisis that had come their way. Luke loved them fiercely, but at the same time envied them. Now, listening to the muted sounds of suffering coming from inside the viewing room, Luke pitied the Knights, but envied them as well. In all the world, Luke had never found a woman he trusted enough to allow her to see him like that, defenses down, soul bared. He’d never met a woman who he thought would understand.
Until Susannah. And she doesn’t want anyone. No, that wasn’t true. She didn’t trust anyone. No, that wasn’t true, either. She’d trusted him today, came to him when she was afraid. Leaned on him in the cemetery.
Susannah didn’t trust herself. He listened to the sobs behind him and thought about the brown smudges on Daniel’s hospital gown. Susannah’s makeup. It was a good sign.
The sobs behind the closed door quieted, the door opened, and Mr. Knight cleared his throat. “We’re ready to talk to you now, Agent Papadopoulos.”
Mrs. Knight looked up, her face ravaged. “Have you caught the man that did this?”
“Not all of them.”
Both Knights flinched. “There was more than one?” Mr. Knight asked, horrified.
Luke thought of the Sweetpea pictures. “We know of two. They’re both dead.”
“Did they suffer?” Mrs. Knight demanded, her teeth clenched.
“Not enough,” Luke replied. “We’re still looking for the third man.”
“You have a lot of agents on this case?” Knight asked.
“More than a dozen agents, which doesn’t count all the support personnel answering the tip hotlines. Now, if you don’t mind, I have a few questions for you.”
The Knights sat up straighter. “Of course,” Mr. Knight said. “We’re ready.”
“Was Kasey involved in any relationships that worried you? Boys, school friends?”
Mrs. Knight sighed. “The police asked us this then. She had a group of girls she’d been friends with since the fourth grade. The night she disappeared she’d gone to a sleepover. The girls said they went to sleep and when they woke up she wasn’t there.”
“The police were suspicious,” Mr. Knight said wearily. “But the police couldn’t get any of the girls to tell them what happened.”
“Give me the girls’ names.”
“Are you going to make them tell?” Mrs. Knight asked, her voice thinning.
“I’m going to talk to them,” Luke said. “Here’s my card. If you have any questions, do not hesitate to call me. And I’ll call you as soon as we know more.”
Mr. Knight stood, his expression drawn. “We want to thank you. At least we can bury our child.” He helped his wife to her feet and she leaned against him.
“We need to confirm your identification. Did you bring the articles that I requested?”
Mrs. Knight nodded shakily. “Kasey’s things are in the car.”
“Then I’ll walk with you.” Luke did so, and waited while Mr. Knight opened his trunk. “I know it doesn’t help, but I am so very sorry.”
“It does help,” Mrs. Knight whispered. “You care. You’ll find him, the one that did this to our Kasey, the one that still walks free. Won’t you?” she added fiercely.
“I will.” Clutching their daughter’s belongings in the shoebox in his hand, Luke watched them drive away. He thought of the four unidentified bodies in the morgue, of the five girls still out there, of Jane Doe lying in a hospital bed. I must.
Dutton, Saturday, February 3, 3:45 p.m.
Charles glared at the telephone when it rang for the tenth time in an hour. Damn reporters. Every one of them wanted a new angle on the shootings of Kate Davis and Gretchen French. As if he’d toss them even a crumb. Not.
This call he’d answer, he thought when he saw the caller ID. “Paul, where are you?”
“In Raleigh. Bobby’s out of control. Just thought you should know.”
There was a sharp edge to Paul’s voice. “What’s in Raleigh?” Charles asked.
“The father of the girl that escaped from the bunker. Rocky kidnapped the girl’s sister and made it look like the sister had run here, to her daddy.”
“So Bobby’s cleaning up Rocky’s mistakes. That shows responsibility.”
“It shows loss of control,” Paul snapped. “Dr. Cassidy didn’t have to die.”
“I’ll go down to Ridgefield House and have a little talk with Bobby.”
“Good, because I’m sick and tired of fetching for your star pupil. Bobby thinks I work for money. I came this close to saying I only work for you. That you set this whole thing up. That I only pretend to be Bobby’s errand boy because you told me to. I’m tired of this, Charles. I mean it.”
Paul had always gotten snide when he was tired, ever since he’d been a boy. “You’re not my pupil, Paul. You’re my right hand, so relax. Get a hotel and take a nap. Call me when you’re back in Atlanta.”
“Fine, just yank Bobby back into line, will you?”
“I certainly will.” He paused meaningfully. “Thank you, Paul.”
Paul sighed. “You’re welcome, sir. I’m sorry I was rude.”
“Apology accepted. Get some rest.” Charles hung up, doubly annoyed. First Bobby missed Susannah Vartanian, and from only twenty feet away. And now, wasting resources like Paul. I taught you better than that. It was time for a refresher course.
Atlanta, Saturday, February 3, 4:00 p.m.
One of Monica’s eyelids was open. It was a strange sensation, being able to see the ceiling through only one eye. Her nurse came in and Monica wanted to scream.
The nurse had another syringe in her hand. Her eyes were no longer red and swollen, but she was tense. The nurse brushed her eyelid closed. “I’m not going to kill you,” she murmured close to her ear. “But I can’t take a chance on you saying anything to the police until my son is out of danger. This should be the last one.”
Monica felt the warmth of the nurse’s body as she bent low again, whispering in her ear. “When this one wears off, I’ll be gone. Do not trust anyone. Believe me. There is someone else in this hospital that works for the people who hurt you. Yesterday they tried to kill one of the others that escaped from the bunker. The man.”
Beardsley. He’d helped them escape from the bunker. Bailey had told her so, when they’d been in the woods. Monica had heard the nurses talking during the day. He’d been rushed into ICU during the night, but was lucky. They’d saved him and he was sent back to a regular room. With a guard.
“As soon as you’re out of ICU, you’ll be vulnerable,” the nurse continued. “I’ve tried to keep you alive as long as I could. But my son is in danger. I’m sorry, but I can’t help you anymore. I think you can trust Susannah and Nurse Ella. Now I have to go.”
Raleigh, North Carolina, Saturday, February 3, 4:15 p.m.
Special Agent Harry Grimes looked around the Raleigh office of the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation fondly. He’d been transferred to the Charlotte office the year before and missed the staff, especially his boss, who’d taught Harry so much.
His old boss was at a new desk, having been recently promoted to special agent in charge. Harry knocked and an instant grin lit Steven Thatcher’s face.
“Harry Grimes. How the hell are you? Come in, come in.”
“Hope I’m not interrupting,” Harry said as Steven came around the desk, hand outstretched in welcome.
“No, no.” Steven grimaced. “Just paperwork.”
“Comes with the new desk, huh?”
“Yeah, but I’m home more and Jenna likes that, especially with another baby on the way.” Steven pointed to a chair. “How’s Charlotte?”
Harry sat down. “Great. Not here, but still great.”
Steven studied his face. “You’re not here on a social call, are you?”
“I wish. I got a call this morning from a frantic mother. Her fourteen-year-old daughter went missing from her bed in the night.”
Steven grew serious. “Like, abducted, or left?”
“No sign of forced entry. The locals started out calling her a runaway.”
“But they’re not now?”
“No. And the confrontation wasn’t initially smooth, but they’re on board now.”
“So bring me up to speed and tell me how I can help.”
“This girl’s older sister went missing six months ago. She’s listed in the NCMEC database as an ‘endangered runaway.’ ” He handed Steven a photo from his briefcase.
“Beatrice Monica Cassidy,” Steven read.
“She goes by Monica. She had what her mother considered a normal relationship. They fought about clothes and curfews and school. Then one day six months ago Monica tells Mom she’s going to visit a friend and doesn’t come home. The friend eventually confessed Monica had asked her to lie, that she was meeting a boy. By then the trail was cold. Monica was gone. Her mother insists she wouldn’t have run away.”
“Parents normally do,” Steven said quietly.
“I know. Apparently Monica had been spending a lot of time on the computer.”
“Let me guess. Chat rooms and IM?”
“Of course. Mom couldn’t bring back any of Monica’s conversations, which is where I came in. The principal of Monica’s school asked me to do a presentation for the PTO on software that can track chat room and instant message conversations. If parents install it right, the kids never know it’s there. I had a rep from the local computer store there as I always do, so that parents can buy the software that night.”
“Smart, Harry. So many times parents plan to, and life gets in the way.”
“Exactly. Mrs. Cassidy was there that night and bought a package because she has a younger daughter, Eugenie Marie. Goes by Genie.”
“And as of this morning, Genie is missing.”
“Mrs. Cassidy called all her friends, then the police. They came, took a report. Then the mom got online and read Genie’s conversations. She’s been communicating with someone named Jason through her IM account. He claims to be a college boy.”
“You think a pedophile took her?”
“Yeah, I do. Monica’s friends said she’d met a college boy online-named Jason.”
Steven blinked. “That’s quite a coincidence.”
“That’s what I thought.”
“Did Genie’s chat log show if she planned to meet this Jason, and where?”
“No, there were no communications yesterday or today, but there are going to be gaps in the log when kids use their cell phones to text. The software only tracks the chats and IMs on the computer itself. I felt so sorry for this woman, Steven, so I went to the bus station and asked around. They said a kid wearing a hoodie from Genie’s high school bought a bus ticket to Raleigh in the middle of the night, so here I am.”
“So how did you get this case, Harry?” Steven asked cautiously.
Harry’s smile was wry. “I’m not being a cowboy, Steven. I’m officially assigned to this case. Mrs. Cassidy lives in a rural area, about thirty miles from Charlotte. The local force is small and asked us to take it after Mrs. Cassidy showed them the Jason parallel. My boss put me on the case since I’d done some of the groundwork.”
“So why Raleigh?”
“Her dad lives here. Dad didn’t answer my phone calls, so I made the trip. Dad isn’t home, and his car is gone.”
“Maybe he’s just not home, Harry.”
“He’s a doctor. Didn’t show up for his shift today and the hospital staff say that’s never happened before. He’s reliable to the point of being obsessive.”
“You get a warrant for his house?”
“Being signed as we speak. You wanna come with?”
Steven nodded grimly. “Let me get my coat.”
Ridgefield House, Saturday, February 3, 4:55 p.m.
“Where’s Tanner?” Charles asked as Bobby took his coat.
On his way back from Savannah, Bobby thought, but Charles had no need to know that. “Assisting me.” Bobby sat behind the desk without additional explanation. “Well?”
Charles followed, settling himself in a chair. “You could have been caught.”
Bobby smiled. “I know. That’s what made it fun.”
“Where did you get that godawful dress?”
“My grandmother’s. You said I was acting like an old woman, so I dressed like one.”
“But you missed,” he said, and Bobby lifted a brow.
“Au contraire. I never miss. I was taught to shoot by a U.S. Army sniper, you know.”
“Yes, I know,” Charles said irritably. “I was there for every excruciating lesson.”
“So you of all people know my skill. I hit what I aimed at.”
Charles looked perplexed. “You intended to hit Gretchen French?”
“That’s who that was?” Bobby laughed softly. “That makes it even better.”
“You didn’t know?” he asked, incredulous.
“Nope. I planned to hit whoever was standing closest to Susannah Vartanian the moment Rocky pulled the trigger. I’d kind of hoped to get Agent Papadopoulos, but Gretchen French is even better, under the circumstances.”
“So what happened to the shot Rocky fired?”
“A blank. I didn’t want her to hit anything. The girl was a lousy shot anyway. But I wanted her to believe she had. I wanted her to think she was killing Susannah Vartanian. And she pulled the trigger. She died knowing she’d obeyed me.”
“She died thinking she’d missed.”
“Better still. She obeyed me, yet still she failed. She deserved no less.”
“Very good,” he said, sounding reluctantly pleased. “So what will you do next? I mean about Susannah Vartanian.”
“I’ll deal with her a little at a time. When I’m finished with her, she’ll be more alone than I ever was. She’ll be afraid to stand next to a tree stump, afraid it’ll be blown to bits. When I finally decide to kill her, she’ll beg me to do it quickly.”
“So when will you strike again?”
Bobby thought about the call from the GBI mole that had come through minutes before Charles arrived. The mole’s report had been infuriating, but Bobby had decided to make lemonade from the lemon. And Charles could provide the sweetener.
“In about an hour. I’d like to borrow your car. The black one with the Darcy plates.”
“What do you plan to do?”
“I plan to teach a recalcitrant employee a lesson. The nurse called GBI on me.”
“So you’re still cleaning up Rocky’s messes?”
Bobby frowned at his disapproving tone. “What do you mean?”
“You have a lot of loose ends to snip. But there are other ways to do so. So much murder at once is a neon light. I taught you better than that.”
“I know. Power in invisibility. But this is a twofer. I send a message that it’s unwise to disobey me and I strike at Susannah Vartanian again. You’ll see. Trust me.”
Charles considered it. “In that case, yes, you may borrow my car.”
Atlanta, Saturday, February 3, 4:55 p.m.
“Luke, wake up. Wake up.”
Luke’s head jerked up. He’d fallen asleep at his desk. “God,” he muttered.
Leigh stood next to him, a worried look on her face. “It’s almost five. The team’s starting to gather in the conference room.” She handed him a cup of coffee. “High test.”
He gulped half of it down. “Thanks, Leigh. Anything happen while I was asleep?”
“Nope. The calls from last night are starting to taper off. Nothing relevant, not yet.”
“You get any hits on that boat registration number Daniel remembered?”
“Couple hundred. But I narrowed it down based on the boat only having room to carry five girls.” She handed him a piece of paper. “I just finished it. Here’s the list.”
“Good work, Leigh. I really appreciate all the time you’ve put in this weekend. Hopefully it’ll be over soon.” Luke scrubbed his face, his beard scraping his palms. “I have to shave. Maybe that’ll help me feel human. Tell Chase I’ll be there in five.”
Five minutes later he slumped into a chair between Chase and Ed and looked around the table. Pete and Nancy were there, as were Chloe and Nate. Talia Scott was back from the Ellijay cabin, and she and psychologist Mary McCrady looked fresher than the rest of them. “We ready to start, Chase?” he asked.
“Yep. Germanio is still hunting for Helen Granville, so we’re just waiting for you.”
Luke straightened in his chair. “We have an ID on Kasey Knight, one of the homicides, and we may have an ID on one of the missing girls, Ashley Csorka. Her dad’s on his way from Florida with DNA samples.”
“I’ll put a rush on the urine samples we took from the mattresses in the bunker,” Ed said. “I’ll start PCR on the samples he brings. We’ll have an ID by tomorrow this time.”
“Good,” Chase said. “What else?”
“Daniel saw part of the registration number on the boat as it pulled away,” Luke said. “Leigh’s narrowed possible owners down to a couple dozen.”
Chase took the list. “We’ll check it out. Anything else?”
“Just what Nate and I found.” He gestured to Nate.
“We found catalogs with girls for sale-the company is Fine Young American Flesh and its logo is the swastika,” Nate said. “I was able to match photos of three of the five homicides. Kasey Knight wasn’t in any of the catalogs.”
“How many did you end up finding?” Luke asked.
“Just the three I’d found when you came by. Why?”
“Because Kasey was missing for two years. At three quarterlies, the catalogs only go back a year or so.”
“So?” Chase asked.
“So Kasey wasn’t part of the Fine Young Flesh business,” Nate said. “But she was still in the bunker.”
“Just another piece of the puzzle,” Luke said, and Chase sighed.
“This puzzle is like one of those round ones that’s all yellow,” he grumbled. “Can we trace any of the pictures on Mansfield’s hard drives?”
“We’ve got a third of ICAC working on it,” Nate said, “but twenty-five hundred gig is a lot of photos.”
“The ones I’m most interested in are the ones Mansfield took on the sly,” Luke said. “They’re not staged, so they’re more likely to yield something useful.”
Nate nodded. “But they’re grainy, so it’s slow going. If you don’t need me for anything else, I’ll get back to it.”
“Ed?” Chase asked, when Nate had closed the door behind him.
“Oh, lots of good stuff,” Ed said, “to mystify and confuse.” He put two plastic bags on the table, each containing a gun. “This one,” he said, tapping a revolver, “was found in Kate’s hand. The other one was found in the grass.” He got up and drew a triangle on the whiteboard. “Kate was standing here, at the top of the triangle. This,” he pointed to the point that jutted out to the left side, “was where we found the second gun. It’s a semiauto with a silencer. This point at the bottom is where Ms. French was standing.”
“What comes next is my favorite part,” Chase said sarcastically.
“We found the slug that went through Gretchen’s arm over here.” Ed pointed to an area outside the triangle, to the far right. “You guys keepin’ up?”
Luke frowned. “How is that possible? Unless it ricocheted, there’s no way it could have come from Kate’s gun.”
“Because the bullet that hit Gretchen French didn’t come from Kate’s gun. It came from here.” Ed pointed to where they had found the semiautomatic.
“So the semi shot Gretchen?” Nancy asked.
“No,” Ed said. “There were three guns-Kate’s, the semiauto, and a third gun that we didn’t recover. The third gun shot Gretchen and the semiauto shot Kate, but Kate Davis didn’t shoot anybody.”
Pete shook his head. “I have a headache now.”
“Join the club,” Chase said. “Ballistics says the shot Kate fired was likely a blank.”
Chloe blinked. “Why?”
“So who shot Gretchen?” Talia Scott asked.
“Nobody knows yet,” Ed said. “We’re going through the video of that area, but there were people running around everywhere after the first shot was fired.”
“So if Kate didn’t shoot Gretchen,” Luke said, “what did she mean by ‘I missed’?”
“We did get a good angle on Kate with our surveillance video,” Ed said. “When we realized she’d shot a blank, we went back and looked at the video again. She wasn’t aiming for Gretchen or Susannah. She was aiming over here.” He pointed to the area where the semiautomatic had been found. “She was aiming for whoever shot her.”
“And if that’s not interesting enough, there’s one more thing.” Chase slid a photo across the table. “Kate’s autopsy photo.”
Everyone drew a breath.
“She has the swastika brand,” Chase said. “Hell.”
“I think we need to get some more information on Kate Davis,” Luke said. “It’s time for another visit to Mayor Garth. Will you come with me, Chloe?”
“Of course. Do we have any information on his wife?”
“The BOLO on her Chrysler minivan isn’t showing up anything,” Pete said, “but she’s on the move. I’ve got her cell phone records right here. She’s called Kate Davis’s cell phone a couple times a day since she left on Thursday. She’s headed west. Today she was in Reno. The last call to Kate’s phone was at two p.m. today. Lasted five minutes.”
Luke frowned. “Two p.m.? Kate was already dead by two p.m. today.”
“I know,” Pete said. “Did they find a cell phone on Kate’s body?”
“No,” Chase said. “But somebody answered the call, or the voicemail would have picked up. Let’s get that phone account transferred to one of ours. Chloe, can you make that happen?”
“Yeah, but it’ll take some time. I think I know a judge that’ll help me speed it up.”
“Thanks,” Chase said. “Pete, does Garth’s wife have family out west?”
“No. She has an aunt who lived in Dutton, but whose neighbors say moved away after she married Garth. Nobody has a forwarding address on the aunt. I’m still searching.”
“Did you talk to Angie Delacroix?” Luke asked. “The hairdresser? Susannah says she knows everything that goes on in the town.”
“No, but I will.” Pete ran a hand over his bald head, trying for levity. “I need a trim.”
Everyone smiled, but sadly.
“I checked Mrs. Davis’s credit cards,” Pete went on. “I found activity in all the places she’s called from. I called the local police in the towns where she stopped. They’re sending me security tapes from the places the credit cards were used. At least we can try to find out if she’s driving a different vehicle. Whoever has Kate’s phone might have told her Kate’s dead. I’m betting that will make her go even deeper under.”
“Maybe the hairdresser will know who else she’s calling,” Chase said. “Nancy?”
“I’ve searched all day for Chili Pepper, the arsonist,” Nancy said. “His parents say they haven’t seen him in years because he’s a no- account SOB of a son. The neighbors back up the parents. I found his girlfriend’s house and she denies knowledge of his arson activities. She says he’s nicknamed Chili because he’s hot in bed.” She grimaced. “Which is really gross, trust me.”
“Lovely individual,” Chloe said. “Anything he can’t do without, any addictions?”
“Yeah. I found syringes in his girlfriend’s house. I asked to use the bathroom and snuck a peek in her medicine cabinet. I know,” Nancy said when Chloe looked indignant. “I saw a bottle of insulin with Clive Pepper’s name on it.”
“Girlfriend’s name?” Chloe asked, shaking her head.
“Lulu Jenkins,” Nancy said. “I didn’t touch anything.”
“Yeah,” Chloe said, annoyed, “but if we find him, it’s fruit of an unlawful search.”
“Who’s gonna tell him?” Nancy asked, exasperated. “You?”
Chloe turned to Chase, glowering. “Your people are going to get me sanctioned.”
“Calm down. Nancy, don’t do that again. Chloe, Nancy’s not gonna do that again.”
“So he’s a diabetic,” Luke said. “He has to come up for insulin soon.”
“Excellent,” Chase said. “Ed, did you get that scan of the bunker property?”
Becky, Luke thought. The name Beardsley heard as someone was being buried.
“No. They were supposed to come at three and I was busy with the cemetery crime scene then,” Ed said. “Sorry, Chase. It’s dark now, so we’ll start at daybreak tomorrow.”
“I got us some help,” Chase announced. “Four new agents.”
“When do they start?” Luke asked.
“A few have already started. One of them located Isaac Gamble, the nurse whose tracking badge was closest to Beardsley last night when his IV was tampered with. Gamble said he went to a bar, and the bartender and the security video alibi him.”
“So somebody else tried to kill Beardsley,” Pete said.
“Looks like. I’ve got two of the new agents viewing the video we took at the cemetery, trying to find who fired.”
Psychologist Mary McCrady leaned forward. “And why he dropped his gun?”
“He made a mistake,” Ed said, “or he didn’t want to be caught with it.”
Mary shrugged. “You could be right. But if you think about the coordination involved to have pulled this off… If Kate Davis fired a blank, the shooter had to wait for the exact moment of the shot to shoot Gretchen French. And he’d have to know in advance that Kate planned to shoot. That doesn’t seem like someone who’d drop a gun by mistake. I think he wanted you to find it.”
“Mind games,” Luke said. “He’s playing with us.”
“I think so,” Mary said. “Did Kate Davis know her gun had blanks?”
“Not blanks,” Ed said. “Just one blank. The rest of the chambers had live shells.”
“Round puzzle, all yellow,” Chase said. “You’re right, Mary. If Kate intended to hurt Gretchen before she could go public about the rapes, then she wouldn’t have had any blanks. If she’d planned just to scare her, she would have had all blanks. And if she was aiming for someone else, we’re missing a yellow puzzle piece.”
“Whoever she was aiming at knew Kate would be coming to the cemetery with a gun,” Luke said. “Someone was very prepared.”
There was a knock on the door and Leigh stuck her head in. “Chase, Germanio’s on the phone from Savannah. He says it’s urgent.”
Chase put him on the speaker phone. “Hank, we’re all here. What’s going on?”
“I found Helen Granville,” Germanio said. “She’s dead.”
Chase closed his eyes. “How?”
“Hung herself. I found her sister’s house, but there were police already here. The sister found Mrs. Granville swinging from a rafter in the bedroom.”
“Did you call our ME in the Savannah field office?” Chase asked.
“He’s on his way. Helen Granville’s sister said she arrived here last night and was very frightened. The sister had to work today. When she came home, Helen was dead.”
“Did she say Granville’s wife seemed suicidal?” Luke asked.
“No, just ‘very frightened.’ The sister is pretty shaken up. I may be able to get more out of her when she calms down.”
“Keep me updated.” Chase ended the call and sighed. “Very, very bad day. Let’s finish this meeting. We all need to sleep. Talia, what did you find up in Ellijay?”
“The dogs never picked up the scent. Borenson might have been taken away in a car.” She looked at Luke. “Crime lab found nothing on the ugly bulldog. You want her?”
“Me?” Luke said. “Why me?”
“Because she’s going to a shelter otherwise. I’d take her, but I already have four dogs and my roommate says we can’t have any more.”
“I gave Daniel my last dog,” Luke said. “I can’t take another one.”
She shrugged. “She’s a nice dog. I hope somebody’ll want her at the shelter.”
Nobody moved and Luke sighed. “I’ll take the damn dog.”
Talia smiled. “I knew you would.”
“But you have to come down to Poplar Bluff with me tomorrow,” Luke said. “I have to interview teenaged girls who wouldn’t discuss the circumstances of Kasey Knight’s disappearance two years ago. You’re better talking to girls than I am.”
“Okay,” Talia said. “I’ll go, but you have to bring me some of your mama’s food.”
“Wait,” Nancy said. “Did you say Poplar Bluff?”
“Yeah,” Luke said. “It’s about two hours south of here.”
Nancy took a list from her pocket. “And one of the places Mansfield had mapped.”
Chase leaned forward. “What else is on that list?”
Nancy looked up. “Panama City, Florida,” she said.
“Ashley Csorka,” Luke murmured, and Nancy nodded.
“This is Mansfield’s hit list,” she said. “This is where he went to grab the girls.”
“We can match against last knowns in the missing kids database,” Luke said, energized. “And to pictures in the catalog. This list is gold.”
“We need to know if Mansfield grabbed them or lured them,” Talia said, “and if he lured them, then how? Once we know how they’re being taken, we may be able to track them to Rocky.”
“And find the missing girls,” Luke said.
“Good work, people,” Chase said. “Let’s go get some rest. I’ll get the stenos to work on matching this list to the missing kids database during the night. Once we know names, we can begin informing parents. Be back here tomorrow at eight a.m.”
Everyone had risen when Leigh opened the door again, her expression pinched. “A call came in on the hotline, for Luke. A woman claims to have info on the girl in ICU.”
Luke jerked around to look at Chase. “We never released her existence to the press. Is she still on the hotline, Leigh?”
“No. She wants to meet you in front of the ER in twenty minutes. Alone.”
“I’ll go now, but the Csorka girl’s father’s supposed to be here at six.”
“I’ll stay,” Talia said. “I’ll talk with him and get his daughter’s DNA sample to the lab.”
“Thanks,” Chase said. “The rest of you get some sleep. I’ll call if anything happens.”
Raleigh, North Carolina, Saturday, February 3, 5:45 p.m
Harry Grimes crouched next to a stain on Dr. Cassidy’s garage floor. “It’s blood.”
Steven turned to the elderly neighbor. “What time did his car leave, ma’am?”
“About noon. The doctor always stops and asks me how I am. He didn’t today. I thought he was preoccupied.” She wrung her hands. “I should have called the police.”
Harry stood up. “Did it look like the doctor driving?”
“I don’t know. I don’t see so well these days. I’m so sorry.”
“Thank you, ma’am. You’ve been a big help.” When she was gone, Harry met Steven’s eyes. “Nobody remembers seeing Genie Cassidy on that bus.”
“Steven, Harry.” A crime lab tech motioned to them. “Kent has something.”
Kent Thompson, CSU, was sitting at the doctor’s computer. “The doctor got an e-mail from Genie around eleven this morning, saying she was at the bus station and would he pick her up. He says he will and that he’s got their plane tickets for Toronto.”
“He was going to take her out of the country?” Steven asked.
“That’s what we’re supposed to think. Look at the envelope info on the two e-mails.”
Harry did and immediately saw Kent’s point. “Both e-mails were sent over the same wireless router,” he said. “The router here, in this house.”
“So whoever sent the e-mail was in this house,” Steven said.
“Exactly,” Kent said. “Genie’s message might have been sent from a PDA or a laptop. Either way, Genie was not at the bus station when she sent it.”
Harry nodded. “I’ll get out an Amber alert.”
Atlanta, Saturday, February 3, 6:05 p.m.
“Miss Vartanian, wake up.”
Susannah woke with a start. She’d fallen asleep in the chair next to M. Jane Doe’s bed. She blinked up into the face of Ella, Jane Doe’s night nurse. “What time is it?”
“A little after six. You have a call at the nurses’ station. It’s the GBI office.”
Susannah blinked. “Why are you here if it’s only six? Where’s Jennifer?”
“Jennifer got sick and had to leave, so I came in early. Your caller is waiting.”
Susannah took the phone from a nurse at the desk. “This is Susannah Vartanian.”
“This is Brianna Bromley, one of the GBI stenos. I have a message from Agent Papadopoulos. He wants you to meet him at the entrance of the ER. It’s urgent.”
Her heart began to pound harder. “When?”
“He gave me the message fifteen minutes ago. He should be there any minute.”
“Thank you.” Susannah ran, shivering when the cold air hit her face. She searched for Luke’s car, but instead saw a familiar face. “Jennifer? Ella said you were sick.”
The day nurse’s eyes were red, her face pasty. “I’m waiting for my ride.”
“You don’t look well. Have you been waiting long?”
Jennifer’s jaw tightened. “He’s an hour late.”
“How rude.” Just then a car entered her peripheral vision, headlights momentarily blinding her. She was blinking from the glare when it hit her that the car was black with its dark tinted windows up. As it approached, the passenger side window began to glide down and too late Susannah saw the glint of metal.
“Down!” she shouted, dragging the nurse to the ground. She heard the shot splinter the air, her head jerking up to see the car’s license plate as it peeled away. DRC119.
Horrified, she stared after it until a gurgling sound made her look down.
“Oh shit, oh shit.” Susannah dragged in a ragged breath, her eyes now locked on the red rapidly spreading on the nurse’s scrubs. “Jennifer. Jennifer. Somebody help.”
Jennifer Ohman’s eyes fluttered open. “Bobby,” she said. “It was Bobby.”
Footsteps smacked on the pavement around them and Susannah leaned closer to the wounded woman. “Bobby who?”
Behind her, tires screeched and a door slammed. “Oh my God.”
It was Luke, but Susannah kept her eyes on the nurse’s face. “Who is Bobby?”
“Move, lady,” one of the medics snapped.
Luke lifted her to her feet, his eyes anxiously examining her. “Are you hurt?”
“No.” Then she was crushed against him, his arms around her, tight and strong. His heart thundered under her ear. She gripped the lapels of his suit and hung on, pressing her cheek against his chest. He was solid. But he was shaking.
“I heard the shot. I saw you go down.” His voice was gruff, breathless. “Are you sure you’re not hit?”
She shook her head, wanting to stay where she was, safe, but she needed to tell him. Struggling for calm, she tugged on his lapels until his arms loosened. But he didn’t let go. She met those black eyes, once again her anchor. “She said ‘It was Bobby.’ ”
He frowned, confused. “Who’s Bobby?”
“I don’t know, but she said the name twice. ‘Bobby. It was Bobby.’ ”
His hands moved from her back to grip her upper arms. “Can you stand?”
“Yes.” She forced her hands to release his lapels. “I’ll be all right.”
He leaned over the gurney. “Jennifer. Who is Bobby? What about the girl?”
“You have to move, now,” the doctor commanded. Luke followed them into the ER.
DRC119. “Luke, wait. Luke.” Susannah started after him, but stumbled, still dazed.
“Susannah.” Chase was suddenly there, holding her up. “What happened?”
“I was just… standing here next to Jane Doe’s nurse. She was waiting for her ride and the car came. It was the black car, Chase. DRC119.” She pursed her lips, trying not to hyperventilate. “I tried to push her out of the way, but I was too late.”
“Sshh. Just wait.” Chase radioed for all available units to search for the black car. Then he led her into the ER as Luke came out of the patient care bay, his face grim.
“Jennifer Ohman’s dead,” he said.
Susannah had to fight to breathe. “She was standing next to me. She’s dead because of me. Gretchen was standing next to me. Oh God. Oh God.”
Luke took her cold hands in his warm ones, steadying her. “Susannah, take a deep breath and tell me exactly what happened.”
“It was the black car. It drove by, the window came down and I saw the gun. I tried to push her out of the way, then I heard the shot. I saw the license plate as they drove away. DRC119.”
“The same black car that followed you this morning?” Luke asked.
“You’re sure, Susannah?” Chase added.
She glared at them both. “Dead sure.”
“I’m sorry,” Luke said. “I didn’t mean to doubt you.”
Her legs felt like rubber. “It’s damn hard for me to believe, and I was there.”
“Why were you there?” Luke asked.
She blinked up at him. “Because you asked me to come down and meet you.”
The two men shared a look and Susannah felt a new shiver race down her spine. “You… didn’t ask me to come down and meet you?”
“Who called you?” Luke asked, very quietly.
“It was a woman. Her name sounded singsong. Brianna Bromley, that’s it. She said she was a stenographer in your office and that you’d asked her to call me.”
“I didn’t ask anyone to call you,” Luke said.
“And we don’t have any stenos named Brianna Bromley,” Chase added grimly.
Susannah’s heart had gone from racing to a slow, painful thud. “So I was lured.”
“I’ll trace the call,” Chase said. “Luke, did the nurse say anything before she died?”
“Only what she said to Susannah.”
“ ‘Bobby,’ ” Susannah quoted. “ ‘It was Bobby.’ Luke, if you didn’t call me, what are you doing here?”
“I got a call on the hotline from a woman saying she knew information about Jane Doe. It must have been the nurse.”
“But… If Jennifer called you, then who called me? And why?”
“We now know two names-Bobby and Rocky. One or both had to have been in the black sedan. I think they wanted you to see Jennifer shot.”
“So they had to know Jennifer would be standing there, too,” Chase said. “Which means either they were watching Jennifer…” He paused grimly. “Or we have a leak.”
“This doesn’t make any sense,” Susannah said. “Tonight I’m standing next to Jane Doe’s nurse and she’s shot. Earlier I was standing next to Gretchen French in the cemetery and she’s shot by Kate. Was I the target both times or were they?”
“I don’t know,” Luke said. “But Gretchen wasn’t shot by Kate Davis. There was at least one other shooter. Kate was murdered.”
“But…” She looked from one man to the other. “I saw the police draw their guns.”
“They never fired, Susannah,” Chase said gently. “We found the gun that killed Kate Davis. Someone was standing between you and Kate.”
“Off to the left,” Susannah murmured.
Luke leaned forward until his face was inches from hers. “How did you know that?”
She met his eyes. “The woman in black. Al knocked me down and I looked up and saw this woman, all in black, with lace over her face. She stared at me. Then she was gone, into the crowd.”
“Why didn’t you mention her before?”
“I thought she was a mourner. I thought Kate had shot Gretchen, that the police had shot Kate.”
“Can you describe this woman in black?”
Susannah puffed out her cheeks. “She was very tall. There were people all around her, but she just stood there, like a little pocket of… calm. I don’t know how long she stared at me. It couldn’t have been more than a second or two. It was surreal. Oh, and she had red lips. I saw the red through the lace. Her dress was long. Old. I thought she was old. Creepy.” She closed her eyes, visualizing the scene, the frenzied movement around the woman who’d stood still as a statue. “She was wearing a cape, edged in black fur. She looked like someone from an old photo.”
“What about her shoes?” Chase asked.
“Blue.” She opened her eyes and looked up. “She had on blue running shoes. Her dress stopped above her ankles, like it was too short for her.”
“Or him?” Luke asked.
“Bobby,” she murmured. “Or Rocky. Oh, hell. Who is Bobby?”
“Round puzzle,” Luke muttered.
Chase nodded grimly. “All yellow.”
“What the hell does that mean?” Susannah demanded. “Goddammit.”
Luke sighed. “It means that every time we peel away a layer, the onion sprouts a new one. You’re covered in blood again. I’m taking you back to your hotel.”
“I’ll go back up to ICU and get my things.”
“I’ll go with you.”
She started to tell him he didn’t need to babysit her, then thought of Gretchen and Jennifer and bit back the words. Maybe he did.
Atlanta, Saturday, February 3, 6:30 p.m.
“Is it true?” Nurse Ella demanded. “Is Jennifer dead?”
Monica’s mind tensed, waiting for the answer.
“I’m afraid so.” Susannah’s voice. “She was shot outside a few minutes ago.”
Oh, God. Jennifer tried to keep me alive and now she’s dead.
She felt a touch on her hand. “It’s Susannah. I have to leave, but I’ll be back tomorrow morning. I wish you’d wake up. There are so many things we need to know.”
I am awake. Dammit, I am awake. Frustration bubbled up and over, then stilled when she felt warmth near her face. Lips. Susannah pressed her lips to Monica’s forehead and her frustration mixed with a longing so strong it hurt her chest.
“Sleep,” Susannah murmured. “I’ll be back tomorrow.”
No. Monica wanted to scream it. Don’t go. Don’t leave. Please don’t leave me.
But Susannah was gone.
Hot tears trickled from Monica’s eyes down her temples where they dried, unnoticed.
Susannah came out of M. Jane Doe’s room to find Luke had been watching her, his black eyes intense. She felt her cheeks heat. “She’s just a kid. She must be scared.”
He cupped her cheek, his palm warm and solid, and for a moment she again let herself lean into him. “You’re a good person,” he murmured. “You know that, don’t you?”
Her throat tightened. When he said it, she almost believed it. She pulled away, her whole body tense, her smile plastic. “You’re kind.”
Luke drew a frustrated breath and let it out. They rode down in the elevator and walked to Luke’s car in silence. When they were both buckled in, he looked straight ahead. “I promised Daniel I would watch over you. I can do that at your hotel or my apartment. I won’t ask anything except that you let me keep my promise to Daniel.”
She was disappointed, she realized. Which was petty and small… and human. What woman wouldn’t want a man like Luke in pursuit? But he’d given up. So easily.
You told him to. Don’t be snide because he listened. Still, she was disappointed. And too tired to argue. “If we go to your apartment, where will I sleep?”
“In my room. I’ll take the sofa.”
“All right. Let’s go.”
Atlanta, Saturday, February 3, 6:45 p.m.
“Are they gone?” Bobby asked when Tanner got back into the car.
“Finally.” He handed the DRC plates across the front seat. “I changed the plates. Now I’m George Bentley if anyone stops us. Did you have fun?”
“Oh yes,” Bobby said emphatically. “I’m glad you got back from Savannah in time to drive me. It would have been too hard to hit Oh-man’s chest from the driver’s side.”
“So, back to Ridgefield House?”
“Not yet. I got another report from my mole. GBI is closing in on Jersey Jameson. Apparently Daniel Vartanian saw a piece of his boat registration number on Friday.”
“So where do we find Mr. Jameson?” Tanner asked.
“I know some of the places he hangs. You ready to do a little pub crawling?”
Tanner laughed. “It’ll be like old times.”
“Those were the days. You’d find the marks, I’d go in for the lure. Some of those guys still pay me, cash deposits to my offshore account on the first of every month.”
“You were a good whore, Bobby.”
“You were good at finding clients who’d pay to keep their perversions secret. I miss those days.”
“We could pick up. Go somewhere else. Start over again.”
“We could, but I like my life now. Once everything dies down, I still want that house on the hill. It’s mine.”
“Arthur Vartanian will have left it to his legitimate children, Bobby.”
“But I have a legal claim. And soon his legitimate children will be resting alongside the judge and his bitch of a wife.” The words left a bad taste in the mouth.
“Well, when that happens,” Tanner said mildly, “you know what I want.”
“Grandmother Vartanian’s silver tea service.” Bobby chuckled. “Yes, I know.”
Atlanta, Saturday, February 3, 7:15 p.m.
“It’s nice,” Susannah said, looking around Luke’s apartment.
“It’s clean, thanks to my…” The thought trailed when he saw his dining room table, covered in a white linen cloth and set for two. He didn’t need a second look to know the china was his mother’s, as was the ornate silver candelabra that stood, ready to light.
Susannah was looking at the table, one side of her mouth turned up. “Your mother?”
Susannah smiled wistfully. “She nearly smothered Daniel with a hug. I like her.”
“Everybody likes my mother.”
“What about your father?”
“Oh, she smothers him with hugs, too,” he said wryly. “Pop has a restaurant with his brothers. Greek, of course. In the old days, Mama was head chef. Now my cousins take care of the daily stuff. Leaves my dad and my uncles time to finally enjoy life, but Mama misses it. She makes up for it by cooking for all my friends.” From his closet he pulled the suit from the day before and gave it a sniff. “Barely a hint of smoke and rotting fish.”
“Your dry cleaner delivers inside your apartment?”
“My dry cleaner is my cousin Johnny. He has a key. I get free delivery, he gets to watch the fights on my flatscreen when they’re on pay per view.”
“I wonder if he can get those red clay stains out of Chloe Hathaway’s black dress.”
“If Johnny can’t, nobody can.” His stomach growled and he rubbed it. “I’m starving.”
“So am I.” She hesitated. “I can cook. A little.”
“Mama said she left food in the fridge.” He went into the kitchen and she followed.
“Can I do anything?”
“Change your clothes.” He shot her a smile as he opened the fridge door. “Again.”
She looked down at her blood-spattered shirt. “I’ll be back.”
His careless smile disappeared along with her. “You do that,” he murmured, then began warming the meal his mother had left, still thinking about Susannah.
On the way to his apartment, she’d received a call on her cell phone from Gretchen French, who’d scheduled a press conference for tomorrow afternoon. “You might want to talk to her,” she’d told him when she’d hung up. “She still thinks Kate Davis shot her.”
“You’re sure you want to do this?” he’d asked. “Once you sit with those women in front of a bunch of microphones, there’s no going back.”
She’d gone very still. “Once I stepped on the plane yesterday morning, there was no going back, Luke. I knew that then. I’m all right with this. I’ll do what needs to be done.”
He’d been struck with a respect so profound… And on its heels had come a desire so intense it had taken his breath away. It wasn’t her face, or the quiet elegance of her manner. It was deeper. She was, quite simply, what he’d always been looking for.
Now, standing in his kitchen, he knew it didn’t matter what he’d wanted or what he’d believed he’d found. In front of the ER she’d been shaking like a leaf. Still she clung to him, trusting him. She was here now, trusting him to keep her safe. But until she trusted him with that soul she claimed not to want, nothing else mattered.
He’d put dinner in the oven to warm and was pulling the cork from a bottle of wine when the doorbell rang. Leaving the wine to breathe, he went to the door and looked through the peep hole. And sighed. “Talia,” he said when he’d opened the door.
Talia Scott held the leash of Judge Borenson’s bulldog. “You forgot the dog.”
“I’ve been a little busy.”
Her smile was sympathetic. “I heard what happened at the ER. Sorry.”
He sighed again. “I guess I should ask you in.”
“Oh, thank you,” Talia said dryly. “Such hospitality.”
He opened the door wider. Talia and dog came inside, the dog plopping down on Luke’s feet with an even bigger sigh, and Talia laughed. “Her name is Darlin’.”
He rolled his eyes. “Of course it is. Does she have food?”
Talia pulled a Ziploc bag filled with kibble from her backpack. “Enough to last you till tomorrow. Here’s her leash and bowl.”
“Nobody wanted her?” Luke pressed as she pushed the dog’s things into his arms.
“No. Borenson had hunting dogs the neighbors wanted, but nobody wanted Darlin’. I smell food.” Then she saw the table set with the china. “But you have company. I’ll go.”
She started to leave and he grabbed her jacket. “Susannah Vartanian’s here.”
Her eyes widened. “Really?”
“It’s not what you think. You should stay. Come on in. I’ve got a bottle of wine.”
He went to the kitchen, the dog literally on his heels. Every time he stopped, the dog lay at his feet. Every time he moved, so did she. “I can’t keep her. I’m never home.”
Talia sat at the counter. “Then she goes to the shelter. Then, who knows?”
Luke scowled. “You’re a cruel woman.”
She laughed. “And you’re a sweet man.”
He shook his head. “Don’t let it get around. Did you meet with Mr. Csorka?”
She sobered. “I did. He came with dental records, DNA samples, and pictures of Ashley with her trophies. She’s a swimmer. She’s earned a full college scholarship for next year.”
“It’s been more than twenty-four hours now. They could be anywhere.”
“True, but now we’re broadcasting the face of one of the missing girls to every PD in the Southeast. She’s seventeen for another few weeks, so I set up an Amber alert.” She leaned over, squeezed his hand. “It’s better than we had yesterday.”
“I used your-” Susannah stopped short, damp towels folded neatly in her arms, her gaze fixed on their joined hands. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know anyone else was here.”
Smiling, Talia extended her hand. “I’m Talia Scott. I work with Luke and Daniel.”
Susannah shifted the towels to one arm so that she could shake Talia’s hand. “It’s nice to meet you. You talked to Gretchen French.”
“And all the other victims,” Talia said. “Except you,” she added gently.
Susannah’s cheeks darkened. “I gave my statement to ASA Hathaway.”
“That’s not what I meant. I spoke with all the women, making sure they understood their rights and the resources available to them.”
Susannah’s smile was brittle. “I’m a prosecutor. I know my rights. But thank you.”
“You know how to tell other people their rights,” Talia said, undaunted. “You might not think about them for yourself in the same way. You can call me any time if you’d like to talk.” She held out her card, her easy smile still in place.
Reluctantly Susannah took it. “Gretchen speaks highly of you,” she said quietly. Then she lifted her brows at the bag of kibble on the counter. “Is that dinner?”
Luke looked down at his feet and scowled again. “It’s hers.”
Susannah’s face lit up in a smile that made his chest hurt. “Oh, look.” She dropped to her knees, setting the towels aside, petting the dog’s head. “Is she yours, Talia?”
Talia chuckled and winked at him. “Nope. She’s Luke’s.”
“I don’t like you,” he muttered, and Talia chuckled again.
Then Susannah looked up at him, the smile still on her face. “She’s yours? Really?”
He sighed. “Yeah. I guess so, until I can find her another home. She’s Judge Borenson’s. If he turns up alive, she goes back to Judge Borenson.”
Susannah turned back to the ugly bulldog. “I have a dog. At home in New York.”
“What kind?” Talia asked.
“Sheltie. Her name is Thor.”
Talia laughed. “A sheltie named Thor? That sounds like a story.”
“It is. She’s in the kennel, probably wondering when I’m coming back to get her.” The dog licked Susannah’s face, making her laugh, and the small sound of joy took the pain in his chest and gave it a twist.
“What’s her name?” she asked.
“Darlin’,” he said softly, and she looked up, meeting his eyes.
“That’s nice.” Her smile faltered. “Do you always take in strays, Luke?”
“Not usually,” he said, then, aware that he’d been staring, looked away.
“We’re having wine, Susannah,” Talia said, taking pity on him. “Want some?”
“I don’t drink, but you go ahead. Dinner smells wonderful. Are you staying, Talia?”
“Yes,” Luke said.
“No,” Talia said at the same time. “I have to be getting home.”
“You’re sure you can’t take the dog?” Luke asked under his breath.
“Nope,” Talia said cheerfully. “My roommate said no more when I brought home the fourth one. I think she means it this time. So it’s you or the pound, Luka.” She reached over the counter, patted his cheek. “Just think what joy a dog can add to your home.”
Luke had to laugh at the sparkle in her eyes. “You’re enjoying this.”
“Walk me to the door. It was nice to meet you, Susannah. Call me any time.”
Luke walked Talia to the door, Darlin’ at his heels once more. “What?” he asked.
Talia shook her head, her lips twitching. “Oh, baby, you got it bad. And she’s not Greek. What’s Mama Papa going to say?”
“Who do you think set the damn table?”
“Interesting.” She sobered. “Have Susannah call me if she needs me.”
“She’s just like Daniel,” he murmured. “They both just shove it all back down.”
“I know,” she said. “When do you want to leave for Poplar Bluff?”
“It would be easier to get Kasey Knight’s friends during a school day, but we can’t wait till Monday. Let’s leave right after morning meeting. We’ll be there by eleven.”
“That’s during church.” Talia considered it. “Poplar Bluff’s a small town. Let me contact the minister and see if they go to his church. That might be the best place to catch them after all. I’ll see you tomorrow. Bring me some leftovers, okay?”
“You could just stay for dinner.”
She smiled. “No, I really can’t. Good luck, Luka.”
Rolling his eyes, he went back to the kitchen where Susannah was tearing lettuce. He leaned against the refrigerator, Darlin’ at his feet. “She won’t stop following me.”
One side of Susannah’s mouth lifted in the half smile he’d come to anticipate. “Did you bring her out of the woods?”
“I guess in a way I did.”
She pushed him aside gently, grabbing vegetables from the refrigerator. “Then, there you go. Darlin’ is to you what Jane Doe is to me. And, to a certain extent,” she added, cutting the ends off cucumbers with more force than needed, “what I am to you.”
He wanted to grab her shoulders and make her look at him, but he stayed where he was. “That’s not fair to either of us,” Luke said quietly.
She dropped her chin. “You’re right. I’m sorry.” She swallowed hard, focusing on the vegetables she sliced with quick, expert movements. “Talia called you ‘Luka.’ ”
“My mother calls me that.”
“I know. So you and Talia are friends?” she asked carefully.
He kept his voice level, although her question set his heart thumping. “She’s Greek.”
“So? Do you know all the Greeks in Atlanta?”
He smiled. “A fair number. It’s a tightly knit community. My father and his brothers cater a lot of the weddings and parties. We know just about everyone.”
She tossed the sliced cucumbers into the salad. “Scott doesn’t sound that Greek.”
“Her first marriage. Didn’t go so well.”
“Hmm. I’m surprised your mother didn’t pick her for you,” she said lightly.
“She tried. Gave up. Talia and I are friends. No more.”
She turned then, her arms hugging the salad bowl. Her eyes met his and stayed, intense and filled with longing, and suddenly the simple act of breathing was an effort.
Abruptly she dropped her eyes and pushed past him to put the bowl on the table. He followed her, Darlin’ still at his heels, and stopped, staring at her back. “Susannah.”
“I need to go. I’ll sleep in Jane Doe’s room in ICU with the guard at the door if it will make you feel better. I promise.”
“What would make me feel better is if you’d look at me.” She didn’t move, so he gently grasped her shoulders and tugged until she turned around, her eyes level with his chest. He waited, silently, until she finally lifted her eyes. He felt as if he’d been punched in the gut. Her eyes that had been so careful, so guarded, now seethed with emotion, wild and turbulent. Hunger and interest. Denial and dismay. Knowing his next move would be critical, he cupped her cheek as he’d done before.
She turned her face into his palm and drew a breath as if memorizing his scent, and his whole body clenched. He knew he’d never wanted anyone, anything so much.
“How long has it been, Susannah?” he asked roughly.
It was a damn good question. “Since someone touched you.” He swept his thumb across her cheek to show her what he meant. “Since someone kissed your forehead.”
He could feel her turmoil. “Never,” she finally said.
His heart broke. “Not your mother?”
“No. She wasn’t a warm woman.”
“Susannah, did your father…” He couldn’t ask. Not after all she’d been through.
“No. But he wanted to. I could always tell. But he never did.” She wet her lips, nervously. “Sometimes I would hide. That’s how I found the hidey-hole behind my closet. I wasn’t hiding from Simon then. I was hiding from my father.”
Luke wanted to scream. To throw something. To kill her father. Ironically, Simon had done it for him. “Did he hit you?”
“No. Most of the time he just ignored me. Like I wasn’t there. Then sometimes he’d get this look.” She shuddered.
“And your mother?”
Her lips curved, bitterly. “She was a good hostess, kept a nice house. She was never demonstrative. Never paid any attention to us. Except for Simon. It was always about Simon. After he lost his leg, it got worse. And when we’d thought he died, when my father sent him away and told the world he was dead… that was bad.”
“My mother was hysterical. She said she hated us, me and Daniel. That she wished we’d never been born. That she wished we’d died instead.”
What a thing for a daughter to hear. “So when Simon hurt you, you couldn’t tell her.”
She looked away. “She already knew.”
She shrugged. “I don’t know how she knew, but she did. She told me that I was loose. What else was a boy to expect? But I wasn’t. I’d never even been on a date.”
“That’s vile, Susannah,” he said, his voice trembling.
She finally met his eyes again. “Thank you.”
Thank you. Her mother had condoned her own daughter’s incestuous rape and she thanked him for reviling it. He wanted again to scream, but he reined in his temper and softly kissed her brow. “You think you’re alone and you’re not. You think you’re the only one to do things you’re ashamed of, but you’re not.”
“You haven’t done what I’ve done, Luke.”
“How do you know? I’ve had sex with women I barely knew, sometimes just to numb my mind from what I’d seen that day. So that when I woke up at three a.m. I wouldn’t be alone. I’m ashamed of that. I want what my parents have, but I’ve never found it.”
“You don’t understand.” She started to pull away, reluctantly. “I hope you never do.”
“Stop.” He whispered the word. “Don’t go.” He touched his lips to the corner of her mouth. “Don’t go.” He didn’t move, didn’t breathe, just held himself there, a whisper away from her mouth.
After what seemed an eternity, she turned her head, just a hair. Just enough.
His mouth covered hers, carefully. Softly. Finally. With a whimper she relaxed into him, sliding her hands up his chest and around his neck, and she kissed him back. Her mouth was soft, mobile, and so much sweeter than he thought it would be. And then somewhere, somehow gentleness fled and he took what he’d needed, lifting her feet off the ground, pulling her up against him where his body throbbed and ached.
Susannah ended it too soon, pressing her cheek against the side of his neck. Then she pushed away until he loosened his grip and her feet touched the floor once more.
She held out her hand to keep him from coming after her, devastation in her eyes. “I can’t do this,” she said, backing away, then she ran to the bedroom and shut the door.
Luke’s teeth clenched as he called himself every name he knew. He’d promised her he wouldn’t ask anything more than to let him keep his promise to Daniel. He’d taken advantage of her, just one more person in her life to have done so.
Furious with himself, he grabbed the dog’s leash. “Come on, Darlin’. Let’s go walk.”
Ridgefield House, Saturday, February 3, 7:30 p.m.
Ashley Csorka drew a breath. She’d been picking at the mortar for hours, until the nail she’d found had dulled. She’d had to pull another stair free to get another nail, and that had taken a long time. Finally, finally she’d freed her first brick, about two feet off the floor. Holding her breath she gave it a push. It’ll be loud, they’ll come.
You’ve been at this for hours and they haven’t come. Maybe they’re not home. Hurry, hurry. She pushed the brick harder and nearly sobbed when it worked free, creating one brick-sized hole. The air was fresh on her face. Out there was freedom.
She’d need to loosen at least four or five more bricks. Hurry. Hurry.
Charlotte, North Carolina, Saturday, February 3, 9:35 p.m.
Harry Grimes knocked on the door of Nicole Shafer, the third name on the list of friends Genie Cassidy’s mother had given him. The door was opened by a young girl. Harry held up his badge. “I’m Special Agent Harry Grimes. Are your parents home?”
“Mom,” she called, and her mother appeared, wiping her hand on a dishrag.
“Can we help you?” she asked, and he showed her his badge.
“I’m investigating the disappearance of Genie Cassidy.”
The mother frowned. “I heard she ran away.”
“No, ma’am. We believe she was abducted. I’d really appreciate the opportunity to ask your daughter a few questions.”
“Of course. Come in.” He was led to a family room where Mr. Shafer watched TV. “Turn off the TV, Oliver. This man is from the state police. Please sit, Agent Grimes.”
Harry did, keeping his gaze on Nicole, whose gaze was fixed on her feet. “Nicole, Genie was chatting online with a boy named Jason. Did you know this?”
Nicole looked at her parents nervously. “Yes. But she didn’t want her mom to know. Her mom was so totally overprotective. Genie had, like, no life. Really, Mom.”
“Did you know her sister Monica also disappeared after talking to a boy named Jason?” Harry asked, and Nicole nodded.
“Half the boys in our class are named Jason,” she said. “It’s a common name.”
“Do you know where Genie planned to meet him?”
Nicole drew a breath, held it. “Niki,” her father said harshly. “If you know, tell him.”
Nicole let the breath out. “Mel’s. It’s a diner.”
“I know it,” Harry said, then leaned forward. “Nicole, do you chat with Jason?”
She looked at her purple fingernails. “Sometimes. Sometimes if I was with Genie, she’d let me talk to him. Jason was cool. Told her she was pretty.”
“Did he ask you to meet him?” Harry asked.
She nodded. “But I was afraid. Genie said we should go together, but I got scared.”
“Oh God,” Mrs. Shafer breathed, horrified. “Niki. That could have been you.”
Nicole’s eyes filled with tears. “Is she really missing? Like kidnapped?”
Harry nodded. “We think so. Be careful, Niki. The world presented by guys online is rarely accurate. Sometimes it’s even dangerous.”
“You’ll find her, won’t you?” Niki asked, crying now.
“We’re sure gonna try. Tell me, does he IM you at a certain time or do you IM him?”
“He IMs me. He’s a college boy.” She hesitated. “He thinks I’m in college, too.”
“I’m going to need all your screen names and passwords,” Harry said, his pulse accelerating. If they played their cards right, they might trap the SOB. “And I need your promise that you’ll say nothing about this. I don’t want your friends tipping him off.”
“So I can tell people you came to question me and I told you nothing?”
Harry’s lips twitched at the hopeful note in her voice. “Sure. Be cool.”
Mr. Shafer quelled his daughter’s hope with a look. “I want your phone. You’re technologically grounded, young lady.”
Nicole started to protest, then closed her mouth, pulling her phone from her pocket and putting it in her father’s outstretched hand. “It could have been me,” she said quietly.
Mr. Shafer pulled her to him in a hard hug. “Thanks,” he said to Harry over his daughter’s head. “Anything you need, just ask.”
Atlanta, Sunday, February 4, 12:15 a.m.
It was the weeping that woke him. Luke blinked at the light he’d left on in his living room, feeling like he had a hangover even though he’d consumed no wine. He’d been wide awake after that disaster of a kiss, blaming himself every which way he could.
Finally he’d turned his churning mind to “Bobby.” Every major player in this case had come from Dutton so that’s where he searched, coming up with a list of Dutton residents named Bobby. Then, too exhausted to think anymore, he’d e-mailed the list to Chase and closed his eyes. He’d been asleep four hours and might have slept longer, but for the weeping. He wondered if he’d imagined it. Sometimes he dreamed the weeping.
But tonight it was real. He heard it again, muffled and quiet. Finding his bedroom door ajar, he peeked in and felt lower than shit. Swallowed whole by his old sweats, Susannah sat on the floor, her arms wrapped around Borenson’s ugly bulldog. Her shoulders shook as she cried and he scooped her into his arms and sat on the bed.
He thought she would fight him, but instead she grabbed handfuls of his shirt and held on. Just like she had when he’d held her in front of the ER.
He threaded his fingers through the hair at her nape and cradled her head in his palm. After a time, she quieted, her sobs becoming sniffles. She tried to pull away, but he wouldn’t let her go. “Just rest,” he said quietly.
“I’ve cried more today than I have in my whole life combined.”
“My sister Demi says she feels better after a good cry. You should feel on top of the world right now.” He pressed a kiss to her head. “Why were you crying?”
“The hospital’s call about our test results.”
It took him a second. Then he tensed, his gut turning to ice. Jane Doe’s blood. Their HIV tests. “Positive?” he asked, keeping his voice as neutral as he could.
She pulled back, her eyes wide. “No. Negative. I thought you got a call, too.”
“If I did, it went to voicemail.” He let out a shaky breath. “Whoa. You scared me.”
“I’m sorry. I thought you were awake because they just called you.”
“I’m awake because I heard you crying. It’s negative. We’re okay. Why the tears?”
She puffed out her cheeks. “It’s hard to explain.”
“Try,” he said dryly.
She looked away. “I think you’re a very nice man.”
Luke’s brows went up. “So you cry your eyes out? That doesn’t make sense.”
“I’m trying to explain. It’s just that you’re the first man who’s paid attention to me. The first decent man. You’re kind and interesting, smart, engaging, and…”
“Handsome?” he supplied hopefully. “Sinfully sexy?”
She laughed, as he’d hoped she would. “Yes.” Then her smile dimmed. “A woman would be a fool not to be flattered.” She shrugged. “Or interested.”
She looked down. “Yes. So when I got the call from the hospital, my first thought was, ‘Yay, I’m not going to die.’ My second was, ‘Yay, now I can have Luke.’ ”
He cleared his throat. “Define ‘have.’ ”
She sighed. “You know what I meant. But I can’t have you.”
“Because of your evil past. Susannah, for a smart woman, that is the most singularly stupid logic I’ve ever heard.”
She gritted her teeth. “It’s not stupid.”
“It’s not smart,” he said, exasperated. “If a rape victim came to you with that story, you’d fishslap her and tell her to get therapy and have a life. You know I’m right.”
She drew a breath. “I would not fishslap her.”
“Fine. But you would tell her to have a life. This guilt you carry around is wrong.”
She was quiet. “It’s not just the guilt.”
“So what else is it?”
“I can’t do it,” she said between her teeth.
“Yes, you can. You can tell me. I’m engaging and kind.”
“I can’t do it. Sex,” she snapped, then closed her eyes. “God. This is humiliating.”
Luke mentally backed away, then tiptoed back. “There’s a… physical issue?”
“No.” She covered her eyes with her hands. “Let me go. Please.”
“No. Tell me. You want me, you’ve all but said it. Wouldn’t you like to fix whatever problem you have, so then you could have me?”
“Altruistic, aren’t you,” she said irritably.
“And kind. And handsome. And sinfully sexy.”
One side of her mouth lifted sadly. “You’re incorrigible.”
“Mama always says that.” He sobered, stroking the side of her mouth with his thumb. “Tell me, Susannah. I won’t laugh. I promise.”
“Let me up. I can’t talk to you like this. Please.”
He opened his arms and she slid back down to the floor. “I miss my dog,” she said, petting Darlin’. “She probably thinks I’m not coming home.”
“Tell me why you named a female sheltie Thor.”
“Thor’s the god of lightning,” she said. “The night I found her, we had a horrible storm with thunder and lightning. I’d driven out to the cemetery to Darcy’s grave. I go every year on January nineteenth.”
“In January, you had lightning?”
“It happens, but it’s rare. It was snowing like crazy, so I was only going about ten miles per hour. If I’d been going faster, I would have hit her. There was this enormous bolt of lightning and there she was, bedraggled and wet and cold, standing in the middle of the road, like ‘Hit me or save me but don’t ignore me.’ ”
“So you stopped.”
“It was a rental car. What did I care if it got a little dirty? I’d planned to take her to the vet and leave her there, but then she licked my face, and… I’m a sucker for that.”
“I’ll remember that,” he said wryly, and she laughed, but sadly.
“It’s not the same. Turns out she was microchipped. She’d escaped from a family up north months before and she’d survived all that time on her own.”
He was starting to see the parallel. “Tough little sheltie.”
“Yeah. They’d already bought their kids another dog, so they said I should keep her. So I did. It makes a difference, not walking into an empty silent house every night. There have been a lot of nights she sits up with me at three a.m. when I can’t sleep. She’s a good dog. I’m lucky to have her.”
“Sounds like she’s just as lucky to have you.”
“There you go, being kind again.”
“Susannah, tell me why you can’t have sex.”
She sighed, heavily. “All right. I can, but not the regular way.”
“What do you consider the regular way?”
“This is so embarrassing,” she muttered, and he had pity on her.
“Missionary, you mean?”
“Yeah. But I can’t do it. I can’t… look at a man. During.”
“You mean, during sex?”
“Yeah. It’s like I’m trapped. Not enough air. I panic.”
He sat on the edge of the bed, stroking her hair. “After everything you’ve been through? I’m not surprised. So during your… encounters before, how did you do it?”
She laughed self-consciously. “Not facing them.”
He drew a careful breath, determined she would not know how that turned him on. “That’s all? That’s your only problem?”
“No. Just one of them.”
“What are the others?”
She made a strangled sound. “It has to be… unconventional. Has to be. Or I can’t.”
He frowned. “Susannah, does anything you do hurt?”
“Sometimes. But only me. Nobody else gets hurt.”
He closed his eyes. “So you like it…”
“Rough. And I hate that,” she said fiercely.
Have mercy. He opened his mouth to say something, anything, but she went on in an explosion of angry words.
“I hate needing it that way. I hate that that’s the only way…” She stopped, trembling.
“The only way you can come.”
She dropped her chin to her chest. “It’s wrong. It’s not normal.”
“And by needing, and wanting it, then doing it that way, you got your friend killed.”
“I’m not that complicated, Luke.”
Oh, yes, you are. He scooted back, his legs apart. “Come here.”
“You don’t have to look at me. Come here. I want to show you something, and if you don’t like it, I won’t ever mention it again. I promise.”
“You promised before,” she grumbled, but she stood.
“Now sit. No, don’t look at me,” he said when she would have turned around. He pulled her to sit between his legs. “Look over there.” He pointed to his dresser mirror. “Look at you. Don’t look at me.” He put his arms around her waist and pulled her closer. “I’m dressed. You’re dressed. Nothing’s going to happen here except this.”
He pulled her hair back and kissed her neck, her quick intake of breath sending shivers prickling over his skin. “It’s just you and me and the mirror,” he said.
“This is silly,” she said, but she tilted her head to give him better access.
“Does it hurt? Do you feel panicked?”
“No. Not really. Just stupid.”
“Just relax. You think too much.” He kissed his way down the side of her neck, then ran his tongue along the curve of her shoulder. “Don’t I do that better than Thor?” She laughed breathlessly. “You have a very long neck,” he murmured in her ear. “This could take awhile.”
“But you… You can’t be…”
“Enjoying this? Susannah, I’ve got my arms around a beautiful woman who thinks I’m sinfully sexy and she’s letting me kiss her neck. What more could I want?”
“Sex,” she said flatly, and he laughed.
“I’m not that kind of guy. You have to buy me a drink before I hit you a home run.”
In the mirror he saw her close her eyes. “I can’t believe I told you this.”
“I’m engaging. Besides, you were ready to tell someone. I’m just glad it was me. I won’t tell anyone. You can trust me.”
“I know,” she said seriously, and he had to take a moment to control himself, to keep it slow and nonthreatening when he wanted to gobble her whole.
He’d started on the other side of her neck when his cell phone buzzed, making them both jump. He held her, flipping open his phone with one hand. “Papadopoulos.”
“It’s Chase. I need you back here.”
Luke straightened and let Susannah go. “What’s wrong?” he asked.
“Lots of stuff,” Chase said. “Get in here as fast as you can. And bring Susannah.”
Luke pocketed his phone. “We have to go,” he said to Susannah. “Chase wants you to come. You should probably change your clothes. I’ll walk the dog and then we can go.” He had his hand on the doorknob, then decided to take a chance. From deep in his closet he pulled a dusty box and set it on his dresser. “You’d be surprised what’s normal and what’s not, Susannah,” he said, then clicked his tongue. “Come on, Darlin’.”
Susannah sat on the edge of his bed, staring at the box for a full thirty seconds before giving in to her curiosity. It obviously had not been opened in some time. She struggled with the lid, then stared when it finally budged.
“Goodness,” she murmured, lifting out a set of fur-lined cuffs. There were all kinds of toys in the box. Some she’d used before. Some were tame, some lame, but all enticed her on a level that made her ashamed. But… She frowned, dropping the cuffs back into the box and replacing the lid.
Her heart was racing to beat all hell as she changed her clothes quickly. He hadn’t been repulsed. He shared her tastes. But that doesn’t make it right. Does it?
He knocked on the door, startling her. “Are you… decent?”
He’d chosen the word carefully, she knew. “You can come in.”
He did, glancing at her, then the box. Without a word he put it back in the closet. “Let’s go. It’s time to get back to work.”
Atlanta, Sunday, February 4, 1:45 a.m.
Susannah paced outside the door to the conference room. Luke had been in there for twenty minutes and with every minute her dread climbed. She’d only had to look at Chase’s face when they’d arrived to know something was very wrong.
The door opened and Luke came into the hall. There was no smile on his face. “We’re ready for you,” he said, then took her hand. “Let’s just get it over with.”
She hesitated before she walked into the room. All those people in there would know. So? After Gretchen’s press conference tomorrow the entire world will know.
But these people know about Darcy.
It didn’t matter anymore. There could be no more secrets, she thought as she entered the crowded room. Chase was there, and Talia and Chloe. And Ed Randall, who she’d met at Sheila Cunningham’s funeral. And to her surprise, Al Landers. He patted the empty chair beside him while Chase introduced the team members she hadn’t yet met-Pete, Nancy, Hank. Mary, the psychologist.
Uh-oh. They’d brought in the shrink. It had to be bad. “What’s happened?”
“A lot,” Chase said. “But a few of the things directly affect you, Susannah.”
“Chloe and I sent someone to question Michael Ellis,” Al said. “Darcy’s murderer.”
“You talked about doing that this morning. So what did Ellis say?”
“Nothing,” Chloe said, “which was odd. He’s serving twenty to life and was offered a deal that would take a few of those years off his sentence, but he wouldn’t say a word.”
“After six years, he’s still terrified,” Al said. “But, the man has a tattoo.”
“The swastika with the bent edges,” Susannah said.
Chloe nodded. “On his thigh. But that wasn’t the most interesting part.” She slid a photo across the table. “This is one of the photos from Darcy’s autopsy.”
Susannah’s stomach twisted in dread, knowing what she’d see before she looked at it. It was a close-up of a woman’s hip. “The brand,” she said. “She had one, too.”
“You mentioned the brand when you were giving your statement this morning, and I remembered it from the pretrial papers,” Al said. “I wanted to confirm before I told you.”
“Did this come out in the trial?” Chase asked.
“Ellis never went to trial,” Al said. “He took a plea. The police held the brand back in case other victims were found. They didn’t want any copycats using the brand.”
“So this was all an elaborate setup?” Susannah asked, incredulous. “Somebody killed Darcy just to get to me? Why? I’m not that important.”
“You are to somebody,” Chase said. “Important enough to stage this assault seven years to the day from the first one. Someone who knew you wouldn’t come forward.”