/ Language: English / Genre:thriller,

Say Goodbye

Lisa Gardner

Lisa Gardner, the New York Times bestselling author of Hide and Gone, draws us into the venomous mind games of her most terrifying killer yet. Come into my parlor… For Kimberly Quincy, FBI Special Agent, it all starts with a pregnant hooker. The story Delilah Rose tells Kimberly about her johns is too horrifying to be true-but prostitutes are disappearing, one by one, with no explanation, and no one but Kimberly seems to care. Said the spider to the fly… As a member of the Evidence Response Team, dead hookers aren’t exactly Kimberly’s specialty. The young agent is five months pregnant-she has other things to worry about than an alleged lunatic who uses spiders to do his dirty work. But Kimberly’s own mother and sister were victims of a serial killer. And now, without any bodies and with precious few clues, it’s all too clear that a serial killer has found the key to the perfect murder… or Kimberly is chasing a crime that never happened. Kimberly’s caught in a web more lethal than any spider’s, and the more she fights for answers, the more tightly she’s trapped. What she doesn’t know is that she’s close-too close-to a psychopath who makes women’s nightmares come alive, and if he has his twisted way, it won’t be long before it’s time for Kimberly to…

Lisa Gardner

Say Goodbye

PROLOGUE

“In the U.S., the dangerous spiders include the Widows and the Recluse Spiders.”

FROM Spiders and Their Kin,

BY HERBERT W. AND LORNA R. LEVI, A GOLDEN GUIDE FROM ST. MARTIN’S PRESS, 2002

HE WAS MOANING, A GUTTURAL SOUND IN THE BACK of his throat as his fingers tightened their grip in her hair. She curled her lips over her teeth, applying more pressure. His hips surged and he started with the usual stream of nonsense boys liked to murmur during a time like this:

“Sweet Jesus…oh God. Don’t stop. You’re so beautiful. OhmyGod, ohmyGod. You are the best! Oh, Ginny, Ginny, Ginny. Sweet Ginny…”

She wondered if he could hear himself speak, if he had any idea of what he said. That sometimes he compared her to saints. That he told her she was gorgeous, beautiful, a dark Georgian rose. That once, he’d even told her he loved her.

A guy would say anything at a time like this.

The gearshift was digging into her hip, starting to hurt. She moved her right hand to the top of his jeans and worked them lower on his thighs. Another small shift here, the boy now made a gurgling sound as if he were dying.

“Holy mother of God! Jesus, Ginny. Beautiful, beautiful, Ginny. Sweet…mother…pretty…lovely…are killing me! You are killing me! YOU ARE KILLING ME!”

Oh, for heaven’s sake, she thought, get on with it. A bit more maneuvering, a bit more pressure applied by her mouth, followed by a bit more pressure applied by her hand…

Tommy was a panting, happy boy.

And little Ginny would finally get a treat.

She retreated to the other side of the truck, turning her head slightly so he wouldn’t see her wipe her mouth with the back of her hand. Bottle of Jim Beam was where they’d left it, rolling on the floor beneath her feet. She picked it up, took a swig, passed it to Tommy.

He still had his pants tangled around his legs and a dazed look on his captain-of-the-varsity-football-team face.

“Shit, Ginny, now you are trying to kill me.”

She laughed, took another swig herself, so big her eyes burned, and she told herself it was the whiskey and nothing else.

Tommy went to work on his clothing. Pulled up tighty-whities first, followed by his jeans, then buckled his belt. He did it matter-of-factly, with none of the awkwardness girls generally felt. It’s why Ginny preferred front-seat blow jobs to backseat sex. Sex took longer and involved more logistics. Blow jobs, on the other hand, kept things simple and, with most boys, quick.

Tommy wanted the sour mash now. She handed him the bottle. Watched his Adam’s apple bob above the collar of his letterman’s jacket as he drank. He dragged his hand over his mouth, then handed the bottle back to her.

“Sex and whiskey. Doesn’t get any better than this!” he said with a grin.

“Not bad for a Tuesday night,” she granted.

He reached over, stealing his hand beneath her shirt, cupping her breast. His fingers found her left nipple, squeezing experimentally.

“You’re sure…?”

She batted his hand away. “Can’t. Gotta get home. Mama said if I broke curfew one more time, she was locking me out.”

“Your mama? Isn’t that the pot calling the kettle black?”

Ginny let that comment pass. “’Sides, don’t you gotta catch up with your posse? Or maybe swing by Darlene’s? She probably can’t sleep without one last glimpse of Loverboy.”

She started the comment playfully, ended with an edge. Just because you knew your place in the world didn’t mean you had to be happy about it.

Beside her, Tommy had grown quiet. He reached over, stroked her cheek with his thumb. It was a strange gesture coming from him. Almost tender.

“I got something for you,” he said abruptly, withdrawing his hand, going to work in his front denim pocket.

Ginny frowned at him. Of course he had something for her. That’s how these things worked. White-trash girl fucks the brains out of rich, handsome quarterback, and in return he gives her pretty sparkling gifts. Because all boys had needs, but not all boys could get what they needed from their uptight girlfriends.

Tommy was staring at her. Ginny looked down belatedly at his offered hand and realized with genuine shock that he was holding out his class ring.

“What the hell is that?” she blurted out.

Tommy recoiled, but quickly caught himself. “I know you’re surprised…”

“Darlene will carve out your heart with a spoon if she sees me wearing that.”

“Darlene doesn’t matter anymore.”

“Since when?”

“Since Saturday night, when I broke up with her.”

Ginny stared at him. “Why the hell would you do such a stupidass move like that?”

Tommy’s face darkened. He clearly hadn’t anticipated this reaction, but once again he forged ahead. “Ginny darlin’, I don’t think you understand…”

“Oh, I understand just fine. Darlene is beautiful. Darlene has pretty clothes and her daddy’s money and perfect lipstick, which naturally she doesn’t want to smudge going down on her hunky boyfriend.”

“You don’t need to put it that way,” Tommy said tightly.

“Put it what way? That precious little Darlene won’t swallow? So now you’ve convinced yourself you’re in love with Little Miss White Trash?”

“Don’t say that-”

“Say what? The truth? I know who I am. Only one with shit for brains in this truck is you. Now, I wanted a gold necklace and you promised me!”

“So that’s it? It’s all about the necklace?”

“’Course it is.”

He studied her, working his jaw. “You know, Trace tried to warn me about you. He said you had a mean streak, the soul of a snake. I told him he was wrong. You’re not your mother, Ginny. You could be…you are someone special. At least”-he squared his shoulders-“to me.”

“What the fuck is wrong with you!” She couldn’t stand it anymore. She popped open the door, hopped out of the truck. She heard him scrambling to get out the other side, maybe thinking he’d better stop her before she did something stupid.

They were parked off a logging road in the woods, the area deserted, the ground hard and uneven beneath her feet. For one impulsive moment, she wanted to run. She’d just take off, racing down the long blue tunnel spinning out between the tall Georgia pines.

She was young and strong. Girl like her could run a long time. God knows, she’d had the practice.

“Ginny, talk to me.”

Tommy’s voice from behind her. Still earnest, but giving her space. Heaven help her, the boy had probably taken a poetry class, or started listening to Sarah McLachlan, or some such shit. Everyone wanted everyone to have depth these days. Didn’t they realize that clichés were much easier to manage?

She took a deep breath, tilted her head up, stared at the stars. When life gives you lemons, she thought, make lemonade. The pure absurdity of the thought made her want to laugh, or maybe it was cry. So she did what she did best. She fisted her hands and worked the angles. Despite what people thought, a girl like her couldn’t afford to be cheap.

“Well, Tommy,” she announced, “I gotta be honest: You’ve taken me by surprise.”

“Well, yeah. Took myself by surprise, too. Wasn’t like I meant this to happen.”

“This’ll hurt you, you know. I wear that ring, kids at school, they’ll say some awful things.”

“Let ’em.”

“Four more months, you graduate, you’re done. Come on, Tommy, you don’t need this shit.”

“Ginny-” he started urgently again.

She placed her finger over his lips. “I’ll take your ring, Tommy.”

“You will?” Hopeful now. Earnest. Goddamn Sarah McLachlan.

“Did you bring the necklace?”

“Well, I did, just in case, but-”

“Gimme the necklace. I’ll wear the ring on it, beneath my shirt. It’ll be our secret, something just the two of us know, at least until school is out. I don’t need a big show to know you care. Already, this moment, what you’ve managed to do…” Her voice was growing edgy again. She forced herself to finish more brightly: “It means so much that you thought to do this.”

Tommy’s face lit up. He dug around in his pocket, finally producing a tiny ziplock bag containing the necklace. He’d probably bought it at Wal-Mart. Fourteen carat: It would turn the skin on her neck green.

Damn, all that for this?

She took the chain, looped it through the band of the ring, gave him a reassuring smile.

He grabbed her for a hard kiss. She let him. But then he started fondling her again, obviously intending to cement their new relationship with a rut in the woods.

Christ, she was tired.

With a bit of effort, she pushed him back, having to strain against one hundred and eighty pounds of testosterone. “Tommy,” she admonished, panting. “Curfew, remember? Let’s not start our new relationship with me grounded.”

He grinned, his color high. “Yeah, okay, guess not. But Lord, Ginny…”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Back in the truck, big boy. Let’s see how fast you can drive.”

Tommy could drive fast. But they still didn’t make it to her house until ten minutes after eleven. Front porch light was on, but nothing moved behind the shades.

With luck, her mother was out and would never know. After the night she’d had, Ginny felt she deserved a break.

Tommy wanted to watch until she was safe inside her house. She assured him that would make it worse, her mom might come out, make a scene. More coaxing. The cost of five valuable minutes, he finally drove off.

Her hero, she thought ironically, and turned toward her home.

It was small and gray, with no excuse for a lawn. Dull outside, even duller inside. But hey, as the saying went, it was home. At least it wasn’t a trailer park. See, once Ginny’d had a dad. And he’d been tall and handsome, with this big booming laugh and thick strong arms he’d use to swing her up into the air as he walked through the door after a long day at work.

Her daddy had died one day. Coming home from a dry-walling job, catching his front tires on black ice. Insurance money had paid for the house.

Her mother had turned to other activities to pay for the rest.

Ginny tried the door. It was locked. She shrugged philosophically, headed round the back. It was locked, too. She tried the windows, but already knew they wouldn’t budge. Her mom liked to lock up tight. Maybe their neighborhood had been blue collar once, but that had been about ten years and one economic class ago.

Ginny knocked on the door. Rang the doorbell. Not even a shade twitched.

Her mama had done it. Ginny had broken curfew, and her damn mama, who seemed convinced Ginny could do better if she’d just straighten up her act, had locked her out.

Fuck it. She’d go for a walk. Maybe in an hour or two, her mother would decide she’d made her point.

Ginny headed down her dark street, passing tiny home after tiny home. Folks who used to make a living. A lot who didn’t anymore.

She’d just hit the intersection with the rural road when the black SUV zipped by. She saw the brake lights flare up, dragon eyes, as the SUV screeched to a halt twenty yards away. A head poked out the driver’s side, too dark to see much other than the outline of a baseball cap. A heavy male baritone inquired, “Need a lift?”

It took Ginny only a moment to decide. The vehicle looked expensive, the voice sounded deep. It appeared that her night was finally looking up.

Ginny realized her mistake five minutes later. After she’d climbed into the throaty SUV, running her hand over the soft, tanned leather. After she’d giggled and told the man, middle-aged, trim, that her car had run out of gas. After, with another giggle, she had suggested he could give her a ride around the block.

He didn’t say much. Just took another left, another right, before abruptly pulling behind the giant self-storage warehouse and killing the engine.

Ginny felt the first shiver then. With a total stranger, there was always that initial moment when you were almost afraid. Before you remembered you didn’t have to be scared anymore because there wasn’t anything some asshole could take that you hadn’t already given away.

But then he turned and she found herself staring into a flat, unsmiling face. Hard square jaw, tight lips, eyes oversized pools of unending black.

And then, almost as if he knew how she would react, as if he wanted to savor the moment the expression crossed her face, he slowly pushed up the brim of his baseball cap and showed her his forehead.

Inside the pocket of her denim jacket, Ginny’s fingers wrapped tight around Tommy’s ring. For she only needed one look at what the man had done to reach several realizations at once: Her mother wouldn’t have to worry about curfew anymore. And young, lustful Tommy would never need to be embarrassed in front of his friends.

Because this man was never, ever letting her go home.

Some girls were smart. Some girls were fast. Some girls were strong. Ginny, poor Ginny Jones, had already learned four years ago, when her mother’s boyfriend first appeared in her bedroom, that she had only one way of saving herself.

“All right,” she said briskly. “Let’s cut to the chase: Why don’t you tell me exactly what you want me to do, and I’ll start stripping off clothes.”

ONE

THESE ARE THE THINGS THAT NO ONE TELLS YOU, THAT YOU must experience in order to learn:

It only hurts the first few times. You scream. You scream and you scream and you scream until your throat is raw and your eyes swollen and you taste a curious substance in the back of your throat that is like bile and vomit and tears all rolled into one. You cry for your mother. You beg for God. You don’t understand what is happening. You can’t believe it is happening.

And yet, it is happening.

And so, bit by bit, you fall silent.

Terror doesn’t last forever. It can’t. It takes too much energy to sustain. And in truth, terror occurs when you are confronted with the unknown. But once it has happened enough, you have been systematically violated, beaten, cowed, it’s not unknown, is it? The same act that once shocked you, hurt you, shamed you with its perversity, becomes the norm. This is your day now. This is the life you lead. This is who you have become.

A specimen in the collection.

TWO

“Spiders are always on the lookout for prey, but predators are also on the lookout for spiders. Clever disguises and quick getaways help keep spiders out of trouble.”

FROM Spiders and Their Kin,

BY HERBERT W. AND LORNA R. LEVI, A GOLDEN GUIDE FROM ST. MARTIN’S PRESS, 2002

“WE GOT A PROBLEM.”

“No kidding. Widespread production of methamphetamines, a middle class that keeps falling further and further behind, not to mention all the ruckus over global warming…”

“No, no, no. A real problem.”

Kimberly sighed. They’d been working this crime scene for three days now. Long enough that she no longer noticed the smell of burning jet fuel and charcoaled bodies. She was cold, dehydrated, and had a stitch in her side. It would take a lot, in her opinion, to qualify as a real problem at this point.

She finished up the last swig of bottled water, then turned away from the tent city that currently comprised command central, and faced her teammate. “All right, Harold. What’s the problem?”

“Uh-uh. Gotta see it to believe it.”

Harold didn’t wait for her answer, but set off at a half-jog, leaving Kimberly no choice but to follow. He trotted along the outside of the crime scene perimeter that surrounded what had once been a bucolic green field bordered by thick woodlands. Now half the treetops had been sheared off, while the pasture contained a deep, jagged scar of earth that ended in a blackened fuselage, crumpled John Deere tractor, and twisted right wing.

As crime scenes went, plane crashes were particularly messy. Sprawling in size, contaminated with biohazards, booby-trapped with jagged bits of metal and shattered glass. The kind of scene that threatened to overwhelm even the most seasoned evidence collector. Mid afternoon of day three, Kimberly’s team had finally passed the holy-crap-where-to-begin stage and was now cruising into the job-well-done-be-home-tomorrow-night-for-dinner phase of the documenting process. Everyone was popping less Advil, enjoying longer lunch breaks.

None of which explained why Harold was currently leading Kimberly away from command central, the hum of the generator, the bustle of dozens of investigators simultaneously working a scene…

Harold continued to lope along a straight line. Fifty yards, a hundred yards. Half a mile down…

“Harold, what the hell?”

“Five more minutes. You can do it.”

Harold increased his pace. Kimberly, never one to cry uncle, gritted her teeth and followed. They hit the end of the crime scene perimeter, and Harold turned right into the small grove of trees that had started the whole mess, the taller ones forming jagged white spikes pricking the overcast winter sky.

“Better be good, Harold.”

“Yep.”

“If this is to show me some kind of rare moss or endangered grass species, I will kill you.”

“I don’t doubt it.”

Harold dashed and ducked around shattered trees. Bobbed and weaved through the thick underbrush. When he finally stopped, Kimberly nearly ran into his back.

“Look up,” Harold ordered.

Kimberly looked up. “Ah shit. We have a problem.”

FBI Special Agent Kimberly Quincy was the total package-beautiful, brainy, and pedigreed, right down to a legendary former FBI profiler father whose name was linked to the likes of Douglas and Ressler in Academy halls. She had shoulder-length dusky blond hair, bright blue eyes, and fine patrician features-a gift from her dead mother, who was the source of the second set of rumors that would follow Kimberly for the rest of her career.

At five foot six, with a thin, athletic build, Kimberly was known for her physical endurance, proficiency with firearms, and intense dislike of personal touch. She was not one of those teammates who inspired love at first sight, but she certainly commanded respect.

Now entering her fourth year at the Atlanta Field Office of the FBI, finally assigned to Violent Crimes (VC) and team leader to one of Atlanta’s three Evidence Response Teams (ERTs), her career was firmly on track-or at least had been until five months ago. Though that wasn’t entirely true, either. She no longer participated in firearms training, but other than that, it was business as usual. After all, today’s Bureau considered itself to be an enlightened government organization. All about equity and fairness and gender rights. Or, as the agents liked to quip, it wasn’t your father’s FBI anymore.

At the moment, Kimberly had larger problems to consider. Starting with the severed leg dangling in a giant rhododendron bush ten feet outside their crime scene perimeter.

“How the hell did you even see that?” Kimberly asked now, as she and Harold Foster hustled back to command central.

“Birds,” Harold said. “Kept seeing a flock of them startle from that grove. Which made me think a predator had to be around. Which made me think, what would attract a predator to such an area? And then…” He shrugged. “You know how it goes.”

Kimberly nodded, though being a city girl herself, she didn’t really know how it went. Harold, on the other hand, had grown up in a log cabin and used to work for the Forestry Service. He could track a bobcat, skin a deer, and forecast the weather based on the moss patterns on a tree. At six one and one hundred seventy pounds, he resembled a telephone pole more than a lumberjack, but he considered twenty miles a day hike, and when the Atlanta ERTs had worked the Rudolph crime scene-the Atlanta Olympic Park bomber-Harold had made it to the remote campsite an hour ahead of the rest of the crew, which had still been struggling up the densely wooded, forty-five-degree incline.

“You gonna tell Rachel?” Harold was asking now. “Or do I have to?”

“Oh, I think you should take all the credit.”

“No, no, really, you’re the team leader. Besides, she won’t hurt you.”

He stressed the last sentence more than he needed to. Kimberly understood what he meant. And of course he was right.

She rubbed her side, and pretended she didn’t resent it.

The problem had started on Saturday, when a 727 had taken off from the Charlotte, North Carolina, airport at 6:05 a.m. With three crew members and a belly full of mail, it was due to arrive in Atlanta at 7:20 a.m. Conditions were damp and foggy, with potential for ice.

What exactly had gone wrong was left for the NTSB to sort out. But shortly after 7:15 a.m., during the initial approach to the runway, the 727 had descended, clipped the right wing on the top of a dense grove of trees, and careened into a farmer’s field, where it did an aviator’s version of a cartwheel, nailing one combine, two trucks, and a tractor, while raining metallic debris down a half-mile-long skid that ended with the fuselage bursting into flame.

By the time emergency vehicles had arrived, the crew members had perished and all that was left was the minor detail of processing a mile-long debris field that involved three human remains, one plane, four pieces of farming equipment, and a blizzard’s worth of U.S. mail. The NTSB moved in to manage the scene. And per the “Memorandum of Understanding” between the NTSB and the FBI, Atlanta’s three ERTs were mobilized to assist with evidence collection.

First thing FBI Senior Team Leader Rachel Childs had done was establish the perimeter. Rule of thumb for explosions and airline crashes-perimeter is set up fifty percent of the distance from the scene of the primary explosion to the farthest piece of evidence. So if the final piece of evidence is a hundred yards out, the perimeter is one hundred and fifty yards out. Or, in this case, the perimeter stretched two and a half miles long and half a mile wide. Not your normal the-butler-did-it-in-the-library-with-a-candlestick-leaving-behind-one-chalk-outline crime scene.

And absolutely perfect for the FBI’s latest and greatest toy, the Total Station.

Modified from the standard surveyor’s tool used by road crews, the Total Station was a laser-sighted gun, linked to special crime scene software. It turned data collection into literally a pull of a trigger, while spitting out up-to-the-minute 3-D models for death investigators to pore over at the end of each shift.

The process was relatively simple, but labor intensive. First, dozens of crime scene technicians worked the scene, flagging each piece of evidence, then classifying it-plane part, human remain, personal effect. Next, a designated “rod man” placed a glass reflector on each piece of tagged evidence. Finally, the “gun operator” homed in on the reflector and pulled the trigger, entering the evidence into the software’s database from distances up to three miles away, while the “spotter/recorder” oversaw the operation, detailing and numbering each item entered into evidence.

Everyone worked hard, and next thing you knew, a sprawling chaos of wreckage had been reduced into a neat computer model that almost made sense out of the vagaries of fate. It was enough to make any anal-retentive control freak happy, and Kimberly was guilty on both counts. She loved being rod man, though this time out, she’d had to content herself with recording duties instead.

The command center came into view. Kimberly spotted a cluster of white shirts and navy blue suits-the NTSB officials, poring over a huge blueprint of the original 727; then a pool of Windex blue-half a dozen crime scene techs, still wearing their hazmat gear; and finally, a pinprick of burnished copper. Rachel Childs, redhead, ERT senior team leader, and rabid perfectionist.

Kimberly and Harold ducked beneath the crime scene tape.

Harold whispered, “Good luck.”

Supervisory Special Agent Childs had set out to become a famous Chicago architect. At the last minute, she’d decided to join the FBI instead. She ended up assisting one of Chicago’s finest evidence gurus, and that was that, Rachel had found her calling in life. Her attention to detail, ability to sketch to scale, and obsession with paperwork had proven much more valuable to evidence documentation than it had to the further beautification of Chicago’s skyline.

That had been fifteen years ago, and she’d never looked back. At five foot nothing, one hundred and four pounds, she was one small, dedicated, hell-on-wheels Nancy Drew. Who was about to commit her first murder.

“How the hell could you have missed something as major as a human leg?” she roared.

She, Kimberly, and Harold had stepped away from the gathered masses to the relative shelter of a noisy generator. Rachel only dressed down her team members in private. Her team was her family. She could know they were fuckups. She could tell them they were fuckups. It was no one’s business, however, but their own.

“Well, the leg’s in a bush,” Harold ventured finally. “Beneath a tree. It’s not that easy to see.”

“It’s February. Leaves are long gone. It should’ve been visible.”

“It’s in a grove of pine,” Kimberly said. “Harold led me straight to it. I still couldn’t see anything until he pointed it out. Frankly, I’m impressed he saw it at all.”

Harold shot her a grateful look. Kimberly shrugged. He’d been right, Rachel wouldn’t go too hard on Kimberly. She might as well spread the magic around.

“Crap,” Rachel grumbled. “Day three, we should be wrapping up this mess, not restarting our efforts. Of all the stupid, amateurish…”

“It happens. Oklahoma City, the Nashville crash. These big scenes, it’s amazing we can wrap our arms around them at all.” Kimberly again.

“Still…”

“We adjust the perimeter. We refocus our search on the western side. It’ll cost us another day, but with any luck, one random leg is all we missed.”

Now, however, Rachel’s frown had deepened. “Wait a minute, you’re sure it’s a human leg?”

“I’ve seen legs before,” Harold said.

“Me, too,” Kimberly agreed.

But Rachel was suddenly holding her temples. “Ah crap! We’re not missing any body parts! We recovered three sets of human remains from the intact cockpit just this morning. And since I oversaw the effort, I know for a fact we had all six legs.”

Harold looked at both of them. “Told you we had a problem.”

They took a camera, flashlights, gloves, a rake, and a tarp. A mini evidence kit. Rachel wanted to see the “leg” for herself. Maybe they’d get lucky-it would turn out to be a scrap of fabric, or the torn arm from a life-size dummy, or better yet, the back hock of a deer some hunter had dressed up in clothing just to be funny. In Georgia, stranger things had happened.

With only two hours of daylight left, they moved quickly but efficiently through the copse of trees.

They combed the ground first to make sure they didn’t step on anything obvious. Then, adjusting slightly, Harold and Kimberly caught the item in the combined beams of their flashlights, illuminating it within the shadows of the overgrown bushes. Rachel knocked out half a dozen digital photos. Next came the tape measure and compass, recording the approximate size of the bush, relationship to the nearest fixed point, distance from their current perimeter.

Finally, when they had documented everything but the hoot of a barn owl and the way the wind tickled the backs of their necks, like a shiver waiting to slide beneath their Tyvek coveralls, Harold reached up and carefully eased the item onto the cradling teeth of his rake. Rachel quickly unfolded the tarp. Harold lowered his find into the middle of a sea of blue plastic. They studied it.

“Crap,” Rachel said.

It was definitely a leg, sheared off above the knee with the top of the femur bone glinting white against the blue tarp. From the size of it, probably male, clad in blue denim.

“You’re sure all three remains were intact?” Kimberly asked. She hadn’t gotten to do any evidence collection this time out. She liked to think it didn’t irk her, but it did. Especially now, when it seemed something obvious had been overlooked. “I mean, the cockpit was badly burned, the condition of the bodies couldn’t have been great.”

“Actually, the cockpit had separated from the main fuselage. It was scorched, but not annihilated; didn’t get splashed with enough jet fuel to burn that hot.”

“It’s not a pilot,” Harold said. “Pilots don’t wear blue jeans.”

“Farmer? Hired hand?” Kimberly asked. “Maybe when the plane hit the tractor…?” But she knew she was wrong the minute she said it. The farmer in question had already come by to study the wreckage and mourn his equipment. If he’d been missing a hired hand, they would’ve heard about it by now.

“I don’t get it.” Rachel was backing up, studying the woods around them. “We’re in the trees where the plane first hit. Look there.” She pointed at the sharp white tips of shattered trees just twenty feet south of them. “First impact with the wingtip. The right wing is yanked down, the plane bobbles, but the pilot corrects. In fact, he overcorrects because one hundred yards over there”-she swiveled, pointing at a target too far away to be seen-“we have the deep gouge in the earth at the edges of the farmer’s field from the left wingtip coming down, digging in…”

“Sending it into the fatal spin,” Kimberly finished for her. “Meaning, at this moment, in this place…”

“Plane shouldn’t be spinning yet, nor crew members’ legs falling out of the air. Think about it: We’re a mile from the cockpit. Even if the damn plane blew up-which we know it didn’t-how’d we get a leg clear back here?”

Harold was walking a little circle, studying the ground. So Kimberly did the next logical thing: She moved back, angled up her head, and studied the trees.

As luck would have it, she found it first. Just fifteen feet away, nearly eye level, so she was proud of the fact that she didn’t scream. The smell had warned her-rusty, pungent. Then she spotted the first bit of fluorescent orange. Then another, and another. Until finally…

The head was gone. So was the left arm and leg, leaving behind a strange, hunched-over shape, still dangling from the limbs of a tree.

“I don’t think we’re going home tomorrow,” Kimberly said, as Rachel and Harold joined her.

“A hunter?” Rachel asked incredulously. “But deer season ended months ago…”

“Deer season ended beginning of January,” Harold supplied helpfully. “But small game goes until the end of February. Then there are feral boars, bears, alligators. Hey, it’s Georgia. You can always shoot something.”

“Poor son of a bitch,” Kimberly murmured. “Can you imagine? Sitting up in a tree, looking out for…”

“Possum, grouse, quail, rabbit, squirrel,” Harold filled in.

“Only to lose his head to a seven-twenty-seven. What are the odds?”

“When your time comes, your time comes,” Harold agreed.

Rachel still looked seriously pissed off. One final sigh, however, and she pulled it together. “All right, we got about an hour of daylight left. Let’s not waste it.”

Turned out, the NTSB wasn’t so interested in a leg in the woods. A dead hunter amounted to collateral damage in the aviation world; the FBI could have it.

Rachel made a few calls, ordering up a fresh crime scene van and enough experienced agents and law enforcement volunteers to conduct a line search. Fifteen minutes later, a crowd of county deputies and FBI agents were dutifully gathered in the woods. Harold passed out thin probes to each volunteer, then briefed them all on the importance of looking up and down. As the line monitor, he would do his best to keep everyone in a row, which often got tricky in this kind of terrain.

According to the local sheriff, one Ronald “Ronnie” Danvers had been reported missing just this morning. Twenty years old, Ronnie had set out to go hunting three days ago. When he didn’t return home, his girlfriend assumed he’d gone to visit some friends. This morning, when she called over to bawl him out, she finally realized her mistake.

“It took her three days to realize he was missing?” Fellow agent Tony Coble wanted to know. “Feel that love.”

“Sounds like they’d been having some problems,” Harold reported. “Girlfriend’s pregnant and apparently moody.”

Harold absolutely did not look at Kimberly when he said that. So, of course, everyone else did.

“Hey, I am not moody,” Kimberly said. “I’ve always been a bitch.” The cramp in her left side had finally eased, leaving behind an entirely different sensation, like a little hiccup beneath her lowest rib. The sensation was still new and miraculous to her. Her hand remained curved around her lower abdomen, a singularly motherly gesture, but she couldn’t help herself.

The rest of her team was grinning at her. They’d already posted a stork on the wall above her desk. Last week, she’d returned from lunch to discover her in-box filled with pacifiers. G-men were supposed to be tough; lately, all she had to do was sigh heavily and someone was rushing to fetch her a glass of water, a chair, a dill pickle. Bunch of softies. Heaven help her, she loved each and every one of them, even know-it-all Harold.

“Here’s the deal.” Rachel spoke up. “We thought we’d have the luxury of going home tonight, or for those of us who never go home, at least visit the office to tend our current cases; that ain’t gonna happen. We have one hour, maybe two. We gotta map this scene, then collect the evidence and get it back to command central, where we can document it under the outdoor floodlights. In other words, you can thank me once again for showing y’all a good time.”

The volunteers groaned.

Rachel simply smiled. “All right, people. Find me Ronnie’s head.”

THREE

“The brown recluse spins a medium-sized irregular web with a maze of threads extending in all directions without definite pattern or plan.”

FROM Biology of the Brown Recluse Spider,

BY JULIA MAXINE HITE, WILLIAM J. GLADNEY, J. L. LANCASTER, JR., AND W. H. WHITCOMB, DEPARTMENT OF ENTOMOLOGY, DIVISION OF AGRICULTURE, UNIVERSITY OF ARKANSAS, FAYETTEVILLE, MAY 1966

KIMBERLY ARRIVED HOME SHORTLY AFTER MIDNIGHT. She moved through the darkened house with the ease of someone used to late hours and dim lighting. Bag, coat, and shoes deposited on the bench in the hall. Brief pause in the kitchen for a glass of water, glance at the answering machine.

Mac had left the lamp burning on the built-in desk. In the small pool of illumination he’d piled mail, topped with a purple Post-it bearing the hand-scrawled message:?

An empty pizza box indicated he’d been home for dinner. She checked the fridge for leftovers, found half a cheese pizza, and weighed her options. Lowfat vanilla yogurt, cold cheese pizza. It wasn’t much of a debate.

She chewed the first slice of pizza while standing in the middle of the kitchen, going through the mail. She discovered the Pottery Barn Kids catalogue and ate the second slice while eyeballing all items made with pink gingham.

Kimberly was convinced she was going to have a girl. For one thing, she didn’t know anything about little boys, so a baby girl made more sense. For another, she had lost her mother and older sister ten years ago to a psychopath. In her opinion, God owed her something, and clearly, it was a daughter.

Mac was holding out for a boy, of course, whom he was planning on naming in honor of Dale Murphy of the Atlanta Braves and outfitting entirely in Major League Baseball uniforms.

Kimberly thought her little girl (Abigail, Eva, Ella???) could out-pitch Mac’s little boy, no problem. And round and round they went. Winner to be determined sometime around June 22.

Kimberly and Mac had met nearly five years ago at the FBI Academy. She’d been in New Agent Training, he’d been attending the National Academy as a Special Agent with the GBI-Georgia Bureau of Investigation. First time they’d run into each other, she’d gone after him with a knife. He’d responded by trying to steal a kiss. That had pretty much summed up their relationship ever since.

They’d been married a year now. Long enough to have worked out the kinks in basic logistics-who was responsible for taking out the trash, bringing home the groceries, mowing the lawn-while still newlywed enough to forgive small faults and inevitable oversights.

Mac was the romantic. He brought her flowers, remembered her favorite song, kissed her on the back of her neck just because. She was the type-A workaholic. Every day an agenda, every hour a task that needed completing. She worked too hard, compartmentalized too little, and probably would have a nervous breakdown before the age of forty, except that Mac would never allow it. He was her rock; while, most likely, she was his ticket to sainthood.

No doubt about it: Mac would make an excellent mother.

Kimberly sighed, poured another glass of water. Her first trimester had gone well. Some tiredness, but nothing she couldn’t push through. Some nausea, but nothing that couldn’t be remedied by eating pudding. A normal woman would’ve gained thirty pounds; fortunately, with her athletic build and high-strung metabolism, Kimberly had barely gained ten, and was only now, at the twenty-two-week mark, beginning to show.

She was healthy, her baby was healthy, and her handsome, dark-haired husband was over the moon.

Which was probably why, on nights like tonight, Kimberly wondered what the hell they’d done.

They were hardly a traditional couple in a traditional marriage. They’d met over a crime scene and dated while trying to stop a serial killer. In the past few years, the most consecutive days they’d spent together was in Oregon working another case-the abduction of Kimberly’s stepmother.

They didn’t do Friday nights out. They rarely even had Sunday morning snuggles. Her pager would go off. His pager would go off. One of them would be gone, and the other simply understood it would be his or her turn next. They both loved their jobs, they both gave each other space, and that made things work.

Last Kimberly knew, however, babies definitely required Friday night caring and Sunday morning snuggles and lots and lots of time in between.

What would give? Her job? His job? Or maybe they could do it with help from Mac’s mother? Then again, what was the point of having a child if you were only going to hand it over for someone else to raise?

Lately, Kimberly had started to have nightmares, terribly vivid dreams where Mac was killed in an auto accident, or shot on the job, or mowed down on his way to the Chick-fil-A for sandwiches. The dreams always ended with her holding the phone, We’re terribly sorry to inform you of your husband’s death, while down the hall came the high-pitched wail of a newborn.

She’d wake up, drenched in sweat and shaking from terror. She, a woman who’d once stood in a hotel room with a killer’s gun pressed against her temple like a lover’s kiss.

She was strong, she was intelligent, she was tough. And she absolutely, positively knew she could not do this alone.

On those nights, she would turn away from her husband’s warm, solid form. She would curl in a ball, her hand cradling her belly. She would stare at the dusky wall across the room, and she would miss her mother.

Kimberly finished the catalogue, set down her water glass, ducked into the guest bath, where she quietly brushed her teeth. Her hair still smelled like jet fuel, her clothes and skin reeked of an oily barbecue. She tossed her clothes into the laundry room, then padded naked down the hall to the master bedroom.

Mac had left the bedside lamp on. Used to each other’s rhythms by now, he didn’t stir as she started the shower, then rummaged the drawers for her pajamas.

When she finally slid clean and fresh beneath the sheets, Mac rolled toward her, raising one arm in groggy welcome.

“Okay?” he whispered.

“Found Ronnie’s head.”

“Nice.”

She scooted into the warm spoon of his body, spreading his hand over her side, where the baby’s kicks now registered like the flutter of butterfly wings, filling up the well of her heart.

Voices were talking:

“Come on, Sal. Surely you can do better than that. It’s three in the morning, for God’s sake. Chances are the girl has never even met Kimberly. She just wants a get-out-of-jail-free card. You know how these things are.”

At the sound of her name, Kimberly pulled herself further from the dregs of sleep. She opened her eyes to discover Mac standing across the bedroom, talking on his cell phone. The second he noticed her eyes were open, he flushed guiltily.

Then, very pointedly, he turned around, giving her his back as he continued to argue: “What specific information has she given you to warrant an FBI agent’s personal visit? Sure. Yeah. That and a quarter will buy you a cup of coffee. ’Sides, that’d be our ball game, not the FBI’s.”

Now Kimberly was fully awake. And increasingly angry.

Mac was running his hand through his hair. “Mano a mano, do you think she’s for real or just some kid caught in a pinch? Well, I know that’s not your call to make. Do it anyway!”

But apparently, Sal wasn’t willing to play that game. Mac sighed. Mussed his hair again. Then reluctantly turned to face his wife, cell phone held against his shoulder, resigned expression on his face.

Before she could launch into her tirade, he went with a preemptive strike: “It’s GBI Special Agent Salvadore Martignetti. Couple of officers arrested a prostitute in Sandy Springs who claims she’s your informant. She doesn’t have your card or seem to know anything about you, but she’s sticking to her story. The officers serve with Sal on VICMO, so they contacted him and he gave me a buzz.”

VICMO stood for the Violent Crimes and Major Offenders Program. Its goal was to bring together officers from all over the state in an attempt to identify larger patterns of crime. In reality, it was some bureaucrat’s attempt at getting the dozens upon dozens of law enforcement agencies to play nice together.

“Hey, if Sal has information for me, he should be dialing me direct. Isn’t that the point of all these cross-jurisdictional teams? We’re all one big happy family, loading each other’s numbers into our speed dials?”

Mac gave her a look. “Don’t start. The girl says her name is Delilah Rose. Mean anything?”

“Other than an obvious alias?”

“You don’t have to go. For Christ’s sake, you just got home three hours ago, and no doubt you’re back at the crash scene by six.”

“What’s she offering?”

“Won’t give ’em any details. Says it’s for your ears only.”

“But Sal has an opinion.”

Mac shrugged. “Sounds like she’s claiming to have information on another missing prostitute.”

Kimberly arched a brow. “And that would be GBI’s ball game, as you graciously put it?” she asked drily.

“Last time I read the statutes.”

“Not if the act involved crossing state lines.” Kimberly threw back the covers and climbed out of bed.

“Kimberly…”

“I’m gonna talk to a girl, Mac, not hoe the cotton fields. Trust me, even a pregnant woman can do this.”

After all these years, Mac knew when he’d lost the war. He returned to the cell phone. “Sal? You heard? Yeah, she’ll pay the girl a visit. Do me a favor? Make sure the station has plenty of bottled water.”

“Oh please,” Kimberly tossed over her shoulder, “why don’t you just ask him to stock pickles as well?”

Sal must have heard that, too. “No, no, no,” Mac was already correcting. “But if you want the inside skinny, she’ll do anything you want for vanilla pudding. I keep snack packs stashed in my car. It’s probably the only reason I’m still alive. Oh, and don’t forget plastic spoons, otherwise it gets ugly. Yeah, thanks, buddy. Bye.”

By the time Kimberly exited the bathroom, she’d splashed cold water on her face and was fully awake. Mac had returned to their queen-size bed, but was sitting up, watching her with dark eyes. She pulled a fresh pair of slacks from the closet. He still didn’t say a word.

The argument was already three months old, and not due to be resolved anytime soon. Kimberly pulled a tough caseload, even by FBI standards. In the post-9/11 world, the Criminal side of the house had been gutted to get National Security up and running. Atlanta’s Violent Crimes unit went from sixteen agents to only nine, with fifty-hour workweeks becoming seventy-hour marathons. Days routinely started at nine a.m. and went to all hours of the night.

If that wasn’t enough, Kimberly had joined the ERT as an “extracurricular,” providing another forty to fifty call outs a year, for such high-stress situations as plane crashes, bank robberies, hostage situations, kidnappings, and the occasional cult leader showdown. Agents received free training for their extracurriculars, but no extra income. Agents served because they were called to serve, the work its own reward.

Kimberly had been only four weeks pregnant when Mac started to question why she needed quite so much work to provide her with a sense of reward. Perhaps she could rejoin White Collar Crimes or, better yet, transfer to Health Care Fraud with Rachel Childs. Rachel worked only five cases a year. True, they were document-intensive cases, but they also had a longer lead time, opening up flexibility for, in Rachel’s case, managing the ERT, or in Kimberly’s case, having a baby.

Health Care Fraud was valuable work. Indeed, as Mac liked to say when he really got going, fraud was the heart and soul of the Bureau.

Kimberly suggested that she join Counterterrorism and spend six months working in Afghanistan. That shut him up for a day or two.

In the FBI, everything boiled down to “the needs of the Bureau.” Why weren’t new agents allowed to pick their first field office, and in fact, the new agent from Chicago was most likely to be sent to Arkansas, even though the Chicago office needed the most recruits? Because from the beginning, the powers that be wanted to make sure everyone understood one simple mandate: The needs of the Bureau came first. You were serving the U.S. government, protecting the American people, and that was given as much weight and gravitas in the FBI as in any branch of the armed forces.

The Bureau needed Kimberly in Violent Crimes. She was good at the work, experienced in the field. Besides, to ask for a transfer now would be insulting to her male teammates, most of whom had children, too.

She had on her shirt now, then a basic black jacket she could no longer button, but looked okay hanging open. She inspected her reflection in the mirror. Head-on, you’d never guess she was pregnant. But once she turned to the side…

Another flutter. Her palm pressed against the curve of her waist. Her own rueful smile, because as much as she loved her job, heaven help her, she already loved this, too.

She crossed to the bed and kissed Mac on the cheek.

“I’m right, you’re wrong,” she informed him.

“You haven’t heard a word I said.”

“Oh yes, I did.”

He cupped the back of her head, pulled her down for a more serious kiss. They both understood the importance of never leaving the house angry.

“Things are different now,” he said quietly.

“I know things are different, Mac. I’m the one wearing pants with an elastic waist.”

“I worry.”

“Well, you shouldn’t. According to last week’s exam, mommy and baby are doing great.” She sighed, relenting a fraction. “Eight to twelve more weeks, Mac. That’s all I’m asking for-this last little window before I become as big as a house, and then I have to obey your every command because I won’t be able to put on my own shoes.”

She gave him a final kiss, feeling his resistance in the set of his jaw. She straightened and headed for the door.

She heard his last words, too. The line he never spoke, probably never would speak, but remained in the air between them.

Her father had also put the needs of the Bureau first. And it had destroyed her family.

FOUR

“The initial bite is usually painless.”

FROM Brown Recluse Spider,

BY MICHAEL F. POTTER, URBAN ENTOMOLOGIST, UNIVERSITY OF KENTUCKY COLLEGE OF AGRICULTURE

SANDY SPRINGS WAS LOCATED FIFTEEN MILES NORTH of Atlanta, off Route 285 and Georgia 400. A major metro area, it boasted four hospitals, several Fortune 500 companies, and, of course, a freshwater spring. While Sandy Springs strove for a family-friendly reputation, it remained best known for its nightlife, with bars that stayed open until four a.m. and a plethora of “massage parlors” always eager for new clients. Young, old, male, female, drunk, or sober, you could find a good time in Sandy Springs.

Which really started to annoy the locals. So in June 2005, they voted overwhelmingly to incorporate as a city, overnight becoming the seventh largest in the state. First order of business for the brand-new city council: form its own police department to crack down on the area’s less desirable elements. Sandy Springs was jumping on the urban renewal bandwagon, by God, right down to a new collection of very trendy restaurants.

Kimberly hadn’t worked with the new PD yet. She figured the officers would either be fresh-faced recruits or fifty-year-old state police retirees coasting into a second career in a middle-class metro area. She got a little of both.

Kid that met her at the door looked about three years away from shaving. The night sergeant, on the other hand, with his thinning hair and growing middle, had clearly been around the block. He shook her hand warmly, angled his head at the kid and gave her a look that said, Can you believe the puppy I got working for me? In case that wasn’t enough, he smiled and winked.

Kimberly didn’t return the wink or the smile and after a moment Sergeant Trevor gave up.

“We picked up the girl shortly after one a.m.,” Trevor reported. “She was working the MARTA station on-”

“She was working at the train station?” Kimberly couldn’t help herself. Somehow, she’d assumed the girl had been pinched during a raid on a massage parlor. Streetwalkers were reserved for the red light districts such as Fulton Industrial Boulevard. In theory, Sandy Springs was too…hip…for that kind of obvious display.

“Happens,” Trevor said. “Especially since we’ve started raiding more of the establishments. Some of the girls think they can blend in with the clubbers, you know, except the hookers show slightly less skin. Others…hell, they’re too strung-out to care, or operating on orders to pick up more chicks, that sort of thing. Gotta replenish the henhouse, you know.”

Trevor puffed out his chest, clearly wanting to impress the fed. Before this job, he’d probably been a security officer, Kimberly decided. Any occupation that allowed him to wear a uniform.

The kid had disappeared. Kimberly suspected that was also due to Trevor’s orders. He wanted this to be his show. She pinched the bridge of her nose and wished she were back at the plane crash.

She asked for Trevor’s report on the arrest. He printed it out, she skimmed the particulars. Time, location, other activity. It seemed very straightforward. Girl had been found with an ounce of meth in her pocket, and was now looking at doing some time. So naturally Delilah Rose insisted she was an informant for the feds.

“I’ll talk to her,” Kimberly said.

“Is it drugs?” Trevor blurted out. “She gonna turn in a dealer, maybe a supply network? Meth, hell, it’s taking over the entire state. Make her give you someone big. No penny-ante crap. The state’s due for a major arrest.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Kimberly assured him drily. “Where is she?”

Trevor led her to an interrogation room, the other advantage of crying snitch. Rather than waiting in a holding cell, Delilah got her very own tiny square room and a can of Diet Coke. Not bad for a night’s work.

Kimberly paused outside the door. Through the one-way glass, she had her first view of the “informant.” She did her sizing up quickly and without giving anything away on her face.

Delilah Rose was white, a surprise in a state where the majority of prostitutes were African American or, especially in the massage parlors, Asian. She appeared to be early twenties, with the blotchy skin and dirty-blond hair of a woman living too hard, too fast.

As Kimberly stood there, the girl raised her face belligerently and stared at the mirror. Bright blue eyes, hard-set jaw. Tough. Sober.

Good.

“I’ll take it from here,” Kimberly told Trevor. “Thanks for giving me a call.”

“No problem. You’ll let us know-”

“Thanks for giving me a call,” Kimberly said again, and shouldered her way past the hefty sergeant into the tiny room.

Kimberly took her time. Closed the door. Pulled out a hard plastic chair. Had a seat.

From inside her jacket pocket, she pulled a mini-recorder. Next, a small spiral notebook and two pens. Finally, she made a show of checking her watch and writing the time at the top of the pad.

Then she set down her pen, leaned back in her chair, and, folding her hands over her stomach, proceeded to stare at Delilah Rose. Minute passed, then two or three. Kimberly wondered if Sergeant Trevor was watching on the other side of the mirror. No doubt he was rapidly growing impatient with this lack of show.

The girl was good, but Kimberly better. Delilah broke first, picking up her Coke, then realizing the can was empty and returning it nervously to the table.

“Want another?” Kimberly asked quietly.

“No, thank you.”

Ah, manners. Most suspects, informants, addicts tried them on for law enforcement, maybe falling back on that childhood promise that if you just used the magic word…They were very polite. At least at first.

Kimberly returned to silence. The girl cleared her throat, then began rotating the empty can with her fingertips.

“You’re trying to make me nervous,” the girl said at last, her tone sulky, faintly accusing.

“Are you high, Delilah Rose?”

“No!”

“Police said they found you with meth.”

“I don’t do drugs! Ever. I was just holding the bag for a friend. How was I supposed to know it was meth?”

“Do you drink?”

“Sometimes-but not tonight.”

“I see. And what were you doing tonight?”

“Hell”-now the attitude was coming out-“I wasn’t doing nothin’ tonight. Just visited a club for a little dancing. Then catching MARTA to fly home. Since when is needing public transport a crime?”

Kimberly merely eyed Delilah’s outfit. Underneath a navy blue jacket that was too thin for this time of year, the girl was a walking advertisement for spandex. Short, shiny skirt the color of eggplant. Jet-black halter top, so tight her breasts spilled out the sides. Then there were the four-inch stiletto heels.

Kimberly caught a glimpse of what appeared to be a spiderweb, inked around the girl’s navel, before Delilah self-consciously tugged her shirt down. A second tattoo peeked out from the back of the girl’s neck, a spider climbing into the girl’s hair.

“Who did the work?” Kimberly asked, pointing to Delilah’s neck.

“Don’t remember.”

“Nice web on your stomach. What’s the ring in your navel? A spider for the web? Clever.”

The girl didn’t say anything. Just stuck out her chin belligerently.

Kimberly gave her another minute, then decided she’d had enough. She started straightening up, grabbing her mini-recorder, the spiral notebook, the first pen.

“What the fuck?” Delilah cried.

“Excuse me?” Kimberly asked calmly, sticking the mini-recorder back in her pocket.

“Where the hell are you going? You haven’t even asked me any questions yet. What kind of FBI agent are you?”

Kimberly shrugged. “You said you weren’t doing anything. You claim the drugs aren’t yours. So okay. You’re the Virgin Mary, and I’m going back to bed.”

Kimberly reached for her second pen. The girl grabbed her wrist. For a skinny, malnourished thing, Delilah Rose was strong. Kimberly understood that kind of strength. It was called desperation.

Very slowly, Kimberly met the girl’s overbright gaze. “I don’t know you. We’ve never met. Meaning you’re no informant of mine, and as far as I’m concerned, Sandy Springs can do with you whatever they’d like. Now let go of my wrist, or you will regret it very fast.”

“I need to talk to you.”

“I’ve been here six minutes. You’ve had nothing to say.”

“I don’t want Sergeant Nimrod listening.” The girl had let go of Kimberly’s wrist. Now her gaze flickered to the one-way mirror.

“Sergeant Trevor isn’t your concern. I am your concern, and you’ve still not given me any reason to stay.” Kimberly picked up the pen, tucking it away.

“He’ll kill me.”

“Sergeant Trevor?”

“No, no. The man…I don’t know his name. I mean, not his real name. He calls himself Mr. Dinchara. The other girls, we call him Spideyman.”

“Mr. Dinchara?”

“You know, arachnid. It’s a…what do you call it? An anagram.”

“Oh please.” Kimberly couldn’t help herself. She eyed the girl’s getup again, arching a brow skeptically.

“He’s different.”

“Uh-huh.” Kimberly was already pushing back her chair, rising out of the hard plastic.

“He doesn’t pay for sex. At least not in the beginning.” Delilah’s voice was growing more urgent. “Spideyman pays girls money to, like, play with his pets. You know, ten bucks if you’ll touch the tarantula. Thirty if you’ll let it crawl up your arm. Freaky kind of stuff like that.”

“Play with his pets?”

“Oh, the venom from a tarantula isn’t strong enough to harm you, you know.” Delilah actually sounded earnest. “They’re really very shy and like…fragile. You have to handle ’ em gently. Otherwise, you can hurt them.”

Kimberly didn’t talk anymore, mostly because she couldn’t think of anything to say.

Delilah, on the other hand, was finally on a roll: “So at first, you know, the things he wanted involved his pets. But then he didn’t want his spiders just walking across your arm. He wanted to watch them walking across other areas. And, well, that got him pretty turned on. So then he wanted other activities, and yeah, maybe it’s a little different and not all the girls were into it, but then again, he paid pretty good.”

“What’s pretty good?”

“Hundred for a hand job, one fifty for oral. Two if you’d let the spider watch.”

“Watch?”

“From inside its cage, of course. I mean, you can’t just have a tarantula wandering about when you’re not paying attention. You might squish it.”

“Exactly what I feared,” Kimberly murmured. Just when you thought you’d heard it all, some pervert pushed the boundaries yet again. “Okay, so you and Dinchara have a little thing going on.” Kimberly eyed the girl’s tattoos again. “I gotta be honest. Sounds like you two are a good fit, and as you said, he pays well. So why are you here?”

Delilah looked away. The chatty spell had ended, they had returned to the land of silence. “Something went wrong,” the girl mumbled at last.

“No kidding. Come on, night’s not getting any younger. Why did you ask to see me?”

The girl’s lips trembled. “Because of Ginny. Ginny Jones. She went away with him. And nobody’s seen her since.”

Kimberly took a seat. She got out her notebook and pen, turned on the mini-recorder. The girl eyed the machine nervously, but didn’t protest.

“I want protection,” she blurted out.

“You want protection? Like what?”

“A…a safe house. Police protection. Whatever it is you see on TV.”

“Delilah, that’s TV. In the real world, it doesn’t work like that. You gotta pay to play.”

“Pay to play? What’s that mean?”

Kimberly was serious. “That means you have to provide real information on a real crime. Something specific and detailed. If I can corroborate it, then we can talk options.”

“How specific?”

“Let’s start with a name. Ginny Jones. Real or alias?”

“Virginia,” the girl whispered. “Her real name was Virginia Jones, but everyone called her Ginny. She was nice. Not into drugs, some of the stuff you see. Just…I don’t know. Something had happened somewhere.” The girl smiled wanly. “Doesn’t it always?”

“When did you last see her?”

“Three months ago. A Wednesday. Maybe a Thursday. I’m not sure anymore. She’d gone with the guy before. She’s, umm, she’s the one who told me about him. You know, when she saw my tats. Said there might be this guy, kind of freaky, but by the looks of things, nothing I couldn’t handle, and hey, the money’s good-”

“So Ginny knew Dinchara?”

“Yeah, I guess. I mean, okay.”

“And she was okay with the eight-legged audience?”

Delilah shrugged. “Ginny said the spiders didn’t bother her. She used to tell me she wasn’t afraid of anything. At least not anymore.”

“So when did you last see her?”

“While back.”

“Delilah.”

“Ummm, several months ago, maybe one-thirty in the morning. Dinchara came by in his SUV.”

“Describe it.”

“Black. Silver trim. Fancy. A Toyota, I think, but a souped-up version. You know they sometimes upgrade them? This one has the fancier rims, the leather seats. Limited Edition.”

“License plate?”

“I don’t know,” the girl said immediately.

Kimberly took a moment to study her again. The answer was too quick, especially in this day and age, when the hookers also watched CSI and understood the value of information. “Was it a Georgia plate?”

“Yeah, okay.”

“Starting letters?”

“I don’t know. Honestly.” More defensive now. “I try not to know too much, okay? The girls that get into that…It’s like asking for trouble.”

“Describe him.”

Delilah’s eyes fell. She worried her lower lip. “Um, white. Middle-aged. Brown hair. Kind of wiry maybe, like a carpenter, someone who works with his hands. He has a smell to him, too. Some kind of chemical. I always figured he did some kind of trade, but I never asked.”

“Any distinguishing marks?”

“Like what?”

“Scar, tattoo, birthmark.”

“Well, you know, it’s not like the guy takes the time to undress…”

“On his face then?”

But Delilah merely shrugged. “I dunno. They all look alike to me.”

“They?”

“Men, johns, pervs, whatever you wanna call ’em. They’re all the same.”

Kimberly gave her a dubious look.

Delilah finally perked up. “Hey, there was one thing. His hat. He always wears a red baseball cap. I’ve never seen him without it. He doesn’t even take it off, when, well, you know. So a red baseball cap. That’s something, isn’t it?”

“It’s something,” Kimberly conceded and dutifully made a note. “Other clothing?”

“Jeans,” Delilah supplied. “Long-sleeved shirt. Kind of Eddie Bauerish, I guess. Outdoorsy, but preppy outdoorsy. I think he has money.”

“Why do you say that?”

“The car, the clothes, the hourly rate. Not just any shlub can afford that.”

“Describe his voice.”

“Ummm, a guy’s voice?”

“Accent?”

Delilah considered the matter. “Southern. A drawl, but not too deep.”

“Where are you from, Delilah?”

But the girl wouldn’t answer.

“Accent? Vocabulary? Do you think he’s educated?”

“He knows a lot about spiders.”

“So do you.”

Delilah flushed. “My brother had one as a pet, long time ago. Named her Eve. I used to help him catch crickets for her. She was really pretty. Spideyman…he’s not just a pet owner. He had this white spider, I once called it a tarantula and he got all mad at me: ‘She’s not just some tarantula, she’s a Grammostola rosea…’-some Chilean kind of tarantula or something like that. He got pretty angry I didn’t know the difference. He kind of…”

“He kind of what?”

“He scared me.”

“How?”

“Just, the look on his face. I don’t know.” The girl shrugged. “For a moment, I kind of thought…maybe I was a specimen, too. You know, Slutto hookeroso.” Delilah smiled wanly at her joke, but her eyes weren’t in it.

“Did he threaten you?”

“No. He didn’t have to. You could see it on his face. Some guys are like that, you know. They want you to see it coming.”

Kimberly didn’t comment on that. She’d been involved in law enforcement long enough to know Delilah had a point. “So how does he approach girls? In his car?”

“Not always. I mean, it’s not exactly a street corner kind of game out there. It’s more, you go to the right places, hang out, maybe you’ll meet the right man.”

“You go to a club,” Kimberly filled in. “You make a move, he makes a move. Then what happens?”

“You follow him. Maybe to a car, or someplace…quieter. You work out the details along the way. Get the money up front, do what you gotta do, then bada bing, bada boom, it’s all done, and you’re outta there.”

“And in the case of Mr. Dinchara, where did he lead you?”

“His SUV.”

“Did you ever have a problem getting back out?”

“No, but I make it quick. If you get the money up front, then you can make your exit while he’s still…happy. Makes for a better getaway.”

Kimberly arched a brow. “So basically, while the guy’s pants are still down around his ankles, you’re exiting stage right.”

“Works like a charm.”

“So you know Mr. Dinchara, and Ginny Jones knows Mr. Dinchara. Now why do you think Mr. Dinchara had something to do with Ginny going away?”

“Because the last time I saw her, she was with him. I saw them walking down the street, away from a club. I was actually a bit pissed, you know. I mean seriously, he paid half a night’s work.”

“And?”

“And that’s the last time I saw Ginny.”

Kimberly took a moment, organizing the information in her head, composing her next statement. “Delilah, this is all very interesting, but I can’t do anything with it.”

“Why not?”

“No evidence of a crime.”

The girl looked at her funny. “Don’t you believe me? I’m telling the truth. Ginny was my friend. He hurt her. He should pay!”

“In the last three months,” Kimberly asked bluntly, “have you seen Spideyman again?”

Delilah’s gaze slid away. “Maybe.”

“Did you conduct any business with him?”

Barely a whisper now. “Maybe.”

“Like you said,” Kimberly murmured, “money’s good. You’re still willing to be alone with him, Delilah. How bad can he be?”

The girl didn’t answer for a long time. When she finally did, Kimberly had to lean forward to catch her words. “Last time I was with him, I was on my knees. Doing, you know. And right at the final moment, his hands suddenly wrapped around my neck, squeezed. I couldn’t breathe. I was choking, hitting at him. And I heard him…I heard him whisper, Ginny. Then all of a sudden, he released my neck and I got the hell out of there.

“Thing is, I don’t think he knows he said it. I think he was caught up in the moment. But I’m not sure. Maybe he realized it later. Maybe he knows that I know. I can’t…I don’t feel so good about things anymore. Because what if he did hurt Ginny? Choked her like that. And what if I’m the only one who can connect her to him? You gotta help me. It’s not just about Ginny. It’s me, too. I need police protection.”

Kimberly sighed, rubbed the bridge of her nose. “You want my trust? Let’s start with your real name.”

“Delilah Rose. You can look it up, the police did.”

“Name, date of birth.”

“Why is it always about me? I always gotta prove, prove, prove. I just gave you a pervert on a silver platter. Maybe you should prove yourself to me for a change.”

“Which brings me to my second question: Why’d you call me? How’d you even know my name?”

Delilah wasn’t as quick to answer this time. If anything, Kimberly thought the girl suddenly appeared sly. “You’re the one who caught the Eco-Killer. I saw it on the news. The rookie agent, a girl, no less. I figure if Spideyman killed Ginny, you’re the one who can make it right.”

“I can’t make it right, Delilah. There’s no evidence of a crime, and even if there was, it’s not my party. You need to talk to the Sandy Springs PD.”

“No. It has to be you. You caught the Eco-Killer, you’ll help Ginny.”

“Delilah-”

“I got something.”

Kimberly stilled, eyed the girl more warily. “What is something?”

“That night, when he was choking me, I happened to notice it on the floor, beneath the seat. When he wasn’t looking, I scooped it up.” Delilah looked around the room, as if to ensure they were really alone, then she reached down into her halter top, producing from her left bra cup a heavy gold ring.

“It’s Ginny’s,” she whispered, plopping it on the table with a metallic thud. “She used to wear it on a chain around her neck. She never took it off. I mean never. So, see, this proves Ginny was in Spideyman’s truck.”

Kimberly arched a brow, but moved the ring closer to her, using the tip of her pen and careful not to touch. It looked to her to be a class ring. The center stone was blue. Some kind of inscription appeared on the inside but was hard to read, given the layers of grime.

“Who else saw Ginny wearing this ring?”

Delilah shrugged. “Dunno. Never asked.”

“Did she tell you how she got it?”

Another negative.

“Anyone else know you found it in Mr. Dinchara’s truck?”

“Hell no! Now, see, this is the kind of business that can really get a girl hurt-”

“Yeah, yeah. Got that.” Kimberly frowned, studied the ring. Frowned again. Finally, she sat back. “Can I take this?”

“Sure, yeah, that’s why I brought it. You can open a case now, right?”

“Not quite.”

Delilah’s turn to scowl. “Hey, you asked for evidence, I gave you evidence!”

“Strictly speaking, Delilah, this ring is not evidence. No chain of custody, meaning it would never hold up in court. That it belongs to Ginny has not been corroborated. That it was found inside a subject’s truck is equally murky. At the moment, it’s merely a very dirty class ring.”

“I don’t like your attitude,” Delilah said.

“Trust me, feeling’s mutual.” Kimberly rapped the end of her pen on the table three times fast. “Here’s what we’re gonna do, Delilah. Remember what I said? You gotta pay to play. We’re going to consider this ring a down payment.” She took out a business card, circled the Bureau’s main number on the front. “Bring me more information. Times, places, even other people who can vouch that Ginny Jones used to work in this area, wearing this ring, and has now disappeared. Maybe, if you’re lucky, you can find enough to build a case for the local PD. I’ll help walk you through it, but I gotta be honest. As of this time, this is a case for the locals, not the FBI.”

She started gathering up her supplies again. This time, Delilah didn’t try to stop her, just crossed her arms over her chest with a look of resigned hurt.

It wasn’t until Kimberly stood that Delilah spoke again.

“How far along?”

“Pardon?”

The girl was staring at Kimberly’s stomach. “When’re you due?”

For a moment, Kimberly was nonplussed. Then she caught herself. She was at that point now where other people were bound to notice. She said, “Summer.”

“You feel okay?”

“I feel fine, thank you.”

“Smells bother me,” the girl said matter-of-factly. “I get tired, too. But I keep away from the alcohol and the drugs. Just because I hook for a living doesn’t mean I don’t want better for my baby.”

The girl let her jacket slide open, and for the first time, Kimberly saw it, the tight, rounded abdomen, not so different from her own. Delilah reached for Kimberly’s mini-recorder, picked it up.

“Can I take this?”

“No. Government property. Gotta buy your own.”

Delilah put it back down. “But if I can get more information from Spideyman, maybe get him saying something about Ginny on tape, then you’ll help me?”

Kimberly was still staring at the girl’s belly. She was suddenly sorry she had come down to the Sandy Springs PD. She didn’t want to be handling a young, very vulnerable, pregnant hooker.

Her business card was still lying on the table. Finally, she picked it up and wrote her cell phone number on the back.

“If you get him on tape, call me at that number.” Then, not really as an afterthought: “Delilah, be careful.”

FIVE

MY OLDER BROTHER USED TO TELL ME, “DO AS I SAY, OR THE Burgerman will get you!”

“There is no such thing as a Burgerman,” I would shout back.

“Sure there is. He’s big, seven feet tall, dressed all in black. He enters the rooms of all the naughty boys in the middle of the night, snatching them out of bed and taking them off to his factory, where he grinds them into burgers and sells the meat to grocery stores. All the cheap stuff that’s turned brown in the meat market? That’s naughty-boy burgers. You can ask anyone.”

I didn’t believe him until one night I woke up, and the Burgerman was standing at the foot of my bed.

“Shhhh,” he said. “Don’t say a word, and maybe I’ll let your family live.”

I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t scream. I couldn’t move. I just stared at this large hulking form, nearly seven feet tall, all in black. I couldn’t believe my brother had been right. Then I started to shake, and my heart started to pound, and I think I wet the bed.

“Move!” the Burgerman demanded harshly. “You wanna save your family, boy, then get your scrawny ass outta bed.”

But I couldn’t move. I could only shiver uncontrollably.

He tossed back the covers. He grabbed my arm and yanked me to the floor, his fingers digging into my upper arm. He twisted my shoulder and it hurt.

My legs followed him on their own, I swear that’s how it happened, because surely there was no way I wanted to go with a man like him.

In the hallway, he paused as if to get his bearings. I could see the cracked door of my brother’s room, just two feet away. I could hear the sound of my father snoring one room beyond that.

Scream, I thought. This is it. Do something.

In the dark, I could feel the Burgerman appraising me. He didn’t seem panicked or even alarmed.

Instead, he smiled, a flash of white in the dark.

“See, boy. See how much they care about you? I’m about to ruin your goddamn life, and your family can’t even be bothered to wake up for the event. Remember this, boy. You mean nothing to them. As of this moment, they no longer exist.

“You belong to me.”

He took away my clothes. Tossed me facedown on the bed. I fought as much as a nine-year-old boy can fight, my face pressed into the mattress, my lungs screaming for air. I thought he would kill me. Maybe I prayed he would once he was done.

But he rolled over. Smoked a cigarette.

I didn’t know what to do, lying facedown, wetness everywhere.

I fell asleep.

He woke me up, beat me, yelled at me until I did what he wanted me to do. Afterward, more cigarettes and then it all started again.

I lost track of time. I lived in a hazy, naked state, my insides too hot, my outside too cold. He wouldn’t allow me to even have a blanket.

Sometimes he brought me food. Burgers, pizza. First time I ate, I threw up. He laughed and told me I’d get used to it. Then he handed me a spoon, pointed to the pile, and said if I wanted to eat again, I’d better get busy.

On and on and on. Life with the Burgerman, grinding the naughty boy into dust.

One day, he opened the door of the hotel room. The sunlight blinded me. I had to shield my eyes. The air smelled like rain and, unconsciously, I drew in a deep breath. The rain was the first thing I tasted that wasn’t like ashes on my tongue.

Burgerman laughed. “See, boy, even after all that, you still want to live. Guess you must have liked it some after all.”

He tossed me clothes. Not my old ones, but new ones he’d purchased somewhere. Barked at me to get dressed. “Goddammit, show some pride, boy, and stop running around so naked. What’re you trying to do, tempt me again?”

I scrambled to get dressed, but wasn’t fast enough.

This time when he heaved off, he grunted, “See, boy, told you you liked it.”

He drove me to another hotel. He wore a suit. I was in a stiff, navy blue sweat suit, two sizes too big. I felt thin and small and ghostlike. I must have looked like a refugee from a foreign war, exhausted, glassy-eyed, hollow.

The receptionist regarded me with concern.

Burgerman leaned close. “I’m with Social Services,” he confided in a low voice. “Just removed the boy from his family. Hard, hard case. The stuff his parents did…He’s had a rough start, but God willing, I’ll take him to a good home now and his real life will begin.”

“Oh, you poor thing,” the girl said.

Then, out of nowhere, I screamed. Screamed and screamed and screamed, told the world of my horror in each heart-stopping wail. I felt as if my lungs were going to burst out of my chest, my head explode with the terrible pressure.

“Told you his parents were monsters,” Burgerman said.

“Oh, you poor thing,” the girl said again.

Eventually he took me to a small apartment. There was a phone, but it only worked with a credit card. The outside door he rigged with a key in, key out lock, with him palming the only key.

At least he finally left me alone, sometimes for hours at a time. I would watch Bugs Bunny until I started to hate the rascally rabbit, so I turned off the TV and watched nothing at all. Just stared at the dingy gray wall. Stared and stared and stared and felt myself grow very tiny.

That was the first time I noticed a spider. I caught it. Put it in a cup, watched its desperate scramble to escape.

I guess the Burgerman was right in the end.

I must have liked it after all.

SIX

“Brown Recluse Spiders are challenging to control, largely because of their secretive habits.”

FROM Brown Recluse Spider,

BY MICHAEL F. POTTER, URBAN ENTOMOLOGIST, UNIVERSITY OF KENTUCKY COLLEGE OF AGRICULTURE

RITA COULDN’T SLEEP. IT WAS ONE OF LIFE’S LITTLE ironies; now that she finally had the time to rest, she had lost the ability. Seemed like every night followed the same long gray arc. She would watch the glow of the moon sweep across the far wall. Catch the ripple of the curtains as the cold wind seeped through the edges of the aged windows. Listen to her tiny old house creak and pop as winter treated its wooden joints as poorly as it treated her flesh-and-blood ones.

By the time the sun finally peeked over the mountains, she would wonder for the fiftieth time why she didn’t head to Florida like so many of her friends had done. Or maybe Arizona. Less humidity. More heat. She thought she would like Arizona.

She wasn’t going anywhere and she knew it. She had been born in this house, back in the days when the midwife came to you and labor was no reason to see a doctor. She and her four sisters and three brothers had run through these hills, climbed these trees, trampled the flowers in her mother’s beloved garden.

She was the only one left now. The wizened old woman everyone expected to disappear into a nursing home, much as her mother had done. But Rita was made of sterner stuff. She avoided the diabetes, high cholesterol, and brain cancer that had stolen so many members of her family. She held on, whipcord lean, barely a pound above bird weight, but still capable of splitting a cord of wood every fall in preparation for winter. She hoed her own garden. Shelled her own beans, swept her own porch, and beat her own rugs.

She kept on keeping on, waiting for something not even she understood. Maybe because at her age, waiting was about all she had left.

Once upon a time, her high school sweetheart had whisked her away to the big city of Atlanta. Donny had wanted to see the world. Mostly, he’d seen the airspace above Germany before some Nazi had shot him down, and Rita went from being a young bride to a young widow in less than two years. She’d hardly been alone in her fate. Plenty of other pretty young things crying in their coffee or, more like it, their mid-afternoon brandy. But then the war ended, a stream of handsome men returning and scooping up most of those girls in a whirlwind of thank-God-we’re-alive sex.

Rita had considered her options. Twenty was too young to be sitting home every night, and while she enjoyed her secretarial job, maybe some of Donny’s wanderlust had rubbed off on her. She’d already cut the umbilical cord once. Might as well go out and see what there was to see. Find a strapping young man. Have an adventure.

It didn’t work. In the end, she was not giddy or euphoric or, truth be told, that interested in clumsy, back-of-the-seat sex. Rita just wanted to be Rita. So she settled into the little house she bought with Donny’s death benefit. She grew a garden. She built a front patio. And when the loneliness grew too much, she did the last thing in the world anyone expected her to do: She became a foster mom.

She took in kids for nearly twenty years, from squalling infants to sullen ten-year-olds. She would pick them up at the local Chick-fil-A, their worldly possessions filling a single black Hefty bag, easily tossed in the backseat. She would buy them lemonade, then take them home and give them the lay of the land.

She adhered to basic rules. Follow them, and things ran relatively smooth. Disobey and be punished. Some kids took to the system easily. Others learned the hard way.

Couple of kids scared her, though she liked to believe they never knew. Couple of the kids, she genuinely loved. Though again, she liked to believe they never knew. Life was tough enough without believing a single foster mom could make a difference.

She gave the kids a roof over their heads, three solid meals a day, a place to feel secure, and, hopefully, a foundation for someday, when they finally escaped the system and managed their own lives. She liked to think there were people scattered across Atlanta who still smiled when recalling the time they lived with a woman who ironed even the doilies and made them say prayers every night, and while they resented her at the time, they understood her now. And, maybe, they even loved her a little, though of course, it was only proper that she would never know.

Thinking you could change a life by becoming a foster parent was nothing but romantic claptrap, of course. Of the nearly thirty children Rita had seen in her day, at least five were dead. Drugs, violence, suicide, risky behavior. Did it matter?

Donny died. Her children died. And then one by one, her father, her mother, her brothers, her sisters, until here she was, back in the home of her childhood, one week from her ninetieth birthday, acutely conscious of the slow passage of time and the very real presence of ghosts.

She got out of bed, the sky barely a paler shade of gray, but close enough to call morning. She shuffled her feet into fat blue slippers, grabbed her thick terry cloth robe and shrugged it on over her long flannel pajamas. She wore a sleeping cap, not at all fashionable, but very helpful when your skin was thinner than paper and the old circulation system was moving so slowly she sometimes caught a chill while standing in front of the heated radiator in the parlor.

She made it downstairs, moving at an unhurried pace. In the kitchen, she got the water boiling for a cup of tea. Then it was over to the refrigerator for eggs. She ate two scrambled every morning with one piece of toast. The protein kept her strong, and the breakfast never failed to bring back memories of her youth.

Even now, she heard the floorboard creak behind her; her brother Joseph, in one of his moods again. Joseph had always been a trickster, liking to pull out her chair right before she took a seat.

“Now, now, Joseph,” she chided, without turning around. “I’m getting too old for these games. Last time, you nearly cost me a hip!”

Another creak. She caught a glimpse of a shadow, dashing across the wall. She thought it was Michael, or maybe Jacob. They visited often, no doubt enjoying the familiarity of their childhood kitchen as much as she did.

She saw her parents less often, her mother mostly, hunched over the kitchen sink, humming a mindless tune as she washed vegetables or tended to dinner. Once, she’d encountered her father, standing in the middle of the parlor smoking his pipe. The moment she entered, however, he disappeared, seeming almost embarrassed.

Locals said it was the gold and crystals lining the hills that kept the ghosts so busy. An Indian shaman had explained in the paper that gold was the highest vibrating substance on earth, activating things, concentrating energy. Anywhere there was a large quantity of gold and crystals, he said, you had the perfect recipe for spirits.

Rita accepted that explanation at face value. Her house was nearly one hundred and fifty years old and had sheltered five generations of her family. Of course it was haunted.

As to why her mother would want to spend eternity cooking in the kitchen…well, Rita figured that she’d get to find out for herself soon enough.

She had her eggs done. Her wheat toast. Her Earl Grey tea. She set everything down on the small wooden table, one by one. Then, after a last glance to ensure that Joseph had left her chair alone, she took a seat.

Sun had spread out over the glorious expanse of the Blue Ridge Mountains, staining everything it touched a bright rosy pink. She thought it was a beautiful morning.

Meaning it was time to do what must be done. She got up, shuffled her way to the back door. It took her two or three hard yanks to get it to budge. When it was finally open, she stuck her head out and said firmly, in a voice that thirty foster children had learned never to argue with: “Son, you can come out now.”

Nothing.

“I know you’re there, child. No need to be afraid. If you want to talk, just be polite about it and say hello.”

After all these years of living with ghosts, Rita was nearly as surprised as anyone when a flesh-and-blood child materialized on her back porch. He couldn’t have been more than eight or nine, scrawny shoulders hunched against the morning frost, sandy head down, expression clearly uncertain. Two weeks ago, he’d started appearing in her backyard. Every time she’d made eye contact, however, he’d bolted. This time, at least, he stayed put.

“Hello,” he whispered.

“Heavens, child, you’re gonna catch your death of cold. Come on in. Shut the door. I’m not paying to heat the world.”

He hesitated again, but then his gaze went to her breakfast and she saw his hunger like a spasm across his face. He stepped inside, carefully shutting the door behind him. The motion showed off shoulder blades sharp as razor blades.

“What’s your name, child?”

“I don’t-”

“What’s your name, child?”

“They call me Scott.”

“Well, Scott, this is your lucky morning. My name’s Rita, and I was just fixin’ to make more eggs.”

He didn’t argue, but took a seat in the nice warm kitchen that smelled of scrambled eggs and fresh toasted bread.

Rita cooked. She fed. She cooked some more. Finally, when his stomach was a tight, round drum beneath the faded expanse of his yellow-striped shirt, he pushed his empty plate away.

“Rita,” he said at last. “What do you think of spiders?”

SEVEN

“When the spider first spins the silk, it is liquid, but it soon hardens into thread that can be stronger than steel.”

FROM Freaky Facts About Spiders,

BY CHRISTINE MORLEY, 2007

SPECIAL AGENT SAL MARTIGNETTI WAS WAITING FOR Kimberly outside the station. Minute she exited, he flashed his lights. She glanced at his unmarked car, then pointedly looked at her watch. She was tired, hungry, and not in the mood.

In the end, however, she crossed over. Mostly because he’d taken Mac’s advice and was holding up vanilla pudding.

He had the heat blasting, a welcome change from the early morning chill that stung, even in Atlanta. She took the six-pack of pudding, the offered bottle of water, and a plastic spoon. After an internal debate, she grudgingly offered him one pudding back, but he waved her off.

“No, no, all for you. The least I can do.”

He’d been listening to the radio. Some conservative talk-show host ranting about how the ACLU was ruining the world. As Kimberly settled in, however, Sal snapped it off.

“Been waiting long?” she asked, digging into the first pudding. She knew Sal only in passing. Had bumped into him at a barbecue, some police function somewhere. Both the GBI and the FBI were large organizations, meaning more of the agents were names she’d heard rather than faces she knew, and Sal was no exception.

Small, dark, and wiry, he possessed the sinewy build of someone who grew up hard, probably not far from the streets he now patrolled. He wore a light gray suit this morning, but still managed to look more like an up-and-coming hoodlum than a state investigator.

“Been here twenty minutes,” he commented, held up a greasy fast-food bag. “Had my breakfast.”

“More comfortable inside the station,” Kimberly said.

“Not sure what I think of ’em yet,” Sal stated, jerking his head toward the Sandy Springs PD, which was an icebreaker of sorts coming from a GBI special agent.

Kimberly finished the first pudding, opened a second. Something about this felt all wrong. A GBI agent’s insistent middle-of-the-night phone call that she needed to talk to some pinched prostitute. Then the same special agent waiting for her afterward. Kimberly tried working the angles in her mind, but came up empty.

“Sal,” she said at last, “much as I appreciate the pudding, I’m not giving away the keys to the kingdom for snack packs. So if you want something, start talking. I have another appointment in thirty minutes.”

Sal laughed. It brought a spark to his eyes, eased the tightness around his jaw. He should laugh more. Then again, so should she.

“Okay, here’s the deal: You know I’m on VICMO?”

Kimberly nodded.

“One of the whole points of VICMO being to bring law enforcement agents together from all across the state to look for larger patterns of crime.”

“I’m an FBI agent, Sal. I know my acronyms. We’re tested every Friday.”

“Really?”

“No.”

He laughed again, dark eyes flashing bright. “Okay, well, I have a theory on a larger pattern of crime: I believe someone’s picking off prostitutes.”

Kimberly frowned, dug into her pudding. “What do you mean you have a theory? The girls are declared missing or they’re not. Missing stats go up, or they don’t.”

“Not these girls. Runaways, hookers, addicts. Who cares enough to file a claim? They disappear and no one’s the wiser.”

“They’re also transient,” Kimberly countered. “If they go missing, maybe it’s because they hopped on a bus.”

“Absolutely. You’re not talking about one of the population groups most likely to fill out the U.S. Census Bureau questionnaire. On the other hand, get a lot of officers in a room, and they each have a story of some girl or addict or whomever, who was pinched lately, and first question she asked them is have you seen so-and-so? She’s looking for a lost friend, roommate, partner in crime. ’Course, no one knows what she’s talking about, so end of story. You’re right, these girls don’t file missing persons reports. But one by one, they’re raising the exact same question: Where have all the hookers gone?”

“Very poetic of you, Sal.”

“I play an open mic night, every Thursday at the Wildcat…”

Kimberly stared at him.

“Oh, you weren’t serious.”

“I’m going to eat another pudding,” Kimberly said, and opened a third, not because she was hungry, but because she needed something to do.

“I don’t get it,” she said at last. “So girls are whispering about missing girls. Okay, but where have the missing hookers gone? If someone is ‘picking them off ’ as you say, where’s the evidence? Shouldn’t missing Girl A, last seen here, correlate with unidentified Body B, now found there?”

“Tried that. No unidentified female bodies have been found lately.”

She gave him a look. “Seems to shoot down your theory right there. If a predator was preying on prostitutes, he’d be disposing of the bodies somewhere. In Dumpsters, back alleys, along the interstate. Something would’ve turned up.”

Sal shrugged. “How many of Ted Bundy’s victims are still undiscovered? He favored rolling them down ravines. Let’s face it, this state has a lot of ravines. And chicken farms, and marshlands, and miles and miles of nothing at all. You wanna hide a body, Georgia is the place to do it. Or,” he conceded, “maybe the guy crosses state lines. It’s always a possibility, but you’d know better than me.”

Kimberly could already hear the skepticism in his voice. After all, if a subject was picking up prostitutes in Georgia and killing them in Louisiana, then it definitely would be a federal case and Sal didn’t think this was a feebie case. He thought it was his case, so for that reason alone, the subject could only be operating inside Georgia lines.

Kimberly studied him. She was doing some math in her head and it wasn’t working out in his favor. “Trevor said they picked up Delilah shortly after one. But I didn’t get called until after three. Anything you want to add to that timeline, Special Agent?”

Sal didn’t bother to appear repentant. He simply shot her a grin. “Heard you were smart.”

“Violent, too. Don’t let the belly fool you.”

His grin broadened. “Okay, sure, so maybe I took a shot at her.”

“Mmmm-hmmm.”

“If it’s any consolation, little Miss Muffet wouldn’t bite. Was adamant from the moment the police picked her up that she would speak with you and only you.”

“Liked her tattoos, did you?”

“How do you know her?” he asked curiously. “Drug activity? Meth? Seems kind of low level to be narc’ing for a fed.”

“You never know where the good information might come from.” She narrowed her eyes at him. “Why this level of intensity, Sal? Poaching an informant, rousing a fed in the middle of the night. From the sound of it, you don’t even have a case, yet you’re jumping through a lot of hoops to talk to one inked-up hooker.”

Sal didn’t answer her. His gaze had gone out the window. He wasn’t smiling anymore, and the dark look on his face had probably scared an informant or two.

“I got a package,” he said curtly. “Fourteen months ago. No name on it, no note in it. Just three Georgia-issued driver’s licenses stuffed in a plain white envelope and placed beneath the windshield wiper of my car. Nothing more, nothing less.”

“Driver’s licenses? You talking forgeries or the real deal?”

“Real deal. I have valid photo IDs for Bonita Breen, Mary Back, and Etta Mae Reynolds. White females, roughly twenty years of age, addresses from the greater Atlanta area. I did some digging and guess what?”

“They’re all missing hookers.”

“They’re all working girls,” he fine-tuned, “who haven’t been spotted in months. Now, according to the grapevine, Mary headed for Texas, while Etta Mae ran off with some bartender. I’ve issued BOLOs for both, without any hits. So in my world, that makes them missing, though it’s possible my supe has other ideas on the subject.”

Kimberly had to smile. She might know something about disagreeing with a superior. These things happened.

“Then,” Sal continued, “three months ago, same thing. I come out to my car and discover a new envelope, with three new licenses: Beth Hunnicutt, Nicole Evans, and Cyndie Rodriguez. Except this time I get lucky. Beth Hunnicutt has been declared missing, by her roommate, Nicole Evans.”

“Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute. The same Nicole Evans whose driver’s license is in the envelope?”

“The very same. According to the missing persons file, Hunnicutt was last seen heading out for a ‘big job,’ by her roommate Evans. Furthermore, Evans asserted that Hunnicutt never would have taken off without grabbing her stereo equipment and collection of CDs from their apartment. Of course, when I tried to follow up with Evans, I discovered that she also hadn’t been seen in months, and in fact, the third roommate, Cyndie Rodriguez, had disappeared, as well. Three more IDs, three more missing girls.”

“That doesn’t sound good.”

“So says you, so says me. Brass, on the other hand…”

“Six missing girls and you can’t make a case?” she asked in shock.

“No evidence of foul play. And technically speaking, of my six names, only one has been declared missing. The others are simply ‘unaccounted for.’ According to the bureaucrats we got bigger fish to fry-you know, the growing meth problem, gangland shootings, new requirements for Homeland Security, yada, yada, yada.”

Kimberly sighed. She’d like to say she’d never heard of such garbage, but she would be lying. Bureaucrats ran the world, even in law enforcement.

“Back to the envelope,” she mused. “Someone is making the effort to outreach not once, but twice, to the police. That’s something.”

“Envelope was unsealed and yielded no physical evidence. So for kicks, I ran it by a shrink friend who sometimes consults for the department on cold cases. His first thought was sure-a lot of killers like the spotlight just as much as celebrities, and are driven to reach out to local cops or press. The fact the package contained driver’s licenses interested him, as the BTK guy out of Kansas liked to mail in driver’s licenses of his victims to the press. So maybe a classic copycat element-hey, look how famous that schmuck is, I can do that!

“Problem is, the predators who make the effort generally crave recognition. It’s about bragging, gamesmanship, and arrogance. Meaning there should be a note, poem, follow-up phone call, something. This…In Jimmy’s own words, it’s like mailing out a party invite without any directions on where or how to play. His best guess: The stash came from a third party.”

“Third party?” Kimberly asked incredulously. “Like who, the guy’s cleaning lady?”

“Think of it this way: A wife cleans out her husband’s sock drawer. Comes across a stack of photo IDs. Now, there can’t be any good reason for her husband to have the driver’s licenses of three young women. Then again, she’s afraid to confront him with it. So she sticks the plastic in an envelope, and discreetly passes it to the first cop she sees. Eases her conscience while keeping her distance.”

“Until she comes across three more driver’s licenses,” Kimberly said drily.

“Hey, maybe the guy needed his underwear drawer organized as well.”

Kimberly arched a brow, turning the matter over in her head. The whole scenario bothered her on so many levels she didn’t know where to begin. Six missing girls, only one of whom could be considered missing. No bodies or other evidence of foul play, but two care packages that could be considered to contain “trophies” from a serial predator. Except maybe the envelopes didn’t come from the unidentified subject, but a companion of the UNSUB who was too scared to contact police directly but savvy enough to deliver the licenses in a manner that left behind absolutely, positively no physical evidence.

Which, she supposed, brought them to Delilah Rose, a young prostitute pinched just this evening, claiming to have evidence about another missing hooker and adamant about speaking only with Kimberly.

Delilah troubled her. Kimberly didn’t like the impression that the girl had homed in on her, all because of something she’d once seen on TV. The Eco-Killer had been a long time ago. And while the press had made out Kimberly to be a hero, she hadn’t gotten to all the girls in time.

Sal turned to her now. “Did Delilah give you something good? Mention any of these names? Because depending on what she said, maybe we could make it a multijurisdictional task force. My supervisor might finally green-light me if the case came from the feds.”

“Sorry, neither of us is that lucky. Story I got from Delilah Rose reads more like a Mad Lib than a three-oh-two. She was vague on all relevant details, including her own name.”

“Gosh darn, she’s not really Delilah? Didn’t Sandy Springs at least run her prints?”

“Oh, I’m sure they’ll call me with the results. Maybe in five to six weeks.”

“So what’d she say? You were there an hour. I gotta assume you discussed more than just the weather.”

Kimberly considered the GBI special agent again, hand in her pocket now, feeling the weight of Ginny Jones’s ring. Information was a game. With informants. With fellow law enforcement officers. Even with husbands and wives. For all his talk of cooperation, Sal clearly felt he owned this case. And if Delilah had opened up to him earlier this evening, like hell Kimberly would’ve been called.

“Delilah didn’t mention any of the names from your photo IDs,” Kimberly told him honestly. “She didn’t mention a pattern of multiple girls disappearing, or anything like that. She does, however, fall into your first category of one working girl looking for a friend. Virginia ‘Ginny’ Jones. Went missing about three months ago. Name ring any bells?”

Sal shook his head, taking out a piece of paper, jotting the name down. “No, hasn’t come up yet. But I’ve found three more names of missing girls that don’t match the known driver’s licenses. Can’t decide what that means yet. Maybe these girls simply left town, or maybe the wife hasn’t cleaned out the T-shirt drawer, you know.”

“How long have you been working this, Sal?”

“Year,” he said absently. “More since getting the second envelope.”

“Your supe must love that.”

“Hey, guy’s gotta have a hobby.”

“Tracking missing hookers?”

“Tracking missing girls,” he said sharply. “Sisters, daughters, mothers. You know what it’s like for their families to go to bed every night not knowing if their loved one is alive or dead. Everyone, anyone, deserves better than that.”

Kimberly didn’t have anything to add to that, which was just as well, since she’d noticed the time. She swung open the door, hand still clutching the ring. “Gotta go!”

“Hey, where was this Virginia last seen?”

“Club scene, Sandy Springs.”

“Name of the club? Description of Ginny?”

“Told you Delilah was vague.”

“You gonna call Delilah?”

“In theory, she’ll call me. Thanks for the pudding, Sal. Bye.”

EIGHT

“Spiders are exclusively carnivorous.”

FROM How to Know the Spiders,

THIRD EDITION, BY B. J. KASTON, 1978

HENRIETTA WAS NOT DOING WELL. SHE HAD BEEN ON her back for nearly three days, but wasn’t showing any sign of progress. He was careful not to touch her, understanding that even the most delicate examination could lead to disaster at a time like this.

She was old, nearly fifteen, which of course exacerbated the situation. At the first signs of pre-molt, he’d taken preemptive action, moving her to the ICU, where she could rest in dark, humid conditions. Using a small artist’s brush, he’d even dabbed her legs with glycerin, paying special attention to the femur-patellar and the patella-tibial joints. In theory, the glycerin would help soften the rings of the exoskeleton, making it easier for Henrietta to pull free.

Unfortunately, it didn’t do the trick. Now he stood in front of her, contemplating more drastic action. Perhaps it was time to sacrifice a leg.

Molting was an extremely dangerous time for a tarantula. Once a year, in order for the tarantula to grow, the old exoskeleton had to be shed, the tarantula climbing free from its outgrown exuvium with a fresh, larger suit of armor ready to go. For most of the year, in fact, the tarantula was in a state of inter-molt, slowly growing a new exoskeleton beneath the old. At around the twelve-month mark, in preparation for the transition, the spider entered pre-molt, excreting exuvium fluid between the old and new exoskeletons. This digestive juice began dissolving one layer of the old exoskeleton, the endocuticle, while bristles grown on the new exoskeleton started pushing the old covering away.

The bald patch on the tarantula changed from tan to black, signaling the pre-molt state. Shortly thereafter, the tarantula would roll over on her back to begin the molting process. And anywhere from twenty minutes to two or three days later, the molting process would be complete.

Unless the spider died.

Already he could see signs of distress. In Henrietta’s age-weakened condition, she hadn’t the strength to pull her legs free. As hours passed, her new exoskeleton started hardening inside her old exuvium, making it impossible for her to pull free from her shedding skin.

He either did something soon, or she would die trapped inside a prison of her own making.

He could amputate a leg or two. Quick tug and twist of the femur, and that would be that. It didn’t sound pleasant, but a spider could lose a leg with relatively little harm.

Or, he could operate.

He’d never done it before, just read about it in various collectors’ chat rooms. Little was understood about medical care for tarantulas. After all, dead spiders were rarely autopsied or studied for cause of death. A true enthusiast buried or mounted his or her pet. The vast majority of collectors, however, tossed the carcass away.

Some basics had been established over the years. For the ICU, he used a plastic yogurt container he’d thoroughly cleaned with a bleach solution, then lined with a paper towel he had sterilized in the oven, then soaked in cooled boiled water. He let both container and wet paper towel achieve room temperature before placing Henrietta on the paper towel and sealing the ICU with the original yogurt lid, now punched with three airholes.

He hated the plastic containers, preferring to watch his pets, but tarantulas-like most spiders-were shy by nature. They preferred the dark, particularly when in distress.

Even now, he worked upstairs in the gloomy master bath, room-darkening shades pulled, the air musty with the scent of fresh earth and faint decay. A nightlight offered a subdued glow, just enough for him to see Henrietta, without further traumatizing her system.

She wasn’t moving anymore. Not even trying to pull her legs free. Dead?

He didn’t think so. Not yet. But it was coming and the thought of losing her was nearly unbearable. She was his very first pet and while he had collected many more specimens in the years since-rarer spiders, more exotic colors-she would always be special. After all, once, a long time ago, she had set him free.

No doubt about it, he would operate.

He started by gathering supplies. A stiff piece of cardboard to serve as the operating table. Tweezers, magnifying glass, eyedropper, Q-tip. He returned downstairs to boil the tweezers and soak another piece of sterilized paper towel.

Boy was on the couch. He didn’t make eye contact when the man appeared, but kept his eyes resolutely fixed on the TV. Smart boy.

While the tweezers cooled, the man set another damp paper towel on top of the back panel of a Cheerios box. Next, he dissolved two drops of Ivory dish soap in one cup of boiled water, cooled to room temperature.

He headed back upstairs, once more passing by the living room. This time, at the sound of his approaching footsteps, the boy flinched.

The man smiled.

Upstairs, he had to extract Henrietta from the ICU, careful not to jog her, given her delicate state. Once he’d slid her onto the hospital bed/piece of cardboard, he moved her closer to the nightlight and pulled out the magnifying glass.

Upon closer inspection, she appeared hopelessly stuck, her old exoskeleton barely cracked, not a single leg peeking through. It was much worse than he thought and he took a moment to draw in a ragged, pained breath.

Then he steadied himself. With the Q-tip, he dabbed the soap solution on the exuvium, careful to not drip any fluid that might get into Henrietta’s book lungs and drown her.

While he waited thirty minutes for the solution to soften the exoskeleton, he decided to take his intervention a step further and fully remove the sternum piece of the old, molting shell. The plates were connected by a thin membrane, and were very easy to extract using the sterilized tweezers.

This process went smoother than anticipated and soon he’d removed most of the carapace and sternum plates.

Henrietta’s legs remained trapped, however. Long, delicate new legs held prisoner by the hard rings of her old skin. Without use of her legs to work herself out of her old exoskeleton, she still wasn’t going anyplace.

He got back out his magnifiying glass and considered his options.

Downstairs came the sound of the front door opening and closing. Hushed voices murmuring. Debating, no doubt. To disturb or not to disturb. Upstairs was his sanctuary, filled with his own special guests. None of them liked to come up here. At least, not any more than they had to.

Finally, however, the sound of footsteps, creaking up the old stairs, hitting the landing, approaching his room.

The door opened, flooding the room with unexpected daylight.

“Close it!” he snarled.

The door closed.

“Stand. Don’t say a word.”

The intruder stood, didn’t say a word.

Better.

He would have to break the heavy rings articulating each leg. If he could chip away that part of the hardened exoskeleton without damaging the soft, unprotected leg beneath, Henrietta might have a chance. Four joints each leg. Eight legs.

He settled in for the painstaking work, still aware of the presence behind him, the girl who did not move, would not move, until he spoke again.

Five minutes rolled into ten, thirty, forty-five minutes. An hour. He chipped away at the hardened exoskeleton on each leg, slowly, carefully, ring by ring.

When he finally looked up, he was surprised to find that perspiration stuck his shirt to his skin and he was breathing hard, as if he’d been hiking for hours, and not just hunched over a table in a pool of dim light.

He had all eight legs free, though several were bent awkwardly, clearly damaged. As he watched, however, one leg moved, then another. Henrietta was still with him, fighting to pull through.

“You are so beautiful,” he crooned to his favorite pet. “That’s my girl. That’s my girl.”

“Is…is she all right?” a tentative voice finally came behind him.

He didn’t turn around, his voice clipped as he set aside the tweezers. “I don’t know. Molt this bad, she probably has trouble with her mouth, pharynx, and stomach. Odds are she’ll be dead by morning.”

“Oh.”

“But at least this gives her a chance.” He took grim satisfaction in that, snapping off the light, leaving Henrietta to fight her own war the way she would prefer-alone in the dark.

He finally turned, his eyes adjusting rapidly to the gloom and taking in the girl standing in the doorway. She had her chin up, a small show of defiance that showed off the spider tattoo on her neck, but didn’t fool either one of them.

“Did you get it?” he asked without preamble.

Wordlessly, she held out the business card.

He snatched it up, turned it over, read the cell phone number scrawled on the back. For the first time all morning, the man smiled.

“Tell me exactly what you did.”

And the girl, being well-trained by now, did.

NINE

“For laypersons the most distinguishing feature of a brown recluse is a dark violin-shaped mark on its back, with the neck of the violin pointing toward the rear (abdomen) of the spider.”

FROM Brown Recluse Spider,

BY MICHAEL F. POTTER, URBAN ENTOMOLOGIST, UNIVERSITY OF KENTUCKY COLLEGE OF AGRICULTURE

THE CALL CAME THREE NIGHTS LATER. KIMBERLY’S team had finally wrapped up the crash scene and she and Mac were celebrating by eating dinner together. He’d brought home a honey-baked ham, accompanied with coleslaw and biscuits.

He ate the ham, she ate the biscuits.

“So once I had the ring all cleaned up,” she was reporting excitedly, “you wouldn’t believe the level of detail. Alpharetta High School is engraved around the center stone. Then on the right side, the word ‘Raiders’-their mascot-with a picture of a football, engraved with a number eighty-six and beneath that the initials QB.”

“Really?” Mac said, helping himself to a fresh beer. “You have the name of the kid’s high school, plus the fact that he’s the quarterback with jersey number eighty-six?”

“Oh, it gets even better. On the other side of the ring is a name: Tommy, with an emblem, Class of 2006.”

“I don’t have any of that on my class ring,” Mac said.

“You have a high school ring?”

“Sure.”

“I’ve never seen you wear it.”

“Well, if my ring were as cool as Tommy’s, maybe you would.”

Kimberly rolled her eyes at him, decided a fourth biscuit probably wasn’t healthy for her or the baby, and went with some coleslaw. “So now I have a first name, high school, and graduating class. I figure, okay, some afternoon when I’m in the area, I’ll swing by Alpharetta High School, talk to a guidance counselor, and, ding, ding, ding, mystery will be solved. But then I have a better idea.”

“Of course.”

“I log on to the Internet. Figure I’ll see what I can learn about Alpharetta High School.”

“And what did you learn about Alpharetta High School, my dear?”

“Hey, sarcasm is only going to earn you more middle-of-the-night diaper changes.”

“Point taken.”

She gave him a look.

He shrugged. “Honestly, I’m interested. I spent the whole day sitting in a van, listening to two alleged drug dealers carry on a highly serious discussion of how Keanu Reeves is the most underappreciated actor of our time.”

“Was it his performance in Speed?”

“More like his decision not to make Speed 2.”

“So true.”

“All right, all right. Back to the ring…”

“Well,” she started again, mollified, “Alpharetta High School is frighteningly large.”

“Alpharetta is frighteningly large.” They had originally looked at buying a home there. It was a booming, upwardly mobile, decidedly professional community just south of them. In the end, it was the booming that concerned them. From three thousand residents in 1980 to over fifty thousand now, the town was bursting at the seams, with all the public resource strains and traffic woes that generally came of such things.

“Nearly two thousand kids,” Kimberly reported. “That worried me a little. School of that size, one kid could be hard to find. But then it occurred to me, check the sports page. And you’ll never believe what I found.”

“Delilah Rose?” he guessed helpfully.

“No. Tommy Mark Evans. Varsity QB of 2006. His photo, game stats, everything, right there on the information superhighway. For that matter, I found pictures and names of all the cheerleaders, JV sports teams, drama club, chess club-you name the kid, his or her information is all there online. I tell you, it’s not enough to monitor MySpace or YouTube anymore. Every public organization has a website that is freely giving away information and photos of America’s kids. Think about it: I didn’t even leave my desk and from one class ring, I surfed the Internet straight to Tommy Mark Evans’s front step.”

“Our son will never be allowed a computer in his room,” Mac announced. “Any portal out is a portal in, and I want to know what or who is coming into our home at all times.”

“Our daughter will probably never use a computer,” Kimberly countered. “By the time she can type, it’ll all be done on a cell phone and how the hell are we supposed to control that?”

“No phone privileges works for me.”

“So you’re gonna be the Draconian daddy with a curfew and a shotgun?”

“Absolutely. But I’ll also buy her a pony. I mean, er, I’ll buy him a baseball bat.”

But Kimberly had caught the slip and was already grinning at him. “I heard that. You’re thinking about a little girl…”

“Any healthy, happy baby will be fine-”

“You want to buy pretty pink dresses…”

“Hey, can I help it if the clothes in the baby girls’ section are much cuter?”

Kimberly was laughing now, mostly at the thought of her tall, dark, manly man husband going through the girls’ clothing rack. But he probably did like the little pink dresses. And he probably would buy their child a pony. As well as a handgun with basic firearms safety lessons.

“Well, if you’re done mocking me,” he said, making a show of hurt dignity as he stood and started clearing paper plates, “what are you going to do now?”

“You mean because so far I’ve processed evidence and pursued a lead in a case where I don’t actually have a case?”

“That was my thought.”

Kimberly didn’t have a good answer for that one. “What do you think of Sal?”

“Good guy. Reputation for digging his heels in and getting the job done.”

“Is he a renegade, works best by himself, alienates those in authority?”

“Actually, that would be you, dear.”

Kimberly nodded. “True.”

Cell phone rang.

Mac glanced up. “Yours, not mine.”

She got to her feet, sighing. “Knew talking about work was a bad idea. It’s like conjuring the beast into your presence.”

Second ring.

Her stomach felt a little too full. She rubbed it absently, asking Baby McCormack to please stop kicking the daylights out of the biscuits, as she crossed to her leather bag, dug around in the depths.

Third ring.

She finally found it, glancing at the screen: It was the 1-800 number for the Atlanta Field Office, which, at first blush, didn’t make sense. She received calls from her supervisor or from her fellow agents, not the duty desk. She shrugged, flipped it open. “Special Agent Quincy.”

And then…

Far away, very quiet, like a whisper in the dark, “Help me.”

“Who is this, please?”

“Help…me…”

Kimberly glanced sharply at Mac, made an urgent motion for paper and pen. He scrambled at the kitchen desk.

“You have reached a federal agent. Please state your name and I’ll do my best to assist you.”

“I don’t remember…He took it from me. Maybe…if I could just find it again…”

“Who took it from you? Talk to me.”

Mac, paper and pen in hand, arriving at her side, regarding her questioningly.

The whisper again: “Soon you will understand.”

The connection broke. Kimberly attempted dialing back, but the number was blocked.

She set down her cell phone, deeply perplexed. Mac still stood there, waiting to write up notes on a caller who hadn’t provided any information.

“Delilah Rose?” he asked at last.

“Don’t think so,” she said. “It sounded like a boy.”

The phone rang again shortly after two a.m. Kimberly wasn’t sleeping well, as if some part of her was expecting this moment. Beside her, she felt Mac tense at the first shrill note, and knew he’d been waiting, too.

She sat up and flipped on a lamp. On the bedside table, she had positioned her cell phone, notepad, pen, and mini-recorder. Once again the display screen registered the toll-free number for the Atlanta FBI. This time, Kimberly wasn’t fooled.

She gave Mac a slow nod of acknowledgment, then snapped on the mini-recorder. She answered her phone in the hands-free mode, so they could both hear.

“Special Agent Quincy.”

Nothing at first. No greeting, or crackle of a bad connection. Then, somewhere distant, as if in the background, that faint whisper again: “Shhhh…”

Kimberly glanced at Mac. She brought the phone up between them, and with her ear closer, suddenly she could hear.

Moaning. Panting. The slapping sound of flesh hitting flesh. A muffled cry of distress.

“Do you like that? Is that good for you? Answer me!”

A small, whimpered plea.

“That’s what I thought.”

Kimberly put her hand over her mouth to stifle her automatic cry of protest. Beside her, Mac had gone still. He’d heard it, too, and understood what it meant. They were eavesdropping on a sexual assault. Kimberly knew, because she had heard such tapes before, part of the work her father used to bring home before he realized his young daughters had taken to sneaking into his office and going through his things.

Recorded? Live? She didn’t know, but she had seen the visuals that went with such sounds and already her stomach roiled…

The whisper again, closer to the phone: “Shhhh…”

Banging now. Hard, metallic. Handcuffs, pounding brutally against a metal headboard, as someone struggled to escape. Then, a low, unmistakable rasp. The sound of a blade, slowly sliding across a sharpening stone.

All of a sudden, Kimberly understood this call was going to get much worse.

Frantically, her shaking hand trying to scrawl the words across the page: TRACE IT!!!

Mac throwing back the covers, leaping out of bed, grabbing for their landline.

“You know what I want.”

“Mmm, mmm, mmm.”

“A name. Is one name really so hard? You just have to love her, that’s all. Give me someone you trust, call a friend, adore. That’s all I require of you. One single name. Then I promise your death will be quick.”

“This is Special Agent Michael McCormack, requesting Special Agent Lynn Stoudt. I require immediate assistance-”

A quick, short rip. Duct tape torn from the mouth.

A wail. A long, thin, horrified scream that went on and on until Kimberly had her hand stuffed into her mouth and even then could feel that poor, exhausted cry reverberating down her spine.

The voice, even closer now: “Shhhh…”

“Tell me!”

“Please…”

The wick wick of metal slicing. A fresh, throaty scream.

“I can skin you alive. Do you want to watch?”

“Dear God, dear God, dear God…”

“Darling, didn’t your mama ever tell you? There is no God! Just me. I am your savior and I am your damnation and you had better make me happy or I will flay the cheeks from your skinny white face. GIVE ME A NAME!”

“I don’t kno-AAAGGH!”

“ONE NAME!”

“Please no, dear God no, please, please…”

The girl was screaming. Wailing hysterically, and now the man was yelling, too, demanding a name over and over again while in between came terrible wet noises and a violent banging.

Kimberly could feel herself start to disconnect. To disappear inside her skin, to spiral away from this moment, where a young girl begged for her life and a madman worked his knife.

The voice in her ear: “Shhh…”

Mac across the room: “Lynn, I need to be able to trace a phone call immediately. On my wife’s cell. Number-”

“How does that feel? How does that fucking feel? It’s gonna get worse. I’m just going on and on and on, until you tell me a name…”

“God, God, God.”

“Didn’t you hear me? There is no GOD!”

“AAAAAGH.”

“Name, name, name. Tell me a-”

“Karen. K-K-K-Karen.”

“Karen who? What is her last name? How do you know her?”

“I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.”

A fresh sharp scream as he did something terrible.

“Liar! If you cared about her, you would know her full name. If she mattered, you could remember her fucking details.”

“Please, please, please…”

“One last chance. Make me happy. Or I swear to you, next cut will be someplace you really value. I’m counting. One…two…”

“Virginia!” the female gasped. “Her name is Virginia. Ginny Jones.”

“And why do you love her?!”

“She is my daughter.”

A pause.

“Excellent,” the man said.

And the next sound needed no explanation at all.

Mac was shaking her. Had she blacked out? Kimberly didn’t want to think so. She had never fainted before in her life. She glanced down in bewilderment at the bed. Her cell phone was there, the screen blank.

Had it all been a bad dream?

And then she looked up, saw the somber expression on Mac’s face, the worry bracketing his eyes.

“The caller hung up,” he said quietly. “It’s over now.”

But she shook her head. “No, Mac. It’s just begun.”

TEN

“Most [spider] species are not particular as to the insects eaten but will take whatever happens to come their way.”

FROM How to Know the Spiders,

THIRD EDITION, BY B. J. KASTON, 1978

IN PREPARATION FOR HER MORNING GUEST, RITA WAS fixin’ to buy some food. It was a slow process. First she climbed into the old, claw-foot tub. Ran a trickle of lukewarm water-waste not, want not-scrubbing what needed to be scrubbed with an emaciated bar of Ivory soap.

She used to have a nice young girl in town set her hair. The cost had become a bit much. The drive into town as well. So she’d been letting her hair grow, a long, thin veil that shadowed her shoulders like brittle lace.

She rolled on long johns. Flannel pajamas. One of her mother’s old pairs of black pants, belted tight at the bunched-up waist. Her father’s red plaid shirt nearly fell to her knees, but it was warm, in good shape. Still smelled faintly of his tobacco pipe even after all these years.

She wore his socks, too, the woolen ones that could make your toes feel nice and warm even when it was thirty out and the wind blew like a son of a bitch.

Then came the heavy peacoat, a hat, a scarf, a pair of her brother’s gloves. She nearly staggered under the weight of the clothing by the time she made it to the kitchen, finding the cookie jar and counting out its precious contents. Social Security paid her $114.52 every month, not bad in the summer when she grew her own vegetables and picked berries in the brambles along the road. Winter, however, was tough. She bought the day-old pastries, the expired meat, the long-gone vegetables. She figured if you cooked anything long enough in a stewpot, then it was safe enough to eat.

She allowed eleven dollars and forty-five cents. That oughtta get the job done.

More shuffling, then she was at the front door.

“Now, Joseph,” she said before departing. “No funny stuff just because I went out. I know exactly where I left my hairbrushes and the silverware. You want trouble, go play next door. Mrs. Bradford was always colder than a witch’s tit, anyway.”

Rita cackled at her own joke, opening the door and working her way slowly down the front steps, clinging tight to the wooden rail.

She and her brothers had never liked Mrs. Bradford. The neighbor woman had once told on them after discovering them eating apples from her tree. Well, if she hadn’t wanted the kids to eat them, then she should’ve picked ’ em herself. Whoever heard of a neighbor who couldn’t spare an apple or two?

Mrs. Bradford had died ten years ago. Maybe Joseph could look her up, dial direct, do whatever it was ghosts do for fun in the hereafter.

Rita found her pace, a steady rocking shuffle, and set out down the road.

She lived on a side street not far from town. Once, this area had been large lots with small but grand summer homes. Her great-great-grandfather had built the quaint Victorian that belonged to her family, looking for a respite from Atlanta’s heat. Times changed. Properties were sold and subdivided. Bit by bit, the old summer homes disappeared. Now she lived amid an odd patchwork quilt of prefab Colonials, double-wides, and low-slung ranches.

She supposed her neighbors were young couples. Folks that worked the restaurants and staffed the hotels for the summer and autumn seasons when the tourists outnumbered the locals ten to one and even buying a loaf of bread became a major inconvenience.

Rita didn’t know. She didn’t leave her house much or socialize with her neighbors. She was too busy with the dead.

She thought she knew where the boy came from, however. The house was tucked farther up the street from her, looking down over the rest. One of the last grand homes, it now featured peeling paint, skewed windows, a cockeyed front porch. Sometimes she saw lights on up in that house, in the middle of the night when God-fearing people should be asleep, not lying wide-eyed in their beds as she so often did. People in that house kept strange hours.

House fit her idea of who would have a half-starved boy who spent his time catching spiders.

She finally arrived at the store, weaving around the muddy, snow-rimmed trucks, past the gas pumps, into the little shop that always smelled of diesel and cigarettes.

She walked the aisles first, making a careful inventory. Bread, eggs, milk. She eyed bacon, it had been a long time since she’d had bacon. But the price put it out of the picture. Boys liked cereal. Heavens, the number of boxes she used to go through, when she had boys in the house. Not those sugarcoated cereals. She didn’t hold for that. But the other brands, the basics.

She read the shelf label carefully. She had no idea puffed wheat could cost so much. Why, in her day…

In the end, she stuck with her original three choices. It would have to do.

Mel worked the register. She saw him most of the times she came in, which was to say she saw him every two weeks. He nodded at her, smiling at her odd getup.

“Cold walk, Rita?”

“Not once I got movin’.”

“Fixin’ to make some breakfast, I see.”

“Yup.”

“Looks good. All you’re missing is some sausage. I’m running a special, if you’d like. Two for one.”

She paused, contemplating. More protein would be good for the boy. And oh, the smell of hot sausage patties, browning up in her mother’s cast-iron frying pan…

She sighed, counted out her money. “I’m fine, thank you much, Mel.”

“Not a problem, Rita.”

He wrapped up her groceries for her, then looked concerned. “Not sure about that bag, Rita. Especially if you’re afixin’ to walk home.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I could give you a ride.”

“Nothin’ wrong with the legs God gave me.”

“Well, if you’re set on it, maybe I can go in the back, get you a box instead. I’d hate for you to drop those eggs.”

“As you wish.”

Mel returned a short time later with a small box, set inside a plastic bag. He fixed it so she could hold the handles, then she was on her way. She gave him one last nod in parting.

Halfway home, having a resting moment, she checked her bag. He’d added two packages of sausage, plus a box of Earl Grey. For a moment, she was almost overwhelmed at the prospect of a brand-new tea bag, instead of a limp, tired one, three or four steepings gone.

One day, she should thank Mel, but thanking him would mean acknowledging what he had done, and so far, both of them had preferred this system.

It took her a long time to get home. She was starting to feel a little unsteady, swaying more and more with each step.

It would be good to get inside, have a cup of Earl Grey, hot, black, and strong. She would put her feet up in the front parlor as her daddy used to do. Maybe take a little nap.

But when she opened her front door, she discovered she had a guest. The boy had already returned, except this time, he was not waiting on the back porch. He was standing in her parlor, holding a framed portrait of her family.

For a long time, they simply regarded each other. Then Rita stepped firmly into her house, closing the door behind her, unwrapping the scarf from her neck.

“Son, the proper way of entering someone’s home is to knock on the door and ask permission. Did you knock on my door, did you ask permission?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Then this was not the proper way of entering my home. Do not do it again.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

That settled, Rita shrugged out of her coat, discarded her hat. “I was going to have some tea, but I suppose I could make hot cocoa instead.”

His eyes lit up.

“I don’t have marshmallows,” she warned. “Too expensive, that kind of nonsense.”

He nodded his head.

She shuffled past him into the kitchen, pretending not to see the way he watched her through half-slit eyes, nor the slim blade protruding from the back pocket of his jeans.

When your time comes, your time comes, Rita knew. But she was a tough old bird, and she figured the boy would discover soon enough that she had plenty of time left.

ELEVEN

“There are two ways in which spiders ingest food. Those with weak jaws puncture the body of the insect with their fangs and then slowly alternate between injecting digestive fluid through this hole and sucking back the liquefied tissues, until there remains but an empty shell…others with strong jaws mash the insect to a pulp between the jaws, as the digestive fluid is regurgitated over it.”

FROM How to Know the Spiders,

THIRD EDITION, BY B. J. KASTON, 1978

“SO TO RECAP, YOU HAVE MET WITH A POTENTIAL INFORMANT, processed a potential piece of evidence, and received two disturbing phone calls on your cell phone, both of which appear to have originated from our own call desk.”

“According to GBI Special Agent Lynn Stoudt,” Kimberly interjected, “caller ID on a cell phone is meaningless, thanks to ‘spoofing.’ You go to the right website, and for a ten-dollar fee, have access to a toll-free number where you supply the destination phone number and the caller ID number of your choice. It’s cheap, it’s easy, and any seven-year-old with a laptop can do it.”

“Hardly an encouraging thought.”

“Now that we know what’s going on, our own tech services department can probably set up a system for tracing the original call-”

“More resources,” Supervisory Special Agent Larry Baima countered, “for a case that isn’t a case.”

“Well it’s something!”

“Yes. It’s a mess. For God’s sake, Kimberly, how do you manage to get yourself into these situations?”

Baima sighed heavily. Given that it was a rhetorical question, Kimberly did the smart thing and shut up. In truth, she and Baima respected each other enormously. Which was good, because another supe probably would’ve written her up by now.

“One more time,” Baima said. “What precisely do you know?”

“GBI Special Agent Martignetti believes an unknown predator has been picking off high-risk victims-prostitutes, drug addicts, runaways, the like. He has a list of nine girls ‘unaccounted for,’ plus he has received, from an unknown source, the driver’s licenses for six of the girls. Enter Delilah Rose and her story of a fellow hooker, Ginny Jones, last seen three months ago in the company of a john named Dinchara with a fetish for arachnids. Delilah claims to have recovered a ring belonging to Ginny on the floor of Dinchara’s SUV. I have traced the ring to Tommy Mark Evans, who graduated in oh-six from Alpharetta High School. Also listed as a classmate: Virginia Jones.

“Adding to the puzzle, we have two phone calls, both placed to my cell phone from an unknown number. First call, I personally believe, was the caller testing out the system, to ensure it would work for the middle-of-the-night main event. At this time, however, I cannot substantiate that claim.”

“But the caller was a male? Not Delilah Rose?”

She hesitated. “According to Special Agent Stoudt, the same websites that provide caller ID spoofing also provide optional voice scrambling to make the caller sound like a member of the opposite sex. Sort of an upgrade feature. Given that…Hell, I’m not sure what to be sure of anymore.”

Baima pinched the bridge of his nose. “I hate the Internet.”

“Yet it brought us eBay and Amazon.com.”

“I still hate the Internet.”

Kimberly didn’t argue with him. “At the end of the day,” she ventured, “I’m guessing the caller was Delilah Rose simply because I gave her my phone number at our last meeting. Maybe this was her way of trying to prove her case.”

“You could say that.” Baima had listened to the tape of the phone call twice already this morning, when Kimberly had brought it straight to his attention. Needless to say, it wasn’t a great way to start the day.

“So,” Baima said briskly, “we have a man-an unidentified subject-sexually assaulting, then torturing a female until she fulfills the UNSUB’s demand for a name, at which point she is killed. The woman provides Ginny Jones’s name, claiming to be Ginny’s mother. Can you substantiate that claim?”

“Just submitted a request to Missing Persons,” Kimberly assured him. She hesitated again, then confessed, “But I didn’t have a first name, just a general description and the last name Jones. That’s going to take some processing.”

Another dubious look from her supervisor. “Moving right along then, your impression of the audio,” he pressed. “Genuine, fake, real-time, taped? There are numerous possibilities. Give it your best shot.”

Kimberly tried to sound more certain this time. “I think it was genuine. Not sure of timeline.”

“Explain.”

“The sounds over the phone…If this is a tape, then whoever made it knew exactly what violence and murder sound like. It’s too real to be a script.”

Baima granted her a short nod of acknowledgment, a supervisory agent’s way of giving a special agent just enough rope to hang herself with.

“Timeline?” he prodded.

“Last night, it felt live. This morning, however…I’m thinking recorded.”

Kimberly leaned forward, trying to explain herself. “The second batch of IDs Sal received belong to three roommates who all disappeared, one by one. Coupled with what I heard on the phone, I think that may be how this subject operates-part of his MO is to have each victim choose the next victim, someone close to her. Given the fact that Ginny Jones disappeared three months ago, then what we heard must have occurred prior to December.”

“Ginny’s mother was abducted first. She gives up her daughter, who is taken second,” Baima stated.

“It’s a theory.”

“Well, theories are fun, Special Agent Quincy, but in case you haven’t noticed, we’re pretty busy these days. To open a case, federal agents require evidence and-here’s a thought-jurisdiction.”

“I have a recording of the phone call-” Kimberly started.

“Not admissible as evidence, as you cannot substantiate the source, nor establish chain of custody if it is a tape, which you believe it may be.”

“The ring-”

“Also issues with chain of custody.”

“The information provided by Delilah Rose-”

“Saddest excuse for a three-oh-two I’ve ever read in my life,” Baima intoned. “Strike three, you’re out.”

Kimberly scowled. “Come on, you heard that call. We can’t walk away. A woman died begging for her life. How can you-”

“We’re not.”

Kimberly eyed her supervisor skeptically. “We’re not?”

“No, we’re kicking it to GBI, where a case like this belongs. You said Special Agent Martignetti started things. Let Martignetti work missing persons and track down hookers. Better yet, maybe he can come up with a crime scene, or, heaven forbid, a body. One way or another, this is more GBI’s jurisdiction than ours.”

“But Delilah won’t talk to Martignetti-”

“Maybe no one has asked her nicely enough. Until we have evidence of crossing state lines, this isn’t an FBI case. Period. You have eighteen open files on your desk right now. Here’s a thought: Pick one and close it.”

Kimberly scowled, chewing her lower lip. “And if GBI wants to set up a tap on my cell phone?”

Baima gave her a look. “Think hard about all the calls you get and from what sources. You’re opening the door on each and every one. I’d find a better way to cooperate.”

“Point taken.”

Kimberly rose briskly, careful not to let the triumph show on her face.

At the last minute, her supervisor stopped her. “How you feelin’?”

“Fine.”

“Your workload is pretty high, Kimberly. While you’re still feeling so well, it might be the time to start planning ahead.”

“Is that an order?”

“Call it a friendly suggestion.”

“Once again, I live to serve.”

Now Baima did roll his eyes. Kimberly took that as her cue to leave. Her supervisor had granted her permission to find a better way to cooperate with the state. Surely that included delivering Tommy Mark Evans.

Kimberly’s father had entered the Bureau after a brief stint with the Chicago PD. He’d been old-school FBI, in the days when G-men wore dark suits, obeyed all things Hoover, and lived by the mandate Never Embarrass the Bureau.

Truthfully, Kimberly had been too young to remember her father’s time in the field, but she liked to picture him in a somber black suit, his dark eyes unreadable as he stood across from some petty gangster, breaking the suspect’s alibi with a mere arch of his eyebrow.

After his workaholic ways imploded his marriage, Quincy had gotten into profiling, transferring to what was then called the Behavorial Science Unit at Quantico. In theory, he’d moved into the field of research in order to spend more time with his daughters. In reality, he had traveled more than ever, working over a hundred cases a year, each one more shockingly violent and twisted than the last.

He never talked about his work. Not when he’d been with a field office and certainly not once he started profiling. Instead, Kimberly had taken it upon herself to become immersed in her father’s world, sneaking into his study late at night, flipping through his homicide textbooks, glancing at manila folders filled with crime scene photographs, diagrams of blood spatter, reports from coroners’ offices filled with phrases like “petechial hemorrhages,” “defensive wounds,” and “postmortem mutilation.”

Kimberly had been an FBI agent for only four years, but in many ways she had been studying violent crime her whole life. First, under the mistaken impression that if she could understand her father’s work, then she could understand the man. Second, as a victim herself, trying to wade through the emotional morass that came with knowing her mother died a long, brutal death, fighting for her life inch by inch, as she crawled across the hardwood floors of her elegant Philadelphia town house.

Had Bethie died in a state of terror, feeling caught, helpless, trapped? Or had she felt outraged to have fought so hard and still lost the war? Or perhaps by then her pain had been so great, she’d been merely grateful. Mandy had died the year before. Maybe in those final moments, Bethie was thinking how nice it would be to see her daughter again.

Kimberly didn’t know. Kimberly would never know.

And in the hours after midnight, her thoughts often took her to dark places where other people, normal people, God willing, never had to go.

In the end, she and her father rarely spoke of their jobs, because it wasn’t their jobs they had in common. Kimberly worked for the post-9/11 Bureau, operating out of a beautiful office compound in the middle of a serenely landscaped industrial park. Average age was thirty-five. Females comprised a quarter of the workforce. Men thought nothing of wearing pastel shirts.

Instead, Kimberly and her father shared something deeper, more poignant. They understood what it was like to strive so hard to save a stranger’s life while living each day knowing they had failed the ones they loved.

Mostly, they understood the importance of always moving forward, because if you stood in one place too long, you risked getting crushed by the boulder weight of regret.

A little after eleven a.m., Kimberly headed to her car. She’d already checked the Georgia Navigator for latest traffic news, and according to the website, GA 400 was clear. Alpharetta lay just twenty-five miles north of the Atlanta Field Office, and Kimberly made good time.

This late in the season, football was done. Instead, Coach Urey was teaching gym class to a bunch of gawky ninth graders who were a mess of arms, legs, and interesting body piercings. When Kimberly finally found the gym, Urey didn’t need to see her creds to talk. Her mere presence was enough for him to take a much-needed break.

She warmed him up with the usual prattle-how was football season, what did he think of the new high school, seemed to be a great group of kids.

Urey, who was about as wide as he was tall, with the requisite buzz cut and beer gut, took it all in stride. Should’ve made it to state this year. Kids really had the heart. But it was a young team, made some mistakes. By gawd they’d get ’em next year.

They walked down a hallway as they spoke. Urey offered her water. She declined. His gaze fell to her stomach, and she could see him mentally wrestling-was the woman pregnant, not pregnant, were FBI agents even allowed to be pregnant. Finally, he did the sensible thing and said nothing at all.

“So I’m trying to track down one of your former players,” she started out casually as they turned a corner in the vast hallway of lockers. “Nothing alarming. I’m just cleaning up odds and ends from another case and have some property to return to him.”

“Property?”

“Class ring. It has the football emblem on it with his jersey number. That’s how I knew to come here.”

“Oh sure, the kids load up their rings with everything. Hell, if I’d had all those choices in my day…”

Kimberly nodded her head in sympathy, as Urey re-trod the same ground Mac had already walked down. Apparently, men did take their class rings seriously. War medals, and all that.

“Do you know his name?” Urey asked now. “Or tell me his jersey number. I can probably fill in the rest. Not that I spend too much time with these kids.”

“Ring owner graduated in oh-six,” Kimberly supplied. “If I understand the symbols correctly, he played quarterback. Jersey number eighty-six.”

Urey stopped walking. For one moment, under the fluorescent lights, his face appeared gray. Then he collected himself, squaring his shoulders resiliently.

“I’m sorry, Special Agent Quincy. If you’d phoned ahead, I coulda saved you a trip. Ring belonged to Tommy Mark Evans. Fine kid. One of the best QBs I ever had. Great arm, but also solid. Held up under pressure. He graduated magna cum laude and got himself a football scholarship to Penn State.”

“He’s out of town?” Kimberly asked in confusion. “Going to college in Pennsylvania?”

But Urey shook his head. “Not anymore. Tommy came home for Christmas last year. Guess he went for a drive. Nobody really knows. But apparently he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Took two bullets to the brain, tap, tap on the forehead. Parents still haven’t recovered. You just don’t expect a strong, handsome kid like that to suddenly wind up dead.”

TWELVE

BURGERMAN TOOK ME TO THE PARK.

Younger kids were on the swings, teeter-totter, merry-go-round. Some older kids, closer to my age, were flying around the beat-up court in a pickup game of hoops.

Burgerman nudged me. “Go ahead. Join ’em. It’s all right. Get some color on your face. Christ, you look like shit, you know?”

For a moment, I didn’t believe he really meant that I could go. He nudged me harder, nearly knocking me to the ground, so I took the hint and went. I joined the team with shirts. Going skins would’ve invited too many questions.

In the beginning, I held back. It felt strange to be on a playground, too be around other kids, to hear them laughing and dribbling and swearing a little when a boy missed a shot or took an elbow to the gut. I kept waiting for everyone to stop and stare. I wanted them to ask, What the hell happened to you? I wanted someone to say, Hey, buddy, wake up, it’s all been a bad dream, but it’s over now and life is good.

But no one said anything. They played basketball.

And, eventually, so did I.

I could smell fresh-mowed grass. Hear happy sounds, kids goofing off in these last few days before summer became mercilessly hot and everyone headed straight to the swimming pools. There were birds. And flowers. And a vast blue sky and so much…everything.

The world, going on spinning. Round and round and round.

I went up for a shot. Made it. A kid slapped me on the shoulder.

“Nice hook.”

I beamed, went back for more.

I don’t know time anymore. Time belongs to other kids, boys not caught in the Burgerman’s grinding embrace. I just am, until I’m told otherwise, then I am not.

So I played until the Burgerman told me to stop. And then I didn’t play anymore.

Burgerman led me to the side. Sun was starting to go down. Some of the other boys wandered off. Moms and older girls collected the little ones like ducks in a row, waddling them down the street.

I noticed one little boy off on his own, digging in the sandbox.

Burgerman noticed him, too.

He looked at me. “Boy, fetch me that kid.”

Screaming. It went on and on and on. High-pitched and thin, a babble. I tried to cover my ears. Burgerman stopped long enough to slap me upside the head, knocking me into the wall. He socked me in the gut and when I doubled over, caught me again beneath the chin.

“ARE YOU LOOKING, BOY! BETTER PAY ATTENTION.”

And then the screaming again, on and on and on. Until finally, the Burgerman collapsed, rolled off, started digging around for his customary cigarette.

I could taste blood. I’d bitten my tongue, had a gash along my cheek from the Burgerman’s ring. I didn’t feel too steady. Thought I’d be sick.

The little boy had stopped struggling. He just lay on the bed, eyes glassed over, face stupefied.

I wondered if that’s how I must have once looked.

Then he noticed me looking. His eyes found mine. He stared at me. Stared so long, so hard. Pleeeease.

I careened out of the room, made it down the hall, got to the bathroom just in time. Once I started, I couldn’t stop. I vomited and vomited and still it wasn’t enough. I couldn’t get the horror out of my belly. It had seeped into my blood. I couldn’t get it out. I couldn’t get it off. So I threw up water and bile until I dry-heaved and collapsed onto the floor.

I blacked out then. It’s as close to mercy as I ever got.

When I came back around, I could hear sounds again. Snoring, this time. Wouldn’t last, though. An hour, maybe two.

The Burgerman always woke up hungry.

I crawled back down the hall. Peered inside the room. I couldn’t help myself. I had to see, even if I knew I would be sorry.

The boy had curled up into a ball. He wasn’t moving, but he wasn’t asleep. He was staring at the far wall. I knew what he was doing. He was practicing being small. Because if he could be small enough, maybe the Burgerman wouldn’t notice him anymore.

I knew what I must do.

Burgerman left his pants on the floor. I wriggled over to them, gingerly putting my hand into the pocket, until I found the key. It felt heavy and sharp in my hand. I didn’t think about it. Just kept moving.

Over to the side of the bed, in front of the boy. Finger to my lips, shhhh.

I held up his clothes. The boy, maybe five or six, just lay there.

I thought I should tell him something. I didn’t know what. He wasn’t ready for the great truths of life. None of us were.

Finally, I patted his shoulder and dressed him as if he were a baby.

I left him one moment. Had to unlock the door. It squeaked a little upon opening and I stilled. Snuffling snore from the bedroom. So far so good. I peered out into the long gray length of the hall. No one was about. Seemed to me in this apartment complex no one was ever about.

Now or never, I decided.

And for some reason, I don’t know why, I remembered that first night, the night I woke up to find the Burgerman standing at the foot of my bed. I remembered the sound of my father snoring down the hall. And, remembering, I started to cry, though at this stage of the game, tears were too little too late.

I crept back to the bedroom, blubbering. Grabbed the boy’s shoulder, shook him hard.

His dark eyes slowly came up to mine. A faint hint of consciousness swam beneath the surface. Then he zoned out again. I slapped him hard, grabbed his shoulder, and yanked him to the floor.

Snoring stopped. Bed squeaked as the Burgerman finally moved.

Now I clasped my hand over the boy’s mouth, pressed him against me, willed him to not make a sound.

Did I pray? Did I have any prayers left? None came to mind.

Bed creaked again, Burgerman tossing back and forth. Then…silence.

Not much time anymore. The beast was starting to stir.

I grabbed the little boy beneath the armpits and dragged him toward the door. Ten steps. Eight. Seven. Six. Five.

The boy wouldn’t walk. Why the hell wouldn’t he walk? I needed him to get his feet beneath him. Wake up. Stop shaking. Run, dammit, run. What was wrong with him anyway?

What kind of stupid shit didn’t fight back? What kind of miserable, stupid, pathetic boy let a man do this to him time after time, and couldn’t even run for the goddamn door!

And suddenly I was yelling at the boy. I don’t know how it happened. I was standing over him, looming over him, screaming so hard that spittle sprayed from my mouth: “MOVE YOUR FUCKING ASS! DO YOU THINK HE’S GONNA SLEEP FOREVER? YOU STUPID, NAUGHTY BOY. GET UP. RUN, DAMN YOU, RUN. I’M NOT YOUR FUCKING DADDY!”

The five-year-old boy curled up in a ball, put his hands over his head, and whimpered.

And then, I realized what I didn’t hear anymore.

Snoring.

I turned. I was helpless not to. Standing in front of the open door, so close, but so far away. The man’s latest plaything curled at my feet.

The Burgerman stood behind me.

He smiled in the dark.

And in that smile, I knew what was about to happen next.

Time belongs to other boys. Boys that have not been beaten and starved and raped. Boys that have not stood there and watched a grown man kill a kid with his bare hands.

Boys that were not then handed a shovel and made to go out and help dig the grave.

“You want to die, son?” the Burgerman asked casually, standing back from the hole, leaning on his spade.

The body was wrapped in an old towel, lying beneath an azalea bush. I didn’t look at it.

“It’s not hard,” the Burgerman continued on. “Hell, climb into the hole. Lie down next to your little friend. I won’t stop you.”

I didn’t move. After a moment, the Burgerman laughed.

“See, you still want to live, boy. No shame in that.”

He gave me an almost affectionate pat on the head. “Pick up the shovel, son. I’ll show you a trick to save your back. That’s it, put your legs into it. See? Now repeat.”

Burgerman taught me how to dig a perfect grave. Then we returned to the apartment, packed up our clothes, and vanished.

THIRTEEN

“The spider’s appetite may often appear insatiable, the abdomen swelling to accommodate added food.”

FROM How to Know the Spiders,

THIRD EDITION, BY B. J. KASTON, 1978

KIMBERLY FOUND SAL AT THE ATLANTA BREAD COMPANY. He was munching on a sandwich, a smear of mayo dotting his right cheek. Though he’d agreed to the rendezvous, he still appeared wary as she approached.

“Sprouts?” she asked, inspecting his lunch. “Funny, you didn’t strike me as a sprouts man.”

“Hey, I like veggies. Besides, after Sausage McMuffins for breakfast…”

“You ever cook, Sal?”

“As little as possible.”

“Me, too.”

She took a seat, sliding her brown leather saddlebag from her shoulder and digging around for her lunch.

“Are you eatin’ pudding again?” Sal wanted to know.

“Cottage cheese with blueberries. Gotta get protein somehow.”

“How far along?”

“Nearly twenty-two weeks.”

“Don’t look it.”

“It’s the pudding,” she assured him. “Have kids?”

He shook his head. “Don’t even have a wife.”

“Hasn’t stopped other guys from procreating.”

“True, but I’m a traditionalist. Or a procrastinator. Haven’t decided which. Does it move?”

“What, the baby?”

“Yes, the baby. It’s not like I care about cottage cheese.”

“Yeah, she’s starting to. Lots of little movements that get progressively worse if I’m trying to eat or sleep. If I’m doing nothing, of course, she’s perfectly quiet.”

“She?”

“That’s my guess. Mac wants a boy. Major league pitcher, I think. What’s with you guys?”

“Sports matter,” Sal said seriously. “What else would we do on Monday nights?”

Kimberly dug into her cottage cheese. She had a lot to report, but figured it was only fair to let Sal call the shots. He probably had some aggression to work out. Sure enough, he got straight into it.

“Nice, Quincy. Tossing me a name like that. Just enough information to make me feel like you cared without actually putting out. I have to say, at least when I got screwed, it was by a class act.”

“Think I shoulda told you ’bout the ring, huh?”

“It crossed my mind.”

Kimberly spread her hands. She’d given this some thought, and this was the best she could offer. “Look: We can spend the next fifteen minutes with you feeling pissy because I didn’t share the ring, and me feeling pissy because you tried to muscle in on an informant who’d already asked for me, or we can agree that we’re both aggressive investigators, and get on with the matters at hand.”

“I don’t trust you, you don’t trust me, but because we’re both untrustworthy, we oughtta get along fine?”

“Exactly.”

Sal considered the matter. “Fair enough,” he conceded. “Proceed.”

He finished his sandwich, dabbing at his face. He missed the mayo on his cheek, and without thinking, she reached across the table and got it with her finger. The intimacy of the gesture struck her after the fact, and she sat back, embarrassed.

“So, ummm”-she dug around in her cottage cheese, fishing for a blueberry-“Delilah Rose gave me a class ring that allegedly belonged to Ginny Jones. I traced the ring to Tommy Mark Evans, who graduated from Alpharetta High School in oh-six. Ginny Jones was one of his classmates.”

“They were an item?”

“Coach Urey didn’t think so. His memory was that Tommy had been dating a girl named Darlene Angler for most of the season, but maybe broke up before graduation. He wasn’t clear on that detail. I spoke to the school secretary, however, and she’s getting her hands on a yearbook for us. Hopefully that’ll arrive by end of week. She looked up Virginia Jones for me-”

“Without a warrant?” Sal asked in surprise.

“I was using my nice voice. Besides, that’s why you ask the secretary. They’re preprogrammed to look up files for everyone at any time. They don’t stop to ask why.”

“Good point.”

“So, Ginny attended Alpharetta for four years, but didn’t graduate. Dropped out in February. Never returned. According to her files, calls were made to her home, but never answered. Finally, there’s a yellow sticky with a handwritten note-‘family appears to have left town.’ Guess that was the end of matters.

“Ginny had one parent listed as guardian. A mother, Veronica L. Jones. I made a couple of quick phone calls: Veronica L. Jones used to work as a waitress at the Hungryman Diner, but according to the manager, she no-showed her shifts and they never heard from her again. They do, however, have a last paycheck for her to pick up, should I locate her current whereabouts.”

Sal’s eyes widened. “She left behind a paycheck? That doesn’t sound good.”

“Don’t think it is. The Joneses owned a house in Alpharetta. The town filed a lien against it in the spring of oh-seven to collect back property taxes. House is now in foreclosure. I couldn’t find any trace of a missing persons report filed for either Veronica or Virginia Jones, and yet both of them are clearly gone.”

“As of February oh-six?” Sal asked with a frown.

Kimberly shrugged. “February is when Ginny stopped attending school, so I would assume somewhere in that time frame.”

“But according to your friend Delilah Rose, Ginny didn’t disappear until three months ago, November oh-seven. So color me confused.”

“Ah, but this is where the phone call gets interesting. Assume for a moment that the woman on the tape is Ginny’s mother, Veronica Jones.”

“She says she is, so good assumption.”

“Well, let’s say she was kidnapped in February oh-six. Now, Ginny comes home, but it’s an empty house. And night after night, it remains an empty house. Ginny could do the sensible thing and contact the authorities, but what kind of teenager does that? Instead, she splits. Maybe she has friends in Sandy Springs, or thinks it’ll be great to go clubbing for a bit, live on the wild side, never have a curfew…”

“Takes off to party, gets sucked into the scene, never gets back out.”

“Yeah. So mom’s victim number one.”

“And nearly two years later,” Sal filled in skeptically, “Ginny is victim number two?”

“Actually,” Kimberly said, “Ginny is victim number three.”

“Tommy Mark Evans graduated from Alpharetta in June oh-six. Star quarterback, magna cum laude, all-round hometown hero. Got a full scholarship to Penn State and took off for college in the fall. He returned for Christmas break. December twenty-seventh, he told his parents he was going out for a drive. Never came home.

“They found his truck three days later, tucked back on an old dirt road. Tommy was slumped over the wheel, dead from a double-tap to the forehead.”

Sal arched a brow. “Someone’s been watching The Sopranos. Any evidence the kid was into drugs? Using, dealing? Maybe the landscape changed while he was outta town, and the new kingpin didn’t like him coming back.”

“Coach Urey didn’t think so, but he believes the sun rose and set on Tommy’s shoulders, so I’d take his opinion with a grain of salt. Alpharetta PD handled the investigation. According to Urey, they never developed any major leads or made an arrest. The parents are still pretty torn up about it, losing their son at Christmas like that.”

“So now we got one missing parent and one dead classmate, both linked to Ginny Jones. Any other tragedies at Alpharetta I should know about?”

Kimberly shrugged. “Hell, it’s a big town. We’re probably only beginning. That’s why you should talk to the Alpharetta police.”

“Me?”

“They’ll take your call before mine. Besides, technically speaking, I’m not even on the case. I did all this out of the kindness of my heart.”

Sal appeared wary again. Kimberly didn’t blame him. What overworked fed ever did anything out of the kindness of her heart? Still, she thought a thank-you would be nice.

No such luck.

“I want the ring,” Sal declared. “My case, my evidence.”

“It’s secured in the evidence vault,” she assured him. “I’ll arrange for the transfer.”

“Anything else you haven’t told me?”

Kimberly started to say no, then realized she’d left out one other rather salient fact, and sighed. “Ummm, possibly Delilah Rose mentioned that Ginny Jones was last seen with a customer going by the alias Mr. Dinchara.”

“Mr. Dinchara?”

“An anagram for ‘arachnid.’ Apparently, Dinchara likes to bring his pets along. You know, nothing like a night out with your favorite tarantula.”

Sal appeared positively mesmerized. “No shit?”

“Not in the least. Guess no one else has mentioned him yet?”

“I think I would remember a story like that. What does he do with his spiders?”

“Oh, have them roam various body parts of the girls. Or, if he paid extra, watch.”

“Watch?”

“Ever get the feeling the world is becoming a freakier and freakier place?”

“Only every time I watch a reality TV show. So, a Mr. Dinchara with a pet tarantula. Hell, shouldn’t be too hard to get a bead on a customer that unique. What was his involvement with Jones?”

“He was a client. Guess the spiders didn’t bother Ginny; as you can guess they didn’t worry Ms. Rose-apparently she has a soft spot for all things with eight legs. However, in addition to last seeing Ginny with Mr. Dinchara, Delilah claims she found Tommy’s class ring on the floor of Dinchara’s SUV. Ginny used to wear the ring around her neck on a chain, like a talisman. Delilah implied there was no way Ginny would’ve willingly left the ring behind.”

Sal was back to frowning. “If Ginny wore Tommy’s ring around her neck, wouldn’t that imply to you that they were more than classmates?”

“Generally, the wearing of a fellow’s ring is a sign of more than friends.”

“So clearly there is more to Tommy Mark Evans than Coach Urey suspects.”

“There always is. But if Ginny and Tommy were so tight, why did Ginny take off? Last I knew, landing a hunky, varsity quarterback boyfriend would give any teenage girl reason to stay. I mean, the bragging rights alone…”

“We’re talking ourselves in circles,” Sal said with a sigh.

“Lack of information will do that to you.”

“Bottom line, we now have ten missing females, one dead high school quarterback, one class ring connecting Missing Female A with Dead Male B, and one creepy-crawly mystery man. Anything I missed?”

“Ten dead bodies.”

He scowled. “Anything else?”

She shrugged, more serious this time. “The only real lead we have.”

“Which is?”

“Delilah Rose.”

FOURTEEN

“…the venom was used primarily as a paralyzing agent to inactivate the prey, which may actually remain alive for four to five days. The spider then feeds at its convenience.”

FROM Biology of the Brown Recluse Spider,

BY JULIA MAXINE HITE, WILLIAM J. GLADNEY, J. L. LANCASTER, JR., AND W. H. WHITCOMB, DEPARTMENT OF ENTOMOLOGY, DIVISION OF AGRICULTURE, UNIVERSITY OF ARKANSAS, FAYETTEVILLE, MAY 1966

IT WAS AFTER SIX WHEN KIMBERLY LEFT THE OFFICE. Traffic was piling up, the highway one long tangled snarl. She thought of heading back to work, waiting out the worst of the congestion. God knew she had a million calls she could make, 302s to process, reports to review. She didn’t, though.

She drove to Alpharetta.

She didn’t know the area well. Atlanta was so large she could spend decades here and still not make a dent in the explosion of sprawling townships that marked the city’s phenomenal rate of growth. The city felt like a web to her, one that was constantly being spun larger and larger, gobbling up chicken farms and country lanes until a scenic drive one year became the location of the latest mall the next. And yet the state absorbed the booming developments relatively easily, peace still two hours away in the northern mountains, or three hours away on the southern beaches. Mac claimed there was no place else on earth he’d rather live.

She was still considering the matter herself.

She was armed with a map, a cell phone, and a nearly photographic memory. How lost could she get?

The drive to Ginny Jones’s house wasn’t bad. The abandoned residence formed a small, gray mound against the darkening sky. Windows boarded up. Yard desperately overgrown. Yet it wasn’t the most neglected-looking property on the block.

Kimberly worked her way through side streets, as lots became larger, houses more sprawling, lawns more perfectly manicured. It took her half a dozen wrong turns and about twenty minutes, then she found the next address on her list: Tommy Mark Evans’s home.

It was a stately brick Colonial situated atop half an acre of emerald-green lawn. A silver BMW SUV was parked in the driveway. Expertly shaped corkscrew hedges lined the drive. That told her enough.

So Ginny was the poor, fatherless girl; Tommy the rich football hero. Now, was the situation more like Cinderella meets Prince Charming, or Lady and the Tramp, with the genders reversed?

Kimberly started to see the possibilities. Such as Tommy dating Ginny Jones, but feeling pressure from his peer group/parents to keep it quiet. Perhaps Ginny was feeling a little tender on the subject. All the more reason to run, once Mommy stopped coming home at night?

Kimberly had a final stop to make. It was now completely dark, making it difficult for her to read the map and drive her car. She took it in half-mile batches, looping through a maze of side streets, office parks, and residential areas until she nearly lost herself. She thought she was closer to Ginny’s neighborhood than Tommy’s, but could no longer be certain. A left at the oak tree, a right by the large birch.

Tires left pavement. She bumped along on the dirt. One of the last few rural roads in the area. Probably be developed by this time next year. Then there’d be nothing left to indicate where a young man had died.

She found the exact spot without difficulty. A white cross stood gleaming in the dark, a Christmas wreath drying out at the base, red bow flapping lightly in the wind.

Kimberly pulled over twenty yards back. She grabbed her jacket and walked the final distance to the memorial.

It was past seven-thirty now. She was not far from civilization, but the trees formed an effective buffer, and standing in this spot, she couldn’t hear the sound of passing cars or make out the distant lights of a bustling community. With the new moon floating dark and hidden overhead, the only illumination came from her vehicle’s twin headlights. It was quiet, still.

In spite of herself, she shivered.

Tommy Mark Evans, it said down the cross. Then, along the arms: Beloved son.

Kimberly looked around: at the thick cluster of rhododendrons, nearly higher than her head; the thin, scratchy outline of straggly pine trees, clutching at the night sky. She felt the deep ruts of the dirt road beneath her feet. Used her flashlight to illuminate the grooves of tire marks tracking in and out.

She could picture a young man joyriding down this lane, pedal to the metal, shrieking each time his monster tires hit a rut and sent him airborne. She could picture a young man and a female friend tucked alongside the road, necking hard and heavy, steaming up the windshield.

She could not picture a college kid coming out here alone, pulling over for no reason, and winding up shot two times to the forehead.

Tommy Mark Evans knew his attacker. She had no doubt in her mind.

An owl hooted. A squirrel burst out, making a mad dash across the lane. Kimberly watched the grass rustle on the other side of the road long after the squirrel disappeared into the brush, and the owl swooped by overhead.

She felt a fluttering kick in her side, her own child waking up. She pressed her hand against her lower abdomen, and for a moment, the powerful feeling of life while standing before a scene of such tragedy left her unutterably sad. She wondered how Tommy’s parents had made it through the holidays. Did they surround themselves with photos of their son? Or did they find it easiest to pretend his life had never happened?

How had Kimberly’s father done it? Looking at all those photos, visiting all those crime scenes of young girls and boys so viciously murdered, then coming home to his own family each night? How did you comfort your child’s tears over a scratched knee when you could picture another child missing all of her fingers? How could you tell your child there was no such thing as monsters when you witnessed their handiwork each and every day?

And how had he borne it, when the call finally came in the middle of the night: Sir, we regret to inform you about your daughter…

Kimberly herself rarely thought about her sister. Her mother, yes. But Mandy…That loss was more insidious in ways she couldn’t explain. A child expected to one day lose her parents. Her sibling, on the other hand…A sister was a companion, a peer. They were supposed to grow old together, standing up at each other’s weddings, swapping advice on child-rearing, while one day trying to determine how to best take care of Dad.

Once, Kimberly had been the younger half of a paired set. Now she was an only child.

You’d think she’d get used to it, but she didn’t.

Kimberly turned, started for her car, arms wrapped around her torso for warmth.

She had only taken two steps before her cell rang.

It was too dark, she thought. She was too alone, her mind filled with too many unsettling thoughts. Veronica Jones’s last desperate screams. Her sister, head wrapped in white gauze on the hospital bed as the doctor flipped the proverbial switch and they stood together, she and her parents, to watch Mandy die. And then, just a year later, the House of Horrors that became her mother’s last stand.

Mandy had been lucky. She had not lived long enough to know that, with her death, she had sealed their mother’s fate. Had Veronica Jones understood? Had she truly realized what her anguished confession would mean for her daughter?

Her phone rang again. Kimberly wanted to walk away. But she was her father’s daughter, helpless to say no, even when she of all people knew better.

“Special Agent Quincy,” she answered.

Nothing.

She waited for someone to tell her hush, for another macabre scene to start playing out in the background. But second passed into second. She heard nothing at all.

She checked signal strength, tried again. “Special Agent Quincy.”

Still no words, but now, as she concentrated, she thought she caught the sound of breathing, low and even. She let the silence roll out again. The strategy didn’t work.

“I would like to help you,” she said presently. “It’s okay if you need to talk.”

Nothing.

“Is someone there? Are you afraid of being overheard? Just make a sound, like you’re clearing your throat. I’ll take that as an affirmative.”

But the caller remained silent.

She started to feel frustrated now, walking in a small circle.

“Are you in danger?”

Nothing.

“If you talk to me, provide information, I may be able to offer protection. You can’t just dial my number, however. You have to be willing to talk.”

Then, finally, that small voice again, high-strung, but hushed, like a child’s: “Shhhh.”

“Please, I want to help…”

“He knows what you’re doing.”

“Who knows-”

“He knows everything.”

“Can you give me a name?”

“It’s only a matter of time.”

“Listen to me-”

“You will be the next specimen in the collection.”

“Can you meet? Name the time and place, I’ll be there.”

“Shhh. Remember to look up.”

The call disconnected. Kimberly stood there a moment longer, clutching her phone, totally bewildered. And then, mostly because she could not help herself, she glanced up.

The night sky yawned above her. A pinprick of stars. The more distant glow of the city. She forced herself to take in the shadowed outline of the trees, the bushes, the distant horizon. Nothing loomed in the dark unknown. No boogeyman leapt out to get her.

Then, to her right, a tree limb cracked. She forgot about decorum and bolted for her car. Running hard, fumbling with the key. She yanked open the heavy door and leapt inside. Door shut, locks engaged, engine cranked.

At the last minute, she caught herself before she tore down the dirt road like the half-dressed heroine of a teen slasher film. She was a professional, for God’s sake. And heavily armed.

She got her breathing to steady, and safe inside the confines of her automobile, took final inventory. Nothing moved in the woods around her. No headless horseman came careening her way.

Just a solitary white cross, picked up in the crosshairs of her headlights.

She drove home slowly, trying to make sense of the caller’s latest warning and wishing that everything about this case didn’t fill her with dread.

Mac was home when she arrived. She pulled in next to his truck, shutting off the engine. She pasted a smile on her face, then braved the house.

Hallway light was on. Kitchen, too. She tossed down her shoulder bag, shrugged out of her jacket, wandering down the hall. No sign of Mac. She tried the family room with the large-screen TV and Mac’s favorite black leather recliner. Still no husband.

She returned to the kitchen, looking for a note and starting to feel herself panicking again for no good reason. He could be in the shower, or out back, or have gone next door. There were a million logical explanations.

Except now she was wondering. The caller had her cell phone number. How much else did he know about her?

“Kimberly.”

She jumped and twirled, her hand automatically going to her chest. Mac stood in the doorway of the kitchen, leather bomber jacket on, dark hair windblown, as if just returning from a walk.

“Heavens, you scared me,” she said, hand coming down, feeling foolish.

Mac continued to regard her somberly, making no move to cross the kitchen, kiss her on the cheek, welcome her home.

“It’s late,” he said at last.

“Sorry, got stuck at work.”

“I called the office.”

“I was out.” She frowned at him, not liking his tone. “Is something up? If you wanted to reach me so badly, you could’ve called my cell.”

“I didn’t want to use it,” he said flatly.

Her frown deepened. “What the hell is going on, Mac? I work late all the time. So do you. Since when do either one of us bring on the inquisition?”

“You’re working the case.”

“What case?”

Now he did take a step forward, his face intent. “You know what I mean, Kimberly. Delilah Rose. This arachnid guy. You’re getting involved. Five months pregnant. Five months pregnant, for God’s sake, and you’re wading knee-deep into this shit.”

“Of course I am. I’m a federal agent. Wading into shit is my job.”

“No, wading into shit is the Bureau’s job. And GBI’s job. As in, this state is swarming with hundreds of perfectly qualified investigators who could all handle this case. Like Sal, or your buddy Harold, or Mike, or John, or Gina. Each of them skilled and dedicated and just as tough as you are. But they can’t work this case, can they, Kimberly? It always has to be you.”

“Hey, I’ll have you know I kicked the case to Sal Martignetti first thing this morning. Even arranged to transfer the ring to state custody. You got your wish, Mac, it is GBI’s ball game.”

“Then where have you been?” He asked the question quietly, which is how she knew she was in trouble.

And heaven help her, she dug in her heels, preparing for a fight they’d both probably regret later. But that was then, and this was now, and she never could stand to be wrong.

“Since when do I have to account for my time to you?” she asked.

“Goddammit,” Mac exploded. “You think I don’t know? I’ve already been on the phone with Sal. Who, by the way, wants to talk to you about his visit to Tommy Mark Evans’s parents. You went to check things out, didn’t you, Kimberly? Couldn’t trust Sal to do the work. No, he’s only investigated fifty or sixty homicides in the past ten years, what the hell could he know about this kind of thing? Did you hit the bar scene? Go hooker shopping? Or did you stand on a street corner and call, ‘Here Mr. Freaky Scary Man. Come find fresh bait.’”

“I did no such thing! I drove around Alpharetta, checking out Ginny’s and Tommy’s respective homes. Nothing dangerous. Just sightseeing.”

“And your phone? Did it stay quiet?”

She thinned her lips mutinously, which was answer enough.

This time, Mac pounded the counter. “That’s it. As your husband, I have never laid down the law. But enough is enough. If you don’t have the good sense to see it, I certainly do. You’re off this case. Fini. Done. Let Sal handle it!”

“Please, it was just heavy breathing, obscene phone call one-oh-one. I’m not going to be chased off by a kid playing games, and you should be ashamed of yourself for even suggesting such a thing.”

“Kimberly, don’t you get it?”

“Get what?” she shouted back, honestly bewildered.

“It’s not about you anymore. It’s about our baby, the unborn child growing in your stomach. Who is already growing and experiencing the world, even from the womb. Our child has ears, you know. I checked that damn book you gave me. At the twenty-week mark, babies can hear. And what the hell did our baby get to listen to last night?”

It took her a second. Then the dots connected, and her hands went reflexively to her belly, cradling the gently rounded curve in a belated act of protection. She hadn’t thought, hadn’t realized…

But yes, she was past the twenty-week mark. When the fetus had ears and the really dedicated mothers started playing Mozart and Beethoven in order to develop neonatal geniuses. Except Kimberly didn’t have the time or patience for that nonsense. No, she just had her unborn child listen to the sound of a woman dying.

“I’m sure…” she started, then stopped, unable to continue.

Mac’s shoulders finally came down. Across the kitchen, his rage appeared to drain from him. He looked simply haunted instead. She should cross to him, she thought, slip her arms around his waist, rest her head upon his chest. Maybe if he felt the baby move the way she felt the baby move, he would understand that their child was doing fine, babies were resilient, blah, blah, blah.

But she couldn’t move.

She stood there. Her baby could hear. And what had she made her baby listen to last night?

Mac was right. Life had changed.

“Kimberly,” Mac ventured, softer this time, tired. “We’re going to get through this.”

“If I quit my job?” she asked quietly. “Stop being an agent, stop being a workaholic, stop being me?”

“You know I would never ask that of you.”

“But you are.”

“No, I’m not,” he insisted, voice rising again. “There’s a difference between not working at all and not working violent crimes. There’s a difference between asking you to stay home and asking you to reduce your hours to forty a week. There’s a difference between saying, hey, bail on all your assignments, and saying, Kimberly, please don’t take on a new case that’s not even FBI jurisdiction. I’m not asking for the sun, the moon, the stars at night. I’m just asking for common sense.”

“Common sense?”

“Maybe I could’ve said that better.”

“What’s different right now, Mac? You tell me, what’s really different?”

His turn to be confused. “The baby?”

“The pregnancy! We’re not dealing with a baby yet, we’re talking about my body. The exact same body I’ve taken to work the past four years and brought home safe again.”

“That’s not entirely true-”

“The hell it is! You want to talk trust? Common sense? Then trust me to take care of myself, and this body, the way I have for the past four years. I’m not walking into shoot-outs. I’m not serving high-risk warrants. I don’t even go to the firing range anymore, to avoid exposure to lead. Hell, I just spent six days at a crime scene and never even crossed over the yellow tape, just to be on the safe side. I’m taking my prenatals, avoiding alcohol, and watching my intake of fresh fish. Frankly, I’m doing a damn good job of tending myself and the baby, and yet the first time the phone rings, you’re ready to pull rank. ‘Hey, little lady, this is too tough for you, time to sit it out.’”

“I did not say that!”

“You might as well have!”

“What is wrong with you?” He was back to shouting now. “How can you be so damn stubborn? This is our baby. How can you not love it as much as I do?”

The second he said the words, she could tell he wanted them back. But of course, it was too late. He had gone and said it, the statement that had hung in the air between them from the moment she had first discovered her pregnancy. His fear. Her fear. She had thought it would hurt. It did.

“Kimberly-”

“I think we should call it a night.”

“You know I don’t mean that.”

“But you do, Mac. You do. Your mom stayed home with you. Your sisters are at home with their kids. For all of your talk, you’re still a traditionalist at heart. The husband works. The wife stays at home. And she should be happy to do it, assuming she loves her family.”

“You’re right, we should call it a night.”

“I already did.”

She turned, stomping down the hall toward their bedroom.

She expected him to follow. That was their pattern. She was hardheaded, proud, stubborn to a fault. But in the end, he could always talk her down, finagle a kiss, make her smile.

She needed him to talk her down. She needed him to put his arms around her and tell her she would be a good mother and she wasn’t as awful and selfish and self-destructive as she suddenly felt.

But Mac didn’t follow her down the hall. After a moment, she heard the front door open, shut, and then she was all alone.

FIFTEEN

BURGERMAN TOOK AWAY MY BIRTHDAY. SAID I DIDN’T need it anymore. We celebrated a new day, homecoming. The day I belonged to him.

On my fourth homecoming, he brought me a case of beer and a hooker.

“I don’t know,” the prostitute said. “He looks pretty young.”

“What the fuck do you care?” Burgerman asked. “I’m his father, and if I want to show my kid a good time, what’s it to you? You should be grateful to finally have some fresh cock, instead of the usual limp dick. Go on, fine-looking kid like that. Knock yourself out.”

Funny thing was, I was a decent-looking kid. My life had ended, but my body didn’t seem to know it. I grew. My shoulders broadened. My arms gained thin ropes of muscle. I even had the beginnings of facial hair.

I was getting old. Old enough that the Burgerman didn’t touch me so often anymore.

He had other uses for me now.

The girl stepped obediently forward. Burgerman got out the camera.

“Don’t be nervous, now,” the girl said. She touched my cheek. I flinched.

“Tell you what, honey, just block him from your mind. Just pretend he’s not even there. It’s just you and me. A good-looking boy, a pretty young girl.” She giggled, revealing two missing teeth. “Fine couple like us oughtta be able to have some fun.”

She took my hand, tucked it under her shirt, on top of her breasts. “How does that feel, honey? Nice, huh? Gotta say, T-n-A guys love me. I got all the right curves.”

I thought she felt soft, flabby. I didn’t know what to do with my fingers. My face was burning crimson. I looked away, but still couldn’t stop the blush.

She moved closer to me now, her tongue licking her lips, her hands pressing my palm against her squishy breast. “Come on, baby, flick your fingers over my nipple. Knead it, work it, you can’t hurt me. Yeah, baby, that’s what it’s there for. Pretend I’m your mama, and you just wanna take a drink.”

I yanked my hand back, horrified. She was still licking her lips, her hips jutting out in a short black leather skirt, rolls of fat spilling over the waist.

Don’t make me, I wanted to yell. Oh God, get away from me.

“Fuck it,” Burgerman said. “You’re scaring the damn kid. Just get it done.”

Girl shrugged, got on her knees, and went to work on my pants. Before I had time to protest, she had yanked out my penis and plopped it into her mouth.

I recoiled, but she had both hands gripping my hips, holding on tight. Burgerman had moved closer, zooming in.

He reached over casually and smacked me upside of the head.

“Moan, you dipshit. Camera’s rolling. Make it look good.”

And finally, in that instant, his handprint red on my cheek, I could moan. I could make it look good. Those were my instructions and I knew how to function when doing what I was told. My body insisted on growing live flesh and blood, when in reality, I was nothing more than a robot. Obedient. Passive. Programmable.

The Burgerman seemed to realize this, too. He barked out more instructions and that speeded things along.

When it was done, the Burgerman was obviously fired up. I wondered if he would make me perform again, with the girl watching. I had been shamed in so many ways, it should hardly matter, and yet it bothered me. Maybe because she had been my first, and I wanted to seem like a man to her, even if she was nothing but a whore.

Burgerman didn’t touch me, though. He went after the hooker instead.

She protested. He hadn’t paid her enough, this wasn’t the deal. So he beat her on the head with the camera till she shut up. Then he did what he’d wanted to do all along while her eyes swelled up and her lip bled.

Later, he tossed some money at her, and I could tell she realized she was lucky to get that much. She grabbed her clothes and fled.

Even hookers are smarter than me.

Burgerman cracked open the first beer, handed it to me. Took a second for himself, and offered a toast.

“Nice fucking, son. Knew I’d done good choosing you. You’re gonna make me rich.”

He popped the tape out of the camera and, whistling, went into the closet, where he placed it in the safe with all the other dirty movies and home photos he’d started selling for boatloads of cash.

We smoked some joints. Drank more beers. Eventually, I passed out.

When I woke up, Burgerman was asleep on the sofa, snoring loudly.

The door was unlocked. I didn’t even think about it anymore.

I got up and went to bed.

I dreamed of my mother, but when I woke up, I couldn’t recall her face.

Dark hair, light hair, brown eyes like me?

I remember she liked to test spaghetti noodles by tossing them against the refrigerator. It made my brother and me giggle. I remember in the summertime, she would make pitchers of sangria and hang out by the pool.

I remember a long time ago, a lifetime ago, I sat on her lap with her arms around me and felt safe.

I can’t remember my mother’s face.

I haven’t decided yet if I will try again tomorrow.

SIXTEEN

“In most species, the egg sac is closely guarded by the female.”

FROM “SPIDER REARING,”

WWW.INSECTED.ARIZONA.EDU/SPIDERREAR.HTM

“TOMMY’S PARENTS ARE CONVINCED HE WAS KILLED by someone he knew,” Sal was saying. “Better yet, they think it might have been a lovers’ quarrel.”

“Tapped two times in the forehead by an ex-girlfriend? Cold.”

“They aren’t sure, but Tommy definitely had someone on the side his senior year. He started going out a lot, claiming to be catching up with the guys, but then the guys would call, looking for him. His mother questioned him once or twice, but he always finessed his way out of it. Oh, Otis called? Well, he wasn’t with Otis, he was with Kevin. Kevin called? Well sure, that’s because he was with Perrish. She didn’t worry about it much at the time. Everything else seemed on track-his grades, football, school. She figured when he was ready, he’d tell them what was going on. Of course, now she wishes she’d pressed him harder on the subject.”

Kimberly merely grunted in reply. She was sitting in Sal’s car, outside the Foxy Lady nightclub. The neon sign buzzed hot pink scrawl over Sal’s face every other second, flashing the emblem of a half-dressed woman doing the cancan on Sal’s nose.

“I don’t get it,” she said finally. “How do they go from Tommy had a mystery girlfriend to Tommy was shot dead by this same femme fatale?”

“Desperation. Lack of other answers. Something happened at the end of Tommy’s senior year. They don’t know what. He grew moody, withdrawn, stopped going out. The father thought his son might be getting nervous about graduation, the transition to Penn State, playing college football. His mom thought there’d been a girlfriend, and she and Tommy had broken up, not by Tommy’s choice. Part of this conjecture was that Tommy was definitely not dating his yearlong steady Darlene, and according to Mrs. Evans, it wasn’t like Tommy to go too long between girlfriends.”

“So maybe he was with Ginny Jones,” Kimberly mused. “Then in February, she vanished, leaving him crying in his coffee.”

“Possible. Something went down. Tommy sulked, then went away to college. He seemed better by the time he returned for Christmas. Had to sit out the season, his father confessed to me, but Tommy took it like a man. Father’s a bit crazy about football, let me tell you. Not sure Tommy would’ve led such a charmed life had he been, say, a chess champion.”

“Or then his father would’ve been into chess.”

Sal’s droll look told her what he thought of that idea. Four more girls were coming down the street now. Kimberly had never seen so many thigh-high black leather boots and fishnet stockings in one place. She felt like she was trapped in the beginning of the Pretty Woman movie. Now all they needed was Richard Gere pulling up in a Lotus Esprit. Which wouldn’t be out of the question. They’d already spotted three Porsches and a Noble.

So far, however, no sign of Delilah Rose.

“Night of the twenty-seventh,” Sal was saying, “Tommy got a call on his cell phone. Took it in his room, very hush-hush. When he came out, he announced he was off to meet a friend. He was practically bouncing, his mother said, grinning and rushing his way out the door. Her gut reaction at the time-definitely the friend was female and definitely he was excited to see her. Now, understand Tommy hadn’t been in town for four months. So if it was a female friend, most likely it would have to be a former acquaintance. Which made her wonder…”

“If it wasn’t the mystery girl from his senior year.”

“And,” Sal finished with gusto, “locals confirmed that the dirt road where Tommy died was Alpharetta’s version of lovers’ lane. Heavily wooded, lightly traveled. Perfect place for Tommy to rendezvous with la femme fatale.”

“Who then turned around and shot him?”

“Maybe absence had made her heart grow fonder. She was making a late quarter play. Tommy, on the other hand…Hey, a good-looking kid like that going off to college. I doubt he spent the fall sleeping alone.”

“So first our mystery chick dumps him, then when she can’t have him back, she kills him?”

“I agree,” Sal said. “Women don’t make any sense.”

“Oh please. Like men are such a walk in the park.” Kimberly finished the comment more bitterly than she intended, then returned to her moody study of the passenger’s side window.

Sal drifted into silence. Guy seemed to only have two modes, eating and talking. At the moment, both were annoying the snot out of her.

She saw a girl exit the establishment, big blond hair, shockingly short skirt, sky-high heels. She had her arm hooked around the elbow of a man three times her age, with the requisite mustache and comb-over. Sonny Bono for the new millennium. The girl was giggling and cracking her gum as they sashayed away.

Guy like that you’d think could put out for a hotel room. Instead, he’d probably demand a blow job in the front seat of his Porsche, fulfilling many fantasies at once.

She’d once given Mac a hand job while they’d been driving down the interstate at night. He’d almost careened off the road and killed them-not quite how it played out in the Cosmo cover stories. Once they’d made it home, however, things had gone much better.

That had been in the early days, of course. When they’d both been young and flush with new love and not afraid to be reckless.

Did you ever get those days back? Or was this just it? They would hammer away at each other, finding fresh faults and old annoyances to govern their week to week. Until she gave up, or Mac gave up, and they joined the national statistics.

Her mother had never forgiven her father. Bethie had fallen in love with Quincy, married him, and borne his children. And still he hadn’t come home at night. She had never, ever gotten over the slight. And he had never, ever stopped feeling guilty.

How could death be more important than your family?

“What ya thinkin’?” Sal ventured.

Kimberly tore her glance away from the window.

“I’m thinking about fetal development,” she announced crisply. “I’m thinking that babies react to loud noises at eighteen weeks in the womb, but the inner, outer, and middle ears aren’t fully developed until twenty-six weeks. So at twenty-two weeks, just what level of hearing are we talking? The womb is a noisy place, heart beating, blood swishing, food digesting. Maybe the baby can’t hear at all. Or maybe she heard everything. Or maybe she just heard the loud parts, the really bad parts. Is that worse? I don’t know.”

“Your baby can hear us?” Sal was staring at her belly in fascination. “You mean, like right now, he, she, it is eavesdropping on everything we say?”

“I don’t know. That’s what I’m trying to figure out.”

“Wow,” he said. “That is so cool.”

His words surprised her. “You mean it?”

“Sure. I mean, think about it. On a good day, I can maybe start my lawn mower. While you’re sitting over there growing life, an honest-to-goodness little person who’s gonna say Mama, Dada, and maybe grow up to one day, I don’t know, design a better lawn mower. Do you think, when it moves again, that I could touch it? Just once.”

She had to think about it. “Well, you did buy me pudding.”

“Amazing,” Sal said again, and seemed to mean it.

“You should get a dog, Sal.”

“Nah, I’m allergic.”

“What about a bonsai? There’s an agent in our office-”

But before she could continue, the landscape finally changed. Sal saw it, too.

“Target, three o’clock,” he announced.

“Showtime.” Then they were out of the car, homing in on Delilah Rose.

Moment Delilah caught sight of them, she tried to bolt. Sal caught her by the arm, spinning her back around. Kimberly blocked the girl’s path to the street. Realizing she was trapped, Delilah went on the defensive.

“I can’t be seen with you. For God’s sake, go away!”

“You seem a little edgy, Delilah. Come on, surely since the formation of the new Sandy Springs PD, it’s not unusual for a prostitute to be questioned by law enforcement.”

“Fuck the police. Fuck other girls’ opinions. It’s Dinchara I worry about. He thinks I’m squealing, I’ll be dead by morning.”

“All right then.” Sal gestured expansively to his unmarked sedan. “Step into my office. We’ll cruise around the block; no one will be the wiser.”

“Please. That thing screams narc.”

“Then we’ll take a walk.” Kimberly already had her arm looped snugly through Delilah’s. She pulled forward, forcing the stumbling girl to follow. “Gotta be a family-friendly establishment somewhere,” Kimberly said. “I doubt Mr. Dinchara spends a lot of time in those kinds of joints. It’ll be like hiding in plain sight, plus we can all enjoy a healthy dinner peppered with your witty repartee.”

“I hate you,” Delilah muttered darkly, but fell into step. “You’re ruining my life.”

“See, the free exchange of ideas has already begun. Can you really walk in those boots? Damn, you’re tall.”

Sal and Kimberly kept Delilah wedged between them, rapidly moving her down one block and over three. In the urban mix that marked this section of town, a brightly colored Italian restaurant was only a hop, skip, and a jump away. They dragged her inside, plopped her in a booth surrounded by families of four and passed out menus. Sal announced he was starved and picked out lasagna. Kimberly went with the bottomless soup and salad. Delilah cursed and grumbled, and then, when she finally realized someone else was paying, ordered fettuccini alfredo and the grilled chicken.

Sal and Kimberly let dinner come first. They heaped hot pasta and steaming soup on their starved informant, counting on comfort food to do their work for them. Any advantage helped.

“Do I get reimbursed for lost wages?” Delilah wanted to know, glancing at her watch halfway through the meal.

“No, but you can take home the doggie bag,” Kimberly assured her.

The hooker rolled her eyes. “What am I gonna do? Shove leftover chicken into my push-up bra while I work the rest of the night?”

“I bet some guys would pay extra for that,” Sal said seriously.

Delilah scowled at him. “You’re the creep who tried to talk to me the first time. I don’t like you.” She looked at Kimberly. “Make him go away.”

“Tried,” Kimberly said. “He’s got the personality of Velcro. Might as well get used to him.”

“Hey, I don’t have to get used to annoy-”

Kimberly interrupted the girl’s latest tirade by reaching over, grabbing the girl’s wrist, and slamming it down into her plate of fettuccini. “Shut up and listen. You wanted to deal information. Well, here we are. So stop wasting our fucking time and talk.”

Delilah regarded her more warily. “You kiss your mother with that mouth?”

“My mother’s dead, thanks for asking.”

The girl’s gaze finally fell. Kimberly withdrew her hand. She watched steadily as Delilah picked up a napkin, dabbed at the splashed white sauce. Sal was doing his part by disappearing into the eggplant-colored booth. They might make it as a team yet.

“Why are you calling me, Delilah?”

The girl looked confused. “Call you? I haven’t called you. I haven’t even seen Spideyman since we last talked, and I don’t have anything new to report.”

“Who’d you tell about our meeting?”

“Tell? Are you fucking nuts? World I live in, snitches have a short life span. Not something to be bragging about.”

Kimberly appraised her, trying to decide if the girl was telling the truth. Delilah was wearing her dirty-blond hair pulled back in a ponytail. It emphasized the dark blue tattoo of a spider creeping above her shoulders, legs clutching her neck, fangs reaching for the curve of her left ear.

“Did he suggest the tattoo, Delilah? Maybe pay you to do it? Couple of hundred dollars, a thousand? What does it cost to scar a girl’s neck?”

Delilah’s gaze skittered away, letting Kimberly know she was onto something.

“How long have you known him?”

“Couple of months,” Delilah mumbled, still not making eye contact.

“According to you, Ginny Jones disappeared three months ago, and you both knew Mr. Dinchara prior to that. Makes it longer than a couple of months in my book.”

“Okay, maybe more like six months. Or eight. I don’t know. Who’s counting?”

“So you knew him prior to becoming pregnant.”

The girl’s eyes widened. She went deathly still, gaze fixed on her leftover pasta, arms straight at her sides.

“Delilah?”

“Dinchara is not the father of my baby,” the girl expelled in a rush. “I had a boyfriend. Someone I loved, all right? Someone who I thought loved me. So just fuck off. Don’t make this about my baby.”

“Then what’s this about? You’ve known Dinchara for nearly a year. Why rat on him now?”

“I told you why. He did something to Ginny-”

“What about Bonita Breen? Or Mary Back or Etta Mae Reynolds? Any of those names ring a bell?” Sal spoke up now, drawing Delilah’s attention. He had moved over, wedging her into the corner, letting her feel how hemmed in she was, how few options she had left.

“What? Who?”

“Or Nicole Evans, Beth Hunnicutt, Cyndie Rodriguez? Roommates, associates, partners in crime?”

Delilah frowned at him, looking distracted, frazzled. “Cyndie’s gone. Has been for months. What’s this got to do with Cyndie?”

“Where’d she go?”

“I don’t know. Where does anyone go? Away from here.”

“You knew her well?”

“Only well enough to trip over her every other week. That girl liked to party, know what I mean?”

“Drugs?”

“Please, she’d snort anything from superglue to cocaine. Guess you could call her an equal opportunity loser.” Delilah’s righteousness had squared her shoulders again, brought the defiance back to her eyes.

“When was the last time you saw her?”

“Hell if I know. Cyndie was one of those girls who was just…around. You’d see her here or there. Not like we were pen pals or anything.”

“You know her roommates?”

Delilah frowned. “Wait a minute. Two girls, right? One a brunette, the other a really badly dyed blonde? Yeah, now that you mention it, I saw her with a couple of girls from time to time. Once, they were lifting her sorry ass off the floor, dragging her toward the door. Guess they might have been her roomies.”

“Seen them around lately?”

“Nah, not really.”

“That happen a lot? Girls appearing and disappearing?”

“Happens all the time. Girls think they’ll try on the life, make a quick buck or two. But then it sucks ’em in and burns ’ em out. Then they’re gone.”

“Where do they go?” Kimberly asked.

“Work the loop,” Delilah said with a shrug. “If you’re not making it here, you head east to Miami, or west to Texas. Everyone’s got a story of a friend who lives here or there, making a thousand bucks a night. So off the girls go, to do the same old thing in a different city, as if they’ll suddenly strike it rich. Kind of funny, if you think about it. All us working girls are actually optimists at heart.”

“Do any of them ever come back?” Sal wanted to know.

“Sometimes. I don’t know. Maybe a year or two later. Unless they get into drugs,” she said matter-of-factly. “Then they’re just plain fried.”

“Cyndie, Beth, Nicole. What about them?”

Another negligent shrug. “Haven’t seen ’em. Why do you care?”

“Why do you care about Ginny Jones?” Kimberly asked. “Why do you think she didn’t set off to find greener pastures like everyone else?”

“Because she wouldn’t go like that,” Delilah said immediately. “She wouldn’t leave without telling me.”

“You were that close?”

“Ginny was nice. No one appreciated that about her. They thought she was freaky. But she had plans, dreams, hopes. She was just…lost, you know.”

“Ever talk about her mom?”

Another shrug, but less certain this time. She’d gone back to staring at her pasta, and Kimberly could practically feel the girl picking through her brain, trying to find the least obvious lie.

“I think her mom died,” Delilah said softly.

“She tell you that?” Sal asked.

“She…implied it. Said she had no one. That she was all alone.”

“And you, Delilah,” Kimberly asked quietly, “what brought you here?”

The girl recoiled as if struck. Then her head was up, her eyes flashing hot. “Wouldn’t you like to know? Cops! Never around when you need ’em.”

“If you’d like to report a crime-”

“Fuck you!”

“Delilah-”

“No, I’m done. All right? You guys are no better than anyone else. Just a different pair of johns, ready to use and abuse to get what you want. Then you’ll kick me to the curb without even tossing me a ten-spot. Fuck it, all right. Just plain fuck it!”

Delilah darted her gaze between Kimberly and Sal, then, having made her choice, planted two hands on Sal’s chest and shoved him aside. Short of physically restraining her, there was nothing he could do to stop her.

She stormed over him, several diners pausing over their meals long enough to gawk at the flash of bare legs.

The restaurant manager hurried over, giving them nervous glances.

“Check, please,” Kimberly said.

Manager scurried away. Sal collected himself.

“She’s a little hot-tempered,” Sal said.

Kimberly was already slapping money on the table, then heaving out of the booth.

“Come on, Sal. Little Miss Muffet is scared. Let’s see where she runs.”

SEVENTEEN

“A spider eats about 2,000 insects a year. Without spiders the world would be overrun with bugs.”

FROM Freaky Facts About Spiders,

BY CHRISTINE MORLEY, 2007

DELILAH ROSE MOVED FAST FOR A PREGNANT GIRL IN four-inch heels. Despite her claims of returning to work, she bypassed five clubs, weaving her way in and out of the long blocks with the practice of a woman who knew her way around.

Huffing and puffing behind her, Kimberly and Sal were forced to hold back, blending into the crowds of young people swelling the doorway of each establishment, then fighting their way free only to latch onto the fringes of the next party strolling up the block. Inevitably, the group would veer off from Delilah’s route, leaving the investigators exposed and vulnerable until the next foursome came along.

Delilah had her head down, hands clutching her ragged blue coat closed. She alternated between a near sprint and sudden dead halts, where she glanced every which way with the heightened paranoia of a woman living on the edge.

She went up one side of the block, made a hard right, only to come back down the other side. To flush out quarry? Throw the diligent off her tracks? Kimberly was beginning to get dizzy with the effort of keeping up while simultaneously keeping out of sight, when suddenly, Delilah homed in on a banged-up Mazda wedged between two four-wheel-drive trucks.

The girl fished underneath the Mazda, finally pulling out a magnetic case bearing keys, and Kimberly felt her heart sink.

“Damn, she has a car.”

“I thought the police picked her up the first time at the MARTA station.”

“Well, apparently that taught her a lesson, because now she’s driving.”

Delilah had the door open, was sliding behind the wheel.

“Now what?” Kimberly muttered, holding her left side, which had begun to cramp from the exertion.

“Look,” Sal said rapidly, glancing at her rounded belly. “You go back for my car. I’ll stick with her. These city blocks with a light on every corner…Hell, you can pretty much walk ’em as fast as you can drive ’em. With any luck, I can keep her in sight until you can rendezvous with the vehicle.”

He tossed her the keys just as Delilah pulled out. Sal scrambled to follow, dashing for the intersection. Kimberly headed back as quickly as she could, gasping in spite of herself and hoping she didn’t throw up.

Mac was right, dammit. In another month, it would be all she could do to waddle down the hall.

Now she pressed her hand against her side and promised Baby McCormack a pony if she’d just hang in there five more minutes. Baby McCormack kicked her, so apparently the child already had Mac’s sense of humor.

She made it to Sal’s car. Did not throw up. Slid into the driver’s seat, then floundered with the ignition, the seat belt, the unfamiliar setup. She was still shaky and panting, not at all like her normal cool, calm self. Pulling out, she cut off another vehicle and earned a blare from a horn and a loud screw you!

She careened north, driving with one hand, working her cell phone with the other. Sal gave her an intersection, but when she peeled over to pick him up, Delilah was no longer in sight.

“Where?” Kimberly started.

“Just headed for the highway,” Sal gasped. “North. Quick. Find the gas.”

She found the gas and Sal went flying back into the passenger seat. He grabbed his seat belt and they resumed the hunt.

Hitting the GA 400, Kimberly shot into the middle lane and floored it. Sal glued his eyes to the right, Kimberly to the left.

Which is why they almost ran over Delilah’s blue Mazda coming up the middle. At the last minute Kimberly saw her, hit the brakes, and dropped way back. She ducked into the right-hand lane, whipping into the exit lane like the normal run-of-the-mill asshole who didn’t know where she was going. At the last minute, she jerked back into northbound traffic but with two other cars between them and Delilah’s vehicle.

“Where do you think she’s going?” Sal wanted to know.

“No idea. Did you ever get her address from Sandy Springs PD?”

“Yeah. Apartment complex, but when I rang the unit number, the fat Hispanic guy who answered the door had never heard of anyone named Delilah Rose. I’m gonna go out on a limb, and say the hooker lied.”

“What about her prints?”

“Nothing in AFIS.”

“Huh,” Kimberly grunted. “In other words, we still don’t know jackshit about her. Clever girl.”

Sal held up his notepad. “Ahh, but now I can run her plates.”

“Good work, Sal. Good work.”

Delilah had her turn signal on. Whatever else Kimberly thought of Delilah, she was a conscientious driver. Didn’t speed, followed the rules. Made it very easy to follow her. It helped that Kimberly knew GA 400 like the back of her hand. Atlanta, Sandy Springs, Roswell, and Alpharetta all formed a line heading up the central thoroughfare. There were times Kimberly felt she spent her entire day driving up and down the 400. Her and the rest of Atlanta.

Delilah exited and a minute later Kimberly followed suit.

The little blue Mazda headed through an office park, into a residential area. It all looked vaguely familiar to Kimberly, but she couldn’t place it. The road was wide, double lanes separated by a divider. Delilah stayed to the right. So did Kimberly.

Traffic was thinning out now, the hour nearing midnight. Half a dozen cars became four, then three, then finally just Sal and Kimberly, twenty yards behind Delilah.

“Shit,” Sal murmured.

“Shhh,” Kimberly told him. “It’s dark. She can only see our headlights. As long as we don’t do anything stupid, we should be able to get away with it.”

Delilah was slowing down. Kimberly dropped back, too. She was looking out her window, frowning. She would swear she should know where she was. The line of overgrown bushes, the skeletal trees.

And then all of a sudden, she knew. She was coming at it from the opposite direction, but there was no doubt in her mind.

Just as Delilah Rose made the hard turn onto the dirt road where Tommy Mark Evans had died.

Kimberly drove past the lane, then killed her lights and pulled over. “Get out of the car,” she whispered urgently. “Time to walk.”

Sal had his glove compartment opened, was rifling through the depths until he found a flashlight. “We can’t take the car?”

“It’s a dirt road. No traffic. No way she won’t notice us. But I think it’s the end of the line for her as well. Only thing down this country lane is a crime scene.”

Sal’s eyes widened as he connected the dots. “This is the road where Tommy Mark Evans was shot? But why would Delilah…”

“Yeah. Exactly. Why would Delilah? If we move fast enough, hopefully we’ll find out.”

They both tucked their flashlights into their sleeves, pointing them straight down, where a narrow beam of light could discreetly illuminate the ground without giving away their position. Sal had already started running. Kimberly rubbed her side and grimly followed suit.

The road was deeply rutted, washed out in places from the deluge of rain they’d had in the fall, dotted with small rocks and clumps of dirt. They had to weave their way around, trying to move silent and sure even as Sal twisted his ankle and Kimberly tripped over a downed tree limb.

Kimberly could see a faint glow straight ahead. Headlights from a running car. One car, two cars, she couldn’t be sure. It occurred to her that Delilah might be meeting someone at this spot, and the most likely person would be the subject who had shot Tommy Mark Evans. If that was the case, they should assume the UNSUB was armed and dangerous, the type of person who wouldn’t take the unexpected arrival of two special agents particularly well.

What had she told Mac just last night? She wasn’t throwing herself into any shoot-outs, she had voluntarily removed herself from serving high-risk warrants. He should trust her to keep herself safe as she’d done for the past four years.

It came to her, the way the truth liked to come to people when it was ill-timed and unappreciated: She shouldn’t be doing this. She was an ass.

Her footsteps faltered but it was already too late. Sal was flying down the dirt road, trusting her to have his back.

Kimberly pulled out her gun and prayed for the best.

Fifty yards. Forty. Thirty. This close it became apparent it was only one car, twin headlights forming a singular spotlight on the white cross, much as Kimberly’s car had done last night.

Slowing to a half-jog, flashlights off, they slid along the edge of the road, moving nearly shoulder to shoulder so they could communicate by touch, feel.

Twenty yards. Ten.

Delilah Rose finally came into view, her back illuminated by the headlights. She was standing in front of the cross. Her hands appeared to be clutched in front of her. Her shoulders were heaving.

Sal’s touch on Kimberly’s arm. Pointing to the other side of the road. She nodded, then dashed across the open road to the relative cover of the bush-shrouded side. Keeping even with Sal as they homed in, closer, closer. Two bird dogs on the scent.

At the last minute, Kimberly looked up. Nothing.

Gazed side to side. All was clear.

A last glance behind her.

The road formed a long black tunnel of night, swallowing up civilization, a lonely place to die.

Sal counted down on his fingers. Five, four, three, two, one.

He stepped into the puddle of light, gun still down at his side, but finger on the trigger.

Delilah gasped, turned. Her hands flew to her tear-stained face.

“Delilah,” Sal said evenly.

The girl started crying. And in those heartfelt sobs, Kimberly finally understood.

“Hey, Sal,” she said. “Meet Ginny Jones.”

“You don’t understand,” the girl was saying. “You can’t call me by that name. I’m Delilah Rose. It’s the only reason I’m still alive.”

Sal and Kimberly had loaded Delilah back into her car, this time with Kimberly at the wheel. They had returned to the main road, where Sal picked up his vehicle, then continued on to a late-night pharmacy where they could easily blend in with other parked cars. Now they had Delilah sitting in the backseat of Sal’s Crown Vic, while both of them homed in on her from the front. The cramped quarters were even tighter than the usual interrogation room, and much more effective.

“Why’d you tell us Ginny Jones was missing?” Kimberly asked the girl. “If we’re not supposed to know that name, why bring it to our attention?”

Delilah/Ginny wouldn’t look at Kimberly. She was staring down at her lap, twisting the hem of her jacket over and over again.

“I’m the only one left alive,” she whispered. “One by one, bit by bit…” Her head finally came up. “I wasn’t lying before. I do want better for my baby. I want this…I need this to end. I thought, if I could just get someone to pay attention. To care about us. I’m just so tired.”

“What is this?” Sal pressed gently. “Start at the beginning, Delilah. Tell us what happened, and maybe we can help.”

“It’s my fault,” the girl rambled. “He pulled over. I accepted the ride. I had no idea. Some guys get violent, you know. Gotta slap a girl around to get their rocks off. But this guy…He doesn’t want to hit a girl. He wants to own her. Destroy her. And then he kills her. That’s what makes him happy. Breaking you.”

Sal and Kimberly exchanged glances. Sal got his mini-recorder going. Kimberly took the lead.

“When did you accept his ride?”

“Lifetime ago,” Delilah replied dully.

“Winter, spring, summer, fall?”

“Winter. February. My mom had locked me out, least I thought so, and I was cold. He appeared in his fancy SUV. I thought I’d gotten lucky.”

“What year, Delilah?”

The girl frowned, seemed to have to think about it. “Long time. One, two…two years ago. Before graduation. I was going to go to beauty school. Everyone thought I was a loser, but I had plans. I was gonna be a hairstylist.”

“So it’s February 2006,” Kimberly supplied. “It’s late at night…”

“After eleven.”

“You’re…”

“Couple blocks from my house. Walking. On the main road, you know.”

“Your mother locked you out?”

The girl’s lips twisted. “I was with Tommy. Missed curfew. The jackass.” Her mouth trembled, she looked as if she was going to cry again, but caught herself, pulled it together. “Mom said if I messed up again, she was gonna teach me a lesson. I got home, things were locked up tight. I thought she’d finally gone and done it. So I hit the road.”

“So you’re walking, it’s cold, and a vehicle appears. What kind of vehicle?”

“I already told you. A black Toyota FourRunner with silver trim. Limited Edition.”

“And the driver?”

“Dinchara, like I said. Red hat, Eddie Bauer clothes, fancy SUV. Why does everyone assume that just because I’m a hooker, I can’t tell the truth?”

Kimberly decided to ignore for a moment that, in fact, Ginny had lied several times. “So you first met him two years ago?”

“Yeah.”

“When he picked you up.”

“Yeah.”

“What happened next, Ginny?”

The girl’s eyes glazed over. She shivered, looking at pictures only she could see. “He played a tape.”

“A tape?”

“Yeah, in his car. It was a recording…of my mom, dying. He made me listen to it again and again. Her screaming and screaming and screaming. And giving him my name. Goddamn bitch. Right up until the bitter end, she couldn’t do nothin’ right. Goddamn, pathetic, miserable, sorry bitch.”

Ginny sniffled, rubbing her nose with the back of her hand. She curved her other hand around her belly, rubbing her thumb absently over her unborn child. Making silent promises to her baby? Wondering if she could do any better than her own mother had?

“What happened to your mother, Ginny?”

The girl frowned at Kimberly. “He killed her, I told you that.”

“Did you see anything? Where he did it? What about her body?”

“No, I just heard the tape. Trust me, that was enough.”

“And then?”

“Then he smiled. He said, ‘Your turn’s next.’ He said, ‘Welcome to the collection.’”

“What’d you do, Ginny?”

“I bargained, that’s what I did,” the girl said hotly. “I talked my sorry ass off. Promised him the best goddamn blow job of his life. But that made him laugh. ‘ ’Course you’re gonna do that, Ginny,’ he said. ‘You’re gonna make all my dreams come true. Then I’m gonna carve your skin from your scrawny white neck and feed you to my pets.’

“He brought out this knife like I’d never seen before. Long and thin and silver. A filleting knife he called it. And then, God help, I did do everything he asked of me, while he sliced up my arms and legs, all these bloody little cuts all over the place that hurt. Damn, they hurt. Then he pulled out a jar.

“Inside was a long-legged black spider with bright red markings. ‘Black widow,’ he told me. ‘Venom is fifteen times more powerful than rattlesnake venom. Bite itself doesn’t hurt. In fact, some people don’t feel a thing. At first. Then you get this sharp pain in your belly, I’m talking solid, double-you-right-over stomach cramps. And you start to sweat at the same time your mouth goes completely dry. Your eyes swell shut. The soles of your feet start to burn, your muscles catch on fire.’

“‘You spend days in agony. Hunched over, convulsing, vomiting, praying for death. There is an antivenin, but that’s assuming I have a change of heart and take you to the hospital, and what are the odds of that?’ He grinned at me. ‘Normally, the female black widow indulges her violent instincts by eating her mate. But I’ve discovered that the smell of blood gets her quite excited. Why don’t we find out?’

“He started unscrewing the cap and I…I begged. I’d do anything he wanted. Anything at all. And then I realized, I was dead. Because my mother had said all those same things and look at what he’d done to her.

“Just as he removed the cap, it came to me. Begging was what turned him on. More I screamed, more I sealed my fate. So I shut up. And when that black widow came creeping out the jar one leg at a time, I took her right into my palm and let her sit. I talked to her. I thought of her as a pet and you know what…It worked. She crawled up my arms and touched my lips with her legs. She was gentle, you know. Almost curious.”

Ginny touched her mouth with her own fingers as if in memory.

“Then, real coolly, I lifted her off and replaced her back in her jar. And I looked the man in the eye and I said, ‘She’s beautiful. Show me another.’

“He flipped me on my back and fucked the living daylights out of me. So goddamn hard I thought he’d break my ribs. Then, when he was done, he sat back in the driver’s seat, lit up a cigarette, and I knew I’d survive. I just had to learn to really like spiders.

“We struck a deal. I’d hook for a living. He’d take fifty percent of the money. I’d keep my mouth shut. He’d let me live.” Ginny’s mouth twisted in a sour smile. “And that’s how it’s been. Once a month, he shows up. Quick fuck, pay up, and we’re done for another month.”

“He’s your pimp?” Kimberly asked incredulously.

Ginny gave her a look. “Pimps provide protection services. Dinchara doesn’t protect. Some guy beats the shit out of me, stiffs me on the money, what does Dinchara care? He’s more like an enforcer, shaking me down once a month. So that no matter how hard I work, I’ll never get ahead. No matter what I do, I’ll never escape. He kept his first promise, right? I’m a specimen in his collection. My terrarium is a little larger than most, but it’s a cage just the same, and he and I both know I’m not getting out.”

“Anyone ever witness one of these transactions? You paying him?” Sal wanted to know.

“’Course not! He’s not an idiot.”

“Anyone see the two of you together?”

Ginny shrugged. “He comes into the clubs, that’s how he finds me. Just like any customer. People have seen him, but I doubt too many have seen him, if you know what I mean.”

“He have other girls?” Kimberly asked evenly.

Ginny hesitated, her gaze averted again. “I’m not sure.”

“Not sure, or won’t tell? Come on, Ginny. We’ve come this far. In for a penny, in for a pound.”

“Hey, remember the terms of the deal. Living means keeping your mouth shut.”

“Too late. You already started talking. Now it’s in your own best interest to give us enough to help.”

“Girls don’t talk! They just…disappear.” Ginny suddenly looked up. “How come the police don’t know? How can you not figure out what’s going on out there? Every month, another girl vanishes. And no one says boo! It’s like we really are nothing but insects, and he can devour as many of us as he wants, and no one gives a damn. A million flies die, and a million more are born the next day. You should know these things. You should care about us!”

“How many girls?” Sal pressed.

“A lot!”

“Can you give me names? Dates? I need specifics.”

“Then ask around! I’m not doing your fucking job for you. I’m already risking my neck!”

“What happens to the girls?” Kimberly quizzed, voice rising from the other side, keeping Ginny off balance.

“I don’t know.”

“He picks them up in his SUV?”

“I would guess.”

“Takes them home?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never been to his house. All our transactions take place in his FourRunner. I already know too much as it is.”

“But the bodies, Ginny,” Kimberly kept on her. “If all these girls are being picked off by one man as you claim, what happens to their remains?”

“I don’t know!” Ginny cried again, but her gaze was sliding away. “Isn’t that your job? Why am I supposed to know everything?”

“Forget it,” Kimberly declared, sitting back, crossing her arms over her chest. “You’re right. You don’t know squat. Let’s send her back, Sal. She’s worthless. We’ll drive her back to the club, drop her off in front. Maybe if she’s lucky, no one will notice.”

“You wouldn’t!”

“I mean, she’s not even that good a liar.”

“Hey!” Now Ginny’s eyes were red-hot. “I’m plenty good enough. I’m still alive, aren’t I?”

Kimberly suddenly jerked forward into the girl’s face, forcing her to fall back. “Is that what this is, Ginny? A con? In your own words, you’re nothing but a player, looking for a way out. Why should we believe you? Missing girls? Spiders? Please, this is more Stephen King than true crime. What’s with you, anyway? You keep calling me and calling me, and yet you refuse to tell me anything useful.”

“Calling you?” Ginny shook her head again. “I already told you. I haven’t seen Dinchara since we last spoke. I haven’t had any reason to call you.”

“Come on, dialing me up, making me listen to that audio recording of your mother-”

“You heard the tape?” The girl seemed genuinely surprised, then perked up. “So you know, then! You know I’m not making this up! He really is killing people. You heard the tape, you can arrest him!”

“Who’d you give my number to, Ginny?”

“I didn’t, I swear! I’d be killed for just having a fed’s business card on me. Like hell I’m broadcasting the info.”

“Then who called me?”

“I don’t know!”

“Yes, you do!”

“No, I fucking don’t!”

“Yes, you fucking do!”

Kimberly sat back. Both she and Ginny were breathing hard. She slanted a frustrated glance at Sal. He took over the reins.

“Ginny,” he said, “what happened to Tommy?”

The girl folded. Her shoulders slumped, her tough veneer collapsed.

I happened to Tommy,” she said wearily. “Everyone has to give a name. He demands it. It has to be the name of someone you love. He’d already got my mom, remember? Tommy was all I had left.”

“Did you see Dinchara shoot Tommy?”

“No. But I know he did it. Minute I saw the story on the news. What else could’ve happened?”

“Tommy into drugs?” Sal asked it evenly.

Ginny scowled at him. “Tommy? No way. He was Mr. Squeaky Clean. Hell, he even thought he loved me. Dumb stupid jerk.” Her hand was fiddling at her neck, where once upon a time, she might have worn a ring, dangling on a chain.

“Is that why you gave me the class ring?” Kimberly spoke up. “To lead me to Tommy?”

“You said you needed evidence. Well, there you have it. Tommy’s murder is unsolved. Plus you heard my mother’s tape. Now, throw Dinchara’s ass in jail.”

“Nothing would make us happier,” Sal said. “All we need is his name.”

Ginny gave him a look. “You think I know his name? Why the hell would he be so stupid as to tell me something like that? You’re not getting it. He has the control. He has the power. I’m just a bug he hasn’t gotten around to killin’ yet.”

Kimberly sat back, pursed her lips. She regarded Ginny for a long moment, wondering if just by staring she could catch a glimpse of what was really going on under the surface. On the one hand, Ginny had made the first contact with the police, and claimed to want justice. On the other hand, she never really told them much. By her own admission, she was brave enough to let a black widow waltz up her arm, but not courageous enough to bolt the minute Dinchara let her go. She was savvy enough to have survived a serial killer for the past two years, but she’d never managed to notice his license plate or any identifying characteristics.

She was more hostile than helpful. A bigger liar than an informant. A manipulator more than an ally.

And yet, as the saying went, she was the best they had.

“So,” Kimberly stated. “Guy killed your mother, your boyfriend, and maybe a couple of your friends. Seems like you’d want to get even. Have a little justice, set yourself free.”

“Of course I do-”

“Unless, of course, you plan on paying him half your income forever. How’s that gonna work once the baby is born, anyway? Think he’ll babysit? Volunteer to watch the kid so you can go out and hustle?”

“Hey, I am never letting him near my child!”

“And he’ll quietly accept that?”

Ginny looked like she might finally cry.

“Seems to me,” Kimberly continued, “best option is definitely to throw his sorry ass in jail.”

“That’s what I’ve been saying!”

“But you know, without a name, license plate, personal information…”

She let her voice drift. Ginny didn’t rush to fill in the blanks. So Kimberly went with plan B. She shrugged. “Well, there is one last option. I mean, if you’re serious about catching this guy.”

Ginny perked up. “What? How? Just tell me what I gotta do.”

“We’ll wire you up. You arrange a meeting with Dinchara, and we’ll use his own statements to nail him to the wall.”

EIGHTEEN

I SAW MY BROTHER TODAY.

He was at the movie theater, three rows ahead of me, arm around a pretty girl with straight blond hair that hung like a silk curtain down her back. I was eating popcorn, but the minute I spotted him, I started to cough, then had to duck down quickly when he looked back in annoyance at whoever was making such a racket.

I stayed for a while on my hands and knees on the sticky theater floor. I didn’t know what to do, couldn’t figure out how to react.

So after a bit, I decided to do what I did best-nothing at all.

I returned to my seat. I put my popcorn on my lap. And I watched the slasher film, one chainsaw after another. They didn’t get any of the details right. Hollywood doesn’t know jackshit about real blood.

The blond girl liked my brother. Every time the movie soundtrack grew ominous, she’d snuggle against him, her head tucked against his shoulder. Except soon she didn’t bother to lift her head anymore. Just kept it there, against his chest, while his hand curled tighter around her and they both giggled at something that had nothing to do with the bloodbath on the screen.

She had a nice giggle, bubbly fresh, like a summer’s day.

In my mind, I gave her that name. My older brother was dating a girl named Summer. I bet they walked under moonlit skies, went necking in the back of my parents’ borrowed car, attended the prom with her perky little breasts covered in a giant corsage.

It wasn’t fair, I thought sullenly. It wasn’t fair that I had died and he still got to live.

I ate more popcorn, drank thirty-two ounces of Coke, and brooded through the end of the film.

Lights came on. My brother and his girlfriend finally rose. He had a letterman’s jacket-of course he had a letterman’s jacket. He draped it over Summer’s shoulders and she giggled again, clutching the front with her hands, curling it around her.

My brother had inherited my father’s wiry build. Not tall, but solid. I was guessing he’d lettered in baseball, maybe the star pitcher with the clean-cut jaw, short-cropped dark hair. Then he smiled again, a dimple appearing in his left cheek, and in an instant, I remembered exactly what my mother looked like, and the pain of seeing her face after all these years drove me to my knees.

I gasped, but didn’t make a sound. I tried to breathe, but no air would reach my lungs.

So I folded over, quiet, limp, a puddle of dark trench coat on a stained floor.

I watched my brother’s feet head up the aisle. I heard his baritone ask Summer what time she needed to be home.

“I still have an hour,” she replied.

“Perfect,” my brother said. “I know where we can go.”

I followed my brother. It wasn’t so hard. He drove a truck now, a giant, extended cab four-wheel-drive vehicle that probably belonged to our father. A bumper sticker declared “Alpharetta Raiders.”

My family had moved. It made sense. I had moved at least two dozen times. Why shouldn’t they?

He turned down a dirt road. I recognized it as a lovers’ lane I’d heard other kids talk about. Not that I knew a whole lot, never being allowed to go to school and all that. No letterman’s jacket for me. No prom, no pretty blond girlfriend. Nope, I was just the crazy loner who turned up in his Army surplus gear at various rec centers, pale face, shaggy hair. The local freak show. Every town had one.

And for no good reason, I wondered about Christmas. Did my family still hang my stocking up on the mantel, the one with the patched-up toe and my name scrawled across the top in silver glitter? Did they set a place at the table, wrap a gift just in case?

If they had moved, that meant I didn’t have a room anymore. What had happened to my stuff? My books, my clothes, my toys? Boxed up, given to Goodwill? Maybe my brother had a two-room suite now. One room to sleep, another room to sprawl.

Probably had his own futon, TV, entertainment system. Had friends over, including giggly blond cheerleaders like Summer. I wondered if he was popular, if the kids at school admired him, the boy who had survived the Burgerman.

Or maybe he was the tragic hero. Lost his brother when he was young, but just look at him now.

And just when I was working up a good head of steam, ready to hate him, out necking with perky little Summer, I thought of my mother again and the pain returned like a knife thrust beneath my ribs.

I wondered if he made my parents proud. I wondered if looking at him helped my mother sleep at night.

I pulled over on the dirt road, jumped out of my little rust bucket and made it behind a tree just before my bladder burst. I pissed thirty-two ounces of Coke and then some. I pissed for goddamn near forever, and when I came back out, my brother’s truck had appeared on the dirt road.

There was no time for me to retreat. I could only hope he wouldn’t notice me.

No such luck. The truck slowed. The driver’s side window came down. My own brother glared at me.

“Hey, aren’t you the same creep from the movie theater? What the hell are you doing? Are you following us?”

I didn’t say a word.

His frown deepened, he looked on the verge of climbing out. Then I heard the girl’s voice from inside the cab. “Come on, babe. Don’t do this. He isn’t worth it. Besides, I have curfew.”

“Yeah,” my brother said reluctantly. “Yeah, guess you’re right.”

I saw his hand move on the steering column, putting the truck in gear. And suddenly I was sprinting toward the truck, my long black trench coat flapping, my steel-toed boots eating up the dirt. I had a tree limb in my hands. I don’t know how it got there.

“Hey,” I yelled at the top of my lungs. “HEY!”

“What the fuck-”

“Don’t let the Burgerman get you!”

And then I was pounding on the truck door. Hit it hard enough the tree branch shattered. The girl screamed. My brother ducked, covering his head with his hands. I went to town, working on the headlights, the front grill, smashing, smashing, smashing with the short, splintered tree limb, and kicking out with my boots and yelling at the top of my lungs.

And there were tears on my cheeks and snot pouring from my nose and I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t stop. Because I loved my brother so damn much that I hated him. I loved him for being alive. I hated him for not being me. I loved him for having such a pretty little girlfriend. I hated him for having my mother’s dimple. I loved him because he escaped. And I hated him because I wasn’t his brother anymore and that’s the thing in the world I most wanted to be.

So I beat up his truck. I smashed the living daylights out of glass and steel until I heard the engine gun and had only a second to leap away.

My brother tore down the dirt road, away from the crazy boy wielding a tree limb.

My brother drove away from me.

NINETEEN

“Among the remarkable phenomena occurring in spiders ranks the peculiar behavior associated with mating. These courtship maneuvers are usually started by the male and continued by him, though in some cases the female may also take part after she has reached a certain pitch of excitement.”

FROM How to Know the Spiders,

THIRD EDITION, BY B. J. KASTON, 1978

KIMBERLY GOT HOME LATE. HOUSE WAS DARK, EXCEPT for the usual light in the hallway, and the small pool of illumination on the kitchen desk where Mac had piled her mail and phone messages. No happy face tonight. Instead, the top sticky note displayed a crude drawing of branching lines ending in small ovals. It took her a moment, then she got it: an olive branch.

The picture made her smile even as she felt a sting of tears.

Her husband was such a better person than she was. How had she gotten so lucky?

She should go to him. Tell him she was sorry and ask for his forgiveness. Then again, was it really appropriate to apologize for pursuing a case she had no intention of giving up?

She paced the kitchen, keyed up in that way she always got when starting a new investigation, brain churning, adrenaline pumping. Delilah Rose equaled Ginny Jones. And Ginny Jones equaled…? Victim, accomplice, something worse?

She opened the refrigerator, reached for a beer. Caught herself, sighed, and put it back.

Into the living room now, staring at the darkened shadows of the leather couch, Mac’s recliner, their way-too-big TV. When she was a little girl, she used to practice creeping through the house at night. Not Mandy. No, her older sister was scared of the dark, slept in a room with two nightlights and a lamp blazing at all times. But Kimberly saw nighttime as an adventure. Could she tiptoe from her bedroom on the second story, all the way down to the front door of their four-bedroom Colonial without making a sound?

She would imagine she was stalking bad men. Or, she was outsmarting an intruder who had already entered her house. Nighttime brought monsters and for as long as Kimberly could remember, she wanted to fight them.

Most of the time, her insomniac father caught her in the act.

“Kimberly,” he would say, “what are you doing out of bed?”

And she, embarrassed about being caught, and not wanting to admit to her Super Cop father that she was stalking shadows, would say, “I just wanted a drink of water.”

He would watch her for a while. Silence had always been her father’s best weapon and he had wielded it masterfully. Eventually, he would go into the kitchen and return with a glass of water.

“Third step from the top,” he informed her. “It squeaks.”

And the next night, she would get a little farther into the shadows.

After her father moved out, she roamed the house at will. Her mother slept soundly, and until she was fourteen and discovered boys, Mandy had no use for midnight excursions. Just Kimberly would make the rounds, night after night. Keeping her mother and sister safe. Because Super Cop was gone now and she was all the protection against monsters her family had left.

Until the day she went off to college, and Mandy and her mother had been murdered.

Fuck it. Kimberly went to the bedroom.

Mac appeared to be sleeping, one arm flung up over his head, the other curved over his stomach.

She left him alone. Crossed into the bathroom, where she brushed her teeth, scrubbed her face, combed out her hair. She shed her clothes, found her pajamas, opening lots of drawers and the closet doors along the way. Back to the kitchen for a glass of water, setting it down firmly on the nightstand.

Tossing back the covers. Jumping into bed.

Mac grunted.

“Oh,” she declared brightly. “You’re awake!”

Mac peeled open one eye, then covered it again with his arm.

She thumped his shoulder lightly. “Faker.”

“Am not.”

“Pulleeeze. I’ve seen this act before.”

He didn’t protest anymore, but opened both eyes. For a moment, they regarded each other warily.

“I liked your drawing,” she said softly.

“I’m not a very good artist.”

“Good enough.”

“I don’t like it when we fight,” he said abruptly.

“Me, neither.”

“And I don’t like worrying about you. And I don’t like waking up some mornings, realizing we’re about to be parents and we’ve never even had a puppy. How do we know if we can feed this thing, or bathe it, or keep it alive? You know what I realized for the first time yesterday?”

She shook her head.

“We don’t have a ficus tree. Kimberly, how are we going to be good parents, when our current lifestyle doesn’t even allow for plants?”

“I guess we won’t feed the baby Miracle-Gro.”

He sat up, the covers falling to his waist. With his dark hair sleep-rumpled, his lean face intent, he looked sexy, serious, the man she fell in love with all those years ago. The man who had proposed to her, buck naked, the night before she was to make a ransom drop and the situation was dangerous enough they both knew she wouldn’t wear the ring.

He had let her go the next morning, to do what she needed to do, and she had loved him for that.

She reached over now, touched his face gently. “I saw Delilah Rose,” she said, because there was no other way to do it. “It turns out she’s actually Ginny Jones, kidnapped, she claims, two years ago, and forced into a life of prostitution to stay alive. She alleges her kidnapper killed her mother and is systematically picking off other hookers one by one. She provided no details, physical description, or corroborative information, but Sal believes he has enough to pursue a case. And I’m going to help him. At least until we get enough to put together a full task force.”

“You won’t quit even then,” Mac said.

“I don’t know. Once the baby comes, I’ll have to.”

“You’ll work it from your hospital bed, that’s what you’ll do.”

Her hand fell away. She studied the sheets. “You’re right,” she said shortly. “I’m not a quitter. Not in my marriage, and not in my job.”

He didn’t say anything right away. She sensed she should look at him, but couldn’t bring herself to do it. She had no problem chasing down an informant on a secluded road late at night, or looking for a hunter’s severed head. But here, in her own house, sitting cross-legged in bed next to her husband, feeling the tension between them, she was afraid.

“Kimberly,” Mac said quietly, “I’ve been offered a promotion. Special agent in charge of the Regional Drug Enforcement Office in Savannah.”

She glanced at him, dumbfounded. “But Savannah…” Savannah was way to the southeast, on the South Carolina border, closer to Hilton Head than Atlanta. The city was large enough to command a respectable GBI presence. A solid RDEO, an excellent promotion. And much too far away to work while living in Roswell.

“Aren’t you going to say congratulations?”

“Congratulations,” she said dutifully.

He wasn’t fooled. “I didn’t say anything right away because I didn’t know what to say. But I’ve been asking around. It’s a great assignment. It would mean a lot for my career.”

She couldn’t speak anymore. She went back to studying the linen.

Beside her, Mac sighed. “You’re not the only one who loves your job, Kimberly,” he said finally. “And you’re not the only one who’s good at it. It just so happens that in the past twelve months, I’ve helped uncover one of the largest meth labs in the state, plus broken up an entire network of dealers. I am making a difference, too, and I like it.”

“I know.”

“The FBI has some regional offices. They’re small, but maybe Savannah could use an extra agent. We could rent a house in the area, try things out. Last time we visited, we both remarked on how charming the place was. Close to the beaches, Hilton Head. It wouldn’t be a bad place to raise a child.”

She didn’t say anything.

“Or,” he forged ahead, “maybe, with the baby coming, now would be a good opportunity to take some time off, maybe a leave of absence. See what we think.”

“I’d stay home, you would work?”

“If you haven’t tried it, Kimberly, how do you know you won’t like it?”

She needed to find her voice. She couldn’t. She felt as if the wind had been knocked out of her. One day, they’d been sailing along and now…Now everything was up for grabs. His job, her job, the baby. She couldn’t find an anchor.

“Did you give an answer?” she heard herself whisper.

“You know I wouldn’t do that without talking to you first.”

“And this is our official conversation?”

“I guess so.”

She nodded, picked up the edge of the sheet, twisted it. “Do I have to answer tonight?” she asked.

“No. But probably I need to give them an answer within a week.”

“All right.”

“All right we can move?” he asked hopefully, but she could tell by his gentle voice that he was teasing.

“All right, we can talk about it for another week.”

“Okay.” His voice grew serious again. “But you know, Kimberly, for us to talk, you’re going to have to actually spend some time at home.”

“Sure,” she said, but they could both tell her heart wasn’t in it.

He sighed again, leaned over, turned out the light.

They hunkered down into bed, her body spooned into his, his hand on her stomach. The happy couple, the two about to become three. A joyous event in the lives of two people who loved each other.

She remained wide-eyed long after her husband had returned to sleep.

One a.m., she crawled back out of bed, into the kitchen. She dialed the number from memory, but got voice mail. She left a message she wasn’t sure she’d ever left in her life.

“Dad,” she said. “I need help.”

TWENTY

“The spider is well adapted to living indoors with humans.”

FROM Brown Recluse Spider,

BY MICHAEL F. POTTER, URBAN ENTOMOLOGIST, UNIVERSITY OF KENTUCKY COLLEGE OF AGRICULTURE

RITA WAS AWAKE. DID THAT SAVE HER LIFE IN THE end? She would never know.

It was dark out. New moon, so perfect there wasn’t even enough light to form shadows across the far wall. Damn nights were long enough without even a light show for entertainment.

And then she heard it. Scuffling in her yard, followed by the creak of her back door opening.

“Joseph,” she whispered, flat on her back in her old double bed, gnarled hands clutching the edge of the covers. “That you, Joseph?”

But of course it wasn’t Joseph. Since when did ghosts make a sound?

She worked on her breathing, slow and steady, as she heard more noise downstairs. The sucking pop of the refrigerator door opening. The whine of an old drawer grudgingly giving way. And footsteps. Lots of footsteps, light and quick, crossing the kitchen, heading up the stairs.

Breathing again, slow and steady. By gawd, she would not be scared in her own home. By gawd, she would not be spooked from her own bed.

And then the boy appeared at the foot of her bed. He looked her straight in the eye, both hands tucked behind his back.

She returned his look just as steadily, her right hand creeping beneath the sheet.

“Scott,” she said evenly. “Thought we talked about this.”

The boy said nothing.

“Rules are rules, son. A proper guest knocks on the door. A proper guest waits to be invited. A proper guest does not sneak into an old lady’s home in the middle of the night, scaring her nearly half to death!”

The boy still didn’t say a word.

Rita sat up. She knew she must look a sight. Thin gray hair sticking out like twigs, wool cap askew on the top of her head. She wore her customary green plaid flannel and yellow-stained long johns. She dressed for warmth and comfort, not to entertain impertinent young men.

The boy still didn’t move or speak. So she kept her gaze upon him. She let him know she wasn’t as frail as she looked.

“Show me your hands, Scott.”

Nothing.

“Boy, I’m only going to ask you one more time. Show me your hands!

For the first time, he trembled. Once, twice, three times. Then abruptly, he jerked his hands out from behind his back. He showed her his palms, and declared in a voice nearly shrill with panic, “I just need a place to stay. One night. I won’t be a problem. I swear!”

Rita took advantage of his uncertainty, throwing back the covers and swinging her legs out of bed. Her bones ached when she stood, but she felt better. Stronger. In control.

“Where do you live, Scott?”

He thinned his lips mutinously.

“Do you have parents I should call? Someone who worries about you?”

“I could sleep right here,” he whispered. “On the floor. I don’t need much. Honest.”

“Nonsense, child. No guest of mine is sleeping on the floor. You fixin’ to spend the night, we might as well do it right. Come on, I’ll take you to Joseph’s room.”

She set off in her shuffling gait, passing by the foot of the bed, brushing the boy’s shoulder. He fell back, assuming the submissive. Encouraged, she led him down the hall, to her brother’s room, where dusty football trophies still lined one dresser, and the quilt had been hand-sewn by her grandmother from pieces of their baby blankets. As the oldest son, Joseph had been given the quilt to pass along to his children one day. Instead, he had perished in the same war that had cost Rita her husband. Stepped on a land mine in France. There hadn’t been enough body parts left for a proper funeral. Her parents had buried his dog tags, her father retreating to Joseph’s room, where he had stayed for months on end.

Her sister Beatrice should’ve taken the quilt, but it had remained in Joseph’s room, where from time to time, each of them would visit, trying to say goodbye to Joseph in his or her own way.

Rita drew back the old quilt now. She smoothed back the flannel sheets, cold and musty from disuse. She drew the young boy forward and helped him onto the bed.

He was passive now, nearly limp to the touch, his slight frame collapsing into the bed. She brushed a lock of dark hair from his forehead, and he flinched.

“Rita,” he whispered. “I’m tired.”

And the way he said the word, she understood. He wasn’t tired, he was tired, a condition of the mind as well as the body. A state of the soul.

She pulled the covers up, tucking them beneath his chin.

“Stay as long as you need, child,” she said and meant it.

Then she shuffled back into her bedroom, where she felt along the far wall until she found the kitchen knife the boy had let drop to the floor. She picked it up, and placed it in the nightstand beside her.

Then she reached beneath the covers, finding her father’s old Colt.45. She’d cleaned it yesterday; armed it last night. A beautiful piece of machinery, old, but still capable of getting the job done.

Now she clutched it in her hand as she made her way painfully down the stairs, left hand gripping the railing tight.

In the kitchen, the unlocked back door banged lightly in the wind. She opened it wide, peering into her backyard, cursing once more the lack of moon. She saw shadows above and below. Not a wink of light from a neighbor’s house, nor the glowing eyes of a tomcat.

So she shut her eyes and focused on the feel of the night instead. She and her brothers used to do this when they were young. Camp out in the backyard, pretending they were in the wilds of the Amazon. Don’t look with your eyes, their father would tell them in his hushed baritone. Look with your mind, seek with your hearts.

It always made her wonder if Joseph should’ve shut his eyes that night he’d gone on patrol. Maybe, if he hadn’t been looking, maybe, if he’d been feelin’, that land mine never would’ve gotten him.

And then she did sense it. Strong. Cold. Powerful enough to make her recoil.

Something was out there in the night. Hungry. Hunting. Hating.

Rita scrambled back inside her kitchen. Got the door shut, found the bolt lock. But for the first time in ages, she was aware of just how rickety her old house had become. Back door with a big glass window perfect for shattering and a brittle wood frame easy enough to pry apart with a crowbar.

I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down…

She was trembling now, tasting the fear like bile in the back of her throat. The gun felt too heavy in her hand, her arm too weak. She could barely walk half the time, how was she supposed to lift this sucker, let alone take aim…

Then, in the next instant, her own cowardliness shamed her. She was not a fool. She was a survivor, last of her family line. This was her home. By God, she would take a stand.

She went from room to room. Checking all nooks and crannies, inspecting all locks. Perhaps in the morning, when she was fresher, she could rearrange some of the furniture. And she had some wood outside. She could hack it into sticks, use them to reinforce the windows.

And bells. From the Christmas decorations. Hang ’em here and there as her very own security system.

Yes, sirree, she had some tricks up her sleeve yet.

That made her feel better, so she shuffled to the stairs, starting the laborious process of pulling herself back up.

When she finally made it to her bed, she collapsed on top of the covers and slept like the dead. First few hours of sleep she’d had in weeks.

When she woke up, her bedroom door was open, and her own gun was placed neatly on the pillow beside her.

The boy was gone.

She wondered if she would see him again.

TWENTY-ONE

“Recluse spiders are six-eyed; their legs do not extend sideways. They weave a sheet of sticky silk in which they entangle insects.”

FROM Spiders and Their Kin,

BY HERBERT W. AND LORNA R. LEVI, A GOLDEN GUIDE FROM ST. MARTIN’S PRESS, 2002

HENRIETTA WASN’T DOING WELL. LAST NIGHT, HE had squashed a cricket between his finger and thumb, exposing its internal organs, then placed it in the dark shelter of the ICU next to Henrietta’s fangs. He had checked first thing this morning. The mashed insect remained in plain sight. Henrietta herself had retreated an inch, laborious progress given her mangled legs.

He reminded himself that older tarantulas often went weeks without eating after molting. Once, he’d heard a story of a tarantula that had gone an entire year without food and still recovered.

Starvation was not the danger. Dehydration was.

He would help her. They had come this far together. He would see her to the bitter end.

He didn’t turn on the light. Instead, he moved around the darkened master bath with the practice of a man used to adjusting his eyesight to the gloom. He’d already brought up a saucer from the kitchen, sterilized in boiling water. Now he filled it with a few drops of water, then propped up an edge on two cotton balls, tilting the saucer enough to pool the water at one end while forming a slight incline. Perfect.

Now the tricky part. Contrary to what people thought, spiders were notoriously fragile. Even the most impressive-looking tarantula was really a relatively small, poor-sighted creature of limited speed. They were easily crushed if improperly handled. Let alone the dangers inherent in molting, pesticides, parasites, and spider-eating wasps. No wonder tarantulas preferred to live in small, dark places all alone.

But Henrietta couldn’t hide anymore. She needed water.

Reaching into the container, he cupped his hand over her body as if she were an egg, careful not to squeeze too hard in order to protect his skin from the discomfort of the urticating bristles. His fingers enclosed the legs on one side of her body, while his thumb covered the legs on the other side and his index finger came down and over the top of the chelicerae. In one smooth motion, he turned his hand palm up, with Henrietta nestled lightly inside.

He swung her over to the prepared water dish, where he positioned her with her chelicerae and fangs immersed in the water and the rest of her body uphill. He let go, studying her closely to ensure she didn’t slide down into the shallow pool and drown.

After a few minutes, when she remained firmly in place, he rocked back on his heels with a satisfied nod and glanced at his watch. Forty-five minutes ought to do it. Then he’d move her back to the ICU with a freshly disemboweled cricket. Hopefully, that would do the trick.

Now he had other pets to tend.

The master bedroom was large. Two sides of huge bay windows, a charmingly vaulted ceiling. Once upon a time, this would have been the sunny crown jewel of the expansive summer home. Covered farmer’s porch that wrapped around two sides. A front parlor with stained glass. Three chimneys, six bedrooms, a sunroom.

Time had faded the heavily flowered wallpaper just as years of neglect had led to peeling paint, broken boards, sagging foundation. In the downstairs, certain windows wouldn’t close. Other doors wouldn’t open. The entire house tilted to the right, giving the place a drunken feel.

And yet, it was perfect. Filled with nooks and crannies, twisting staircases, old cupboards, exposed rafters. When the man had first seen the abandoned property, the ceiling of the entire master bedroom had been a tangle of cobwebs. In the course of his walk-through, not one but two spiders had dropped from the rafters onto the shoulder of the startled real estate agent. She had screamed both times. And he had known instantly he would take it.

He had divided his collection among the rooms upstairs. Tarantulas in the master bedroom, recluses in the adjoining nursery, combfooted spiders down the hall. They lived in terrariums or cobweb frames, cleaned once a month and refilled with adequate water. Room-darkening shades kept the sun at bay. Humidifiers kept the spaces at proper levels of moisture. In some of the rooms, he had brought in soil to cover the floors. Good old-fashioned dirt, filled with leaves and detritus and night crawlers. The earthen layer helped insulate the drafty floors and provide a whiff of death and decay. Ambience for arachnids.

The man himself hated dirt. The smell of it. The feel of it sliding between his fingers, sifting between his toes. He might say he was afraid of it, except he did not allow himself to feel fear. Instead, he surrounded himself with the very substance whose smell sometimes roiled his stomach and sent him to the bad place in his mind.

He respected these spiders. He studied them, nurtured them, used them to find the spider in himself.

In return, his collection provided him with sanctuary. A place where he came to brood when the bad spells hit and everyone knew better than to make eye contact. He would lie on the dirt-covered floor, remembering all the things he wanted to forget until his rage bubbled to the surface. Then he would strip off his clothes and open the tops of the fish-tank terrariums, watching colonies of brown recluses pour out. He would dare them to do their worst. He would beg them to do their worst.

But spiders remained shy creatures at heart. The brown recluses might walk across his feet, climb up his hairy legs, explore the veins on his arm. But mostly, they disappeared into the cracks and crevices of the old house, until he was forced to put out glue sheets to capture them.

The glue sheets killed them, of course. Because that’s what he did best-destroy, even the things he loved.

He started with the tarantulas now, moving methodically from rectangular glass enclosure to rectangular glass enclosure, lined up neatly on the metal shelves along the walls. Each terrarium was labeled with the species of spider and an index card where he recorded the day’s feeding. A new captive might eat a dozen crickets a week, while the average was six to eight crickets a month. Before and after molting, some tarantulas wouldn’t eat anything at all.

There was also the matter of variety. Some tarantulas ate only crickets and mealworms. The larger species, however, preferred baby mice and rats, dead but at room temperature (he bought them frozen and ran them under warm tap water; he had learned the hard way never to nuke a dead mouse; it had taken him forever to get the smell out of the kitchen). When he had first started out, he had caught insects in the garden-grasshoppers, cicadas, cockroaches, moths, caterpillars, earthworms. Wild insects, however, were an unsafe food choice-they could be contaminated with pesticides, inadvertently poisoning his pets. Now he bought most of his food from online pet stores, dividing his purchases among several different establishments so as not to call attention to himself.

His collection contained over one hundred and twenty specimens now, not counting the brown recluses whose delicate brown bodies probably numbered close to a thousand. He had spiders he’d caught in the garden, spiders he’d purchased abroad, spiders he’d bred himself, and, of course, a nursery filled with young spiderlings.

And like any proper enthusiast, he was still adding to the collection.

He was at the last terrarium. Even in the half-dark, he could feel the eyes watching him, feral, calculating, predatory.

It made him smile.

Theraphosa blondi. The world’s largest spider, with a leg span in excess of ten inches. He had imported this male just last week from South America. The tarantula had arrived, rearing back on its hind legs and hissing loud enough to be heard across the room. With extremely large fangs and a body covered in irritating bristles, it was a lean, mean fighting machine, known to take on anything from rodents to small birds.

The majority of tarantulas were gentle giants. The T. blondi, on the other hand, was famous for its bad attitude, with a bite capable of costing the unwary collector a finger, or even a hand.

He could feel the spider watching him late at night. Had watched it in turn as it roamed its new home, delicately tapping on the glass as if testing for possible weaknesses. He had the impression of a wild, churning intelligence. The spider was studying, waiting, plotting.

If the man presented the opportunity, the tarantula would strike.

The man bent over now, studying the dark mottled spider, crouched in the far corner of its cage.

“Hey,” the man said. “Want a mouse?”

He dangled the dead white mouse, waited to see what the spider would do. A few legs arched out, tested the air.

“Here’s the deal,” the man said. “Behave, get breakfast. Attack, and starve. Got it?”

He waited a heartbeat more. When the tarantula did not rush the glass, or rear up in a hostile display, the man straightened, put his hand on the top of the weighted mesh-screen lid and readied himself.

One, two, three. He popped up the corner, dropped the mouse, and watched as ten inches of tarantula sprang from the corner and caught the corpse midair. Both dead mouse and spider landed with a thud, the mottled dark body already wrapped fiercely around its new treasure. Then the tarantula’s head came up, fangs exposed…

The man dropped the top more hastily than he intended, falling back.

He caught himself at the last minute, steadying his pulse, eyeing the T. blondi with fresh respect.

He rapped a knuckle against the glass.

“Welcome to the collection,” he said, then, feeling that he’d had the last word on the subject, sauntered downstairs.

Boy was in the living room, playing video games. Boy was always holding a remote, eyes glazed over, sullen look on his face. Teenagers.

The man watched him from the doorway, contemplating.

Time was winding down now. A week, maybe more. It surprised him to feel a rush of nostalgia, a teacher for a student, a father for a son.

He walked in the room, shut off the TV. Boy opened his mouth to protest, then thought better of it. The boy hunkered down, waiting.

“Can’t you say good morning?” the man demanded, standing next to the sofa.

“Good morning.”

“Hell, think a few manners wouldn’t hurt. Haven’t I taught you anything?”

Boy looked up now, eyes hot, sulky. “I said good morning!”

“Yeah, but we both know you didn’t mean it.” The man backed off, making some calculations of his own. “You heard from her?” he asked abruptly.

Boy looked away. “Not yet.”

“Think she’ll do it?”

Boy shrugged.

“That’s about right,” the man agreed. “Nothin’ good ever came from trusting a woman. So, you gettin’ excited, boy? Come on, we’re talking graduation! That doesn’t happen every day.”

Boy shrugged again. The man wasn’t fooled.

He grinned, but it wasn’t a pleasant look on his face. “Tell me the truth, son. You think she loves you, don’t you? You and Ginny, sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g. Gonna get married? Raise the baby? Live in a house with a white picket fence?” Man waved his hand. “Pretend none of this ever happened?”

Boy said nothing.

“I’ll tell you, son, I’ll tell you exactly what’s gonna happen. You’re gonna graduate, I’m gonna offer you a big hunk-o-cash, and you’re gonna want to throw it in my face. But you’ll swallow your pride. You’ll take my money. You’ll tell yourself you’re gonna pay it back later. When you’re what? Gainfully employed as a male hooker, a pimp, a drug runner? ’Cause, you know, elementary-school dropouts don’t exactly go to college, or qualify as electricians, or auto mechanics.

“But you haven’t figured that out yet. You think freedom is only days away and anything’s gotta be better than this.

“Yeah, I give you two months, tops. Then you’ll be living on the street, giving blow jobs for five dollars a pop to dirty old men, or shooting anything you can find into your veins. And you’ll start to wonder. Was it really so bad here? Big ol’ house. Free food. Video games. Cable TV.

“I treated you right, boy. You’ll find out soon enough. I treated you good.”

The man headed toward the kitchen. Time for breakfast, then he needed to sit his sorry ass down in front of the computer. Cash reserves were getting low. Had to do some work.

At the last moment, however, the boy spoke up.

“How much?” the boy asked from the sofa, clearing his throat. “How much cash?”

“Why? Why do you care? You gotta graduate first.”

“I want to know,” the boy said. He had that look about him again, eyes flat, watchful. Like the T. blondi upstairs. The boy was growing up. He was also now one inch taller than the man and they both knew it. “I want to know,” the boy said, “exactly how much my life is worth.”

The man considered the matter. He turned on his heel, returning to the sofa, and was rewarded by watching the boy brace himself, as if preparing for a blow. But the man didn’t strike out. Instead, he leaned down. He said the words almost tenderly, whispering them next to the boy’s ear. “Dipshit, you ain’t worth the broken condom your parents used the night you were conceived. But I’ll take pity on you. I’ll give you a hundred bucks. Ten dollars for each year of service. Be grateful.”

Boy looked at him. “I want ten thousand.”

“Honey, you weren’t that good a fuck.”

“I want ten thousand,” the boy insisted again, and the very emptiness of his eyes spooked the man a little, tingled the fine hairs on the back of his neck, though he was careful not to show it.

He regarded the boy thoughtfully. “Ten grand? You’re serious?”

“I deserve it.”

The man laughed abruptly, ruffling the boy’s hair. “You want some extra money, son? Then you’d better earn it. Let me tell you about this new spider I got upstairs…”

TWENTY-TWO

“The brown recluse hunts at night seeking insect prey, either alive or dead.”

FROM Brown Recluse Spider,

BY MICHAEL F. POTTER, URBAN ENTOMOLOGIST, UNIVERSITY OF KENTUCKY COLLEGE OF AGRICULTURE

“THERE ARE THIRTY-FIVE THOUSAND KNOWN SPECIES of spiders in the world,” Sal was saying. “According to what I read, experts believe that’s only one-fifth of the total. Better yet, they are the most popular ‘nontraditional’ pet in the United States. Jeez, and I thought all the freaks collected pythons.”

“Pythons grow too big,” Kimberly informed him. “Wind up released in the Florida Everglades, where they’re devouring everything that moves. I don’t think the alligators are very happy about it.”

Sal and Kimberly were sitting inside the cargo area of a white van, vaguely disguised to appear like a utility vehicle, while actually belonging to GBI’s tech department. It was night four of operation Fly Trap. Ginny was somewhere inside the Foxy Lady, wired up and waiting to see if Dinchara would show. Sal and Kimberly were holding down the fort in the tech van, floor littered with empty coffee cups (Sal) and water bottles (Kimberly). Assisting them was an audio technician, Greg Moffatt, and an undercover female special agent, Jackie Sparks. Moffatt sat way in the back, watching a glowing panel of audio bars while mumbling a litany of technical jargon only he could understand. Sparks, playing the role of a girl who just wanted to have fun, was somewhere in the club, keeping tabs on Ginny.

Ginny knew about Moffatt, but not about Sparks. Just because Ginny was risking her life by wearing a wire, after all, was no reason to tell her everything. They’d gone over the audio setup. They’d devised a cover story. They’d turned her loose.

Ginny’s assignment: Get Dinchara to admit shooting Tommy Mark Evans, or tie him to any of the six girls from the collection of driver’s licenses. That would provide the corroboration Sal needed to formally assemble a task force to pursue Dinchara in earnest.

Four nights later, however, Dinchara remained a no-show, which was starting to make the team anxious. Sal had had to practically beg, borrow, and steal to get this level of GBI resource. In another night, two if the operation didn’t deliver results, that would be that.

“Turns out,” Sal continued, headset connecting him to Ginny held against his left ear, tiny black earpiece connecting him to Special Agent Sparks in his right, “spider collecting isn’t as small a niche market as I thought. There are hundreds of Internet dealers offering everything from a spiderling for a few bucks to an adult female Brachypelma baumgarteni for eight hundred dollars.”

“Eight hundred dollars?” Kimberly asked incredulously.

“Yeah. Females are expensive. They live two to three times as long as the males, plus can be used for breeding. Which was the other education I received-you have no idea how many articles exist on how to sex a tarantula.”

Kimberly stared at him.

“It’s a big deal,” he assured her. “How’d you like to fork out the extra money for a female, only to get sent a male by mistake?”

“I can honestly say I hope never to have that problem.”

“Then there are the various spider societies,” he continued. “Plus ArachnoCon, the annual gathering of arachnid enthusiasts. I mean, do a Google search for ‘tarantula’ and what doesn’t come up? Spiders are everywhere.”

“No kidding.”

“I also turned up allusions to illegal imports of spiders,” Sal supplied briskly. “The really exotic specimens aren’t widely available for enthusiasts, and some guys-or gals-don’t like to wait. Hey, as long as a Colombian is importing drugs why not also throw in a Xenesthis immanis as well and make a quick extra grand?”

“A xenthis whatis?”

Xenesthis immanis. It’s a kind of tarantula, has purple markings at the leg joints, ending in silver tips. Gotta say, online photo looked very pretty. Not that I’m in the market. Point is, that particular species isn’t available due to the current ban on Colombian imports. So the rabid collector might resort to a backdoor deal instead. Spider gets shipped to Mexico, from Mexico to Texas, from Texas to rabid collector, with lots of palms greased in between. Happens more often than you think.”

“Given that I haven’t thought about it at all,” Kimberly muttered, “that’s probably true.”

“It gives us another angle,” Sal stated. “Say Dinchara shows up and we get enough on tape to have probable cause for a warrant. Well, unless he leaves his bloody gloves out in the open, chances are we aren’t making an arrest that afternoon. On the other hand, the Department of Wildlife or the USDA or whoever the hell it is that has jurisdiction over creepy crawlies might be able to hold him on charges of illegal arachnid import. And that gives us more time and excuses to dig into his affairs.”

“Nice thinking,” Kimberly said, impressed.

“Well, that is plan B,” Sal replied modestly. “Originally, I was thinking we could use the spider angle to track him down, but once I realized a third of Atlanta has an arachnid fetish, I had to change gears.”

“I wonder about the tattoos,” Kimberly murmured. “That’s an impressive tat climbing up Ginny’s neck. What do you want to bet Dinchara took her to the tattoo parlor himself, a place he knew because he had work done there as well?”

“We should photograph her neck,” Sal agreed. “Get the picture into circulation; see if someone recognizes the artist. Oh, what I’d give to have a real task force at my disposal.”

“You mean, with officers other than our current overworked duo, one of whom may have to abandon the investigation in order to give birth?”

“It’s a complication.”

“Story of my life,” Kimberly said drily. “Complicated.”

She sighed, staring out the front windshield of the van. She didn’t want to think about her personal life. The tenuous détente that marked her day-to-day interactions with Mac. That fact that they had one week to figure out the rest of their lives, and here they were, day four and she was once again working late.

Mac didn’t ask her anymore. Didn’t pry. He just waited, and she found his silence more unnerving than his sales pitch.

He should take the supervisory position in Savannah. It would be stupid not to. He was right; their lives were changing. Might as well focus on his career because one way or another, hers was slipping into low gear. What the hell. She would stay at home. Nurse the baby. Watch Oprah. Read self-help books.

Except that didn’t sound like her. She was selfish, emotionally stunted, and obsessed with work. And, in her own way, she was happy.

“We got conversation.” Moffatt, the technician, spoke up.

Sal and Kimberly snapped to attention, obediently tuning in to their headphones. So far, Ginny had been propositioned about half a dozen times. If they’d been working a prostitution sting, they would’ve done good business.

This, however, appeared more serious.

We need to talk,” Ginny was saying in an urgent voice. The hooker sounded strung out, anxious.

“Why aren’t you working?” a man was asking. “Get out there and shake that moneymaker, honey.”

First, we need to talk,” Ginny tried again.

Sal lifted the black handheld radio from his lap, broadcasting to Special Agent Sparks: “We need a visual: unidentified male, currently speaking with Miss Jones.”

“Roger that” came the crackling reply, then a short pause as Sparks made her way through the club.

“I want a blood test,” Ginny was saying, voice more strident. “I’ve been reading about tattoos and the risk of hepatitis.” This had been Kimberly’s idea. “How do I know I don’t have anything? What about my baby? What if it gets sick, too? You need to help me.”

“I have a visual,” Special Agents Sparks reported in a low murmur. “I see a white male, approximately mid thirties, five foot ten, one hundred sixty, one hundred seventy pounds. Wearing dark brown workman’s boots, blue denim, and long-sleeved green shirt, rolled up to the forearms. Has a worn red baseball cap pulled down low over his face, obscuring his features.”

“What the fuck?” the man was grumbling harshly. “You called me down here for a blood test? What’d I look like to you, an HMO?”

“I need money-”

“Then get back to work!”

“I can’t work,” Ginny whined. “I’m tired all the time, guys don’t want me. Creeps ’em out, you know, a pregnant hooker.”

“Shoulda thought of that four months ago. You wanna eat, I suggest you find a bleeding heart who pays extra for a hard-luck fuck.”

Kimberly heard the swish of denim. The man turning to leave? Then, a quick slap as Ginny grabbed the man’s arm.

“I wanna negotiate,” the girl said desperately. “Hear me out. I got something to say.”

Kimberly and Sal exchanged glances.

“What do you mean negotiate?” the man asked suspiciously.

“Not here,” Ginny said. “Privately.”

“Ah shit,” Sal said.

“She’s going AWOL,” Kimberly seconded. Ginny was under strict orders to remain in public view. They should’ve known better.

“Jackie…” Sal rumbled into the radio.

“I’m on it,” the special agent replied.

“Don’t fuck with me,” the man was saying now, voice ominous.

“I just wanna talk. All right? We’ll go to your car. Fool around. It’ll be like old times.”

The man didn’t reply. Kimberly had a mental image of Ginny pulling him through the churning crowds.

“Subject approaching the front doors,” Special Agent Sparks intoned over the radio. “Exiting in three, two, one…”

The front doors opened. Ginny stumbled out first, looking shaky and agitated. She wore the customary micro mini, but a longer top to help conceal the hardware they’d tucked inside her push-up bra. She fiddled with the bra now, jiggling the cups a little, and a rush of static flooded the headphones.

“Tell me she didn’t just-” Sal started, but then audio returned. He breathed a sigh of relief, but Kimberly didn’t think they were out of the woods yet.

A man had appeared behind Ginny. Trim, wiry build. Brown hair, tanned forearms. Jeans and shirt were nicer than she expected. Less chicken farmer, more Eddie Bauer. The brim of a faded red baseball cap was pulled low over his face, leaving behind the impression of a hat, instead of a person. Now you see him, now you don’t.

The man headed down the street, Ginny no longer talking but hanging on to his arm. A moment later, the front door opened and Sparks appeared, making a show of lighting up a cigarette, then strolling off in the same direction as the happy couple, cigarette dangling from her fingertips.

Sal and Kimberly exchanged another glance.

“What the hell is Ginny doing?” Sal whispered in agitation.

“I don’t know.”

“We’re FUBAR.”

“Wanna tell Sparks to abort?”

“Nah,” Sal said nervously. “Not yet.”

They went back to their headsets, listening for Ginny in one ear and Special Agent Sparks in the other.

From the left, the sound of a car door opening, slamming shut. Ginny’s high-pitched giggle. “So you really are happy to see me…”

From the right, Sparks’s clipped tones. “Subject and Miss Jones have entered a black Toyota FourRunner with silver trim. Vehicle coated with mud; can’t read license plate.”

“We can have him picked up on a minor infraction,” Sal whispered.

“Shhhh.” Kimberly held a finger to her lips.

“So what’s it gonna be, big boy,” Ginny was saying. “Suck or fuck?”

“Talk, you little bitch. I didn’t come all the way down here to get played by some hooker. Asking me to pay for a goddamn blood test. What the hell is wrong with you?”

“It wasn’t my idea,” Ginny said hastily. “I mean, I couldn’t think of any other way to get your attention.”

Long pause.

“Ginny, you’d better start talking, or so help me God, you won’t be worrying about hepatitis no more.”

“They’re asking about me.”

“Who?”

“Special agents. From the GBI. They claim that working girls are disappearing. They wanna know what’s going on. They keep asking for Ginny Jones.”

“What’d you tell ’em?”

“Nothin’! I mean, girls head to Texas all the time, right? I said maybe they should try there.”

“Other names they mentioned?” the man pressed.

“Dunno.”

He slapped her. The sharp crack of the blow caught Kimberly off guard, made her flinch.

“Don’t lie to me.”

“I didn’t-”

Another thwack of skin connecting with skin. Sal’s knuckles had gone white on the headphones. His face was grim.

“DON’T LIE TO ME!”

“I don’t remember! I’m sorry, they were talking, there were so many names and I was trying to be quiet, not call attention. No, don’t hit me, I’m not lying, I swear, I swear, I swear, I swear.”

Another blow. More screaming.

“Abort,” Kimberly said, looking at Sal, the lines etching his face. “She’s done. We gotta get her out.”

But Sal shook his head. “No, he’s just messing with her. He’s not serious yet. That’s what’s so crappy about it. He doesn’t even mean it yet.”

And maybe Sal was right, because the other end of the headphones finally grew quiet.

“You got thirty seconds, girl. What the hell do you really want?”

The silence again, long and taut. Then Ginny exclaimed in a rush: “I want to see my mother, okay? I just wanna…see her.”

“What?”

“Holy mother of God,” Sal intoned.

“She’s going for it,” Kimberly agreed, and found herself on the edge of her seat. Ginny had given up trying to get Dinchara to mention the names of the missing girls. She was attempting to tie him to her mother’s murder instead. Kimberly was torn between wanting to hear what Ginny was going to say next, and wanting to bolt down the street straight to the mud-covered SUV, because this wasn’t going to end well.

“I remember the tape,” Ginny was whispering. “I know she’s gone…what you did to her. I tried to tell myself it doesn’t matter. It’s not like she ever cared about me.”

“You implying I did something wrong, Ginny Jones?” the man asked coldly.

“I’m just saying…”

“You, the high-school dropout, ran away from home to sell your ass for twenty-five bucks a pop, four months knocked up?”

“Stop it…”

“I mean, if I were a cop, I’d say you look pretty good for it. Small-town girl nobody ever liked. Killed your mom to get away, killed your rivals in order to compete. Do we got lethal injection in Georgia? I don’t remember, but seems to me it wouldn’t be that hard for a jury to send white trash like you off to where you belong-inside stone walls, baby taken away, strapped to a gurney, needle entering the vein…”

“I hate you,” Ginny whispered. “Why are you like this? You’re so mean.”

“Why are you such a loser, Ginny? Why do you sell your body, get yourself knocked up? Hell, seems to me you’re the one with all the problems. I’m certainly not dialing you up to piss and moan all night.”

“You’re a monster.”

“Nah, I’m the man in charge. And you’d better start remembering that. Now get the fuck out, and don’t bother me again. It’s the cops’ job to ask questions. It’s your job to shut the fuck up. Got it?”

“I want to see her.”

“Girl, weren’t you just listening-”

“She was my mom! And now I’m gonna be a mom. And it…It just doesn’t feel right, ending like this. I wanna talk to her again. Tell her ’bout the baby. Make peace. Say goodbye.”

“What are you, fuckin’ crazy?”

She’s somewhere, right? I mean, you buried her or dumped her or burned her or did whatever it is you do to the bodies. But she’s somewhere. A grave. If you could just tell me where, so I could go to her…I won’t touch anything. I just wanna talk.

“Jackie…” Sal whispered nervously.

“Are you wearing a wire?” Dinchara’s voice suddenly boomed.

“Wh-wh-what? Don’t be crazy-”

“Are you setting me up? Are you setting me up?”

A hastily indrawn breath, Ginny’s sharp, short cry.

“Jackie!” Sal, over the radio, demanding now.

Kimberly, rising out of her seat, trying to figure out what to do.

“Where the hell is it! Tell me! NOW!”

“Stop it! Stop it! You’re hurting me! Let go of my arm. I just wanna talk to my mom. Haven’t you ever been around a pregnant woman before? It’s hormonal. Honest!”

“Where is it, where is it, where is it? Fuck, fuck, fuck…”

“Stop, stop, stop! It hurts. Oh God, let go-”

Kimberly leapt for the door of the van, hand on the door, preparing to slide it open. Just as Ginny started to scream in her ear again, high-pitched and thin, a sudden pounding sound came from the other side of her brain.

“Hey.” Special Agent Sparks’s giddy voice broadcast through the madness. “Sounds like a party. Can anyone join in?” Another high-pitched giggle, the crack of chewing gum. “Hey, mister, nice wheels. You like to go four-wheelin’? How about takin’ me for a ride?”

“Holy mother of God.” Sal looked like he was having a heart attack. He was doubled over in his seat, both hands on his head.

Kimberly wavered next to the door, equally transfixed.

Sparks babbled away: “I mean check this out. I haven’t seen mud like this since I rode my daddy’s John Deere across the chicken farm.

“Get out.” Dinchara spoke up tersely. “Private party.”

“Now, now, now, mister. It’s a slow night. Can’t blame a girl for trying, ’specially with a fine-looking man. Been a while since I’ve seen a full set of teeth, know what I mean. Hey, honey, are you pregnant?”

“I’m tired,” Ginny intoned. “I think I’d like to go now.”

“Oh, honey, you’d better. Working while you’re pregnant? That’s no way to live.”

“Ah fuck it,” Dinchara said. “I’m tired, too.”

“Now, now, no need to be like that. I mean, if you really wanna rumble, big fella-”

Door creaking open. Sounds of a minor scuffle. Ginny’s startled exclamation. The man’s low curse. “Get the fuck off me!”

“Hey, now, big daddy-”

“I am not your fuckin’ daddy. Get out of my truck!”

“Okay, okay, no need to get testy. I’m just a sucker for leather seats. Reminds me of the pigs on my daddy’s farm-”

“GET OUT!”

“I’m going, I’m going, don’t get your panties in a wad. Men. Give ’em fancy wheels and they think they rule the world.”

Footsteps now. A vehicle door slamming shut. An engine roaring to life.

Sparks, back in the earpiece, her voice clear and concise. “Suspect has pulled out, heading north-”

Her tone got them both moving again. Sal grabbed the radio, describing the vehicle and requesting a traffic stop. Kimberly opened the van’s door, preparing for Ginny and Sparks to scramble in.

She spotted Sparks half a block away, running up the street, pulling Ginny behind her. Ginny’s right cheek bore the red imprint of the man’s hand. Her nose was running, her lashes clumped with tears.

“Who the hell is this?” she screeched immediately upon spotting Kimberly. “Did you send someone to spy on me?”

“More like backup,” Kimberly said briskly.

She helped them both climb in, glancing left, then right. So far, so good. She slid the door shut behind, while Sparks unhanded her charge, then held out her other arm in triumph.

“Brought you a present,” the special agent declared. “Look what fell out of the truck amid all the confusion: I got the man’s boot!”

TWENTY-THREE

“For most species…a husband’s place is ‘in the digestive tract of his wife.’”

FROM “SPIDER WOMAN,”

BY BURKHARD BILGER, New Yorker, MARCH 5, 2007

KIMBERLY DROVE HOME ALL JAZZED UP. THREE A.M., GA 400 was finally empty and she zipped along, humming under her breath, tapping her fingers on the wheel and wishing she drove a Porsche. This was the kind of night it would be great to open the sucker up and watch the speedometer soar.

Instead, she kept her Passat station wagon safely under sixty-five, but that didn’t stop her mind from racing.

Sal would be requesting the creation of a multijurisdictional task force first thing in the morning. Dinchara hadn’t magically confessed to abducting and murdering any of the prostitutes on Sal’s list, but he hadn’t sounded or acted like an innocent man, either. They were onto something, and tonight’s recording would back them up.

Unfortunately, uniformed patrols never came across Dinchara’s vehicle for the requested traffic stop. That didn’t surprise Kimberly overly much. For all of Dinchara’s lowbrow speech, she had an impression of a cold, calculating intelligence. Even on home turf, he’d kept his hat pulled low and obscured his license plate with mud. She had a feeling he’d taken additional precautions with his exit from Sandy Springs.

They still had a BOLO out, however, so hopefully sometime over the next few days someone would spot the vehicle. Plus Sal was going to have Special Agent Sparks and Ginny sit down with a sketch artist and put together a composite drawing they could get into circulation.

By this time next week, hopefully, they’d know Dinchara’s name and vitals. And then the real fun would begin.

She hummed again, “Tainted Love,” and tapped her fingers to the beat.

It occurred to her that she was looking forward to going home. That she wanted to pull into her driveway, bound into her house. She wanted, more than anything in the world, to see her own husband.

That was it. Enough of this nonsense. Minute she got home, she was waking up Mac. They would hash this thing out once and for all. He could move to Savannah on a trial basis, they could find a house somewhere in between, she could explore her options at one of the Bureau’s regional offices. There was a way, there was always a way. They just needed to talk.

Then, she was jumping his bones, because there was nothing like a successful night’s work to make one horny.

Kimberly finally pulled into her driveway. Mac’s truck was gone. Instead, she walked into her living room to discover her father and his wife, Rainie. Quincy sat in the recliner, flipping through the paper. Rainie was curled up on a corner of the sofa, staring at some syndicated sitcom but clearly half asleep. Both roused when she entered the room.

“What the hell are you doing here?” Kimberly blurted out.

“Thought we were overdue for a visit,” her father said simply. Quincy always had been impossible to rattle.

And then Kimberly remembered-the last fight with Mac, her late-night phone message. All at once she blushed, feeling needy and overexposed. She should’ve called her father right back, told him to ignore her plea, she was just having a moment. She should’ve…done something.

“Working?” asked Rainie, barely suppressing a yawn. “Anything interesting?”

“No. Well, maybe. What time did you arrive? Have you had anything to eat? Did Mac show you your room? I’m so sorry to keep you up so late.”

“We’re on Oregon time,” her unflappable father assured her, still sitting in the chair, still holding the newspaper. “It’s not so late.”

Rainie gave him a look, muffled another yawn, then said, “We got in shortly after ten. Mac was home, but got called. I’ll confess, we ate all the leftover pizza-”

“We?” Quincy interjected.

“All right, I ate all the pizza. The Jolly Green Giant over here”-she pointed a thumb at Quincy-“made a salad.”

“We have vegetables?” Kimberly asked in surprise.

“Iceberg lettuce, red onions, and tomatoes,” her father supplied, “which I would assume are condiments in this house, but can be turned into a garden salad if one desires.”

“Huh,” Kimberly said.

Rainie finally broke the ice by crossing the room and giving Kimberly a welcoming hug.

“How are you feeling?” Rainie asked.

“Good. Good. All good.”

“The baby?”

“Healthy, growing, kicking.”

“You can feel it move?” Rainie’s voice picked up, sounded momentarily wistful. Late in life, Kimberly’s stepmom had decided she wanted children. She and Quincy had looked into adoption, but it hadn’t gone as planned. They never talked about it, but Kimberly was relatively sure those doors were closed to Rainie now, and the only children in her life were the ones she assisted as an advocate for abused children.

Did Kimberly’s pregnancy make her jealous, awaken old hurts, fresh regrets? Rainie was a former law enforcement officer, well-practiced in schooling her features and holding her tongue. Whatever she was feeling on the inside, it was doubtful it would ever show.

“Wanna touch it?” Kimberly asked.

“Yes.”

She took Rainie’s hand, moved it to her left side, just around the curve. Baby McCormack, engaged in her nightly aerobics, did not disappoint.

“Boy or girl?” Rainie asked. “What do you think?”

Quincy had gotten off the recliner and was standing next to his wife. He’d never ask, so Kimberly took his hand and pressed it against her side. The baby kicked again. Her father flinched, jerked his hand away. Then he smiled.

“Boy!” he said immediately. He placed his hand back, palm flat against her side.

“I would guess boy as well,” Rainie was saying. “Girls are supposed to steal their mother’s beauty; you still look plenty beautiful to me.”

Kimberly nearly blushed. “All right, all right. Give the beautiful mother some air. And a glass of water.”

She headed for the kitchen, fetching a glass of water for herself, a second for Rainie. Quincy was a dedicated coffee drinker, so even though it was three in the morning, she brewed him a pot. They all moved to the kitchen table, a touching family scene except that not one of them had thought to turn on the overhead light. That alone said something about their chosen professions.

“Mac say anything before he bolted?” Kimberly quizzed now.

“Not to wait up.”

Kimberly grunted, chewed on her lower lip, trying to think what might be going on. She didn’t know what Mac was working on these days. They’d talked about her cases, but not his.

“And your night?” her father asked.

“Stakeout,” she supplied. “Guy didn’t magically confess, but he did beat the shit out of our informant, which seems to indicate we’re on the right track.”

Quincy raised a brow in interest. “What kind of case?”

“Serial murder. Prostitutes have been disappearing, including six girls whose driver’s licenses were left on the windshield of a special agent’s car. We think this guy might be good for it.” Kimberly chewed her lower lip again. “Problem is, we haven’t turned up any of the remains. Given the lifestyle, the defense can assert the girls simply moved on. Makes for a very messy case. Though, you know, if we could get the tape admissible, that might work.”

“The tape?” Rainie spoke up.

“Audio recording of one of the missing women being killed. Or at least, it sure as hell sounds like she’s being murdered. Get this-the subject makes each victim choose the next victim. In this case, the woman, Veronica Jones, gave up the name of her daughter, Ginny Jones, who is now our informant.”

Rainie stated the obvious. “But he didn’t kill Ginny Jones.”

“According to her, she talked him out of it. The subject has a thing for spiders. So does Ginny. Given their mutual interest, he let her live-if you call working as a prostitute for the rest of your life, while handing over fifty percent of your earnings, living.”

“He remains in control,” Quincy said.

“Exactly. This dude has a thing for control.”

“Can I hear the tape?” Quincy asked.

“It’s at the office. I can get it tomorrow.”

“How did he ask the woman to choose the next victim?”

“Torture. He said he would end it when she gave him the name of someone she loved.”

Quincy had that look. “Did the victim comply immediately?”

“Actually, she tried to give him a fake name. But when he pressed her, why that name, how did that person matter, she fell apart. You can hear her stress, her disorientation from the pain. It’s difficult to think under those circumstances, let alone lie.”

“So she gave up her own daughter. That would seem to imply all the victims share some kind of connection for him.”

“We’re working on it. Actually, a GBI special agent is working on it. Sal already knows three of the prostitutes were roommates; they disappeared one by one. But certainly, we lack major pieces of the puzzle. There are probably some girls on our list of missing persons who did move to Texas, and others who have also disappeared but we haven’t heard about yet.”

“All from one concentrated geographic area?” Rainie spoke up. “What’s the prostitution scene like in Georgia?”

“Vast and varied. There’s the streetwalkers in the red light districts such as Fulton Industrial Boulevard-mostly African American, mostly into drugs. Then you got the massage parlors in places like Sandy Springs-mostly Asian, mostly sex slaves. Then there’s the club scene, which has a bit of everything, white, Hispanic, black, Asian, drugs, nondrugs. And finally, we got the usual sort of activity around the Air Force base in Marietta-local girls offering a few extra services while tending tables.

“Georgia’s a big state; lots of geographic and socioeconomic diversity. If our subject is hopscotching his way through the underground scene, it’ll take a lot of conversations with various agencies to connect those dots, which is one of the reasons he’s been able to stay under the radar for so long.”

“What else do you know of the UNSUB?” Quincy again.

“Well, having seen him for the first time tonight…Mid thirties.”

“Seasoned. Capable of moving about, taking his time, stalking his target.”

“To judge by the tape, I’d say Veronica Jones was not his first victim. He’s had time to refine his methods. Physically, he’s white, five nine or five ten, maybe hundred and seventy pounds. Not big, but lean, wiry. And outdoorsy-hiking boots, jeans, the SUV.”

“Hunter?”

“In this state, a strong possibility.”

“Loner.”

“Interestingly enough, we don’t think so. The GBI special agent involved has received two envelopes on the windshield of his car. Both contained driver’s licenses from missing hookers. Given that no note or further means of communication were attempted, Sal thinks the packages may have come from someone close to the killer, and not from the killer himself.”

Quincy arched a brow, considering the matter. “Fair enough. Most killers, if they’re going to make contact, will engage in some petty taunting while they’re at it.”

“Exactly. Unfortunately, the envelopes yielded no physical evidence. So we still need to identify and track the killer on our own. Once we know who he is, however, we may be able to identify a spouse or family member who can be of some help to us.”

“Socioeconomics?” Quincy moved along.

“Can’t figure him out. Talks white trash, but can also sound very crisp when he wants. And the SUV is nice-a Limited Edition Toyota FourRunner. Clothes as well; he looks casual with the jeans, the flannel shirt, but they’re nice jeans, nice flannel. Maybe once a redneck, but now a yuppie.”

“He’s upwardly mobile. Likes material possessions,” Rainie filled in.

“I think so.”

“It’s going to come down to the money.” Rainie was looking at Quincy. “A seasoned killer like that, ten-plus victims. The amount of time and energy he’s putting into it now. Preparing the kill kit, trolling for victims, covering his tracks, hiding the bodies. It’s a full-time job, especially if he stalks them for a while, too.”

“Has to,” Quincy spoke up. “If he’s letting Victim A choose Victim B, then he’ll have to do a lot of reconnaissance about Victim B before he can move.”

“So he’s busy,” Rainie continued. “Working hard at this. Which means he’s probably not gainfully employed anymore and having to turn to other means to fund his lifestyle.”

“Such as pimping prostitutes,” Kimberly murmured drily.

“Yes. Or fraud, burglary, drugs. There was this case a while back of a guy who was arrested by the Treasury Department for forging checks. When they went through the man’s storage unit, they found boxes and boxes of photos of bound and gagged women being sexually assaulted. Turned out, the guy was a classic sexual-sadist predator who’d operated for years up and down the eastern seaboard, abducting, raping, and killing women. Forging checks was simply how he covered his costs.

“Have you heard of an organization called NecroSearch International?” Quincy asked.

Kimberly shook her head.

“They’re often referred to as the Pig People. It’s a nonprofit organization, comprised mostly of retired scientists and cops. I’ve been thinking about joining.”

“Oh boy,” Rainie said drolly.

But Kimberly was regarding her father with interest. “What do they do?”

“Find bodies. They’re most famous for burying pigs in order to research techniques for locating clandestine graves. They’re also the ones who located Michele Wallace’s body in Colorado, nearly twenty years after she first disappeared.”

“Michele Wallace?” Kimberly repeated, doing a quick mental search but coming up empty. “Sorry, don’t know the case.”

“That’s because you’re too young. 1974. Wallace was twenty-five years old, living in Gunnison, Colorado. An experienced hiker, she set out for a weekend in Schofield Park with her German shepherd. Returning to her vehicle, she encountered two men having car troubles and offered them a ride. She was never seen alive again.

“According to one of the men, Chuck Matthews, Wallace dropped him off in town, then continued on with his friend, Roy Melanson. Not long after that, Roy Melanson was arrested on an outstanding warrant. In his possessions, the police recovered Wallace’s license, camping equipment, even the pack for her dog. The more they dug into Melanson’s background, the more worried the police became. Melanson was wanted for questioning in three separate rape cases, plus a murder in Texas.

“The police began applying pressure, while launching a massive search for Wallace’s body in Schofield Park. And you know what happened?”

“What?”

“Nothing. Police couldn’t find any evidence of foul play, so they couldn’t put together a case. Melanson claimed Wallace gave him everything as a gift. Who could contradict? Melanson was eventually found guilty on fraud charges for cashing stolen checks, served thirteen years, then walked. Michele Wallace’s mother, on the other hand, committed suicide, leaving behind a note that if her daughter’s remains were ever found, to please bury them next to her.”

“Oh God.”

“In 1979, another hiker in Schofield Park came across a pile of hair in the middle of the hiking trail, still attached to a scalp and fashioned into two perfect braids-just like Michele Wallace wore. The police put the hair in storage and that was that. Until 1990.

“A new detective, Kathy Young, contacted NecroSearch International about the case. NecroSearch brought in a botanist, a forensic anthropologist, an archaeologist, as well as other experts. The botanist studied the plant matter found in the braids and, based on the ratio of the various types of needles and tree bark, determined there were only a few places in the entire park where that same ratio of tree species could be found. The scientists homed in on those areas and after a few days of grueling, methodical sweeps, they found Wallace’s skull. In September 1993, Roy Melanson was finally found guilty of Wallace’s death. And April ’94, Michele Wallace’s remains were finally laid to rest next to her mother’s.”

“Oh jeez,” Kimberly murmured, momentarily looking away. The story had choked her up. She hated that.

“Point is,” her father continued, “bodies matter. If your theory is right, there are at least half a dozen remains hidden somewhere. If traditional policing can’t get the job done, maybe the right expert can.”

She thought about it. “We do have a new lead. A special agent recovered a muddy hiking boot from the UNSUB’s vehicle. I was thinking of contacting one of my buddies from the USGS. See about getting some soil samples analyzed, that sort of thing.”

“Test it for lime!” Quincy stated immediately.

“I know.”

“And get a botanist. Ravines have a tendency to be dense with ferns…Perhaps an entomologist or arachnologist, as well. You mentioned spiders…”

“I know, Dad.” She sounded impatient.

Quincy smiled. “Am I lecturing again?”

She caught herself. “No. You’re offering help, and God knows, with this case, we could use help. It’s just…late.”

“Of course. The baby. You should sleep.”

“Yeah, I should.” But no one was moving from the table. Kimberly sipped more water. Wondered about spiders and soil and where the twists and turns of a case could lead a person. Like the last time she worked with the U.S. Geological Survey team, leaping across rattlesnake-infested rock piles, spelunking into a polluted cave, dashing through a burning swamp. Life when she had been younger, quicker, and responsible for only her own welfare.

“How long are you staying?” she finally thought to ask.

Her father and Rainie exchanged a glance. “We left it open-ended,” Rainie replied lightly. “We’ve never spent much time in Georgia. We thought it might be fun to see the sights.”

Kimberly eyed them skeptically. “And your own cases?”

“The joys of being a self-employed consultant,” her father assured her. “You can always bring the work with you.”

“Because he still can’t leave it at home!” Rainie quipped.

Kimberly nodded. She finished her water. So had Rainie.

“I’ll take you to your room,” she said, picking up everyone’s glasses, herding them down the hall.

Rainie went into the guest room first, in her own discreet way giving Kimberly and her father a moment alone.

Kimberly never knew what to say. Her father excelled at silence, but too often, she merely felt choked by all the words wanting to burst out of her throat. She wanted to ask him if he was happy. She wanted to ask him if a lifetime of dedication to his craft had been worth all that he’d lost along the way.

She wanted to ask him about her mother, and what it had been like when they had been a young couple expecting their first child. She wanted to ask him everything, so she asked him nothing at all.

Her father leaned forward and kissed her on the cheek.

For a moment, they both stood like that, eyes closed, foreheads touching.

“Thank you for coming,” Kimberly whispered.

And her father said, “Anytime.”

TWENTY-FOUR

“When food is short and spiderlings are hungry, they may even eat each other.”

FROM Spiders and Their Kin,

BY HERBERT W. AND LORNA R. LEVI, A GOLDEN GUIDE FROM ST. MARTIN’S PRESS, 2002

THE BOY WAS BACK. HE RETURNED ONE BRIGHT AFTERNOON, obediently knocking on her back door, so she put him to work splitting firewood. He labored for over an hour, long enough to shed his shirt, revealing his scrawny chest, painfully bony ribs. Afterward, she made him a cheese omelet, with four thick pieces of toast and two glasses of milk. He ate it all, sopping his toast along the plate to get the last of the omelet grease, then licking each finger.

They moved on to inside chores. She showed him how to jam kindling into the window frames as extra security. Then sent him to the basement for her box of Christmas ornaments. He returned with the box in both arms and a fat brown house spider on his shoulder. When she tried to swish the spider off him, he got offended and insisted on sitting in her kitchen, playing with the thing as if it were a pet.

“Spiders won’t hurt you,” he told her. “Spiders kill insects, not people. ’Sides, spiders are really cool. Have you ever tasted a spiderweb?”

She left him with his pet and tied Christmas bells around the handles of her front and back doors, the poor woman’s home security system. She had a few final chores to do, but first, she needed to run two errands.

“Well, child, are you coming or not?”

He scrambled to his feet. “Where are we going?”

“Hardware store.”

She struggled into her coat, her hat, her gloves. The boy only had on a thin shirt, so she sent him upstairs to Joseph’s room. He returned with a flannel top that fell almost to his ankles. She dug through the entryway closet until she found one of her mother’s old navy blue coats. That fit him better than her brother’s gear.

They hit the driveway, the boy stopping expectantly next to the garage.

“Don’t be foolish, child. God gave us legs for a reason.”

“God gave us cars for a reason, too,” the boy retorted, which made her cackle in surprise.

“Sold the car nearly ten years ago,” she informed him. “At my age, I have a hard enough time walkin’ a straight line, let alone drivin’ one.”

She headed down the hill, the boy falling in step beside her. She was too slow for him, so after a bit, he scampered forward and to the side, advancing, then retreating, in that puppylike way young boys had. He kicked at slush piles, jumped into puddles. Coated his borrowed clothes in muck.

It didn’t bother her. A fine young boy like him should be playing and jumping and getting covered in muck.

He should not, however, be spending his time with an old woman.

It took her nearly an hour before she arrived at the local hardware store. The boy walked in with her, but once inside, she lost track of him, having to concentrate. She needed chain locks. Three of them. Something sturdy that wouldn’t snap.

The price of steel locks made her blink, her hands trembling on her purse.

In the end, she bought only two and it was painful at that.

She discovered the boy outside the store when she was done, waiting for her.

“Now what?”

“Groceries. Young man, you can eat.”

She hobbled off for the convenience store. The boy bounded along beside her.

Mel was at the register. Looked up at her entry, raising his hand in greeting. His face stilled when he saw the boy, his hand dropping to his side, but he didn’t say anything. He appeared alert, however, watchful.

“I want Froot Loops,” the boy said.

“Too expensive.”

“Please, please, please.”

“Child, I buy food, not puffs of sugar. You want Froot Loops, buy ’em yourself.”

The boy wandered off to eye the candy bars. Rita stared at eggs and wondered when the whole world had gotten so expensive. She had twelve dollars left. Had to last her at least a week. But the boy obviously needed to eat more.

She would start making more omelets, beating water with the eggs to stretch the supply. She could make her own pasta, too, used to all the time. Big egg noodles tossed with the canned tomatoes in her basement would make a fine meal.

She wished she could buy orange juice, the boy could use the vitamins and it tasted so nice and tart on the tongue. In the end, she settled for powdered milk, which would probably make the boy fuss, though after all these years, it was fine enough for her.

Sausage was out of the question, bacon, too. She found the expired bread, and some mealy apples in the bargain bin. She’d mash the apples into sauce, toast the bread. Thinking along those lines, she found some half-priced beef and moldy carrots and onions, perfect for a stew.

Still, it broke her heart to count out each precious penny, and get only two bags in return. She eyed Mel expectantly, waiting for him to go into the back and complete their little routine.

Instead, he was eyeing the boy, who was still in front of the candy bars.

“Friend of yours?” he asked Rita stiffly.

“Helped me split some wood.”

That took some of the starch out of Mel’s spine. Now, he merely appeared uncomfortable. “I wouldn’t give him inside chores,” he muttered under his breath, but still loud enough she was sure the sharp-eared boy had heard.

“Mind your business, Mel. I’ll mind mine.” She took the two bags, struggling a bit to get them down from the counter, and Mel had the good grace to suddenly flush.

“Sorry, Rita, let me help you-”

But she no longer felt like dealing with the likes of him. She made her own way to the door. “Child,” she called, because she didn’t like saying the name Scott, didn’t think it fit him any more than her brother’s old shirt. “We’re done now.”

The boy dutifully came to her, following her out the door. He had his hands in his pockets. She had to clear her throat three times before he took the hint and grabbed one of the bags. Then, once more in silence, they trudged up the road.

A quarter way up, Rita had to stop to catch her breath. Her stomach growled, protesting its light breakfast, as she’d fed her toast to the boy. At her age, she was shrinking year by year anyway. The boy needed the calories in order to grow.

She looked up to find the boy eating a Kit Kat.

“Want one?” he asked politely, right before she grabbed him by the ear.

“Child, where did you get that candy?”

“Ow!”

“Answer me, boy! Did you pay for that chocolate? Go up to the cashier, count out some money when I wasn’t looking?”

“I…I…”

“You stole it, didn’t you!”

“I was just trying to help! You have hardly any money and he has that big store filled with so much food. What’s one little candy bar anyway? He won’t even notice!”

“Show me your pockets.”

She let go of his ear long enough to force him to turn out his pockets. He had two candy bars, a bag of peanuts, and three Slim Jims. She shook her head in disgust.

“Well, there is only one thing left to do.” She picked up the groceries and started marching back down the hill.

“Where are you going?” The boy scrambled to keep up. When Rita was angry, she had some life left in her yet, and she was sorely angry right now.

“I’m fixin’ to take you back to the store, young man. Where you’re gonna give everything back to Mel. And then you’re gonna sweep out his storeroom as an apology.”

The boy stopped walking. “Why? You need food. I was helping you. See, I’m useful. You don’t like Slim Jims? Show me what you want. I’ll get it next time. Though you’ll have to keep buying eggs. They’re too big to steal.”

She stopped walking, just so she could glare at him. “Stealing is wrong.”

“I’ve seen your cupboards. They’re empty. I can help.”

“The good Lord helps those who help themselves.”

“Yes, exactly!” His eyes lit up. She realized she might not have picked the best proverb.

“Child! Enriching yourself at the expense of others is a sin. I am poor. My cupboards are bare. But I am strong and clever. I will prevail, without resorting to a life of crime. Now march!”

She kicked at his leg, prodding him into moving. He scowled at her, but scuttled forward, looking more perplexed than angry. At the bottom of the hill, however, he balked, refusing to enter the store.

She took everything from him, went inside herself, and laid it on the counter.

“My apologies,” she informed Mel. “It won’t happen again.”

“He’s trouble,” Mel murmured, arms crossed over his chest.

Rita regarded him haughtily. “He said he was only trying to help.” She gave him one last glare then shuffled her way out of the convenience store with as much dignity as a half-crippled old woman could manage.

The boy had retreated across the street. He followed her back up the hill, looking more and more subdued. They were just approaching her house when he finally burst.

“That was stupid! You are stupid! That was my candy. I earned it. You had no right to give it back.”

“Rules matter.”

“No, no, they don’t. You don’t know anything!” Then he took her precious grocery bag and slammed it to the ground. She heard the eggs break, saw the yellow yolks begin to ooze inside the bag.

“Of all the darn fool things to do, child. Now we’ll both be hungry.”

“Good. Good, good, good!” the boy roared. He pulled back his arm. She thought he would hit her, punch her across the face. But at the last minute, he dropped his arm, turned, and fled.

She watched him go, his thin legs pounding, as he headed up the next rolling hill, toward the dilapidated Victorian. She wanted to be angry with the boy; mostly, she wondered what awaited him there.

Another minute passed. Then she laboriously bent over, retrieving the bag, cradling it carefully in her hands. She made it into the kitchen, where bit by bit, using a rubber scraper, she coaxed the runny yolks into a glass bowl.

She did the only thing she knew how to do, saving what could be saved.

TWENTY-FIVE

BURGERMAN IS UP TO SOMETHING.

I can feel him studying me when he thinks I won’t notice. I’ll be watching TV and he’ll come in, standing in the doorway, staring, staring, staring. Then he’ll reach down, scratch his balls, and disappear.

Burgerman spends a lot of time alone these days. Out and about, locked in his room. Sometimes, I can feel the darkness of his moods. Sometimes, I can match ’em with my own. We are like father and son, mutually contemptuous.

He doesn’t touch me anymore; I’m too old. I can’t fetch like I used to, either. A pale-faced teenager is automatically suspect on most playgrounds. People think I might be trouble, maybe a drug dealer or petty gangster. Little do they suspect.

I’m still small. Burgerman doesn’t feed me much, a last-ditch effort to stave off puberty, I guess. After all, there’s still the money from the movies, but even that’s not what it used to be. In the world of porn, the big money is in kids, not gaunt, scrawny-chested teenagers.

Lately, he’s started talking about graduation. “Son, there comes a time in everyone’s life when you gotta start lookin’ ahead. You’re growin’ up, boy. Gettin ready to graduate.”

I don’t know what graduation means. Certainly no cap and gown ceremony, or one-way ticket to college. What does he think I’ll do? Go to trade school, get a job? Move into a trailer park with all the other perverts? Only one thing I know how to do. What’s the graduation ceremony like for that?

I know lately, when I come home, my hand stills after I put the key in the lock. I wonder when I turn it, if it’ll still work. And if my key does turn, I wonder when I push the door open, if the Burgerman will still be there.

Because I’m starting to get the picture, you see. Life has to have value. And I outgrew my value about two years ago. Now I’m like that old nag in the barn, can’t run, can’t breed, but costs a fortune in room and board. You know, the horse that’s ultimately sent to the glue factory.

Burgerman probably hopes I’ll run away. I’ve thought about it, believe me. But after all these years, I don’t know where I would go or what I would do. This is the only life I know; Burgerman the only family I have left.

Maybe he’ll dump me and disappear.

There are, of course, other possibilities.

Burgerman came into my room last night, stood at the foot of my bed. Staring, staring, staring.

I kept my breathing steady, but watched him beneath the narrow slits of my eyes. I wondered if he had a knife, a gun. I wondered what I would do if he attacked.

Burgerman is talking of graduation.

I must remain alert.

TWENTY-SIX

“A stinging sensation is usually followed by intense pain. The tissue affected locally by the venom is killed and gradually sloughs away, exposing the underlying muscles.”

FROM Biology of the Brown Recluse Spider,

BY JULIA MAXINE HITE, WILLIAM J. GLADNEY, J. L. LANCASTER, JR., AND W. H. WHITCOMB, DEPARTMENT OF ENTOMOLOGY, DIVISION OF AGRICULTURE, UNIVERSITY OF ARKANSAS, FAYETTEVILLE, MAY 1966

HAROLD LOVED THE BOOT.

“Holy crap! Do you know what this is?” he exclaimed. “Wow, a Limmer boot. Where did you get this? Do you know what this means?”

Kimberly didn’t know what a Limmer boot was, or what having one meant. That’s why she’d asked Harold to journey down from the high ground of Counterterrorism to VC’s tiny, third-floor sanctuary. The CT agents hated to travel. After all, they had an entire floor complete with half a dozen TVs blaring Fox News. In contrast, Violent Crimes had…cardboard boxes, some maps, a couple rolls of yellow crime scene tape strewn around for general aesthetics.

Fortunately, Harold had been intrigued by her request for help. He was a geek. It was one of the things Kimberly liked best about him.

Kimberly had commandeered an unused desk by a bank of windows. There, she had laid out the dark brown hiking boot on top of a sheet of butcher paper. To the side, she had spread her kit of stainless steel instruments: metal file, tweezers, scraper, a host of different-size metal picks. Sure, she could’ve gone with the Popsicle sticks favored by so many evidence technicians, but that wouldn’t have looked nearly as cool.

She’d completed an initial examination of the boot, noting size, color, brand name, tread pattern, and surface markings. She’d recorded that the boot was a men’s size 10, with a badly scuffed inner heel and big toe. It appeared to be made from an all-leather upper, with a rubber sole. Shoelace was brown, threaded with dark green. She snapped a dozen photographs to record its initial state.

Then she’d started the process of chipping off caked mud, plant materials, and other debris from the bottom of the boot. Select samples were captured in glass vials to be sent to the FBI lab. The rest of the detritus would remain captured in the butcher paper, as it was folded up, slid inside a larger brown paper evidence bag, and stored in the evidence vault for future consideration. Finally, she would cast the boot’s tread pattern in tinted dental stone for possible match later with any impressions recovered from a crime scene.

The life of an evidence collector was all about painstaking methodology and practiced patience. You sorted, studied, and saved, all in the name of someday. Except Kimberly didn’t feel like waiting these days. She wanted answers now. Harold, former naturalist and U.S. Forestry Service employee, seemed her best bet.

“A Limmer boot is special?” she ventured, straightening up with a metal pick still clutched in her right hand.

“Sure. Limmers are a high-end hiker’s boot, made by a family-owned shop in New Hampshire. You’re not talking something you pick up at your nearest Wal-Mart. This is an enthusiast’s boot. A serious hiker for sure.”

This got Kimberly’s attention. “High-end? What does that mean? Limited quantities? Highly traceable?”

“Well,” Harold drawled now, taking the pick from her and starting to poke at the boot himself. “Back in my day, Limmers were custom fit. But if memory serves, they contracted with an outside company to manufacture a small line of ready-to-wear hiking boots. So I guess the real question is, what kind of boot do we have here? Handmade custom fit or mass-produced ready-to-wear?”

He snapped on a pair of latex gloves, hefting up the boot and rolling it between his hands. “Feel the weight of this sucker. That’s a good two pounds, easy. Full-length nylon shank, double-layer midsole, Vibram outsole. Nice.”

“If these boots are so special, why haven’t I ever heard of them? I’m a hiker.”

Harold gave her a look. “When’s the last time you did the AT?”

“AT?” she muttered, thinking hard. “Appalachian Trail? Ummm, it’s on my list.”

“Yeah, you’re a day hiker. These are boots for the pros.”

Kimberly murmured something low and disparaging under her breath, but couldn’t refute his point.

“So I could contact Limmer and they might be able to tell me who purchased this boot?”

“It’s possible. Especially if it was a custom job. May I?”

Harold still had the metal pick, waving it at the rubber insole. Kimberly shrugged and let him have at it. She’d been studying the boot for an hour now. All she had to show for it was a headache.

She wandered off for a glass of water. When she returned, Harold had pulled over a chair and was getting into it.

“Lotta minerals,” he reported, sifting through the crumbling bits of dried mud. “Quartz, feldspar, even some amethyst. Do you have a flashlight?”

Kimberly retrieved her field kit from beneath her desk, pulling out a flashlight.

“Magnifying glass,” Harold chirped.

She produced a magnifying glass.

“Glass of water.”

She rolled her eyes, but obediently fetched water.

Harold didn’t drink the water, but used an eyedropper to squeeze several drops into a glass vial, then added a clump of mud, then more water. He turned the mud into silt, swirling it around within the vial, before starting the painstaking process of pouring out the silt into a second glass tube.

“Look at this, all these tiny reflective particles?” He held up the first glass vial, now devoid of brackish water. “You’re talking a soil very high in metals and minerals. Got a microscope?”

Kimberly arched a brow. “Harold, we’re evidence collectors, not evidence analyzers. No one has a microscope.”

“I do,” Harold said.

“What?”

“Well, you never know,” he stated defensively. “Sometimes, life simply calls for a microscope.”

Kimberly couldn’t think of a single thing to say to that. She sent him upstairs for his microscope. When he returned, they rinsed the mineral sample a second time and prepared a slide. After all, sometimes life does call for a microscope.

“Gold,” Harold murmured at last. “Mostly feldspar and quartz. But also a trace amount of gold.”

“Really?”

“Sure. After all, the first gold rush in America happened right here in Georgia. 1829.” Harold straightened up from the microscope, returning to the boot and scraping off more debris. “In the Chattahoochee National Forest. Where’d you think the expression ‘There’s gold in them thar hills’ came from?”

“Hadn’t given the matter any thought.”

“You should visit Dahlonega sometime. Check out the museum, tour the old mines. There’s even a hotel that has its own gold mine in the basement.”

“I thought Dahlonega was wine country.”

“Gold for the new generation,” Harold assured her. “Now this is interesting. Take a look at this.”

Kimberly obediently leaned closer. Harold had picked out several green scraps of plant matter from the mud-caked boot. Now he mounted the first object on a slide and slid it under his microscope.

“What is it?” Kimberly prodded.

“Looks like crushed leaf of a mountain laurel.” Harold made some adjustments, then slid out the first slide and replaced it with a second. “And this here looks like white pine. Also got some dried oak leaves, bits of beech. Yeah, I’d say your subject’s been in the Chattahoochee National Forest, without a doubt. Someplace with a lot of broadleaf hardwoods and evergreen conifers. Look, there’s even some hemlock. Hmmm…”

“Would that be a good place to hide bodies?”

“The Chattahoochee National Forest?” Harold asked, still hunched over the microscope.

“Yeah. We think this subject may have kidnapped and killed ten women. It’d be a lot easier, however, if we could locate a body. Maybe the Chattahoochee would be the place to start.” Not to mention that by virtue of being a national forest, the Chattahoochee fell under FBI jurisdiction.

“If you’re gonna hike through the Chattahoochee National Forest,” Harold commented absently, “I’d order a pair of Limmers first.” He finished at the microscope, returned to the boot.

“Why?”

“The forest contains over seven hundred and fifty thousand acres.”

“What?”

“Told you we had good hiking in this state.”

“Ah damn.”

“Wait. I got another present for you. Tweezers.”

Kimberly rifled her instrument kit, found the tweezers. “More gold?” she asked hopefully. “How about the driver’s license from one of the victims?”

“Better.”

“Better?”

“Yeah. Check it out. I got a spider casting.”

Kimberly managed to reach Sal by phone shortly after three p.m. She’d eaten four puddings and a buttermilk biscuit for lunch and was feeling the sugar rush.

“So I talked to a guy at Limmer Boot,” she reported in one quick burst. “If we can get him the boot, he’d be happy to examine it for us. Sounds to him like it’s one of their standard mountaineering boots. They’re sold by a variety of dealers now, with men’s size ten being the most common size, so that’s the bad news. But if it was a custom fit-he won’t know until he sees it-he might be able to track down the name.”

Sal didn’t sound nearly as impressed as he should be: “Dinchara bought a boot in New Hampshire?”

“Maybe. Or by mail order. Point is, this is a pretty serious hiking boot, generally purchased by pretty serious hikers. Harold’s convinced Dinchara’s been stomping around the Chattahoochee National Forest, which finally limits our search area from the entire state of Georgia to a mere seven hundred and fifty thousand acres.”

Sal grunted.

“Okay,” Kimberly tried again. “What did you do today?”

“Had my ass handed to me by my supe.”

“Uh-oh.”

“Klein rejected my request to form a task force. He doesn’t believe we’ve adequately provided evidence of foul play.”

“But the driver’s licenses of missing women left on your car. The recording of Veronica Jones’s murder-”

“Unsubstantiated.”

“Dinchara’s conversation with Ginny. Hell, Dinchara’s treatment of Ginny-”

“She’s welcome to press charges.”

“Ah crap,” Kimberly said, feeling deflated now, too. “What exactly does he want from us?”

“A body. A corroborating witness. More substantiation that the women really are missing, and not just relocated.”

“But that’s why we need the task force. So we can do the legwork to get the substantiation. Or, here’s a thought, find a body.”

“I know.”

“And in the meantime, Ginny Jones is hanging out there, alone and unprotected, after ruffling Dinchara’s feathers.”

“I know.”

She scowled, chewed her lower lip. “Some days, this job really sucks.”

“I know.”

They sat in silence for a moment, then Sal said, out of nowhere, “My dad used to do that-slap my mother around. It wasn’t too bad, until my brother disappeared. Then my father started to drink heavily. He’d beat the shit out of my mother, and she’d just take it. Like everything lousy in life really was her fault.”

Kimberly didn’t know what to say.

“I hated it then, and I hate it now. Goddamn, I just want to arrest the son of a bitch.”

“Sal-”

“Never mind. I’m just having a bad day. Nothing I won’t get over. So.” He cleared his throat. “I located Ginny’s real address, using the info from her vehicle registration. Jackie agreed to monitor Ginny tonight. I’ll take tomorrow night, see what happens.”

Sal paused expectantly, waiting for her to offer to take night three. Kimberly tapped one finger on her desk, thinking guiltily of Mac, wanting her to return home to discuss major life changes. Then there was the matter of her father and Rainie, who’d flown in all the way from Oregon.

“You know,” Sal prodded more forcefully, “Dinchara’s pretty riled up. A guy like that, once he decides he’s got a liability, isn’t exactly going to send Ginny on a trip to Disney World. We’re the ones who wired her up. To walk away now…”

“I have to look at my calendar,” Kimberly said.

“Well, well, well, if you gotta wash your hair-”

“Don’t be an ass.”

“I’m just saying-”

“I know, I know. Dinchara’s mad, Ginny’s vulnerable. Things are happening fast. Why do you think I spent the whole afternoon hunched over a filthy hiking boot? We’re going to pull it together. After all, we’ve already struck gold. Oh, and found a spider casting.”

“A spider what?”

“Exactly.”

Next phone call was from Mac.

“Dinner?” she tried. “I promised Rainie chicken-fried steak with gravy. Rainie’s buying the groceries. Dad’s picking up the Lipitor.”

“Can’t. Gotta work late.”

“But you love chicken-fried steak.”

“Then save me a plate,” he said, already sounding irritated. Kimberly took that as a hint and shut up. Mac stopped talking, too; the silence stretching long.

“Rough case?” she finally ventured.

“You know how it is.”

“Guess I do.”

“Don’t wait up.”

“Guess I won’t.”

“We can’t keep doing this, you know,” he said abruptly. “You’re working late, I’m working late. We pass each other in the night, with barely a peck on the cheek. What kind of way is this to live?”

“Our way,” she said softly.

“Something’s gotta give.”

“I’m ready to talk when you are.”

“Oh sure, now that you’re no longer busy.”

The open hostility in his voice shocked her. She clammed up again, feeling she’d waded into a minefield, not sure how to proceed.

“Ah fuck it,” Mac said. “I’m tired, that’s all.” Then he hung up on her.

When her cell phone rang again, she picked it up without thinking. She thought it might be Sal, reporting more news. She hoped it might be Mac, offering an apology.

Instead, she got silence.

And then she knew.

She sat back in her chair, already digging around in her jacket, trying to find her mini-recorder.

“Why don’t you care?” the voice asked, high-pitched, tinny. This time around, she thought she could catch a faint distortion, a hint of electronics.

“I’m listening,” she said, fumbling the recorder, finally getting it on top of her desk, switching it on.

“I thought you would care,” the voice echoed petulantly, ping-ponging through the earpiece, “…do something.”

“Let’s meet,” she said evenly. “Talk in person. I want to help.”

“It’s not my fault. ‘Step into my parlor,’ said the spider to the fly. And they do, they do.”

“Tell me your name. I need an address, a phone number. I’ll list you as a confidential informant. No one will know but us.”

But the caller wasn’t listening to her. His voice had grown to a higher-pitched whine, sounding angry. “Why didn’t you try harder? You forgot about us. You abandoned us to his web. Now it’s your turn. He’s gonna get you. But I don’t care. I refuse to care. It’s not my fault.”

“Veronica Jones,” she said crisply. “The other women…I know what he did, but I need proof. What does he do with them? Where does he hide their bodies? If you help me find them, I can make this stop.”

But the voice didn’t respond. She heard silence, followed by a crackle of interference. Then, when she had almost given up: “I’m gonna graduate.”

She hesitated, then took a gamble: “You mean like Tommy Mark Evans?”

“That was not my fault!” the voice cried. “You don’t know what it’s like. Once his mind’s made up there’s nothing you can do.”

“Then meet with me. Explain it to me. Help me help you.”

“No. Too late. You had your chance. Now it’s my turn, and I’m gonna graduate.”

“I don’t know what that means.”

“All I have to do is kill you.”

“Pardon?”

The caller was agitated now. “Someone loved me once. A long time ago. I wish I could remember her face. But she’s gone now. This is all I have left. I want to survive. I want to graduate. I will kill you.”

“Let me help you!”

“Say goodbye,” the voice whispered, then the caller was gone.

Night was falling by the time Kimberly checked out for the day, taking the elevator down to the lobby, walking out to the parking garage. Temperature hovered around the high forties, cool enough to make her hunch her shoulders inside her camel-colored coat, scarf wrapped tight around her neck.

The sprawling office park was quiet as she followed the sidewalk along the embankment, shallow stream to her right, parking garage to her left. She had one hand in her pocket, curled around her car fob, largest key tucked between two fingers like a shank.

The wind whispered over the slight hill, stirring the hair at the nape of her neck, tickling the upturned collar of her coat.

She turned to study the emptiness behind her, picked up her step.

The shadows grew longer, chasing her into the parking garage toward the crouched form of her station wagon. She didn’t relax until she had checked the full interior, including the backseats and cargo space. Even then, sliding behind the wheel, closing the door, hitting all the locks, she could feel her hands tremble as Baby McCormack gave a fluttering little kick to her side.

“It’s okay, baby,” she whispered. “You’re safe, everything’s all right.”

But she wasn’t sure who she was trying to convince anymore, her baby or herself.

TWENTY-SEVEN

“Time spent in the company of spiders can cure anyone of his sentimentality about nature.”

FROM “SPIDER WOMAN,”

BY BURKHARD BILGER, New Yorker, MARCH 5, 2007

DINNER WAS A SOMBER AFFAIR. KIMBERLY OVER-COOKED the meat, burned the gravy, and remembered why she stuck to takeout. Her father and Rainie tried to be kind about it. They praised the microwaved green beans and moved bites of chicken-fried steak around their plates in an appearance of eating.

If they were curious about Mac’s absence, they didn’t say anything and Kimberly didn’t feel like talking about it. What was there to say, anyway? He was working late. Happened all the time.

“We went to the aquarium today.” Rainie spoke up in a determined voice. “What an amazing place. I particularly enjoyed petting the stingrays.”

“Uh-huh,” Kimberly said.

“Quincy, what about you? What did you enjoy most?”

Kimberly’s father blinked, a deer caught in headlights. “Ummm, the beluga whales.”

“Yes, they were also beautiful. And very playful. I had no idea!”

“Uh-huh,” Kimberly said again.

“So I’m thinking tomorrow we’ll visit the Coke museum. I never realized an entire state could worship soda pop until we arrived here. What do you think, Quincy?”

“Sounds like a plan.” He had picked up his wife’s forced enthusiasm.

Kimberly set down her fork. “Dad, what was Mom like when she was pregnant?”

That brought the conversation up short.

“What?” her father asked.

“Did she have morning sickness, blotchy skin, mood swings? Or was she one of those radiant pregnant women, all aglow with maternal anticipation? Maybe she knit booties, stenciled nursery walls, made list after list of potential baby names…”

“Your mother? Knitting?”

“Was she happy? Did you guys have Amanda’s birth all planned out? Mom would stay home, you would take a leave of absence. You’d decorate the nursery together, take turns rocking your bundle of joy.”

“Kimberly, in all honesty, that was over thirty years ago-”

“Well, you must remember something! Anything! Come on, Dad. I’d ask Mom directly, except, you know, she’s dead!”

Quincy fell silent. Kimberly blinked her eyes, ashamed by her own outburst, the emotion that had risen out of nowhere and now clogged her throat. She should apologize. Say something. But she couldn’t, because if she opened her mouth, she was going to burst into tears.

Her father drew in a breath. “I’m sorry, Kimberly,” he said quietly. “I know you have questions. And I would like to answer them, I would. But to tell you the truth, I don’t remember much about Mandy’s birth, or even your own. I think when your mother was pregnant with Amanda, I was working a string of bank robberies in the Midwest. Four men in an unmarked white cargo van. They liked to pistol-whip the tellers, even when the women were cooperating with their demands. I remember interviewing eyewitness after eyewitness, trying to get a feel for how the team operated. And I remember walking into the ninth bank and discovering that, this time, they had shot the teller between the eyes. Heather Norris was her name. Nineteen-year-old single mother. She had just started at the bank in order to earn enough money to go to college. Those were the things that made an impression on me. As for your mother and what she was going through…”

“She hated you,” Kimberly said quietly.

“Eventually, yes. And I would say, not without cause.”

“Did you hate her?”

“Never.”

“What about Mandy and me? Two more females interfering with your precious work?”

“You and Amanda are two of the best things that ever happened to me.” She saw him squeeze Rainie’s hand. It didn’t improve her mood.

“Oh sure, you say that now. But at the time, when you were working one hundred cases a year of murdered kids and mutilated women, each of them needing your complete focus, and there we were, demanding that you come home for dinner, attend the school play, watch our talent show. How could you not get frustrated? How could you not grow impatient with all our petty demands?”

“They were never petty.”

“But they were. They can be. How do you manage it all? How do you find enough time and energy? Enough love? How can you be all things to all people?”

Her father was silent for a moment. “Did you know your mother had a job before you girls were born?” he asked abruptly.

“She did?”

“Yes. She worked at an art gallery. Your mother had a master’s in fine art. She hoped to be a curator of a museum someday. That was her dream.”

“Then she got pregnant.”

“Things were different back then, Kimberly. Your mother and I had always assumed she would stay home with our children. It never occurred to us to do anything different. Though maybe, in hindsight, we should have.”

“Why do you say that?”

Her father shrugged, obviously choosing his next words with care. “Your mother was a bright, creative woman. While she loved you and your sister, life as a stay-at-home mom…It was hard for her. Not as fulfilling as she had hoped. And then, with me gone all the time…I think it was easier sometimes to blame me for her dissatisfaction. I loved my job. And she…didn’t.”

“Would you have let her go back to work?”

“I don’t know. She never asked. And I was never home long enough to realize how unhappy she was. Until, of course, it was too late.”

“I don’t know how to do this,” Kimberly whispered, her hand curling over her belly. “I thought I did, but here I am, five months pregnant, and suddenly, I don’t understand anything anymore. How to be a wife, an agent, let alone a mom. I haven’t even had the baby yet, and I’m already terrible at this!”

“I wish there was something I could tell you, Kimberly. But life isn’t a one-size-fits-all model. These are the questions you should be asking. These are the concerns you and Mac will get to address. All I can say is that as a parent, I think I made every mistake a father could make, and I still wound up with a positively wonderful daughter.”

Kimberly shook her head. She knew he meant the words kindly. She wanted to accept them gracefully. But all she could wonder is if Mandy would say the same, and thoughts of her sister, dead by the age of twenty-three, simply broke her heart all over again.

Kimberly waited until bedtime to bring up the phone call. Five months ago, she would’ve mentioned a death threat to Mac. They both would’ve scoffed at it, having received their fair share. Now she didn’t think she could talk about it with Mac, so she told her father instead.

He approached it with his usual practicality. “What do you know about the caller?”

“Nothing.”

“Nonsense. Try harder. You’ve spoken to the person three times. Plenty of opportunities to learn.”

She remembered now: Her father was a hard-ass. “Umm, the caller has access to a computer and a credit card and is knowledgeable enough about the Internet to use call spoofing.”

“Okay.”

“Caller knows the FBI’s general information number; not that hard because it’s also in the phone book. But,” she considered now, “caller also knows my cell phone number, which is harder to get.”

“What else?”

“Caller sounds like a male, but that could be the result of voice distortion. I have the impression, however, that the caller is younger. Some of the expressions used, the general moodiness and anger. I’d guess adolescent.”

“Excellent.”

“There’s a slight regional accent, so I’d say he’s a local. Calls have happened during the evening, small hours of the morning, and now daytime. So someone with a flexible job or schedule, or perhaps no job at all.”

“Goes along with your theory of an adolescent.”

“Yes.”

“Motive? Why is the caller reaching out? Why you?”

She had to think about it. “At first, when the caller shared the Veronica Jones tape, I thought it was to help. A person, possibly a victim him-or herself, was trying to bring attention to what had happened so that Dinchara would be punished. The second call also sounded like a warning. Someone still trying to help. Also, we know someone close to Dinchara is delivering envelopes bearing the missing girls’ driver’s licenses, potential ‘trophies.’ It’s possible the caller is the one who made the deliveries, a first attempt at outreach that, unfortunately, didn’t get the job done.”

“And today’s call?”

“Angry,” she said without hesitation. “The caller was pissed off. Like I’d personally failed him. Maybe because he’s made the effort but I haven’t magically come through with an arrest? I’m not sure. But tonight the tone had changed. I’m no longer his ally. I’ve become his target.”

Quincy’s face held a ghost of a smile. “That does sound like an adolescent.”

“Exactly!”

He paused thoughtfully. “Is it possible that your caller is still in contact with your UNSUB? Perhaps the UNSUB himself changed the dynamics of the relationship. You said the caller wants to ‘graduate.’ And to do that, he/she claims he has to kill you.”

“Yes.”

“Perhaps because it is the UNSUB’s bidding? Which brings us to the next logical question: Why you? Is it because the caller was told specifically to kill Special Agent Kimberly Quincy? Or that he/she was told to kill a law enforcement officer? Or a woman?”

“Me specifically,” Kimberly replied slowly. “From the very beginning, the caller has known I was involved with the Dinchara case. So I don’t think he chose me at random. It’s because of my involvement in the case. That’s what put me on his or her radar screen.”

“Likely suspects?” her father quizzed.

“Ginny Jones. Knows my cell phone number, has met with me regarding the case, and knows what happened to both her mother and Tommy Mark Evans. And,” she added thoughtfully, “she has a good reason to be angry with me, considering what happened between her and Dinchara last night. Whatever problems Ginny hoped to solve by contacting law enforcement, I don’t think it’s worked out the way she planned.”

“But?”

Kimberly shrugged. “But why mess around with call spoofing? We’ve already met face-to-face. There’s nothing in the phone calls she couldn’t have told me in person.”

“Shy?”

“Don’t think so.”

“Scared?”

“I think it’s a bigger risk to be following up by phone, versus telling me everything when we’re in person. Then again, girl like her…Who the hell knows?”

“Do you think the caller was serious?” Quincy asked her quietly. “Do you feel your life is in jeopardy?”

She chewed her lower lip, unsure of how to answer. “It’s spooky to be threatened.”

“But do you feel your life is in jeopardy?”

“I’m not sure. There’s a big difference between preying on prostitutes and gunning for a fed. Then again, there’s gamesmanship here. Ginny…the caller…I feel like a pawn being moved around a board for reasons I can’t see. And that, more than anything, makes me nervous. Even if I’m not the main target, I could still wind up collateral damage.”

“You’ve filed a report with your supervisor?”

“Left him a memo with a copy of the tape tonight.”

“What do you think he’ll recommend?”

“I’m hoping like hell he’ll finally agree to form a task force,” she declared drily. “One thing the caller did drop was that he or she knows something about Tommy Mark Evans. And there’s an unsolved homicide, where, heavens to Betsy, we have a body. Maybe that will finally get the wheels churning, because God knows poor Ginny nearly got her face caved in for nothing. And I am pissed off about it!”

“That’s my girl,” Quincy told her.

That, more than anything, finally made her smile.

“I think Sal’s onto something,” she said seriously. “I think Dinchara has been preying on prostitutes. Ginny escaped. She was the lucky one. Now we need to do something about the other girls. I want to find them. I want to bring them home. And then, I want to nail Spideyman to the wall.”

“Given what you learned with the boot,” her father said, “I’d head to the woods. Bring some cadaver dogs.”

“Sure, seven hundred and fifty thousand acres. Couple of dogs will blow through that in a day.”

“You get your sarcasm from your mother’s side.”

“Don’t you wish. But hey, Harold has an old friend who is an arachnologist. He’s arranged for us to meet with her first thing in the morning. Normally I wouldn’t place a lot of weight on the analysis of molted spider skin, but given Dinchara’s predilections…”

“Can I attend?”

“Ah, Dad, and miss Coca-Cola World?”

Her father said seriously: “Please, I’m begging you.”

She stayed up after Rainie and Quincy retired, watching late-night TV in bed while waiting for Mac. At one a.m., she couldn’t take it anymore. She rubbed her lower back, regarded her slightly swollen feet, decided she had grown bigger since just yesterday and it was definitely time to sleep.

“Sweet dreams, Baby McCormack,” she whispered to her belly, turning off the light, dragging the covers up.

Sleep was not kind to her. She found herself running through a bloody house, which she dimly recognized from crime scene photos of her mother’s murder. She was desperate to find Bethie. She had to see her mother. There was so much she needed to say.

Except then she heard the wail of a baby and she knew it wasn’t her mother she had lost. She was racing to find her baby. Following the cries through the house. Following the blood trail.

Then, a ghostly white bassinet finally appearing in front of her…

“Shhhh,” Mac’s voice told her. “Shhh, you’re all right, Kimberly. It’s just a bad dream. It’s okay, sweetheart. I got you.”

She clung to him. Felt his arms go around her, tucking her against the solid warmth of his chest. Except she couldn’t stop shaking. Couldn’t stop trembling. Even in her husband’s arms, she didn’t feel safe.

The phone rang. Once, twice.

The third time, she finally managed to pull herself to the surface. The clock glowed five a.m. Mac was sleeping with his back to her. Her cell phone chimed again next to the bed. He stirred groggily as she snatched it up.

She checked the display screen, then put it to her ear.

“Don’t you ever sleep, Sal?”

“She’s gone,” he said flatly. “Jackie could never track her down last night. We finally stopped by first thing this morning. Apartment’s packed up and cleared out. Ginny Jones has disappeared.”

TWENTY-EIGHT

“Just as birds can be identified by their singing, so spiders can be sorted by their methods of killing.”

FROM “SPIDER WOMAN,”

BY BURKHARD BILGER, New Yorker, MARCH 5, 2007

“THERE ARE TWO KINDS OF POISONOUS SPIDERS IN the United States,” USDA arachnologist Carrie Crawford-Hale was explaining. “First is the Lactrodectus mactans or black widow, known for the bright red markings on her abdomen. Only the females bite, generally only when harassed. The second poisonous spider is the Loxosceles reclusa, or brown recluse, known for the violin-shaped marking on its back. Both males and females are equally toxic. Fortunately, they’re very shy, sedentary spiders who prefer to stay tucked behind woodpiles rather than intermingle with humans. Even then, there’s at least a dozen bites reported a year, some with serious consequences.”

“Define serious,” Sal spoke up. He stood close to the door and about as far away from Crawford-Hale and her microscope as he could get. A mounted scorpion was to his right; some kind of giant black beetle with enormous claws directly above his head. The GBI special agent looked tired, haggard, and nervous as hell.

In contrast, Kimberly was trying to figure out if it was polite to ask if she could peer through the microscope. She’d never seen molted spider skin at 10x magnification before. According to Harold, it was pretty cool.

Unfortunately, Crawford-Hale’s office was roughly the size of a janitor’s closet, already overflowing with equipment, filing cabinets, and jarred and mounted specimens. Harold and her family had had to wait outside. Shame, because Quincy probably would enjoy what the arachnologist had to say.

“The venom of the Loxosceles reclusa contains an enzyme that necrotizes the flesh of the victim.” Crawford-Hale adjusted the microscope as she shifted from right to left. “To protect against the venom, the body walls off the arteries around the bite. The skin, starved of blood, begins to die, turning black and sloughing off. I’ve seen pictures of open wounds anywhere from the size of a quarter to a half dollar. In some cases, it’s a small reaction that clears up in weeks. Other times, an entire limb might swell up and it can take months, even a year, to fully recover. The variation seems to have to do more with the response from the victim’s own immune system than from the potency of the particular spider. Basically, some people are more sensitive than others.”

Sal appeared horrified. He’d already eaten this morning, judging by the smudge of ketchup on his dark gray lapel and the pervasive odor of hash browns coming from his suit. At the moment, however, it looked like breakfast wasn’t agreeing with him.

He shifted farther away from Crawford-Hale, shaking out both arms as if feeling something crawling up his skin. “How do you know how sensitive you are?”

“First time you get bit, you learn.” Crawford-Hale straightened up at the microscope. “I’m ninety percent certain this is a Loxosceles reclusa. You can still make out the upside-down violin shadowing the carapace; then there’s the light brown color, the thin, almost delicate body. A more definitive diagnostic feature is the eyes-brown recluses have a semicircular arrangement of six eyes in three groups of two, while most other spiders have eight eyes. I can’t make out that level of detail from this molting, but I’m still relatively confident in my classification.”

“Aren’t brown recluses common in Georgia?” Kimberly asked with a frown.

“Absolutely. The southern states, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma-we’re lousy with brown recluses. I got a case three months ago where a family reported an infestation. I collected three hundred specimens in the first three hours. Interestingly enough, no one in the family was ever bitten. Spiders really aren’t interested in taking on creatures that can squish them with one move of their big toe.

“Of course, then there’s Southern California, which is grappling with the Loxosceles laeta, a species of recluse that came from Chile, Peru, and Argentina. If the venom of the reclusa is a cup of tea, then the venom of the laeta is a double shot of espresso.”

“Another reason not to live in California,” Sal murmured. He’d finally spotted the scorpion mounted beside him. He turned to give it his back, only to discover the next mounted specimen-a cockroach of truly incredible size-staring at him nose to nose.

“I don’t get it.” Kimberly was still puzzling it out. “Why would a spider enthusiast collect a specimen as common as the brown recluse, especially given that it’s venomous and thus difficult to manage?”

“Oh, I wouldn’t say brown recluses are difficult to manage,” Crawford-Hale corrected immediately. “They’re some of the only spiders that can be raised communally. And there’s not an aggressive instinct among them. Provide a terrarium with plenty of dark places to hide-leaves, stones, tree bark-drop in a few crickets every week, and they’d probably live quite contentedly.”

“So…spider enthusiasts do collect them?”

The arachnologist considered the matter. “Have you ever heard of the Spider Pharm?”

“Umm, no.”

“It’s a facility out in Arizona where they raise spiders to milk for venom-”

“They what?” Sal interrupted, horrified look back on his face.

“Milk them for venom,” Crawford-Hale supplied. “Think about it: The venom from a single spider can contain nearly two hundred compounds, including substances that can dissolve flesh and short-circuit the nervous system. How great would it be to be able to analyze and duplicate some of these compounds for the pharmaceutical industry? It’s cutting-edge science.”

“They milk the spiders?” Sal asked again.

“They have a special machine,” Crawford-Hale stated breezily. “I haven’t gotten to do it myself, but apparently they use tweezers wired with an electrical stimulator. A very low dose of electrical shock is transmitted to the spider, which makes its venom gland contract. A droplet forms on the spider’s fang which is caught in a glass tube. Doesn’t hurt the spider, but does generate lots of venom for study. Now, at a place like the Spider Pharm, believe me, they collect, breed, and house plenty of Loxosceles reclusa.”

“What about a more general enthusiast?” Kimberly asked. “We believe the subject has several tarantula specimens and at least one black widow.”

Crawford-Hale shrugged. “Honestly, collectors are collectors. I went to school with a guy who found a black widow outside the dorms, so he caught it and turned it into a pet. Then, to feed the black widow, he started raising crickets. Next thing he knew, the black widow died and he was the owner of two hundred crickets. So now he farms crickets for various pet stores. Maybe you and I wouldn’t do such a thing, but it works for him.”

“How would a collector get a brown recluse?” Kimberly pressed. “Is that a specimen he would buy online, like the tarantulas, or maybe a specialized market?”

“Around here?” The arachnologist arched a brow. “He could probably just go down to his basement. Or his woodpile. Or check under rocks when hiking in the woods-”

“Hiking?”

“Sure, the brown recluses live outside year round in Georgia.”

“As in the Chattahoochee National Forest?”

“I’m sure you can find them there.”

Kimberly sighed, worried her lower lip. She turned to Sal. “So the spider casting might not have anything to do with his collection at all. Might just be another bit of debris that became stuck to his boot when hiking around the Chattahoochee.”

“He could’ve picked up the spider casting from hiking in the woods,” Crawford-Hale said. She added thoughtfully, “One thing, though: Brown recluses are notoriously shy. They retreat to dark, hidden places at the best of times, let alone when they are molting, which is a time of extreme stress for a spider. Chances are, your suspect didn’t come across this casting walking along a main trail. Much more likely he was bushwhacking, someplace remote, without a lot of people.”

“Someplace you’d hide a body,” Kimberly muttered.

“That would be your expertise, not mine,” the arachnologist said. “Anything else I can do for you?”

Kimberly had to think about it. The conversation had not been as illuminating as she had hoped. Judging by the look on Sal’s face, he felt the same.

She couldn’t come up with any more questions. Instead, she stuck out her hand, thanking Crawford-Hale for her time. Sal followed suit.

“If we ever encounter a real-live brown recluse,” he asked at the last minute, “what should we do?”

“Hold very still.”

Sal shook his head. “Man, how can you do this, analyze eight-legged insects day in and day out? I’d have the creepy crawlies all of the time.”

“Oh, spiders aren’t insects,” Crawford-Hale corrected him. “Insects have six legs. Spiders have eight. Spiders eat insects. It’s a big difference.”

Not to Sal. “I don’t like spiders,” he stated flatly as he and Kimberly exited the office, then journeyed down the basement corridor, awash in buzzing fluorescent lights.

“Look on the bright side: At least they’re smaller than rattlesnakes.”

“Rattlesnakes? What were you doing with rattlesnakes?”

“Playing hopscotch,” she informed him. “Trust me, it didn’t work.”

They made it to the end, climbing up the stairs, then finally pushing through the glass door into the blinding sunlight. Harold, Quincy, and Rainie were waiting patiently in the parking lot, Harold’s lanky frame folded cross-legged on the hood of Kimberly’s car, Quincy and Rainie standing beside him.

“Good news?” Harold spoke up hopefully.

Kimberly shrugged. “The casting belongs to a brown recluse, which around here isn’t much different than finding a ladybug. Whoop-de-doo.”

Her father arched a brow.

“It’s a technical term,” she assured him.

“What are you going to do?” he asked quietly.

Kimberly looked at Sal. “Still no sign of Ginny Jones?” she asked.

He checked his cell phone for messages. “Nope.”

Kimberly had gone straight to Ginny’s address after receiving Sal’s call. She concurred with his initial assessment: no evidence of breaking and entering, no sign of a violent struggle. The tiny apartment appeared to have been quickly and crudely packed up, dusty imprints indicating where precious items once had been, everything else left behind.

In the bedroom, half under the bed, Kimberly had found a copy of Good Housekeeping’s Guide to Pregnancy. One more little detail to torture her late at night.

A BOLO had been issued for Ginny and her vehicle, while pictures of her and Dinchara were being circulated among the uniformed officers. Eight hours later and still counting, it was a waiting game.

“And still no task force,” Kimberly supplied with a sigh, before adding drily, “Though my supe is encouraging us to cooperate with Alpharetta on the matter of Tommy Mark Evans’s murder.”

“Have you spoken to the lead investigator?” Quincy spoke up.

“Not yet. Been kind of busy, in case you haven’t noticed.”

“It would be interesting to know if they recovered any shoe impressions from the crime scene,” Quincy commented.

“Oh, to be so lucky,” she agreed.

“And in the meanwhile?” her father prodded.

Kimberly shrugged, regarding Sal again with his rumpled suit and sallow, sleep-deprived features. If he found this killer, would that allow him to finally forgive himself for standing by helplessly while his father beat his mother? And if she helped him, would that make it easier for her to visit Arlington and place flowers on her mother’s and sister’s graves?

They were both chasing the impossible. And even knowing it, they couldn’t stop.

“We have another lead,” she said.

“What?”

“The gold on Dinchara’s boot. According to Harold, it probably came from the Dahlonega area. We could take a little field trip, circulate our composite sketch of Mr. Dinchara. If he’s an avid hiker who spends a lot of time in that area, maybe someone will recognize him.”

Sal brightened immediately. “Let’s do it!”

And her father said, without missing a beat, “Naturally, we’ll join you.”

TWENTY-NINE

“Indoors, these spiders are commonly found in houses and associated outbuildings, boiler houses, schools, churches, stores, hotels and other such buildings.”

FROM Biology of the Brown Recluse Spider

BY JULIA MAXINE HITE, WILLIAM J. GLADNEY, J. L. LANCASTER, JR., AND W. H. WHITCOMB, DEPARTMENT OF ENTOMOLOGY, DIVISION OF AGRICULTURE, UNIVERSITY OF ARKANSAS, FAYETTEVILLE, MAY 1966

DAHLONEGA FELL UNDER THE JURISDICTION OF THE Lumpkin County Sheriff ’s Department. Unfortunately, the sheriff was out for a week on a D.A.R.E. training seminar. Instead, Sal managed to line up a four o’clock appointment with Sheriff Boyd Duffy of neighboring Union County.

Harold had to bow out. He already had an afternoon meeting with a couple of bankers helping him trace terrorist money online. His parting advice: “Visit the U.S. Forestry Service fish hatcheries by Suches. Those guys know everything.

That left Sal, Kimberly, Quincy, and Rainie. With Dahlonega an hour’s ride north on the GA 400, they decided to shoot straight up and back. It would mean a late night, but they’d all worked later.

They formed a small caravan: Sal and Kimberly in the lead car, Rainie and Quincy bringing up the rear. Sal’s mood hadn’t improved since their meeting with the arachnologist. He drove with his swarthy face set in a perpetual scowl, preoccupied with thoughts he apparently didn’t feel like sharing.

Kimberly worked her cell phone. She called Mac first, but he didn’t answer. She left him a message, hoping she didn’t sound as defiant as she felt. She debated touching base with her supe, but decided less was more. No one really cared what she did for one afternoon, as long as she got the paperwork processed and kept her assigned cases moving ahead.

Which she would do. Later tonight. First thing in the morning. Absolutely.

Next, she tried the lead investigator for Alpharetta, Marilyn Watson. Watson picked up, just in time for Kimberly to lose the signal. She tried again, with mixed results.

“No latent prints…air…ber. Projectile…impressions.” Watson reported when Kimberly asked what evidence had been recovered at the Tommy Mark Evans homicide.

“Wait, you got a shoe print?”

“Tire tread…sions.”

“You got tire tread impressions? Do you know what kind of vehicle?”

More static. Fuzz. Then dead silence.

Kimberly glanced at her cell phone. Signal strength had dropped. Sure enough, she heard three beeps, then the call was gone.

She scowled while eyeing the digital display, waiting for signal strength. No such luck.

“She said they got tire tread impressions,” Kimberly reported at last. “Still not sure about shoe print or not, and it sounded like they did recover a projectile. Or maybe not. It was that kind of conversation.”

“What kind of vehicle?”

“Didn’t get that far. But assuming they cast the impression, we should be able to examine it ourselves. If I ever get a signal back, I’ll see if she can e-mail the digital photos. I have some contacts that should be able to tell us fairly quickly if the tire is feasible for a Toyota FourRunner.”

Sal finally looked at her. His eyes were dark, brooding. They called to her in a way even she understood wasn’t healthy.

“You ever do anything other than work?” he asked.

“Never.”

He grunted, eyes returning to the road. “Me, neither.”

She smiled, but it was sadder than she intended.

She gazed out the window, watching the concrete jungle of greater Atlanta give way to flat brown fields. They came to a light, headed north onto Highway 60 and began to climb. The countryside gave way to startling ravines and towering hillsides, all choked with thick green kudzu vines. They passed luxury condos, a pristine golf course, exotic water features.

Kimberly started to connect some dots. If the past thirty minutes had involved hardscrabble chicken farms and trailer parks, then this section of northern Georgia was about money. Lots of it. Harold had been right-there was gold in them thar hills.

“We’re supposed to meet Sheriff Duffy at the Olde Town Grill in the center of Dahlonega,” Sal spoke up.

“You got an address?”

“You’ve never been to Dahlonega, have you?”

She shook her head.

“Trust me, no address is required.”

She figured out what he meant fifteen minutes later, when they blew by a McDonald’s, passed through an intersection, and entered a picture-perfect postcard of nineteenth-century American architecture. Bare broadleaf trees soaring in the middle of a charming public square, dominated by a two-hundred-year-old brick courthouse, now serving as the Dahlonega Gold Museum. Quaint storefronts bore signs declaring general store, gift shop, antiques, homemade fudge. Tourists meandered down quaint red-bricked sidewalks.

“I think we just entered a time warp,” Kimberly said.

“Something like that.” Sal looped around the town square, giving her the nickel tour. The flower beds were decorated with winter greens and interspersed with items such as a stagecoach wheel, or horse drinking trough, or bleached steer’s skull. It was like visiting a movie set of the Old West, except she was still in Georgia, the state she knew best for its stifling hot summers and fresh peaches.

“In late September, early October,” Sal was explaining, “this place is lousy with leaf peepers. Can’t get a parking space to save your life. You and your husband should check it out sometime. I mean, if you’re into that sort of thing.”

Sal’s voice had taken on an edge. It was enough to make her say, “Absolutely. Romantic getaway, cute bed-and-breakfast, tour of the wineries. Mac would love it.”

Sal didn’t speak again, which was just as well.

He found parking in front of a giant wooden stamp wheel that, according to the plaque, had once been used to help extract gold ore. They waited for Rainie and Quincy to park, then followed the tiny arrow to the Olde Town Grill.

Sheriff Boyd Duffy was already there, occupying half of a corner booth. He was a big bear of a man with piercing black eyes and salt-and-pepper hair. Kimberly was guessing former football player, avid hunter. Probably scared the shit out of the local kids. Good for him.

He was also black, which made him a bit of an anomaly for this part of Georgia.

Upon spotting them, he called out in a booming voice, “Special Agent Martignetti!” He heaved his large body from the booth with surprising agility. “And Special Agent Quincy, I presume.” He took her hand, shaking it without crushing it, further moving him up in her esteem. “Please, call me Duff. Like the beer from The Simpsons cartoon. Yeah, it’s a long story. Welcome, welcome. Northern Georgia’s a fair sight prettier than that smoggy ol’ city. You’re in for a treat.”

More handshakes for Rainie and Quincy, then he gestured to a larger table where they could all have a seat. Another wave of his giant arm, and a blonde with bouffant hair appeared, bearing menus and mason jars of sweetened tea. “Food here is excellent,” Duff extolled. “Fried chicken will blow your mind. Then there are the homemade cinnamon rolls and the biscuits and gravy. I recommend one of everything, but then, for a fella like me, that’s ’bout what it takes.”

Kimberly couldn’t pass up a cinnamon roll. Neither could Rainie. Quincy, predictably, ordered black coffee. Sal, at least, made the sheriff proud by going with the fried chicken. A little more small talk, and they got down to business.

“So now four busy folks like you didn’t head all the way up to the Blue Ridge Mountains just to take in our sights. What can I do for you?”

Sal took the lead: “We’re pursuing a person of interest in the disappearance of approximately ten prostitutes. We have reason to believe that the subject, an avid outdoorsman, might be familiar with this area, so we came to take a look.”

Duff raised a brow. He was no dumb bunny. “In other words, you think he dumped the bodies somewhere in these hills.”

“It’s a possibility.”

The big man sighed, folded his hands on the table. “All right. So who’s your person of interest?”

“We don’t have a name yet, just a picture.” Sal opened up his dark green binder, took out a copy of the composite sketch prepared by Special Agent Sparks and Ginny Jones, and handed it over to the sheriff. “I have extras if you need them,” he offered. “We’d like to get this circulating to as many law enforcement agents as possible.”

“Hold on, hold on. One thing at a time.” The sheriff was fumbling around with his breast pocket. He finally extracted a pair of black-framed reading glasses and perched them on the edge of his nose. He regarded the sketch, grunting softly to himself.

The waitress arrived bearing platters of food. Duff raised his arms, still holding the sketch, and the waitress slid a platter of turkey and gravy in front of him.

“Got any pictures of him without that cap?” the sheriff wanted to know.

Sal shook his head.

Duff regarded the sketch a moment longer, then set it aside, picked up his knife and fork, and cut neatly into his meal.

“Well,” he said brusquely. “First things first. I don’t recognize the fella; then again, you white guys all look alike to me.”

Sal appeared startled. Duff shot him a grin. “That was a joke, son. When you’re peeling a sixteen-year-old you’ve known all of his life off the pavement after he decided to go Evel Knievel with his new motorcycle, you gotta learn to laugh a little. You big-city boys investigate strangers. I handle my own neighbors, day in and day out. If your subject, as you called him, lived around here, I’d probably know him, even with that stupid cap.”

“So he’s not local.”

“Probably not full time,” Duff said. “Then again, we got tens of thousands of tourists each year, not to mention the summer people, the day hikers, the weekend hunters. Mountains are a four-season resort and we got the traffic to prove it. Now, you tell me a few things, and we’ll see if we can’t whittle this down. Where were these prostitutes last seen alive?”

“Mostly around the greater Atlanta area. Sandy Springs in particular. The club scene, not streetwalkers.”

“So your subject is working the metro-Atlanta area. Why’d you come here?”

“According to one witness, he’s an outdoorsman. We also recovered a hiking boot from the subject’s vehicle that contained plant material consistent with the Chattahoochee National Forest-”

“Couple of acres,” Duff interrupted.

“The sole of the boot contained traces of gold. That got us thinking Dahlonega.”

Duff nodded his head, chewing thoughtfully. “Been to the gold museum yet?”

“No, sir.”

“Should. It was on those front steps that Dr. Stephenson, assayer at the mint, tried to stop all the Georgia miners from bolting to California for the 1849 gold rush by saying, ‘Thar’s gold in them thar hills,’ pointing of course to the Blue Ridge Mountains. See, even back then folks were being encouraged to work and buy local.”

No one had any comment on that, so Duff returned to the matter at hand:

“Well, let’s start with your subject. Let’s assume for a moment that he is a hiker or hunter or whatnot, and like most of ’em in the state, he spends his weekends up here. Guy like that needs to eat, sleep, buy supplies. Looking at Lumpkin County, biggest town is Dahlonega. And around here, people are gonna eat at the Olde Town Grill, the Smith House, Wylie’s Restaurant, couple of other places. For lodging you got the major chains-Days Inn, Econo Lodge, Holiday Inn, Super Eight. Also, the Smith House again, which is right around the corner. It’s got good food, reasonably priced rooms, and better yet for your purposes, a gold mine on the premises. You can wave your picture in front of the staff there, see if they can tell you anything.

“For supplies, there’s the general store, but that’s really for tourists. Most folks go to Wal-Mart. Given the crowds they see, not sure if the cashiers will be able to help you. If this guy is as serious a woodsman as you think, I’d head fifteen miles north of here to Suches, which is my neck of the woods.”

“Suches?” Kimberly interrupted.

“Valley Above the Clouds,” Duff assured her. “You haven’t seen pretty till you’ve been to Suches. Now, Suches is blink-and-you’ll-miss-it tiny. But given its access to the Appalachian Trail, couple of camping grounds, and the lake, it sees some traffic. You’re talking hikers, hunters, campers, four-wheelers, fishermen, bikers-”

“Bikers?” Rainie asked. “You mean like cyclists?”

“Motorcyclists. They cover the road like tar every summer. Now, if your guy is a hiker, chances are he’s stayed in Suches. Meaning he’s eaten at either T.W.O. or Lenny’s, and he’s purchased supplies at Dale’s. I’d start by taking your sketch to those three places. Face it, town that small, there’s no place to hide.”

Sal was taking copious notes. Now he looked up. “But by your own admission, Dahlonega and Suches are very busy places-”

“Sixty thousand tourists each year.”

Sal nodded grimly. “Well, see now, that’s a problem. Whole point is that this guy has been dumping bodies for over a year without anyone noticing. Given all the hikers, hunters, fishermen, motorcyclists, how would such a thing be possible? Forget the gold. There are tourists in them thar hills, and they photograph everything.”

Duff flashed a smile. He finished up his turkey, going to work on the mountain of mashed potatoes, before speaking again. “If your guy is dumping bodies, it’s not off a major hiking trail-you’re right, no way someone wouldn’t have run into him by now.” He held up a hand, starting to count off fingers. “That rules out Woody Gap, Springer Gap, the AT, the Benton MacKaye Trail, Slaughter Gap Trail-”

“Slaughter Gap Trail?” Rainie spoke up.

“Provides access to Blood Mountain-”

“Blood Mountain?” Rainie looked at Kimberly and Sal. “Personally, if I were looking for bodies, I’d start with Slaughter Gap Trail and Blood Mountain. But that’s just me.”

Duff grinned again. “As I was saying, Slaughter Gap Trail and Blood Mountain are pretty popular these days, making them not the best choice”-he gave Rainie an apologetic smile-“for hiding bodies. However, then we have the U.S. Forestry Service roads, many of them hard to find, easy to get lost, and almost always remote, crisscrossing all over the damn place.”

“The fish hatchery!” Kimberly remembered.

Duff nodded approvingly. “That’s right. We got the fish hatchery located off of USFS Sixty-nine. Then there’s USFS Forty-two, also known as Cooper Gap Road. But see, by USFS standards those two roads are like superhighways. It’s the dozens of other muddy, unmarked, nearly impassible roads that make life interesting. They’re used just enough that if a four-wheel-drive vehicle was spotted parked overnight, no one would question it. And yet, the roads and trails are also remote enough, you can go for miles without ever seeing another soul. For your guy, they’d be perfect.”

“How many of these roads are we talking?” Sal asked.

Duff shrugged. “Hell if I know. I’ve lived in these mountains my entire life and I doubt even I know all of ’em. What you need is a decent USFS map. And probably a USGS map, as well, because those government types don’t always talk.”

“That would be the other option,” Kimberly said immediately. “The U.S. Forestry Service and Geological Survey teams. You’re right, they’re the ones traipsing all over these mountains, collecting samples, building databases. I worked with a team out of Virginia once. They spend more time in the backwoods than any hiker out there. If we could get them our composite sketch, plus a description of the suspect’s vehicle, they might know something.”

“I got some friends there I can call,” Duff offered. “They are the eyes and ears of the mountains, so to speak.”

“So,” Sal murmured between pursed lips. “We can distribute our flyer to some of the local establishments, see if we get any hits. Then strike up a dialogue with the USFS and USGS folks.”

“You know, between Sheriff Wyatt and myself, we got quite a crew. Most of our deputies would be happy to assist with something other than the normal naughty tourist or punch-drunk high schooler. Wyatt’ll be back by the end of the week. I’ll debrief him, then we’ll both take a crack at it.”

“I don’t want the subject spooked,” Sal stated. “Priority at this point is to find the girls and/or their remains. Then we go after Dinchara.”

“Dinachara?” Duff frowned. “Thought you said you didn’t have a name.”

“It’s an alias. An anagram for arachnid.”

“Say what?”

“You know, arachnid, as in spiders.”

“I know arachnid, son. I’m just not sure what a grown man is doing naming himself after a bug.”

“Catching prey,” Kimberly said quietly. “Except for one. Sal, tell him about Ginny Jones.”

It was after six by the time they left Duff. Most of the stores were closed, but they managed to find Wylie’s Restaurant and show off the sketch. No one recognized the drawing, but the manager promised to keep her eye out. Sal handed her his card, then they were on their way.

Next up was the Smith House, once a grand private residence, now a recently renovated hotel, country store, and restaurant. The lobby smelled like buttermilk biscuits and candied yams. That was enough for Kimberly.

“Dinnertime!” she declared.

Rainie and Quincy were game. Sal, who’d already dined on fried chicken, merely shrugged. “I can always eat.”

Food was served family style. They paid a flat fee to the girl working the cash register in the lobby. She gave them tickets to take downstairs to the dining hall, where they would be served all the fried chicken, baked ham, roast beef, dumplings, okra, steamed vegetables, and homemade rolls they could stand. No alcohol, but unlimited iced tea and lemonade.

At the bottom of the stairs, they discovered the entranceway to a twenty-foot mining shaft. All Kimberly could see was a deep black hole, barricaded with Plexiglas. Didn’t seem that exciting, but Quincy and Rainie lingered long enough to watch the video documenting its discovery.

A red-cheeked waitress found Kimberly and Sal two seats next to a family of six. They met Grandma and Grandpa, Mom and Dad, and four-year-old twin boys. The twins ran laps around the table, while the very tired mother shot Kimberly a wan smile and said, “Hope you don’t mind.”

“Not a problem,” Kimberly assured, and then patted her own stomach.

The woman’s eyes widened. “Oh, is it your first?”

“Yep.”

“You and your husband must be very excited.” She shot Sal a smile.

He froze with his hand on the bowl of peas. “What?”

“I’m very happy,” Kimberly told the woman. “At least at the moment.”

The woman laughed. “Yes, ma’am, that’s the way it is. Is it a girl or boy? Do you know?”

“No, we want to be surprised.”

“So did we,” the woman said. “And boy, were we. If I could offer one bit of advice?”

“Yes?”

“Don’t have twins.”

Rainie and Quincy arrived and made their introductions. Rainie dug into the fried okra with gusto. Quincy picked his way delicately through the steamed vegetables and baked ham.

The smell of meat didn’t bother Kimberly as much as it had yesterday. Another phase ending? A new phase beginning? Life, even prenatal life, didn’t stand still. She nibbled on some ham, okra, catfish. She started to feel that warm, contented glow that came from a good meal, a productive day, the companionship of family and friends.

She’d forgotten about the sketch until the waitress returned with refills of iced tea.

“Oh, is he a friend of yours as well?” the waitress asked, gesturing at Kimberly’s open bag.

“Who?”

“The man in that picture. We used to see him in here all the time. With his boy, of course. Those teenagers, my Lord, they can eat.”

Sal stopped chewing. He held a drumstick suspended between his greasy hands, staring at the sketch, the woman, the sketch again.

Kimberly recovered first. “You know him?”

“I recognize him. In the fall he came in quite often. About yay-high, right? Not real big, but strong looking. Has some muscle to him. And always wearing that cap, even when at the table.” The waitress shook her head. “I tell you, in my day, my grandmother would’ve tanned my hide for less.”

“His name?”

“Oh um…” She bit her lower lip, cradling the pitcher of iced tea on her hip, thinking. “Bobby? Bob? Rob? Ron? Richard? You know, I can’t remember now. I’m not sure he said.”

“What about the boy?” Kimberly pressed.

“Skinny white thing. Sixteen, seventeen years old. All arms and legs, but no meat on his bones. You know how teenage boys look-like they’ve never been fed. He’s a quiet one. Sat, ate, barely said a word.”

“And the boy’s name?”

Again the waitress shook her head. “You know, some folks come here because they’re feeling social, they like to introduce themselves and strike up a friendly conversation. Others…hey, they just come for the okra. Who are we to judge?”

“Do you remember how the man paid?” Rainie spoke up, following the conversation intently.

“Sorry, ma’am, that would’ve been taken care of upstairs.”

“But if he paid with a credit card…” Kimberly murmured, following Rainie’s train of thought.

“We need to speak to the manager,” Sal announced.

The other family was aflutter now. “Is everything all right? Who is this fellow? Anything we should know?”

All eyes were on Sal. Even the twins had stopped running. “Routine investigation,” he assured them brusquely, then he had his arm on Kimberly’s shoulder, pulling her up.

She didn’t need any encouragement. They made a beeline for the manager’s office.

Turned out going through all the credit card receipts would take some time. They needed to provide more specifics. Date, time, amount? The waitress was summoned to see if she could recall an exact date. She thought the man and his son had come in half a dozen times between September and November. With a bit of prodding, she narrowed one of the visits to sometime over the Columbus Day weekend. The amount would be for two people, late in the evening, the waitress believed. She had been surprised the boy was allowed out at that hour.

Credit card receipts were not computerized. Instead, the manager pulled open a file drawer, organized by month. Turned out the Smith House was a popular choice for lodging and meals. Particularly Columbus Day weekend.

Kimberly returned to the dining hall to find her father and Rainie and deliver the happy news.

“Manager needs some time to sort the records, so guess what, folks? We’re spending the night!”

THIRTY

BURGERMAN MADE HIS MOVE.

I woke up last night to the sound of muffled screams. It went on all night. Burgerman always rode his new toys long and hard, until they broke. Just like me.

In the morning, I knew the drill. Got up, went into the kitchen, ate breakfast. Pretended it was the most natural thing in the world to see a naked seven-year-old boy sitting at the beat-up table, stupefied, in front of an overflowing bowl of cereal. Boy didn’t say anything. Just stared at his Froot Loops as they slowly turned dark red, green, and blue.

I didn’t make eye contact. Didn’t want the boy to think I had anything to do with anything.

Burgerman was still in the bedroom. Probably recovering from the night’s exertions. I noticed the phone had disappeared and the door had gained a new bolt lock up high, beyond the new toy’s reach. My pulse quickened slightly. I wondered if the Burgerman remembered the phone in my room. I wondered if he had snuck in in the middle of the night and stolen it.

I did my best to nonchalantly stroll back to my bedroom. Phone was still there. I decided not to take any chances, and I removed it myself, hiding it up in my closet. Like hell I was losing privileges just because Burgerman couldn’t control his appetites.

Back in the kitchen, I poured another bowl of cereal and sat munching in the silence. My presence must have galvanized the boy, because he slowly picked up his spoon and slurped up some soggy cereal. I wondered if he would keep it down. Some did. Some didn’t.

He’d be gone in a day or two, once the Burgerman had had his fill. Did he kill them, turn ’em loose? I didn’t know. I didn’t care. I couldn’t remember anymore what year I had been born, my exact birth date. But I must have been a teenager, because the only emotion I could muster anymore was contempt. For Burgerman, the kid, myself.

And then, for no good reason, I thought of the very first boy. All those years ago. The one I’d thought I could help. I wondered if they ever found his body, or if he remained, rotting alone under the azalea bush.

The thought made me angry. I grabbed my cereal bowl, slammed it into the sink. The sound made the new toy flinch.

Burgerman walked into the room.

He’d put on pants, but not a shirt. The years hadn’t been kind to him. His beard held more gray than black, his frame had grown slack from too much beer and greasy food, the skin hanging from his thin chest and scrawny arms. He looked exactly like he was, an aging, white-trash son of a bitch, one foot in the grave and still mean as a rattlesnake.

I hated him all over again.

He looked at me. Then put a hand on the new boy’s shoulder. At the first contact, the boy flinched, then froze, sitting motionless while tears welled up in his eyes.

Suddenly, the Burgerman beamed at me. “Son,” he announced triumphantly. “Meet Boy. He’s your new replacement.”

And I knew, in that moment, that the Burgerman must die.

I waited until the Burgerman retired to his bedroom, dragging Boy behind him. Then I disappeared into my own room, stocked such as it was with a dumpy twin mattress, milk crate clothing bins, and a tiny black-and-white TV I’d salvaged from the neighbor’s trash and repaired myself.

My room stank. The sheets, bedding, dirty clothes. Everything held the rank, sweaty odor of unwashed skin, too-long nights. The whole dingy apartment smelled this way. Milk soured in the fridge. Dirty dishes overflowed the sink. Cockroaches scuttled across the stove.

It pissed me off all over again. The rancid stench of my own life. The endless, gray nothingness that marked my existence. Because the Burgerman had chosen me and after that I’d never had a chance.

Now there wouldn’t even be graduation. Oh no, the Burgerman had a new plaything now. A toy he planned on keeping. Meaning my days were numbered.

And for no good reason, the sting of Burgerman’s rejection hurt me more than his affection ever had.

I was stupid. I was weak. I was nothing.

The Burgerman had killed me. I just didn’t know how to die.

The screaming again. The poor stupid boy shrieking as if that would make a difference.

I crawled into the middle of the bed, pulling the blankets over my head and covering my ears with my hands. I went to sleep.

When I woke up later, it was dark. I lay on my mattress for a long time, watching the way the streetlight filtered through my blinds, creating slashes of light against the far wall.

Then I got up, went to the closet, and fetched the telephone.

Back to my mattress, I lifted the corner and retrieved a phone book I’d smuggled inside the apartment when the Burgerman wasn’t looking.

When I finally found the number, my hands were shaking and my mouth had gone dry.

I didn’t let myself pause, didn’t let myself think too much.

Plug in the phone. Dial the digits.

At the first pickup, “Help me,” I whispered, “Please help me.”

Then I hung up the phone and cried.

THIRTY-ONE

“Spiders are experts in the art of poisoning. A spider releases venom through fangs that look like curved claws beneath its eyes.”

FROM Freaky Facts About Spiders,

BY CHRISTINE MORLEY, 2007

“WHAT HAPPENED TO YOUR PARENTS?” THE BOY asked. He sat on the front porch with her, drinking a glass of powdered lemonade. He’d been working most of the morning, since he’d appeared shortly after six a.m. She’d let him in without comment, feeding him breakfast, making light conversation.

He didn’t bring up their last encounter and neither did she. She’d done the same thing with Mel when the older man had rung her doorbell yesterday afternoon, bearing a box filled with fresh-ground sausage, eggs, and orange juice. He’d handed it over without a word. She had accepted it with a single nod of acknowledgment. Then he’d gone his way and she’d gone hers.

Sometimes, things were easier that way.

She noticed the boy moved stiffly as he’d helped her roll up rugs and drag them outside for a good beating. His ribs seemed to bother him, and from time to time, she caught him rubbing his backside. She didn’t ask, he didn’t tell. They had a theme to their gray, chilly day. And now this.

“My parents died,” Rita said presently. “Long time ago.”

“How’d they die?”

She shrugged. “Old age. Everyone dies in the end.”

“You’re old,” the boy said.

She cackled. “Think I’m gonna keel over, child? Leave you without a breakfast companion? Don’t worry. World’s not done with me yet.”

The boy was regarding her seriously, however.

“I had parents,” he said abruptly.

She stopped laughing, smoothing out Joseph’s old green plaid flannel shirt, the hem of which fell nearly to her knees. “I see.”

“They died, too.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“I don’t know how,” he continued relentlessly, his voice growing thicker. “I had them, then one day they were gone. Just like that. My sister, too. She was little. Always gettin’ into my stuff, wantin’ to play with me. I’d be mean to her. Tell her we were playing hide-and-seek, but once she hid, I wouldn’t look for her. I’d go play all by myself. Then she’d cry and I’d call her a baby and my mom’d get mad at me.”

“I had an older brother like that myself.”

“He was naughty? Then the family sent him away to live with the other naughty boys?”

“We all loved him.” She said it matter-of-factly. “Then he went off and got himself killed in the war. Brothers and sisters fight, child. But they still love.”

“I once gave my little sister a teddy bear I got for my birthday,” the boy whispered. “I knew it would make her happy.”

“Did it?”

“I think so. Sometimes…sometimes, it’s hard to remember. I try to picture them, but it gets jumbled in my mind. Like my favorite flavor of ice cream. I think it’s chocolate, but it’s been so long…Maybe it’s vanilla. Or strawberry. Can someone take your favorite flavor from you? I get confused…”

“What happened to your sister, child?”

He shrugged. “She’s dead, I guess. They’re all dead. That’s what he says.”

They were on treacherous ground now. Rita could feel it, even if she didn’t understand it. When she’d first met the boy, she’d assumed he came from an “unfortunate” home situation. Those were the words the social workers always used in her day. This child comes from an unfortunate home situation.

Lately, however, Rita had begun to wonder. She tried to pick her next words with care.

“When your parents were alive, child, did you live around here?”

He frowned at her. “Where is here?”

“Dahlonega. The Blue Ridge Mountains of Georgia. Is this where you were born?”

He was quiet for so long, she wasn’t sure he was going to answer. But then, slowly, he shook his head. “Macon. Macon Bacon, that’s what my father always said, when we were driving up the highway. ‘Macon Bacon, Georgia, where it’s all about the chickens!’ And he’d laugh. He liked bacon, too. And scrambled eggs in the morning. Do you think that’s what killed him? Eating eggs and bacon?”

The boy’s eyes were guileless. The expression made him appear smaller, more vulnerable. Rita wondered again if she was doing the right thing. Then she spotted her brother Joseph, racing along the front yard, leaping up to snag the lowest branch of the old oak tree, swinging himself up just as he used to do when they were kids.

Joseph spent the afterlife forever young. She wondered if that was because he died young, or if it was a choice each spirit was allowed to make. She was tired, she thought. Tired of the ache in her joints, the way the chill of a winter morning bit so deep into her wrinkled flesh. Not much time left, she figured. All the more reason to spend it wisely.

“When your parents died,” she asked, “did you have any other family?”

The boy studied her curiously, seeming almost perplexed.

“Did a social worker visit you?” Rita forged ahead. “Explain to you about foster parents and your new home?”

“What are foster parents?” the boy asked.

Rita stilled in the rocker, then forced herself to move again. Her mind was racing. If the boy wasn’t living with his parents, other relatives, or foster parents…She wished that she got out more, knew her neighbors. She’d dearly like to ask someone what they knew about the house on the hill, the man who lived there, when they had first started noticing the boy. Because they were beyond an unfortunate home situation now, she was certain of it. She was journeying instead into something darker, more sinister.

“Who lives with you, child?” she asked quietly.

The boy shook his head.

“It’s okay to tell me. I’m an old lady, you know. We’re the best at keeping secrets.”

The boy wouldn’t look at her. His gaze fell to the floor. “I don’t think I should be talking anymore,” he whispered.

“Tell me your name, child.”

The boy shook his head.

“How about your birthday?”

“I don’t have one. There’s only homecoming day, the day you belong to him.”

“Are there others?” she insisted. “Children, adults, pets? Tell me about them. I won’t judge.”

The boy studied his empty lemonade glass, then the shape of the porch banisters. Rita rocked back and forth in her chair, watching the dark clouds pile up on the horizon, feeling the electric pulse of the impending storm. She wanted to push harder, but she didn’t. Children talked when they felt like talking. You had to have the patience to let them come to you.

“He’s going to kill you,” the boy said.

She waved her hand. “Nonsense. I’ll die when I’m good and ready to, and not a minute sooner.”

“You don’t know what he’s like. He gets what he wants. He always gets what he wants.”

The first gust of wind hit, laced with rain, tasting like distant pines. Rita heard the boom of thunder, followed shortly by the crack of lightning. The storm would be a good one. The kind to rattle a house down to its very foundation.

The boy stood. “I gotta go-”

“Nonsense. You’ll stay the night.”

“The rain is coming,” the boy insisted. “I gotta get back.”

“You’ll stay the night.”

“Rita-”

“Sit down!”

The boy paled at her firm tone. He sank down into his chair, wary now, skittish.

“If you will not talk to me,” Rita said curtly, rocking furiously in her little wooden chair, “that is your business. But you’ll not be returning to the house on the hill. I couldn’t in good conscience send you back, and that is my business.”

“He’ll be angry. You don’t want him angry.”

“Pish posh. At my age, what’s some man gonna do that isn’t already about to happen? If he gets angry, he can visit me himself. Because I have a few things to say!”

She finished brashly, rising out of her rocker, stomping her foot. Neither she nor the boy were fooled, however. Rita didn’t know the man, but she already understood: If Scott’s “guardian” appeared on her front porch, it wouldn’t be to talk.

“Rita-”

“Shall I call the police, child?”

“No!”

The boy spoke instantly, in wild-eyed panic. Enough to let her know that the moment she picked up the phone, the child would bolt.

“Then it’s settled,” she declared. “You’ll stay. We’ll make stew. Have hot cups of cocoa. We’ll hunker down inside and watch the world go to holy hell. It’s the best way to spend a stormy night.”

The boy looked at her, his eyes wide, filled with something she hadn’t seen before. Fear, hope, longing. He opened his mouth. She thought he’d argue. Or maybe, leap from the porch and dash up the hill.

But then he closed his mouth. He squared his shoulders. Not happy, she noticed, not relieved, but a soldier resigned to war.

Rita guided the boy inside, shutting the old door behind them. He headed for the kitchen, while she paused in the foyer to work the locks. First fat drops of rain hit her driveway. She fastened the newly installed chain lock, pretending she didn’t notice the darkness gathering outside her window or the lights glowing in the old Victorian up the hill.

THIRTY-TWO

“During daylight hours, brown recluse spiders typically retreat to dark, secluded areas.”

FROM Brown Recluse Spider,

BY MICHAEL F. POTTER, URBAN ENTOMOLOGIST, UNIVERSITY OF KENTUCKY COLLEGE OF AGRICULTURE

KIMBERLY WOKE UP TO A STRING OF BAD NEWS. THE manager at the Smith House had come up with forty-five possible credit card receipts. A lightning storm was forecast by mid-afternoon. Her supervisor wanted to know why she hadn’t attended yesterday afternoon’s meeting for Violent Crimes.

And Mac hadn’t returned her call.

She took them in stride as best she could. All receipts would be photocopied for her and Sal to divide and conquer upon their return. Given the approaching storm, they would leave for Suches immediately. She put in a message with her supervisor that she was following up on a major lead.

And she put Mac out of her mind. At least, the best she could.

They all climbed into Sal’s car and headed for Suches.

Highway 60 took its own sweet time. It looped through an endless series of S-curves, climbing higher and higher. They passed a gold mine, a bunch of boiled-peanut stands, various log cabins for rent. To the right, the Blue Ridge Mountains soared up as a dense wall of green underbrush and gray boulders. To the left, a deceptively thin wall of towering trees gave way to sudden views of a plunging valley that spread beyond the line of sight.

The first heavy drops of rain splattered the windshield just as they burst from a dark tunnel of trees into a gently unfolding valley. The land went from thick underbrush to painstakingly cleared fields, framed with white painted fences and dotted with red farmhouses. If Dahlonega was tucked up in the mountains, then Suches was a remote northern outpost. Handful of farms. Requisite double-wides. Too many boarded-up buildings.

Kimberly tried not to blink so she wouldn’t miss it.

Too late.

“That says T.W.O.,” Rainie just got out, finger pointing, as Sal blew by on Highway 60.

“Wait, there’s Dale’s,” Kimberly echoed as Sal swung his head left and totally missed the convenience store on the right.

He scowled, tapped his brakes, fishtailed on the rain-slicked road, and finally did the sensible thing and slowed down. They came to a stone schoolhouse-Smallest public school in Georgia! Kimberly read on the sign-and Sal turned around.

They hit Dale’s first, pulling up outside the gas pumps, then making a dash for the glass doors through the pelting rain.

Inside, Kimberly registered three things at once: a blast of warmth, the smell of homemade chili, and an entire display of bright orange hunting gear. Dale’s, apparently, did carry a little of everything.

“Is that chili I smell?” Sal was already inquiring at the counter. “Well, as long as we’re here…”

The back part of Dale’s included a couple of tables. They had a seat and an older gentleman wandered over to assist. Not Dale, they learned, but Ron. Dale was out.

He didn’t explain, and judging by the reserved look on his face, Kimberly guessed Ron had already pegged them as outsiders and not in the need to know. He took their order, brought their food, then returned to meticulously wiping down tables.

Sal waited until halfway through his chili to get into it. Ron was cleaning the table beside them when Sal brought out the sketch and said, in the nonchalant voice favored by detectives and TV actors, “Say, do you happen to know this fellow here?”

Ron wasn’t fooled. He looked from the sketch to Sal and back to the sketch. Then he shrugged and returned to spritzing tables.

“He’s a person of interest,” Sal said with more emphasis.

Ron paused, thought about it, went back to wiping.

“You might have seen him with a teenage boy,” Kimberly spoke up. “Maybe they live around here.”

“Boys,” Ron corrected. “I’ve seen him with two boys. One older. One younger. They’re not much for talking.”

Sal set down his spoon. “Do you know their names?”

“No, sir.”

“Are they local?”

“Nah, not locals. But they come up a fair amount, ’specially last fall. Must’ve seen ’em half a dozen times. The man mostly. The boys waited in the truck. Except one time-the younger one had to use the john, so the older one brought him in. Looked like trouble to me, those three, but they just did their business and cleared on out. Who am I to judge?”

They’d all stopped eating and stared at Ron, who was still tending to his duties.

“Can you describe the older boy?” Kimberly pressed.

Ron shrugged. “Dunno. Teenage boy, seventeen, eighteen years old. White. Maybe five ten or so. Scrawny thing. Wore Army cargo pants about two sizes too big, the way boys do nowadays. Kept his hands in his pockets, walking all slouched over. Like I said, didn’t talk much. Just came in, delivered the younger boy, waited, then left.”

“And the younger boy?”

Another shrug. “Eight or nine. Shorter brown hair. He was bundled up with a heavy sweatshirt and orange hunting vest. On the small side would be my guess, but hard to tell with all those clothes on. The man had on a nice pair of hiking boots, but the kids were just wearing tennis shoes. I remember thinking at the time it’d be a miracle if they didn’t twist an ankle. But you know, good boots are expensive and with kids growing so fast…Dunno. Up here, some kids come walking in wearing more than I make in a week’s pay, all geared up for their annual hiking weekend. Takes all kinds, I guess.”

“What did the man say when he came in?” Sal spoke up urgently. “Did he buy anything?”

Ron stopped wiping long enough to search his memory. “Bottle of water. Candy bar. Oh, and some crickets. We have ’em for the fishermen and that got him all excited, so he bought a container. Don’t think he was fishing, though, he was dressed all wrong.”

“He ask about any particular hiking trails, mention where he’d been, anything like that?”

Ron shrugged again. “Not that I remember.”

“Did anyone else see him and the boys?”

“Oh, all sorts. Fall’s busy around here. Not like at the moment.” Now he sounded almost apologetic.

“How did he pay?” Rainie asked.

Ron pursed his lips. “I’d guess cash, only ’cause it wasn’t that big a purchase.”

“Did you happen to notice his vehicle?” Kimberly’s turn.

“No, ma’am. Little too busy in the fall for car shopping.”

“Did the man interact with the boys?” Quincy asked. “Say anything to them when they entered the store?”

“Mmmmm, not much. The boys came in.” Ron paused, seemed to be picking his way through his memory. “The older one looked at the man, said, ‘The kid’s gotta pee, whatta you want me to do about it?’ then led the kid to the john. Man didn’t say anything, just looked annoyed. He’d probably told the boys to stay in the car. You know how kids are.”

“He didn’t use a name?” Quincy pressed. “The older boy called the younger boy ‘kid’?”

“Yes, sir, that’s how I remember it.”

“Seems to imply they aren’t brothers,” Quincy murmured. “The teenager’s distancing himself from the younger one. Objectifying him. Interesting.”

“Do you remember which direction they were coming from when they turned in here?” Rainie asked. “From the north or south?”

“No, ma’am.”

“And was it a particular time of day? You saw them in the morning, afternoon…?”

“Afternoon, ma’am, but only because that’s my shift.”

Rainie nodded, pursed her lips. They all three looked at Sal again.

“Anyone else you can think of who might be able to shed more light on this man and the two boys?” Sal pressed. “It’s important that we learn his name. He’s wanted for questioning regarding a very serious matter.”

Ron, however, shook his head.

“Like I said, they’re not local. We just saw ’em a lot in the fall. Maybe as late as early December. Can’t really remember now, to tell you the truth. You might want to try out T.W.O. Even the tourists gotta eat and since he never bought much here…”

“Okay, we’ll do that.” Sal fished out a card, handed it over. “If you think of anything, or see him or the boys again, give me a call. And I’d appreciate it if you didn’t broadcast this conversation too widely. We want to find the man, not spook him.”

Ron had finally registered the state police shield on Sal’s card. His eyes widened a notch. He stuck the card in his front pocket, using two fingers to pat it into place.

“Is it drugs, sir? Used to be all you could get in these mountains was moonshine. Now everything’s meth, meth, meth. Ruining our county it is.”

“He’s trouble,” Sal said simply. “If you see him again, don’t say a word to him. Just get me on the phone and we’ll take care of the rest.”

They finished their lunch. Kimberly found a six-pack of pudding. Rainie armed herself with a Snickers. Quincy topped off his coffee. They hit the road.

The manager at T.W.O. didn’t recognize the drawing, or remember a man in a baseball cap with two boys. Two Wheels Only specialized in the biker set, which was not to say they didn’t have some other business, but it was smaller. He’d keep his eyes open.

The rain was coming down in sheets now. They splashed their way through the muddy parking lot before piling into Sal’s car. With the bustling metropolis of Suches exhausted, they had no choice but to turn back toward Dahlonega.

They drove in silence, windshield wipers on high, car buffeted by the wind.

Kimberly kept her eyes on the woods. At the towering trees, the nearly impenetrable underbrush. She wondered where Ginny Jones was right now, if the girl had holed up someplace safe and warm, where she could feel the new life growing inside her. Or if even now she was racing panicked down a back alley, danger looming behind her.

“Wait!” Kimberly cried.

Sal hit the brakes too hard. The car careened dangerously close to the center line.

“What the hell-” Sal started.

“Back up, back up. That was a logging road. Let’s take it.”

Sal had the car at a complete stop now. He looked at her as if she were nuts. “In case you haven’t noticed, it’s pouring out.”

“I know, I know. Just a quick detour. What else do we have going on?”

“Something better than getting stuck in the mud.”

“He drove these roads, Sal. If he drove these roads, we can damn well give them a try. Come on, we won’t go too far.”

“We’re in Suches,” Sal muttered. “Apparently, that’s far enough.”

He gave her another look, but when Rainie or Quincy didn’t raise any protest, he put the car in gear, backed up along the empty ribbon of road, and hung a sharp right.

The Forestry Service road started out paved, which surprised Kimberly. She had been expecting something more rustic. She was also caught off guard by the number of residential homes, perched on various hillsides, peering out from thick groves of mountain laurel. But a mile down, the pavement turned to gravel and the forest seemed to win the war against civilization. They looped around, slowly descending into a gully, the rain creating a thick, muddy stream that raced alongside them.

They came to a turnabout. Kimberly had Sal stop. And then, before he could react, she’d popped open her door and stepped into the deluge. She was vaguely aware of him protesting. Of other car doors opening. Of Rainie and Quincy joining her in the madness.

She didn’t look at them. Didn’t say a word. She didn’t need to. They lived in the same world she did, where monsters were real, and good people got hurt, and you could spend your days feeling overwhelmed, or you could do your best to do something about it. It seemed for as long as she could remember, she and her father had hunted the specter of death. It was probably some of the only moments either one of them truly felt alive.

And then she thought, vague again, in the back of her mind where it couldn’t hurt her as much, that Mac should be here. It had always been her, Mac, Rainie, and Quincy. She missed Mac.

“He’s wrong,” she whispered softly, looking around at the soaring bare-branched trees above, the dense grove of green underbrush below.

“Who?” Sal demanded. He stood in front of her, rain pouring down his nose, plastering his dark hair to his face. He looked intent, angry in a way that should have scared her, except she understood that kind of rage, how it felt when you were trying so hard, only to realize that your best wouldn’t get the job done.

“Ron. Dinchara and the boys are local. They have to be. Ron said it himself: They don’t buy much, so they must already be well supplied.”

“Kimberly, it’s wet, it’s cold, I’m soaked to the goddamn bone. Whatever voodoo you’re pretending to do, stop yanking my chain.”

“It’s a matter of logistics,” she stated firmly, studying the thin vein of gravel road, the tall, skeletal trees, the thick clumps of underbrush that surrounded them. The rain had molded her hair to her skull, was rapidly soaking her shirt. She didn’t care. The rain didn’t matter. The mud didn’t matter. It was all about the woods.

“Killing someone is easy,” she supplied. “Disposing of the body, however, is hard. Ninety-five percent of the time, that’s where killers mess up. Now, we’re chasing a guy who has done this not once, but possibly a dozen times. What does that mean? He’s very good at logistics.”

She had made it to the edge of the woods, where ferns grew high enough to brush her leg mid thigh. She ticked off on her finger: “One, where to dispose of the bodies?”

“The woods,” Sal filled in, less angry now, more curious.

“Okay, so two, how to transport the bodies?”

“His truck, SUV. Plenty of room in the back.”

“Until you get here,” Kimberly countered, gesturing to the green and brown mudbath around them. “Then what?”

Sal nodded, seeming to get into the spirit of things, even as his gray suit turned black and the rain ran in rivulets down his neck. “It’s late at night, or an early hour of the morning-a time where he can reduce the risk of being seen. He needs a remote area, so he picks a Forestry Service road, drives for a ways. Then he pulls over, gets the body out of the back of his vehicle…dumps it down a ravine?”

“Forestry Service ranger would spot it,” Quincy spoke up immediately. He stood off to the side, where he could hear everything while still having the space to formulate his own thoughts. He was good at this game; one of the best. “From the road, you would see trampled bushes, even broken branches. A ranger would get curious about deer, bear, bobcat, whatever, and investigate. One or two times, maybe the UNSUB could get away with it. But a dozen times later…Someone would spot the disturbance and find the body. Especially given the amount of traffic on the roads and in the woods during peak seasons.”

“So he carries it away from the road,” Sal stated.

“Body’s heavy,” Kimberly supplied. “A grown woman is a good hundred-plus pounds of deadweight. Even in a fireman’s hold, that’s tough.”

“He walks downhill?” Sal guessed.

Again Quincy shook his head. “Anything disposed of below can be seen from above, especially in the winter when the leaves are off the trees. This is a popular destination for hunting, hiking, camping, fishing. That’s lots of people trampling through these woods, even in supposedly remote locations. Safest choice is high ground. Above the trails, where others don’t tread.”

Sal looked at the three of them. “I don’t get it.”

“He has help,” Kimberly said softly. “The older boy would be my guess. Whether he’s involved in the killing or not, I’m not sure. We didn’t hear anyone else on the tape. But at the very least, the teenager helps dispose of the bodies. One man walking alone on the trails late at night is suspicious. A father and son on the other hand…”

“They’re out camping,” Sal filled in.

“Explains the large pack they’re carrying, or perhaps pulling on a trundle behind them.”

“Shit,” Sal said tiredly and put his hand over his eyes.

“It would take them hours,” Rainie spoke up, peering into the woods with a keen look on her face. “They’d need tools-rope, burlap, shovel, pick. Then food, water, first-aid kit, compass, the basics. Kimberly’s right; to do what they need to do, Dinchara’s well stocked. Meaning if he’s not buying locally, he has a place all set up.”

“The younger boy,” Kimberly murmured.

“Exactly,” Rainie said, following her train of thought. “The waitress at the Smith House hadn’t seen him, which implies he’s left behind. Maybe he’s too young yet, would slow them down. So they leave the younger boy someplace, then Dinchara and the older boy head off to complete their nightly chores.”

“He’s gotta have a home nearby. It’s the only thing that makes sense. Maybe the girls are even alive when they’re brought up here. Imagine one of those little cabins we drove by, all alone in the woods. Even if a girl screamed all night, or happened to get away, who would hear her, where would she go? A cabin solves so many problems.”

“We can check tax records,” Sal spoke up. “Anyone who purchased homes around Dahlonega or Suches in the past five years. Cross-reference those names with the receipts from the Smith House for Columbus Day weekend.”

“And chase employment,” Quincy prodded. “If they’re up here enough, Dinchara’s going to need money. At least in my day, fifty percent of a single prostitute’s earnings wasn’t that much. So he either has a string of girls you haven’t learned about yet, or another source of income. Given what we know about him, he would make an excellent wilderness guide or-”

They all got it at the same time, “Forestry Service employee!”

“Would give him all the knowledge and access he needs of the back roads of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Even a built-in excuse if he ever did get caught. Not to mention he’d know when others were due to conduct surveys in areas where he’d disposed of bodies, allowing him to either move the corpse or perhaps redirect the survey.”

“Ah crap, I am never going hiking again,” Sal said tiredly.

“We should visit the fish hatchery tomorrow,” Kimberly said.

“Yeah, got that.”

“Get some property records from the town, find out who we can meet from the Chattahoochee National Forest.”

“Yep, yep, yep.”

Rainie was still walking around the muddy turnoff point. “You know what I find surprising?” she asked now.

They all turned toward her.

“It’s February. The leaves are off the trees and you still can’t see more than three feet ahead. I mean, look at these mountain laurels-they’re the size of small homes. Then there’s the grasses, the downed logs, the copses of white pine. In any other woods, you’d be able to peer through the trees for twenty, thirty yards. But not here. Hell, I grew up in the woods and even I’m creeped out.”

“On that note,” Sal muttered, yanking at his rain-soaked collar, “can we please get back in the car?”

“Okay,” Kimberly agreed, “but next stop is Wal-Mart. In case you haven’t noticed, we’re all soaked to the bone. What are we supposed to wear tomorrow to the fish hatchery?”

“We’re spending another night?” Sal grumbled.

“You got anyplace better to be?”

They went to Wal-Mart.

THIRTY-THREE

“To compensate for their weaknesses, spiders have evolved an array of weapons, tactics, and freakish mutations that bring to mind a tiny band of supervillains.”

FROM “SPIDER WOMAN,”

BY BURKHARD BILGER, New Yorker,

MARCH 5, 2007

MAC CALLED HER SHORTLY AFTER DINNER. KIMBERLY had just returned to her room at the Smith House, thinking for once that elastic waistbands were the best invention of the modern world. She had devoured nearly an entire fried chicken, a pound of okra, and two servings of cheesecake and yet her pants felt expansive, even roomy, as Baby McCormack engaged in her nightly game of kick Mommy’s spleen.

Rainie and Quincy had already retired for the night, but Kimberly was keyed up, agitated in the way that came right before a case blew open and she could finally see the answer that had been waiting for her all along. Her hotel room was good-sized, tucked under the eaves of the old building to form a long L, perfect for restless pacing. She went from the king-size bed to the desk to the bed and back again, her hands rubbing the sides of her swollen belly, her thoughts churning over and over. If Sandy Springs was Dinchara’s hunting grounds, then Dahlonega was his lair. Any day now, they would search the right records, interview the right person, and the last piece of the puzzle would click into place. They would find Ginny Jones, the missing girls, Dinchara himself. They would-

Cell phone rang, displaying Mac’s number. Immediately, she stopped pacing, her stomach cramping nervously. That pissed her off enough to swipe up the phone and declare loudly, “Kimberly.”

Static, three clicks, an echoey buzz. “It’s…me.”

“Hi, honey,” she said with more force than was necessary.

“Where…are you?”

“Dahlonega still. Have a few last visits to make first thing in the morning.”

“…weather?”

“Raining cats and dogs. You?”

“…gotta go out…special assignment…back…tomorrow morning.”

“What’s that? Reception sucks. Can you try a different spot?”

She thought she heard crunching feet. More sounds in the background, like men shouting orders. Then she put it together. The late hours, his special assignment. Mac and the narcotics squad were about to deploy, most likely to raid a suspected drug house or meth lab. And he was calling now because that’s what spouses did right before donning their flak vests and heading out. They made that last call home, buttoning up their personal life. Just in case.

The baby fluttered against the palm of her hand, and Kimberly sat down on the edge of the bed.

“Where?” she whispered.

“Can’t…talk. Later…in the morning.”

“Is SWAT coming?”

“Full…deployment.”

“Mac…” She should say something. Anything. But for the life of her, she couldn’t figure out what. And all at once, she was aware of the distance that still loomed between them. The unanswered questions, the unbroken silences.

She wished she were home. It didn’t seem right to do this over the phone. They should be in their house, where she could hold him tight enough that he could feel the baby kick. Where he could whisper in her ear that he loved her and she could feel the tickle of his breath upon her skin as she spread her fingers over the beating of his heart. Life can change in an instant. A loved one could walk out the door and never come home again. She knew these things. She visited the tombstones twice a year to make sure she never forgot.

“Be careful,” she whispered.

“Al…ays.”

“You’ll call?”

“Try…to…home?”

“Tomorrow afternoon maybe. We need to visit the fish hatchery, trace some records.”

“…feeling?”

“Baby’s happy. I can feel her stronger now, moving around more. Oh, she’s a carnivore. I’m finally allowed to eat meat.”

His chuckle faded in and out over the spotty connection. It brought him closer to her, so that she could picture the crinkles that appeared at the corner of his eyes, the half curve of his smile.

“I love you,” she said.

“…love you, too.”

Then the phone beeped and the call was dropped. She didn’t try to reconnect. Mac needed to do what he needed to do. And she…

She sat alone in her hotel room, wondering why, if she loved her husband so much, he felt so far away. At what point did distance go from being a marital phase to a new state of the universe? And what was a stubborn, hardheaded person like herself supposed to do about it?

Baby McCormack quivered. Kimberly rubbed her belly, listening to the wind outside howl across the parking lot, rattle the windows.

She put on her coat and headed out.

She found Sal sitting on the covered porch, tucked away from the wind, watching the wind swirl sheets of rain around the streetlights. Kimberly took a seat without asking, telling herself she had not sought out Sal on purpose. That was not why she left her room. This was not what it was about.

For his part, Sal didn’t seem to be in the mood for talking. He simply watched the storm, his face set in the dark, brooding look she recognized from before. His thoughts had taken him to an unhappy place. She wondered how long he’d been there.

“You ate chicken,” he said presently. “Thought the baby didn’t like meat.”

Kimberly shrugged. “Baby changed her mind. More evidence it’s a female.”

He finally turned to look at her, his gaze dropping to her rounded belly.

“Are you nervous?”

“Yeah.”

“Gonna work after the baby’s born?”

“That’s the plan.”

He regarded her more curiously. “Do you think it will change you? I mean, first time you’re called out for a homicide involving children, or a child abduction case, or the sex slave rings, or arson, or any of the other shit out there in the world that touches young lives and breaks them. Won’t that be tough?”

“There, but for the grace of God, go I,” she murmured.

“Not good enough,” he said flatly. “You’re ERT, right? You get to recover the body. Then what, go home to little Janey and pretend you can wash the smell off your hands, let alone erase the image from your mind?”

“It’s what I do now.”

“No little Janey.”

“Theoretically, little Janey is a bundle of joy. Why should a good thing make the rest of the world harder to bear?”

He scowled at her, clearly not expecting that argument. After a moment, when he couldn’t come up with a retort, he went back to watching it storm. And after another moment, she reached over, picked up his hand, and placed it on her stomach just in time for Baby McCormack to give a little thump.

Sal jerked back his hand, sat up straight. “Holy crap!”

“Pretty strong, huh?” Kimberly said.

“What is she, Mia Hamm?”

“Maybe.” Kimberly shrugged. “Dunno. She can be anything she wants. I think that’s the point. You ever hear of the banality of evil, Sal?”

“Banality of evil?”

“Yeah. A psychologist did an experiment once. Took a group of clean-cut young men, all known for their high moral standards, and had them form a mock prison. Some became inmates, some became prison guards. They tried to make it as lifelike as possible, had the ‘guards’ arrest the ‘prisoners’ during class, that sort of thing. The experiment was supposed to last a few weeks. If memory serves, the professor had to pull the plug after just three days because the pseudo inmates started suffering nervous breakdowns due to the very real abuse they were experiencing at the hands of the pseudo guards, including being stripped, debased, and sexually abused. All this by young men who’d never done so much as shoplift. Basically, even good people do really bad things if they think no one cares. The banality of evil.”

Sal grunted. “You’re talking about the Nazis.”

“I’m talking about human nature. That everyone has inside him-or herself the capacity for evil. Some people will never act on it, others will definitely act on it, and still others will act on it only if the right circumstances present themselves. They’ll make it twenty, thirty, forty years being a fine, upstanding citizen. But then the forty-first year…”

“How is that an encouraging thought?”

She shrugged. “Who said I was being encouraging? It’s a fact of life. And just because I’m about to become a mother, doesn’t mean I’m suddenly going to stick my head in the sand. The world is a hard place. People suck. Monsters do live under the bed-or, frankly, in Daddy’s room down the hall. But you know what?”

“If I kill myself now, it won’t hurt as much later?”

“There’s a corollary to the banality of evil, and that’s the banality of heroism.”

Sal groaned. “Please tell me you’re not talking Superman.”

“Actually, I’m talking the opposite of Superman. I’m talking about the Everyday Average Joe that one day, when the right circumstances present themselves, suddenly saves the day. The stranger on the subway platform who jumps down to assist the fallen commuter. The woman shopping in the store who not only notices the sad little girl, but calls the police. For every act of cruelty, there is an equal and opposing act of courage. That’s human nature, too.”

“Your mother and sister are murdered,” Sal said softly, “so you save the rest of the world?”

“I don’t need you to tell me my story, Sal. I know who I am.”

Sal flushed. His gaze returned to the storm, but his hands were fidgeting on his lap.

“I’m not quitting, Mac. It’s not what I do.”

“You just called me Mac.”

“I did not-” But then she caught herself, realized she had, and it was her turn to flush. She didn’t know what she was doing anymore. She should return to her room. She should do something.

But she remained where she was, sitting next to Sal, watching his hands fidget, feeling the darkness wash off him in waves.

And it occurred to her for the first time-the banality of evil. Was that what she was doing here? Waiting for the right circumstances to present themselves so she could do what she knew she shouldn’t do? Touch Sal’s face? Turn him toward her? Find his lips with her own because something in him called out to something in her? The hurt, or maybe it was the rage. The need, the deep, endless need because something had gone wrong long ago and there was nothing that could be done about it now but nurse the wound.

She wanted him. Or at least was drawn to him. It startled her. Scared her. She thought of another psychology paper she had analyzed in college. That most people didn’t require the cruelty of strangers to screw up their lives; most people were perfectly capable of doing it themselves.

Sal had turned. He was studying her, his eyes unreadable in the dark. She could feel his hunger, taut, restrained.

And then the lightning cracked, illuminating the small alcove with a flashing wink before casting them back into shadow. She saw his face, stark with physical need. And she heard her husband’s voice, telling her he would be home in the morning. The thunder boomed. Sal leaned forward. She tilted her head up.

“I’m sorry,” Kimberly whispered.

She got up, clenched her hands into fists, and quickly walked away.

Her room was dark when she opened the door. She fumbled for the light switch, flipped it, but nothing happened. She entered, closing the door behind her, starting to tremble now with the aftermath of what she’d nearly done, feeling supremely rattled. She was not that kind of woman. She did not do those kinds of things.

Goddammit, when had she become such a basket case?

She made her way to the bed, reaching for the bedside lamp when she suddenly heard a warning hiss and realized she was no longer alone.

Something significant, black, skittered across her bed. She reached instinctively for her shoulder holster, then remembered that she’d disarmed for dinner. She grabbed the lamp, throwing it at the racing form as she fell back, hitting the wall. She slid along its length until she banged into the desk at the opposite end of the room. Her fingers found the desk light, scrambling for the switch, while across the room, she once again heard the primitive hiss.

She snapped on the lamp in time to register two things at once: The world’s largest, scariest damn spider was reared back on its hind legs on her bedside pillow, waving its fangs. And a teenage boy sat calmly beside it, holding a gun.

“Who the fuck are you?” Kimberly exploded. Belatedly, she glanced at her field kit where she’d stashed her Glock.40. Eight steps away max. But she’d lose another minute unzipping the bag, reaching in, retrieving her semiautomatic…

Her gaze ping-ponged to the door instead. Ten steps away max, but then twisting the knob, yanking it open, getting all the way clear…

She returned her attention to the boy. He sat calmly, gun level, hands steady, still not saying a word.

She tried an experimental step forward. Moment she moved, the oversize tarantula reared back and hissed again. She stopped; it dropped back on all eight legs, waiting.

“Who are you?” she tried again, eyes on the spider, but head angled toward the boy. “What do you want?”

“His name is Diablo,” the boy supplied conversationally. “He’s a Theraphosa blondi-a species of tarantula from South America. Most tarantulas don’t have enough venom to harm humans. Their bites feel like nothing more than a bee sting. Not Diablo. He’s capable of ripping off your fingers, tearing the flesh from your hands. He hasn’t had dinner yet, and as you can tell, he’s a little pissed off about it.”

Kimberly’s hands dropped in front of her rounded belly. Field kit, she thought again. Quick dash, unzip the bag, reach inside for her weapon…No dice. Kid could pull the trigger of his gun in a split second. And the spider…She didn’t want to think about it.

“You’re the caller,” she ventured. “The one who had me listen to Veronica Jones’s tape.”

“I tried,” the boy said flatly. “I gave you a chance. You failed.”

“I’m here now. We can talk.”

The boy merely waved his gun. “I didn’t come to talk, lady. I came to graduate.”

Kimberly contemplated the door this time. If she could just inch to the side, get close enough…

“Does Dinchara know you’ve escaped?”

“Escaped? Lady, who the hell do you think sent me?”

She faltered, tried again: “He knows we’re here?”

“Everyone knows. You and your friends paradin’ all over town, flashing pictures. It was always only a matter of time. But that’s all right. Your visit simplifies things. Now I don’t have to hunt. We can cut straight to the main event.”

“Is that what you want? I know what’s going on. What he makes you do. It doesn’t have to be like that.” She inched forward half a step. The boy and tarantula didn’t react. She went for another step. “Dinchara picks up the prostitutes, doesn’t he? He brings them home, does terrible things to them. And you hear it, don’t you? Maybe you’re even in the room. Forced to listen and watch, but there’s nothing you can do. Then it’s over and he makes you clean up the mess. Plastic, paper, does he put anything down or does he prefer to make you do all the work?”

The boy was staring at her with a fascinated look. She’d gotten it right, or at least close enough. She was talking to him about all the things he was never allowed to mention, and that had him hooked.

“He drains the blood,” the boy murmured. “In a tub. Less mess, less weight, makes it easier for later.”

“He wraps them up, or do you do that?”

“Both. Body’s hard to manage, it takes two.”

“What does he prefer? Old bed linens, garbage bags, burlap? Or has he experimented around with it? The choices are endless.”

“Nylon. From the Army surplus store. Cheap, efficient. He likes things like that.”

“You help him carry the bodies to the truck.” She made it another inch.

The boy shrugged. “You do what you need to do. That’s how the game works. You make him happy and then he doesn’t hurt you so much.”

“How long have you been with him?”

“Too long to do anything differently now.”

“Is he your father?”

“My parents are dead.”

“He’s your guardian?”

“He’s the Burgerman,” the boy said mournfully, spider sitting beside him. “Grinding the naughty boys into dust.”

“It’s not your fault,” Kimberly said. She’d made it a foot closer to her field kit, her fingers wiggling impatiently at her side. “You’re obviously assisting him only under duress. Work with me now and I can make this stop. I can help you.”

But the boy’s face abruptly shut down. His mood shifted and it wasn’t in her favor. “I am making this stop,” the boy stated, raising the gun. “He’s already found a replacement. Time for me to go.”

“The younger boy. Did he kidnap him, too?”

“Stay still. I know what you’re doing. Just stop it, all right. Don’t move!”

“What’s your name? Tell me your name. Let me help you.”

“You don’t get it. I don’t have a name. He took it. He takes everything!” The boy’s voice was rising now, getting agitated. She forced herself to still, remain calm. The spider was playing with the base of the fallen lamp, allowing her to home in on the twitchy teen.

“What about Ginny Jones?” she asked, taking a shot in the dark, because both the boy and Ginny knew Dinchara, so it was reasonable to assume they also knew each other.

The boy blinked, appearing uncertain for the first time. “What about Ginny?”

Kimberly drew a deep breath, took another gamble: “What about Ginny’s baby? Aren’t you the father? Don’t you want a life with her someday?”

“That’s what she says.”

“Have you heard from her? Is she okay-”

“She’s outside. Waiting in the car to drive me away.”

“What?”

The boy burst out in a rush: “She chose you, you know. Read you took on some other killer guy, thought you might be able to work some magic. I told her she was crazy. All these years later, like some chick with a badge is really gonna make a difference. Guess it doesn’t matter anymore. You failed, so here I am. Me and my little friend, just like Al Pacino said. Ready to get the job done.”

“Please, Dinchara will never let either of you go. You help him dispose of the bodies. Ginny earns him cash. Why would he ever let you graduate?”

“He’s got a replacement-”

“A young kid! Too small to help haul a body.”

“We put them on litters. Drag ’ em up. Boy ’ll get tough soon enough.”

“All the way up Cooper Gap?” she asked incredulously.

The boy took the bait. “Cooper Gap? What the fuck are you talking about? We got our own network, above Blood Mountain and all the skippy little Cub Scouts. Dump a hooker, watch a little boy pee. Makes for a great day with the Burgerman.”

“It’s not your fault,” Kimberly said softly, urgently, three feet forward now, so close to her field kit, so damn close…“Surely you understand, it’s not your fault-”

“I just want to fucking graduate!” the boy screamed, suddenly sitting up. The commotion startled the tarantula. It reared, fangs arching. The boy turned, pointed his gun, and pulled the trigger.

The tarantula and the lamp exploded on the bed. Kimberly sprang forward, feeling bits of ceramic sting like shrapnel slicing into her skin. She made it three more steps, then the boy screeched: “DON’T MOVE!”

She was at her field bag, fingers on the zipper. But she forced her hands down, forced herself to take a deep breath, regard the boy calmly. He was bleeding, too, across his nose, on his cheek, his chin, his neck.

“Let me get you a towel-” she started.

“He did terrible things to me,” the boy said dully. “You have no idea. And then I did terrible things because I didn’t know what else to do. And it’s been so long now…I don’t even…I had parents once. At least I think I did…I am tired. I’m just…so tired.”

“Talk to me. Help me understand.”

“Ginny wants us to get married,” he said as if she’d never spoken. “She wants us to go away, have our baby, be a family. I don’t know what a family is.”

“We can make this happen. It’s not too late-”

“Do I get a job? Wear a tie? I never finished fourth grade. What kind of job does that get you? I know how to fuck, kidnap little kids, and kill hookers. Where’s that needed in the workforce? Find me that want ad-”

“You’re young, there’s still time-”

“She doesn’t know what I did. That’s all. She thinks Dinchara did it, but no, that would be too easy. He handed the gun to me. ‘Pull the trigger, boy. Don’t be an asshole. You know she’d run back to him if she could. Pull the goddamn trigger.’ So I did and then he was dead and it’s only a matter of time before she figures it out or Dinchara tells her just for kicks.”

“You shot Tommy Mark Evans.”