The victims are always the same: beautiful, successful, and blond. Someone was able to coax these intelligent and confident women away from safety. Someone was able to gain their trust long enough to do the unthinkable. Their shocking murders have terrified the inhabitants of a small, peaceful town where such heinous crimes are simply not supposed to happen. Police Chief Rafe Sullivan knows he has to find answers fast before another woman is lured to her death--but Sullivan literally doesn’t have a clue. And when the FBI sends one of their top profilers to help, he’s more than a little surprised that his new partner is nothing like the straight-by-the-book “suit” he expects.Special Agent Isabel Adams is tough, fearless, determined, and every bit Sullivan’s equal. She’s also psychic. And blond.Skeptical of his new partner’s ability to get inside the mind of a killer, Sullivan can’t deny that Isabel has tuned in to the killer’s wavelength, is following the twisted thoughts of a murderer obsessed with stalking, seduction, and death. But in getting so close, Isabel has set herself up as the next victim. Now, with time running out, she and Rafe will find themselves forced to take the greatest risk of all, because this psychopath is playing for keeps and Isabel is the perfect trophy. Unable to turn back, Isabel may have already gone too far. Smart, savvy, and confident, she may find that the very qualities that have kept her alive could turn out to be her undoing. For Isabel has entered the world of a cold-blooded monster who kills without mercy and eludes every sense but one...the sense of evil.
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Hastings, South Carolina
Monday, June 9
Rafe Sullivan rose from his crouched position, absently stretching muscles that had begun to cramp, and muttered, "Well, shit," under his breath.
It was already hot and humid even just before noon, the sun burning almost directly overhead in a clear blue sky, and he absently wished he'd had his people put up a tarp to provide some shade. The effort wouldn't be worthwhile now; another half hour, and the coroner's wagon would be here.
The body sprawled at his feet was a bloody mess. She lay on her back, arms wide, legs apart, spread-eagled in a pathetically exposed, vulnerable position that made him want to cover her up--even though she was more or less dressed. Her once-white blouse was dull red, soaked with blood and still mostly wet despite the heat, so that the coppery smell was strong. The thin, springlike floral skirt was eerily undamaged but blood-soaked, spread out around her hips, the hem almost daintily raised to just above her knees.
She had been pretty once. Now, even though her face was virtually untouched, she wasn't pretty anymore. Her delicate features were contorted, eyes wide and staring, mouth open in a scream she probably never had the chance or the breath to utter. From the corners of her parted lips, trails of blood ran down her cheeks, some of it mixing with the golden strands of her long blond hair and a lot of it soaking into the ground around her.
She had been pretty once.
"Looks like he was really pissed this time, Chief. Bit like the first victim, I'd say." Detective Mallory Beck made the observation dryly, seemingly unmoved by the gory scene before them.
Rafe looked at her, reading the truth in her tightened lips and grim eyes. But all he said was, "Am I wrong, or did this one fight him?"
Mallory consulted her notebook. "Doc just did the preliminary, of course, but he says she tried. Defensive injuries on the victim's hands, and one stab wound in her back--which the doc says was probably the first injury."
Shifting his gaze to the body, Rafe said, "In the back? So she was trying to turn--or run--away from him when he stabbed her the first time. And either he turned her around so he could finish her face-to-face or she turned herself trying to fight him."
"Looks like it. And only a few hours ago; we got the call on this one earlier than the others. The doc estimates the time of death as around five-thirty this morning."
"Awfully early to be up and out," Rafe commented. "Caleb opens his office between nine-thirty and ten as a rule. She was still his paralegal, right?"
"Right. Normally went to the office around nine. So she was out very early. What I don't get is how he was able to lure her this far away from the road. You can see there are no drag marks, and two sets of footprints--we have good casts, by the way--so she walked out here with him. I'm no Daniel Boone, but I'd say from her tracks that she was walking calm and easy, not struggling or hesitating at all."
Rafe had to admit that the ground here looked remarkably calm and undisturbed, for the most part, especially considering the violence of what had been done to the victim. And after last night's rain all the tracks were easily visible. So this murder scene, like the last one, clearly illustrated what had happened here.
From all appearances, twenty-six-year-old Tricia Kane had gotten out of her own car around dawn at an unofficial rest spot off a normally busy two-lane highway and then walked with a companion--male, according to all likelihood as well as an FBI profile--about fifty yards into the woods to this clearing. And then the companion had killed her.
"Maybe he had a gun," Rafe suggested, thinking aloud. "Or maybe the knife was enough to keep her docile until they got this far."
Mallory frowned. "You want my hunch, I say she didn't see that knife until they reached this clearing. The instant she saw it, she tried to run. That's when he got her."
Rafe didn't know why, but that was his hunch too. "And it's the same way he got the other two. Somehow he persuaded these women to leave their cars and walk calmly into the woods with him. Smart, savvy women who, from all accounts, were way too careful to let any stranger get that close."
"Which means they probably knew him."
"Even if, would you leave your car and just stroll into the woods with some guy? Especially if you knew two other women had recently died under similar circumstances?"
"No. But I'm a suspicious cop." Mallory shook her head. "Still, it doesn't make sense. And what about the cars? All three women just left their cars on pull-off rest areas beside fairly busy highways and walked away from them. Keys in the ignition, for Christ's sake, and not many do that even in small towns these days. And we don't know whether he was with them when they stopped or somehow flagged them down and then persuaded them to come with him. No tracks out at the rest stop to speak of with all that hard dirt and packed gravel."
"Maybe he pulled a Bundy and claimed to need their help."
"Could be. Although I still say that would have worked loads better if they knew who was asking. This guy isn't killing strangers. I think the profilers got that one right, Chief."
With a sigh, Rafe said, "Yeah, me too. I hate like hell the idea that this bastard is local rather than some insane stranger passing through town, but I don't see any other way to explain how he's getting these women to go with him."
"Unless he's some kind of authority figure they'd be inclined to trust and obey on sight. Like a cop."
"Oh, hell, don't even suggest that," Rafe responded so instantly that Mallory knew the possibility had already been in his mind.
She studied him unobtrusively as he scowled down at the body of Tricia Kane. At thirty-six, he was the youngest chief of police ever in Hastings, but with a solid background in law enforcement both in training and experience, nobody doubted Rafe Sullivan's qualifications for the job.
Except maybe Rafe himself, who was a lot smarter than he realized.
Mallory had wondered more than once if his tendency to doubt himself and his hunches had anything to do with his looks. He wasn't exactly ugly--but she had to admit that his self-described label of "thug" pretty much fit. He had a harsh face, with very sleepy, heavy-lidded eyes so dark they tended to make people uncomfortable. His nose had been broken at least twice, he had a sharp jaw with a stubborn jut to it, and his high cheekbones marked him indelibly with his Celtic ancestry.
He was also a very big man, several inches over six feet tall and unmistakably powerful. The kind of guy you wanted on your side no matter what the fight was about. So he definitely looked the part of a cop, in or out of uniform--and it was mostly out, since he disliked uniforms as a rule and seldom wore his. But anyone, Mallory had long ago discovered, who had him pegged as all brawn and no brain or who expected the stereotypical dense, cud-chewing Southern cop was in for a surprise, sooner or later.
Probably sooner. He didn't suffer fools gladly.
"That's three murders in barely three weeks," he was saying, dark eyes still fixed on the body at their feet. "And we're no closer to catching the bastard. Worse, we've now officially got a serial killer on our hands."
"You thinking what I'm thinking?"
"I'm thinking it's time we yelled for help."
Mallory sighed. "Yeah, that's what I'm thinking."
Isabel Adams made her voice as persuasive as she possibly could, and her well-rehearsed arguments sounded damned impressive if she did say so herself, but when she finally fell silent she wasn't surprised that Bishop didn't respond right away.
He stood at the window gazing out, only his profile visible to Isabel. In deference to the fact that he was actually on FBI territory, he was dressed more formally than was usual, and the dark suit set off his dark good looks and powerful build admirably. Isabel looked at Miranda, who was sitting on Bishop's desk, idly swinging one foot. Even more of a maverick than her husband and far less deferential to the FBI in any sense, she was wearing her usual jeans and sweater, the casual outfit doing nothing to disguise startling beauty and a centerfold body that turned heads wherever she went.
She gazed at Bishop now, seemingly waiting as Isabel waited for his answer, but her electric-blue eyes were very intent, and Isabel knew there was communication between the two of them on a level that didn't require speaking aloud. Whatever Bishop's decision turned out to be, he would arrive at it only after Miranda's views and recommendations were added to his own; although Bishop had far greater seniority in the Bureau and in the unit he had created and led, no one doubted that his partnership with Miranda was equal in every possible sense of the word.
"It's not a good idea," he said finally.
Isabel said, "I know all the arguments against my going."
"I've gone over all the material that police chief sent when he requested a profile after the second murder. I even got online and read the local newspaper articles. I think I've got a very good feel for the town, for what's happening down there."
Miranda said, "Your basic powder keg, just waiting for a match."
Isabel nodded. "Small town on the teetering edge of panic. They seem to have a lot of faith in their police, especially the chief, and pretty fair medical and forensics facilities for a small town, but this latest murder has everybody jumping at shadows and investing in security systems. And guns."
She paused, then added, "Three murders makes this a serial killer in Hastings. And he's showing no signs of stopping now. Chief Sullivan just officially requested the FBI's help, and he's asking for more than an updated profile. Bishop, I want to go down there."
Bishop turned at last to face them, though instead of returning to his desk he leaned back against the high windowsill. The scar on his left cheek was visible now, and Isabel had been with the unit long enough to recognize, in its whitened appearance, that he was disturbed.
"I know what I'm asking," she said, more quietly than she might otherwise have spoken.
Bishop glanced at Miranda, who immediately looked at Isabel and said, "From all indications, this is the sort of killer that local law enforcement can handle with very little outside help. Maybe a bit more manpower to ask questions, but it'll be inside knowledge that catches this animal, not an outsider's expertise. The profile marks him as nothing out of the ordinary. He's local, he's killing local women he knows, and he's bound to make a mistake sooner rather than later."
"But it wasn't an SCU profile," Isabel pointed out. "None of us developed it."
"Special Crimes Unit can't develop all the requested profiles," Bishop reminded her patiently. "We barely have the manpower to handle the cases we do get."
"We didn't get the call on this one because this killer is so seemingly ordinary, I know that. Around a hundred serial killers active in this country on average at any time, and he's one of them. Nothing raised a red flag to indicate that our special abilities are needed in the investigation. But I'm telling you--there's more to the case than the official profile picked up on. A lot more." She paused, then added, "All I'm asking is that you take a look at the material for yourselves, both of you. Then tell me I'm wrong."
Bishop exchanged another glance with Miranda, then said, "And if you're right? Isabel, even if the SCU took on this investigation, given the circumstances in Hastings you're the last agent I'd want to send down there."
Isabel smiled. "Which is why I have to be the agent you send. I'll go get the file."
She left without waiting for a reply, and as Bishop returned to his desk and sat down, he muttered, "Goddammit."
"She's right," Miranda said. "At least about being the one who has to go."
"Yeah. I know."
We can't protect her.
No. But if this is what I think it is . . . she'll need help.
"Then," Miranda said calmly, "we'll make sure she has help. Whether she likes it or not."
Thursday, June 12, 2:00 PM
"Chief, are you saying we don't have a serial killer?" Alan Moore, reporter for the Hastings Chronicle, had plenty of practice in making his voice carry without shouting, and his question cut through the noise in the crowded room, silencing everyone else. More than thirty pairs of expectant eyes fixed on Rafe.
Who could cheerfully have strangled his boyhood chum. With no particular inflection in his voice, Rafe answered simply, "We don't know what we have as yet, except for three murdered women. Which is why I'm asking you ladies and gentlemen of the press not to add unnecessarily to the natural anxiety of our citizens."
"In this situation, don't you think they should be anxious?" Alan glanced around to make certain all attention was on him, then added, "Hey, I'm blond, and even I'm nervous. If I were a twentysomething blond woman, I'd be totally freaked out."
"If you were a twentysomething blond woman we'd all be freaked out," Rafe said dryly. He waited for the laughter to subside, fully aware of the fact that it was as much nervous as amused. He was good at taking the pulse of his town, but it didn't take any particular skill to feel the tension in this room. In the town.
Everybody was scared.
"Look," he said, "I know very well that the women here in Hastings are worried--whether they're blond, brunette, redhead, or any shade in between--and I don't blame them a bit. I know the men in their lives are worried. But I also know that uncontrolled speculation in the newspaper and on the radio and other media will only feed the panic."
"Don't start yelling censorship, Alan. I'm not telling you what to print. Or what not to print. I'm asking you to be responsible, because there is a very fine line between warning people to be concerned and take precautions, and yelling fire in a crowded theater."
"Do we have a serial killer?" Alan demanded.
Rafe didn't hesitate. "We have three murders we believe were committed by the same person, fitting the established criteria for a serial killer."
"In other words, we have a lunatic in Hastings," somebody he didn't recognize muttered just loud enough to be heard.
Rafe responded to that as well, still calm. "By definition a serial killer is judged conventionally if not clinically to be insane, yes. That doesn't mean he'll be visibly any different from you or me. And they seldom wear horns or a tail."