Authors: Kate Brady
The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
Copyright © 2009 by Kate Brady
Excerpt fromLast to Diecopyright © 2009 by Kate Brady
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
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First eBook Edition: July 2009
YOU’RE NOT ALONE ANYMORE . . .
A PREVIEW OF "LAST TO DIE"
You’re not alone anymore…
The voice was low and clear. A finger of fear pressed down.
“Beth. I know you’re there. Pick up the phone.”
Beth?The finger turned into a fist. She shot a worried glance toward Abby’s bedroom. No sound, no stirring of the bedcovers. Thankfully, Abby had sunk into the kind of sleep nature reserves for the very young.
“Be-eth. It’s been seven long years. Don’t you want to talk to me?”
Her lungs seized.No. Please, no.It couldn’t be.
“Yes, Beth.” And his voice lowered. “Surprise.”
The past sputtered to life, the chilling drops of memory trickling down her spine.
“I bet you thought I’d never find you,” he said. “But I’m a resourceful man. In fact, I’m so resourceful that I’ve arranged someveryspecial gifts for you. I can’t wait until you see them.” He paused, as if he knew she’d had to grab the back of the kitchen chair to stay upright, and that her world was suddenly careening out of orbit.
He chuckled. “You think you have everyone fooled, living your pretty life, but you’ve forgotten: I know your secrets.”
“Kate Brady’s debut novel is everything romantic suspense should be… Remarkable characters, pitch-perfect pacing, and a memorable villain make ONE SCREAM AWAY a standout book.”
—Allison Brennan,New York Timesbestselling author
“Riveting storytelling packed with unexpected twists and unforgettable characters. Prepare to stay up all night, then sleep with the lights on.”
—Roxanne St. Claire,New York Timesbestselling author
For Brady, my rock.
And for Kaitlin and Kyle,the two best characters I ever had a hand in creating.ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
Writing seems a solitary venture, yet there are many people to whom I am indebted for making this book a reality:
To my fabulous agent, Jenny Bent, for her belief in the manuscript and her unwavering support at every step along the way.
To my wonderful editor, Celia Johnson, for her unflagging patience, skill, devotion, and kindness throughout the process.
To Carol, Elaine, and Shirley, for things only you can understand; and to Emily, wherever you are.
To Tom and Carolyn and my years at Garth’s Auctions, for teaching me just enough about antiques to make up the rest.
To Ken, for being there after all these years and guiding me through proper police procedures (not that my characters listened).
To Linda, for being my personal statistics and research guru, and so much more.
To Rocki, for being the greatest cheerleader in the field.
To my dear friends—Fran, in particular—for understanding that I can’t talk on the phone, have dinner, or go shopping when someone is bleeding to death on my computer.
To my in-laws, for their genuine excitement and support; to my late father, for instilling a love of words; to my mother, for her love and strength of character in all matters; and to my sister, for her genuine pride in this endeavor, even thoughherbooks do a lot more good in the world.
To my children, Kaitlin and Kyle, for understanding that Mom’s mind is scarier than other moms’ minds.
And to my husband, Brady, for picking up the slack at home, for listening through endless possibilities, and for not being afraid to share a bed with a woman who is always plotting murders. But mostly, for loving me so well.CHAPTER1
Bighorn Butte, Washington 2,780 miles away
Achilly night with just a wedge of moon, mist brewing on the water and congealing in gullies. Six thousand feet below, Seattle glittered in a haze, but here on the butte, the air was thin and clear, steeped in eerie stillness. No light but the blue-white column of a halogen flashlight. No movement but the trusty reels of an old cassette tape recorder. No sound but the strangled sobs of a woman about to die.
Chevy Bankes looked down at the woman. Lila Beckenridge, her driver’s license said, the photo showing razor-sharp cheekbones and hair scraped into a bun. A dancer, he’d decided while roping her ankles—calloused feet and spaghetti-thin body, the faint odor of perspiration layered beneath her perfume.
And a screamer, a good set of lungs. Well worthy of her role in the performance that began here tonight.
Chevy stilled, the enormity of the moment weakening his knees. He’d had women before, he’d killed before, but never with suchpurpose. He’d never killed one woman to give to another, or taken a life for something greater than his own immediate need. In that sense, the dancer was unique. A first.
A perverse sort of gratitude washed over him, and he bent to stroke her cheek. She spit at him.
“Bitch!” He wiped his face with the edge of his shirt, snarling, and the rage jumped him. How dare she? That wasn’t in the plan…
Who killed Cock Robin? I, said the Sparrow, with my bow and arrow, I killed Cock Robin…
Chevy covered his ears. “No,” he said, but the song threaded in—a haunting little folk tune like a mosquito buzzing in his ear. He slapped at the air around his head, trying to shoo it away, then drew back his foot and kicked the woman on the ground. Her jaw gave with the sound of wood snapping in a fire, a moan of pain ripping from her chest.
The song slipped away.
Chevy waited, forcing himself to breathe. Control. Silence. There could be no singing tonight, not when a plan seven years in the making was finally under way.
Shaking, he uncovered his ears, eyes wide as if he might be able to see the voice and ward it off if it came again. He glanced at the cassette—ten, maybe fifteen minutes of tape left—then at his watch. It was late, and he still had a phone call to make. Besides, his little sister was waiting, and she didn’t like to be alone. Poor Jenny had spent enough of her young life alone and waiting for Chevy.
“Not much longer, Jen,” he whispered, as if she might hear him. He turned off the recorder and picked up the box he’d carried all the way up the butte. It was two feet long and about a foot deep, not overly heavy but awkward, and he set it on the ground beside the dancer and opened the flaps. Styrofoam peanuts fluttered to his feet as he pulled out the fragile bundle and unwound the tissue paper, layer by layer, round and round until—
“Jesus.” Chevy’s breath caught even though he’d seen the face before: dark, soulful eyes, vacuous smile, thick ringlets of human hair. He swallowed and sifted through the stack of insurance statements in the box, making sure this was the earliest doll in the set:1862 Benoit. Bisque head and breastplate, wood body. Rare opening/closing eyelids. Appraisal: $40,000–$50,000.
Chevy tilted the doll upright then tipped her down again—up and down, up and down—studying her eyes. Despite what the insurance appraisal said, this doll’s eyes had never closed. They remained open and watchful, taking in every little thing.
Who saw him die? I, said the Fly, with my little eye—
“Stop it,” Chevy snapped, his teeth grinding together. For the space of five heartbeats he listened, then blew out a breath. Get on with it: The woman needed work. He laid the doll on the ground, several feet away in case there was splatter, then pulled an X-Acto knife from his pocket and went back to the dancer.
She squeaked and he stopped. Shit, he’d almost forgotten.
He pushed Play and Record at the same time, then crouched to one knee beside the dancer’s shoulder. Whimpers reeled onto the tape, garbled now by the broken jaw but stunning all the same, her terror rising to a fevered pitch as he bent over her.
Just a few screams away, now.
Heart galloping, Chevy went to work, glancing often at the doll, fighting to keep his hand steady. When he finished, he sat back on his knees and let the cries wash over him. A few minutes, no more, then,click.
Out of tape.
He opened his eyes and looked down at his handiwork. A little messy, but good enough. He dug his .38 Ruger from a bag of supplies and wiped off the woman’s temple. She was beyond noticing, her cries just snags in her breaths now, as if she knew it was over. Chevy measured an inch straight up, marked the spot with an eyebrow pencil, and placed the barrel of the pistol exactly on the spot. Squeezed.
A blessed silence rolled in behind the shot. Chevy held his breath, but he knew the singing wouldn’t come now. It never came when the cries were good.
He untied the dancer and arranged her limbs to his liking, then spent ten minutes gathering the things a crime scene team would spend hours looking for: X-Acto knife, gun and shell casing, tape recorder, the rope and tent stakes—all of it, into his gym bag. Every last Styrofoam peanut. Once, as he shoved a peanut into his pocket and pulled his hand back out, he dragged out some snack trash. He noticed and picked it up, a pulse of relief tapping at his chest. Being smart was key; being careful was critical.
Being lucky didn’t hurt.
One last look around, and Chevy hiked back down the butte, carrying his bag and the box, stopping to check the dancer’s cell phone about every twenty yards. He got halfway down before a cosmic little tune trickled out: service.
His pulse picked up. This was the moment he’d been waiting for, the call he’d been dreaming of for seven long years.
Let the games begin.Arlington, Virginia
Midnight, the house tucked in, the child long asleep. A hundred-watt bulb glared down at a yellow mat in the basement, the air thick with the odors of perspiration and leather, the usual silence scuffed by illogical sounds of violence. Grunts, thumps, pants of breathlessness. The occasional screech of rubber soles.
Beth Denison scowled. She drew a deep breath, the air settling in her lungs like wet sand, then pulled herself back. Inhale, focus, balance. Strike. Her fist slammed into a hundred-and-fifty-pound sandbag. A hard left hook followed, a roundhouse spinning her around to land a kick that would have crushed an attacker’s windpipe. She ducked from the rebound, pivoted, and jammed her heel where the average man’s balls would be.
The ringing stopped.
She braced her hands on her knees, panting. No eerie message this time, no moans or heavy breathing. Maybe the caller was getting bored. She straightened and uncurled her fingers, wincing as each knuckle stretched through the pain. Tomorrow, she’d pay for not bothering to wear protective gear. Tonight, she needed sheer physical exhaustion to smother thought—about the future of the antiques firm, about Evan, and about phone calls from some jerk who apparently had a phone book, a few spare minutes in his evenings, and a flair for the perver—
She whirled and turned a dangling red speed bag into a blur, the flurry of sound beating at her ears. Not loud enough, though. The phone still sang out over it. Four rings, five. He wasn’t hanging up this time.
“Damn it.” She threw up her hands and took the stairs two at a time, planning to… what? Pick up and tell the caller what she was wearing? Tell him to go to hell? She eyed the kitchen phone, frowning at the number that dribbled across the caller-ID screen. Area code 206. Seattle, again, but she didn’t recognize the number.
Six rings, seven. The answering machine picked up, her own cheerful voice spinning out:Hi. You’ve reached the Denisons, or rather, our machine. You know what to do. Beeep.
The voice was low and clear. A finger of fear pressed down.
“Beth. I know you’re there. Pick up the phone.”
Beth?The finger turned into a fist. She shot a worried glance toward Abby’s bedroom. No sound, no stirring of the bedcovers. Thankfully, Abby had sunk into the kind of sleep nature reserves for the very young.
“Be-heth. It’s been seven long years. Don’t you want to talk to me?”
Her lungs seized.No. Please, no.It couldn’t be.
“Yes, Beth.” And his voice lowered. “Surprise.”
The past sputtered to life, the chilling drops of memory trickling down her spine.
“I bet you thought I’d never find you,” he said. “But I’m a resourceful man. In fact, I’m so resourceful that I’ve arranged someveryspecial gifts for you. I can’t wait until you see them.” He paused, as if he knew she’d had to grab the back of the kitchen chair to stay upright, and that her world was suddenly careening into orbit.
Idiot, Beth said to herself. Of course he knew.
So don’t answer. Just ignore him and don’t pick up the—
“By the way, Beth, how’s your daughter?”
She snatched up the phone. “Bastard.”
“Ah, there you are. For a moment I was beginning to worry.”
Red sparks burst behind her eyes. “H-how?”
“How, what? Oh, I guess you haven’t heard. Well, it’s no wonder, of course. Why would anyone think to contact you with the news?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Freedom. Comeuppance. Getting what I’ve been denied all these years.”
The room seemed to be in motion. Beth couldn’t even swear her feet were still on the floor. She closed her eyes. Think,think. Why, no,howwas he calling her? “I don’t understand,” she said.
“I’m sure you’ll find the whole story on the Internet with just a few keystrokes. For now, suffice it to say that I’m free. I’ve been free a while now, in fact, using the time to arrange the details of our reunion.”
Nausea crawled up the back of Beth’s throat, lodging there like a burr.Free?Hold on. Stay in control. If he was out of prison, there was only one reason he would contact her. And he couldn’t possibly want to dredge up the past to get it. “I’ll call the police. I’ll tell them every—”
He chuckled. “No, you won’t. You think you have everyone fooled, living your pretty life with your pretty daughter, but you’ve forgotten: I know your secrets.”
She gripped the receiver so tight cramps screamed up the tendons in her arm. “You don’t know anything.”
“Really?” he asked. Something clicked on his end, and for a second Beth thought he’d hung up. Then he was breathing in her ear again, a faintwhrrron the line. “Let’s review: I know what happened to Anne Chaney. I know why you moved from Seattle, all the way across the country to Arlington, Virginia.” He paused. “I know about your little gir—”
She gasped, then bit it back. Too late.
“Oh, that was nice, Beth. Do that again.”
“ Stop—” She spit the word but caught herself. Quiet, now. Don’t make a sound. She remembered how much he liked sounds.Scream, bitch. Cry for me.
“Let me hear your voice again, Beth,” he said. “It doesn’t need to be much, not yet. Just a few small sounds to get the opus star—”
Beth hurled the phone across the room. Fear and fury coiled in her belly like snakes, and she forced herself to breathe, letting fury writhe to the top. Damn it, she had to keep her head. Even as a free man he wasn’t half the threat to her that she was to him. He was the one who should be afraid. Besides, the call hadn’t even come from this part of the country.
Area code 206… Seattle.
Reality sank to the pit of her stomach. This wasn’t a dream. It wasn’t some vile memory from the bowels of another lifetime. It wasn’t a prank caller with a six-pack and a phone book, who’d latched on to a number he liked and kept hitting Redial.
It was Chevy Bankes.
The need to see Abby kicked Beth in the chest. She raced upstairs and peered into the bedroom. Abby lay sprawled in a puddle of moonlight, a toy cat clutched against her tummy, a real dog draped over her ankles. The dog swished his tail and lolled hopefully to his back, oblivious to the chill creeping through Beth’s veins as she stood watching the rise and fall of Abby’s stomach: one breath, two breaths, three. Three was the magic number. Beth always counted three breaths in a row before she went to bed at night.
This time she counted ten.
She slipped back into the hallway, the heels of her hands bullying back tears. Don’t cry. God knows, tears had never accomplished anything. This wasn’t supposed to have happened, but she’d always known it might. Bankes wasn’t the only one with a plan.
Inhale, focus, balance.She called on years of Muay Thai to center herself, then went to the master bedroom. She dragged a rocking chair across the room and set it beside a huge Chippendale chest of drawers. It was an early New England piece with heavily carved aprons, the escutcheons all original, the patina rich and dark. Still, she hadn’t bought this dresser for its age or beauty. She’d bought it for the cornices.
She climbed onto the tottering rocker and wrenched the finial on the top right cornice of the dresser. It creaked and gaped open.
A folded piece of paper sprang out. Beth tucked it under a sweatband on her wrist and reached back into the secret compartment. Her fingers curled around the butt of a 9 mm Glock, cool and powerful, neglected but never forgotten. She lifted it, straightened both elbows, and sighted the little red light on the phone across the room.
She could do it. If she had to—for Abby’s sake—she would.
She lowered the gun, climbed down, and unfolded the list of names from her wristband. Cheryl Stallings, her sister-in-law. Two attorneys, one who had authored Beth’s will and another who had a reputation for winning at any cost. Three Early American furniture dealers, each of whom had offered cash for a few of Beth’s finer pieces and would buy them, no questions asked.
Reviewing the list had a calming effect, a tangible reminder that she had a plan and the resources to achieve it. She took a deep breath. Despite the hour, she picked up the phone, then paused. The digits 9 and 1 seemed to glow brighter than the rest.
I’ll call the police; I’ll tell them everything.But it was a bluff and Bankes knew it. She couldn’t call the police. She couldn’t do that to Abby.
Steadier now, she muttered a prayer—for forgiveness, just in case there was a God after all. She cleared her throat and schooled her voice into the calm, composed tone she’d perfected years ago. Dialed the top number.
The first lie would be the hardest.CHAPTER2
New York, New York
Thunder rolled in, dragging Neil Sheridan from the depths of a stupor he’d worked on for weeks. A jackhammer pounded in his skull and he reached up, expecting to find his head split in two. His fingers closed around something warm and soft. His brain? No, a breast. He moved his hand. A second one. Oh, that’s right, they usually came in pairs.
The thunder intensified. “Neil. Goddamn it, open the door.”
He cracked his eyelids and sunlight bleached his eyes. He twisted from it, the breasts rolling over with a soft moan.
“Neil. I’m about to have the hotel staff unlock this door. Fair warning.”
“Stop yelling,” he muttered, lumbering to his feet. He found a pair of jeans at the foot of the bed and humped into them, bracing a shoulder against the wall.
“Go ahead, unlock the door,” the voice in the hallway was saying. Rick? Damn it. The thunder had stopped, though pain still ricocheted around in his head like a round from an M16. Somewhere outside, a female voice took off in quick-fire Spanish and Rick cut her off: “I’m a police lieutenant, lady. Just unlock the damned door.”
“Hold on,” Neil said, but his voice was a croak. He fumbled with the lock and pulled the door open. A maid gawked at him.
“Whoa, you look like hell,” Rick said, pressing a twenty into the maid’s hand. He watched her skitter down the hall then stalked into Neil’s suite. “I’ve been calling you. Heard you quit the Sentry. You’ve been back in the States over a month.”
Rick picked up an empty whiskey bottle, bent to the floor, and hooked a lacy camisole between two fingers. He set both on a table littered with Chinese carryout boxes, peeking into one. He sniffed. “General Ts’ao’s chicken,” he said. “With whiskey?”
“The beverage that goes with anything.”
Rick nudged a second bottle with his toe. It rolled over a ripped-open foil packet on the floor. He glanced at the bedroom door, shaking his head so fractionally Neil thought he might have imagined it. “I want you to come to Arlington with me. You been wallowing in self-pity long enough.”
“I’ve been wallowing in Jack and Jill. And they’re still waiting for me in the bedroom.”
“Jack Daniels and Jill Who? Do you even know her last name?”
“Didn’t ask,” Neil said, dropping into a chair and bullying his brow with his fingers. His brain ached, and that shouldn’t have been possible. He shouldn’t even have a brain anymore. At least that’s what they taught boys in high school: too much drinking, too much screwing, and your mind goes blank, your soul goes numb, you become an empty shell of a man who can’t think or feel.
“Don’t you wanna know why I’m here?” Rick asked.
“I know why. You think I’m less likely to eat my gun in front of your wife and kids than I am here.”
A beat passed. “Are you?”
Neil closed his eyes, but the pictures came anyway: video footage of his brother visiting a refugee camp, running, running, until the ground exploded and Mitch went flying through the air. He blinked to kill the images. “Eating my gun would be too easy.”
“It wasn’t your job to stop the attack, Neil. The Sentry is a security organization.”
“Right. And I provided security for the bastard who blew up a refugee camp and nearly killed my brother.”
Rick grimaced. “Where’s Mitch now?”
“In Switzerland, healing. Getting good at phrases likemea culpaandfuck off.”
“I thought you held the copyright to those,” Rick muttered, thumbing three tablets from a roll of Tums. “Fly to D.C. with me. I’m looking at a murder case that’s interesting.”
Neil looked at him as if he were an alien. “Murder cases haven’t interested me in nine years.”
“A woman was killed near Seattle three nights ago.” “Not interested.”
“Hikers found her body early this morning.”
“She was a dancer, twenty-six years old. Had a little girl in preschool.”
Neil closed his eyes.
“The murderer could be the same—”
“I. Don’t. Care.” Neil ground out the words, his jaw so tight that for a second he wondered if he could break his own molars. He reached for the nearest bottle, but Rick got there first and heaved it across the room.
The last precious sips of oblivion splattered all over the wallpaper.
“Well, now look what you’ve done,” Neil groused, coming to his feet. “And that was the last bott—”
Rick sprang. In two seconds, Neil’s spine was against the wall. “It looks like Anthony Russell, you stupid, self-serving son of a bitch,” Rick said, his fingers digging into Neil’s arms. “This murder could’ve been done byAnthony Russell.”
Neil’s lungs shut down. Seconds passed before he got them working again, and when he did, he broke free of Rick with a shove. “Go to hell,” he said, but two strides later he spun back around. “Anthony Russell is dead. I shot him.”
“After he jumped a bailiff and took off from his own arraignment. I remember.” A vein pulsed in Rick’s forehead. “It was never a sure thing, though, was it? That he killed that college girl?”
“He confessed. How much more of a sure thing do you need?”
“What?Whatdo you mean?” Neil advanced. “Anthony Russell abducted Gloria Michaels after a fraternity party. He stabbed her almost dead then shot her in the head for good measure, and when he escaped from custody, I killed the bastard. So whatever this Seattle woman looks like, there’s no way she was killed by Anthony Russell.”
“You didn’t find Gloria’s body where he said you would.”
A thread of doubt began to fray. Not for the first time. “The fuckerconfessed.”
“In exchange for the DA lessening three other charges.”
The pounding in Neil’s head picked up again. Anthony Russell’s reasons for confessing weren’t something anyone had bothered to examine too closely. They had a confession; that’s all that had mattered. “Why are you pulling Anthony Russell up on me?”
“The report about the Seattle woman rang some bells.”
Rick ticked them off on his fingers. “Woman disappears with her car. Car was dumped, wiped clean. Body found days later in a wooded area, and some knife-work done on it. Thirty-eight-caliber hollowpoint to finish her. Piece of candy wrapper at the scene.” He paused. “Reese’s Cup.”
The ancient doubt began to dig roots. That did sound like Gloria. Even down to the tiny piece of candy that had been left in the car by her killer. Neil swallowed. “Raped?”
“Can’t be sure yet, but”—he paused and ran a hand over his face—“it looks that way.”
Fingers of dread crawled across Neil’s neck. He paced, trying to talk himself out of it, but the possibilities rose in his mind like specters: The possibility that Anthony Russell had lied about Gloria in order to strike a deal with the DA. The possibility that a jury might have sprung him, had he gone to trial. The possibility that when Neil turned his back on his family in order to catch a murderer, he’d caught the wrong man.
And the right man had murdered a woman in Seattle last night.
“Neil, you knew the Gloria Michaels case better than anyone. Come take a look at it. We can catch the next shuttle back to Virginia.”
Neil narrowed his eyes. “Why is a lieutenant in Arlington, Virginia, looking at a murder three thousand miles away?”
“Seattle PD asked me to check on someone. The dead woman’s cell phone was used to call a woman in my precinct the night of the murder.”
“Her name’s Elizabeth Denison.” Neil combed his memory for the people he’d once connected to Anthony Russell. He couldn’t come up with anyone named Elizabeth Denison, but then that was no surprise. Because Anthony wasn’t involved in this. “You talk to Denison?”
“No one home. I put a car on her street to wait. Then the Gloria Michaels bells started clanging, and I decided to come see if you wanted to look at it.”
Neil blew out a curse. Hell, no, he didn’t want to look at it. For nine years, he hadn’t concerned himself with such futile things as right and wrong, good and evil. He was nothing but an exorbitantly paid guard dog. Jungles, mountains, deserts. Places where he never bothered to ask if he was guarding the good guys or the bad guys, where all that mattered was getting off the first shot.
Fuck it. That was his motto now, and it was a far cry from the words inscribed on the federal shield he’d once carried.
He braced his arm against the wall and tipped his forehead onto it. “If you’re right,” he finally said, “I killed an innocent man.”
“Innocent? Anthony Russell was shooting at you. He left a bailiff paralyzed for life.”
“He was in custody because I collared him for Gloria.”
Rick stepped closer. “He was a murderer with a rap sheet as long as your dick. The only reason it matters whether you were wrong about him doing Gloria is the chance that her real killer hit Seattle last night. You get that?”
I get it, Neil thought but was somehow afraid to breathe. If he did, it might infuse new life into his veins, might make him start caring about something again. He’d sworn that off nine years ago.
But even as the warnings trolled through his mind, his hand slid into his pocket, a battered piece of ribbon and plastic squeezing into his palm. He held it tight, closing his eyes against the worst possibility of all.
If he’d been wrong about Anthony Russell, then Mackenzie had died for nothing.
That thought almost buckled his knees. That, and the thud of something landing hard on his conscience. The body of a Seattle dancer.
He pulled his hand from his pocket, leaving the barrette in its hideaway. He took a deep breath and looked at Door Number One, knowing he wouldn’t choose it, and that Jill Something was going to wake up there alone. A better man might have felt guilty about that, the kind of man who had room on his conscience for such things.
But Neil didn’t. Too many corpses there.CHAPTER3
Lila Beckenridge of Bellevue, Washington,” Rick said in a low voice after they settled into the plane seats. He pulled out two file folders and handed them to Neil. “She was leaving a rehearsal, stopped at a convenience mart, and never made it home.”
Neil opened the folder containing crime scene photos. “Whoa,” he said, biting back the taste of bile. A gruesome pair of eyes stared up at him. “He carved on her?”
“Cut off her eyelids. That’s them on the ground.”
Neil angled the page, winced. “Jesus,” he said and sifted through the pictures, trying not to be disturbed by how Lila Beckenridge seemed to watch him through the crusted blood and dirt on her face. He forced himself to note more mundane details. An inch above her temple sat the bullet hole—small and black and ironically tidy, like a period at the end of a story no one yet knew. A bruise darkened her right jaw, but aside from her face, she looked almost neat: Her arms were bowed out at her sides like a frozen ballerina, her blouse tucked in and skirt pulled neat around her knees. She was stringy thin, and the close-ups of her wrists showed what appeared to be rope burns. A couple of other shots focused on holes in the ground, as if she might have been staked down before she died.
Neil swallowed and opened a second folder labeled “E. DENISON.” “Is this all you’ve got on the woman at your end of the phone call? Driver’s license and house deed?”
“Hey, I’m not FBI. Besides, there’s nothing to have. Don’t know why someone’s calling her.”
“Someone? You mean the murderer.”
Neil thumbed through the report. “The call was made just after midnight. Beckenridge’s time of death is estimated between six and twelve.”
“Estimated.How many times have you seen a medical examiner’s opinion changed by an autopsy, especially when the body isn’t fresh?”
Occasionally, Neil thought, but not often enough to assume error. Neil might have been out of the game for a while, but he hadn’t forgotten the three basic rules of criminal investigation. Rule Number Two: Everyone in the chain is as dirty as its dirtiest link.
The woman named Elizabeth Denison was in a chain that included a murderer. It didn’t make her a criminal herself, but it did mean she was in the loop long enough to know something about him. Something that would lead them to him.
He shifted, uneasy with the faint throb of excitement in his chest. None of this meant anything was going to change about Gloria Michaels’s murder. There were similarities between her case and this Lila Beckenridge—enough to raise eyebrows—but there were differences, too. Chief among them were nine years and three thousand miles. If Gloria’s killer had been on the loose all that time, where had he been?
Of course, Neil wouldn’t know the answer to that. Because Neil had spent that time hiding behind M16s and a convenient motto.
The plane hopped, wheels skidding on the runway. They taxied to the gate and Rick put away the folders. “You ready?” he asked.
Neil had a sudden longing for Jack and Jill.
“Come on,” Rick said. “We’ll find you a razor, a coat and tie. We’ll pound the pavement a little, go talk to Denison. Find out why she got a phone call from a dead woman.”
The lazy feel of a Saturday evening glazed Denison’s neighborhood—long shadows stretching across manicured lawns, the smell of charcoal in the air, a group of kids putting together a game of four-square in the street. The kids darted to the curb when they saw Rick’s car, poured back into the street with their ball and bucket of chalk after he rolled past. Half a block up, a lady getting her mail waved at them like they must be old friends simply because they were on her street, and at a driveway on the right, a man waited for his beagle to finish peeing on someone’s tulips. He nodded and returned Rick’s salute from the steering wheel.
“Mayberry,” Neil muttered and downed a handful of aspirin with a swig of oily coffee. “Wonder what Ms. Denison’s neighbors would think if they knew about her buddy out west.”
“Yeah, well, keep in mind that she might not know whoever’s calling her. No need to go in there all scary and mean.”
“You made me shave and put on a suit,” Neil said. “How can I be scary and mean with my good looks hanging out?”
“It’s the scar, isn’t it?” Neil ran his finger along the pale, jagged ridge that ran from his left earlobe to his chin, jogging under the crook of his jaw. Made him look like his cheek had once been torn from the bone.
“It’s not the scar, asshole,” Rick said. “It’s the way you come off all the time. Intense, dangerous. Screwing the world.”
“Women go for all that dark, leashed power.”
“You’re not trying to get this woman in bed; you’re trying to get her totalk. And in case you’re thinking about waving pictures of Lila Beckenridge in Denison’s face, forget it. We’re gonna keep the murder under wraps until we’re sure she’s connected.”
“Hey, Lila Beckenridge’s cell phone coulda been picked up and dialed by anyone.”
“Pansy,” Neil said, but Rick didn’t bite. He parked along the curb and unwrapped a new roll of Tums, popping three or four into his mouth. For the first time Neil noticed how the years had piled up: Lines were etched into Rick’s broad, Slavic brow, deep grooves digging around his mouth. At forty-two, he looked fifty and downed antacids like a food group.
He also, come to think of it, hadn’t mentioned Maggie on the trip back. Bragged about the three boys and waved around pictures of his new baby daughter, but he hadn’t spoken of Maggie even once.
Neil cocked his head, waiting for him to finish the Tums. “You okay, man?”
“Look,” Rick said, turning to him. “The department’s got some legal stuff going, on account of us jumping the gun last year, screwing up a man’s life. Like that first suspect from the Olympics’ bombing in Atlanta, remember? Well, this guy committed suicide after we started hounding him.” He paused, frowning at something only he could see. “He was innocent.”
“We’re in court over it right now. So no matter how much youwantthis Denison woman to know the murderer, I can’t accuse her of being involved in anything until I’m sure. Besides,” he said, glancing down the street, “look around. Ten bucks says any woman living here in Beaver-Cleaverville don’t know squat about a murder.”
“You’re on,” Neil said, following Rick’s gaze to Denison’s house. It had a quaint feel to it, with butter-yellow siding, azaleas blooming in the yard, three ferns hanging from the porch. A good match for the petite, pretty woman in the driver’s license photo.
But all that did was bring Rule Number Three to mind: Things are never as pretty as they seem.CHAPTER4
Denver, Colorado1,694 miles away
The moment Chevy saw her he knew she was the next to die: She parked a ninety-something Buick LeSabre in Lot F, Row 12, a good distance from the entrance to the Fuller Cancer Treatment Center. She wore a long peasant skirt and clogs, and her stride was slow, distracted. The fact that she talked on the phone as she walked was a point in Chevy’s favor. But what really sealed her fate was the colorful turban that marked her as a chemo patient.
Yes, she was the one.
Adrenaline surged. Chevy straightened, wanting to take her now. She was only thirty yards away, coming closer. Then again, it was four-thirty and broad daylight. And every second he debated it—now or later, now or later—she stepped that much farther from him and closer to the temporary safety of the visitors’ entrance.
He waited five seconds too long and smacked the steering wheel.
“What’s the matter?” Jenny asked. She’d been dozing in the passenger seat.
“Too risky. I’ll have to wait.”
“Fraidycat,” she teased, but Chevy wasn’t in the mood and turned to snap at her. Only the look on her face stopped him. She was pale and gaunt, the hollows of her eyes more pronounced than usual. Traveling had been hard on her—the late run from Seattle, then waiting for Chevy the next day while he took care of business in Boise. They’d lost a whole day on the road while he arranged to have the dolls sent on the appropriate dates, cleaned out his bank account, and emptied his safety-deposit box.
But now they were in Denver, and things were moving. Beth Denison’s second gift had just walked into the hospital.
He pulled a picture of Beth from his breast pocket. It was worn, a rip where he’d torn it from an issue ofAntiquesmagazine slashing through her elbow, fold lines scoring her body like the crosshairs of a rifle. But her face was clear enough, and he smiled at the knowledge that on that pretty cheek was a remnant of their time together. During all the years in prison, he’d wondered if she remembered him. The scar told him she must—every time she looked in a mirror.
He closed his eyes, turned the ignition just enough to get power, and pressed Play on the tape player in the dash.
“You bastard… I don’t understand.” Gasp. “Stop!” Broken breaths.
Her panic touched him like the hands of a lover. The beginning of her well-deserved suffering.
Stop. Rewind. Play.
“You bastard… I don’t understand.” Gasp. “Stop!” Broken breaths. “H-how?”
Stop. Rewind. Play.
Jenny’s voice snapped him back.
“Are you going to call her again?” she asked.
“I can’t,” he said. He turned off the tape and took a deep breath, trying to unravel the knots of tension that balled in his groin. “Not yet. You know I had to get rid of Lila Beckenridge’s phone.” He looked at the doors through which the turbaned woman had gone. “It won’t be long until I have a new one.”
“I don’t know why you like listening to that tape. She just sounds mad to me.”
“Scared, Jenny, not mad.” An edge of anger pressed down. Chevy loved Jenny, but she didn’t understand the process. She didn’t comprehend what it took to silence the singing.
And she wasn’t well. She hadn’t been well since the night they’d met Beth Denison.
“Whatever you say,” she said. “You’re ‘The Hunter.’ ”
“Stop it,” he snapped. The Hunter. That’s what the press had dubbed him during his trial for the murder of Anne Chaney. The prosecutor’s big sound bite all those years ago had been that women weren’t in season when Chevy put a bullet in Anne Chaney’s back, at the edge of a lake known for its elk and eight-point deer. They took some heat for the comment, as well as for the crass reference to a second woman, dubbed “the one that got away.” But the press seized upon Chevy’s nickname and it stuck: The Hunter—capital T, capital H. Jenny thought it was funny, but it had always irked Chevy. He was no hunter. A hunter lies in wait, unnoticed, and strikes in the blink of an eye. Snap, you’re dead, and you didn’t even know I was there.
Where was the thrill inthat?
The thrill was in the preparation, the process, the control. In capturing a woman’s first tiny quavers of surprise, coaching her through a steady rise of terror, and getting her to deliver the final screams of agony and surrender when the moment was right. He shouldn’t expect Jenny to understand, really. Even for him, there had been a learning curve. Three women before Anne Chaney, and the first, Gloria Michaels, hardly even counted. She’d been an impulse, a compulsion in a moment of rage when the singing was too much to endure. But he’d learned from her and done the others better, each a more fulfilling experience than the last.
Beth Denison would be the ultimate fulfillment. Her suffering would be the result of a master plan and an amusing irony: a set of antique dolls that she’d never had the privilege of seeing, but that had changed both their lives seven years earlier. The night Anne Chaney died.
He reached into the console between the two front seats and got the envelope of insurance forms. The top one, for the doll that was supposed to blink but didn’t, was already x-ed out. He went to the next page:1864 Benoit. Bisque head and breastplate, kid body. Replaced cork pate with human hair. Missing from the Larousse collection until 1995. Appraisal: $20,000–$25,000.
He leaned over to show the picture to Jenny. “Look,” he said. “You always liked this doll, didn’t you?”
She didn’t answer.
“I’m not going to mail this one. You and I are going to hide it. You can help me find a good place, okay? We won’t want anyone to find her for a long, long time.” Just like the cancer patient. No one would be finding her, either. “Do you want me to get the doll from the trunk for you?”
No response. Chevy put the insurance papers away and opened the atlas, knowing he might as well be talking to thin air. “Listen, tonight shouldn’t take too long. If we get back on the road, say, by midnight, then by morning we can get to about”—he did some quick calculations, following I-80 eastward—“here. Omaha. I’ve never been to Omaha,” he said, tapping the word on the map. “How does that sound?”
He held the map over in front of Jenny. Nothing.
“Jen?” He sighed and put the map away. She was gone again, to that dark, silent place where no one could touch her. Where no one could hurt her.
Chevy closed his eyes on the sadness and when he opened them again, the woman who was next to die pushed through the hospital doors. He straightened, a thrill slipping down his spine.
“Okay, okay,” he said, his fingers trembling with excitement. “Here we go.”
There was no answer at Denison’s front door, but an impressive-sounding dog began barking the minute they rang the bell.
“Bring any of those special Milk-Bones?” Neil asked and dropped off the porch. He wandered to a gate overlooking the backyard, the air smelling of freshly turned soil and flowers. A plastic wheelbarrow and munchkin-size rake, shovel, and gloves were stacked in the corner of a brick patio, with the adult-size gardening tools lounging in a pot nearby. Petunias and some tiny creeping flower Neil couldn’t name sprouted from flower beds, and two flats of red-and-white cocktail begonias—the tag was still in them—sat by the gate.
Elizabeth Denison was in the middle of planting her spring flowers, teaching her kid to garden. A daughter, Neil decided. Pink-and-purple wheelbarrow, pink flowers on the miniature gardening gloves.
His heart gave a tug.
“Think she bailed?” Rick asked, coming up behind him.
Neil flared his nostrils. “Doesn’t feel like it. The gardening’s not finished, but things are kinda put away, not like she dropped everything in a hurry.”
“Let’s go talk to the neighbors. Maybe they know her schedule. Deed says she’s owned this house three years.”
“No husband, right?”
“All in her name.”
Single woman with at least one child. Dog. Gingerbread house, complete with flower beds and ruffled curtains in the windows. Boyfriend who cuts up women? Neil had to admit that didn’t seem to fit.
“Whoa, there she is,” Rick said.
He nodded to the street where a dark green Suburban slowed. The driver paused, spoke to a kid in the backseat, then swung the rear of the SUV down to the garage door. She popped the locks and got out.
Things are never as pretty as they seem.
Rick walked toward her. “Ms. Denison? I’m Lieutenant Richard Sacowicz with the Arlington Police Department, and this is Neil Sheridan. We’d like to have a word with you.” He pulled out his badge, letting it suffice for both of them.
Her glance flitted to Neil and he crossed his arms, accustomed to the once-over a six-foot-three man with an ugly scar always got.
“You need to talk to me?” she asked, a little tension in her voice. “Why?”
“Mommy, who’s that?”
The kid, a little girl wearing a baseball cap with a ladybug embroidered on the front, had unbuckled and climbed out of the car.
“Abby,” Ms. Denison said, “why don’t you go let Heinz out? It sounds like he’s about to leap out a window.”
“Heinz is our dog.” The child glanced at Neil but spoke to Rick.Scary and mean.
Rick bent to his haunches. “Is he friendly?” he asked.
“If you’re not a cat.” Abby snickered. “Hey, why did the cat cross the road?”
Rick didn’t miss a beat. “Because it was the chicken’s day off.”
“No,” she scolded, wagging a finger at him. “To prove he wasn’t chicken.”
“Oh, man, you got me. Hey, how does a chicken tell time?”
The little girl’s eyes danced with joy. “One o’cluck, two o’cluck, three o’cluck.”
Rick chucked her under the chin, and Neil had to admire the method. Rick could schmooze with anyone. Make them tell their deepest secrets.
“Abby,” Denison said, holding out a key to her daughter, “go let the dog out.”
Abby took the key but stood rooted in front of Rick. “Hey, what did the three-legged dog say when he walked into the saloon?” She jammed her fists against the sides of her waist, affecting her rendition of what was apparently John Wayne. “I’m lookin’ for the man who shot my paw.”
Rick laughed out loud. Neil wanted to. A surprise, that.
“Hey,” Ms. Denison interjected, “what happened to the girl who ignored her mother?”
“It’s okay,” Rick said, while Abby humphed and trotted to the side door. “I could use some new material. I have a nine-year-old who thinks he’s a comic.” Fellow dumb-joke-survivor, Mr. I’m-a-Parent-Too. Yeah, this was definitely what Rick was good at.
“Will this take long?” Denison asked. “I can’t leave this furniture out here for long.”
“It’s a Queen Anne highboy,” the little girl called out, heading for the side door. “Worth alotif Mr. Waterford is right, but Mommy says he lies through his tee—”
Waterford.A mental list began forming in Neil’s mind. Names to check on, clues to follow. An instinct not quite dead after all. Another surprise.
Some unlikely combination of collie, husky, and who-knows-what charged out and Abby squealed. The dog flew from person to person, gathering scents, then circled Abby until she said the magic word “cookie” and they both trotted inside.
“Great watchdog,” Rick said, kissing ass a little more. And, “No, it shouldn’t take long.”
“Okay.” Denison reached into the backseat of the SUV, and Neil took her in. She was a small woman, wearing jeans, Nikes, and a white tee under one of those fuzzy sweaters that open down the front. Made you want to pet her. Her build was slender, tight like an athlete. Dark hair fell past her shoulders with a few windblown bangs herded over the top of her head as she slid her sunglasses up. She turned, T-ball paraphernalia in hand, and the sunlight struck her face.
Neil blinked. A scar—a wide, inch-and-a-half-long hyphen—marched high across her cheekbone. It didn’t lessen her attractiveness, wasn’t garish or twisted like his. But it gave her depth, character. A story.
She popped a button and the garage door lifted. It was an enormous, two-car affair enlarged into a spacious finished basement, and brightly lit. The whole thing was filled with… stuff. That was the only word Neil could think of for it. Furniture, dishes, baskets, toys, quilts, boxes. Books and magazines filled a counter and an inkjet printer sat beside a computer, filled with twenty or so pages of printouts. The top page was a picture of an old-fashioned doll, and beside it, a real version of the image in the picture lay in a partially open box, the UPS label dated yesterday. The doll itself, cushioned with tissue paper and Styrofoam peanuts, stared at the ceiling.
Neil picked it up. It was fourteen or fifteen inches tall, with silky hair and a penetrating, wide-eyed gaze. “Antiques,” he said. “You’re an antiques dealer?”
“I’m a researcher for Foster’s Antiques. Would you like to know what my research says about the value of that doll you’re holding?”
He arched a brow. “Six months of my salary?”
“I doubt you make that much.”
Neil bit back a smile, setting the doll down. Denison came over and tucked it deeper into its packaging, an oddly protective gesture, and his gut lurched at the sight of her hands.
He skimmed her throat, neck, face—any bare flesh that was visible. No injuries buried under makeup, no defensive bruises or scrapes. Just fresh abrasions on her knuckles. He thought of Abby, then dismissed that possibility as quickly as it surfaced. Little girls who take beatings from their mothers don’t play T-ball the next day, or roll around with big dogs and tell chicken jokes to total strangers. But something—or someone—had been at the other end of Denison’s fists recently.
“I need to get upstairs with Abby,” she said. “We can talk in the kitchen.”
They followed her up the stairs and into her family room, where Neil braced himself for priceless figurines and ancient rugs and Louis-the-Whatever furniture he’d be afraid to touch. He wasn’t even close. It was warm and homey, might have graced the cover of a home-and-garden magazine in the grocery checkout line. It was neat, but not compulsively so, with Barbie dolls and plastic horses frozen in action on the hearth, a watercolor of some four-legged creature drying on the coffee table, and the scent of chocolate chip cookies lingering in the air.
An unexpected attack of warm fuzzies dimmed Neil’s hopes: Rick was right. This woman lived a Beaver-Cleaver life, though Neil couldn’t recall wishing Mrs. Cleaver would take off her sweater to give him a better look. Elizabeth Denison wasn’t the type to know a murderer. The best he could hope for was that she actually knew Lila Beckenridge.
He nursed that hope and strode past Abby and Heinz on the sofa. Followed Rick into the eat-in area of the kitchen.
“What’s this about?” Denison asked.
Rick took over. “Do you know a woman named Lila Beckenridge?” he asked, showing her Beckenridge’s driver’s license photo.
Her brow wrinkled as she looked. “No, I don’t think so.”
“I’ve never heard the name before,” she said, looking genuinely perplexed.
“What about Gloria Michaels?” Neil asked, and again, she shook her head.
“Just after midnight on Wednesday night,” Rick said, “you received a phone call from Seattle. Who was that caller?”
For a fraction of a second, she froze. Then her eyes darted down and left, and Neil ground his jaw at how classic it all was.
Damn her, anyway. Beaver’s mom was about to lie.CHAPTER5
And that was Rule Number One: Everyone lies, everyone. Criminals, witnesses, victims, sexy young mothers with cute little girls.
“The call we’re wondering about came two nights ago at twelve-oh-nine,” Rick said. “Was it a friend of yours?”
“Then who was it?”
“Look,” she said, “I got an obscene phone call late Wednesday night. That’s all.”
Neil cracked a smile. “That’s a good story; stick with that.”
She glared at him and Rick cut in. “The call lasted eighty-two seconds, Ms. Denison. That’s a long time to listen to an obscene phone caller.”
Her jaw closed. Neil could almost hear theclickof it locking. He glanced at Rick:Ten bucks, buddy.
“So, what did the caller say?” Rick asked.
“He said the normal things an obscene phone caller says. I didn’t take notes.”
Rick frowned. “Are you afraid of this man?”
“Of course I’m afraid. I told you, it was an obscene phone call. It was creepy.”
“Then why didn’t you file a police report?” Neil asked.
She crossed her arms. “Last I heard, being creepy on the phone isn’t against the law.”
She was right. Reports of obscene phone calls came into police stations every day, and were generally blown off by the front line of desk cops before the complaint could consume any paper. But Denison’s attitude didn’t make sense. A single mother who had received frightening phone calls in the middle of the night should’ve been oozing cooperation. She should’ve been relieved to have a couple of heroes knocking at her door.
“How long have you worked for Foster’s?” Rick asked. Digging mode now.
“Six years, full-time. Before that I worked part-time in their Seattle gallery.”
“Seattle,” Neil mused.
She crossed her arms. “I haven’t been back there in years, Mr. Sheridan. I moved here right after I finished my degrees.”
“Degrees in what?”
“I have a BA in American History and an MFA in Art History.”
She was almost defiant when she said it, a little jut of her chin and solid eye contact, as if daring him to find something untrue. Good liars did that—told the truth wherever possible to minimize errors. She was good. And she had fascinating eyes, the kind a man could fall into if he wasn’t careful and not even realize he was drowning. Wide, the color of black coffee, with high, slashing brows and thick lashes. Exotic, but something else, too.
Exhausted. Neil would bet his good hand she hadn’t slept much lately.
“Do you travel in your work?” Rick asked.
“I sometimes attend antiques exhibitions, usually long weekends at holidays.” She paused. “Not Seattle.”
Neil pointed to her face. “So it isn’t jet lag that put those bags under your eyes.”
She pulled back. “Abby wasn’t feeling well; I was up last night with her. And I wasn’t aware that answering the phone in my own home was a criminal act. Do I need a lawyer?”
Neil’s patience slipped its leash. She was lying, plain and simple. He moved to the telephone on the counter. “Well, you just might. Should I call the public defender’s office for you?” He purposely fumbled with the phone, pushing a button. “Oh, sorry,” he said sweetly, and Rick cursed beneath his breath.
“You have… two… new messages,” said the mechanical male voice.
Denison panicked. “You can’t do—”
Neil caught her wrist when she went for the phone. A caller’s voice spun out, female:“Ms. Denison, this is Margaret Chadburne, in Boise. I was just checking again on the dolls I sent you. You should have received the first one this morning.”
Denison’s pulse galloped beneath Neil’s fingers. He loosened his grip fractionally.
“Hey, honey, it’s me. Hannah said you picked upWaterford’s highboy from the gallery this afternoon. Call me as soon as you’ve looked it over.”
The ending beep sounded and he looked down at Denison. “Who was that?”
“Margaret Chadburne, in Boise. She was checking again on the dolls she sent—”
“The other call.”
“My boss. Evan Foster.”
“Honey,” he said, and she gaped at him. “He called you ‘honey.’ ”
“Evan Foster wasn’t in Seattle last night and didn’t call me. Leave him alone.”
Neil bit back a smile. “You’re very protective of your friends.” He turned her hand over and eyed the abrasions on her knuckles. “Is that how you got these?”
“I’m a kickboxer,” she said, yanking her hand away. It was the first thing she’d said that actually fit. Tough, controlled, combative. For a second, Neil let his mind wander, envisioning that lean body in spandex, releasing all the tension that seemed to tie her in knots…
Bad move. Neil shook it off. “Where’s your husband?” he asked.
He pointed to the foyer, where he’d seen a large photo on the wall beyond the kitchen door: Denison in a cream-colored dress, a sprig of flowers blossoming in her hair and a sandy-haired man at her side. “You’re wearing a ring,” Neil said, “but he doesn’t own this house with you. Where is he? Seattle, maybe?”
The answer came as a jolt, but would be so easy to verify there was no reason to question it. “When?” Neil asked.
“Seven years ago, when I was pregnant with Abby.”
“I’m sorry, Ms. Denison,” Rick said. “How did that happen?”
Her chin lifted a notch. “Adam was flying back to Chicago with my family after graduation, to look for a house. The plane crashed. My parents, my brother, my husband, and two hundred and three other people on board died. Anything else?”
Whoa, that wasn’t the type of story Neil expected. Love gone bad, an affair, a divorce. Not the tragic loss of someone—everyone—she loved, in the blink of an eye.
“Okay.” Rick handed her a card. “If you hear from this caller again, let me know, okay?”
She took it—planning to throw it in the trash the minute they were gone, no doubt—and Rick went back through the family room. Neil followed, trying to let it go, then thought,Screw that. He veered to the couch and knelt beside Abby. “I hope you feel better soon, sweet—”
“I feel fine,” Abby said. She was confused.
Neil rose, cocking his head to Denison. “Amazing how kids bounce back like that, isn’t it?”
“Hey,” Abby said, “what happened to your face?”
The question came out of the blue and wasn’t from her arsenal of jokes. Neil touched his scar. “I had a really big boo-boo a few years ago. Kind of scary, huh?”
“No. Mommy has one, too. It just means you hurt once.”
Well, there was a perspective he’d never considered. Pretty insightful for a six-year-old, but honest, anyway, which was more than the girl’s mother had managed. A pang of worry thrummed in his chest: Abby had no choice about what her mother dragged her into; a child never does.
The thought haunted him as he strode down to the curb, and he fisted his right hand on the roof of Rick’s car. Spasms shot to his elbow. “She’s lying,” he said, forcing himself to flex his fingers.
Rick made his eyes big. “Ya think?”
“Damn it, she knows him. He murdered a woman and she’s lying for him.” His heart was beating double time. “Take her in, man, charge her with accessory. Work her over.”
“Sleep deprivation? Waterboarding, maybe?”
“Obscene phone calls, Neil. That’s her story and it fits. Maybe she’s really afraid.”
“Then why didn’t she say so? Jesus, Rick, you’re a police lieutenant and I’m—” He stopped. He wasn’t anything anymore. “If she was scared, she’d have said so.”
“Bullshit. The creepy phone call thing was a cover for that asshole and you know it.” He slid a hand into his pocket, found the broken barrette. “I have to know, Rick. Whether it was Russell or not, that fucker cost me everything.”
Rick looked at him over the roof of the car. “I loved her, too.”
Neil’s heart jerked. “Not the same.”
“No,” Rick agreed, “and God willing, I’ll go my whole life and never know how it feels. But you know I can’t do surveillance on a woman who’s under suspicion of answering her ph—”
Rick followed Neil’s gaze toward Denison’s house. Through the front picture window, she could be seen picking up her phone. She carried it to the window, saw Rick and Neil, and dropped the blinds. But her silhouette was still visible, and within seconds, she hung up.
“That was quick,” Neil said.
“Come on, Neil. We can’t spy on the woman like this. Watching her isn’t gonna tell us anything.”
“Then what is?”
“Looking at Gloria Michaels’s murder again, for one, and putting it up against Beckenridge. Maybe we’ll find enough to get your friends at the Bureau to reopen the case.”
“Friends?” Neil said and sank into the front seat. “Oh, shit.”
But it was the right thing to do. They headed back to the precinct and hashed through Lila Beckenridge’s murder—as much as anyone knew yet. Finally, Rick took Neil home and dumped him in the guest room. For the first time in recent memory, Neil slept sober.
He started Sunday on the phone, tracking down Ellen Jenkins at a country club, playing golf. He called for a rental car—upgraded to a 2009 Dodge Charger with a hemi when he got there—and decided he needed something more appropriate to wear to meet Ellen than desert gear or ripped jeans. He came out of a department store wearing pleated blue slacks and a cream shirt with an embroidered logo above the pocket. The country-club set liked embroidered logos, he decided, though he couldn’t quite make this one out. It looked vaguely like a penguin.
He rolled through Chester County, Pennsylvania, two hours later, Ellen’s neighborhood marked by turreted mansions with high stone walls, four-car garages, and gated pools and tennis courts. Her country club came into view like a landscape that might be pictured on a wine bottle, and at the front gate, Neil found his name on the magic list that granted entry. The manager of the golf course was expecting him, the logo onhispocket recognizable as cursive letters.
“Her party just got to hole seven,” the manager said and tossed Neil the keys to a cart. “I were you, I wouldn’t wanna interrupt her.”
“Aw,” Neil said, “Ellen’s a pussycat.”
The man scoffed. “And the rest of us are wounded mice.”
Ellen didn’t look up when he got there. “Sheridan, if you breathe one word before I sink this putt, I’ll use your balls on the next hole.”
Neil wasn’t stupid. He watched eastern Pennsylvania’s fiercest DA crouch down and line up her shot, take one practice swing, then sink the ball in the cup twelve yards away.
She took a bow, the men in her foursome applauding. A caddy took her club, and one of the men kissed her on the cheek. Neil decided it was Byron, the same husband she’d had nine years ago, though the poor bastard was showing his age.
“Man, you got old,” she said, coming over to Neil. “Is that a penguin on your chest?”
“You’ll be buying this brand for Byron come Christmas.”
“I told him I’d ride with you and meet them at the next hole. You know how to drive this thing?”
* * *
He got close to the eighth tee then tucked the cart between a sand trap and a wild area. He pulled off his sunglasses. “Smacking balls around agrees with you,” Neil said. “You look good.”
“And you look like a terrorist trying to sneak onto a golf course.”
“It’s the penguin.”
“It’s the scar,” she said, and angled his cheek toward her. “I heard about the shooting afterwards. I didn’t know… I mean, it must’ve been worse than I thought.”
“I was out of the game a little while, but now the scar helps me pick up women.”
“So, you and Heather…”
Neil swallowed. “We only made it a couple years after that.”
And that was just about all the emotional chitchat Ellen Jenkins was capable of, not that Neil was very adept at it, either. “I need a favor,” he said.
“I want to reexamine the Gloria Michaels murder. Anthony Russell may not have killed her.”
Ellen’s jaw didn’t drop; she was too poised for that. Still, there was a tightness in her throat Neil could see. “And you brought me boatloads of evidence, I presume?”
“A woman was killed in Seattle on Wednesday night. Too much like Gloria…”
He laid it out, and when he was done, Ellen said, “But can they show the bullet came from the same gun that shot Gloria?”
“Not that easy,” he admitted. “It’s a thirty-eight, but it’s a hollowpoint. Hollowpoints get pretty busted up when they hit something hard.”
“Like a skull,” Ellen said. She took a deep breath and got out of the golf cart, wandered a few steps toward the sand trap, and adjusted her visor. Neil followed a few steps behind, letting her think. “I always wondered if that ass-hole Russell was lying,” she said after a moment. “Why shouldn’t he? Make up a story about killing Gloria Michaels and snap, no more death penalty. Hell, his attorney was orgasmic over the deal.”
Neil knew it was true but bristled nonetheless. “Russell dated Gloria, and he had the right history. It’s not like he didn’t look good for her murder.”
“Bullshit. You Feds came in because it looked like a kidnapping, then you browbeat your way through the investigation, fingered the guy, and turned him over to us.”
“Hey, I’m not here to use you as a confessor, damn it. I’m here for some help.”
“So why don’t you call your Fed cronies?” Then she waved a hand. “Never mind. The Feds eating crow? They don’t know how.”
“I just want the paper, Ellen. I’ll find enough to get the FBI on board.”
“It’s a closed case. The paper is a matter of public record.”
“I don’t want just the parts that are a matter of public record. I want all of it. The narratives, the photos, the impressions. The notes to each other in the margins of the reports, the e-mails. That’s what I need, Ellen.”
“I’m the one who handled Russell’s indictment.”
“And your objections to doing it are all over the record.” Not only the record, but the newspaper and political gossip columns, too. Ellen wanted the death penalty, but the DA at the time, Wallace McMahan, ordered her to drop premeditated murder and go for manslaughter. Manslaughter was an easier win. And in this case, because Russell’s end of the bargain was to talk about Gloria’s murder, the deal came with an added bonus for McMahan: one more X in the win column.
“Wally McMahan is running for the Senate now,” she said. “This could throw egg all over his face.”
“You hate Wally McMahan.”
A tiny smile curled her lips. “I do, don’t I?” She looked at him sideways. “So give me what you’ve got on the Seattle woman. I’ll look at it after the ninth hole.After.And after a shower and a couple of stiff martinis. Come by the house at six o’clock. I’ll let you know.”
It was the best he could hope for. Neil spent the afternoon at a coffee shop hooked up to their WiFi and making phone calls to Seattle. Seattle wouldn’t tell him jack shit about Beckenridge: He wasn’t a cop, he wasn’t a Fed, and he wasn’t a lawyer. He wasn’t even a reporter. He was nothing.
He dropped by Ellen’s McMansion at ten ’til six.
“I’m not sure the unsub in Seattle is Gloria’s killer,” she said, handing him a cardboard box full of files. “But if there’s even a chance, I want you to get him.”
“Ellen, I could kiss you,” Neil said.
“Yeah, yeah, that’s what they all say.”
He was loading the box of files into the Charger when Rick called.
“I’ve got Lila Beckenridge’s autopsy,” he said. “And something else you won’t believe.”
“What is it?”
“Meet me at my office.”
“I’m two hours away.”
“So drive fast.”
♥ Uploaded by Coral ♥CHAPTER6
Neil made it back to Arlington a little before nine o’clock. Rick leaned forward onto his desk. “Another one,” he said. “Maybe.”
Neil went still. “What?” Then, “What do you mean,maybe?”
“A car was found this afternoon outside Denver, wiped down. It belongs to a single mom named Thelma Jacobs. She’s missing.”
Neil’s heart rate kicked up, but he was afraid to let it run away with him. “Cars are found every day with their owners missing. Why do we care about one in Denver?”
“Guess who Thelma Jacobs called at seven-thirty last night.”
Neil stared. “No way.”
“Yup. But the call only lasted about ten seconds.”
“Son of a bitch.” Neil couldn’t believe it. “That’s the call Denison was picking up last night as we were leaving.” He stood up and started pacing. “Denver? He’s moving?”
“But no body.”
“Not yet. Jacobs attended a support group for breast cancer survivors yesterday afternoon at three. That was the last place she was seen.”
“Not a dancer then,” Neil said. And not a college coed. He shook his head, as if jostling all the information would somehow make it fall into place. “Let’s go find out if Elizabeth Denison has Thelma Jacobs on her Christmas card list.”
“I already did. She says she’s never heard of her. And the call at seven-thirty last night was a wrong number.”
“We’re supposed to buy that?” Neil fisted and flexed his right hand through a series of spasms. His heart was thumping fast. Anger, he thought at first, then realized it was adrenaline.
He was hunting again, and Elizabeth Denison was a lead.
Rick opened a folder. “Here’s the autopsy on Lila Beckenridge. Shewasraped, using a Trojan condom, and her right jaw was broken, probably from a kick. And this mark right here”—he slid a photo across his desk and pointed at Lila’s temple—“it’s not dirt or blood. It’s eyebrow pencil.”
“Eyebrow pencil?” Neil looked at the line. Straight as an arrow, and one inch long.
“Revlon, charcoal-black eye pencil, I shit you not. Looks like he drew a line to mark the placement of the bullet. There’s heavy stippling around the top of the line.”
“So the shot was point-blank.”
“Yup. Like Gloria, right?”
“And Gloria was raped?” Rick asked.
“With a Trojan. And she was carjacked, beaten, cut up, and left in a woods; her car was wiped down like Beckenridge’s, and a smear of Reese’s Cup chocolate was found on the front seat. But she wasn’t marked with any damned eyebrow pencil.”
Rick shrugged. “So it’s not a hundred percent. It’s still plenty to justify another look. The question is, did you convince the ADA of that?”
“She’s the DA now, and yeah. I have the files on Gloria’s case in my trunk.”
“So let’s sit down with them. Order a pizza or something.”
Neil nodded and started for the door, then narrowed his eyes on Rick. Rick was pretty anxious to dive in—at nine-thirty at night—to a case that barely touched his precinct. It struck Neil that there was an awful lot on Rick’s plate to be beating time with this. It also struck him that there were deep, dark gullies dragging under his eyes.
“Hey, you been home yet?” Neil asked.
Rick thumbed through the yellow pages to P. “Not tonight. Been a little busy.”
“ Uh-huh. And last night? Maggie said you came back here after you dropped me off.”
“Had some work to finish.”
Neil looked around the office and felt his chest tighten. There were little things he’d been too distracted to notice: a blanket folded across the back of the sofa, pillow underneath, dopp kit on the floor with a toothbrush sticking out. His heart dropped. “Ah, jeez, man,” he said, shaking his head. “How long?”
Rick glanced up, then sank against the back of his chair. “A few weeks in the den. The last couple here in the office.”
“Christ.” So it wasn’t just the job pulling Rick under.
Neil came back to the desk and closed the phone book. “Screw a pizza. We can look at paper at your house as well as we can here.”
“Maggie sorta wants some time alone, man.”
“Then she shouldn’t have married you and had four freakin’ kids. Besides, even if you’re not sleeping together, it’s not like you don’t have an extra bed in that house.”
“Hey, I ain’t sharing with a guy who has a penguin on his chest.”
“Bigot. I’ll drive.”
The kids were in bed by the time they got to Rick’s, but Maggie wasn’t. Neil ordered the pizza, adding green olives for Maggie, and the three of them shared it. The tension was right there on the surface; Neil’s heart ached with it. He couldn’t imagine a world in which Rick and Maggie Sacowicz weren’t together. They were the gold standard in marriage.
Eventually Rick dragged a pillow to the den, and Neil read for another hour, then slept, dreaming of his own mistakes. That last phone conversation:I’m sorry, pumpkin, Daddy has to go back to work, but I’ll be home as soon as I can… Damn it, Heather, I can’t deal with this right now; handle it yourself. I have to find Anthony Russell…
By Monday morning, the adrenaline surge from the evening before had morphed to restlessness. Nothing to do. Neil thought about catching a plane to Seattle or Denver, then remembered the unaccommodating nature of police working an active investigation. He had no place in the investigations of Lila Beckenridge or Thelma Jacobs. If not for the fact that Rick had been asked to look up Elizabeth Denison, they wouldn’t have even known about them.
But he did know and, further, he knew Elizabeth Denison knew something. And while Rick might be bound to playing it safe when it came to talking to her, Neil had no such restraints. He had no badge, no shield, no career to protect.
“You look terrible,” Evan Foster said, holding Beth’s chair at his favorite lunch spot. It was a Caribbean grill on Barrett Road, complete with saltwater aquariums and palm fronds.
“Thanks,” she groused, stuffing a loose strand of hair behind her ear. “I’ve been a little under the weather. Spent the weekend in bed.”
Spent the weekend on the Internet and working through her list was more like it, but she couldn’t tell Evan that. She still hadn’t completely wrapped her mind around what was happening. For almost a year, Bankes had been out of prison. His was one of a rash of overturned convictions that had the internal affairs department of the Seattle PD routing out dirty cops in collusion with a dirty DA.
“If you were sick,” Evan said, “why didn’t you bring Abby over so Aunt Carol could watch her and you could get some rest?”
“I can take care of my own daughter, Evan. I do it all—”
“All the time. Yeah, yeah. A regular Wonder Wo—”
Beth heard no more. Ten feet away, Neil Sheridan was being seated by a hostess. He stretched his long legs out under his table, looked at Beth, and winked.
Her belly somersaulted. Damn him. What was he doing here?
“Beth.” Evan’s voice. “I asked how Abby’s T-ball is going.”
“Oh,” she said, twisting her napkin into tiny cyclones on her lap. “Abby hates it.”
“Then don’t make her do it.”
“It’s good for her,” Beth said. Evan. Concentrate on Evan, not Sheridan. “This is spring break week at school, and I’m going to take her to spend a few days with Cheryl and Jeff. I’m hoping Jeff can coach her a little and get her excited about it.”
“Sure. Let your brother-in-law turn her into a boy for you.”
“I’m not trying to turn her into a boy. I just want her exposed to things—”
“Adam would have exposed her to. So take her to a ball game.”
“I’m not into ball games. That’s the problem.”
“Then letmetake her to a ball game.” Evan reached into his pocket and held up three tickets. “Orioles, in three weeks. Right behind home plate.”
Beth went silent. “Evan, no,” she finally said. “It might mislead Abby into thinking—”
“That I’m someone special? God forbid.” He slid the tickets back into his breast pocket, his expression changing from charm to genuine bewilderment. “Tell me something. Don’t you get tired of going to bed alone? Of not having anyone in your life who can name your favorite color or deepest fear?”
“You?” Beth asked.
He managed a smile. “Your favorite color is blue. Your deepest fear is loving again.”
Wrong on both counts, Evan, she thought, but wished to God he was right.
The phone in her purse rang. Beth looked. She’d missed a call from the same number earlier when she was dropping Abby off at T-ball, but there hadn’t been a message. She put the phone away. She wasn’t anxious to take calls from unknown numbers these days.
“So tell me about Waterford’s highboy.” Evan was back to business. “Is it any good?”
“The back is made up, on both pieces. Six, maybe eight thousand dollars, tops.”
“Kerry Waterford is a con artist. I’ve been telling you that.”
“Then it’s gotta be the dolls, Beth. That widow’s dolls better be worth a fortune.”
“They might be. I’ve only seen one so far, but it’s a legitimate Benoit. And early—1862.” She let a sparkle into her eyes. “It almost reminds me of the Larousse dolls.”
“Larousse?” Evan leaned in. He was no doll expert, but he knew of the Larousse collection. It had been held by a wealthy collector’s family for nearly a century.
“Don’t get excited. I checked. The Larousses haven’t sold anything; that collection is still intact in Vancouver. But this one’s still good.”
“Is it in good condition?”
“The blinking mechanism in her eyelids doesn’t work, but otherwise, she’s nearly perfect. Thirty or forty thousand dollars, I bet, even without repairing the eyes.”
“ Cha-ching,” Evan said, smiling now. “How many more are there?”
“I don’t know. The owner is a widow in Boise whose husband had them in an attic. I met her at the Dallas show in September after Kerry tried to con her into buying a fake Benoit. It’s taken me this long to convince her to sell, but she called this morning and said she sent me two more.”
Sheridan’s voice rumbled from across the aisle. Beth blinked. For one shining moment, she’d forgotten about him. Now, he thanked a blushing waitress for a club sandwich and coleslaw, then picked up his glass of water and tipped it toward Beth in a toast.
Her skin shrank two sizes. She spent the rest of the meal torn between wanting to tell Sheridan to go to hell and wanting to plead with him to keep Bankes away. But there was too much at stake for the latter.
When Evan reached for the tab, Beth stopped him and picked it up. “I’ll get it,” she said. “I’m going to stay a few more minutes and return some phone calls, have a cup of coffee.”
Time to have it out with Neil Sheridan.CHAPTER7
Evan Foster kissed Beth Denison before he left. Just on the cheek, but that was Denison’s doing—that instinctively feminine maneuver of her chin in the last second. She’d talked about Abby and T-ball and antique dolls, munched salad and breadsticks, and tried not to get caught shooting nervous glances in Neil’s direction. She and Foster had discussed nothing that could be construed as even remotely related to murder or kidnapping. In fact, Beth Denison made such a pretty picture of innocence that Neil began to wonder if his bullshit detector had gone on the blink.
Then his phone rang. Rick. “Denison got a call a little while ago on her cell phone.”
“Yeah, I know,” Neil said. “I’m with her now.”
“Notwithher, exactly. But we’re in the same place. She had lunch with Evan Foster.”
“Did she answer her phone about forty minutes ago?”
“No. It rang and she checked the number, then let it go. Why?”
“That call came from a cell phone in Omaha, Nebraska. It’s the second call from that phone today. It lasted fifty seconds.”
Neil’s hackles rose; he didn’t like the direction Rick was going. “Omaha?”
“The owner of the phone may have gone missing there this morning. She hasn’t been gone long enough to be official, but the family is worried and reported it.”
“No way, man.”
“I’m gonna pull Denison in for questioning, just in case. Where are you?”
Neil told him, his pulse picking up. Another one? He stared at Denison.
“Don’t do anything stupid, Neil,” Rick said. “There’s no crime in Omaha yet. We’re just talking.” Beat. “Neil?”
“I heard you.”
He disconnected just as Denison gathered her purse and stood. She headed past Neil, slowing at his table to slide her tab under his.
Neil might have smiled if he wasn’t so pissed. And confused. He gave her a minute just in case she really was using the restroom, then left enough money for both checks and followed her to the back of the restaurant. He found her in the outer lobby of the restrooms with her back to him, her cell phone pressed against her ear. Checking the message from Omaha, no doubt.
He stepped closer, then stopped. She wasn’t listening to a message.
“So, you got the jewels?” she asked in a hushed tone. “Okay. Take them to the lockbox. I’ll call Vito and arrange for the drop. Be careful. They may be onto us.”
“Cute,” Neil said.
She turned. “Oh, my!” The fingers of one hand splayed over her breastbone. “Mr. Sheridan. I didn’t know you were there.”
“I suppose Vito’s last name is Gambino?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know?” She squared her shoulders, the cell phone dead in one hand. “You’re following me.”
“I stopped for lunch. Don’t you ever run into friends at lunch?”
“You aren’t a friend. You aren’t a police officer, either.”
Neil was impressed. “The lady does her homework.”
“Stay away from me, or I’ll file charges. Harassment, impersonating a police officer.”
“I didn’t impersonate anyone. I used to be FBI. Lieutenant Sacowicz invited me along to talk to you because the man calling you may be the same man I hunted in a murder case several years ago.”
She went suddenly pale, her body rigid as steel. “I told you, I don’t know him.”
Neil took a step closer. “But you’re lying.”
She started past him and Neil reached for her elbow. She exploded. Air hissed between her teeth as her right elbow went for his throat and her knee jammed upward. Neil twisted, blocking the blows out of sheer instinct and no small degree of luck, and in two seconds he jostled her up against the wall, pinning her wrists over her head.
“Let go of me,” she said, breathless.
“What the hell was that?” Neil’s heart was thundering. He couldn’t believe she’d caught him so off guard. More than that, he couldn’t believe she’d reacted so strongly to the mere grasp of her arm or that, even now, crowded against the wall, she seemed to be gauging the details of their positions, considering some fancy Jackie Chan move. An ex–FBI agent and Sentryman, for God’s sake, nearly twice her size. “Bad idea,” he warned. “You may be some sort of black belt or something, but I know every trick you do plus a dozen you never thought of.”
She squirmed and he moved closer—a man holding his lover, murmuring sweet nothings against her ear, in case anyone should see them. Except that holding Beth Denison was like handling fire. “I want answers,” he said.
“Let go of me.”
“Why did you try to kill me just now?” Christ. That wasn’t what he should have asked. He should have asked her about the phone call. But his brain had short-circuited. Sensory overload. The fragrance of berries in her hair, the throb of her pulse in her wrist, the brush of her breasts against his rib cage. “Answer me,” he said. “Why did you go off like that?”
“You grabbed me,” she snarled.
“I touched you. There’s a difference.”
“You’re still touching me. Let go.”
Neil held her eyes then couldn’t resist letting his gaze drop to her lips. It was the tightness there that shook him free of the spell. Pinching back secrets.
He cursed and let go, but she came after him the instant she realized he’d wrenched her phone away. “Damn you,” she said, stomping her foot. “What do you want?”
“I wanna know what makes a woman lie to police, then walk around ready to rip a man’s throat out,” he said. “But I’ll settle for finding out who called you during lunch.”
“Your cell phone rang about forty minutes ago. Lieutenant Sacowicz thinks the call came from Omaha.”
She blinked, as if genuinely surprised, and Neil arrowed down her phone screen.
“You have no right to listen to my phone messages! I’ll sue the police department.”
Her conviction was so righteous he almost chuckled. “I’m not a member of the police department, remember? Of course, you could file charges against me for assault or stealing your phone, but it would be one of those he-said, she-said situations.” He cocked a dark brow at her. “AndIhaven’t already lied to the police this week.”
“Give me my phone.”
He pushed her hands away and punched Okay. The screen came up with a number: area code 402. Well, shit. “You didn’t answer your phone during lunch,” he said, “yet this call was almost a minute long. Guess that means there’ll be a message here, huh?”
Denison ground her heel into the floor. Neil punched Okay again and put the phone to his ear.“Ah, Beth, where are you? Answer the phone, doll. I need to talk to you.”
His blood turned cold. Not a woman, not the owner of the phone. Was this the voice of Gloria Michaels’s killer? He turned off the phone and looked at Denison. One more chance. “Who is this?”
“How would I know?Ihaven’t heard the message.”
He pushed the appropriate buttons and held the phone to her ear. She listened, and the blood drained from her cheeks.
“Ms. Denison?” he said, but she didn’t seem to hear him. He touched her shoulder and she jumped like a startled cat. Neil frowned. Thirty seconds earlier, the woman had been spitting nails. Now, she looked scared to death.
But there wasn’t time to think about it. A pair of uniforms came through the restaurant, and Neil slid the phone back into her purse. He dropped back as they walked into the lobby.
“Ms. Denison,” a balding officer said, “Lieutenant Sacowicz would like for you to come with us to the station.”
“What?” She looked at Neil, shock and anger swimming in her eyes, then back to the officers. “What the hell for?”
“Just questioning, ma’am,” said the other uniform, a striking blond who might have been of legal drinking age. He schooled his features into an expression he’d probably practiced in front of a mirror, adding, “Unless you wanna do it the hard way.”
Denison looked as if she’d gone numb, but for the sheer betrayal in her eyes. She stared at Neil, the cops flanking her out the door, and a memory stabbed him in the chest.Damn it, Heather, I can’t help if you’re not gonna be straight with me…
Déjà fucking vu.Omaha, Nebraska1,159 miles away
Chevy shoved the woman’s arms into the driver’s seat of the Honda. He stepped back and peered over the edge of the ravine, a hundred-and-fifty-foot bluff that sank into an abandoned quarry like the end of the earth. It made for a long hike back, but here he wouldn’t have to worry about anyone finding the woman. That was critical to his plan. This woman needed to bemissing, like the one from Denver.
He propped the doll on the dead woman’s lap, smiling a little at the idea of all that money about to go over the bluff and into oblivion.Eighteen sixty-four Benoit, original clothing. Bisque head and breastplate, kid body. One of a pair missing from the Larousse collection until 1995. Appraisal: $20,000–$25,000.Another precious doll that Beth would never see.
Damn, he wished he hadn’t thought of her again. The only flaw in his plan so far was that she hadn’t answered her phone this morning, hadn’t given him the chance to turn the thumbscrews a little. Leaving a message was risky, but Chevy had finally given in. He’d had to hear her voice, even if it was just in voice mail, and know that when she got his message, the fear would start thumping in her chest. He had to know she was suffering.
Not like Mother. She had never suffered; she was gone between one heartbeat and the next. Incessant, lilting little folk tunes on her lips one second, death rattling in her throat the next. A .38-caliber pistol in her hand.
Chevy shook off the memory and wrenched the gear-shift into neutral. He walked to the back of the Honda, lodged his shoulder against the bumper, and gave it a shove. The wheels turned, the front end of the car dipping as the tires edged toward the ravine. Breathing hard, he pushed until the car crept another inch, then two, then picked up speed as the front wheels rotated down the slope and past the edge. A second later, momentum hurled it into the ravine.
He listened for metal crunching into the earth, the ribbon of sound swirling up from the bottom of the bluff like a scream. He pulled out the dead woman’s cell phone and started to dial Beth, then stopped.
He looked at his watch. Two o’clock, and an hour later in Virginia. God, he wanted to talk to Beth, but this woman’s phone wouldn’t be good for much longer. It might not even be safe now. The date book in her purse showed she’d had a hair appointment at nine o’clock this morning. It could be someone had noticed her missing already, maybe even reported it. Normally, there would be no need to worry so soon. But on the heels of Lila Beckenridge and Thelma Jacobs, the authorities just might take the report of a missing woman seriously enough to look into it without waiting the usual twenty-four hours.
He studied the cell phone, the frustration of not hearing Beth’s voice causing almost physical pain. But the risk of this phone being watched increased with every passing moment. No sense in taking chances.
He turned off the phone and with a pitcher’s windup, hurled it into the ravine. He pulled a pen from his pocket and marked off the insurance form for the doll that had just gone over. Already thinking ahead to his next stop, he turned to the fourth page.
Ah, yes.Thatdoll. A thrill shot through him. Better pick up a couple of blank tapes for that one.
“Ah, Beth, where are you? Answer the phone, doll. I need to talk to you…”
Beth sat at a cold metal table in the interrogation room, eyes closed as the recording of a phone message from Omaha streamed from a digital recorder. It was the third time the lieutenant had played it for her, but if he expected repetition to wear her down, he’d be sadly mistaken. She simply blocked it out.
“Ms. Denison?” Lieutenant Sacowicz said, punching off the message. “Is there anything you’d like to say?”
Find him. Kill him. Take him out of my life.“No.”
“Care to explain the gun in your purse?”
“I’m a single woman with a daughter to protect,” Beth said, referring to the .22 derringer she’d started carrying again. “I have a permit.”
“Martial arts, kickboxing, a pistol. You take protection pretty seriously.”
The lieutenant stared at her with eyes the color of pewter, then suddenly hit the recording again. Beth hadn’t prepared for it this time. A tidal wave of panic washed through her at the sound of Bankes’s voice. Gorge rose in her throat.
Hold it down. Don’t let the fear rise up. Omaha is still a long way away.
But the trembling began anyway, deep in the center of her bones. She clutched her arms over her chest, trying to contain the shivers. It didn’t help. “I need to go,” she said, trying to keep her voice from shaking, too. “Abby will be finished at T-ball in half an hour.”
The lieutenant rubbed a hand over his face. “The problem is, Ms. Denison, I think you need some time to think this over. See if a name comes to mind.”
“What? Abby will be waiting. I have to get her.” The lieutenant set his jaw. Beth couldn’t believe it. “I haven’t been charged with anything. You can’t keep me here.”
He shook his head—a slow, weary gesture that made him look older than he probably was. “Have it your way.” He sighed. “You’re under arrest for obstruction of justice and failure to cooperate in a police investigation. You have the right to remain silent, not that I need to tell you that,” he editorialized. “If you give up that right, anything yousay—”
“Wait! What about my daughter?”
“Is there someone you can call to go get her?”
Desperation clawed at Beth’s heart.I’m in jail, Evan; would you go get Abby? Hannah, would you mind keeping Abby until they release me from jail?
“All right,” Sacowicz said, taking her silence as his answer. “I’ll take care of her. Shaw Park, right? Coach Mike’s team, the Ladybugs.”
“Wait,” Beth cried, shocked at the raw terror that seized her.Chevy Bankes! His name is Chevy Bankes. But you can’t touch him. He’s free and he’s coming and as far as the law is concerned, he has every right…She was stunned by how close the words came to spilling out. “Please,” she whispered.
“Please what?” he asked, bending close. “You can stop all this right now and go get your little girl and take her home. Just tell me the name of the caller and walk out of here.”
So simple. As if giving the devil a name would end it.
She couldn’t do it; she had to think about Abby. Keeping her mouth shut today would affect Abby for a couple of hours, maybe for the rest of the afternoon. Naming Chevy Bankes would haunt her daughter for a lifetime. About that much, anyway, Adam had been right.Never tell, Beth. No one will understand.And just this morning, hadn’t her lawyer confirmed that?Keep quiet, Ms. Denison. The best thing you can do for your daughter is to never tell a soul and pray we can convince Bankes to leave you alone.
Beth grabbed the edge of the table, looking at the lieutenant through blurry eyes. “Please, Lieutenant.” She hated the tears but was helpless to keep them from running down her cheeks. “You said you’re a father. Please. Don’t let Abby be afraid. Whatever else happens, please don’t let my daughter be afraid.”
Sacowicz cleared his throat. “I’ll take care of her, Ms. Denison.”
He started for the door and Beth said, “Wait.” Her voice was barely loud enough to stop him. She cleared her throat. “I want a lawyer.”CHAPTER8
The attorney blew in like a tornado, Neil thought. Her name was Adele Lochner, tall and slim, with a slick bun, sharp cheekbones, and a nose one size too big.
“Harassing good citizens again, Lieutenant?” she asked, looking at Denison through the one-way glass. She turned to Neil. “Who are you?”
“He’s former special agent Neil Sheridan, with the FBI.”
“Former,” she said. “Who is he now?”
“I asked him to consult with me. He has knowledge of a related case,” Rick said. “Could we talk about the case now?”
“Sure. Obstruction of justice? What kind of charge is that?”
“It’s a charge to shake the woman into identifying a man calling her on the phone,” Rick said. “A man we think committed a murder nine years ago and might be at it again.”
She straightened. Hadn’t expected that, Neil thought. “Tell me,” she said.
Neil told her first about Gloria Michaels, then Rick laid out the dead Seattle woman and the missing Denver woman, and their phones being used to call Denison.
“Did my client admit to talking to anyone?” Lochner asked.
“She claims they’re obscene phone calls.”
She rolled her eyes. “You guys are incred—”
“Whoa, there’s more,” Rick said. “Denison got another call about two hours ago. From the cell phone belonging to athirdwoman whose family says she disappeared this morning in Omaha. And this time, we got the recording of the call.”
“Shit,” Lochner said. She drew a breath through her narrow nose. “Have you told Denison this man is a murderer?”
“Not yet,” Rick said.
“And why is that? Afraid of another lawsuit, Lieutenant?” She looked back and forth between them, a smug look growing on her face. “You’re not sure this caller murdered anyone at all, are you?” Rick opened his mouth, but she held up a hand. “The Seattle woman’s phone has never been found, so anyone might have used it. And what about the Denver woman? You’re not even sure she’s the victim of foul play.”
“That’s bullshit,” Neil said, but Rick cut in.
“What?” Neil asked, and Rick looked at the floor.
“A little while ago, Denver FBI got Thelma Jacobs’s support group counselor talking,” Rick said. “The day she disappeared, Jacobs had learned the cancer wasn’t gone.
She was despondent, talking about not wanting her son to have to deal with her care and all that.”
“Ah, man,” Neil said.
“So,” Lochner speculated, “the counselor believes she might have run off, or killed herself.”
“And wiped down her own fucking car?” Neil shot. “Made a phone call to the same woman as Beckenridge?”
Lochner was undaunted. “And let me guess: The Omaha woman isn’t officiallymissing. You said she disappeared just this morning.”
“She skipped an appointment, that’s all,” Rick said. “But her family insists that’s not like her.” He suddenly looked beat. People thought cops got ulcers from criminals. They got them from attorneys.
Of course, if Neil was being totally honest, the information about the Denver woman threw him for a loop, too. Maybe they didn’t really have two missing women. Maybe they had one woman with cancer who ran away, and another who simply forgot about a hair appointment this morning and was scaring her family to death. Maybe the Seattle woman’s phone really was picked up by a random stranger, who made a random phone call to Elizabeth Denison. And maybe all those likenesses between the murders of Gloria Michaels and Lila Beckenridge were just figments of Neil’s imagination.
And maybe pigs fly.
“Even if you dismiss the two missing women, what about my case?” Neil asked. “There are too many similarities between Gloria Michaels and this dancer in Seattle.
He ticked them off and Lochner listened, then went silent for a long, long moment. Finally, she squared off to Neil. “And based on those similarities, has the DA reopened that case? The FBI?”
“That’s what I thought.” She picked up her briefcase. “Excuse me, gentlemen. I’d like to go speak to my client now.”
Neil watched her disappear into the interview room, frowning at her back. When the door closed, he turned to Rick. “She didn’t ask the logical question.”
“You told her we had a recording of the last call to Denison, and Lochner didn’t ask what was on it.”
A crease burrowed between Rick’s eyes. “You think she already knows?”
“I don’t know how she could. We’ve been on Denison since before the call came.” A thought hit. “Unless Denison had already told her about the calls.”
Rick rubbed a hand over his face. “If that’s the case, then she’s known for a while she was in trouble. Otherwise, why bother with a lawyer?”
Neil thought about it and came up with nothing. There was a reason Denison was lying, and Lochner seemed to have had a heads-up about the calls. But there was also a reason Beth Denison went around every corner with her fists balled up, ready for a fight.
“I barely touched Denison today, and she just about gelded me,” Neil said.
“I’m beginning to think she is scared. You saw the way she was shaking in there talking to you. It’s like she was on crack or something.”
“Then why doesn’t she tell us?”
“Maybe she’s more scared of him than us. Maybe he’s got something on her.”
“Or… you think she’s in love with him?”
The image of Beth Denison loving some faceless murderer drove a knife into Neil’s gut. He remembered too well what a woman would do to protect a man she cared about.
“We gotta find out how this guy’s pushing Denison’s buttons. Tap her phones.”
Rick blinked. “I know you didn’t just say that,” he said, heading for his office.
“Why not?” Rick moved faster. “Patriot Act aside, Neil, police departments are queasy about tapping personal phone lines.”
“The Sentry’s not.”
Rick stuck his fingers in his ears and rounded a corner. He began to hum.
“The Sentry taps everyone it guards, secures all lines to and from.”
“I can’t hear you.”
“I’ve still got some connections there.”
“She’s lawyered up,” Rick said between hums.
“I’ll keep the police department out of it.”
Rick got to his office door, looked around to see who was listening, and stopped. He pulled his fingers from his ears. “Out of what? Did you say something?”
“Right.” So, that was settled. Neil looked at his watch. “What are you gonna do about Abby?”
Rick already had his Rolodex out, dialing. He put the phone on speaker and a woman with a smoker’s voice answered: “Shirley Barnes. Child Protection Services.”
“Shirley. How’s my favorite CPS caseworker?”
“Sacowicz. I paid off those parking tickets with the Ramez kids, remember? A crew of seven, and you busting my chops to keep them together. Not an easy thing to do, by the way.”
“But you’re our resident miracle-worker.”
“And you’re our resident shit-flinger. What do you want?”
“I’ve got a mom in custody, but not for long. I need to cover her kid for a little while.”
“File the papers and we’ll send someone. You know the drill.”
“Man, there’s no sense in that—it’ll only be another few hours. Maybe not even that.”
“Maggie’ll watch her, no need for anything formal. You come with me to pick her up, we swing by the house, get waylaid, and before you know it, her mom shows up.”
“So you don’t want the daughter to get entered in the system, but you don’t wanna get charged with kidnapping.”
“I’m funny that way.”
Silence. “Meet me downstairs. And Sacowicz, you owe me. Again.”
“Next time you’re in jail, I’ll arrange for thespecialmenu.”CHAPTER9
Adele Lochner sat down at the table while Beth thought about burned pot roast. A strange thing to think about when you’ve just been arrested; nonetheless, her mind filled with the sharp aroma of gravy bubbling into pungent black blisters at the bottom of her oven, charred meat and vegetables huddled in a dry clump in the pan, the smoke alarm singing through the air. And Adam, joking about having married a woman who was hopelessly domestically challenged.
How surprised he’d be at what she’d become. The woman Adam married had two advanced degrees and an ambitious career. She’d never been touched by violence, lifted a weight, or thrown a punch. She traveled widely, dealing in outrageously expensive antiques, attended museum exhibits and law firm dinner parties, and rarely attempted a meal that wasn’t microwave-ready and botch-proof.
Now, she made a kick-butt pot roast. And princess-castle birthday cakes and the neighborhood’s best chocolate chip cookies. Her home wasn’t the flashy urban condo she’d always imagined, but a quaint little haven where she both lived and worked, a painstakingly created bubble for her and Abby on Ashford Drive, complete with a picket fence, flower beds, and a mutt from the pound.
And a state-of-the-art gym, where she’d spent hours each week getting strong, never letting herself forget there was a time when fear and weakness had almost cost Abby her life.
“Are you listening to me, Beth?” Adele Lochner touched her arm.
“No,” she admitted. “I was thinking about Adam and Abby. I’m sorry.”
“Tell Abby you’re sorry when you can only talk to her on the phone once a month.”
Beth quailed, and Adele Lochner seized the moment. “You came to me this morning wanting to know what to do. Now I’m telling you: Keep your mouth shut.”
“So far. But the authorities haven’t pressured you yet.”
“They haven’t even begun. I know how these guys work. If the police decide you’re the link to someone they want, they’ll bulldoze you under to get to him.”
“Sheridan knows about Anne Chaney. He said the caller may have committed a murder several years ag—”
Adele Lochner put up a hand. “They don’t know.”
“You’re sure?” Beth asked, wanting with all her heart to believe it. “Then why are they hunting for Bankes, without even knowing who he is?”
“It doesn’t matter why they’re hunting for him.”
“What do you mean, it doesn’t matt—”
“I mean, if you want me to be your lawyer, nothing matters but doing what I say. And I saykeep quiet. I can tell you honestly that right now the authorities are looking for Bankes based on pure speculation; that’s why they haven’t thrown the book at you yet or charged you with anything real. As long as you don’t give them any morsels to chew on, nothing is going to come of this. Even if Bankes does show up, you can send him away with a butt-load of money and no one will ever be the wiser.” She gave Beth a cutting look. “But if you break down, the whole story will come out. Then, Ms. Denison, you can’t win, your daughter can’t win, and I’ll drop you like a hot potato.”
Single-minded bitch.But then, that’s why Beth had chosen her. “They’ve filed charges against me.”
“Smoke and mirrors. I’ll have them dropped within the hour. If you want, I’ll bring charges of harassment against the police department, and I could manage a restraining order against Sheridan, too.”
“I don’t care about any of that. Just get me out of here.”
“Fine. But there’s one more thing to do before you go.” Adele Lochner crossed to the door and summoned a uniformed officer. “My client would like to file a complaint,” she said to the officer.
“What for?” he asked.
“She wants to report obscene phone calls.”
Neil stayed out of sight until it looked like the paperwork was done, then strode to Denison’s side.
“Need a ride?” he asked.
Her eyes flared. “I’ll call a cab.” She signed on one more line, and the receptionist handed over her purse, phone, and derringer. “Where do I go to get my daughter?” she asked the woman at the desk.
“Daughter? There’s nothing here about a custodial child.”
“What? What do you mean?” Her voice began to shake. “Oh, God. Where’s my daughter? Lieutenant Sacowicz was getting her! Where’s my daugh—”
“I’m checking, ma’am. Are you sure the lieutenant—”
She spun to Neil, on the sharp edge of horror. “Where is Abby? Where is Abby?”
“Abby’s fine,” Neil said and couldn’t help but take her by the shoulders. She was trembling. “Abby is in good hands. I came to take you to her.”
A sound passed her lips—relief and even gratitude, maybe. “You’re sure?”
“Lieutenant Sacowicz didn’t want her to be taken into protective custody for the night, that’s all. He called in a favor with one of the caseworkers and made other arrangements.”
“What other arrangements? Where is she?”
Neil was hard-pressed not to smile. Christ, she loved that little girl. And Christ, she seemed fragile and small just now. It touched him in a place he’d thought was long gone.
“Maybe you should talk to her,” he said, pulling out his phone. He dialed and asked for Abby, then handed the phone to Denison.
“Honey? Are you all right?” she asked.
“I’m coming to get you, sweetie, right now. I’ll be there soon.” Beat. “What?” Denison looked stricken. “No. I’ll see you in a little while. I love you, baby.”
She handed the phone back to Neil, looking perplexed.
“Something wrong?” he asked.
“She’s mad I’m coming. She wants to stay longer.”
Neil chuckled. “See? Nothing to worry about.” She was finally calm. “So, I’ll make you a deal. Forget the cab, come with me, and in thirty minutes, you’ll have her back.”
She gave him a skeptical look. “What’s my part?”
“You said it was a deal. What will it cost me?”
Neil looked at her. He could ask anything of her right now, and she’d do it. Anything for her daughter. “I misspoke,” he said, finding his voice a little stuck. “There’s no deal; some things are just wrong, that’s all. A mother shouldn’t be separated from her child.”
She looked at him with open shock.
“Come on. I won’t even grill you about the phone calls along the way.” When she still hesitated, he drew an X over his chest. “Hope to die.”
They rode in a rental car—a sporty Dodge about ten cuts above your standard rental car. Beth tipped her head back against the leather seat, a mixture of exhaustion and emotion making lucid thought nearly impossible. Two more days until Cheryl and Jeff got home and could take Abby, and meanwhile, Beth could almost feel Bankes getting closer. Pray God, it would take him another few days to get here; pray God that when he did, it would be as important to him to keep their secret as it was to Beth. Maybe she could get him to leave them alone. She had money to bribe him, and she had Adele Lochner to threaten him. She had a place to hide Abby. She had the financial solvency to run if necessary, and if he followed, she had her Glock…
“Are you cold?” Sheridan’s voice was oddly quiet. “I can turn on the heat.”
Lord, she was shivering again. Damned chills. “I’m fine.”
He turned on the heat anyway. Five minutes passed before he turned it off and spoke again. “Are you in love with him?”
He meant Bankes, of course. “What happened to ‘hope to die’?”
“I said I wouldn’t grill you about the calls. This is… personal.” She gawked at him and he shrugged. “So sue me for finding you attractive.”
A tingle raced across Beth’s skin for no good reason. She clutched her arms over her chest.
“Are you in love with him?” he repeated.
He wheeled around a corner, pulled up to a light, and stopped. “Then I have another question. Personal, that is.” He looked right at her, eyes like blue crystals. “Have you got a thing going with Evan Foster?”
Beth shook her head. “No.”
“And if I asked him, would he give the same answer?”
She looked at her lap.
“Uh-huh, that’s what I thought,” he said, going back to the road. He rolled through the intersection, his wrist dangling over the top of the steering wheel, a pose so casual he might be discussing the weather rather than something so intimate as Beth’s love life. She chanced a glance at the side of his face, her emotional barriers dangerously flimsy. She had the strange feeling that if he chose to, he could simply reach inside and help himself to a slice of her soul. “So, seven years after your husband died, you’re still wearing your wedding ring, you haven’t given any other man the time of day, and your social life consists of T-ball games and PTA meetings.”
“I don’t see that it’s any of your business,” she said.
His big shoulders moved a little. “It just seems like a long time to be alone, that’s all.”
Alone.She closed her eyes on the word, her lids so heavy she wished she didn’t have to open them again. Alone was the key to survival. Alone was the way to never experience such loss again. Alone was the way to protect secrets only Adam had known.Never tell. Trust me, Beth; I’ll handle everything…
She jerked and found Neil Sheridan standing in the open passenger-side door. His fingers smoothed a strand of hair from her face. “You slept for twenty minutes,” he said, answering her unvoiced question. “Abby’s here.”
Beth got out of the car, still muddled. They’d stopped in a nice neighborhood, in a driveway lined with red and yellow tulips. “Where are we?” she asked.
Sheridan’s hand settled on the small of her back. “Sacowicz’s house.”
The lieutenant had taken Abby to his home? A spark of anger ignited, then she remembered the alternative: protective custody. And Abby, on the phone, saying,Mommy, puh-leeze… Can’t I stay and play longer?
Before she’d decided whether she should be angry or grateful, the front door opened.
“Uncle Neil! Uncle Neil!” Three boys spilled past a woman, racing down the steps and lunging for Sheridan. He hunkered down in his coat and tie, scooped up the first boy in a bear hug, then rolled him over his back just in time to field the next attacks. They wrestled and laughed until Sheridan called a halt, then he ruffled their heads and smoothed a hand down his cockeyed tie. He came up to the porch. “Thanks for helping out today, honey,” he said, kissing the woman’s freckled cheek.
Beth’s mind reeled.Uncle Neil. Sacowicz’s wife. Honey.
“I’m Maggie Sacowicz,” the woman said, holding out her hand to Beth. “Come on in. Abby’s in the family room.”
Abby dived into Beth’s arms. “Mommy, there’s a little baby girl here. I helped change her diaper. And wait’ll you hear all the jokes Ritchie told me.” She whirled to Sheridan, whose crisp blue eyes showed the briefest flicker of panic. “Hey, why did the butterfly get kicked out of the dance?”
“Uh… Because he didn’t know the jitterbug.”
Abby thought about that for a second, then frowned. “It was a moth ball. That’s why the butterfly got kicked out.”
Sheridan grunted. “Mine was just as funny,” he said and followed the boys outside.
Abby dragged Beth into a playroom. Tonka trucks and bulldozers lay wrecked all over the floor, a baseball bat and Superman cape littered the sofa, and the computer idled on some sort of shoot-’em-up space invaders game. In the far corner stood a playpen, and in it an eight-or nine-month-old baby girl sat wearing a baseball hat, gnawing on a half-human, half-beast action figure. She was the pale spitting image of her mother.
“Abby’s been taking care of the baby for me,” Maggie said. “Playing mommy.”
“That sounds like Abby. I’ve tried to get her interested in ball games and trucks, but she likes the girlie things.”
“We need another double-X chromosome in this house. I’m way outnumbered, especially now that Neil’s here.”
Beth couldn’t resist. “Are you his sister?”
Maggie raised her eyebrows, then shook her head. “Neil was married to my sister, Heather. A long time ago.”
Beth blinked. So, Mr. Screw-the-World had loved someone once? Couldn’t be.
The French doors opened and a woman with a crew cut blew a puff of smoke and came inside. A county employee tag hung around her neck, the letters CPS at the bottom.
“Mrs. Denison?” she asked, coming straight to Beth. “Aw, never mind. Abby looks just like you.” She headed for the front door, waving Maggie off when she started to follow. “I can find my way out. Maggie, tell that husband of yours he owes us both.”
Maggie chuckled, a dry sound. “You tell him. You’ll see him before I will.”
“Whoa!” An earsplitting wail came from outside. The boys had conned Sheridan into another round of wrestling.
“Go on, sweetie,” Maggie said to Abby. “You can play with them, too.”
Abby went to the patio, lurking on the perimeter as she watched three boys and a big man attack, retreat, roll, and attack again. Sheridan saw her, then eased the group nearer and shoved the boys off all at once. He grabbed Abby’s hand and pulled her in, awhoopflying from her lips. Beth’s breath caught.
“Don’t worry,” Maggie said. “He won’t let Abby get hurt.”
He won’t let Abby get hurt.The words spiraled to Beth’s chest. It was true, she realized, shaken. Sheridan had Abby right in the thick of it, gave her a fair share of pushes and flip-overs, but always had an arm loose around her like a shield, always cushioned her falls with his body. Beth found herself laughing when he tossed Abby into the air, caught her, and spun her round and round to back off the boys. She found herself cheering when the kids dropped him to his knees to tickle him, and he let them. She found herself staring when it was over and he stood, absently straightening his clothes and turning a thousand-watt smile on Beth. It shot through every nerve in her body.
“Okay, that’s enough,” he said, plucking the kids from his sleeves like bugs. “I’m an old man; I can’t do it any longer. C’mere, Abby. I’ll show you how to get away from the boys.” He seized a football from a basket on the patio and pulled back his arm with the easy skill of a pro quarterback. “Whichever one of you guys catches this gets ice cream after dinner.”
The ball spiraled through the air, the boys chasing it in a mob. Sheridan swung Abby over his head to straddle his neck and ducked under the doorframe and into the house.
“You’re terrible,” Maggie said as the boys tangled over the ball.
“I think you’re fun!” Abby said, wrapping her arms around his neck.
He plopped her down and touched her nose. “But I think your mom’s ready to go.”
“No,” Abby whined.
“Sorry, honey, it’s getting late. We have to let Mr. Sheridan take us home.”
Her face brightened and she whirled to Sheridan. “You’retaking us home? Yippee!”
It was almost eight when Neil pulled onto Ashford Drive. Abby hadn’t lasted five minutes before falling asleep in the backseat; Neil didn’t think her mother could go on much longer, either. She looked ready to drop.
He got out and bent into the back to unbuckle Abby. “Show me her room; I’ll carry her up.” Ms. Denison hovered so close she bumped him. “For God’s sake, I’m not going to drop her.”
“I can carry her. I do it all the time.”
“This time you don’t have to. Wanna be useful? Open the garage door and go turn down Abby’s covers.” Somehow he just knew Abby’s bed was made.
She tucked Abby’s jacket around her shoulders and inserted an electronic key card beside the garage door. It lifted with a dull grind. Inside, Heinz greeted them with impartial enthusiasm, and Denison flipped on lights here and there as she led Neil through the cozy family room, past the homey kitchen, and up the stairs.
He was doing fine until he stepped into Abby’s room, then his breath caught. Lemony walls, sunflowers everywhere. Toys and books and a bed draped with white princess netting, a hammock hanging in one corner and overflowing with stuffed animals, while a half dozen more sat on the bed. Her favorites, Neil supposed, and he could see her with them: tucking them in at night, dragging them around with her in the mornings.
His throat closed up.
“Mr. Sheridan?” Neil blinked. Denison tugged Abby’s shoes off, whispering, “I need to go let Heinz out. I’ll be right back.”
She slipped out and Neil laid Abby down. She stirred.
“Mommy’ll be right back, sweet pea,” he said. “She’s letting Heinz out.”
“Tell her it’s okay to sleep in here if she gets scared again.”
Neil bent over her. “What?”
“If the dreams come.”
Neil frowned. “Dreams?”
“The scary ones that make her cry.”
A sliver of concern slid under his skin. “Does Mommy have them very often?”
“Just lately. But she can sleep with me tonight if she wants. Heinz will make room.”
Neil’s chest tightened. “Okay, pumpkin, I’ll tell her.”
Denison reappeared, got a weary hug from Abby, then stood looking down at her for a long moment, her eyes following the rise and fall of the covers. Finally, she turned off the light and led the way downstairs.
Leave it alone, Neil said to himself as he trailed behind, past the pictures of her husband and through the foyer.Hersecrets,hernightmares.Herdaughter.
She opened the front door for him.
Walk away, Neil.
“Bad dreams?” he asked, stopping on the porch. She pulled a face. “Abby says you can sleep with her if the nightmares come back.”
She stiffened. “Oh, okay. Fine.”
Her eyes were downcast, the porch light gilding her features and her lashes casting long, dark shadows over the scar on her cheekbone. A cut of some sort, but not clean. A wide, messy gash that must have lain open for a time. He wondered about the internal scars that came with it and if they had healed with the same tough, nerveless finish as the wound on her skin. He wondered if they were the same wounds that kept her awake at night.
And on the heels of that thought came a pure, physical response to the image of Beth Denison in bed,notsleeping.
Walk away, Neil.
“What keeps you from sleeping, Ms. Denison?”
She let out a sigh. “Dolls, that’s what. Just because Abby’s off school this week doesn’t mean I’m off work. I’m appraising a set of dolls; they’re rare, and the research is end—”
“I’m not talking about working late. I’m talking about nightmares.”
“That, from a six-year-old.”
“But it’s true, isn’t it?”
“I can handle things myself. I’m stronger than I look, Mr. Sheridan.”
“Handling things alone doesn’t mean you’re strong. It just means you’re alone. Let someone help.”
“Someone?” she challenged, lifting one winged brow.
“Me. Sacowicz. There’s more than one person in the world willing to help you. I’d even step back and let Evan Foster take care of you if I thought you trusted him.”
“I trust Evan.”
“No, you don’t,” Neil said, with the sudden certainty that he was standing too close. He could smell the scent of berries in her shampoo, remembered the electrical charge in her body when he’d held her at the restaurant. “A man who goes to kiss you and you offer your cheek? A man you lie to about staying for a cup of coffee? No, you don’t trust Evan Foster.” He took a chance and tilted her chin with a finger. “Is it just him? Or do you dodge any man’s kisses?”
“Don’t be stupid,” she said. “I don’t dodge a man’s kisses.”
He let his gaze drop to her lips. “Prove it.”CHAPTER10
It started that way—a stupid dare, proof that she wouldn’t dodge him. Beth stood still as he bent his head, his hands cradling both cheeks and lips touching hers. His palms were warm and calloused, and his fingers slid into her hair as he angled her face upward and coaxed her lips apart. For a second, she tensed, sensing he could swallow her whole, but then something in her chest began to unfold and swell, something that might have been hope.
And desire. It was so unexpected her heart lost track of its beat. Reason slid from grasp, driven out by exhaustion and loneliness and fear, and some absurd craving to be coddled and safe and warm. She didn’t even feel cold in Sheridan’s hands. Heat surged through her body instead.
That wasn’t right.
“Stop,” she said, pushing away.
He pulled back, and for half a second, Beth felt as if she couldn’t stand on her own. She groped for the door-frame and missed.
God, get a grip.
She got her balance back and lifted her chin. “Proof enough?”
“Proof of something,” he said, his voice a little ragged. “Maybe proof that it’s been a long time since you’ve been kissed like that.”
“Beth.” He hesitated, and the sound of her first name on his lips did something strange to her belly. “Evan Foster. Has he ever… hurt you?”
“Of course not. No.”
“Okay.” A metallic edge slipped into his voice. “I didn’t want to have to kill him.”
A ludicrous comment, but it flipped Beth’s heart sideways. The idea of someone looking out for her was so foreign she didn’t know what to do with it. As if she’d just been gifted with a tool, but she didn’t know how to use it. She only knew it felt sweet to cradle in hand.
Until she thought of what it could do to Abby.
“You should go,” she said.
“Because she told you to.”
Both of them looked toward the voice.
“Evan,” Beth said, wondering where the hell he had come from. “What are you doing here?”
His gaze locked on Sheridan. “Do I know you?”
“No,” Sheridan said, and Beth noticed he made no further attempt to introduce himself. Two big dogs, sniffing each other out. The idea that she could be in the middle of some sort of romantic triangle was so ludicrous she almost laughed.
She looked at Sheridan, hoping her cheeks weren’t red. “Thank you for bringing us home.”
He held her gaze long enough to set her pulse skittering, then dipped his chin. “Someone will call you in the morning about getting your car back.”
He left, revving the engine of the Charger a little more than necessary, Beth thought, and Evan stepped up onto the porch. “What’s going on? We had cops at Foster’s this afternoon, asking a lot of questions.”
“About Kerry Waterford. Dealers we know in Denver and Omaha. You.”
Great. “Then you know as much as I do. They’ve been asking me questions, too. That was one of them. Well, not a cop, but he’s working with them.”
Evan humphed. “You gonna invite me in?”
She looked up. “No. Please, Evan, not tonight.”
“I told you. What happened between us is over. It never really even got started.”
“In my world, going to bed with someone is getting started. Yours, too.”
“But it’s over now. And I have work to do. Did two more dolls come to Foster’s today? Mrs. Chadburne said they should have gotten here today.”
“I didn’t check,” he said, trying to nuzzle her. “Come on, Beth.”
She pushed him away. “Evan, stop.”
He straightened, at first seeming surprised but then gathering his pride. “Call me when you change your mind.”
Voices. A bump. Figures creeping close, huddled low.
Neil’s senses rocketed to red alert. He tensed, every muscle and tendon poised to strike. He could place the leader just beneath the left side of the bed. The others—two, if his radar was working accurately—were crouched near the foot.
He let the band close in, just inches away, then launched from the bed with an animal cry. He caught one in a headlock and tripped the others with his leg, toppling them. “Noooo!” squealed the leader, fighting. The smaller ones thumped to the floor, gasping for air.
“No?” Neil said, pulling Richie down onto the carpet. He threw a leg over Justin. Shawn weaseled out and climbed on his back. “What kind of a sneak attack was that? I heard you guys a mile away.”
“Did not,” said Justin. “You were snoring until Rich was right on top of you.”
“Smart aleck,” Neil said. He went for the back of Richie’s pants, intending a memorable wedgie, until Shawn lost his balance and tightened his arm on Neil’s throat. He flipped Shawn to the floor, and the wrestling match got going again. It drew Maggie to the guest room like a magnet.
“All right, stop it,” she said. “If you’re going to kill each other, do it outside.”
They untangled themselves, managing a few pushes and shoves as they reclaimed their limbs from the pile.
“Are you coming, Uncle Neil?” asked Justin.
“Sure, for a few minutes,” he said, rubbing a hand over his face. “Just let me get some breakfast first.”
“Breakfast,” Shawn said, tagging the others down the hall. “It’s twelve o’clock!”
Neil’s brows went up and he glanced at the window. Sure enough. It was pretty bright outside. He lumbered to his feet.
“What time did you come back last night?” Rick came up behind Maggie, a mug of coffee in his hand. He handed it to Neil.
“I dunno,” Neil lied. “Late.”
“Anything happen with Denison?”
You mean, did I lose my mind and kiss her?“Not that I saw. She worked most of the night down in the basement.” He sat on the edge of the bed and sipped the coffee, a little embarrassed that he’d bothered staking out Beth Denison’s house. What had he expected? That Gloria’s murderer would knock on her door? That Evan’s BMW might stay all night? That she might put on something sexy and invite Neil to come chase away the nightmares?
“This sounds like cop talk,” Maggie said, excusing herself. She slipped through the doorway past Rick, not touching him.
Neil arched a brow. “Did you stay here last night?”
“Nah. I went back to the station.” He shifted, looking down the hall after Maggie. “It’s where she says I want to be, anyway.”
“You two… You gotta get it back together, man. If you two don’t make it—”
“Yeah,” Rick said, his eyes giving away the pain even if his words didn’t. “Look, I gotta get back. I’m in court today. You got something on the agenda?”
“Gloria’s parents. I need to talk to them.”
“Oooh,” Rick said, shaking his head. “That’s one conversation I don’t envy.” He contemplated his shoelaces for a minute. “Listen, Neil. There’s something else you should know. Heather called.”
Neil’s heart might have jumped a beat.
“Not about you; I mean, she does it now and then. Calls Maggie. Not very often.”
“How is she?” Neil asked, almost afraid to hear the answer.
“Married again. Third time, I think. She can’t seem to get pregnant, or at least carry to term. She’s had a couple of miscarriages, I guess. You can ask Maggie.”
Neil walked over to the mirror. Ellen Jenkins had been right: He looked old. For a minute he wondered what the years had done to Heather, if she was still slender and creamy-skinned and freckled, with red hair like Maggie and Evie. Given what she’d been through, life had probably left her looking pretty beat-up, too, but he preferred not to think of her that way. Especially since he was responsible for a lot of it.
“Sometimes you gotta let it go, man,” Rick said.
“And sometimes you don’t,” he said, looking Rick right in the eyes. “The job’s not worth sleeping alone, Rick. I oughta know.”
Rick left and Neil sat down, a world of hurt seeming to lay its hands on him. Heather. Rick and Maggie. Beth Denison. The family of Gloria Michaels. The families of Lila Beckenridge and the women who were missing, even the family of Anthony Russell.
His brother, Mitch, and thirteen people who died in an explosion Neil hadn’t even tried to stop.
He pulled out his cell phone, dialed a whole bunch of numbers, and waited. The voice at the other end was that of a stranger. “Yes?”
“This is Neil Sheridan,” he said. “I want to speak to my brother.”CHAPTER11
Indianapolis, Indiana593 miles away
The woman who was next to die had entered the shopping mall three hours earlier, alone, hauling a purse the size of a suitcase. Tall and lithe, she had blonde hair clipped high on the back of her head, too much makeup, and bright red Kewpie-doll lips. She’d been dressed for summer, wearing a short skirt and sandals that showed off good legs. Great legs, actually.
Legs to die for.
Chevy leaned back against the driver’s seat of his car, stretching as much as he could manage. Wait, wait, wait. That was the problem with the mall: A woman could stay inside so long the waiting alone was murder.
Still, he had to be careful now, even though the clock was ticking. If he finished at a reasonable hour this evening, by tomorrow he’d be home—back to that hellhole of a little town in eastern Pennsylvania where he and Jenny had grown up. And from there, well, Arlington was only a stone’s throw away. The thought sent a ripple down his spine.
So he waited, even though Jenny was antsy and Chevy was hungry. Miss Legs was worth waiting for. The right woman in the right time and the right place.
Or wrong, depending on your perspective.
A little security truck with the mall logo on the side rolled up in Chevy’s driver’s-side mirror. He frowned. It was the second time in the last half hour the guard had tooled this way.
“You’re in trouble now,” Jenny said, and Chevy pushed her back down into hiding.
“I’ll handle it. Keep quiet.”
He pulled a gold band from the car ashtray and slipped it on his fourth finger, wiggling it down into place. He tugged at the collar of his shirt and pulled down the visor mirror. Practiced the benign smile he’d perfected in college for the role of Jim inThe Glass Menagerie.
Just as the oversize golf cart passed again, he got out of his car and waved a hand at the passing security guard. “Excuse me,” he called out, and the little truck rolled to a stop.
“Can I help you, sir?” the guard asked, leaning across his seat toward Chevy. The guard puffed up his chest a little, suddenly important.
“Well, I hope so,” Chevy said. “I’ve been waiting for my wife for half an hour—she just got a job this week working at the food court—but her shift’s been over now for twenty minutes.” He scratched his chin, using his left hand. Nothing like a wedding band to lend a man the air of respectability.
The security guard peered around Chevy into the front seat of his car, but Chevy knew all he could see was a gym bag and a dark jacket covering a lump on the floor and an empty cup from Burger King. “Did she say she’d come out the public entrance?”
“Public entrance? Is there another one?”
The security guard snapped his fingers, having solved the problem. “Most of the employees use the entrance around that corner. Your wife is probably waiting for you there.”
Chevy managed to look embarrassed. “Oh, thanks. I think she did say something about—” Then, from the corner of his eye—Miss Legs. There she was, emerging from the mall with her enormous purse and three shopping bags, walking a little more slowly than before.
Adrenaline shot to his toes.
He tossed a smile at the security guard. “Oh, man, she did tell me that. Well, that would explain it, then.”
“Yup. You can just pull around that way,” the guard said, pointing.
Chevy was already in the car, turning over the engine.
“Hey,” the guard said, and Chevy tried to look at him and at the same time keep an eye on Legs. If she got to her car before the jackass security guard got out of sight, the whole day would be lost. Chevy couldn’t stay in Indianapolis. Beth was waiting.
“What?” he asked.
“I see your plates are from Washington. You a Seahawks fan?”
“You know, they were close these last couple years, and I keep thinking if the draft goes right and the Seah—”
“I said I wasn’t a fan.” Chevy revved the gas, rage swelling in his chest.Get the hell away from me, he chanted inside and had to clamp his jaw together to keep from saying it aloud. The guard had already placed Chevy’s tags as Washington and had a conversation that just might be memorable. “I don’t follow football. But thanks for the tip. I gotta go find my wife now.”
“Yeah, okay. Good luck.”
The guard settled back into his cart and tooled away as Chevy pulled out to intercept Legs. Her car was fifty yards in front of him, cutting right then left around aisles of parked cars. Chevy found two empty parking spaces head-to-head and cut through, saving himself going to the end of the aisle, but she’d gotten ahead of him and was nearing the traffic light at the exit. He gunned the gas, heart thundering, and wheeled too fast around the end of the next aisle. A car backed out and Chevy slammed on his brakes.
He smashed the heel of his hand against the steering wheel. “Fuck!” he said, then hit it about five more times. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”
The singing began. Mother’s voice.
Jenny. She must have heard Mother, too. That incessant la-dee-da-ing, senseless lyrics floating from her lips.Who killed Cock Robin? I, said the Sparrow, with my bow and arrow…
He caught his breath, trying to block out the song and deal with Jenny, but he couldn’t take the time to help her up into the passenger seat. The driver he’d almost hit was trying to maneuver out of the way; Chevy laid on the horn, backing up.
“Hold on,” he said to Jenny, gunning the gas.
Legs made it through the light, out of the parking lot and into traffic. Chevy whipped his car around, hot on her trail, other drivers honking and a pair of pedestrians diving from his path as he swerved in and out to catch her. He pulled up to the same light as it turned from yellow to red and peeled through.
Just in time.
Neil drove to the little town near Harrisburg where Gloria Michaels’s family still resided, about an hour and a half from West Chester University. Gloria had been a senior there. She’d lived on campus, majored in broadcast journalism, and led a typical—if not pristine—college life. Partied a little too much, failed biology the first time she took it. Liked the boys.
Anthony Russell, a thirty-year-old auto mechanic who’d once fixed her car, was one of several boyfriends Neil had found, but none of the others had been serious contenders for her murderer. With all the earmarks of a crime of passion—she’d been stabbed sixteen times—Neil had ruled out every man he could put with Gloria.
Except Russell. Who finally confessed. While his attorney had orgasms.
Neil bit back that reminder and tried to ignore the spot on his thigh where Kenzie’s barrette seemed to burn through his pocket. If only Ellen Jenkins had been right about how Neil had handled the case: If only hehadjust fingered Russell then let the locals finish things up. But he hadn’t. When Neil got word that Russell was on the lam, he’d made a U-turn across the median of a highway and headed back to Chester County. Called Heather and told her he needed another day or two.
A day or two became three weeks. The end of three lifetimes.
He put away the memory and pulled up to a single-story clapboard house on a two-lane road, the nearest neighbors a few acres away. Pat Michaels opened the door while Neil was still in the drive. “Agent Sheridan,” she said.
Neil corrected her. “NotAgentanymore, Mrs. Michaels.”
“I know, we heard.” She stepped back and gestured for him to come in, careful not to let her eyes settle on his scar. It hadn’t been there the last time he saw them. Gloria’s father, Tom Michaels, stood deeper in the foyer, arms folded over a barrel chest.
“Thank you for seeing me,” Neil said and held out his hand. Michaels shook it, but reluctantly. “I know I was the last person you expected to hear from.”
“It’s fine,” said Pat Michaels, making a don’t-mind-him gesture toward her husband. She took Neil by the arm and ushered him into the living room. Floral sofa, matching armchair, a rocker, and a painting of a hummingbird hovering over an old upright piano. A set of family photos hung on the opposite wall. Gloria occupied most of it.
“She was a beautiful girl,” Neil said, looking at the spread of photos. He tried to focus on something more cheerful and pointed at a photo of a scrawny, eleven-year-old tomboy. She’d been precocious and sad, and she’d had a blatant case of hero worship for Neil all those years ago.
“How’s Sarah doing?” he asked, the conversation feeling forced. “I hate to think how big she’s gotten by now.”
“See for yourself.”
Neil turned, eyes widening. “Sarah?”
“I grew up, didn’t I?”
Neil chuckled. “I’ll say.” Blonde, curvy, legs from here to China. He glanced at her father, feeling a little like he’d been caught with his hand in the cookie jar just by looking. He covered by giving her a brotherly tweak on the nose.
Her smile faded. “Let me guess: You’re not here because I’m old enough to date now.”
“No,” he said, and the light moment dissolved to nothing. “I’m here about Gloria.”
“I can’t believe it,” Pat said a few minutes later. “It isn’t over.”
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Michaels.”
“So who do you think killed this woman in Seattle?” Sarah asked.
“I don’t know. But there’s a good chance he’s the same man who killed Gloria.”
“They’re alike?” Mrs. Michaels asked.
“Not entirely. There are some differences. The arrangement of the bodies, the—” He stopped. Gloria’s parents had enough gory images to last them a lifetime. “But the likenesses are compelling. The murderer even ate Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.”
Tom Michaels paled, running a broad hand down his face.
“I just wanted you to know that I’m going to ask the FBI to look at Gloria’s case again,” Neil said. “I didn’t want you to hear it on the news.”
Michaels stood. The years had worked on him like gravity, weighing down his shoulders, dragging the corners of his lips into a permanent frown. He looked, Neil thought, like a man who’d lost a child.
“Don’t,” he said. “Don’t do this to us.”
“Tom,” his wife said, “we have to—”
“Anthony Russell killed my daughter. I don’t care what happened in Seattle. Anthony Russell killed Gloria.”
“Maybe not, Mr. Michaels.”
The man’s face began to redden, a crimson stain climbing up from the vee of his collar. “I want you to leave my little girl alone. For the love of God, let my baby rest in peace.”
“Geesh, Dad,” Sarah said, “it’s not like it matters to Gloria anymore.”
He rounded on her. “How dare you.” The tendons on either side of his throat stood out, like a cobra. “How dare you say something like that about your sister.”
“Dad! What if Anthony didn’t kill her?”
“Anthony killed her. He killed her.”
Neil stood. “Mr. Micha—”
“Get out,” Tom said, his voice vibrating with tension. “Get out of my home and leave my family alone. We know who murdered our daughter, and you don’t need to stir it all up again.Just get out.”
Neil glanced at Gloria’s mother but found no help there. A second later, Sarah had his arm. “Come on, I’ll walk you out.”
Neil felt as if he’d just driven a knife into a man’s chest. He and Sarah walked to the driveway in silence, Neil on eggshells. They stopped beside his car and when she finally spoke, her words surprised him.
“You know,” she said, her voice pensive, “I wanted to go to Carnegie Mellon. Or Penn State.”
Neil waited. He didn’t know where this was going.
“Dad couldn’t stand it, the thought of me going away to college. So now I’m finishing at Bishop. It’s a junior college about four miles from here. He can almost tolerate my going to classes, so long as I don’t take any at night.”
Neil swallowed. He didn’t know what to say to that. If he could do it all over again and had the option of keeping Mackenzie under lock and key, he’d probably do it, too.
Sarah looked up, her expression filled with uncertainty. “I don’t want to send him back to that place he was after Gloria died. I don’t. But…”
She shot a glance toward the house then stepped a little closer, her voice falling to a hush. “Anthony didn’t like peanut butter.”
Neil frowned, a sliver of apprehension sliding in. “Sarah?”
“I know, I know,” she said. Tears started. “I know Daddy told you that piece of candy had to be his. But it couldn’t have been. Gloria told me. It was one of the things she said she and Anthony had in common: They both hated peanut butter.”
Neil was dumbfounded. He turned, rubbing his hand over his face. “Sarah, why didn’t you tell anyone back then?”
“I did. I told Dad.”
“Your dad knew? Then why didn’thetell us?”
Sarah blinked. “You just don’t get it, do you? He hated Anthony, and he does think with all his heart that Anthony killed her. He wasn’t going to let an eleven-year-old’s opinion about a piece of candy stand in the way of Anthony going to prison.”
“Would you put that in a sworn statement?”
“That my dad believed Anthony Russell killed Gloria?”
“No, that you’re certain Anthony Russell wouldn’t have had a Reese’s Cup.”
“Are you kidding? My dad would disown me.”
“No, really. You don’t understand. Anthony’s death was Dad’s revenge.Yougave him that. And if he didn’t have that much, I don’t think he could go on. He barely goes on as it is.”
Neil closed his eyes.
“Mr. Sheridan?” Sarah touched his sleeve, looking up at him. Suddenly she sounded like a little girl again. “Should I be scared? I mean, could the guy be coming back here or something?”
Neil frowned and patted her shoulder. “Nah,” he said. “There’s something else going on. I don’t know what, but I’m gonna find out. You’re okay.”
And that, Neil thought as he pulled out of the driveway, might be the biggest crock of shit he’d fed a pretty lady in a long time.Knightston, Indiana560 miles away
Chevy bent over Miss Legs, counting to ten. One, two, three… He was waiting for the blood. Four, five…
A tiny red bead squeezed out, another right behind it, and a string of liquid rubies welled up along the severed edges of flesh. At ten, he wiped away the strand, applied pressure with a cloth napkin from the motel, then sank back on his heels and started the count again.
One, two, three…
It was taking longer than he’d thought. He should have just killed her first and saved himself all this trouble and mess. Dead women don’t bleed. But they don’t scream, either, and Chevy had been hurting. He needed something to carry him over until Beth.
Nine, ten. Wipe.
He looked at the photo of the fourth doll in the set, looked at Legs, and decided on one more cut. A tiny blue vein crept from the crease behind her knee, barely visible in the silvery light. He cocked his head—a surgeon, considering—decided on it, then laid the edge of his X-Acto knife flush against her skin.
Legs gasped. “Oh, God, no! Not again. I’ll do anything y-you want.”
Stupid bitch. Shewasdoing what he wanted.
Her body tensed as he pressed down on the blade, gently, gently. The tip punched though with a tiny “pop,” and her mouth opened around a glorious moan. Pleasure clutched at his vitals, the tape recorder whirring.
Easy now, not too deep. He dragged a long, darkening slit through the skin, like the line of a jagged country road on a map. A curve here, a jog there, a hundred-and-eighty-degree turn an inch below her knee. One last thin, spidery line, one last string of bloody beads to clean up. One last set of cries in his ears.
One, two, three… Wait, wipe. Count again. Wipe. Again.
He called over his shoulder: “That’s it, Jenny, I’m done.”
“Wh-what?” Legs managed. “J-Jen…”
Chevy stared at her, surprised there was any sentience left at all. “Quiet,” he said. “I wasn’t talking to you. I was talking to Jenny.”
“J-Jenny?” She swiveled her head, as if she might actually be able to see through the blindfold. “Heelllp! Jenny, help—”
“Stop,” Chevy said. “Shut up!”
She writhed against her bindings. Damn it, if she reopened those cuts, he’d be cleaning her up until dawn. Everything would be ruined.
He yanked off the blindfold and measured out the spot for the bullet, then hiked to the edge of the stream where Jenny sat alone in the darkness. Belatedly, he wondered if she might have gotten cold. Her face was stark and pale, the wide caverns of her eyes lending her a dazed, haunted look.She doesn’t feel, Mother always said, but Chevy knew better.
“Come on, Jen,” he said, gathering her in one arm. “Someone wants to see you.”
Gun in hand, he carried Jenny to where Legs lay, still whimpering Jenny’s name in a string of incoherent whimpers. He knelt down close so she could see. “This is Jenny, bitch,” he said through clenched teeth. “She won’t help you.”
Legs blinked. Her throat worked, the sight of Jenny’s face stealing breath from her lungs and making the whites of her eyes glow. She gasped, a single, dumb-founded wheeze that filled her lungs with oxygen for one last time.
Chevy punched a bullet into her brain.
The crack of the shot sang through the air and he stood, cradling Jenny close, adrenaline leaking from his body like urine from the dead woman’s bladder. He waited as the staid, unearthly silence that always followed a kill wrapped cold arms around him. He hated this moment; this was the danger zone—that tense, gravid interval when the singing might come.
He waited, but there was only silence. Mother wasn’t here. She never came when he did it right.
He let out his breath and put Jenny down, spent another few minutes wiping off the woman’s legs. Finally, she was done.
Now, for the phone.
He rooted through her purse. Cosmetics, comb, wallet. He dug some more, fingers searching for the familiar shape. Nothing. He frowned and stuck a hand in the outside pocket. It wasn’t there, either.
His heartbeat stuttered. He dumped Legs’s purse on the ground. Stupid—now he’d have to gather everything up or risk leaving prints at the scene. But he had to find a phone. He had to talk to Beth.
He checked her clothing then straightened, shocked. No phone. Fury caught him by the throat. A moment after that, Mother began to sing.CHAPTER12
Neil left the Michaelses’ house and found a bar and a cheap motel at opposite ends of the same gravel lot. He started drinking early. He drank and tried not to think about the fact that not only had he killed the wrong man, but an eleven-year-old girl and her father had known it. He drank some more and tried not to think about the fact that he’d just ripped open the worst wound a parent can experience, and he didn’t even have any authority to find the answer. He drank some more and tried not to imagine Mackenzie crying out for him in the backseat of Heather’s car, of Heather hating him with every fiber of her being. Before he got around to thinking about Mitch, he was out cold.
A hangover had him in the morning, but so did a new determination. He nursed the hangover with a gallon of coffee and handful of aspirin from a gas station, then found the local sheriff and told him just enough about the present investigation to convince him to keep a deputy close to Sarah. He made a phone call to the one FBI agent who might listen to him, though he couldn’t say they had parted on good terms. Then he put the Charger on the road and turned it loose, ready to go back to Arlington and do whatever was necessary to nail the bastard who wasn’t Anthony Russell. For Gloria. For the Russells. For Sarah and her dad and mom.
But he wasn’t prepared for what Rick had learned.
Rick handed him two pieces of paper. The top page was an e-mail saying, “See attachment.” And the bottom page—
“They found her in the woods in Indiana about two hours ago.”
Neil’s brain simply stalled; he couldn’t make sense of the photo. A woman, shot in the head, a smudge or line on her temple. She was posed, as Lila Beckenridge had been, and naked from the waist down. Her eyes appeared unharmed. But her legs… Neil had never seen anything like it.
“It happened sometime last night,” Rick said.
While you were in a bar getting wasted.
“I don’t know what to say,” Neil said. “This is our guy? He didn’t do anything like this to the Seattle woman. Or to Gloria.”
“Not to the legs, but the gunshot wound is the same caliber, same placement of the bullet, and that line is gonna turn out to be eyebrow pencil, wait and see. Same MO—being taken in her own car, killed in a woods, car found not too far away and wiped clean. En route from the West Coast to… Jesus, maybe here. The only thing different is the legs.”
“Postmortem?” Neil asked. “There’s no blood.”
“He cleaned her up.”
Neil cringed. Then remembered: “Did Denison get a phone call?”
“No. But this vic didn’t carry a cell phone. I’ve got the phone company on the lookout for anything coming in to Denison’s number from anyplace between here and there—from pay phones, anything. Are your taps in place? Not that I know anything about that,” he added.
“Yeah. It won’t be in real time because a call’s gotta pass through my contact guy first, but if a call comes over Denison’s lines, he can route a recording here within a few minutes.”
“Ifa call comes. If it doesn’t, then she might be out of it: Maybe he really is some pervert who started out calling her at random.”
Scary dreams that make her cry…
Neil drew a deep breath. He needed oxygen. “I want to talk to her.”
“I’ve got a tail on her.”
“No, I mean, I want totalkto her. Tell her what’s going on, let her explain.”
“Why? Something happen with you two that you didn’t tell me? Something that made her stop hating your guts?”
“I’m done worrying about your lawsuits. We gotta put the murders in front of her.”
“Fine. But here, with her lawyer.”
“Damn it, just give me an hour. She’s got a kid, a career, a home. She’s not going anywhere.”
Rick glared at him. “If she gets a phone call from Indiana or ballistics shows this bullet is from the same gun as Beckenridge…”
“Then pull her in. I won’t stop you.”
“I’ll find out where she is.” He picked up the phone and Neil stepped outside to check his own messages. Nothing. No voice mail from Beth Denison saying,I’m making a terrible mistake and I need you. Nothing from Mitch, either, damn it.
Rick stepped into the hallway, holding out the phone. “Russ Billings.”
Neil took it. “Billings. This is Neil Sheridan.”
“Hey, Sheridan. I told this to Sacowicz, but he wants you to hear it for yourself. She’s at Chester Park right now, watching some sort of kids’ T-ball practice. But you wanna know where she went first?”
Neil’s hackles rose. “Where?”
With something in his voice that might have been awe, Billings said, “Keet’s.”
“It’s a firing range,” Rick said, coming in on another extension. “Anything you wanna shoot, you can shoot there. Twenty-twos to assault rifles.”
Neil was speechless. Beth Denison did more than just carry a gun. She was brushing up her aim.Samson, Pennsylvania116 miles away
The house was nearly hidden, weeds molesting the flower beds and shrubs swallowing the porch. The steps offered up a buffet of rotted wood to termites, and the windows were clouded, as if shamed by what had happened inside.
In its day, when Mother was tending it, the house was an island of coiffed beauty. She kept it as perfect as a stage setting: calico curtains, freshly painted latticework on the front porch, trimmed bushes edging the walkways. And flowers. Mother liked flowers. Sang to them all day long.
Such a quaint, peaceful setting. The unthinkable couldn’t happen here.
But it did happen. Every day.
Be careful, Mommy. You’re hurting her.
I’m not hurting her; she can’t feel. It’s her blood. She has bad blood. La-dee-da. I, said the Fish—
“C’mon, Chev,” Jenny said suddenly. “Let’s get out of here. You promised you’d take me to the river, and this house gives me the creeps.”
Yeah. The creeps.
He shifted his gym bag and carried Jenny past the house and into the woods. Funny, but the river hadn’t seemed so far away when they were kids—probably because he always wished they could go farther. Chevy hated this property. Mother’s codicil willed Chevy the only thing that mattered, so he’d sold the property, house and all, to the first person who asked. Cheap.
That was Mo Hammond, a neighbor. Mo ran a hunting ground and a gun range, and he had combined the Bankes acreage with the adjacent land he already owned. He stocked it all with deer, pheasant, even wild turkeys. Mo didn’t have to worry about stocking the land with rabbits. They repopulated themselves, and he sold their feet at his store. Hard, velvety little stumps with sharp claws, dangling from metal rings.
The shooting range was at the opposite end of the property; there was also a shop with guns for both rental and purchase, a field for target practice and skeet shooters, and the rest of the land, of course, was for hunting. It had always amazed Chevy that hunters would pay thirty-five dollars an hour to sit in a deer stand and wait for a half-tame animal to wander by, shoot it in the neck from twenty paces, and watch it convulse in a swift, silent death dance. Where was the sport in that? Chevy had seen a sign once in the hands of a protester picketing the grounds:IF HUNTING IS A SPORT, THEN WHY DON’T THE DEER KNOW THEY’RE PLAYING?
Chevy agreed. His prey always knew.
Jenny’s favorite spot came into view through tiny spring buds on the trees—a shallow, dammed portion of the river, where beavers had unwittingly constructed a fine little swimming hole. Chevy had come here almost every day as a kid, watching the river from a twelve-foot-high deer stand Mo had arrogantly built years before he owned the property. Now, Chevy climbed up the rungs to the deer stand and pulled Jenny up with him, pushing away years of rotted leaves and pine straw, the pungent scent singeing his nostrils.
“Here you go,” Chevy said, getting Jenny settled. “You remember how we used to come here as kids?”
“I remember. It’s so peaceful. I missed it when I was gone.”
Chevy’s heart turned over. Gone. Jenny had been gone for so long. He remembered the day she disappeared like a movie watched in freeze-frames: Running around the house, frantically looking for the baby… His mother dabbing Clorox near her eyes, until they were red and watery and her nose was running, too… Sheriff Goodwin taking her statement and questioning Chevy, not quite believing… Everyone in town—from the sheriff to the minister to the school counselor—searching the house, the shed, the gardens… Grandpap oddly silent, and Mother weeping so convincingly…
He opened his eyes and looked at Jenny, rolling his shoulders to try to keep the tension at bay. He had her back now. That’s all that mattered.
“Hey,” Chevy said, “did I ever tell you that I came here after you disappeared, waiting for you? I sat in this deer stand and watched them search. They used helicopters and search teams in bright orange vests and Mo Hammond’s hounds. I remember the lights and flares and sirens. Even after they all gave up and told me you were dead, I came here every day.”
“I knew you wouldn’t forget me. I knew you’d find me, someday.”
Chevy blinked back a tear.
“Hey, c’mon, Chev. It wasn’t your fault.”
Yes, it was his fault. No one had believed him. Mother was too good. The tears, the singing, the flowers. She had everybody fooled.
Six months after Jenny disappeared, Chevy finally accepted that his baby sister was never coming back. Ten minutes later, he shot Mother with her own .38.CHAPTER13
Beth watched the T-ball team attack the snacks. Two of the moms handed out juice boxes and peanut-butter crackers, while the kids munched and giggled and eventually began to disperse with various parents and guardians. Beth made her way to the coach to remind him they were going to visit Abby’s aunt, so Abby would miss the rest of the week of practice. He acted like it was a mortal sin.
When Beth’s phone rang, her heart stopped. She forced herself to look at the number.
Boise. Margaret Chadburne.
“Hello,” Beth said, sticking one finger in her ear. Abby was climbing on the monkey bars with a girl named Vanessa, their hats dropping into the dirt as they hung upside down. Beth strolled as she talked to Mrs. Chadburne. Yes, Beth had received a package this morning and the latest doll had arrived safely. No, they still hadn’t seen the second two dolls, but Beth was certain they’d turn up.
Abby ran up and grabbed Beth around the waist. They nearly toppled.
“Mrs. Chadburne, I have to go,” she said, laughing and putting a finger over her lips to Abby. “I’ll let you know as soon as I’ve had a chance to look at the new doll.”
She’d barely hung up when Abby grabbed her arm. “Come on, Mommy. You promised we could go feed the ducks. I saved them my crackers.” She held up her package.
Beth sighed; it was their tradition at Chester Park. She trailed Abby to the pond. Abby climbed down over some rocks to the edge of the water and shook the bag of crackers. No dummies, the ducks started toward them.
“Hey,” a deep voice said, “what did the first duck say to the second duck?”
Beth jumped, whirling toward the voice. Neil Sheridan strode down the bank.
“Mommy, look!” Abby cried, scrambling back up the rocks to greet him. Her face beamed. “I don’t know, what?”
“You quack me up.”
Abby screwed her face into thought. “You’re not very good at jokes, Mr. Sheridan.”
“Everyone’s a critic.”
“Wanna come feed the ducks with me?”
He chucked her under the chin. “Maybe in a few minutes. I need to talk to your mom first.”
“Okay.” She turned, watching the ducks head toward an inlet. “Mommy, can I go over there on the bench to feed them?”
Beth looked around the park. A jogger loped by and gave her a friendly wave. She recognized him, waving back and measuring his distance from the bench as she took mental inventory of the other people around: several families, a teenage couple, kids playing Frisbee.
And, of course, Sheridan.He won’t let Abby get hurt.
“Go ahead,” she said to Abby. “But don’t get too close to the water.”
She and Sheridan watched her go, strolling a few yards behind like lovers. Except for the fact that Beth’s nerves were suddenly like live wires.
What keeps you from sleeping, Ms. Denison?
Dear God, she’d almost told him. Had Evan not appeared on her doorstep, she might have risked everything just for one more kiss, just to sink against his body and lethimbe strong.
She glanced up. Sheridan eyed the lake, a muscle twitching in his cheek.
“You had something to talk to me about?” Beth asked, the suspense killing her.
“Keet’s,” he said.
Beth’s jaw dropped. Then she pulled herself together and lifted her chin. “There’s nothing illegal about practicing marksmanship at a lawful shooting range.”
“No. It’s only illegal to practice marksmanship on people.” He looked straight into her eyes. “Even obscene phone callers.”
She blanched, and Sheridan saw it. His whole body seemed to turn to stone.
“Jesus, it’s true,” he said, staring at her. “My God, you’re waiting for him.”
“You want him to find you.”
“I don’t want him to,” she snapped, “but he’s going to. I have to be ready.”
He grabbed her shoulders. “Damn it, you’re in over your head. This man is a killer.”
Nausea clenched her belly.Oh, God, he knows. He knows about Anne Chaney.But then sanity crept back in, and she remembered what Adele Lochner had said.
They didn’t even know Bankes’s name—they’d been trying to get it from Beth. If they didn’t know who he was, they couldn’t possibly know about Anne Chaney’s murder, or that Beth had been there the night Chaney died. The one who got away.
Unless…This man is a killer. Unless he wasn’t talking about Anne Chaney.
Beth swallowed; it was like choking down sand. “Wh-when?” she whispered.
“When did he kill someone?”
Sheridan’s gaze narrowed on her face, confused. Beth felt the shell of her armor give a little, and she knew that tiny crack was all he’d need to force his way in. But it couldn’t matter anymore. “Please,” she said. “I need to know.When?”
“Wednesday night, the night he called you from Seatt—”
“Oh, my God.”
“And last night in Indianapol—”
“What?” Beth stepped away, reeling. She stumbled, looking at Abby and the ducks even as she struggled to get both her lungs and her mind to function. “Oh, no. Oh, no. Oh, God.”
“Beth,” he said, catching her arm. He got in her face. “The man who’s calling you is dangerous. If he’s got you believing anything different—”
He went still, as if that acknowledgment momentarily stunned him.
Hold on. Think. Protect Abby.Wednesday. Last night.
Not Anne Chaney, so many years ago. Someone else. This week. Now.
She closed her eyes. Tears squeezed out.Oh, Abby, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.
“For the love of God, Beth, tell me what—”
“His name is Chevy Bankes! It’s me he wants.” Tears spilled down her cheeks. “Why would he kill someone else? It’smehe wants. And Abby.”
“What do you mean, it’s you he—”
Beth ripped from Sheridan’s hands. He wasn’t a step behind her as she dashed down the bank to Abby, where the flock of ducks had taken to the air in a confusion of squawks and thundering wings. Sheridan actually batted birds from his face as he ran, feathers flying, and he reached Abby a heartbeat ahead of Beth.
Abby was crying. But no one was near her. She was okay.
Beth skidded to a halt as Sheridan gathered Abby up, one hand holding her ankle. Her shin was bleeding.
Beth scanned the park. The jogger who had passed earlier came down a path about twenty yards from the water, heading straight for them.No, Beth thought, and gave a slight shake of her head. He changed courses and veered away, cutting a wide swath around them.
“Easy, sweetie,” Sheridan was saying, crooning in Abby’s ear, but his eyes were on the jogger. Missing nothing. “You’re okay.”
“Oh, Abby.” Beth was still shaking. She took Abby and held her until the crying eased, then examined her leg more closely. “It’s just a scrape, sweetie,” she said, finally breathing more easily. “You’ll be okay.”
“I s-slipped on that rock,” Abby sputtered, pointing at a boulder in the sand.
Sheridan sank into a crouch. “How ’bout a kiss for that boo-boo?”
Beth shook her head. “That’s never worked with Abby. Kisses don’t make—”
But he kissed Abby on the leg anyway, and her tears vanished. Wrestler, protector, kisser of boo-boos.
Emotion knotted in Beth’s throat. It was crazy, childish even, to think now that she’d confided in Sheridan, he could somehow make her troubles go away. She wasn’t a child. Besides, her wounds were ancient—scarred over and numb, not raw and bleeding. Her pain had healed years ago.
“Don’t argue with me or ask me to explain.” Sheridan spoke in her ear. “Take Abby to your car.”
He put a finger over her lips, and for some reason beyond logic, Beth didn’t argue. She followed as he slanted Abby a deceptively casual smile and swallowed her hand in his.
Beth’s pulse quickened as they hurried across the park, and Sheridan challenged Abby to a race through the parking lot. He buckled her into the backseat of the SUV—in short order, Beth thought distractedly. Finally, she couldn’t stand it anymore.
“What happened that made you sudd—”
He shushed her with a gesture, already holding his cell phone to his ear. “Get Billings on her again,” he said into the phone. Pause. “Okay.”
Beth was stunned. “Are you going to tell me what’s happening?”
“Not now. I need you away from here.” His eyes had gone hard. “Drive straight home and stay there until you hear from me.”
“I don’t take orders fr—”
“Damn it, Beth, trust me. I’ll take care of everything.”
I’ll take care of everything. Let me handle it.
He must have seen the fear in her eyes. He took both her shoulders, his voice almost a hush. “Beth, promise me you’ll go home and wait, just for a little while.”
Arguments spun through her mind, but Sheridan’s quiet fervor rolled the protests under. That and the surprising pressure of his lips against hers. His fingers dug into her hair, his body pressing into hers and his lips dragging an answer from Beth’s throat.
“All right,” she said.Samson, Pennsylvania114 miles away
Chevy walked into Mo Hammond’s Gun Shop, an illogical little bell tinkling as he entered. Mo was helping a customer—a big, flannel-shirted redneck wearing a bandanna. Chevy wandered the store, keeping his back to Mo, browsing the handguns and pistols. Five minutes later, when Bandanna Man headed to the shooting range for an hour of free target practice, Mo locked up the ammo case and came out from behind the counter.
“Hey, there,” he said. “Anything in particular I can set you up with?”
Chevy kept his face carefully downward, as if pondering the Hekhler Koch P7 in the gun case. “Could be. I heard this was the place to come.” He sensed more than saw Mo’s frown. “For packages, not guns.”
Mo stared, then his jowls dropped to his chest. “Jesus. Chevy?”
“Son of a bitch. Chevy.” He offered a meaty hand and pumped Chevy’s. “Son of a bitch.”
“So have you got some packages for me, or not, you big bastard?”
“Yeah, yeah. I got ’em, Chev. They’re all here, ’cept the ones you asked me to mail back to you in Seattle. I thought maybe you’d forgot about the rest of ’em. It’s been a while.”
“It took some time to take care of things. Hope it wasn’t a problem.”
“No, no, ’course not. Come on in the back. I just let ’em sit there ’til I heard from you again.”
“You never opened them?”
“Now why would I go an’ do that? The only time I even moved ’em was when I painted the place about two years back.” He threw the dead bolt on the front door and gestured for Chevy to follow him. They went to the back; Mo unlocked a closet.
“There they are, three of ’em, right?”
Chevy glanced at the boxes, all wrapped in brown packaging and addressed to Mo by Chevy’s own hand, postmarked April 10, 2002. “Right. Three of them.” The first five were long gone: three mailed from Boise, and two never to be seen again. Chevy felt a rush just thinking about it.
“Damn it, Chev, you look good,” Mo said, scratching his head. “Hard thing, comin’ outta prison not fucked up. Never did believe you offed that woman in the woods. The Hunter, they said. Hell, the Chevy Bankes I knew never even liked to hunt. And the way you always mollycoddled that little sister of yours, why I just knew you didn’t have it in you to take a woman out and shoot her in the back.”
“You always did know me better than anyone else, didn’t you, Mo?” Chevy asked. He was careful to say it casually, without accusation. But Mo might have caught it anyway; he shuffled his feet.
“So, you wanna take these with you now, or what?” Mo asked.
“I’ll take them. I need some empty boxes, and maybe to borrow your truck for a while, okay?”
Mo frowned. “My truck, er…” He looked at his shoes, actually dug his toe into the floor like an eight-year-old. Chevy put a hand on his shoulder. A subtle reminder of favors owed.
“Go ahead,” Mo said. “I need it back by six, though.”
Chevy looked at his watch: three o’clock. Arlington was less than two hours away.
Not that it mattered whether he got the truck back by six. Mo wouldn’t be needing it.
The hairs on the back of Neil’s neck stood on end as he watched Beth’s Suburban pull away from the park.
“Rick,” he said into his phone three seconds later, “the name of the man calling Denison is Chevy Bankes. See what comes up.”
“Bankes.” Rick was apparently writing down the name.
“And I need for you to run a plate,” Neil said.
“I don’t know, maybe nothing.” But he knew better. A jogger had circled around twice after Abby’s fall, rubber-necking, then gone to a Chevrolet Lumina, guzzled some water, fiddled with stuff in the trunk. Killing time, watching. Now, the man was gone, but his car wasn’t.
“Shoot,” Rick said, and Neil rattled off the tag numbers and letters.
Rick left the phone to call in the plates, then came back. “ID will come through in a couple minutes, and I put someone on the name Bankes. You know anything else about him?”
“No. Beth just gave me the name.”
“How’d you get that out of her?”
“I told her he was a murderer. That’s all it took. She almost fell apart on me.”
“Ah, man. Okay. Well, I just finished reading through everything we’ve got on Foster’s Auctions.”
“When Mike Foster died, he left the business to his wife, Carol, who hired their nephew, Evan, to run it. They never had children of their own. He’s an MBA from Harvard and seems like an upstanding enough guy. I can’t find any connection from the missing or dead women to any of the Fosters.”
“What about a connection to Gloria? I never looked at an antiques angle with her.”
“Denison was still a student in Seattle when Gloria died. What could there be connecting them?”
Neil didn’t know and, for the moment, didn’t want to think about. He skimmed the sea of cars, looking for the jogger. He worked his way across the parking lot, up and down the spotty aisles of cars. He came to the jogger’s Lumina and peeked in. Three fast-food bags, a thermos, and several cups. Either this guy had an eating disorder, or he’d been in his car for a while.
“I also looked at Waterford, the guy whose highboy is in Denison’s workshop,” Rick said. “He hasn’t been out of Charleston in the last two months, and his voice doesn’t match the one on her phone.”
“Beth’s still on his shit list.”
“Which does nothing for us. Look, if she’s ready to talk, we’re gonna need her. The thing in Indiana has turned this into interstate murder, and the FBI’s putting together a task force. A guy named Armand Copeland is the Special Agent in Charge. Is he any good or just a geek with a laptop?”
“I don’t know him, but don’t knock it. One thing they’re good at in the Bureau is geeks with laptops. I left a message for Geneviève Standlin this morning. She always liked me, didn’t want me to leave the Bureau.” Of course, he wasn’t sure that would matter. The last time he’d seen her, he’d told her to stay the hell out of his business and leave him alone.
Neil started toward the wooded border of the parking lot, searching the trees for the jogger. Instinct made him touch his gun. The man had simply vanished.
“Okay,” Rick said, “here it is—your license plate info. Chevy Lumina, two thousand one, dark blue. The owner’s name is Joshua Herring. He’s a—”
Neil heard a sound. He whirled and went for his gun, but too late. Everything went black.CHAPTER15
His wits surfaced when he hit the ground. He struck with enough sense to roll, the cell phone scattering shards of plastic all over the pavement, his gun dropping. He came to his knees, filaments of light spraying from his eyes like tiny, silent firecrackers, and groped for the nearest car to right himself.
The jogger rammed him back over the hood of the car. A gun arced through the air toward Neil’s head. He grabbed the man’s wrist and twisted, wrenching the flesh, then spun from the hood of the car. They separated long enough for Neil to scoop up his gun, but the guy hit him from behind and they both went down, rolling and snarling like two wolves.
In the distance a woman shrieked, and someone screamed to call 911. Neil dragged the brawl over the curb, into the woods and away from bystanders, but beyond that, his only salient thought was for Abby and Beth—and why this brute had been stalking them.
“Son of a bitch.” He lunged and caught the guy’s forearm, slamming it up against a tree. The man’s fingers sprang open, his pistol thudding to the ground. Neil drove his .45 into the bobbing Adam’s apple.
“D-don’t sh-shoot d-d-don’ t—”
“Who are you?” Neil growled. A warm river of blood trailed down the back of his neck. “And I’d better like your answer, or your brains are gonna fertilize this park for the next five years.”
“ID. B-back p-p-pocket.”
The man dropped to his knees—Neil helping—then stretched out on his stomach, lacing his fingers obediently behind his head. Neil reached into his back pocket and dug out a wallet. He looked at the driver’s license, then double-checked the next ID and sifted through a small stack of cards: VISA, American Express, Starbuck’s, Blockbuster, and—Jesus H. Christ—a local library card. He read the name on the license again, thought about what Rick had been saying when the world went black, and rolled the man to his back.
“You’re a private investigator?” Neil asked, incredulous. “Watching Beth Denison?”
“Joshua Herring. Herring Investigations.” He spit blood from the corner of his mouth.
“Why are you watching Beth Denison? Who hired you?”
“That’s confidential infor—”
Neil grabbed Herring’s shirt collar, dragged him to a stump, and spread Herring’s fingers on it. He held the hand immobile and lifted his .45 in the air, as if aiming the butt of the gun at the pinky.
“No-no-no! Okay,” the man sputtered, turning three shades of yellow.
“Who hired you to watch Beth Denison?” Neil repeated.
“Shedid!” he squealed. “I was keeping an eye on her daughter. Denison was afraid her ex-husband might come for the little girl.”
Neil waited, needing a moment for that to sink in, while sirens wailed to a stop in the parking lot. He dropped his arm and yanked Herring to his feet, then heard the unmistakable sounds of footsteps, cocked pistols, angry voices.
“Stop! Police! Drop the weapon!”
Neil looked up, letting go of Herring and dangling his gun on the tip of his finger. “Well, shit,” he said.Silver Springs, Maryland13 miles away
Chevy sat in Mo’s truck in the far corner of the parking lot at St. Mary’s Catholic Church, just outside the District. His own car was in long-term parking at the airport—safe for a while, anyway. He didn’t know what was going on in the church. A rehearsal, a service, a meeting. Whatever it was seemed to have ended about thirty minutes ago. The parking lot had cleared out except for three or four vehicles parked way out here in the back forty—employees, he presumed, or die-hards who would be the last out of the building. He was counting on at least a couple of them being women. And at least one being alone.
He turned up the volume of the tape, sinking into the smooth, plush upholstery. Killing unsuspecting animals must be better business than he’d imagined: Mo’s truck was a 2009 four-by-four, soft leather interior, double cab, a dashboard that resembled a cockpit.
State-of-the-art sound system.
“No. Please, sto-o-o-p. Please don’t hurt me…”
His latest acquisition from Indiana. Stunning.
He closed his eyes, letting the woman’s cries wash over him. One of his better kills, and he was glad: He wouldn’t have the luxury of taking his time with this next one. This one had to be quick and easy. No time for tapes, no time to even dump the body. Justpop, match the doll, and get the hell out of here.
He pulled out the next insurance form and picture:1866 Benoit. Bisque head and breastplate, nice wood body. New blouse, but other clothing original. Superb condition. Appraisal: $30,000–$35,000.
Yes, this one should be no trouble at all.
She came out the side door of the church—Chevy chose her the moment he saw her—and walked to the wing that was a preschool or something. She disappeared inside, then reappeared five minutes later with a large paper bag. She headed through the parking lot, coming toward him. Chevy’s nerves tightened. He straightened, took stock of the cars that were left: two SUVs, a minivan, a couple of sedans. If hers was one of the bigger vehicles…
He scanned the rest of the parking lot, his blood starting to tingle. No one else around. She passed the first sedan, the first SUV. Chevy’s knee began bouncing in anticipation. Not the Honda, not the Honda. Any of the others except the little Honda—
She pushed a button in her hand, and the headlights on the Dodge Caravan flashed. A surge of excitement rushed through Chevy. The minivan: perfect.
“Jenny,” he said, his voice straining, “I’ll be right back.”
He ran through the inventory before he got out of the truck, making sure he had everything: new pistol from Mo Hammond—a little .22; wedding ring on his finger. Oh, and don’t forget the blouses. He reached under the seat where he’d stowed a J. C. Penney’s bag.
The woman was thirty yards away. He started toward her, a casual walk. Chevy had sandy hair and brown doe-like eyes. He was five-foot-nine. He’d read once that five-nine was the average height for white American men, but usually he wished he was bigger. Trolling for women, though, he was glad he appeared harmless. There had been women who’d teased him during his lifetime, and some who used him. Some even felt sorry for him when they found out about his sister.
But they never feared him, not until it was too late.
This woman glanced in his direction, smiled slightly, and pressed the key fob again. The side door of her van slid open.
Chevy hastened his steps. “Whoa, you dropped something,” he called out, jogging toward her. “Oh, sorry. No, I guess you didn’t.” A smile now. The one that never scared women. “Let me help you with that.”
She stood at the side door, holding the bag, ready to thank him. He shoved as she opened her mouth. She fell across the bucket seats in the back, a shriek in her throat, and Chevy climbed in behind her—on top of her, really—struggling to get the door closed. He pressed the gun barrel about an inch above her temple—no time to measure.
Fwp.Not the echoing blast of the .38 shooting on a mountain in the Rockies or at the top of a bluff in Nebraska, justfwp. The woman jerked and went limp, sprawling over the console between the seats.
Chevy climbed off her and ducked down, even though the silencer had killed the sound and the windows were tinted. A few moments of caution couldn’t hurt.
But no one came. Not even Mother.
He straightened as much as the van ceiling allowed, unscrewed the silencer, and pocketed the gun. He hauled the woman up and propped her in one of the back-seats. Blood inched down the side of her head from the hole.
He got the bag of blouses, studied the woman. She wasn’t very big. He pulled out one of the pink blouses and checked the tag. Size sixteen—way too large. Dug out another. This was an eight; that would work.
He pulled off the blazer she was wearing, then cut away the short-sleeved knit top she had on underneath. Cutting was easier than trying to get it over her head. With effort, Chevy maneuvered her arms through the sleeves of the pink blouse and buttoned it up the front. He was sweating by the time he got her blazer back over it. Dead bodies—even small ones—aren’t easy to manipulate in the back of a cramped van.
But it was done. Chevy straightened the six inches he could, looked at the insurance form picture of the doll, then looked at the woman. There was a little more lace on the blouse in the photo, but the likeness was good enough.
He opened the woman’s purse, looking for her cell phone. Lord, how long had it been since he’d had a safe phone to call Beth?
He couldn’t wait to hear her voice when she realized where he was.
The call came three hours after Sheridan sent Beth home from the park. Abby was watching a movie. Cheryl and Jeff were due to arrive home late tonight, and Beth was planning to leave early in the morning for the four-hour drive to their house. She just had to make it through tonight.
She fed Abby, put inThe Aristocats, then beat up her sandbags. Showered, stared at the phone, and wondered what Neil Sheridan was doing—now that he was the possessor of her deep, dark secret.
His name is Chevy Bankes! It’s me he wants, and Abby…
Oh, dear God. I’m sorry, Abby.
Finally, Beth went to the basement and buried herself in the second of Mrs. Chadburne’s dolls—the one that had arrived just this morning. She actually held her breath as she unwrapped it. These dolls were rare, and as early as European fashion dolls were known. Others—Brus and Simon-Halbigs in particular—had been made in the 1870s and later. The Benoit dolls were earlier, fewer, and their workmanship unparalleled. This one was marked 1865 and bore the standard half-crescent mark of the Benoit manufacturer on the back of her neck. Her torso was kid leather, with bisque arms and legs. Beth began peeling off the clothes to take a better look, starting with the ruffled skirt and petticoats, the bloomers—
Oh, damn. The legs were damaged. Tiny hairline fractures crawled through the bisque like a spider’s web, as if something had landed on the doll once upon a time, or it had been dropped. She sighed; damage like this was difficult to repair, and even the best repairs would be visible under a black light. But as costly as the damage was, it wasn’t unexpected. Some of these dolls, though originally for use as models in storefronts, had actually become playthings for children.
She sat down at her computer, wanting to lose herself and pass the time. It worked, until the phone rang.
Her heart gave a thump.Neil?
Terror crashed in. Beth tempered it with fury.
“I’ve been missing you,” Bankes said. “And I know you can’t wait to see me.”
“I can’t wait to see you dead.”
He laughed. “Such a spitfire. I would have enjoyed you about an hour ago, when the woman I was with proved to be… boring.”
A chill slipped down her spine. “What do you mean?”
“I mean there wasn’t even a fight. No pain, no suffering, no pleading. She just fell into her own van and I shot her.”
Oh God, oh God.
“I didn’t even have the luxury of hearing her scream. But that’s all right. I have others to keep me going until it’s your turn.”
Beth swallowed back bile, nearly choking.Last Wednesday in Seattle, yesterday in Indiana…And just now, another?
“What are you doing? It’s me you hate,” she said. “Why would you hurt anyone else?”
“Oh, no,” he whined. “You mean, I’m not hurting you? But I would swear that’spainI hear in your voice.”
Beth sank to her knees. She might not have even realized it except that she heard the sound,thnk, when she landed. “ S-stop. Don’t hurt anyone else.”
“Very nice, Beth. I love to hear you plead. It’s sweet to know you’re finally suffering.”
Hold on, don’t pass out. It’s too late for deals, too late for anything Adele Lochner could help with. Too late to protect Abby. Just make him end it.
“Then come,” she said low. “Come getme. I’m the one you want. You want me to plead? I’ll plead, you bastard. I’ll scream and cry all you want. I’ll beg—”
His laugh cut her off, low and evil. “Be careful what you wish for, doll.”
“Nooo!” The phone slid from Beth’s hands. She folded down and held herself tight, then leaned back on her heels, rocking like a madwoman.
He was murdering women. Not seven years ago, now. Last week. Last night. An hour ago. All she’d ever thought about was protecting her secrets and keeping Abby safe. And all along, Bankes had been killing women on his way to her.
She went to the desk unit of the phone. Hand shaking, she punched the CID button. The number came up: area code 571.
Arlington. Oh, God.
She rooted through her purse until she found Sheridan’s number, dialed.The customer is not in the service area…She tried again.The customer is not in the service area…
But Bankes was near. Area code 571. She had to get Abby away from here.
Stay there until you hear from me. Trust me.
Beth palmed her cheeks dry. She went upstairs, checked on Abby, who was in a movie-induced trance, and retrieved the 9 mm from its secret compartment in the cornice of her highboy. She checked the cartridge and jacked it closed, then made sure there was an extra bullet in the chamber.
Focused now, her brain guiding her rather than her emotions, Beth pulled a suitcase from the closet in the guest bedroom. It was already packed. The only things to add were Abby’s toothbrush, a few toys she would have missed, and Heinz’s leash and food. Beth collected the toiletries, a couple of animals and a pillow for Abby, then picked up a hedgehog that was Heinz’s favorite toy. Stuffed it in the suitcase.
In three more minutes, the Suburban was loaded with Beth’s purse, the dog, the toys, and the suitcase. She went upstairs.
“Hey!” Abby complained when Beth turned off the TV.
“How many times have you seen this movie?” Beth asked, forcing a smile.
Abby giggled. “About thirty-hundred-thousand.”
“That’s what I thought. So listen. How would you like to go see Aunt Cheryl and Uncle Jeff tonight instead of waiting ’til morning?”
“Tonight? Right now?”
“Right now. Let’s hurry. Run to the bathroom first; it’s a long drive.”
“Okay!” Abby ran ahead, and in two more minutes, they were on the road. As soon as she got out of the city, Beth dialed Cheryl.
The first lies had been so hard. They were coming much more easily now.CHAPTER16
Neil banged through Rick’s office door. Cops milled around the desk like fruit flies. They all winced when they saw Neil’s battered face but were too focused on what was happening to comment.
“What happened?” he said, bulldozing his way through.
“Easy, man.” Rick’s brow creased. “You get sewn up?”
“I’m fine,” Neil said, touching the back of his neck where ten stitches tugged at his scalp. Courtesy of Beth’s private dick, Joshua Herring. “What happened?”
“A call just came in to Denison. We haven’t heard it yet. Your phone is out, so the guy called me. I told him to send the dub over here.” He shoved a finger at Neil’s chest. “Butyouget to explain the trace to the chief.”
The chief was the last thing on Neil’s mind. Another call? And this time, not anonymous. Beth had identified the caller as a man named Chevy Bankes. Info had been pouring in about him while Neil was at the hospital, but so far, they hadn’t made heads or tails out of Bankes’s connection to Beth.
But hewasconnected; he’d just called her again. And this time, her line was tapped.
The phone on Rick’s desk rang. “Sacowicz.” He listened, face intent. “Stay on her. For Christ’s sake, don’t lose her. I’ll send more cars.”
He hung up and looked at Neil. “Denison’s moving. She loaded up her car with a suitcase and the dog and the kid, headed north on I-95.”
“What?” It took five seconds for the words to register. When they did, Neil wanted to hit something. “Goddamn it. She promised she’d stay home.”
He felt the eyes of the other cops boring into him. No sooner had it dawned on him what they were thinking than someone said it aloud: “So Denisonisin with Bankes. The bastard called her, and she’s going to meet him.”
“We don’t know that,” Rick said. “Let’s wait and hear the call. Billings will stay on her.”
“Just Billings?” Neil asked.
“No.” Rick snapped his fingers at an officer named Fernandez. “Get her in a net. In front of her, behind her, all around. Don’t take any chance of losing her or the man she meets”—he looked at Neil—“if she meets anyone at all. Remember, there’s a little girl in the SUV. Don’t let this turn into a clusterfuck.”
“Got it,” Fernandez said. He and three others were out the door in a heartbeat.
“She wouldn’t do that, Rick,” Neil said. “She wouldn’t take off without telling me. We had a… We came to an understanding.” But he wasn’t sure he believed it himself. Maybe it had all been an act. The gut-wrenching emotion, the sharing of Bankes’s name. Her tearful surrender to trust him. Their kisses.
“Was the call long enough to get a location?” Neil asked.
Rick went to a wall map. “Ten blocks. That’s the best they could do in the amount of time he was on the line. That would mean the call came from right in here, near St. Mary’s church in Silver Springs,” he said, tapping an area not twenty minutes from Beth’s house. “I’ve got uniforms around the perimeter in five-block increments, stopping anything that looks suspicious.”
“Lieutenant.” Another phone had rung, and a female officer held the receiver toward Rick. He took it. Silence again, and his face lost color. “Get all that to Fernandez; have them fax us everything.” He hung up. “Shit.”
“What is it?” Neil asked.
“We got a dead woman in a Dodge Caravan”—he paused to mark it on the map, just inside the circled area—“St. Mary’s parking lot. Shot in the head.”
Neil stared; Rick looked like he’d just been sucker-punched. “Get on it, Jackson,” Rick said to the woman. “Take someone with you from downstairs and start canvassing the area around the church. And notify Special Agent Copeland at the FBI—don’t let anybody touch anything in the van until the Feds get in there.” He looked at Neil. “I’m gonna go look. Maybe something in the van will give us a lead.”
“You mean another lead,” Neil said, a bitter taste in his mouth. “You’ve already got a net around the best lead. She’s driving north on I-95.”
“Maybe.” Rick waited, chewing his lip. Then, “You wanna stay and wait for the call when the audio comes in?”
Yeah, Neil wanted to. He wanted to hear the audio of a phone call that had sent Beth running away just hours after she’d kissed Neil and allowed him to comfort Abby and agreed to trust him. He wanted to hear what it was the bastard said that made Beth jump and run when it was all Neil could do to get her to even talk to him.
More than that, though, Neil wanted to be there when they got her. See her face. Look in her beautiful, secretive eyes. Make her look into his.
Screw staying to hear the recording. Neil said, “I’ll go follow Billings. Call me when you hear the audio if Bankes said anything besides, ‘I’m finally here, baby. Come meet me.’ ”
There was something more on the audio, and Neil’s heart jammed in his throat when he heard it just five minutes later.
“Listen to this,” Rick said, sounding breathless on the other end of the phone. They were both in their cars, interference crackling over the line and breaking up their voices. “It’s the audio of the call to Denison, ten minutes ago. Hold on to your steering wheel, man.”
Neil dumped the car against the curb. The phones clicked a couple of times, then the caller’s voice came through.
Threats. Intimidation. Confessions of murder. Beth, sounding shocked and frightened. Then baiting him, trying to bargain with him. Terrified.
“Jesus,” Neil said. He was breathing hard, heart thundering, though all he was doing was sitting still in his car. “Play that again.”
Neil listened, then said the second prayer he could remember saying in over nine years. The first had been a little more than a month ago, for his brother. Damn if it wasn’t close to becoming a habit.
Rick beeped back onto the line. “So she’s not with him. That’s good news, right?”
Sure. Good news. Beth was terrified and frantic, and a murderer had come all the way across the country to find her. She had Abby, was carrying at least a .22 if not the 9 mm she’d shot at Keet’s, and enacting some rash plan she hadn’t bothered sharing with Neil.
“Ready for some more?” Rick asked. “Denison headed west. She’s not going anywhere near Bankes, and unless he tapped her phone, too, he can’t have any idea where she’s going.”
“Do we?” Neil asked.
“Do we what?”
“Have any idea where she’s going.”
“Nope. That’s why I called you. Want the guys to pull her over?”
“Jesus. She’s got Abby with her.”
“We could do it easy. One car, two officers. Try not to scare the shit out of Abby.”
“You gonna let one car pull over a distraught mother who’s running scared and armed with two guns?”
“So we let her go a while, let the drive cool her off.”
“Yeah,” Neil said. “But I wanna be there when she stops.”
“Where are you? I’ll come pick you up.”
They drove for three hours, then Rick thinned the net and stayed on Beth. She wasn’t a threat except to herself, and they’d crossed through five different precincts. Now they were in the mountains of southwest Virginia, and Neil wondered if she was headed to Guam.
They’d learned next to nothing about the murder of the woman in the van. The victim was a thirty-four-year-old soccer mom and Catholic preschool teacher who’d been attending a staff function. She’d been shot in the head in her own van. No ballerina-like pose, no missing eyelids, no weird carvings on her legs. Not even an eyebrow-pencil mark on her temple, and it looked like a smaller-caliber bullet than a .38. There was nothing but the phone call to Beth to connect this woman to the man who was no longer their “unidentified subject.” He was identified now. His name was Chevy Bankes.
“Think she’s really going?” Rick asked. “Just gonna drive until she feels far enough away to stop?”
Neil toyed with it. “No. You heard her tell him to come. I think she’s gonna lure the bastard back to her house and try to kill him.” He closed his eyes. “I could have helped her.”
“Beth?” Rick asked, his voice low. “Or Heather?”
The old pain took a stab at Neil. “Jesus, Rick, either of them. I mean, if either one had just told me what was going on, I might’ ve—”
“Whoa,” Rick said, squinting into the darkness.
Neil skimmed the road for what Rick had seen. A pair of shiny green disks, frozen in the distance. Groundhog, maybe. Beth’s car swerved around it, brake lights flashing.
“She’s gonna kill herself,” Rick said. “Out here on these two-lane highways, probably falling asleep at the wheel. The woman’s gonna crash if she doesn’t stop soon.”
Neil looked at the green numbers glowing in the dashboard: 11:45. They were almost four hours outside the District, and he had no idea how far Beth was planning to go. He did know she’d been without substantial sleep for God only knows how long. She was a tragedy waiting to happen.
“Okay,” he said. “Let’s pull her over. Before she runs her car into a tree.”
Rick nodded. He radioed Billings but stopped in the middle of the transmission. “Wait, she’s getting off.”
Beth took a little road whose only name was proclaimed by a tired sign readingCO. RD. 208. Neil dug out a map, using the glove-box light to see. “Covington.” He thumped the map with his finger. “There’s a little town six miles north on 208 called Covington, an exchange from another state highway two miles this side of it.”
“What the hell’s in Covington?”
“I don’t know,” Neil said, “but unless she’s either lost or turns off at the interchange, that’s where she’s going. It’s not an easy town to find by accident.”
But she did stop at the interchange. Billings reported there were two gas stations and a mom-and-pop diner. Denison parked at the diner.
“Billings,” Rick said into his handset, “stake out the intersections. We’re gonna follow Denison into the restaurant.” He turned to Neil with a look of resignation. “Aren’t we?”
Neil nodded, but he felt a little dead inside. This wasn’t the way he had imagined helping her. Damn fool that he was, he’d still believed she might come to him willingly.
It didn’t matter anymore. Willing or not, she was gonna deal with Neil now.CHAPTER17
Arlington, Virginia Ground Zero
Chevy was glad the dog was gone. He liked dogs fine, actually took in a stray once, but he didn’t want Beth’s sniffing around the house. He hadn’t even known she had one except he’d heard it barking once in the background of a phone call. Now he saw the food and water dishes sitting in the corner of her kitchen floor. Must be a big brute, he thought, noting the size of the bowls, then saw a photo on the wall that confirmed it. Sixty-five or seventy pounds. All the better it wasn’t here.
He walked through the kitchen, looking, soaking up the essence of Beth. He knew she was gone; the absence of the dog and empty spots on toy shelves indicated that she had taken her daughter and run. Alerted the police? Of course. A squad car had arrived about an hour ago and was parked down the street. A couple of cops had even walked through the house, and Chevy had barely had time to hide. He’d crouched in a basement cupboard and listened, the two cops just about pissing with excitement over the idea of a serial killer, expounding on all the ways the cops could nail him.
Chevy climbed the stairs, passing a door with the stylized lettersA-B-B-Yhung across the top. Abby. How fortunate. He hadn’t known until after he’d spoken with her former employees that Beth was pregnant when she moved from Seattle. He’d felt like the grand prize winner on one of those TV game shows. He couldn’t have asked for a better tool of torture.
He ambled through the rest of the upstairs, saving the master bedroom for last. He didn’t dare turn on any lights, and he’d have to wipe down everything he touched, but it would be worth it tofeelthe very things Beth had touched, to gather her scent, savor it. She was a pretty girl; he remembered that from their first encounter. But he remembered other things more. Her strength. Her silence. Her cruelty to Jenny. No woman since Mother had ever gotten away with that.
La-dee-da. Who’ll dig his grave? I, said the Owl…
The rage was like a cancer, swelling inside, making him tremble. He gripped the four-poster footboard, closed his eyes, and battered down the fury, forcing himself to think of Jenny. In the end, Mother hadn’t won. Despite all her efforts, Chevy had found Jenny, nursed her, and cared for her.
And then, beginning with Gloria Michaels, he’d learned how to silence Mother. One woman at a time, and each one better than the last.
Until Beth. She’d ruined everything.
But how sweet the taste of vengeance now. Already when he listened to tapes of their phone calls, he could hear the raw terror underlying her voice. Already her fear had grown to something that was almost tangible, that lived inside her day and night and hour after hour. And soon, when she figured out the dolls, she’d be able to look ahead to each one and know what was coming.
Then come… I’m the one you want. I’ll scream and cry all you want…
Chevy closed his eyes.Oh, yes, you certainly will.
The sign for the restaurant had once readRON AND SALLY’S DINER, but Ron’s name had a thin coat of paint over it, and the wordDinerwas missing the vowels. Inside, the atmosphere was homespun, smelled of simmering vegetables and overcooked beef, with a display of desserts in the lobby that could bring on diabetic shock in a perfectly healthy person. There were a fair number of customers, given the hour. Most appeared to be travelers; most of the license plates in the parking lot had been out-of-state. But a few were probably residents of Covington, giving all-alone Sally their business.
Beth Denison and Abby were already in a booth when Neil and Rick walked in. Another woman sat across from them.
“Whoa. Let’s watch,” Neil said, and Rick let out a weary curse.
“You think she’s gonna talk to her friend, see the light, and come running to you to save her? Give it up, Neil. The lady’s got a plan, and you aren’t part of it.”
“I’m hungry,” he grumped. “Let’s watch.”
Thirty minutes later, Abby was fading, her head on Beth’s lap. Beth appeared almost at ease, despite her stifled yawns. She and the other woman had talked, eaten bowls of the house vegetable soup, played table games with Abby. They could have been two girlfriends, meeting for a late-night snack. Except for the suitcase beside the table and Heinz in the SUV.
When they paid the tab and went to the lobby, Beth bent and hugged Abby—fiercely.
“Jesus, they’re saying good-bye,” Rick said. “Who the hell is that woman?”
“I don’t know, but call Billings.”
Rick was already punching it in. “Kid and woman leaving the restaurant. Follow whatever car they take, call in the plates, and find out who she is.”
“They’re getting in Denison’s car, Lieutenant,” Billings announced. “No, wait. They’re just taking the dog. Okay, the blue Camry, that’s theirs. Local plate. Will call it in.”
And Billings was gone. The woman was gone. Abby and Heinz were gone.
And Beth disappeared into the ladies’ room.
They gave her five minutes, then Rick said, “You know, the gun is probably in her purse now. You sure it’s Bankes she’s planning to kill?”
Neil’s eyes snapped up. Jesus, he’d never thought of that. Would Beth do something to hurt herself? He started toward the women’s room.
“Wait,” Rick warned. “She’s exhausted, scared, and maybe holding a loaded gun.” He caught the arm of a hostess wearing blue eye shadow and showed his badge. “Keep everyone out of the ladies’ room, miss. And don’t go telling everybody.”
The girl nodded, eyes wide. With their hands hovering over their guns, Rick and Neil entered the restroom.
Crying. Wrenching, heartbreaking sobs filled the corner stall, the door shut. Rick made a quick check of the other two stalls to make sure they were empty, then perched a hip against the counter, a gesture that clearly said,She’s all yours, buddy.
Neil squatted. He could see that Beth was sitting on the floor against the wall, her knees squeezed tight against her body. He stood back up; peeking under the stall door in a women’s bathroom seemed wrong no matter what the circumstances. But her purse was sitting on the floor beside her, her gun presumably within reach. Or maybe in her hands already.
Jesus, shesoundedlike a woman who had decided to kill herself. “Beth,” he said, and the sobbing choked to a halt. “It’s Neil.”
Silence. The air went still.
“I know Chevy Bankes called you tonight. We heard it.” Steady, now. Voice low and calm. “Beth, I know you have a gun, at least the derringer. Is it in your purse?”
“You don’t have to be afraid anymore,” Neil said. “Two police cars are following your friend and Abby now. Who is she, Beth?” Use her name a lot, let her know he’s here for her. Even though it’s the last damned thing she wants. “Sweetheart, Rick Sacowicz is here. I’m here. I think you have to talk to us now, Beth.”
“I d-didn’t know he was k-killing people.”
Relief poured in at the sound of her voice. “I know; we should have told you.” And they should have. Lawsuits and politics be damned. “Beth, honey, push the gun out to me.”
A movement in the stall, and Neil held his breath. A small black object slid under the stall door. Neil frowned, picking it up. “Your phone, Beth?”
“I was calling you.”
A tidal wave of something deep and protective surged through Neil. It startled him with its intensity. “I’m sorry, honey. My phone got broken this afternoon at the park.” He paused. “Where’s your gun, Beth?”
The .22 slid under the stall door, and a second later, a state-of-the-art 9 mm Glock.
“Christ,” Neil said, gathering both. He emptied them and dropped the cartridge, loose bullets, and .22 into his coat pocket. The 9 mm he stuffed behind his back in his belt.
Now, for Beth.
“I’m coming in, Beth. Open the door.” His hand was already on the top of the door as he said it, and it gave without effort. It wasn’t locked.
She looked up at him, those beautiful, dark brown eyes glistening and swollen and red-ringed. “Her name is Cheryl Stallings,” she said, and it took him a second to realize she was talking about the woman who had taken Abby. “She’s Adam’s sister. They live on Oakdale Lane in Covington. But I didn’t tell them about Bankes. I couldn’t.”
Rick left, punching in numbers on his cell phone. Neil reached down and lifted Beth to her feet. Her gaze narrowed on his face.
“What happened to you?”
“Joshua Herring happened to me.” He waited for that to take hold.
“Oh, God. Is he… Did you… ?”
“Don’t worry, he’s all right. He gave up client confidentiality at the drop of a hat, though. Real tough guy,” he said, dripping sarcasm. He gave Beth a scolding look. “Yourex-husband?”
“I had to tell him something. I didn’t know what else to do.”
Anger slid past worry. “But now you do. Now that you know what Bankes is up to, you decided to get rid of Abby and go back and blow his brains out yourself, is that it?” Neil tightened his grip on her arms. “I was right here all along, damn it. You should have told me.”
“The hell you couldn’t!” He gave her a shake. “Did it ever occur to you thatIwould keep Abby safe? Did you ever think, just once, that if you’d told me what was happening, maybeIcould take care of both—”
She broke; the air just came out of her. Her body crumpled, tears coming fast. Neil cursed, dragging an armload of sobbing female against his chest. Nothing made a man feel more helpless.
When the worst had passed and her breathing came more easily, he pushed her back and tipped her chin. “Tell me the truth, Beth. Were those bullets for you or for him?”
“Abby needs me,” she said simply.
Relief pounded through Neil’s veins.
“Well,” he said, “thank God for Abby.”
It was hot in Beth’s basement—that seemed odd. Or maybe Chevy was just sweaty. The cupboards had been harder work than he’d imagined, the position awkward and the little hacksaw from Beth’s bachelorette tool kit inefficient. Still, when he finished, he had nearly five feet in one cupboard, and the back wall could be removed to get into the crawl space beneath her porch. His own private dwelling, right under Beth’s nose. Literally.Bedroom with access to a terrace, he thought, making himself giggle.
He cleaned up the sawdust as best he could with just a penlight, and stowed away the boxes of dolls he’d picked up from Mo Hammond. He climbed into the cupboard and lay on his back to try it out, legs bent and shoulders a little cramped. Not great, but it would do, at least if he had something to use as a pillow.
He felt his way slowly through the house, mindful of the police cruiser sitting down the block. He thought about taking a couch cushion or a pillow from a bed, then decided it might be missed. He went to the laundry room, found a sweater of Beth’s and the shirt she’d apparently worn under it.
That would do. Chevy held it to his nose and reeled with pleasure. Yes, that would do especially well, he thought, then straightened when he heard a sound.
A car. It was coming down Beth’s driveway.
Chevy’s heart kicked into his throat. He scrambled back down the stairs, wary of his steps in the darkness, trying not to panic. Just outside the garage, men’s voices murmured.
Neil drove Beth’s Suburban back to Arlington; Rick detoured to Covington to bring the locals in on the case and check in with the FBI. Beth’s instincts for Abby’s safety had been good. Covington was a peaceful, small community. The Stallings were well-known; Jeff was a strapping career military man just back from temporary duty. The only thing Neil could fault Beth for was sending Heinz away, too.
“You should have kept the dog with you for protection,” he’d complained as they pulled away from the diner.
“Heinz is no protection. He would beg a murderer to pet him.”
“He’s noisy. That’s something. More useful than Joshua Herring.”
She frowned. “Herring watched out for Abby.”
“Who was watching out for you?”
“I was. I do it all the time.”
A promise or a threat, Neil wasn’t sure, but it didn’t matter: She was asleep before the words sank in. She slept all the way back to Arlington. Shivered and shook and made heartbreaking little sounds, but slept nonetheless. At four-thirty, Neil pulled into the driveway of her house and gestured to the police officer walking toward them from his cruiser. The officer jogged down the drive to meet him and shook hands when Neil stepped out of the vehicle.
“Sacowicz told me to expect you.”
“Everything quiet?” Neil asked.
The officer nodded. “I came on about two hours ago. And Wilson, parked down the street. We did a walk-through when we got here, before we took our posts. No sign of anyone.”
“Okay.” Tomorrow—this morning, rather—when the task force assembled, they’d work out a more sophisticated surveillance plan with a team of off-site agents. Put some people in the neighborhood, maybe put someone inside the house, just in case Bankes showed.
At least, that’s what Neil thought they’d do. It had been a while since he’d been in on a murder investigation. Once the FBI took over, he wasn’t sure he’d still be in on this one.
“The lady’s asleep,” he said, nodding to the Suburban. “I need five minutes.”
“I’ll keep an eye on her,” the officer said.
Neil raided Beth’s purse for the key card to her garage and went inside. He went straight upstairs and found an empty suitcase, logically stored in the guest room closet. He went to Beth’s bedroom. The top corner of a big dresser was dismantled, the compartment just big enough to hide something the size of a Glock.
“Pretty slick,” he muttered, then rooted through her closet and a couple of drawers, grabbing anything he thought she might need and folding clothes as neatly as a man is capable of doing. In the bathroom, a box of Tampax made him pause. He took it, just in case, then searched the drawers for birth control pills or something. There weren’t any.
You’ve been alone a long time…
Neil looked at a photograph of her husband on the nightstand. Some questions there, but he was honest enough to acknowledge they were mostly personal. Adam Denison didn’t appear to be a big guy: five-nine or five-ten, with the build of a tennis player, light brown hair, and kind of an intellectual look about him. Abby didn’t favor him; she was a carbon copy of Beth’s exotic looks. But it was obvious from the array of photographs around the house that Beth worked hard to keep Adam alive, and his ring was the only jewelry Neil had seen her wear.
Was she still in love with a ghost?
At five o’clock in the morning, he pulled into the hotel parking lot.
“It’s clean?” Neil asked when Rick met him.
“Yeah. My guys got security in place an hour ago.”
He woke Beth gently, not knowing what to expect of her temper when she realized he’d taken her to a hotel instead of home. He didn’t know if she still had any intention of taking on Bankes, but it didn’t matter anymore. He was finished letting her call the shots.
“Where are we?” she asked, testing her legs as she got out of the car. She handed him the sport coat he’d tucked around her in the car. He draped it right back over her shoulders again.
“Hotel. Keep you out of sight for a little while.”
She blinked but didn’t argue. Probably just too exhausted.
“Abby?” she asked.
“Covington police and a couple of Feds are on her twenty-four, seven. Adam’s sister will never know they’re there. But if Bankes discovers Abby, we’ll be on him before he can breathe.”
“You’re damn right, okay. Get your purse.”
“I am getting my purse. You don’t have to order me around.”
It didn’t feel that way to Neil. She needed someone to take care of her, God help him.
Beth frowned when he pulled her suitcase out of the car. “That’s mine,” she said.
“We went by your house and I picked up a few things. If there’s something I missed, I’ll get it tomorrow.” She reached for the suitcase and Neil pushed her hand away. “I’ve got it.”
“I can carry my own suitcase,” she protested. “I do it all—”
“Damn it, Beth.” He grabbed the suitcase with one hand and her elbow with the other. “You aren’t alone anymore.”
He piloted Beth to a suite of rooms on the eighth floor of the Radcliffe Hotel. It had a comfortable central sitting room, with two bedrooms jutting out like wings, each with its own bath. Another half bath squatted between the wings, and to the right a pair of double doors led to a small kitchen.
Rick, his sleeves rolled to his elbows and tie yanked loose, had files spread out on a coffee table. A larger table had been commandeered for a laptop, printer, and fax machine. Neil wasn’t surprised at the man stationed there: thin, bespectacled, and slightly balding, he wore a black suit, white shirt, and navy-striped tie.
The Feds had arrived.
“Ms. Denison,” Rick said, gesturing to the setup, “I’m sorry to intrude on you, but we need to talk to you before you go to bed.”
“I’m not going to bed. I slept all the way here.”
Neil stopped himself before he scoffed out loud. She sure as hellwasgoing to bed. For about ten hours, if he had anything to say about it.
“This is Special Agent Jack Brohaugh with the FBI,” Rick said, introducing the man with a laptop. “The rest of the task force will be assembled later this morning at Quantico. Brohaugh is a technology expert.”
“Computer jock,” Brohaugh editorialized. He smiled at Beth and shook Neil’s hand.
“Do you know Special Agent Geneviève Standlin?” Neil asked.
“She’s on her way,” Brohaugh answered. “She said to tell you to take a pill, chill out.”
Neil humphed. Witch. But, Jesus, he’d be glad to see her.
Rick started in with Beth: “We know about Anne Chaney and Bankes. But we need you to help us figure out what he’s doing now. Why he’s after you.”
Her cheeks drained of what little color they had, but she nodded. She picked her way around the room as if she didn’t know where to sit, then perched on the edge of a love seat. Brohaugh started typing, though nothing had been said yet, and Rick settled into a chair.
“Ms. Denison,” Rick began, “when did you receive the first phone call from Bankes?”
“About eight months ago,” she said. “I thought it was just a run-of-the-mill prankcall.”
“How many times has he called since then?”
She pressed her fingertips against her temples. “I don’t know.”
“Two, ten, twenty?” Neil pushed.
“I don’t know.” She looked at Neil. “You were monitoring my phone calls, why don’t you know?”
“Jesus, Beth, we weren’t monitoring your phone calls. All we knew at first was the phone that called you on Wednesday night belonged to a woman with her eyelids cut off.”
Well, shit. Beth went ashen, looking suddenly like she might pass out. Neil glanced at Rick, whose face said,Nice work, asshole.
“Ms. Denison—” Rick stopped. “May I call you Beth? We only know of three phone calls. The one from Seattle you received at midnight this past Wednesday night, the one from Omaha we played for you at the station, and the one we tapped into tonight”—he looked at his watch—“I mean, last night. Do you remember the first call?”
She nodded. “It was a Monday night, Labor Day. I remember because I’d just flown back from an antiques show in Dallas.”
“What did he say?”
“Nothing. I hung up. I thought it was just an obscene phone call.”
“Okay,” Rick said. “But there has to be a reason Bankes called you. It wasn’t random. Think about people you’ve met through Foster’s, maybe someone you dated—”
“It’s not that.” She looked up, and the words seemed to choke her. “I wasn’t trying to be uncooperative. I thought he just wanted to get back at me. It’s me he wants.”
Neil’s heart began to squeeze.
“But this last time—t-tonight—when he called, he said he’d—” She drew in a deep breath. Agony carved lines in her face. “He said he’d killed a woman in her van. Wh-what if it’s true?”
“It is true, sweetheart,” Neil said. “He shot a woman, just before he called you.”
She jerked as if she’d been struck. A pallor like a death mask crept over her face.
“Beth,” Neil said, “that was the third woman we think Bankes has killed—onthisspree—and two others are miss—”
She shoved past him, swung the bathroom door closed behind her. She vanished so quickly Neil felt the air move in her wake, caught her scent in his nostrils. He frowned, then heard the unmistakable sounds of coughs and gags.
They gave her a few minutes, nobody talking, until Neil couldn’t stand it any longer and started toward the bathroom. The door opened, and he stopped.
“It’s not because of something at work,” Beth said, her voice thready. “And it doesn’t have anything to do with someone I dated.”
Neil stepped closer. “Then what is it, Beth? Why does Chevy Bankes want to ‘make you pay’?”
She looked up at him, forcing out the words: “Because I killed Anne Chaney.”CHAPTER19
Silence. For the space of three heartbeats, the room went absolutely still, then Sheridan scraped out an order: “Don’t say another word, Beth.”
“I didn’t me—”
“Stop.” He shushed her with his hand, his voice so severe she blinked. His expression virtually dared anyone else in the room to continue the questioning.
“Uh…” Sacowicz rubbed his head, looking confounded. “Okay, get her lawyer,” he said to Sheridan. And to Beth, “This might be a good time to take a break, maybe go lie down, whatever.”
She opened her mouth, but Neil was already beside her, his hand on her elbow. “Do it.”
An hour later, Beth sat on the edge of a hotel bed, water dripping from her hair and soaking the back of her hotel robe. There was a time she’d almost drowned herself in hot showers—it had been the only way to get warm when the chills came, vibrating on the heels of the memories. Memories now shared with the Arlington Police Department, the FBI, and Neil Sheridan.
I won’t tell, Adam, I promise.
“Beth.” A rap at the door.
She smoothed back her hair and considered standing. She didn’t have the energy. “Yes.”
The door cracked open. “Hey.”
Neil. Ex–Special Agent Sheridan, rather. She wasn’t sure when she’d started thinking of him as Neil. For such a startlingly handsome man, he looked terrible—from his altercation with Joshua Herring, the long drive, the long hour spent reading about Anne Chaney and Chevy Bankes.
He stepped in front of her. “You should dry your hair. You’re shivering.”
So, what else is new? she thought.
“Adele Lochner is on her way. Don’t say anything more until she gets here, do you understand?”
Don’t tell, Beth. You’ll go to prison.
“I didn’t mean for it to happ—”
“Don’t.” He placed his finger over her lips. “Tell me later, with your lawyer.”
The emotional dam threatened to crack. Damn it, she shouldn’t need a lawyer to explain what happened. And damn it, she thought she’d gotten past the guilt.
Neil sat down so close the heat of his body penetrated her robe. “It was fifty-two degrees the night Anne Chaney died. You were cold.”
Beth looked at him. No one had ever understood the physical legacy that haunted her all these years later, yet in the past few days Neil had seen it come over her time and again. Shivers and chills and bone-deep cold that wouldn’t go away. “Sometimes I think I’ll never get warm,” she said.
“You will,” he said, opening his arms, “right here.”
It didn’t occur to her not to accept; she simply leaned in. Strength. Heat. Safety. His protectiveness wrapped around her like a blanket, and she had the feeling all the evil in the world might simply fade from existence.
“Damn,” Neil said, pulling back. There were new voices in the other room.
“We need to get out there. I called an agent I used to know. That’s her voice I hear.”
“Oh.” Beth noticed his shirt and rubbed her hand down it. “I got you all wet.”
He jerked and caught her hand, something fierce in his eyes. His lashes dipped and he tugged the lapels of her robe together.
“I, uh, guess I should get dressed,” she said, taking the lapels in hand.
His Adam’s apple bobbed once.
He stood. “Beth, for God’s sake, don’t say something to me now that some lawyer can dig out of me later. Just wait.”
“Ironic, isn’t it? You’ve been wanting me to talk for days, and suddenly when I can’t, it feels like the most important thing in the world to tell you.”
“There’ll be time. Right now you need to talk to the FBI, police.”
“Wait. What about you? Are you leaving?” she asked, alarmed.
“Leaving?” For a second he looked baffled, then he curled his fingers into the edges of her robe, pulled her in, and kissed her with a thoroughness that was loud and clear.
“Get it?” he asked when he was finished. “Or do you have any more stupid questions?”
Beth cleared her throat. “No. I think I got it.”
She braved the audience in the common room ten minutes later. Lieutenant Sacowicz and the agent named Brohaugh bent over a laptop, while a fax machine behind them spit page after page into a tray. A newcomer pulled off the pages, reading them and handing them to Neil. Her hair was cut stylishly short and threaded with gray, and she wore a navy pantsuit set off with a yellow-and-blue scarf. His friend from the FBI, Beth supposed, and looked around the room. She thought she’d heard someone else, too.
Neil saw Beth and held up a hand to the newcomer. “Leave her alone, Standlin. She’s going to eat first.”
“It’s okay,” Beth said. “I’m not really hungry.”
“The hell you’re not.”
The woman ignored him and stuck out her hand to Beth. “I’m Geneviève Standlin. I’m with the FBI. A psychiatrist.”
Beth froze.What?She turned on Neil. “You called a psychiatrist? I’m not going to fall apart.”
“Well, that’s good,” Standlin said, “because I didn’t come to keep you from falling apart. I came to profile Chevy Bankes and give you something so you can sleep.”
“Here’s your profile: Chevy Bankes is a psycho,” Beth shot back. “And I don’t need anything to help me sleep.”
“Beth,” Neil said, “Standlin’s not the enemy. Come eat break—”
“Andyoucan stop giving me orders.” Her voice was strong, but a sudden, overwhelming wave of panic made her reel. She was finally prepared to tell them about Anne Chaney’s death, and now some headshrinker was going to dig and poke and prod, searching for more.
Well, they weren’t going to get it. Not all of it, anyway.
A brick-red blazer emerged from the middle bathroom. Adele Lochner.
Beth walked over to her. “You knew,” she said, her voice vibrating with emotion. “You knew what he was doing and didn’t tell me.”
Lochner’s spine grew a full two inches. “I told you they were hunting for him based on evidence that was pure speculation, and they were. It didn’t seem prudent for you to go admitting to murder on the basis of that.”
“It’s not speculation anymore, is it, Counselor?” Neil said.
“My obligation was to protect my client, Mr. Sher—”
“Enough.” Lieutenant Sacowicz stepped in. “We’re all on the same side now. The rest was just everybody doing his—or her—job.” He turned to Beth. “There’s food in the kitchen. Better go grab some.”
There must have been some sort of breakfast buffet in the hotel. A little bit of everything had been kept warm on the stove, and fresh coffee dripped into a pot. Decaf. “I need some leaded coffee,” Beth complained.
“After you get caught up on your sleep,” Neil said. “Not until.”
But, Lord, it felt nice to have someone looking out for her.
When she finished eating, Neil materialized at the table, holding out his cell phone. “Do you want to talk to Abby?”
“I already dialed; just hit Talk.”
He left the kitchenette, and on the third ring, Cheryl picked up. Abby was waiting for breakfast, playing with Jeff and the three-year-old. Beth could hear Heinz barking playfully in the background. The few minutes of conversation lifted her spirits and focused her energy, grounding her after a night that had the distant, ethereal quality of a dream. She still felt as if she were floundering at sea, but Abby’s voice was like a lighthouse. Neil Sheridan, the lifeboat.
Beth pushed that maudlin sentiment away and snapped the cell phone closed, taking a deep breath. Time to face the music.
As much as she dared.CHAPTER20
Iwas meeting with the curator for the Westin-Cooper Museum,” Beth explained, her knees curled up in a wing-back chair, her audience rapt. “A prominent family had offered to sell a collection of antiques to the museum, and the curator, Anne Chaney, wanted to show it to me.”
“So you were already employed at Foster’s,” Sacowicz said.
“Part-time. At the office, I got a message from Anne that she would have to reschedule our appointment for another night. I remember I was glad; it meant I could go to dinner with Adam and a DA who was visiting from Chicago. He was going to work in his grandfather’s firm there, but he wanted to get into politics, so wining and dining this DA was a big deal. But then Anne called and said she could make it after all. I owed her a favor, so I told Adam to have dinner without me, and that I’d join them for dessert.”
“So your associates at Foster’s never knew you and Anne Chaney met that night,” Neil said. “They thought your appointment had been canceled.”
“Yes.” She took a deep breath. “Anne had just moved into a gated community that backed up against a forest and a lake. I called her from my car and waited until I saw her come outside. She had some empty boxes from unpacking and went around back to the Dumpster. Bankes must have been there. When she didn’t come back, I walked around the corner and saw them talking. Arguing.”
“I don’t know. But Anne was backing away from him, pulling her arm from his hand. Then Bankes hit her.”
She paused, closing her eyes as if rewinding the footage in her mind and playing it back might change the way it had ended.
“I called out.”Stupid, stupid, thing to do.“Bankes turned. He had his arm around Anne’s throat and a gun. He said if I moved, he would kill us both. I… I just froze. He shoved Anne up beside me and told us to walk.”
“Out into the woods, behind the town houses. He was right behind us, with the gun.” The panic leaked in, bleeding into her chest.
Ancient history. Keep talking.
“I kept thinking we should fight him, but Anne was hysterical. She wasn’t going to help.”
“Why did you think that?” Dr. Standlin asked.
“She recognized Bankes. He’d been, I don’t know, stalking her, I guess.”
“Chaney had told you that?” asked the lieutenant.
“No, but Bankes kept saying, ‘I told you, you couldn’t hide from me,’ and ‘It’s finally time,’ things like that. He talked to Anne the whole time we walked, taunting her.”
“Did Bankes talk to you during all that time you walked?” Standlin asked.
“Not really; it was all about Anne. I just happened to be there. I didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t a fighter then. I didn’t know how to defend myself.”
“So you just willingly walked into the forest with Bankes.”
The censure in Standlin’s voice struck like a lash. “What was I supposed to do? He had a gun. He had a bag looped over his shoulder and kept shifting it, but he always kept the gun pointed at us. Yes, I just walked willingly. I thought he’d kill us if I didn’t.”
“What kind of bag was he carrying?” Lieutenant Sacowicz asked.
“I don’t know. Canvas, I think, or nylon. Just a bag, like for a gym or sports. It didn’t look too heavy, but he kept… handling it all the way. Like there was something valuable inside.”
“And talking to Anne,” Standlin said.
“Taunting her. He liked hearing her cry.”
“At the trial,” Brohaugh said, “the prosecutor argued that Bankes had stalked Chaney for weeks, driven her to change her phone number, get new locks, move. But Chaney had a reputation for getting around with the men. Bankes’s attorney argued that one of her ex-lovers might have been her stalker.”
Neil looked at Beth. “Bankes didn’t harass you?”
“I wasn’t supposed to be there, I guess. He just pushed me against a tree and told me to sit down.”
Don’t do it. Fight.The impulse threaded back into consciousness like big, ugly stitches in time, unraveling. Helplessness, weakness.
“I didn’t know what else to do,” she said. “He had the gun. I just… I just did what he said, and he teased Anne and ”—she swallowed—“rubbed himself. Anne was crying.”
“What were you doing during all this?” Standlin asked.
I was by the tree, doing nothing. While Anne cried and begged him not to hurt her.
“Don’t just think it, Beth,” Standlin ordered. “Say it out loud.”
“I wasn’t doing anything, damn it! If I went for the water, I’d freeze. If I ran, he’d shoot me. I thought maybe if we both ran, but Anne… She wouldn’t…”
“She wouldn’t run,” Standlin finished.
Don’t just stand there, Anne, damn it. Do something.
Beth shook her head. “She curled up in a ball and cried.”
Anne, stop! You’re making it worse.
“That must have made you angry at Anne.”
Lochner stood up. “What the hell?”
“Don’t be stupid,” Beth said. “I wasn’t angry at Anne.” But even as the words came out, the first fat tear ran down her cheek. She didn’t know why, and she flicked it away with the back of her hand. “It’s just that she was making it worse. He wanted her to cry. He liked the sound of it. Then I saw him look around for his bag. He stepped away from Anne to drag it closer. It was just a second, but I thought maybe—” She swallowed. “I grabbed his arm.”
Run, Anne! Go, damn it.
“And the gun.”
“She ran. Finally, like I told her to, Anne started to run. And I fought with Bankes. And then the gun…”Pop. Pop.
Oh no, oh no, oh no…
Lochner cursed, and from somewhere in the room Neil said, “Ah, Jesus.” Beth closed her eyes, but the memories were there, pulling at her, dragging her down.
Standlin stepped closer. “You convinced Anne to run, Beth? And attacked Bankes?”
Damn it, Beth, what were you thinking, attacking a man with a gun?Adam’s voice, sharp with fury. She shook it off and looked at the room through blurry eyes. “I was just trying to get the gun.”
“It’s okay, Beth,” the lieutenant said gently.
But it wasn’t okay. Anne was dead.
Don’t tell, Adam insisted,they won’t understand. Later, he’d said if they needed her testimony, she could tell the police she was there. But the police never needed it. Bankes was arrested the next day and convicted in a short trial. They had evidence from his shoes that he’d been at Anne’s townhome complex, an alibi that didn’t check out, gunshot residue on his hands. Without ever hearing Beth’s version of the story, he went to prison for life.
Now he was free.
Standlin held up some printouts. “There was blood at the scene that didn’t belong to either Bankes or Chaney, and two shell casings from a thirty-eight semiautomatic. One bullet struck Anne Chaney in the back while you fought with Bankes. What happened to the other?”
“I don’t know.”
“Are you O-negative?”
“It was your blood at the scene, wasn’t it?” Standlin asked.
“My client isn’t going answer any more quest—”
“Were you shot, Beth?” Neil asked, sounding worried.
“No. No. I don’t know what happened to the other bullet.”
“Then what happened after Anne went down?” Standlin pressed.
Anne went down.Such simple words, yet so descriptive. Anne had finally been running, as Beth had told her to, and just… went down. Dead, with one giant convulsion of her spine. The gun that killed her wrenched from Beth’s hands. The gunshot stinging against her palm. Bankes dropping beside Anne’s body, screaming, digging furiously into his bag.
And then Bankes, going mad.
“After?” Beth whispered. “He wantedmeto scream then, for Anne. But I wouldn’t. I was afraid it would make him…” She touched the scar on her cheek. “He hit me with the gun.”
“Christ,” Neil said. He stared at her when she didn’t say anything more. “That was it? You were knocked out?”
Not quite. Not enough that she couldn’t feel the chill of the ground, or taste the retching combination of dirt and blood and bile that crawled down her throat. Not enough that she couldn’t feel her cheek on fire, or his hands on her thighs. She wasn’t out that much.
“When I came to, he was gone. There was nothing there but Anne’s body.” She shivered. “I ran. I went back the way we’d come. I got in my car and locked the doors. I drove.” Heat. All the way to high. “I went home, to our apartment. Adam was there.” Angry, because she hadn’t shown up at the restaurant. “I showered. I was dirty and bloody.”
And cold. So, so cold.
“And you didn’t tell anyone,” Standlin said. A statement rather than a question.
“Of course I did. I told Adam.”
“He took care of me. He got a butterfly bandage from a first-aid kit for my cheek, and he helped me get to sleep.”
“He didn’t take you the hospital, call the police?” Neil said, incredulous.
“He would have the next morning, but he watched the news. Someone found Anne’s body within hours. By afternoon, they had a suspect. It was on TV, and I saw they had the right man. I don’t know what to tell you…” She looked down, bracing herself for the guilt to begin gnawing again. “We’d just found out I was pregnant. Adam was worried about what a trial would do to me and the baby. And they didn’t need me. Bankes was held without bail. Then he was convicted.”
Standlin said, “You could have told all this to Sacowicz or Sheridan when they came looking for him a week ago.”
“I could have. I wish I had. But I thought Bankes was coming forme, and I knew there was nothing I could do to send him back to prison. I thought maybe if I offered him enough money—”
“And if he didn’t take it, it didn’t matter,” Neil said, his voice rough. “Because you could handle him now. You’re strong.”
“Don’t respond to that, Beth,” Lochner ordered. “He’s try—”
“Stop.” Beth felt as if a dam were crumbling. She turned to Neil. “You’re right. I did think I had to handle Bankes myself—”
“Beth!” Lochner said.
“And I did want to kill him.”
Adele Lochner sank into a chair.
“The system set him free, and I thought he was coming for me or my daughter. If I couldn’t pay him off, I didn’t think I had any choice but to kill him. But in the end, I didn’t do it. In the end,” she said, looking straight into Neil’s eyes, “I tried to call you.”CHAPTER21
In the end, I tried to call you. The weight of that dropped like a load of bricks on Neil’s shoulders. Be careful what you wish for, said one part of his brain. But his conscience spoke louder: She needs you; don’t fuck it up this time.
Ten more minutes spent hashing through the story yielded nothing new. And Standlin, digging deeper and harder, only seemed to push Beth further away.
“That’s it,” Neil said. “Beth needs to sleep.”
He thought she looked grateful for that. For a minute he thought she might not even argue with him. Then she stood. “So, I’m staying here, I guess?”
“You’re staying here.”
“You said you could pick things up for me at the house. Would you?”
Neil nodded. “Of course. What do you want?”
“There’s a widow in Boise who’s sending me dolls. Two are already lost, but a new one is supposed to arrive this morning. It will need a signature.” She paused. “And I’ll need my black light and laptop so I can work.”
“Police are watching your house, just in case Bankes shows up,” Neil said. “I’ll have them sign for the package and stop by and get it.” It would be just as well if Beth had something to keep her occupied while she was holed up here. He sure as hell wasn’t letting her out.
Standlin came over, medical bag in hand.
“What’s that?” Beth asked, noticing the needles coming out of the bag.
“Two things,” Standlin said. “One, we need blood to compare to the unidentified sample found at the scene of Anne Chaney’s murder. And two, I’m giving you a light sedative.”
Beth bristled. “You can have all the blood you want, but I don’t need a sedative.”
“You’ll have nightmares. Sheridan says you always do.”
Neil fielded a glare from Beth that might have wilted a lesser man. “Take it, Beth. You’re no good to anyone running around half-comatose.”
She scoffed. “You mean half-nuts. You’re just afraid I’ll crack up, slip away from you, and—how did you put it—go home to blow his brains out.”
“I’m not afraid of that,” he said, deciding to make things perfectly clear. “There’s no way in hell I’ll let you slip away from me.”
Chevy lay on Beth’s bed, feeling her, smelling her, sliding into dreams where she cried in desperation and screamed in pain, pleading with him to stop yet knowing he wouldn’t, not until he’d milked every whimper and gasp and shriek from her body. He woke hard as a club and tried to go back under again, but sunlight streamed through the slats in the blinds. He couldn’t make it work.
Morning. And where was Beth? Gone, he thought. Probably at a friend’s or at a motel. Maybe under locked guard already. It all depended on how quickly she’d decided to spill her guts to the cops, and how much of the truth she had decided to tell them. He rolled off the bed and slipped to the window, parting the blinds a mere fraction of an inch. Yup, there it was, halfway down the block. A gray sedan now: cop car.
So, they were waiting for him. He grinned a little, remembering the conversation of the two police officers he’d overheard as they walked through last night. They’d speculated about a setup, maybe a decoy to lure Bankes to Beth.
Chevy didn’t know how likely that was, but Beth hadn’t come back to her house. Maybe theywereplanning to set him up.
He liked the idea; it made him feel important. But he had to be ready. A little alteration in his plan.
He smoothed the bedcovers back, making sure everything looked as it had when he arrived.Someone’s been sleeping in my bed, he thought and found himself smiling. He stayed low and went downstairs, helped himself to a bagel in the kitchen—someone’s been eating my porridge—then began looking for Beth’s paperwork. The logical drawers were filled with opened mail and bills. He dug around, came up with a phone bill: AT&T. Dug some more to see who provided her Internet service: Comcast.
Down to the basement. Chevy had spent the night here, just to be safe. Beth’s computer was surrounded by books and magazines and Internet printouts that all appeared to be about dolls. The dolls themselves Chevy had found packed in the two boxes they’d arrived in, but Beth had tied a little tag around each one’s wrist like a coroner might on a toe.
He enjoyed that bit of irony.
He settled down in front of Beth’s computer and logged on. Even if the police were tapping her phone lines—and Chevy doubted they’d gotten that far yet—they wouldn’t detect Internet use, not with two different carriers of service. The only thing he had to worry about was an unexpected visit from someone.
Her server came up, and he spent a few minutes reading headlines. The women out west were picking up some press, but Chevy wasn’t the star yet. By noon, if Beth had talked, he’d be the headline.
He got into Beth’s Web history, skimming through several of the sites she had visited. A strange sort of thrill tightened his skin at the thought of tracing her cyberspace footsteps—a new twist on Goldilocks:Someone’s been using my Internet. Of course, he couldn’t read her e-mails without a password, but then again, he didn’t want to. He was just interested in what she’d learned about him.
Three-quarters of the way through her history list, a hit:Chevy Bankes.
A wave of pleasure washed over him. Chevy smiled as a string of sites came up, all referring to him. Seattle criminal cases and prison release dates. Court documents. Sheriff’s office reports. Newspaper articles. Three dozen stories about the overturned court cases out of the Seattle DA’s office.
He chuckled, thought about reading some of them, but forced himself to move on. If the copswereplanning to set up some sort of sting at Beth’s house, he shouldn’t be found sitting at her computer. He got up, peered through a slat in the blinds. The cop car hadn’t budged.
He went back to the computer, more conscious now of the time. He typed in “Kerry Waterford.” The Web site came up, linking to information about his store, his private collection, and Internet sales. In the left-hand margin, Chevy clicked on Toys and Dolls, then went to pictures of dolls similar to the ones on Beth’s desk. He spent fifteen minutes sifting through them, until he was certain he’d found the one he wanted:1873 Benoit fashion doll, signed and dated, the description said, but Chevy knew better. That doll wasn’t a Benoit. It was a reproduction. Waterford had tried to sell it to Margaret Chadburne almost a year ago, but Beth stopped him.
And here it was. Fucking Kerry Waterford. Still the con artist.
Chevy checked the price: six thousand dollars. Shipping, to have it delivered on Monday afternoon, added forty-two dollars and twenty-five cents.
Chevy leaned back, thinking it through. He had plenty of money these days, but not the kind you could just send over the Internet in exchange for a doll. He’d need a credit card, ID.
He’d need Margaret Chadburne.
Chevy smiled. No problem there: He and Margaret weretight. Margaret would do anyth—
He stopped: a sound. He darted to the far window. The cop on duty was out of his car, walking toward the house. Chevy’s heart stammered, then the cop veered over to a car that had just pulled up. A black Charger. The driver got out and closed the distance between them—a tall man in a suit, with heavy shoulders and long, purposeful strides. A string of recognition plucked in Chevy’s mind, but he didn’t know why and couldn’t get a clear look. They spoke for two minutes then the cop went to his car and came back with a box—Chevy recognized that for sure. He held his breath as the man put it in the trunk of the Charger. But instead of driving away, they walked toward Beth’s driveway, the big guy tossing a key fob in his hand.
Chevy freaked. Jesus-Jesus-Jesus. He started to hide then remembered the computer, went over and clicked on Shut Down, four, maybe five times. Stop it, he said to himself. The last thing you need is to freeze the stupid screen. Wait, wait. He sneaked a peak from the window. They were in the driveway.
Click.The screen went black.
Fight or flight: His lizard brain kicked in.
He chose flight.CHAPTER22
Neil hit the button for Beth’s garage door opener.
“Whoa,” said the surveillance cop. New guy. He’d come on duty an hour ago. “Whoa,” he said again.
“She works for an antiques firm,” Neil explained. Chadburne’s third doll had already been delivered, as Beth had anticipated. Neil decided to go in and get the first two, as well. Beth would sleep most of today, Standlin had assured him, but later, she’d need something to do.
The cop was touching things, a little bit awed. “I always wondered what made people pay a fortune for stuff that’s just… old. I mean, look at this bowl. It’s abowl. An old, beat-up bowl. What’s that about?”
“Got me,” Neil admitted, looking around for the dolls. His nose wrinkled: The shop had the faint odor of sawdust.
“And this.” The cop wandered to a mat where a two-piece dresser sat out. One piece was still partially covered, and Neil recognized the wrappings, the size. Waterford’s highboy, the one Beth had been bringing home when they first met. The one she’d told Evan had a “ made-up” back, whatever that meant.
He ran his fingers over the carvings on the highboy, bent down and sniffed. Maybe that was it. The smell of wood.
“Wonder what that thing’s worth,” the cop mused.
“Six, maybe eight thousand dollars, tops,” Neil said. “The back is made up.”
The guy gaped at him. Let him wonder.
Neil found the first two dolls near Beth’s computer, lying in their boxes. “This is what I need. I’m good now; let’s go. I gotta get to a task force meeting.” It felt good to say it.
“Okay,” the other guy said, trailing Neil out. “But I wouldn’t pay six hundred for that thing, let alone six thousand.”
Neil plunged into the bowels of the Behavioral Science Unit at Quantico wearing a fresh suit with a visitor’s badge. The irony of being a visitor to the FBI didn’t escape him. In some ways, having a formal escort through the windowless underground structure made him feel like an interloper. In others, it was like coming home.
The “command center” for the task force was a medium-size conference room with a large table, several laptops, video screens mounted on walls where windows should have been, and a half dozen FBI agents and police detectives buzzing around getting caught up on the case—which was quickly going public. The Special Agent in Charge, whom Neil knew only by reputation, was Armand Copeland. He was a hefty black man in his fifties whose occasional appearances on the news had always left Neil thinking of James Earl Jones. He was conservative and irrefutable—a man who probably spent his free time loafing through conduct manuals.
Which made Neil wonder why Copeland had invited him: to involve him in the case or to get whatever information he had, then run his civilian ass off? Neil bit back a pang of worry. It had been easy being at the hub of the investigation when Rick was in charge; he just about had carte blanche. An FBI task force led by a man like Armand Copeland wasn’t likely to be so accommodating.
Just try to keep me out of it, he thought belligerently.
In addition to Standlin and Brohaugh, two other men introduced themselves: an off-site agent named Juan Suarez, studiously unwrapping a stick of Juicy Fruit, and a six-five black man built like a refrigerator. Neil was just realizing he’d missed the big man’s name, Harry or maybe Jerry, when Lexi Carter came in and waved at him. Neil had boxed with her husband a few times. She was fine-boned and dark-haired—like Beth—which, Neil decided, was probably why she was here. A sting in the works.
SAC Copeland was running down the plan: “… and Brohaugh will coordinate the field offices and resident agencies, pull it all together here in the command center.”
“Is there any word on the two missing women?” Harry-Jerry asked.
“We’re still waiting,” Copeland answered as a bleached blonde joined the group. O’Ryan, Neil thought, recognizing her. Sidney O’Ryan. They’d flirted once in an elevator, and she’d flashed her shield when he got cocky. He’d flashed his back.
“O’Ryan is the press liaison,” Copeland explained, and she grimaced.
“Why me?” she asked.
“It’s the nose,querida,” Suarez said in his slight Latino accent. “You’re the only one with a nose perky enough to feed them bullshit and get away with it.”
Copeland: “So what’s the plan?”
O’Ryan said, “Standlin helped me craft a statement. She thinks we should stroke the bastard a little, let him know how smart he is and how many agents are working on him.”
Copeland frowned. “He’ll buy it?”
“I don’t know,” Standlin said. “I haven’t figured him out yet; I can’t see a pattern: Beth Denison and Anne Chaney were stalked; the others weren’t. Two women were cut up, one was shot in her van, and two are missing, so we don’t know what he did to them.”
“Don’t forget Gloria Michaels,” Rick said.
“Right. She’s a little different, but still looks like Bankes. And they both went to college at West Chester University. She was at a frat party the night she was killed.”
Suarez turned to Neil, snapping his gum. “How come you didn’t talk to him back then?”
“I talked to every fucking person who was at that party. Bankes wasn’t there.”
Suarez scoffed. “Good work.”
“All right,” Copeland said, holding up a hand. “Put ’em away, boys. Suarez, back off.”
He jerked his thumb at Neil. “The guy’s not even an agent no more. He don’t belong here.”
Copeland’s jaw went tight. “That’s my decision, not yours.”
Suarez stepped down with a show of poor sportsmanship, and Standlin went on. “We have to figure out his pattern. Serialists are smart, organized, with some powerful reason for every move they make. And they usually keep something from their kills, something so they can relive the excitement later.”
“Trophies,” Copeland said.
“Right. So, has he taken something from these women?”
“Their phones?” Rick asked. “He’s using their phones.”
“Usingthem. A trophy is more personal—a piece of jewelry, an article of clothing, a lock of hair, even a finger.”
“Could he be leaving something with them instead of taking it?” Harry-Jerry asked.
Standlin gave him a what-are-you-talking-about look.
He slid a report across the table to Standlin. Neil squinted to catch the agent’s signature at the bottom: Harrison. “The husband of the soccer mom ID’d her body but said he didn’t recognize her blouse. Said she wouldn’t wear pink lace. So: Could he be dressing them up?”
“Check it,” Copeland said to Standlin, then pointed a finger at Brohaugh. “What was Bankes doing before he started on the road here?”
“Before prison, he worked in hotels. Started as a bus boy in college, became assistant manager of a halfway-ritzy place in Philadelphia by the time he graduated. He moved to Seattle in two thousand one and took a management position at an upscale hotel called the Orion. Fellow employees were all shocked when it came out that he’d murdered Chaney.
“Then, after he got out of prison, Bankes got an apartment and was rehired at the Orion. He worked there until a month ago, when the State awarded him six hundred thousand dollars in lost salary and damages for his prison term. Then he just quit coming to work.”
“Hobbies? Activities?” Copeland asked.
“Neighbors in Seattle are being interviewed, but it sounds like he was low-key, easy enough to live with. Took in a stray dog once, gave it away to a guy at work. And traveled some—a weekend away here and there.”
“Where did he go?”
“What about his apartment?” Neil asked. “Anyone been there?”
“They’re in it now. Looks pretty normal. He maybe liked to play his music loud. Got himself a surround-sound stereo system and the walls are all insulated.”
Copeland turned to Standlin: “What about all that childhood bull you like so much?”
She looked exasperated. “Give me a little time, for God’s sake. Right now I’m still trying to figure out his thing with Anne Chaney.”
“Can’t Denison help you there?” Copeland asked.
“She gave us a rundown, but she’s holding back. There’s something she hasn’t told us.”
“So dig it out of her. That’s what you’re good at.”
“I’ll do my best.”
And God help Beth, Neil thought. Geneviève Standlin was good at ripping open old wounds, then lancing them until they bled out.
“Okay,” said Copeland, breathing it all in. “So we keep the daughter under wraps in Covington, watch Denison, and give her lots of time with Agent Standlin until we know the whole Chaney story. Meanwhile, get people scouring motels around the District, new apartment leases, homeless shelters—Hell, he has money, so check the upscale hotels, car rentals, everything. Put out an APB on his last known appearance and his vehicle. Harrison, you pull together everything on unsolved cases that could’ve been his, look for connections. Agent Carter, get in Denison’s house, mimic her routines, et cetera.” He stood; meeting over. “Everyone keep stuffing the files. Sacowicz,” he said to Rick, “glad to have you in. Anything you want from the FBI in order to protect the citizens of Arlington, just ask.”
“Oh, that was good,” O’Ryan said. “I’ll be sure it makes my sound bite.”
“It better. That’s the only reason I said it.”
O’Ryan flashed a smile that rivaled that of anchor-women. She actually did have a perky nose.
“So go,” said Copeland, but he looked at Neil with an unspoken order to stay put.
Unnecessary. Neil wasn’t going anywhere.CHAPTER23
Inotice you didn’t ask me where I want your ass,” the SAC said after the conference room had emptied.
“I’m pretty sure I know where you want my ass, sir. There’s no place for it on an active task force.”
Copeland steered around the table to stand face-to-face. “I remember you, Sheridan. Twenty-nine years old when you left the Bureau, and SACs were already calling you for the tough ones.”
A muscle twitched in Neil’s jaw.
“You know what they called you behind your back?”
Neil swallowed. He knew. It was the reason he’d gone back to find Anthony Russell.
“Pit Bull. Once you got your teeth into something, you wouldn’t let go.”
Let it go, Neil. Come home. Please. I need you here. Kenzie needs you.
“Then you let a personal tragedy bowl you under and ruin your career.”
“Is there something you wanted?” Neil pressed.
“This: An FBI task force is no place for civilians, with personal issues. You’re a civilian, and Standlin says you’re up to your eyeballs in personal on this.” He waved a hand when Neil opened his mouth. “Don’t deny it. She knows her stuff. She knows you, too.”
Neil wanted to wring Standlin’s neck. “You’re talking about ancient history, sir.”
“The loss of a child is never ancient history. Now, I don’t like it,” Copeland continued, “having someone who’s not on the team playing the game with us. But you’re a trained agent, and you know the Michaels case better than anyone else. Besides that, you’ve got something going with Denison. I’d be a fool not to use you.”
“Use me?” Neil’s pulse beat a little faster.
“I’m not a man who cares how many gold stars go beside my name. I want Chevy Bankes, and I don’t care who catches him—my task force or the city cops.” He narrowed his gaze on Neil. “Or an ex-agent who happens to be close to the woman Bankes is targeting, a man working alone and without sanction from this office.”
“Alone and unsanctioned, do you understand?”
Neil was beginning to. And he liked Armand Copeland more and more.
“Stay with Denison; keep her talking. Keep us up with any connections to Gloria Michaels. I’ll give you whatever resources I can and let you sit in on the task force meetings. In return, anything you learn from Denison or because of your history with Bankes, youshare.”
Oh, yes. He definitely liked Armand Copeland. Neil nodded and started to leave, then turned back. “One thing no one noticed in there is Chevy Bankes’s birth date,” he said, and Copeland frowned. “Gloria Michaels was killed on his twenty-first birthday.”
Copeland’s brows went up. “What does that mean?”
Neil shrugged, opening the door. “Hell if I know.”
When Neil stepped into the corridor, Standlin was waiting for the elevator. He tried to ignore her; couldn’t. “Christ, Standlin, what did you tell Copeland?”
“I told him two things everyone but you already knows.”
Neil crossed his arms. Goddamned shrinks.
“First, I told him that sixteen years ago, you were the best young criminal agent in the Bureau, and I was proud to have helped bring you on board.”
Neil actually felt his cheeks burn.
“And second, I told him that nine years ago, you went crazy and never came back.”
“Thanks a lot.”
The elevator opened and she stepped inside. “Oh, and I told him one other thing.”
Neil didn’t wanna hear it. But his hand barred the door, anyway.
“I told him the best chance he has of finding Chevy Bankes is to let you at him, and if he does, he could have the best damned criminal agent in the Bureau again.”
Something thumped in Neil’s chest—pride, maybe, or even hope—something he couldn’t quite identify. But on its heels came a bleaker, blacker emotion that he could. “I killed the wrong man.”
She nodded. “And getting the right man now won’t bring him back. No more than cuddling up with Beth and Abby will bring your family back. But,” she said, pushing the elevator button, “it just might bring you back.”
* * *
The rest of the day was paper: every detail of Gloria Michaels, Lila Beckenridge, Thelma Jacobs. The women from Omaha, Indianapolis, Silver Springs. Neil couldn’t remember anyone using the names of those last three; they’d become dead representatives of their cities.
By evening, he was caught up on what authorities in each city knew. Suarez, in the kind of nasty mood that comes from sitting in a hotel room all day long, met him at Beth’s suite. He reported that she had slept for six hours, stirred—probably to go to the bathroom—and had been silent again for the three hours since. Neil walked through hotel surveillance, learning pass codes, covers, the faces of the agents on duty; then Suarez signed off for the night.
At seven-thirty, Beth staggered into the kitchenette. She wore a thigh-length T-shirt and looked like a zombie. A pretty zombie, if such a thing existed. Damned shapely T-shirt.
She was looking for a phone.
“I have to call Abby,” she said. “She’ll be going to bed soon. I have to call Abby.”
Neil stuck a plate of lasagna in the microwave and punched in two minutes. Handed her his digital phone. “Her number is star-eight. She spent the morning at her aunt’s house, went to McDonald’s for lunch, and then to the park where she met a shih tzu and played with it for an hour. Ms. Stallings ran some errands—the grocery store, dry cleaner, and a public library branch—and Abby’s been at the Stallingses’ house ever since.” He winked. “Wanna know what she ate for supper?”
“Cocky jerk,” Beth said, but she smiled.
She slipped into the sitting room and spoke with Abby for ten minutes. Neil listened to her talk about the shih tzu and Abby’s little cousin and snickerdoodles that had apparently just come out of the oven. He smiled when Beth reminded Abby to brush her teeth and to make sure the back gate was always closed. It seemed Heinz had a history of trotting off to socialize with other dogs in the neighborhood whenever they visited the Stallings family.
Beth’s voice cracked when she told Abby she loved her, and two or three minutes passed before she came back into the kitchen.
“Okay?” Neil asked softly.
“But you aren’t,” he said and looped his arm around her neck. He pulled her in and dropped a kiss on her head. She felt brittle and small tucked against him, and after a day spent reading what Chevy Bankes had done to women, a wave of protectiveness surged through him. Keeper of her secrets and keeper of her safety—the desire to be both was so unexpected it hit him like a brick. The desire to be her lover came, too, not so unexpected.
He succumbed to the Great Comforter: “Come on,” he said. “Lasagna.”
Beth demolished two servings, their conversation covering everythingexceptthe case. More than once, she caught herself staring. Lord, the man was easy to look at.
“… physical therapy with special-needs kids,” he was saying. “She dreams of doing it all on horseback—something called hippotherapy. She practically lives in a stable.” This was his sister, who lived in Atlanta.
“Is it just the two of you?” Beth asked. They’d already gone through her family tree.
“I have a brother, Mitch. He’s a photojournalist. J. M. Sheridan.”
Her eyes bugged out.
“Ah, you’ve heard of him.”
“Wow, you have a famous brother. I’ve seen his books. And I attended one of his exhibitions for an AIDS foundation once, with his photos from South Africa.”
“That’s him. Righteous do-gooder, champion of every underdog, and great revealer of government fuckups.”
“I take it you’re not close?”
“Mitch and I live by different mottos. He looks at something broken and can’t leave it alone; he’s gotta get in there and fix it. ‘Change the world,’ that’s his motto.”
“ ‘Fuck the world.’ Can’t be fixed.”
Beth looked at him. “I don’t believe you.”
He shoved a pile of dishes together and picked them up. “Then ask Mitch,” he said, dumping the dishes into the sink. “He almost died in Iraq last month because I was working as a Doberman for two ‘operatives’ and never bothered to find out what they were operating. It was a bomb, by the way. They stole a Sentry helicopter, killed thirteen civilians, and messed Mitch up pretty good. But, hey. Fuck it.”
“Oh, God. Neil.” Beth studied the harsh lines of his face. “I don’t think you’re doing so well sticking to your motto now.”
A split second of surprise, then one dark brow rose. “Your fault.”
Beth hoped so, but she shied away from saying it. She had the feeling he’d just given her something dear. But it also reminded her of all he hadn’t shared. “Maggie said you were married to her sister.”
“Heather,” he said, and the tendons in his throat contracted. “We’re divorced.”
Beth waited, reminded herself she had no business asking, and asked anyway. “What happened?”
He walked over and stood one step away, his gaze boring into hers. “She kept secrets from me. Shut me out. And when I wasn’t there, she decided she could handle things herself.”
Beth swallowed. “Oh.”
“Oh,” he echoed. “That’s all you have to say?”
She stepped back. “What do you want me to say? ‘Gee, Neil, I’m sorry I tried to handle things by myself’? Or, ‘Gee, Neil, I promise that if you’re not answering your phone I’ll sit quietly and wait for you’?”
“That would be a start.”
She blew out a breath. “Look, I’m sorry I worried you by taking off with Abby. It’s not like I was unprepared. I had the guns and I’ve done a helluva lot of training. I can defend mys—”
He moved like lightning, her spine suddenly slamming against his chest, her throat beneath his forearm. She started to strike, but his free hand wrenched her arm to the middle of her back. Pain lanced through her shoulder.
“You’re akickboxer,” he said against her ear. “That’s something they do in rings, for show, like the WWF. It’s not real.”
“Let go of me,” she croaked. She could hardly breathe.
“Two minutes,” he said. “Two minutes of this and you’re out cold. Three, and you’re tied up in the trunk of my car. Or, if I’m the expedient sort, I could just snap your neck and be done in three seconds.”
Beth wheezed, her knees going soft. And just that fast, her lungs expanded again.
“You bastard,” she said, heaving in oxygen. He relaxed his grip enough to allow air back into her lungs but not enough to free her. “Let go of me,” she rasped.
“Get out of it,” he said. “You think you’re so by-God tough. Get out of it.”CHAPTER24
Think,think. She was barefoot and he wasn’t, so his instep was no good. He held her too close to kick him in the groin, and if she went for the eyeballs or ears he’d see it coming. Flipping him was out of the question; with her left arm in that position, he’d simply dislocate her shoulder.
But the kneecap—a hard heel jab, from virtually any angle—would hurt like hell. And would at least push him back for enough for a roundhouse to the throat.
She inhaled, and just as she moved her foot, his ankle popped up, tangling her legs. She flopped facedown onto the floor.
“I was careful not to break your leg just now,” he said, his breath against her ear. “That’s because I’m tryingnotto hurt you. Bankes wouldn’t bother with that consideration.”
“Bankes isn’t as big as you,” she muttered against the linoleum.
“He has a cruel streak and a sick need for vengeance. His insanity will take him a lot further than karate will take you.”
“Then what do you suggest?” She nearly stumbled when he jerked her vertical in no more time than it had taken for him to plow her down. He pulled her onto the carpet in the living room and moved the coffee table. Shoved back a chair.
“Forget your training,” he said. “Fight dirty.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, you’ve been learning how to get away from an attacker. What you need to learn is how to kill one.”
“That’s why I have a gun.”
“And it will be in your purse when you need it.”
More gently now, he turned her around into the same position he’d held her in a moment earlier—her left arm pinned behind her back and his right forearm crossing her chest and throat. “You still have a free hand right now. Forget using it to disable me. Use it to kill me.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Hold up your hand, palm in, and flex your wrist.” He shaped her hand with his. “Curl the tips of your fingers down tight so the heel of your hand is your weapon.”
“Now jab the heel of your hand under my nose, and up. Do it hard enough, and the bones will splinter into my brain.”
“Yes. And it will save your life while he’s expecting you to go for his kneecap.”
Beth went through the motions, tentative at first, then with greater speed and strength and agility each time Neil made her practice it. By the fifth time, she was gasping for air. “That’s enough. I’ve got it.”
“You don’t, but it’s a start.”
She made a move that should have taken him by surprise and wound up flat on her back. Neil straddled her hips, pinning her wrists on either side of her face.
“Damn it,” she said, panting. “You’re good.”
“So are you. But you’ve been taught rules, and Bankes won’t follow them.” He glanced at their positions, and an expression that seemed half pain, half pleasure canted his lips. He muttered a curse and went utterly still. “From here, what would you do?” he asked. “Tell me.”
His face was only inches away, his upper body brushing her breasts, his crotch grinding into her pelvis. With no small degree of astonishment, Beth realized she wasn’t afraid. The strength and heat in his frame were a source of comfort and pleasure, not fear. “I let you maul me for a second, then bite off your tongue.”
A flicker of amusement crossed his features. “No. That’s letting him go too far.”
“You have a better idea?”
“Smash your forehead into my face.”
Beth blinked. “You’re serious?”
“I’ll crack my skull.”
“The only skull that will crack is the one not ready for the impact. You’ll be the one ready because by the time a man gets you in this position, he’s already thinking with his dick. But for God’s sake don’t wriggle,” he said, squeezing his eyes closed for a minute. “You’ll only feed the flame. Crack his nose with your head, and he’ll either roll off from the pain or straighten enough to free your wrists. But you have to be ready yourself. Use some of that focus and control you learned in Muay Thai.”
Intrigued, feeling cosseted yet strangely powerful, Beth went through the motions. He mimicked the fallout, and when she started to scramble away he said, “No. Stay with it; never believe your last hit was the final one until you know he’s really down. Otherwise, you’re likely to get shot. Come after me again.”
It was strangely invigorating, a workout like Beth had never experienced. Forget scream, disable, and run. Neil’s philosophy was a lot simpler: kill.
Thirty minutes later, Beth lay on the floor catching her breath. Neil stretched out beside her. “Not bad,” he said, dragging his finger along her arm.
“Good. Now let’s talk about my gun.”
A single dark brow rose. “What about it?”
“I want my Glock back.”
“All right, tomorrow morning I’ll take you to Keet’s. You prove you can shoot it, and I’ll give it back.”
“Who the hell put you in charge?”
“You did. When you asked for my help.”
“I never asked you to treat me like a child,” she grumbled, sitting up.
She didn’t get very far. Neil rolled her beneath him. It was a turbulent kiss, and very,verythorough. His mouth claimed every breath, his hands were everywhere, and by the time he stopped, Beth felt as if her body had dissolved into a pool of shuddering, raw sensation.
He pulled back, and Beth arched up for more. He ran a fingertip over her lips. “Is that adult enough for you?”
She threaded her fingers through the thick hair at his nape. “I don’t know,” she said, pulling him down. “Do it again, and this time I’ll pay better attention.”
They spent Friday morning tearing up targets at Keet’s. Neil gave her a hard time, but inwardly, he was pleased. Apparently, marksmanship was one of Evan Foster’s hobbies; the two of them had spent some time at it.
Not thatthatmade Neil feel any better.
At Quantico, Copeland filled him on Bankes: “He grew up in a little town called Samson, about two hours from here. Was raised by his mother and maternal grandfather.”
“Some boy in the next town, but the grandfather beat him up when his sixteen-year-old daughter turned up pregnant. The boy took off and Chevy never knew him. Peggy had a second child when Chevy was twelve, but there’s no indication who the father was. The second baby was born with significant mental and physical disabilities. Her name was Jenny. She disappeared when she was sixteen months old.”
“Vanished.” He snapped his fingers. “Thin air.”
“What about the mother? Has anyone talked to her?”
“She committed suicide six months after Jenny disappeared, when Chevy was fourteen. Grandpa was dead by then, so Chevy went into foster care. He actually did okay. Got a scholarship to college and all.”
“Jesus.” Neil ran his fingers through his hair. “I need to go up there, talk to the people who knew him. He might’ve come through that way on his way here.”
Copeland scowled at him. “I’ve got five agents doing that now. Active agents, you know, ones with shields who actually earn a paycheck. Your job is here, remember?”
“I’m not doing shit here.”
“You’re getting Denison’s part of it.”
“What part? What the hell else is she supposed to give us? She screwed up Bankes’s plans for Anne Chaney. Now he wants to make her pay. That’s all there is.”
“Well, Sheridan,” Copeland said, standing up, “you better hope you’re wrong about that. Because if you’re right, we won’t figure him out untilhewants us to.”
But at the hotel, Neil was loath to push Beth into talking. Making her relive Chaney’s death was like forcing her through a tour of hell. He didn’t want to witness those chills again, or see the terror and guilt that filled her eyes.
He didn’t want to think what more there might be.
Beth was holed up in the bathroom. He waited twenty minutes before he finally knocked, a little worried.
“Come in,” she said, and Neil was taken aback. She sounded perfectly fine.
“Beth?” he said.
“It’s okay. Come in.”
He opened the door, chasing an eerie blue glow from the room. Beth sat on a small chair at the vanity. A doll lay on her lap, her notepad open, and a pencil over her ear. A black light was plugged in at the sink, cord stretched across the floor.
“Do you mind shutting the door?” she asked. “This is the only room without windows. It has to be dark enough.”
Neil closed the door. The ghostly blue-black glow returned, and he felt like he was in another universe. A beautiful woman, a half-naked doll, and a black light, all in a hotel bathroom. There was a film-noir idea in there somewhere, but he wasn’t sure how it would play out.
He stepped behind her. “What are you doing?”
“Looking for damage. Sometimes chips or repairs or hairline fractures aren’t visible to the naked eye, but they show up in black light.”
“Oh.” Well, that was a brilliant response. “What if you find something?”
“That depends,” Beth said. She removed the miniature vest and pink blouse the doll was wearing, adding them to a small stack of clothes. “It’s weird with toys and dolls. If this were a plaything, condition wouldn’t matter much. Folk toys, baby dolls, teddy bears—they can be torn all to heck and still bring big money. Fashion dolls are different. Condition is everything.”
“No kidding.” He didn’t care, but Beth loved this stuff. He bent closer, watching her fingers glide over the bisque, smelling strawberry or raspberry or some-sort-of-berry shampoo in her hair. It wasn’t pulled back, and the thick layers draped over her cheek as she looked down. Funny, the black light did the same to Beth as it did to the dolls: made her scar stand out.
“So what does that mean for Mrs. Chadburne?” Neil asked.
“Money, if these dolls check out. Lots of it.” She set down the doll and, one article of clothing at a time, searched the seams and surfaces with the black light. Looking for stains, Neil decided; crime scene techies did the same thing. “The only thing I’m worried about is this blouse,” she said, more to herself than to Neil.
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t think it was part of the original outfit.” She shook her head. “I’m gonna have to talk to someone who knows this vintage of dolls better. Maybe even Kerry. He’s a jerk, but he knows dolls.”
Neil eyed the miniature clothes, and his nape prickled. Probably nothing, but it was one of those thoughts like toothpaste: Once it’s out, you can’t squeeze it back in.Her husband didn’t recognize the blouse.
“Honey,” he asked, “where are the first two dolls, the ones you already looked at?”
“I sent them back to Foster’s when I finished. Evan has them locked up there in the safe. Why?”
“Just wondering,” he said but looked at his watch: four-thirty. If he hurried, he could still make it to Foster’s before the office closed.
Even though it was probably nothing.CHAPTER25
Foster’s Auctions was a three-million-dollar spread with a mansion tucked on a hillside and a sprawling gallery at the north end of the property. Manicured lawns stretched among all the buildings, giving way to several acres of natural woodlands farther out around the perimeter. The house itself was vintage, complete with the original barn, carriage houses, and slave quarters. The outbuildings were now used for the business—an interconnected maze that housed offices, storage space, garages, and the gallery.
Neil followed the signs to the main office, slipping in just as the receptionist appeared to be packing up for the day. He asked for Evan Foster and waited while she made some calls. Apparently Foster wasn’t in his office.
“I think he’s at the preview,” came a disembodied voice over the intercom. “Try the main gallery.”
Several cars, almost all rentals or from out of state, were parked outside the main gallery. It was unlocked, and Neil let himself in to what turned out to be the rear of the audience seating, now empty. He strode through the aisles of chairs, passed an antechamber, and stepped onto the main stage where several people were previewing the sale that would take place tomorrow and the next day. They talked, examined items, and made notes in their copies of the catalog. A catalog that was Beth’s handiwork, Neil realized with a surprising tug of pride.
Evan Foster stood to one side, speaking on the phone, looking aggravated. When he saw Neil, he hung up and came across the stage, pointing at a plate in Neil’s hand. A stupid-looking dog was painted in the middle of it. “That’s Sheffield,” he said. “An expensive thing to break.”
Neil bit back the impulse to throw it against the wall and set it down. He nodded to the phone. “Customer relations problems?”
Evan shrugged. “Antiques junkies are kooks. But doll enthusiasts are the worst. They think of their dolls as children.”
“That was the doll lady you were talking to? Margaret Chadburne?”
“She flew in from Boise this morning.”
Neil’s pulse kicked up. “Do you know where she’s staying?”
Evan shook his head. “Why?”
“Oh, nothing, really. Beth wants to talk to her, that’s all.” Neil’s brain was outracing common sense. A sure sign of desperation in an investigation. “Beth wants to see the first two dolls again. I came to get them.”
Evan frowned, his demeanor going from cool to arctic. “Where are they? Beth and Abby.”
“Mmm, sorry,” Neil said without any chagrin at all. “Official FBI business.”
“Damn it, I wanna know.”
“Don’t worry. She has your gun.”
Evan stiffened, lifting a fist. “Listen, you son of a—”
Neil caught his lapels and spoke right in his face. “Bad idea, Foster,” he growled. A couple of people straightened, watching. “Now, why don’t you just make plans to cover for Beth this weekend, and go get me Mrs. Chadburne’s dolls?”
“I won’t have to cover for Beth. She promised she’d be here for the sale tomorrow.”
“She’s mistaken. She won’t be here.”
“What the hell have you done with her?”
“Jesus, Foster,” Neil said, releasing his crumpled shirt before someone called the police. “Do you think I have her bound and gagged someplace? She’s safe, that’s the whole idea. She wouldn’t be if she came here. Crowds, distractions, cars from all over the country. Give me a break, man. Tell her to stay home.”
“Tell her to stay with me, then.”
Speculation swept over Foster’s face. Clearly, that had been the wrong thing to say.
“You screwing her?” he asked.
Neil was amazed. “That’s none of your—”
“It is.” He went still. “Goddamn it. We have something going.”
“That’s not what she tells me,” Neil said and met him glare for glare. Poor fool. There wasn’t a man in history who hadn’t loved the wrong woman once in his life. In another time or place—with another woman—Neil might have felt sorry for him. Might. “We don’t want anything at Beth’s house to seem unusual,” he said, keeping his voice down. “Keep things moving the way you would under normal circumstances. And get me the two dolls.”
“Screw you, Sheridan. There’s no way I’m letting an old lady’s nest egg walk out of here with you. Beth knows how to unlock the safe. If she wants them, she can come get them.”
So, nothing there, at least not until he got a look at the dolls. Neil called Copeland and talked him into a warrant, then returned to the hotel suite to find Suarez and Beth playing cards. Well, Suarez, anyway. Beth was pacing the floor, the cards in her hands apparently forgotten.
“Where the hell have you been?” she asked Neil.
A smile tugged at his lips. “Hi, honey. I’m home.”
“Sheridan,” Suarez said. “Maybeyoucan get her to stop wandering around. You ever tried to play poker with a woman who won’t sit down?”
Beth crossed the room and slapped five playing cards onto the coffee table. “Full house,” she said. “I win.”
Suarez picked up his suit coat, shaking his head. “Good luck,amigo,” he said, shutting the door behind him.
“Evan called,” Beth said as soon as Suarez was gone. “He needs me at the sale this weekend.”
“I’m the only one who knows this collection. It’s my catalog, my client consignment.”
“Damn it, you can’t keep me locked up here like a child.”
A memory tingled on his lips. “I thought we’d already established I wasn’t treating you—”
“Stop it.” She advanced on him. “You tuck me in here with a guard who keeps filling my wine glass and trying to get me to go lie down or play a card game or look at dolls, anything to keep me busy while you and the rest of the world are out there trying to catch a killer.”
“You’re thetarget, Beth. What am I supposed to do, hang you out there so he has a clean shot? Take you to visit the crime scenes?” He thought the tears might start and let out a curse. “Aw, jeez, don’t do that.”
“I won’t let you shut me out,” she said, her voice shaking. “Adam did that. He wanted to handle everything, and I let him and—”
“All right,” Neil conceded. “I won’t shut you out. But I will shut youin. You’re staying under lock and key, like it or not.”
She opened her mouth to say something, and Neil kissed her.
She wilted into it for a moment, then pushed him away to arm’s length. “You can distract me all you want, but you still have to tell me what’s happening.”
Neil nodded. “Fair enough.”
He sat down with her on the couch and filled her in on what they knew about Bankes. His family, his schooling, his employment. He hesitated when it came to Bankes’s sister, Jenny, but told her anyway.
“Oh, God,” she said, going pale. “Bankes killed her, didn’t he?”
“No one knows that.”
“But that’s what they believe, isn’t it?” Panic edged her voice. “He killed a helpless little gir—”
“Don’t go there, Beth. Not until we know.” He waited until it looked like she could hear him again, then picked up a napkin from the table and sketched out what they’d learned about his homestead: the lay of Bankes land bordering the Susquehanna River, the position of the house, the adjacent hunting range. “Chevy spent his teenage years in foster care, but he inherited his mother’s land when he turned twenty-one. He sold it the same day, for a song, to the man who owns this hunting range here. Mo Hammond. Philly agents are trying to track Hammond down now to talk to him. Of all the people in that town, Hammond might’ve known Bankes best. His family and the Bankes family went way back.” Neil gave Beth’s hand a squeeze. “We’ll find him, sweetheart. I promise.”
She nodded, and he thought she actually believed him. But there was also an unvoiced question in her eyes:Before he kills again, or after?
He put down the pen and napkin. “Did you talk to Abby today?”
“Cheryl said they did a lemonade stand this morning—made six dollars and eighteen cents. Mostly donations, I think.” She stopped, sucked in her lips.
“And Standlin came by?”
Beth scowled. “You know she did. Haven’t you seen the latest additions tomy file?”
“It’s a file on the case, Beth, not on you. And yes, I read it. It said you chewed Standlin out, clammed up, and walked away.”
“I’ll do the same to you. Don’t try.”
He smiled at the fire in her eyes even as he worried about all that stalwart independence. Maybe he shouldn’t push her or try to bully her into trusting him. Maybe he should just be patient and let her open up to him in her own time and manner. Or maybe he should just damn everything and peel off her clothes, show her how it would feel to—
“I know what you’re thinking,” she said smartly.
“Oh, I don’t think so.” He cleared his throat.
“Yes, I do. I know what you all think. You think I never dealt with what Bankes did. You think I avoided it by moving far away and having Abby and focusing on my career. Well, maybe you’re right. But putting me in a room with some bulldozer shrink won’t change it.”
“She’s just trying to profile Bankes.”
“She knows all about Bankes. By now the FBI must have a file on him three inches thick. The only thing theydon’tknow about him is where he currently is. It’s me Standlin is analyzing. It’s like she thinks I’m gonna snap, go off like a post office employee.”
“You’ve been hoarding guns, doing a lot of training, and keeping some pretty heavy secrets, Beth.” He stopped. He could have pressed the point but decided not to. He didn’t want to talk about Standlin. He didn’t want to talk about Bankes. He didn’t really even want to talk about Abby. He looked down at his hands, thinking about the one thing he reallydidwant to talk about.
“Evan Foster thinks I want to take you to bed.” He paused. “I do.”
Her breath stopped and she stiffened.
“Easy, honey, I didn’t mean right this minute. I just thought I’d put the idea in your head, get you thinking about it.”
“I have been thinking about it.”
“Okay, then.” He forced himself to stand up, get some distance. “So, you think about it some more, then. Let me know what you decide.”
Neil swallowed. She’d spoken so quietly he wasn’t sure he’d heard right, but when her cheeks burned pink, he knew he had. His body responded with a swiftness that shocked him. A woman’s hand, a woman’s mouth, a woman’s body—they could all do that to him, had done it perhaps too many times and with too many women. But a woman’s words? He hadn’t known that was possible.CHAPTER26
She was dreaming again; Neil could hear it, and the sounds tightened in his chest like a fist. Whimpers, screams that didn’t quite make it out of her throat.
Bankes was in there with her. Doing what? Tormenting Anne Chaney? Striking Beth with the butt of his gun? Something worse?
He groaned and laid a forearm over his eyes, sank deeper into his pillow. Leave it alone. It was part of the healing, he knew that. Hell, he’d dreamed about Mackenzie for years—still did sometimes. She’d be eleven now. Taking piano lessons, ballet. Playing soccer, maybe, starting to look at boys.
He got up, peeked in the door of Beth’s room. She was asleep but sobbing softly. Hurting. He went to the bed.
When he touched her she jerked so hard he jumped back. She cowered into a fetal position, her sleep-drugged body not able to get away, the dreams not letting her out. The truth climbed on top of him, and he wanted to kill someone. The next ten someones he ran into.
Neil left the room and called the agent stationed outside. “Stay with her,” he said. “There’s something I gotta do.”
“It’s two o’clock in the morning.”
“I’ll be back by three.”
On Beth’s street, he called Lexi Carter and woke her up.
“Jesus, Sheridan,” she said, a yawn in her voice. “Do you know what time it is? What are you doing?”
“Call off the dogs. I need to come by. I’m on Ashford Drive now.”
She did, then came back on the line, still sounding groggy. “What the hell do you want?”
“Let me in. I’m coming up the front porch.”
At first glance she reminded him of Beth, wearing a longish polo shirt with her dark hair disheveled. Which, of course, was the idea. “You shouldn’t be here,” she complained. “What if Bankes is watching?”
“Then he’ll see me leave again in two minutes.”
He climbed the stairs, not bothering with the lights until he got into Abby’s room. He went to her dresser and found a comb, a couple of hairbrushes, a whole lot of ribbons and bows and barrettes. He pulled out an elastic doodad that had two big plastic beads on it and held it up to the light. A tiny mass of ripped-out hairs was tangled around the elastic.
“Reggie says hi, by the way,” Carter said from the doorway. “He was surprised when I told him you were back at Quantico. Said he wants a rematch in the ring.”
Neil forced a smile. “Sure.”
“You okay?” she asked.
He pocketed the elastic band. “I’m fine. Sorry to wake you. This is all I needed.”
Twenty minutes later, Neil waited at the entrance of an FBI lab. A short, bulky man in a cardigan walked up. “Christ, you got old,” the man said, extending his hand.
“I need a favor, Max.”
He laughed. “I kinda figured that, what with the sneaking around in the middle of the night and all.”
Neil handed over the beaded rubber band. “DNA. And don’t report the findings to anyone but me, okay? Oh, and—”
“I know, I know: Rush it, right?”
“If you can.”
“Sure,” Max said, slipping the band into a plastic bag. “I mean, it’s only my career, ya know. Just a couple dozen years of work and my pension, my wife’s future and kids’ colle—”
He grinned, jowls jiggling like a bulldog’s. “Love to see you big macho types squirm.”
Neil was on his fifth cup of coffee the next morning when an agent called from the hallway. Neil opened the door.
“Dolls?” he asked, pointing at the boxes the agent carried.
The man handed them over. “Evan Foster wasn’t very happy about having them taken from the premises. Copeland had to wake up a judge and get a warrant. He told me to tell you it better be worth his while.”
“We’ll find out,” Neil said and closed the door just as Beth walked in. She’d dabbed makeup on the dark circles under her eyes, but she still looked beat. And beautiful.
“Are those Mrs. Chadburne’s dolls?” she asked, frowning. “What are you doing with them?”
Neil set both boxes on the table and opened the first. Gentle, now. All he needed was Margaret Chadburne or Evan Foster to sue him for destroying tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of dolls. “Something you said about the last one got me thinking,” Neil said, peeling off the packaging. He got through the bubble wrap and peanuts and found several sheets of tissue paper mummifying the doll. He let the tissue drop from his hands until the wide, dark eyes came into view. “This was the first one, right?”
“Right. You picked her up in my basement, remember?”
“You said she was worth more than six months of my salary. Why is that?”
A little crease dug into her forehead. “She’s early, she’s in good condition, and she blinks. Well, at least she’s supposed to. The mechanism is broken, but it’s rare to exist at all in such an early Benoit.”
Neil’s pulse began to race. Stay cool, stay cool.
He placed the doll on top of the padding inside her box and opened the second one. Blood moving fast now. “Was there anything unusual about this second one?”
“Unusual? No, not for something nearly a hundred and fifty years old. The bisque had some damage—hairline fractures on the legs.”
Neil swallowed. “Show me.”
Beth took the doll, her slender, practiced fingers removing the clothes. A pair of lace-edged bloomers was the last thing to go.
“Ah, Jesus.” Neil paced away from the table, rubbing the back of his neck. He could swear something had skittered across it. “Jesus,” he said again.
“And the third one had a blouse that didn’t match, right?”
“I need to make a phone call.” He cupped both her shoulders. “Do you trust me?”
She shook her head. Not a negative, just confusion, as if the motion would jostle things into place. “Yes. But wh—”
“Do me a favor and package the dolls back up. I want to take them to the lab.”
“You’re scaring me, Neil.”
“I know.” He was scaring himself. “Where is Mrs. Chadburne staying? I need to talk to her.”
“I don’t know. All I have is her Boise number, but it could be a cell. I didn’t know she was here until you told me. Neil, what’s going on?”
“I think Chevy Bankes knows Mrs. Chadburne. He may be using her dolls to get to you.”
She stared. “I don’t understand.”
“I don’t, either, yet.”
“Oh, God, Neil. If Bankes knows her—”
He put a finger over her lips. “You’re doing it again, Beth, jumping to conclusions. If they do know each other, it’s because Bankes needs her. He’s not going to hurt her.”
At least—Neil thought, but didn’t say it aloud—not yet.
Chevy shifted, unable to get comfortable. Damned oak. Even with a quilted packing pad folded beneath him and Beth’s sweater under his head, it might as well have been petrified redwood for as hard as it felt.
He closed his eyes, though they longed for light, and strained to listen for the impostor in Beth’s house. He could hear her easily when she was in the family room or kitchen, not so much when she went up to the bedrooms. Right now, he was sure she was all the way upstairs. The water had turned on a couple of minutes ago. Taking a shower, probably.
Chevy could use one of those. Maybe he’d join her. Wouldn’t that be a twist? Fromsomeone’s been sleeping in my cupboardsto standing outside the shower stall, wielding a knife while thePsychomusic swells…reewk, reewk, reewk.
He smiled at that, then drew in a long sigh. Not yet. He had to wait for Waterford’s doll and then catch the impostor asleep. She was a trained FBI agent, on her guard, here for the sole purpose of luring in Chevy. Hell, she probably showered with a 10 mm.
But it would be safe to give a little taunt. Just in case they thought he’d vanished. They knew his name now, knew his identity. He didn’t need to rely on strangers’ phones anymore. What would it matter to use his own?
He reached to the bottom corner of the cupboard, felt the Coke bottle he kept near, and reached a little farther. Got the phone.
Not much, just a little taunt. Something to let them know he was still alive and well. And just a scream away.
Neil left the dolls with a technician in the lab, getting digital photos of each. In five minutes, he had color eight-by-ten glossies in his briefcase. He went down two more floors to the command center, where Copeland, Standlin, and Brohaugh were looking at a laptop.
“What happened?” Neil asked. Copeland looked wired.
“Another phone call just came into Denison’s house.”
“No,” Neil said. “Christ.”
“It was too short to trace.”
“Let me hear it.”
Brohaugh pushed some keys. Bankes’s voice came through the speakers.
“Be-heth. Where are you?” Teasing, singsongy. He went right on, not waiting for her to pick up, and something prickled Neil’s spine. “You think I won’t get you. Don’t you know the police can’t protect you? Not the FBI, either. I’m too good. And I’m close. I can almost reach out and touch you anytime I want. I canhearyour voice in my ears…”
Dial tone. Neil’s pulse was going like a racehorse.
“That call came from a cell phone purchased by Bankes in Seattle a month ago,” Brohaugh said before Neil could get his thoughts together enough to ask. “It’s the first call that’s ever been placed from it. And,” he said, glancing at Copeland first, “it bounced off the same towers that serve Denison’s neighborhood.”
Neil’s gut knotted.
“Arlington PD is canvassing all the neighborhoods in that cell tower range now,” Copeland said. “We could get lucky and find someone who saw him.”
So Bankes was right there, within blocks of Beth’s house, at least for the moment it took to place the call. He could’ve driven by, called, and rolled right out again.
“Sheridan,” Copeland said, “the net’s so tight around Denison’s house, there’s no way he could get in there.”
Neil noticed that Copeland was looking at him hard, trying to encourage him—like he expected Neil to blow. They all did.
Cool, now; stay sane. He couldn’t fly off the handle if Copeland was going to keep him in the loop. He had to stay focused: the dolls.
“I’m supposed to tell you what I learn from Beth, right?” Neil asked. He pulled three pairs of photos from his briefcase. Three pairs of eyes followed. “This is Lila Beckenridge, who was murdered in Seattle,” he said, using a magnet to stick the first photo on the whiteboard. “Her eyelids were cut off.” He stuck a picture of the first doll just beneath the picture of Beckenridge. “This is the first in a set of antique dolls Beth has been appraising. She received it from Boise, where the owner lives, via overnight-air last Friday. This doll was in perfect condition, except her eyes are supposed to close when she’s lying down. They don’t.”
Copeland frowned and crossed his arms.
Neil put up the next photo. “Marsha Lane, Indianapolis.” Her legs had tiny, bloodless lacerations snaking through grayish flesh, like spider’s webs. Everyone on the task force had seen the photos; still, Neil could feel them wince when he put up the picture. “And this,” Neil said, pulling out the photo of the doll with cracked legs, “is the second doll Beth received.” He paused, letting everyone look.
“Holy Mother of God,” Copeland whispered.
“Now,” Neil said, producing one more pair of pictures, “our local soccer mom, murdered in her van and wearing a blouse her husband didn’t recognize.” He put up the picture of the third doll just beneath. “The blouse on this doll isn’t part of the original clothing. Compared to the rest of the outfit, it’s new.”
Silence gripped the room, and finally Brohaugh said, “Shit.”
“Does Beth know?” Standlin asked.
“A little, not all of it.”
“What about the two missing women?” Copeland asked.
“The widow who owns the dolls, Margaret Chadburne, has been claiming all along that two of the dolls she sent have been lost in the mail. Beth’s been waiting for them to arrive for the past week. And,” he added, “Mrs. Chadburne is here. She flew in yesterday.”
A sound whispered past Standlin’s lips. “He’s going to kill her,” she said. “The minute he realizes we know he’s using her, he’s going to kill her.”
“Or she’s in on it with him,” Brohaugh said. “Maybe he’s paying her to deliver the dolls.”
Copeland stared at the photos. “We’re gonna find her body in a Dumpster, aren’t we?”
“Is Denison expecting any more dolls?” Standlin asked.
“Yes, but she doesn’t know how many.”
“We need to figure out what dolls Chadburne has,” Standlin said. “If we know what dolls Bankes has access to, then maybe we can predict what he plans to do next. Figure out his pattern.”
“We’ll have to find Chadburne first,” Neil said. “We have a number, but it’s a Boise-based cell. She isn’t answering.”
“I’ll check hotels,” Brohaugh said, “car rentals.”
“And the post office. Find those missing packages,” Copeland said. “Maybe the dolls inside will lead us to the missing women.”
A phone rang. Everyone looked at their belts, and it was Copeland’s.
A minute later, he hung up and rubbed a hand over his scalp. “That was the field office in Philly. A county sheriff just reported a missing gun owner in Samson, Pennsylvania. It’s Amos Hammond—the man who bought Chevy Bankes’s property.”
Neil stared. They all did, as if their collective brain systems had crashed and needed a moment to reboot. No one was saying anything when Rick slipped in.
“What’s going on?” he asked, taken aback.
Neil grabbed Rick’s arm and headed for the door. “Road trip.”CHAPTER27
Samson, Pennsylvania, wasn’t much more than a wide spot in the road. The main drag had two traffic lights three blocks apart, a five-and-dime, a greasy spoon, and a rundown building with the wordAnti uespainted on the roof. The only gas station in town, Grover’s, had closed, but about a mile north, a second gas station—also named Grover’s—sat at the intersection of two state routes. Grover had apparently moved out to where he might catch some traffic.
Mo Hammond’s Shooting and Hunting Range was situated four more miles north. A sheriff’s deputy was posted at the entrance when Neil rolled up, plotting how to talk his way through on Rick’s badge. He was surprised when the deputy said, “Sheridan?”
“Yeah,” Neil said, showing his driver’s license.
“Special Agent Copeland called, said to clear you through.”
Score one for Copeland.
They drove a hundred yards into the woods before Hammond’s store came into view. It was a one-story cedar building that had started as a rectangle and, due to ill-planned additions, wound up looking like something a four-year-old might construct out of blocks. A gray sedan with federal plates and two sheriff’s department vehicles were parked in front, beside a rusty Honda Civic bearing a bumper sticker that readSupport the NRA: Shoot the Motherfucker.A slimy pond sat to the west of the building, and to the east, several acres had been cleared for pistol lanes and a rifle range. A posse of buzzards soared a hundred feet above the rifle targets, as if hopeful something juicier than bull’s-eyes would get hit now and then.
Neil took a deep breath, tension balling his right hand into a fist. Bankes had been here, he could feel it. No way did Mo Hammond disappear by coincidence.
He and Rick stepped into the store.
“No, no, noooo!” a woman wailed somewhere in the back. “You can’t do this. Let me go!”
Neil started back, but a man said, “It’s okay; the sheriff’s back there.” He came out from behind a gun case, a black man wearing glasses with lenses the size of gum sticks. “Christian Waite,” he said, offering a hand, “from the Philly field office.”
They made introductions while the yowls from the back room intensified. “What’s going on?” Neil asked.
“Mo Hammond’s wife. Sheriff Grimes is talking to her.”
The back room smelled of body odor and gun oil, and a bulky man who must’ve been Grimes stood off to the side. Two deputies held a three-hundred-pound woman by the arms. She wore a sleeveless cotton dress, her armpits a couple of weeks out from their last shave, and her hair styled by about twelve hours of sleep. Her eyes homed in on Neil.
“Did you find him? Where is he? Can I see him now?” And, as an afterthought, “Who are you?”
“Mrs. Hammond,” Rick began, and Neil stepped back. Let Rick handle her.
Neil introduced himself to the sheriff and whispered, “We need to get her outta here. This could be a crime scene.”
“That’s why the boys are holdin’ on to her,” Grimes said. “When she came in, she was runnin’ around crazy.”
“What does she think happened? Is she afraid Bankes might’ve got him?”
“Mo’d be lucky if that’s what happened.”
“That woman came in here with a Remington thirty-aught-six, looking to blow Mo’s brains out.”CHAPTER28
Rick got the story from Hammond’s wife: Mo was last seen the day before yesterday, wearing aftershave and a clean shirt, which, she said, only proved he was on his way to see “some bimbo whose thighs don’ close.” Neil listened for five minutes then sought out Sheriff Grimes.
“Some SAC from Quantico called,” Grimes said, snorting. “Said don’t touch anything ’cause he was sending in a team to dust the place. Like we wouldn’t’ve known that, maybe.”
Neil made an apologetic gesture; he understood the game. “Got a lot of crime scenes for this case. Some were messed up pretty good before the SAC could get anyone in. He’s a little nervous.”
“Yeah,” Grimes said, and his gaze dropped to Neil’s scar. Pondering which team Neil played on, no doubt: the bureaucrats or the real crime fighters.
“Drug dealer about nine years ago,” Neil said, running a finger along the snarled flesh. “His aim was just bad enough to skim off my cheek instead of take off my head.”
“Lucky,” he said, and just like that, the dog sniffing ended. “Come on. I’ll take you around. Out here, Mo has his regular inventory…”
The store was well kept, the showcases all Windexed and the cabinets neat. There was a bathroom, a spartan office, and a storage room that housed extra guns and ammo, old boxes of office records, a retired Dell desktop computer, and an office chair with two broken casters. “What used to sit there?” Neil asked, noting a corner where dust marked off a rectangle of clean floor.
“Don’t know. Could ask Andy, the guy who works here with Mo. I sent a deputy to bring him in; he might know which bimbo Mo was screwin’.”
They went outside and walked the perimeter of the building, looking for footprints or tire tracks. “Lotta rain the last couple days,” Grimes said.
“Looks like a few tracks from yesterday or today,” Neil said, pointing to a muddy edge of the drive where several vehicles had overshot the gravel. “Can you get some casts made?”
Grimes’s head bobbed up and down, one of the team now. “Sure thing.”
“So,” Neil said, his hands riding his hips as he scanned the rest of the land, “with Mo gone, no one’s shot here lately?”
“Well, yeah. I think Andy had things open yesterday. He usually works Fridays.”
Neil eyed the buzzards. “What happens to the prey?”
“People come here to shoot animals, right? What happens to them?”
“Oh, Mo has a strict policy about that: You kill it, you take it. No carcasses left behind.”
Neil was listening, but his mind hiked ahead. He started diagonally across the rifle-shooting lanes.
“What’s up?” the sheriff asked.
“Buzzards?” Grimes looked up. “Oh, well, they’re always around. There’s always an asshole or two leaves a gut dump.”
“By the targets?”
A little hesitation. “Well, no. I imagine Mo puts up new targets every couple weeks or so; that’d be a bad place for a gut dump.”
That’s what Neil was thinking.
Grimes stopped. “You don’t think—” He didn’t finish but picked up his pace to match Neil’s.
They walked across the firing lanes toward red-and-white targets strung on the fronts of hay bales. Some were virtually untouched; others annihilated. The bales of hay themselves were pretty ragged, and thousands of small holes dotted the dirt wall that rose up behind.
Neil looked into the sky. The buzzards were right overhead, higher now, but not scattering. About ten yards closer, the stench hit him. He opened his mouth, careful not to breathe through his nose.
“Son of a bitch,” Grimes said and pulled his jacket up over his nose. “Son of a bitch.”
Neil came to the edge of the targets and put up a hand for Grimes to stay put; Mo was a friend of his. Neil stepped around the haystacks, cursed, and closed his eyes.
He went back to Grimes. “Found him,” he said.
Forensics took over. Mo Hammond had been shot three times at close range with what looked like a .22, and numerous additional times—postmortem—by rifles. Any information beyond that would be hours coming to light as they took apart the crime scene an inch at a time. Neil hung around for the first hour, flexing his hand and bouncing on the balls of his feet, then phoned Copeland.
“Can you clear me to get into Bankes’s house?”
Copeland sounded tired. “Sure, but we’ve already been through it. It looked like no one had been in there for years.”
“Did your guys tear it apart?”
“No. We were careful to leave things alone, in case he came back. There’s an on-site guy still there keeping an eye out.”
“I’d like to take Rick and have a look.”
For some reason, Neil expected a dilapidated, ghost-like Victorian structure on a Hill or the equivalent of the Bates Hotel. Not at all. Bankes had grown up in a quaint, two-story home nestled in the woods, probably built just after the Depression. It had a deep front porch, ginger-breading under the eaves, and remnants of flower beds along the walkways. The property was overgrown, but in its day, Neil thought with surprise, it might have been lovely.
Inside, the same: neglected now, but once a home. Mo had sold off most furniture and any belongings that might have fetched a few dollars, but shadows of a family’s life remained. There was a broken-legged metal table in the eat-in kitchen, and curtains still hung in the living room windows. Closets and drawers were empty but for one catchall kitchen drawer that contained a few remnants of life’s detritus: a couple of ancient receipts, a spare button, a few pennies, three rusted paper clips. Neil unfolded the receipts. One was for gasoline at Grover’s; he could barely make out the price in the faded ink—59.9 cents a gallon, in 1976. Ah, the good old days. The other was for a package of cloth diapers from the five-and-dime store.
He put the receipts back in the drawer and moved on. The only bathroom sat on the main floor, and three bedrooms—two dormers upstairs and one downstairs—were empty except for a couple of pieces of furniture that had been too dilapidated to sell. Half the basement seemed to have been finished off as another bedroom; the floor had carpet with indentations where a double bed once sat, and a broken nightstand crouched against the wall. Grandpa’s room, Neil thought, but wasn’t sure why.
Rick wandered in as Neil tugged open the nightstand drawer. An old Bible sat inside.
“Anything?” Rick asked.
“Not really,” he said, picking up the Bible.
Rick let out a long breath. “If Bankes was gonna come here, he’d’ve done it already. When he killed Mo, maybe. He wouldn’t come back now.”
“Unless he’s planning to bring Beth here.”
Rick shook his head. “He’s gotta know we’re watching it.”
Neil thumbed through the pages of the Bible. The first page was missing—torn out. He frowned, trying to think what was on the first page of a Bible… an inscription or dedication, maybe? Owner’s name?
His phone rang. “Sheridan,” he said, setting down the Bible.
“Hey, this is Waite.” The Philly agent with the skinny glasses. “Where are you?”
“Still in Samson, over at the house Bankes lived in. Hammond’s property, I guess.”
“Good. Sheriff Grimes just put me on a lead—a guy who knew Chevy way back when. Wanna come?”
“Where” was a nursing home ten miles from Samson, on the way south toward Arlington.
“It’s Ray Goodwin, the guy who was sheriff when Bankes’s little sister disappeared,” Waite said, leading them down a wide, sterile hallway. In the last room on the right, Ray Goodwin sat in a wheelchair, his gnarled fingers tapping on the arms. A big man once upon a time, he’d lost his bulk to the inactivity of the chair. His jowls hung empty, his skin blue-veined.