It was early Thursday morning—over hump day and on the downhill side of the week where I was looking forward to Friday night. I could hardly wait to dress as Jax, become the sexy guy who doesn’t have to be a cop and play at the Castle with Lavender—when fiery thoughts of fun and games with a hot woman were doused in an instant as I looked at the dead body lying on the cold table in front of me. I’d already had intimate knowledge of the dead body at the scene, where it had been found in a shallow grave near the edge of some woods outside of town. A great deal of the time I worked alone, but sometimes I worked within a special task force unit that deals with the missing. And, well, this girl had been missing for a while—three months, two weeks, and three days. Her picture was still posted on my board in our Missing Crimes area, where the members of the task force meet, talk, work, and do our damnedest to find people.
Twenty-three years old and trying to work while going to college part-time, Mallory Stabler had been in the prime of her life when someone cut it short.
I stared down at her as I listened to the ME’s verbal report. The girl had been held hostage a lot longer than she’d been dead. Tortured and assaulted, her body still bore scars, wounds, and bruises. I bit my lip and gripped my notepad so tight my knuckles hurt in an effort to keep my poker face so Dr. Ellison couldn’t see the rage that burned through me.
“Something you might be interested in.”
As if a dead woman on the slab with a big Y cut down her middle didn’t perk my interest. Do I look bored?
I cleared my throat. “What?”
“He used hemp to tie her ankles and suspend her upside down.”
“To keep her conscious while he tortured her. That’s not much of a surprise,” I said. My stomach churned like it was boiling. I forced down a swallow.
“Yes, but more important is the type of hemp he used. I found fibers of it embedded in her skin. It matches samples of two others found in the last three months. I pulled the files. All women. But different modes of operation. We might not have noticed or even known the murders were related if I hadn’t run the comparison. So this is—”
“The work of a serial killer.” Fuck.
“Yes, it appears so.”
I took the paperwork she handed me, knowing I was going to be spending the next several hours cross-referencing and trying to piece together a puzzle that I hoped would lead me in some sort of right direction. I took one more look down at the college student, dreading that I was going to have to question her family and her friends again. I’d done a lot of that when she’d gone missing. I could hand this over to homicide. But I never had before. Why would I start now? No, like every other case I worked, I saw it through to the end. It was how I did my job. Either find the missing or find who caused them to be missing.
But I was going to have to hand information over to homicide. They needed to know there was a serial killer. They needed to look for other victims, see how many they could tie to this killer.
I was also going to have to report this to the mayor.
Should I do it now, while rage still boiled through my veins? Or should I do it later, after I’d cooled down? It was a toss-up, considering as soon as I stepped into her office, I was bound to heat up again just seeing her and remembering how sweet she tasted. I also knew how one kiss from her or a touch could make me forget all about the sociopath preying on young women.
I opted to get more information before stepping over the threshold of her office.
I spent the rest of the morning tracking down Mallory Stabler’s roommates at her campus apartment. Thank goodness for nostalgia. In hopes of finding her or perhaps in wishful thinking that if they left everything alone, she’d come back to it, no one, not even her family, had changed anything in her room.
I found the biggest clue yet in the case in her bedside table. I hadn’t been the one to search her room when she’d first gone missing. Inside the drawer were four notes that strongly suggested she’d had a stalker.
The first one was simple.
I see you.
That one had a pair of eyes drawn in colored pencil. The irises of the eyes were colored blue. The rest of each eye was drawn in black.
Soon I’ll get to feel just how soft you really are.
This one had feathers drawn on it.
You fill my every thought. You brighten the room when you walk in. Soon we will share more than coffee. I will get to enjoy you more than from just across the room. Soon. Soon. Soon.
This one had a red heart that covered the page, and the words were printed on it.
And the last one:
To the prettiest college student I know,
Today is the day. You will finally be mine. You will know what it feels like to be in my arms, to feel my body close to yours, to taste the sweetness of my kiss. Today. Yes. I’m practically bursting with excitement. The others are so dumb. I know you are not…
This one had big red lips drawn on it as if his mouth was twice as big as normal and he’d put on lipstick and kissed the paper. It wasn’t paper, however. It was heavy parchment. The words were written in loopy, cursive writing, the lines perfect. I carefully slipped them into a large evidence bag.
I asked, but no one knew about the notes. Mallory Stabler’s roommate cried and denied knowing about them, said she would have reported them if she had. She also denied knowing whether or not Mallory had said anything about being followed or having coffee with anyone new before she went missing.
Passing out my card, I encouraged everyone I questioned to call if they remembered anyone or anything. I hoped someone would, but there were just too many cold cases out there for me to be too hopeful. And while I could bring my dog, Harry, here, and he was good with sniffing out a trail, I doubted he could sniff out anything new, since the dead woman had been missing for three months. I needed to call together the team and get the notes to the lab. And I needed to report my findings to Madame Mayor, but I figured I needed to be armed with something other than the gun under my shoulder.
My cell phone pulsed. I checked it. A text came in from—of all people—Mayor Melanie Remington.
Please come to my office ASAP.
* * * *
I got to Melanie’s office as quick as I could without drawing attention. I found her standing behind her desk, looking out the large window. For a moment, she didn’t know I was there watching her from her doorway, and I had the opportunity to study her. The sunlight in her hair made it look like golden honey, and she’d pinned it up in a professional knot at the back of her head. She wore black plastic-frame glasses that touched the middle of her perfect nose. Soft pink-red lipstick tinted her pouty lips. I’m a selfish man; I wanted that color on my cock and had to suck in a deep breath to keep that same cock from growing stiff.
She was so deep in thought I hated like hell to burst her tranquil bubble or the placid atmosphere of me just simply looking at her. I wanted to step close behind her and touch my lips to the back of her neck like I’d done when she’d been pressed against the tiles in the shower. I wanted to take the pins from her hair and slide my fingers through it like I did when I kissed her. My heart raced at the memories that flowed through me. I did my best to push them to the back of my mind, but it wasn’t easy.
I settled for clearing my throat and rapping on the door with my closed fist.
She must have been lost deeper in thought than I suspected because she jumped, startled at the intrusion. When she turned and met my gaze, she had pressed her open palm to her chest, as if the action would slow her heart. I was even more selfish in hoping maybe she was lost in thoughts about her weekend spent with me at the Castle.
“That was damned fast, Larson. I just sent you a text.”
I shrugged. “I was on my way here anyway. I wanted to touch base with you and let you know something I discovered today.”
“Hidden treasure, maybe.”
Oh, she was prissier than usual. Dare I believe it was because she was horny as hell and needing what only I could give her? The truth was I had found hidden treasure. It stood right in front of me.
No, she’d probably already heard about the dead college student. I stood where I was to keep from rushing her and kissing her, pressing her against the wall and making her scream like a banshee, reminding her what I could do for her, reminding her what I did
do for her last Saturday night. Maybe if she knew who I was, she’d give me a smile and an I-so-need-you look instead of a bitch look.
I almost let the cat out of the bag and told her I’d discovered hidden treasure last weekend. “Don’t I wish,” I said instead. “No, Madame Mayor. What I came to tell you is that while following through with a missing person report—who has been found dead, by the way—I’ve discovered we have a serial killer.”
She met my gaze, and what I saw in her green eyes was a mixture of misgiving, horror, and anger. I knew my words had just taken her pissy level to a new height.
“Close the door.”