As soon as the man ran, the spell that held the room broke. Police burst through one set of doors while their prey bolted out another. The people who had been watching like statues around Medusa were suddenly shouting, demanding some kind of action. Most of them pointed after the running man, directing the police. Seneca rushed to the girl on the floor while Delray ran to his fallen partner.
“Get an ambulance!” Seneca called to the approaching cops. She pulled the panties from the girl’s mouth, then put her fingers on the handle of the knife still sticking from the girl’s bloody side.
“Don’t touch that,” Delray told her as he helped Mark to stand. “You can do more damage taking it out than he did putting it in. Wait for the EMTs. Here, let me.” He cautiously released Mark, hesitating to check that he remained upright before kneeling beside Seneca. She moved aside as Delray used his big hands to apply pressure over the wounds and around the blade.
“How is she?” Mark asked. He was still on his feet but wobbling. His hand pressed tightly over his left eye, doing little to stop the blood that flowed between his fingers.
“Two ambulances!” Seneca called to the police again. She left the girl to Delray and stood to put a steadying hand on Mark.
“I’m all right,” he said. “It just hurts like hell.”
“Let me see,” she told him as she peeled away the hand. There was a bone-deep laceration from his brow down to his cheek, but his eye looked to be intact. She couldn’t be sure, though. There was a lot of red, but she couldn’t tell if it was from the eye or the cut.
“I’m so sorry, Mark.”
“Not your fault. You didn’t invent crazy.”
“Is he going to be all right?” The question came from Andi, the young woman who had been very curious
. She was still clutching the book Seneca had signed to her. “What about the girl? Can I help?” Andi added.
“Not unless you have bandages in your purse.”
“Not a bandage but…” Andi set down her book then pulled a minipad from her purse.
“Oh hell no—” Mark protested as soon as he saw what was in her hand.
Delray laughed even as he was holding the girl. Then he said, “Hey, give me a couple of those if you got ’em.”
Andi gave the pad to Seneca, who pressed it to Mark’s face. “Stop squirming,” she told him.”
“God, I’m glad I didn’t get shot,” he said. “You’d stick a tampon in the bullet hole.”
“What are you afraid of? You think a minipad on your face is going to make you a girl?”
Over her shoulder Delray laughed. He was holding two pads down on the girl’s wounds, and Andi was holding her head.
“Men,” Seneca said.
An officer approached, speaking into a microphone clipped to his shoulder. When he let go of the mic button, he said, “We have ambulances on the way. Is anyone else hurt?”
Delray said, “Just these two, but she’s lost consciousness and a lot of blood. Do you have a description yet?”
“Just white male,” the officer answered. “Jeans.”
“He was midthirties, six feet, maybe a touch over,” Seneca said. “White T-shirt and black engineer boots. Reddish-brown hair. He had tattoos on each arm. They looked homemade. On the left was a snake coiling. On the inside of the right one he had what looked like a rope with knots in it. Four I think.”
The officer nodded, then asked, “You folks going to be okay here till the EMTs get here?”
“Go,” Seneca said. “They’re here.”
The EMTs came through the door and straight to the wounded pair on the floor. It took twenty minutes to stabilize the girl enough to take her away. As she was being worked on, another pair took care of Mark. Andi was talking to Delray as they watched Mark, leaving Seneca alone to her thoughts for the first time in what seemed like years. She just wanted to get out of this place, find a nice wine to drink, and drift to peace in a locked and secure hotel room.
The solitude didn’t last long. A man in a suit that looked a little snug across the shoulders came across the room with his gaze fixed on Seneca. She looked back, watching for his eyes to drop. They didn’t. They smiled. Just the eyes, though. It was a touch wolfish but otherwise nice, not mean-spirited at all. Suddenly she was hyperaware of how she looked. There was blood on her hands and top. Somehow another button had popped open, showing more skin and the top of her bra. She wanted to at least run fingers through her hair and try to capture some sense of control over her appearance. One look at her hands reminded her again not to touch herself.
As the man stopped in front of her, the smile in his eyes spread across the rest of his face. It wasn’t a grin or a happy-to-meet-you kind of smile. It was friendly and touched with concern. A professional smile, but it still worked. Seneca relaxed.
From the inner breast pocket of his jacket, he pulled a leather ID case and held it open. On one side was a gold badge. On the other was a picture ID that said FBI in big blue letters. “I’m FBI Special Agent Book. I need to ask you a few questions about what happened, ma’am.”
“I like the way you say ma’am, Agent.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Like you were raised right. Someplace Southern?”
“Not too far. The Ozarks.”
Seneca nodded with a smile. “Some people have a problem with sir or ma’am. They’re raised to think showing respect takes something from them. I’d shake, but…” She held up her bloody fingers and shrugged.
Special Agent Book nodded like he was holding a fragile thought in his head. He turned and started walking. “Follow me,” he said. He led her to the main doors and held them open.
She hadn’t realized she was cold until she came out into the sunshine. Once the warmth hit her, it was like a release from ice. Her skin prickled with goosebumps. Then she was suddenly a little giddy and sleepy.
“It feels so good out here,” Seneca said, basking.
The detective continued on to the back of an open ambulance and reached in to pluck a white towel from a pile. “Here,” he said, unfolding it.
Once she saw him with the towel, she reached to receive it. Instead he draped it over her hand, then started scrubbing at the blood.
As he rubbed her wrist and each finger in a tight terry-cloth massage, he looked at Seneca, and she looked back. His smile now, she noticed, was something more than professional. Still not a grin, but no come-on either. She offered her other hand, and he pulled the towel over it.
“You’re Seneca Graves,” he said.
“And you’re FBI Agent Book.”
“John Book. My friends call me Book.”
“Am I your friend?”
His eyes were on their hands, not her eyes, and she took the moment to look him over more. He was tall and broad with a short, sandy-blond military haircut. The bearing echoed her first impression, straight and confident. That was exactly the kind of alpha male she was usually not attracted to. But…
He stopped scrubbing, then reached into the inner pocket of his jacket. After a little back-to-business throat clearing, he said, “I have some pictures to show you.” He pulled out a small stack of photos and showed them to her one by one. There were a total of five. The fourth was the man with the whip and knife.
“You’re sure?” he asked.
“Positive. I had a lot of time to look at him. Who is he?”
“Can you tell me anything more about him?”
“I can tell you a lot about him,” she said. “Who is he?”
“I’m ma’am again? Well, I always like that.”
He smiled at her again. This time it was a real smile, not just professional and not just a man looking at an attractive face. It was genuine, warm, and the wolf lurking in the eyes was comfortably at bay.
“You always get your way?” he asked.
“You don’t really know me very well, do you?”
“Not yet,” he said. He let the smile and the wolf have a little freedom with his face.
Seneca liked what she saw in so many ways. “Confidence is a wonderful trait.”
“I know.” He let his answer sit, not allowing it to be diminished by laughter or qualification.
That time his smile made her flush with unexpected heat. It felt good but completely out of character.
Certainly out of place, she reminded herself. Still, there was something about the man that was stronger than the horror of the day. She looked at the towel and selected a clean corner to pass over her face.
“His name is Asa Farro,” he finally said.
Seneca took the towel from her face and looked at him again but still said nothing.
“And he may have killed other people.”
“Like a serial killer?”
“We don’t say serial killer.”
“What do you say?”
“He’s a suspect in four murders. He was under surveillance for months until he slipped away a couple of weeks ago. We think the girl he stabbed in there has been his captive at least that long.”
“You said four…” Despite the warmth of the sun, cold enveloped Seneca again. “He has a tattoo on his right arm.”
Book nodded. “Four knots in a rope. We believe he likes to display it. His idea of a secret screw-you-world joke.”
In the back of Seneca’s mind, the menace of Asa Farro was like a stranger kicking at the door to her memory. The front of her mind kept running over the body and face of the man standing next to her. His hands on her were a heated promise.
Those thoughts would have surprised her any other time, but there, in that moment, they amazed her. He was thinking the same things in his own way, she was sure. In his eyes were two creatures, one of kindness and one of hunger. To look into them was to see something like a werewolf, something wild within the gentleman. It was that part of him, the wolf, that stole glances of her body. It flitted over her face with soft movements, pausing at her mouth and her eyes, lingering in her hair.
“Your turn,” he said.
Seneca was pulled back from her thoughts with an abrupt yank. They had already wandered to the point where the phrase, your turn, could have some wonderful connotations. “What do you mean?”
“You said you knew things about Asa Farro.”
She nodded and moved to the open door of the ambulance where she sat down and looked at the scene. There were cars and trucks of all types now with more coming. Emergency vehicles with strobing lights spilled men with guns. Vans with bright lettering and logos from television stations were crowding the edges of the police lines. For the first time she understood this day would assault her for years to come. She was already living in a bit of a spotlight just for giving her opinion. Now some violent, hateful man had tied her name to his. “I know things,” she said. “I’ve seen men like him all my life.”
“Do you know anything that might help us catch him?”
“He’s interested, probably obsessively, with the world of BDSM—bondage, discipline—”
“I know the phrase.”
She nodded and wondered about that statement—I know the phrase
. She didn’t hear judgment in it exactly. Maybe there was a touch of impatience. Maybe there was a vein, a current of questioning. She wondered if the question was about her or the world she lived in. “You know the phrase?”
He sat beside her on the ambulance step bumper, close but not intimate. “Even FBI agents in Kansas City don’t live under rocks.”
Seneca nodded again and gave a smile that she almost allowed to break into a chuckle. Then she looked across the street at the parking lot filling with news people and cops. The chuckle remained an almost, and she let the smile wilt.
“Look,” he said, “I get it. I really do.” With both hands, he gestured at himself, running them from chest to knees and back. “Off-the-rack suit. Cop. I’m in the same group with a whole other culture that seems suspicious of you. Hell, I’m the gun hand of that group in some people’s eyes. Cops don’t do well with changes. We enforce rules, and that makes us rigid and…” He seemed to be searching for the words he wanted.
“Unyielding,” Seneca supplied.
“I was about to go with assholes.”
That time the smile broke, and Seneca allowed a small lilting laugh to spill out.
“What I’m trying to say,” he continued, “is that it’s easy for people like me to see others as, literally—Other. Because of that, it’s really easy for us to be seen as something to be protected against as much as protectors. But this is important. Anything you know or feel about this man could save another life.”
“I understand. I understand completely. It’s just not always easy to talk with someone about these things who isn’t in the lifestyle.”
“Try growing up an Ozarks Baptist. I spent most of middle school trying to convert heathens.”
She laughed again, bright and easy. “Then what happened?”
“I finally got the idea that the heathen was the person running around telling everyone else what they believed was wrong.”
“I have a belief that does not require anyone’s walls or structures to support them.”
Seneca sat silent for a long moment, trying not to think. She wanted to simply enjoy the man next to her. It was a good feeling. Kind of like when she walked into the sunlight from the building where all the violence had happened. Then, just as she had feared, the image of his face under hers, under a tent of her draping hair, slipped into her mind.
Put that away, she scolded herself.
“Like I said,” she told Book. “He’s probably obsessively interested in BDSM, but he won’t fit in that world. He thinks he does. He thinks the lifestyle is about giving pain and has no understanding of giving support. He believes in chaos and sees that in a world that doesn’t follow the normal society rules. The fact that BDSM has very clear rules and an expectation of personal responsibility confuses him.
“Farro will have tried to fit in with bondage groups and failed. He probably made a lot of enemies and got noticed by a lot of people. You need to talk to the local community.”
“The local BDSM community?”
“Yes. Is that a problem?”
“It wouldn’t be if I had any idea of who they are. How do I even find the friendly neighborhood bondage people?”
This time when Seneca laughed, it was big and loud with a wonderful feeling of release.
“I guess I said something pretty funny.”
“You’re at a convention for kinky lifestylers. Just go start asking. Someone in there will know this guy.”
Embarrassment rushed across Book’s face, but it passed quickly without a trace of resentment. “Guess I’d better get to work,” he said before rising with a nod and a shy look that wasn’t entirely business. “I’ll want you to stick around.”
“Is that professional or friends?” Seneca asked before she caught the flirt in her question.
He didn’t answer. Instead he stood aside and gave an after-you gesture toward the doors of the center.
Back inside the hall, he left her with Delray and Andi, still waiting beside Mark, who was now stitched.
“How’s he doing?” Seneca asked Delray.
“He won’t go to the hospital. EMT said he needed a plastic surgeon to fix it up without scars.”
“I’m a retired old cop. What do I care about a scar?” Mark asked. “Besides, ladies love a man with scars.”
“They love small, sexy scars,” Seneca said.
“That’s going to be a Bond villain scar,” Andi added.
“Funny girl,” Mark shot right back.
“You sound like my dad.”
funny girl.” Mark sighed.
“Did the detective give up any info on the guy?” Delray asked Seneca.
“He’s someone they’ve been looking for. They think he’s killed other people.”
“That’s sure not a surprise,” he said, then looked up over Seneca’s shoulder. “Uh-oh.”
“Uh-oh?” she echoed with a question.
“That’s a reporter over there.” He pointed at a woman coming up the hall. Trailing behind her was a cameraman. She was the first of a small wave washing in the side doors and filtering through the lobby. “If you don’t want to be on the news tonight, we should get you out of here.”
“I need to find Devon. He should have everything packed and—”
“What?” Delray asked.
“Have you seen him? Devon. I sent him here to get things ready, and I haven’t seen him.”
“I haven’t either,” Delray said, looking at Mark, who shook his head gently. “Not since we left the stage.”
“A lot has happened since then,” Seneca said.
“No kidding,” Delray agreed. “I’ll go back to the stage and see if he’s there.”
“I’m going with you. He’s my responsibility.”
“And you’re ours,” Mark said, rising slowly from the floor.
“That’s something we should argue. But I’m afraid there’s not time.”
“I’m coming too,” Andi said.
Seneca looked at the men and girl staring back at her. She wanted to tell them no but couldn’t. “I can’t ask—”
“No one’s asking,” Delray said. “Not you. Not us.”
* * * *
The auditorium was hollow silence when they entered. The velvet seats absorbed both light and sound. The aisle carpets were straight roads of industrial black leading to the wood-paneled proscenium arch. Behind the arch, the stage itself ate light in the curtains of black teeth. At the front was the table of toys and leather, sitting just as it had during Seneca’s talk. Something was different, though.
“The St. Andrew’s cross.” Seneca pointed as she spoke. “It’s gone.”
“I don’t know,” Delray said. “That row of curtains was open before. Someone closed it.”
“You’re right. And the cross was up there, behind where the curtain is now,” she agreed.
“Come on.” Delray motioned forward with one hand and pulled his canister of pepper spray with the other as he stalked up the aisle. “Stay together.”
Seneca checked behind her. Andi was there right alongside Mark, who was scanning warily through his one open eye. Moving as a cautious unit with Seneca in the center, they reached the stairs to the stage. Delray climbed them first, then turned to offer his hand to Seneca.
Seneca didn’t wait for Mark or Andi to climb onto the stage. She left the group behind to approach the break in the curtain alone.
“Wait,” Delray said. “Let me—”
“No!” Seneca screamed. It was a howl of pain and wishing that grated in her throat. The sound went from a high keening to a gravel roughness in the space of a single heartbeat. Before it had faded, she had pushed through the curtain and was at the cross, trying to release the bare and bloody man fixed to it. “Devon?” she called. “Devon?” There was just the question without expectation of an answer.
Delray and Mark were suddenly beside her, pulling her hands from the cuffs, then pushing her away from her friend.
“You can’t,” Delray said. “Wait for the cops.”
“He might be all right. We need to help him.” Seneca was pleading.
“He needs more help than we can give him,” Mark said, holding Andi back. “If he’s even alive.”
“I don’t think he is,” Delray said quietly. “There’s too much blood.”
Seneca looked down and saw the pooling darkness. A thick lake of blood surrounded his body. Where they had walked, blood slowly moved to reclaim the vacancies left by their feet. Well to the side were other splashes of red. More footprints in a hard lug-sole pattern led away and into the deeper folds of curtain and darkness.
“Get out of here,” Delray said with hands on both Seneca and Andi, pushing.
“I can’t,” Seneca said. “I—”
“Do it!” This time it was Mark shouting and pushing. “This could be a trap. You need to get out of here and bring the police.”
“I’ll stay with him. Delray, get ’em out.”
Delray put an arm around each woman, sweeping them along as he rushed down the stage and back up the silent aisles. After they burst through the auditorium door, the big man’s mass and speed kept them moving. As he carried them forward into the main hall, Seneca saw a group of officers clustered at the far end. Delray released them and started running freely. Andi followed right behind. Seneca slowed, watching them race away, then turned around and went back.
She forced herself to move quickly through the silent auditorium. Without other people around her, the full force of dread dragged against each of Seneca’s steps. She needed to know about Devon. She imagined him alone in the dark. He’s my responsibility
, she told herself.
When she reached the edge of the stage, she paused at the stairs and called out, “Mark!” It was as much to hear a voice as to make contact. Neither goal worked as desired. Her voice betrayed her fear, and Mark failed to answer.
Climbing the three stairs, she called again with the same result. Now there were two people for whom Seneca felt responsible. She took a long, deep breath and resolved not to run. The first touch of her foot on the stage floor produced a small chirping clack
from the heel of her shoe. Had she been in a group, the sound would have been normal, just another foot on a floor. Alone in this room the noise was like sonar that pointed right to her. She pulled off the shoes and tossed them back onto the carpeted audience floor.
There were no more deep breaths or hesitations. In a quick jog, she reached the opening in the curtain and pulled it open. Even though she had seen Devon on the cross earlier, the sight still shocked her the second time. Blood flowing from his savaged back dripped to the floor, making a tiny plip
in the standing pool.
“Oh Devon…” Seneca said. Her feet didn’t move, but she reached for him.
He made a sound, a rattling moan that sounded like a far-off train and felt like death in her ears. His head turned slightly. Seneca thought it did, or she hoped. Before she could find out, Mark plunged through another set of curtains and hit the floor.