Once Craved (a Riley Paige Mystery--Book #3) - Blake Pierce - E-Book
Beschreibung

ONCE CRAVED is book #3 in the bestselling Riley Paige mystery series, which begins with ONCE GONE (Book #1)!When prostitutes turn up dead in Phoenix, not much attention is paid. But when a pattern of disturbing murders is discovered, the local police soon realize a serial killer is on a rampage and they are in way over their heads. Given the unique nature of the crimes, the FBI, called in, knows they will need their most brilliant mind to crack the case: Special Agent Riley Paige.Riley, recovering from her last case and trying to pick up the pieces of her life, is at first reluctant. But when she learns of the grievous nature of the crimes and realizes the killer will soon strike again, she is compelled. She begins her hunt for the elusive killer and her obsessive nature takes her too far—perhaps too far, this time, to pull herself back from the brink. Riley’s search leads her into the unsettling world of prostitutes, of broken homes, and shattered dreams. She learns that, even amongst these women, there are glimpses of hope, hope being robbed by a violent psychopath. When a teenage girl is abducted, Riley, in a frantic race against time, struggles to probe the depths of the killer’s mind. But what she discovers leads her to a twist that is too shocking for even her to imagine.A dark psychological thriller with heart-pounding suspense, ONCE CRAVED is book #3 in a riveting new series—with a beloved new character—that will leave you turning pages late into the night.Book #4 in the Riley Paige series will be available soon.

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O N C E   C R A V E D

(A RILEY PAIGE MYSTERY—BOOK 3)

B L A K E   P I E R C E

Blake Pierce

Blake Pierce is author of the bestselling RILEY PAGE mystery series, which include the mystery suspense thrillers ONCE GONE (book #1), ONCE TAKEN (book #2) and ONCE CRAVED (#3).  Blake Pierce is also the author of the MACKENZIE WHITE mystery series.

An avid reader and lifelong fan of the mystery and thriller genres, Blake loves to hear from you, so please feel free to visit www.blakepierceauthor.com to learn more and stay in touch.

Copyright © 2016 by Blake Pierce. 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 permission of the author. This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return it and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictionally. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. Jacket image Copyright GongTo, used under license from Shutterstock.com.

BOOKS BY BLAKE PIERCE

RILEY PAIGE MYSTERY SERIES

ONCE GONE (Book #1)

ONCE TAKEN (Book #2)

ONCE CRAVED (Book #3)

MACKENZIE WHITE MYSTERY SERIES

CONTENTS

PROLOGUE

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

CHAPTER NINETEEN

CHAPTER TWENTY

CHAPTER TWENTY ONE

CHAPTER TWENTY TWO

CHAPTER TWENTY THREE

CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR

CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE

CHAPTER TWENTY SIX

CHAPTER TWENTY SEVEN

CHAPTER TWENTY EIGHT

CHAPTER TWENTY NINE

CHAPTER THIRTY

CHAPTER THIRTY ONE

CHAPTER THIRTY TWO

CHAPTER THIRTY THREE

CHAPTER THIRTY FOUR

CHAPTER THIRTY FIVE

CHAPTER THIRTY SIX

CHAPTER THIRTY SEVEN

CHAPTER THIRTY EIGHT

CHAPTER THIRTY NINE

CHAPTER FORTY

Prologue

Janine thought she saw something dark in the water down near the shoreline. It was big and black, and it seemed to move a little in the gently lapping water.

She took a hit off the marijuana pipe and handed it back to her boyfriend. Could that be a really big fish? Or some other kind of creature?

Janine shook herself a little, telling herself not to let her imagination run away with her. Getting scared would ruin her high. Nimbo Lake was a huge artificial reservoir stocked for fishing just like lots of other Arizona lakes. There’d never been tales of Nessie monsters around here.

She heard Colby say, “Wow, the lake’s on fire!”

Janine turned to look at her boyfriend. His freckled face and red hair glowed in the late afternoon sunlight. He had just taken a hit off the pipe and was staring across the water with an expression of idiotic awe.

Janine giggled. “You’re just lit, dude,” she said. “In every way.”

“Yeah, so is the lake,” Colby said.

Janine turned and looked out over Nimbo Lake. Even though her own high hadn’t quite kicked in yet, the sight was stunning. The late afternoon sun set the canyon wall ablaze in reds and golds. The water reflected the colors like a big smooth mirror.

She remembered that nimbo was Spanish for halo. The name totally fit.

She took back the pipe and inhaled deeply, feeling the welcome burn down her throat. She’d be good and high any minute now. It was going to be fun.

Still, what was that black shape down in the water?

Just a trick of the light, Janine told herself.

Whatever it was, it was best to ignore it, not get creeped out by it, or scared. Everything else was so perfect. This was their favorite spot, hers and Colby’s—so beautiful, tucked into one of the coves on the lake, away from the campgrounds, away from everything, everybody.

She and Colby usually came here on weekends, but today they had cut school and just taken off. The late summer weather was too good to pass up. It was way cooler and nicer up here than back in Phoenix. Colby’s old car was parked off the dirt road behind them.

As she looked out over the lake, the buzz came on—the feeling of a really great impending high. The lake seemed almost too intensely gorgeous to look at. So she looked at Colby. He looked intensely gorgeous too. She grabbed hold of him and kissed him. He kissed her back. He tasted fabulous. Everything about him looked and felt fabulous.

She pulled her lips away from his and looked into his eyes and said breathlessly, “Nimbo means halo, did you know that?”

“Wow,” he said. “Wow.”

He sounded like that was the most amazing thing he’d ever heard in his life. He looked and sounded so funny, saying that, like it was religious or something. Janine started to laugh, and Colby laughed too. In another couple of seconds, they were completely tangled up in each other’s arms, groping and pawing.

Janine managed to disentangle herself.

“What’s the matter?” Colby asked.

“Nothing,” Janine said.

In a flash, she pulled off her halter top. Colby’s eyes widened.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“What do you think I’m doing?”

She began to struggle with his T-shirt, trying to pull it off of him.

“Wait a minute,” Colby said. “Right here?”

“Why not right here? It’s better than the back seat of your car. Nobody’s looking.”

“But maybe a boat …”

Janine laughed. “If there’s a boat, so what? Who cares?”

Colby was cooperating now, helping her get him out of his T-shirt. They were both clumsy with excitement, which only added to the thrill. Janine couldn’t imagine why they hadn’t done this here before. It wasn’t like this was the first time they’d smoked pot here.

But Janine kept picturing that shape down in the water. It was something, and until she knew what it was, it would keep nagging at her and ruin everything.

Panting, she rose to her feet.

“Come on,” she said. “Let’s go check something.”

“What?” Colby asked.

“I dunno. Just come on.”

She took Colby’s hand and they stumbled down the rough slope toward the shore. Janine’s buzz was starting to turn sour now. She hated when that happened. The sooner she found out that this whole thing was harmless, the sooner she could get back to feeling good.

Still, she was starting to wish her high hadn’t come on so fast and so strong.

With every step, the object came into clearer view. It was made out of black plastic, and here and there bubbles of it broke through the water’s surface. And there was something small and white right alongside of it.

Just a yard away from the water, Janine could see that it was a big black garbage bag. It was open at the end, and out of the opening poked the shape of a hand, unnaturally pale.

A mannequin, maybe, Janine thought.

She bent down toward the water to get a closer look. The fingernails were painted garishly red in contrast to the paleness. A terrible realization ripped through Janine’s body like an electrical current.

The hand was real. It was a woman’s hand. The bag contained a dead body.

Janine started screaming. She heard Colby scream too.

And she knew that they wouldn’t be able to stop screaming for a long time.

Chapter One

Riley knew that the slides she was about to show would shock her FBI Academy students. Some of them probably weren’t going to be able to take it. She scanned the eager young faces watching her from the half-circle of tiered desks.

Let’s see how they react, she thought. This could be important for them.

Of course, Riley knew that in the whole range of criminal offenses, serial murder was rare. Still, these young people had to learn everything there was to learn. They aspired to be FBI field agents and they’d soon find that most local law officers had no experience with serial cases. And Special Agent Riley Paige was an authority on serial murder.

She clicked the remote. The first images to appear on the large flat-screen were anything but violent. They were five charcoal portraits of women, ranging in age from young to middle age. All the women were attractive and smiling, and the portraits had been done with skill and loving artistry.

As Riley clicked, she said, “These five drawings were made eight years ago by an artist named Derrick Caldwell. Every summer, he made lots of money drawing portraits of tourists on the Dunes Beach Boardwalk here in Virginia. These women were among his very last clients.”

After the last of the five portraits, Riley clicked again. The next photograph was a hideous image of an open chest freezer filled with dismembered female body parts. She heard her students gasp.

“This is what became of those women,” Riley said. “While he was drawing them, Derrick Caldwell became convinced, to use his own words, that they ‘were too beautiful to live.’ So he stalked them one by one, killed them, dismembered them, and kept them in his freezer.”

Riley clicked again, and the images that came up next were more shocking still. They were photographs taken by the medical examiner’s team after they’d reassembled the bodies.

Riley said, “Caldwell actually ‘shuffled’ the body parts, so that the women were dehumanized beyond recognition.”

Riley turned toward the classroom. One male student was rushing toward the exit, clutching his stomach. Others looked on the verge of throwing up. A few were in tears. Only a handful appeared to be unperturbed.

Paradoxically, Riley felt pretty sure that the unruffled students would be the ones who wouldn’t survive academy training. To them, these were just pictures, not real at all. They wouldn’t be able to handle true horror whenever they had to face it firsthand. They wouldn’t be able to handle the personal aftershocks, the post-traumatic stress that they could suffer. Visions of a flaming torch still slipped into her consciousness from time to time, but her PTSD was decreasing. She was healing. But she was sure that anybody first had to feel something before they could recover from it.

“And now,” Riley said, “I’m going to make a couple of statements, and you’re going to tell me if they’re myth or fact. Here’s the first. ‘Most serial murderers kill for sexual reasons.’ Myth or fact?”

Hands shot up among the students. Riley pointed to an especially eager-looking student in the first row.

“Fact?” the student asked.

“Yes, fact,” Riley said. “Although there can be other reasons, a sexual component is the most frequent. This can take various forms, sometimes rather bizarre. Derrick Caldwell is a classic example. The medical examiner determined that he committed acts of necrophilia on the victims before he dismembered them.”

Riley saw that most of her students were typing notes into their laptops. She continued, “Now here’s another statement. ‘Serial killers inflict increasing violence on their victims as they continue to kill.’”

Hands went up again. This time Riley pointed to a student a few rows back.

“Fact?” the student said.

“Myth,” Riley said. “Although I’ve certainly seen some exceptions, most cases show no such change over time. Derrick Caldwell’s level of violence stayed consistent while he was killing. But he was reckless, hardly an evil mastermind. He got greedy. He took his victims within a period of a month and a half. By drawing that kind of attention, he made his capture all but inevitable.”

She glanced at the clock and saw that her hour was up.

“That’s all for today,” she said. “But there are many mistaken assumptions about serial killers and a lot of myths still circulate. The Behavioral Analysis Unit has collected and analyzed the data, and I have worked serial cases in locations all over the country. We still have a lot of information to cover.”

The class broke up, and Riley started packing up her materials to go home. Three or four students clustered around her desk to ask questions.

A male student asked, “Agent Paige, weren’t you involved in the Derrick Caldwell case?”

“Yes, I was,” Riley said. “That’s a story for another time.”

It was also a story that she wasn’t eager to tell, but she didn’t say so.

A young woman asked, “Was Caldwell ever executed for his crimes?”

“Not yet,” Riley said.

Trying not to be rude, Riley brushed past the students toward the exit. Caldwell’s impending execution wasn’t something she felt comfortable discussing. The truth was, she expected it to be scheduled for any day now. As his principal captor, she had a standing invitation to witness his death. She hadn’t decided yet whether or not she’d go.

Riley felt good as she walked out of the building into a pleasant September afternoon. She was, after all, still on leave.

She’d suffered from PTSD ever since a maniacal killer had held her captive. She’d escaped and eventually taken down her tormentor. But she hadn’t gone on leave even then. She’d continued straight on to finish another case. It was a grisly business in Upstate New York that had ended with the killer committing suicide right in front of her by slashing his own throat.

That moment still haunted her. When her supervisor, Brent Meredith, approached her with another case, she’d declined to accept it. At Meredith’s suggestion, she’d agreed to teach a class at the Quantico FBI Academy instead.

As she got into her car and started to drive home, Riley thought about what a wise choice it had been. Finally, her life had a sense of peace, of calm.

And yet, as she drove, a creeping, familiar feeling began to set in, one that made her heart begin to pound in the middle of a clear blue day. It was a heightened sense of anticipation, she realized, of something ominous to come.

And try as she might to envision herself in this calm forever, she knew, she just knew, it wouldn’t last.

Chapter Two

Riley felt a twinge of dread as she felt the buzzing in her handbag. She stopped outside the front door of her new townhouse and pulled out her phone. Her heart skipped a beat.

It was a message from Brent Meredith.

Call me.

Riley worried. Her boss might merely be checking in to see how she was doing. He did that a lot these days. On the other hand, he might want her to return to work. What would she do then?

I’ll say no, of course, Riley told herself.

That might not be easy, though. She liked her boss, and she knew he could be very persuasive. It was a decision she didn’t want to have to make, so she put the phone away.

When she opened her front door and stepped into the bright, clean space of her new home, Riley’s momentary anxiety vanished. Everything seemed so right since she’d moved here.

A pleasant voice called out.

“¿Quiénes?”

“Soy yo,” Riley called back. “I’m home, Gabriela.”

The stout, middle-aged Guatemalan woman stepped out of the kitchen, drying her hands with a towel. It was good to see Gabriela’s smiling face. She’d been the family housekeeper for years, long before Riley had gotten divorced from Ryan. Riley was grateful that Gabriela had agreed to move in with her and her daughter.

“How was your day?” Gabriela asked.

“It was great,”Riley said.

“¡Qué bueno!”

Gabriela disappeared back into the kitchen. The smell of a wonderful dinner wafted through the house. She heard Gabriela start to sing in Spanish.

Riley stood in her living room, relishing her surroundings. She and her daughter had moved here only recently. The little ranch-style house they had lived in when her marriage dissolved had been too isolated for safety. Besides, Riley had felt an urgent need for a change, both for herself and April. Now that her divorce was final and Ryan was being generous with child support, it was time to make a whole new life.

There were still a few finishing touches to take care of. Some of the furniture was rather old and out of place in such a pristine environment. She’d have to find replacements. One of the walls looked rather empty, and Riley had run out of pictures to hang there. She made a mental note to go shopping with April this coming weekend. That idea made Riley feel comfortably normal, a woman with a nice family life rather than an agent tracking down some deviant murderer.

Now she wondered—where was April?

She stopped to listen. No music was emanating from April’s room upstairs. Then she heard her daughter scream.

April’s voice was coming from the backyard. Riley gasped and rushed through her dining area and out onto the large back deck. When she saw April’s face and torso pop into view above the fence between yards, it took Riley a moment to realize what was happening. Then she relaxed and laughed at herself. Her automatic panic had been an overreaction. But it had been instinctive. All too recently, Riley had rescued April from the clutches of a madman who had targeted her for revenge on her mother.

April disappeared from view and then popped up again squealing with pleasure. She was jumping on the neighbor’s trampoline. She’d made friends with the girl who lived there, a teenager who was about April’s age and even went to the same high school.

“Be careful!” Riley called out to April.

“I’m fine, Mom!” April called back breathlessly.

Riley laughed again. It was an unfamiliar sound, springing from feelings she had almost forgotten. She wanted to get used to laughing again.

She also wanted to get used to the joyful expression on her daughter’s face. It seemed like only yesterday when April had been terribly rebellious and sullen, even for a teenager. Riley could hardly blame April. Riley knew that she had left a lot to be desired as a mother. She was doing everything she could to change that.

That was one thing she especially liked about being on leave from field work, with its long, unpredictable hours often in faraway locations. Now her schedule meshed with April’s, and Riley dreaded the likelihood that this would someday have to change.

Best to enjoy it while I can, she thought.

Riley went back into the house just in time to hear the front doorbell ring.

She called out, “I’ll get it, Gabriela.”

She opened the door and was surprised to find herself facing a smiling man she hadn’t seen before.

“Hi,” he said, a bit shyly. “I’m Blaine Hildreth, from next door. Your daughter is over there now with my daughter, Crystal.” He held out a box to Riley and added, “Welcome to the neighborhood. I’ve brought you a small housewarming gift.”

“Oh,” Riley said. She was startled at the unaccustomed cordiality. It took her a moment to say, “Please, come on in.”

She accepted the box awkwardly and offered him a seat in a living room chair. Riley sat down on the sofa, holding the gift box in her lap. Blaine Hildreth was looking at her expectantly.

“This is so kind of you,” she said, opening up the package. It held a mixed set of colorful coffee mugs, two of them decorated with butterflies and the other two with flowers.

“They’re lovely,” Riley said. “Would you like some coffee?”

“I’d love some,” Blaine said.

Riley called out to Gabriela, who came in from the kitchen.

“Gabriela, could you bring us some coffee in these?” she said, handing her two of the mugs. “Blaine, how do you like yours?”

“Black will be fine.”

Gabriela took the mugs into the kitchen.

“My name is Riley Paige,” she said to Blaine. “Thanks for stopping by. And thank you for the gift.”

“You’re welcome,” Blaine said.

Gabriela returned with two mugs of delicious hot coffee, then went back to work in the kitchen. Somewhat to her embarrassment, Riley found herself sizing up her male neighbor. Now that she was single, she couldn’t resist. She hoped he didn’t notice.

Oh, well, she thought. Maybe he’s doing the same with me.

First, she observed that he wasn’t wearing a wedding ring. Widowed or divorced, she figured.

Second, she estimated that he was about her age, maybe a little younger, perhaps in his late thirties.

Finally, he was good-looking—or at least reasonably so. His hairline was receding, which wasn’t a strike against him. And he seemed to be lean and fit.

“So, what do you do?” Riley asked.

Blaine shrugged. “I own a restaurant. Do you know Blaine’s Grill downtown?”

Riley was pleasantly impressed. Blaine’s Grill was one of the nicest casual lunch places here in Fredericksburg. She’d heard that it was terrific for dinner, but hadn’t had a chance to try it.

“I’ve been there,” she said.

“Well, that’s mine,” Blaine said. “And you?”

Riley took a long breath. It was never easy to tell a total stranger what she did for a living. Men especially were sometimes intimidated.

“I’m with the FBI,” she said. “I’m—a field agent.”

Blaine’s eyes widened.

“Really?” he said.

“Well, on leave at the moment. I’m teaching at the academy.”

Blaine leaned toward her with growing interest.

“Wow. I’m sure you’ve got some real stories. I’d love to hear one.”

Riley laughed a bit nervously. She wondered if she’d ever be able to tell anybody outside of the Bureau about some of the things she had seen. It would be even harder to talk about some of things she had done.

“I don’t think so,” she said a bit sharply. Riley could see Blaine stiffen, and she realized that her tone was rather rude.

He ducked his head and said, “I apologize. I certainly didn’t mean to make you feel uncomfortable.”

They chatted for a few moments after that, but Riley was aware that her new neighbor was being more reserved. After he politely said goodbye and left, Riley closed the door behind him and sighed. She was not making herself approachable, she realized. The woman starting a new life was still the same old Riley.

But she told herself that it hardly mattered at the moment. A rebound relationship was the very last thing she needed right now. Her life required some serious sorting out, and she was just beginning to make progress in that direction.

Still, it had been nice to spend a few minutes talking to an attractive man, and a relief to finally have neighbors—and pleasant ones at that.

*

When Riley and April sat down at the table for dinner, April couldn’t keep her hands off her smartphone.

“Please stop texting,” Riley said. “It’s supper time.”

“In a minute, Mom,” April said. She kept right on texting.

Riley was only mildly irritated by April’s display of teen behavior. The truth was, it definitely had an upside. Riley was doing great at school this year and making new friends. As far as Riley was concerned, they were a much better bunch of kids than April had hung out with before. Riley guessed that April was now texting with a boy she was interested in. So far, though, April hadn’t mentioned him.

April did stop texting when Gabriela came in from the kitchen with a tray of chiles rellenos. As she set the steaming, lusciously stuffed bell peppers on the kitchen table, April giggled mischievously.

“Picante enough, Gabriela?” she asked.

“Sí,” Gabriela said, also giggling.

It was a running joke among the three of them. Ryan had disliked foods that were too spicy. Actually, he couldn’t eat them at all. As far as April and Riley were concerned, hotter was better. Gabriela no longer had to hold back—or at least not as much as she used to. Riley doubted whether even she or April could handle Gabriela’s original Guatemalan recipes.

When Gabriela finished setting out the food for all three of them, she said to Riley, “The gentleman is guapo, no?”

Riley felt herself blush. “Handsome? I hadn’t noticed, Gabriela.”

Gabriela let out a burst of laughter.She sat down to eat with them and started to hum a little tune. Riley guessed that it was a Guatemalan love song. April stared at her mother.

“What gentleman, Mom?” she asked.

“Oh, our neighbor came by a little while ago—”

April interrupted excitedly. “Omigod! Was it Crystal’s dad? It was, wasn’t it! Isn’t he gorgeous?”

“And I think he is single.”Gabriela said.

“OK, back off,” Riley said with a laugh. “Give me some room to live. I don’t need the two of you trying to fix me up with the guy next door.”

They all dug into the stuffed peppers, and dinner was almost finished when Riley felt her phone buzz in her pocket.

Damn it, she thought. I shouldn’t have brought it to the table.

The buzzing continued. She couldn’t very well not answer it. Since she’d gotten home, Brent Meredith had left two more text messages, and she’d kept telling herself that she’d call him later. She couldn’t put it off anymore. She excused herself from the table and answered the phone.

“Riley, I’m sorry to bother you like this,” her boss said. “But I really need your help.”

Riley was startled to hear Meredith call her by her first name. That was rare. Although she felt quite close to him, he usually addressed her as Agent Paige. He was normally businesslike, sometimes to the point of being brusque.

“What is it, sir?” Riley asked.

Meredith fell silent for a moment. Riley wondered why he was being reticent. Her spirits sank. She felt sure that this was precisely the news she’d been dreading.

“Riley, I’m asking a personal favor,” he said, sounding much less commanding than usual. “I’ve been asked to look into a murder in Phoenix.”

Riley was surprised. “A single murder?” she asked. “Why would that require the FBI?”

 “I’ve got an old friend at the field office in Phoenix,” Meredith said. “Garrett Holbrook. We went to the academy together. His sister Nancy was the victim.”

“I’m so sorry,” Riley said. “But the local police …”

There was a rare note of entreaty in Meredith’s voice.

“Garrett really wants our help. She was a prostitute. She just disappeared and then her body turned up in a lake. He wants us to look into it as the work of a serial killer.”

The request seemed odd to Riley. Prostitutes often did disappear without getting killed. Sometimes they decided to do their work somewhere else. Or just quit.

“Does he have any reason to think so?” she asked.

“I don’t know, Meredith said. “Maybe he wants to think that in order to get us involved. But it’s true, as you know, that prostitutes are frequent targets of serials.”

Riley knew that this was true. Prostitutes’ lifestyles made them high-risk. They were visible and accessible, alone with strangers, often drug dependent.

Meredith continued, “He called me personally. I promised him I’d send my very best people to Phoenix. And of course—that includes you.”

Riley was touched. Meredith wasn’t making it easy to say no.

“Please try to understand, sir,” she said. “I just can’t take on anything new.”

Riley felt vaguely dishonest. Can’t or won’t? she asked herself. After she had been captured and tortured by a serial killer, everyone had insisted she take a leave from work. She’d tried to do that, but found herself desperately needing to be back on the job. Now she wondered what that desperation had really been all about. She had been reckless and self-destructive and had a hell of a time getting her life under control. When she had finally killed Peterson, her tormentor, she had thought everything would be fine. But he still haunted her, and she was having new problems over the resolution of her last case.

After a pause, she added, “I need more time off the field. I’m still technically on leave and I’m really trying to put my life together.”

A long silence followed. It didn’t sound as though Meredith was going to argue, much less pull rank on her. But he wasn’t going to say he was OK with it, either. He wouldn’t let up the pressure.

She heard Meredith heave a long, sad sigh. “Garrett had been estranged from Nancy for years. Now what happened to her is eating him up inside. I guess there’s a lesson there, isn’t there? Don’t take anyone in your life for granted. Always reach out.”

Riley almost dropped the phone. Meredith’s words hit a nerve that hadn’t been touched for a long time. Riley had lost contact with her own older sister years ago. They were estranged and she hadn’t even wondered about Wendy for a long time. She had no idea what her own sister was doing now.

After another pause, Meredith said, “Promise me you’ll think it over.”

“I will,” Riley said.

They ended the call.

She felt terrible. Meredith had seen her through some awful times and he’d never shown such vulnerability toward her before. She hated to let him down. And she’d just promised him to think it over.

And no matter how desperately she wanted to, Riley wasn’t sure she could say no.

Chapter Three

The man sat in his car in the parking lot, watching the whore as she approached along the street. “Chiffon,” she called herself. Obviously not her real name. And he was sure there was a lot more about her that he didn’t know.

I could make her tell me, he thought. But not here. Not today.

He wouldn’t kill her here today either. No, not right here so near her regular workplace—the so-called “Kinetic Custom Gym.” From where he sat, he could see the decrepit exercise machinery through the storefront windows—three treadmills, a rowing machine, and a couple of weight machines, none of them working. As far as he knew, nobody ever came here to actually exercise.

Not in a socially acceptable manner anyway, he thought with a smirk.

He didn’t come around to this place much—not since he’d taken that brunette who had worked here years ago. Of course, he hadn’t killed her here. He’d lured her off to a motel room for “extra services” and with the promise of a lot more money.

It hadn’t been premeditated murder even then. The plastic bag over her head was only meant to add a fantasy element of danger. But once it was done, he’d been surprised at how deeply satisfied he’d felt. It had been an epicurean pleasure, distinctive even in his lifetime of pleasures.

Still, in his trysts since then, he’d exercised more care and restraint. Or at least he had until last week, when the same game went deadly again with that escort—what was her name?

Oh, yes, he remembered. Nanette.

He’d suspected at the time that Nanette might not be her real name. Now he’d never find out. In his heart, he knew that her death was not an accident. Not really. He’d meant to do it. And his conscience was unsullied. He was ready to do it again.

The one who called herself Chiffon was approaching about a half a block away, clad in a yellow tube top and a barely existent skirt, tottering toward the gym on impossibly high heels while talking on her cell phone.

He really wanted to know if Chiffon was her real name. Their one previous professional encounter had been a failure—her fault, he was sure, not his. Something about her had put him off.

He’d known perfectly well that she was older than she claimed to be. It was more than just her body—even teenage whores had stretch marks from childbirth. And it wasn’t the lines in her face. Whores aged faster than any kind of women he knew.

 He couldn’t put his finger on it. But there was plenty about her that perplexed him. She displayed a certain kind of faux-girlish enthusiasm that wasn’t the mark of a true professional—not even a novice.

She giggled too much, like a child playing a game. She was too eager. And most oddly, he suspected that she actually liked her job.

A whore who really enjoys sex, he thought, watching her come nearer. Who ever heard of such a thing?

Frankly, it turned him off.

Well, at least he was sure that she wasn’t an undercover cop. He would have picked up on that in a split second.

When she got close enough to see him, he honked his car horn. She stopped talking on the phone for a moment and looked his way, shielding her eyes from the morning sunlight. When she saw who it was she waved and smiled—a smile that looked, for all the world, completely sincere.

Then she walked around back of the gym toward the “service” entrance. He realized that she probably had an appointment to keep inside the brothel. No matter, he would hire her some other day when he was in the mood for a specific kind of pleasure. Meanwhile, there were plenty of other hookers around.

He remembered how they’d left things last time. She’d been cheerful and good-natured and apologetic.

“Come back anytime,” she’d told him. “It will go better next time. We’ll hit it off together. Things will get really exciting.”

“Oh, Chiffon,” he murmured aloud to himself. “You’ve got no idea.”

Chapter Four

Gunfire rang out around Riley. To her left, she heard the noisy cracks of pistols. To her right, she heard heavier weaponry—blasts from assault rifles and staccato sprays from submachine guns.

In the midst of the clamor, she drew her Glock handgun from her hip holster, dropped to a prone position, and fired off six rounds. She rose into a kneeling position and fired three rounds. She deftly and quickly reloaded, then stood and fired six rounds, and finally knelt and fired three more rounds with her left hand.

She stood up and holstered her weapon, then stepped back from the firing line and pulled off her earmuffs and eye protectors. The target with the bottle-shaped outline was twenty-five yards away. Even from this distance, she could see that she had clustered all her shots nicely together. In neighboring lanes, the FBI Academy trainees kept up their practice under the guidance of their instructor.

It had been a while since Riley had fired a weapon, even though she was always armed on the job. She’d reserved this lane at the FBI Academy firing range for a little target practice and, as always, there was something satisfying about the gun’s powerful recoil, the raw force of it.

She heard a voice behind her.

“Kind of old-school, aren’t you?”

She turned and saw Special Agent Bill Jeffreys standing nearby, grinning. She smiled back. Riley knew exactly what he meant by “old-school.” A few years ago, the FBI had changed the live-fire rules for pistol qualification. Firing from a prone position had been part of the old drill, but it was no longer required. Now more emphasis was put on firing at targets from up close, between three and seven yards. That was supplemented by the virtual reality installation where agents were immersed in scenarios involving armed confrontations in close quarters. And trainees also went through the notorious Hogan’s Alley, a ten-acre mocked-up town where they fought off imitation terrorists with paintball guns.

“Sometimes I like to go old-school,” she said. “I figure that someday I might actually have to use deadly force at a distance.”

From her own experience, Riley knew that the real thing was almost always up close and personal, and often unexpected. In fact, she’d actually had to fight hand to hand in two recent cases. She’d killed one attacker with his own knife and another with a random rock.

“Do you think anything prepares these kids for the real thing?” Bill asked, nodding toward the trainees who were now finished and leaving the firing range.

“Not really,” Riley said. “In VR your brain does accept the scenario as real, but there’s no imminent danger, no pain, no rage to control. Something inside always knows there’s no chance of being killed.”

“Right,” Bill said. “They’ll have to find out what it’s really like just like we did a lot of years ago.”

Riley glanced sideways at him as they moved farther away from the firing line.

Like her, he was forty years old with touches of gray in his dark hair. She wondered what it meant that she found herself mentally comparing him to her leaner, slighter male neighbor.

What was his name? she asked herself. Oh, yeah—Blaine.

Blaine was good-looking, but she wasn’t sure whether he gave Bill a run for his money. Bill was big, solid, and quite attractive.

“What brings you here?” she asked.

“I heard you’d be here,” he said.

Riley squinted at him uneasily. This probably wasn’t just a friendly visit. From his expression, she detected that he wasn’t ready to tell her what he wanted just yet.

Bill said, “If you want to do the whole drill, I’ll keep time for you.”

“I’d appreciate that,” Riley said.

They moved off to a separate section of the shooting range, where she wouldn’t be at risk of being hit by stray bullets from the trainees.

While Bill operated a timer, Riley breezed through all the stages of the FBI pistol qualification course, firing at the target from three yards, then five, then seven, then fifteen. The fifth and last stage was the only part that she found the least bit challenging—firing from behind a barricade at twenty-five yards.

When she was through, Riley took off her headgear. She and Bill walked up to the target and checked her work. All the impact marks were clustered nicely together.

“A hundred percent—a perfect score,” Bill said.

“It had better be,” Riley said. She’d hate it if she were getting rusty.

Bill pointed toward the earthen backstop beyond the target.

“Kind of surreal, huh?” he said.

Several white-tailed deer were contentedly grazing on top of the hill. They’d actually gathered there while she’d been shooting. They were within easy range, even with her pistol. But they weren’t the least bit bothered by all the thousands of bullets slamming into targets just below the high ridge they walked on.

“Yes,” she said, “and beautiful.”

Around this time of year, the deer were a common sight here at the range. It was hunting season, and somehow they knew that they would be safe here. In fact, the grounds of the FBI Academy had become a sort of wildlife haven for lots of animals, including foxes, wild turkeys, and groundhogs.

“A couple of days ago, one of my students saw a bear in the parking lot,” Riley said.

Riley took a few steps toward the backstop. The deer raised their heads, stared at her, and trotted away. They weren’t afraid of gunfire, but they didn’t want people getting too close.

“How do you suppose they know?” Bill asked. “That it’s safe here, I mean. Don’t all gunshots sound alike?”

Riley simply shook her head. It was a mystery to her. Her father had taken her hunting when she was little. To him, deer were simply resources—food and hide. It hadn’t bothered her to kill them all those years ago. But that had changed.

It seemed odd, now that she thought about it. She had no trouble using deadly force against a human being when it was necessary. She could kill a man in a heartbeat. But to kill one of these trusting creatures now seemed unthinkable.

Riley and Bill walked off to a nearby rest area and sat down together on a bench. Whatever it was he came to talk about here, he still seemed reticent.

“How are you doing on your own?” she asked in a gentle voice.

She knew it was a delicate question and she saw him wince. His wife had recently left him after years of tension between his job and home life. Bill had been worried about the prospect of losing touch with his young sons. Now he was living in an apartment in the town of Quantico and spending time with his boys on weekends.

 “I don’t know, Riley,” he said. “I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to it.”

He was clearly lonely and depressed. She had been through enough of that herself during her own recent separation and then divorce. She also knew that the time after a separation was particularly fragile. Even if the relationship hadn’t been very good, you found yourself out in a world of strangers, missing years of familiarity, never knowing quite what to do with yourself.

Bill touched her arm. His voice a bit thick with emotion, he said, “Sometimes I think that all I’ve got left to depend on in life is … you.”

For a moment Riley felt like hugging him. When they had worked as partners, Bill had come to her rescue plenty of times, both physically and emotionally. But she knew she had to be careful. And she knew that people could be pretty crazy at times like this. She had actually phoned Bill one drunken night and proposed that they begin an affair. Now the situations were reversed. She could sense his impending dependence on her, now that she was just beginning to feel free and strong enough to be on her own.

“We were good partners,” she said. It was lame, but she couldn’t think of anything else to say.

Bill took a long, deep breath.

“That’s what I came out here to talk to you about,” he said. “Meredith told me he’d called you about the Phoenix case. I’m working on it. I need a partner.”

Riley felt just a trace of irritation. Bill’s visit was starting to seem like a bit of an ambush.

“I told Meredith I’d think about it,” she said.

“And now I’m asking you,” Bill said.

A silence fell between them.

“What about Lucy Vargas?” Riley asked.

Agent Vargas was a rookie who had worked closely with Bill and Riley on their most recent case. They both were impressed with her work.

“Her ankle hasn’t healed,” Bill said. “She won’t be back in the field for another month at least.”

Riley felt foolish for asking. When she, Bill, and Lucy had closed in on Eugene Fisk, the so-called “chain killer,” Lucy had taken a fall and broken her ankle and almost gotten killed. Of course she couldn’t go back to work so soon.

“I don’t know, Bill,” Riley said. “This break away from work is doing me a lot of good. I’ve been thinking about just teaching from now on. All I can tell you is what I told Meredith.”

“That you’ll think about it.”

“Right.”

Bill let out a grunt of discontentment.

“Could we at least get together and talk it over?” he asked. “Maybe tomorrow?”

Riley fell silent again for a moment.

“Not tomorrow,” she said. “Tomorrow I have to watch a man die.”

Chapter Five

Riley looked through the window into the room where Derrick Caldwell would soon die. She was sitting beside Gail Bassett, the mother of Kelly Sue Bassett, Caldwell’s final victim. The man had killed five women before Riley had stopped him.

Riley had wavered about accepting Gail’s invitation to the execution. She’d only seen one other, that time as a volunteer witness sitting among reporters, lawyers, law enforcement officers, spiritual advisors, and the jury foreman. Now she and Gail were among nine relatives of women that Caldwell had murdered, all of them crowded together in a tight space, sitting on plastic chairs.

Gail, a small sixty-year-old woman with a delicate, birdlike face, had kept up contact with Riley over the years. By the time of the execution her husband had died, and she had written Riley that she had no one to see her through the momentous event. So Riley had agreed to join her.

The death chamber was right there on the other side of the window. The only furniture in the room was the execution gurney, a cross-shaped table. A blue plastic curtain hung at the head of the gurney. Riley knew that the IV lines and lethal chemicals were behind that curtain.

A red telephone on the wall connected with the governor’s office. It would only ring in case of a last-minute decision for clemency. No one expected that to happen this time. A clock over the door to the room was the only other visible decor.

In Virginia, convicted offenders could choose between the electric chair and lethal injection, but the chemicals were far more often chosen. If the prisoner made no choice, injection was assigned.

Riley was almost surprised that Caldwell hadn’t opted for the electric chair. He was an unrepentant monster who seemed to welcome his own death.

The clock read 8:55 when the door opened. Riley heard a wordless murmur in the room as several members of the execution team ushered Caldwell into the chamber. Two guards flanked him, gripping each arm, and another followed right behind him. A well-dressed man came in after all the rest—the prison warden.