THE UNDERTAKER’S DAUGHTER by Debra Webb
A Prequel Novella
Twelve hours earlier…
Her chest threatened to explode but she couldn’t stop. She had to keep running.
He was coming.
It was dark…so dark. Her head felt thick and foggy. Couldn’t think. Mouth was dry. She tried to swallow. Impossible.
Where was she?
Didn’t matter…didn’t matter.
She was dead if he caught her. She understood this with complete certainty. He would kill her and that was all that mattered. The fact that she didn’t know him was inconsequential. That she was a good person was equally irrelevant. She had never purposely hurt anyone. She obeyed the law. Went to work. Was kind to her neighbors. Patient with kids and old people.
None of that mattered. He was going to kill her and she didn’t even know why.
Her legs felt so heavy. Running in sand. Like on the beach. She remembered running on the beach. Vacation. A smile tugged at her lips. Just last summer. A long in coming week away from work…away from all the crap in her life. She could go back there this summer…or maybe she’d just go now.
All she had to do was close her eyes and float away.
She felt herself falling, falling. She went down on one knee, then collapsed onto the ground. Her eyes were too heavy to open. Her body would no longer cooperate no matter that she told herself to get up…to keep running.
Her hand lay splayed across the ground. Not sand…not dirt. Carpet, or a rug. She was in a building…it was a house…something.
Her mind suddenly rocketed back to the here and now.
Her eyes still refused to cooperate with her brain. A new rush of fear fired through her veins.
She couldn’t move…could not escape.
Footsteps came nearer and nearer.
He was here. Standing over her.
She’d come to his home willingly. Images flashed in slow motion inside her head. She’d trusted him. Wanted him. He wasn’t like all the jerks her age.
Her heart thumped hard. No. He was worse.
He was a killer.
And now she was going to die.
Monday, March 11, 10:00 a.m.
“Our killer chooses his victims and ends their lives basically by euthanizing them. He then meticulously prepares their bodies specifically for your discovery, Detectives.”
Rowan DuPont surveyed the group of homicide detectives seated around the small conference table. “Beyond the fear they suffer upon capture and during the hours before he fatally sedates them, they experience no true physical discomfort. These are soft kills, not intended for the gore or the violence.”
“You’re certain the perp is a he, Dr. DuPont?” Lieutenant April Jones, the only female detective in the room asked. “We’ve found no evidence of sexual assault. With this sort of soft kill, in my experience this is a method most often utilized by a female killer.”
Rowan crossed her arms over her chest and considered the barrage of crime scene photos lining the storyboard. “The reason we can safely assume the unknown subject is male is, in part, based on the way he dresses his victims, the abundance of flowers he uses around the bodies. It’s almost like a courtship, but not. It’s more a ‘look at this—see what I’m doing.’ None of this careful staging is about these two women.” She gestured to the diagram of evidence she had arranged for this morning’s briefing. “Because neither of these women is his true victim—the one he really wants to take from this life.”
Frowns and grumbles worked through the team. No one wanted to hear that particular conclusion. But Rowan could only call it the way she saw it. Her instincts would not allow her to see these murders any other way. They were too clean, too soft. The unsub had gained no pleasure from these acts, shown no real passion.
Almost a decade ago while serving as an advisor on a case with the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department, she realized this was what she wanted to do when she completed her residency. Having graduated at the top of her class at Vanderbilt and spending four years of residency at the largest psychiatric hospital in Nashville and then an additional two year fellowship in forensic psychiatry, Rowan had been handpicked for Metro’s new, elite Special Crimes Unit. Now, six years later, though she neither possessed a gold shield nor carried a weapon, she felt as much a pivotal part of the department and this unit as any of the detectives waiting expectantly for her to continue.
“I’m not sure I follow,” Jones admitted.
Jones was the senior detective in SCU. She was one of the first female detectives allowed into the formerly all male territory of the worst crimes one human could commit against another. There had been a time when female cops were considered too weak and too emotional for homicide. No more. Detectives like April Jones and her peers had long ago disproven that theory. Still, their male counterparts outnumbered them. But that was changing. It was no longer a boy’s club by any means.
“We’ll get back to that in a moment,” Rowan assured Jones.
Another thing Rowan had learned well was that when she presented a more unusual aspect to an investigation, she needed to make her case first. The folks in this room were the cream of the crop at Metro—experienced and decorated. They knew how to conduct an investigation into the truly bizarre with one eye closed and one hand tied behind his or her back. When someone stood in front of this elite team and announced that their usual way of doing things wouldn’t work, there had to be solid reasoning behind the theory.
“You list his goal as revenge,” Detective Tom Bennett noted. “Revenge for what?”
“That, Detective Bennett,” Rowan moved toward the end of the board where she’d outlined her conclusions on this killer’s story, “is the sixty-four-million dollar question to which we all want the answer.”
“Sixty-four-thousand dollar question,” Lieutenant Jones corrected.
Though fifteen years Rowan’s senior, Jones likely wasn’t old enough to remember the 1940’s radio quiz show or the television show that came later but most everyone knew the idiom. “Inflation, Detective, inflation.”
The older woman chuckled and gave her a nod of acquiescence.
Rowan turned back to her storyboard. “Our killer has a goal. And, yes, I believe the motive for that goal is revenge. He wants to make someone pay and these murders are a way of paving the path toward accomplishing that goal. His dilemma is simple: how does he achieve his ultimate goal without getting caught?” She turned once more to the avid listeners gathered in the room. “He has made it abundantly clear that he does not wish to be caught. We know this because he hasn’t left a single clue. Not one shred of evidence.”
“What makes you so certain,” Bennett pushed, “that our two vics aren’t just the type of women he likes to kill? Doing it softly or not, maybe murdering gorgeous blonds is the only way he can get off.”
The others, all but Jones, laughed. Jones glared at Bennett. No matter that she was older than any of those present and outranked the whole lot, Jones no doubt considered them dirty old men. Rowan certainly did. Bennett wanted an answer to the question Jones had asked moments ago and he hoped rephrasing the query and bullying it back into the conversation would force Rowan to alter the course she’d chosen to take. Patience was running out. In a homicide investigation every minute counted and Rowan had used up too many of those precious minutes. Sometimes she had to remind herself that not all on the team appreciated her long wayof getting around to things. First, however, she intended to put the arrogant detective in his place.
“Detective Bennett, every man in this room has a penis,” Rowan said in answer to his comment, “does that mean they’re all dicks like you?”
The heat of humiliation spread across his face. “Yeah, yeah. Point taken.”
“Things are not always as they seem.” Rowan studied first one crime scene photo and then the next, mentally reviewing the art and language of the killer’s work. The way he’d poised the bodies was undeniably a work of art.
Two beautiful women in their late thirties had been carefully selected. Sandy Tyler and Karen Ross. Both had long blond hair and blue eyes. Each had a slim build and was medium height. These were well-educated women with enviable careers. Unmarried. No children. Upscale downtown apartments.
The epitome of the hip, sophisticated, urban woman.
Once their unsub had chosen his victim, he abducted her or lured her from a place she frequented, suggesting he familiarized himself with her routine. This took days or weeks and endless patience, unwavering determination. Within forty-eight to sixty hours after the abduction her body was discovered in a public place staged as if she’d been prepared for burial. The meticulous attention to detail and the sheer intricacy of his staging required a great deal of planning. Compared with the short time he kept his victims, the timing was more solid proof that he had no desire to linger, to enjoy his work or any pleasures the victim’s presence might offer. These two women were a means to an end and nothing more. Not special or important to him in any way beyond making some sadistic statement only he understood at this point.
“He dresses his victims in simple cotton gowns,” Jones said, “arranges their hair over their shoulders, crosses their arms over their breasts and then surrounds their bodies with red rose petals. What’s the significance of the gowns? Purity? And the rose petals, blood?”
“The cotton gowns are plain, simple, that’s true,” Rowan agreed as she turned back to Jones and the others, “but that doesn’t mean the choice to use those particular gowns was a simple one. I believe these organic gowns were chosen for their quick decomposition rate. The cotton would decay fairly quickly.”
“I’ve narrowed down the orders that shipped to Nashville in the past six months,” Detective Lex Keaton, the newest member of the team, offered. “We’re still looking at forty buyers who walk into the shops that carry these particular ones. I’m whittling away at that list.”
“Why bother with a swift decomp rate if he wanted the bodies found quickly, which he obviously did?” Bennett remained unconvinced of Rowan’s working theory.
“He wants us to know that he could have masked that clue if he’d chosen to do so. If the bodies hadn’t been found for several months, we wouldn’t have a way to narrow down the type of gown worn by the victims or who bought them because that clue would have disintegrated.”
“I thought you said he doesn’t want to be caught,” Bennett countered, that smugness creeping back into his tone.
“He doesn’t,” Rowan reiterated. “Those forty buyers are purchasing the product from one of six shops in the greater Nashville area. If a customer walks into one of those shops and pays with cash, tracking him down is virtually impossible. He could be anyone, anywhere in this city. Our unsub knows this. He’s playing with us. Building up our hopes only to let us down.”
“The flowers,” Jones said, moving on to the second part of her question. “What is the significance of the flowers?”
“The flowers are fresh.” Rowan thought of the pungent scent of the roses at each of the crime scenes. The killer had chosen the type carefully—as he did all other details. He selected a rose with a strong scent.
“These are not petals bought in bulk, though there is a vast amount left with each body.” Yet another aspect of the killer’s need to play games. Rowan sensed his seemingly contradictory decisions were perhaps even intended as an insult to their intelligence. “We believe the roses are grown locally. The lack of preservatives and fertilizers found by the lab suggests a responsible grower. Someone who cares for the environment as well as the beauty and fragrance of the plant. Yet another aspect of his work designed to give us a glimmer of hope that we’ll be able to track him down, only to find it’s another dead end.”
“So do they represent blood?” David Wells asked.
Wells was the youngest of the four detectives assigned to the case. Rowan felt confident there was a reason—probably nepotism since he was related to the chief of police—he’d made detective so quickly and slipped right into the Special Crimes Unit. None of the others had complained since the young man carried his weight, but that pass would only last until he made his first misstep.
“Our killer carefully washes the bodies before dressing them and placing the flowers around them, even sprinkling a good number on top of the bodies. It’s my opinion,” Rowan said in answer to the question, “that he uses the flowers because the bodies are not embalmed.”
“To camouflage the stink,” Bennett said in his usual, coarse manner.
“Very good, Detective.” Rowan wished she had a gold star to stick on his nose. “Before the process of embalming came into widespread use, it was a common practice to surround the dead with flowers and other plants with strong fragrances to help mask the odor of the rotting corpse. By surrounding and sprinkling his victims with the rose petals, he’s depicting a burial scene. He wants us to recognize that he’s honoring the sacrifice of his victims. They’ve given their lives for him—to help him achieve his goal.”
“Honoring?” Jones questioned. “How do you figure that? He kills them. How is that honoring a person by any stretch of the imagination?”
“He regrets their sacrifices were necessary, a pleasant disposal ritual is the least he can do. Most killers simply dump the bodies of their victims. Our unsub is killing two birds with one stone, assuaging his conscience and giving us something to ponder.”
“He sure as hell isn’t giving us any usable evidence,” Bennett muttered.
“It’s true that he leaves no evidence to help us identify him or to narrow down where he commits these heinous acts, but there are some things that are out of his control,” Rowan reminded all present, particularly Bennett. “The human body tells us many things. Above all else it provides a distinct road map—a story, if you will—of the life lived, the bumps along the way—injury, disease. It reveals how it was treated by the environment, the home or the lack thereof, in which it lived and by those taking care of it like spouses, children, caregivers.”
“The Language of Death,” Wells said with a grin. “I read your book, Dr. DuPont. You read the bodies like a story. The story helps you build a character sketch of the killer. You use that story to figure out his motivation and the conflicts involved with attaining his goal.”
Rowan was impressed. This was the first case for Wells as a member of this unit. He’d done his homework. Always a good sign. “Very good, Detective. Now you know my secret.”
It wasn’t rocket science or a part of the psychic realm. It was simply paying attention to what the body told her. Every victim had a voice that had been silenced, but the body still told the story loudly and, on occasion, quite clearly. Warmth spread through Rowan’s chest as she considered that her father had taught her this. As a fourth generation funeral home director and mortician, her father knew a thing or two about death. He swore by the adage that a person’s body at death told the story of their life. One only needed to pay attention. If that wasn’t enough, she’d grown infatuated with the psychopathy of serial killers when she chose her first topic for the pursuit of academic publication. It was that publication in a medical journal that first put her on Metro’s radar.
“Wait a minute,” Bennett said, his gaze narrowing, “I just had an epiphany, Doc.” He stood and swaggered up to the storyboard. “Every time our guy kills one of these gorgeous blue-eyed blonds,” he gestured to the photos of the victims, “he’s killing you.”
Rowan stared at the photos provided by the families—photos taken before the women were murdered. Unfortunately, Detective Bennett had a valid point. She was the perfect example of the killer’s preferred victim. Like the others in the room, it wouldn’t be the first time she had been some sort of target if that were the case. Her work with Metro was widely publicized, particularly during a case like this one. The release of her first book three months ago had put her face on television screens more than once in recent weeks. It was certainly possible she had inadvertently awakened this beast.
Uneasiness slid through her. Maybe shewas the intended victim.
All the more reason to find him quickly.
Savor Bar & Kitchen, 1:00 p.m.
Rowan ignored her salad and stared out at the lake that bordered the hotel property. She couldn’t shake the comment Detective Bennett had made.
…he’s killing you.
Obviously she had considered the idea. With her blond hair and blue eyes and the ages of the victims, of course she had. She wasn’t oblivious to the possibility. Beyond those similarities there was absolutely no reason to believe this case had anything to do with her. Until the detectives discovered some piece of evidence that linked her personally to the murders, she had no intention of borrowing trouble.
She’d done enough of that for one lifetime before she was twenty.
“This case is getting under your skin, Dr. DuPont.”
She blinked away this nagging thought and focused on the man across the table. Dr. Julian Addington, her longtime friend and a renowned psychiatrist with multiple critically acclaimed publications to his credit, had invited her to lunch. A much needed distraction. It was rude of her to ignore him or the lovely restaurant he’d chosen. The view, the atmosphere and the company were pleasant. She had no excuse save her inability to fully extract herself from the case—an ongoing problem lately.
“I’m sorry.” She picked up her fork and stabbed a lettuce leaf. “I keep thinking about the way he prepares the bodies as if he is well versed in the steps of a funeral preparation.”
“His efforts are that detailed?” Julian searched her face, a frown marring the familiar features of his.
Like her, he was a natural blond though his hair was more a grayish white than blond these days. His eyes were a darker shade of blue. Even at sixty-six, he remained quite handsome and most distinguished looking. Like her father, he was tall and lean, though unlike her father, Julian worked out religiously. He believed a strong body was part of maintaining a strong mind. The man still ran in marathons. More important than all those things, he was a good and caring friend. He was the one to turn her life around at a particularly dark moment.
“His work is very detailed,” she confirmed. “The soap and shampoo are common ones utilized by funeral homes across the country. Rather than suture, he uses super glue for the eyes and lips—many morticians do the same. Even the cotton he selects to fill the various orifices is a common trade brand. He wants us to understand that he knows what he’s doing. For some reason, he feels that knowledge is relevant to achieving his goal.”
“It’s as if he is speaking directly toyou.”
Funny, how that theme appeared determined to echo today.
“Yes.” The confession made breathing marginally easier. She’d picked at the idea like an irritating scab that wouldn’t heal for the past two days. Part of her had wanted to put the theory out there for the detectives to debate, but another part of her wanted to ignore the signs.
“That said,” she qualified, “I’m not prepared to conclude that these murders are about me—not at this time, anyway. The unsub has made no contact with me directly and he’s left no tangible suggestion that I’m his intended target. Frankly, there are far too many other, more viable avenues to explore first.”
No matter how rational her declaration sounded and how solid the reasoning behind it, the words still felt hollow. Too early to go there. Not enough evidence. If she repeated the crucial phrase enough times, perhaps it would sink in and stick. Though she was not a detective, she was still a part of the investigative team. Making a case personal was never a good thing…unless the unknown subject left no choice. As she just told Julian, the unsub had not communicated directly with her or addressed any communication to or about her. Arriving at that conclusion was simply premature.
“The book has made you an even more high profile figure.” Julian sipped his tea, then settled the delicate bone china cup onto its saucer. “Growing up in a funeral home, the daughter of an undertaker, as well as the painful loss of both your mother and your twin sister have now been shared with the world. It’s possible you have an admirer. Someone who commiserates with you, who feels as if he knows you better than you know yourself and he wants you to feel whatever he’s feeling. Perhaps the victims are a gift—part of a courtship ritual, of sorts—to get your attention.”
Rowan drew in a deep, cleansing breath and admitted—to herself if to no one else—that her old friend had a valid point. One she’d already made to the team, leaving out the idea that she may be the target of the unsub’s devotion. “He’s not looking for attention, he wants some sort of revenge. The victims are nothing more than a catalyst. With all due respect, I can’t see this as any kind of courtship ritual in the usual sense. He’s courting the end game, preparing his target for what’s coming. Trying to get her attention.”
Though she had used that same term loosely in today’s briefing, the context had been completely different.
“You know as well as I,” Julian countered, “that anger—the need for revenge or to punish—goes hand in hand with passion. The worst one human can do to another is often done by the spouse or the lover of a victim.”
Rowan laughed in spite of the dire subject. “Well, then, we can eliminate me as a potential end game victim. I have no significant other, much less a spouse and I’m afraid my work is my lover.”
Despite the concern furrowing his brow, Julian’s lips quirked the tiniest bit. “What about any other aspects of the murders? The drug he uses? Is there anything else about the cause or manner of the deaths that relates to your life?”
A quick mental review of the autopsy and lab results sent ice slipping into her veins. “He used a similar drug to the one…I took all those years ago.”
Julian’s eyebrows lifted. “But not the same one.”
“Not the same name, but the same effects. It works quickly and basically renders the victim incapacitated.”
She’d swallowed a handful of a similar drug her freshman year in college. Her throat tightened. Since it wasn’t the same one, she really hadn’t given any weight to the drug in terms of a personal connection. Had she purposely been blocking a similarity that hit too close to home? It was completely unlike her to allow her objectivity to slip so badly. “There was water in the first victim’s lungs. Not a significant amount but some.”
“Again, the same as what was found in yours,” Julian suggested. “Except you survived.”
She nodded, the move jerky. The doctors had said Rowan was extremely lucky. Her hair had been soaking wet when she was found in that tub. After the sedative had done its work, she had slipped under the water. Somehow, she’d beaten the odds and rose back to the surface before it was too late. Her father had insisted she’d had a guardian angel watching over her. Maybe her mother or her sister had reached down from heaven and saved Rowan. But Rowan hadn’t believe in angels, still didn’t.
“Or perhaps” Julian went on, “he only wanted the lab to find enough water in her lungs to remind you of the sister you lost.”
Images and voices whispered through Rowan’s mind. Before she could respond, he continued, “And what about the wounds on her wrists? They were slashed and then sutured, another common denominator between you and the victims. Perhaps, his interest is more focused on you than you are prepared to concede.”
Her fingers instinctively tugged at her sleeves to ensure her own scars were covered. She hadn’t shared that aspect of her past with the team, but like the rest of the world they had likely read about it in her book. Frankly, she didn’t want to see any of this, didn’t want to have to face the fact that her being the target was a viable possibility. She felt suddenly uncomfortable, even with her old friend. Her careful focus on her work generally grounded her. If she were completely honest with herself, her work was her life. To have any aspect of work complicated with her personal life was not something with which she was prepared to deal.
And yet she had bared herself in the book. That decision would haunt her the rest of her days, she feared. Why oh why had she allowed her editor to lure her into that tell-all trap?
Baring one’s soul sells books, Rowan.
Rather than confess the gale of uncertainty currently spiraling inside her, she produced a sad smile for her dear friend. “I’m afraid that most people would have trouble finding me interesting by any distortion of the definition. Besides, these are not particularly unique characteristics amid the population of a metropolitan area the size of Nashville.”
This was statistically accurate no matter that her instincts were sounding off warning bells—the same ones she had been purposely ignoring for approximately two days.
Of all people, you know better than to ignore your instincts, Rowan.
“But those are characteristics unique to you.” Julian leaned forward and put his hand over hers. “The time for plausible deniability is over, Rowan. You cannot allow your need to save professional face any level of priority over your personal safety.”
His words haunted her the rest of the afternoon.
North Avenue, 11:10 p.m.
Clad in her robe, her feet bare, Rowan padded down to the front door to check the locks a second time. The expansive windows that made up her mostly glass and steel home had captivated her at first. She had loved the straight lines and gleaming surfaces…the feeling of infiniteness. Of late, all that openness—especially like now, to the dark night—had become imprisoning. More and more she found herself hiding in areas of the house that had walls impenetrable to the eyes of the night.
The case. This case. The one the detectives in the SCU had dubbed the Undertaker was getting to her. She shook her head. Even when the team had given the case that moniker, she’d ignored the correlation to her history.
Freud, her German Shepherd, had faithfully followed her down the stairs. When she was home, he stayed close. His need to do so had crowded her at first, now she appreciated his nearness. Freud was a good and loyal companion with few demands. Like her, he had a past that had left him damaged and broken beneath the surface where no one else could see. That same past had permitted a bond between them—the kind of bond she rarely allowed in her life.
She checked the double set of deadbolts she’d had installed on the front door in addition to the door’s locking handle, then leaned forward to peer at the keypad to verify that she’d set the alarm. She’d left her glasses upstairs on the bedside table. The aging body’s growing dependency on things like prescription eyewear was subtlety terrifying. Thank God for contacts. At least the rest of the world didn’t have to be privy to her weaknesses. It was as if the closer she drew to forty, the more she fell apart.
Eight months to go until the big four-oh. She groaned and hugged herself as she stared out at the darkness. Street lamps fought valiantly to light the night but failed miserably beyond a pale circle of gold around their bases. She’d been so excited when the contemporary home that could only be called a masterpiece of progressive architecture came on the market. The West End location was mere steps from coffee shops and restaurants and Centennial Park. West End Avenue provided a major transit corridor for easy access to anywhere in or beyond the city.
What more could a single, unburdened with children woman ask for? A hip neighborhood as well as the perfect home for someone who wanted to bring the outside in and who had nothing to hide.
Except she had lied to herself and recently those lies had started to fester, and now they were erupting to the surface.
The scars on her wrists stung as if the wounds had only been inflicted yesterday instead of when she was thirteen and certain she wanted to die—to be with her mother and her sister who had died the year before.
Not just her sister, her twin. She and Raven had been mirror images, best friends. They had done everything together. Or at least they had until their twelfth summer. Raven was suddenly popular with the other kids while Rowan remained the outcast. The more popular her sister became, the more condescending her attitude had become. Suddenly Raven was one of the in girls; the snobbish, mean girls. The invitations came to Raven—like the one to the party at the lake house of one of the wealthy families in town—but not to Rowan. Rowan had begged her sister not to go. Not just for purely selfish reasons either. She’d felt a suffocating dread; a panic that had bordered on hysteria.
Raven went anyway and, for a very long while, Rowan had hated her for it.
Three hours later the phone rang with devastating news but Rowan had known her sister was gone before the call came. Her father stoically identified Raven at the morgue, yet when the body was brought to the funeral home for final disposition her father had been inconsolable. He had refused to allow anyone to touch her, and insisted on preparing her himself.
Rowan vividly recalled hovering at the door of the preparation room, her own devastation barely contained and survivor’s guilt eating her alive. She had watched as her father attempted to do what he must, the steps as familiar to her as breathing. She and Raven had been assisting their father since they were seven years old. Four generations of DuPonts had owned and operated the funeral home, each one passing the business down to the son or sons in the family.
Without any sons, Edward taught the family business to his daughters. By twelve, they were well versed in the family business. She and Raven knew the steps by heart even if they weren’t physically strong enough to complete certain ones that involved lifting the bodies. That day, the day Raven died, Rowan went to her father’s side when he broke down completely and helped him to prepare her sister. It was the least she could do. It was the last time she would touch the sister who was as much a part of her as the heart beating in her own chest.
The circumstances of her birth and her childhood ensured that Rowan was intimately acquainted with death from the very beginning of her life. Her grandfather DuPont had died the day before she and Raven came into the world. Edward insisted on taking a family photo before his father was buried. The twins were ensconced in the deceased DuPont’s lap, with their mother and father on either side. It was the way of things during her formative years. Living had always been far more mysterious and fearful to her than death.
Not quite five months after Raven’s death, their mother, Norah, hung herself. More guilt piled onto Rowan’s shoulders. If she had been the adoring daughter Raven had been, perhaps her mother would have wanted to stay rather than to follow the daughter she lost to death.
Rowan forced away the painful memories and drifted up the spiral staircase to her loft bedroom. Despite the teasing from the other children at school and in the neighborhood, growing up in the house that was also a funeral home never bothered her—not until Raven and then their mother died. Everything changed then. Rowan no longer felt whole. She became more withdrawn. Two attempts to commit suicide before she was twenty only added to the tragic history of her family. Looking back, she deeply regretted the hurt she had caused her father.
But those painful years were far behind her now. She had chosen a path in life that made her feel whole. She loved her work. Felt purposeful and productive.
Rowan climbed between the sheets and forced her eyes closed. Freud curled up on his own bed right next to hers. She refused to consider for another second the idea that this case was personal. Until she had evidence to support the theory that the unsub had targeted her, she would not waste time and resources acting upon the scenario.
Odds of this being about her or her book were remote at best.
Slowly she slipped into a fitful sleep, dreams of her sister and of walking the halls in the house where she grew up streamed through her restless mind. By two a.m. she was wide awake, her childhood still rambling through her brain. The second and third stories of the massive Victorian style house where she’d grown up served as the living quarters while the public part of the funeral home was on the first floor. In the mid 1950’s a chapel was added, extending the first floor out from the east side of the house. For symmetry, a portico was built on the west side, allowing for more expansive covered parking for the hearses and family limousines.
The mortuary was in the basement. Her father had completely renovated that space and added the latest, state-of-the-art equipment when Rowan was a teenager. On the first floor the hardwood had been refinished, new paint and wallpaper. New, more welcoming and comfortable furnishings.
Only the best for the families who chose DuPont Funeral Home for their deceased loved ones. The renovations had no doubt been in part prompted by the upgrades done at Gardner’s, the only other funeral home in town. Edward DuPont was nothing if not a savvy businessman.
Rowan tossed and turned until four, her eyes closing for the last time as the digital numbers slipped to four oh one. Images of the house and the meticulously manicured grounds that had been her childhood home slipped from her dreams only to be replaced by vivid, color imageries of Raven. She and Raven had often stood face to face, staring at each other as if peering into a mirror. After her sister’s death, Rowan continued to talk to her reflection for years. Talking to her sister as if she were still there had been a useful coping mechanism at first. But then the nightmares began.
In those heart-pounding dreams Rowan would find herself on the banks of that lake—the one where her sister had drowned. The dark water would lure her like a beacon. Raven would beg her to come into the water.
Raven’s cold, lifeless arms reached for Rowan. Her pale face looked sad, her eyes pleading. “Come into the water, Rowan. Come and play.”
The voice echoed through Rowan’s soul, had her fighting to withdraw from sleep. She told herself to wake up but the dream refused to let go.
“Hurry, Rowan! Come into the water with me. Daddy’s coming soon.”
Tuesday, March 12, 1:30 p.m.
Rowan couldn’t shake the unsettling dreams that had invaded her sleep last night. Hard as she tried pouring herself into work, the images and voices just wouldn’t let go.
Rowan pushed away the troubling thoughts and met the lieutenant’s gaze. “I’m sorry, what did you say?”
April Jones set aside the interview reports the two of them had been reviewing. “Are you certain you’re all right? You don’t seem like yourself today. Usually you’re laser focused on whatever we’re working on, but it feels like you’re not even in the room.”
“I’m sorry. You’re right. I’m distracted.” Rowan reached for the next report, the one from the interview of Karen Ross’s mother. “I didn’t sleep well last night.”
“It’s the comment Bennett made, isn’t it?”
Rowan could play off the question, but that would be futile if in fact this unsub chose another victim who looked like her and with whom she shared a similar background. Frankly, to continue ignoring the concept would not only be foolish it would be counterproductive.
“Yes,” Rowan admitted. “I’m weighing the possibility that his suggestion carries more merit than perhaps I first believed. I wouldn’t want anyone else to lose their life because we hadn’t assessed all possible avenues.”
Took you long enough to say the words out loud.
“Your book may have tripped some degenerate’s trigger,” Jones suggested. “He may be trying to prove you’re not as brilliant as we all know you are. Or maybe he wants you to himself. Either way, the sooner we acknowledge it’s a possibility, the sooner we can properly protect you.”
This was exactly what Rowan did not want. “I appreciate your concern, but I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself, Lieutenant. I carry pepper spray. At home I have the best security system currently available and I have a big dog. I am always careful. I don’t need a protection detail. It would be a waste of valuable resources. Resources that need to be focused elsewhere.”
Jones raised her eyebrows. “We’ve gone over these interviews half a dozen times.” She gestured to the stack of papers. “We haven’t found anyone new in the victims’ lives. No enemies. No recent falling out with anyone. No trouble at work or at home. No financial issues. You hit the nail on the head with your conclusions about these women, Doctor. They’re not who our guy has his sights set on. They’re only foreplay for the big finale. I didn’t sleep last night either. My gut is telling me that he wants youto know he’s coming. You are the big finale and we need to be prepared for that move.”
There it was—the conclusion Rowan could no longer deny. “I should take a break and check on my father. I need some fresh air anyway.”
She stood. Jones didn’t look very happy that Rowan had backed out of the conversation at such a pivotal juncture.
“I’ve already spoken to Captain Doyle,” the detective plunged onward before Rowan could escape. “He’s in agreement with the rest of us. We have to take this threat to you seriously, Dr. DuPont. We’ve danced all around it for days now. It’s time to stop pretending this isn’t about you. There are necessary steps that need to be taken.”
Rowan wanted to be angry that Jones and, probably, Bennett had gone behind her back with this theory, but she wasn’t a fool. “Give me a few minutes and we’ll discuss the situation.”
“Just make sure you go to the smokers’ cage,” Jones said, “otherwise, if you’re going outside, I should go with you.”
With a resigned sigh, Rowan assured her, “I’ll be in the cage.”
She couldn’t exit the room fast enough. Rowan’s chest felt exceedingly tight. Drawing in a breath was next to impossible. She needed five minutes out of this office—out of this building. Checking in on her father was a good excuse. Far too often, she found herself so caught up in a case that time slipped away. Her father—her only remaining family—was generally the one on the losing end of that scenario.
Fortunately, the elevator was deserted. She reached the lobby and hurried toward the west corridor, purposely avoiding eye contact. She fisted her cell and pushed through the exit that led to the only place on city property where the smokers were allowed to indulge their habit. The cage. The small area was closed in with steel mesh on all sides, and there was a roof along with four overhead fans to help circulate the air. Rowan imagined the winters were rather unpleasant but at least this space prevented folks from having to loiter in the parking lot as was the case when smoking was first abolished in any of the buildings. The enclosure as well as the cameras, she instinctively glanced toward the two well-placed dark domes, provided a measure of security and some degree of protection from the elements.
Luck was on her side once more—the cage was empty. Relieved, Rowan drew in a deep breath, her olfactory protesting the stench of stale cigarette butts in the receptacles made for their disposal. She could tolerate the unpleasant odor for a few minutes. God knew she had smelled far worse at the numerous crime scenes she’d studied over the past six years. Right now, she needed the trees and the sky and simply being outside the confining walls of her office and that damned conference room.
Daddy’s coming soon.
The last words Raven had said to her in one of last night’s fractured dreams shook her even now, in the glaring light of day. She should have called her father days ago. He had been the first thing on her mind this morning but she’d been running late. She didn’t call him often enough, certainly didn’t visit like a daughter should.
She put through the call and the instant she heard his voice she relaxed the tiniest bit. “Hey, Daddy.”
“Ro, sweetheart, what a pleasant surprise.”
They chatted casually, playing catch up for a few minutes, before she moved to the heart of the matter. “Daddy, are you feeling okay? When was the last time you saw Dr. Lombardo?”
“Had a complete physical last week. Doc says I’m as healthy as a horse. You don’t need to worry about me, little girl.”
“That’s great.” Another flash of relief rushed through Rowan, making her knees weak. Her father had turned seventy his last birthday. She wanted to have him around for as long as possible even if she was far too negligent in her calls and visits.
“Why do you ask? Is everything all right with you?”
The note of worry in his voice made her feel even guiltier. In her thirty-nine years she’d given her father far more reason to worry than he would ever give her if he lived to be a thousand. She really had not been a very good daughter.
Exiling the painful thoughts, she said, “I’m fine. Everything okay with the business? Busy as usual, I guess.”
“Don’t you know it, little girl. If there’s one thing in this life we can count on it’s death. Won’t ever be a shortage of the dying.”
Her father had used that cold, hard fact to try and persuade her to follow in his footsteps in the family business. You’ll never lack for job security. There’s something to be said for that, Ro. It’s a respectable, reliable way to earn a living. Choosing not to go into the family business was the other way she’d hurt her father. He’d been devastated for a time. So much so they hadn’t spoken for an entire year after she shared her decision. But that had been a very long time ago. Since that unbearable time she’d tried hard to make up for their lost year.
“Can’t argue with that,” Rowan agreed with his assessment, more of that tight band of tension around her skull loosening, if only marginally.
“I was thinking about you this morning,” he said. “I meant to call you on my lunch break.”
She could picture her father peering down at whatever body he had stretched out on the prep table at present. One glove on, one off to answer the phone as blood and other bodily fluids drained away in preparation for being replaced by preserving chemicals.
“I was thinking of you, too.” She smiled, decided not to mention why. He would not be happy to hear that Raven still haunted her dreams twenty-six years after her death. Rowan had decided that some connections transcended death. She’d done extensive research on the bond between twins. She and her sister would be a part of each other as long as one of them continued breathing.
“I wanted to call and tell you that a friend of yours from up there in the big city stopped by yesterday,” Edward announced. “Said he wanted to see the place where you grew up. I gave him the grand tour. He went on and on about what a big star you are with Metro.”
Rowan frowned. She hoped it wasn’t some reporter digging for information to be used in a scathing article related to her book. Though she was grateful her book was doing so well, she had not anticipated the more unpleasant aspects of success. With the admiration and respect shown by most of her readers came hostility and condemnation from a few others.
“Really? What was her name?”
“It was a he, actually. Name was Tyler Ross. The way he went on, I thought for sure you’d been holding out on me. Especially since he’s an undertaker, too.”
Her father kept talking but Rowan stuck on the name—Tyler Ross. Sandy Tyler…KarenRoss. It was a combination of surnames from the victims. The two victims who looked like her. Coincidence? Not even remotely possible.
Which meant only one thing: the murders were undeniably connected to her.
Worse, the killer had reached out to her father.
North Avenue, 6:30 p.m.
“I really appreciate you coming all this way to bring my dad.”
Winchester Chief of Police Billy Brannigan was a cowboy, heart and soul. Like Rowan he’d grown up in Winchester. Unlike Rowan, Billy had been one of the most popular kids in school. A hometown hero during high school and college. The big football star who never failed to make time for fundraising rodeos in the summer. Folks swore Billy was born wearing a Stetson and cowboy boots. He was a year older than Rowan but he’d made it his mission to take her under his wing, so to speak, after Raven’s death. Though they had always been friends, he had gone above and beyond the call after that tragic summer. Rowan had been lost, Billy had watched over her, threatening to pound anyone who wasn’t nice to her.
He was the sole reason she had survived high school.
Tall, broad shouldered and impossibly charming, he grinned down at her before hauling her into another bear hug. “You know I would do anything for you and your daddy.”
Yes, she did know this. He was a faithful friend. When he let her go, she stood back and assessed him from those well-worn boots to the top of his handsome head. “Well, I can tell you one thing, Billy Brannigan, forty definitely looks good on you.”
He took off his Stetson and ran his fingers through his dark hair. A smile tugged at her lips as she considered how many times as a starry-eyed teenager she’d dreamed of running her fingers through his hair. He had dark brown eyes, a classic straight nose and a perfect square jaw, not to mention those movie star lips. She had fantasized about kissing those lips since she was fourteen years old. But she never had. Just foolish adolescent girl fantasies. She’d outgrown those years ago.
Rowan and Billy were friends. Truth be told, he was her best friend even if they rarely laid eyes on one another. Back home he remained the most eligible bachelor in Franklin County. Like her, he’d never married or had kids. Rowan was well aware of her own reasons. She did not have the time to devote to that kind of relationship. As for kids, frankly, she didn’t quite trust herself to be completely responsible, twenty-four/seven, for another human. Work sucked her in like a junkie to her drug of choice. She wasn’t sure what kept Billy from the altar. Too many choices to choose only one, she imagined.
“Well, now,” he said in that slow, easy drawl of his, “if we’re going down that road, look at you, Ro.” His gaze swept over her. “You look amazing, just like always.”
She decided to enjoy the compliment instead of arguing the validity of it the way she generally did. “I hope you’ll stay for dinner.”
He smiled and she felted more relaxed than she had in days. It was so good to see him—circumstances notwithstanding. “Since I almost never get to see you anymore, yes, ma’am, I can stay for a little while before I head back.”
Little being the operative word. She understood completely. The return trip to Winchester was close to two hours. She took his hat. “Make yourself at home and I’ll round up Daddy.”
“You got it.”
She placed the Stetson on the sideboard in the entry hall and crossed the room. The first floor portion of her home was one expansive open space with only the staircase interrupting the flow. The entry hall flowed into the living room, which flowed into the dining room and around the staircase into the kitchen. A door from the kitchen led into a small hall where the powder room was on the left and the laundry room on the right. At the end of that small hall was the door to the two-car garage. A floor plan made for entertaining, not that she entertained often. Sometimes Julian joined her for dinner. Once in a great while she had April Jones over for lunch. Beyond the annual department Christmas party and the occasional birthday party, baby shower or wedding, that was about the extent of her entertainment calendar.
Who had time for a social life anyway?
Her father had taken Freud into the backyard. Rowan suspected he’d wanted to give her and Billy some alone time. Edward DuPont had always hoped she and Billy would become a couple. To her father’s way of thinking if they had Rowan would have stayed in Winchester and taken over the family business. He might have been able to retire by now and spend his days taking his grandsons fishing or his granddaughters to the ice cream parlor.
Despite her father’s hopes and the occasional speculation among the Winchester gossip grapevine, Rowan and Billy had never been anything but friends and there would likely never be any DuPont grandchildren. A fleeting sense of sadness accompanied the realization. Generally her unmarried, childless state didn’t bother her. Maybe seeing Billy had resurrected those foolish adolescent daydreams.
Well, you are only human, Rowan—though Bennett and some of the other detectives might debate that deduction.
Outside, her father tossed a battered Frisbee into the darkness of the backyard. Freud dashed after it. “Daddy,” she called from the deck. “Come inside. Billy can’t stay long. We should have dinner before he heads back home.”
Freud raced up onto the deck like a dog half his age. He’d turned eight this year. He’d spent the first three years of his life being abused by his drug trafficking owner. The thug had murdered at least four people but it took the SCU some time to prove it. When the animal’s owner was arrested Rowan seized the opportunity to rescue the dog. The two of them had been good for each other. She’d learned some measure of responsibility to something besides her work and Freud had gained a life without fear or pain.
Edward DuPont climbed the final step and put an arm around her. “I sure am glad to see you, Ro, but I don’t think all this fuss is really necessary. You know your old man can take care of himself. Besides, that fella seemed completely harmless to me.”
“Most people considered Ted Bundy quite charming and certainly harmless until they learned about his dark side.” His pained expression told her she’d made her point. “I’ll feel better with you here until we figure this out.”
He didn’t argue any further so they walked inside where Billy waited, propped against the island like he owned the place. Unlike all the other kids in school, Billy had always been completely comfortable hanging around the funeral home. Not that he had done so that often—he was a popular guy, after all—but when he did, he had been as at home as Rowan. He was a good guy, then and now.
What was wrong with the women back home?
“I guess a little vacation is good for the soul.” Her father kissed her on the cheek. “But I can’t leave Herman for too long or he’ll start to believe he can run things just as well as me.”
Herman Carter was her father’s longtime assistant director. Until he retired two years ago, Herman had been with the family business for as long as Rowan could remember. After Herman retired, her father had hired Woody Holder to take his place. Even after two years of working together her father wouldn’t dare leave Woody in charge. As always, Herman was happy to step up to the plate. He and her father had been friends their whole lives.
Rowan was grateful her father had a friend like Herman. Both loved playing cards about as much as they did breathing. Back home their weekly card games were legendary. Rowan remembered sneaking downstairs to watch her father and his friends drink whiskey, smoke cigars and play cards. It was the closest thing to a social life, besides church on Sunday, the man had. Many times she had wondered if her father had chosen to remain alone because of her. He’d poured his entire life into raising his only remaining child and running the funeral home.
Then she’d deserted him.
More of that guilt settled onto her chest, bearing down on her heart. He’d forgiven her, she knew this without doubt. Maybe it was time she forgave herself. Her gaze shifted from her father to Billy. Then again, perhaps her decision to leave her past behind had been a bigger misstep than she’d comprehended at the time.
A lifetime ago. No point looking back now.
With the dinner she’d had delivered warming in the microwave and filling the house with mouth-watering aromas, she and Billy set the table. He teased her about having a state-of-the-art kitchen she never used and she ribbed him about his longtime peanut butter sandwich fetish. When they’d gathered around the table, Billy caught her up on all the hometown gossip. Her dad put in his two cents worth now and then, making Rowan laugh more than she had in ages. The easy banter refreshed her soul. It had been a long time since so much laughter had filled her home. Most of her time at home was spent poring over transcripts or police reports and evidence photos from heinous crimes.
Tonight there was no talk of murder. Rowan relaxed and enjoyed the company of her two favorite men.
Tomorrow would be soon enough to dig back into the mind of the killer currently haunting her waking hours.
Metropolitan Nashville Police Department
Wednesday, March 13, 10:00 a.m.
“I really don’t want to be any trouble, Ro.”
Edward DuPont didn’t like being the center of attention any more than Rowan did. They both preferred to simply do their work without any bustle or fuss. Life was easier that way. It was a shame she hadn’t considered how the publication of a book would change things, perhaps for both of them. Frankly, she’d been certain a handful of copies would sell and that would be the end of it.
“Now, Daddy, I explained everything last night. This will only be for a few days. Just until we figure out what’s going on with the man who showed up asking questions about me. You promised to be a good sport about it.”
Her father had been happy to see her last evening, but this was another day and he was accustomed to getting on with his work in the privacy of his home. No matter that he had given a detailed description to the sketch artist, the man who’d showed up at his door remained an unknown subject. Jones and Keaton were sending the sketch to funeral homes all over Tennessee and to the tri-state area. Hopefully, if he was or had been employed by a funeral home nearby they would soon have a name. Beyond the fact that he’d called himself an undertaker, the conclusion that he was in the business was an easy one to make since he used all the right products—assuming he was their unsub in the homicide case.
Still, he could simply be taking advantage of the moniker that had ended up splashed all over the headlines and in the news.
“It’s you I’m worried about,” her father said, his face as well as his tone heavy with unease.
Rowan braced her hip on the edge of her desk, grateful they were in her office rather than in the taskforce meeting room. The last thing she wanted was for any of the detectives to hear the uncertainty in her father’s voice. Worry and doubt had a way of igniting like a match to dry leaves.
“Why would you be worried about me? I have an entire department of law enforcement officers looking out for my welfare.” She, of course, knew the answer. He had worried about her—far more than necessary—since the day her sister died. What parent wouldn’t? As much as she wanted to consider otherwise, her father had more reason than most. Those infernal scars on her wrists burned, automatically her fingers tugged at her cuffs to ensure the scars were covered.
His gaze followed the subtle move. “I know you’re a strong woman, Ro. I’m not questioning that or your mental stability.”
Here it comes. Struggling for patience, she reminded herself that she rarely spent time with her father, the least she could do was hear him out while they were together whether it was for a day or for a week.
“But when a person has gone down thatpath,” he said, dropping his gaze to the floor, “sometimes it’s easier to find themselves back on that same road. When life gets difficult, I mean.”
“It’s been twenty years, Dad.”
He met her gaze once more and the hurt there tugged at her heart. Rowan understood his feelings. Losing a child was the greatest pain a parent could suffer. To have a child attempt suicide came with the added agony of knowing that child no longer wanted to live—that, as a parent, perhaps you had somehow failed. She had done that to her father when she made the choice not once but twice. There were no adequate words to explain or to defend her choice in a way that would make him fully understand or would lessen the pain he still felt at the memories. Or even to diminish the fear he suffered at the mere idea that it could happen again.
“I know,” he said, his face clouded with the regret he felt at dredging up the subject he knew would cause her discomfort.
“There have been numerous studies and most concur that the likelihood of a person attempting suicide again after such an extended period is minimal.” She doubted a more clinical response would make a difference, but she had to try. “And I have no reason to feel that level of defeat, disillusionment or pain. I’m happy, Daddy. Very happy. I love my work. My book is—” she turned up her hands “—more successful than I expected. You never have to worry about me going down that path again. I promise.”
Her father pushed out of the chair in front of her desk. He shoved his hands into his pockets as if he wasn’t sure what to do with them. “You’re all I’ve got in this world, Ro. I don’t want to lose you. It’s not right for a child to die before a parent. I can’t go through that again.”
She went to her daddy and put her arms around him, laid her cheek against his chest. “I will never hurt you that way again, Daddy. You have my word.”
As a teenager she hadn’t stopped to think how her actions would hurt her father—her only family. She’d only been thinking of herself and how badly she wanted to escape the pain and emptiness.
“So.” He gave her a final squeeze and drew back. “That Billy sure seemed happy to see you.”
Rowan laughed. She reached up and patted her father’s too thin cheek. “Don’t you go trying to play matchmaker, Daddy. Billy and I are both happy just being friends.”
His frail frame shook with his laughter. “I’ve been trying for close to twenty-five years, how can you expect me to stop cold turkey now?”
This was true. “Just don’t be disappointed if all your efforts are for naught.”
“A man can dream, little girl.”
He kissed her forehead and Rowan studied her father closely for the first time in a very long time. He looked so old. An ache pierced her. How could so much time have passed without her paying attention? His gray hair was thinning. He’d lost weight since the last time she saw him. She doubted he weighed more than one forty-five or one fifty. At six feet tall that was razor thin. His color was good, that was something. He’d always had that olive skin from his French ancestors. Rowan and her sister, on the other hand, had inherited their mother’s Scottish coloring, blond hair, blue eyes and fair skin. Attempts at suntans had always resulted in sunburns.
“I think you’re the one who needs a girlfriend.” She patted his flat belly. “Preferably one who can cook.”
Another of those deep laughs echoed from him. “I want you to know I work very hard to keep this lean physique.”
A rap on the door drew Rowan’s attention there as it opened and Lieutenant Jones stepped in. “I apologize for the interruption, Dr. DuPont, but we need to take a ride.”
The look in the other woman’s eyes told Rowan all she needed to know. “Daddy, have a seat. We’ll be back in no time.” She hurried around her desk and grabbed her purse. “If you need anything at all you let the officer in the hall know.” She gestured to the television hanging on the wall. “Feel free to make yourself at home.”
“I’ll be right here waiting for you,” he assured her as he reached for the remote on her desk.
When she and Jones were in the corridor outside her office Rowan asked, “We have another victim?”
Jones nodded. “Her boyfriend claims he hasn’t talked to her in two days. He was out of town on business until this morning. They last spoke late Monday night. She hasn’t been answering her cell since then. When he arrived at her apartment this morning she wasn’t home. Her phone and purse were there, but not her. He called her office, she hasn’t been to work at the accounting firm where she’s a partner since Monday either.”
Rowan’s heart sank. “Does she fit the profile?”
Jones nodded. “She could be your twin sister.”
Except her twin sister was dead.
Rowan prayed they would find this woman before she ended up dead, too.
South 5thStreet, 11:50 p.m.
“Mr. Jenner, let’s review the timeline once more.”
While Jones and Bennett questioned the distraught boyfriend of Dharma Collette, Rowan wandered through the missing woman’s apartment. The apartment was nestled into a nice complex only steps from Frederick Douglas Park and mere minutes from downtown. Though she and her boyfriend, Peter Jenner, had dated for three years, they had not decided to move in together as of yet. Collette had never been married and had no children—exactly like the other two vics.
Exactly like Rowan.
Jenner was sincerely worried about his girlfriend. Rowan had watched him carefully during the first portion of the interview. She didn’t spot a single tell to suggest he was being less than truthful. He traveled frequently for his work so his absence this week was not unusual. The home screen on his phone was a Titans football logo and he held a sweating can of beer in his right hand as they talked. It was the third one he’d had since they arrived. Collette apparently kept a good stock of his favorite brew.
The apartment was tidy and well kept. Nothing to suggest forced entry or that there had been a struggle. Keaton was reviewing security footage to see if Colette had been visited by anyone in the week prior to her disappearance. Her cell phone records had already been ordered to ensure there were no deleted calls or texts. The missing woman had walked out of the building at nine on Monday night to go for her usual run—which is why she hadn’t taken her purse. According to Jenner she generally took her cell phone with her on runs. He admitted that he had known her to forget it from time to time.
No numbers had called her cell that weren’t in her contacts list. No strangers entered the building and went to her floor. To her boyfriend’s knowledge she was not having trouble with her family or her work. Her sister, two brothers and parents had been contacted. No one had seen or heard from her. Collette had no history of mental illness or other issues that might send her into hiding or prompt her to run away.
Detective Wells was running down any financial transactions on her credit or debit cards. Rowan was confident they would find nothing useful. Dharma Collette hadn’t runaway or gone into hiding. She had been taken by a man who knew how to pluck her from her life without leaving the first clue.
Rowan wandered through Dharma’s bedroom once more, careful not to get in the way of the two forensic techs searching for any sort of evidence that might give their investigation some sense of direction. Unless the unknown subject made his first misstep, that wasn’t likely. The apartment only had one bedroom, but the living area was quite large. Collette’s car was still in her designated parking spot. The boyfriend had confirmed that her running shoes weren’t in her closet. The security footage showed her leaving the building on Monday night wearing those running shoes and a lime green running suit.
If the same man who took the other two women in the Undertaker case had taken Collette, they would find her body within the next twenty-four to thirty hours.
And another woman would be dead for no other apparent reason than to get Rowan’s attention.
“Number twenty,” Jones said as they parked at the curb in front of the final funeral home on their list.
Rowan surveyed the one story 1960s era building. She and Lieutenant Jones had been to nineteen others so far, many of which were very much like this one. The façade of some were more upscale than others but none had any real character. “You know, these places just don’t look and feel like funeral homes.”
Jones turned to her, her hand on the door. “I guess you would know better than most.”
Rowan allowed her thoughts to wander back to her childhood—something she rarely did. “Winchester was a small town, still is. As a kid I went to funerals at the only other funeral home in town but it was very similar to ours: a big old historic house that served as both business and home to the owner. Picking a funeral home in a small town was sort of a big deal in those days. Ours or Gardner’s. Some folks only took their loved ones to Gardner’s, some only came to us. It was generally based on the one their parents and grandparents had chosen.”
“I know what you mean,” Jones said. “I grew up in a little hole in the wall all the way over near Knoxville. If you were black, there was only one funeral home you used—the one for the black people.” She shrugged, her hand still resting on the door handle. “It wasn’t that folks couldn’t choose wherever they wanted to go, especially in recent decades, it just became a habit. Black folks operate the place; black folks give them their business.”
“If we ever had one like that,” Rowan said, “it was before my time and no one talked about it.”
Jones laughed. “Of course not. The world’s too PC to talk about the truth.”
Rowan wondered if it was really the concept of political correctness or if more folks had simply become blind to color. She didn’t see black when she looked at April Jones. She saw detective, female, wife, mother, friend—pretty much in that order. But then, her father had been a strong influence about color and differences in general. He had raised his children to love and respect all people. Maybe she was naïve to believe more people felt that way these days, but she could always hope.
“Just another reason to turn off the news.” Rowan rarely watched television, the news in particular.
“You got that right,” Jones agreed. They emerged from the car and across the roof of the car she said, “We get a firsthand look at the news every day without some fool on the air twisting it around to suit his or her own agenda.”
Rowan smiled. “Human nature can get ugly sometimes.”
The lieutenant’s phone buzzed as they walked up the sidewalk. Jones checked the screen to read the text she’d received. “Collette’s phone records and credit cards gave us nothing.” Visibly disgusted, she shoved the phone back onto her belt.
Rowan hadn’t really expected anything useful. Their unsub had proven too clever for a mistake that elementary. But, in time, they all made mistakes. No matter the intelligence level or the years of experience, a killer was still only human. The trouble was they didn’t have the luxury of time.
Collette would be dead by morning, if she wasn’t already.
A media blitz about the missing woman—Dharma Collette—was running on the news and all other social venues. Traffic cops were distributing posters of Collette’s photo everywhere. The department was doing everything within its power to find the missing woman. God only knew if it would be enough. Although, sketches of the possible funeral home employee who had visited her father had been sent wide, the response, especially locally, had been minimal. After dropping by the search at Collette’s office, she and Jones had decided to knock on doors, starting with the local funeral homes.
Inside Kendrick Funeral Services Jones made the introductions, as was par for the course. Rowan showed her credentials when the director looked from Jones’s badge to her. They went through the steps, showed him the sketch of the man who had visited her father. When he studied the sketch for longer than expected, Rowan and Jones exchanged a cautiously hopeful look.
“Do you recognize him?” Jones asked.
“Well,” Kendrick bit his lips together for a moment, “he dang sure looks like one of the assistants who worked here before I took over. But I can’t be positive.” He handed the sketch back to Jones.
“We’ll need his name and address—any info you have,” Jones said.
As a rule, Rowan allowed the detectives to do the talking so she could watch the responses. Later they would compare notes. In her opinion, this man was telling the truth.
“I wish I could help you but my wife is out of town. She won’t be back until tomorrow. Our daughter is having our first grandchild. I’d be there, too, but my deputy director is out sick and I had two passings arrive.”
“Congratulations,” Rowan offered, “about the grandchild, I mean.” This was another understood step between Rowan and the detectives. She always played the ‘good’ cop part. “Boy or girl?”
Kendrick grinned, his face beaming. “Boy. Gonna be named William Albert after his granddaddy.”
“You can’t pull his file?” Jones asked as she dragged her cell free of her waist, her patience thinning. She always checked her phone repeatedly when she was running out of patience. The time on the screen reminding her that more precious minutes were slipping away.
“Afraid not. There was a fire not a week after we bought the place. All the files were destroyed.”
Rowan’s hopes fell. Just their luck this would be the one and there were no personnel files available. “What about the previous owner?”
“He passed away, but my wife can tell you anything you want to know.” He tapped his temple. “Got a mind like a steel trap. She looked over all the files when we bought the place. She’ll remember everyone who worked here. If he did, she’ll know his name and whatever else was in the file about him.”
“Perhaps you could call her.” Rowan smiled. “Check on your daughter’s progress.”
Jones offered, “I’ll snap a pic of the sketch and text it you. You can send it to your wife and have her look at it that way.”
He frowned. “I’m afraid I don’t know how to do any of that. My wife is the one who has all the gadget smarts.”
“Lieutenant Jones can do it for you,” Rowan urged. “She’s our resident gadget guru.” That wasn’t entirely true, but of the three of them Jones would certainly be the guru.
He handed over his phone without hesitation. “Happy to help anyway I can.”
Thankfully his cell was a smartphone. Jones snapped a pic and sent it in a text to Mrs. Kendrick’s contact number in under a minute. “Can you call her and explain what we need?”
Rowan looked from the lieutenant to the man, hoping he would continue to be agreeable.
“Sure. Can’t guarantee she’ll answer since cell phones aren’t allowed beyond a certain point. She could be in the delivery room this very minute, for all I know. But, if she doesn’t, I can leave a message and the minute I hear from her I’ll call you.”
“We appreciate your cooperation,” Jones assured him as she returned his phone.
“All right.” Kendrick made the call and, as he’d predicted, he had to leave a message.
When he’d finished, Jones gave him a card. “When you hear from her, call me. I don’t care what time it is. Day or night. This is very important, Mr. Kendrick.”
Before they were back in the car the cell attached to the lieutenant’s waist sounded off. “Jones.”
Rowan listened, hoping to pick up on something the caller was saying. The voice sounded like Bennett but she couldn’t make out the words. As Jones listened, she started the car and rolled away from the final funeral home on their list. She grunted a couple of uh-huhs before ending the call.
“That was Bennett. He’s with Anna Stein.”
“Collette’s best friend according to Jenner.” Rowan’s pulse rate started to climb. “Does she know anything?”
“She won’t talk to Bennett.” Jones braked for a traffic signal that turned red. “She says she’s only talking to a female detective.”
“Maybe we’ll catch a break.”
Even as Rowan made the statement she doubted that would be the case. There had been no relationship issues with the other two victims, she doubted the killer would change his MO at this point. More often than not, when a woman refused to speak to a male detective it was generally related to sex and/or cheating. The woman counted on another woman being less likely to judge or to tell the man involved.
“Catch a break?” Jones grunted again. “I ain’t holding my breath.”
Rowan decided not to mention she’d had the same thought. The situation was dismal enough without echoing the idea over and over.
19thAvenue South, 6:00 p.m.
Anna Stein lived in a studio apartment two blocks from music row. She worked at the same accounting firm as Dharma Collette but she wasn’t a partner as Collette was. Also unlike Collette, Stein looked more like a party girl. She had the dark circles under her eyes from lack of sleep, the empty overturned vodka bottle on the counter and an ashtray full of cigarette butts on the coffee table. Her nails were chewed down to nubs and the red polish she’d applied a week or so ago was chipped. Tight leggings left nothing to the imagination, while a midriff length tee showed off her flat belly. More telling, the woman couldn’t sit still for a minute.
“She was seeing someone,” Stein announced after beating around the bush for fifteen minutes. She chewed at a thumbnail, her right leg bouncing. “I don’t know his name or what he looks like, but he’s older. She said he was older and smart. Really smart.” She pulled her legs beneath her, probably to keep them still. “Maybe you noticed that Peter isn’t so bright.”
Rowan had pegged him as average intelligence. Perhaps Ms. Stein had confused a lower intelligence with his good old boy, laid back mentality. Peter Jenner was a football fan. Tailgating was likely his favorite way to party. Rowan doubted he liked dancing, more likely he preferred throwing back the beers and watching others sway around the dance floor. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t plenty intelligent any more than her lifestyle meant she wasn’t a nice woman.
“So she and Peter were having trouble?” Jones nudged. “Have you witnessed them fighting or did Dharma tell you about the trouble they were having?”
Stein shook her head. “Are you kidding? Peter is far too laid back to work up the energy to fight. He’s the kind of guy who just waits out the trouble. He lacks passion. He has a good thing with Dharma so he isn’t going to rock the boat.”
“Is that your assessment,” Rowan asked, “or Dharma’s?”
“That’s what Dharma said and she’s right. He’s just happy no matter what. I used to think he was on Prozac or something but I met his father at a Fourth of July barbecue and he’s exactly the same. I guess the men in that family are just light on testosterone and heavy on the serotonin.”
“You’re not aware of any trouble at home or at work that Dharma was having?” Jones prodded. “Except for the possible affair with this unknown older man.”
“She ishaving an affair,” Stein stated. “She told me this older guy was utterly intellectual and so sophisticated. He made her feel important.”
“She told you nothing about him other than how he made her feel?” Jones stayed after her about the description. “Not even a first name or a nickname?”
They needed something, anything.
Stein shook her head. “Handsome. Distinguished. That’s all she told me.”
“Where did she meet this handsome, distinguished man?” Rowan asked. “At work? On a run? Maybe at the gym?”
Stein sat back, her hands stilled as if she’d just remembered something. Rowan’s anticipation sent her heart beating a little faster.
“She met him in the park where she runs.”
“Frederick Douglass Park?” Jones confirmed.
“Yeah. She runs there like every night.” Stein shook her head. “I don’t see the appeal but I guess you have to love running to bother. She even runs when it’s raining or snowing.”
“Peter doesn’t run?” Rowan asked. He’d said he didn’t but there was always the chance he’d lied. Though she hadn’t picked up on any tells, considering his overly laid back way, he might be one of the few who could lie without the first tick. Still, he had been out of town. His alibi checked out.
“No way. The only running he does is to the store for another six pack.”
Jones passed the woman a card. “Call me if you think of anything else. This is very important, Ms. Stein. Every minute counts.”
The woman’s face fell. “She’s going to die, isn’t she? Just like the others.”
Jones stood, Rowan followed suit.
“Not if we can help it,” the Lieutenant assured Stein. “But we can’t do this alone. Talk to her other trusted friends. See if you can learn anything about this new man in her life or anything else that’s new or out of the ordinary.”
Collette was the first victim to have a new man in her life. The other victims had nothing new going on—at least not as far as any of their friends and family were aware. Unfortunately, the vague description of older and distinguished did not match the man who had visited Rowan’s father.
One step forward, two steps back.
“I will.” Stein nodded adamantly. “I’ll talk to everyone I can think of.” She frowned. “Is that why the cops were in her office today?” She glanced at Rowan. “You were there, too.”
“Sometimes people leave notes or emails that might help,” Rowan offered.
Stein shook her head. “Not Dharma. When she’s at work, it’s all about work. Her personal life never enters the building. She doesn’t even talk personal stuff until we’re at lunch. She’s tenacious like that.”
Something else Rowan had in common with the victims…they were all workaholics.
North Avenue, 8:50 p.m.
“You didn’t have to go to all that trouble, Daddy.” Rowan pushed her plate away and slumped in her chair. She was stuffed. More often than not she came home from work and went straight back to work. Dinner rarely entered the equation. Now all she wanted to do was curl up in bed and watch mindless TV—something she never took the time to do.
She almost smiled. Having her father around had her regressing to her childhood days when there was always someone taking care of her. Images of her father preparing her hot chocolate on a cold night or fresh lemonade on a hot summer day flashed through her mind. How had she not realized how lucky she was even after losing her sister and her mother? She had always had her dad.
“It’s not often I get to cook my favorite girl a meal.” He stood and gathered their plates.
“Let me do that.” She pushed her chair back and got to her feet. “You did the cooking.”
He drew the plates out of her reach. “You worked a twelve-hour day. You’ve done enough.”
He headed to the kitchen. Rowan grabbed their water glasses and trailed after him. When Raven died her daddy had done all the cooking. Norah—her mother—had been too depressed and withdrawn. Sometimes Rowan thought her mother had purposely tuned out so she could put emotional distance between her and the people she loved. Rowan was convinced that deep down Norah had planned her escape from the moment Raven’s body was pulled from that wretched lake. She could not—would not—continue living and risk that kind of pain again. It was easier for Rowan to believe that was the case than to believe her mother loved Raven more than her. In truth, she would never know.
Those very thoughts were another of the many, many things Rowan had felt guilty about after Raven died.
That’s the past, Ro. This is now.
When she and her father finally made it home an hour ago, she had gone straight to her room to shower. She’d needed the hot water to relax her tense muscles. She’d stayed under the spray of water longer than she’d intended. By the time she’d dragged on lounge pants and a tee her father had pulled together a dinner of tuna mac and cheese and a salad. It was a miracle the salad fixings were still edible. Rowan usually ate out or had something delivered the way she had last night. If she’d been thinking clearly she would have ordered something before she hit the shower. Ignoring her own body’s needs was typical behavior, but she should have realized her father would need to eat.
“I’m sorry I didn’t think to stop at a drive through or to order delivery, Daddy. I’m a terrible hostess.”
He turned off the faucet and settled his hands on the counter. She’d never noticed all the age spots before. Her heart squeezed. How had she allowed so much time to slip away without spending more of it with him? He looked so frail. He looked so old.
“I have a feeling food isn’t one of your priorities, little girl.” He bent his head to one side and studied her. “I worry about you.”
Rowan set the glasses aside and hugged her arms around his thin waist. “You do not have to worry about me. I promise.” She set her chin against his chest and stared up at him. “I worry about you.”
A frown furrowed its way across his craggy face. “Now why in the world would you worry about me?”
“You’ve been alone for a very long time.”
“Here we go again.” Her father unwrapped her arms from his waist and shooed her aside so he could access the sink. He turned the faucet back on and resumed rinsing their plates and then he placed each in the dishwasher. “I don’t need a wife, I have Herman.”
Rowan laughed, couldn’t help herself. Her father had always said Herman was like an old woman, always hovering over him, feeding him and urging him to go to the doctor for every ache and pain.
“Forgive me,” she teased, “I forget you have Herman.”
When the plates, silverware and glasses were in the dishwasher, he dried his hands. “I am not lonely, Rowan. Beyond the fact that I miss you every day, I’m fine. I have the families and I have Herman.”
“How is Estelle?” The last her father had mentioned, Herman’s wife was battling cancer. Rowan hoped it was a good sign that she hadn’t heard more.
“She’s doing great.” He nodded slowly. “It was touch and go at first, but Herman found her one of those new, experimental treatments and she’s doing great.”
Rowan smiled. “I’m so glad to hear she’s responding well.” Not all experimental treatments worked for the approved participants.
Though her father had never been very outgoing—like her—when it came to social events, he gave himself completely over to the families whose loved ones were brought to his funeral home. He became their friend, their confidant, their therapist and often their minister. Rowan suspected it was his utter dedication that set the mold for her career-oriented mindset. God knew Norah could never focus on anything for too long. If Rowan had a dollar for every book her mother had started and never finished, she would be rich. More of that southern girl guilt heaped onto her shoulders. It wasn’t her mother’s fault no publisher was ever interested enough in her work to want to publish it. Determination—that had been her mother’s strongest asset. She’d researched and written her stories—at least the beginnings—for as long as Rowan could remember. Images of late nights and empty wine bottles filtered through her head. Frequent weekends away…all in the name of research.
Norah DuPont had been so different from Edward. How had the two ever ended up together? And why would a woman so determined and seemingly devoted to her family suddenly give up and end her life?
It still made no sense to Rowan…and, yet, she had acted out in a similar manner. She had no right to judge her mother when she had attempted the same.
Don’t even go there.
“You know,” Rowan hesitated. Julian had told her that if she ever made this confession to her father it would only give him false hope. She searched her father’s face. Did she dare say the words? Now or never, Ro. “I have…often regretted not going back home…to you and to the funeral home.”
There, she’d said it. The world hadn’t ended but the surprise in her father’s eyes tugged at her emotions, making her eyes burn with the need to cry. The surprise shifted to something else, something unreadable and unsettling.
It felt like forever before he spoke. “You made the right choice.”
Her breath caught with her own surprise. “But I thought—”
He nodded. “I know. I always hoped you would take over for me. DuPonts have operated that funeral home for more than a hundred and fifty years. But many of them, like us, paid a heavy price. All I want is for you to be happy, Ro. If this—” he glanced around her home “—is what makes you happy, that’s all that matters to me. The business will be yours to do with as you please when I’m gone.”
Reeling from the exchange, Rowan grappled for balance. Of course she knew her father wanted her to be happy but she hadn’t realized how at peace he was with her decision. Julian was wrong. They should have had this conversation years ago.
“Would you like a glass of wine, Daddy?” She didn’t have anything stronger to offer. She hoped he said yes because she very badly needed a glass after their respective revelations.
He gave a nod. “A glass of wine would be nice.”
Relieved, she said, “You go on and have a seat. I’ll be right there with the wine.”
“Go on. I’ll be right there.”
Her father drifted over to the sofa and settled in. She searched for a bottle of her favorite blush and opened it. As she snagged two stemmed glasses all she could think was how she couldn’t wait to tell Julian.
She’d made the right decision. She wished she had been honest with her father years ago. Then again, perhaps Julian had been right about not rushing into such a conversation. Timing was everything. Maybe last year or even five years ago would have been too soon.
When she’d settled on the sofa next to her father, she poured the wine. She handed him a glass and forged ahead with the questions she had wanted to ask since she was a teenager. Now that she’d opened the door to that part of their past, there was so much more she wanted to know. “Did Mother ever talk about ending her life…before? Had she tried before?”
Edward drank from the glass until he’d emptied it. Rowan poured him another. They both needed a little bracing for this particular conversation.
“She never mentioned anything of the sort, ever. If she had ever tried before I never knew. I really don’t think she had.” He moved his shoulders up and down. “I can only assume she was so devastated by Raven’s death that she couldn’t go on.”
Rowan sipped her wine, considered the kindest way to frame her next question. There really was no way to do so. “Did she ever love me the way she loved Raven?”
Her father sat his glass aside and turned to her, his knees bumping hers. “Your mother loved you just as much as she loved Raven.” His forehead creased in thought. “I believe she would have done exactly the same thing if it had been you who drowned. Her inability to go on was about losing a child—not which child.”
Rowan understood this, for the most part. She was a psychiatrist for God’s sake. And she had told herself the same thing repeatedly. But to a twelve-year-old who had just lost the other half of herself, her mother’s withdrawal and subsequent suicide had been devastating. The idea that she’d tried to do the same thing to her father twisted like barbed wire deep inside her.
“I realize what I did hurt you deeply.” She met his eyes. “I did the same thing to you that Mom did to me. I’m so very sorry, Daddy.”
He took her hand in his. “As much as losing Raven and Norah hurt me, those losses hurt you far more. You were devastated and confused. You made a mistake. It took time for you to find your way again. I’m just glad you did—even if it brought you here, away from me.”
“I swear I’m going to visit more often, Daddy.” She squeezed his hand, blinking rapidly to hold back the infernal tears she didn’t want him to see. The last thing she wanted was to have him worrying more than he already did. “I know I’ve said this before, but this time I will back up my words with action.”
Her father tugged his hand free of hers and gently placed his arm around her shoulders. “You do the best you can, little girl, and I’ll be the happiest daddy on earth.”
Rowan leaned in to him, thankful she’d had the courage to have this conversation. As soon as she went to bed she was going to text Julian and tell him she’d done it. Julian would be happy for her, if a little surprised.
“You know that Billy brags about you all the time.”
Oh lord. Her father would likely go to his grave trying to pair her with Billy Brannigan. “He probably brags on his truck and his dog, too.”
Speaking of dogs, Freud was curled up at her father’s feet. Whenever she visited her dad or he came here, Freud stuck to him like glue. Funny, she realized, he’d taken up with Billy, too.
Or maybe Freud had simply smelled the scent of his daddy’s Blue Tick Hound on Billy. He’d mentioned dropping by their house before coming to Nashville.
“You’ll see,” her father argued. “One of these days the two of you will end up together. If I’m not around, you just remember I said it first.”
“So you’re psychic now, are you?” she teased.
“On some things.” He stood his ground.
“I know one thing for certain.” She peered up at him. “You’re the best dad any little girl could ever hope for. Even when I didn’t show it, I have always been aware of how lucky I am. I really will visit more often from now on. I promise.”
He smiled and quickly turned away. No matter that he tried to cover up the move, she saw him dab at his eyes. She wasn’t the only one feeling sentimental tonight.
Before she could stop herself she thought of the Collette family. No amount of promises would give them any comfort tonight.
Rowan dreamed of her sister. Raven always came to her in the water. Rowan had gone many times to the lake where her sister drowned. She would stand on the bank and peer into the water. The last time she’d visited her father she’d gone back to that same place—not the backyard of the home where the party had taken place, but the bank in the wooded area where they’d found Raven’s body snagged on a tree that had fallen into the water years before.
Rowan stood on that bank now. It was only a dream, her brain understood this, but it felt entirely real. The water was dark. Beneath the water, in the places where the lake was the deepest, there were old cars and no telling how many bodies. The lake was actually part of a reservoir and a damn. Parts of it had been used over the course of its fifty plus year history for a dumping ground. But it wasn’t those other bodies floating toward her in this dream.
Deep in the water she could see her twin sister, reaching for her, always reaching. “Come into the water with me, Rowan. I miss you.”
Rowan gasped and sat straight up in her bed. She pushed back the covers tangled around her body and fought to slow her frantic breathing. No other dreams were as vivid as the ones she had of her sister. Strange that she’d never dreamed of her mother. Julian told her from the beginning that some losses were too deep and too painful even to dream of. Rowan supposed he was right. Maybe that was why she’d never once dreamed of her mother.
Her cell hummed, the plastic case vibrating against her bedside table. She picked it up and squinted at the too bright screen. Wouldn’t be work. They would call.
It was Julian.
You always were headstrong.
She looked at the time. 1:55 a.m.
What was he doing awake at this hour? She’d sent him the text about the conversation with her father hours ago.
Maybe he’d been jarred from sleep by a bad dream as well. He’d told her often that he struggled with unpleasant dreams of his own. One would think with all their training they would never suffer such discomforts.
Not true at all.
She tapped a quick response. LOL we should both be sleeping.
His answering text said: Dictating case notes. Sleep well.
Rowan turned her cell face down on the bedside table. The chances of her sleeping well were slim but she had to try.
Dharma Collette was counting on the entire department—including Rowan—to find her before it was too late.
If it wasn’t too late already.
Two hours earlier…
Dharma told her eyes to open but they refused.
He’d put her into a bathtub. Washed her body…her hair. She’d lain there unable to move like someone paralyzed.
Why wouldn’t her eyes open?
The drug. She wasn’t sure what kind, but he’d kept her disabled since bringing her here. She’d bumped into him after her run on Monday night. He’d smiled and suggested they get coffee. She’d been only too happy to climb into his car. She liked him, felt comfortable with him. Wanted something better in her life.
Why had she trusted him?
He’d seemed so nice. Peter had been out of town again and she’d needed someone. This man understood how to talk to a woman. They’d never even kissed, yet he made her yearn to have his strong arms around her…to feel his lips on her body.
Didn’t matter that he was far older than her…he made her feel things she had stopped feeling for Peter months ago.
She should have known he was too good to be true. Men like that didn’t exist anymore outside romance novels. His kindness and attentiveness were only about luring in the next victim.
She was the next victim. She was going to die.
Tears seared down her skin. Though she couldn’t open her eyes or move a single part of her body, she could cry. Lying on her back, the hot, salty drops slid down her skin, disappearing into her freshly washed hair.
“Now, now,” he murmured as he wiped the tears away with a soft cloth, “no need to cry. It will be over soon.”
Open!Her mind screamed but her eyes refused to obey. Move!She ordered her right arm to move but it would not. Then her left. Still nothing.
He lifted her head and placed something around her neck. She felt the rough texture press into the soft skin at her throat. Her brain struggled to identify the texture. Rug? Burlap? Rope.
The realization formed in her foggy brain at the same time she felt the rope tighten around her throat.
She told herself to struggle. She could not. Tried her best to suck more air into her lungs. Didn’t work. Then she felt herself being pulled upward.
Tighter…tighter…the rope cut into her skin. Higher and higher, it pulled her upward until her feet dangled in the air.
Until she could not breathe at all.
She was dying.
Frederick Douglass Park
Thursday, March 14, 10:00 a.m.
Dharma Collette wore the same type of white cotton gown the other victims had worn. Red rose petals encircled her position in the grass beneath a copse of trees. Petals had fallen like crimson snowflakes over her posed body. Rowan concurred with the medical examiner’s estimation that she had been dead approximately ten hours.
There was one glaring difference between Dharma and the others: she wore a noose fashioned from a braided rope around her neck. Lying alongside her was the length, approximately six feet, of the rope. Just enough for the killer to loop over some object or structure and then to pull her into a hanging position. Based on the bruising beneath the noose and the subconjunctival hemorrhage in the eyes, the cause of death was unquestionably asphyxiation.
Memories of finding her mother hanging from her neck at the funeral home, followed immediately by images of the photos taken at the scene streamed through Rowan’s brain like binge watching a horror series. Her mother had been hanging from a rope that had been secured to the second story banister. The detective who’d investigated her death had taken photos of every angle before allowing her body to be lowered from its dangling position. Blood had pooled in her feet and legs. The expression on her face had been twisted and grotesque.
Rowan banished the terrible memories. She fought back the uncharacteristic emotions suddenly clawing at her. She never had this problem on the job, but this time the case was personal. This woman—like the other two—was dead because of her.
Frustration, misery and anger coiled into one, tightening inside her as forcefully as the rope that had killed Dharma Collette.
“She didn’t struggle,” Rowan said, strong-arming her attention back to her work. These women were counting on her to help find their killer. “The only bruise I see, beyond those around her neck and the ligature marks on her wrists and ankles where she was restrained at least part of the time, is one bruise on her left knee. It looks fairly old. At least three days. She may have fallen on her run Monday night. Nails are clean.” With a gloved hand she inspected Collette’s fingers one by one. “She died in an upright position.” Rowan leaned closer to get a look at her neck and throat. “The rope isn’t only for show, he definitely hung her.”
Like your mother.
The words echoed through her, sending the cold seeping deep into her bones.
Jones crouched next to her. “If you need to step away from this,” she offered, “we’ll all understand.”
Of course everyone knew her mother had died this way.
The damned book. Fury roared through Rowan, the heat and fire of it chasing away the cold, obliterating any calm she had managed. She should never have discussed her private life that way. All she had accomplished was to hand this bastard fodder for his sick imagination.
Pull it together, Rowan. Anger won’t help find this unsub.
“It’s important that I do this.” Forcing all the certainty she possessed into her eyes she urged the other woman to see how desperately she needed to be a part of finding this killer.
“All right.” Jones turned her attention back to the body. “What else do you see?”
“He must have kept her drugged since there’s no indication she struggled to free herself. He held her approximately seventy-two hours before he killed her. Keeping her drugged is the only way she wouldn’t have fought her bindings and him. The marks around her wrists and ankles would be far more pronounced if she had struggled.” These victims were too much like Rowan to have given up without a fight.
The killer knew this.
Dear God. She had given him everything he needed in that damned book.
All her secrets.
Well, almost all of them. There were some things she could never tell anyone except Julian.
At the sound of the detective answering her cell Rowan blinked away the disturbing thoughts. She could not allow her emotions to keep getting in the way. She focused on Dharma Collette. He’d hung Collette and then he’d had to move her here but he’d waited to ensure lividity would confirm she’d been hung by the neck.
He wanted me to know…
After being placed in this park on her back some amount of blood had shifted into the new position from the sheer pull of gravity, but it was paler and the amount was hardly significant. Collette died in an upright position, hanging from that noose.
Just like Rowan’s Mother.
Rowan stepped away from the body. The medical examiner would confirm her conclusions but she didn’t need confirmation. What she needed was to find this bastard before another woman disappeared.
As they drove away from the crime scene, reporters waited outside the perimeter. They closed in on the car to try and get a usable shot of the people inside.
“Someone leaked the theory that these murders are related to you.” Jones glanced at Rowan as she eased through the throng of reporters.
Rowan turned her head away from the intrusions, ignoring the shouted questions. Her throat felt bone dry. “When did this happen? I haven’t seen anything on the news. There were no reporters at my house this morning or at headquarters.”
“That was the call I got a few minutes ago. The chief is not a happy camper.”
If he pulled her off the case… “He has to let me finish this.”
Jones nodded as she sped away from the crowd that had finally been contained by the uniforms attempting to protect the perimeter. “Captain Doyle told him that you’re essential to this investigation. He’s given us forty-eight hours to get this case solved.” She glanced at Rowan. “He doesn’t want to see your face on the news at any point during that time.”
“He’s not the only one.”
Rowan thought of Julian. She had acknowledged his hard work in her book. He could be in danger, if nothing else from being hounded by reporters. Good Lord she should have thought of that already. “I need to make a stop.”
Jones sent her a sidelong glance. “Your father is safe at headquarters.”
Rowan shook her head. “Dr. Addington is mentioned in the book. I should make sure he’s okay.”
“What’s his address?”
Rowan provided Julian’s home/office address and Jones assigned a one-man security detail to Julian as they drove in his direction. Rowan was immensely grateful.
Too many innocent people had died because of her already.
Rosa L. Parks Boulevard, 12:45 p.m.
Rows of Victorian townhouses once lined what is now Nashville’s Central Business District. Dr. Julian Addington lived and worked in one of the few survivors of late twentieth century progress. He had inherited the impressive residence with its equally prestigious address from his grandmother. He’d received numerous offers on the property over the years but he refused to sell. Instead, he’d set up his practice on the ground floor more than thirty years ago and renovated the upstairs to his taste. During college this was where Rowan had come each week for her session with him. Though she hadn’t been his official patient for more than a decade, they were friends. Good friends.
Julian’s home had been and still was like a second home to her.
“I’ll just be a minute.”
Jones nodded. “I’ll check in with Kendrick, see if he’s heard from his wife. That daughter of his should have had her baby by now. We need a damned break.”
“A break would be a nice change of pace.”
The detective’s cell phone rang as Rowan emerged from the car. Maybe that was Kendrick or, better yet, one of the other detectives in SCU with a lead that would help them find this killer before he took another victim. All they needed was one significant clue…just one thing, dammit!
Fury swirled through Rowan. If the unsub wanted her, why didn’t he come after her in the first place? As if she didn’t know the answer.
Games. Sick, disgusting games.
Frustration dogging her every step, she made her way to the front entrance and reached for the door. It was locked.
Frowning, she checked the time on her cell. Maybe Julian had taken a late lunch. No problem. She’d go on in and leave him a note. She walked across the postage stamp sized front lawn and went around to the back of the house. Under his favorite wrought iron chair he kept one of those small metal key boxes folks often tucked into a wheel well on their vehicle. She crouched down and felt around under the chair. No key box. A frown pulling at her forehead, she moved the cushions to make sure he hadn’t relocated it on the chair. Then she checked the other three chairs that sat around the table. No key box. A quick look under the smoker’s station—something he provided for his patients who smoked—and no luck. She searched the patio until there was no place left to examine.
Maybe he’d decided the key box was too much of a risk. The only thing the key had unlocked was the front entrance and this door from the back patio that led into the lobby. His office door and the door to the stairs that led into his private residence had separate locks—the kind with codes for locking and unlocking. It was possible there had been an incident he hadn’t told her about and he’d felt it necessary to remove the emergency key.
She pulled out her phone and called him. The call went directly to voicemail. Now she was fairly convinced there had been an emergency with a patient. “Hey, Julian. I hope you’re okay. I stopped by but you’re not home. Call me. I need to know you’re okay.” She drew in a sharp breath. “The bastard left another victim.”
She ended the call and tucked her phone away. Another victim…another woman dead because of her.
Squaring her shoulders in spite of the worry and guilt crashing down on her, she walked back around front to find Jones rushing up the sidewalk. Rowan’s heart started to pound. Surely there wasn’t another missing woman this early. Was it possible their killer had finally made a mistake and some useful piece of evidence had been found?
It would never be that easy.
“Kendrick’s daughter had her baby. I spoke to the wife. She gave us a name. Greg Ames.” The detective’s lips quivered into a smile. “This could be the break we’ve been looking for.”
Rowan hurried to keep up with her as they moved back toward the car. “Do we have an address?”
“Got it. He worked at the funeral home the Kendricks bought until the previous owner died.” Before climbing into the car she jerked her head to her right. “Got that security detail in place.”
Rowan spotted the Metro PD cruiser. “Good.”
When Jones had settled behind the wheel and Rowan had pulled on her seatbelt in the passenger seat, she asked, “Did Mrs. Kendrick remember anything else about him?”
Jones hesitated a moment before easing away from the curb. “Only that he left under a cloud of suspicion that he’d been messing around with some of the…ah…bodies.”
“Jesus. No charges were filed?”
Jones shook her head as she moved into the flow of traffic. “The previous owner’s wife couldn’t make the charges stick. It was her word against his and her husband was dead—heart attack—so he couldn’t back her up.”
Rowan took a breath. “I almost hate to ask this question, but did he have a specific type?”
Jones glanced at her, a cold certainty in her eyes. “Blonds. He liked blonds.”
Hydes Ferry Road, 1:35 p.m.
The small bungalow left a lot to be desired in terms of curb appeal. The roof had been patched multiple times, always with shingles that didn’t quite match the existing ones. The siding was in desperate need of a fresh coat of paint. Shrubs were overgrown, the grass hadn’t been cut in weeks and a pile of newspapers rotted on the sidewalk near the front steps.
A decade old sedan sat in the driveway. Jones ran the plate to confirm the vehicle belonged to Greg Ames. The Kendricks had bought the funeral home a year ago. Ames could have moved or died since then.
“The car is his.” She turned her cell screen toward Rowan, displaying the DMV photo of Ames.
Rowan’s tension shifted to the next level. He was a perfect match to the sketch artist’s rendering of the man who had visited her father. “If we’re lucky, he isn’t aware we’ve gotten so close.”
“If we’re lucky,” Jones echoed.
Rowan shifted her attention back to the house. “Blinds are closed tight. It’s possible he’s holed up in there, maybe taking a nap after his latest kill.”
Some killers stayed high on the act for hours or days after a fresh kill. Others crawled into their safe place and crashed. On the other hand, if Ames was their unsub, it was possible he’d merely gotten up and gone to work this morning as if it were any other day. So far they hadn’t located a new employer. Tracking down what he’d been up to for the past year would take time.
“I’m thinking the same thing,” Jones agreed. “Let’s knock on the door and see if he’s interested in playing nice.”
On the drive over Rowan had contemplated the potential motives for the unsub’s actions. Without any additional details she could only conclude that he’d grown obsessed with her somehow—perhaps through the book—and that had led him to go to such extreme measures to draw her attention.
Still, the fact that he’d made no move to contact her directly niggled at her. She should have at least received an anonymous letter or a phone call. Something to indicate he was building toward this level of violence. Slipping over that edge was rarely done without some impetus. He would want a reaction—some sort of feedback to fuel his ego.
Beyond the occasional impulse kill, murder rarely happened without a motive and some amount of planning—even if it was only the decision to pull the proverbial trigger. The unsub who had abducted and murdered three victims so meticulously so as not to leave a single shred of evidence had planned his work down to the last detail had a complex motive driving him.
Jones called in their location and requested back up as they exited the vehicle. Rowan glanced around the yard as they climbed the steps to the porch. The killer had been exacting in his work. Precise. Careful. Nothing on the surface of Greg Ames’ existence could be defined by any of those terms.
Jones banged on the door with the side of her fist. The silence beyond the front door had Rowan’s heart sinking. No one was home. It was too quiet.
“Mr. Ames.” Jones pounded again. “This is Metro PD. We need to speak with you, sir. It’s urgent.”
Still not a sound inside.
Rowan’s hopes deflated completely. “If he’s in there, he’s not coming to the door.”
Jones reached for the knob, her gaze latching onto Rowan’s. “Does this door look ajar to you?”
The door was unlocked and sure enough when she turned the knob it opened a fraction. “It does. Very strange that he would leave it open like this.”
“Wait.” Jones frowned. “Did you hear something?”
Rowan narrowed her gaze. “I think I did. Someone calling for help, maybe.”
Jones readied her weapon and gave a nod. “I’m going in, Doc. Step back and wait for backup. They’re right behind us.”
Rowan backed up, braced against the wall to the right of the door while Jones called out to Ames and cautiously entered his residence.
With three women murdered so close together, it stood to reason that he could have another one in there…ifhe was their guy. However, without exigent circumstances what they were doing was illegal—if anyone found out.
As Jones moved deeper into the house, calling out to Ames with each step, Rowan ventured across the threshold, careful to maintain a proper distance.
The interior of the house needed as much TLC as the exterior. Big box television, well-worn sofa, and a coffee table. Typical single male furnishings but completely lacking in the obsessive details associated with their unsub’s work. A small table with only one chair was tucked into the space that ninety-degreed from the living room into the kitchen. Cabinets were mostly bare. Fridge was stocked with beer and bologna and little else.
Rowan moved back through the main living area and into the hall that led to the bedrooms and bathroom. Jones stood in the hall, staring into the open door on the left. Judging by the look on her face what she’d found was not what they had hoped for.
As Rowan approached Jones called in the address and the code for a body. Holy hell. They were too late.
Jones stepped aside for Rowan to see into what turned out to be the bathroom where a nude male—presumably Greg Ames—lay in the claw foot tub, his right arm dangling from the side of the tub. Blood pooled on the dingy white tile floor. A message had been left in blood on the white tiled wall that surrounded the tub: This is the way you should have done it in the first place.
Her heart pounding, Rowan tugged gloves and shoe covers from her bag and slipped them on. The painted parts of the walls in the room were a grimy white, the same as the tile. A single window with a yellowed shade overlooked the tub from the wall behind it. A pedestal sink was cluttered with deodorant, a razor, toothpaste and brush. The toilet lid was closed as if he’d intended to lay a towel there but had forgotten or changed his mind. Or perhaps he’d sat down for a moment before climbing into the tub.
His left arm lay in the crimson-tinged water next to him. His knees were bent since the tub was only about four and a half feet long and he was at least six feet. His head lay back on the porcelain rim. Skin was ashen. Mouth and eyes open. Based on his DMV photo, it was definitely Greg Ames. And the same man who had visited her father.
Considering the coagulation of the blood on the floor and the state of lividity, Ames had been dead more than twelve hours, perhaps as much as twenty-four. Taking care not to step in the blood, Rowan went down on hands and knees to look under the tub. Right away she spotted what she was looking for: the straight razor he’d apparently used to end his life. Blood smeared the stainless steel blade and handle.
Then she shifted into a crouching position and studied the injury to his right arm. A horizontal slash had been made across the wrist, but the one that likely helped him to bleed out sufficiently for his heart to stop beating was the vertical slash that cut even deeper into his flesh. The right arm had without question suffered serious damage to important anatomical structures. With an injury that deep, there was scarcely any doubt. Rowan tried to visually evaluate as much of the other wrist as possible but the blood-tinged water prevented her from seeing well enough to determine if both slashes were present on that one as well.
She stared at the cross Ames had made with the two intersecting slashes and a memory rammed hard into her brain.
During college, before she’d gone for the handful of sleeping pills, she’d considered doing exactly this. Except she knew that once she slashed one wrist this way, the ability to slash the other would be taken from her. The damage to nerves and tendons often left the hand nonfunctional. Without help, it was nearly impossible to do the job right. If the injuries to his left arm were equally severe, she doubted he had done this alone.
Was it conceivable there was a second killer? A partner?
There were cases, of course, where two or more killers worked together, but this didn’t feel like that kind of kill.
She reread the message. Beyond the puddle of blood that had dripped from his right arm the floor was clean of blood, suggesting Ames hadn’t written those words himself. He would surely have left blood drops and smears everywhere while attempting to write the words.
“Crime scene folks and the ME are en route,” Jones said.
Rowan blinked. She pushed to her feet and faced the detective. “Where are his clothes?”
Jones glanced around the room, her eyebrows arched upward. “Good question.”
They moved from room to room, picked through the dead man’s meager belongings but they didn’t find any discarded clothes, not even a laundry hamper with whatever clothes he’d worn since the last time he did laundry. There was no washer and dryer in the house and none of the clothes in the closet or bureau appeared to have been worn. Jones even checked his car.
More importantly, they didn’t find anything related to the other three victims. In fact, what they found was evidence of a lonely, unhappy life lived by a man still drawing unemployment and using a government food card. There were no photos of family or friends, and no cell phone.
“Whoever helped him do this and left that message took his phone in addition to his clothes,” Rowan announced as official vehicles piled up in front of the house.
Jones waved a card—a gift card or credit card—she’d found in the bedside table. “He would have used this on one of those pay as you go phones. I’m calling the carrier now.”
During the next hour and a half the evidence techs searched the house, tore apart the sofa and anything else that might conceal evidence.
“Got an appointment card,” one of the techs announced.
He passed it to Jones who sent Rowan a surprised look. “Apparently Ames was a patient of your friend Addington.”
Rowan moved to the detective’s side and had a look at the card. There had been an appointment with Julian yesterday.
“You think there’s any chance you can get your friend to talk?”
“Probably not without a warrant.”
“The guy is dead,” Jones reminded her.
Though that was of little consequence, Rowan said, “I’ll see what I can do.”
Jones tucked the card into an evidence bag. “I’ll go with you.”
Rowan waved her hands in protest. “I should do this alone. If he’s willing to talk, he’s more likely to talk to me alone.”
Jones tossed her fob to Rowan. “Take my car. I’ll catch a ride with one of these guys. I want that security detail watching Addington’s office following you.”
Rowan started to argue but she wasn’t a fool. She put in a call to Julian and this time he answered. He wasn’t home. He’d decided to spend the weekend at his lake house and urged her to join him. Since Hendersonville was only a half hour away, she agreed. Her father was safe. Ames was the only lead they had in the case, anything Julian was willing to share could prove useful.
She had nothing to lose.
Rowan gave Jones the address and promised, “I’ll let you know what I find out.”
She called her father as she pulled away from the crime scene. Maybe it was foolish but she just needed to hear his voice and to let him know she would be home in time for dinner…hopefully.
Rhoades Lane, Hendersonville, 4:35 p.m.
The chalet sat on the very edge of the lake in a private wooded setting that was breathtaking any time of year. Rowan had been here a few times over the years. Julian often held small, intimate parties at his lake house. Everyone loved the place. On first look the rustic logs and aged rock of the façade suggested old and rugged but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. The home had towering windows overlooking the water and every imaginable amenity. The distance from the city—from civilization in general—assured peace and quiet.
Rowan parked in the drive, immediately noting the security detail parking on the street a dozen or so yards away. She waved to him as she walked toward the house. When she left she intended to instruct him to stay behind. If Jones was intent on assigning Rowan a personal security detail she would need to call in someone else.
Julian met her at the door and gave her a hug. That was the moment when she realized how very tired she was. This week had been far too long.
“I’m so glad you came.” He closed the door behind her. “Did your father return to Winchester?”
“No, he’s still at the office.”
She left her bag and her shoes at the bench near the front door. Julian firmly believed that one brought into their home whatever they’d encountered each day, physically and spiritually speaking. Rowan had no desire to bring the bad vibes from a crime scene into her friend’s home.
A frown marred Julian’s smooth brow. “Oh. I thought perhaps he’d gone home since you found time to visit me.”
“I can only stay a little while.” Rowan made a face. “I’m sorry. This has been a really tough week.”
“You need a drink.”
She started to decline but decided one couldn’t hurt. “That would be lovely.”
Rather than follow him to the bar, she wandered to the wall of windows that overlooked the lake and the setting sun. It was so peaceful here. Everyone should have an escape like this.
“Any news on the case?” He brought the gin and tonic to her. She hadn’t realized what a refreshing drink it was until Julian introduced her.
She savored a long swallow, hoping to make the answer she had no choice but to give a bit more palatable. “Not really.”
“I saw your face and name splashed all over the news.”
She sighed. “I suppose they’ll torture me that way until this case is closed.”
“You’re a strong woman.” He smiled and tapped his glass to hers. “You can handle it.”
“I like to think so.” She might as well get this part out of the way first. Julian did not tolerate secrets well. “I forgot to mention that I was worried about you so I asked Lieutenant Jones to assign a security detail to keep an eye on you. I hope that was okay.”
He smiled, the expression as caring as that of any father. “It warms my heart that you worry about me. Though I have to say, I haven’t noticed one.”
“He was waiting at your office.” She shook her head. “I didn’t know where you were until I called again a few minutes ago.” It hadn’t occurred to her until just then that Julian hadn’t returned her call from earlier. She shook it off. Perhaps he hadn’t gotten around to checking his voicemail.
Another substantial swallow of her drink and she dared to broach the actual subject that brought her here. “What can you tell me about Greg Ames?”
The whole drive over she kept thinking of the way the man’s arms had been mutilated—in that cross-like pattern. As a college freshman determined to end her misery, she remembered thinking that if she had done it right the second time, she would have been left with a cross on each wrist. Not that it would have mattered since she would have been dead. Rather than take the chance of not being able to finish the job she had opted to swallow the sleeping pills. It was far more painless and didn’t require anyone’s assistance. Certainly didn’t leave such a mess.
Still, the message on the wall at the Ames crime scene could have been written for her.
This is the way you should have done it in the first place.
She had not mentioned anything about considering that route for her departure from this life in the book. It was one of the few things, despite her editor’s urging, she had decided was too personal. She supposed the message could be coincidence, but so much of these four murders appeared related to her past—to the damned book—she doubted that was the case.
“He’s a patient,” Julian said slowly, “which, as you know, limits what I can tell you.”
His words brought Rowan back to the here and now. “True, but at this point you can choose to disclose under exceptional circumstances. Your patient is dead and he may hold the key to answers related to three murders. Frankly, there’s a possibility his own death was a homicide.”
They hadn’t found a single piece of evidence at the Ames home linking him to the three murders or anything concrete to suggest he hadn’t committed suicide. Except the idea that it was highly improbable that he’d written that message and then cleaned up the mess or that he’d disposed of his clothes while bleeding to death. Ultimately, he could be just another lead that turned out to be a dead end—no pun intended…except he didn’t feel like a dead end. The message felt like an even more solid link…to her. Something he shared with Julian could seem completely unrelated but might ultimately break the case.
“He was a very confused and depressed man. It’s a shame he had to die.”
Rowan gave herself a mental shake and shifted her attention back to the conversation. “I’m sorry.” She turned to Julian, had trouble bringing his face into focus. She really was far more exhausted than she realized. This case was taking a heavy toll. No—her responsibility in these murders was taking the toll. “What did you say?”
“I put him out of his misery late yesterday. In any event, he was no longer needed. He wanted to die, he’d told me so on numerous occasions. I simply helped him do what he had wanted to do for years. Since you’ve obviously been in his home, I’m sure you saw what a pathetic life he lived. The most important task he ever performed was a simple job for me.”
The glass fell from Rowan’s hand. She blinked, comprehension dawning in her fuzzy brain. Oh God. He’d drugged her.
Part of her wanted to deny the assertion. Wanted to chalk this entire encounter up to total exhaustion, a mental breakdown with hallucinations. But she was here—in Julian’s home—looking at him, listening to his voice.
This was real and it was happening now.
Stay calm, she told herself. Ask the expected questions. “I must have missed something. Why would you kill him?”
“Because he had served his purpose just as the others had.”
“Wait.” She pressed her hand against the glass wall in front of her to steady herself. This couldn’t be right. None of it made sense. “What do you mean the others?”
“Dharma, Sandy, and Karen, of course. Who else would I mean?”
Her knees gave out but he grabbed her before she hit the floor. Her arms wouldn’t work…she couldn’t fight him. He carried her to the sofa and placed her helpless body there.
“Greg played an award winning role when he visited your father. Just as the others did in foreshadowing what was coming for you, Rowan.”
“I…don’t…understand.” She couldn’t make her mouth work right anymore. She needed to get up. To fight.
“Now, we have to finish this. It’s time.”
“Julian…what’re you…doing?” Her eyelids kept drifting closed. She could not go to sleep. Had to stay awake! Her heart pounded, adrenaline rushed through her veins…but it would never be enough to help her resist the effects of the drug.
“You chose Edward over me. Dedicated your book to him. Dared to tell me you regretted not having gone home to take over the family business like he’d wanted. All these years, all my work.” He shook his head, fury radiating in every word. “You threw usaway. You have always cared more for him. That’s clear.”
“He’s…he’s…my father.” The words came out slurred but he understood. She saw the understanding in his eyes. “You and I…we’re…just friends.”
“Oh, Rowan, we are so much more than friends.” He exhaled a big breath. “But you destroyed that. Now, when I’m done, you will finish what you started all those years ago. After all, no one knows you better than me. I’ve always been able to anticipate your every move just as I knew you would come to me when you found Ames.”
He sat down on the edge of the sofa, swept the hair from her eyes. “I know you, Rowan. I know you better than you know yourself. You couldn’t please your mother so she left you. You couldn’t please your father, you let him down. Those other women are weighing heavy on your conscience. I assure you, when I’m done, you will want to end the agony of living with all that guilt.”
His words so closely mirrored her feelings…so many times she had felt exactly that way. Sadly, all that he said was true.
But she did not want to die. She wanted to be there for her father. She’d only just recently begun to see that what she really wanted was to give him what he’d always wished for.
“No.” The word warbled but came out strong. “This time…you’re wrong about me, Julian.”
Her eyes closed again, taking the image of his face with her into the darkness.
“You’ll see. Goodbye, Rowan.”
Wake up, Rowan!
She was still asleep. Or maybe she was dead. Her mother stood in front of her. She still looked thirty-six. And why wouldn’t she? That was her age when she died.
You left me.
Rowan didn’t say the words, she thought them. How could she speak? She was unconscious or dead.
Her mother smiled. Her blond hair, her blue eyes looked so alive, so real. How could a dream be so vivid? Maybe Rowan was dead.
I couldn’t stay…
Her mother faded away, leaving Rowan standing on the second story landing of her childhood home, right next to the banister her mother had used to hang herself. Maybe Rowan was dead and this was hell.
Except she didn’t believe in hell any more than she believed in angels.
I’ll never understand. Rowan looked around. She was alone. Where was her father?
“She’s waking up!”
“Rowan! Dr. DuPont, can you open your eyes?”
Rowan tried to open her eyes. She could hear the voice—Lieutenant April Jones. Why was she in Rowan’s dream?
“Open your eyes, Dr. DuPont!”
Rowan didn’t recognize the male voice, but her body instinctively reacted to the command. Her eyes fluttered open.
Faces came into focus. One was a man, young, brown hair cut short, dark watchful eyes, she didn’t recognize him but the uniform was familiar. Paramedic. So maybe she was alive.
Jones smiled down at her. “You gave me a hell of a scare, Doc.”
Rowan struggled to sit up. Her body still wasn’t responding properly. Her muscles felt too lax, as if they no longer belonged to her.
“Your vitals are stable, Dr. DuPont,” the paramedic explained. “It’ll take some time for the drug he gave you to wear off so let’s take it easy for a bit.”
“Where is he? Dr. Addington! Where is he?” And why was she still alive?
“We’re not sure,” Jones confessed. “We’re just damned glad he didn’t—”
Shouting jerked the lieutenant’s attention from Rowan. “Hold on.”
She didn’t have to finish her statement for Rowan to know what she’d meant. Julian hadn’t given her a lethal dose of the drug. The real question was why? Why hadn’t he killed her as he had the others?
Jones disappeared and the sound of running footsteps filled the room.
“What’s happening?” Rowan demanded of the young man still watching her closely as if he feared she would slip back into that unconscious state from which he’d chemically hauled her.
The paramedic shrugged.
Was Julian still here? Had he been hiding?
“Help me up,” Rowan ordered.
“Sorry, ma’am, it’s better if you take it easy for a few more minutes.”
Rowan hoped the glare she arrowed at him was fierce enough. “Help me up and take me to wherever Lieutenant Jones went or I will let your superior know how you refused to follow my directive.”
He weighed the words for a moment, the concept that she was a doctor likely proving the deciding factor. “Have it your way, then.”
He helped her to her feet, supported most of her weight. Her legs were rubbery but she managed to move along beside him. The progress up the stairs was frustratingly slow. Halfway up, he stopped, picked her up and bounded up the rest of the way.
When she was on her feet once more, she nodded. “Thank you.”
He grunted something that sounded vaguely like ‘yeah’ and ushered her toward a door at the end of the hall. Rowan still didn’t quite trust her bearings but if she recalled correctly the other end of this corridor was the guest wing of the upstairs. Three bedrooms, each with its own bath. The end that appeared to be there destination was the owner’s suite. They entered the double doors that led into a large sitting area with a small bar and an incredible view of the lake. Another set of double doors led into Julian’s bedroom. It was decorated as exquisitely as she would have expected. Yet another set of doors opened to the en suite. The far wall was glass and offered another spectacular view of the lake and the forest that surrounded it.
The paramedic steered her toward the low murmur of voices. They walked through a single door and into a massive closet. Elegant suit jackets and matching trousers hung in strict rows. Ties were flawlessly folded and showcased by color behind glass doors. Shoes polished to a high sheen were displayed along the lower shelves of the generous closet. The room smelled of silk and cashmere, the finest wools and Julian.
At the far end of the extravagant space was what appeared to be a vault door but it stood partially open.
Rowan moved forward when her escort had stopped. “I can make it from here.”
He nodded. “I’ll be in the bedroom if you need me.”
The paramedic understood that whatever was beyond that odd door, he didn’t need to see it unless told otherwise.
Rowan moved slowly, hanging on to the edge of a shelf. When she paused in the opening, she spotted Jones, Wells and a forensic tech standing in the middle of the large room. Like a vault, the space was climate controlled and all walls, ceiling and floor were lined with a dark material—rubber maybe—that served as a noise reducer or perhaps additional insulation. White shelves wrapped around the walls. She counted three small safes, doors closed which meant they needed to find the combinations or the keys.
Each shelf was filled with glass or plastic cubes, organized by size and shape. Some cubes contained what appeared to be pieces of female lingerie. Some had jewelry or a playing card from a card game deck or a lock of what appeared to be hair. Others contained drivers’ licenses.
“What is this?” The question came from Rowan. All in the room turned to look at her except Wells.
Wells frowned at the screen of his cell phone before meeting her gaze. “I don’t know about the rest of this stuff, but at least two of the drivers’ licenses belong to homicide victims.”
“Jesus Christ.” Jones surveyed the hundreds of carefully curated items. “Doc, I think your friend is a serial killer.”
Unable to properly process the comment, Rowan asked, “Where is he?”
Jones shook her head. “We don’t know. He was gone when we got here. He took the car I lent you.” She looked away a moment. “He left Jackson, the security detail assigned to him, for dead. We got here in a nick of time. He’s in surgery in critical condition, but he has a chance.”
Rowan braced herself against the doorframe, any strength she had regained draining out of her. “He killed Ames and the others. To get back at me for…”
Her voice faded as another wave of weakness overwhelmed her.
“Let’s get you into a chair, Doc.” Jones pulled Rowan against her and ushered her back into Julian’s bedroom and into a chair. The detective settled into the chair on the opposite side of the small side table. A nod to the paramedic whose name Rowan still didn’t know sent him out of the room.
“We’ve issued a BOLO for Addington and the car he’s driving, though he’s probably abandoned it by this point. We’ve got people looking for him at the airport, train and bus stations. Everywhere. He’s not going to get away,” Jones promised.
Rowan shook her head. The urge to vomit hovered at the back of her throat. “I can’t believe I didn’t see any of this.”
“Let’s not worry about that right now,” Jones urged. “I’ll have plenty of questions for you when you feel up to it.”
“I’m fine.” Fury erupted inside Rowan. “Ask me whatever you like. I want him caught as badly as you do. Maybe more,” she confessed.
Jones reached for the cell phone on her belt. “Hold on a minute.”
Rowan hadn’t heard the phone ring. Most likely Jones had silenced it when they approached the house. Standard operating procedure.
Rowan wished she had a bottle of water. Her mouth was so dry. She should call her father. He was still at headquarters and probably wondering when she was coming back. She didn’t even know what time it was. He would not be happy about her close encounter with…Dear God, if Julian had killed all those people…
Rowan shifted her gaze to Jones. She hadn’t realized the call had ended. She was still too groggy. “Sorry, I was just thinking that I needed to get back to headquarters.”
“That was Detective Keaton. The car Addington was driving has been found.”
“Julian?” Her heart started that frantic pounding again and suddenly her head was doing the same. She needed water. And, unfortunately, time.
Jones shook her head. “Addington is gone, but…”
Her hesitation had a new kind of dread expanding inside Rowan. “What?”
The older woman moistened her lips and took a big breath. “They located the car at your home, Doc. Addington drove it there and then used your cell phone to text Vasquez.”
Officer Vasquez was the uniform assigned to her father today. A thick, blackness wound around Rowan, tightening like a vice, threatening to drag her back into the darkness of unconsciousness.
She would not hear this. Would not listen. She shook her head. “No.”
“Vasquez believed it was you telling him that you were home so he drove there as per the message. When he arrived he saw the official vehicle—the one you and I often use—so he accompanied your father into your home. Addington was already there.”
“No. No. No.” Rowan surged to her feet. The room tilted.
Jones stood, pulled her against her chest, held her tight. “Vasquez and your father are dead. I am so very sorry, honey.”
Rowan tried to scream but she was too weak. Tears streamed from her eyes. She would have collapsed into a heap but Jones held her closer, tighter and murmured softly to her.
Julian’s words reverberated in Rowan’s head.
…when I’m done, you will want to end the agony…
Tuesday, March 19, 5:30 p.m.
Lieutenant Jones and the rest from SCU had come to her father’s funeral. Rowan appreciated the gesture. Jones had actually arrived before the funeral and insisted on taking Rowan to lunch where she proceeded to try and talk her into changing her mind about the decision she’d made.
Rowan couldn’t do that. Her decision was the right one.
Julian Addington had seemingly fallen off the face of the earth. Of course he had the resources to disappear. Rowan imagined he had overseas bank accounts and perhaps a home in some country that didn’t share an extradition treaty with the United States. She doubted he would ever be found.
Her entire adult life she had prided herself on reading people, alive or dead, and forming a reasonably accurate assessment of who they were and how they fit into this world. But Julian had completely fooled her. She had no idea why he had bothered to go to such trouble for her.
Oh, Rowan, we are so much more than friends.
He’d said those words to her and she still had no idea what he’d meant. They’d never shared anything beyond a doctor-patient relationship that years later had developed into a friendship. Absolutely nothing more. Like many things about him, that, too, would likely remain a mystery.
So far Metro with the aid of the FBI had a preliminary estimate of more than a hundred victims to Julian Addington’s credit. Not only had he kept souvenirs of all his kills, he kept an appointment book—the victims’ pertinent personal information and the final disposition were included on the date he carried out the kill. The case had thrown the FBI for a loop. Addington was different from any serial killer they’d encountered. He chose an MO and killed a series of victims, whether two or three or ten or twelve. Then, he changed his MO completely. It was as if he changed his preferred victim and mode of operation often so as not to become bored. Or perhaps because he became someone else—a different personality who killed for a different reason. He had killed all over the country.
Addington would change the way the world looked at serial killers.
Special Agent Lancaster from Quantico’s Behavioral Analysis Unit had refused to believe that she had been so completely fooled. Her education and training should have allowed her to see what Julian Addington was…but she had not. Her colleagues at Metro had stood behind her, but the investigation was far from over. Rowan suspected she would remain a person of interest until the bitter end.
She bent down and took one of the beautiful white roses from the blanket on her father’s grave. She would press this one into the family Bible. There was a pressed rose from Raven’s funeral as well as her mother’s already there.
Rowan was the only one left.
…when I’m done, you will want to end the agony…
No. Rowan’s lips tightened. She would not give that bastard the pleasure of accomplishing his ultimate goal. He had murdered at least four people to get her attention, to make her feel the guilt and then he’d killed her father and the man protecting him to tip her over the edge. She would not give Julian Addington what he wanted.
If he wanted to see her give up he would have to come back here and do the job himself.
“It’ll be dark soon.”
Rowan turned at the sound of Billy’s voice. She managed a weak smile. As the crowd had drifted away from the cemetery, she had returned to her father’s grave. “I forgot to take one of the roses for the family bible.” She showed him the rose in her hand.
He nodded. “Why don’t you let me take you to my place, Ro? You don’t have to go back to the funeral home and go through all that. Herman has everything under control.”
He was right. It was almost dark. Everyone who had come to the graveside service was gone now, headed back to the funeral home for the gathering in her father’s honor. The cemetery was deserted. She’d told Woody to drive the hearse back to the funeral home. She’d ridden to the cemetery in the hearse with her father. Her heart sank all over again. He was gone. Dead and buried.
Two days ago when she’d arrived in Winchester and told her father’s assistant director that she would be taking care of the preparation of his body personally, Woody had not been happy, but it was the DuPont way. Woody didn’t know or understand. Herman had come to the funeral home and insisted on helping. Rowan hadn’t argued. She had let him. He and her father had been best friends their whole lives. It was only right that he be a part of her father’s final moments before being interred.
Hundreds of people had come to her father’s funeral and then many more had filled the cemetery. He had been a beloved fixture in the community all of his adult life, just like his father, grandfather and great-grandfather before him. Though her heart remained heavy, her chest had filled with pride as the crowd gathered to show their respects.
Once the flowers were all arranged around the grave and there was nothing left to do, Rowan had thought everyone was gone but she should have known better. Billy wouldn’t have left without her. She wasn’t sure how long he had watched and waited for her to feel ready to go.
“I should be there.” She could walk, the funeral home wasn’t far, but it was cold. She’d only just become aware of how cold.
She looked from her parents’ wide granite headstone to her sister’s smaller one. A gulf of emptiness widened inside her. She pushed it away. She had Billy and Herman. Billy offered his arm and she wrapped hers around his, so grateful for his steady presence.
“I could take you to my place, let you relax while I go to the funeral home and help Herman,” he offered as they walked through the maze of headstones with the shadows of night descending rapidly.
“Thank you, but you know I have to do this.”
He sighed. “I know.” He opened the passenger door of his truck and held her hand while she settled into the seat.
A gathering with family was expected after a loved one’s passing. Her father would have been the first to suggest good food and companionship after his funeral. Though, like her, he had never been a socialite generally speaking, he believed in going the distance for the passing of a loved one. He had loved his work and he had done it well.
Silence enveloped Rowan and Billy as they drove through the small town that had changed little since she was a child. She was home. Somehow no matter how long she had lived in Nashville, thiswas still home.
Rowan’s lips lifted slightly when Billy parked in front of the funeral home. She could see Freud waiting beyond the beveled glass of the front entrance, tail wagging. No matter that there were likely dozens of people milling about inside the lobby, he watched for her arrival. She still had Freud, too. They would get through this together. Whatever Julian’s—the bastard’s—reason for sending Freud into the backyard rather than killing him, too, Rowan was grateful.
“What happens now, Ro?”
She turned to the man behind the wheel, the dim glow from the dash highlighting his worried face. For a few seconds she couldn’t think how to answer the question.
“Are you heading back to Nashville?” he asked when she didn’t answer his first question.
“No.” Deep breath. Besides April Jones, she had not shared her plans with anyone. It was time to do that now. “I’m staying.”
He nodded slowly. “Sorry. I didn’t think of that. You have to take care of your father’s estate. I guess you’ll be selling the funeral home.”
She shook her head. “No. I’m staying, Billy. I’m taking over the business the way Daddy wanted.”
“Ro.” He reached out, took her hand in his. “Your daddy understood you didn’t want that life. He wouldn’t want you to stay now out of any misplaced guilt or sense of obligation. All he ever wanted was for you to be happy—wherever that might be.”
She nodded. “I know, but this is what I want. It’s what I was born to do.”
A grin spread across his lips. “Well, in that case, let me be the first to officially welcome you home.” He reached across the console and gave her a hug. “I’m glad you’re back, Ro.”
“Thank you.” She smiled, the first in many days. “I’m counting on you and Herman to bring me up to speed on all I’ve missed.”
Billy gave her a nod. “I’ll do my best.”
She knew he would. Billy was a good man and so was Herman. She was in great hands.
Billy was at her door by the time she unfastened her seatbelt. They strolled up the walk to the front entrance of the DuPont Funeral Home and Rowan felt genuinely at peace with her decision.
She looked up at the old Victorian mansion backdropped by the full moon. She was home and this time she intended to stay.
As the undertaker’s daughter this was her destiny.
Read on for a sneak peek at the first novel in the Undertaker’s Daughter series coming in May 2019!
The Secrets We Bury
The Undertaker’s Daughter Series
Beloved Wife and Mother
June 2, 1946 – May 5, 2019
Geneva Phillips was born in Winchester, Tennessee, on June 2, 1946. She was a loving wife and mother, a consummate homemaker and a treasured member of the Ladies Civic Club as well as a talented musician and a member of the choir at the Second Avenue Methodist Church. She died at home on Sunday, May 5, 2019. Geneva was predeceased by her beloved husband, Howard, and her only sibling, a brother, Gerald. She is survived by two daughters, Patricia Patterson of Winchester and Jennifer Brinkley of Louisville, Kentucky, and three grandchildren.
The family will receive friends on Tuesday, May 8, 5:00 to 7:00 p.m. at the DuPont Funeral Home.
Monday, May 6, 7:15 a.m.
Mothers shouldn’t die this close to Mother’s Day.
Especially mothers whose daughters, despite being grown and having families of their own, still considered Mom to be their best friend. Rowan DuPont had spent the better part of last night consoling the daughters of Geneva Phillips. Geneva had failed to show at church on Sunday morning, and later that same afternoon she wasn’t answering her cell. Her younger daughter entered the home to check on her mother and found Geneva deceased in the bathtub.
Now the seventy-two-year-old woman’s body waited in refrigeration for Rowan to begin the preparations for her final journey. The viewing wasn’t until tomorrow evening so there was no particular rush. The husband of one of the daughters was away on business in London and wouldn’t arrive back home until late today. There was time for a short break, which turned into a morning drive that had taken Rowan across town and to a place she hadn’t visited in better than two decades.
Like death, some things were inevitable. Coming back to this place was one of those things. Perhaps it was the hours spent with the sisters last night that had prompted memories of Rowan’s own sister. She and her twin had once been inseparable. Wasn’t that generally the way with identical twins?
The breeze shifted, lifting a wisp of hair across her face. Rowan swiped it away and stared out over Tims Ford Lake. The dark, murky waters spread like sprawling arms some thirty-odd miles upstream from the nearby dam, enveloping the treacherous Elk River in its embrace. The water was deep and unforgiving. Even standing on the bank, at least ten feet from the edge, a chill crept up Rowan’s spine. She hated this place. Hated the water. The ripples that broke the shadowy surface…the smell of fish and rotting plant life. She hated every little thing about it.
This was the spot where her sister’s body had been found.
July 6, twenty-seven years ago. Rowan and Raven had turned twelve years old that spring. Rowan’s gaze lingered on the decaying tree trunk and the cluster of newer branches and overgrowth stretching from the bank into the hungry water where her sister’s lifeless body had snagged. The current had dragged her pale, thin body a good distance before depositing her at this spot. It had taken eight hours and twenty-three minutes for the search teams to find her.
Rowan had known her sister was dead before the call had come that Raven had gone missing. Her parents had rushed to help with the search, leaving a neighbor with Rowan. She had stood at her bedroom window watching for their return. The house had felt completely empty and Rowan had understood that her life would never be the same after that day.
No matter that nearly three decades has passed since that sultry summer day she could still recall the horrifying feel of the final tug, and then the ominous release of her sister’s physical presence.
She shifted her gaze from the water to the sky. Last night the temperature had taken an unseasonable plunge. Blackberry winter the locals called it. Whether it held some glimmer of basis in botany or was merely rooted in folklore, blackberry bushes all over the county were in full bloom. Rowan pulled her sweater tight around her. Though today was the first time she had come to this place since returning home from Nashville, the dark water was never far from her thoughts. How could it be? The lake swelled and withdrew around Winchester like the rhythmic breath of a sleeping giant, at once harmless and menacing.
Rowan had sneaked away to this spot dozens of times after her sister was buried. Other times she had ridden her bike to the cemetery and visited her there or simply sat in Raven’s room and stared at the bed where she had once laid her head. But Rowan felt closest to her sister here, near the water that had snatched her life away like the merciless talons of a hawk descending on a fleeing field mouse.
“You should have stayed home,” Rowan murmured to herself. The ache, no matter the many years that had passed, twisted in her chest.
She had begged Raven not to go to the party. Her sister had been convinced that Rowan’s behavior was nothing more than jealousy since she hadn’t been invited. The suggestion hadn’t been entirely unjustified, but mostly Rowan had felt a suffocating dread, a panic that had bordered on hysteria. She had needed her sister to stay home. Every adolescent instinct she possessed had been screaming and restless with that looming sense of trepidation.
But Raven had ignored her sister’s pleas and attended the big barbecue and swim party with her best friend, Tessa Cardwell. Raven DuPont died that day, and Rowan had spent all the years since wondering what she could have done differently to change that outcome.
Nothing. She could not rewrite history any more than she was able to change her sister’s mind.
Rowan exhaled a beleaguered breath. At moments like this she felt exactly as if her life was moving backward. She’d enjoyed a fulfilling career with the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department as an advisor for the Special Crimes Unit. As a psychiatrist, she had found her work immensely satisfying, and she had helped to solve numerous homicide cases. But then, not quite two months ago, everything had changed. The one case that Rowan didn’t recognize had been happening right in front of her, shattering her life…and sending everything spiraling out of control.
The life she had built in Nashville had been comfortable, with enough intellectual challenge in her career to make it uniquely interesting. Though she had not possessed a gold shield, the detectives in the Special Crimes Unit had valued her opinion and treated her as if she was as much a member of the team as any of them. But that was before…beforethe man she admired and trusted proved to be a serial killer—a killer who murdered her father and an MNPD officer as well as more than a hundred other victims over the past several decades.
A mere one month, twenty-two days and about fourteen hours ago esteemed psychiatrist Dr. Julian Addington emerged from his cloak of secrecy and changed the way the world viewed serial killers. He was the first of his kind: incredibly prolific, cognitively brilliant and innately chameleon-like—able to change his MO at will. Far too clever to hunt among his own patients or social set, he had chosen his victims carefully, always ensuring he or she could never be traced back to him or his life.
Julian had fooled Rowan for the past two decades and then he’d taken her father, her only remaining family, from her. He’d devastated and humiliated her both personally and professionally.
Anger and loathing churned inside her. He wanted her to suffer. He wanted her to be defeated…to give up. But she would not. Determination solidified inside her. She would not allow him that victory or that level of control over her.
Her gaze drifted out over the water once more. Since her father’s death and moving back to Winchester, people had asked her dozens of times why she’d returned to take over the funeral home after all these years. She always gave the same answer: I’m a DuPont, it’s what we do.
Her father, of course, had always hoped Rowan would do so. It was the DuPont way. The funeral home had been in the family for a hundred fifty years. The legacy had been passed from one generation to the next time and time again. When she’d graduated from college and chosen to go to medical school and become a psychiatrist rather than to return home and take over the family business, Edward DuPont had been devastated. For more than a year after that decision she and her father had been estranged. Now, she mourned that lost year with an ache that was soul deep.
They had reconciled, she reminded herself, and other than the perpetual guilt she felt over not visiting often enough, things had been good between her and her father. Like all else in her life until recently, their relationship had been comfortable. They’d spoken by phone regularly. She missed those chats. He kept her up to speed on who married or moved or passed, and she would tell him as much as she could about her latest case. He had loved hearing about her work with Metro. As much as he’d wanted her to take over the family legacy, he had wanted her to be happy more than anything else.
“I miss you, Daddy,” she murmured.
Looking back, Rowan deeply regretted having allowed Julian to become a part of her life all those years ago. She had shared her deepest, darkest secrets with him, including her previously strained relationship with her father. She had purged years of pent-up frustrations and anxieties to the bastard, first as his patient and then, later, as a colleague and friend.
Though logic told her otherwise, a part of her would always feel the weight of responsibility for her father’s murder.
Due to her inability to see what Julian was, she could not possibly return to Metro though they had assured her there would always be a place for her in the department. How could she dare to pretend some knowledge or insight the detectives themselves did not possess when she had unknowingly been a close friend to one of the most prolific serial killers the world had ever known?
She could not. Thiswas her life now.
Would taking over the family business completely assuage the guilt she felt for letting her father down all those years ago? Certainly not. Never. But it was what she had to do. It was her destiny. In truth, she had started to regret her career decision well before her father’s murder. Perhaps it was the approaching age milestone of forty or simply a midlife crisis. She had found herself pondering what might have been different if she’d made that choice and regretting, frankly, that she hadn’t.
Since she and Raven were old enough to follow the simplest directions, they had been trained to prepare a body for its final journey. By the time they were twelve, they could carry out the necessary steps nearly as well as their father with little or no direction.
Growing up surrounded by death had, of course, left its mark. Her hyperawareness of death and all its ripples and aftershocks made putting so much stock into a relationship with another human being a less than attractive proposal. Why go out of her way to risk that level of pain in the event that person was lost? And with life came loss. To that end, she would likely never marry or have children. But she had her work and, like her father, she intended to do her very best. Both of them had always been workaholics. Taking care of the dead was a somber albeit important task, particularly for those left behind. The families of the loved ones who passed through the DuPont doors looked to her for support and guidance during their time of sorrow and emotional turmoil.
Speaking of which, she pulled her cell from her pocket and checked the time. She should get back to the funeral home. Mrs. Phillips was waiting. Rowan turned away from the part of her past that still felt fresh despite the passage of time.
Along this part of the shore, the landscape was thickly wooded and dense with undergrowth, which was the reason she’d worn her rubber boots and was slowly picking her way back to the road. As she attempted to slide her phone back into her hip pocket a limb snagged her hair. Instinctively she reached up to pull it loose, dropping her cell phone in the process.
“Damn it.” Rowan reached down and felt through the thatch beneath the underbrush. More of her long blond strands caught in the brush. She should have taken the time to pull her hair back in a ponytail as she usually did. She tugged the hair loose, bundled the thick mass into her left hand and then crouched down to dig around with her right in search of her phone. Like most people, she felt utterly lost without the damn thing.
Where the hell had it fallen?
She would have left it in the car except that she never wanted a family member to call the funeral home and reach a machine. With that in mind, she forwarded calls to her cell when she was away. Eventually she hoped to trust her father’s new assistant director enough to allow him to handle all incoming calls. Wouldn’t have helped this morning, he was on vacation.
Newassistant director? She almost laughed at the idea. Woody Holder had been with her father for two years, but Herman Carter had been with him a lifetime before that. She supposed in comparison newwas a reasonable way of looking at Woody’s tenure thus far. Her father had still referred to him as the new guy. Maybe it was his lackadaisical attitude. At forty-five Woody appeared to possess absolutely no ambition and very little motivation. Rowan really should consider finding a new, more dependable assistant director and letting Woody go.
Her fingers raked through the leaves and decaying groundcover until she encountered something cool and hard but not metal or plastic. Definitely not her phone. She stilled, frowned in concentration as her sense of touch attempted to identify the object she couldn’t see without sticking her head into the bushes. Not happening. She might have chalked the object up to being a limb or a rock if not for the familiar, tingling sensation rushing along every single nerve ending in her body. Her instincts were humming fiercely.
Assuredly not a rock.
Holding her breath, she reached back to the same spot and touched the object again. Her fingers dug into the soft earth around the object and curled instinctively.
Long. Narrow. Cylindrical.
She pulled it from the rich, soft dirt, the thriving moss and the tangle of rotting leaves.
She frowned, studied it closely. Humanbone.
Her pulse tripped into a faster rhythm. She placed the bone aside, reached back in with both hands and carefully scratched away more of the leaves.
Another bone…and then another. Bones that, judging by their condition, had been here for a very long time.
Meticulously sifting through the layers of leaves and plant life, she discovered that her cell phone had fallen into the ribcage. The humanribcage. Her mind racing with questions and conclusions, she cautiously fished out the phone. She took a breath, hit her contacts list and tapped the name of Winchester’s chief of police.
When he picked up, rather than hello, she said, “I’m at the lake. There’s something here you need to see and it can’t wait. Better call Burt and send him in this direction as well.” Burt Johnston was a local veterinarian who had served as the county coroner for as long as Rowan could remember.
Chief of Police William ‘Billy’ Brannigan’s first response was, “Are youokay?”
Billy and Rowan had been friends since grade school. He had made her transition back to life in Winchester so much more bearable. And there was Herman. He was more like an uncle than a mere friend of the family. Eventually she hoped the two of them would stop worrying so about her. She wasn’t that fragile young girl who had left Winchester twenty-odd years ago. Recent events had rocked her, that was true, but she was completely capable of taking care of herself. She would never again allow herself to be vulnerable to anyone.
“I’m fine but someone’s not. You should stop worrying about me and get over here, Billy.”
“I’m on my way.”
She ended the call. There had been no need for her to tell him precisely where she was at the lake. He would know. Rowan DuPont didn’t swim and she never came near the lake unless it was to visit her sister and she hadn’t done that in a very, very long time.
Strange, all those times Rowan had come to visit Raven, she’d never realized there was someone else here, too.
Barely fifteen minutes passed before Chief of Police Billy—Bill to those who hadn’t grown up with him—Brannigan was tearing nosily through the woods. Rowan pushed away from the tree she’d been leaning against and waved. He spotted her and altered his course.
“Burt’s on his way.” Billy stopped next to her and pushed his brown Stetson up his forehead. “You sure you’re okay?” He looked her up and down, his gaze pausing on the boots she wore. Pink, dotted with blue-and-yellow flowers. They were as old as dirt but she loved them. She’d had them since she was a teenager. Frankly, she couldn’t believe her father had kept them all those years.
Billy’s lips spread into a grin. “I like the boots.”
She rolled her eyes. “Thanks. And, yes, for the second time, I’m okay.” She pointed to the throng of bushes where she’d dropped her phone. “But the female hidden under those bushes is definitely not okay.”
He moved in the direction she indicated and crouched down to take a closer look. “You sure this is a female?”
Rowan squatted next to him. “You can see the pelvis.” She pointed to the exposed bones that were more or less in a pile. “Definitely female. I can’t determine the age, probably over fourteen. I tried not to disturb the positioning of the bones—other than the couple I pulled up before I recognized they were human remains.” She leaned in, studying the remains as best she could. “From what I see, it doesn’t appear the bones have been damaged by any larger animals.”
She indicated the smooth surfaces. “No visible teeth marks. Judging by the positioning, I’d say she was dumped here exactly the way you see. On her left side, knees bent toward her chest, arms flung forward. As tissue deteriorated, the bones settled into a sort of pile and the plant life swallowed them up.”
Billy held out his arms in front of him. “Like she was carried to this spot, one arm behind her back, one under her legs—the way a man might carry a woman—and dumped or placed on the ground in that same position.”
“That’s the way it looks,” Rowan agreed.
“You think she was dead when she was left here?”
She made a face, scrutinized what she could see of the skull. “It’s difficult to say. There’s no obvious indication of cause of death. No visible fractures to the skull or missing pieces, but there’s a lot of it I can’t see without disturbing the scene.”
He hummed a note of indecision. “How long you think she’s been here?”
“A while. Years.” Rowan shrugged. “Maybe decades. There’s a total lack of tissue. The bones I picked up are dry, almost flaky. If there was any clothing, it’s gone. To disappear so completely it would certainly have had to be an organic material of some sort. Maybe when they dig around they’ll find a zipper or buttons—something to suggest what she was wearing.” She looked to her old friend. “But I’m no medical examiner or anthropologist. I’m merely speculating based on a small amount of knowledge and a very preliminary examination.”
“I appreciate your insights.” Billy shook his head. “Damn. I can’t believe she’s been here that long and no one discovered her before now.”
“It’s a remote, overgrown area.” Rowan looked around. “No reason for anyone to come through here.” She kept the except meto herself. “I suppose it’s a good thing I dropped my phone.”
When she’d left the funeral home this morning she’d tucked her phone into the pocket of her jeans. She hadn’t bothered with her purse or even her driver’s license. Just her phone and, of course, the pepper spray she carried everywhere. The drive to the lake was only a few miles. She had a handgun but she hadn’t bothered with it this morning—not for coming here.
But then, she hadn’t expected to stumble upon human remains.
In fact, she hadn’t expected to see anyone. If she’d had any idea she would be running into Billy and the half a dozen official folks who would now descend on what was in all likelihood a crime scene she would have dressed more appropriately. She spent most of her free time in jeans and tees nowadays. The cotton material was breathable. Perfect for wearing under all that protective gear when working in the mortuary room and easy to launder afterward. She wouldn’t be winning any awards for her fashion sense but she was comfortable.
When working with the dead, it was always better to be as comfortable as possible.
Most of her time on the job in Nashville had been spent in heels and business suits. It was a nice perk not to have to dress up anymore. Since taking over the family business, she’d discovered that she preferred a ponytail to a French twist or a chignon any day of the week. And sneakers rather than heels were always a good thing.
Or maybe she’d grown lazy since returning home. She gave herself grace since she was still adjusting to the loss of her father. Of course, she dressed suitably for meeting the families of lost loved ones, for the viewings and the services. The business suits from her years with Metro came in handy for just those purposes. As her father always said, there were certain expectations when overseeing such a somber occasion.
“I’ll need an official statement from you.” Billy stood and offered his hand. “I can come by the funeral home later and take care of the statement if that works better for you.”
She took his hand and pushed to her feet. “That would be my preference, yes.” She glanced toward the road. “Does that mean I can go?” Rowan really did not want to be here when the media showed up. And the media would show up. As soon as word about finding human remains spread through the police department someone would give the local newspaper a heads-up. It was the natural course of things. The possibility of a homicide was a secret hardly anyone could keep. Rowan had endured enough of the spotlight after the release of her book, The Language of Death, and then the very public unmasking of her friend and colleague, Julian Addington, as a new breed of prolific serial killer.
Not to mention this was the second set of human bones to be found in Winchester in as many months. The other bones had been identified and the old case solved. Still, a steady stream of homicide cases was never a good thing for the chief of police.
He glanced around. “I don’t see any reason for you to stay.” He studied her a moment, those dark brown eyes of his searching hers. “If you’re sure you’re okay?”
Billy Brannigan was a true hometown hero, always had been. First on the football field and in the local charity rodeo circuit, then for more than a decade and a half as a cop, and eventually as the chief of police in Winchester. Folks swore Billy was born wearing a Stetson and cowboy boots. He was a year older than Rowan and he’d made it his mission to take her under his wing after her sister’s death. Rowan had been totally lost without her twin and at twelve she’d had enough insanity in her life with adolescence anyway. Billy had watched over her, threatened to pound anyone who wasn’t nice to her. And when her mother died only a few months after her sister, Billy had taken care of Rowan again. He was the only other person on the planet who knew her deepest, darkest secrets.
He and the bastard who murdered her father.
“I’m fine. Really. I’ll see you later.” The sound of traffic on the road warned that she needed to get moving.
“Hey.” His fingers curled around her upper arm when she would have walked past him. “Next time you come out here, bring that big old dog of yours and your handgun or ask me to come. You shouldn’t be in a remote area like this alone. We both know heis still out there.”
He. Rowan pushed the image of Julian Addington from her head. She patted her other pocket. “I have my pepper spray.” She glanced around again. “And somewhere nearby there might even be a special agent from the FBI’s special joint task force keeping an eye on me to make sure I don’t aid and abet Julian.”
Though at this point the FBI had stopped surveilling her, the very idea made her feel ill. But the Bureau had its reasons in the beginning for suspecting her—all of which were circumstantial and utterly misleading—but nothing she said or did was going to change their minds completely. Her name and the possibilities of her involvement with Julian on a sexual level as well as the suggestion that she might have been part of his extracurricular activities had been smeared across every news channel, every newspaper and online news source. How could she be so close to the man and not see what he was? Particularly considering her formal education and training?
The taint of suspicion would likely follow her the rest of her life. This ugly reality no doubt pleased Julian immensely. At least the folks in her hometown had ignored the rampant rumors for the most part. Business hadn’t dropped off and no one looked at her any differently than they ever had. Then again, she’d always been considered strange.
Basically, not much had changed.
Billy nodded, a sad smile on his lips—lips she had fantasized about kissing when she was fourteen years old. So very long ago. A sigh slipped from her. Life would never again be that simple.
“The pepper spray is good, but you should bring your weapon next time,” he said, “and Freud, okay?”
She drew in a big breath and let it out dramatically to show him that she was indulging his protective instincts. “Okay, Billy, I will not go to any other remote locations alone and without my dog and my handgun. No matter that I’m a grown woman and completely capable of taking care of myself.”
For the past six weeks she had worked diligently at honing her self-defense skills. For the first time in her life she owned a handgun and, more important, she knew how to use it. Billy had insisted on giving her lessons. Maybe she was a fool, but she was not afraid of running into Julian. She was prepared for that encounter…looked forward to it actually. Killing him wasn’t her goal—at least not at first. She wanted answers. Then she wanted him to spend the rest of his days in solitary confinement being prodded and poked and tested by forensic psychiatrists.
Billy dipped his head in acknowledgement. “I’m aware, but do it for me.”
She rolled her eyes. “For you. Okay.”
She gave him a salute then moved cautiously through the dense bushes until she reached the road where she’d left her car. In truth, rather than acquiesce to his wishes, she would have loved to tell Billy he was overreacting, being overprotective. Overdoing the big brother thing. But that would be a lie. Julian had murdered all those people, some in ways so heinous that it shocked even seasoned homicide detectives. He had promised Rowan that before he was done, she would want to end the agony of living with all the guilt.
He wasn’t the sort of man to make idle threats.
But Rowan intended to see that hewas the one who wanted the agony to end. She wasn’t the only one who had shared secrets during their lengthy friendship. It was true that she hadn’t suspected for a moment that he was a killer, but she did know many, many of his most personal thoughts. He had worries just like any other person. He had hopes and dreams. Obviously it was possible he had made up much of what he had told her. Psychopaths oftentimes lied when the truth would serve them better. Still, he was a mere human with human frailties.
She climbed into her car, started the engine. Let him come.
The sooner, the better.
She was ready to show him all she’d learned.
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DEBRA WEBB is the USA Today bestselling author of more than 150 novels, including reader favorites the Faces of Evil, the Colby Agency and the Shades of Death series. She is the recipient of the prestigious Romantic Times Career Achievement Award for Romantic Suspense as well as numerous Reviewers Choice Awards. In 2012 Debra was honored as the first recipient of the esteemed L. A. Banks Warrior Woman Award for her courage, strength, and grace in the face of adversity. Recently Debra was awarded the distinguished Centennial Award for having achieved publication of her 100thnovel. With this award Debra joined the ranks of a handful of authors like Nora Roberts and Carole Mortimer.
With more than four million books sold in numerous languages and countries, Debra’s love of storytelling goes back to her childhood when her mother bought her an old typewriter in a tag sale. Born in Alabama, Debra grew up on a farm and spent every available hour exploring the world around her and creating her stories. She wrote her first story at age nine and her first romance at thirteen. It wasn’t until she spent three years working for the Commanding General of the US Army in Berlin behind the Iron Curtain and a five-year stint in NASA’s Shuttle Program that she realized her true calling. A collision course between suspense and romance was set. Since then she has expanded her work into some of the darkest places the human psyche dares to go. Visit Debra at www.debrawebb.com.