Deadly Fear Page 13

“I don’t believe we’ve ever met personally before.” Her words came out smooth and easy. “But I have worked several high profile cases with the SSD. Perhaps you’ve seen a photo of me in a newspaper or caught an interview on TV.” Though that was really more Kenton’s specialty with his pretty boy face. She shrugged and let her lips curl. “Or maybe I just have one of those faces.”

“I’m good with faces,” the sheriff murmured, shaking his head. “And I’m sure we’ve met.”

Now the guy was starting to get under her skin.

“Sheriff, you said the files were ready?” Luke demanded, his tone a little sharp.

“Ah, yeah, they’re—”

“Here you go, Sheriff!” A woman’s high voice called out. A small lady with a mop of gray curls bustled from the back. She had an old, yellowed box in her hands with “Swain” written in black marker across the front. “Found it in the basement.”

Martin turned his head toward the woman, just a small shift in angle, and Monica caught a strong view of his profile.

Oh, damn.

Her cheeks iced, then pinpricks of heat shot across her skin.

“Monica?” Luke’s fingers curled around her arm, and she realized that she’d stumbled back.

Martin—she did know him. Take off about fifteen years, add more of that hair, and he’d be…

A young deputy, pulled into Hell. Reaching out a hand to help a victim in the darkness.

“You okay?” A soft rumble from Luke.

She pulled away from him. “Of course.” Perfectly calm. “Sheriff, is there a quiet office we can use to review this information?”

He glanced at her, smiling now. “Ah, ma’am, this whole place is quiet. I transferred over here about ten months ago, and I can tell you, not much happens in Gatlin.”

Except an occasional murder. Once in a blue moon, a woman was tied to a tree and terrorized. Did that really count as “not much”?

Four hours later, they were in the woods.

Not her favorite place to be. Monica could completely sympathize with Saundra. Insects chirped all around them, and Monica was pretty sure the temperature had kicked up another twenty degrees out there.

Pine trees stood, still and tall, around them. She and Luke jumped over branches and headed deeper into the woods.

“Wanna tell me what all that was about back at the station?” Luke asked.

Monica glanced down at the map in her hands, then back up—the better to avoid tripping over a root and slamming into the ground. “All what?”

“The sheriff.” He stopped and faced her, putting his hands on his hips. “You knew him, didn’t you?”

Careful. “If I did, I don’t remember him.”

“But he remembers you.” Too watchful. That gaze of his was way too watchful. “And Monica, let me just tell you, you don’t have one of those faces.”

What was that supposed to mean?

“No one else looks like you,” he said. “No one.”

Was that a compliment? He’d always given compliments so easily to the other women she’d seen him with. But he’d only complimented her in bed.

And why did she care? “Look, I don’t know what the guy was talking about. Maybe we met at a convention or something. Maybe he heard me do a lecture.” She paced ahead of him. Turned to the right. “I don’t know. I’m not going to worry about it now and—there.”

His footsteps hurried up behind her.

Monica stared at the thick pine. Her eyes trekked from the base, up the thick trunk—had to be at least thirty inches in diameter—and on up to the top branches that seemed to touch the perfect blue sky.

Dead flowers, looked like roses, sat at the base of the tree. Someone had cared about Saundra’s death out here.

Maybe her parents.

Maybe her killer. Wouldn’t be the first time a serial had come back to the scene to pay respects to the victim.

“It’s been a year,” Luke said, “What do you really hope to find out here?”

She didn’t know, but there had been damn little to help her in that case file. Black-and-white photos of the scene. Saundra’s bloated body, sagging against the tree.

Inside the yellowed box, they’d found some recorded interviews with two of Saundra’s co-workers at a dive called Gatorbait. They’d read a deputy’s notes about Saundra’s home and her family.

No fingerprints were recovered on the rope that had bound Saundra. The techs hadn’t discovered any fibers or hairs from the person who’d left her tied to the tree. And though the ME ruled that the bites came from rattlers, none of the snakes were found at the scene.

Though two rattlesnakes were killed a week later outside of a church. That careful notation had been in the file.

But with all those bites on her body, there would have been more than two snakes. A lot more.

“Monica?”

She flinched at his voice and realized she’d been staring at the tree and those dead flowers for way too long. “I’m not sure what we’ll find, but this is the earliest kill we know about—”

“How can you even be sure this is the same guy?”

“Because it’s all about fear.” Twenty-one-year-old Saundra had been dying to shake the dust of Gatlin from her boots. She’d been working, saving her cash, and planning to head out as soon as she saved five grand.

She’d never wanted to see the woods or the swamp again. She’d hated the woods, hated snakes. Pity she’d died there.

“It’s too much of a coincidence,” Monica said, and it was. “She was bound to the tree. The killer brought in the snakes.” Easy enough to transport if he knew how to capture them. Then, once he’d been at the scene, he’d probably had a snake hook with him—he would have used that to herd the snakes, to get them exactly where he wanted. Ready to attack Saundra. After he was finished, he’d probably tossed the snakes and the gear into the swamp. “He wanted her to suffer.” To be afraid.

“You know there was no mention of a note in the file.”

What scares you?

“Doesn’t mean there wasn’t one.” She knelt before the tree, her brows pulling together. “Or maybe he added that little touch as he went along.”

“Developing his signature?”

“Something like that.” She eased down beside the flowers. Monica stretched her arms out as she tried to match that death pose, the one that was now seared into her memory.

“Sweetheart, what the hell are you doing?”

Her head jerked up. That’s a good girl… aren’t you, my sweetheart? “Don’t call me that.” Fired out—fast and angry.

He stared down at her.

Those damn crickets seemed way too loud right then.

“My mistake.” Wooden. “How about this… Monica, what the hell are you doing?”

She managed not to wince. Barely. It was just being here in the woods, with those insects driving her crazy and with death hanging around her.

Why couldn’t memories just stay dead?

Breathing slowly, evenly, Monica fought to hold onto her calm. “Sorry.” The apology came out quietly. “I just… don’t call me that, okay?”

He strode toward her, blocking the rays of the sun as they filtered through the tree branches. “Keeping it only business?”

“No, it’s not that, it’s just—” How’s my sweetheart? Pretty little sweetheart, I’m gonna break you.… She licked her lips. “I don’t like it. Sweetheart. Not for me, okay?” Where was her control? It was because of that guy, Martin. He’d thrown her off. Made her start to remember.

“Um, okay, but the question remains… what the hell are you doing?”

She tipped her head back. Let her gaze sweep around them. “Could you step over? A little to the left?”

He moved.

“Thanks.” She noted the trees, the thick grass, and the bushes. Jumping up, she brushed off her hands and hurried away from the tree.

Saundra died there. Probably screaming for help.

And the bastard with her had probably laughed.

Why did the perp love the pain so much?

“There’s a reason he picked this spot.” She stopped, her eyes narrowing. “There’s always a reason.”

“Uh, yeah, because this place is freaking deserted and no one could hear her scream.”

Monica swallowed then started walking. There. Toward the two twisted pines that grew about ten feet away. They looked like lovers embracing. “The car accident back in Jasper—Sally Jenkins died at the exact same spot her husband did. And that abandoned house? I got Sam to run a check for me. Turns out Patricia Moffett lived there when she was a kid.”

A low whistle. “What was the connection for Laura? Why dump her at—”

“Don’t know.” She stopped in front of the embracing pines. “This place though, it’s important.” She could feel it. “The killer picked the spot. He tied her there, pointed her to the east, because I think he wanted her to see something.”

What was the last thing Saundra had seen before she died?

These trees. Why these?

She walked around the trees, her gaze scanning the ground.

A stump. Looked like maybe another pine. The tree must have fallen years ago.

Her eyes narrowed as she crouched down. Her fingers lifted, hovering over the wood. “Lovers,” she whispered.

“Yeah,” he said. Monica turned toward Luke. His eyes were on the trees as he said, “I guess those pines do kinda look like—”

“Here.” She tapped the side of the stump. “Initials. See them?” Her fingers traced the letters. S.S. + K.W.

Lovers no more. Not once death came calling.

The initials were barely noticeable from this angle. Time had faded them, making them blend with the ripples on the top of the stump. A deputy doing a run-through of the scene probably wouldn’t have even noticed them.

But the killer had known they were there.

And Saundra had known.

“We’ve got to find K.W.” Excitement had her blood pumping fast and hard through her veins. This crime had been intimate, far more personal than she’d expected. “We find him—”

A fast grin split Luke’s face. “We might just find our killer.”

Yes, they just might.

We’re coming, a**hole. Time for me to find out… what scares you?

CHAPTER Eight

With a name like Gatorbait, Luke really hadn’t expected much from the bar in Gatlin. So he wasn’t disappointed.

They waited for the night crowd to roll in, the better to find folks who might be willing to talk. Or just drunk enough to run their mouths to FBI agents.

He and Monica took a booth in the back—a booth with a table that liked to tilt, cushions that were split open, and the smell of sweat, cigarettes, and fried catfish hanging around it.

Luke didn’t really get the catfish part. As far as he could tell, the place didn’t serve food. Just really bad beer.

A waitress came over to them. Short white shorts, long, tan legs, low-cut black tank top. Big boobs. Boobs strategically placed very close to his eyes.

Nice. He’d bet they were real, too. Oh, yeah, those…

Monica’s brow rose.

He pressed his lips together. The better to hold back the No way are they as good as yours comment that wanted to burst free. Like she’d appreciate that. Even if it was the truth.

“Another round?” The waitress—she’d said her name was Donna—asked with a big grin. A grin she shot his way. Flirting for tips. He’d watched her and the other waitress. They leaned in close to the men, smiled a lot, and flaunted cl**vage.

Smart women.

But that could be a dangerous game if they tried to play with the wrong men.

“Donna?” Monica called, cutting through the rumble of voices in the bar. “We need to ask you a few questions.” She pulled out her ID, flashing it nice and fast.

The tray in Donna’s hands wobbled just a bit. “Wh-what? Why’s the FBI in Gatlin?”

“Just following up on an old case,” he said smoothly, trying to divert her attention. An old trick. Divide the focus, get to the truth faster. A handy way of questioning that had worked well for him in the past.

“What old case?” The tray steadied, but Luke was willing to bet Donna’s heartbeat hadn’t climbed back down yet.

“Investigating the murder of a friend of yours…” Monica tucked away her ID. “Saundra Swain.”

Donna fired a fast glance at the bar. “Saundra.” Her face paled.

“Was Saundra seeing anyone?”

Hesitation, faint, but there. “No.”

Luke smothered a sigh. Now why did people always want to lie?

“Really?” Monica sounded surprised. The woman was a pretty good actress. Actually, maybe she was too good. “That’s not what we heard in town.”

They’d actually heard jack shit outside of the bar. The folks of Gatlin were a tight-lipped bunch, at least when they were sober. Maybe once they started knocking back drinks…

Donna’s lips, painted a dark pink, tightened. “I’m tellin’ you, when Saundra d-died, she wasn’t seein’ nobody. No. Body.”

“But what about before she died?” A quick press from Monica. “What did I hear?” Laser blue eyes turned on him. “I’ll have to pull out my notes, but I think it was Kevin; no, Kenny—”

“Kyle.” The woman looked like she’d pass out any minute. Because talking about her dead friend hurt? Or was it something more? “She and Kyle weren’t seeing each other, okay? That was long over. Saundra knew she could do better. She ditched him, told his ass to hit the road.”

Prev Next