A Taste of... Killer Style
I’m going to die.
Kati Marsh’s chest ached. Her breath scraped the inside of her throat, and the muscles in her thighs burned. The stitch in her side was worse, though. So much worse.
She couldn’t run anymore. She just couldn’t.
Too exhausted to even be pissed at herself, Kati dropped to her haunches and was promptly ambushed from behind. As the huge weight knocked into her back, she fell face-first onto the grass.
Claws raked over her skin. As she rolled onto her back to fight off her attacker, a wet tongue slid over her face.
“Juno…stop!” Kati pushed the giant Rottweiler away. The dog collapsed next to her, tongue lolling as she panted quick, hot breaths into Kati’s face.
“Come on, Juno. You can’t be tired. You’ve got twice as many legs as me. C’mon, girl.”
Attempting to be a good example, Kati pushed herself up and grabbed Juno’s leash. In response, the black and brown dog rolled onto her back, legs in the air.
“You big lug. Was that all you wanted? Here.” Smiling, Kati rubbed her dog’s tummy before giving her broad chest a good scratch. “Now, come on. You’re supposed to protect me out here. You could at least look like you know what you’re doing. Can you give me a growl? Come on. A small one.”
Juno lifted soulful, black eyes to Kati. She stood, blinked twice, then pushed her side against Kati’s leggings and flopped onto her back again.
Kati pulled her feet out from under the dog. “Useless. All looks and no bark. Or bite.”
Knowing Juno would follow, she began to walk, needing to cool down and let the fire in her thighs ease. Right on schedule, Juno trotted at her hip. “To be fair, some people are scared of Brodie too. In this day and age.” A cloud of sadness gathered around her, and she fought back the rise of emotion that came each time she thought of the racism her boyfriend still endured. “You’d have thought they’d have grown out of that by now. He’s an even bigger softie than you.”
She scratched Juno’s broad head with both hands. “And that’s why I love you both sooo much. Come on. Almost there. Let’s sprint to the end.”
Kati broke into a run, hoping her body would be more cooperative this time. Though she regretted the third taco she’d eaten earlier, she always enjoyed her evening jogs in the park with its wooded trails and cool air. Running gave her time to think. Gave her something to escape to, be proud of. Especially in a home where very little she did was a source of pride.
“Come on, girl.”
Racing away from those depressing thoughts, Kati picked up speed. Face intent, Juno matched her stride for stride, the hard muscles in her shoulders flexing with each movement. Kati understood why many people hesitated at the sight of the muscular dog. Her Rottweiler looked intimidating as hell, but she had the disposition of a cuddly kitten.
But why would anyone be frightened of Brodie? People, like her parents, were judgmental of her boyfriend’s shoulder-length dreadlocks and dark skin without taking the time to get to know the book under the cover. It was crazy. Brodie was soft and quiet and loving, a true gentleman in a world filled with jerks.
Reaching the end of the trail, she slowed her pace to a walk again, but not because the stitch had returned. She simply wanted to stretch and breathe in the fresh Tennessee air. Nashville had become as polluted as most big cities, but here, she felt removed from that. She gloried in the peace surrounding her as the sun moved closer to the earth.
Lowering her arms from a deep shoulder stretch, she examined her hands. The ring finger of her left hand was bare. Was that going to change soon? She wasn’t sure.
Brodie had been acting a bit strange lately, especially when he’d asked her to keep Wednesday night clear. He’d also asked what her favorite cupcake was. It wasn’t her birthday for months yet, so why had he needed to know that? And why had he been so nervous when asking her? His hands had been shaking, but a huge smile had broken over his face when she’d said Wednesday was all his.
Unless she’d misread the signals, Wednesday would be a very special day indeed.
Resisting the urge to pull a Julie Andrews twirl right there, she bit back her burst of excitement, not wanting to get her hopes too high.
Scanning the horizon, she realized the sun was lower than usual at this part of her run. Unless she wanted to crash into a tree later, they’d better go. “Come on, Juno. It’ll be dark soon. Let’s head for home.”
Picking up speed, they made good time on the last mile. Kati was smiling as she and Juno left the wooded trail and headed up the hill toward the small lot where she’d parked. This was always the hardest part…trudging up the steep incline after a hard run.
On the grass verge marking the entrance to the parking area, a man sat on a folding chair behind an easel. He must have been about sixty. His wild, brown hair was gray in patches, as though his head wanted to try every color it could find. He looked to be in good shape, though. Muscles rippled in his arms as he dipped his paintbrush into paint.
When he looked up, Kati jolted, knowing he must have caught her staring. She needn’t have worried, though. His attention wasn’t on her but on the setting sun at her back.
Circling around, Juno rubbing against her legs, Kati turned and took a few moments to breathe in the sight herself. This was the real reason why she ran in the evenings. It was cooler, sure, but witnessing the miracle of the sky changing colors, the hues and shades merging and melting across the horizon, was the perfect way to end a busy day.
It must have been the same for the artist. He’d been there at the same time over the last couple of weeks, capturing the majestic Tennessee evenings on his canvas.
Kati couldn’t blame him. The scenery was beautiful in this park, especially as the dying sun darkened the green leaves and spread a lilac wash across the sky. She really wanted to see how his painting was coming along. He must almost be done by now. She hadn’t dared ask, though. Artists could be touchy about the creative process. She’d just let him be, enjoying nature and art in his own way.
The man smiled as Kati and Juno made it to the top of the hill. He dabbed at the canvas before lowering his brush and lifting a hand in greeting. “Good evening. Isn’t the sky extra beautiful tonight?”
Kati followed his line of sight. High on the hill as they were, he had a spectacular view of the trail snaking into the woods, the curving trunks of the poplars and the beech trees as they faded to black. Above them, the sky was lined in shades of purple and crimson, and the bottoms of the high cirrus clouds had turned burnt ochre.
“It really is.”
“But then, isn’t every sunset beautiful?” The man’s chuckle reminded Kati of her grandpa’s, making her smile. “Even the best of us are just daubers compared to the artistry of Mother Nature. And she’s more productive too. She churns out a new work of art every night.”
Kati wanted to give him a hug. “But you put on canvas what nature has created. That’s art too.”
He beamed. “Well, I’d like to think so.” The man sat back from his easel and smoothed his hair. It sprang right back up. “You talk like someone who appreciates art.”
Once upon a time, Kati painted or sketched every day. She wasn’t sure how comfortable she felt talking about her love of painting, but the man seemed warm and friendly. And he was a working artist.
Juno lifted her nose in the air, searching for some scent that only canines can detect. Kati scratched the dog’s ears, considering how much of her story she wanted to tell.
Screw it. What could it hurt?
“I do.” That came out wrong, so she corrected herself. “I did.” When he appeared to be puzzled, she rushed to explain. “I was planning to major in art history in college.”
“But?” There was no judgment there. Only genuine curiosity.
“But…” Kati sighed. “My folks pushed me toward accounting. Much more secure, they said.”
The man smiled and gave a small nod. He checked the sky again and dabbed his paintbrush near the top corner of his canvas. “I can’t blame your folks for that. Not much job security in art.” He tapped the handle of his brush against his chin. “But maybe accounting is kind of an art too. The more creative you can make your accounting, the more your clients pay, no?”
“Oh, I don’t know about that.” Kati mentally shuddered as she imagined getting an unexpected visit from the IRS. “Getting creative with numbers sounds more dangerous than artistic.”
Wrinkles fanned out from the painter’s eyes as he chuckled. “Some of the greatest artists were considered a bit dangerous, getting told they were too creative in their lifetimes. Van Gogh. Monet. Picasso. Henry Darger worked as a janitor and died in poverty. His works sell for three-quarters of a million now.”
“You sound like a real connoisseur. Are those your favorite artists?”
The man swished his paintbrush in a jar filled with grayish water. “Oh, yes. You can’t go wrong with the impressionists and the modernists and finding outsider art is such a thrill. But there are some very talented local artists around here too. Do you know Gary Glenderson? Or Liz Richards? Darwin Rhodell or Sofia Benson?”
All those names were familiar, but she hated to admit that she was so out of touch with the local art scene. Kati couldn’t name one of their works. She couldn’t put their faces with their names. “I’ve heard of all of them, but I’m sorry to say that I’ve allowed myself to get so busy with my job that I haven’t experienced the joy of seeing their work.”
“Oh, that’s fine.” He capped the gray water tightly before running a cloth down the brush. “I’m just an old man with far too much time on my hands, and I like to spend it at art fairs and galleries. But you should check them out sometime. They really are amazing talents.”
“Thanks.” Kati made a mental promise to take the kind man’s advice. “I’ll do that.”
The artist’s neck popped as he turned his head to inspect the area around them. The sky had darkened, turning the purples a navy blue and almost hiding the trees entirely. “Well, light’s gone. Guess I’m done for the day. You have a good night now.”
He opened his paint box and tucked his brushes inside. Peeking over his shoulder, Kati’s mouth sagged open as she caught a glimpse of his canvas. Glowing bands of mauve and lilac and plum slashed by curving, black lines of trunks and branches made Kati’s heart ache a little.
If she had carried on with art, would she have been able to paint like that? She wanted to think so, and to hope that she hadn’t entirely lost her chance. “Well…it was lovely speaking with you. Have a good evening. C’mon, Juno. Let’s go.”
But Juno didn’t want to go. She was still sniffing the air and pulling on the leash, wanting to inspect the artist more closely. Her stubby tail was like a tiny windshield wiper set on high.
“C’mon, Juno.” She blushed when the dog disobeyed and tried to pull her closer to the artist. “Sorry…I really need to get her some training.” She tugged harder. “Juno, stop it. Let’s go.”
The artist only chuckled and held his hand out for Juno to sniff. The dog got even more excited, making the man laugh harder. “I think she likes me.”
Well, I’m not liking her very much right now.
Giving a sharper tug, Kati lowered her voice like Brodie taught her to, forcing some command into it. “Juno. Stop. Come.”
Juno ignored her.
The artist opened his box and pulled out a mostly eaten sandwich. “I’m betting she’s smelling the ham. May I?”
Anything to get Juno to listen. “That’s very kind of you. I swear I don’t starve her.”
“She certainly looks very well taken care of.” He winked. “But don’t we all want a treat sometimes.”
Kati grinned. “I guess so.”
Holding the bite of sandwich out on his palm, the artist seemed pleased at how gently Juno took the offering. “She’s a good girl, isn’t she?”
Proud to her toenails, Kati nodded. “She sure is. Needs some manners, but she’s still a pup officially. Just eleven months old.”
“Gracious. I can’t imagine how big she’ll be when she’s fully grown.”
“Her parents weigh more than me, so I imagine she’ll be that big someday soon.” Kati tugged on the leash. “Well, we’ll get out of your way so you can get packed up before it’s fully dark.” She was relieved when Juno didn’t fight her this time. “Have a good evening.”
The man picked up his painting, holding the wet canvas facing outward while tucking his easel under his arm. “You, too, my dear.”
Stepping toward her car, Kati glanced back to see the man clutching his box of paints and chair in his free hand. As she watched, the easel slipped from under his armpit and now leaned against his leg. Without a free hand, he was trying to hook it back up with his elbow.
She couldn’t leave him to struggle like that, so she backtracked. “Here, let me help you. I’ll take that.” Wrapping the handle of Juno’s leash over her wrist, she took the easel from under his arm, allowing the man to stand straight and lift his painting higher off the ground.
“Thank you. That’s very kind. My car is just here.”
Only when she was halfway to his vehicle did she think how odd it was that she was willing to get this close to a person she didn’t know, especially in such an isolated area. Her parents had tried to scare both Kati and her sister half to death about talking to strangers. Their warning rang in her head.
She pushed the thought out as soon as it entered. She always carried a bottle of mace in her pocket. And there was Juno. The dog might be a big lug, but Kati was sure that, if push came to shove, Juno’s muscles and sharp teeth would shove back.
Besides, this old guy looked harmless, with his wild artist’s hair and arms packed full of gear.
Kati followed him past her own car to a gray Volkswagen parked under a poplar close to the steepest side of the hill. The man leaned his painting against his leg, then fumbled in his pocket for his key.
“Nope. Can never find the darned things. Head like a sieve.” He set his paint box on the roof of the car, then dug into his other pocket. “There we are.”
He unlocked the doors with a click, opened the back passenger’s door, and waited for Kati to slide the easel on the seat before placing his chair and paint box on the floor behind the driver’s seat. Finally, he slipped the wet canvas on top, using clamps to hold it in place.
She watched him closely, appreciating the system he’d created for transporting a wet canvas back and forth.
“Thank you so much.” He closed the door and shot her another beaming smile. “You’ve been so helpful. I don’t suppose you want to see a finished piece? It’s no Turner. I can’t claim any of that Englishman’s genius, and it’s certainly no Monet, but I would very much like your opinion.”
Kati glanced at her watch. Time was getting on.
Stop being such a baby.
Sure, it would be entirely dark soon, but her car was just there, and Juno was by her side. And she did want to see a finished piece. The painting he’d worked on for the last couple of weeks was so colorful and beautiful.
“Sure. I’d love to.”
The man’s beaming smile made her doubly glad she’d accepted as he held up a finger. “One moment. Just one minute.”
With a bit more spryness in his step, he hustled to the trunk, opening it with the push of a button. A few seconds later, he lifted a 24x30-inch canvas out and set it on the ground, leaning it against the fender.
As Kati took half a step back to admire the work better, he began prowling through his trunk again. She was too distracted by his work to pay attention to what he was doing, though.
She had thought that she was doing the man a favor by agreeing to see his picture. Now, she began to think he had done her the favor.
A large wave that reminded Kati of Hokusai’s The Great Wave of Kanagawa dominated the portrait. But while the famous painting was blue and gray, the spray recreated as grasping fingers, this wave was soft and warm, the white foam rolling in front of an orange and red sky.
Kati crouched in front of the canvas. The paint had been laid on thick. He must have used a spatula to create those ridges in the foam.
What had she been thinking? Of course she should have gone to art school. Accounting was so dull. She should have never let her parents—
Juno pulled at the leash, knocking Kati over. From where she’d draped it around her wrist, she didn’t have a good grip and the handle slid off her hand. Before she could cry out or say a word, Juno bolted toward the artist, jumping…jumping…
Kati scrambled to her feet just as the artist reared his arm back and threw something she couldn’t see into the woods. Juno darted after the object like a flash, racing down the steep hill for her prize.
“Juno! Get back here.”
But the dog was already out of sight, her black body lost in the dark woods.
That was when Kati realized just how dark the evening had become. And how alone she was.
She started after Juno, but only made it two steps before pain like she’d never known stopped her in her tracks. A thousand wasps seemed to sting her at once, but she couldn’t yell, couldn’t say a word. Frozen to the ground, her brain rattled in her skull as she tried to understand what was happening.
That’s when hands gripped tight around her arms, and she was falling…falling but not onto the hard cement. She was in the artist’s trunk.
The energy of the night shifted, leaving her dizzy. Kati couldn’t process the speed, couldn’t figure out what had gone so wrong.
Something soft landed on her face. A piece of cloth? His hand pressed it over her nose and mouth, gripping tightly.
She couldn’t speak. The cloth stank of alcohol and disinfectant and something else she couldn’t name.
Panic exploded from her chest and flooded her shaking muscles. She gasped, dragging in more of the cloth’s stench. She scrambled to pull the cloth off her face, but her fingers only landed on the man’s wrist. His grip was strong, stronger than seemed possible for his age. Her own grip as she pulled and scratched at his hand felt incredibly weak.
Spots dazzled her vision.
He pressed harder, his grip tightening. And the smell. It seemed to drift up behind her eyes and suck any remaining strength from her arms.
Kati willed her dog to come back, to save her. Where was that dog when she needed her the most?
When the Rottweiler didn’t reappear, Kati tried to catch the man’s eyes, to somehow plead with him. But he was a heavy shadow among shadows by this point. She was never going to stop him.
No. Please, no.
“Rock-a-bye baby on the treetops. When the wind blows, the cradle will rock.”
The man sang the lullaby while Kati’s muscles relaxed further. She could still think, barely, but she could no longer move. And soon, her brain was numb, too, drifting away on skies of lilac and ochre.
The man’s grip loosened. “There we are now. All calm.”
Calm? Yes, so calm.
Her wrists were yanked together and something sharp bit into them—same with her ankles. And another cloth was stuffed into her mouth.
“I am sorry about this, but it’s just in case your little sleep wears off too soon. It’s so hard to know how much to use. Now, you lie right here.”
The man glanced to the side, his eyes widening in alarm.
Juno? Where’s Juno?
Blackness surrounded her the moment he slammed the trunk lid closed. A second later, the car rocked as he slid inside. The engine roared to life, the vibration jarring her head.
No. No. No.
The words echoed in her mind as her body shifted and swayed from the movement of the vehicle. Rocking…rocking…
Rock-a-bye baby, on the treetops.
It was Brodie’s voice singing to her this time. He had a beautiful voice, and she loved to lie on his chest and feel the deep timbre vibrate her cheek as she listened.
When the wind blows, the cradle will rock.
Would she ever hear his voice again? Ever feel him slide a ring on her finger?
When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall.
Sorrow filled her soul at all she’d miss with him. With Juno. With their future family.
And down will come baby, cradle and all.
Special Agent Stella Knox’s nerves were singing as she took a seat in the Nashville Resident Agency briefing room of the FBI. She wasn’t on tilt because her boss, Special Supervisory Agent Paul Slade, had just called the team in to discuss another case. And it wasn’t because she was exhausted from the Cherry Farms serial killer paperwork the entire team had spent their Saturday morning completing.
Less than five minutes ago, Agent Mackenzie Drake had pulled Stella aside to share what she’d learned about the death of her father. But before she could share more than a few words, SSA Slade interrupted, ordering them both to the conference room where they now sat.
Stella mentally rewound their brief discussion and played it again…
“I’ve been digging around, trying to find info about your father. About his murder.”
Stella’s pulse picked up speed. She gripped Mac’s arm.
Mac lifted a hand. “Hey, don’t get too excited. I haven’t found anything about him yet, nothing that you don’t already know.”
Though disappointment wanted to take a bite from her, Stella closed her eyes. Taking in a long breath, she willed her heart rate to slow. Of course. She couldn’t possibly think Mac could crack the case so quickly. “Right.”
Mac was still staring at her intently. “It’s about your dad’s partner.”
What in the world? “Uncle Joel?”
“Uncle?” Mac shot her a quizzical grin. “Really?”
Stella jabbed her with an elbow. “Yeah, Joel Ramirez. He and my dad were best friends for years.”
Mac rubbed her ribs and chewed on her bottom lip. “Right. He was killed too, though, wasn’t he?”
Stella nodded. Everything that had happened the previous week vanished. All that mattered was Mac and the information she might have uncovered. “Yeah. Just like my dad. I miss him. Why?”
Mac glanced over her shoulder and lowered her voice. “Well, you’re not the only one who’s missing him.”
Before Mac could explain, Slade had called them into the briefing room.
What had Mac meant? Who was missing him? As far as Stella knew, Uncle Joel had no family at all.
Stella’s insides burned to know.
Beside her, Mac yawned so wide that Stella got a good view of her tonsils. “Wish I’d grabbed another coffee before heading in here.”
Stella didn’t need coffee right then. Her mind was doing cartwheels, reaching for all the possibilities of what Mac had tried to tell her.
As an agent in the cyber crimes division of the FBI, Mac knew how to dig for information in ways that Stella didn’t. That’s why she’d enlisted Mac’s help. Well, that was only part of the reason. The two had become fast friends the moment they met two weeks back, when Stella joined the Nashville team.
Less than two weeks.
In under twelve days, Stella had helped crack her toughest case to date and had even survived all the paperwork. Since today was a Saturday, she’d come in early to get the final forms filled out before going home and enjoying the rest of the weekend.
That wasn’t going to happen now. The report and the research would both have to wait. A new case had already landed.
Slade stood at the front of the room, his gaze sweeping over each agent until the team fell into a hushed silence. Once all the attention was on him, he cleared his throat. “Sorry to ruin your weekend, but I’ve just had a call from Sheriff Allen Lansing down in Morville County. They’ve got two bodies. Both women.” Slade rested his hands on the table and leaned forward. The effect made the forty-five-year-old SSA look like a hawk about to dive at prey. “They’re both missing one arm, one leg, and all their fingers and toes.”
Caleb Hudson released a low whistle. “That’s some trophy hunting.”
“Yeah, wouldn’t want to see those hanging over the fireplace at the lodge.” Martin Lin grinned as he leaned back, linking his hands behind his head.
“Guys.” Chloe Foster gave Martin a stare that could have broken rock. “We’ve got two dead women. Show some damn respect.”
As Martin’s cheeks turned pink, and he lifted a hand by way of apology, Stella wanted to pat Chloe on the back for that verbal smackdown. Most law enforcement officers used macabre humor to ease stress during situations where control was difficult or not possible to obtain, but this was a conference room, not a crime scene.
“Thank you, Chloe.” Slade straightened. “The bodies were found next to a dumpster in an alleyway near the small downtown part of Berthar Lake.”
“A dumpster. Jesus.” Hagen Yates shook his head as he wrote the details in his small pocket notebook. “Some people. But why can’t that sheriff’s office handle this? They think the missing body parts suggest a serial killer?”
“That would be my first thought.” Ander Bennett rubbed the blond curls on the back of his head. “Dismemberment sounds like a serial killer’s signature to me.”
“Could be someone trying to hide evidence, which would make it more M.O. than signature,” Stella countered. “We had a case my first year as a cop. Somebody found a body in a lake. It looked like a drowning at first, but when we pulled out the corpse, we found it didn’t have any fingers. The cuts were clean, like someone had taken a machete and just hacked them all off in one chop.”
Ander raised an eyebrow. “Not a serial?”
“Nope.” Stella’s blood heated at the memory of the gruesome murder. “Turned out the victim was a junkie who had tried to steal from a dealer. As the dealer strangled him, the victim scratched the killer’s face and arms. The dealer thought there might be evidence under the nails, didn’t know which ones, so he just cut them all off. Fed them to some pigs in the end.”
Martin shook his head. “Thanks, Stella. I brought a ham biscuit for breakfast. Think I’ll skip it now.”
Stella nearly laughed out loud but managed a shrug instead. “If that thought turned you off breakfast, Martin, you’re going to be pretty hungry throughout this job.”
“Let’s focus.” Slade clapped his hands, drawing the attention back to him. “We don’t know why the body parts are missing yet. Could be the killer’s signature. Could be trophy hunting or, as Stella says, it could be someone trying to hide evidence. We don’t know, and we’re going to find out. But that’s not why the sheriff called us.”
“So, what’s his story?” Hagen folded his arms and focused his green eyes on his superior.
“His story, as you put it, is that he’s got two bodies but three missing persons.”
“Jesus.” Hagen hung his head. “The clock’s ticking already, huh?”
“And we’re already behind. The bodies have been identified as belonging to Tiffany Wright and Darlene Medina-Martinson. Both were from Berthar Lake, and both had been missing since June fifth. Kati Marsh of Morville County went missing three days ago.”
Slade tapped a button on the remote for the projector, and a picture appeared on the screen behind him. Two bodies were posed faceup, side by side in a narrow alley. Slade used a laser pointer to indicate the woman on the right. “This is Tiffany Wright. Thirty-five, married. Two children.”
Tiffany’s eyes were closed and sunken in her pale face. Bright orange curls, just like Danielle Jameson’s two seats over, sprang out around Tiffany’s head like a copper halo. They matched the freckles dotting her face, her shoulders, and arms. Or what was left of them. Her left arm had been severed at the elbow, as had her left leg halfway down her thigh. Both her remaining hand and foot were missing their digits.
Slade pointed to the other victim. “Darlene Medina-Martinson. Also thirty-five, married, no kids. The two were childhood friends. Met for a drink and never came home.”
Darlene’s eyes were also, thankfully, closed. Her straight, brown hair stopped just short of her shoulders. Her skin was unblemished and so bronze that it glistened in the camera’s flashlight.
The stumps on the ends of both women’s limbs were covered by carefully arranged white flowers. More flowers hid their breasts and pubic areas.
Stella closed her eyes and opened them again. She thought she’d seen it all in the two years she’d spent with the Nashville PD. In less than half a month at the FBI, she’d already witnessed more than she could have imagined.
Were these images worse than the pictures she had seen last week of teenage boys with their heads caved in, slashed with a sword, and locked into poisoned paralysis? She wasn’t sure.
Her stomach wasn’t churning like it had last week, though. Maybe she was growing used to these scenes. She hoped not. This wasn’t something she ever wanted to grow used to.
This arrangement of bodies was certainly more bizarre. More organized. More artistic.
Slade clicked the button on the remote again, and a woman’s face appeared on the screen. She had wavy, black hair and green eyes framed by thin, arching eyebrows. Her high cheekbones narrowed toward a small chin set below a wide smile that creased the edges of her eyes.
Stella liked her instantly. She looked so happy, so carefree and approachable, a friendship waiting to happen.
Slade tapped the screen. “Kati Marsh. Twenty-three. Unmarried, no known connection to the other two victims. She had a habit of taking her dog for a run at a local park around sunset.”
Caleb groaned. “Sounds dangerous.”
“Dog’s a Rottweiler. Not the kind of thing you’d want to mess with. Even you, Caleb. Dog was found in the park. When animal control tried to contact Kati, she couldn’t be located. The police found her car the next morning. Notice the flower.”
Slade pushed the button again, and Kati disappeared. In her place was a picture of a blue Ford Focus parked in an elevated lot surrounded by trees. Under the windshield wiper was a white blossom.
Hagen leaned toward the screen. “Do we know what kind of flower that is?”
“It’s a Shasta daisy,” Stella answered before Slade could. “They grow all over the place this time of year.”
Martin nodded. “Like pretty weeds.”
“Like a pretty signature.” Stella studied the placement of the daisy. “The perpetrator used the Shasta daisy to cover the injuries to his victims. Even though they grow everywhere, we shouldn’t ignore the fact that it’s been deliberately placed at an abduction site.”
“I miss you raising your hand.” Martin smiled, taking the sting out of his comment.
Slade narrowed his eyes. As always, it was enough to bring silence.
“Sheriff Lansing thinks that Kati may have been taken by the same person who killed Darlene and Tiffany. He wants us to help before it’s too late. Caleb, Martin, I want you two to stay here and hold down the fort. Triple check that the Cherry Farms paperwork has been completed, and be ready for the calls that will probably be coming in. You’ll have to follow them up and see if there’s anything worth tracking.”
Martin didn’t look pleased. “Yes, sir.” The other three simply nodded.
Slade turned to the next table. “Dani, Mac. I want you to do a regional search for missing persons cases. These might not be the first victims. Let’s make sure that other law enforcement agencies didn’t miss anything that could be related to these abductions.” Slade nodded at Ander. “You’re with me. Hagen, Chloe, Stella, you head out to the Morville County Sheriff’s Department. Grab your day bags. You’ll be staying out there until we’re done.”
The briefing room filled with the scrape of chairs being pushed back along the tile floor. On the way out, Stella grabbed Mac’s arm. She wasn’t sure when they’d next get a chance to talk. She led her friend into the breakroom and pulled her behind the vending machine.
“What were you going to tell me earlier?” Stella’s voice was low but urgent. “About someone else missing Uncle Joel?”
Mac glanced over Stella’s shoulder. They were alone, and no one was coming, but she still lowered her voice and leaned closer. “Joel Ramirez.” Mac squeezed Stella’s shoulder.
Stella braced for the news.
“That was an alias. His real name was Matthew Johnson.”
She hadn’t braced hard enough.
The room swirled, and Stella shook her head to force it to stop. “What? Matthew Johnson? Who the hell is Matthew Johnson?”
Mac searched Stella’s face, her green eyes thoughtful. She didn’t want to share the next bit of news, Stella realized.
“Look, I don’t want to stir anything up.”
“Tell me.” Stella heard the sudden fierceness in her own voice.
Mac’s sympathetic glance caused a flutter in Stella’s chest. It was the same expression doctors made when they were about to deliver news that would change your life.
“Matthew Johnson was Joel Ramirez. Ramirez was his cover name. He worked undercover in Memphis, but he was actually from Atlanta. He even had a family there.”
How many times had she called her father’s partner “Uncle Joel”? How often had he put an arm around her, invited her to tell “Uncle Joel” how her day had been or whether there was any boy at school worth a crush? How many mornings had “Uncle Joel”—this guy, this stranger—picked up her father from home and driven him out to some of the most dangerous places in the city?
Stella placed a hand against the wall. She needed to touch something solid, to believe that not everything was going to crumble around her, not everything was going to come crashing down.
Did her father even know? Had “Uncle Joel” lied to him too? Or had her father lied to her about his friend?
Who the hell was he?
“There’s more.” Mac pressed her lips together. “There’s no death record for Matthew Johnson.”
“So…did he even die that day in Memphis?” Stella searched for the right questions to ask. “Or did he go back to his family?”
Mac shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“If he did die, does his family in Atlanta know anything about his murder?” Stella stopped. A whole new world of things she didn’t know opened in front of her. “And do they know anything about my father’s murder?”
“Well, now.” Mac blew out a breath. “That’s something worth finding out. I guess we’ve still got more work to do.”
“Oh, Mac.” Stella hugged her new friend tightly. “Thank you so much. It’s a huge shock but also incredible.”
Mac patted Stella’s back. “Hey, I’m just getting started. We’re going to get there, Stella. I promise. It’s all going to work out.”
Stella stepped back and forced a smile. No, it wasn’t all going to work out. Her father had still died in the line of duty. That wasn’t going to change. But for the first time since that terrible, black day, she could see a little light in the distance and a path toward it.
Once this new case was solved, maybe she could find Uncle Joel’s—or Matthew Johnson’s—address in Atlanta. Maybe she could even take a couple of days and drive down there.
Maybe she was going to find out what really happened to her father at last.
But, first, she needed to find out what happened to Kati Marsh.