BLOG

Mary Stone - Storm's Burn (Amelia Storm FBI Mystery Series Book 12)

A Taste of… Storm’s Burn

Chapter One

Celeste Hutchinson jolted awake, unsure if the disturbance that ripped her from slumber had been part of her dream, or if someone in her home was actually shouting. She squeezed her eyes closed, listening. A muffled yell reverberated from somewhere outside her bedroom door. Celeste rolled to her side and cracked her eyes open a slit.

Two-thirty in the morning.

Who on Earth would be yelling in the middle of the night?

Renee and Lane, her sleepy brain answered.

Celeste’s roommate and close friend Renee Barker had invited her boyfriend over at the last minute to spend the night. Renee and Lane usually kept their late-night activities to a dull roar. Celeste couldn’t recall the last time the couple woke her up.

The layout of their split ranch-style house helped—Lane and Renee had to make one hell of a ruckus for the noise to reach Celeste’s bedroom on the opposite side of the place.

Maybe they aren’t going at it. Maybe they’re just playing video games.

Celeste willed her body to relax. The light from her alarm clock glared at her, and she pulled the blanket all the way over her head. Sleep should have washed over her quickly, but her fatigue drifted away like a fading memory. Each time she tried to command her muscles to loosen, they tensed again. She’d only been asleep for a few hours, so why couldn’t she shake this sudden sense of vigilance?

It was as if her body knew something her mind hadn’t yet realized.

A jolt of paranoia ran down her spine like the shock from a cattle prod.

What if Renee and Lane hadn’t been shouting at a video game? What if something was wrong?

Nothing’s wrong. You’re still half-asleep.

But Celeste no longer felt tired. Keeping her eyes closed, she strained her hearing to the max, hoping against hope that she’d catch a snippet of Renee or Lane swearing at whatever game they were playing. Anything to tell her she was overreacting.

As the seconds crept by at an agonizing pace, Celeste didn’t buy her own rationalizations. Something had roused her from a deep sleep. She struggled to recall the exact noise, but whatever it was had vanished. All was quiet, aside from the faint thrum of her ceiling fan. No cartoonish sounds or rapid gunfire from their video game, nothing to indicate Lane and Renee were even in the living room.

Something was wrong.

Don’t be absurd. They lived in a quiet neighborhood in Logan Square, Chicago. Over the years, the community had attracted a growing number of artsy types, much like the adjacent Wicker Park. Crime was always present in a city like Chicago, but Logan Square was relatively peaceful.

Which was the reason she’d decided not to install a pricey alarm system. She’d been raised frugally and had resisted the temptation to spend the money she earned from the social media presence she’d built since she was a teenager. She encountered her fair share of weirdos online, but that was what people did. Bully others on the internet. This was her home. Her sanctuary.

Goose bumps prickled the back of her neck. Celeste pried open her eyes and peeked out from under her blanket, thoughts of returning to sleep abandoned. She pushed herself to sit and swung her legs over the side of the bed. As she rose to stand, she snatched up her cell from her nightstand.

She swallowed past invisible cotton balls stuffed inside her mouth. The reason for her sudden anxiety was a mystery, but her instincts screamed at her to listen to the paranoia.

With a deep, steadying breath, Celeste reached for the baseball bat under her bed. As her hand closed around the cool aluminum, a semblance of order returned to her inexplicably frazzled brain. No point in trying to establish why a sense of impending doom threatened to overcome her. She had no real reason to believe she was in danger, but she wasn’t in a position to use logic to calm herself either.

Don’t waste time debating with yourself. Figure this out after you check the house.

Gritting her teeth, Celeste tightened her grasp on the bat and made her way to the closed door. Slowly, she twisted the knob, willing the hinges to stay silent. A faint metallic creak escaped as she pulled open the door.

Without pausing to consider how she’d become a creeper in her own home, Celeste padded out of her room, the bat at her side.

She’d anticipated the flickering glow of the television, something to tell her Lane and Renee were in the living room.

But all was dark.

As she started down the hall, she raised the bat, gripping it tightly with both hands just like she’d been taught during countless softball practices throughout high school. Something about the scene in front of her was wrong. It was too quiet, too still. The darkness seemed to be holding a secret.

Calling the cops crossed her mind, but she dismissed the thought. What would she tell them? “Help, I think there might be someone in my house. No, I haven’t seen them. I’m not sure they exist. Something just doesn’t feel right, you know?

Silently, Celeste scoffed at herself. Her cell was in her pocket, not across the house. The second she noticed something amiss, she’d call, but not before. Besides, she was probably overreacting.

She tiptoed along the hardwood floor, her bare feet silent. As she emerged in the arched doorway leading to the living area and adjoining kitchen, she paused to take in her surroundings.

The dimmest of light filled the kitchen from the night-light they always kept on and the red glow of the stove’s digital clock mixed with the soft filter of the ruddy-orange streetlights outside the house. Celeste picked her way past the coffee table and the sectional couch to look into the foyer.

A backpack sat beside the front door. She couldn’t remember seeing the bag before, and she had no idea why Lane or Renee would put it there. Renee was a clean freak, and everything had its place.

But why would someone break into the house to leave a backpack? Was it a bomb? Was this some lunatic Ted Kaczynski wannabe?

Stop it. You’re being ridiculous.

Celeste forced her attention away from the foyer and scanned the kitchen again. The counters were free of clutter, all the dishes put away in their place, nothing out of the ordinary.

She turned toward the short hall leading to Renee’s room. Shadows slithered along the walls as she crept down it and stopped.

Why is Renee’s door open?

Blood pounded in Celeste’s ears.

In the three years Renee and Celeste had lived together, Renee had never slept with her door open. Even when Lane didn’t stay the night, Renee closed her bedroom door when she went to sleep.

Though the door was only a quarter of the way open, Celeste was certain she’d caught a shadow of movement. Was it Renee? Lane? Why was the damn door open? Had one of them gotten up to use the bathroom?

No, the bathroom just down the hall was dark, save for the faint glow of another night-light.

Celeste forced one foot in front of the other, baseball bat raised as if preparing to hit a grand slam. Thoughts of accidentally interrupting an intimate moment were abandoned as she drew closer to the partially open door.

No sounds emanated from the room. The hum of the air-conditioner muffled any smaller noises, but Celeste should still be able to make out their voices, Renee’s snoring, something.

But there was only…silence.

Celeste held her breath and tiptoed closer to the door, balancing on the balls of her feet to keep her approach as silent as possible. As Renee’s bed came into view, Celeste almost relaxed as she spotted the shape of her friend tucked beneath the blankets, her dark hair spilled across the pillow.

No, that wasn’t right. The sleeping form was bigger. It had to be Lane. And that wasn’t hair darkening Renee’s pastel pillowcase.

What the hell?

Blood.

Her thoughts whipped through seven hundred different rationalizations for what she was seeing, but none of them stuck.

Before Celeste had time to move or pull her phone from her pocket, the door swung all the way open.

Instead of her five-two roomie, Celeste found herself face-to-face with a hulking form of a man, his eyes inhumanly wide behind the triangular faceplate of a gas mask. For a heartbeat, Celeste stood petrified, her brain struggling to reconcile the reality of this threat with the safety of her world only moments ago.

The intruder then did something that horrified her even more…

He smiled.

As if that facial movement had unlocked something deep and primal inside Celeste, fear and rage swallowed all her other emotions. Without thinking or wasting a second, she planted her feet and swung.

The man pivoted back a step and dodged the hefty blow. The bat slammed into the door and bounced off. As Celeste absorbed the recoil and prepared to take another shot, the man’s hands clamped down on the bat.

His gloved hands.

There was only one reason he’d be wearing them inside her house in the middle of May.

Celeste spat out a couple of four-letter words as the man yanked on the bat like a dog with a chew toy. Celeste released her grip, and he stumbled back a few steps before tossing the bat aside.

For a split second, Celeste was powerless to move as her mind raced through her options. Fend off the intruder? Run somewhere to call the cops? He’d catch her before she could dial 911. She had to fight. The image of the knife block in the kitchen flashed through her mind. Before she could question herself, she spun on her heel and sprinted down the hall.

Heavy footsteps followed her in short order, and her stomach twisted as she realized how little distance she’d gained on the man.

It didn’t matter. Without a knife, she was defenseless. She knew a few self-defense moves, but she was far from a martial arts master.

Where’s Renee? Did she manage to get away and go for help?

As she barreled into the open-air kitchen, she swung around the breakfast bar and reached for the largest knife in the wooden block. The silver blade caught the faint glow of the night-light as she whipped around to face her attacker.

Lunging toward him, she aimed the blade at his torso. If she could hit him center mass, odds were good she’d stab something vital.

But just like he’d done with the bat, the son of a bitch sidestepped the blade whistling just past his chest. Despite the dodge, Celeste took grim satisfaction as the blade sliced through his upper arm.

If she could regain her balance, she could lash out again, and maybe this time she’d gain the upper hand.

But she’d barely taken a half a step back when the man’s hands snapped out. As he slammed his closed fist into the side of Celeste’s neck, a distinct sting from his other hand followed the blow.

In the blink of an eye, the butcher knife became too heavy for her to carry, and the world melted around her like a wax museum in a five-alarm fire. Eyelids heavy, she willed herself to stand up, to keep the knife in her grasp.

But none of those thoughts connected. Somewhere in her brain, the synapses stopped firing, and the world dimmed.

Celeste blinked, hoping the effort would clear her vision. When she finally forced open her leaden eyelids, however, she wasn’t standing in the kitchen anymore.

The overhead light burned bright as a supernova, and she struggled to recall when she’d turned it on. Was she still in her house?

Her pulse pounded in her head like a war drum, sparks of pain exploding with each god-awful thump.

“Wake up.”

The unfamiliar voice came with a renewed wave of agony, and her stomach churned. She’d experienced her share of illnesses, but she’d never felt this awful before.

“Wake up!”

The man’s tone was more vehement the second time. Celeste finally dared to crack open her eyes. The dark form of the man in a gas mask loomed over her, blocking out much of the light. Behind the mask, she imagined, an expression of malevolent glee matched his tone.

As much as she wanted to tell him to fuck off, she couldn’t force her tongue to form the words. Something clogged the inside of her mouth.

A gag.

“I’m going to make you famous, Celeste.”

Go to hell.

She compelled her body to resist, to stand up, to fight back…

Nothing happened. She remained stuck to one of her kitchen chairs like she’d been superglued to the stupid seat.

Through slitted eyes, she peered up at the man, torn between hate and desperation. He held up a glass bottle filled with a clear liquid, which reflected like a diamond under the light. But what the liquid was, Celeste had no idea.

With his free hand, the man yanked her head back by her hair, eliciting a grunt from the back of her throat. The overhead light pierced her vision, even after she slammed her eyes closed. But the burn of the brightness was nothing compared to what came next.

Liquid fire sloshed over the side of Celeste’s face, pain searing through her nerves like a living, breathing thing. White hot flames danced across her skin, spreading down her body. A mewling sound filled her ears, and not until she felt the gag compress in her mouth did she realize it was her own voice.

Adrenaline surged through her, and she struggled against the binds keeping her arms attached to the chair, trying in vain to find some way out of the fucking chair. But her muscles were still weak from whatever he’d injected her with. A million images flashed through her mind, roiling her insides, until the pain boiled everything down to the only thing she had left.

She screamed and screamed, muffled pleas for help that no one would ever hear.

Chapter Two

Stepping out of the passenger door of a silver Acura, Special Agent Amelia Storm stifled a yawn. She tucked her long, dark hair behind her ears and smoothed down her blue button-down shirt, plucking an errant cat hair from her sleeve. Closing the car door, she caught sight of herself in the reflection of the window. Aside from her tired green eyes, she looked every bit the polished and professional FBI agent she tried to be daily.

Barely suppressing another yawn, she made her way around the back of the car to where her former case partner-turned-lover, Zane Palmer, stood, stainless steel thermos in one hand, the other tucked in the pocket of his black slacks. They no longer worked in the same division at the Bureau, but they still carpooled almost every day. The only difference was now Amelia departed the elevator on the fifth floor—the section of the Chicago Field Office devoted to the Violent Crime Division—instead of the sixth.

Since moving back to Chicago slightly more than a year ago, Amelia had spent all but the last two months with Zane in the Organized Crime Division. Ultimately, she’d grown tired of the mob painting a bull’s-eye on her back, as well as the constant game of Whac-A-Mole.

Chicago was a city with a long history of organized criminal enterprises, and modern times were no exception. The Bureau had become adept at investigating and prosecuting mob-related crimes, but the city’s mafiosos were resilient. Putting away the Mafia kingpins was a necessary job. Someone had to do it. And for a while, Amelia gave it her all.

Now, however, she preferred her work in the Violent Crime Division. There was a certain level of satisfaction that came with apprehending a cold-blooded killer, knowing for certain she’d saved more innocent people from a terrible fate. For the foreseeable future, she’d leave the mob cleanup to Zane and the rest of Organized Crime.

After Zane locked the car, they made their way out of the veritable concrete fortress that was the FBI’s parking garage. Though Amelia favored the cooler months of the year, she had to admit it was nice to see the sun when she got to work at the ungodly hour of seven a.m. With the walls of massive windows spanning the Chicago FBI Field Office, the sunshine gave the place a far more welcoming feel.

Zane sipped his coffee. “So what’s on your and Steelman’s agenda for today? More follow-up on that social media case, right?”

At the question, a gruesome image of a woman’s disfigured face, skin and tissue partially melted off in places to expose the white of her cheekbone, flashed to Amelia’s mind. In a single heartbeat, the inner peace the sunrise evoked faded into oblivion. “Yeah. Hopefully, this weekend was enough time for us to come back to it refreshed.”

Zane’s sober expression matched the abrupt change in Amelia’s spirits. “Well, for what it’s worth, I’m glad you two are taking point on this. I think it was smart that the Chicago PD asked the FBI to take over the case. They have limited resources, and I know you guys won’t stop until you put this sick fuck away.”

His statement spurred on Amelia’s sense of grim determination. Though she and Zane often discussed their work outside the office, Amelia hadn’t mentioned much about her current case. There was something particularly disconcerting about the serial killer who’d attacked eight people—young influencers and those around them—in their homes, and she’d wanted to take the weekend away from the investigation.

She hadn’t been on the case for long, but with four of the victims still alive, there’d been plenty of information to puzzle through. Amelia offered Zane a reassuring smile. “You know we’ll do our best.”

Zane returned the smile, and they reached the set of double doors near the corner of the parking garage. They didn’t speak much on their short trip to the elevator, but the quiet wasn’t unusual, especially considering the early time of day. By now, Amelia and Zane were comfortable enough in one another’s presence that they didn’t feel the need to fill the silence at every moment.

When the elevator doors opened on the fifth floor, they said their goodbyes, with Zane reminding her about the pork chops he’d promised to make for dinner. Now that he’d moved into Amelia’s apartment, they traded off the task of making food, usually based on the other’s caseload.

Amelia gulped a few slugs of coffee as she hurried down the hall to the newest incident room she and Special Agent Dean Steelman were using for the case. Though she expected to find the little conference room empty, she was pleasantly surprised to find Dean already there, peering intently at his laptop.

The agent’s sapphire eyes snapped up from the screen. “Morning, Storm. Nice to see you here bright and early.”

With a snort, Amelia closed the door and unshouldered her handbag. “You know early mornings are drilled into my head. It’s what a decade in the military does to a person.”

Dean grinned. “I wasn’t in for a whole decade, but I hear ya. It’s only been in the last few years I’ve finally shaken the habit of automatically waking up at five.”

“Even if I managed to unlearn the early-to-rise habit, my cat wakes me up at the ass crack of dawn. You know how cats are. If they can see the bottom of their food bowl, that means it’s empty.”

“They’re neurotic little animals, aren’t they?” Just enough of Dean’s Southern accent tinged his words to serve as a reminder that he’d been born and raised in West Virginia. During their last case, Amelia had learned that even though Dean had grown up in a small town, he’d been exposed to his fair share of crime and violence.

“Yes, they are.” Amelia set her handbag in one of the chairs at the oval table and turned toward the whiteboard. Every time she read the names below the before and after photos of each young woman who’d been attacked, her heart still broke a little.

“Okay, let’s talk through all these cases and see if we can’t make some sense of this.” Experience had proven to Amelia that a kernel of a lead could turn up when the case facts were recited out loud. Hearing the details often unearthed a new way of thinking about the case. “Let’s take it from the top and see where it goes.”

Leaning back in his chair, Dean stretched both arms above his head. “Good plan.” He gestured to the leftmost name on the board. “Our first victims are Ricky and Leanna Murillo. They lived in Chicago their entire lives and had just recently bought a house in the neighborhood where Ricky grew up.”

“Rough introduction to homeownership.” Amelia stared at the photo of the cozy-looking home.

Dean craned his neck. “True. According to the statement Leanna gave from her hospital bed, the perp broke into the house at around two in the morning. She woke her husband when she thought she heard someone in the living room, and he told her to stay put while he went and checked it out.”

Anger flashed through Amelia’s mind as she glanced at the two side-by-side photos of Leanna. In one, she wore a bright smile as her brunette hair framed her face. In the second, bandages covered half her face where she’d been burned by acid. Her right eye had been surgically removed after the acid ate through her cornea, and she was lucky the attack spared her left eye.

Dean crossed his arms, his gaze still fixed on the whiteboard. “She waited for Ricky to come back, but he didn’t. She heard a muffled thumping sound, but thought it was just him in the living room. When he didn’t come back after she called to him, she got up to go check. As soon as she stepped into the hall, a tall man jumped out of the shadows and injected her with a substance that presumably knocked her unconscious.”

Amelia pushed aside the sense of terror Leanna must have felt in those moments. It was a fine line she had to walk in her work, feeling compassion for the victims while keeping her rational mind cool. She referred to the case file before picking up where Dean’s recap left off.

“When she woke up, she was bound to a chair in the living room. She tried to scream for help, but the perpetrator had stuffed some kind of cloth in her mouth so she couldn’t speak. He’d turned on a light, but she couldn’t see his face. Just a gas mask, a black jacket, black cargo pants, gloves, and black boots.”

“She did see enough of his wrist to know that he was white, but she couldn’t pinpoint any other identifying features other than his height and build.” Dean rubbed his clean-shaven chin. “Her description is consistent with the other three living victims. This guy really goes through a lot of trouble to make sure none of them can describe him, doesn’t he?”

Amelia wasn’t surprised. She still didn’t understand why the man had left the acid attack victims alive after murdering the other person or people in their households, but he wouldn’t want them of identifying him. “He claims he’s punishing them by letting them live, right? He only said a few words to Leanna, but he’s talked a little more to each victim since then.”

“Right. He wants them to live with the permanent scars from the acid burns.”

“But why kill the other people in the household?” Amelia waved a hand at the whiteboard. “He’s murdered four people and maimed another four. It’s apparent the women he’s disfigured are his intended targets, not the folks he killed. The survivors are social media influencers. All of them had decent-sized platforms, though their brands weren’t quite the same.” She crossed her arms. “The common thread seems to be self-improvement aimed at women.”

“It’s almost like he resents them for it.” Dean drummed his fingers on the table. “It’s possible he kills their friend or family member to eliminate witnesses, but it’s just as possible he’s killing them to torment the women he disfigures.”

In truth, the concept of leaving a victim alive after killing their loved one was familiar to Amelia from early on in her time in Organized Crime. She’d worked with the Bureau for more than two years, and almost all her experience had to do with the Mob.

If the killer’s motive was the same, he murdered these women’s family members and friends just to send the disfigured women a message.

A horrible message filled with grief and guilt that will haunt them for the rest of their lives.

As if he could read her mind, Dean leaned forward and tapped a few keys on his laptop. “We’ll be meeting with Agent Redker soon. He’s been working on putting together a profile for this guy, so hopefully he can shed some more light on what we’re dealing with.”

A sliver of relief edged its way into Amelia’s grim thoughts. Special Agent Layton Redker had spent most of his time at the Bureau in the Cyber Crime Unit, but he’d transferred to the Behavioral Analysis Unit about five months ago. Amelia’d had the pleasure of working with the man a handful of times already. He was a good guy and an excellent agent, and she was grateful he would be aiding in her and Dean’s newest case.

She reached for her coffee and took a sip, its bittersweet heat pleasant on her tongue. “Well, even without Redker to confirm it, I think it’s safe to say this guy is escalating, don’t you think?”

“Yeah.” Dean glanced at her and then at the dry-erase board. “Leanna Murillo was attacked a little less than two years ago, and then the killer went dormant for almost a year before he killed Heidi Wheeler and attacked Rachelle Perry. If Perry’s other roommate hadn’t been out of town that night, she’d probably have been killed too.”

Amelia’s gaze landed on Rachelle’s photo on the dry-erase board. Her chestnut hair highlighted her tanned features. She was the picture of health. At least, she had been…before her assailant threw acid on her face.

All the details they’d covered before the weekend were still fresh to Amelia. “Between that murder and the next, there was only seven months. He killed Bo Caldwell and attacked his live-in girlfriend, Jennifer Marovich, this past January. Only that time…he took photos and posted them on her social media accounts.”

“Photos of her but not Bo. The hair on one side of her head had been burned away by acid, and her ear looked as if it had melted. And the caption for each photo was the same. It simply read ‘Baptized.’” Dean pursed his lips, staring at Jennifer’s picture on the whiteboard like it owed him money. “And then, when he posted pictures of the next victim, Carly Marston, he made a comment about how she wouldn’t be leading her followers astray anymore.”

Amelia’s mouth twisted. “Does he think the acid is somehow purifying these women?”

“Your guess is as good as mine. Hopefully, Layton will be able to shed some light on that when he presents his profile.”

Amelia stood in front of the whiteboard, her hands on her hips. “Okay, so for the victims, one thing that jumps out is that they all have brown hair. They have it styled differently and cut to different lengths, but everyone’s a brunette. And each of these women are Caucasian in their twenties.” She placed her palm flat on the whiteboard between the photos of Jennifer and Carly. “I’d say this guy has a type.”

Before she could continue her victimological assessment, a knock at the door jerked her and Dean’s attention away from the whiteboard.

Dean furrowed his brow. “It’s unlocked.”

With a slight creak, the door swung inward to reveal a man Amelia vaguely recognized as he who used to be Agent Layton Redker’s case partner, Keith Ponthieux from Cyber Crimes. His curly hair was close cropped and neatly styled, and his light-brown skin showed only the first hints of laugh lines.

“Morning.” He held up a sleek tablet as he entered. The door eased closed behind him. “I’ve got news. Urgent. Look at this. Was just uploaded minutes ago.”

Amelia and Dean made their way to the table as Agent Ponthieux tapped the screen of the tablet.

A video burst to life, depicting a young woman bound to a wooden chair. Chestnut hair obscured her face like a curtain, only disturbed when a gloved hand snapped from out of frame to lift her head. At the movement, her eyelids fluttered, and she murmured something unintelligible.

Horror dawned over Amelia, prickling up the back of her neck.

The gloved hand disappeared as the camera wobbled closer to the bound woman. When the hand reappeared, it clutched a glass vial of a clear substance.

Amelia tried to process what she was witnessing. “Now he’s recording the attacks? Has it even been two weeks since the last one? This asshole is escalating and getting bolder with each attack. Crap, that’s nitric acid, isn’t it? He’s going to—”

The woman’s muffled screams cut off Amelia’s words mid-sentence. Even through the cloth stuffed in her mouth, there was no mistaking her agony.

Her pale skin blistered as the acid burnt its way through the epidermis and down to the tissue below. The young woman thrashed in place, her wrists straining against plastic zip ties binding her to the chair. It was impossible to shove aside the terror the victim felt, not when it was right there in front of Amelia’s eyes.

The killer was escalating, and he’d struck again.

Fame has a deadly price.

Special Agent Amelia Storm, a seasoned FBI veteran, thought stepping away from the Organized Crime Unit and its mafia entanglements would lead to less complex and dangerous cases. She was wrong. Now in the Violent Crimes Division, Amelia is haunted by a chilling pattern that mirrors mob brutality.

Murder as a message.

How else can she explain why this serial killer murders everyone in the home but leaves the victim alive…and horrifically disfigured by acid? Read More