A Taste of... Storm's cut
The faint chill of the evening breeze left a series of goose bumps along the exposed skin of Kari Hobill’s forearms. It was early April, and the weather had begun to warm, but the air still carried a cool bite, as if trying to hold on to winter a little bit longer. She paused at the start of the walking trail that snaked through the partially wooded park, pulling in a deep breath to savor the bright scents of spring.
Out here in the suburbs bordering Chicago, Kari could fully enjoy the start of her favorite season. Sure, the city had its perks, and not all the smells were bad—she distinctly recalled how much she’d loved to walk past a locally owned bakery on her lunch breaks and catch a whiff of the delectable treats—but for the most part, Kari didn’t miss the hustle and bustle.
Though there were plenty of parks where she could go for a walk or a run, the city always carried the risk of being jumped, mugged, or worse. Kari had made a habit of carrying pepper spray, and even considered a Taser at one point, but they weren’t legal in the state of Illinois. Chances were, she didn’t need to go to such lengths out here in the ’burbs, but old habits died hard. Nearly a decade in Chicago had ingrained caution in her.
However, the main aspect of Chicago she didn’t miss was the memory of the time she’d spent with her ex-husband, Clint Haney. Six months ago, before the divorce was even finalized, Kari had packed up and moved to a sleepy suburb where her father and a couple of family friends lived.
She’d never envisioned herself as the type of person to settle down in a place filled with cookie-cutter houses and manicured lawns, but to her surprise, she enjoyed the quiet lifestyle. She didn’t quite have the money to buy a house, but her rental in suburbia was comfortable.
As a thirty-year-old social worker, her days of living among her clients in the city had come and gone. After a long and sometimes rewarding day of helping folks, the last thing Kari wanted was to meet one of her clients while waiting for the L, the elevated train system in Chicago. Sure, she was still young, still had a full life ahead of her, but that life no longer involved an endless cluster of strangers.
Shaking off her musings, Kari took another deep breath as she hopped from one foot to the other. Her head was all sorts of jumbled right now, and she knew a good run at dusk was just what she needed to get her thoughts to cooperate.
Smile, Kari. Fake it ’til you make it, remember?
She stretched both arms above her head and grinned. While bending forward, she flexed one foot, then the other to get her hammies stretched. A pre-run ritual to loosen up her muscles.
Checking the parking lot to make sure it was all clear—a habit from days gone by—she took comfort that her cherry-red Hyundai was the only vehicle present. Pressing her lips together, she made her way to the smooth sidewalk that would take her through a copse of trees, over a small creek, and through a grassy field before looping around back to the parking lot.
“All right. Let’s do this.”
She took off at a modest jog. Fitness hadn’t always been a priority for Kari. In fact, she’d detested exercise until three years ago, when she’d gone to the gym with a friend from college in an effort to feel less self-conscious. Ironically, of the two of them, Kari had been the one who wound up delving into a full-on lifestyle change. She’d dropped three dress sizes since then and gained a world of confidence.
Even as her feet pounded the ground and her breathing accelerated, Kari let out a quiet snort, thinking about her old friend. She hadn’t seen her in forever. She made a note to call her later in the week, or at least text to catch up.
Running was the activity she used to process the random, anxious energy coursing through her brain. She envisioned herself leaving the thoughts behind as she ran, using the mindset to motivate herself. Whoever said running from your problems never solved anything was wrong, at least in Kari’s case.
Crisscrossed branches of leafless trees shaded the path and cut through the warmth of the waning sunlight. Despite the sheen of sweat beginning to form on her skin, a chill skittered down Kari’s back. The scene was peaceful enough, but shifting from sunlight to shade always gave her a jolt of paranoia.
It’s okay. I’ve got mace, and I’ve got this.
Shaking off the baseless anxiety, Kari almost leapt out of her skin at the crackles of dried grass and leaves to her right. Her head whipped to the side where trees and weeds bordered the creek that meandered through the park. Just ahead of her, the shadowy figure of a man emerged from behind the trunk of a tall oak, and Kari’s hand shot straight to the mace in her pocket as she skidded to a stop. Every muscle tensed in preparation for potential danger.
This is a park. Other people come here too. But what is he doing down by the creek? There’s at least a ten-foot drop to the water. Was he hiding there?
She clenched her jaw. Whoever the young man was, he still seemed oblivious to her presence. His gaze was fixed on an object in his hand—his phone, she assumed.
Was he homeless? No, Kari could tell his clothes were clean, maybe even new. His dark blond hair was shaggy but not dirty.
A Peeping Tom?
Back when she and Clint were still together, she and a couple of other women in their apartment complex had been the object of a creeper’s obsession. Eventually, he was caught by the police, but the violation of privacy had left an emotional scar. Whenever she spotted a man behaving strangely, she jumped to the worst-case scenario.
The person in front of her wasn’t a man, though. He was more like a kid. Was he even eighteen? His face was clean-shaven, so maybe he just appeared young.
Kari cleared her throat to announce her presence.
Shoulders going rigid, the young man froze in place as his pale blue eyes snapped up to meet hers. All the emotions that had just rushed through Kari’s mind—uncertainty, worry, and yes, even a little fear—flashed over his face in a split second.
Unless he was a very good actor, she’d apparently caught him just as off guard as he’d caught her.
His Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed. “H-hello. Sorry, you, uh,” he cleared his throat, straightening his back as he did, “surprised me a little bit. I didn’t see any cars in the parking lot when I got here, so I assumed I was alone.”
What on earth was a kid his age doing traipsing around near a creek bed at six thirty on a Saturday evening? Shouldn’t he be out partying or playing video games with his friends? Or meeting a girl at the park so they could make out?
Of course, he could be older than he looked, she knew. At shorter than five feet and barely a hundred pounds, Kari had been mistaken for a child on more than one occasion.
Kari loosened her death grip on the mace. “You’re out here alone?”
A flush crept up the kid’s cheeks, and Kari was struck with a jolt of the same embarrassment for her accusatory tone. “Um, my mom dropped me off while she ran to the store.”
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to sound rude. It’s just…weird.”
He let out a nervous laugh. “It is kinda weird, isn’t it?” He lifted his phone. “I’m taking some pictures for my science class. We’re studying botany right now.”
“Taking pictures of what? All the plants are still dead.” Kari silently cursed herself for how much edginess was left in her voice. Clearly, small talk with strangers outside her job was something she needed to work on.
Rather than appearing offended, the kid’s expression brightened. “That’s what I said when he gave us the assignment. I’m glad someone else thinks this is dumb too. But I guess not all the plants are dead-dead. Some of them will be growing again in a few weeks, and I’m supposed to come back and take more pictures then.”
His explanation made sense. Kari was about twelve years removed from high school, but she could still recall the bizarre projects some of her teachers had assigned.
“Anyway, um, it was nice to meet you.” The kid glanced at his phone. “But I better go. I’ve got a few more pictures to take before Mom picks me up.”
Kari forced an amiable smile onto her face. “Nice to meet you too. Good luck with your project.”
With a wave of his hand, the young man headed back down into the trees.
Kari waited a beat before she let out a long sigh. Annoyed at her paranoia, she rolled her shoulders and returned to a slow jog.
To her relief, the remainder of her run was uneventful. No other students were skulking in the grass taking photos for one of their assignments. In fact, Kari didn’t come across another soul. Her only companions were the birds and squirrels chattering in the leafless trees.
Still, despite the near certainty she was alone, Kari couldn’t shake the creepy-crawly sensation that someone was watching her.
Was the kid taking pictures of dead plants secretly a budding serial killer? Kari had seen enough news articles to know even young kids were capable of despicable acts.
Should she have asked him more questions?
Her stomach twisted as she crested the gentle slope leading to the parking lot. Maybe he’d been out searching for his next victim, and he’d show up at her house later that night to…
Stop it. You’re being ridiculous. He’s just a kid working on a project for his class.
Perhaps, but Kari’s racing mind wouldn’t be put to rest until she was home behind a locked door with a baseball bat nearby.
Kari peered at the shrubs and trees bordering the parking lot, partially convinced an assailant was lurking, waiting for the perfect moment to strike. Her calves burned from the exertion of the run, but she was so absorbed in monitoring her surroundings she barely noticed the unpleasant sensation.
Not watching the path ahead, she bowled over a man standing where the walking trail met the sidewalk leading to the parking lot. Adrenaline surged through her body.
“Shit.” Immediately, she regretted swearing, a leftover admonition from her childhood that cursing showed a lack of eloquence.
Though she half expected to find the “roadblock” to be the same kid from earlier, it wasn’t. As this new strange man spun around to face her, eyes wide with surprise, she was struck with the notion they’d crossed paths before today. For the life of her, she couldn’t recall where she’d seen him, though.
Resting a hand over his heart, the stranger sucked in a deep breath and offered her an uneasy smile. “Holy smokes, miss, you just about scared the daylights out of me.”
The hairs on the back of Kari’s neck rose to attention.
By her best guess, he was in his forties or fifties. Did older guys really talk like that, or was he a cartoon character? Kari’s dad was pushing sixty, and he definitely didn’t use the same turns of phrase as this man.
Kari licked her lips as she forced her way past the rampant sense of apprehension. “Sorry. I must’ve been spacing out. I didn’t even see you.”
With a grin, he waved a dismissive hand. “All’s well that ends well. Say, what are you doing out here so close to nightfall? Are you alone?”
Alarm bells sounded off in Kari’s head with every thud of her pulse.
Why did he want to know if she was alone? She found it hard to believe a strange man standing at the edge of a parking lot cared about her welfare. Besides, her car was right there. She was about to leave, and he was the only thing barring her path. As nonchalantly as possible, Kari reached into the pocket where she kept her mace.
Better safe than sorry.
“Out for a run. Was just about to head home.” Even as the blood drummed in her ears, she kept her expression as neutral as possible. Not friendly, not edgy, just neutral.
He stuffed both hands in the pockets of his light jacket. Breathing deeply, he nodded his approval. “It’s a great day to be outside. Probably one of the nicest days we’ve had yet this spring, don’t you think?”
Kari fought to return his pleasant expression, but her face was wooden and stiff. All she wanted to do was leave. “Yeah, it sure is. Listen, um, I don’t want to seem rude, but I was just about to head home. I’m all sweaty, and dinner is calling, you know?”
Though he acted like he understood, he didn’t move. “Of course. Say, did you see someone else around while you were on that trail? Someone down that way by the creek. I’m supposed to be picking up a friend.” He pointed in the direction from which she’d come. His face brightened and he waved. “Hey!”
She turned, and immediately realized her mistake.
In the corner of her eye, she caught a flicker of movement and her instincts screamed at her to run. She tried, but time slowed, and the air thickened to the consistency of cold molasses as she turned to assess the threat.
It was real this time. Not some figment of her overactive imagination.
Before she could scream or even raise her hands in defense, a fist slammed into her neck. A second later, a nest of bees seemed to attack her throat. By the time Kari spotted the syringe in his grasp, it was too late.
Her vision swam like the world had become a watercolor painting. Knees wobbling, she gasped for air as she struggled to maintain her balance.
Fight it. Whatever it is, fight, dammit!
Grating her teeth, she willed her hand to free the mace from her pocket. Her fingers started to cooperate, giving her faint hope. She’d heard plenty of stories about adrenaline coming to the rescue of people in dire straits.
Maybe, just maybe…
Her knees buckled as darkness nibbled at the corners of her vision. As she pitched forward to face-plant on the sidewalk, a strong arm circled around her waist and held her upright.
“There, there, Kari. Careful now. I’ve got great plans for you, my dear.”
Plans? How does he know my name?
She opened her mouth to protest, but all that came out was a meager groan before darkness took over.
Blowing on the steaming mug of coffee in her hands, Special Agent Amelia Storm took a seat in a mesh-backed office chair beside Agent Zane Palmer. Despite savoring the delicious coffee from the machine gifted to them when Agent Journey Russo and her sister, Michelle Timmer, had decided to leave Chicago, Amelia’s thoughts drifted back to darker memories.
It had been about nine months since Special Agent Joseph Larson had abducted Michelle. Her subsequent brutal assaults—by both Joseph and Brian “The Shark” Kolthoff—left physical and psychological wounds that would take time and therapy for Michelle to heal. This, Amelia knew all too well. Michelle and Journey had departed Chicago for a fresh start, and Amelia sincerely hoped they’d thrive in a new setting.
In a desperate move after Michelle’s rescue, Joseph kidnapped Amelia’s sister-in-law, Joanna, and took her to a lake house. The corrupt, misogynistic murderer had underestimated Amelia, however, and she used his arrogance to her advantage. While they might never uncover all the secrets that died with Joseph at the lake house, Amelia was grateful to have saved Jo and closed that chapter.
Zane shifted in his seat next to Amelia and she refocused on the present. They’d been called in to help a couple of their fellow agents, Sherry Cowen and Dean Steelman, with a puzzling case. A body had just been recovered in rural Illinois and was currently on its way to the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office. The phone call from Amelia and Zane’s immediate superior, Supervisory Special Agent Spencer Corsaw, hadn’t yielded much detail about the case, only that the SSA from Violent Crimes had asked for their help.
Even on a Sunday evening, murderers didn’t take a break.
At least Journey and Michelle gave us a new coffee maker for the breakroom. Bye, bye to liquid tar.
Smiling, Amelia took a sip of the rich, dark, silky brew.
“Michelle and Journey must have really hated the coffee here.”
Zane’s remark made Amelia wonder if he could read minds, but in reality, he just knew her well enough to figure out what she was thinking when she smiled into her coffee mug.
Amelia and Zane had worked together in the FBI’s Organized Crime Division for nearly a year. During their time together in the Chicago Field Office, they’d forged a strong friendship that had eventually turned romantic.
The evolution of their dynamic was no real surprise to Amelia, but what did surprise her was how seamless the entire transition had been. And bringing Jasmine Keaton, the Special Agent in Charge of the Chicago Field Office, up to speed had been a breeze. There were a few caveats to dating a coworker in a job like Amelia’s—they were discouraged from working potentially dangerous field assignments together, for instance—but for the most part, nothing about their lives in the office had changed.
As the door to the conference room creaked open behind Amelia, she swiveled in her chair to face the newcomers. Her spirit lightened at the sight of Agents Sherry Cowen and Dean Steelman. She and Zane had first worked with the Violent Crimes agents on a case in rural Illinois in the fall of the previous year, and since then, they’d collaborated on a handful of other investigations.
Though Sherry was an inch taller than Amelia’s five-eight frame, she still stood a good half foot shorter than her partner. Dean kept his whiskey-brown hair brushed straight back from his forehead, with only a few stubborn strands hanging over one sapphire eye to graze his cheek. Everything about Agent Steelman, even the way his tie was often slightly askew, screamed detective noir.
Tonight, however, both Dean and Sherry had abandoned their typical office attire, as Sunday nights weren’t exactly in their normal work schedules.
Agent Cowen set a handful of manila folders down in the center of the oval table, and Amelia turned her attention to the task at hand.
Spreading out the four folders, Sherry offered Amelia and Zane an apologetic smile. “Sorry to keep you guys waiting. I know we’ve got all these files digitized, and we can pull them up on the projector, but it sometimes helps to see everything physically laid out.”
Dean chuckled as he closed the door. “You don’t have to lie to us, Cowen. By now, Storm and Palmer know how much you hate fightin’ with technology.”
With a huff, Sherry pushed a strand of ash-blond hair from her face and rested both hands on her hips. “Two things can be true, all right?”
Zane flashed one of his trademark grins, the corners of his gray eyes crinkling. “She’s got a point, you know. There’s a reason we always make murder boards.” A hint of his native Jersey accent tinged his words. Considering he’d spent the first eighteen years of his life in Jersey City, Amelia figured his manner of speaking would never change.
Even though Amelia and Zane had known one another for almost a year, his smile still sent butterflies aflutter in her stomach.
With a mental shake, Amelia tucked away the lovey-dovey sentiment. As much as she enjoyed the company of these three fellow agents—especially the one by her side—they were here for a reason.
“Battles with technology aside, the call for us to come into the office sounded urgent. SSA Corsaw didn’t give us much to go on, but I’m guessing these,” Amelia gestured to the manila folders, “will help with that?”
As if a switch had been flipped, the room’s atmosphere went from jovial to professional. Even a little grim.
Dean took a seat beside Zane, but Sherry remained standing as she pulled out her phone. “Yes. These files contain everything we have on the murders we’ve linked to the body just discovered south of the city earlier today.” She tapped on her device. “I’m sending you everything we’ve got on the victim so far.”
Rather than use her phone, Amelia opened her laptop. When it came to poring over case files, she preferred the easy accessibility. As the screen loaded, she turned back to Sherry. “Has today’s victim been identified?”
“He has.” Sherry circled around the table to the whiteboard. “Kent Manning, age twenty-nine. Middle school gym teacher in Marquette Park, but also coaches little league baseball for the same school district.”
Amelia opened her most recent email, and she was promptly greeted with the warm brown eyes and smiling face of a man almost her age. His dark hair was close-cropped but still parted to one side and neatly styled. If Amelia had to guess, the kids at the middle school likely regarded him as the “cool” teacher, the one they could confide in during tough times. Hell, if she were a middle schooler, she’d feel comfortable around his kind eyes and gentle smile.
The thought squeezed at her heart. This man’s body had just been found, and by the sound of it so far, the killer was connected to at least four other crimes under federal investigation.
“Manning was a probation officer before he became a teacher.” Zane glanced at Amelia, then Sherry. Amelia’s own quiet determination echoed in his expression.
“Right.” Sherry scooped up a dry-erase marker. “His prints were on file, which made for quick identification.”
Amelia didn’t miss the sense of foreboding in Sherry’s tone. “Are we looking into his list of parolees? Seeing if they have alibis?”
Sherry looked through a fifth folder in her hand. “Yes, we definitely want to do that.”
Amelia jotted down some notes. “And what ties him to the other murders?”
Dean’s chair creaked as he pushed it back and rose to his feet. “This is where it starts to get weird, and why our SSA decided we might need a little help from Organized Crime.” He reached for the first of the four manila folders on the table. “All five of our victims were found in rural Illinois south of Chicago, but they were in different locations. Even different counties. One of the common denominators is that they’re within a few hours of the city.”
Sherry tapped the marker against the heel of her hand, her demeanor turning grave. “Cause of death isn’t quite certain, and the time of death for all four victims before Kent was…well, not quite a shot in the dark, but close. In and of itself, that’s a common thread, but the big one is that all four, no, five victims were found with most of their vital organs missing.”
A flurry of questions sprang to mind, but Amelia settled on the most important. “Were the organs removed surgically or through predation?”
Amelia nodded. “Were they the same organs for all five victims?”
Flipping open his manila folder, Dean nodded. “Lungs, liver, kidneys, heart, even parts of their intestines. The eyes of these two,” he tapped the leftmost pair of folders, “were also gone, but the forensic pathologist suspected scavengers might have gotten to them. Both of those vics were badly decomposed by the time they were found.”
“Other than Manning, this is the most recent vic.” Sherry jabbed the end of the marker at the open file. Front and center was a glossy five-by-seven print of a man who couldn’t have been much older than Kent Manning.
Amelia set aside her laptop and scooted closer to the table. “Murphy Pendleton, age thirty-two, worked as a mechanic in Wicker Park. This says he was last seen leaving work in February, and he was reported missing when he didn’t show up for his shift three days in a row.”
Dean’s focused gaze shifted to Pendleton’s file. “Yeah, he just disappeared into thin air. Credit card receipts put him at a gas station on his normal route home, but neighbors said they never saw him pull into the driveway. Pendleton’s murder triggered the case being handed over to the FBI. The smaller counties where the bodies were found weren’t equipped to deal.”
As Zane leaned back in his chair, he tapped an index finger against the armrest—a tell Amelia had noticed when he was contemplative. “Did all the victims live in Chicago?”
“No, not all of them.” Dean flipped open the second folder in line. “Ollie Whitaker’s body was found in early December. Dumped in a rural area, missing his vital organs, just like the others. He was an accountant in Peoria.” The agent let out a short sigh. “Unfortunately, he’d been dead for around a month by the time he was found, so it was difficult to find useful evidence.”
Amelia was about to ask if all the victims were men—a rarity for a serial killer—when Dean opened the third folder. “Maggie Hopkins. Age twenty-seven, worked in human resources for a retail store.”
Maggie’s light-brown eyes sparkled with youth, and even in her driver’s license photo, the young woman practically radiated happiness. As Amelia moved to the next page in the file, she came face-to-face with the image of Maggie’s mottled, bloated face. All the color in her cheeks had drained away, leaving the pallid flesh of a rotting corpse.
After more than two years with the FBI and ten years in the military, Amelia was no stranger to death. But even now, with all she’d witnessed, a little piece of her heart still broke when she saw how cruelly and abruptly a bright light like Maggie Hopkins could be snuffed out of existence.
Not that she ever wanted the sense of melancholy to diminish. Empathy was a vital part of her humanity, and she wouldn’t lose it to desensitization. She used the feelings to motivate herself, to keep going when all hope of finding a new lead had dissipated.
Tapping the gruesome photo with the cap of the dry-erase marker, Sherry Cowen glanced from Amelia to Zane and back. “Ollie Whitaker’s body was found about ten miles away from the site where Maggie Hopkins had been dumped three months earlier. Like Dean said, we weren’t brought in on this case until Pendleton was found. The locals organized a search of the area around the two dump sites, but they didn’t find anything.”
The news didn’t surprise Amelia. Though she’d been born and raised in Chicago, she’d made enough trips to rural Illinois to understand how vast the Midwestern countryside was.
She gestured to the fourth folder. “And who is this?”
Dean flipped open the case file. “The first victim we know about. We aren’t ruling out the possibility that there could be more bodies that haven’t been discovered.” He pointed to a driver’s license photo of another young woman, her honey-brown eyes no less lively than Maggie’s. “Christine Fry’s body was found early June of last year. Like the other four, she’d been dumped in rural Illinois. Her body was found in a creek, and even though the M.E. determined she’d only been dead for a few days, the water and the summer weather did a number on her.”
Studying the woman’s information, Amelia held back a sigh.
During the same month when Christine’s body had been butchered and dumped, Amelia and Zane had been in the midst of a sex trafficking investigation—the same investigation that landed Amelia on the radar of not just the Leóne crime family, but a billionaire D.C. lobbyist known as The Shark.
Who would have thought her first big case at the Chicago Field Office would be so eventful?
Then again, her entire family had a penchant for landing in hot water. Amelia’s older brother, Trevor, had been killed when he’d gotten too close to a corrupt senator’s deep, dark secret, and her younger sister, Lainey, was a heroin addict. When Amelia’s mother had succumbed to cancer twenty years ago, her father had slipped into the throes of an alcohol addiction. Though he’d been clean for four years, the damage to Amelia and her siblings during their formative years had been done.
As for Amelia? Well, her days certainly weren’t devoid of their own controversy. When she’d been a sophomore in high school, she’d dated the heir to a mafia family’s throne. If his father hadn’t chased her out of Chicago and away from his son with lewd threats, only God knew where she’d have ended up.
Invisible spider legs skittered down Amelia’s back, and she silenced the thoughts. She’d made peace with her bizarre family history. Even Zane knew about the Storms’ oddities, and none of the information had changed the way he viewed her.
Amelia swept her gaze over the four photos before her attention came to rest on Dean and Sherry. “You guys have been looking at this from a serial killer angle, then, right?”
“Right.” Sherry waved a hand at the photos. “There are men and women here, but there’s definitely some commonalities between all the vics. They’re all around the same age, healthy, and excluding Kent Manning, they were all single at the time they were killed.”
Scratching the side of his unshaven face, Zane leaned back in his chair. “And their vital organs were missing.”
The pieces clicked together in Amelia’s head, lending the air a foreboding chill. “So we’re thinking we might be dealing with an organ theft ring?”
Dean’s face was a solemn mask. “That’s why you guys are here. You’ve got a good grasp of the way organized crime operates in this city, and we could use fresh eyes. We aren’t ruling out a serial, obviously, but we need to consider all our options.”
All our options.
The words echoed in Amelia’s head like she was standing in a dark, dank cave. During her tenure with the Bureau’s Organized Crime Division, she’d dealt with all manner of traffickers—drugs, guns, prostitution. Organ theft, on the other hand, was a bit more involved than selling a kilo of cocaine to the mob. Especially when the perpetrators were murdering their vics to harvest all their organs, not just drugging them to steal a kidney.
One word during the conversation stuck out to her. Healthy.
“But were they healthy on the inside? We need to cross-check family practitioners, surgeries. We need to start looking into medical history. Maybe our unsub knows for a fact that these vics were healthy through and through.”
Whoever they were, Amelia was confident of one thing. Whoever their unsub was, they wouldn’t stop until they were dead or behind bars.
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