The chilling bite of the night air prickled Jeremy Fitzgerald’s skin, turning every drop of sweat into a cold shard. His heart thundered in his chest, a reminder that he was still alive…for now.
Out of breath and nearly out of hope, he forced his legs to forge deeper into the impenetrable maze of the forest. But was he delving farther into safety or into danger? The darkness gave no answers.
Slivers of moonlight shined through the canopy of leaves and branches overhead, casting ghostly silhouettes that seemed to reach out, threatening to grasp him, while offering little light to illuminate his path. The ground beneath was treacherous, every step a gamble—he could be seconds away from plummeting into an unseen abyss.
Then he’d never find Leslie.
She’d been beside him when they’d begun their race away from the campsite clearing. But now? The void had consumed her too.
Panic tightened its grip, strangling every thought as he searched for her. The disorientation intensified. Was he retracing his steps, or was he stumbling deeper into the predator’s lair? Despair stung his eyes, but he blinked away the tears. He had to find Leslie. Every moment lost was a moment closer to whatever terror had pursued them seizing its prize.
Whispers of the wind seemed to echo her name.
Where are you?
Jeremy’s lungs burned as he dragged in a much-needed breath. Every muscle in his body was on fire, even the parts he was certain he hadn’t used in the desperate escape from his and Leslie’s camp. Christ, how long had he been running?
As he raised his left foot to take another step, his toes slammed into the exposed root of a tree.
Pain jolted up his leg, sharp as a bolt of lightning. He flailed, teetering on the edge of a face-first plunge into the dirt. His palm scraped against bark, and he grasped the trunk of the tree that had tripped him, using it to haul himself back to his feet.
Wheezing, Jeremy held onto the tree as if clutching a life preserver in the middle of the ocean.
This was pointless. His entire desperate journey away from the campsite meant nothing if Leslie got hurt. He didn’t have any semblance of a plan.
How had this happened?
He remembered hearing something rustling outside their tent. Remembered grabbing his phone and cursing when the zipper of the tent got stuck.
Leslie had palmed her pocketknife, joking that she’d have to cut them out.
And she had.
The sudden slice of a blade tearing through the side of their tent had sent panic surging through them both. Leslie—always clever—used the pocketknife to slash through the damn door panel. They’d run away side by side, until…
Jeremy gritted his teeth. He was scared shitless. And though his instincts screamed to keep running until he collapsed or found help, he couldn’t rely on his caveman brain to get him or Leslie through this night alive. He needed to catch his breath, and more importantly, he needed a plan. Something more concrete than run until you can’t.
Leaning against the rough bark of the tree, he scanned the woodland.
He and Leslie weren’t the most outdoors-savvy couple on the planet, but they enjoyed hiking, fishing, and camping when their busy schedules allowed. They were also aware of a few fundamentals of wilderness survival—chief among them being to always maintain a sense of direction. A compass was a basic tool, but it could make the difference between surviving or dying.
To Jeremy’s chagrin, he hadn’t thought to reach for his compass when a machete-wielding maniac attacked him and his fiancée in the middle of the damn night. He’d only grabbed his cell.
Hope bloomed in his chest.
With a trembling hand, Jeremy patted the pockets of his sweatpants.
“Holy shit.” The words were barely a whisper, his voice cracked and small. As his hand closed around the smartphone, he permitted himself the first glimpse of optimism so far that night.
Though Lake Henrietta—a body of water not far from the Mississippi River and a popular destination for hikers, fishers, and campers alike—felt remote, Jeremy and Leslie’s phones had both received a strong signal when they’d set up their tent earlier.
As Jeremy fumbled with the device, he clenched his free hand into a fist. The entire traumatic situation had left him trembling, his pulse drumming in his ears like the bass line to a heavy metal song. Though adrenaline had fueled his escape from the lunatic with the machete, fine motor movements like entering in a PIN to unlock his phone were challenging.
On the fourth try, the dial pad gave way to the home screen of Jeremy’s cell.
The four bars of service he’d noted earlier in the day were gone, replaced by the no-service icon.
An overwhelming sense of hopelessness tightened his throat. There was no way he’d run far enough to put himself out of his carrier’s service area, was there?
Jeremy stuffed the phone back into his pocket. Without service, it was useless. And with no clue as to his whereabouts, so was the compass.
Raking a hand through his sweat dampened hair, Jeremy pushed away from the tree. Though he didn’t know where he was headed, he had to keep moving. The longer he stayed in one place, the more likely he was to be found by the man chasing him. And it had definitely been a man. As they’d fled, Jeremy had caught sight of a hulking figure built like an NFL linebacker as he destroyed their new four-person tent.
Rather than resume his chaotic pace, Jeremy moved through the darkness at a swift walk. He strained his senses for any signs of Leslie or, God forbid, their attacker. Other than the soft crackle of grass beneath his feet and the chatter of night birds, the woods were quiet.
Were they too quiet, or had he simply missed the relative calm while he’d been running for his life?
Without the thunder of his pulse deafening him, Jeremy became acutely aware of how loud his movements were. No matter his effort to tread carefully, something gave him away with each step. A twig, a dried leaf, the swish of his pajama pants, even the squelch of mud. Maybe he was better off sprinting.
But what would happen if he ran headlong into a low-hanging tree branch and knocked himself unconscious? Hell, he’d damn near done that only moments ago. Now that he’d eluded the madman from camp, he was better off not risking his welfare for a little extra distance.
A light crackle from off to the right snapped him to attention. Anxiety and adrenaline froze his tired body in place as he strained to make out the source of the disturbance. Thin overhead leaves, just starting to grow for summer, allowed more of the moon’s glow to reach the ground. Still, the meager light wasn’t enough to make out any distinct shapes.
He stood as still as a corpse, only his eyes flicking back and forth. As the agonizing seconds dragged on, nothing stirred. Not an animal, not a murderous psychopath with a long silver blade, not Jeremy’s lost fiancée.
Flexing his hands, Jeremy swallowed against the oppressive dryness in his mouth. There was a distinct possibility a raccoon or a deer had made the noise, but with the experience from camp so clearly etched in his mind, he wasn’t keen on dismissing it.
He needed to keep moving.
After a few more steps, he caught another faint sound. A new sound.
Running water. Muted at first but clearer as Jeremy trudged onward. When he conjured up a mental image of the map of Lake Henrietta and the surrounding area, he recalled a smaller river near the lake, the Grove River. There were a handful of creeks in the area, as well, but the rush of water was too strong to belong to a small creek. Even if it did, Jeremy didn’t care. One of the rules of survival he’d learned was to follow rivers and creeks when lost.
If memory served, Grove River fed into the Mississippi in one direction and wound its way from a small town in the other. In either case, he was confident he could find his way to civilization if he followed the river.
With cautious optimism lending him renewed energy, Jeremy hurried toward the running water. Trees loomed tall on either side of him, but directly ahead, the moon’s glow illuminated a grassy clearing.
Jeremy had every intention of double-checking his surroundings to ensure the madman and his machete weren’t lying in wait just out of sight before approaching the river’s bank. Though the clearing seemed like a reprieve from the confusing tangle of woodland he’d navigated so far, open space would also make him an obvious target to any crazy backwoods murderer who might’ve been hot on his trail.
Slowly, painstakingly, he neared the clearing. As he emerged from behind a tall oak, his view of the grassy area was unobstructed.
His gaze snapped to the form of a body crumpled a mere six feet from the line of trees.
Breath caught in his throat, Jeremy could only gawk at the still form.
Is it a deer?
Don’t be stupid. It’s human.
Maybe Leslie overpowered the guy with the machete?
Of their own volition, his feet took him toward the body. With each agonizing step, his mind screamed for him to turn and run, that whatever was in front of him, he didn’t want to see. That he couldn’t deal with this reality. Not right now. Not with a psychopath still on the loose.
Reality clarified as he drew close—the body was too small to belong to the madman.
After fully emerging from the woods, now just a dozen feet away, Jeremy realized with a sickening sense of dread that the still form was that of a woman. As a wispy cloud drifted past the moon, the glow shined on the body’s light hair.
Jeremy had found Leslie.
A million thoughts whipped through his head at Mach 3, but he could only focus on checking if Leslie was still alive. Her form lay still, but in the low light, Jeremy could easily overlook the slight rise and fall of her chest. And though she was out in the open, patchy shadows obscured her.
Jeremy sprinted out from his flimsy cover behind a pine tree.
Halfway to Leslie, a man’s voice stopped him.
“Ah, what exactly do you think you’re doing, kid?” The tone was laden with mocking derision. As the man’s tall form came into view, Jeremy knew why. Though he hadn’t caught much of the machete man’s face, this person’s black hoodie, cargo pants, and combat boots were exactly the same as what he’d spotted outside the tent.
Jeremy’s head swiveled back and forth from Leslie to Machete Man.
Moonlight caught the red-tinged silver of the wicked hunting knife as Machete Man held his arms out wide, a sickening smile on his face. “What? Nothing to say?”
Far too late, the pieces clicked together in Jeremy’s head. The red stain on the knife, the dark shadow by Leslie. Not a shadow. A pool of blood.
As if without a care in the world, Machete Man strolled toward her. “You know, I’m a little disappointed in you, Jeremy. When I saw you and your girl set up camp earlier, I thought for sure you’d put up a good fight. But look at you. Standing here with your thumb up your ass.”
His words fanned the fires of rage that burned in Jeremy’s stomach. He wished he could charge at the smug son of a bitch and throw him headfirst into the river. Hold him under the surface until he gasped for air…then do it again.
But the man had a good six inches on him, not to mention the discrepancy in muscle mass. He was built like a brick shithouse. And the clean-shaven face—he probably wasn’t some backwoods hillbilly. Oh, plus the giant knife.
Jeremy knew a losing battle when he saw one. He had a single hope.
Run. Make it to a town and tell the cops everything.
Whipping around, he ran. But he stopped cold when another shadow emerged from the woods he was heading back into. The new figure was clad in all black, just like Machete Man, but notably smaller.
She raised a weapon—Jeremy could swear it was a crossbow—and took aim at him.
Jeremy skirted to the side and lost his footing on the soft earth, but the movement paid off. The air beside his face whistled as a projectile flew past his head and over his shoulder.
“Shit!” He regained his balance and hurtled toward the trees.
The woman in black muttered something Jeremy couldn’t make out, and for a beat, he thought he might actually make it to the woods.
Except, a couple of feet from the relative cover of a few old pines, something slammed into his shoulder with enough force to spin him nearly one hundred and eighty degrees, dropping him to his knees. Fire blossomed from the site of the collision.
Fighting the excruciating pain, Jeremy scrambled up and turned back toward the woods.
He made it one step before another rush of searing fire slammed into his ribs. Falling to one knee, he wailed as he grasped desperately at his side. Blood crept up the back of his throat like bile, and when he tried to drag in a breath of precious oxygen, he was greeted with a wet sucking sensation in his chest. The pain from his shoulder and his ribs coalesced into one white-hot inferno that threatened to incinerate his consciousness.
Jeremy blinked…or at least, he intended to blink.
When he opened his eyes, he was no longer kneeling in front of the line of trees. Instead, he was face to face with his fiancée’s glassy, lifeless stare.
How had he gotten here? He’d been trying to get away from where Machete Man was lording over her body.
“You’re still in there, aren’t you, kid?” Machete Man chuckled, a low rumble in his throat. “Well, you won’t be for long, so let’s get this party started, shall we?”
“Hurry up.” It was the woman, sharp and impatient.
Jeremy didn’t hear what she said after that. His limbs had grown cold, his teeth chattering from a chill he’d never before experienced.
When Machete Man took hold of Leslie’s hair, waving the blade in Jeremy’s face, Jeremy noted for the first time a gaping wound beneath his fiancée’s chin. In the dimming moonlight, it looked like darkness itself trying to claw its way out of her neck.
Jeremy wanted to say he was sorry, that they should’ve gone to her parents’ lake house instead of on a stupid camping trip. His dumb idea. But as he opened his mouth, only a wet gurgle came forth.
As his grasp on reality slipped away, he could’ve sworn Machete Man slid his blade across Leslie’s forehead. He struggled to hold his heavy lids open as a dark liquid oozed from the cut like sludge, blanketing the love of his life’s face until all went black.
Resting both hands on her hips, Special Agent Amelia Storm peered down at the travel suitcase flung open at the foot of her bed. Her go bag was beside it, but it sure wasn’t “go” ready.
“Someone needs to kick my ass.”
In all fairness, she’d been pretty busy the past few weeks. She’d had big case after big case, and the mountains of paperwork that followed had taken up almost every moment of the last ten days. But still…
She checked her watch and cursed. She had less than half an hour to get back to the Bureau. With Chicago’s traffic, she’d probably still be late even if she left this very instant.
“Which is why you must have your go bags ready for any contingency.” Lord, how many times had her Quantico trainer preached that to her?
No matter how often she’d traveled during her time with the FBI—not to mention the ten years she’d spent in the military before that—she was always worried she’d forget an essential item. Her toothbrush, deodorant, socks, even shoes.
Anytime she traveled, she always triple- and quadruple-checked her suitcase to ensure she wouldn’t have to make an inconvenient trip to a convenience store.
Forgetting socks or shampoo wasn’t the end of the world, but Amelia figured everyone had their little irrational worries when traveling. Besides, her diligence over the years was likely the reason she hadn’t wound up leaving an essential item behind.
When she’d walked into the FBI office that morning for her first day as a full-fledged member of the Bureau’s Violent Crime Unit, she hadn’t expected to have to travel for her newest case. The Chicago field office served Cook County as well as the northern portion of the state of Illinois, but usually there was more than enough work in the city to keep her and her fellow agents occupied. Cramming millions of people into a relatively small space had that effect.
Standing in her bedroom, Amelia returned her focus to the suitcase. “Let’s see…shampoo, conditioner, toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant…” She tapped each item as she listed it, shuffling through the excessive amount of clothing she’d packed to ensure she’d put together proper outfits.
“Good lord, how long are you going to be gone? A month?” The familiar voice pulled her attention to the bedroom doorway. Though Zane Palmer had worked at the Chicago Field Office for as long as Amelia, hints of his native Jersey accent still tinged his words.
Amelia groaned as Zane shot her one of his trademark grins. Even though she was glad to see him before she left, she didn’t want him to witness her last-minute scramble.
Leaning against the doorframe, he loosened his royal blue tie. He looked handsome in his tailored Tom Ford suit. Only now, the smooth black fabric was decorated with cat fur.
On cue, Amelia’s long-haired calico, Hup, slipped into the room, no doubt leaving another patch of fur where she brushed along Zane’s leg. Chances were, Zane would spend a few minutes with a lint roller before returning to the office.
Amelia let out a huff of feigned exasperation. “What are you doing here?”
With a look that made her insides go twisty, he strode up to her. “I couldn’t let you leave without a goodbye kiss.”
She gave him a playful shove that didn’t move him an inch. “I’ve got no time for kissing or anything else. Can’t you see I’m panic packing?”
He glanced at the bed. “I can see that. Where’s your go—”
“Don’t say it.” She poked him in the chest. “And please don’t tell my Quantico instructor that I’ve failed FBI 101 so badly.”
He pulled her closer. “If you don’t let me kiss you, I’m definitely telling.”
Rising onto her tiptoes, she pressed her lips to his. “There. Satisfied?”
“Never.” But he let her go.
“Besides, I’ll probably be gone a few days, so I’ll need more than the go bag holds. What if I spill coffee on one shirt when I only packed two?” She shot him a knowing look, and his grin only widened. “I’d rather have way more clothes than I need than be stuck trying to wash a shirt in a hotel room bathroom sink.”
Amusement glittered in his gray eyes as he held up his hands in surrender. “Okay, okay. Fair enough. How about you take your time, and I’ll drive you back to the office? That’ll save you some time finding a parking space.”
Her shoulders relaxed a little. “That would be fantastic.”
A ball of orange, white, and black fur in the corner of Amelia’s vision drew her attention back to the suitcase as Hup crept toward the neat pile of clothes.
Zane winked. “I think she wants to go with you.”
“No,” Amelia moved toward the cat, preparing to scoop her up before she could snuggle into the suitcase, “she just wants a new bed. Because the four other cat beds and the couch aren’t good enough for her.”
Hup narrowed her eyes at Amelia’s hands but let her owner pick her up. With a cross between a meow and a squawk, the cat hopped down to the floor and trotted out of the room.
“Wow, you just got rejected.” Zane glanced over his shoulder at the departing feline. “Don’t worry, I’m sure she’ll be meowing for you twenty minutes after you’re gone.”
A twinge of guilt prodded Amelia at the thought of abandoning her cat. “According to the briefing this morning, the sheriff’s department in Jordan County is still searching the lake where they found two bodies.”
Amelia’s phone pinged. Zane lifted an eyebrow. “Want me to get it?”
As she pulled another pair of socks from her drawer, Zane whistled. “They found another body.”
“Please tell me you’re kidding.” When he simply handed her the phone, she read through the entire message before tossing it on the bed and continuing to pack. “Okay…three so far, and they’re still looking. They’ve got divers from the state police helping with the search. One of the locals was out fishing last night, and that’s how he found the first victim.”
“A fisher?” Zane’s eyebrows scrunched together. “How’d he find a corpse?”
Amelia had posed the exact same question when Dean had given her a rundown of the situation that morning. “He and his kid were out on a boat, and one of their lines got snagged on something. According to his statement, he tugged on it, and it seemed to come free. A few minutes later, a corpse floated up beside their boat.”
Leaning against the doorway, Zane brushed some cat fur from his leg. “Wow. That’s an unpleasant surprise. I bet that’s a fishing trip they won’t forget anytime soon.”
“No kidding. Jordan County will be sending the bodies to the Cook County M.E.’s office, since they don’t have the staffing and resources we do.”
Zane rubbed his chin, appearing thoughtful. “How long have the bodies been in the lake?”
“Well, the M.E. estimated the first vic had only been dead for a couple days. We probably won’t get a more precise time frame.”
Like the flip of a switch, Amelia’s brain shifted from civilian mode to federal investigator as she recalled the grisly details she and her case partner, Special Agent Dean Steelman, had gone through that morning.
Fortunately, Zane was on the same wavelength, and the mental adjustment was as natural for him as it was for her. “What about the second body?”
A photo of the gray-green, waterlogged corpse flashed in Amelia’s mind. “It was pretty badly decomposed. The coroner figured she’d been there for a couple weeks, at least.”
As Zane wrinkled his nose, Amelia suppressed a laugh. Even though the subject matter was bleak, he always had a way of keeping her even-keeled and grounded. The murders in Jordan County were the first major case she’d been assigned to work without him since they’d investigated the kidnapping of Leila Jackson nearly a year ago. Though Amelia was excited for this fresh chapter in her life, the new focus of her work would undoubtedly take some adjustment.
She was especially grateful to be getting away from mob cases. Having cleared the air with Alex Passarelli—a Capo in the D’Amato crime family and her ex-boyfriend from high school—she figured the time was perfect to pivot to new types of crime.
Pushing aside all thoughts of Alex, she nodded toward her phone. “According to the message, the third victim we just learned about has been dead for about the same amount of time as the first Jane Doe. About two days.”
Zane let out a low whistle. “Three bodies in a lake in rural Illinois? What the hell’s going on out there?”
“The place is called Lake Henrietta. It’s a wilderness preserve next to the Mississippi River. There’s the lake, a few hiking trails, a good-sized patch of woodland, even a smaller river. All kinds of activities for outdoor enthusiasts.” Amelia raised her shoulders in a dramatic shrug. “And apparently some psychopath decided it was a good spot to dump their victims’ bodies.”
“Apparently.” Zane met her gaze, shaking his finger like he was a scientist who’d just uncovered one of the world’s great mysteries. “And that is why we can’t have nice things. We get a nice place out by the Mississippi, and what happens? Some serial killer ruins it by dumping bodies in the lake.”
Even as Amelia laughed at his theatrics, she had to admit he had a point. “Well, that’s why Steelman and I are heading out there. It’s a small department, so they don’t have specialists who’ve worked on cases like this before. We’re going to help out the sheriff’s department as much as we can and hopefully get a lead on whoever’s responsible for the murders.”
Though a slight smile remained, Zane’s expression sobered. “Does it look like they were killed by the same perp? Or are we thinking Lake Henrietta has become a popular dumping spot for multiple killers?”
“It’s the same killer.” Amelia’s amusement evaporated as she recalled the photos from the body retrieval.
Zane lifted an eyebrow. “How do you know?”
“The victims were scalped and have the same symbol carved in their skulls.”
Zane groaned. “A symbol? Carved in their skulls? Any idea what tool they used? A screwdriver? A chisel?”
“We’re not sure yet. We probably won’t have an idea what was used to carve the symbol until the forensic anthropologist gets a closer look. That’s why Dr. Islas from the Cook County medical examiner’s office is headed out there to assist the local coroner.”
Though Zane made no secret of his disdain for serial killers, Amelia had to admit part of her found them fascinating. Her entire tenure in the FBI had been spent in Organized Crime, where she’d dealt with one powerful crime syndicate after another.
In Chicago alone, the mob’s influence ran so deep it was virtually impossible to extricate its tentacles from the foundation of the city itself. Amelia and Zane had dealt the world of organized crime a hefty blow when they’d taken down a handful of powerful mob allies, but how long would that last? How long would it take before another sick bastard took Brian Kolthoff’s spot as a corrupt D.C. billionaire lobbyist whose only loyalty belonged to himself and his bank account?
Zane was good at dealing with the mafiosos. No matter how hopeless the situation appeared, he didn’t hesitate to jump right back in the ring to duke it out all over again.
As for Amelia? She’d grown tired of playing the same game of Whac-A-Mole. She was proud of the work she’d done, and she was damn pleased with the fact that she’d helped rid the world of corrupt senator Stan Young and his lackey, dirty FBI agent—former agent—Joseph Larson.
It would take the criminal organizations in the city awhile to regain their lost influence, and for the time being, Zane and the rest of the Organized Crime Division would be there to meet them head-on.
But Amelia was done beating her head against that brick wall. Her involvement with the Italian Mafia had started when she was fifteen years old, when she’d met the son of a D’Amato family capo while working at a movie theater. Her relationship with Alex had shaped the rest of her life, and finally, at age thirty, she could say with confidence that she was a stronger person for the experience.
Shaking off the thoughts, Amelia zipped her suitcase closed and turned back to Zane. “All right, I think I’ve got everything. Steelman said he wanted to leave by one, and it’s,” she glanced at the digital clock on one of the two nightstands, “twenty until twelve.”
With a lazy salute, Zane stepped aside to let her through the doorway. “Let’s get you back to the office so you and Steelman can go catch this lunatic.”
Hunting season is open, and humans are the game.
In her new role with the Bureau’s Violent Crime Unit, Special Agent Amelia Storm is ready to focus on new types of crimes—ones that aren’t mob related. She didn’t, however, expect her first case to take her to rural Illinois, where the tranquil waters of Lake Henry have been guarding a grim secret.
Three corpses…and that’s just the beginning… Read More