Charli Cross Series: Book Six
Being sidelined after her last assignment has allowed Savannah Detective Charli Cross too much time to think. So when she’s called to a new murder case, she’s relieved to trade her preoccupation over the threatening letters she’s received for a double homicide investigation.
Her relief doesn’t last long.
Nothing could have prepared Charli for the gruesome scene she and her partner find at a local park. A teenage couple have been slain, their throats slit and their naked bodies posed on a blanket. The motive remains unclear...until they discover one of the victims had a stalker.
When another couple—this one newly engaged—is brutally murdered, Charli knows that not all is as it seems. But if their suspect isn’t their killer, then who is targeting young lovers? And why?
And more importantly, can she catch this maniac before they strike again?
more from this series
read an excerpt
Nicole Schott sat on the narrow park bench as the sun slid below the horizon. The moment it disappeared, the air around her grew colder, as though all the warmth had been sucked from the world along with the light. With a shiver, she wrapped her arms around herself, wishing she’d opted to wear a sweater instead of the little black dress with the sweetheart neckline and cap sleeves she’d been so excited to show off.
Although it was her go-to dress for special occasions, she felt a little silly wearing it now. Was wanting to look good for Mason worth it? For him, she’d donned the black heels normally reserved for church. She’d also spritzed perfume on her pulse points and applied heavy makeup, something she didn’t usually wear to church.
Nicole had spent half an hour trying to get the eyeshadow and liner just right. Something about Mason made her want to step out of the ordinary. He made her feel alive and sexy. Protected. Grown-up, even, since he was nearly eighteen years old.
Where was he?
She cast an anxious glance around, rubbing her goose-pimpled flesh. Meeting in the park wasn’t her first choice, especially after dark, and she’d much rather be somewhere safe and warm, preferably having a nice spaghetti dinner. Maybe some garlic bread with—
A hand landed on her shoulder. With a throat-shredding shriek, Nicole whipped around, nearly falling off the bench. With a jolt of adrenaline, she was ready to bolt as fast and as far as her legs would take her.
The familiar voice didn’t soothe her. And the light laugh that followed was like gasoline being thrown onto a flame.
Furious to her core, Nicole jumped to her feet, glared up into Mason’s handsome eyes, and poked a finger into his chest. “You scared me to death! Don’t ever sneak up on me again.”
“I’ll try to remember that.” Mason’s chuckle didn’t hold the slightest bit of repentance.
Her heart still hammered in her chest. But as he pulled her back onto the bench beside him, it changed rhythm.
Does he know how much I love him?
He tucked a lock of her auburn hair behind her ear. “Why so jumpy, beautiful?”
She punched him in the shoulder and nearly cried out when her knuckles connected with the steel of his arm beneath his letterman jacket. As quarterback of their high school’s football team, he had an amazing body.
She was too pissed to be distracted, though. “You’re late. And you shouldn’t terrify me like that.”
Mason’s handsome face turned serious as he leaned in closer. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
Leaves rustled, and she jerked around to see what had caused the noise. Her imagination, most likely. Or the wind. Still, she was chilled to her core.
“I don’t like being here. Why can’t you take me out to dinner for a normal date? It’s getting late.”
He linked their fingers together, shooting her a smile that showed his dimples. “Let me guess, you’re daydreaming of Angelo’s spaghetti.”
She moaned just thinking about it. “And garlic bread. Don’t forget the garlic bread.”
All the butter and parmesan cheese the restaurant piled on every delectable slice was to die for. Her stomach gave a low rumble.
“How could I forget the best part of the meal?” He squeezed her hand. “I promise we’ll go to Angelo’s later, but I wanted a little alone time with my girl first.”
Nicole’s heart slammed against her ribs for a second time that night. This time, she didn’t know what fueled the adrenaline coursing through her veins—her nerves or the anticipation of spending time alone with Mason. “Oh, really?” A slow grin spread across her face. “Who is she?”
He rolled his eyes. “What happened to the quiet, shy girl I knew?”
“I heard she got a totally hot boyfriend.”
Mason smiled and moved closer. The warmth from his body radiated off his skin, and Nicole’s cheeks flushed as her blood sang with liquid fire. He leaned in, his breath minty, as his lips moved toward hers.
She placed a hand on his chest. “And that he takes her out to dinner.”
He sighed and sat back. “Do you want to go to dinner first and then come back here?”
It’s not that I don’t love being alone with you. This place just gives me the creeps.
“No. I don’t want to come back here after we leave.”
“Then just thirty minutes.” His voice was pleading. “How about that?”
God. How could she ever tell him no? “Ten.”
She loved kissing him. Truthfully, she could kiss him all night, spaghetti and garlic bread be damned. Only—
Her gaze probed the darkness around them. She didn’t like being out like this, isolated after dark. Maybe it had something to do with all the people who’d been killed recently, because she didn’t remember always feeling this way, even six months ago. Or maybe it was because of the cold she’d felt earlier, seeping into her bones as the sunset deepened.
In the distance, the bushes rustled, and she jumped again. It was just the wind, but she still didn’t like the uneasiness that wrapped around her like an itchy wool blanket. Something was…not right.
Mason gave her a coaxing smile. “Twenty.”
Nicole focused on him, accepting his counteroffer. Twenty minutes in the park. She was with her big, strong boyfriend. What could happen? It wasn’t even that late.
Mason picked up a blanket he’d dropped on the bench and grabbed her hand. Together, they headed into the woods. Nicole took measured steps, struggling not to let her high heels sink into the ground. She didn’t want to have to clean them later. And if her mom saw them, she’d ask a bunch of embarrassing questions.
“Where are you taking me?”
He lifted her fingers to his lips. “Somewhere private.”
When they reached a small clearing, he unfurled the blanket, letting the soft material float onto the ground like a velvet dream. He sat down and raised his hand. She took it, allowing him to tug her on top of him.
He lowered her onto the blanket before stretching out by her side, and Nicole twisted so she could face him. As his body pressed against hers, her breath caught in her throat.
He pushed another stray lock of her hair back out of her eyes. “You are so beautiful.” His voice was a whisper, his warm breath tickling her skin.
She stared into his bright blue eyes and lifted a hand to his short, curly blond hair, loving the feel of it twisting around her fingers. “So are you.”
Mason lowered his head to kiss her, his lips soft and gentle.
She closed her eyes and kissed him back, letting the world wash away. This was where she wanted to be—in his arms—away from life and the pain that came from missing her father. Mason caressed her through the silky fabric of her dress, his hands gently massaging her breasts.
His kisses grew harder, more passionate. After another minute, he rolled on top of her. She reveled in the sensation of being pinned down by his body, all of him melting into her.
“I love you so much.”
She smiled against his lips. “I love you too.”
The skin on her knee tingled as his hand caressed it, and Mason eased his hand up her leg. She reached down and pinned his hand with hers when he reached mid-thigh.
He groaned, deep and sexy in his throat. “I know. I just want you so—”
Terror pulsed through Nicole as she pushed Mason off her and sat up like a jack-in-the-box. “There’s something there!”
“It’s just the wind.”
He kissed her throat, trying to pull her back down onto the blanket.
She shook off his arm and stood. Peering into the darkness, she called out, her voice shaking. “Is there someone there?”
Mason’s groan was less sexy this time. “Nicky, it’s probably just a squirrel.”
He was wrong. Deep in her gut, she knew that.
Taking a couple of steps away from Mason, Nicole swept the darkness, wishing there was more light in the area. In the few minutes she’d been distracted, the night had grown complete. “I don’t care. I want to get out of here.”
Mason grabbed her hand. “Come on. It hasn’t been twenty minutes yet.”
Did he seriously not comprehend the danger they were in? “Well, it’s been long enough. Let’s leave.”
Something wasn’t right. Nicole sensed it to the depths of her being.
A million tiny hairs prickled on the back of her neck, and the chill that had ceased while in Mason’s arms came back with a vengeance. Nicole made up her mind that she was leaving, and she really, really wanted Mason to go with her.
She turned toward the edge of the park. She could see the street through the trees. He could catch up if she decided to go now. Maybe that would make him realize she was serious.
“Come on, five more minutes and we can go.” Despite Mason’s coaxing voice, which normally made her melt, Nicole refused to be swayed.
“No, I’m going.”
Nicole started walking, less worried about the high heels sinking into the ground, until she almost tripped as one sank in too deep and wouldn’t dislodge without a tug.
A muffled sound came from behind her. Nicole froze.
Don’t look. Don’t look. Don’t look.
A bead of sweat rolled down her back as tears stung her eyes.
A small cry from behind her forced her head around, like she was a puppet and someone was pulling her strings. “M-Mason?”
In the darkness, Nicole fumbled for her cell phone and turned on the flashlight, illuminating the scene.
Bile rose in her throat.
Mason was on his knees, an arm wrapped around his head as a hooded figure restrained him from behind. Something silver glinted in the light.
Was that a…knife?
The silvery object descended toward Mason.
Terror rose in Nicole’s chest. She opened her mouth to scream but no sound could escape through the tightness of her throat. She stood there, rooted to the spot, as the hooded figure sliced the blade across Mason’s throat.
A crimson river of blood gushed out.
“No!” The scream that had been stuck erupted as she regained the ability to move. She turned and ran, abandoning her shoes for the sake of speed.
Her bare toe jammed into something hard, and pain seared through her leg to her knee. She propelled herself forward despite the pain.
Must. Keep. Moving. Almost to safety.
If she could get out of the woods and onto the grass of the park, she could pick up speed and run to the road. Surely, someone would see her then.
Just as she reached the edge of the tree line, something hit her in the middle of her back. Nicole pitched forward. But, before she could catch herself, her face was buried in the grass, her wrists screaming in agony from the fall.
Her cry was cut off when a body landed on top of her and hands clawed at her throat. She bucked, trying to throw her attacker off.
“Who do you think you are? Juliet to his Romeo?”
She twisted her head to the side so she could breathe. Tears flooded her eyes as she clawed at the grass, trying to get away. “Please…w-why? We did n-nothing…wrong!”
Nicole knew she was begging. Maybe it wouldn’t work, but there had to be something she could say that would make her attacker let her go. She had to try.
“Yes, you did!” The voice was angry, and hot spittle hit her cheek.
“Juliet w-was innocent…l-like me.” It was a stupid thing to say, but maybe it would make him see reason.
“Juliet deserved to die, and so do you.”
Who could hate her like this? She tried to be nice to everyone.
“You fell in love with him.” He straddled her back, knees pinning her arms. “You weren’t supposed to do that. Didn’t you know it was doomed from the beginning?” His tone was angry, but seemed to have a heavy dose of sadness and fear mixed in.
“P-please, I don’t understand.”
“If I don’t get a happy ending, no one does.”
Trapped under his weight, Nicole struggled to take in a gasping breath. “B-but…you c-can. There’s…always h-hope.”
She was babbling, but she had to keep him talking as she fought to get away. Pinned as they were, her hands still searched for something, anything, to use for a weapon.
Where is the rock I tripped on?
Her attacker’s foul breath assaulted her cheek. “So many people think they deserve a fairy tale, a romantic comedy. But if I don’t, then why should all the rest of you be that lucky? You know what happened to Juliet, don’t you?”
“What?” Of course she knew, but she was stalling for time. She couldn’t scream anymore, the weight of his body compressing her lungs, her voice coming out as little more than a whisper. Maybe someone would come by, see what was happening. Help.
Fighting for every breath, Nicole sucked in as much air as she could. But it wasn’t enough. “Same thing…happened to Romeo.”
With a growl, the man pushed to his feet. She’d barely taken a full breath before he grabbed her hair, yanking her up.
“What are you—?” White-hot fire seared her throat before she could finish the question. The words died in her mouth, as did the scream she attempted to force out.
She clutched at her neck, touching a warm substance. Blood. Her blood.
Frozen to the spot, she stared at her hands and attempted to inhale. A hiss filled the air as her attacker stepped around her and came into view. The hood had fallen, and his cold eyes glittered.
You? No. Why?
Despair flooded through her body. How could he, who constantly talked about love, have done this to her? Why? What had happened to all his powerful words, to everything he said he believed?
In slow motion, she sank to her knees, the ground rushing up to meet her. She landed on a blanket of dark, glistening green. Everything around her grew dim.
We should have gone to Angelo’s.
Her vision faded altogether, and her mind drifted into a dream. She and Mason were eating a wonderful spaghetti dinner. His face was serious and a little bit older. With no warning, he got down on one knee and presented her with a ring.
“Will you marry me?”
“Yes, a thousand times, yes!”
Nicole’s wedding day flashed through her mind. Her mother crying. Then there were children, a boy and a girl. She and Mason would name them Ashley and Jordan.
She’d always heard that, in death, a person’s life flashed before their eyes, but she’d assumed it was their past. This was much better. The vision was happy and warm and light. A good future to make up for all the terrible events from her past. Mason smiled at her as he walked their daughter down the aisle on her big day. She was loved.
As all the images faded, Nicole exhaled one last time…garlic bread.
This is more like it.
Savannah Detective Charlotte Cross immediately felt bad for being excited about a new murder case, but the faint jolt of remorse did little to stop her enthusiasm about getting back to work.
She’d spent the past few days on administrative leave. Though she’d passed a bit of that time with friends, most of her hours were filled with endless reams of paperwork. And for what? She wasn’t even sure that she was the one who pulled the trigger in what was officially classified as an officer-involved shooting. She’d been fighting their suspect for the gun, after all. But policy was policy, she supposed. She was just glad it was over, and earlier than she’d imagined.
Charli hadn’t expected to return to official duty until Monday, but Sunday evening was good enough. Sure, that blew the last part of the weekend, but the self-proclaimed workaholic thought weekends were overrated anyway.
And they allowed her too much time to think.
Not working these last few days had been hell. Diving straight back into work would take her mind off everything else going on. With all the back-to-back cases and the haunting letters—which she assumed were from her best friend’s killer or maybe the mafia—she’d spent too much time alone with her own thoughts. She needed an outside distraction, and this double homicide was it.
“Two teenagers were found in a local park,” Sergeant Ruth Morris had told her only moments before. “I’ve already got Matthew on his way there. When can you leave?”
As glad as Charli was to be back on the job, the brief description Ruth had given her was somewhat disturbing. Savannah, Georgia had seen its share of weird occurrences in the past few weeks, and Charli would have put money on many of its citizens being on edge. She didn’t imagine these new murders would help that any.
Her partner was getting out of his shiny black, extended-cab truck as Charli pulled into a parking space at Fountain Park.
Please don’t ask me a thousand questions.
She’d had lunch with Matthew a couple days ago, and they’d managed to keep the conversation light, steering clear of discussing the letters she’d received. The terrible messages flashed through her mind.
Ten years and you still haven’t found me. Do you give up?
No. She would never stop searching for Madeline’s killer.
And to think…if we’d gotten you that day, along with your friend, you wouldn’t be worrying about all this. What a heavy burden it must be.
Yes. It was a heavy burden. One she would never put down until she caught the bastard who’d killed her friend.
“Dead naked couple in the park. There’s never a dull moment.”
Matthew’s grumble pulled Charli back from the two notes she’d received about Madeline. As sick as it was, she’d rather talk about murders than think about her friend.
She forced a grin, not wanting him to clue in on what she’d been thinking. “Beats sitting on my butt like I’ve done the past few days.”
He grinned. “Only you would prefer a crime scene to a little vacation.”
Matthew knew very well that she hadn’t been on vacation.
Officer-involved shootings meant paperwork, investigations, and mandatory counseling. Of course, after all that was out of the way, she’d met Matthew for lunch and had another lunch date with Preston Powell—her GBI agent friend—the day before. And her friend, Rebecca Lawson, had come over two evenings after work. While it hadn’t exactly been a vacation, at least she’d managed to relax a bit.
“Well, you know, a few days of not looking at your ugly mug was kind of like a vacation.”
“Nice one.” He paused, and his expression changed when he spoke again. It was softer, more fatherly. “Seriously, you okay, Charli?”
There was nothing quite as annoying as when Matthew went all big brother protector on her. Charli didn’t need it, and they’d had more than one talk about his frustrating tendency. Sure, she had bright blue eyes, a black pixie cut that accentuated them, and she stood all of five feet tall with a petite build. She looked younger than her almost twenty-seven years. This made some people, particularly older males, decide that she needed protecting.
But Matthew knew better. There was nothing helpless about her, and Charli wished he’d stop worrying already. She did enough of that for the both of them.
“I’ll live.” She winced. That hadn’t come out as strong and self-assured as she’d intended. Instead, it sounded pathetic, at least to her.
Matthew nodded, though. Apparently, her response was good enough. She took the win.
Charli shut her car door and locked it. “What do we know about the victims?”
Matthew shrugged. “To be honest, not much. I was helping Janice with running down partials on a license plate for an investigation.”
“Oh, so you were working with Janice.” Charli made the comment as suggestive as she possibly could, adding a bobbing eyebrow for emphasis.
For a while now, it had been clear to Charli that Detective Janice Piper wanted to be more than just Matthew’s fellow detective and drinking buddy. Matthew seemed to be just recently figuring out that their colleague had designs on him, which had made things more than a little awkward at work, and hilarious for Charli.
“Knock it off, Smalls.” His voice was a low growl, but his preferred nickname for her belied the gruffness. He did, however, flush at the implication.
Charli rolled her eyes. “Only when you do, Biggs.”
Like her, Matthew had more than earned his nickname. He was a tall man with a stalwart build. Ever since his divorce, though, he’d been starting to gain a little around the middle.
As they approached the crime scene, she was glad to see that the entire section of the park had been taped off to preserve evidence and keep spectators out. There were several lookie-loos and reporters on site, curiosity seekers hoping to get a glimpse of a dead body. Charli’s mind wandered to all the dead bodies she wished she could unsee.
She could tell from the faces as they passed through the small crowd huddled in the parking lot that many of the onlookers were more afraid than curious. It would take a long time for people to forget the recent spree of seemingly random murders. In the end, it didn’t matter if the shootings had been connected. All everyone knew was that a murderer was, once again, walking the streets of Savannah.
She understood their fear all too well. For months after her best friend had been kidnapped right in front of her, Charli hadn’t been able to sleep, let alone go for a walk.
“Good afternoon, Detectives.” A young officer who looked like he could be in a Cuban boy band waved them over to a bench. He handed Charli the crime scene logbook.
She glanced at his name badge and committed G. Acosta to memory. After she and Matthew had signed in, Acosta let them under the tape and pointed them toward the trees where the bodies were discovered.
“We have a young couple. Preliminary identification is that they are likely Nicole Schott and Mason Ballinger, though no IDs were found on either body. Both were reported missing this afternoon by their parents. These two fit the descriptions. Their bodies were discovered an hour ago by a landscaper, Albert Foutley, who is employed by the city. He’s over there.” The officer motioned to a fifty-something man sitting on another park bench about twenty yards away.
Charli nodded toward Foutley. “Has he been interviewed yet?”
Officer Acosta nodded. “Yes, ma’am. He states that he was picking up some fallen limbs from the tree line when he spotted what appeared to be blood on the grass. He followed the path of the blood and discovered the victims. He immediately left the scene and called 9-1-1.”
“Did he touch anything?” Matthew asked.
The young officer’s black hair swayed as he shook his head. “He said he didn’t. Do you want to interview him too?”
Charli nodded. “After we review the crime scene.”
Officer Acosta gave a little salute. “Yes, ma’am.”
Charli smiled at the young officer’s enthusiasm and remembered the days when she had so much energy. She still loved her job, but the grind had certainly tarnished the shine.
Stepping into the path marked as safe to use by the crime scene techs, she examined the blood the landscaper must have stumbled on.
Matthew pressed a hand to his stomach. “Geesh. That’s a ton of blood.”
Charli nodded. “It sure is, and it covers such a large section of ground.”
Images of how the blood got there flashed through her mind, and she closed them down. She wanted to examine only the facts, not the nightmares her imagination conjured up.
They’d gone about fifteen yards into the woods before coming to the small clearing.
“Christ,” Matthew murmured, and Charli didn’t need to look at him to know he’d paled. He hated this part of the job.
A young man and woman lay on a blanket, both of their throats slit. They were naked, and their hands were on each other’s genitals.
Matthew made a weird gurgling sound in his throat and turned his head. “No way they were just lying like that when they got killed.”
Charli was inclined to agree. Fortunately, they didn’t need to rely on their opinions. Dr. Randal Soames, the medical examiner with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, was crouched over the bodies, examining the injuries. Charli was glad to see him. He was the best there was, and she also enjoyed his dry sense of humor.
Soames lifted his head as they approached. “There’s the queen of crime scenes. How is your majesty today?”
Queen? Your majesty? What was with the M.E.’s extra cheerful attitude today?
“Fine, and you?”
“I, your humble court doctor, was well until about an hour ago.” The smile disappeared as he glanced back at the bodies. “I’ve seen enough dead kids lately to last me a lifetime.”
Matthew took a half-step back. “Tell me about it.”
“Since I knew you’d ask, I did a liver temp. Based on my initial calculations, death appears to have been between seven p.m. last night and midnight. The state of rigor mortis confirms this.”
Charli knew that kids had a tendency to use places like this as make-out spots. “I’ll never understand why anyone would choose a public outdoor location to get down and dirty.”
Soames just shrugged. “What can you do?”
“Any signs of sexual assault or contact?” Matthew had his back to the teenagers.
Charli felt sorry for him. She knew that just as teen victims made her flash back to her best friend Madeline’s kidnapping and murder, every dead girl made Matthew think of his daughter. Chelsea was living with her mother all the way out in California, far from his watchful eye.
“Not at this time.” Soames glanced back at the bodies. “I’ll know more after I get them on my table.” His phone dinged, and he stripped off his gloves before pulling it from his pocket. “Well, looks like we can confirm that this young man is definitely Mason Ballinger.”
Charli peeked at the screen. “How do you know?”
“We ran the victims’ fingerprints through the system. It appears Ballinger’s parents had completed one of those school programs that urged parents to provide the prints and other relative information in case their child ever went missing.”
Or is killed.
“What about the girl?”
Soames shook his head. “She’s not in the system, but based on the missing persons report, I’d bet my next paycheck that it’s Nicole Schott.”
Charli forced herself to walk closer to the bodies. “What else can you tell us now?”
“Cause of death seems obvious, but, again, I’ll know with more certainty following the autopsy. As far as I’ve heard, their clothes haven’t shown up.”
“What do you mean?” Matthew kept his focus on the medical examiner.
Soames rubbed the back of his neck. “I mean that someone seems to have stolen their clothes.”
Why would the killer do that? Was he destroying evidence?
Charli hadn’t seen anyone go to that kind of extreme before.
Soames chuckled at her question. “The ‘why’ is your job. The ‘how’ is mine. Let me get back to work, and hopefully, I’ll come up with something that helps you two.”
She squeezed Soames’s shoulder. “Thanks.”
Soames nodded before returning to his work. Sweat had beaded on Matthew’s forehead, which was unnaturally pale. He didn’t bother saying anything as they walked away.
Officer Acosta, still present, though a respectful distance away, was shifting his weight from foot to foot like a child who needed to use the bathroom.
Or he has something to say but doesn’t want to interrupt us.
Charli nodded at him. “Officer B…Acosta.” She’d very nearly called him “Officer Boy Band,” which would have been disrespectful. She was more unsettled by the murders than she wanted to admit. “What else do you have for us?”
Acosta stepped forward and whipped a small notebook out of his pocket, pulling out a page with a flourish and handing it to her. “I have the parents’ names and addresses. They’ve already been informed that we suspect one of the victims is their child.”
Matthew closed his eyes. “Thank God.”
He’d whispered under his breath, but Charli still caught the words and agreed wholeheartedly with the sentiment. Telling someone that a loved one was dead was hard enough. Even worse was telling them a loved one was murdered. When that loved one was a child…
It wasn’t a job she wished on anyone.
The officer also carried a large envelope under his arm. He handed it to Charli. “Copies of the missing persons reports.”
“Thank you.” Charli gave the young man a small smile before examining the contents.
Acosta rubbed his neatly trimmed mustache. “Is there anything else I can do to help?”
“Yes, we’re going to need to widen the search perimeter.” Matthew took a step forward. “We need to see if we can find the missing clothes.”
The officer flashed them a smile, revealing brilliantly white teeth. “I’ll see that it’s taken care of.”
Charli thanked him and glanced back down at the paper. “Which family do you want to visit first?”
Matthew didn’t hesitate. “The boy’s.”
That suits me just fine. Talking to the mothers of butchered daughters hits too close to home.
Matthew strode toward his pickup. “I’ll drive. I’ll drop you at your car later.”
Charli almost refused—she enjoyed being the one in control of a vehicle—but Matthew was already climbing into his truck.
He was dreading this.
I don’t blame him at all.
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