Authors: Mariah Stewart
Tags: #Romance, #Suspense, #Contemporary, #Thrillers, #Fiction
TABLE OF CONTENTS
I have been blessed to have had the most wonderful, incredible women in my corner for ten glorious, fun-filled years. Love and thanks to my personal dream team—Kate Collins, Linda Marrow, Gina Centrello, and of course, St. Loretta the divine.
Talk of devils being confined to hell, or hidden by invisibility! We have them by shoals in the crowded towns and cities of the world.
Talk of raising the devil! What need for that, when he is constantly walking to and fro in our streets, seeking whom he will devour.
Cortés City, Santa Estela
An unhealthy dampness clung to the shacks of corrugated tin and rotted wood in the poorest section of a poor city. Beyond the mean dwellings, the river moved lazily to the ocean just a few scant miles away. Between the windowless shacks and the river stood a series of ramshackle warehouses—long abandoned by the banana trade—and several decaying docks where only the most dangerous or the most desperate dared to venture after the sun went down.
A street fair earlier in the evening had lured the residents of the shacks to the town center some blocks away, where reggae had blended with salsa and hip-hop to flavor the night. At this late hour, however, even the most die-hard revelers had staggered home, drunk and exhausted, leaving the unfriendly streets to the rats and little else.
The rattle of the old panel truck as it made its way toward the docks might have drawn attention had not the local population celebrated themselves into a stupor. Slowing as it came to the alley between the last two warehouses, the truck jerked to a stop, but its engine remained running. Within minutes, a black SUV with tinted windows pulled boldly behind the truck and made a half U-turn. The drivers of both vehicles got out and conversed in hushed tones, their gestures speaking more loudly than their words, as they negotiated a mutually agreeable amount for the truck’s cargo. Finally, a deal struck, the driver of the SUV motioned toward his car, and several more men got out. One carried a briefcase. The others carried rifles and made a semicircle around the driver of the SUV.
The truck’s cargo door began to rise as flashlights were trained on the opening. No fewer than forty children, stunned in terrified silence, turned their heads to avoid looking directly into the beams as the lights made their way from one dazed young face to the next.
A lone witness watching from the shadows between the buildings debated what action to take. The children—boys and girls, the youngest of whom appeared to be no more than five or six, the oldest perhaps twelve or thirteen—were obviously all headed for slavery or would be filtered into the international child-sex trade before the end of the week. Whichever hardly mattered at that moment to the observer, who knew only that something had to be done, and quickly. But he was wise enough to recognize that caution had to rule. There was one of him, and at least six of them, perhaps more inside the truck.
He’d come upon the scene by accident as he’d made his way to the last dock, where he was to be picked up by a small boat and whisked away to a larger craft, upon which waited the helicopter that would take him to a small airport in Mexico. From there, he’d be shuttled back to the States. His mission—totally unrelated to the scene unfolding around him—was now complete, and he was expected to give a full report to his superiors at Quantico at eight o’clock the next morning.
From downriver, he could hear the first hum of the boat’s motor and knew that he had to make a decision, and fast.
The driver of the SUV directed one of the men to shine the light onto the contents of the briefcase, and as he did so, his face was illuminated as well. The man in the shadows had more than enough time to study the well-lit features. A thin face, sparse dark hair that receded from his forehead, making him appear older than he probably was. Round dark eyes, small and wide set. A nose made flat by at least one run-in with a well-aimed fist. A humorless mouth.
The sound of the boat came closer, though the men in the alley appeared not to hear over the drone of the truck’s engine. The man in the shadows counted the rounds in his gun.
He heard a faint shuffle behind him and flattened himself against the wall of the warehouse, his gun drawn, hoping he wouldn’t have to fire and call attention to himself. He raised the gun as another shadow eased around the corner where he himself had earlier emerged, then lowered it as he cursed softly.
“Jesus! What the fuck are you doing here?” he growled.
“I might ask you the same question,” the newcomer whispered.
“Are you on this? You’re working this?”
“Yeah. Been following them for weeks. No one told me you were part of the operation.”
“I’m not. I’m supposed to be picked up in about three minutes down on the dock. I’m to brief the director in the morning on—” He caught himself. “On another issue.”
“Well, I suggest you get yourself down there, or you’re going to miss the boat.”
“You’re on this, though, right?” He grabbed the newcomer by the arm. “You know what’s in that truck, right? You know what’s going down here, what’s going to happen to those kids? And you’re going to take care of it?”
“Hey, relax. I said I was on it. Don’t worry, they’ll never get the truck out of the alley. We’re just waiting for the deal to be completed, then we’ll get them all.”
“You have backup . . . ?”
“More than enough. Go on, man, get going. Don’t miss your boat. The engine’s cut, they must be right down at the shoreline. But I’d suggest you go out the way I just came in, down through the little stretch of woods to the water.”
“That’s one ugly son of a bitch, down there. Don’t let him get away.”
“Don’t worry.” There was a pause, then he asked, “You saw him? Saw his face?”
“It’s a face I’ll never forget. See you back in the States,” he said as he slipped into the darkness.
The man remaining in the alley leaned back against the wall and exhaled, a long tired breath laden with anxiety. He wiped the sweat from his forehead with both hands and wondered what the hell he was going to do.
The man with the receding hairline and the flat nose took an envelope from inside his jacket pocket and passed it to his companion, whose eyes darted around the outdoor café.
“Not to worry. No one here cares what we do,” he said as he signaled for the waiter to bring another coffee.
His companion merely nodded.
“All right, Shields,” the man demanded, “out with it. What’s on your mind? Not having second thoughts about our little bit of commerce, are you?”
“Someone saw you last night.”
“What do you mean, someone saw . . .” His small eyes grew even smaller. “Saw me?”
“When I came around the building, someone was there, watching you.”
“And you left his body where?”
“It’s not quite that simple.”
The waiter silently traded the old cup for a new one and disappeared back into the café.
“Explain to me what is complicated about getting rid of a witness.”
“It wasn’t just any witness. He’s with the Bureau and he’s . . .”
“He’s an agent? Another agent saw me with a truckload of kids . . .”
“I told him I was on the case. I told him I was handling it. He doesn’t know who you are.”
“What the hell was he doing there? That’s your job, to make sure that no one else in the Bureau noses around.”
“He was on his way to a pickup, on his way back to the States. He just happened to be getting picked up on the docks at the same time you were concluding the deal.”
“And the reason you didn’t kill him . . . ?”
“If he hadn’t made the boat, there’d have been five or six coming ashore to find him. He was supposed to be meeting with the Director this morning. There was no way he wasn’t going to be missed immediately.”
“All right.” The man took a sip of his coffee and tried to calm his thoughts. “You’re certain he saw me?”
“Okay. We can handle this. He doesn’t know my name, he doesn’t know you’re involved.”
“He thinks I’m shutting the operation down.”
“Well, that’s fine. You’re due back in the States in another few weeks, right? You were reassigned?”
His companion nodded.
“So, you find him, you take care of him then. I’m due back in two months. I can’t run the risk that he’ll recognize me, Shields. I want him gone. Permanently.” The index finger of his right hand tapped methodically on the table. “You know him, right? You know where to find him?”
“Yeah, I know him. And finding him won’t be a problem.” He rubbed his hand over his mouth, which had gone dry. “He’s my cousin.”
What could possibly be going through a man’s mind at the moment he decides to take the life of a child?
Detective Evan Crosby stared down at the twisted body of Caitlin McGill and wondered.
The young girl’s blank eyes stared endlessly at the sun, her mouth open in its final scream. Her thin arms stretched outward, bent at the elbows, to form perfect
s. Her feet turned in, toes touching.
“What?” Evan turned his head slightly, though his eyes were still on the girl who lay at his feet.
“We used to call people whose feet turned in like that pigeon-toed,” one of the crime-scene investigators noted. “How old was this one?”
“Not even fourteen,” Evan replied.
“Just like the last one.” The CSI shook his head. “Crazy. Just plain damned crazy. She was a real cute kid.”
“They were all cute kids.”
“This is what, the third? Fourth? In the past two months?”
No one responded to the question, which was rhetorical. Everyone on the scene—from the Avon County, Pennsylvania, detectives to the CSIs to the local police to the medical examiner—knew exactly how many others there’d been since the first of May.
And now Caitlin McGill.
All between the ages of twelve and fourteen. All pretty girls who attended one of the many private schools that flourished in the Philadelphia suburbs. All with dark red stains down the front of the white cotton shirts that were standard school-uniform attire.
All of them barefoot.
“What’s up with that, anyway?” Joe Sullivan, Evan’s onetime partner at the Lyndon Police Department, came up the hill from the playground and stopped three feet behind Evan. “Whaddaya suppose he’s doing with their shoes?”
“Your guess is as good as mine.”
“Poor kid.” Sullivan shook his head. “What’s your old lady say about it?”
“I haven’t had a chance to talk to her yet. She’s been away.” Evan let the “old lady” comment ride. He’d had that conversation with Joe on more than one occasion. It had never done any good—Joe was Joe and wasn’t about to change.
“Guess they keep those FBI profilers pretty busy, eh?”
“Never a shortage of psychos, Joe, you know that.” Evan nodded to Dr. Agnes Jenkins, the Avon County medical examiner, as she hurried past.
“Can’t remember anything like this, though. But at least he left them where they’d be found quickly.” Sullivan’s voice was flat, emotionless.
The M.E. bent over the body and began her ministrations. Evan looked away. Over the past eight weeks, he’d had more than his fill of young girls who’d had their throats slashed. He took a few steps back, then turned and went back to his car. The crime scene would be turned over to him once the M.E. was finished, but for now, he’d use this time to check his phone messages, return those calls he could. Start the paperwork on this latest homicide. Get as much work done as he could while he could. It had all the makings of another very long night.
It was well after three in the morning when Evan arrived at his townhouse in West Lyndon. Bone weary, he left his car parked out front, and bleary-eyed, let himself in through the front door. He ignored the pile of mail on the hall table—when had he put that there?—and pretended not to see the blinking red light on his telephone. Messages could wait. He was simply too tired to deal with anyone or anything.
Too tired, too, to make it up the steps, so he let himself drift backward onto the living-room sofa, fully clothed. He’d just closed his eyes when he heard the soft footfall on the stairs. Dismissing it as little more than wishful thinking on his part, he continued to sail toward sleep.
“Evan?” a voice called from the doorway.
More wishful thinking, surely.
“Evan.” The voice, gentle, filled with concern, drew closer.
Soft hands caressed his arm. He sighed and smiled in his state of almost-sleep.
“Evan, don’t sleep down here. Come up to bed.” The voice was in his ear now.
He reached out and touched skin.
He felt her weight as she sat on the edge of the sofa and leaned over him, her lips pressed against the side of his face.
“When did you get here?”
“About nine.” She snuggled next to him, and he felt himself relax for the first time in days.
“Why didn’t you call me?”
“I heard on the scanner that another body had been found. I didn’t want to disturb you. I figured you’d be home when you were finished with what you had to do.”
“How long can you stay?”
“I’ll be in town through Tuesday. Have you forgotten that my sister is getting married on Friday?”
“Oh, shit. I did forget.” He stared up at the ceiling. How could he have forgotten that?
“It’s okay. I’m here to remind you. Thursday night, rehearsal dinner. Friday night, wedding. Saturday, sleep until noon. Saturday night, just me and you. Sunday through Tuesday, I’ll be staying with my niece, until Mara and Aidan get back. Not much of a honeymoon for them, but at least they’ll have a few days to themselves.”
“Rewind back to Saturday. Saturday sounded real good.” It had been weeks since they’d had a night together alone. There’d been something every weekend for the past month. Four weeks ago, it had been Mara’s wedding shower. The past three, either Annie or Evan had been working.
Maybe on Saturday night they could have dinner at their favorite restaurant, he was thinking, then catch a movie. Or maybe they’d just stay at home, just the two of them. That sounded even better.
She lay against him, her head on his chest. His fingers trailed lightly through her soft blond hair.
“How old was she?” she asked softly.
“Thirteen. Almost fourteen.”
“Same as the others?”
She fell silent, and he knew that she was working it through. As a psychologist and one of the FBI’s most skilled profilers, Annie—Dr. Anne Marie McCall—couldn’t help but sort through the pieces.
“Missing,” he told her through a fog of fatigue. “Just like the others.”
“Odd trophy,” she murmured.
“I wanted to ask you what you thought about that.”
“Tomorrow.” She sat up. “We’ll talk about that tomorrow. Right now, you think you can make it up the stairs?”
She stood, and cool air replaced her warmth. His hand searched for her in the dark, but she had already moved out of reach.
“Where are you going?”
“I’ll be right back.”
Moments later she returned. He felt the soft flow of a blanket drift over him, the comfort of a pillow under his head.
“Move over.” She slid under the blanket and wrapped her arms around him, her body molded to his in the dark.
“Annie . . .”
“Shh. Tomorrow. There’s nothing that can’t wait until the morning.”
He wanted to say something, but his tired brain had stopped communicating with his mouth. Effortlessly, he sailed off into the darkness, where he dreamed of endless closets filled with small bloody shoes that frantic mothers tried to match into pairs.