FADE TO BLACK - Thrilling Romantic Suspense - Book 1 of the BLACK CATS Series

FADE TO BLACK

by
Leslie A. Kelly

Copyright © 2013 Leslie A. Kelly

Kindle Edition

To Bruce. You’ve been by my side for every step of this long journey, pushing me on, sometimes pulling me, and always lifting me when I fell.

I cannot imagine walking through my life without you right there by my side.

Table of Contents

Title Page

Dedication

Acknowledgments

Prologue

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Other Titles from Leslie A. Kelly

Excerpt from Pitch Black

Excerpt from Black at Heart

Excerpt from Don’t Look Away

About Leslie A. Kelly

I must extend sincere thanks to several people who helped me with this project from start to finish.

To Janelle Denison, Julie Leto, and Carly Phillips—a.k.a. the Plotmonkeys—thank you so much for supporting me from the very minute I said I wanted to try writing something dark and thrilling.

Sincere thanks also to Leo A. Notenboom (
www.ask-leo.com
) for the technical advice and consultation. All the computer expertise is his … any errors are entirely my own.

I
n the final moments
of her life Lisa Zimmerman realized she knew her killer. With his black-cloaked form illuminated by moonlight, it took just one particular, whispered expression to send the truth flooding into her pain-numbed consciousness.

Her slowing brain cells jolted back into awareness.
“You?”
It hurt to push the whispered word across her swollen lips, which were caked with blood and dirt and flecked with bits of dug-in gravel. Despite the pain, she added, “Can’t be.”

But it was true.

She knew who had tied her to this tree, her arms stretched painfully above her head, leaving her to dangle from wrenched shoulders and balance on the tips of her bare toes. Knew who had slashed the vicious blade across her abdomen, until she’d felt warm, sticky blood spill down her legs onto her own feet. Knew who watched her from behind the black hood, his dull eyes reflecting no emotion, as if her agony didn’t exist.

Knew him.

Until this moment, she’d been floating, dazed and nearly disappearing into a world she’d created in her own head, one in which this was happening to someone else, and she was merely an observer. Now, though, shock sent her blood-deprived, slowing heart back into overdrive, until it thudded in a hard, desperate rhythm. Her shallow breaths, each of which caused a strange whistling sound in her chest, grew more rapid.

Knowing made it worse. That
he
could do such a thing …

Knowing didn’t, however, ease the pain that had begun with the first sweep of the knife. She’d tried to escape it by giving in to the slow lethargy of blood loss. Now the terror she’d felt when she’d realized she was being kidnapped came rushing back like a bullet hitting her in the dead center of her heart.

Feeling capable of moving again, she expended what little energy she had left in a vain effort to pull back and evade the next slow, deliberate stroke, meant to torment more than wound. He’d wounded her deeply enough the first time. Now he was just playing.

I’ve known you most of my life. How
could
you?

His identity offered no glimmer of salvation. Sent no ideas of how to escape through her half-dead brain, which seemed ready to shut down, with one final prayer that it would be over soon. It didn’t give her courage or make her want to put up a fight, as she had when he’d grabbed her as she’d stumbled out of Dick’s Tavern. That had been … days ago? Weeks?
Centuries?

No. It might have seemed like an eternity, but it had probably been an hour or two since she’d left the crowded bar. She’d been so drunk she had at first thought some guy who’d bought her a drink was hoping for some payback in the dark shadows of the gravel parking lot. Or that the one real friend she had left in this town had come to drag her home, safe and sound, whether she liked it or not.
Safe and sound … at home?

The merciless crunch of his powerful fist on her jaw had quickly killed those ideas. Her kidnapper had dragged her across the ground, half-conscious, unable to whimper, much less call for help. Not that anybody else had been outside to hear.

He had thrown her into the back of a covered pickup and driven her out here into the middle of nowhere, where she’d assumed she was going to be raped. But every minute since, he’d made it clear he didn’t want to fuck her. He used to—
God, why did you laugh at him?
—but now he wanted only one thing: to watch her die.

The pain, so sharp at first, had dulled into a deep burning. She begged for mercy, knowing it wouldn’t come. “Please let me go. I won’t tell. I know how to keep secrets.”

“Just stay quiet,” he said. His words were a little choppy, as if, despite his still, calm demeanor, he felt some emotion about what he was doing to her.

Maybe
 …

As quickly as it had arisen, the hope that he might actually have some glimmer of humanity that could be appealed to disappeared. Because through swollen, half-closed eyes, she saw him reach down and rub his crotch.

Yeah. Definitely feeling some emotion. “You sick motherfucker,” she spat.

“Shut up, filthy slut!” He swung his arm back, but this time, instead of the blade, he used his fist to quiet her. He didn’t want this to end too soon. There would be no goading him into killing her quickly. “You’re dirty and you deserve what you get.”

The blow flung her head back and she saw stars. Not the figurative kind, but a blanket of real ones filling the midnight blue sky above. So many they’d take a thousand nights to count, a lifetime to appreciate.

She had minutes, at most. Seconds if she were very lucky.

Trying to distance herself from it, she kept staring upward, focusing on the full moon, the heavens. “Daddy,” she whispered, pleading for something she’d lost long ago.

How could the world still be turning and life continuing everywhere else when she was being tortured to death? Beneath all that light, that immenseness, she was entirely and completely alone with the monster who wanted her dead.

“I’m sorry.” Tears oozed from the corners of her eyes to mingle with the blood and dirt on her cheeks. She didn’t know whom she was talking to, some God she’d long since stopped believing in? Herself for getting caught in this trap?

Maybe she was trying to say the one thing she’d never said to the one person who truly deserved to hear it.
This will break her heart
.

The vision of her sad, weary mother, who’d been so loving, yet so impossibly blind, brought her head forward. She again focused on her attacker.

He was no demon. Just a vicious, awful human being.

“Why?” A weak whisper was all she could manage. She had to have lost a lot of blood. It no longer gushed, but still dripped slowly down her front. Its warmth against her bare skin contrasted sharply with the cold air of the March night.
Not long now
.

“Because you’re a whore and nobody will miss you,” he said with a shrug.

How had nobody ever noticed he was insane?

“Wait here.” As if she had any other choice.

He glanced to his right, shook his head, then strode to the edge of the small clearing in which he’d imprisoned her.

That was when she saw the video camera.

Standing on a tripod, it was pointed directly at her. A small red light pierced the darkness, indicating that the camera was on, recording this. He was capturing her pain, casting her final moments into a bloody sequence of two-dimensional images.

“You’re gonna be famous,” he claimed as he adjusted the thing.

He tilted it down a little. A whirring noise told her he’d zoomed in closer.

“Sick pig,” she mumbled, though the words were so soft she barely even heard them. She wasn’t able to breathe well, barely had the air to make any audible sounds.

“We’re both gonna be famous.”

Both famous
. Lisa’s eyes drifted closed. Her muscles unable to support her any longer, her legs slowly went limp. She hardly felt the agony of her shoulders pulling from their sockets under the full pressure of her body’s near deadweight.

Famous
.

The word zipped through her mind, making her suck in one last desperate breath of hope. Even as she heard the crunch of dried leaves beneath his feet as he returned to finish what he’d so brutally started, she couldn’t help feeling a tiny moment of triumph.

He was on that tape with her. Disguised, yes, in a black cape and a hood. But she had recognized him. Somebody else would, too. Long after she was dead and gone, someone would see that video and catch him. Small comfort, but it was something.

The footsteps stopped. Lisa didn’t have to open her eyes to know he was again beside her. The warmth of his breath emerging through the opening in his hood brushed her cheek. If she had any strength, she’d turn her head and sink her teeth into his throat. But strength had long abandoned her. As had dreams of escape. Justice, though, that fantasy hadn’t disappeared yet.

“Ready for your close-up?” he whispered.

Close-up of you, too, bastard.

He touched her cheek with one black-gloved finger. “Don’t be sad. Lots of people will see this. They’ll love you, and they’ll never know what a cheap whore you are.”

The arm swung. A kiss of steely fire. And a few random thoughts before oblivion.

Why was he making this video?

Who would see it?

Don’t let Mama see
. …

Then blackness.

Cutting the thing
that had once been a woman down from the tree, he couldn’t help feeling surprised at his own calmness. There was no panic. No fear. No remorse. Nothing except an exhilarating sense of triumph that he’d done it.

“You shouldn’t have laughed at me,” he said as he dragged the body across the ground. “It could have been anyone, but it was
you
because you laughed.”

Any other nasty, dirty female might have done, but this one had deserved it most of all because of the way she’d acted when he’d approached her, at the mercy of his own vile urges. He was tired of being laughed at. Sneered at.

He wouldn’t be anymore. The lump he was rolling into a tarp and tying closed for burial proved that much. And soon, thanks to his video, which he would edit to make sure there was nothing in it to give him away, he’d be able to show the world.

At least, his world. The only one where he was understood. The only one that mattered to him anymore.

The only one where he belonged.

Seventeen months later

D
uring his five years
working the roughest streets of Baltimore, and his seven in the FBI’s Violent Criminal Apprehension Program, Special Agent Dean Taggert had seen firsthand how vicious people could be. He’d responded to shootings and gang hits. Had put his hands onto gushing wounds to try to save a victim waiting for an ambulance. He’d shot and had been shot at.

But this. God, he had never seen anything like this.

“It can’t be real,” he muttered. “This video is a fake. It’s got to be.”

He spoke more to himself than to IT specialist Brandon Cole, who had pulled him aside and asked him to take a look at something he’d stumbled across on the Internet. Cole, who’d been with the FBI’s Cyber Division for less than a year, was a bit of a renegade, but the kid knew his stuff when it came to computers. This time, though, he was wrong. He had to be wrong.

“It’s real,” Cole said.

He didn’t elaborate, letting Dean see for himself, waiting for him to concede that something so far beyond his darkest nightmares could really have happened.

Waiting for him to accept it.

He didn’t want to. Didn’t want to even imagine that someone could do such a thing, and then upload it to the Web for others to see, as well. When the final moment came, however, when the poor woman on the screen died without the camera pulling away for a single second, he could no longer deny it.

“Okay. It’s not a fake,” he admitted.

Nobody outside of Hollywood could pull off a scene as horrifically convincing as this one. And the video they were watching had been taken by an amateur, not a cinematographer with a multimillion-dollar budget for gory special effects.

The crime itself, however, was anything but amateur.

He’d thought leaving ViCAP for a new Cyber Action Team—CAT—would mean never having to work a case like this again. He’d wanted to get all that darkness and violence out of his life so he could be normal. Have fewer nightmares.

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