Read The Seventh Victim Online
Authors: Mary Burton
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Suspense
THE SEVENTH VICTIM
“Do you think someone from my past is the killer?” Lara asked.
“I don’t know. I do know someone knew about that key and drugged your dog.”
“Maybe some nut who read the morning paper broke into the house.”
“Maybe the article did unsettle someone. Maybe the article and Lincoln are unrelated. But I’d bet my last dollar that the two are connected.”
“How can you know that?”
“I don’t, and until we know, be careful, Ms. Church. I’m going to have DPS swing by every half hour. Someone out there is fixated on you.”
“That doesn’t mean it’s the Strangler.” Lara spoke the words hoping he’d agree. “It could just be about the article.”
He touched the brim of his hat. “Don’t you bet on it for a minute. Not for a minute . . .”
Books by Mary Burton
I’M WATCHING YOU
BEFORE SHE DIES
THE SEVENTH VICTIM
Published by Kensington Publishing Corporation
The Seventh Victim
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.
All copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.
Table of Contents
THE SEVENTH VICTIM
Books by Mary Burton
Seven years ago
The man crouched by the unconscious woman lying on the dewy grass by the highway and tilted her pale, still face toward the moon. He laid calloused fingertips over the pulse point on her throat. The
of her steady heartbeat drummed against his skin.
Relief collided with excitement.
Thank God. She wasn’t dead. He’d hit her so hard hours ago that he’d feared there’d be no coaxing her awake. And he needed her to open her eyes. To see his face.
Gently, the man stroked her blond hair as a chilling, wet breeze blew over the lush landscape. Stars twinkled between thickening pockets of rain-soaked clouds, which hid a waning moon. Twenty yards behind him, cars buzzed past on
Several minutes passed as he patted her face, each touch growing increasingly harder. “Open your eyes. Look at me. You need to know what is about to happen.”
He needed fear. Her terror.
The woman’s eyes moved under her lids, but they did not open. Damn. He’d hit her too hard.
In the distance, cars rushed by. He should carry her deeper into the woods to avoid detection, but he was more worried about waking her up than discovery. He’d not anticipated heavy traffic. A horn honked. Shit.
Frustrated, angry, and worried, he slapped the woman’s face hard. This time her eyes fluttered open as she raised a trembling hand to the red-purple bruising on her pale cheek. The bluest of blue gazes stared up at him with sightless confusion.
She did not see
He struck her with his backhand.
Her gaze cleared, and the fear he’d so craved blossomed and radiated.
“Where am I?” The woman’s dry throat and mouth had roughened her voice.
“With me,” he whispered. “Look at me.”
“I hurt.” Her flickering panic, like flint to tinder, ignited a fire in him that quickly raged bright and strong. Yes, this is what he needed. Her pain. Her fear. Saliva pooled at the corners of his mouth. His heart raced.
In one swift move, he straddled her and grabbed her slender neck in his strong hands. His erection throbbed painfully in jeans that scraped against the gauzy white dress straining over her belly. He had already taken her twice and still he craved more sex.
He tightened his hold around her slender neck. “Do you know who is going to kill you?”
The woman could barely keep her vacant eyes open, but the pressures against her neck fueled a primal need to survive. Blindly, she dug her fingernails into his hands. She screamed, but the wind paired with the rush of traffic drowned out her cries.
Yes. This is what he wanted. Fear. “Open your eyes. Look! See me!”
The first time he’d seen her years ago, the beast in him had wanted him to drag her into the woods. However, logic demanded caution. And so he’d tracked her every move. Photographed her. Kept a detailed accounting. Nothing violent. Nothing alarming. Simple. Easy. Thrilling.
It had gone on this way for years, until two nights ago when he’d scraped together his courage to implement what he’d planned for so long. She’d had too many drinks. Celebrating. Relaxed. Unaware. And he had taken her easily.
Memories of what he’d done replayed in his mind. He squeezed his thighs against her midsection compressing her ribs and shoving the air from her lungs. She arched, kicked, and twisted her neck as more traffic roared past. A streak of lightning cut across the sky. Thunder rumbled. But he barely noticed, his focus fixed on the erotic play of energy between master and victim.
“Look at me!”
As the woman grasped his fingers encircling her neck, tears pooled in her unseeing eyes and trickled down the side of her cheeks. Her nails dug into his flesh, as desperation oozed from her pores. He squeezed harder, his excitement growing as her fingernails clawed his hands.
“Do you see me?” he said. All this planning would be fruitless if she didn’t know who had brought her to death.
She wasn’t listening, but channeling her energy into the last moments of her struggle. She clung to life.
She kicked and arched, pushing her belly into his erection. A strangled cry croaked from her lips, but she did not have the air in her lungs to scream or the strength to break his hold. Her eyes closed.
In mere moments, it would all be over. She would die. But she would never know who had dominated her in the last moments of her life.
A car horn honked. The frantic shouts of men grew louder as the glare of approaching flashlights glared brighter. His capture loomed; seconds separated him from ending her life. Seconds.
His grip slackened. What would be the point of her death if she didn’t see her killer’s face? Angry and frustrated, he released his grip and stumbled off her limp body, and ran into the night, knowing one day he’d see her again.
Monday, May 20, 6:45
Stop and smell the roses.
Texas Ranger James Beck’s captain had spoken those last glib words seconds after he’d put Beck on paid administrative leave three weeks ago.
The words rattled in Beck’s head as he parked his black Bronco at a murder scene located twenty miles south of Austin off Interstate 35’s access road. The day’s new sun glowed red over the haze of heat, rising over rolling, dusty Western lands blanketed with rocks, brush, and scrubby trees. On the road’s shoulder sat a sidelined truck hauling lumber, a half dozen county sheriff’s cars, and a forensics van. Already early-morning commuter rubberneckers had snarled morning traffic.
Oddly, the controlled chaos eased the tightness bunching the muscles in Beck’s lower back. He was officially back in the saddle and free of the oppressive slower pace of a forced “vacation.”
The seeds of Beck’s trouble began six months ago when Misty Gray, a ten-year-old girl, had vanished. The last person to see Misty had been her mother’s live-in boyfriend, Matt Dial, who reported to police that the girl had left to play with friends and then vanished.
After three days and no sign of the child, local authorities had summoned the Texas Rangers and Beck had been assigned to the case. The Rangers, often relegated to tales of the old West, were in fact a modern, elite part of the Texas Department of Public Safety, known as DPS.
Twenty minutes into Beck’s interview with Dial, he knew the construction worker was lying. But the more questions Beck fired, the faster Dial shot back denials.
Finding Misty became Beck’s personal mission, and he stayed on Dial long after media stories shifted from rescue to recovery. When Dial, who turned out to be the black sheep of a well-connected family, complained about Beck’s dogged trailing, Beck’s boss ordered the Ranger to stand down until the political winds eased. Beck disobeyed, using personal time to trail Dial. Two weeks went by before the out-of-work construction worker made a midnight run to a deserted farm. Beck, trailing close, watched Dial unlock an old shed and drag out a large plastic bag that could easily hold a child’s body. Weapon drawn, Beck called out to Dial, who raised a .45 and fired. Dial’s shot trailed high, but Beck’s shots struck Dial in the chest, dropping him instantly. Misty’s decomposing body was in the bag.
Forensic investigators found childlike messages scratched on the shed walls, scattered food wrappers and empty water jugs. They theorized the girl had lasted three weeks in the shed before she’d died of dehydration.
When Dial family attorneys attacked the child’s character during the ensuing investigation, Beck’s temper had blown. He’d spoken words a politically aware man would have avoided and in the end, Beck’s commander had saddled him with paid leave.
“Enjoy the next three weeks. Lay low. Stop and smell the roses.”
Beck’s downtime had been spent at his grandfather’s garage getting his hands dirty under the hood of a ’67 Mustang. Never once had Beck been plagued by his own actions or his razor-sharp candor to the attorneys. When asked during mandatory counseling sessions if he had any misgivings about the shooting, he’d honestly said he had none. His regrets were for the little girl who’d suffered alone for three weeks. The little girl he didn’t save.
Beck rubbed a calloused hand over tense neck muscles as police lights bounced off the freshly waxed hood of his car and yellow crime scene tape brushed brittle, brown grass skirting the access road. He grabbed his white Stetson, standard gear for a Texas Ranger, and got out of the car.
His exile had officially ended.
Gravel crunched under his polished cowboy boots and bone-dry dirt dusted the hem of his khakis as he moved down the side of the access road past the truck and the line of cop cars.
At thirty-five he moved with the quick stride of a younger man. When teased about his fast pace he joked too many hits playing high school quarterback had left him edgy and ready to dodge.
Beck nodded to the local deputies, paused to talk to some, shook hands with others. All offered best wishes and hearty welcomes.
One hundred feet off the road he spotted fellow Texas Ranger Rick Santos. Tall, and lean as gristle, Santos pulled off his own Stetson and wiped a red bandanna over his damp brow. As the thirtysomething Santos glanced toward the morning sky, Beck could almost hear him curse the temperature, which was expected to kick up over one hundred degrees. Texans often said the state had two seasons: winter and summer.
The sun had etched lines around Santos’s eyes, tanned his skin golden, and left blue-black highlights in already dark hair. Santos’s uniform was similar to Beck’s, though he favored string ties over Beck’s traditional.