Read The Seventh Victim Online
Authors: Mary Burton
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Suspense
“Right now I can’t say for certain what I have.”
“There are a couple of red flags you need to watch out for.”
“Cannon said there was a penny.”
Beck turned from the building’s front entrance, but didn’t acknowledge the statement, not knowing if he actually had Mike Raines on the phone.
“Was the year 1943?” Raines prompted.
He could have been speaking to the Almighty himself and Beck wouldn’t have given case details away.
“I can appreciate you not wanting to talk. Shoe on the other foot, and I wouldn’t be talking to you. The first six victims in Seattle had pennies dated 1943. All the victims died except the last.”
“Her name is Lara Church.”
And according to Cannon only a handful of cops knew the name of the survivor.
“I spent many a long hour trying to crack this case. More sleepless nights than I could count.” He hesitated for a moment. “In the end it was too much. I retired from the force.”
After a pause, Raines said, “I’m a private detective now, and I make my own hours. I’d like to come down to Texas and help you with this case. Unofficially, of course. Before I die, I want to see this guy caught.”
“That’s mighty generous of you, Mr. Raines, and if I need you I’ll be sure to call. But we got the resources here in Texas to catch this guy.”
“He’s a smart one, Sergeant Beck. I can help you.”
“Well, sir, no disrespect, but you had a couple of years to catch this guy, and you didn’t. Now it’s my turn.”
Another hesitation. “I’ve got information that might help.”
“Count me in, and I’ll tell you.”
Laughter rumbled in Beck’s chest. “Why don’t you let me have a crack at the case, and I’ll be sure to call if I need you.”
“I want to help.”
“I’ll call if I have a question.” He hung up. Raines could be a resource, or he could be liability. And until Beck got to know his cases and the Seattle cases he had no intention of reaching out blind to Raines.
As Beck reached for the front door he heard, “Sergeant Beck.”
Beck turned to see a lean, muscular man walking toward him. The guy was in his mid-forties and had blond short-cropped hair, a strong jaw, and a straight-backed posture that suggested a stint in the marines or army.
The man tucked a cell phone in his breast pocket before he extended his hand. “Sergeant Beck, I’m Mike Raines.”
Beck took his hand, not sure if he should smile or have the guy escorted to the nearest airport. “When did you arrive in Austin?”
“A half hour ago. I booked the red-eye as soon as Cannon called me.”
Beck didn’t like being hoodwinked. “You might as well turn around and head on back to Seattle. I got this covered.”
Dark circles smudged the skin under his eyes. “I’m here to stay until this killer is caught.”
He shook his head annoyed that this guy was pushing. “No, sir.”
“I can help.”
“You got information, then give it to me. Otherwise, move along, or I’ll find an officer to help you.”
A faint smile tipped the edge of Raines’s mouth as if the threat amused him. “Did you know the Strangler’s lone survivor lives here in Austin?”
That caught Beck short. He’d given Lara Church more than one or two fleeting thoughts since he’d first heard her name, but had dreaded the search to find her. “What?”
Raines grinned. “That’s right. She lives in town. Has for the last eight months.”
Beck’s gaze narrowed. “And how do you know that?”
“I’ve kept tabs on her. She was my only witness, my only link to a killer, and I wasn’t going to let her slip through my fingers.”
“Where is she?”
Raines scowled. “I want in on this case, Beck. I want this guy caught.”
He paused, letting the air hum with anger. “I want him caught too. But this is my case now.”
Raines muttered an oath. “You’ve never had a case that dogged you or got under your skin?”
Beck didn’t answer.
“So you do understand.” Raines nodded. “If you were me,” Raines said, “what would you do?”
A smile tugged at the edge of his lip. He’d have gone to the ends of the earth to catch Dial. “I’d be here dogging your ass.”
Raines shoved out a breath. “I don’t want to get in the way, and I don’t want credit. I want this guy caught. Then I’ll go back to my life.”
“Tell me where I can find Lara Church, Mr. Raines. She might have been your witness in Seattle, but in Austin she’s mine.”
He shoved his hands into his pockets and rattled change. Finally, he said, “She lives outside of Austin. In a small place she inherited from her grandmother.” He supplied the address. “She wasn’t much help after the killings in Seattle. She didn’t remember her attack or her attacker.”
Beck set his coffee on a ledge, pulled a notebook from his pocket, and scribbled down the address. “You think she was telling the truth?”
“At first, no. I thought she was scared and might have even known her attacker. But as the weeks went on and she still had no memory, she agreed to hypnosis, hoping it would help.”
“Did it help?”
“No. We kept coming up empty-handed. I had an army of forensic psychologists who worked with her. Toward the end she was pretty sick of dealing with cops and doctors.”
Beck checked his watch. He could clock in and be at Church’s place within the hour. “She’s gonna have to deal with another cop.”
“I’d tag along, but I think you’ll get more out of her if you see her alone. She was pretty angry with me toward the end. I’m not good at letting go.”
“Really? Never would have thought it.” Beck shifted his stance toward Raines. “Let me make myself clear, Mr. Raines. She is my witness now, and I want you to stay away from her.”
Raines smiled. “I’ll stay clear for now. You have my word.”
“What does ‘for now’ mean?”
“You get the job done, and we won’t have an issue.”
Beck didn’t like threats, even sugarcoated ones. “You don’t lift a finger on this case, period, while you are in Texas.”
“If you were to ask my former commanding officer, mother, or wife, they’d tell you I could be stubborn.”
“I intend to place a call to your commander.” He tucked his notebook in his side pocket.
“I would too. Like I said, you don’t know me from Adam.” He opened a small briefcase and removed a thick, weathered file. “My case notes on the Strangler case. I’m giving you what I have because this guy needs to get caught. I don’t give a shit about my ego anymore.”
The file, now pressed against the Fisk file, felt heavy in Beck’s hand. “Thanks.”
Raines smiled. “I suspect we’ll get to be good friends before this is over.” He removed a card from his breast pocket. “Call me anytime. I’m in town for a while.”
Beck glanced at the card made of a nice thick white stock. Embossed in black and gold was R
and below it a P.O. Box and a phone number. “Stay out of my case, Raines.”
The first call Beck made when he got to his desk was to Seattle. Cannon was not on duty this early, but after fifteen minutes of introducing and reintroducing himself, he got Captain Ron Grayson.
“What can I do for you, Sergeant Beck?” Grayson, who’d be ending his night shift soon, sounded tired and annoyed.
“I got a visit from one of your former detectives this morning. Mike Raines is in Austin, Texas.”
After a moment’s hesitation, Grayson sighed into the phone. “He called in yesterday out of the blue and asked me and Cannon to lunch. We said yes and your call came up during the meal.” A chair squeaked in the background. “Him showing up in Texas ... that’s classic Mike. He always was like a dog with a bone.”
“It’s one hell of a bone for him to get on a plane and fly down here to see me.”
“That case got to him. Hell, it got to us all. Six women strangled in six months. The press ate us alive and the public was furious. But no matter what we did, we couldn’t catch the guy. Drove Mike nuts more than any of us.”
“Why’d he leave the force?”
“The job had drained him, and yet it still wanted more. He just didn’t have more to give. And he’d pissed off too many higher-ups. He was offered early retirement and he took it. His security business is one of the best in our area, and he’s done real well for himself. I was kidding him yesterday that he didn’t look like a beat cop no more. Mr. Fancy Pants, I called him.”
Beck tried to picture himself if he’d not cracked the Misty Gray case. Would he still be parked outside Dial’s apartment? Yes. Would he have been driven to retire?
“He wants in on my case.”
“He could be a resource. He was one hell of a cop.”
“Is he going to be a problem for me? Is he going to start stirring shit up?”
Grayson choose his words carefully. “He’ll give you some rope, but if you don’t deliver he won’t remain on the sidelines.”
If Raines had still been with Seattle Police, Beck would have demanded Grayson bring his man home. But Raines was a private citizen, and until he broke a law there wasn’t much he could do.
Beck thanked the man and hung up. He found his commanding officer and gave him the rundown.
“Go see this Lara Church,” Captain Penn said. “This Raines guy has given you a real nugget.”
“I’d bet my last dollar Raines doesn’t give much. And he’ll expect payback.”
“You don’t owe him squat. This is your case. Look, it’s been seven years since the attack. Something might have jogged free in Lara Church’s mind. Plus your second murder is going to hit the media outlets soon. I don’t want her reading about strangled women, connecting dots, and bolting.”
“I’ll head out there now.”
“Keep me posted.”
Tuesday, May 21, 9:00
Beck’s black Bronco kicked up dust as heat wafted on the horizon as he wound his way up the back road toward Lara Church’s home. Without Raines, it would have been a bitch to find Lara Church, who resided in a house still under her grandmother’s name. Raines got points for the tip.
Raines shared a single-minded dedication with Beck. Firsthand experience had taught Beck that the trait was as valuable as it was volatile.
Beck slowed at the entrance of the driveway and noted the name on the mailbox. Bower. The Bower name tickled his memory, and for a moment he paused, staring at the scratched lettering on the rusted box.
The more he mined for the memory the more elusive it became so he tabled the search and drove down the winding gravel driveway. He shut off the engine, got out of the car, and surveyed the house.
Made of stone, the one-story house had to have been a hundred years old. Rustic with a bit of weather-beaten charm, the house had a low, wide front porch furnished with a couple of bright blue rockers and a scattering of painted planters filled with flowers. Lara Church didn’t know much about Texas summers if she thought keeping those flowers alive was going to be an easy task. Last summer’s heat had cracked foundations and dried out wells. One missed day of watering, and the heat would burn up those pretty little flowers.
A rustic wind chime dangling from the porch jingled gently in a breeze. Twin sets of windows decorated with faded red curtains flanked the front door. A new stained-glass oval hung above the door.
Before he’d headed up here, he’d run a check on Lara. There’d been no priors in the system, but a quick Internet search led him to the 101 Gallery located on Congress Street in Austin. According to the gallery site, Lara Church was having her first photographic exhibit opening this Friday. It was entitled
Mark of Death
. It didn’t take a shrink to figure out what lurked behind her subject matter. The gallery site included several of Lara’s black-and-white images, but there’d been no picture of the artist herself.
In the distance he heard a dog bark. Judging by the animal’s deep timbre, it was big and running in Beck’s direction. Absently, he moved his hand to the gun on his hip. Nice places like this could turn nasty or even deadly in the blink of an eye.
The dog’s barking grew louder. Tightening his hand on the gun’s grip, he scanned the wooded area around the cabin until his gaze settled on a path that cut into the woods. In a flash, a large black and tan shepherd emerged from the woods, its hair standing on end. The animal glared at Beck, barking and growling. The animal was a beauty, but he’d shoot if it attacked.
Seconds later a woman emerged from the woods. She carried a shotgun in her hands and the instant she saw Beck she raised the barrel.
Beck didn’t hesitate. He drew his gun and pointed it directly at the woman. “Texas Ranger. Drop the gun now!”
The woman stared at him, her gaze a blend of surprise and wariness.
“Put. The. Gun. Down.” Each word was sharpened to a fine point.
She lowered the tip of the barrel a fraction but didn’t release the gun. “How do I know you’re a Texas Ranger?”
The Texas Ranger uniform was easily recognizable to anyone who’d been in Texas more than five minutes. But that discussion came after she released the weapon. “Put the gun down, now.” He all but shouted the command over the dog’s barking. “Now!”
Carefully, she laid the barrel down and took a step back as if she was ready to bolt into the woods. The dog bared its teeth, but she made no move to calm the animal. She might have surrendered the gun, but the dog remained a threat.
He braced his feet. “If your dog lunges at me, I will shoot him.”
Her gaze flickered quickly between the dog and his gun. She understood he’d meant it. “Okay.” She looped her fingers through the dog’s collar and ordered him to heel close at her side.
“You and the dog step back.”
“Do it!” He glanced at the shotgun, knowing he’d not breathe a sigh of relief until he had it in hand.
“I am not turning around.” Her raspy voice stutter-stepped with panic. “I want to see your badge.”
He studied her. If this was Lara Church and she’d survived the Strangler, fear would be a logical response. “Step away from the gun.”