Read The Seventh Victim Online

Authors: Mary Burton

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Suspense

The Seventh Victim (9 page)

BOOK: The Seventh Victim
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Beck sat down, irritation snapping. “Been doing a little homework.”

Raines grinned. “For what it’s worth, I’d have done the same if I were in your shoes. You shouldn’t have been benched. I’d have kept trailing Dial.”

Beck didn’t need Raines’s approval. “Others didn’t see it that way.”

Raines was relaxed as if they were old friends. “Fuck the rest. You got justice for that kid and put that piece of garbage in the ground. That’s what counts, not the shit the media spins.”

“You’ve had your issues with the media.” The statement didn’t require research. If he’d been lead investigator on a serial murder case, the press would have been all over him.

“I have.” He shook his head. “And if you end up with more strangled bodies, you’ll learn how hellish the press can make your life.”

“What’s the point of this chitchat?”

Raines chuckled. “Direct. Good. Saves time. Did you go and see Lara Church?” His voice sounded crisper, stronger and all business.

“I did.”

“And?” Raines spoke to him as if they were partners.

“And nothing I can discuss.”

“Ah, come on, Beck. I gave you Lara. I didn’t have to, but I did. At least tell me if she remembers?” When Beck didn’t answer right away, he added, “I’d ask her myself, but I’m afraid she’d shoot me on sight. I made her life tough in Seattle. In fact, I blame myself for her leaving town. I pushed too hard, and she couldn’t take it.”

“She’s no wilting flower now. She’s grown some steel in her back.”

Raines cocked a brow and nodded. “Good. I’m glad. She’s gonna need it if the Strangler is back. She might not believe it, but I liked her. She’s talented and didn’t deserve what happened to her.”

“No.”

“Was she of help to you?”

Same question asked differently, just like a good homicide detective. “She told me to get lost.”

Raines shrugged. “She was anti-cop by the time she left Seattle.”

“That hasn’t changed.”

“If you keep at her, she’ll come around. Not remembering plagued her. I’ll bet that her curiosity will get the better of her, and she’s going to want to figure this out.”

“I’ve every intention of visiting her again. If she’s got any memory locked in that head of hers, then I want at it.”

“Go easy, or she’ll spook.”

Beck shook his head. “I did a little reading up on her. She’s put down roots in Austin. She’s teaching photography at the university, and she’s got an art show opening this Friday.”

“I saw the notice in the morning paper. The show’s called
Mark of Death
. Interesting topic.” Raines tugged at a loose thread on his cuff. “She might not remember Seattle, but it made an impression.”

Beck leaned forward. “Stay away from her. I don’t need you mucking up this investigation.”

“I’m not making that promise. If the Strangler is back, and you can’t make headway with her, I will be paying her a visit.”

Beck bristled. “Stay away.”

“Find the Strangler, and I will.” Raines rose. “I hear you’ve got good food here in Austin. Looking forward to trying it. See you soon, Beck.”

“Stay out of my case, Raines.”

“Solve it, and I will.”

 

 

Raines couldn’t hunt this killer if he didn’t understand the hunting grounds. Austin, like all towns, had its quirks with streets and traffic. After reading a collection of street maps, he got in his rental car and drove around the city.

When he saw the off-ramp to Interstate 35 he took it, knowing that the killer had left the two bodies near the southbound side of I-35. He barely noticed much of the landscape. Instead, his gaze was searching for signs of a crime scene: yellow tape, burned flares, a stray cone.

Finally, thirty-five minutes outside of Austin, he found the spot where the San Antonio paper had reported the first murder. He’d been getting both the San Antonio and Austin papers since Lara had settled in town.

Though tempted to walk over to the scene, he didn’t. His vehicle would stick out here, and he didn’t need to explain himself to a highway patrolman. Spotting the access road, he drove a little farther south until he found the exit that gave him access to the secondary road that ran parallel to the interstate. Backtracking, he searched for the signs of a crime scene. Years of stringing yellow tape made it easy to spot the tattered strip left behind by the technicians.

He parked and got out, cursing the heat as he moved over the rough terrain toward the site. He reached the site, wiped the sweat from his brow, and then turned his attention to the land around him. He could see why the killer had chosen it. Isolated, quiet, it would be easy to leave a body here in the middle of the night without being seen. And this kind of heat would quickly decimate a body in days.

He glanced at the highway. “But you don’t want them to vanish and go unnoticed, do you, sport?” he said. “You want them found. That’s why you take the time to dress them and leave them out in the open. Probably why the second body was closer to the road. The initial one took too damn long to be noticed.” When he’d read about the first woman, he’d not given her much thought. The papers had said scattered bones and mentioned the boyfriend was a person of interest. Now with this latest victim, he needed to take a real look at the forgotten first.

The first six Seattle killings had been different. Yes, the women had been dressed, but they’d been left in a remote section of woods. In those days, the Strangler had not wanted to be caught. And then there’d been the sloppy attack on Lara Church. The killer appeared to have acted impulsively. He’d introduced sexual assault to his new MO. He’d strayed too close to the road. So what had changed?

Lara
.

Seven years ago, the notion that Lara was the key burrowed into his bones. And though not everyone in his department believed him, he’d not wavered. It was why he’d kept tabs on her the last seven years.

What was it about Lara?

Frustrated by the taunting lack of answers, he caught the glint of metal in the corner of his eye and moved toward the shiny object. He reached down and picked up the sunglasses. They looked clean and pristine. They’d not been out here long and likely did not belong to the first crime scene unit. And, judging by the size, they’d belonged to a woman. What woman would come out here to see a Strangler crime scene?

He grinned. It made sense Lara would come out here with her camera after Beck’s visit. This place, like all the murder scenes she’d photographed, potentially could unlock the answers trapped in her mind.

“Lara Church.”

She still wanted to remember. Good. He pocketed the glasses, knowing he’d see her soon.

 

 

The glaring sun prompted Lara to reach up on her head for her sunglasses. When she didn’t feel them she remembered setting them down by the crime scene. Twenty miles back. “Damn.”

She considered going back for the glasses, but she was already a half hour late for her appointment at the gallery. She balanced the value of dime-store glasses against the cost of gas and her lack of time. The glasses lost.

Lara, with Lincoln in the front seat of her pickup truck, rode into Austin. Her show was opening in just a couple of days, and she’d promised the gallery owner and her cousin, Cassidy Roberts, that she’d swing by to discuss last-minute show essentials.

Cassidy’s 101 Gallery was located on South Congress Avenue in a bustling, albeit quirky, section of Austin. The three-story brick building, rimmed by glass high-rises on neighboring streets, dated back to the 1930s. It had belonged to their grandmother, who’d snapped up land in the seventies when it was cheap and converted it into a dress shop. When her grandmother had gotten ill two years ago, she’d gifted the building to Cassidy. Her cousin had painted the brick building white with three red horizontal stripes and expanded the first-floor windows so that passersby could see the art inside the studio. 101 Gallery blinked bright in blue neon above the main door.

Lara parked in the small lot behind the building, and she and Lincoln made their way through the back entrance. Dwindling renovation dollars had left the back entrance area much as it had been when their grandmother was alive, with dim lighting, old cracked linoleum floors, and a rickety shelving system.

“I can smell that mutt a mile off!” Cassidy’s clear, young voice shot down the hallway that led to the main gallery.

“He doesn’t smell.” Lara dropped her car keys in her backpack. “You saw my truck pass in front of the gallery.”

Cassidy emerged from a small office. She wore a peasant blouse, a black ruffled skirt, and a thick belt that matched a pair of cowboy boots. Dark hair was swept into a topknot and held in place by hair sticks. No makeup enhanced her smooth olive skin and high cheekbones. Silver and turquoise bracelets jangled from her wrist.

Cassidy tossed a wary glance at Lincoln, who settled on the cool wood floor. “God, he gets bigger every time I see him. Are you sure he’s not part wolf?”

Lara rubbed Lincoln between the ears. “He’s just a big puppy.”

“With big fangs.” Despite Cassidy’s protests she looked as if she had no problem with the dog. Though she groused about his smell and his hair, she never once said he wasn’t welcome in her gallery.

Cassidy had been twelve when her mother had died, and she’d gone to live with their grandmother. Lara, however, had only lived in the Austin home during the summers, a time when her own mother needed a break from the demands of motherhood. The start of her summers with Cassidy always began with tension as each wondered how much the other had changed over the year. But by end of summer the girls cried when Lara’s mother appeared and took Lara away.

Cassidy studied Lara. “Looks like you got some sun today.”

“I did some preliminary shooting.”

“You should wear a hat. The Texas sun chews you up.” Cassidy arched a brow just as their grandmother had. “Where did you shoot?”

“A site out off of I-35 north of San Antonio.”

“Odd choice.”

“I don’t pick the places. They pick me.”

“Not another murder scene.” The words rushed out in a sigh.

“Yep.”

Cassidy was silent for a moment. “Don’t get me wrong, I adore the pieces you’ve taken. But every time I look at them I realize how dangerous it is for you to take those pictures. And the side of a highway can’t be the most secure location.”

“I’m always careful.”

Cassidy clasped her hands together. “Please, for my sake, would you not take any major risks between now and the opening? I need my artist looking radiant and wonderful and not dead on the side of a highway.”

Logic demanded Lara lock her doors every night and carry a shotgun when she walked and was out in the field. However, deeply buried emotions overruled logic, at times sending her to tenuous places to take pictures. The irony was not lost on her. “I’ll be fine. Now show me what you have so far.”

Cassidy grabbed a ring of keys and unlocked the door that separated the front of the gallery from the back. “Are you nervous about this show?”

A casual shrug hid a flurry of nerves. “No. Why would I be nervous?”

“It is a big step.”

“It’s a show.”
It’s a show. It’s just a show.

Green eyes narrowed. “Then why do I smell your unease?”

Lara smiled. “Maybe you just smell Lincoln.”

Cassidy wasn’t put off by the joke. “No, you’ve been different since you got back to Austin. You travel to crazy places for your pictures and yet treat strangers with caution.”

“You have an imagination.”

“You weren’t like this as a kid. You were the brave one. The one never afraid to talk to anyone.”

“I’ve grown up.”

“You have an obsession with death.”

“I do not.” And that was the truth. “I’m compelled to understand death and the mark it leaves behind, but I have no desire to meet up with it for at least another fifty or sixty years.”

Cassidy smiled but didn’t appear amused. “Maybe the time has come to understand life.”

Lara arched a brow. “You sound like a shrink.”

“Maybe you need a shrink.”

The offhand comment struck a painful nerve, but she grinned. “Don’t all artists?”

Cassidy’s head tilted as if she picked up the dark vibrations under the words. “What happened to you?”

“What do you mean?”

“Like I said. You’ve changed since we were kids.”

“Life is change.”

Cassidy shook her head. “You’re not going to tell me what happened.”

“Cassidy, I’m here to look at the show, not talk about me.”

Cassidy opened the door to the gallery. “Follow me.”

The front side of the building had been completely refurbished, the old linoleum replaced with polished wood floors, whitewashed walls, and bright lights.

Relieved to be off the topic of Lara Church, she told Lincoln to stay in the back.

Cassidy’s boots clicked as she made her way down a side hallway. Many had questioned Cassidy’s business sense when she’d announced she wanted to own an art gallery, but so far she was doing more than just keeping her head above water. She was also making a name for herself in art circles.

“This opening is going to be good for you, Lara. Your pieces are stunning, and you are going to end up on the map.”

On the map
. She’d done her best to stay off the map for the last seven years. “Be nice to sell a piece or two and put some money away in the bank. The idea of not living hand-to-mouth is refreshing.”

“With luck we will both make money. There is so much I want to do with this place.”

“You’ve done well for yourself, Cass. You’ve much to be proud of.”

She grinned. “And everyone thought the former cheerleader would piss away her inheritance.”

“I can only imagine what everyone says when my name comes up in conversation.” Mimicking a Central Texas drawl, she added, “Used to be so normal. Now wanders the country taking pictures of death scenes. Odd little lady.”

Both women laughed.

“Now I want you to close your eyes,” Cassidy said before they rounded the corner into the main gallery. “I want you to get the full effect when you see your work on the walls.”

BOOK: The Seventh Victim
9.46Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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