The Dying Game
By Beverly Barton
ZEBRA BOOKS Copyright © 2007 Beverly Beaver
All right reserved. ISBN: 9780821776896
There are some things far worse than dying. Judd Walker knew only too well the agony of simply existing, of being neither dead nor truly alive. For the past three years, eight months, and two days, he had lived in a world without Jennifer. In the beginning, the pain had been unbearable. His anger and rage had nourished him, keeping him breathing, allowing him to continue from one day to the next in a fog of torment. And then a few months after his sweet Jenny's funeral, the fog had lifted and his one goal in life had become clear-to find and destroy his wife's killer.
A part of him-some far removed, distant part-still loved Jennifer. Except for that faint, lingering emotion, he felt nothing, only a goddamn, blessed numbness. Even the anger and rage had burned out, leaving him little more than subhuman, caring for nothing and no one. Wanting-needing-only one thing from life: Revenge! His goal of tracking down his wife's killer had become his only reason for living.
Judd dropped to his knees beside the snow-covered grave. He hadn't wanted to come here, had tried his best to stay away; but the overwhelming need to be near Jennifer on their anniversary controlled his actions. February the fourteenth. Valentine's Day. Jennifer had been a hopeless romantic, a trait that he'd thought silly in other women, but had found utterly charming in the woman he loved.
The woman he loved ...
Judd reached out and ran a shaky hand over the chiseled letters on his wife's headstone. She had been laid to rest here in the Walker private cemetery, in Hamilton County, alongside his parents, his older sibling who'd died as an infant, and countless noteworthy ancestors who were a part of southeastern Tennessee history.
As his father before him, Judd had been one of the most sought-after bachelors in the state. A real catch. A former Chattanooga district attorney with a reputation as a man who genuinely cared about the welfare of the citizens of his county. The only surviving child of parents who had each inherited an ungodly fortune, Judd had known wealth and privilege all his life. But he'd wanted more-more than being Judge Judson Walker IV's son, more than being Senator Nathaniel Chisholm's grandson. And more had been expected of him. He had been brought up to believe that he was, and always would be, one of the good guys, a man destined to help his fellow man.
"Why you, Jenny? Why did it have to be you?" Judd shivered as the damp and cold seeped through his jeans, the slushy, wet snow dampening his knees. The winter wind whipped through the old, battered, leather jacket he wore.
In his mind's eye, he could still see Jennifer, the way she had looked the last time he'd seen her alive. Beautiful. Vibrant. Happy.
God help him, he should feel something-anything. He should be crying ... ranting ... raving. Or at the very least, his wife's memory should evoke a sentimental melancholy.
Dry-eyed, cold, and somber, Judd rose to his feet. Before leaving the cemetery, he gazed down at Jennifer's grave one final time. He wouldn't come back again, not even next year on their anniversary. There was no point in pretending to mourn, not when there was only emptiness left inside him, only embers of his once fiery emotions.
"You deserved better, Jenny." Judd's voice blended with the howling winter wind. "If it takes me the rest of my life, I promise that I'll find him, and I'll make him pay for what he did to you."
Judd walked down the narrow path that led to the arched wrought-iron gates guarding the family cemetery. Gazing up at the night sky, he blinked as the melting snow hit his face. With moisture coating his beard stubble and shaggy hair and beading on his leather jacket, he yanked open the driver's door on the old Mercedes that had belonged to his father. He glanced over his shoulder and took a deep breath.
"Happy Anniversary, Jenny."
He slid behind the wheel, inserted the key into the ignition, started the car, and drove away.
The only reason Griffin Powell had accepted Jillian and Gil Russell's invitation to their dinner party was a long, lean, luscious redhead named Laura Barrett. Laura and Jillian had been best friends since their sorority days at Vanderbilt, and Griff and Laura had become casual lovers when he'd invested in her father's faltering horse-breeding farm several months ago. He found Laura, as a person, mildly interesting; as a lover, she was quite talented. Even though she might have originally had a misguided idea that their relationship would lead to marriage, Griff had set her straight, in his own subtle, gentlemanly way. They both understood that this trip to Knoxville would be her last, that their affair was coming to an end.
Laura tightened her grip on Griff's arm. "There's someone you simply have to meet."
"Is there?" Griff replied.
"Yes, darling. It's Royce Palmer." Laura all but dragged Griff across the crowded room.
"Who's Royce Palmer?"
"You're not the least bit jealous, are you?"
Before Griff could think of a diplomatic response, Henry Lewis waylaid them. The UT professor placed his thin, bony hand on Griff's shoulder. "Still getting all the pretty girls, I see."
Griff smiled at Hank despite the fact that the feel of the man's hand on his shoulder made him slightly uncomfortable. Even when they'd been students together at the university, Griff had sensed something a little off-center about the guy. They had never been friends, but now ran into each other occasionally at various functions because they both belonged to the alumni association and traveled in the same social circle. The only difference was that Hank had been born rich and thus entitled. Griff had come by his vast wealth through a combination of blood, sweat, and tears.
"Laura Barrett, may I introduce Hank Lewis." He eyed the lanky, slightly balding man. "Or would you prefer to be introduced as Professor Henry Lewis?"
Laura faked a smile. Hank removed his hand from Griff's shoulder and grasped Laura's hand, much to her surprise. She gasped softly.
While Hank babbled his way through what he probably thought was some witty repartee, Griff zoned out and leisurely scanned the Russells' massive living room. The crème de la crème of Knoxville society was in attendance, along with several out-of-towners. Interior designer Mark Crosby spied Griff, raised his hand and waved. Mark was the best in the state, and that was the reason Griff had hired him to decorate both his office suite and his home.
Who was the man talking to Mark? Griff wondered. He looked vaguely familiar, but Griff couldn't quite place him.
"Who's the fellow with Mark?" Griff interrupted the going-nowhere conversation between Laura and Hank.
Gazing up thankfully at Griff, Laura said, "That's Cary Maygarden, from Nashville. We met him at the Fentons' New Year's Eve Ball in Atlanta. Don't you remember?"
"Is he in the country music business?" Hank asked.
"Goodness, no." Laura laughed. "The Maygarden family is one of the oldest, wealthiest, and most prestigious in Nashville. Cary's great-great-something-or-other was a contemporary of Andrew Jackson."
"Please excuse us, Hank." Laura tugged on Griff's arm. "We simply have to say hello to an old friend before we leave."
"We're leaving?" Griff grinned. Nothing would please him more.
"Of course we are. I'm returning to Louisville in a few days. I want you all to myself for a little while this evening."
Hank choked on his own saliva and awkwardly excused himself.
"Very effective," Griff said, once Hank was out of earshot.
"Whatever do you mean?"
"You as good as told old Hank that you intend to have your way with me tonight."
"I do," Laura said, a wistful expression on her lovely face. Then her expression changed, hardened; and she laughed. "Let's call it what it is, shall we?"
"And that would be?"
Still smiling, she lowered her voice ever so slightly. "A farewell fuck."
Never let it be said that Laura didn't know how to make a point. Griff placed his hand on her back and let it trail slowly downward, stopping just below her waist. When she started to speak, he grasped her elbow and maneuvered her forward, directly toward her former fiancé. Before they reached Royce Palmer, Griff leaned down and whispered in Laura's ear.
"I think a farewell fuck should always be memorable, don't you?"
As if she hadn't even heard him, Laura held out her hand to the man she had once been engaged to. "Royce, darling, how good to see you." She turned to Griff. "Sweetheart, this is Royce Palmer, an old and dear friend." She hugged closely to Griff's side as she zeroed in on the other man. "You know Griffin Powell, don't you? The Griff Powell, UT legend, and one of the most sought-after bachelors in the state of Tennessee."
Shortly after three in the morning, Pinkie removed his tuxedo jacket and hung it in the closet, then removed the diamond cuff links from his white shirt and placed them in the jewelry case. He'd left the party rather early because he'd been bored.
Pinkie hated being bored.
But a man in his position had to attend a certain number of these mundane affairs. It was expected.
After removing his shoes and stripping out of his other clothing, he retrieved a pair of silk pajamas from the wardrobe drawer. He stroked the luxurious fabric. Pinkie bought only the best.
Once attired in his pajamas, leather house slippers, and quilted satin robe, Pinkie went downstairs and entered his study. After pouring himself a small nightcap, he walked straight to the wall of bookshelves on the right, removed a specific book, pressed the button on the wall, and waited for the secret compartment to open. That's what he loved about this old house-the secret chambers. Like something out of a 1930s movie. How utterly delicious. There was one chamber between the study and the front parlor and another in the basement. Since he seldom went down to the basement, except when he personally retrieved a bottle of wine, he preferred the small, private, upstairs chamber.
Entering this room transported Pinkie into another world, a realm of pleasure and satisfaction that he had created for himself four and a half years ago. He flipped on the light switch. Soft, mellow illumination filled the eight-by-fourteen-foot room. He moved slowly along the back wall, studying the photographs mounted side by side. Thirty-two enlarged photos of sixteen different women, each one a true beauty. Pinkie paused in front of the most recent addition to his collection: Gale Ann Cain-before and after. The before photograph had been taken years ago when she'd won the Miss USA contest and gone on to compete in the Miss Universe Pageant. The after snapshot had been taken with Pinkie's tiny digital camera moments after he had killed her, less than forty-eight hours ago.
"Thank you, my pretty flower," Pinkie said. "You were worth twenty points."
After months of searching, he had specifically chosen Gale Ann because of her fabulous red hair. Redheads were the most rare and therefore worth more than a blonde or brunette.
His fingertips traced his handiwork, gliding smoothly across the snapshot, pausing on her slender ankles.
The sound of her screams echoed inside Pinkie's head.
The first kill had been the most difficult. He had hated the woman's screams. But with each kill, the act itself had become easier, and eventually, he had begun to enjoy hearing their screams.
* * *
"The Beauty Queen Killer has struck again."
The words were no sooner out of Sanders's mouth than Lindsay McAllister shot out of bed and ran barefoot to the open doorway of her bedroom where her boss's personal assistant stood. He had awakened her moments before with a loud knock and an urgency in his voice when he called her name.
"Have you gotten in touch with Griff?" she asked, knowing their employer had probably spent the night with his latest lady friend, a Kentucky divorcée who was visiting her sorority sister in Knoxville. The woman's family raised thoroughbred Derby winners, and Griff had invested in the faltering horse-breeding farm last fall. She often thought her boss had a white knight complex. He seemed to like nothing better than rushing in to save the day.
"Yes," Sanders replied. "He's on his way home. He should be here soon."
"Give me fifteen minutes to shower and dress," Lindsay said.
Sanders nodded. Not for the first time, she noticed the man's military bearing. Although she had worked with him for three and a half years, she knew absolutely nothing about his past, but she suspected that at sometime in his life, he had been a soldier. She had no idea how old he was, but guessed his age to be somewhere between fifty and sixty. At five-ten, he was not a large man, but stocky-built, and with his head shaved as slick as a billiard ball, he looked like a muscular, physically fit fireplug. But what set him apart more than anything else were his eyes. An intense brown so dark that they appeared black. And there was an emptiness in those hypnotic eyes that perpetually puzzled Lindsay.
"I'll have coffee ready for you when you come down." Sanders turned to leave.
She called to him, "Who, where, and how?"
Sanders paused, but kept his back to her. "Gale Ann Cain. Williamstown, Kentucky. He chopped off both of her feet."
"She was a dancer." Lindsay voiced the comment more to herself than Sanders. The killer that the Powell Agency had been tracking for nearly four years murdered his victims in various ways, each specific to the former beauty queen's talent in her pageant's contest.
Sanders's shoulders tensed ever so slightly. "Lyrical dance. She's a former contestant in the Miss Universe Pageant."
"You mean she was," Lindsay corrected.
"No, I mean she is. Ms. Cain is still alive."
"She didn't die. Her sister found her before she bled to death."
"My God! Do you know what this means?"
Sanders nodded, then walked away.
Lindsay's heartbeat accelerated. Her pulse pounded loudly in her ears. After over three and a half years of searching for a manically clever killer, they had finally gotten a break. If the victim was still alive ...
Lindsay closed her eyes and said a silent prayer for a woman she had never met, for a woman lying in a Kentucky hospital, missing both of her feet, the victim of a man to whom murder was some sort of sick game.
After closing her bedroom door and heading to the bathroom, Lindsay shucked off her oversized orange Vols T-shirt and slipped out of her white lace bikini panties.
When she had first moved from Chattanooga to Knox County to take a job with the Powell Private Security and Investigation Agency, she'd taken Griffin Powell up on his offer to stay at his sprawling twenty-room mansion situated on a hundred acres bordering Douglas Lake, near the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. She had intended to stay only until she'd found an apartment of her own, but what should have been a one-month stay had turned into three years and counting.
Lindsay turned on the shower, then gathered up a couple of towels and a washcloth. After placing the towels on the mat outside the ceramic-tiled shower unit, she stepped beneath the warm water and quickly lathered her short hair.
Some people assumed that because she not only worked closely with the big man himself but she was the only Powell agent who lived in Griff's home, the two were lovers. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Through their years together-each of them having their own agenda for being obsessed with the beauty queen murders-she and Griff had formed a bond of friendship. He had become more like a protective big brother than anything else.
Stepping out of the shower, Lindsay towel-dried her short, curly hair and hurried through her daily morning routine. She was a low-maintenance kind of woman. Short hair, short nails, a little blush on her cheeks, light lip gloss, and a whiff of fresh linen body spray. On her downtime, she dressed for comfort. On the job she preferred a casual look-slacks, shirt, and jacket, all in neutral shades. Her only jewelry, other than a sensible Fossil wristwatch, was a pair of diamond ear studs. A Christmas present from Griff.
After dressing hurriedly, Lindsay ran down the backstairs that led to the massive kitchen. Sanders stood behind the granite-topped bar, a glass coffeepot in his meaty hand. Griffin Powell, his unbuttoned overcoat hanging apart to reveal his rumpled white shirt and tuxedo, halted in the doorway leading into the kitchen from the mudroom, and wiped his snow-smeared dress shoes off on a sturdy floor mat.
Lindsay paused on the bottom step as her gaze zipped from Sanders to Griff. A silent understanding passed between her and her boss. They were both thinking the same thing-how will this affect Judd?
Excerpted from The Dying Game by Beverly Barton Copyright © 2007 by Beverly Beaver. Excerpted by permission.
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