FBI special agent Eric Macfarlane faced the cluster of oak trees, his suit coat discarded on the warm, pale sand. His eyes were closed, the strong ocean breeze ruffling his light brown hair, and the sun's heat was like a brand through the back of his blue dress shirt. Seagulls cried in the air overhead.
He tried to imagine what it felt like to crash on an isolated beach road, in a strange car and with lost hours that couldn't be accounted for.
Eric had read the Atlantic Beach Police incident report multiple timesin his office yesterday at the FBI's Violent Crimes Unit in Washington, D.C., then again on the plane bound for Jacksonville International Airport early that morning. Despite the warmth of the Florida climate, even now the similarities contained in the document made a chill crawl beneath his skin.
If it was him, if he had finally resurfaced
The thought caused his emotions to skitter like stones skipped on water.
He turned to see Florida Bureau agent Cameron Vartran walking toward him, looking as out of place in suit pants, tie and a dress shirt on the beach as Eric did himself.
"I thought I might find you here," Cameron said. Dark-haired, grinning, he shook Eric's hand warmly, then gave him a congenial back slap that denoted familiarity between the two men.
"Your investigative skills are that good?" Eric asked.
"That and the field office told me you'd checked in and asked about the crash site."
Eric and Cameron had known one another for years. They had gone through training together at the FBI academy in Quantico, then been partnered as agents for a time before Cameron had transferred back to his native Florida and Eric had joined the VCU.
"How's Lanie?" Eric asked.
He raised his eyebrows. "Really? Congratulations."
"She can't wait to see you. It's been way too long." Standing with his dress shoes planted in sand, Cameron wedged his hands on his hips just above his holstered gun. As he looked at Eric, his expression faded into seriousness. "When the match came up in VICAP, I thought that you'd want to know."
Eric nodded, peering off briefly into the distance. "So how did this end up with the Florida Bureau?"
"Some of the local beach communities have their own police forces, but they're small and not equipped for major crimes. So the report was passed to the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office as a possible tie-in to two other missing females in the metro area over the past couple of weeks. The JSO called us in for assistance. I called you."
"Have either of the two other women shown up?"
Cameron shook his head. "Alive or otherwise. It's suspected Ms. Hale was the intended third victim, but somehow managed to escape her abductor."
"In a stolen vehicle and without any memory of her ordeal."
"Right. Her toxicology results just came back. Combination of Rohypnol and gamma-hydroxy-butyraminethe date rape drug and liquid Ecstasywhich explains the severe memory loss. The attending physician classified her as having complete anterograde amnesia."
Eric thought of the victim's wounds that had been detailed in the reportthe second and third fingernails on her left hand excised, a section of her hair cut off, and the numeral that had been carved into her skin. It seemed too precise to be coincidental. He felt a spiraling disquiet. The Collector had been off the VCU's radar for thirty-four months now, fueling internal speculation that he was either dead or incarcerated somewhere on unrelated charges.
Eric had never been able to accept that.
"Damn, it's hot." Squinting against the light, Cameron removed the sunglasses clipped to his shirt pocket and slid them on. "Maybe we can grab a quick bite to eat and catch up before the briefing with the JSO detectives at one. There's a great seafood place down the road from here. Only the locals know about it."
They began walking across the sand, and Eric bent to retrieve his suit coat, slinging it over his shoulder. As Cameron talked, he gazed back toward the water. Although the beach here wasn't as commercialized, he noticed there were still a few people strolling along the shore. The ocean appeared calm under an azure sky and farther out, the grayish outline of naval ships floated on the horizon.
"So Mia Haleshe's a reporter for the Jacksonville Courier?''" Eric said as they came down the planked stairs that led back to the road. The information was still surprising.
Cameron nodded. "A crime reporter. She'd been covering the missing womenboth assumed abductions since the women's families are adamant they aren't the type to just disappear. Ms. Hale's last story ran on Monday morning, and she vanished that same night out of the newspaper's parking garage. The beach police found her hiding here some eight hours later, stripped to her underwear and in pretty bad shape. My guess is that her articles got someone's attention."
"What about the vehicle? Any leads from it?"
"The Sheriff's Office processed it. Forensics on the car is expected back this afternoon. Ms. Hale doesn't recall how she got in possession of it or even where she drove it from. The vehicle was reported stolen a couple of days earlier from an outlet shopping mall popular with tourists. The mall's on the other side of the city."
A few dozen feet away, a wide section of fencing that cordoned off the dunes was missing, its wooden stakes scattered like broken matchsticks between clumps of brown sea oats. It was all that was left of the crash scene. Eric studied the area.
"I'm going to want to talk to Ms. Hale."
"She was released from the hospital yesterday. We can schedule some time with her."
The government-issued vehicle the other agent drove was parked behind Eric's rental sedan on the sandy shoulder of the A1A. Cameron provided directions to the nearby restaurant, then removed his sunglasses again. Concern was evident in his eyes. "The truth is, I wasn't sure the VCU would want you involved, Eric, considering."
Rebecca. Her image, her voice, had faded a little in his memory, the realization tightening his jaw. The last time Eric had seen Cameron and Lanie was at the funeral. That had been nearly three years ago.
"I pulled a few strings," he admitted.
"I bet. And you came down here without a partner?"
"Resources are limited. I told them I'd be better off working with my old one down here."
"The timing works. My partner tore his ACL. He's out on leave." Cameron appeared to choose his next words carefully. "If this really is the guy
are you going to be able to handle it?"
Eric specialized in serial murderers at the VCU. He was all too aware that unsubs had relocated in the past, had gone into hiding to evade capture. But ultimately, their innate desires drove them to hunt again.
"I want closure," he said simply.
Cameron sighed as he gazed at a passing car on the highway. "I know you do."
"I don't want you coming into work, Mia," Grayson Miller said over the phone. "That's final."
"I could just attend the editorial meetings"
"Give yourself a little time to recover, all right? You live on the coast for a reasongo soak up the sun or something." He paused to speak to someone in his office, and Mia imagined Grayson sitting at his desk at the Jacksonville Courier, bifocals perched on his nose as he red-penned the hell out of someone's story. When he returned to the conversation, he lowered his voice. "Look, I'm going to come over there after work and check on you."
"You don't have to. I've got Will and Justin downstairs"
"Indulge me. I need to see for myself that you're all right."
The sincerity in his words made Mia's throat ache.
"When I came into work that morning and saw your car here with the door open and your purse inside it, it scared me. I've been executive editor here for thirteen years and nothing like this has ever happened. One of my reporters, taken right out of the parking garage. You're special to me, Mia. It's a miracle you're alive."
She closed her eyes, swallowed down the emotion that seemed to be at her surface these days. "Grayson."
"I'm bringing dinner. Pizza from Mario's or Thai from that place around the corner. I expect an email by six letting me know which."
"Thai food," she whispered, and disconnected the phone.
Mia remained on the balcony of her apartment, hating the fact that she was shivering despite the sun's warmth. Placing the phone on the glass-topped patio table, she pulled the sash of her short, kimono-style robe more tightly around herself and stared blindly over the canopy of trees at a lush park in Jacksonville's historic San Marco neighborhood. Grayson was right, she concededshe wasn't ready to go back to work. But the truth she would never admit to anyone but herself was that she didn't want to be alone. The bustle of the newsroom, a story assignment, even a simple one, could help take her mind off things.
The only problem was, she was part of the story now. Or at least the one everyone was talking about. Mia felt another tremor pass through her.
Try as she might, and she 'd tried hard, she couldn't remember anything. Detectives from the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office, as well as an agent from the local FBI field office, had quizzed her, but not even a fragment of those lost hours had returned. Her last memory was of leaving the office late after filing a breaking story. She'd said good-night to Ronnie, one of the evening janitors, and walked out to her car in the balmy evening. Mia had clicked the key fob, deactivating her ancient Volvo's security system, and tossed her purse into the front seat.
Her next memory was of awakening in a crashed car that didn't belong to her, on an unfamiliar stretch of darkened beachside road. Covered with blood, trembling and confused, her inner voice had screamed at her to run.
Hide. Even now, the cold fear of the unknown pooled inside her.
The beach police who'd found her, the emergency workers at the scene and then later, the doctors and nurses in the hospital E.R.it had all been a blur of people poking at her, taking blood and checking her vitals, asking myriad questions she couldn't answer. Her lungs squeezed at the recollection of the invasive, degrading rape examination and her acute relief when it appeared she hadn't been assaulted in that way. Mia had asked one of the nurses to call Grayson, knowing he typically arrived at the paper well before daylight, and discovered that he had already reported her missing.
Remnants of the dull headache that was like a hangover were still with herthe result of the illegal, black market drugs in her system, she'd been told.
What had happened to her? Who had she escaped from and how?
Speculation was that whoever had taken the two women Mia had written about had targeted her, as well. And those women were still unaccounted for. As a reporter, she'd always tried to maintain a level of objectivity. That was all gone now. She felt a kinship with those women, wondered if they were still being held somewhere. Or if they were dead.
The warm breeze lifted her hair. Mia pressed one hand against her stomach, her gaze lingering on the ugly abrasion encircling her wrist. Through the robe's silk material, she could feel the raised edges of the bizarre, scabbed carving on her skin. No bikinis for me anytime soon, she thought, trying to inject some humor into an otherwise terrifying situation. The tips of the second and third fingers on her left hand were bandaged and sore.
You 're tough, Mia. You've been through bad things before and you'll get through this.
She went back inside her apartment, which was large and airy, with high ceilings and antique heart pine floors. From down the hall she could hear the police scanner she kept in her home office, its low chatter a strange but familiar sound. Walking to the granite-topped island that separated the kitchen from the living area, she eyed the copy of the Jacksonville Courier. Mia had taken it from her doorstep hours earlier but so far had been unable to read it. The headline below the banner was innocuously politicala standoff between the county and state over shoreline zoning rights.