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The bar smelled like stale beer and sweat.
Casey Woods shifted in her seat, which was situated far away from the social hub of the place. She rolled her glass between her palms. It was filled with whatever was on tap that the waiter had brought her. Taking a sip, she looked nervous but wistful among the slew of college kids milling around the East Village hangout.
She was one of those kids. Or trying to be. She was a wannabea shy and naive misfit, on the outside, looking in. Hungry to be welcomed into the inner circle.
She reached around and fiddled with a strand of her long red hair, which was tied back, giving her a more youthful appearance. Her gaze darted around, flickering, every so often, over her target. He was in his early thirties, perched on the first bar stool. Whenever she glanced his way, he was usually staring at her.
The time ticked by slowly. Casey made sure to openly, if shyly, eye the hunkiest-looking guys, changing her demeanor from hopeful to unsure or dejected. Every guy she focused on eventually left, either with a group of friends, or with a girl he'd hooked up with.
At just past three-thirty in the morning, the bartender started closing up, and the bar emptied out. With just a few stragglers left, Casey's hopes for the night were ostensibly dashed. Her lashes lowered in an expression of utter defeat.
Slowly, she rose, reaching into her messenger bag for some cash. As she'd planned, the bag slid off her shoulder and plopped on the floor, contents spilling everywhere. Flushed with embarrassment, she squatted down and began stuffing things back into her bagher wallet, makeup, and fake student ID.
From her peripheral vision, she saw the man at the end of the bar rise, toss some bills on the counter and walk out with the last few stragglers.
It was 4:00 a.m. Closing time.
Despite the pointed glare of the bartender, Casey took her time replacing the contents of her bag, rearranging them as she did. She kept her wallet out long enough to slap some bills on the table. Then she made her way to the door.
The bartender locked it behind her.
Casey sucked in her breath and turned, making sure to follow the same route she'd been taking all week. She'd set the pattern. But tonight she'd stayed at the bar later. The streets were emptier. The timing was right.
She steeled herself as she walked past the alley near Tompkins Square Park. She kept her gaze fixed straight ahead.
She heard Fisher's footsteps an instant before he grabbed her. His arm clamped around her waist, his free hand pressing a knife to her throat. Too hard. Too fast. No taunting. This was not how she'd planned it. And now he had her.
"Don't fight. Don't scream. Don't even breathe. Or I'll slit your throat."
Casey complied. She didn't have to fake her trembling, or the fear that stiffened her body. Silently, she talked herself down, reminding herself why she was doing this. She offered no resistance as Fisher dragged her into the alley. The psychopathic SOB shoved her down on the filthy concrete ground, kneeling over her, a glittering look of triumph in his eyes. He kept the knife at her throat, using his other hand to tear at her jeans.
The button popped. But the zipper never gave.
Marc Deveraux made sure of that.
Emerging from the shadows like a predator in the wild, he lunged at the would-be rapist with all the strength of his powerful build. He yanked Fisher's knife-wielding arm up and away from Casey, then slammed down on his forearm until Fisher's bones made a cracking sound and the knife clattered to the ground.
Fisher howled with pain.
"I'm just getting started," Marc promised menacingly. He dragged Fisher up and slammed his back against the wall. "You okay?" he called out to Casey, who was scrambling to her feet.
"A hell of a lot better than I was thirty seconds ago," she managed.
"Good." He turned his attention back to Fisher. "Talk," he ordered, one knee pushed into Fisher's groin and one elbow digging into his windpipe.
"The girl came on to me," Fisher said, then yelped, sweat beading on his forehead. "She" His breath caught as Marc increased the pressure of his knee.
"Wrong answer. Tell me about your plans for this girland what you did with all the others." He leaned closer, until his face nearly touched the other man's. "You don't want to know what I am or what I'm capable of. Compared to me, you're a Girl Scout." His elbow shoved deeper, cutting off most of Fisher's oxygen. "Now tell me about the girlsall of them. And don't spare any details. I'm a captive audience."
It took longer than expected to get Fisher's confession. It took a Navy SEAL's thumb dug deeply into his collarbone, causing blinding pain that persisted long after the pressure was removed, and the threat that a repeat performance would increase the pain tenfold if that's what it took to make the perp talkassuming his neck didn't snap first. The bastard's cold-blooded confession had made bile rise in Casey's throat. He might be going to jail for a long, long time, but Casey wished they were throwing away the key for good.
"I'm done here, Marc," she told her rescuer. "Otherwise I'm going to be sick."
"Go," he urged quietly. "I'll wrap things up here and head over to the precinct. The bodies will be found. Any claim of coercion will be tossed. It's a murderer's word against ours. The confession will stick. Go home."
Home was a four-story Tribeca brownstone that was residence and office combined. There was no beating that. One mortgage. One place that held all her worldly possessions. And no commute. It was ideal.
Of course, she rarely made it up to the fourth floor, which was supposedly where she slept. Her bed was a casual acquaintance, if not a stranger. She virtually lived in her office. That was her choice. One she made every day. And she wasn't sorry.
With a quick glance around the reception level, she turned left and climbed the L-shaped staircase to the second floor. Directly ahead, she'd had French doors installeddoors that led out to a balcony overlooking the manicured garden in a gated backyard. Colorful flower beds. A maze of closely trimmed shrubs. And a pair of graceful willow trees on either side, rippling in the breeze. The entire effect was both serene and eye-catching.
Pushing open the doors, Casey stepped outside for a moment, quickly shutting them behind her. She hoped the cool air would revive her. Sighing, she noted that the sun was now well above the horizon, and climbing rapidly into the sky. Her watch told her it was nine-thirty. The unofficial coercion Marc had inflicted had taken a lot longer than expected to work. To Casey, it had seemed like an eternity before they'd pulled it off and extracted a full confession from Fisher.
She could still feel the perv's slimy hands on her. He'd really freaked her out.
With a shudder, Casey reminded herself that they had pulled it off, and gotten bothFisher and his confession regarding the other victims. Not a pretty business. Still, the haunting, disturbing feelings inflicted by such men were the very reason she'd formed Forensic Instincts, LLC to begin with.
She walked across the balcony and reached the second set of French doors that led back into the brownstone. She held her access card up to the card reader and punched her security code into the Hirsch keypad. Pushing the doors open, she stepped inside and shut the doors behind her. No time for restnot yet. It was time for her team's post-op meeting.
Forensic Instincts had been just a dream at first. Now it was very much a reality.
It all started four years ago, and was still in its fledgling state. Casey had begun her quest to assemble an awesome team, with herself at the helm. Thanks to her extensive credentials working with both behavioral and psychological profilers, her innate talent at reading people, and her years of working in both law enforcement and the private sector, Casey had easily transitioned into an independent profiler. She held a master's in Forensic Psychology from John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and a bachelor's in Psychology from Columbia. Most importantly, she was a natural at figuring out what made people tick.
Her two other team members were impressive as hell. She should know. She'd meticulously selected them. Assessed them. Recruited them. They were very different from each other. Both brought specialized capabilities to the Forensic Instincts team. The result was a growing track record of successfully solved complex criminal cases.
Their trio was unique, but still formative. Which meant they were sometimes welcomed, and other times regarded as a huge pain in the ass.
But, overall, they were earning a growing respect among law enforcement agencies and, more important, among their expanding client list. To those who hired them, they were the ultimate beacon of hope.
Her rules were few, but absolute. Unwavering loyalty, both to the company and to one another. One hundred and ten percent of themselves when they were on the job. Total candor, regardless of the costbut only when they were behind closed doors. A low profilewhich meant staunchly avoiding the limelight. As mavericks who pushed the boundaries more than conventional bureaucracy would allow, it was best to be unrecognizable. They were an eclectic trio, each of whom believed absolutely in his or her specific methods.
Three egos were involved. And none of them shy. That meant frequent debates, tons of constructive argument andsometimesstubborn unwillingness to budge. With the Fisher case, Casey had wanted to nail their perp by studying his interactions with college-aged women, then combining behavioral observations with her experience and sheer instinct. Marc had argued in favor of using statistics and past research to form a solid scientific base from which he'd work up a profile before going in for the kill. And Ryan was adamant about implementing game theorygetting inside Fisher's head, figuring out his sick reasoningwhere he chose to hunt, and the strategies he used to go after his prey. The twenty-eight-year-old guy was an awesome combination of technology genius and strategic thinker. He studied behavioral patterns through complex computer programming and crunching enormous amounts of raw data, and then applied it to his analysis of human dynamics.
Each team member believed fervently in his or her methods. Fortunately, the whole was greater than the sum of its parts.
Yes, they made quite a teamstrong willed, but the best. Casey expected nothing less as she expanded the operations, and Forensic Instincts grew. Her grandfather would have been proud. She'd used her trust fund wisely and well.
Smiling faintly, she looked around. The second set of French doors had granted her entry to the second-floor conference room. It was the largest and most elaborate space in the brownstone.
As she walked in, an entire wall of floor-to-ceiling video screens began to glow. A long, green line formed across each panel, pulsating from left to right. Then, a soothing voice, that seemed to emanate from every cubic inch of the room, said, "Welcome back, Casey," bending each line into the contour of the voice pattern. It continued, "Warning. Heart rate elevated."
Casey started. She just couldn't get used to being greeted by Yoda, the latest incarnation of Ryan McKay Forensic Instincts' brilliant techno-wizardand his artificial intelligence system. Somehow the damned thing knew who was in the room. It even knew when something was out of the ordinary. Like now. No matter how many times Ryan tried to explain to her how Yoda worked, to Casey it still sounded like magic.
The conference room was pure class. Polished hardwood floors. A plush Oriental rug. An expansive mahogany conference table and matching credenza. And, most crucial of all, a technology infrastructure that was light-years ahead of its time in both design and operation, all hidden from view. Only the gigantic video wall was visible, covering the longest side of the room and allowing Ryan to assemble a dizzying array of information into a large single image or several smaller, simultaneous data feeds. Videoconferencing equipment, an elaborate phone system, and a personalized virtual workstation available to each member of the group completed the elaborate system.
And it was all controlled by Yoda, who unwaveringly responded to requests made by team members. Behind the "shock and awe" of Yoda was a server farm located in the office's secure data center downstairs. Like a proud papa, Ryan had named their custom-built servers: Lumen, Equitas and Intueri, from the Latin words for light, justice and intuition. The names had become so much a part of Forensic Instincts that they'd incorporated them into the company logo.
Casey still found herself awed by the sophistication, power and pervasiveness of the technology. Truthfully, she didn't understand the half of how it worked. But Ryan did. And that was all that mattered.
Heading across the hardwood floor, Casey paused at the edge of the rug, then pulled back a chair and sat down at the long, oval conference table.
Leaning back, she called out, "Yoda, please show me TV news."
"Would you like world news, national news or local news?" Yoda inquired pleasantly.
"CBS, NBC, Fox, ABC or all?" Yoda asked.
Yoda carried out her command by simultaneously showing all four channels, each occupying one-fourth of the wall.
Casey pivoted her chair around so she had a direct view. Staring intently, she tugged off the hair band she'd worn tonight, shook out her long red mane and combed her fingers through the tangled strands. When Glen Fisher appeared on the Fox News screen, she instructed, "Yoda, Fox News full screen."
Instantly, Glen Fisher filled the entire wall. He was sweating and agitated, and quickly bent forward to hide his face as the cameras zoomed in on him being hauled out of the alley and into the squad car.