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Another dead prostitute.
Special Agent Dillon McIntyre kept his expression neutral but his gut was a roiling mess of bitter resentment that didn't mesh very well with professional civilitynot that he was good at playing nice on a normal day. Today it was taking everything he had not to vent his frustration on the woman standing beside him.
Emma Valeexecutive director of Iris Housewas a right looker, for sure. Too bad not even that motivated him these days. And if it weren't for that damn boss of his, Director Pratt, he'd be sitting in a dark pub somewhere willfully destroying his liver, trying his best to drown out the distant sound stuck in his memory of his former teammate's terrified screaming and the explosion that followed.
Once, he and his partner, Kara Thistle, had been part of the Child Abduction Rapid Development task force within the Bureau. When it involved kids, their team had been
considered the big guns. What a change. Today he felt as useful as a water pistol.
A phantom pain ghosted across his face and he caught himself just before he touched the jagged scar that marked his cheek, a gift from his last case.
But no someone had friends in high places and so, despite his attempts to become completely unreliable, his reputation still managed to impress people.
And therefore, here he was, on a case he didn't want, talking to people he didn't care about.
Ah, bloody hell, that was a poorly constructed lie. Deep down he cared and that was what Pratt had exploited.
He watched dispassionately as she stood beside the locker, her arm curled against her chest with her palm tucked under her chin, staring with moist eyes down at the brunette on the rolling slab, and wondered briefly why she was so obviously heartbroken.
The soft black cashmere sweater molding itself to Ms. Vale's slim and willowy build was in direct contrast to the overprocessed streaks of peroxide-fried chunks of hair that spilled from the prostitute's head, proclaiming without words that the two women had come from different worlds.
Yet, Dillon sensed genuine grief emanating from the tall blonde even as she kept her expression carefully contained.
She changed her position, choosing to wrap her arms around herself and jerked a nod to the soft query. "That's her," she said, turning slightly from the body and the coroner's assistant, who was solicitously holding the drape from the woman's face so Emma Vale could provide the identification. She swallowed and took a halting breath as if trying to keep something inside, and he wished for a window into her thoughts. He'd been surprised by the appearance of the executive director herself, figuring an underling would show up to do the unpleasant task.
"Oh, Charlotte," she whispered, closing her eyes briefly.
Dillon motioned to the coroner's assistant and the girl's face disappeared again under the white sheet. "Sorry we had to ask," he said, a modicum of sympathy softening his voice from years of practice. "But she had no family and you were the one listed as an emergency contact."
She didn't waste time on silly chatter and divulged nothing. "Is there anything else you need?" she inquired politely with that clear blue-eyed gaze that Dillon found himself drawn to in the most disconcerting manner and awaited his answer with perfect calm, as if her heartache would have to wait for a more appropriate time. Curiosities that had nothing to do with the case sprang to mind and Dillon had to give himself a mental shake for focus.
"Actually, if you wouldn't mind I have some questions you may be able to answer." He gestured to the doorway, ushering her from the grisly reminder of her heartache and into the hall.
"Whatever I can do to help," she murmured and dutifully followed, her short heels clicking smartly on the concrete flooring as they left the dour confines of the morgue.
"How well did you know the victim?"
"As well as anyone could, I suppose," she answered.
"Can you be more specific?"
She cocked her head at him in a subtle manner as if to ask what does it matter but in spite of this, she answered, "Charlotte came to Iris House about a year ago. She'd been brutalized by her pimp and was terrified for her life. Iris House was her sanctuary." At that her eyes watered but she recovered well. "She was an amazing young woman who didn't deserve to die."
"We're going to do our best to find who did this," he said, the promise tasting stale on his tongue. How many others had he made that promise to? He shook off the pull of bad memories with effort. It'd never been this hard before. It was amazing the sort of damage a traumatic event could do to a person's life. At one time, he'd have jumped at the chance to be on this case.
"Why is the FBI interested in the death of a prostitute? Seems a little beneath the Bureau's notice."
Smart woman. "True, under normal circumstances, though tragic, Ms. Tedrow's untimely death would not have triggered any sort of action on our part but we have reason to believe this was not an isolated case," he answered carefully, doling out only as much information as needed. "Do you recall a woman by the name Darla York?" At her faint head shake, he added, "Actually, you might've known her by her alias, Tiffani Blue." Which, he was pleased to note, elicited more of the reaction he was hoping for.
She frowned, his words clearly triggering a glimpse of something. The words came slowly, as if she were retrieving the memory with difficulty. "A redheaded girl with a gap between her front teeth she was only with us for a little while." Her delicate mouth tightened, and Dillon could almost see a giant weight land on her shoulders as she said, "I had to let her go. She disregarded the rules of the house. No drugs. It broke my heart to do it but for the sake of the others, I had to. Why do you ask?"
"Oh, no," Emma exclaimed, her hand going to her mouth.
"When? What happened?"
"Her body was found about three months ago, mutilated in the same manner as Ms. Tedrow."
"How awful," she cried. He found it oddly admirable that she cared so much about someone who could've fallen from the face of the planet without anyone's notice. The fact that she was visibly shaken yet held it together with the strength of her will caused his respect level to climb even though he was doing his best to stay detached. Of course, he'd never been any good at that, either.
"Unfortunately, there's more," he informed her, eliciting a wide-eyed, apprehensive stare on her part. He inhaled a short breath before continuing. He hated to add to her burden but there wasn't much he could do about it. "Seems another girl with ties to Iris House was found a few months before Tiffani."
"Her name was Sarah Kuper but she went by the street name of Sweetie."
Emma's shoulders drooped as the name struck a chord. "Sweetie yes, I remember her. Another one we lost to drugs. She was trying to kick heroin but her pimp liked to keep her doped up, made her easier to handle. In the end, she chose her pimp and drugs over a new life. Oh, God, this is awful ." she said in a horrified whisper.
"When police found Sarah they had no idea that she was, perhaps, the first of many. Pardon my candor but it isn't as if one dead prostitute is going to raise too many eyebrows." She nodded, but she seemed to stiffen and her reaction only served to tease his already-growing curiosity about Ms. Vale. "When Tiffani Blue's body was found, someone sharp over at the local PD noted the similarities between the two and called in the FBI, which is why I'm standing here with you instead of a detective." Well, not the only reason but what was the point of muddying the waters with useless facts about politics and the power of well-heeled connections. Dillon shifted, refocusing as he continued. "The detective thought it looked as if the killer was testing out his method or signature style. By Charlotte, he seems to have perfected it and my gut says we're going to see more."
"More?" Emma tensed as if bracing herself. He didn't blame her. This sort of thing wasn't the easiest to swallow. "More girls tortured like this? What kind of animal."
"A sexual sadist," he supplied in answer, choosing the frank route rather than dancing around. Something about her manner told him that she'd appreciate his honesty even if she found the information appalling. "We're talking with all the halfway houses and group homes in the area to warn their boarders of the possible threat out there. But there does seem to be a direct connection to Iris House since all of the known victims once stayed there."
She glanced away, her voice bleak. "I know it's too much to hope for that the connection is simply an unfortunate coincidence, but I have to at least ask if that's a possibility."
"It seems unlikely. Of course, it's early in the investigation, but in my experience all signs point to the obvious."
"Of course," she murmured, drawing a shuddering breath. "So what happens now?"
"Well, the Bureau has officially taken over the case so we'll need to talk to your boarders as soon as possible. They may be in danger, but it's also true that one of them may know something that might help the investigation. We also want to take a look at the establishment for security purposes."
"My girls don't trust law enforcement," she said. "What exactly would you be looking for?"
"The basics to start. I'd talk with your staff, take a look around the building, see if there are any vulnerable spots around the property. Then, I'd need to interview the women."
Her regard cooled and he sensed just how protective she was about her boarders. "I don't want my girls more upset than they already are. They're worried sick about Charlotte. When they find out their worst fears are true, Iris House will be full of grieving women."
"Of course," he said, dropping his voice to affect understanding even though all it would take was a warrant to get what he needed without her consent. But for the moment he didn't see the need to push that hard. He could tell her concern was real as was her fierce determination to shield her "girls." He found that quality ;refreshing and yet familiar. Someone else had fought with that kind of intensity for the underdog.
Emma caught the minute flinch that was nearly involuntary but she kept her questions to herself and he was grateful. He wiped at the thin sheen of sweat that beaded his hairline and decided to cut the discussion short. "Right. We'll be in touch." He slipped a card into her hand, and then after turning her over to a uniform to conclude the grim business involved with the body, he made his exit.
Emma let out a shaky breath as soon as the tall British man was out of sight. Her nerves were stretched to the breaking point. Grief and guilt sat with equal weight on her shoulders, yet Agent Dillon McIntyre had managed to make her stomach do uncomfortable somersaults with his softly accented voice.
Shame flooded her and she chastised herself with plenty of heat the entire ride back to Iris House. She climbed the stone steps to the 1907 brownstone that became Iris House seven years ago with a large infusion of capital that came primarily from her own trust fund, and Emma allowed the love she felt for this place infuse its strength in her bones for what she had to do next.
The Iris House girlsnicknamed with affection, though they were grown women with the exception of Bellamet her at the door, anxiety and fear marked on their faces.
Chick, her very first boarder, who had, over the years, become her most trusted assistant, stepped forward, her dark eyes reading Emma's heartbreak as easily as if it were scrawled across her forehead with a Sharpie, and her mouth tightened. "Char ain't coming back."
Chick's flat statement cut at Emma but there was no sense in lying. She jerked a nod in sad acknowledgment. "It was her."
Moans followed sharp gasps, and then they all started talking at once, needing answers, shuddering with the realization that it could've been any one of them lying in that morgue, extinguished forever, instead of their housemate. She felt their pain and fear as her own but she had to stay strong even if she was shaking inside. They were depending on her and she wasn't going to let them down.
Emma held up a weary hand. "Girls, please I'll tell you whatever I know but you have to stop coming at me all at once like a horde," she said, wishing she had more information to give. Chick shushed them all and they headed into the formal living room, where Emma sank into her favorite overstuffed chair and the girls flowed around her like eddies in a stream.
Emma stared into the faces of the women she'd come to love for their various individual quirks and personalities and fervently hoped no one else ended up like Charlotte. Sadly, she hadn't managed to convince all of them to give up their professions, so each night they went out they risked their lives. She drew a deep breath before she began.
"I'm not going to lie, Charlotte died a horrible death. Whoever did this to her is a monster. And he's out there looking for another victim." She refrained from sharing the connection to Iris House just yet, knowing she'd have to tell them soon enough, but at the moment they had grief to deal with and she didn't want to add panic to the mix. Instead, she said, "We all need to be aware of our surroundings and make sure to communicate with one another for safety purposes. If you're going out, please take a cell phone with you. I'm planning to pick up a few extra cell phones for the house so there are no excuses for not being able to call."
"What are the cops doing to catch this freak?" Evie demanded, earning nods from the other girls. "I mean, don't they have all that fancy computer stuff that can help nail creeps like this? What's it called on those shows. forensics?"
Emma graced the scared redhead with a short smile. "It's not that simple. Forensic evidence takes weeks to sort through and I don't even know if they managed to get anything from Charlotte's body that would help. But I do know that the FBI has gotten involved, so there seems to be something out of the ordinary about her death."
"What do you mean?" Chick narrowed her gaze with suspicion. "What's so unusual about it?"