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Just Try To Stop Me
A Waterman and Stark Thriller
By GREGG OLSEN
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Gregg Olsen
All rights reserved.
Homicide investigator Kendall Stark didn't know it, but she wouldn't be in need of a second tuxedo mocha that morning as she arrived in her offices at the Kitsap County Sheriff's Office in Port Orchard.
The email link that was about to be forwarded to her would provide enough of a jolt.
The new public- and media-relations specialist, Daphne Brown, cornered the detective and spoke with a kind of breathless excitement that tempered everything that came out of her mouth.
East Port Orchard Elementary wants you to talk about stranger danger safety! Tonight!
We are out of creamer in the break room! Where do we keep it? I need some!
We have a serial killer on the loose!
Do you like my hair this way?
Kendall said good morning and waited for whatever urgent missive only-one-speed Daphne had.
"We've already heard from all the morning shows," Daphne said. "I'm so excited. They want you on."
Kendall shook her head. "I'm not doing it," Kendall said. "I'm not doing any of it. I've learned my lesson."
Daphne pulled at one of her curls, and it bounced back into position. "You don't even know what it's about," she said. "How can you say that?"
"Its not a what, Daphne. It's a who, and I know that the who is Brenda Nevins."
The younger woman's eyes widened, but before she could speak, Kendall preempted her.
"There's nothing you can do," Kendall said. "I'm not required to go on camera. You are. You can do it."
Daphne dialed down her pushy enthusiasm. She'd been to a conference in Seattle the week before and had learned new techniques to influence what she considered a "resistant personality type."
Daphne fiddled with her department-issued smartphone.
"You better watch the link I'm about to send you."
"Why?" Kendall asked.
Daphne glanced up, a satisfied look on her face.
"Watch it," she said. "Then call me so I can work my PR magic."
Kendall didn't acknowledge Daphne's boast. She had no plan whatsoever of encouraging Ms. Brown to do anything, let alone work any kind of self-professed public relations hocus-pocus. She was so sick of Brenda Nevins that she couldn't imagine enduring one more minute of thinking about her. Brenda was on the front page. Brenda was the top-of-the-hour news. Brenda had even been featured on the front page of USA Today. She was a murderous prison escapee, and that made her a problem for the special agents of the FBI, not the investigators from the local Kitsap County Sheriff's Office. Not for Kendall.
After extricating herself from Daphne, Kendall made her way to her office and, against her better judgment, powered up her laptop and immediately went to her message inbox.
There it was, an email from Daphne Brown. No message. Just a link to a YouTube clip. Kendall clicked on the link and waited for the advertisement for a trip to Greece on a luxury liner reached the ten- second mark so she could X it out.
The video was entitled: How My Story Began, Part One.
Kendall could feel her heart rate accelerate a little as the clip worked its way from start to finish. Feeling a little sweat collect at the nape of her neck, she pushed her chair away from her desk and dialed Birdy Waterman's number at the medical examiner's office.
"Hi, Kendall," Birdy said. "What's up?"
"Are you in your office?"
"Yes," Birdy said. "Gloves about to go on."
"Can you come over here?"
Birdy hesitated. "I'm about to start an autopsy on a crash victim from yesterday."
Kendall pushed. "But you haven't started, have you?"
"No, but ... what's this about, Kendall?"
Kendall looked at the YouTube video queued up on her screen.
"Put the corpse back in the chiller and get over here," she said. "Brenda Nevins has posted a video blog. You need to see it."
"Video blog? What is she, fourteen?" Birdy said.
"This is no joke," Kendall said. "Come over as soon as you can."
"Send me the link," Birdy said.
Kendall moved her mouse to copy the link, but thought better of it.
"We need to watch this together," she said.
"You're making it sound like a premiere of some show, Kendall."
Birdy was right.
"I think it is," Kendall said.
* * *
The image was high-definition clear and left no room for doubt. Brenda Nevins had not ever been a person who could lay low. She took the microphone, looking at the camera.
"The light is on, so I guess you can see me. Or you can see me when I post this. I'm not stupid enough to do this live. It pissed me off to lose the chance to be on TV to tell the world my true story. The morons in the legal system really screwed me on that one. I don't like to be screwed with. I'm the one who does the screwing. Right, Janie?"
She turned and tilted the camera to Janie Thomas, who was bound and gagged on a chair. Silver duct tape cocooned her forearms to the armrest. Her feet were out of view. The gag appeared to be black fabric, some clothing item.
"Looks like underwear," Birdy said. "Wonder whose?"
Kendall didn't answer. Her eyes were bonded to images on her computer's screen. In particular, Janie's terrified eyes riveted the detective. Though farther back in the shot, there was no mistaking the pleading coming from them, an urgent message that was stronger than words.
Brenda let the camera linger on Janie, then on herself. She wore full makeup and a teardrop necklace that Erwin had reported Janie was wearing to work the day she went missing from the prison. The teardrop, an amethyst, nestled between Brenda's breasts.
Brenda was nothing if not consistent. She was always one to make sure people's eyes landed right there, Kendall thought.
Brenda resumed talking. "Janie, you know your baby doesn't like it when you don't answer her. Makes me annoyed. When I get annoyed, I need to do something to liven things up. You know, to break the tension."
For the first time, Birdy noticed a curl of smoke in the frame. She tapped her finger on the screen.
"She's going to burn her," she said.
"It's one of her favorite things to do," Kendall said, sliding back into her chair. "She almost did it to her child."
"Who does that?" Birdy asked.
The answer, of course, both women knew, was a sociopath like Brenda. Maybe no one had seen someone so profoundly evil in the annals of crime. Kendall had. She'd been in the cage with the predator when she interviewed her on the Darcy Moreau murder case. She'd seen the charm and pretense of being human play out, the sickening game of those who have no other purpose in life but to win others over and destroy them.
Brenda tugged at the chain around her neck, the amethyst rising and sinking, swinging back and forth like a hypnotist's watch.
"I know I shouldn't smoke," Brenda said. "It's a nasty habit that I picked up in county jail and carried over to prison. Not much else to do in that hellhole." She looked at Janie over her shoulder. "No offense."
Then back at the camera, those gorgeous but lifeless eyes, sucking in every viewer who'd ever look at the video. "Smoking really scares me. I do not want to be one of those women whose mouth is a sagging sphincter that wicks out lipstick and is an instant sign that she's getting old."
Brenda reached in the direction of the curling smoke. Her fingertips now held a cigarette. She took a deep drag and then, seemingly absentmindedly, examined the filter before exhaling a sliver of smoke.
"Plus I have to constantly reapply lipstick, and in prison — not that that's a problem at the moment — decent cosmetics are hard to come by," she said. "I let a hideous creature from Preston fondle my breasts in the shower as payment for a tube of L'Oreal that came into the institution in someone's rectum. Gag me. The things one has to do to look halfway decent."
Brenda let out a laugh.
Kendall shot a look at Birdy.
"She thinks she's a star," she said.
"A Kardashian, maybe," Birdy said, her eyes still on the video.
Kendall was caught off guard. Birdy was more Kerouac than Kardashian. "You watch that crap?"
"No," Birdy answered. "But Elan's girlfriend Amber does. She's over a lot."
The exchange between the forensic pathologist and the detective was that kind of forced break in the tension that people engage in when watching a horror movie.
The popcorn is stale.
Have to go to the bathroom.
I just remembered I left the water running.
"Suddenly," Brenda said, getting up and walking over to a now squirming Janie, "I'm hungry. Do you like Indian food, Janie? I love curry. Don't get me started on tandoori chicken. Love. Love. Love tandoori. Surprisingly, there was a fantastic Indian place in the Tri-Cities that I used to go to with my boyfriend. It had the best tandoori in the Northwest. Better than Seattle. Honestly. So, so good. Well, Janie, do you like Indian food?"
Tears rolled down the superintendent's face.
"When I was a girl," Brenda went on, "we held dandelion blossoms to our chins, and if it reflected gold on your skin it meant that you liked butter. Did you ever do that?"
Janie didn't answer. She couldn't, of course, even if she had wanted to. The black panties used to keep her quiet were tied so tightly that the corners of her mouth appeared to have dripped blood.
Brenda swiveled around to face the camera. Her eyes met the camera's lens with the perfection of a newscaster.
"Did any of you?" she asked.
She held her stare and then turned back to Janie.
"I want to make sure you are seeing this, but it's hard to manage the camera, the shot, the script, and the talent. I have newfound respect for TV producers and camera crews. What they do is not as easy as it looks."
Brenda took one more drag on the cigarette, making sure the camera captured the glow of its amber tip.
"Let's see if you like Indian food," she said, her voice completely devoid of irony. As the cigarette's red-hot end moved toward Janie's forehead, a terrified Janie turned away, her cries muffled in the lingerie that silenced her.
"Don't fight me," Brenda said, in words that were splinter-cold. "You know you can't win. You're weak. I'm stronger. You're smart. I'm smarter."
She grabbed Janie by the hair with her free hand and yanked so hard that it looked as though the captive woman's neck might snap.
"She's a monster," Kendall said.
Birdy didn't say anything. There wasn't anything to say.
"Let's see if you like Indian food!" Brenda yelled.
And then while tears streamed and Janie struggled, Brenda pressed the lighted tip of her cigarette into the center of Janie's forehead.
"Don't squirm, stupid bitch! Once I moved when the crappy stylist my mother took me to cut my hair. I ended up with bangs that made me look like a trailer park kid!"
Through the struggle, Janie's muffled scream was captured.
"A monster," Birdy said.
"Pull yourself together, Janie! You like Indian food! You do!" Brenda said, laughing as if she'd pulled off some practical joke.
Kendall knew it was a pretend laugh. All of Brenda's emotions about others were as bogus as her breasts. She was incapable of recognizing the pain of others because to her, others were only objects. Things to be used. Things to get her whatever it was that she wanted.
To serve her needs.
Brenda turned to the camera and whispered. The whisper was fake too. She spoke loud enough for Janie to hear every word.
"Everyone who is watching this already knows that Janie didn't get her Indian dinner out. You already know that she's dead."
Brenda looked down at the cigarette she'd ground into Janie's forehead. It was still smoldering. She took another puff, breathing in the burning tobacco and the incinerated flesh of the woman who'd helped her escape from prison. She made a face and extinguished it.
"Did you find my mark on Janie, Dr. Waterman? Sorry about your little boy, Detective Stark. Kids love cookies. I was a cookie monster when I was a little girl."
Kendall looked at Birdy, gauging her reaction to being named. The reference to Cody and the incident at school was spine chilling. It made her skin crawl. If anything on the video was a shock to her, it was the fact that the two of them had been named.
Birdy stared at Kendall.
"She was too badly burned for me to observe the cigarette burn," she said.
In silence, they watched the clip to its end.
"God, I hope this goes viral," Brenda said.
The screen went black and another advertisement for a cruise popped into view.
"She got her wish, Birdy," Kendall said, ignoring the ad and wondering why the advertising tool on YouTube thought she was in her 60s. "More than 500,000 views and climbing." She refreshed her laptop screen. "Five thousand more since we started watching."
Birdy looked at Kendall. Her expression was grim. "This is going to encourage her, Kendall. She's a narcissist who lives for this kind of attention. She craves it like we crave our morning coffee."
Kendall picked up her lukewarm tuxedo mocha. "Right. She's going to do something big."
"Unless we stop her," Birdy said. "She has to be stopped."CHAPTER 2
Jonas Casey was an alpha male who ate nails for breakfast and probably bungee-jumped off the Space Needle. The FBI special agent was in his early forties, with a slim waist, thick brown hair, and hooded eyes that barely betrayed what he was thinking. As good as Kendall was about reading people, Jonas Casey was a blank slate.
Until he spoke, of course.
"Look, we're treating this as a kidnapping case," he said, when he appeared in Kendall's office. "Jurisdiction, ours."
"No ransom," she said. "No kidnapping."
"Come on, Detective. Let's apply a little common sense here, all right? There's very little to suggest that Janie Thomas went with Brenda Nevins willingly. And before you chime in, yes, there is the video. Yes, they took Thomas's car. Yes, they might have had a history of some kind of an affair, but we really don't know the depths of it. Too early in the investigation."
Kendall felt her throat tighten. She studied his face, looking for a shred of humanity in his puffed-up "I'm FBI" countenance.
"We have three dead people. Would you agree that we have a murder investigation at work here? Along with a missing person? And somewhere on that list is the kidnapping case."
"Agreed," he said. "You have your murders. We don't do murder. But we do own kidnapping, and we're not going away until we find Brenda Nevins. You agree that we're pretty good at finding people?"
"Yes," she answered. "You never found Jimmy Hoffa."
He ignored her jab.
"And we have more tools and technology at our disposal? Wouldn't you agree that's the case, Detective?"
"I've never said it wasn't. The point I'm trying to make is that this is Kitsap County's case and we're leading it."
The special agent shook a Tic Tac into his hand and then popped it into his mouth. "You're right and wrong at the same time. We're leading the task force and, yes, the homicides are yours."
After SA Casey left to talk with the sheriff, Kendall called Birdy to vent.
"The man is an ass," she said.
"Don't know him, but not surprised. Those FBI guys can be that way," Birdy said.
"He's a total glory seeker, coming into our county to tell us that we don't know what we're doing and that he's here to save the day."
"Sounds about right, Kendall. I know the type. You just have to play along. They bore easily and from what I can tell, they spend most of their time looking at their pension portfolio and counting the days until they can get out of the bureau. No one likes it there."
* * *
Janie Thomas's photograph stared from its place on the corner of Kendall Stark's desk. Like all too many, it was a part of a file that waited for the wheels of justice to turn.
It showed Janie when she first took the position of running the prison. She wore a navy-blue pantsuit and a powder-blue blouse. Her smile was a wide grin, the kind that appeared authentic instead of practiced for the camera. Looking at the picture reminded Kendall of the memorial service held a week after Janie's body was recovered. If there had been a more confused, sadder service, the homicide detective could not quite think of one. Janie's family — her husband, her son, and her two sisters from Spokane — sat in the front row facing the minister as he talked about the power of love and how Janie cared about every single person in the room.
Excerpted from Just Try To Stop Me by GREGG OLSEN. Copyright © 2016 Gregg Olsen. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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