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THE MURDER GAME
By BEVERLY BARTON
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2008 Beverly Beaver
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHe had killed before and he would kill again. Nothing could compare to the godlike feeling of such power.
For five years he had played the dying game with his cousin and their rivalry had been part of the excitement, part of the thrill. But Pinkie was dead, their wonderful game over.
His new game was only a few months old, yet he already realized that without an opponent, without the psychological stimulation of competition, it just wasn't the same. The hunt was exhilarating, the kill a sublime climax, but the titillating pleasure of the preparation and planning as well as the triumph afterward were missing from his murder game. He now had no one with whom to share either.
He trusted no one the way he had trusted Pinkie, both of them knowing from their teens that they were different from others. Special. Superior. He could hardly run an ad in the paper for another partner, could he? Wanted: Cunning sadist to compete in a highly skilled game of hunt and kill. Winner takes all. Loser dies.
As Pudge crossed over the Arkansas border into Louisiana, heading toward Bastrop, he chuckled at the thought of advertising for an adversary.
It wouldn't take long to reach Monroe, then he'd go on to Alexandria, where he'd hit Interstate 49, which would take him home. He might even stop for dinner somewhere along the way.
He had put a bullet into Kendall Moore's head only three days ago and had returned her body to a secluded area just outside her hometown of Ballinger. As he had done with the others, he had taken a trophy. A little souvenir. Something to add to his growing collection.
Removing his gaze from the road momentarily, he glanced down at the small, round box nestled securely on the passenger side floorboard. Kendall had possessed a mane of short brown hair. Thick and curly. Like heavy satin to the touch.
Sighing deeply, he thought about touching her hair again, about caressing it tenderly as he recalled, over and over again, those final moments of her life.
Griffin Powell envied his old friend. Judd Walker had been to hell and back. Now, thanks to the love of a good woman, he had survived and had a wonderful life. A life that he appreciated in a way only a man who had come close to self-destructing could. Seeing the happiness in Judd's eyes every time he looked at his wife and infant daughter, Griff knew how much Judd valued the priceless second chance he had been given.
If anyone knew about second chances, Griff did.
Judd slapped Griff on the back. "Come on outside and help me put these steaks on the grill." He held up the tray of marinated meat in his other hand. "Cam's got it all fired up and ready to go."
"Just how many chefs do you need manning the grill?" Griff asked before upending his beer bottle to finish off the last drops.
Judd shrugged. "Suit yourself, but I thought you might want to get away from the ladies for a few minutes. That is, unless you're dying to listen once again to all the details of how we decorated the nursery, went through childbirth classes together, and how I nearly fainted during Emily's delivery."
Griff smiled as he glanced across the room to where the visiting ladies-Rachel Carter, Cam's latest girlfriend, and Griff 's date, Lisa Kay Smithe-sat at the kitchen table chatting with Lindsay Walker. Little Miss Emily Chisholm Walker slept soundly in her mother's arms. Lindsay McAllister, now Lindsay Walker, had traded her PI license and 9mm for a bucolic life out in the country with her husband and baby.
Griff had never seen her happier.
Lindsay deserved to be happy. She'd earned it.
He loved her like a little sister and wanted only the best for her.
"I think I'll leave all the baby talk to the ladies," Griff said as he followed Judd outside and onto the patio. Judd had added the patio to the old Walker family hunting lodge that he and Lindsay had renovated shortly after their marriage last year.
Griff wasn't much for family get-togethers and backyard barbecues. Not that he wasn't enjoying himself today. Not that there was anywhere else he'd rather be. He could count true friends on his fingers, a short list, with Judd and Lindsay among the chosen few. Griff and Judd went back quite a few years, pre-Lindsay years. They'd been playboy pals even before Judd's first marriage. And Judd had been buddies with Camden Hendrix since the two attended law school together. Like Griff, Cam had come from nothing and was a self-made man, while Judd came from generations of old Tennessee money. And Griff and Cam were both confirmed bachelors fast approaching their fortieth birthdays.
"How do you like your steak, Griff?" Cam asked as he took the tray from Judd and placed it on the side table by the state-of-the-art built-in grill.
Realizing that through all the years they'd known each other, this barbecue was a first for them, Griff eyed Cam with a raised eyebrow. The All-American blue-eyed, sandy-haired trial lawyer was casually dressed, wearing a white apron over his UT T-shirt and cutoff jeans. "Medium," Griff replied to the question.
Cam grinned. "Really? I'd have pegged you for a rare kind of guy."
"Don't like it raw, huh?" Cam chuckled as he nodded toward the back door. "Wonder if Ms. Smithe would prefer a guy who does take it raw?"
Griff's good-natured smile never wavered. "You're more than welcome to ask her. But what about the lady you brought to the dance? Won't she expect you to dance that last dance with her?"
"We could swap partners," Cam suggested.
"Will you two stop that?" Judd glanced at the screened door that led from the patio to the screened porch. "I'm an old married man and if my wife heard such talk out of you two, she might forbid me to ever invite y'all back."
Cam and Griff laughed out loud.
"How the mighty have fallen," Griff said.
"He's pussy-whipped," Cam joked.
"Sure am," Judd told them. "And damn proud of it."
Griff knew that if any man on earth was devoted to his wife, Judd was. And he didn't blame him. If a woman ever loved him the way Lindsay loved Judd ...
There had been a time when they had exchanged girlfriends, had passed them around, and none of the women had objected in the least. As a matter of fact, Judd, Cam, and he had speculated that the ladies they dated were probably keeping score, comparing each man to the other two and sharing their preferences with one another. When Jennifer Mobley entered their lives, they had vied for her affection, each of them dating her in turn. Judd had won that particular prize. He'd fallen head over heels for Jenny. They were still newlyweds when Jenny had become one of the Beauty Queen Killer's victims. That had been more than five years ago.
And lucky son of a bitch that he was, Judd had found the right woman for a second time.
Griff figured that sooner or later, Cam would succumb to love. When he least expected it, the right woman would come along and knock his socks off.
But Griff didn't expect to ever marry or father a child. He had far too much baggage to bring into any relationship. A past that no woman would understand. Demons plagued him. Soul-deep demons, from which he could never escape.
Nicole Baxter sprawled leisurely on the rustic wooden chaise lounge with thickly padded cushions in a hideous floral print. The day was hot, the breeze slightly humid, the air heavy. She lifted the large glass from the deck floor up to her lips and sipped the sweet tea. As she glanced high overhead and saw an eagle in flight, she rubbed the cool glass across one cheek and then the other. Nearby the soft trickle of a small stream drummed melodically in her ears and the rustle of the moist air through the towering treetops reminded her that the weather forecasters had mentioned an afternoon rainstorm.
If it rained, she'd go inside the rental cabin, choose one of the half dozen paperbacks she had brought, then curl up on the sofa and read. If it didn't rain, she'd probably change clothes and go hiking.
Glancing down at her seen-better-days shorts, oversize cotton T-shirt, and bare feet, she sighed. Maybe she wouldn't go anywhere. Maybe she'd sit right here for the next four or five hours, drinking tea, napping, trying her best to get the R&R her boss had told her she needed.
Maybe Doug was right. Maybe she'd become so consumed with her two-killer theory that she wasn't thinking straight. And an agent who couldn't think straight couldn't do her job.
Besides that, she hadn't taken a vacation in years, not since Greg died and she'd thrown herself into her work. Work had saved her sanity when she lost her husband. Work had become her passion, her only passion.
Hell, who was she kidding? From the day she'd been recruited by the FBI, a green kid fresh out of college, she'd been consumed with proving herself, showing everyone that a woman could be the best. The very best.
And, yeah, maybe her attitude had a great deal to do with her male chauvinist father.
Damn it, Nic, let it go. You came to terms with your father's overbearing influence a long time ago. Don't rehash the past. It serves no purpose.
Six months of grief counseling had done more than help her deal with Greg's death-it had made her open up to a therapist about her life in general, especially the formative years that had created Nicole Baxter, the real woman, the woman few people ever truly knew. To be honest, there were times when she wasn't sure even she knew who she was.
"Take two weeks off." Doug Trotter, one of the SACs at the D.C. field office where she worked, hadn't given her much choice.
"I'll go nuts," she'd replied.
"Give it a try. Go somewhere fun. Go to the beach. Put on a bikini. Flirt with beach boys. Get drunk and get laid."
If she and her boss hadn't been good friends as well as colleagues, he never would have added that final comment.
"I'll take two weeks off," she'd told him. "But I'm not into boys. If I'm going to get laid, I want a man doing the job."
Doug had laughed.
So, here she was in a rental cabin in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, in the heart of the Great Smoky Mountains. She had arrived last night. Slept like the dead. Ate a big breakfast she'd cooked herself. Soaked in the hot tub for twenty minutes, then showered and thrown on some old, comfy clothes.
Day One in her first week of R&R and she was bored out of her mind.
Pudge exited off Interstate 49, took a right turn at the end of the ramp, and went in search of Catfish Haven, which was advertised on the FOOD AND LODGING sign. There it was, up ahead on the left. The restaurant was housed in a new building, constructed of old lumber to give it that aged quality, and possessed a rustic metal roof, a sprawling front porch, and a large parking lot half-filled with vehicles.
Pudge eased his rental car into a slot near the entrance. Good parking karma. He smiled. The gods were looking down on him today.
Before he went inside and dined on the local cuisine, he had two phone calls to make. Thinking about a solution to his problem as he'd been driving, he had come up with a brilliant idea. Just the thought of it excited him.
He didn't need a partner in crime in order to have a competitor. All he needed was an adversary. Someone with whom he could share certain aspects of his planning, execution, and subsequent triumph. Someone intelligent. Someone who would have no choice but to play the game with him. What fun it would be to outsmart that person, to stay one step ahead of him or her.
Leaving the motor running so that the air conditioner would keep him cool-Pudge hated to be uncomfortable-he opened the glove compartment and removed one of the four prepaid phones he had placed there before leaving for Arkansas three days ago.
He had both cell numbers memorized, of course.
Which to call first? Hmm ...
Save the best for last.
As he tapped the first number into the cell phone, he imagined the look on the man's face the moment he realized there was a new game under way.
Griff had forgotten to put his phone on vibrate, so when it rang during dinner, he apologized to the others and excused himself. While everyone continued their meal that was spread out on the two tables near the pool in Lindsay and Judd's backyard, Griff walked around the side of the house and found some shade under a couple of massive old oak trees.
Even though he didn't recognize the caller's number, he answered on the fifth ring. Only a handful of people had his private number.
"Hello, Griffin Powell. How are you today?"
Griff didn't recognize the voice. Clearly not disguised. Southern accent. A tenor voice, bordering on alto, soft and slightly high-pitched for a man. But it was definitely male.
"Who is this and how did you get my number?"
Laughter. "There's a new game afoot."
"What did you say?"
"Does Mrs. Powell's little boy want to come out and play?"
Griff's muscles tightened as he gripped the phone. A rush of pure adrenaline raced through his system.
"That depends on the game," Griff said.
"Tell me what you and I know about the Beauty Queen Killer that others don't know and I'll tell you a little something about my new game."
Griff's heartbeat accelerated. Goddamn! Was this guy for real?
"Cary Maygarden had a partner," Griff replied.
More laughter. "Very good, Griffin. Very good indeed."
Griff's instincts told him that this caller was the second BQ Killer, the one who had gotten away because no one knew he existed. Only Griff and Special Agent Nic Baxter believed Maygarden had had a partner. And try as she might, Nic had been unable to convince her superiors to reopen the BQK case because she had no substantial evidence, no way to prove there had been a second killer.
"When do you intend to start your new game?" Griff asked.
"I've already begun the new game."
A sick feeling hit Griff square in the gut. This lunatic had already killed again?
"When?" Griff asked.
"I'll give you a clue-Stillwater, Texas. Four weeks ago."
Before Griff could respond, he heard dead silence at the other end of the line. His caller had hung up, effectively ending their conversation.
As lightning streaked the sky and rumbles of thunder echoed through the mountains, Nic sat curled in the chair-and-a-half in the corner of the cabin's wood-paneled living room. The paperback she'd been reading lay open in her lap as she struggled to stay awake. If not for the occasional booms of thunder, she'd probably be snoring right now.
Suddenly a vicious crackle of lightning hit somewhere nearby and startled Nic from her semiasleep state. Mercy! That was close. She shifted in the chair, accidentally dumping the book and the lightweight cotton throw she'd wrapped around her bare legs onto the floor. A gentle surge of cold air coming from the nearby floor vent wafted across Nic and created tiny goose bumps on her bare legs and arms.
Just as she reached down to pick up the book and the throw, she heard her cell phone ring. Why hadn't she just turned off the damn thing? Since she was officially on vacation, the call wouldn't be work-related. That meant it was personal. So it was probably her mother, her brother, or her cousin Claire.
If it was her mother, she'd call back. She always did. She would call and call and call until Nic responded.
If it was her brother, he'd leave a message and she would return his call. She and Charles David had been close all their lives and despite the fact that they lived three thousand miles apart-he in San Francisco and she in Woodbridge, Virginia-they spoke often and visited at least once a year.
If it was Claire, she'd want to give Nic the latest update on two-year-old Michael's latest exploits. As much as she adored Claire and loved hearing all about Michael, her godson, she had just about reached her saturation point. And truth be told, sometimes she was jealous of Claire. Jealous of her because of her wonderful marriage, her precious child, her genuine happiness.
Kicking aside the cotton throw at her feet, Nic got up and walked across the room to where she'd deposited her purse, key chain, and cell phone last night.
She picked up the phone, checked the caller ID, and realized she didn't recognize the number. Not that many people had her cell number, so unless it was a wrong number ...
She flipped opened the phone. "Hello, you've reached Nicole Baxter's-"
"Hello, Nicole Baxter. How very nice to hear your lovely voice.
Excerpted from THE MURDER GAME by BEVERLY BARTON Copyright © 2008 by Beverly Beaver. Excerpted by permission.
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