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People in small towns were trusting souls. Even in this wicked age, doors remained unlocked, windows unlatched behind flimsy screens designed to keep out mosquitoes and flies, not people.
Small towns made things too easy for him. They really did.
But he wasn't going to quibble about getting what he wanted without a lot of effort. He liked a challenge as much as anyone, but in the end, it was all about results.
Bitterwood, Tennessee, had sounded like exactly the place for him. One of those little Southern towns left behind by the modern world to desiccate slowly in the blazing heat of a Southern summer. Most of the people who still lived here were too old to move away. Or too settled, too scared or too shiftless to bother.
They hid in their little burrows, behind the bravado of unlocked doors and friendly smiles, because the big, bad world beyond the mountain hollow was scarier than anything they could find here.
At least, that's what they used to think.
Until he'd come.
The house on Vesper Road was small and neat, painted a pale grayish-blue with merry yellow trim. Behind the house, moonlight silhouetted Smoky Ridge, edges softened by the lush summer growth that gave the mountain the appearance of blue velvet in the daylight.
This house, he thought, would be locked. She'd know better than to pretend the world around her was a safe place.
But she was worth the challenge.
No one else was stirring at this time of night, no traffic moving along the two-lane road winding along the twists and turns of Bitterwood Creek. Ten miles west of Bitter-wood, I-75 made it easy for travelers to bypass the town altogether on their way to the Smoky Mountain tourist traps.
Her door was locked, just as he'd expected. He tried the window by the front door and found it had been latched, as well.
Circling the house in silence, he came to a side window that looked in on her study. She was there, he saw with surprise. Her head on the desk, cheek plastered to the pages inside an open file folder. Working late, he thought with a secret smile.
Trying to catch him.
She wasn't pretty, exactly, but that had never been one of his criteria. he'd taken old women and young girls, fat and skinny, fit and fragile. Not all here in Bitterwood, of course.
Here, he'd taken only three.
He tried the latch on the window and found it open. But he couldn't get into the house this way, not with her napping so near. A loaded pistol lay on the desk beside her. One creak of the window and she' d awaken, pull the weapon and have him in her crosshairs.
He never used a gun himself if he could avoid it. It seemed too easy. Too impersonal. Snipers shot at targets from hundreds of yards away, their only connection with the soon-to-be-dead a brief, magnified view through a sniper's scope. Where was the value in such a death?
He liked to feel the heat of his victims as they struggled to hang on to their fleeting lives. Smell the iron tang of blood and hear the sounds of life leaving a body. It was intimate. The most intimate, thrilling thing he'd ever done in his whole life. Nothing else came close.
He wondered if she'd left another window open .
Ivy Hawkins woke with a start, sitting up straight in her chair. A piece of paper clung to her cheek before dropping back to the desk atop the others lying inside the open manila folder. Her gaze went automatically to the window as if she expected to see someone there.
She rubbed her tired eyes, trying to hold on to the fleeting remnants of the nightmare that had awakened her. For a moment, she had a memory of looking through her own window at herself and feeling what?
Anticipation, she realized, feeling queasy. But when she tried to remember more about the dream, it eluded her grasp, slippery and ephemeral, leaving behind only the sour taste of fear.
She pushed to her feet and crossed to the window, sliding her hand across the latch to make sure it was in place. Her heart skipped a beat as she realized it was unlocked.
How had she left a window unlocked?
He knows it's unlocked.
Chill bumps rising on her arms and back, she quickly snapped the latch into place. And because if one window could be unlocked, so could others, she grabbed her Smith & Wesson M&P357 and went around the small farmhouse, room by room, to check the rest of the locks, as well.
Everything else was secure. She holstered the pistol and went back to the study, where she'd left her files.
Crime scene photos lay scattered across the open file, as if in death the three murder victims would share the secrets of their last moments in life. But they were mute, the bloodless marks on their carefully cleaned bodies serving as their final statements.
"You don't even know if they're connected." The impatient tone of her supervisor, Captain Rayburn, rang in her head.
He refused to admit there was a link between the deaths at all, despite the obvious evidence. Ivy suspected the captain resisted the idea because he didn't want to invite outside agencies into Bitterwood to observe the department in any way.
She had a few theories why that might be so, none of them good.
On paper, the victims were different enough to confuse mattersa quiet, single woman in her early thirties, a young widow with a drinking problem and a college coed home alone while her parents were visiting friends in nearby Maryville. But it was what the victims shared in common that convinced Ivy of a link.
Home alone. Living on secluded roads that saw little traffic after seven in the evening. All three murders taking place at night, between ten and midnight. And all three victims stabbed to death by a killer who had left no actionable evidence behindbecause he didn't kill them in their homes. Apparently, he took them elsewhere for the kills, washed them clean of all blood and evidence and returned them to their beds to be found by concerned neighbors and loved ones.
Ivy slumped in her chair and closed the folder, a glance at her watch reminding her that she'd stayed up well past two in the morning yet again. If she went to bed right now, she'd get maybe two hours of sleep before her alarm clock rang and she'd have to start all over again. Ten days straight. That's how long it had been since she'd had a full night's sleep.
The phone on the desk rang, shattering the silence and rattling her nerves. The caller ID read "Bitterwood P.D."
She grabbed the receiver. "Hawkins."
The voice on the other line was Detective Antoine Parsons, the whipcord-lean veteran who'd been working the murders with her. What he said sent another chill skittering through her.
"We have another one."
Sutton Calhoun edged his way around the small cluster of neighbors gathered outside the farmhouse on Blalock Road, trying not to draw attention from the police officers busy at work taping off the scene and keeping people from going any farther onto the property. He kept his baseball cap low over his brow, shielding his face from any curious eyes. Fourteen years away wasn't nearly long enough for anyone around these parts to forget a Calhoun. And for the moment, at least, he'd prefer to fly under the radar.
The front door of the farmhouse opened and a tall, lean black man emerged, looking grim and angry. Sutton recognized his old friend Antoine Parsons, who hadn't changed much since their high school days. Like Sutton, Antoine had known the victim, Marjorie Kenner.
Mrs. Kenner had been the librarian at Bitterwood High School since Sutton's early high school years, a widow who'd never married again after her soldier husband's death in the Panama conflict. Sutton wondered who'd found her body at this time of night. The call he'd picked up on his police scanner hadn't specified who'd phoned 911. As far as Sutton knew, Marjorie Kenner still lived alone in the same house where she'd lived as long as he'd known her. No children, no lovers, no renters to help pay the bills.
Of course, things might have changed in the past fourteen years. He hadn't exactly kept up with the folks back home in Bitterwood once he'd got out for good. She might have met someone new, someone she shouldn't have trusted. Hell, maybe the older she'd gotten, the more she'd felt the full weight of time passing and had taken to driving into Maryville or even Knoxville for a little male companionship.
It would certainly simplify Sutton's life if Mrs. Kenner's murder had an uncomplicated explanation.
"Sutton Calhoun?" At the sound of his name, Sutton looked up and saw Antoine Parsons's dark eyes wide with surprise.
He tipped the brim of his cap up and nodded at his old friend. "How's life treatin' you, Antoine?"
Antoine's lips curved in the faintest of smiles. "Better than I deserve. Never thought I'd see you around these parts again."
"Neither did I," Sutton admitted.
The front door opened again, and a dark-haired woman emerged from the house, her gaze sweeping the yard until it settled on Antoine Parsons. Suddenly her gaze snapped back again, locking with Sutton's. Her forehead creased and she walked slowly down the front steps toward them.
Sutton's gut tightened as if he'd just taken a blow to the solar plexus. Her hair was gathered back in a tight pony-tail, revealing the familiar curves and planes of her small oval face. She hadn't grown much taller than she'd been at fifteen, though even the loose-fitting blue Bitterwood P.D. golf shirt couldn't hide the fact that she'd filled out in all the right places.
"Sutton Calhoun." Her accent was as broad as the mountains surrounding them, but he couldn't tell by her tone whether she was glad to see him or dismayed. Whatever she was thinking lay hidden in the depths of her dark brown eyes.
Her lips curved without much humor. "You don't remember me, do you?"
Oh, I remember you, he thought. "Ivy Hawkins. You used to live down the road."
And you damned near saved my sanity.
She'd been a few years younger than he was, not even old enough to drive by the time he left home to join the army. But she'd been his sounding board. His secret confidante, wiser than her young years should have allowed. She'd been there when he'd broken away from his father's influence, and he'd helped her cope with her mother's revolving-door string of boyfriends.
She'd be in her late twenties now. She looked younger, maybe because she didn't have on a stitch of makeup. He noted the detective's shield on her belt. "And you're a detective."
Her dark eyes narrowed. "What are you doing here?" Her tone wasn't exactly friendly. Of course, the last time he'd seen her, she'd been crying, begging him not to leave her there alone.
He'd hoped she'd get out. Clearly she hadn't.
"Just in town for a visit," he answered.
"No, I mean here. At my crime scene."
"Oh." He wondered how much he should tell her. "I have a police scanner and heard the crime called in." That much was the truth.
"Just happened to have a police scanner?" She sounded skeptical.
"It's a hobby."
"You know those Calhouns," Antoine said lightly. "They like to know where the cops are at all times."
Sutton made a face at his old friend. You're not helping, he thought.
"You're up awfully late." She arched one dark eyebrow.
"Yeah." He nodded toward the house. "How bad is it?"
"Bad enough." She pulled Antoine aside, lowering her voice. But not so low that he couldn't hear what she said. "Let's call in the Violent Crime Response Team. You know our techs aren't trained to handle evidence retrieval at this level."
Antoine grimaced. "What evidence?"
"My point exactly," Ivy said flatly.
"Rayburn won't like it," Parsons warned.
Rayburn. Sutton searched his memory until he came up with a face to go with the name. Glen Rayburn had nabbed Sutton's father, Cleve, at least once. Been a real bastard about it, as Sutton recalled. Not that the old man hadn't deserved to be busted, but Rayburn had more or less told Sutton he'd be coming for him, too.
All Calhouns ended up in the cages sooner or later, he'd said.
Sutton had been smart enough to get out before he fell into his con man father's undertow. He hadn't had money for college, so he'd signed up with the U.S. Army and spent the next few years climbing the ladder through hard work and sheer cussedness.
That's how he'd ended up at Cooper Security, working for Jesse Cooper and his trouble-magnet family. The head of Cooper Security had been looking to add people with Special Forces training to his staff. Sutton had fit the bill.
Parsons moved away from Ivy, pulling out his cell phone. She turned back to Sutton, cocking her head as she saw him watching her. She closed the distance between them with deliberate steps. "I thought you swore you'd never let the dust of Bitterwood touch your feet again."
"That's a little melodramatic."
She shrugged. "You said it, not me."
True, he had said it. And meant it. And if Stephen Billings hadn't walked into Cooper Security two weeks ago looking for help investigating his sister's murder, he probably would've kept that vow without another thought.
He'd told himself there was nothing back in Bitterwood to tempt him to return. He'd let himself forget Ivy and her loyal, uncomplicated friendship.
Too late now. Whatever connection they'd shared fourteen years ago was clearly dead and gone, if her cool gaze meant anything.
"I'm here on a job." He kept it vague.
"What kind of job?"
Should have known vague wouldn't work with a little bulldog like Ivy Hawkins. She'd never been one to take no for an answer. "An investigation."
Her look of disbelief stung a little. "Someone hired you to investigate something here in little bitty Bitterwood?"
It did sound stupid, he had to admit. What ever happened in Bitterwood that interested anyone outside the city limits?
Maybe the truth was his best option. After all, she was technically an old friend, even if they were no longer close. And he might need all the help he could get to figure out who'd killed April Billings.
"I'm here to look into a murder that happened in Bit-terwood a little over a month ago."
"April Billings," she said immediately.
He nodded. "Were you on that case?"
She shook her head. "She was the first."
Something about her tone tweaked his curiosity. "The first?"
"Murder," she said faintly. "First stranger murder in Bitterwood in twenty years."
"And you're sure it was a stranger murder?"
Her eyes met his, sharp and cautious. "All the signs were there."
"I thought you didn't investigate it."
"I didn't investigate it at the time it happened."
"But you've looked into her death since?"
She cocked her head slightly. "Who sent you to investigate this case? Are you with the TBI?"
He almost laughed at that thought. His father had had enough run-ins with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation that both their faces were probably plastered to the Knox-ville field office's front wall, right there with all the other most wanted. "No. Private investigation."
"You're a P.I.?" Her eyebrows arched over skeptical eyes.
Antoine Parsons returned, saving him from having to go into any more detail. "TBI's sending their Violent Crime Response Team as soon as they can gear up and get on the road."
"Good." Ivy's gaze didn't leave Sutton's face. She was making him feel like a suspect. He didn't like it one bit.
"Hawk, why don't you go on home now?" Parsons suggested. "I'll wait here for the TBI team and make sure our guys don't make a mess. Get some sleep and we'll hit the streets in the morning, see if we can find out why someone would kill Marjorie Kenner in her own home."
In her own home, Sutton thought. Just like April Billings.
Had there been a connection between April and Marjorie? He supposed they'd been acquainted, at least in passing. At twenty, April wasn't far out of high school, and her brother had told Sutton that his sister had been a Bitterwood High School graduate, though she and her parents hadn't moved to Bitterwood until she was a freshman in high school.