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By MARY BURTON
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2013 Mary Burton
All rights reserved.
Saturday, April 6, 11:00 A.M. Austin, Texas
If Texas Ranger Brody Winchester had come to see Dr. Jolene Granger on personal business, he'd have come with hat in hand. He'd have been ready to eat a heaping helping of humble pie, or better yet, crow.
But this visit wasn't personal. He'd not come to apologize or to make amends. He had no intention of digging up the past or rubbing salt in old wounds. This. Was. Business.
He parked the black SUV in the recreation center's parking lot and shoved out a breath. He reached for his white Stetson on the passenger's seat, took a moment to level the silver concho trimming on the hat's base before he stepped out of the vehicle, straightened his shoulders and eyed the large box-shaped building. The sign above the double glass doors read: Austin Rock Climbing Gym.
As he stared up at the sign, hat in hand, he wondered if the boys back at headquarters had sent him to the wrong place and were having a good laugh at the new transfer's expense. The Jo Granger he'd known hated heights and if anyone had bet him she hung out in a place like this, he'd have taken the bet, damn sure he'd win.
'Course, he'd not been face-to-face with Jo in fourteen years. And time changed plenty.
Dr. Jolene Granger was no longer a wide-eyed college student but a psychologist who consulted with the Texas Rangers. In fact, her expertise on violent behavior had landed her several television interviews last year when a reporter had been digging for the motivations driving a serial killer that had hunted along I-35.
He'd seen on television that she'd given up the peasant skirts and flip-flops in favor of dark suits, pencil skirts, a tight bun, and white pearls around her neck. Reminded him of a librarian he'd had in school as a kid. Cool. Controlled. Hot.
Yeah, she'd changed in fourteen years. Maybe heights didn't bother her anymore.
A couple of laughing teens wearing shorts and carrying gym bags raced past him through the front door. He trailed behind them, finding himself in an industrial-style lobby tricked out with a cement floor, solid crate furniture and soda machines. He moved toward a long, narrow reception desk where a young guy was texting. Dark hair swept over a thin, pale face and tattoos covered every bit of skin exposed below his white T-shirt cuff.
If Brody had been in a more charitable mood, he'd let the kid finish his nonsense communication, which likely had to do with gossip or a party. But a foul and dark disposition sapped all patience.
He smacked his hand on the reception desk. "Need to find Dr. Jolene Granger."
The kid jumped, his initial glance aggravated until he took stock of the Stetson, the Texas Ranger's star pinned to Brody's broad chest and his six-foot-four frame. Displeasure gave way to startled deference. "She's in the main gym. Can I tell her you're here?"
"I'll announce myself."
The kid scrambled around the counter and took a step as if to follow. "Is she in some kind of trouble?"
Brody stopped and eyed the kid. "Why's it your business if she is?"
His Adam's apple bobbed as he swallowed. "I like her. And if she were in trouble—"
Brody's own worries sharpened his tone. "What would you do if she were in trouble?"
Slight shoulders shrugged, but the kid's gaze remained direct. "I don't know."
"That's right. You don't know."
"She's a nice lady."
Jo had always coaxed this kind of loyalty out of folks. Kind, smart as a whip, she drew people. The kid was no different and Brody gave him props for standing up to him.
He softened his scowl. "Dr. Granger isn't in trouble. But my business is official. If you don't mind, I need for you to get back behind that counter and take care of your own business." He took a step toward the kid who hustled back behind the counter.
As Brody turned toward the main gym he imagined the boy on his cell again, texting his friends as fast as his thin fingers could move.
In the main gym, Brody was greeted by the smells of sweat and freshly polyurethane-coated floors. The walls were covered with gray rocklike facings that jutted and curved as a rock ledge might. Dispersed over the wall were colored footholds and handholds, some large and others so small he wondered how his large hands could maintain a grip.
A collection of climbers scaled the walls from the floor to ceiling. Belayers stood at the bottom, feeding climbers their safety ropes. A young, blond girl scaled the wall as if she were part monkey. A couple of guys in their mid-twenties moved between the rock ledges with a power and grace he admired. He couldn't imagine that fourteen years had changed Jo so much that she now enjoyed this kind of foolishness.
The shouts and giggles of a group of girls in a side room drew him. The ten girls, who looked to be between fourteen and sixteen, stood at the base of a tall rock wall. Several were pregnant and most had tattoos and piercings. Young, but he imagined they all had a lifetime of experiences already under their belts.
There was no whiff of anger or sorrow radiating off anyone. They were cheering, like kids their age should. His gaze trailed theirs to a woman racing a male climber to the top of the rock wall toward a bell.
Squealing young voices chanted, "Go Jo. Go Jo. Go Jo."
Brody stood behind the students, rested his hands on his hips and shifted his gaze from the male climber to the woman. Her chalked fingers clung to slivers of manufactured rock while her feet perched on similar pieces. Tight black pants and a white, fitted spandex top molded a trim athletic body. Long, red hair bound into a ponytail swept across her muscled back as she scrambled haphazardly from rock to rock. Jo? He looked closer.
Damn, if it wasn't her.
When Jo reached the top and rang a bell, the kids cheered. She looked over her shoulder, suspending from a single handhold and foothold and smiled at them. "Now which one of you girls bet that I couldn't win?"
The girls laughed, shaking heads and pointing to each other. None fessed up to having any doubts about her.
Jo surveyed the crowd of girls. "And seeing as I won, ladies, that means you all are going to study real hard for the rest of this semester, correct?"
A rumble of laughter and whispers rolled through the teens. "Yes!" they shouted.
The male climber rang the bell. He regarded Jo, his good-natured appreciation clear as he nodded his concession.
Brody assessed the man, wondering if Jo had really beaten him or if he had held back to win points with Jo. If he had to wager, he'd put his chips on the latter.
"Doug buys ice cream for everyone!" Jo said.
The kids cheered.
Doug grinned. "Rematch!"
Jo's laughter rang clear and bright as she turned her face from the wall and gazed at the girls with tenderness. However, as quickly as she looked down, she looked back up as if the height flustered her. "Gonna have to be a lot of A's and B's to get me up here again."
Brody crossed his arms over his chest, taking inventory of her high cheekbones, pale complexion and full lips. She was more relaxed, and a hell of a lot hotter than the grim woman he'd seen on television last year.
As if she'd read his mind, her gaze shifted from the kids to him. For a moment she stared at him, as if she couldn't believe her eyes. He made a point not to blink or show the faintest sign of curiosity for this new version of Dr. Granger.
Shaking off her surprise, she moved to climb down the wall but missed her handhold and, in a blink, fell. The girls squealed. Brody tensed, moving toward the crowd, ready to shove his way toward the wall's base. But the rope tightened, halted her fall and the belayer held tight.
Jo immediately grabbed for another rock and swung herself back into position on the wall. For an instant, she didn't move.
"You okay, Jo?" Doug asked.
"Fine." She grabbed for a larger rock. Within seconds she'd scrambled to the bottom of the wall. She stared at the kids, and she wiped a bead of sweat off her forehead with the back of her hand. "That's why I harp on preparedness. Never go into any situation without thinking about what could go wrong. You'll live a longer, happier life if you are careful."
The kids chuckled nervously as Doug descended the wall. He moved to Jo, putting his hand on her shoulder. "You're really okay?"
She briefly studied Brody before dropping her gaze. "Yeah, I'm fine. Would you excuse me?"
She moved through the crowd of girls. Several stopped her and asked again if she was okay. She assured them all she was fine. Her back was straight and her gaze direct as she finally cut through the crowd and closed the distance between them.
Wisps of hair framed her face, which had grown more angular over the years. Though she'd always been slim, her body now was trim and nicely muscular. No hint of apology softened green eyes now as sharp as emeralds. The years had been good to her. And he was real glad. The last time he'd seen her she'd been ... broken.
Jo stopped a few feet shy of him. Her expression was stern, controlled and mildly interested. "I'm guessing you're here on business. A case."
"That's right." He removed his hat as he regarded the kids and Doug who stared at them with raw curiosity. "Mind if we talk somewhere else more private?"
"Sure. Let me grab my bag." She snatched up a gym bag from a wooden bench. "Girls, I'll be right back."
"Are you getting arrested?" one shouted.
Jo glanced up at Brody. "Am I in trouble, Ranger Winchester?"
"No, ma'am." He spoke loud enough for all to hear.
She followed him outside. Sweat glistened from her skin and mingled with a delicate perfume that reminded him of roses. A lot had changed about Jo but not her scent. "What gives?"
"You heard of Harvey Lee Smith?"
"Sure." She yanked out a hoodie jacket from her bag and pulled it on. "Convicted serial killer. I featured him in my dissertation, 'The Mind of a Serial Killer.' You were the original DPS arresting officer, as I remember."
He'd been a Texas Department of Public Safety officer when he'd collared Smith. But the arrest had been the coup that earned him his Ranger's star. The Texas Rangers were an elite group of one hundred and forty-four men and women in the Department of Public Safety.
"That's right. And if you've studied Smith you'd know he was convicted of killing ten women. However, it's believed his murder count is higher than thirteen."
She zipped up her jacket and tucked her hands in the pockets. "When he was interviewed he confessed to killing the women. Ten bodies were found buried in his backyard in Austin. Three victims linked to him were not found. When pressed he wouldn't give details."
"I've interviewed him many times over the last three years. But he kept changing his story and 'forgetting' where the other bodies were buried. It was all a big game to him."
She frowned. "He's dying of cancer, from what I hear. Doesn't have much time to live."
"Docs say the disease spread to his liver. Less than a couple of months."
She was silent for several seconds. "He's going to his grave with his secrets and will deny closure for the victims' families. It's the last bit of control he can exert."
Brody's jaw tightened and released. He'd used every trick in the book to get Smith to open up but endless hours of interviews had been a waste. Smith had taken pleasure in jerking his chain.
"Smith told prison authorities late yesterday that he wanted to talk. He knows time is running out, and he wants to cleanse his soul. He's agreed to tell where the bodies are buried."
Jo shifted her stance. "He's made similar promises before. You said it yourself. It's all a game to him."
"I know. And I'd love to tell him to rot in hell. But this might be my last chance to talk to him and to find those bodies."
She nodded. "And you can't let it pass. I get that."
She met his gaze. "Why me?"
Brody pulled in a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Because Smith requested that you hear his last confession."
She shook her head, her brow rising. "Me specifically? I find that hard to believe."
"He was clear he'd talk to you and no one else."
"I've done some work for the Texas Rangers and I wrote a paper on the guy, but I'm by no stretch the most experienced psychologist. Others have written more about him and have a lot more to offer."
No traces of false modesty in the clear-minded assessment. "Your record has been impressive."
Green eyes narrowed. "I'm building a reputation but again, why me? I shouldn't be on this guy's radar."
He settled his right hand on his belt next to his gun. "The guy's smart as hell. He's had all the time in the world to do what digging he can."
A humorless smile tipped the edge of her mouth. "And he figured out that you and I used to be married."
"That's my best guess. I interviewed him more than anyone and each session he did his best to pull personal information out of me."
"I can't see you discussing personal matters."
He caught the comment's double edge. "No, I did not. But like I said, I'm betting he did some digging."
"And somehow he figured out about me."
A silence settled for a moment. "Maybe he heard about my dissertation. The university published it online. Maybe this is a quirky coincidence."
Leather creaked on his gun belt as he shifted his stance. "Could be as simple as that. But I've never been a big believer in coincidence. By my way of thinking they are as rare as hen's teeth."
She tightened her hand on her bag. "You've put some thought into this."
"Since the prison called me this morning, overthinking is more like it."
She dropped her gaze to the ground, shaking her head.
"If you don't want to do this, there's no harm, no foul. I'll go talk to Smith again and see if he'll talk to me. He might give in, seeing as death is close."
"And what if he doesn't?"
Brody shrugged. "Then our last shot at finding those three bodies is lost."
She drew in a slow, steady breath and then released it. "I'll do it. I'll go. Least I can do for those families."
Jo might not cross a street to spit on him, but she'd give up her Saturday to talk to a killer to help grieving families. "You sure about that?"
"As I remember, Smith is a control freak who only cooperates if all his demands are met. When does he want to see me?"
A brow arched. "Right now?"
"My plane is gassed and ready to go at the airport. I can have you in West Livingston in two hours." West Livingston, Texas, was home to the prison that housed death row for male inmates.
"I didn't bring a change of clothes here. I need to swing by my house."
"I'll follow you."
She fished her keys out of her bag and offered him a less than enthusiastic "Great. Let me tell Doug and the girls I'm leaving."
Without another word she hurried into the gym. She reappeared moments later, crossed the lot and slid into a sleek, black BMW. He wasn't surprised that she was doing well. He'd always known she was meant for a big life. From what he'd heard, and he always made a point to listen when her name came up, her easy style was getting big results.
Brody slid behind the wheel of his Bronco and watched her as she pulled slowly out of her space and through the parking lot. She came to a complete stop at the stop sign, put on her right blinker and turned.
"Still following all the rules," he muttered.
The drive from the gym to her small, earth-toned bungalow in Hyde Park, a central Austin neighborhood, took minutes. Built in the twenties, Hyde Park was now home to mostly university professors, students and professionals.
As she pulled in the driveway he noted her yard had been neatly landscaped at one time, but like everyone else who'd endured the Texas drought for the last few years, she'd had to let her lawn go when the water restrictions had been implemented. Still, even grassless, she managed to keep the place looking tidy.
Because the Rangers had transferred him several times over the last three years, he'd lived a gypsy's life, settling for short-term leases in nondescript apartments. He'd always figured by this age he'd have been in a home with wife and kids. But work, and maybe his own faults, had kept him single.
Out of her car, she grabbed mail from a white mailbox with carefully lined numbers on the side and motioned for him to follow. "Might as well come inside. It's gonna take me about a half hour."
He'd have been fine staying in the car, but now was not the time to put up any kind of fuss. She was doing him a favor when she could have easily told him to fuck off.
"Sure." He shut off the engine and followed her up the sidewalk, cracked in spots by last summer's heat.
Excerpted from No Escape by MARY BURTON. Copyright © 2013 Mary Burton. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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