The Faces of Evil Series: Book 6
By Debra Webb
Grand Central Publishing Copyright © 2013 Debra Webb
All rights reserved.
Birmingham Police Department, Tuesday, August 17, 10:00 a.m.
Her chest too tight for a decent breath, Jess Harris stared at the television mounted on the wall. The images of three young women, brunette and beautiful, remained frozen on the screen. The scroll beneath those bright, smiling faces urged anyone who recognized one or all to contact the FBI's hotline.
Every news channel, website, and newspaper in the state was running the photos. The story, a tragic true-life reality show guaranteed to boost ratings, had been picked up by the national news. Fox, CNN, they all posed to the world the single question that burned in Jess's brain:
Have you seen these women?
The Player had started a new game. And Jess was caught in the middle.
The Bureau was in charge of the case, since it involved their ongoing investigation into the serial killer known as the Player, a sadist who was suspected of having murdered countless young women already. Not to mention the two federal agents he and his protégé, Matthew Reed, had murdered last month.
Damn you, Spears ... I will get you somehow.
This time the tables were turned. They knew the perpetrator, but they couldn't identify the victims ... and there was no way to predict when the crime would occur. The Bureau and every law enforcement agency in the state were on alert for a crime that hadn't happened yet.
Jess glanced at her cell phone that lay, oddly silent, on the conference table. Spears had repeatedly turned her life upside down, starting with the demise of her career at the Bureau. And now, the bastard had sent the photos of those three women with a warning that one was about to become his first victim in a new game. Then he'd shut Jess out. She hadn't heard a word from him since the package containing the photos arrived nearly forty-eight hours ago.
Eric Spears, aka the Player. She squared her shoulders and tried to clear the lump from her throat. No one, not even the Bureau, was denying that Spears was the Player now. Didn't matter that Jess had told them weeks ago. She hadn't been able to prove it. So here they were more than a month later, and Spears was out there, free to torture and murder whomever he pleased.
Starting with one of these young women.
Wherever Spears was, rather than communicating with her, he had one of his friends or a hired lackey watching Jess. The texts he'd sent last week proved that much. How else would he know to send Cheers when she was having a glass of wine? Or Bang right after some creep in a dark Infiniti sedan pretended to take a shot at her? And she couldn't forget the fishing worms someone stashed in the fridge at her apartment. Are you going to fish or cut bait?
Spears had gone fishing all right. Jess had to find him ... before anyone else died.
"Damn it!" She shoved back her chair and stood. She couldn't just sit here.
From his desk, Chief of Police Dan Burnett swung his attention toward her. "What's wrong?"
God, didn't he get it? Everything was wrong. "You mean besides the fact that you won't let me out of your sight even to do my job?"
His need to protect her had gone from excessive to completely unreasonable, numerous long and heartfelt talks be damned. No matter how Dan claimed to trust her abilities and instincts, no matter that she had warned him this incessant hovering was making them both look bad to the rest of the department, Spears had made a move and all that had gone out the window.
For the past hour Dan had been going over updates on open cases while she sat here at his conference table pretending to review reports from her detectives on cases she couldn't investigate. She'd closed out the Five investigation yesterday with a full confession from the perpetrators of that travesty. This morning she'd pretty much been twiddling her damned thumbs.
Visibly resigned to a battle, Dan set aside the report he'd been reviewing and pushed back his chair. Those same grim lines he'd been wearing since Sunday were etched even deeper in his face.
Before she could outmaneuver him he stood in front of her, his strong hands curled around her upper arms, making her long to fall against his chest. Get a grip, Jess. Just went to show how crazy not being able to do something about Spears or anything else was making her.
"You're worried sick," he said softly. "I get that."
Why the hell did he have to treat her as if she were made of glass? "No." Tears stung her eyes, making her all the angrier. "You do not get it. At least one of those girls will die."
Fear and anger tore at her heart, stealing her voice for a moment. "She'll be tortured for days ... until he grows weary of her and then she'll die an ugly, brutal death." A sharp breath stabbed through Jess. "And it's all because of me." Her hand went to her throat as if she could somehow hold back the hurt rising there. "I started this."
She wished his blue eyes didn't reflect so very accurately the fear and pain torturing her. This was ripping him apart, too. "Gant and his team are doing everything possible to identify and locate those women. They will find Spears."
Jess choked out a laugh. She couldn't help herself; the anguish was giving way to hysteria. "They won't find him, much less stop him, Dan, you know that."
This time he looked away. He couldn't deny the truth any more than she could. Her lips started that confounded trembling again, and she couldn't manage to summon the proper words to explain the rest of what needed to be said.
Someone would die soon ... because of her.
Her heart pounded in her ears, ticking off the silent seconds. If he would just back off ... give her some space ... so she could do what needed to be done.
"All right." He exhaled a heavy breath. "But you will not make a move without Sergeant Harper or Detective Wells right beside you. You will not go home or anywhere else without one of them or without me. Understood?" He shook his head, the look on his face dead serious. "No exceptions, Jess. No pretending this time that the danger isn't real and imminent."
Relief rushed through her so hard her knees almost gave way. "You have my word. You can put a tracking device in my bag. Whatever makes you feel comfortable." Truth was, that wasn't a bad idea. As desperately as she wanted to do something besides sit here, she understood the danger was all too real. And definitely imminent. As badly as she wanted to stop Spears, she didn't want anyone to die in the process—including her.
The MO he was using this time around was similar to the games he'd played before, he'd simply taken a different and startling new strategy to get from selecting his victim to abducting her. Spears wasn't playing with her this time. Jess sensed that cold, hard fact to the very core of her being. What did a killer who sat at the very top of the most evil scale do for a finale?
"I'm glad you feel that way," Dan said, hauling her back to the here and now. "I'm assigning a surveillance detail to you 24/7."
Daniel Burnett, her friend, lover, and boss—not necessarily in that order—wasn't going to take any chances this go-around. He knew her a little too well. Jess had a habit of going rogue when the need arose.
"Whatever it takes. Cooperation will be my middle name," she promised. As long as she got to get back to work and out from under his thumb.
He assessed her a moment longer before heading for his desk to put his warning into action. "You'll keep me apprised of your every move."
"Absolutely." She felt like a bird just let out of its cage as she gathered her bag and files. "I'll head on down to SPU now and let you get back to your work." The Special Problems Unit and her office was just a short flight of stairs or a brief elevator ride away—the latter being her preferred method of getting from here to there. Four-inch heels and stairs just didn't go well together.
Dan shook his head. "I'll have Harper come get you."
Her jaw dropped. She couldn't move about inside the building, for heaven's sake, without an escort? Before she could demand an answer to that question, Burnett—she was too mad now to keep calling him Dan, even in her mind—made the call.
Opting to choose her battles, she snapped her mouth shut and decided that getting her way with Harper would be a whole lot easier than trying to get anything over on Daniel T. Burnett. He was far too hardheaded and impossible to persuade into seeing things her way when any measure of risk was involved.
"Harper's on his way." He tossed his cell phone back on his desk. "Don't make me regret this decision, Jess. I'm counting on you not to let me down."
"I gave you my word." If her record didn't show otherwise she might be offended. But she had a well-documented history of doing things her own way regardless of instructions from her superiors. "Besides," she added with a shrug, "I've never once disobeyed orders unless it was the best for the victim or the case. You can't say otherwise."
That part was the irrefutable truth.
Even her former employer, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, couldn't claim she'd bent—or broken, more often than not—the rules without the best interest of the case at heart. There were some evils out there that simply couldn't be stopped by the book. The Player was one of those.
Fortunately, a rap at the door prevented Dan's pursuit of that topic.
"You wanted to see me, sir?" Harper glanced from Burnett to Jess.
She gave her detective a nod sans the victorious smile now tugging at her lips and waited quietly, obediently, as Dan laid down the law. Her frustration dissipated faster than fog clearing beneath the rising sun as the reality that she was really getting out of this office-turned-prison seeped fully into her veins.
I will get you, Spears.
When Harper had been fully informed of his grave duty, he gave a nod without so much as another glance at Jess. "I understand, sir."
Jess was out of the chief of police's office and heading for freedom before Harper could turn around. She bypassed the elevator, since it was monitored by security, and she needed a word with her detective in private. She waited until she and Harper were in the stairwell headed down to SPU before voicing her request.
"I need a disposable phone, Sergeant."
"Something wrong with your phone, ma'am?"
At the door to their floor she gave him a skeptical look. "You don't want to know the answer to that. Just get me one I can use without anyone tracking it."
"I'll send Cook to Walmart."
"Thank you." She finally let that triumphant smile she'd been holding back make an appearance. "We have work to do."
He gave her a nod. "Yes, ma'am."
A kind of calm descended and Jess's pulse rate steadied as she entered her own domain. Her small staff waited for her. SPU's team consisted of her and only three others, and the floor space allotted for their offices was just one big room, but it was her unit and she couldn't be happier for some sense of normalcy. The past forty or so hours had been unbearable.
"Good morning, Chief." Detective Lori Wells looked as relieved to have her back as Jess felt at being here.
More so than anyone else at the BPD, Lori had as much reason as Jess to want Spears caught. His protégé, Reed, had kidnapped and tortured her just to lure Jess into a trap that mercifully fell apart, but not before people died.
"Good morning, Lori." Jess gave her and then Officer Chad Cook, the youngest of their team, a nod. "Cook."
"Ma'am," Cook greeted. "We've missed you."
A statement as simple as that shouldn't have had her struggling to hold a fresh rush of emotion back, but it did. This was her new home and it felt exactly like that. A mere six months ago she wouldn't have believed she would ever be back in Birmingham feeling like she belonged. But here she was and it felt right.
The television mounted on the wall opposite their case board was running the same news coverage as the one in Burnett's office. Jess hoped someone out there would recognize those three women and call in. Soon. There was no way to know if one or all three were already missing or even where they lived. For now, the Bureau was focused on the state of Alabama, since the package containing the photos had been mailed from Montgomery. But the truth was they had no clue who or where these women were—they had nothing except the photos and the promise of bad things to come.
Spears was too smart to get caught easily. He had no doubt selected very carefully for this pivotal game. Women who were loners, maybe had no families. Women who wouldn't be missed right away. That strategy would buy him the time he wanted to draw out the game.
Every step he took was judiciously calculated for optimal gain and leverage.
While Harper pulled Cook aside to give him his task, Jess parked her stuff on her desk and headed for the case board. Lori, with a manila folder in hand, joined her there.
"I was waiting until you got here to start." Lori opened the folder and revealed copies of the photos of the unidentified women and a photo of Spears.
The unsavory combo of anxiety, fear, and frustration almost got the better of Jess again. "Thank you." She was extremely lucky to have Lori and Harper on her team. Cook, too. The vacant desk reminded her that SPU was a member short since Valerie Prescott had moved on to the Gang Task Force.
A sense of foreboding churned in Jess's belly. Captain Ted Allen, head of Birmingham's Gang Task Force, was still missing. More than a week now. Whatever else she knew, Jess understood with complete certainty that his disappearance had something to do with her. Yet she couldn't connect Allen's disappearance with Spears and his game. Had to be the high-profile Lopez drug case she and Allen had repeatedly butted heads over. Although there was plenty of gossip floating around the station that she'd had something to do with Allen's disappearance. She didn't like the captain, and liked the fact that he may very well have planted a bomb in her car even less, but there was only one man she wanted dead enough to do the deed herself.
If she let herself contemplate all that had happened in the last six weeks or so, she might just lose it. After all, what forty-two-year-old woman wouldn't want a serial killer kidnapping innocent women to get her attention and a cop who hated her going missing—after possibly planting a bomb in her department vehicle? Gave new meaning to the term midlife crisis.
"I was thinking about a replacement for Prescott," Lori said, evidently noting Jess's lingering attention on the vacant desk.
Thankful for the reprieve from the other thoughts, Jess set the self-pity party aside for now. "I doubt we'll get any cases thrown our way until this—" she blew out a big blast of frustration "—is over, but we do need to fill that vacancy. Who'd you have in mind?"
"Lieutenant Clint Hayes. He's over in Admin right now, but he's been looking for an opportunity to get in the field."
Jess placed the photo of Spears on the case board. She hated those pale blue eyes of his. Not the same deep, true blue of Dan's. Spears's were that pale, ghostly color that warned pure evil thrived beneath them. "Give me some stats on Hayes."
"Thirty-four. Single. Went to Samford. Finished law school with high honors but opted not to go that route. Instead he hired on with the BPD."
Jess stalled before getting the final photo on the board. "Decided he'd rather be one of the good guys, is that it?"
Lori gave a halfhearted shrug. "Something like that."
There was more to this story. "Something like what ... exactly?"
"There was a morals issue in the background check," Harper chimed in from his desk.
With the last photo in place Jess turned to her senior detective. "What kind of morals issue?"
"The state bar association discovered he had worked his way through college"—Harper strolled up, hands in pockets and wearing a smirk—"as a gigolo. They refused to certify his character."
A frown puckered her eyebrows. Jess rubbed at what would end up another wrinkle if she didn't stop the habit. A gigolo? Do tell. "Evidently he was never arrested for solicitation." That kind of mark on his record would have kept him off the force as well.
"Never," Lori confirmed. "Character references killed his chances with the state bar association—a couple of his own friends ratted him out. Cost him his chosen career and the city one hell of a sharp attorney." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Ruthless by Debra Webb. Copyright © 2013 Debra Webb. Excerpted by permission of Grand Central Publishing.
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