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By JAY BONANSINGA
PINNACLE BOOKSCopyright © 2007 Jay Bonansinga
All right reserved.
Chapter OneGullibility killed the cat. This silent refrain had been echoing through Dina Dudley's thoughts on a regular basis since she was a teenager and had swallowed Robbie Pettigrue's story about being a test subject for a male contraceptive pill. Time and time again, Dina had found that it wasn't curiosity that did the feline in. On the contrary, it was a person not being curious enough that did the damage. It was a girl not bothering to question her mother's blind insistence that her husband-i.e., Dina's dad-had gotten his drinking under control. Or it was a girl-i.e., Dina-not investigating the background of a dreamy stockbroker boyfriend who turned out to be a coke dealer. In fact, it almost seemed as though Dina Dudley was getting more gullible with age. Her closest friends claimed it was simply a side effect of her being so bighearted. And it was true that Dina had a thing for shaggy dogs, hard cases, losers. But there's a point in every gullible person's life when trust turns to recklessness.
As a matter of fact, tonight, as she lay bound and gagged on the cold, corrugated iron floor of a battered van's cargo hold, she was silently cursing herself for letting her gullibility finally do her in. If only she had been one iota of a degree more alert. If only she had been a single, infinitesimal scintilla more suspicious ... she probably wouldn't have stopped to help the little milquetoast in the hunting cap wrestling with his flat tire. But that's not who Dina Dudley was. Dina Dudley was a sweetheart. Dina Dudley was gullible. And now it looked as though Dina Dudley was a dead woman.
Bone thin and sinewy-in recent months her cokehead boyfriend had taken to calling her Skinny Minny-she tried to move in the darkness, but her arms ached, her wrists bound so tightly behind her back they felt numb, the plastic shackles digging into her tendons. Her denim jacket was torn, her jeans cold and wet where she had peed herself. Her matted copper-colored hair dangled in her face. Duct tape covered her mouth, smelling of chemicals and grime. Fear constricted her throat.
Dina tried to see through the unrelenting shadows. Her best friend, Jenny Quinn, lay against the opposite wall, whimpering, also bound and trussed like a piece of meat. Raw, watering eyes, hot with horror, stared back at Dina. That was the worst part, seeing her friend Jenny like that, her old pal from Belleville High, always so bubbly, always the first to go on the roller-coaster or play spin the bottle, now reduced to a mewling little caged bird. All because Dina had to go on this idiotic wilderness camping trip. Two girls from the suburbs of St. Louis. Making like they were Lewis and Clark.
Meanwhile the van vibrated and rattled, grinding through its lower gears as it climbed a steep grade. Where in God's name was this sicko taking them?
Breathing through her nose, sniffing the rancid air of the van, Dina tried to think. It's not too late, she urged herself, maybe you can still get out of this, Jenny's a wreck, she's no help now, but you can stay calm, wait for an opening, maybe surprise this guy.
The van made a tight turn suddenly, pressing Dina against the wall.
Then the vehicle squeaked to a stop. Dina's heart started thudding in her chest. Her mouth went dry. She could hear footsteps now, crunching in gravel, coming around the side of the van. Icy terror spread through her veins like cold poison, searing her nerve endings, making everything feel numb and sluggish.
Not now, she scolded herself, don't freeze up now!
The rear doors clicked, then slowly creaked open on rusty hinges. The odors of pine and fish rot and river mud flooded the van.
The dark figure stood there in the moonlight, calmly looking in at his captives. Everything about him was average, ordinary, nondescript-from his duck-billed hunting cap down to his dirty khaki pants. "Hello again," he said in a convivial tone. "Sorry about the bumpy ride."
Dina tried to latch on to some detail about him, some mark or scar that she might remember later for the cops, but it was difficult in the darkness. His face remained in shadow, his head haloed by moonlight. In fact, from the moment he had attacked them on the side of the road a few hours ago, Dina had caught only fleeting glimpses of the man. All she could tell for sure was that he was middle aged, probably white, very strong, and spoke with a flat Midwestern accent. Modulated and genial. Like a TV game-show host.
"Don't you worry your pretty heads now, ladies," he murmured as he went for Jenny first, grabbing her by the ankles, eliciting an anguished moan out of her. Then he started pulling her from the cargo bay as though he were removing a canvas bag full of dirty laundry. Then he said something else that sent an electric bolt of panic down Dina's spine.
"It'll all be over soon."
That was when Dina realized that this polite psychopath was going to kill them both; maybe rape them or torture them, and then kill them. Something buried deep inside Dina awakened then, and she decided-right at that moment-she was going to fight. She was going to go down swinging.
She flexed her bound hands in preparation for ... something. She wasn't sure what.
The moments seemed to stretch interminably as the madman lifted Jenny Quinn out of the van, then carried the trembling girl off into the shadows of the forest. He was gone for only about fifteen seconds but it seemed like hours as the adrenaline sluiced through Dina's skull, making her ears ring and her scalp crawl. She smacked her dry lips on a sour metallic taste as if she were sucking coins.
Then she made one last critical discovery: her legs, although bound at the ankles, were loose. They were loose! She could still kick, and she could still jump. It only took seconds to make the decision.
His footsteps were returning. Crunch-crunch-crunch! Dina cocked both legs back like springs. The man's shadow fell across the open rear doors. Dina held her breath. The killer was talking as he came into view: "I promise this will only take a few more-"
She kicked out at him with both feet as hard and suddenly as she could.
"Whoa!" The man jerked backward instinctively, just far enough to avoid getting brained by the bottoms of Dina's size-eight Naturalizer boots. The kidnapper stumbled backward, tripping on a pothole, then sprawling to the pavement and landing on his ass with a grunt, giving Dina just enough time to shimmy frantically toward the opening.
She leaped off the edge of the van, then furiously hopped, sack-race style, across the gravel shoulder toward the darkness of the woods.
It would have been hilarious in any other context-this feisty suburbanite doing the bunny hop across a deserted road in the dead of night-but not now. Not with the keening moans of Jenny Quinn a few yards away. And the mucusy growling of the man who was no longer polite. He was rising to his feet behind her, grumbling something obscene.
She reached the threshold of the forest and misjudged the angle of the slope.
The ground seemed to cave in beneath her, and before she knew what was happening she was falling, falling through darkness. For several breathless moments she careened wildly, head-over-heels, seeing stars, falling, falling, the world somersaulting like a crazy black carousel.
She landed on the banks of the river, in the weeds, the impact like a Roman candle going off in her head.
* * *
She had no idea how long she lay there, alone in the dark. The pain gripped her like a vise, pressing her against the rocks. Her back, twisted in the fall, sang out in agony, and her legs, still bound at the ankles, were jackknifed underneath her. She could not breathe normally. Probably one of her lungs had been punctured. But none of that mattered anymore because the worst was yet to come.
She could hear twigs snapping, the nimble footsteps coming down the slope in the darkness, the lunatic moving with catlike grace for a man his age. His shadow swept over her like a shroud. She closed her eyes.
The terror had boiled out of her now. She felt no fear. Nor did she feel any of the sorrow or regret that she would expect to feel at such a time as this. Her life didn't pass before her eyes. She only felt a vague sense of disappointment in herself, a sense of loss.
To die in such a tawdry, messy fashion, at the hands of a mild-mannered psychopath, felt like pure anathema to Dina Dudley. She had spent a lifetime grooming herself to be frugal, orderly, neat, and prudent. For the last nine years she had worked her way up the corporate ladder at Haglett and Myers to become one of the most efficient estate planners in the Midwest. The brutal hours had cost her a marriage, and now-now-she was going to go out like a common roadside hooker, strangled in the weeds with her own nylon stocking, and the world would count among its population one less gullible knucklehead.
The figure loomed over her, breathing hard, searching for words. "You just had to ... had to do it the hard way," he said between gasping breaths. As though he were a headmaster addressing an insubordinate student.
Dina felt her spirit shrinking inside her, a balloon with the air squeaking out of it.
Something snagged her hair then, an iron grip tightening around a hank of her meticulously colored burnt-chromium-red locks. Her head was jerked back with enough force to dislocate a cervical vertebra. The duct tape slipped off her lips, dangling from her chin.
Fresh pain screamed in her neck, choking her, stealing her air. She braced herself for the cool touch of a razor across her neck. She closed her eyes. She prayed it would be quick. This is it, Dina, she lamented in some far corner of her brain, the last hurrah ...
Except the razor never materialized. Death never came. At least not in the way she had expected.
She felt herself being dragged-backward, headfirst, her legs completely paralyzed-back across the cool hardpack, through the weeds and the brambles. The nutcase was dragging her by the shoulders, like a sack of lawn clippings, back up the side of the hill. She couldn't see her captor, couldn't move. She wondered if the fall had broken her back?
She tried to focus, tried to make sense of what was happening.
It was obvious he was dragging her back up to the road, his labored breathing coming out in ragged puffs. She could smell him. He had too much aftershave on. If there was one thing that turned Dina Dudley's stomach it was a man who drenched himself in too much aftershave. She had to say something. She knew she was going to die. What difference did it make?
"You dunk yourself in the Aqua Velva tonight?" she uttered through clenched teeth at the faceless figure hauling her up the hill.
"Beg your pardon?" His breathless voice still had that creepy courtesy.
"Let Jenny go. Please. You can do whatever you want to me, I'll suck you off."
"Oh, I'm sorry," he said, the tone of his voice like a government bureaucrat politely denying a permit. "I'm afraid I can't do that."
"Do what?" she said. "Get a blow job or let her go? Come on, please, she's just a kid ..."
"I'm really very sorry."
They had reached the crest of the hill, and Dina could smell the piney exhaust fumes of the road. Headlights blurred in her eyes. It had begun to rain-a thin mist coming down-and Dina couldn't see very well. She felt herself being propped against a tree.
Now she could hear the faint mewling cries of her best friend, maybe twenty or thirty feet away, still muffled by the duct tape.
The lunatic had gone back to his van and was fiddling with something just inside the rear doors. It looked like a toolbox. Dina wanted to chew off his testicles. "C'mon, let her go, you got me, you can do whatever!" she called out to him. "Why do you need two of us?"
The man paused. He turned around and looked at Dina. He was smiling.
The grin turned Dina's heart to ash.
His reply was soft and courteous. "Because it only works with two."
Chapter TwoIn the predawn gloom, over the soft hissing of the baby monitor, Ulysses Grove heard the chirping noises first.
He stirred awake next to Maura, rolled over, and blindly muted the beeping cell phone. At this hour, on this phone, the call could only mean one thing. Section Chief Tom Geisel-or possibly his trusty assistant Shirley Milch-was on the blower from Quantico with another pair of Mississippi Ripper victims. Grove snatched the phone out of its charger and levered himself into a sitting position on the edge of the bed.
A rangy, chiseled African American with a marathon runner's physique and dark almond-shaped eyes, Grove wore his customary Michigan Wolverines boxer shorts and sleeveless T-shirt. He hadn't been sleeping well in recent weeks, and it showed in his stooped shoulders and somnambulant stare. Part of the problem stemmed from his bad eye.
Injured in hot pursuit outside a New Orleans cemetery, Grove had nearly lost his left eye during an altercation with a psychopath named Michael Doerr. The cornea had sustained severe ocular contusions and subconjuctival hemorrhages, mostly from Doerr's knife work, and later Grove worried that he would spend the rest of his life the butt of Sammy Davis jokes. Over the last twelve months Grove had undergone three separate operations to save the eye but, unfortunately, the surgeons at Johns Hopkins were only able to avoid the need for a prosthetic. The eye that remained in Grove's skull was virtually blind. Grove had happily accepted the prognosis. He wore the scars of past cases he had closed like war medals.
And other than slight adjustments in his driving, reading, and writing habits, the only drawback to the partial blindness was the dreaming.
Grove had started having nightmares in which he saw things-prophetic things, apocalyptic scenarios, troubling visions-through his blind left eye, and only through that eye. His good eye never worked in these dreams, always blurred or flickered out like a TV tube with bad reception. But the blind eye saw everything, inexplicable things, road signs spattered with blood, shadowy figures lurking in the woods, ghostly horsemen riding over the bones of battle casualties. One night he dreamt he could see the future through his blind eye, and he woke up in a sheath of sweat after seeing his own family lying murdered in their beds. His psychotherapist referred to all this as "understandable" and "even healthy" considering the sights Grove had seen over the last few years.
But it wasn't merely angst over his blind eye that was currently keeping Ulysses Grove up at night. Nor was it workload. Nor was it the emotional obstacle course of his young marriage or the stress of juggling his professional life as the FBI's top criminal profiler with his role as a loving father. The thing that was disturbing Grove's sleep these days was anticipation. He was very close to identifying the Mississippi Ripper. Over the course of twelve months and eight victims, Grove had amassed a hundred-plus-page profile.
It was only a matter of time.
Which was precisely why Grove snapped the flip-phone open with such vigor this morning. He glanced at the display. It was a Virginia prefix, the number registering in Grove's sleepy brain like tumblers clicking in a lock. This could be it. The crime scene Grove had been anticipating. The final puzzle piece that closes the Ripper down. Gooseflesh crawled on Grove's arms as he rose, cupping his hand around the phone, answering in a hushed tone. "Grove here."
"Morning, Sunshine," said the familiar voice on the other end. Tom Geisel had been section chief in the Bureau's Behavioral Science Division for nearly a decade and had trained Grove, and now the low, gruff, whiskey-cured voice had an almost soothing effect on Grove's ear. "Sorry about the hour, Slick, you know how it is."
Grove's scalp prickled as he slipped out of the bedroom and into the dark carpeted hallway. The baby was asleep across the hall, the nursery door slightly ajar. "Dirtbags never sleep, huh?" Grove whispered into the phone.
"Two white females, looks like the same sig, same MO, everything lines up."
"The dump is where?"
"Sixteen miles south of Quincy, Illinois, right on the river this time."
"Okay. That's what office? St. Louis?"
The voice said, "Yep ... Bill Menner from Central Midwest is heading up there as we speak. Your ticket's already booked, waiting at Reagan. Flight numbers, departure times, map to the scene-it's all on your e-mail."
Excerpted from SHATTERED by JAY BONANSINGA Copyright © 2007 by Jay Bonansinga. Excerpted by permission.
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