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It was straight-up 7:00 a.m. on the first twenty-four hours of his new shift. He wasn't late, but like the other firefighters he typically reported for work ten or fifteen minutes early, and people would notice that today he hadn't. He'd spent two of his four days off working on his "obsession," as his brother called it.
Even this early in the morning, September in Oklahoma had plenty of heat and humidity. Walker moved all the way inside Station House Three. Thumbing a bead of sweat from his temple, he eased up next to his buddy, Dylan Shepherd.
He could feel Shep's steely gaze on him and kept his own
attention fixed straight ahead on Captain Yearwood and the dark-haired woman beside him. He wasn't telling Shep where he'd been. He didn't want to see the looks or hear the questions.
"What's going on?" he asked quietly.
Shep inclined his head toward the woman. "Her. That's what."
And she did have it going on, Walker admitted reluctantly. Even the PFD's standard uniform of navy blue pants and a crisp, light blue shirt couldn't conceal her sleek, tight curves. His gaze skimmed down her body, then took a much slower trip on the way back up. Long legs, slender hips, breasts that would just fit his—
"Everybody, meet Jen Lawson," Captain Yearwood boomed, to be heard over the occasional street noise coming in through the open bay doors. He gestured to the group of seven firefighters, indicating the only other female on their shift, Shelby Fox Jessup. "You've met Jessup."
The women exchanged smiles.
"Next to her is Farris, then Shepherd and McClain." The captain, a lean man with gray hair and sharp, dark eyes, glanced at Walker. "McClain, you'll want to get with Lawson."
What the hell for?
"She's transferring over from Tulsa," the man was saying. "Filling the spot Pickett left when he retired."
His muscles went tight. "So, you're a SWAT medic, too?"
"Yes. Nice to meet you." Her gaze fully lined up with his for the first time and Walker went stupid for about half a second.
Wow. Her eyes were stunning, a pure, hot blue. He had never seen such an intense shade.
Captain Yearwood, who'd transferred to Station House Three a little more than three years ago, continued introductions around the loose circle of firefighters who made up the blue shift.
Walker didn't have to wait more than two seconds for Farris, the company Casanova, to chime in. Tall and built like a brick wall, the burly man kept his voice low, for Walker's and Shep's ears only. "I gotta have her."
Ass. "You might want to wait until you see if she can cover your back at a fire."
"If she can't, I bet she can cover my front just fine."
Walker didn't waste his breath pointing out that if overheard, Farris could be reported for sexual harassment. The muscled-up blond man moved around the circle to get closer to the brunette.
Shep groaned under his breath. "I think I'm in love. Did you see those eyes?"
"And did you see her body?"
"No, I've gone blind in the last five seconds," Walker drawled. Hell, yes, he'd seen it. And noticing so much about her irritated him.
"Aren't you interested at all? It's been over two years, man. You didn't die that night."
No, but Walker wished he had. Ever since Holly had expired in his arms, he had felt like an empty black pit inside. He hadn't lost only his wife to that brutal mugging; he'd lost their unborn daughter, too. Sometimes he felt every one of those days all over again.
As the captain dismissed them, Walker started past the other firefighters, heading for the kitchen as he said to Shep, "It's my turn to cook. I gotta check the groceries."
Since Holly's murder, he had been trying to find the SOB who'd done it. Even after two and a half years, all he had to go on was a vague physical description of a homeless man with a knife scar across the knuckles of his right hand.
For a while, he'd given up hope of ever getting any further, but six months ago someone had started killing homeless men. Burning them. So far, there were three victims, and they were all repeat offenders of violent crimes. Scumbags who had been released after serving their time and had shown no signs of stopping their behavior, who were past the point of rehabilitation.
On the chance one of the dead men was the man Walker was searching for, he had been paying close attention to the recent victims. His brother, Collier, might consider Walker's investigation an obsession, but Walker didn't care.
The slightly husky feminine voice at his back had him turning to the newest member of their shift.
Jen Lawson's skin was a creamy pink and white. The black hair she'd pulled back into a braid looked thick, wavy. Her perfect lips curved. "Where should I leave my blow-out pack?"
"On your tactical vest. And leave that with your other gear." The SWAT medics carried their pouch of medical supplies on every call. They were firefighters first and SWAT medics when needed. "We may not need our turnout gear on a SWAT call, but having everything in one place makes it easier to grab and go, in case we do."
She stood close enough that he could smell her now—a musky, floral fragrance that made his body tighten. And his voice. "Have you checked in with the SWAT team?"
"Earlier this morning, before I reported here."
Her eyes were incredible, emphasized even more by a slight widow's peak and the delicate arch of dark eyebrows. Her oval face and defined cheekbones made her appear dainty. She looked almost too slight to make a difference on the fire line.
It took a second for Walker to realize she'd walked away and he was standing there staring stupidly after her, as if he'd run into a wall. Cursing under his breath, he stepped into the kitchen and around the long, scratched dining table. Lawson hadn't done anything except ask him a question, and his blood was humming. What was that about?
Just as he reached the refrigerator, the alarm sounded. He bolted to the bay along with everyone else, suited up and jumped on the engine.
With Captain Yearwood driving, they reached the scene less than ten minutes later. It was an abandoned house north of Benson Street, an industrial area of town with several warehouses. A quick glance around showed there were no bystanders yet. Orange flames shot into the sky over a dilapidated white frame house, already partially engulfed.
As a fire engine and a ladder truck from Station Two, Walker's old firehouse, parked behind them, he and his crew were off their engine and pulling hose. House fires typically had two stations responding, along with the station that housed the rescue truck.
Luckily, the wind wasn't hampering their efforts so far. He tuned in to the crackling hiss of the fire, the thunk of the hydrant valve as the main line was attached, the initial roar of water as it gushed through the hose.
Upon entry, they found no one inside. The crews poured water on the burning structure. Dark gray smoke turned to white when the water hit it, all of it mixing into a billowing gunmetal cloud against the blue sky.
It didn't take long to extinguish the flames, and Walker had a good guess as to why. The house hadn't been where the fire started. He would bet his OU season football tickets the blaze had been caused by the burning of a body, and the flames had moved from the victim to the wooden building.
The scenes of the other Payback Killer victims had also been quickly put out, and a body burned by flashbangs had turned up at each one.
Once the blaze was doused, they checked for hot spots and found none. Satisfied the fire was truly out, Walker took off his helmet and Nomex hood. Around him, the other firefighters did the same.
Beneath his turnout coat, his navy T-shirt was soaked with sweat, and the acrid stench of burned wood and chemicals settled around him. The torched dwelling was the only remaining house on a street that had been bought by a commercial developer. With the sun shining down on the charred and smoldering structure, the place looked desolate.
Gray smoke plumed into the air. Water from the hoses flowed down the streets and saturated the unkempt brown grass.
Walker trudged to the back of the house through the scraggly yard now turned to mud. He expected to see a burned body, and he did. "Body back here, Captain!"
He crouched, his gaze taking in the bubbled flesh on the side of the victim's face, the heat-bloated skin on his hands and arms. The bodies were never burned beyond recognition, just used as a human fuse to send the flames to the house and trigger a call to 911. Walker had time before the others joined him to check the dead man's right hand. No knife scar across his knuckles. This man wasn't Holly's killer.
Shep and Lawson appeared. Yearwood trotted toward them from the engine.
Remaining several feet away from the body, Shep glanced at Walker. "The Payback Killer?"
His gaze landed on the flashbang close to the victim. Jaw tight, Walker nodded. Only the back half of the house was burned away, which was in keeping with his theory that the blaze had spread from the incinerated body. If the house had been the target, the fire would've been set to do much more damage.
The remaining frame looked as if it might crumble any second. The familiar odor of scorched wood and engine fumes hung heavy in the air. As Walker brushed away the ash that grazed his cheek, he noticed Lawson staring quietly at their John Doe. Her gaze shifted to the flashbang and she frowned.
Farris joined them, tossing bottles of cold water to her, Walker and Shep. "Wanna bet that crispy corpse has a record?"
"Yeah, just like the other ones." Shep, sans helmet and hood, dumped his bottle of water over his head to cool off, then dragged a hand down his face.
Lawson glanced at Walker. "The Payback Killer? What are y'all talking about? What other ones? How many other ones?"
In response, he took a long drink of cold water.
But Shep didn't hesitate. "If this body checks out to be like the others, this will be the fourth murder victim who's a repeat offender, a violent offender who served his time or was recently released from prison for good behavior or some other reason."
"So, the Payback Killer is a vigilante," she said.
"Yeah." Shep pointed toward the street, where Station Two's engine and the rescue truck were parked. "There's Marshal Burke."
Walker tracked Tom Burke's progress as the big black man made his way toward the battalion chief in charge of the scene.
Lawson's eyebrows rose. "The state fire marshal is handling this?"
Walker knew she was wondering what the rest of them had wondered when they'd learned the case had been turned over from the Presley fire investigators to the state. Was someone in the fire department a suspect?
The firefighters knew the cops were looking for one suspect who was believed to be preying on the homeless, but there was nothing to indicate they or Fire Chief Wheat believed that suspect was someone in the fire department.
After the second murder, everyone at Walker's station house had been questioned. Had they noticed anyone hanging around the neighborhood who looked out of place? Had they seen anyone harassing the homeless men or paying them an undue amount of attention? But those were routine questions that would be asked of anyone located close to the shelter where all the homeless victims had stayed at least once.
Most likely, the case had been transferred to avoid claims of prejudice in the investigation. Understandable, considering Presley's fire investigators had once been its firefighters—not to mention one of the current FIs was Walker's brother.
"And there's Jack Spencer." Shep glanced at Lawson, indicating the tall detective who'd just gotten out of his car, parked at the curb in front of the rescue truck. "Procedure between Presley's fire and police departments dictates the cops have to be called if a body is found in a fire. We put out the blaze, then call Homicide. Spencer and one other detective are the ones assigned to the Payback Killer case. If Jack's here, they must think this death is related to the others."
Lawson turned to Walker. "Do you think the victim burned up? Or was he dead before the fire started?"
"That's for the M.E. to figure out." He didn't know why she was asking him when Shep was spilling info left and right. Walker poured some water into his hand and rubbed it across his heat-scalded nape.
Shep continued, "It was determined the other victims died before the fires. And all of them had traces of magnesium and ammonium perchlorate on their bodies."
Lawson frowned. "Those chemicals are metal powders found in flashbangs."
Walker wasn't surprised she knew that. She would've learned it in her SWAT training.
"So flashbangs are being used as an accelerant?"
"Yeah." Shep went on to explain that six months ago, a case of the stun grenades had been stolen out of the SWAT van. A key was required to get into the van, and it had been kept locked unless a member of the team was inside. Only certain people had access to the key. All of the SWAT team. And the SWAT medics.
"Why are you using the word victims for this scum?" Farris snapped. "These SOBs aren't victims. Those other three had it coming and this one probably did, too."
Lawson's eyes widened.
Walker knew how vengeful Farris sounded, but he felt the same way. As he and the other firefighters returned to the front of the property, he realized he was staring at Lawson. Beneath the grime, he could see her skin was as fine-grained as silk. He dragged his gaze from the streak of soot on her cheek, the sheen of perspiration on her neck.
He and the others joined Farris and they began to refold the main hose.
"It's hard to care much about these bastards getting back some of what they've dished out," Farris bit out.
"Even though the M.O. is the same as that of the Payback Killer, we aren't certain yet that this victim is a violent offender. I guess there's a chance this could've been done by a copycat. Regardless, we should stop talking and get this cleaned up," Walker said. "Monroe's setting up the portable floodlights inside the house for the fire marshal, and St. George from Station Two is videotaping the scene."