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Corrections Officer Dale Swiggum would have to tell his grandkids about this one.
Of course, it might help to actually have kids. Hell, it might help to have a regular girlfriend. But with this story in his arsenal, he was sure to impress that sexy little brunette who manned the checkout at the Piggly Wiggly.
He was going to be transferring Dryden Kane down to the county lockup to stand trial.
He leaned back in the driver's seat and smiled. When he'd been notified of the transport just an hour ago, he knew the convict he was hauling had to be important. Most convicts were transported by bus in broad daylight when they had a court date. When an assignment came down in the middle of the night, it had to be something big. But Dryden Kane? The most notorious Wisconsin serial killer since Jeffrey Dahmer? That was bigger than even Dale could dream.
He peered out the bug-spattered windshield of the state van as the giant steel door slid open and four correctional officers led Kane into the underground garage. The killer looked small in his baggy, dayglow-orange jumpsuit. He did the prisoner shuffle, his legs shackled, hands cuffed and locked to a waist chain.
If Dale met him walking down the street, he'd never guess this average-size, good-looking guy with silver hair was a monster who had killed at least a dozen women. Hunted them like deer. And spread them out for the world to find.
Dale would have a story to tell, all right. He wouldn't have to pretend he was "about something" as the cons liked to say. He was about something.
The correctional officers led the shackled killer into the back of the van. After securing Kane to the bench, two officers climbed into the cage with him. The third climbed up front with Dale, and the fourth joined the chase car.
Dale glanced at the officer beside him. Jerry Brunner was a brute with biceps and a bad attitude almost as big as a con's. He gripped his shotgun like he meant to use it. He likely did.
Good thing Jerry was on Dale's side.
The order to move out came over the radio. Excitement trilled through Dale like he was a boy dumping candy from his stocking on Christmas morning. He shifted the van into gear and fell in behind the unmarked car leading the low-key parade. The overhead door rose in front of them, and the three-vehicle caravan rolled out into the humid Wisconsin night.
The tires hummed along the highway, the sound buzzing in Dale's ears like the adrenaline buzzing in his veins. The county jail and courthouse was only ten minutes away from the Banesbridge Prison, not much of a drive, but he'd soak up the feeling while it lasted. He glanced at Jerry. "How do you think we got picked for this?"
Jerry shrugged. The behemoth never had much to say. He probably had the IQ of that shotgun he was carrying.
The truck started over a low bridge crossing the Wisconsin River. The sound of the tires echoed hollow over the water below. It had been a rainy June, especially up north, and the river swelled high on its banks, the water deep and black as a hole.
Across the narrow span, a pickup's headlights shone high and bright.
Dale squinted and averted his eyes to the white line on the outer edge of the bridge.
"Damn drunk," Jerry said.
The lights bucked and swerved. His radio crackled to life as the lead car reported the drunk to the county sheriff.
The truck grew closer. It swerved again. Suddenly the glare headed right for the lead car.
Dale stomped the brake. The van skidded. Ahead, a screech and sickening crunch shook the air.
The cage van veered sideways, rushing up on the wreck in front of them. Dale stomped the brake. The van was too heavy and moving too fast. He wasn't going to be able to stop.
They hit with a wallop. The back of the van skidded around, through the guardrail. Another slam hit from behind, the chase car. The van hurtled over the edge of the bridge.
They hit the black water with a smack. The impact hurled Dale against his seat belt, whipping his neck back and then forward. His forehead slammed the steering wheel.
Pain split his skull. Fog fluttered around him. He struggled to clear his mind, to focus. Voices erupted from the cage. Next to him, Jerry slumped in his seat, something dark glistening on the side of his head. Light from the shore fractured and prismed through the shattered passenger window.
Dale struggled to clear his vision. He forced his mind to focus. They needed help. The radio. He grabbed the radio.
Screams erupted from the cage in the back of the van. "Open the cage! Open the damn cage or we're all going to drown!"
More shouting. The jangle of keys. A gunshot split the air. Then another.
Dale ducked in his seat. He grabbed for the rifle clutched in Jerry's still hands. His head ached so hard, he could hardly cut through the pain to think.
Had one of the C.O.s shot Kane? Or was Kane the one with the gun?
The van felt like it was moving. Drifting. Riding the river. Dale looked up, trying to get a view of the cage in the rearview mirror. The bridge abutment loomed outside the windshield. Concrete scraped along steel. Black water leaked into the van, covering his shoes, inching to his knees. The van's nose dipped low.
They were going down.
He tried to keep the panic from breaking over him like the cold sweat dampening his uniform. He couldn't hear anything from the back. Not another shot. Not the jangle of shackles. Leading with the shotgun, he looked over the seat.
The back of the cage hung open. The dark shadow of a single man slumped on the floor. And judging from his size and the deep-blue color of his uniform, it wasn't Kane.
The killer was gone.
Cord Turner didn't get invitations. Not to parties. Not to bank credit. Not to anything. Fine with him. He didn't expect to be invited to anything. Hell, he probably wouldn't go if he was. So when he plucked the square white envelope from his afternoon mail and pulled out an invitation to a wedding reception, he had damn good reason to be confused.
Questions buzzed in his mind and drowned out the music playing over his tinny kitchen radio. He stared at the thick white card in his hands, his blunt fingernails coarse and stained against the delicate white embossing. He didn't know anyone who was getting married. Certainly not anyone who would invite him. Hell, he didn't know anyone at all — at least not anyone worth knowing — and he'd like to keep it that way.
He opened the card.
Your presence is requested at a reception celebrating the recent marriages of Sylvie and Bryce Walker and Diana and Reed McCaskey. Black tie required.
He moved his eyes to the bottom of the card. There was no signature, no name identifying the party's host, simply a single line.
"The father of the brides."
Cord let the card fall from his hands. During his eight years in prison, Cord had only met a handful of men whose evil radiated in the air around them like heat from a blast furnace. And although he'd never met Dryden Kane, he'd known the killer was such a man the first time he'd seen a picture of Kane's dead ice-blue eyes.
Ice-blue eyes Cord had inherited.
No doubt Cord's half sisters Sylvie and Diana had nothing to do with planning this party. They would want even less to do with their father than they would want with Cord.
He picked up the card and thick, foiled envelope. He needed to get rid of the damn thing. Diana's cop husband already suspected him of scheming with Kane based on nothing but the fact that the killer's blood was flowing in his veins. One whiff of this invitation and Cord's parole officer would give him a violation so fast he'd be back in the system before the evening news.
About to stuff the card into the envelope and crumple the whole thing into a ball, he noticed a slip of paper still tucked inside. He flipped the envelope upside down. The paper dropped to the counter. A severe black scrawl marred white vellum.
"Melanie Frist will be your date. I'll give her a personal invitation."
The name hit Cord like a kick to the gut. His pulse throbbed in his ears, overwhelming the radio commercials leading to the three-o'clock news.
How did Kane know about his past with Mel? And since the killer was in prison, what did he mean by a "personal invitation"?
Cord eyed his cordless phone lying among his other mail on the kitchen counter. She wouldn't want to talk to him. She hadn't visited him in jail, hadn't attended his sentencing, hadn't visited him in the more than eight years he'd spent behind bars. And he would bet she hadn't tried to look him up in the two years since he'd been paroled. She wasn't going to change her mind about seeing him now.
But did that matter in light of a threat from a serial killer?
He ran his gaze back over the scrawled note.
He'd seen evil. He'd smelled it. He'd lived it. And one of the first things he'd learned in the joint was you never turned your back on it.
He picked up the telephone and punched in the four numbers before setting it back down. If Mel had caller ID, he doubted she would pick up. Not if she saw his name on the screen. He'd have to drive to her house. To face her.
Fishing his truck keys from his pocket, he tried to ignore the jittery feeling that seized him low in his stomach. He reached to switch off the radio. The urgent tone of the announcer's voice stopped him cold.