When police rescue five-year-old Jenna Thompson from the dark closet where she's been held captive for days, they tell her she's a lucky girl. Compared to the rest of her family, it's true. But even with their killer dead of an overdose, Jenna is still trying to find peace twenty-five years later.
But The Truth
On leave from her forensic artist job, Jenna returns to Nashville, the city where she lost so much. Instead of closure, she finds a new horror. Detective Rick Morgan needs Jenna's expertise in identifying the skeletal remains of a young child. The case jogs hazy half-buried memoriesand a nagging dread that Jenna's ordeal hasn't ended.
Is Even Worse
Now other women are dying. And as the links between these brutal killings and Jenna's past becomes clear, she knows this time, a madman will leave no survivors. . .
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By MARY BURTON
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2015 Mary Burton
All rights reserved.
Monday, August 14, 8 A.M.
Detective Rick Morgan's nickname was Boy Scout. He didn't like the moniker, given to him by his partner Detective Jake Bishop, but in the four weeks they'd been partnered, it had stuck.
"Why?" he'd once asked Bishop.
The answer came with a shrug. "You couldn't lie if you tried, you keep your hair buzzed, walk like you've a stick up your ass and, Christ, what's with the Johnny Cash black suits?"
If Rick had cared, he'd have explained that a natural bluntness limited conversations to the facts; the haircut and suits were convenient, and, well, better a rigid gait than reveal the limp, a reminder of the two bullets that had sliced into his upper leg and spilled his blood on I-40.
Memories of lying on hard asphalt heated by the July sun as he bled out remained vivid. Broad daylight. Not a cloud in the sky. It had been a routine traffic stop. A blue Ford truck with a busted tail light. He'd flashed his lights. The truck had pulled to the side. No signs of trouble. Plates called in, he'd approached the car, careful to touch the back trunk and leave fingerprints, a precaution in case of trouble. Before he cleared the trunk, the gun muzzle flashed. He'd drawn his gun. Gunfire. Pain. His thumb had jammed against the release button on his vest, opening the back door of his vehicle to free his canine Tracker. The shepherd had leapt into action. Snarls and barking mingled with more gunfire. Tracker had gone down in a heap, the whimper of his pain echoing in Rick's ears as he'd fired again and mortally wounded the shooter.
It had all gone down in less than thirty seconds. Thirty fucking seconds.
A horn honked.
Rick straightened and glanced up at the green light. He pushed the accelerator and drove the remaining blocks to the Nashville Police Department's offices located on Union and Third Avenue North. He parked, shoved out a breath hoping it would take some of the tension with it. He'd been in the homicide department four weeks now and still hadn't fallen in step with his new partner.
Out of the car, he was grateful the persistent throb in his hip was manageable today as he opened the back door. Tracker looked up at him and barked, his signal that he was ready to work.
Rick pulled a ramp from the floorboard and rested it against the seat and the ground, allowing Tracker an easy exit from the vehicle. Tracker had lost a good portion of his back right leg and, though he walked well enough, he was no longer certified for duty. The department had allowed Rick to adopt the dog as a personal pet.
But Tracker was no more built for the civilian life than Rick. During his medical leave, Rick had tried returning to school but found the day-to-day classes underwhelming. No buzz. No excitement. Just boring.
And so he'd put in his papers to be reinstated and, as luck would have it, he'd been tossed the new spot on the homicide team. Rick wasn't foolish enough to believe he'd gotten the job strictly on merit. He was a good cop, maybe a great one, but it had been his father's forty-plus years of service to the department, as well as his brother's current spot on the homicide team, that had tipped the scales. Family connections had opened the door to this opportunity and he sure as hell wasn't going to squander it.
"Beggars can't be choosers, right, T?" He and Tracker made their way to the front doors.
The two, both stiff from the car ride, moved slowly to the elevators. So far, Rick and Tracker had held their own. Not setting it on fire but closed a few slam-dunk cases. He punched the second-floor button.
When the door opened, the hum of the fluorescent lights and chatter offered a half-hearted welcome. A few detectives glanced up in their direction. One or two tossed an appreciative glance toward Tracker, none toward Rick. No one had an issue with the dog.
Tracker settled on a thick army blanket next to a metal, five-drawer desk as Rick glanced at the stack of homicide files he'd been reviewing yesterday. A teen knifed behind Broadway in an alley. A floater in the Cumberland River. A hit-and-run near Fourth Street.
He shrugged off his coat and moved to the break room to pour a cup of coffee. He'd not slept well last night or any other night since the shooting. A year should have loosened the hold of that night but time apparently didn't heal all wounds. Nightmares still jerked him out of sleep, leaving his heart pounding like a jackhammer and his body doused in sweat.
He eased into his chair and sipped coffee as he reached for a file.
"Don't get too comfortable, Boy Scout." The brusque request wrapped in a Boston accent came from his partner, Jake Bishop. In his late thirties, Bishop wore his jet-black hair slicked back and a dark beard trimmed close to his angled features. He favored dark shirts, ties that popped, and suits cut especially to his lean frame. He could have just been plucked out of South Boston if not for the polished black cowboy boots, his only concession to Middle Tennessee.
In the month they'd been partnered, Bishop had barely spoken to Rick, who by virtue of his birth had the inside track Bishop had worked a decade to reach.
Rick reached for his jacket and coffee and he and Tracker moved toward the elevators. Bishop punched the button and when the doors slid open the trio rode the elevator down. They generally used Rick's car, a dark SUV, which was Bishop's unvoiced concession to Tracker.
Bishop buckled his seat belt without comment and glanced toward the backseat at the alert dog. "Dog looks good. You're moving kind of slow though, aren't you, Boy Scout?" His tone was light, friendly almost. "Feeling okay?"
Rick could hear the wheels turning in his partner's head. The transplant had worked hard to fit in, earned every bit of ground he'd made in homicide, and his reward had been a crippled legacy and his dog. Bishop had not said he was waiting for Rick, the favored son, to screw up, but that was exactly what he was doing.
"Where're we going?"
"Centennial Park. Skeletonized remains have been found," Bishop said. "The maintenance crews were tearing out an old fountain and found a bag. Inside the bag was a pink blanket and bones. It appears to be a child. Not more than three or four."
Rick rubbed the back of his neck and started the car. Hell of a way to start the week. "How long has the body been in the ground?"
A gold signet ring winked from Bishop's left pinky as he placed hands on his thighs. "Forensics just arrived on scene. They seem to think it's been in the ground at least a decade."
Ten years in Nashville and Bishop still dragged out his As and dropped his Rs; still got called Yank and Carpetbagger.
Rick pulled out onto Union Street and drove toward Broadway. No one liked these cases, but everyone would work overtime until it was solved. "Has Missing Persons been called?"
An index finger tapped against a black belt next to his Beretta. "Ten minutes ago. They're going to start digging back into old files. I asked for all similar cases reported in the last twenty years."
Rick shifted his weight, swallowing a wince when the nerves in his hip burned suddenly. Nerves were a funny thing. You could pound on them and not feel any pain. Brush of a jacket and it was wildfire shooting down his leg.
Bishop flicked imaginary lint off sharp creases in his pants. "Seems there's always pain after your kind of shooting."
"You've been shot?"
Bishop eyed him closely, searching for any sign of weakness but Rick would have swallowed nails before saying a word. Say anything you want about him but he was no quitter.
"I know injuries." The signet ring winked in the sunlight.
"Our pace has been slow, but it always heats up sooner or later. It could get rough."
Deadpan, Rick said, "When it does, stick with me and I'll see you through."
Bishop laughed. "Yeah, right."
Nashville morning traffic was congested with the early commuters scrambling to work. As the crow flies, the drive to the park was mere miles but it took a good twenty minutes to make the trek.
When they arrived at the 132-acre park they were greeted by a collection of squad cars with lights flashing, and a dozen officers standing by a string of yellow crime-scene tape that roped off a pond that had been recently drained.
In the center of the taped area stood Rick's sister, Georgia Morgan, a senior member of the Nashville Police Department's forensics team. She'd fastened her red hair into a topknot and wore a hazmat suit that swallowed up her small frame. Her knee-high boots were submerged in the pond's ankle-deep mud; she snapped pictures of the old fountain and the hole beside it.
Rick and Bishop got out of the car. Rick opened the back door and helped Tracker out. The dog barked and wagged his tail and Rick couldn't help but smile. He rubbed the Belgian Shepherd between the ears as if to say, "Yeah, I like the work too."
Bishop eyed the dog.
"Don't underestimate either one of us."
Bishop shrugged, touched his gun, a habit he had before they entered a crime scene. As the trio approached the yellow crime-scene tape, Georgia glanced up, nodded, and then dropped her gaze back behind the viewfinder of her camera. She leaned forward and aimed it at a faded, muddy splash of pink peeking out from a tattered plastic bag. She snapped and the camera flashed.
"Who found the body?" Rick asked.
Bishop removed a notebook from his breast pocket and flipped it open. "Maintenance crews were draining a lily pond to fix the plumbing when they spotted the garbage bag. They opened the bag and found the pink blanket and the body, which is only bones now."
"Any identifying information on the body or blanket?"
"Not at first glance but from what the responding officer said, once Georgia arrived she wouldn't let anyone near the site until she'd documented every detail. Your sister is a real ballbuster."
"She wants to get it right." He bit back a more heated defense of his sister, knowing Georgia would not want big brother fighting her battles. Bishop's jabs at him rolled off his back like water off a duck, but if it went too far with Georgia, well, he'd learn a lesson about pain.
"We all do, pal," Bishop said.
"Does my baby sister scare you?"
"Sure about that?"
"Very. And let me say now," he said, his voice low. "If you got any physical issues that come up during this case that you think might make you drop the ball, let me know, so I can catch it. I don't want this case fucked up."
"Don't worry about me, Yank." The reference, a reminder of Bishop's outlier status, had the other cop shoving a hand in his pocket and rattling change.
Georgia, like many officers, took extra care and caution when she had a murder case involving a child. Rick noted the flat set of her lips and the stiffness of her back. She was pissed and not a woman to be bothered.
Rick glanced toward the maintenance crew. "I want to talk to the guys that found the body."
The detectives moved toward two men wearing green coveralls and mud boots. One leaned on a shovel while the other stood back, cigarette dangling from a large sunweathered calloused hand.
Rick pulled his badge from his pocket and held it up for the two men who straightened when they approached. The smoker dropped his cigarette to the ground and doused it with the twist of a booted foot.
Bishop flicked his badge quickly. "I'm Detective Bishop, Nashville Police Department. Got questions for you about your find."
The men looked at Bishop. Neither said a word but a subtle narrowing of their eyes said the Boston accent pegged him as an outsider.
The smoker, a tall, lean man with stooped shoulders and graying temples, spoke. "I'm Tate Greene and this is Neville Jones. That dog going to bite me?"
Rick glanced at Tracker who watched the men carefully. The canine hadn't gotten the memo that he'd been retired and though he didn't move like he once did, his eyes and brain remained sharper than ever. "No."
Greene eyed the dog. "You two are the ones shot last year?"
"That's right," Rick said. Their story had been all over the news for weeks. The media scrutiny had been stifling and left a distaste for reporters in Rick's mouth. "I'm Detective Rick Morgan."
"And that's Tracker," Tate said. "I saw you two on the television."
Tate studied the canine's dark gaze. "Reporter said you screwed up."
"But you got shot."
"The other guy's dead."
Tate nodded. "Right."
Bishop shifted, never happy with a slow-paced conversation. He fired questions like bullets and though that worked sometimes, often it was better, Rick thought, to toss the questions out easy and slow so when the curveball came no one expected it.
"I don't like dogs," said Neville, the younger of the two men. In his late twenties, his build was plumper and his hair darker and thicker. Both men shared the same square-faced bone structure and flat noses.
"He's my nephew," Tate said. "Got bitten bad when he was six and hasn't liked dogs since."
Tracker eyed both men with keen interest.
"How long you two been working for the parks department?" Rick asked.
"Going on ten years." Tate shifted his attention from the dog to the detective. "And Neville started last month. Used to work at the hospital but he got laid off."
Neville glanced at his uncle, seemingly annoyed by the added explanation but he made no comment. He jerked a bandanna out of his pocket and wiped sweat from his brow.
"Why were you draining the lake?"
"Maintenance. One of the fountains hasn't been working for a while and we have an order to replace the head," Tate said.
"Walk us through what happened, if you don't mind." Rick said.
Tate met Rick's gaze. "Took a good day to pump the water out of the lake. Neither one of us noticed the bag right off. It was covered in mud."
Neville nodded agreement. "I was making my way through the mud when my boot got caught. I stumbled and damned near fell forward. Just as I righted myself, I saw the edge of the bag. A bit of plastic sticking up. I tugged and realized pretty quick it was a garbage bag."
Tate shook his head. "I've found all kinds of crap in places like this when we drain away water. A bike. Car tires. Hell, even a shotgun. But never a body. When I saw the pink blanket, I peeled it back and saw the skull. Shit. Shit. Shit."
Rick's gaze flickered to the bit of pink in the muck. Anger banded around his heart, digging in cold talons.
"What'd you do after you realized you'd found bones?" "We got the hell out of there," Neville said. "Can't be good luck to find bones. Never know when the spirits are lingering around."
Bishop arched a brow but didn't comment.
Rick nodded as if he understood. "Never can be too careful.
What'd you do next?"
"I called the cops," Tate added.
Bishop's sunglasses hid his eyes, but his lips flattened into a grim line. "You have any information about the maintenance of this pond?"
Tate glanced toward Bishop and frowned. "Like I said I been here ten years and I haven't worked on it before."
"Where can I get maintenance records?" Rick asked.
"Front office," Tate said. "Marvin Beard runs maintenance. Call him and he can tell you what's been done in the area."
Rick pulled a notebook from his pants pocket and jotted down the name. He also took down contact information for Tate and Neville. "Thanks. Do me a favor and stick around a bit longer." He tossed a smile that had the two men nodding and retreating back to the shade of a tree.
Rick and Bishop moved back to the pond in time to see Georgia struggling to get out of the muck without dropping her camera.
Georgia shook her head. "Don't even try. The mud will suck you in and ruin your pants." Two more steps and then a hard pull on her right foot and she stepped up onto the grassy bank.
"What did you find?" Rick asked.
She huffed out a breath and brushed a curl off her forehead with the back of a gloved hand. "As I told the uniforms, it's a child. I can't say for certain about the sex or cause of death. I can tell you the child was very young. Judging by the size of the skull I'd say five years old but in cases like this ... "Realizing her tone grew increasingly bitter, she paused. "Children who've suffered a history of abuse often can be small for their age. Malnutrition." Again a heavy silence. "I'd say female judging by the pink blanket but that's just a guess at this point."
"A pink blanket," Bishop said more to himself. "Fuck me."
"It could be a sign of remorse," Rick theorized, his voice even. "The killer didn't intend to kill the child and when it came time to dispose of the body, guilt kicked in hard. The pink blanket may've been a favorite of the child's."
"I'm going to enjoy catching this son of a bitch." Bishop, for all his jabs and digs, was a good cop with a stellar close rate.
Rick shared his partner's sentiments but kept his emotions buried well below the surface. "When can you remove the body?" Rick had already made a mental shift. He couldn't think of the victim as a living, breathing child. Cases like this required a step back. Distance from the victim kept emotions in check and heads clear.
Georgia, like Bishop, wasn't adept at separating from cases like this. "Any minute. The medical examiner should be here any moment. I've all the photos and sketches I need so I'll wade in now and pull the body free."
"Can I help?" Rick asked.
"You got boots?"
"Boy Scout's got enough equipment in those storage bins to supply a small army," Bishop quipped.
At this point, Rick actually welcomed a verbal jab. It helped put distance between him and what he and Georgia needed to do. "I've got waders."
Excerpted from Be Afraid by MARY BURTON. Copyright © 2015 Mary Burton. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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