Dr. Iris Ballard’s glory days are behind her, so when Luke Hudson, her former FBI partner and onetime lover, asks for help constructing a psychological profile of an elusive serial killer who murders single mothers and dumps their bodies in the woods, Iris turns him away. She just wants to be left alone with her infomercials, her German Shepherd, and her vodka. That is, until she gets a peek at the case files.
The media has dubbed him “the Woodsman.” But after Iris learns the sickening details held back from the press, and as she sets foot onto the scene of his latest crime, she assembles a portrait of a more complicated, enigmatic, meticulous man. Control is his motivation. He thrives on it. Soon he even tries to manipulate the investigation by contacting Iris, hoping to rattle the woman he considers an intellectual equal.
The game is on. Iris thinks she has a read on her target, enough to push his buttons, to make him lose control. But when the Woodsman gains the upper hand, Iris faces the most painful reckoning of all—with her own violent past.
About the Author
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“Put the past behind you! Who doesn’t deserve a second chance?”
“Oh shut the f*** up,” I said as I changed the channel.
Jesus Christ, I hated, hated, hated insomnia. Some people found uses for it. They got second jobs, or worked on their hobbies without interruption. Not me. I could have been grading finals, since they were due the next day. I could have read Crime and Punishment like I’d been promising myself since college. God knew I was never in the mood for a story about redemption, but it would still be better than that damn infomercial.
I managed only three hours of sleep that night before jolting awake as my dead husband drowned me in a river. F***ing nightmares. As if the waking hours didn’t provide enough torture. Three hours wasn’t great, but it was better than some nights. The problem was that once I was up, no way would I go back to sleep, especially after a f***ing nightmare. Not even the pills could put me down again after one of those.
I took too many pills that night. Prozac, guaranteed to turn you into a moodless zombie or your money back, then Valium to tackle anxiety. I hated the Valium, it made me shaky and dizzy, but I couldn’t be having panic attacks in the middle of class. Been there, done that. Finally, Xanax for good luck. Those still hadn’t worn off. I knew I shouldn’t take the Valium and Xanax together. I knew better, I did, but my self-destructive nature got the better of me. Again. At least there wasn’t a vodka chaser. Gold star for me.
As I channel-surfed for something to watch, my vicious guard dog lay on the couch next to me, legs up and head hanging off the side with his tongue lolling out. My screams in the night brought Gus out of his food-induced coma. The nightmare must have been a bad one. It took a lot to get him off his butt. I bought the large German shepherd as an attack dog from one of the trainers at the FBI when I moved to Grafton, North Carolina from northern Virginia. Of course I ended up with the one who hid from squirrels and ate like a wrestling team. If he could look past my flaws, I could look past his. At least his weren’t legion.
I kept flipping and flipping, circling through twice before a story on BNN made me stop dead. Of course the story was about “the Woodsman.” As if there were nothing else happening in America at the time. Everyone loved their serial killers, especially reporters. I’d been following the case—shit, story—since the beginning. This guy killed three women in three months. The story was on victim number four.
“In Shenandoah National Park, located in western Virginia,” the good-looking newsman read from the teleprompter, “the body of a woman was discovered yesterday by local fishermen. The victim has now been identified as Dr. Justine Romy, an emergency medicine doctor at Washington’s Our Lady of Mercy Hospital . . .”
My mouth dropped open. They hadn’t released the victim’s name before.
I knew her.
“Dr. Romy was reported missing two days ago, and though there is no confirmation by officials, she is believed to be a victim of the ‘Woodsman’ killer, who has been plaguing the East Coast since March, according to reports.”
An old man came onto the screen beside a beautiful blonde reporter. He must have been one of the fishermen who found her, judging from the hat with furry lures on it. Behind him was a flurry of police activity: flashing red and blue lights, the local coroner’s black van parked off to the side, and yellow tape being put up by local officers.
“Me and Bob, that’s my cousin,” the fisherman began, “we was just goin’ down the river lookin’ for a place to fish when we saw her.”
“What did you see?” a female reporter asked off-screen.
“We saw somethin’ white over by the edge of the river. We thought it was a dog or somethin’ but we went over there anyways. Then we saw it wasn’t no dog. She was . . .” He began to choke up at the memory. “She was naked as the day she was born, under the water, with a rope tied around her neck. I—I can’t.”
They cut away before he cried. Poor guy, he just wanted to fish. The blond reporter with the big lips came back on, alone in the dark in front of the police tape. The hustle and bustle of the forensic team went on behind her.
“Authorities are keeping silent as to whether this latest murder is in any way connected to the three previous murders accredited to the ‘Woodsman,’ but the FBI have been called in to investigate.”
The next image made my heart stop in my chest.
I wasn’t surprised he was on the team trying to catch the sick twist, but to see him in front of me after two years . . . f***. He hadn’t changed. Not a ginger hair out of place. He was always the ultimate poster boy for the FBI: tall, built, handsome, well pressed, and serious. Always so damn serious.
“As of right now,” he spoke into the microphone with authority, “we are treating this as a single homicide. We have no conclusive proof this is the work of the same man. But I can tell you we are investigating this case to the best of our abilities.”
He stepped away from the reporters toward the river, presumably to the murder scene. I couldn’t watch anymore. I turned the channel, but my heart wouldn’t stop pounding. “No. No,” I said to myself as I shut off the television altogether. It had become the enemy. Betrayed me by showing me him.
I got up off the couch, away from that box, and like a robot went upstairs to my office. That was the past. He was the past. The future. I had to concentrate on the future. The house. Grafton. Teaching. I was barely aware of it, but I began grading the term papers. After another Valium. This. This was my here and now. My second chance at life.
I’d killed for it, after all.
At daybreak, I pulled my tired bones upstairs to change into my sweats. I didn’t feel much like running, but I knew I’d be sitting at a desk all day and if I didn’t move around then I wouldn’t be able to sit still long enough to finish the papers, the one responsibility I had in the world. I started by running down the stairs, grabbing Gus’s leash at the front door. The second he heard the leash clink against the wall, he bolted from the living room, jumping on my chest. “Down,” I commanded. He settled enough for me to hook him up. We were off after I set the alarm and locked the two deadbolts. Most people in Grafton didn’t lock their doors. They’d never had a serial killer break in, though.
I lived on the outskirts of town, deep in the woods, with my nearest neighbor a quarter of a mile away, just the way I liked it. Just the way the majority of other residents liked it, too. I’d installed a ten-foot steel fence with lights and motion sensors laced around it. I would have preferred a moat with alligators, but my budget wouldn’t allow it.
My husband, Hayden, and I were in the process of moving to North Carolina from Virginia when he was murdered. The house itself was two stories with a basement, but it looked bigger than it was. The second story was supported by Roman columns littered around the enclosed wraparound wooden porch. It needed work, but I could barely afford the taxes on it.
As always, the stray cats that lived in the woods sprung from their hiding spots meowing for food the moment the damn door shut. I had all the varieties: calico, tuxedo, tabby, even a Siamese. At first I ignored them, as I did most things in life, hoping they’d just go away. Then I thought about calling animal control, but judging from their mangy coats and wild behavior I knew not a one would be adopted. I couldn’t condemn them to certain death. So I just left some food out for them every night, and in return the rat population diminished. We all won.
I opened the gate with the remote clipped to my belt and ran up the fifty feet of my unpaved gravel driveway before closing the gate behind me. Gus and I ran the same path every time. We started by jogging down the driveway, and then turned toward the South Fork New River a half-mile from the house. When the sun came up, the water twinkled. I tried never to miss it. That morning my music, Bonnie Tyler still holding out for a hero, was turned down just enough so I could hear the river trickling toward the Atlantic. On my right was the sparkling river. On the left, a row of redwood trees fully rejuvenated from the winter. Sometimes I needed to be reminded there was beauty in the world.
I really did love Grafton. I grew up in a small, dying town in Pennsylvania. Grey Mills was a lot colder and more industrialized than Grafton, North Carolina. And by colder I don’t mean just the weather. I sadly carried that attitude with me when I moved to Grafton. I didn’t participate in events. The previous Thanksgiving, my friend Carol dragged me to the elementary school pageant where her son Patrick was playing a Native American. He had been practicing his three lines for weeks, and I promised him I’d be there to cheer him on. When we walked into the auditorium, all heads turned. It was very strange having hundreds of eyes staring at me and knowing their thoughts.
“There she is.”
“She doesn’t look so bad.”
“I think I can see the scar.”
“That’s what a killer looks like.”
I literally turned tail and ran. That was when I stopped trying. I was friendly to Myra at the grocery store, I chatted with Bart at the Texaco, but that was it. I would have been a hermit if not for Carol.
After tying the exhausted Gus to a tree after a mile, I started running again. I didn’t know if it was the breeze against my damp skin or the endorphins pumping into my system, but I felt Zen. It was the only time I ever did. But as usual when I was on the threshold of contentment, I had to ruin it.
I found myself thinking about Justine Romy as I jogged. I was shocked I’d had the willpower to hold off that long. I didn’t know her well, but Hayden was fond of her. I spoke to her on the few occasions when I visited him at the hospital—not anything of consequence, just current events, what case I was working on, and . . . a horrible realization stopped me dead in my tracks.
She had a son.
It all came back to me. He was two when I left. She even showed me his picture once. Cute kid with big brown eyes and a wide smile. She was in the middle of a divorce and was worried that her husband would sue for full custody because of her hours at the hospital. That was the last time I saw her. I heard she attended Hayden’s funeral. That made one of us.
I started running again, but my mind wouldn’t leave Justine Romy. She seemed like a very smart woman; how had she fallen prey to a killer? I just couldn’t see it. The guy must have been pretty slick. Probably late thirties, early forties. White male, professional with a steady job that lets him travel. Charming on the outside . . .
“Stop,” I said to myself. “Just stop.” I did not care who the man was or what he was like. I would keep the bad men out of my mind, out of my life. The cost was too great otherwise. Not that I had anything else to lose. My husband, my future, my sanity . . . I’d lost it all two years before. So I did what I always did. I collected my dog and ran home for yet another Valium. It’s what a person does when she can’t escape the fact her now is a living hell with no exit.
Or so I thought.