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The killing's only just begun. Watch them drop now, one by one.
For the past seven hours the words echoed through Brenna's head. No amount of loud music or talking to herself erased the sound, repeating like a mantra again and again.
When she finally slid her Jeep Cherokee into the driveway of the police station and parked on a hump of ice, she sat for a moment, letting the heater blow warm air in her face. If she'd had any strength left in her arms after the grueling drive, she'd have shaken a fist at the sky.
Yesterday, she'd been fooled into believing spring had arrived with sunshine melting through the mounds of solid ice piled four feet deep outside her town house in Bismarck.
With a sigh, she switched off the engine, pulled her gloves on and wrapped a wool scarf around her face before she stepped out into the storm. The storm that had raged since midnight had dipped its subzero blast as far south as Des Moines.
A native of the northern prairie, she knew better than to count on spring arriving any sooner than April and usually not until May. Her eyes stung and she pulled her scarf higher up over her nose to ward off the bite of the icy wind. Still wired by her hair-raising drive from Bismarck in whiteout conditions, Brenna stomped loose snow from her insulated boots outside the door to the Riverton police station.
The weatherman had predicted snow flurries. But one thing North Dakotans could count on was unpredictable, harsh weather. A trip that normally took her three and a half hours had taken twice as long at half the speed.
In any other circumstance, she'd have waited to make the trip until the storm had passed and the road crew had worked its magic clearing away the foot of snow already accumulated. The forty-mile-an-hour wind hadn't helped, either. She'd struggled to see the road through the heavy snowfall and fought the gale-force gusts buffeting her four-wheel-drive vehicle all over the interstate highway. But she'd made it.
Stepping through the two sets of doors, Brenna entered the police station. The reviving scent of brewing coffee filled her senses as she divested herself of the scarf and draped it over a hook, followed by gloves, stocking cap and finally her heavy parka. Even the short walk from her car to the building necessitated full snow gear unless she wanted frostbite. The coffee smelled even better without the filter of wool around her nose, and she yearned to wrap her stiff fingers around a hot cup. But first she needed to find Tom.
She planted her hands on the counter and leaned toward the curious young police officer. "Hi, I'm Brenna Jensen. Where can I find Chief Burkholder?"
"That you, Brenna?" a deep voice called out from a doorway beyond the front desk.
Her smile lifted upward as her mentor and old friend Chief Tom Burkholder stepped into the lobby.
When she held out her hand to shake his, he brushed it aside and engulfed her in a bear hug that forced the air from her lungs. God, it felt good to be home, even in such tragic circumstances.
Chief Burkholder set her away from him and stared down into her face. "Did you stop by to see your mother and sister yet?"
"Are you kidding?" She tipped her head to the side and back to loosen the muscles tensed in her shoulders and neck. "As soon as they assigned me to the case, I headed straight here."
"You're just like your father — all about the job. We sure miss him around here."
Her father had died of a massive heart attack two years after Brenna had joined the Riverton Police Department. He'd been so proud of his daughters' accomplishments, especially when Brenna had chosen to follow in his footsteps. Never once had he bemoaned the fact he didn't have a son.
She missed her father. They'd understood each other and he'd loved her unconditionally.
"Heard you're up for a new job in Minneapolis," the chief said.
"Yeah." A twinge of guilt nudged at Brenna as if leaving North Dakota was the equivalent of a sin, when so many young people fled the state to find jobs. In her case she had a job, but the new one meant an increase in pay and responsibility, with the downside of being farther away from her family.
"When do they make the final selection?" Tom asked.
"In a week and a half."
"I'll keep you in my prayers for the job and this case." He hugged her again. "You deserve the break." The chief dropped his hands, shoved them into his pockets and stared down at his feet. "In the meantime, things been happenin' around here."
"Did you find the women?"
The chief shook his head, his skin almost as gray as his hair. "No. We had dozens of state police and local citizens combing the countryside all weekend, but the storm...well, you know what it was like. We pulled them in as soon as the weather got bad. No use losing anyone else in that mess out there."
"Find anything in the victims' homes?"
"Nothing yet. Only thing we got to go on is — "
"What the good ol' U.S. Post Office delivered directly to me," Brenna finished for him. Her mouth set in a bleak line. "I don't know what to make of it. But I sure as hell plan to find out."
"One other thing." Chief Burkholder tugged at the tie already loose around his neck.
Brenna recognized the signs. Chief had more bad news he didn't want to tell her.
Her lips twisted into a faux smile and she patted his back. "Might as well spit it out."
With a shake of his head, Chief Burkholder stared hard at her. "We had another woman from town go missing last night."
As if a heavy clamp pinched her lungs, Brenna fought to breathe normally. "Then the note is coming true. You sure she didn't go somewhere and forget to tell anyone?"
"No. Her car was still in her garage, her purse on the counter in the kitchen." The chief chewed on his lower lip. "And, Brenna, since victim number two was from East Riverton on the Minnesota side of the Red River, we notified the FBI. They're taking charge of the investigation."
"Great. Let's hope they don't hamper our search like the last team they sent." She walked toward the coffee urn on the side counter and helped herself to a foam cup full of liquid resembling sludge. "I'm beginning to see what ol'Red McClusky meant when he said, "We don't need no outsiders muckin' around our neck of the woods." I just hope the hell they don't slow us down."
"I'm sorry you feel that way," a low, rumbling voice sounded over Brenna's left shoulder.
She froze. Then a wave of heat rose from beneath her turtleneck to fan out into her face. Inhaling deeply, she steeled her nerves and willed her cheeks to quit burning before she faced the voice. "Do you always sneak up on private conversations?"
"Only if it has something to do with the case I'm working." The man in front of her could have stepped out of an ad for an action-adventure cop movie. In his black leather jacket, black hair falling across his forehead and eyes an intense emerald-green, he was too perfect to be true. The addition of a five-o'clock shadow only made him look better. A perfect male specimen, from a scientific viewpoint.
Science be damned. Brenna didn't need a perfect man making a mess out of this case. She didn't need distractions when women were being kidnapped and more than likely murdered in her hometown.
"Nick Tarver." He held out his hand without smiling or baring his teeth to soften the sharp lines of his face, only those intense eyes staring straight into hers. "I'd hoped for an amicable relationship with the locals while working this case."
"Special Agent Brenna Jensen, North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigations." Not nice to meet you, she added without voicing. Maybe she was a bit touchy about the subject, but she didn't need another case screwed up by the FBI or another physically faultless person in her life. Having her sister and her sister's husband thrown in her face at every chance her mother could get was already enough to make her want to scream. Why couldn't the FBI send a really ugly, capable agent instead of Nick Tarver?
AS NICK SHOOK HER HAND, he observed the way Brenna Jensen's forehead settled into a permanent frown. Instead of making her less attractive, she appeared like a fierce kitten ready to pounce on a wolf. And he was the wolf. He almost laughed until a pang of awareness registered in his libido.
This woman who barely came up to his shoulder, with her straight sandy-blond hair and blue eyes, was like the girl next door. Fresh, clean and wholesome. Too small and vulnerable to be a cop. She was the kind of girl a guy could take home to meet his mother. Someone he might have liked knowing, if he hadn't already sworn off women. And as a potential victim, Brenna Jensen presented more of a liability than an asset to his case.
"Mind if I keep that?" She glanced down at the hand he still held and back up at him, her brows rising. "I'm sort of attached to it."
He jerked his hand away and stepped back, for a moment off balance and not liking it.
Brenna tipped her head toward the doorway leading to the rear of the building. "Show me where you're set up and I'll show you my note."
Her shoulders straightened and she dragged in a deep, slow breath, as if she were preparing to go into battle. "What do you mean, not yet?"
"Before we do anything else, we need your statement." The woman let the air out of her lungs. "On one condition."
Tarver's brows dipped into a frown. He wasn't used to negotiating his orders. He opened his mouth to say so, but Brenna beat him to it.
"I keep my coffee." She gave him a saccharine-sweet smile.
His brows met in the middle before they straightened and he nodded. She'd better not push him. He'd have her out of the building so fast —
Coffee in hand, she sailed toward the door leading to the back of the police station.
He hurried to follow her, falling in step behind her. Before she'd gone too far down the hallway she stopped so abruptly Nick bumped into her. Her body was soft and feminine, but beneath the layers of clothing, he could feel the steely strength of well-honed muscles.
Her mouth made a small O and then firmed into a straight line as she looked over his shoulder to the man behind him. "Interview room still in the same place, Chief?"
"You betcha," Tom Burkholder replied.
"Let's go, Tarver." With a dismissive glance, she resumed her pace.
"Nick. Call me Nick." He almost smiled at the cocky little she-devil's back. He preferred a woman with spunk — but not at work.At work he liked people to follow orders. "Chief Burkholder will take your statement."
"Whatever. Let's get this interview over so we can get to work solving this case."
He stepped around her and led the way through a bank of desks to a room located near the rear of the building. He held the door as the chief entered and Brenna followed. As she passed close enough to touch him, Nick caught the scents of herbal shampoo and fresh snow.
A strange combination of winter and spring. The unbidden impression formed in his mind from just that little whiff, and he brushed it aside. Too much detail about a witness he had no intention of keeping on his team.
Once they were inside the interview room, Nick Tarver closed the door, shutting them in and himself out. He moved down the hall and stepped into the observation room to watch and listen to the interview through the two-way mirror.
Stark and plain, the room was basically empty, with only a heavy metal table and two folding chairs in the middle of the floor. A single, uncovered lightbulb provided enough light to illuminate all four corners.
Brenna circled the room and stopped to stare into the mirror. "Hey, Agent Tarver, can you hear me? "Cause I don't want to repeat myself later."
He fought a sudden urge to chuckle. The woman was annoying, but ballsy.