SHE' S NO STRANGER TO THE DARKEST PLACES IN THE HUMAN MIND...
Devoted to her troubled clients, clinical psychologist Aimee Gannon never thought she'd be entangled in a murder investigation. But a middle-of-the-night phone call from the Sacramento PD delivers a shock: Aimee's rebellious seventeen-year-old patient Taylor Dawkin could be a suspect in the gruesome murder of her own parents. Traumatized by the events of that fatal night, Taylor is left catatonic...and Aimee is desperate to reach beyond her silence to uncover the truth.
BUT HE' S SEEN THE EVIDENCE FIRSTHAND...
Detective Josh Wolf needs Aimee's help to decipher the clues behind a pattern of rectangles and circles that Taylor drew in blood at the crime scene. Unfortunately, he can't keep his mind off the beautiful psychologist -- those long legs, that irritating stubborn streak. But he can't afford a moment's distraction: After Aimee is attacked, she and Josh must race to uncover Taylor's terrifying secret...before the deadly shadows of the past strike again.
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Phone calls at two a.m. were never good news. So when Aimee Gannon's cell phone rang, vibrating its way across the bedside table early Tuesday morning, she woke with a knot in her chest.
She'd been swimming at the edge of a nightmare, getting caught in its current and then fighting her way clear, never quite waking but not resting, either. It was almost a relief to be woken by the call. She groped for the phone as she struggled upright, then flipped the phone open. "This is Dr. Gannon."
"Dr. Gannon, this is Detective Josh Wolf of the Sacramento Police Department."
The police? "What can I do for you, Detective?" Aimee swung her feet over the side of the bed onto the cool wood floor. Why the hell were the cops calling her in the middle of the night? She stretched her shoulders, trying to unkink her neck and readying herself to find out who was in trouble and why.
"I think I have one of your patients in custody and I was hoping you could come help us with her. She's...uncooperative at present," the man said, his deep voice crackling over the cellular connection.
Uncooperative plus custody definitely equaled trouble. Janelle, maybe? She was an angry drunk, and altercations at bars often led to police custody. Or maybe Gary, her sex addict, had been picked up in a prostitution sting? Wait -- the detective said "she." "Who are you talking about, Detective?" Aimee rubbed some of the sleep from her eyes.
"The girl's name is Taylor Dawkin," Wolf said.
Aimee sat upright. "Taylor? In custody?" Crap. Taylor had plenty of problems, but Aimee felt they were making progress. Big progress.
"Can you come?" Wolf asked, ignoring her question. "She's at Mercy General."
"Why is she at the hospital? Has she been hurt?" Aimee tucked the phone against her shoulder and grabbed a pair of jeans out of the dresser.
"I'd prefer to explain things in person," Wolf said, his staticky voice hard to read.
Shit. This guy was going to give her zero information. "Are her parents already there? Can I speak to them?" Taylor was only seventeen. Her relationship with Orrin and Stacey was everything ugly that a teenage girl's could be, but they would certainly be at the hospital with her.
There was a pause at the other end. "That's not an option at the moment. I can send a squad car for you. Someone could be there in ten minutes."
Aimee froze for a second. Not an option -- what the hell did that mean? "Has Taylor done something? Is she under arrest?"
Another pause. "I'd really prefer to explain in person." Wolf's impatience was clear despite the bad connection. "Shall I have an officer pick you up?"
"I can get myself there, Detective," Aimee said curtly, fishing a tank top from a drawer. Impatience was a two- way street. "Give me thirty-five minutes." She snapped the phone shut.
The bright bathroom lights hurt her eyes when she snapped them on and their faint electronic hum made the muscles of her neck tense up. She pulled her hair back into a ponytail, quickly brushed her teeth, then threw a jean jacket on over her tank top and hoodie. It had been in the sixties that afternoon, but the night would be cool and the hospital would be freezing.
Aimee took a deep breath at her front door. She hated the anxiety that formed in the pit of her stomach at the thought of walking through the parking garage alone in the middle of the night, but Taylor needed her. Push through it. You're bigger than the fear.
She locked the condo and took the elevator down to the parking garage. Even wearing sneakers, her footsteps echoed in the deserted garage. The harsh lights cast stark shadows that seemed to leap out, and the low ceiling felt like it was pressing down on her. Checking behind her, she pressed the keyless entry and her Subaru gave a welcoming double beep. She got in and locked the door as fast as she could, then stopped and made herself breathe. The locked, secure garage was part of why she'd bought the condo after she and Danny had split up. She was safe here.
Still, as she drove up 18th Street to J and then headed east, she shivered as she drove past all the darkened houses. She reminded herself that her problems were much smaller than whatever had landed an already traumatized teenaged girl in the hospital with no one but the police looking after her. Aimee pushed the gas pedal a little harder toward the floor.
Detective Josh Wolf closed his cell. The shrink didn't sound delighted at being woken up in the middle of the night, but at least she was coming. It was a straw to grasp at, and he didn't have much else. Who could have done this? And why?
He stared down at the two bodies that lay on the floor, hands duct-taped behind their backs and more duct tape covering their mouths. The back of the man's head had been bashed in, most likely with the blood-covered lamp lying next to him. The woman had clearly been strangled. He didn't know what had been used to choke the life out of the slightly overweight blonde with the gray roots; the murderer hadn't left that behind. A souvenir, or something incriminating? He ran his hand over his face. It was going to be a very long night.
Camera flashes strobed the living room, making it even more macabre as the crime scene technicians and photographers tried to find anything and everything that could possibly point to who had done this. The place was covered with fingerprints and blood. The driveway was a road map of tire tracks. An empty wine bottle had been smashed. A pile of cigarette butts was mounded in the bushes outside the front door, a puddle of vomit nearby. Footprints abounded. Sorting through and tracking down the possible leads could keep him and Elise busy for weeks. His best lead was the girl, and she was in no shape to lead anywhere.
"Nice place." Elise Jacobs, Josh's partner, looked around the large living room.
She was right. Even with the bottom falling out of California real estate, this place would be worth a pile of dough. Great neighborhood in the Pocket, the little U-shaped section of Sacramento that jutted out into the river from the west side of I-5. A well-tended half- Tudor on a big lot with a pool in back. The kitchen was all stainless steel and granite, and an entire family could live in one of the bathrooms. They didn't build places like this anymore. Josh had a cousin who was a contractor, and he knew this place must have cost a mint.
"Call me crazy, but I'm not sure I like what they've done with the place." Josh gave Elise a wry smile. Not many other people appreciated his gallows humor.
"I know what you mean," she replied and they both turned to look at the smears of blood covering the living room walls. "Someone spent some time on that, but it is so not a good thing."
"True that," Josh replied. A series of geometric figures covered the walls, the same pattern again and again: a long, low rectangle divided in three, a circle, then another long, low rectangle divided in three.
"Any idea what it means?" Elise stepped closer on her plastic-covered feet.
"Not a damn clue." Josh moved up to peer more closely at the blood-smeared walls. Was it a message? From the killer? It wouldn't be the first time that a killer had left messages to taunt the police. Josh had seen Zodiac, and that was based on a real case and one pretty close to home.
Elise shook her head and turned away from the wall as if to dismiss it from her mind. "They figure out what to do with the girl yet?"
"They've got her at the ER at Mercy with a guard. They already had two gunshot wounds at the ER at UC-Davis, and she didn't need a level one trauma center. At least I didn't think so. Hard to tell."
Until they figured out whether the girl they'd found covered with blood, mumbling incoherently, and rocking herself violently needed a victim's advocate or a lawyer. Or both.
"I called the shrink," Josh said.
"Good." Elise nodded. "Sometimes it's easier to get what we need with honey than vinegar."
Josh squatted next to the bodies, killed where they lay. The way the blood had pooled beneath them when their hearts stopped circulating it and the spatter of blood and brain matter on the carpet and furniture and walls told him that. Whoever had done this would be none too clean, either. There was no way you could bash a man's brain in that way and not end up getting some on you. Was someone wandering around Sacramento right now with another man's blood on his clothes?
Josh stood. "Meanwhile, whoever did this is getting a little extra time to clean up."
Elise held up her hands. "The shrink's worth a try and we need to try something. By the way, no forced entry at any of the doors and windows. Whoever did this waltzed right in." She sighed, looking around at the crime scene.
Josh looked, too. It was littered with potential evidence. The problem was going to be figuring out what was evidence and what was only the detritus of an ordinary family leading their ordinary lives until someone interrupted them with unthinkable violence.
Unless that someone already lived here or had invited whoever had done it in. Then it was going to be even harder to figure it out what was what.
Hence the phone call to the shrink.
Josh had been half-ready to shake some sense into the girl, but Elise had suggested that contacting the shrink might be the kinder, gentler way of getting what he wanted, and wouldn't that be nice for a change?
He was willing to try anything to get the girl to talk to them. It was hard to figure out what to do until he knew if the girl, covered in blood at the scene of her parents' murder, was another victim, a witness, or his prime suspect.
"The girl wouldn't have had to force entry," he said. "She lives here. She had a key."
Elise smoothed her hair back into her already smooth ponytail. "I'd like to think a child could never do this to its parents."
"We both know better." Their eyes met. They did indeed know better. He wished they didn't. Josh didn't know if it made him feel better or worse to see the same hopeless hardening in Elise's eyes that he knew was in his own.
"It seems awfully brutal, though," Elise observed.
"She's not that big. I doubt she's much over five foot four and she's pretty scrawny. Hard to believe she could get them bound up like that, bash her father's head in, and choke her mother. It would take someone big, someone strong."
"Or someone armed. Or she could have let someone else in to do the dirty work. Whoever did it didn't feel bad about it." The murderer had left them splayed on the floor like discarded rag dolls. Killers hit with remorse made attempts to cover the bodies or arrange them in a way that wouldn't embarrass them. This murderer had dropped them like pieces of garbage when he or she was done with them.
"No sign of restitution attempts; you're right." Elise nodded. "Don't you think a daughter would feel bad?"
"Maybe. Maybe not." Josh shrugged. "No telling what's going on inside with that one."
That was an understatement. The girl had just sat there and rocked herself, making little whimpering noises. She didn't respond to anyone except to try to slap away the paramedics when they were putting her on the gurney.
Josh glanced at his watch. "The shrink should be at Mercy in about thirty minutes. We should leave here in fifteen to beat her there."
"It'll be good to know what she was seeing the kid for." Elise tapped her pen against her pad.
Absolutely -- it could be a place to start to build his case. That and the fact that she was found covered with blood at the murder scene. Josh shook his head. Did a brutal double homicide become okay if the murderer had a rotten childhood?
Not in his book. No way.
"I found the roll of duct tape," said one of the techs, a young Latino with a pierced eyebrow. "Over this way."
The detectives followed the tech down the hallway to a craft room. A sewing machine with a swatch of fabric still pinned by the machine's foot stood in the corner. A basket of yarn with knitting needles sat by a recliner. Shit. Had Stacey Dawkin been fucking knitting when someone came in and murdered her? Josh's mother knitted.
A small TV mounted on the wall was still on. Loud. "Make a note of the channel and the volume and turn that crap off."
A roll of duct tape sat on the credenza next to the chair. "Bag it and tag it," Josh told the tech. Elise shot him a look. "Please," he added.
There was no mark on the credenza from where the tape had sat. "It hasn't been there long," Elise observed.
"Check this out," the tech said. "These marks in the carpet."
Starting a few feet from the chair, there were long indentations in the carpet. "Drag marks?" Josh asked.
"Not long enough," said the tech.
"We should go," Elise said, glancing at her watch.
Josh nodded and they headed out. As they passed the brutally murdered bodies of the Dawkins, he took in once more the brutality of what had been done to them and let the outrage rise up in his chest.
Outside, the glare of TV camera lights engulfed them. Beyond the circle of their glare, Josh saw a small crowd of neighbors in bathrobes and sweatshirts, probably curious and frightened. He didn't have time to reassure them now. He wasn't even sure if he could. He took a deep breath of the cool night air and tried to clear his head, girding himself for the long night to come.
Mercy General blazed like a beacon among the bungalows and mock colonials that made up the rest of the neighborhood. Aimee parked as close as she could and jogged up to the entrance, willing the automatic doors to open faster.
The lobby was half full. A young Latina with dark circles under her eyes and smeared makeup sat in one of the cheap padded chairs and rocked a toddler sprawled in her arms. A skinny white girl with spiked bleached blond hair and tattoos that she'd regret before she turned forty clutched her stomach. A scared-looking middle-aged woman whose hair had been dyed way too many times pretended to read a six-month- old issue of People over in the corner. The small room behind the glass window marked TRIAGE was empty. Aimee pressed the button for service and waited.
A stocky woman in scrubs with short, bristling reddish hair and a stethoscope around her neck bustled into the room. She looked Aimee up and down, clearly searching for an injury. "Can I help you?"
"I'm looking for Taylor Dawkin," Aimee said into the round metal grate on the window.
The woman's face slammed shut. "I'll send someone out," she said and turned on her squeaky rubber-soled heel.
Aimee closed her eyes, let her head fall back, and shrugged her shoulders, trying to release the tension that knotted them.
"Dr. Gannon?" the deep voice she recognized from the telephone said.
She opened her eyes. "Yes."
Talk about tall, dark, and armed. He had to lean down to speak into the microphone in the triage room, braced on muscled forearms visible under the rolled-up cuffs of the shirt. His tie hung askew across his broad chest. His dark hair was a little too long; it curled a bit over the collar of his faded blue shirt and fell forward over his forehead. Everything from his broad shoulders down screamed man.
Something completely female in Aimee fluttered in response, even as she checked out the gun and badge on his belt.
His gaze traveled up and down, assessing her with deep brown eyes, intense and unblinking. Aimee stared right back. He'd need more than Intimidation 101 to make her step back.
"I'm Detective Wolf." He hit the buzzer to unlock the door. "Thank you for coming," he said, extending his hand but keeping his hip cocked back. His gun hip, Aimee realized. Lord save her from big men with guns.
"May I see Taylor?" Aimee asked. His palm was hard and dry, his handshake businesslike and strong.
"Sure." He turned and walked out of the little room, leaving Aimee to follow.
They walked past the chaos of the nurses' station and a series of curtained enclosures. All around, Aimee heard moans and sobs, gasps and whispered reassurances. Even on a Tuesday night, the ER was brutal emotional territory. She drew her denim jacket tighter around herself.
At the end of the hall a uniformed officer sat on a plastic and metal chair, chatting with a woman wearing a dark navy suit and white lace shell. Her skin was the color of a New Orleans café au lait and her dark, curling hair was pulled into a ponytail at the nape of her neck. "You the doc?" she asked as they approached.
Aimee smiled. "Licensed clinical psychologist. I'm the Ph.D. kind of doc, not the M.D. kind." "Good enough for me. Plenty of the M.D. kind
around here and they haven't made much progress." The woman held out her hand. "Elise Jacobs. I'm Detective Wolf's partner."
Aimee shook her hand. "Is Taylor okay?" she asked. "Is she in trouble? Did she do something?"
"We're still trying to figure that out ourselves." Wolf pushed aside the curtain. "She's in here."
Taylor Dawkin sat curled up on the floor in a corner. Her left wrist was handcuffed to the gurney, her arm twisted up above her head while the other wrapped around her knees. She had curled herself into a ball and was soundlessly rocking herself, eyes squeezed tight shut. Her arms and legs were scored with deep, sharp cuts that still oozed through the glistening antibiotic ointment. Her fingers were black with ink.
A cry escaped Aimee's lips and she started toward the girl, but the world spun around her. She put her hands out to steady herself, but there was nothing to grab. She felt a hand at the small of her back, steadying her. She registered its strength and size and warmth and leaned into it. The heat of it traveled through her entire body. Then she realized the hand belonged to Wolf. She took a deep breath and tried to still the racing of her heart as she pulled away. "What happened to her?" she whispered.
"We're trying to figure that out," Detective Wolf said from behind her. "She's not talking to us. She's not talking to anyone."
"She's not talking, period," Elise said, coming to stand next to Aimee.
"Where did you find her?" Aimee turned to look at the detectives.
"At home." Wolf's brown eyes watched her face, his gaze impossible to read.
"Home? Like this? Did someone break in?" Aimee turned back to look at Taylor and her gut clenched. Taylor had been cutting herself, but nothing remotely like this. The tentative cuts had been more for show than destruction. Aimee had interpreted them as a cry for help, an outward sign of the pain that the girl was feeling inside. This looked like Taylor had crashed through a plate glass window going ninety miles an hour.
"We don't know yet," Wolf replied.
"What about her parents? Were they attacked as well? Who did this to them?" Aimee's mind raced through horrid possibilities.
Detective Wolf tilted his head at the uniformed officer in a silent command. The officer immediately stood and Wolf offered the chair to Aimee. "I think you'd better sit down to hear the rest of this."
Aimee looked from one shuttered face to the other. She didn't want to sit. She wanted to shake someone; she wanted to scream. But Taylor needed her, and to help Taylor, Aimee needed information. She sat, ready to spring up. "Please tell me what's happening."
Detective Wolf grabbed a chair from the other side of the hallway, turned it around, and straddled it. "We received a nine-one- one call from the Dawkin home at approximately ten thirty-five tonight. The father of one of Taylor's friends had become concerned. Taylor had walked home from the Norchesters' house after studying for a test with their daughter, and was supposed to call to let them know she'd arrived safely. When they didn't hear from her and no one answered the Dawkins' phone, Mr. Norchester drove there and found Taylor much as you see her now -- sitting between her parents' corpses."
Copyright © 2009 by Eileen Rendahl