Thursday, September 20
Sssshhhh. Be very quiet,” he said. It was almost impossible, but he managed not to groan or moan or make any other sound behind the duct tape covering his mouth. The blindfold kept him from seeing anything, but he had seen all he’d had to before the blindfold had been tied in place: his abductor had a very big gun and he clearly knew how to handle it.
His instincts were screaming at him to struggle, fight, run if he could.
He couldn’t. The time for even attempting escape, if there had ever been one, was past. His wrists were duct-taped together, like his ankles. If he so much as tried to get up from the chair where he’d been placed, he would fall on his face or on his ass.
He was helpless. That was the worst of it. Not the fear of what might be done to him, but the realization that he couldn’t do a goddamned thing to stop it.
He should have paid attention to the warning, he was sure of that much. Even if it had sounded like bullshit, he really should have paid attention.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” his abductor said.
He unconsciously tipped his head a bit to one side, his agile mind noting the slight emphasis on the first word. He wasn’t going to hurt him? What did that mean—that someone else would?
“Don’t try to figure it out.” The voice was amused now but still careless as it had been from the beginning.
Mitchell Callahan was no fool; he’d weighed far too many powerful men over the years to be deceived by a quiet voice and seemingly negligent manner. The more ostensibly indifferent a man seemed to be, the more likely he was to blow your balls off, metaphorically.
I can’t even reason with the son of a bitch.
It was truly Callahan’s idea of hell, being helpless and unable to talk his way out of it.
“I’m sure your wife will pay the ransom, and then you can go home.”
Callahan wondered if the duct tape and blindfold hid his reflexive grimace. His wife? His wife, who was on the verge of filing for divorce because she had arrived at his office unexpectedly after hours to find him screwing his secretary on his desk?
Oh, yeah, she really wanted him back. She was undoubtedly just eager as hell to pay major bucks to save her husband’s cheating ass.
“Don’t worry; I asked for a reasonable ransom. Your wife can get her hands on it easily, I imagine.”
Callahan couldn’t stop the strangled sound that escaped him, then felt his face get hot with furious embarrassment when his captor laughed.
“Of course, she may not want to, when that private investigator she’s hired discovers that your secretary is only the latest in a long line of women you’ve enjoyed. You really don’t know how to keep your fly zipped, do you, Mitchell? And she’s such a nice lady, your wife. She deserves better. You really should have been a good and respectful husband to her. It’s not all about being a successful breadwinner, you know. And, after all, why does the world need another cookie-cutter subdivision ruining the view up here?”
Callahan felt a sudden chill. His captor was talking too much. Why give his victim a chance to memorize the sound of his voice? Why betray so much knowledge of Callahan’s life, his business?
Unless you know he’ll never get the chance to tell anyone.
“Unsettling, isn’t it?”
Callahan jumped, because the low voice was right next to his ear now. Soft, cool, menacing without even trying to be.
“To have some stranger dissect your life. To have all your power, all your certainty, taken away. To be absolutely helpless in the knowledge that someone else controls your fate.”
Without meaning to, Callahan made another strangled sound.
“I do, you know. I do control your fate. At least up to a point. After that, it’s in someone else’s hands.”
Callahan was more than a little surprised when the blindfold was suddenly removed and for a minute or two could only blink as his eyes adjusted to the light. Then he looked, saw.
And everything became much clearer.
Monday, September 24
“The ransom was paid.” Wyatt Metcalf, Clayton County Sheriff, sounded as angry as any cop tended to be when the bad guys won one. “The wife kept quiet out of fear, so we didn’t hear anything about it until it was all over with and he hadn’t come home as promised after she left the money.”
“Who found the body?”
“Hiker. It’s a busy area this time of year, with the leaves changing and all. We’re surrounded by national forests and parkland, and we’ll have tourists coming out of our ears for weeks. It’ll be the same all along the Blue Ridge.”
“So he knew the body would be found quickly.”
“If he didn’t, he’s an idiot—or doesn’t know the country around here at all.” Metcalf eyed the tall federal agent, still trying to get his measure. Lucas Jordan was not, he thought, a man who would be quickly or easily assessed. He was obviously athletic, energetic, highly intelligent, both courteous and soft-spoken; every bit as obvious was the focused intensity in his striking blue eyes, something close to ferocity and just as unsettling.
A driven man, clearly.
But driven by what?
“We’re holding the body as requested,” Metcalf told him. “My crime-scene unit was trained by the state crime lab and took a few Bureau courses, so they know what they’re doing; what little they found here is waiting for you and your partner back at the station.”
“I assume there was nothing helpful.”
It hadn’t been a question, but Metcalf replied anyway. “If there had been, I wouldn’t have needed to call in this Special Crimes Unit of yours.”
Jordan glanced at him but returned his attention to the rocky ground all around them without comment.
Knowing he’d sounded as frustrated as he felt, Metcalf counted to ten silently before he spoke again. “Mitch Callahan wasn’t a prince, but he didn’t deserve what happened to him. I want to find the son of a bitch who murdered him.”
“I understand, Sheriff.”
Metcalf wondered if he did but didn’t question the statement.
Jordan said almost absently, “This was the third kidnapping reported in the western part of this state this year. All three ransoms paid, all three victims died.”
“The other two were in counties outside my jurisdiction, so I only know the general facts. Aside from being fairly wealthy, the vics had nothing in common. The man was about fifty, white, a widower with one son; the woman was thirty-five, of Asian descent, married, no children. Cause of death for him was asphyxiation; for her it was drowning.”
“And Mitchell Callahan was decapitated.”
“Yeah. Weird as hell. The ME says it was very quick and exceptionally clean; no ax hacking at him, nothing like that. Maybe a machete or sword.” Metcalf was frowning. “You’re not saying they’re related? Those other kidnappings were months ago, and I just figured—”
“That it was a coincidence?” A third person joined them, Jordan’s partner, Special Agent Jaylene Avery. Her smile was a bit wry. “No such thing, if you ask our boss. And he’s usually right.”
“Anything?” Jordan asked her; she had been working her way around the mountainous clearing where Mitchell Callahan’s body had been found.
“Nah. This near a rest and observation spot, a lot of people pass through and by. Far as I can tell, though, nobody paused for long.”
Metcalf took due note of tone and expression as well as posture and body language between the two of them: Jordan was the senior partner, but Avery was entirely comfortable with him and confident in her own right. The sheriff had a hunch they’d been partners for quite a while.
As seemingly relaxed as Jordan was wired, Jaylene Avery was a lovely woman in her early thirties with black hair she wore rather severely pulled back, flawless coffee-with-cream skin, and intelligent brown eyes. A slight Southern drawl said she was probably closer to home here in North Carolina than she was while at Quantico.
Unlike Jordan, whose low, quiet voice was also a bit clipped and rapid, and pegged him as being from some point considerably north of his present location.
“What did you expect to find?” Metcalf asked Avery, not quite able to keep the tension out of his own voice.
She smiled again. “Just trying to get a feel for the place, Sheriff, not look for anything you and your people might have missed. Sometimes just stepping back and looking at the big picture can tell you a lot. For instance, from walking around here where the body was found, I can feel pretty secure in saying that our kidnapper is in excellent physical shape.”
“To get the body out here, you mean.”
“We know the vic wasn’t killed here. Hiking paths crisscross the area, but they’re for dedicated hikers, not Sunday sightseers: steep, rocky trails that are barely visible unless you know what to look for. Just getting here from any of the main trails is enough of a chore, but to carry something heavy and not exactly ergonomically balanced all that way? No marks from any kind of wheel or hoof, no drag marks. And he not only had the body of a larger-than-average man to transport out here, he had the head as well.”
Metcalf had to admit he hadn’t given the matter of transporting the body—and disembodied head—quite so much thought. “I see what you mean. He’d have to be a bull and damned lucky not to fall and break his own neck while he was at it.”
She nodded. “Treacherous terrain. And since we know there was dew found under the body, he must have carried it up here either during the night or very early morning. So he could have been juggling a flashlight as well.”
Jordan said, “Late or early, he brought the body here when there was the least chance of being seen. He was careful. He was damned careful.”
“Maybe he was just lucky,” Avery said to her partner.
Frowning, Jordan said, “I don’t think so. The pattern is too clear, too set. All these people were taken at a point in their day when they were most likely to be alone; all were held forty-eight to seventy-two hours before they were killed; and all were killed, according to the medical evidence, after the ransom was paid. And in every case, the ransom call came in on a Thursday, giving the families time to get their hands on the money and ensuring that banks would have plenty of end-of-the-week payroll cash on hand. He’s never asked too much, just the upper limit of what the relatives can manage. He planned every step, and he kept these people alive and in his control until he was certain the money was his.”
“Cold-blooded,” Metcalf noted.
Understanding exactly what the sheriff meant, Jordan nodded. “It takes an utterly calculating nature and a particular brand of ruthlessness to spend time with someone you know you may have to kill. A nameless, faceless victim is one thing, but if they become individuals with personalities, if you put a human face on that object, then destroying it becomes much, much more difficult.”
It was the sheriff’s turn to frown. “How do we know he spent time with them? I mean, he could have kept them locked in a room or a basement somewhere, tied up, gagged, a bag over their heads. I would have. What makes you believe he actually interacted with them?”
“Call it a hunch.”
“Not good enough.” Metcalf’s frown deepened. “What did we miss?”
Jordan and Avery exchanged glances, and she said, “You didn’t miss anything, Sheriff. There’s just some information you weren’t aware of. For the past eighteen months, we’ve been following a series of kidnappings in the East and Southeast.”
“Following being the operative word, since we tend to get there too late to do anything to help the victims,” Jordan said, half under his breath and with more than a little bitterness.
His partner sent him a brief look, then continued to the sheriff, “We believe they’re connected. We believe this kidnapping and the other two in the area are part of that series; as Luke says, they certainly fit the pattern.”
“A serial kidnapper? I’ve never heard of that.”
It was Jordan who responded this time. “Because the vast majority of successful kidnappings for ransom are designed and engineered to be one-shot deals. Whether the victim lives or dies, the kidnapper gets his money, usually enough to live in some kind of style for the rest of his life, and vanishes to do just that. Even when they’re successful, very few try a second time.”
His partner added, “In this day and age, it’s become increasingly difficult for any kidnapping for ransom to be successful, and because of the inherent complications it really isn’t a common crime.”
Thinking of possible complications, Metcalf said, “Electronic security, bodyguards, ordinary surveillance at banks and ATMs, now even on the streets—that sort of thing?”
Jordan nodded. “Exactly. Plus stiff penalties and the sheer logistics of abducting and holding a living person. Many victims end up being killed simply because it’s too much trouble to keep them alive for the time necessary.”
“That isn’t what’s happening with this serial kidnapper, assuming there is one?”
“No. He doesn’t leave anything to chance. Holding his victims securely as long as necessary is just another step in his plan, and one he takes obvious pride in successfully devising.”
“Like interacting with them is another step?”
“We believe so.”
“Why do you believe so?”
Again, Jordan and Avery exchanged glances, and he said, “Because we had one survivor. And according to her, he was very friendly, very chatty. He treated her like a person. Even though it’s at least possible that he intended to kill her from the beginning.”
Carrie Vaughn was not what anyone would have called an easy person to live with, and she was the first to admit it. She was strong-willed, opinionated, extremely self-confident, and very set in her ways after twenty years on her own. Any lover was expected to adapt to her rather than the other way around, and those who hadn’t been able to accept that fact had been no more than a blip on her radar.
Which was probably why she was uninvolved more often than not.
But that was okay. Carrie liked being alone, for the most part. Her career as a software designer was both lucrative and creative, plus it allowed her to work out of her home and to travel when and where she wanted. She had a lovely home she took a great deal of pride in, a passion for jigsaw puzzles and old movies, and the capacity to enjoy herself even when no one else was around.
She was also extremely handy, so when the late September afternoon turned unexpectedly chilly and her heat pump refused to come on, Carrie got her toolbox from the garage and started around back to check it out.
“That’s dangerous, you know.”
Startled, Carrie swung around to find a strange woman standing in her driveway. She was, maybe, ten years younger than Carrie, medium height, slight build, and with the darkest hair and eyes Carrie had ever seen accompany such ultrafair skin. She wasn’t exactly beautiful, but definitely arresting; there was something curiously exotic in her heavy-lidded eyes and sullen mouth.
The bulky sweater she wore was a size too big for her and her jeans were worn to the point of being threadbare, but her straight posture held a kind of simple pride and there was something both cool and confident in her voice.
“Who are you?” Carrie demanded. “And what’s dangerous?”
“Okay, Sam. What’s dangerous?”
“Your carelessness. No fence, no dog, no security system—and your garage door has been up all afternoon. None of your neighbors is even close enough to hear if you should need help. You’re very vulnerable here.”
“I have a gun inside. Two in fact.” Carrie frowned at her. “And I can take care of myself. Hey, have you been watching me? Just who are you?”
“Somebody who’s worried that you’re vulnerable here.”
“And why the hell should you care?”
For the first time, Sam’s dark gaze faltered, darting away for just an instant, and her mouth twisted a little before it firmed again. “Because I—I don’t want you to end up like that man. Callahan. Mitchell Callahan.”
Carrie felt absolutely no threat coming from this woman and wasn’t in the least frightened of her, but something told her not to laugh or dismiss what she was hearing. “The real estate developer who was kidnapped?”
“And murdered, yes.”
“Why should I end up like him?”
Sam shifted her weight slightly and thrust her hands into the front pockets of her jeans. “There’s no reason you should if—if you’re careful. I’m just saying you should be careful.”
“Look,” Carrie said, uncertain why she was even allowing the conversation to go on, “I’m no target for a kidnapper. I have a little in savings, sure, but—”
“It’s not about money.”
“Kidnappings usually are.”
“Yes. But not this time.”
“Why not this time? And how do you know that?” While the younger woman hesitated, Carrie studied her and had a sudden realization. “Wait a minute, I know you. Sort of. I’ve seen your picture. On a poster.”
Sam’s thin face tightened. “Possibly. Miss Vaughn—”
“You’re with that carnival out at the fairgrounds. You’re supposed to be some kind of fortune-teller.” She heard her own voice rising in indignation and wasn’t surprised. A fortune-teller, for Christ’s sake! On that poster advertising the services of Zarina, All-Knowing Seer and Mystic she’d been wearing a turban.
A purple turban.
“Miss Vaughn, I know you don’t want to take me seriously. Believe me, I’ve seen the reaction before. But if you’ll just—”
“You have got to be kidding me. What, you read the tea leaves and they told you somebody was going to kidnap me? Give me a break.”
Sam drew a breath and spoke rapidly. “Whoever he is, he was at the carnival. I didn’t see him, but he was there. He dropped something, a handkerchief. I picked it up. Sometimes when I touch things, I can see—I saw you. Tied up, gagged, blindfolded. You were in a small, bare room. And you were afraid. Please, I’m just asking you to be careful, to take precautions. I know I’m a stranger, and I know you have no reason to believe me, but would it hurt to just humor me?”
“Okay,” Carrie said. “I’ll humor you. I’ll be careful. Thanks for the warning, Sam. See you around.”
“Bye.” Carrie shifted her toolbox to the other hand and went back into the house, deciding to check the heat pump later. When she looked out a front window just a few minutes afterward, it was to see Sam trudging down the driveway toward the road.
Carrie watched, frowning, until she could no longer see the other woman.
Every ounce of her common sense told Carrie to shrug off the “warning” and go about her business normally. She was rather on the fence when it came to believing in psychic abilities but was definitely skeptical of carnival fortune-tellers and was not at all inclined to believe this one.
It wouldn’t hurt, she thought, to take a few sensible precautions. Lock her doors, be wary. Because Mitch Callahan had, after all, been kidnapped and murdered, and she would never have picked him to be a target for something like that.
So Carrie locked her doors and went on to other things, thinking about the warning for a good hour or two before it faded from her memory.
* * *
“I guess you guys see a lot of rooms like this one,” Detective Lindsay Graham said to the two federal agents.
Lucas Jordan glanced around at the functional if uninspiring conference room of the Clayton County Sheriff’s Department, exchanged glances with his partner, then said, “A few, yeah. They always seem to look the same; only the view outside the windows changes. If there is a view.”
This room had no view, since it was central in the building, but it was well-lit and spacious and seemed to contain all the necessary furniture, equipment, and supplies.
“We haven’t generated a whole lot of paperwork on the Callahan investigation so far,” Detective Graham said, indicating the file folders on the big table. “And all of it after the fact, since Mrs. Callahan only called us in when the kidnapper got his ransom and her husband never showed. Statements from her, his coworkers, the hiker who found the body; the medical examiner’s report; our forensics unit’s report.”
“Since you only got word he was missing on Saturday, and the body was found Sunday morning, I’d say you had accomplished quite a bit,” Jaylene Avery said. “I’m Jay, by the way.”
“Thanks, I’m Lindsay.” She barely hesitated. “We don’t have a clue who the kidnapper is, dammit. The boss says you guys believe it could be a serial deal?”
“Could be,” Jordan told her.
“And you’ve been tracking him for a year and a half?”
“Don’t rub it in, please,” Jay requested humorously. “We’ve been one step behind him all the way, and Luke is taking it personally.”
Eyeing the fair and decidedly good-looking Jordan, Lindsay took note of that very intense gaze and said, “Yeah, he looks the type to take it personally. Does he make lists? The sheriff makes lists, and I hate it.”
“He swears he doesn’t, but I don’t believe him.”
“I’m still in the room, ladies,” Jordan said, sitting down at the conference table and selecting a file folder.
“He’s also a workaholic,” Jay confided, ignoring his comment. “In the four years I’ve been his partner, not one vacation. Not one.”
“I went to Canada last year,” Jordan objected mildly.
“That was a law-enforcement seminar, Luke. And you ended up spending nearly a week helping the RCMP locate a missing teenager.”
“They asked for my help. I could hardly say no. And I came back rested, didn’t I?”
“You came back with a broken arm.”
Jay sighed. “An arguable point.”
Lindsay shook her head. “Does anybody ever ask if you two are an old married couple?”
“Occasionally,” Jay said. “But I always tell them I wouldn’t have him on a platter. In addition to his very irritating perfectionism and workaholic nature, he’s got one of those dark and stormy pasts that would frighten any sensible woman out of her wits.”
Jordan lifted an eyebrow and was clearly about to speak when they all heard Sheriff Metcalf’s voice approaching. He sounded a bit like a bear somebody was poking with a sharp and annoying stick.
“I don’t know why the hell you’ve got the nerve to be surprised I’d want to talk to you again. You came to me last week, remember?”
“For all the good it did.” The woman’s voice wasn’t exactly bitter, but it had an edge to it.
Lindsay happened to be looking at Lucas Jordan’s face, and as the unseen woman spoke, she saw it change. He seemed almost to flinch, a momentary surprise and something much stronger tightening his features. And then he was utterly expressionless.
Interested, Lindsay turned her gaze to the door in time to see Sheriff Metcalf come in, followed by a slender woman of medium height with extremely dark eyes and black hair in a short, no-fuss hairstyle.
She stopped in the doorway, her unreadable dark gaze going immediately to Jordan. As though, Lindsay thought, she was not only not surprised, as he had been, but had fully expected him to be there.
He, however, got in the first jab.
“I see the circus is in town,” he drawled, leaning back in his chair as he looked across the room at her.
Perhaps oddly, she smiled, and her voice was dry when she said, “It’s a carnival, as you well know. Hey, Luke. Long time no see.”
Metcalf was the one who was surprised. “You two know each other?”
“Once upon a time,” she replied, her gaze still locked with Jordan’s. “Obviously, he was . . . slumming . . . when we met.”
Jordan was the first to look away, his mouth twisting slightly.
It was his partner who said casually, “Hey, Samantha.”
“You been in town long?”
“Couple weeks. We’re at the fairgrounds for another two.” Her dark gaze fixed on Lindsay, and she inclined her head politely. “Detective Graham.”
Lindsay nodded but remained silent. She had been with the sheriff when Samantha Burke had shown up here at the station early last week, and her disbelief—like Metcalf’s—had been just this side of hostile. She felt her face heating up now as she remembered that scorn.
Misplaced scorn, as it turned out.
Because the carnival “mystic” had tried to warn them, and they hadn’t listened.
And Mitchell Callahan had died.
From the Hardcover edition.