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The smell hit her ten feet from the motel door. Fresh blood. Pungent and tangy. Sticky sweet. A scent once experienced not easily forgotten. FBI agent Sami Bennett's stomach heaved. Anguish fisted in the middle of her chest. Images of arterial spray, unseeing eyes, birds, lots and lots of birds, flashed through her mind like an animated f lip book.
Shaking her head to clear the pictures from her brain, she focused on the moment, her hands tightening around the grip of her Glock 23.
Clamping her lips together, she calmed her racing heart and pressed closer to the wall along the shadowy second-story balcony of the cheap motel on the outskirts of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. All the bulbs in the wall sconces were broken.
Glass crunched beneath the heels of her black Dr. Martens boots. The cool dark night was ripe with moisture, and overhead thunder rumbled like an angry fist against a wooden drum.
Sami was angry, too. Angry she'd been chasing a phantom for six months who remained one step ahead of her yet had the gall to leave her a trail to follow. Frustration beat at her temple.
She thought of the photocopied postcard in her pocket. The latest clue left by the killer she'd dubbed Birdman because of the image of a small bird, either hand drawn, ink stamped or stickered, found on each clue.
She debated retreat. Most likely Birdman was long gone, leaving behind another dead body and another bread crumb to track. She was so tired of the gore, of the deaths. So tired of being the one to find the bodies.
But if there was the slimmest chance that she could catch Birdman, then she had to proceed. Giving up wasn't an option. She wouldn't rest until the man was behind bars.
She inched closer to the room at the end of the balcony. The air around her shifted as if a hot-breathed creature mirrored her steps. Tensing, she glanced over her shoulder. The world was shrouded in inky darkness. A shiver of apprehension tripped down her spine.
"Lord, please have my back," she whispered.
With laser-like focus, she returned her attention to the door of room 218. Was Birdman in the room? Would she finally catch him?
She hoped so. She wanted this over. She wanted to take the man down. She wanted her life back, but she'd promised to bring her childhood friend's murderer to justice. And she always kept her promises.
Steeling herself against what she'd find inside the room, she reached for the door handle. Through the thin leather gloves she wore, the handle was cool. She turned the knob.
The sound of glass being crushed behind her sent alarm sliding across her flesh. Before she could react, an arm snaked around her torso, pinning her arms to her sides and rendering her gun useless. A large hand clamped over her mouth, stifling her yelp of surprise.
Panic flooded her system. The world narrowed to one thoughtescape.
She kicked and thrashed but the body at her back held her in an unbreakable grip. Her assailant unceremoniously hauled her off her feet and carried her away.
Royal Canadian Mounted Police inspector Drew Kel-ley gritted his teeth against the onslaught of feisty female in his arms. She packed a mighty hard kick and a mean elbow. Neither of which fazed him enough to loosen his hold. But he'd have bruises for her effort.
Seconds before he'd seen the person wearing an FBI-issued windbreaker sneak up the stairs, he'd heard his American counterpart exclaim through the communication link wedged in his ear, "What's the FBI doing here?"
A good question indeed. The US Federal Bureau of Investigation was not part of this IBETsIntegrated Border Enforcement Teamstask force.
Discovering the intruder was a woman had been a surprise. With his hand still over her mouth to keep her from alerting the drug dealers they were hoping to catch, he carried her down the motel stairs and across the parking lot to another bank of rooms.
His team had commandeered a ground-floor room as their staging area. From there two members of the six-man team watched the parking lot, ready to signal when the fun started and they could move in to take down a drug dealer who was bringing illegal narcotics across the border into Canada.
The Americans had received an anonymous tip that a major drug deal was going down tonight in room 218. However, this womanthis supposed FBI agentmight have messed it all up.
The door to the ground-f loor motel room swung open. US Border Patrol agent Luke Wellborn stepped back so Drew and the woman could enter the room. Luke closed the door behind him.
"Get the gun before she shoots someone," he growled to the men inside.
US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent Blake Fallon quickly disarmed the woman. He set the piece on the dresser and leaned against the wall with his arms across his chest. His hard features settled into cynical annoyance.
Once the door was closed, Drew withdrew his hand from the woman's mouth.
"Put me down!" She twisted her head to glare at him. Her blue eyes sparked, making him think of gemstones in a jeweler's display case, and her lush mouth bunched up with outrage.
Not about to let a pretty face distract him, Drew tucked in his chin to squint down at his charge. "Not yet. Who are you?"
"Special Agent Sami Bennett," she ground out, and wiggled some more, trying to free herself. "My ID's in my back pocket. I'm FBI."
Luke snickered. "Right."
Drew's lips twitched but he held his smile at bay. He understood his colleague's skepticism. Sami Bennett didn't fit his image of a field agent. She was tall for a woman, reaching to Drew's chin, which he estimated made her five-nine, and though there was no ignoring her feminine shape, she was slender, bordering on too skinny.
In addition to the black windbreaker with the FBI logo, she was dressed from head to toe in black.
He reached into the back pocket of her dark cargo pants to retrieve a leather wallet. He handed it off to the other man in the room, RCMP sergeant Justin Lorie.
Behind a pair of thick dark-rimmed glasses, Justin inspected the identification inside. "Appears she's telling the truth." He held up the FBI badge.
Blake snagged it. "We'll see about that." He pocketed the wallet with the badge.
Sami thrashed in Drew's arms. "Hey, give that back."
For all they knew, the ID could be fake. Just because she wore a marked jacket that anyone could order off the internet didn't mean he believed her. Drew gestured toward the table and chairs across the drab, sorely outdated room. "Bring a chair over here."
Justin dragged the closest chair away from the window and set it in front of Drew. Thankfully, it had arms and though the plaid seat cushion had seen better days, the chair would suffice.
Meeting Justin's brown-eyed gaze, Drew conveyed his intent with one word: "Ties."
Drew set the woman down in the chair and held her arms in place along the armrests.
"What are you doing?" Sami struggled to break free of his hold on her. "You can't do this!"
Justin wound a plastic zip tie over the armrest and one wrist.
"Not too tight," Drew warned, not wanting to damage her skin.
"Hey! Hey, you can't" she protested.
Justin threaded the end of the tie through the joint, the click, click of the tooth sliding along the ridges sounding like nails on a chalkboard. He secured one wrist, then the other.
Pulling against the restraints, the woman shouted, "I'm an American citizen. A federal agent. I'll have your badge for this!" Her bright blue eyes flashed with anger in her attractive heart-shaped face. Blond hair escaped from beneath the black stocking cap covering her head.
"You're not in the United States at the moment. This is my jurisdiction, ma'am," Drew pointed out.
She leveled him with a mutinous scowl. "And you are?"
"RCMP inspector Drew Kelley."
Sami looked at the Border Patrol logo on Luke's jacket, then shot him a dark look. "You're American. Tell him to let me go!"
Luke shrugged, his boyish features conveying empathy. The ten-year USBP veteran looked as if he were fresh out of the academy. A look that fooled many into underestimating him. "Not my show."
"What are Border Patrol and ICE doing here?" She nodded at Blake, who, like Luke, wore a black jacket with his agency acronym emblazoned on the front and back. "A joint task force?"
"The bigger question," Drew said, "is what are you doing here?"
She jerked her gaze back to him. "I'm tracking a serial killer. He is, or was, in that room. He's going to get away."
"Serial killer?" He rubbed his chin. If a serial killer were on the loose in his country, his office would know. What kind of ploy was this? His gaze lifted to the other members of the task force. "Do you know anything about this?"
Luke and Justin shook their heads.
"Nope," Blake said, his dark eyes flashing with disdain. "My intel says there's a major drug deal happening tonight at this motel in room 218. She's probably part of it. Maybe a decoy to distract us."
"Your intel is wrong," Sami said. "I'm nobody's decoy. There's a dead body in that room."
"You killed somebody?" Drew asked. For some reason the thought of her as a killer didn't seem right. He shook off the thought. In his experience murderers came in all shapes and sizes. He'd been at this job long enough to not take anyone at face value.
"No," she shot back in a tone that implied he was dense. "Of course not. You stopped me from entering the room, so how could I kill anyone inside?"
Blake shrugged and matched her tone. "Maybe you're coming back to clean up."
"How long have we been sitting on that room?" Drew asked his team.
Justin answered, "Three hours."
Drew stepped toward the window. The view to room 218 was unobstructed. "No one has come or gone?"
"Nope," Blake drawled, his American Southern roots echoing through the word. He pointed a finger at the woman. "Only her."
Sami pulled against the restraints holding her to the chair. "The killer could still be in there."
The agitation in her voice vibrated through the room and settled in Drew's chest.
"You have to listen to me. You need to breach the door and capture him before he slips away." She whipped her gaze to Drew. He sucked in a breath at the pleading look in her eyes. "The victim could be Canadian." Her gaze slid back to Blake and narrowed her eyes. "Or American."
For some reason Drew found himself drawn in by her impassioned plea. He considered his options. They could sit tight and keep watching the room. But his instincts told him this sting was a bust. Either Blake's intel was bad or they'd been made.
Or they could move in now. If they did, then they were ensuring this operation was over, time and resources wasted. Although if what the womanthe FBI special agentsaid was true
He'd been appointed as the lead on the joint binational operation; the choice was his. "We breach the room."
Blake pushed away from the wall, his lip curling. "I'm calling this in."
"After," Drew countered, asserting his authority as he met the ICE agent's intense gaze. This was Drew's op, his country. They'd proceed as he dictated.
Blake's nostrils flared but he conceded with a nod. "Fine. You're the boss
His tone made it clear he thought Drew was making the wrong move.
Drew grinned. "That's the rumor."
Blake Fallon scooped up the Glock from the dresser and headed out the door.
If he was making a mistake, he'd deal with the consequences later. For now, Drew was going with his gut.
"What about me?" Sami cried. At the door Drew paused. "You'll be safe until we return."
"Wait!" Sami gaped at the men's retreating backs. "You can't leave me here!"
The door shut behind them. Unbelievable. Sami stamped her foot with irritation and let out a growl of frustration. How dare the big Canadian treat her like a criminal!
She blew out a breath and calmed herself. Well, she'd show him.
Thankfully, his sidekick had placed the ties far enough up her wrist that she had movement of her hands. She lifted her right foot and set it across her left knee so she could reach her Ka-Bar knife tucked inside a sheath within her boot.
She drew the knife out and maneuvered the blade in her palm so that the flat side lay against her skin. Then carefully she pushed the knife with her fingers down the inside of her forearm beneath the tie.
She rotated the head of the knife until the dull edge of the blade dug into her skin while the sharp side pressed against the tie. Bending her palm, she applied pressure and the knife's sharp edge cut through the plastic tie like butter.
Exhilarated with her success, she quickly sliced through the tie on her right wrist and then ran from the room.
A drizzling rain moistened the air. Not a good night to be outside. Her clothes soaked up the moisture, making her skin prickle and a chill slide across her flesh. She raced across the parking lot, her gaze on the dark balcony, her hand clenching her knife tightly.
Shadows moved along the walkway. The Canadian and his cohortsICE and US Border Patrol. Their presence didn't make sense. Was it a coincidence that a joint task force team was staking out the exact place Bird-man had led her to? Was Birdman toying with other agencies, as well?
Hurrying up the staircase, she stumbled on the steps. It was hard to see in the darkness, but she didn't dare use the flashlight tucked in one of her pants pockets. As she reached the end of the balcony, the sound of wood splintering echoed through the quiet night. They'd breached the door.
"Halt!" A cry broke through the hushed silence.
A loud thud followed by a yelp of pain revved Sami's blood. Anticipation grabbed her by the throat. Would they catch the killer? Would her nightmare finally come to an end?
"Suspect escaping through the bathroom window!" She recognized the voice as the younger Canadian Mountie.
The ICE agent doubled back, nearly knocking Sami over as he ran down the stairs in hot pursuit of their quarry.
A light winked on in the room. The bright garish glow should have been welcoming. It wasn't.
She hurried forward; the scent of death assaulted her senses. She gagged but forced herself to step inside the motel room. Would she ever grow accustomed to the smell? She prayed not.
She nudged aside the men. Their bleak expressions made dread twist in her gut. She followed their gazes to the bed. Though she knew what to expect because she'd seen other corpses, including that of her childhood best friend, the sight of the mutilated woman lying atop the multicolored bedspread made her breath catch and tears burn the backs of her eyes. Her heart sank. Would she ever be able to stop this madman?
Justin stumbled out of the bathroom doorway, holding his bleeding nose. "A guy was hiding in the bathtub. He dived out the open bathroom window."
"And dropped two stories?" the man in charge, Inspector Drew Kelley, questioned. He stood well over six feet, with massive shoulders that filled out the midnight blue uniform beneath his flak vest. He wore his dark hair shorn in a classic clean cut. His hazel eyes reminded her of the leaves in fall.
Justin shrugged, clearly as perplexed as Drew.