Each skeleton is flawless—gleaming white and perfectly preserved, a testament to his skill. Every scrap of flesh has been removed to reveal the glistening bone beneath. And the collection is growing . . .
When bleached human bones are identified as belonging to a former patient of Dr. James Dixon, Detective Malcolm Kier suspects the worst. Dixon was recently acquitted of attempted murder, thanks to defense attorney Angie Carlson. But as the body count rises, Kier is convinced that Angie is now the target of a brutal, brilliant psychopath.
Angie is no stranger to the dark side of human nature. But nothing has prepared her for the decades-long legacy of madness and murder about to be revealed—or a killer ready to claim her as his ultimate trophy . . .
“Terrifying . . . this chilling thriller is an engrossing story.” —Library Journal
“Convincing detective lingo and an appropriately shivery murder venue go a long way.” —Publishers Weekly
“Mary Burton's latest romantic suspense has it all—terrific plot, complex and engaging protagonists, a twisted villain, and enough crime scene detail to satisfy the most savvy suspense reader.” —Erica Spindler, New York Times bestselling author
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Tuesday, October 4, 9 P.M.
The flashing lights of the cop cars at the entrance to Angel Park grated Detective Malcolm Kier's nerves as he pulled his badge out from his glove box and strung it around his neck. He'd been in the mountains for the last three days, taking a much-needed vacation in the small cabin he owned. Nestled on a lake in the Shenandoah Valley, his cabin was set on thirty acres connected to the main highway by a dirt road that snaked up the mountain. The closest store was twenty miles away.
The log cabin that he'd built had small, shuttered windows that kept the bugs out in the summer and the cold at bay in the winter. There was a front porch that overlooked a lake, but it was only wide enough for two chairs. A generator fed electricity to a small refrigerator, and a propane tank supplied a crude kitchen stove with gas. Indoor plumbing was limited to cold water only in the kitchen, and until he paid down the loan on the land, a full-scale bathroom was the dream and an outhouse the reality.
Most would look at the cabin and wonder what kind of sane man would bother. But from the moment he'd laid eyes on the land, he'd felt at home. At peace.
No, the place wasn't comfortable or easy, but that's what he liked about it. He liked that not just anyone could saunter through the front door and call the place home. He liked that he didn't smell the grit of the streets; that he didn't hear the blare of sirens or the sobs of victims.
Most of the cops he worked with considered the utter silence a curse, but he loved it. No cell phone service meant that when he took a few days off from the demands of being an Alexandria homicide detective, he was truly off.
His girlfriend, Olivia, had been after him to take her to the cabin for weeks. He'd relented, hoping she'd see beyond the obstacles and grow to love the place. However, on her first and only visit, she'd been using the outhouse when a black snake had slithered past her feet. Her scream could have shattered glass. And when she burst out of the outhouse, tugging up her pants and trying not to trip, he'd had the good sense not to laugh. He'd found the snake and told her it wasn't poisonous. Olivia had recovered enough and announced in a calm voice that she didn't care. She wasn't returning. She still loved him, but this was a part of his life she'd not share.
A smile curved the edge of Malcolm's lips as he thought about her traipsing toward his car and mumbling.
Over the last few days, he'd missed his gal and had been half tempted to drive down the mountain and call from town. But the lure of calm and silence had been stronger than his need to talk, and in the end he'd never called her.
Kier had been twenty miles outside of Alexandria, Virginia when his cell had rung. The sound, which he'd not heard in seventy-two hours, had him straightening. A glance at the caller ID told him the call came from dispatch and that his vacation had officially ended.
He grabbed his holster and revolver from under the seat and got out of the car. He slipped the holster over his black flannel shirt and then shrugged on a jean jacket.
Angel Park was an eleven-acre recreation area sandwiched between Duke and King Streets. By the looks there were picnic areas, ball fields, and lots of places for kids to run and hide.
On a warm day, this place would have been swarming with kids and parents. There'd be the peal of laughter. The squeak of swing sets.
It pissed him off that a killer had breached a place reserved for kids. Places like this shouldn't allow death or evil. But he'd learned long ago that killers violated any rule that suited.
Malcolm glanced toward the yellow crime-scene tape and saw his partner, Detective Deacon Garrison. A tall man, Garrison stood a good head above most of the other officers. Malcolm's shoulders were as broad, perhaps more muscular, but at five-foot-ten, he had to tip his head back to make eye contact with his partner.
Garrison had a thousand-watt smile that he used with laser precision to disarm witnesses, cajole judges, and piss off defense attorneys. Kier had often quipped his partner could sell ice to an Eskimo with that smile.
Malcolm strode past the uniforms, nodded, and ducked under the tape. He moved beside his partner, who stared at an empty patch of dirt. "Not the kind of welcome back I'd hoped for."
A humorless smile tipped the edge of Garrison's lips. "You have a nice vacation?"
"Yeah. The woods always bring me back to life."
Garrison shook his head as he slid a hand into his pocket. "If your place is only half as bad as you've said, I don't know how it could. Seems to me the primitive setup would do the opposite."
Malcolm shrugged. "Hey, if you ever want me to suffer, lock me in that airplane hangar of yours and make me work on that pile of junk you call an airplane."
Garrison's smile warmed a fraction. "It is a classic '38 Beechcraft. Beyond the rust is great beauty."
"Whatever you say, boss." Malcolm and his partner were opposites in so many ways. When faced with a pile of shit, Garrison could smile and appear as if nothing bothered him at all. However, Malcolm, a self-described powder keg, blew up fast and wore his anger on his sleeve.
Malcolm nodded his head toward an area lit up with floodlights and roped off with yellow crime-scene tape. No doubt they'd be hearing from the park's residential neighbors complaining about the light. "Body's over there?"
"Wait until you see this." Displeasure deepened the lines on Garrison's face as they strode toward the shelter closest to the woods.
Malcolm braced, wondering what horror waited.
In the middle of a picnic table sat a pile of bones stacked neatly in a square. Resting in the center of the bone square was the skull, which stared sightlessly at him.
The bones weren't bleached white, as if they had been lying in the sun, nor were they dark and molded as if long buried under layers of dirt. Light beige, they were oddly clean, stripped completely of flesh.
"The killer took his time arranging the bones."
Garrison nodded his head. "Yes."
"Time that would have exposed him to potential witnesses." Malcolm rested his hands on his hips andleaned in for a closer view. "He's meticulous. Detail oriented. Likes order in his life. Takes pride in his work."
"Maybe. Whoever did this wanted to get someone's attention."
Malcolm tried to imagine the killer arranging the bones and then standing back for a moment to admire his handiwork. The homicide detective had a talent for slipping into the skins of the men he tracked. The trait made him a good cop and at times a bad boyfriend, son, or brother. "Arranging the bones generates fear and creates one hell of a puzzle for the cops."
"The average killer does not do this."
"No, he does not." Garrison shoved out a sigh. They'd had a very extraordinary killer stalk Alexandria last year. Dubbed the Sorority House Killer by the press, the killer had not only displayed the victims, but had set a fire at the first murder scene to draw attention. However, the Sorority House Killer had been convicted of murder and now resided on death row.
"Where is forensics?" Malcolm searched the half dozen cop cars. Normally the forensics unit beat the detectives to the crime scene.
"They're on the way. They've been overwhelmed by the string of robberies. They're running in circles right now."
"Who found the bones?"
"Three boys were staring and pointing fingers when an off-duty cop spotted them. He'd just gotten off his shift and was walking his dog. When he called out to them, they bolted. However, the cop's dog is retired from our K-9 unit."
Malcolm grinned. "They didn't get far."
"Where are they?"
"Cooling their heels by the squad cars," Garrison said.
Malcolm saw three teen boys leaning against a marked car. Arms folded over their chests, they did their best to look tough despite downcast gazes messaging worry. Low-slung jeans, white T-shirts, and matching leather jackets with yellow bandanas tied to their right forearms suggested a gang.
"This could be gang related," Garrison said. "The placement of the bones could be some kind of initiation. Leaving bones would send a clear message."
Malcolm studied the boys. "They don't look like the types who have the know-how or patience to stack bones."
"People never stop surprising me."
Malcolm glanced toward the yellow crime-scene tape and spotted a slim man, slightly balding and wearing glasses that reflected the floodlight's glare. Paulie Som-mers. Forensic technician. Efficient. Brusque to the point of rudeness.
"What do we have?" Paulie ducked under the tape and approached.
Malcolm eased out of Paulie's way. He liked razzing the guy. "Not as quick on the draw as you used to be."
"Tell the boys in robbery to catch the son of a bitch who's breaking into every jewelry store in town. Once they do that I can have time for better crimes like your murders." Sarcasm dripped from the words.
"I'll be sure to send a memo."
Most didn't understand that cops could be so casual in the face of death. But it was that very distance mingled with dark humor that kept the horrors they witnessed at bay. "We've got bones stacked. Neatly arranged. I need anything you can find around the area that might help."
Paulie squinted. "There should be footprints. The ground is soft from yesterday's rain." He glanced at the crowd around the scene's perimeter. "But God only knows how many of them traipsed around here and contaminated the area."
"That's why you were called, my friend," Garrison said. "You are the miracle worker."
"Don't blow smoke up my ass." Paulie raised his digital camera and snapped photos of the area. "Now get out of my crime scene."
"Charming as always," Malcolm said.
Garrison laughed. "So what's got you more pissed off than usual, Paulie?"
"It's fucking freezing out here. And because of those damn robberies and because Lorraine Marcus is still on maternity leave, I had to leave a hot dinner, which is now likely cold."
Malcolm laid his palm over his heart. "Stop, you're going to make me cry."
Paulie muttered something under his breath as Malcolm stepped aside to let the man shoot pictures of the bone collection.
Rubbing the back of his neck, Malcolm wished now he'd grabbed an energy bar from the trunk of his car. It had been about three hours since he'd eaten, and it was going to be a long night.
As Paulie continued to snap pictures, Malcolm pulled his notebook from his back pocket and flipped it open. Paulie would document the scene in great detail, but Malcolm always kept his own maps of a crime scene. And he took notes constantly, knowing one day a detail could come back to bite him when some courtroom defense attorney was chewing on his ass. "I'm going to talk to the cop first so he can get out of here. The kids can wait."
"Take your time," Garrison said. "It'll be a while before Paulie is finished doing his thing."
Malcolm pushed through the uniforms and found the cop and his dog, a German shepherd, sitting on the tailgate of a red truck. The cop was dressed in jeans and a worn hunting jacket. He had short hair and a thick mustache. He smoked a cigarette. The dog lay in the bed of the truck on a blanket, sleeping, as if crime scenes held no interest.
When the off-duty cop saw Malcolm coming he took one last pull on the butt, and then ground it into the tailgate of his truck. "So you got questions?" Malcolm extended his hand. "More than I can count. I'm Malcolm Kier."
He shook his hand. "From Richmond."
"Nice to see I'm noticed."
"It's a big small town in Alexandria. I'm Grant McCabe. I work narcotics."
"Hell of a way to end an evening."
"Tell me about it." The cop's shoulders slumped as if carrying the heavy weight of fatigue. "Shoot."
"Give me the basics."
"Arrived about seven p.m. I'd been on the job since seven a.m. but couldn't break away until after six. Had to babysit a teen drug addict at the emergency room. Picked her up near a crack house I had staked out. Anyway, got home, changed fast, and took Striker out for a run. He's a good guy, and I can take him off the lead most nights. Tonight, he paused just as we entered the park: then he bolted past the play equipment. Figured it was a squirrel. Since he's old and retired, there's something about October that makes Striker a little nuts. It was the kids hovering around the shelter."
"Were they looking at the table or arranging bones on the table?"
"Looking. Their arms were folded over their chests. They sounded excited. Agitated. Scared even."
That could or could not mean something. Killers often got scared when the reality of their act settled. "Keep going."
"So, I call out and ask what's what. They don't answer but take off. I go bolting after them, cussing like a sailor. Striker raced past me. He stopped them. When I catch up, the kids are about to piss in their pants. I tell Striker to heel. The old dog looked mighty proud of himself. Long story short I show them my badge and drag them back to the shelter. Striker starts barking like a crazy dog."
The shepherd glanced up at McCabe, his head cocked. McCabe scratched him between the ears. "So, I shine my flashlight on the table. That's when I saw your victim."
His victim. In less than a half hour he'd gone from vacation to taking charge of a dead body. "You called it in."
"Your partner already ran through the checklist. No, I didn't see anything. No cars in the lot. No one hanging around the woods. No creepy sounds or smells. It was business as usual until Striker got a whiff of the bones."
"Thanks, McCabe." He wrote down the officer's contact information. "Why don't you take off? If I need you, I know where to find you."
McCabe rose gingerly to his feet as if his body ached. "Swear to God, my bones are telling me it's going to be an early winter."
"Man, you're too young to be creaking."
McCabe laughed. "Rugby in high school and in college. Beat the piss out of me."
Striker jumped down from the bed and trotted to the driver's side of the truck.
"See you around, Kier."
"Sure thing, McCabe."
While Malcolm waited for Sommers to finish up his work at the scene, he moved to the trunk of his car and got a few energy bars. They could hardly be considered cuisine, but they'd stave off the hunger until he could get a real meal.
It was past one in the morning when Sommers declared that the bones could be removed from the table and transferred to a bag. He'd photographed the entire area, noted the location of the bones, and taken impressions of shoe imprints in the dirt.
Paulie moved toward them, his thin shoulders stooped. "I called the medical examiner and ran this one past her. She should be here any minute."
Malcolm raised a brow. The medical examiner, Dr. Amanda Henson, rarely came to crime scenes. It didn't make sense for her to visit each and every murder scene when she had so much to tackle in the autopsy room.
But this case had to rank high on her odd-o-meter, and she would be curious. And frankly he didn't mind the arrival of the big guns because he never said no to help on a murder investigation.
Dr. Henson's black SUV pulled up behind the police cars. She slid out from behind the driver's seat. Her red hair was tucked up under a Nationals ball cap, and she wore a large peacoat over jeans. Worn sneakers covered her feet.
She moved quickly, efficiently with a burst of energy that didn't seem right at this time of night. She ducked under the yellow crime-scene tape and held out her hand to Garrison, Malcolm, and Paulie. Her handshake was firm and quick. Her hands were small, delicate even, and her nails neatly trimmed. Malcolm had seen those nimble fingers play guitar at the lab's Christmas party last year and grip bolt cutters as she snapped rib cages apart during autopsies.
"Gentlemen. Paulie tells me you have an unusual case here." She never raised her voice, but that didn't diminish the authority.
"All we got right now are bones," Malcolm said.
"Have a look at the pictures." Paulie pulled the camera strap from around his neck and switched his digital camera to VIEW.
She squinted, clicked through several images, and then handed the camera back to Paulie. "Bones in the body bag now?"
"That they are," Malcolm said.
She nodded, moved past him, and as she pulled on gloves she glanced into the body bag. Gently, she picked up a bone and under the glare of the floodlight studied it. A frown wrinkled her brow.
"So what are you thinking, Doc?" Malcolm asked.
"How long were the bones exposed to the elements?" she asked.
Excerpted from "Merciless"
Copyright © 2011 Mary Burton.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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