In Chicago, a young man jumps from his thirtieth-story hotel room; along the Missouri river, a hunter and his son stumble upon a lake whose surface is littered with snow geese, all of them dead; and in southern Alabama, Ryder Creed and his search-and-rescue dog Grace find the body of a young woman who went missing in the Conecuh National Forest...and it appears she filled her pockets with rocks and walked into the river. Before long Ryder Creed and FBI profiler Maggie O’Dell will discover the ominous connection among these mysterious deaths. What they find may be the most prolific killer the United States has ever known.
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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2016 Alex Kava
Tony Briggs coughed up blood, then wiped his mouth with his shirtsleeve. This was bad. Although it was nothing he couldn’t handle. He’d been through worse. Lots worse. But still, they didn’t tell him he’d get this sick. He was beginning to think the bastards had double-crossed him.
He tapped out, “fine mess I got myself into,” on his cell phone and hit SEND before he changed his mind.
The text message wasn’t part of his instructions. Not part of the deal. He didn’t care. So what if the watchers found out. What could they do to him now? He already felt like crap. They couldn’t make him feel much worse.
He tossed the phone into the garbage can along with the few brochures he’d picked up throughout the day. His itinerary read like a sight-seeing family vacation. Or in his case, something presented by one of those make-a-wish charities – one final trip, all expenses paid.
He laughed at that and ended up in a coughing fit. Blood sprayed the flat screen TV and even the wall behind. He didn’t like leaving the mess for the hotel housekeeping staff. But it was a little too late for that. Especially since his instructions included touching everything he could throughout the day. The list rattled in his head: light switches, elevator buttons, restaurant menus, remote control, and escalator handrails.
Earlier that morning at the McDonald’s – before the cough, just before the fever spiked and he still had a bit of bravado along with an appetite – he felt his first tinge of apprehension. He’d taken his tray and stopped at the condiment counter.
Touch as many surfaces as possible.
That’s what he’d been told. Germs could live on a hard surface for up to eighteen hours. He may have screwed up a lot of things in his life but he could still follow instructions.
That’s what he’d been thinking when he felt a tap on his elbow.
“Hey, mister, could you please hand me two straws?”
The kid was six, maybe seven with nerdy glasses, the thick black frames way too big for his face. He kept shoving at them, the motion second nature. The kid reminded Tony immediately of his best friend, Jason. They had grown up together since they were six years old. Same schools. Same football team. Joined the Army together. Even came back from Afghanistan, both screwed up in one way or another. Tony was the athlete. Jason was the brains. Smart and pushy even at six. But always following Tony around.
Old four eyes.
“Whadya doing now?” was Jason’s favorite catch phrase.
In grade school they went through a period where Jason mimicked everything Tony did. In high school the kid bulked up just so he could be on the football team, right alongside Tony. In the back of his mind he knew Jason probably joined the Army only because Tony wanted to. And look where it got them.
Tony shoved at the guilt. And suddenly at that moment he found himself hoping that Jason never found out what a coward he really was.
“Mister,” the kid waited with his hand outstretched.
Tony caught himself reaching for the damned straw dispenser then stopped short, fingertips inches away.
“Get your own damned straws,” he told the kid. “You’re not crippled.”
Then he turned and left without even getting his own straw or napkin. Without touching a single thing on the whole frickin’ condiment counter. In fact, he took his tray and walked out, shouldering the door open so he wouldn’t have to touch it either. He dumped the tray and food in a nearby trashcan. The kid had unnerved him so much it took him almost an hour to move on.
Now back in his hotel room, sweat trickled down his face. He wiped at his forehead with the same sleeve he’d used on his mouth.
The fever was something he’d expected. The blurred vision was a surprise.
No, it was more than blurred vision. The last hour or so he knew he’d been having hallucinations. He thought he saw one of his old drill sergeants in the lobby of the John Hancock building. But he’d been too nauseated from the observatory to check it out. Still, he remembered to touch every single button before he got out of the elevator. Nauseated and weak-kneed.
And he was embarrassed.
His mind might not be what it once was thanks to what the doctors called traumatic brain injury, but he was proud that he’d kept his body lean and strong when so many of his buddies had come back without limbs. Now the muscle fatigue set in and it actually hurt to breathe.
Just then Tony heard a click in the hotel room. It came from somewhere behind him. It sounded like the door.
The room’s entrance had a small alcove for the minibar and coffeemaker. He couldn’t see the door without crossing the room.
“Is anybody there?” he asked as he stood up out of the chair.
Was he hallucinating again or had a shadow moved?
Suddenly everything swirled and tipped to the right. He leaned against the room service cart. He’d ordered it just like his watchers had instructed him to do when he got back to his room. Nevermind that he hadn’t been able to eat a thing. Even the scent of fresh strawberries made his stomach roil.
No one was there.
Maybe the fever was making him paranoid. It certainly made him feel like he was burning up from the inside. He needed to cool down. Get some fresh air.
Tony opened the patio door and immediately shivered. The small cement balcony had a cast-iron railing, probably one of the original fixtures that the hotel decided to keep when renovating – something quaint and historic.
The air felt good. Cold against his sweat-drenched body, but good. Made him feel alive. And he smiled at that. Funny how being this sick could make him feel so alive. He’d come close to being killed in Afghanistan several times, knew the exhilaration afterwards.
He stepped out into the night. His head was still three pounds too heavy, but the swirling sensation had eased a bit. And he could breathe finally without hacking up blood.
Listening to the rumble and buzz of the city below he realized if he wanted to, there’d be nothing to this. He had contemplated his own death many times since coming home but never once had he imagined this.
Suddenly he realized it’d be just like stepping out of a C-130.
Only without a parachute.
Nineteen stories made everything look like a miniature world below. Matchbox cars. The kind he and Jason had played with. Fought over. Traded. Shared.
And that’s when his second wave of nausea hit him.
Maybe he didn’t have to finish this. He didn’t even care any more whether they paid him or not. Maybe it wasn’t too late to get to an emergency room. They could probably give him something. Then he’d just go home. There were easier ways to make a few bucks.
But as he started to turn around he felt a shove. Not the wind. Strong hands. A shadow. His arms flailed trying to restore his balance.
His fingers grabbed for the railing but his body was already tipping. The metal dug into the small of his back. His vision blurred with streaks of light. His ears filled with the echo of a wind tunnel. The cold air surrounded him.
No second chances. He was already falling.
Conecuh National Forest
Just north of the Alabama/Florida state line
Ryder Creed’s T-shirt stuck to his back. His hiking boots felt like cement blocks, caked with red clay. The air grew heavier, wet and stifling. The scent of pine mixed with the gamy smell of exertion from both man and dog. This deep in the woods even the birds were different, the drilling of the red-cockaded woodpecker the only sound to interrupt the continuous buzz of mosquitoes.
He was grateful for the long-sleeved shirt and the kerchief around his neck as well as the one around Grace’s. The fabric had been soaked in a special concoction that his business partner, Hannah, had mixed up, guaranteed to repel bugs. Hannah joked that one more ingredient and maybe it’d even keep them safe from vampires.
In a few hours it would be nighttime in the forest, and deep in the sticks, as they called it, on the border of Alabama and Florida, there were enough reasons to drive a man to believe in vampires. The kudzu climbed and twisted up the trees so thick it looked like green netting. There were places the sunlight couldn’t squeeze down through the branches.
Their original path was quickly becoming overgrown. Thorny vines grabbed at Creed’s pantlegs, and he worried they were ripping into Grace’s short legs. He was already second-guessing bringing the Jack Russell terrier instead of one of his bigger dogs, but Grace was the best air scent dog he had in a pack of dozens. And she was scampering along enjoying the adventure, making her way easily through the tall longleaf pines that grew so close Creed had to sidestep in spots.
They had less than an hour until sunset, and yet the federal agent from Atlanta was still questioning Creed.
“You don’t think you need more than the one dog?”
Agent Lawrence Taber had already remarked several times about how small Grace was, and that she was “kind of scrawny.” Creed heard him whisper to Sheriff Wylie that he was “pretty sure Labs or German shepherds were the best trackers.”
Creed was used to it. He knew that neither he nor his dogs were what most law enforcement officers expected. He’d been training and handling dogs for over seven years. His business, K9 CrimeScents, had a waiting list for his dogs. Yet people expected him to be older, and his dogs to be bigger.
Grace was actually one of his smallest dogs, a scrappy brown-and-white Jack Russell terrier. Creed had discovered her abandoned at the end of his long driveway. When he found her she was skin and bones but sagging where she had recently been nursing puppies. Locals had gotten into the habit of leaving their unwanted dogs at the end of Creed’s fifty-acre property. It wasn’t the first time he had seen a female dog dumped and punished when the owner was simply too cheap to get her spayed.
Hannah didn’t like that people took advantage of Creed’s soft heart. But what no one – not even Hannah – understood was that the dogs Creed rescued were some of his best air scent trackers. Skill was only a part of the training. Bonding with the trainer was another. His rescued dogs trusted him unconditionally and were loyal beyond measure. They were eager to learn and anxious to please. And Grace was one of his best.
“Working multiple dogs at the same time can present problems,” he finally told the agent. “Competition between the dogs. False alerts. Overlapping grids. Believe me, one dog will be more than sufficient.”
Creed kept his tone matter of fact for Grace’s sake. Emotion runs down the leash. Dogs could detect their handler’s mood, so Creed always tried to keep his temper in check even when guys like Agent Taber started to piss him off.
He couldn’t help wonder why Tabor was here, but he kept it to himself. Creed wasn’t law enforcement. He was hired to do a job and had no interest in questioning jurisdiction or getting involved in the pissing contests that local and federal officials often got into.
“I can’t think she’d run off this far,” Sheriff Wylie said.
He was talking about the young woman they were looking for. The reason they were out here searching. But now Creed realized the sheriff was starting to question his judgment, too, even though the two of them had worked together plenty of times.
Creed ignored both men as best he could and concentrated on Grace. He could hear her breathing getting more rapid. She started to hold her nose higher and he tightened his grip on the leash. She had definitely entered a scent cone but Creed had no idea if it was secondary or primary. All he could smell was the river, but that wasn’t what had Grace’s attention.
“How long has she been gone?” Creed asked Sheriff Wylie.
“Since the night before last.”
Creed had been told that Izzy Donner was nineteen, a recovering drug addict who was getting her life back on track. She had enrolled in college part-time and was even looking forward to a trip to Atlanta she had planned with friends. Creed still wasn’t quite sure why her family had panicked. A couple nights out of touch didn’t seem out of ordinary for a teenager.
“Tell me again why you think she ran off into the forest. Are you sure she wasn’t taken against her will?”
Seemed like a logical reason that a federal agent might be involved if the girl had been taken. The two men exchanged a glance. Creed suspected they were withholding information from him.
“Why would it matter?” Tabor finally asked. “If your dog is any good it should still be able to find her, right?”
“It would matter because there’d be another person’s scent.”
“We had a tip called in,” Wylie admitted but Tabor shot him a look and cut him off from saying anything else.
Before Creed could push for more, Grace started straining at the end of the leash. Her breathing had increased, her nose and whiskers twitched. He knew she was headed for the river.
“Slow down a bit, Grace,” he told her.
Slow down was something a handler didn’t like telling his dog. But sometimes the drive could take over and send a dog barreling through dangerous terrain. He’d heard of working dogs scraping their pads raw, so focused and excited about finding the scent that would reward them.
Grace kept pulling. Creed’s long legs were moving fast to keep up. The tangle of vines threatened to trip him while Grace skipped between them, jumping over fallen branches and straining at the end of her leash. He focused on keeping up with her and not letting go.
Only now did Creed notice that Agent Tabor and Sheriff Wylie were trailing farther behind. He didn’t glance back but could hear their voices becoming more muffled, interspersed with some curses as they tried to navigate the prickly underbrush.
Finally Grace slowed down. Then she stopped. But the little dog was still frantically sniffing the air. Creed could see and hear the river five feet away. He watched Grace and waited. Suddenly the dog looked up to find his eyes and stared at him.
This was their signal. Creed knew the dog wasn’t trying to determine what direction to go next, nor was she looking to him for instructions. Grace was telling him she had found their target. That she knew exactly where it was but she didn’t want to go any closer.
Something was wrong.
“What is it?” Sheriff Wylie asked while he and Tabor approached, trying to catch their breaths and keep a safe distance.
“I think she’s in the water,” Creed said.
“What do you mean she’s in the water,” Tabor asked.
But Wylie understood. “Oh crap.”
“Grace, stay,” Creed told the dog and dropped the leash.
He knew he didn’t need the command. The dog was spooked and it made Creed’s stomach start to knot up.
He maneuvered his way over the muddy clay of the riverbank, holding onto tree branches to keep from sliding. He didn’t know that Wylie was close behind until he heard the older man’s breath catch at the same time that Creed saw the girl’s body.
Her eyes stared up as if she were watching the clouds. The girl’s windbreaker was still zipped up and had ballooned out, causing her upper body to float while the rest of her lay on the sandy bottom. This part of Blackwater River was only about three feet deep. Though tea-colored, the water was clear. And even in the fading sunlight Creed could see that the girl’s pockets were weighted down.
“Son of bitch,” he heard Wylie say from behind. “Looks like she loaded up her pockets with rocks and walked right into the river.”
Creed kept Grace on her leash, although he exchanged the working one for a retractable that allowed her more freedom. He’d backed her off to a clearing along the river, about ten feet away where she could enjoy her reward. She chomped down on the pink toy elephant making it squeak repeatedly, the sound foreign out here amidst the buzz of insects and the gentle churn of the water.
From where he stood he could still see the body downstream. Creed’s job was to help find whatever they were looking for, but he wasn’t a part of the investigation. Once the search was over, he took his dog and stayed out of the way until and unless there was something else that needed to be found.
A former Marine and K-9 unit handler, Creed had remained a certified trainer and handler after leaving the military. Hannah managed the business and Creed trained the dogs. In seven years their facility in the Florida Panhandle had become a multi-million-dollar business. They’d earned a national reputation for their quality training and the success rates of their air scent dogs. And they did it by rescuing abandoned and discarded dogs and turning them into heroes.
As he watched Grace fling her toy up into the air and jump to retrieve it, he couldn’t imagine how anyone would abandon such a smart and spirited animal. But then, Creed had seen firsthand enough depravity to last a lifetime.
He looked back at the young woman’s body. Whether or not he was a part of the investigation, he couldn’t help but wonder what had happened. Bobbing in the water she looked small, almost childlike despite the ballooning jacket.
Sheriff Wylie had said earlier that her family claimed she might have gotten lost. Did she really intend to go for a walk alone in the forest, then just lose her way? Not impossible. People got lost. It happened all the time and Creed and his dogs were often called in at such times.
The Conecuh National Forest covered 84,000 acres between Andalusia, Alabama, and the Florida state line. The Conecuh Trail was twenty-two miles, a trek popular with hikers during the winter and early spring months. But the trail was up in the northeast part of the forest, nowhere near here. In fact, they hadn’t seen anything that resembled a trail for quite some time.
If Izzy Donner went for a walk in the forest, why did she stray so far off the trail? Did she actually put rocks in her pockets and walk into the river?
Creed watched Sheriff Wylie and Agent Tabor. Both men were on their cell phones. They stood on the riverbank. Neither attempted to get closer to the body. The sheriff was animated as he talked, waving his arms, pushing his hat back, then jerking the brim back down low over his brow. Agent Tabor, on the other hand, looked calm and appeared to be doing more listening than talking.
They were losing sunlight. The moss-draped branches hung over the area, creating long shadows. Creed pulled out his GPS tracker and saved the coordinates. It would make it easier for the recovery team to find this spot whether they came by foot or by boat.
He reached around into his daypack for Grace’s collapsible bowl and grabbed his flashlight, too. He clipped it onto his belt then poured water for Grace. She came to the sound, sat and placed her toy beside her, waiting patiently for a drink. He squatted down to make sure there were no fire ants nearby then placed the bowl for her. That’s when Creed noticed a flash of reddish brown under a scrawny cypress bush.
He left Grace and moved to investigate. The shadows made it difficult to see under the brush. He switched on his Maglite as he planted one knee on pine needles about three feet from the cypress.
It was a dead bird. The robin lay belly-up—its red breast was what caught Creed’s attention. He couldn’t see any marks from a predator. It looked untouched. He heard the crunch of branches behind him and turned to see Grace. She was prancing and wagging, proud to be bringing him something. She offered it to him, and that’s when Creed’s stomach dropped to his knees.
It was another dead robin.
“Give it to me, Grace.” He kept the emotion from his voice as he put his hand out. She released the robin, dropping it into his palm.
“I thought your dogs weren’t supposed to put dead stuff in their mouths.”
Sheriff Wylie had made his way over to the clearing and stood with strings of kudzu trailing from his pantlegs while he swatted mosquitoes on his face. He looked like a comedic character from an old movie, slapping himself and leaving red welts from his own hand.
“They know the difference,” Creed told him, “between dead animals and dead humans. I don’t train them to track dead animal scent, so it’s not off limits. She saw I was interested in this one and brought me another.”
Creed pulled out two plastic Ziploc bags from his daypack and gathered the robins, one in each bag. He stayed calm and kept his movements casual. He didn’t want to punish Grace for doing something that was second nature to her, but he also didn’t want her to see his concern.
Truth was, he had a bad feeling about these dead birds, and he hated that Grace had taken one in her mouth.
TWO DAYS LATER
By the time Maggie O’Dell’s flight started its descent a light dusting of snow covered the runway at O’Hare International Airport. She’d left Washington, D.C. in sunny skies. Sun or snow, it didn’t matter. O’Dell hated flying. But if she had to land in snow, thank goodness it was at an airport that was used to it. Where better than Chicago?
As the plane taxied, O’Dell watched the ground crew, some in jackets and no headgear, caught off guard by the unexpected March snow as though it was winter’s last hoorah. She hadn’t just left sunny skies, but warm weather as well. The East Coast had been enjoying spring-like conditions for weeks now.
Looking out the window O’Dell suddenly felt a chill. She pulled up the zipper of her sweater, but she knew it had nothing to do with the weather. It was this assignment. Months ago it had already become a cold case. There had been no leads, no trails, no digital footprints. Nothing.
It was almost as if the subject, Dr. Clare Shaw, had vanished. As if she had been buried in the North Carolina mudslide that had taken out the research facility where she’d served as director. It was the last place the scientist had been seen. Yet, they had good reason to believe that not only had Dr. Shaw evaded death but, quite possibly, she had murdered several people in order to cover up her own escape.
O’Dell had been tasked with finding Shaw. After four months it was beginning to feel like she was hunting a ghost.
Detective Lexington Jacks had arranged to meet O’Dell at Baggage Claim. O’Dell picked out the detective from across the terminal—the woman was the only one in the crowd without a handbag or suitcase. Plus she looked like a cop, dressed in a trench coat and trousers with her legs spread and arms at her side. Her eyes were inspecting everything and everyone and still they skimmed over O’Dell, dismissing her.
Then Jacks backtracked and found her. She made eye contact but waited to be sure. When O’Dell nodded, Jacks started making her way through the crowd.
The detective was tall with a confident gait. Her hair was pulled back emphasizing smooth brown skin flawed only by a faint white scar on her upper left cheek. Up close, O’Dell could see the woman was older than her, most likely well into her forties. Crowsfeet danced at the corners of her eyes.
“Detective Jacks,” O’Dell met her halfway.
“Agent O’Dell, call me Lexi. Do you have more baggage?” she asked as she hitched a thumb over her shoulder, pointing to the carousel behind her.
“This is it.”
“In my carry-on.”
“You’re gonna need it.” Jacks stopped and crossed her arms as if expecting O’Dell to open up her rollerboard right there and dig out the coat. O’Dell almost smiled. She couldn’t remember the last time a law enforcement officer was concerned about her well-being.
When O’Dell didn’t make a move, Jacks said, “Okay, suit yourself. We need to hit the ground running. They’re ready to process the room. It’s my understanding they’re waiting for you.” Jacks stuffed her hands in her pockets and turned to lead the way.
“How much containment were you able to get before CDC arrived?” O’Dell asked, walking beside the detective and trying to keep up with the woman’s long strides.
“The hotel’s management had the good sense to close off the room as soon as they discovered the victim was one of their guests.”
“Housekeeping hadn’t been in?”
“Hotel management says no.”
“We already had a body on the sidewalk. Of course, we taped off the room, but with a jumper there’s usually no hurry. Good thing because our techs would not have suspected the place might be hot.”
By hot, she meant contaminated by a possible deadly virus. It was the medical examiner who had discovered during the autopsy that the man’s organs had begun hemorrhaging days before his body hit the sidewalk.
Jacks led O’Dell through the crowd and to the front exit. O’Dell followed her out into the cold. They didn’t need to walk far. An airport security guard stood alongside a dark blue sedan. When he saw Jacks he opened the door on the passenger side for O’Dell as he took her rollerboard and placed it in the trunk.
“Thanks Carl.” Jacks rewarded him with a wide, toothy smile then ducked into the car.
As soon as the sedan left from under the awning, large wet snowflakes decorated the windshield.
“Did anyone see him jump?” O’Dell asked.
“No, but several people saw him as he hit the sidewalk. We don’t think anyone touched him.” Jacks reached over and hit a button, blasting hot air. “Nineteen stories, flat on his face,” she said. “Ever see a person after a fall like that?”
O’Dell had seen bodies in many stages of decay, pulled out from underwater and underground as well as bodies that had been tortured and dismembered, but no, she hadn’t seen one after a fall like that. She shook her head.
“Actually didn’t look too bad,” Jacks told her. “On the outside. I don’t know what I was expecting. M.E. said there was a lot of hemorrhaging inside. The lungs were a bloody mess.”
“What kind of protective gear was the M.E. wearing?”
Jacks winced as she said, “Evidently it wasn’t enough. CDC has him in isolation.”