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The night cruises Lana offered to Salish Island were usually her favorite. But something felt off tonight.
Maybe it was the confrontation with a tourist who tried to bribe his way onto her boat, even after she'd explained they'd reached their capacity. Or maybe it was the sudden breeze that sent goose bumps down her arms. A sign of an unexpected storm and they should head back?
Yet right now it was so peaceful out here. She and her teenage staff had set up the tiki lights, food and hot beverages. Her guests were having a great time toasting hot dogs and marsh-mallows over the crackling campfire. A little girl climbed onto her daddy's lap and he handed her a stick to wave over the fire.
Lana hated to cut the visit short, but safety was her number one priority. She'd call Anderson Greene for an update. The sailing fanatic was obsessed with the weather.
"Hello," he answered, a bit out of breath.
"Hey, Anderson, it's Lana. You okay?"
"Yep, just harder to get around with the sciatica acting up."
"What can I do for you?"
"What's the scoop on the weather tonight?"
"You're not scheduling a trip to Salish, are you?"
"We're already on island, why?"
"There's a front coming in from the north. Last I heard fifty-mile -an-hour"
The line went dead. "Anderson?"
Loss of communication, not a good sign. She decided to play it safe and head back. She'd give her customers coupons for her snack shop, Stone Soup, to make up for having to leave the island early.
Glancing across the group, she caught sight of her teenage helpers, Ashley and Sketch. They held hands as Sketch dangled a marshmallow over the flame.
Melancholy washed over Lana, but only for a second. She'd made herself a promise not to let the darkness consume her like it had years ago after Dad died.
Taking a deep breath, she forced a smile and wandered to the group of tourists.
"Hey, guys. This will have to be your last marshmallow. The weather's a little quirky so we're going to head back."
A middle-aged couple stood, ready to go; a mom and dad with three kids encouraged them to finish their toasting; Ashley and Sketch shared a quick kiss and then started packing up supplies.
Lana did a quick head count. Odd. They were two short. She counted again. Sixteen, including herself. The boat's capacity was seventeen plus Lana, which meant two people had wandered off. She checked her list of tourists on her smart-phone. Yep, just as she thought: the teenage couple must have wandered off. Although she'd asked the guests to stay within sight of the campfire, she knew that some teens suffered from selective hearing.
She motioned to Sketch and Ashley. "We're two short. Sketch, come with me."
She grabbed a lantern and motioned him toward the trail leading to the north side of the island. Sketch glanced over his shoulder. The full moon illuminated the playful smile he shot back at Ashley.
"You guys are adorable," Lana said. And truth be told, she was a bit envious.
She missed being in a relationship, having someone join her for a movie or hiking adventure in the nearby state park. Yet being in the wrong relationship was worse than being alone. She'd learned that the hard way during her eight months with Vincent.
"Why are we going this way?" Sketch asked. "I'm guessing they went to Lover's Point."
"I was a teenager once." A regretful smile played across her lips at the memory of young love. She often wished she hadn't pushed Gregory away back in high school. But then, she'd fallen into a dark place after Dad had died and had pretty much pushed everyone away.
"If you and Ashley were out here alone, basking in the glow of a full moon, wouldn't you head for the most romantic spot in the Pacific Northwest?" she teased.
A shrill scream cut through the air. Lana froze for a second. Did she really hear ?
A second scream echoed from the north end of the island. Lana and Sketch instinctively rushed toward the source of the sound. They zipped around Quinault Rock and spotted the two teenagers standing at the shoreline. The boy held his girlfriend in his arms, patting her back. Maybe they'd just had a fight?
"You guys okay?" Lana asked, out of breath.
Sketch poked Lana's shoulder, then pointed at the water.
Lana glanced down.
Into the face of a bloated dead body.
What a fool. The man actually thought he could swim five miles back to Port Whisper from the island? In his shape?
It had been a mistake to hunt so close to home. I realize that now. But I couldn't help myself. I saw how Rick Washburn bullied his female, how they fought, how he made her cry .
Adrenaline had surged through my body. It had been a month since I deleted Lars Gunderson. Too long. So I lured Ricky to the island for a private tour.
Unfortunately he didn't enjoy my game of control and defeat. He ran. Dove. Drowned.
And now the Feds will invade my charming little town. A pleasant, boring town. Just the way I like it. But not anymore, not with the FBI sniffing around, trying to find me.
I'll have to take care of that; redirect their attention. Not so close to home this time.
FBI agent Garrett Drake couldn't believe his current case had led him back to Port Whisper where the memories still burned fresh in his mind, and even more painful in his chest.
He'd think God was playing a trick on him except he didn't believe in God. Not after everything he'd seen. Not after everything he'd lost.
Shove it back, way back.
His escort, Scooner Locke, pulled the motorboat up to the dock, and a man tied them off. Garrett didn't like involving civilians, but the chief and his staff were all at the scene. Garrett jumped out of the boat and started up the dock. If the body was really Rick Washburn's.
It was a game changer.
The killer had altered his pattern, which meant either he'd made a mistakewhich would put Garrett that much closer to nailing himor the killer was escalating.
Which made him less predictable and twice as dangerous.
"Special Agent Drake?" A man approached him. "I'm Chief Morgan Wright."
They shook hands. The chief, mid-thirties, wore black jeans, a denim jacket and a Mariners baseball cap. He was probably off duty when he got the call.
"It's up that hill on the left." The chief led him along a trail.
"Who found him?"
"What were they doing out here at night?" Garrett asked. "They were part of a tour group."
"People tour the island at night?"
"Yep, they roast hot dogs and marshmallows around a camp-fire, tell ghost stories, that sort of thing. Lana started it about a year ago. It's very popular."
"My sister-in-law, Lana Burns. She runs boat tours to the island out of her snack shop, Stone Soup. She's the one who called in the body."
The body. Possibly the latest victim of the Red Hollow Killer, a name inspired by the type of rope he used to strangle his vics.
The minute Garrett got the call that a floater looked a lot like his missing person, he'd busted tail to get to the scene. He didn't want it to be Washburn, and not just because it meant Red Hollow went off script. It would also mean the killer had been here and maybe still was.
In the same town as Caroline, Garrett's former mother-in-law.
Garrett's ex-wife and son had lost enough thanks to his job. He wouldn't allow them to lose a loving mother and grandmother, as well.
"If it's Rick Washburn, the killer's victimology has changed," Garrett explained. "Which means he's escalating, making him unpredictable and potentially more dangerous."
"Up to now, the victims are kidnapped and a ransom note is sent to the family, giving them, and us, the illusion that the victim can be saved. But before the ransom drop takes place, he leads us to the body, which is posed with very specific items. An empty bourbon bottle, cigar and black leather belt. The victim has been strangled with red hollow braided rope. Lab results indicate he's been drugged with an oxy cocktail. I'm assuming, since Washburn floated up on shore, you didn't find a bourbon bottle, cigar or belt near or on the victim?"
"Were there signs he'd been strangled?"
"Not that I could tell."
"We know he was the next victim, yet he wasn't posed or strangled. Do you have any idea why Washburn was in Port Whisper?"
"He checked into the Blue Goose Motel alone, but was seen around town with a female, brunette, mid-forties."
"Probably a mistress. He has a history of cheating on his wife. Why didn't she report him missing? We got the ransom email two days ago."
"A witness saw them fighting, and later that night another witness saw her convertible peel out of the parking lot. They came in separate cars."
"You've gathered a lot of information in the last hour."
"Small-town grapevine. Sometimes it comes in handy."
As they approached the scene, Garrett noticed a young woman sitting on a rock, a wool blanket draped across her shoulders. Long, light brown hair floated down her back. Garrett thought she was trembling, but couldn't be sure.
"Is that one of the teenagers who found the victim?" Gar-rett asked.
"No, it's Lana. You want to talk to her?"
"I'd like to see the body first."
Garrett strode to the body and the chief introduced him to his deputy.
"Deputy Finnegan, this is Special Agent Drake from the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit."
They shook hands.
"Good to meet you," Finnegan said.
"Likewise." Garrett snapped on a pair of gloves and crouched beside the body. Resignation washed over him. "It's Washburn." Fully clothed in a dress shirt, khaki pants and windbreaker. "Did you find red braided rope anywhere in the vicinity of where you pulled him from the water?"
Garrett turned Washburn's head slightly. No ligature marks.
Washburn was the next victim, yet at first glance this looked like an accidental drowning.
"I'm assuming your forensics team processed the scene before you pulled him out?" Garrett asked.
Garrett glanced at Chief Wright for an explanation. "We're a small town," he said. "A county forensics team is on the way."
Garrett didn't want inexperience to mess up this investigation, but he knew things would go more smoothly if he worked with local law enforcement instead of being at odds with them.
"I'd like to speak with the forensics team as soon as they arrive." Garrett stood and snapped off his gloves. "Where are the teenagers who found the body?"
"They went back to town with the tour group," a light voice said.
Garrett turned to its source: Lana Burns. She rolled her neck and looked up at him with round, tired eyes.
"Who authorized that?" he asked the chief.
"I sent them back," Lana answered, standing. "The kids were completely freaked, so I figured the sooner they went home, the sooner they'd calm down. They'll be more helpful if they're calm, right?"
She stepped up to him, a little too close for his taste, and he noticed her eyes were a remarkable shade of golden-green; her skin was flawless.
"What's your email address?" she asked, focusing on her smartphone.
He didn't answer at first, trying to figure out how someone who saw a dead bodyhe assumed her firstcould be so calm, so lovely.
Man, he needed about a week of sleep.
She glanced up, expectant. "I'll email you the contact information for everyone on the tour tonight."
He handed her a business card, then pulled a small notebook from the breast pocket of his suit.
"How about you?" he said.
She reached for his notebook and he found himself handing it to her. "Here are all my numbers. Cell, landline and the snack shop."
"Are you too freaked to answer some questions?"
She handed him back the notebook. "Nope. Go for it."
"Is this a usual thing, bringing people out here late at night?"
"It was only seven." She planted her hands on her hips in self-defense. "I would never bring people out here if I didn't think it was safe."
"I wasn't inferring"
"I mean, I've been hosting the night cruises for a year now and we've never had any problems. People love sitting around a campfire and singing songs, roasting marshmallows and telling stories. I guess it reminds them of childhood or something. Happier times. Well, that and it's breathtaking out here, quiet and peaceful, usually peaceful, but not so peaceful when a couple of teenagers find a dead body and" She stopped mid-sentence. "Sorry."
"Rambling. I do that when I'm nervous."
"Am I making you nervous?"
"Of course you are."
Garrett glanced up from his notepad, puzzled, and waited for her to continue her rambling. He found it endearing.
"You're tall and intimidating and your tone is, well, accusatory," she said.
"Sorry." Now she had him apologizing. "Back to my questions, do you usually bring your group to this part of the island?"
"Why shouldn't I?"
"Miss Burns, I'm not accusing you of any impropriety." However, he sensed that, no matter how politely he phrased his questions, he'd already put her on the defensive. He'd try a different tact. He refocused on his notebook. "Do people sign up for the tour in advance?"
"Usually, yes, although tonight I had some guy try to muscle in at the last minute."
"Can you give me a description?"
"About sixty, five-nine or -ten, on the rotund side, with thinning brown hair and thick sunglasses. I never trust a person who won't look me in the eye."
Garrett instinctively looked up. "You have good instincts."
He ripped his gaze from her striking eyes and jotted down the description. "What was his demeanor?"
"Bossy, rude, maybe a little desperate."
"Desperate?" Garrett's hand froze on the page.
"Yeah, he had that look like if he didn't get over here his world was going to end."
Could it have been Red Hollow? Did he fear he hadn't securely anchored his victim and knew he'd float to the surface prematurely? If this was the case, Lana Burns had seen him, up close.
"What's wrong?" she asked.
He glanced up and found her studying him with wide, golden-green eyes like she was reading his thoughts.
"What's the schedule once you dock?" he asked, changing the subject.