From two award-winning authors comes the first riveting novel in the KYNDALL FAMILY THRILLERS, a romantic suspense series filled with spine-tingling thrills and alluring romance. A woman haunted by her past. FBI Agent Alexa Kyndall devoted eight years of her life to the search for justice, showing no mercy to the guilty and depraved. When she joins a special task force to bring down a serial killer, Alexa encounters the most unexpected criminal of her career. A man willing to do whatever it takes to save her. When a child witnesses a brutal slaying, Alexa's life becomes intertwined with Craig Pierson's, a man with his own haunted past. They join forces, only to discover they must put everything on the line in a pulse-pounding struggle to protect and survive. A killer closing in. Nestled in a small town in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, The Dragon's Staircase is an intriguing, nonstop adventure that will keep readers enthralled from start to finish.
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The Dragon's Staircase
A Kyndall Family Thriller
By McKenna Grey, Everly Archard
Cambron Publishing Group LLCCopyright © 2016 McKenna Grey and Everly Archard
All rights reserved.
Atlanta, Georgia — One Year Earlier
The fetid stench emanating from the adjoining room made her wish for a field of wildflowers in early summer. The thick haze of smoke seeped its way from underneath the door and forced her to hold back the automatic gag reflex. The hot air stifled her breathing and sweat beads formed on her skin, but there were only so many clothes she could remove before she had entered the building a few minutes earlier.
She heard what some might consider music through the paper-thin walls and hollow door. To her it was an obnoxious cacophony of noise. The entire building was nothing more than an enormous trash heap, filled to overcapacity with the unwashed masses who spent more time with a needle in their arm than using what little was left of their brain.
This was not how Special Agent Alexa Kyndall chose to spend her evenings. In fact, this wasn't her assignment. Her misfortune happened when a call came over the radio as she drove away from the building three blocks away, a warehouse in which she'd finished wrapping up a crime scene.
Local police needed assistance fast. Well, she didn't want to guess what sludge now stuck to the bottom of her shoes, but she was certain the new black leather boots would have to be burned. She loved her job, yet at this moment she considered cashing in her long overdue vacation days.
The officer in charge motioned for her to cover him. Alexa would much rather he cover her, but it was his collar and therefore his call. She had been closer than his backup and although he gave her a sour glance when she identified herself, Officer Stevens needed all the firepower he could get.
The stink became unbearable, and with a mental sigh of relief, she watched as Officer Stevens kicked in the door, identified himself, and entered the small, dingy apartment. The thick smoke made it difficult to see anyone or anything, and Alexa prayed the other officers looked closely before they fired their weapons. She crouched down low to the ground where the smoke wasn't as dense and watched as one of the thugs lashed out at Officer Stevens like a feral animal after the kill. This one wouldn't be taken without a fight. The degenerate knocked the gun from the officer's hand and swung a heavy right hook into his jaw.
Alexa, still hunched close to the floor, reached with her long leg from behind and knocked the attacker off balance. He landed, but first his head met with the edge of an aluminum table. She moved over to see if he was still breathing before shifting a few feet to check the officer. They'd both live, but Officer Stevens now boasted a severely bruised ego and refused her proffered hand.
The other officers who had come in behind her caught the remaining two culprits who had tried to sneak past. She cuffed the one she felled and handed him over to Officer Stevens. No "thank you" for helping, for saving his life — nothing. With a shake of her head and a severe desire to land her own fist into the guy's face, Alexa left the building and the slime behind.
Unfortunately, she now reeked of everything in that sleazy apartment and thanked her good luck she hadn't driven her own vehicle but an agency car. Better their detail bill than hers. With a sigh, she slid into the driver's seat, contemplated how she was going to get through her front door without her clothes on, and drove away from the building.
Saturday mornings weren't always set aside for rest and relaxation but on occasion one of these rarified days would be tossed her way and she took full advantage. She planned to sleep in, spend time in her garden, and finish the new criminal psychology handbook she'd ordered the week before. It didn't make for light reading, but she admired and respected both the author's mind and his ability to concise insight into the criminal mind.
Alexa turned over on her side and checked her phone and beeper to be sure neither had gone off while she slept. A missed call from her brother, Jordan, and one from the office, both of which she ignored for now. She swung her long legs over the side of the bed and released a low moan.
Her side was tender from the kick she had received yesterday, and her pride hadn't fared any better. It didn't matter that the male agent she went up against was twice her size and double her strength. What pissed her off was the covert tag teaming he did with his partner. A quick run and a long shower would ease her muscles.
Before she could change into her running clothes, the agency-issued beeper on her bedside table vibrated across the wood surface.
"Well, I guess I can't ignore him."
Special Agent Alexa Kyndall was a member of the National Center for Analysis of Violent Crime (NCAVC). Since she joined the Behavioral Analysis Unit two years ago, she'd spent as much time behind a desk as she did in the field, both equally satisfying when the result was another violent offender behind bars.
It was often joked among her colleagues that she was absolutely without any female emotions. She could study horrific crime scene photos and delve into the most depraved minds and still sleep at night. She had been trained well, and she was good at her job. The truth was, she didn't handle every assignment as well as her colleagues liked to believe.
Three other men were in the room when Alexa entered the SAC's office, two of whom Alexa recognized. Special Agent in Charge Ferrera, her boss, stood opposite his assistant, Agent Michaels. She'd done her best to avoid Michaels after she ended their relationship six months ago. It still burned his ego, but he made up for it by acting like a bigger jackass when they couldn't avoid each other.
Alexa ignored Michaels, shook Agent Ferrera's hand, and waited as he introduced the third man in their group as Dr. Julian Fredrick, a forensic psychiatrist and criminalist who was on loan to the FBI. From where, they didn't say. During Alexa's time in the unit, she had yet to work with anyone outside of law enforcement on a case, and as far as she knew, neither had her current colleagues.
Dr. Fredrick nodded and said nothing, content to let the agents speak. Scholarly, with refined mannerisms and tailored clothes which spoke of money, Alexa would call the doctor handsome if his eyes held any warmth, but the dark and hollow depths conveyed nothing. Either the man was immune to emotion, had seen too much, or was exceptional at his job. Alexa couldn't tell which, and that alone disconcerted her.
"Let me get right to the point, Agent Kyndall," Agent Ferrera began. "A series of murders, which before now didn't show a discernable pattern, have reached our division. The apartment complex you helped to raid may have provided us with the missing connection."
Alexa's gaze held steady on her boss. "I answered a call for local police in need of backup, nothing more, sir. We — or they — busted a few drug dealers, and it was over."
Ferrera nodded. "The police searched the entire building this morning and found a dead body on the third floor. They ran the details through the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program and got a hit to a similar murder in Texas and another in Alabama."
"And ViCAP discovered the pattern, which tells us the murderer is moving east. Just those two states?" Alexa asked.
"That's all they've found so far." Ferrera leaned forward on the table and linked his thick fingers. "It's not a secret in the Bureau that you've specialized on a few of the more ... unusual cases."
Alexa's brow furrowed. "How unusual?"
"What do you know about vampires, Agent Kyndall?"
Her first honest reaction would have been to laugh, and they'd tell her this was a joke. Except Agent Fererra never joked.
"Are we talking about Bram Stoker's bloodsucking fiends or something more in this century?"
When the three men in the room said nothing, Alexa held back a chortle and sighed. "I've learned the history, the psychosis as it pertains to criminal behavior, but I've yet to come across a real-world case involving a schizoid's delusion."
"Do you not believe there are those who believe the delusion? Perhaps to the point where their reality is in fact truth, and yet they function as well as the next person?" Dr. Frederick's voice sounded as soft as he looked.
Alexa shook her head. "That their reality is truth? Maybe to them, but no sane person can believe they're a vampire without a few disconnected wires to the brain. Elizabeth Bathory, at one time, would murder innocent virgins in order to bathe in their blood and eventually drink it. She believed this to be an elixir of youth. There's nothing sane about that kind of behavior."
When Agent Michaels held up a hand to interject, Alexa ignored him and continued. "The story of Dracula is not without its facts, and granted the history is not set in stone. However, the image of Dracula during World War II, when the Nazi's were depicted on posters as Huns in the form of Dracula, was a tactic. Unfortunately, the myth grew over the course of time to what we sometimes see today in psychopaths who can't tell the difference between fantasy and reality."
Alexa leaned back in her chair and glanced at her supervisor. "All I'm saying is whoever you're hunting is a schizophrenic, delusional, or an average serial killer who's staging the deaths to make you think it's a vampire-related murder."
Julian Frederick raised an eyebrow and a half smile formed on his surprisingly nice mouth.
"Will she work?" asked Agent Ferrera.
"Excuse me, sir, but will I work for what?"
"I'd like for you and Agent Michaels to work with Dr. Frederick closely on this case. Agent Michaels will coordinate from here while you're in the field with the doctor. No, don't look at me like that, Agent Kyndall. I know this is unusual, but it's imperative this investigation and the events surrounding it are kept among those in this room only. News of something like this would only serve to have my phone ringing every five minutes, and I don't want that, neither does the director."
Alexa's gaze shifted until they fell on Dr. Julian Frederick, the smooth-styled geek with hollow eyes.
"Vampires. Lunatics. Same thing." Alexa leaned against the door of her black SUV and inhaled deeply. She'd rather inhale fresh mountain air in Alaska with her brothers or escape into the hills for a few days of camping. Alexa knew the thick Atlanta air weighed as heavy on her as the need to get away. She should have put in for a transfer months ago, but there was always a new case, and she was the dutiful soldier who couldn't walk away before she caught the bad guy.
Alexa could apply for the transfer now, get out before she had to delve into a third dimension of maniacal psychopaths with Dr. "Hollow Eyes." Her upper body unconsciously shook when she thought of the geek. She reached into the pocket of her light suede jacket to retrieve her car keys.
Alexa ground her teeth to prevent the escape of an automatic scathing remark. Instead she turned and smoothed her lips into a flat smile. "Michaels." She unlocked her vehicle and opened the door, only to have another reach for her arm.
"I'm sure you'll need that hand if you're going to make your way to the top of the food chain, but you won't have it for much longer."
Agent Michaels released her arm. "We have to work together on this, Alexa."
"Much to my annoyance, and it's Agent Kyndall."
"Fine." Michaels stepped back. "You want to keep this professional, we will. I'll see you in an hour, and be ready to work. The boss doesn't want another minute going by with this killer on the street."
Alexa waited for Michaels to walk to his own car before muttering "jackass" under her breath. The parking lot was almost empty save for a few cars. She slipped the key into the ignition and turned the engine over.
"Are you well, Agent Kyndall?"
Alexa swore and stepped out of the SUV. "Doesn't anyone announce themselves anymore?" She turned and looked directly into a pair of dark, hollow eyes. "Sorry, Dr. Frederick."
He waved away her protest. "Colleagues can be a nuisance, especially when the relationship extends beyond the professional." His lips curved and he leaned forward. Had she not suddenly developed what she used to call the heebie-jeebies, Alexa might have suspected the doctor was flirting with her.
"Nothing I can't handle, and I assure you it won't interfere with the investigation."
"I'm not concerned." Julian inched back and leaned against her car. His hands remained in the pockets of a lightweight, black jacket. "You have a fascinating mind, Agent Kyndall, and I intend to use it. This man — this vampire — isn't going to stop. We have to stop him."
"I agree, but you have to understand, I don't believe in vampires, or whatever the hell they think they are. We're dealing with one or more seriously disturbed individuals who are nothing more than murderers."
Julian's dark eyes narrowed a fraction. "Do you not believe we must understand their psychosis in order to catch them?"
"To an extent. I don't have to believe in their fantasy in order to catch them."
"And you believe we'll apprehend them?"
Alexa gripped the edge of her car door, an involuntary reaction to Julian's gaze. "We won't stop until we do."
"Thank you for your time, Agent Kyndall. I will see you this afternoon." With an abrupt end to the bizarre conversation, Julian left Alexa standing beside her vehicle. She slipped into the driver's seat and buckled up for the drive home. She had less than one hour before she had to meet Dr. Frederick and Agent Michaels at the latest crime scene.CHAPTER 2
San Juan Mountains, Colorado — October 3, 2015
One last shot. One perfect shot, and he could call it a day.
Craig slipped his free hand into the camera bag and scooped out his telephoto lens, adjusting the zoom and focus until he zeroed in on his subject. He'd been following this grizzly for two days, but bad weather over rough terrain had left him with little to show for it. It was the last image he needed for his latest assignment, a spread for National Geographic covering federally threatened, state-endangered mammals.
There were arguments among the locals whether or not grizzlies had crossed from Wyoming into Colorado. When an old university friend of Craig's who owned a ranch near Telluride in the western San Juan Mountains called to tell him they'd documented a grizzly sighting, Craig wanted to see for himself. He was here to prove they had successfully migrated into Colorado's vast wilderness. The beautiful brown sow should be tucked away in a den somewhere but appeared to be after a last meal before the long winter. The sun was setting on his day, and he'd have to push it if he was going to get the shot he wanted.
She stood near the flowing creek, about thirty feet from Craig, completely engrossed in the elk carcass she'd sniffed out. Her beige coat was matted down in parts from the moisture, the other half of the silver tips pointed in a sharp pattern toward the sky.
Craig crouched down onto his knees and adjusted his position, leaning against the broken, damp trunk to steady himself. He snapped the button, the rapid shots of his reliable digital camera the only unnatural noise for miles. Capturing wildlife was much like photographing humans. To get a memorable shot, one had to catch the exact moment when the subject relaxed and the movements natural.
Getting everything in one shot was sometimes like finding an Eastern Screech Owl in a copse of trees when it doesn't wish to be found, but that never deterred Craig. Passion and skill were both necessary traits to get the right photos, but patience was key. A good photographer required the fortitude to withstand time, the elements, and the aching desire for a decent shower. Craig had more patience than most, a trait he attributed to his military background.
A cool breeze swept through the air as the sky shifted from a deep orange into a burnt red, a reminder darkness would soon overtake what he had left of daylight. A soft cloud cover briefly diffused the sunlight allowing for a spectacular background shot. He loved the San Juans in the autumn. The striking hues of red, gold, and yellow of the Aspens against a backdrop of snow-capped peaks made for a sensational sight. Autumn may be short-lived in Telluride, but the burst of color made the season dramatic.
Craig never understood people who hated nature or disliked the outdoors. It was unnatural. He definitely didn't like people who had no respect for it. From the magnificent peaks to the deep ridges carved by glaciers, it was humbling to stand among natures' greatest achievements. Anyone who couldn't appreciate Earth's wonders wasn't his kind of people.
The smell of snow in the air and the temperature drop told Craig it was time to wrap up and head back to his cabin for his last night before heading to Trapper Falls, North Carolina. He may have been born and raised in Telluride, but home, for now, was North Carolina.
Excerpted from The Dragon's Staircase by McKenna Grey, Everly Archard. Copyright © 2016 McKenna Grey and Everly Archard. Excerpted by permission of Cambron Publishing Group LLC.
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