Someone is murdering women on college campuses. Agent Mick O'Shaughnessy's mission is simple: stop the killer. Following every lead, he meets Meg, the faculty advisor for one of the victims, who can help him track the killer through her campus connections.
Meg Connelly is focused on getting her master's degree to show her estranged family she doesn't need anybody's help to succeed. There's something about Mick she can't resist, but the last time she let someone get close to her, it cost her everything.
As the investigation heats up, so does their relationship. But Mick's interest in Meg doesn't just endanger her heartit puts her in the sights of the killer.
Once he gets her alone, he can take all the time he needs...
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About the Author
An award-winning author, Cathy Perkins works in the financial industry where she's observed the hide-in-plain-sight skills employed by her villains. When not writing, she battles the beavers over the pond depth or sets off on another travel adventure. She lives in Washington with her husband, children, several dogs & the resident deer herd. Visit her at www.cperkinswrites.com
Read an Excerpt
The body lay in dappled shade. Patches of light caught pale flesh-an ankle here, a hip there. Resurrection ferns spread lacy fronds, partially concealing the limbs. Mick wondered if the irony was deliberate.
This deep into the woods, the trees blocked the breeze and the humidity increased as the air sucked moisture from the thick mulch spread across the forest floor. The noxious mixture of smells pressed against him in a cloying layer that was nearly visible amid the shifting patterns cast by the overhead branches. Pausing at the edge of the clearing, he batted at the flies circling his head. He hated flies. He associated them so strongly with death that a fly in his condo drove him crazy.
Two local detectives looked up, acknowledging Mick's presence. His short hair marked him as a cop as much as the holstered pistol and gold badge clipped to his belt. The locals would already know who he was. He hadn't been able to escape the publicity surrounding the murders-the Captain kept putting him in front of television cameras. The Greenville, South Carolina, stations had been particularly relentless in their quest for footage, repeatedly lurking outside the upstate SLED-State Law Enforcement Division-field office.
The medical examiner crouched over the body, obscuring the head and upper torso. He stood when Mick approached, revealing the now familiar pose. Emily Geiger-if the nude corpse was Emily Geiger-lay on her back, arms opened with the hands palm up in a welcoming gesture. Her legs were spread, bent at the knee, a blatantly sexual posture. Frozen in full rigor, the body would have to be photographed and transported in this degrading position.
Until the Newberry police department asked SLED for assistance, Mick had no authority at the scene. He listened as the ME reported his findings to the local detectives. While they talked, he studied the men, looking for the best way to interact with them. Detective Larry Robbins looked like an oak tree, stocky rather than fat-the kind of guy Mick would want on his side in a bar fight. His twenty years of experience showed in his eyes: weary, heard-itall-before cynicism. Jerry Jordan, on the other hand, was a greenhorn. He was trying to project confidence and experience while keeping his lunch down. The effort sharpened his jaw and squared his shoulders, but he still looked like a kid in over his head.
The ME estimated the time of death as sometime Monday night. "Lividity's fixed. Rigor's just starting to relax, so it's been less than forty-eight hours. I'll be able to narrow it down when I get back to the lab, but she's been here at least twenty-four hours."
"How can you tell?" Robbins asked.
The doctor gestured at the sample he'd collected. "Blowflies. They show up within fifteen minutes of exposure and lay eggs in the natural orifices and open wounds. The egg stage lasts twenty-four hours. These are blowfly larvae."
Jordan looked even more nauseous.
"A dump site." Robbins gave the clearing a disgruntled look.
The ME continued, "Lividity indicates she died lying faceup, but see the dual pattern on her arms and legs? They were repositioned after the blood pooling started, but before rigor set in."
"What time would you estimate she was moved here?" Mick asked when no one else did.
"Early Tuesday morning, roughly six hours postmortem. I expect he moved her while it was still dark."
"We'll canvass the area," Robbins said. "We have some early risers around here."
Mick nodded, noting the unspoken commentary. This is our city. We know our people. Fine, he thought, as long as they tell you something. The locals sometimes resented SLED's involvement, but with a multi-county case like this, the state police's participation was essential.
Greg Lewis, the responding patrol officer, called from the edge of the clearing. "Crime Scene van's here. You ready for them?"
Robbins looked at Mick. "Are you lead, Agent O'Shaughnessy? Or one of us?"
"I'm advisory at this point. But my gut says she's number three."
"Okay." Robbins turned to Lewis. "I'm lead. Send 'em up."
Outdoor crime scenes needed to be processed quickly. Animals carried off evidence. Storms washed away footprints, blood and semen. The wind scattered everything. There were no walls or locked doors to keep out trespassers. It would get dark before they finished, further complicating the search.
Mick and Lewis followed the dirt road toward the cluster of marked and unmarked police cars parked at the entrance to Lynches Woods Park. Rolling hills extended in all directions, covered with pines, oaks, sassafras and poplars. The cooler October nights were turning the poplars yellow, but overall the place still felt like a quiet, green retreat. In a rural area-which included most of Newberry County-a park like this wouldn't draw as many visitors as a similar oasis in a larger city. A murderer would be practically assured of privacy.
"The park's inside the city limits?" Mick asked. New-berry was a small town. He'd expected to find the sheriff's department in charge.
Lewis nodded. "Conservation Corps built the place in the thirties. It's not very big-only a couple hundred acres. We don't have much trouble out here. Used to be, you'd only see one or two cars on a weekday. There's more now that we hooked up with the Palmetto Trail." He gestured at a sign marking the trailhead. "'Course Central Tech backs up to the property. You get some students over here."
"There's no perimeter fence. They've cut some paths over from the campus."
Mick motioned to the chain blocking access to the park's interior. "That's always there?"
"The maintenance guys have a key, but everybody knows this road's closed. They stay on the main drive to the parking lot."
The dirt roads were well-maintained. The killer wouldn't have needed four-wheel drive. Flags along the road's shoulder marked the car's path. Tire tracks. Mick smiled. Finally, physical evidence to work with. Other flags marked scuffed-over footprints. Several of the prints remained clear enough to cast.
"The guy who found her "
Lewis consulted his notebook as they approached the parking area. Just beyond them, a dejected-looking man sat on a picnic table with his head in his hands. "His name's Phillip Lyles. He started his ride at noon, did the Main Loop, then backtracked to the Spur. Picked up the dirt road to ride out as a cooldown. Said the smell about knocked him off his bike."
They glanced at the cyclist who still looked as green as the diamonds decorating his spandex jersey.
"He served in Iraq. He knew exactly what it was. Called nine-one-one from his cell."
"The call came in at 12:57 p.m. The time's right if he rode where he said he did."
"Sounds like you ride."
Lewis nodded. "I try to go midweek. The weekends get crowded."
"Did he say whether anybody else was here when he arrived?"
"Had the place to himself. We got here about five minutes after the call came in. I walked in far enough to confirm the body, then backed out and secured the scene."
Lyles glanced up when they ducked under the perimeter tape, as if hoping they could tell him he could finally go home. Mick stored an impression of tired eyes, wiry muscle and sweat-matted hair before the man resumed his inspection of the dirt at his feet.
Mick left Lewis talking to the cyclist. He exchanged his sports coat for a nylon SLED windbreaker and rejoined the Newberry police. By the time the CSU completed its grid search, he was tired, filthy and sick of swatting bugs. They needed a hard freeze to kill the damn things, but they weren't likely to get one for another month. He drove to his motel, stripped and dropped his clothes directly into the laundry bag. The shower washed the stench from his hair and skin, and the warm water loosened the tight muscles in his back.
Emily Geiger had vanished Monday morning. Tonight, someone, probably her father, would identify her body. At the autopsy tomorrow, the coroner would confirm both the corpse's identity and whether this was victim number three. By tomorrow, his captain would notify him of the Newberry PD's official request for assistance. He wished he had more to offer than frustration and an inability to locate the monster who'd raped and killed three young women.
The library closed at midnight. Normally, the doors closed at nine, but during midterms, students and faculty had access to the reference materials, space, and quiet for three extra hours. Tucked away in a third-floor carrel reserved for graduate students, Meg Connelly had been grading papers. Occupied with the chore, she hadn't noticed the building gradually empty.
The librarian locked the door after Meg stepped outside. The library's rosy brick facade contrasted with the wireless technology hidden behind the Gone with the Wind exterior. A small liberal arts school in a small town in South Carolina, Douglass College had a respectable academic reputation, but at times it seemed as if the second half of the twentieth century had passed unnoticed.
Meg paused at the top of the limestone steps that descended to the quadrangle. Mature oaks and magnolias flourished above the magnificent azaleas lining the brick pathways. A long rectangle, the quad extended east from the library to the Admin Building. Silent, darkened classroom buildings surrounded it. A shorter, north-south corridor crossed midway. The quiet splash of the intersection's fountain murmured beneath the other nocturnal sounds: frogs, insects, and an occasional bird. A gaudier fountain on the northern leg marked the center of Greek housing. Meg's apartment, one of six carved from an old Victorian, stood on a cross street just beyond the sorority houses.
During the day, the quad's lawn formed an outdoor living room for students to read, nap and dream away the afternoon. After dark, it was simply dark. The widely spaced, decorative lampposts left enigmatic pools of shadows that shifted against the thick shrubbery. The leaves whispering in the breeze urged caution.
Meg clutched her messenger bag and surveyed the deserted area. Normally, the dark didn't bother her. After three years, she could walk across campus blindfolded. Douglass was a cocoon of safety, isolated from the violence delivered by television and newspapers. Half the time, people didn't lock the doors. But earlier this week, Emily Geiger had been kidnapped from nearby Windsor College. Only thirty miles separated the schools, and everyone was on edge.
She eyed the shadowy expanse and wished she'd called the campus escort service before leaving the security of the brightly lit reading room. Now the library was closed and Meg couldn't afford a cell phone. She descended the stairs, acutely aware of the thud of her sneakers against the stone, and reached the path that angled northeast across the quad.
She jumped and spun around, then forced her tense muscles to relax as she recognized Tony Baldwin and Dino Famiglio. Both were in her statistics class. For SAEs they weren't bad guys. A fifth-year senior, Tony was concentrating on school this fall instead of football. For once, his bulk felt welcome rather than intimidating.
"How come you were at the library?" Tony asked.
"Maybe the better question is, why weren't you?"
He shrugged. "I was earlier. We took a break and went into town for pizza."
And beer, by the smell of it, she noted.
Tony moved closer. "Do we really have to turn in the stat project this week?"
Meg adjusted her messenger bag. "It's been on the syllabus since the beginning of the term."
"I don't suppose I could talk you into helping me? Maybe some private tutoring?"
She rolled her eyes. "Stop by my office if you need help. During regular hours."
He dropped his arm around her shoulders. "I could get ideas from you."
"You already have too many ideas." She laughed and shrugged off his arm. "Remember we talked about boundaries? Me, teacher. You, student."
"Go long," he said to Dino, who obligingly sprinted ahead. Tony faked a football pass and Dino mimed the catch and score.
Tony turned back to Meg. He smiled slyly and pulled the ribbon from her hair. The curly auburn mass tumbled around her face. "You should wear your hair down. You look like a nun with it pulled back."
"Boundaries, Tony, boundaries. Besides, maybe I secretly am a nun." She reached for the band. "Give that back."
He dangled it above her head. "You should listen to my ideas. I have great ideas. Lots of them involve you."
"You say the sweetest things. I can't imagine why girls aren't falling all over you." The problem was girls did fall all over Tony, and he couldn't understand why she didn't. He had been trying all semester, with varying degrees of effort, to get into her pants. She constantly blocked his moves. Sometimes she wanted to suggest indifference as an effective strategy to the girls who struggled to attract his attention.
Meg grabbed the ribbon and followed Dino's path. They caught up to him as he finished his victory dance. Abruptly, Dino stopped and turned his head. "Sounds like a party at the Trev."
Feminine giggles came from the direction of the Greek's fountain. Alumni from some forgotten class had installed an elaborate fountain the students immediately dubbed the Trev. As in the Roman incarnation, Neptune rose amid swirling waters, riding a chariot drawn by winged sea horses. Unlike the original, the Trev sported mermaids around the perimeter. Water gushed in a noisy cascade from the seashells poised in their hands.
A group of women stood next to the fountain. The circle opened, and Meg's mouth sagged open in shock as Didi Hammond, clad only in her Victoria's Secret underwear, lurched toward the wide ledge surrounding the Trev.
"Oh, my God!" Meg turned appalled eyes from Didi to Tony.
"No way," he said with a laugh.
Uptight, uber-bitch Didi? Drunk? In her underwear?
Normally the sophomore wrapped her upper-class entitlement so tightly around herself Meg wondered how she could breathe.
Didi climbed over the ledge into the knee-deep pool. Egged on by the cheering women, she turned an unsteady pirouette. Someone added liquid soap, and bubbles exploded under Neptune's steely gaze. Didi giggled and grabbed at the spume. She slipped and landed mid-pool with a wave of foam.
"Go, Didi!" Dino added an enthusiastic male voice to the women's encouragement.
Didi crawled to the nearest mermaid and hauled herself upright. The self-appointed guardian of virtue cavorted in what were now see-through undergarments, splashing mounds of bubbles at her admiring audience.
Other male voices approached the fountain. Once they reached the surrounding lights, Meg realized the voices belonged to Sigma Nus who were half-carrying Didi's boyfriend, Brad. He was equally drunk, very naked, and obviously very happy to see Didi. He clambered over the ledge, tripped and belly flopped into the fountain, splashing water and bubbles over the growing crowd.
"Hope he didn't break anything important," Tony murmured into Meg's ear. Given the husky note in his voice, he found the scene a turn-on rather than appallingly amusing.
"Maybe it'll keep him from reproducing."
Brad staggered to his feet and caught Didi in a sloppy embrace. Within seconds, his tongue was down her throat and his hands were in her panties. Didi clung to his shoulders and hooked a leg around him.
"Go for it," the guys called.
"You don't think he'll actually ?" Meg tugged on Tony's arm.
"If we're lucky," Dino answered from her other side.
If anyone deserved the chance to make a fool of herself, it was Didi, but drunken sex as a spectator sport went too far. "Do something, Tony."
"Com'on, Teach. They're just doing what comes natural."
More people poured from the surrounding buildings and camera phones flashed.
"We can't let them screw in front of everybody."
"I'm not sure they know or care."
Meg gave him an exasperated glare and shoved past the people closest to the fountain. "Didi," she called as she pulled off her first sneaker.
Tony sighed and followed her. "I'll do it."
He stepped over the ledge and waded toward the oblivious couple. Smacking Brad's shoulder, he knocked him back several feet. Didi lost her balance and fell, landing in a billow of bubbles. Brad gaped drunkenly at Tony. "Wha-a?" He looked around as if he'd lost something, but couldn't quite remember what. "Didi?"
Tony hauled Didi to her feet. "She's right here. You need to get a room, man."
The pair gaped at him, as if their hearing were on a time delay setting. Slowly, Didi's head turned, her eyes squinting at the sea of faces surrounding the fountain. A flurry of activity caught her attention, and a well-dressed brunette emerged from the crowd.
The woman stared, horrified, at the sodden trio. "Oh, my God, Didi. What did they do to you?"
Didi blinked as her friend's words apparently registered. She sank to her knees and crossed her arms over her chest. "They made me do it," she sobbed.