It’s been seven years since the Seattle Strangler terrorized the city. His victims were all young, pretty, their lifeless bodies found wrapped in a home-sewn white dress. But there was one who miraculously escaped death, just before the Strangler disappeared . . .
Lara Church has only hazy memories of her long-ago attack. What she does have is a home in Austin, a job, and a chance at a normal life at last. Then Texas Ranger James Beck arrives on her doorstep with shattering news: The Strangler is back. And this time, he’s in Austin . . .
AND KILL AGAIN . . .
He’s always craved her, even as he killed the others. For so long he’s been waiting to unleash the beast within. And this time, he’ll prove he holds her life in his hands—right before he ends it forever . . .
“Dark and disturbing, a well-written tale of obsession and murder.”
—Kat Martin, New York Times bestselling author
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Austin, Texas Monday, May 20, 6:45 AM
Stop and smell the roses.
Texas Ranger James Beck's captain had spoken those last glib words seconds after he'd put Beck on paid administrative leave three weeks ago.
The words rattled in Beck's head as he parked his black Bronco at a murder scene located twenty miles south of Austin off Interstate 35's access road. The day's new sun glowed red over the haze of heat, rising over rolling, dusty Western lands blanketed with rocks, brush, and scrubby trees. On the road's shoulder sat a sidelined truck hauling lumber, a half dozen county sheriff's cars, and a forensics van. Already early-morning commuter rubberneckers had snarled morning traffic.
Oddly, the controlled chaos eased the tightness bunching the muscles in Beck's lower back. He was officially back in the saddle and free of the oppressive slower pace of a forced "vacation."
The seeds of Beck's trouble began six months ago when Misty Gray, a ten-year-old girl, had vanished. The last person to see Misty had been her mother's live-in boyfriend, Matt Dial, who reported to police that the girl had left to play with friends and then vanished.
After three days and no sign of the child, local authorities had summoned the Texas Rangers and Beck had been assigned to the case. The Rangers, often relegated to tales of the old West, were in fact a modern, elite part of the Texas Department of Public Safety, known as DPS.
Twenty minutes into Beck's interview with Dial, he knew the construction worker was lying. But the more questions Beck fired, the faster Dial shot back denials.
Finding Misty became Beck's personal mission, and he stayed on Dial long after media stories shifted from rescue to recovery. When Dial, who turned out to be the black sheep of a well-connected family, complained about Beck's dogged trailing, Beck's boss ordered the Ranger to stand down until the political winds eased. Beck disobeyed, using personal time to trail Dial. Two weeks went by before the out-of-work construction worker made a midnight run to a deserted farm. Beck, trailing close, watched Dial unlock an old shed and drag out a large plastic bag that could easily hold a child's body. Weapon drawn, Beck called out to Dial, who raised a .45 and fired. Dial's shot trailed high, but Beck's shots struck Dial in the chest, dropping him instantly. Misty's decomposing body was in the bag.
Forensic investigators found childlike messages scratched on the shed walls, scattered food wrappers and empty water jugs. They theorized the girl had lasted three weeks in the shed before she'd died of dehydration.
When Dial family attorneys attacked the child's character during the ensuing investigation, Beck's temper had blown. He'd spoken words a politically aware man would have avoided and in the end, Beck's commander had saddled him with paid leave.
"Enjoy the next three weeks. Lay low. Stop and smell the roses."
Beck's downtime had been spent at his grandfather's garage getting his hands dirty under the hood of a '67 Mustang. Never once had Beck been plagued by his own actions or his razor-sharp candor to the attorneys. When asked during mandatory counseling sessions if he had any misgivings about the shooting, he'd honestly said he had none. His regrets were for the little girl who'd suffered alone for three weeks. The little girl he didn't save.
Beck rubbed a calloused hand over tense neck muscles as police lights bounced off the freshly waxed hood of his car and yellow crime scene tape brushed brittle, brown grass skirting the access road. He grabbed his white Stetson, standard gear for a Texas Ranger, and got out of the car.
His exile had officially ended.
Gravel crunched under his polished cowboy boots and bone-dry dirt dusted the hem of his khakis as he moved down the side of the access road past the truck and the line of cop cars.
At thirty-five he moved with the quick stride of a younger man. When teased about his fast pace he joked too many hits playing high school quarterback had left him edgy and ready to dodge.
Beck nodded to the local deputies, paused to talk to some, shook hands with others. All offered best wishes and hearty welcomes.
One hundred feet off the road he spotted fellow Texas Ranger Rick Santos. Tall, and lean as gristle, Santos pulled off his own Stetson and wiped a red bandanna over his damp brow. As the thirtysomething Santos glanced toward the morning sky, Beck could almost hear him curse the temperature, which was expected to kick up over one hundred degrees. Texans often said the state had two seasons: winter and summer.
The sun had etched lines around Santos's eyes, tanned his skin golden, and left blue-black highlights in already dark hair. Santos's uniform was similar to Beck's, though he favored string ties over Beck's traditional.
Beck glanced toward the forensics van, which blocked the view of the body. The 5 AM call from Beck's captain in Austin hadn't supplied Beck with many case details: female, young, and found midway between the seventy-mile stretch between Austin and San Antonio. This crime scene fell smack in the heart of the Texas Rangers' largest division, Company F, which spanned counties south of San Antonio to several north of Austin.
As Beck approached, the San Antonio-based Santos extended his hand. "Looks like we both were invited to the party."
Santos clasped his hand, squeezed hard. "I hear the captain's call pulled you out from under a car engine early this morning. Still working on the piece of crap you call a car?"
Too restless to sleep, too early for the first-day-back arrival, he'd gone to his grandfather's garage at 3 AM and tinkered with the Mustang. "Keeps me out of trouble."
A muscle twitched once, twice in the side of Santos's jaw. "No one liked seeing you off the streets."
Anger, he thought, conquered, clawed beneath the surface even as he reminded himself that dwelling wouldn't help him catch the next monster. "Penance is good for the soul."
Santos looked as if he wanted to say more, but he let it pass. "You know Deputy Eli Stiles, right?" "Sure. We worked a couple of car theft cases."
"Good. I'll let him fill you in on the details."
They found Eli standing just outside the crime scene tape watching his technicians work. He was a tall man with a neatly shaved head and a wide salt-and-pepper mustache. Though he'd been well muscled in his youth, thirty years in a patrol car had thickened his belly.
Deputy Stiles gripped Beck's hand in an iron hold. "Good to see you back in action, boy."
His intent was to avoid all inquiries, even the well-meaning ones, about the last three weeks. Time to move forward. "I know this isn't a social call."
Deputy Stiles tugged his hat forward a fraction. "No, sir, it is not. I have a Jane Doe I want you to see."
Beck nodded. "What's special about this one?"
"This whole setup is off, which is why I called in the Rangers."
Beck rested his hands on his hips. "Why off?"
The deputy shook his head. "You tell me."
"Have a look at her, Beck," Santos said. "You'll see."
The trio ducked under the yellow crime scene tape and came up behind the forensic technician, who for a moment blocked the view of the body. When the tech shifted her stance Beck got his first real look at the victim.
The woman lay on her back, her hands folded over her chest. Blond hair splayed out onto the ground mirroring a fully fanned skirt. She looked like some grim angel.
"Minute I saw her, I thought about the dead woman they found in San Antonio three weeks ago," Deputy Stiles said.
Benched at the time, Beck's information on the San Antonio murder had come from the newspaper. There'd been three articles about the San Antonio victim, and to his recollection, her picture had not been released. "Why do you say that?"
"Not a whole lot left of her after weeks, maybe months outside. What the sun and rain didn't get, the animals dragged off. No identification found on her, but local law determined that she'd been wearing a white dress."
"A white dress," Santos said. "Common enough, isn't it?"
Deep worry lines were etched into Stiles's forehead and at his temples. "On one victim it might be. On two, well, call me jaded, but I don't think so," he said.
Seeing this victim struck a chord deep in Beck's memory that went farther back than a month. But the harder he tried to wrangle the memory the faster it pranced out of reach.
The three men stared at the body, the air around them pulsing.
Finally, Santos broke the silence. "When Stiles mentioned the San Antonio murder, I pulled up my computer files on the case." He shifted his stance. "According to the report the local sheriff used approximate characteristics from the medical examiner and matched their victim to a missing persons report. Long story short, her name was Lou Ellen Fisk, age twenty-two. She lived just north of San Antonio."
Deputy Stiles hooked his thumbs in his belt. "Local boys figured the boyfriend killed her. Fisk and her man had had their share of fights."
Santos nodded. "He didn't much like the idea that she was graduating from college and moving to Chicago. They haven't pinned the murder on him, but the cops think it's a matter of time."
"He got an alibi?" Beck said.
"Pack of his buddies swore he was drinking with them most of the night."
"So what does Lou Ellen Fisk have to do with this victim?"
"White dress, young, blond," Stiles said. "Can't speak to the Fisk case, but whoever killed this little gal, planned it all out."
Beck pulled rubber gloves from his back pocket and moved toward the technician working the site. The cast of his shadow caught the technician's attention. She rose and turned, and he recognized her immediately. "Melinda Ashburn."
She'd worked the murder of Misty Gray. He'd watched her open the bag and tenderly examine and record what remained of the little girl's body. In her late twenties, Melinda wore dark sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat that protected a stock of red hair and pale, freckled skin. "Good to see you back, Sergeant Beck."
"Good to be back. What did you find, ma'am?"
"Still taking pictures and sketching. As you can see she's got a good bit of bruising around her neck. My guess is strangulation."
"Yes, ma'am, I do see that." The rising heat of the day beat down on Beck. The body had yet to take on the coiling smells of decay, but that would soon change. Nighttime temperatures had bumped close to eighty and faint dark patches, the first signs of decomposition, had started to appear on her cheeks. Soon the body would bloat and then split. By sunset she'd barely be recognizable. If left out here a couple of days, she'd quickly go the way of Lou Ellen Fisk.
He crouched and studied the details: neatly trimmed nails, delicate hands that didn't look like they'd seen hard labor and smooth skin unmarked by the hard Texas sun. "She can't be much more than twenty."
"That's my guess," Melinda said.
"None that I've found. But we'll roll her prints as soon as she gets to the medical examiner's office."
Prints were no guarantee of identification. If she wasn't in the Automated Fingerprints System known as AFIS, they'd start digging through missing persons reports. "Any signs of bruising or wounds on her face or arms?"
A warm wind skidded across the grass, teasing the hem of the victim's white skirt. Her almost peaceful features mocked what had to have been terrifying last minutes.
Beck flexed his gloved fingers as he stared at the woman. "Is she clenching something in her right hand?"
"I think so," Melinda said. "I'll be getting to it soon enough."
"I don't want to rush your process, but when you open that hand let me know what you find." Again a vague memory pestered.
Beck rose, thanked Melinda, and turned to Santos. A muscle in the back of Beck's neck tensed as it did when he grabbed for a memory out of his reach. "Why does this case feel familiar?" "Bugging the hell out of me, too," Santos said.
Beck rested hands on hips as he mentally shuffled through old case files. Strangulation. White dresses. Blond females. And then the memory hit. "Remember the Seattle murders six or seven years ago?"
Santos rubbed his chin. "I do. I was still with DPS then. The press called him the ... Seattle Strangler."
As mental gates opened, the memories flooded. "Six women were strangled and all were wearing white. Each had a penny in her hand." The penny detail had never been released to the public but Beck had heard about it through police channels.
Santos nodded. "Good memory."
"He caused a panic in Seattle. I read about it in some report, but when the case went cold, it was pushed to the back burner."
"The guy ever caught?"
"From what I remember, no. His last victim survived. The killer went dark, and I heard all kinds of theories. He was jailed. Died. Moved on. Lost his nerve."
"What happened to the last victim?" Santos said.
"A passing motorist interrupted the attack." Beck dug deeper. "The surviving victim claimed no memory of the assault."
Santos glanced toward the victim splayed in the dirt. "San Antonio victim's bones were bleached white and scattered by the animals. We don't know how she died. And a penny didn't turn up during the search."
"No one was looking for it."
"True. And if the killer left a penny, we had a hell of a storm last month that likely washed it away."
As Santos turned to respond to a question from a DPS officer, Beck shoved out a breath and turned back toward the body. "Melinda, would you do me a favor and have a look inside that gal's hand? Mighty important."
She nodded and squatted by the clenched hand. Carefully, she peeled back fingers stiffening with rigor mortis. As she raised her camera to photograph her discovery, she said, "There's a penny."
Beck leaned closer. "You sure about that?"
"Very." She snapped dozens more pictures.
Beck called Santos over and pointed to the victim's hand.
Santos took one look at the penny and swore. "This nut might have resurfaced in Texas?" "Or a copycat." Beck rubbed the back of his neck with his hand. He'd need all the information San Antonio had on the first victim and an identity on this victim quickly.
"These cases could stir up a hornet's nest," Santos said.
"I believe you are right."
Melinda bagged the penny in a small zip-top evidence bag. "Beck, I'll pass it on to the medical examiner in Austin."
"Thanks, Melinda. Appreciate that." Beck turned to Santos. "I've got to get situated in the office, and then I'll swing by the medical examiner's office. I want to be there for the autopsy." He'd not seen his desk in three weeks, but he welcomed the waiting chaos.
"Sounds good, Sergeant."
Beck turned back toward the road and caught sight of the big rig. The massive black cab hauled a trailer loaded with lumber. "You said a trucker called in this murder?"
"He still in his rig?"
"Yep, and getting more pissed by the minute. He's squawking about schedules."
"Let me talk to him." Beck moved toward the truck cab and knocked on the driver's-side door window. No one was in the cab, but these big rigs came with a rear sleep compartment. Beck's grandfather, Henry Beck, had been a long-haul trucker in his younger days before opening his garage and often said that during his trucking days, he'd have traded a year's worth of steak and sex for a solid twelve hours of sleep.
Beck pounded his fist on the side of the cab. Finally, a gruff, "Just a damn minute."
Beck stepped back, squinting north over the median into the oncoming interstate traffic, now moving slower and slower as motorists tried to glimpse the crime scene. Soon there'd be a hell of a backup on I-35.
After some shuffling, cussing, and more shuffling the cab door opened and a tall bear of a man appeared. He wore jeans, a Dallas Cowboys black T-shirt, and a belt buckle shaped like Texas. He grabbed his hat from the cab, smoothing back thick gray hair before settling the cap on his head. "You here to tell me I can go?"
"In just a minute or two. Right now I'd like a rundown."
The trucker pulled a can of dip from his back pocket and tucked a pinch of tobacco in his cheek. "I already told the other cops."
Beck shoved aside irritation. "And I do appreciate that. I do. But mind running it by me one more time, Mister ...?"
"Raynor. Billie Raynor."
He pulled a small notebook and pen from his back pocket. "You're from?"
"So how'd you find the body? Can't be seen from the road."
Excerpted from "The Seventh Victim"
Copyright © 2013 Mary Burton.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This
"Bestseller Burton (Before She Dies) delivers action-packed tension as a cold case becomes new again . . . a compelling romantic thriller." -Publishers Weekly