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Offices of Forensic Instincts, LLC Tribeca, Manhattan, New York
Just one more body.
But this one had a name. And a grieving father who needed answers before he died.
Casey Woods shoved the dozens of newspaper clippings that she'd collected into the thick file and slapped it shut. Then she leaned back in her chair, pressing her fingers to her closed eyelids.
It was Sunday, just after dawn. The streets were sleepy, occupied only by ambitious joggers and early morning coffee drinkers headed for the nearest Starbucks.
The brownstone that housed the private investigative firm Forensic Instincts was quiet.
Caseythe company presidentwas alone in the building, other than her bloodhound, Hero, who was stretched out by her feet, resting but alert. Casey had been up and working all night. Sleep wasn't on her agenda. Work was.
As usual, she sat at the large second-floor conference room table, her notes sprawled in front of her. There were plenty of smaller offices to choose from in the four-story brownstone. She could even have worked in bed, since the fourth floor was her apartment. But the main conference room infused her with a sense of discipline and productivity she didn't get anywhere else.
She needed to be productive now.
She wasn't doing a hell of a good job.
Purposefully, she picked up the notes she'd printed out last night after her client meeting and reread them. She was unnerved, not by the meeting but by the entire case. That didn't make her happy. She liked being in control. She almost always was.
This time was different. It wasn't because this new assignment had come from the NYPD rather than from the client himself, but because it established a connection that was both unexpected and shocking. Not in the eyes of the police, who would have no reason to spot the common thread. But in Casey's eyes? Instant recognition. A major punch in the gut, and a throwback to a time of her life that had been traumatic.
The tragedy remained unbearably painful, even after fifteen years.
And now? A different case. A different victim. But the same university. The same year. The same basic physical descriptions. One victim was murdered. One was missingpossibly murdered.
How could all that be a coincidence?
The murder, which was branded in Casey's memory, had been tagged a cold case. Still, for her, it had never gone away. Now, out of the blue, it was back, albeit from an entirely different angle, centered on an entirely different girl. The enormity of it had hit her hard.
The first caseher case, the one involving her friendhad been the driving force that ultimately led her to form Forensic Instincts. She'd never forgotten, never gotten over it. And now, after talking to Mr. Olson last night, seeing how gaunt he was, reading the anguish in his hollow eyes, she found her own memories crashing back
Casey nearly leaped from her chair as a firm hand was planted on her shoulder.
Instinctively, she whirled around to defend herself. Hero leaped up and began to bark at her abrupt reaction.
"Hey, both of you, take it easy. It's me." Patrick Lynch, one of her valued FI team members, walked around the conference table and lowered himself into a chair. Hero followed, and Patrick leaned down to scratch his ears. The human-scent evidence dogthe sole canine FI team membersat down to enjoy the attention.
Simultaneously, a wall of floor-to-ceiling video screens began to glow, and a long green line formed across each panel, pulsing from left to right. "Good morning, Patrick," a computerized voice greeted him. The voice emanated from everywhere in the room, bending each line into the contours of the voice panel. "Casey, I apologize for not alerting you to Patrick's arrival before you became alarmed. But you did put me in sleep mode. I responded the instant I sensed activity." A pause. "Your heart rate has accelerated. There is no need."
"I can see that now, Yoda," Casey responded dryly. "A minute ago I thought I was being attacked." She'd long since ceased questioning the artificial intelligence system built by team member Ryan McKay. She just accepted that Ryan was a genius and Yoda was omniscient.
Patrick did the same. "Not to worry, Yoda," he said, addressing the voice. "I have a feeling Casey wasn't in a good place even before I walked in."
"Correct," Yoda confirmed. "She is under duress."
Casey didn't deny it. "You should be home with Adele," she told Patrick. "Your wife will have my head if she thinks I've got you slaving away on a Sunday morning without a damned good reason."
"Adele knows where I am, and she's fine with it." Patrick studied Casey's expression. "Besides, I couldn't sleep."
"So you drove in from New Jersey to visit, since you don't already spend enough hours at work?"
"No. I followed a hunch and made a phone call to Marc."
Marc Devereaux was Casey's first hire for Forensic Instincts, and her right hand. He was a former navy SEAL, former FBI agent and former member of the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit in Quantico, Virginia. He was the total package, and he'd been with Casey from the beginning.
"You haven't been yourself in days," Patrick continued. "Not since I introduced this case. Now I realize why. Marc was reluctant, but he finally filled me in on what he thought I should know. So here I am. I'm sorry, Casey. I never would have brought this case to the table if I had a clue what it meant to you personally, or what it would do to you."
"How could you have? Talk about a bizarre coincidence. What are the chances of that happening? And now that it has, my personal feelings shouldn't factor into it. The case is important. It has to be investigated."
Patrick arched a brow. "This is me you're talking to. Who's more apt to understand your internal conflict and ambivalence?"
Casey tucked a strand of shoulder-length red hair behind her ear. Patrick was right. He'd understand better than anyone. He'd lived through it firsthand.
He'd been an FBI agent for over thirty years before coming on board at Forensic Instincts. His joining the team had been the direct result of a child kidnapping case that had haunted him since early in his career and had resurfaced in a new form that was investigated by FI. The emotional reverberations had eaten away at him.
"This situation is different," Casey said. "You had no idea you were treading on my Achilles' heel. There's no need to feel guilty."
"I don't feel guilty. I feel responsible."
"You shouldn't. Captain Sharp is your friend."
Patrick nodded. He'd spent a chunk of his FBI time working the Joint Robbery Task Force with NYPD Captain Horace Sharp. They'd become tight. So when Horace had been approached by a dying neighbor, Daniel Olson, begging him for closure, convinced that his long-missing daughter had been murdered and pleading with him to find her body, Horace had agreed to tryif Forensic Instincts agreed to work the case jointly with his detectives. FI had the money and the manpower to give to this case-that-wasn't-a-case. The NYPD didn't. As a result, the retainer was an IOUa favor to be redeemed sometime in the future. And the stipulation was that Forensic Instincts would work with the police detectives, not alone.
So, yes, Patrick had brought the case to the FI team. But from the minute they'd sat around the table discussing it, he'd picked up on some weird vibes. He'd waited patiently for someone to fill him in. No one did. Not in three days. So he'd finally taken the bull by the horns and called Marc. And now he got it. This was close to home for Caseymaybe too close.
Watching her now, seeing how conflicted she was, only substantiated his concerns.
"Should I tell Horace we can't help Mr. Olson?"
"No." Casey gave a hard shake of her head. "You shouldn't. Our team has the skills. I have the insight. My reaction is my problem. Not yours." She paused for a moment. "But at least now you know the reason for my crazy behavior. I should have told you myself. I just wasn't ready."
Casey rose, walking over to the windows and folding her arms across her chest. "I'm not handling this well. It pisses me off that, after all this time, I'm still so emotionally affected."
"Stop beating yourself up. It is what it is. Delving back into the past is both a blessing and a curse. It reopens old wounds. It makes them bleed. But sometimes it also helps them heal."
A hint of a smile. "When did you become so philosophical?"
"It's called the voice of experience."
"Yes, well, your experience held you emotionally hostage for thirty-two years."
"You're right. It did. Which is precisely why I'm the person you should be talking to."
Casey couldn't dispute that. "In your case, you found closure. I thought I'd found some level of closure with my case, toowhen they located Holly's body. But I was wrong. I guess I'll never get closure. Because the bastard who raped and killed Holly when we were in college was never caught. And that's what I'd need to find peace."
"I know." Patrick, as always, was blunt. "I also know that might never happen."
"Unless it turns out that Jan Olson was murdered and that her killer is the same offender who raped and killed Holly," Casey said quietly. "It's possible, Patrick. The facts are closely related.
Maybe our investigation into Jan Olson's disappearance will lead us to Holly's killer."
Patrick didn't look surprised by Casey's theory. He'd obviously expected her mind to veer in that direction. It was natural, given the circumstances. "I hear you," he responded. "And I'm not arguing that the parallels are strong. But identifying the murderer after fifteen years? It's a long shot. And we were hired to find a body, not an offender."
"You don't need to remind me." Casey's jaw tightened. "Our job is to find the body of Daniel Olson's daughter. To help him find peace. Stage four pancreatic cancer is a death sentence. He's only got weeks or months to live."
"By giving him what he needs, we'll be paying tribute to your friend Holly," Patrick said. "You could look at it that way."
"My head knows that's true. But I'm having problems separating my head from my heart. I need objectivity in order to run this investigation." She turned to frown at Patrick. "And if you suggest that I take a backseat and let you head up this caseor worse, Marc, Ryan or ClaireI'll punch you first and call you a hypocrite second."
"Then lucky for me I wasn't going to do that. You've got a mean right hook." Patrick gave a wry smileone that rapidly faded. "But, Casey, you're thrown by this. Badly. You've got to work through that. Why don't you tell me the details about your friend Holly? Marc was his usual tight-lipped self. He gave me just the need-to-know basics. You've discussed the details with him, and maybe even Ryan and Claire, but I think, in this situation, I'm the one who can help you focus."
"Marc knows more than anyone, except Hutch. Hutch is the only one I've totally broken down to."
Marc had introduced her to HutchSupervisory Special Agent Kyle Hutchinsonwho was currently with the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit, and who'd become the man in Casey's life.
"Okay, so Hutch and Marc know," Patrick acknowledged. "Now it's time you talked to a kindred spiritme."
"You could have researched the case yourself," Casey pointed out. "You certainly have the contacts."
"You're right. I do. But they could only supply me with facts. They couldn't offer me your perspective. Only you can. So I'm listening."
Casey nodded, walking over to make two cups of black coffee from their Keurig, then returning to the conference room table.
She handed a cup to Patrick, then took her own cup and sat down.
"I was a freshman at Columbia. My friend Holly Stevens lived off campus. She was a loner, very shy and reserved. She had a few close friends. I was one of them. We met in Psych 101 and hit it off. One day, she told me she sensed she was being followed, even stalked. I urged her to go to the police. She did. They had nothing solid to work with, so they arranged for a few patrol cars to keep an eye on her apartment. It wasn't enough."
Casey drew a slow, unsteady breath, staring into her coffee as she spoke. "Holly's body was found wrapped in a canvas tarp and tossed in a Dumpster a few weeks later. She'd been raped and murdered. It was a nightmareone that could have been avoided with the proper resources."
"You weren't those resources, Casey. Not back then."
"But I was the one Holly confided in. Irrational as it might seem, I always felt that maybe I missed an opportunity to prevent what happened."
"That irrationality is what's getting in your way now. Lose it. You may not have had the right resources to do what should've been done then, but you have the right tools for what you need to do now. You have Forensic Instincts."
"Which is why I can't let this case slip through my fingers. Not that I blame the police for what happened to Holly. I don't. They did all they could. But a private investigative firm with our expertise could have done more. We could have focused our manpower and our skills on her predicament, dug deeper, put enough security on her to keep her safe. But, as you said, we didn't exist, not then. Now we do. And now I've been approached to help a dying man find his daughter's bodya man whose daughter could very well have been killed by the same psycho pervert who killed Holly. The time frame fits. The location fits. The victimology fits. If I'm right, that would make this bastard a repeat offender, maybe a serial killer. Which paints an even more gruesome story. He was never caught. Jan Olson's body was never found. How many others were there?"
"That's a question we might or might not be able to answer." Patrick took a deep swallow of coffee, continuing to share his thoughts with Casey in a calm, straightforward manner. "I know you want to go back and solve it allcatch the killer, assign names to all his victims and provide closure for all the families involved. Maybe we can make that happen. I don't know. What I do know is that the best way to increase our odds is to fulfill our obligation."
Follow the case that's been handed to us. Find Jan Olson's body.
"That's how it was with me, remember? Start with the present, step back into the past. This process is going to take you down some dark alleys. You're going to lose a lot of sleep and relive some painful memories. But you need this. Otherwise, you would have squashed the case the minute I brought it to the team. You knew it was too close to home, that you probably should refer it out. But you didn't. You're the president of Forensic Instincts. You made the call for us to take on the caseand you made it without missing a beat."