A serial killer is targeting prostitutes and runaways—the sort of women no one would notice were missing if not for the photographs of their lifeless bodies, posed in the back of a semi-trailer. It’s all disturbingly similar to the infamous Trucker murders. But this isn’t just a copycat. It’s a vendetta.
Carmen Jacobs interviewed the world’s most terrifying serial killers for her bestselling book, The Heart of a Predator. The police might not believe her, but she knows there’s a monster out there, paying homage to other murderers. The only person who can predict where he’ll strike next is reclusive software millionaire Griffin Archer—a man with ample reason not to help Carmen.
Carmen has charmed her way past Griffin’s defenses before. He didn’t intend to let it happen again. But with a psycho sending her gruesome trophies, Griffin has no choice but to get involved. The clues point to a killer who knows Carmen’s work, her past, and her secrets—someone determined to make all her deepest fears come true . . .
“Ivy deftly charts a course between gruesome suspense and sudden romance.”—Publishers Weekly
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December 20, Rocky Mountains
The large overnight envelope was waiting for Carmen Jacobs on the porch.
She grimaced as she glanced through the frosty window of the front door. Her first instinct was to ignore the unwelcome reminder of the outside world.
She'd rented the isolated cabin in the Rocky Mountains precisely to forget the demands of her high-profile career. Or at least, that's what she'd told her literary agent. And in part, it was true. She'd spent the past twelve months flying from city to city to sign copies of her blockbuster book, The Heart of a Predator. Her hectic schedule had also included TV and radio interviews as well as speaking engagements. She'd even spent a month in California, teaching a creative writing class.
Soon it would all start again when the paperback version of the book was released.
She deserved a break.
But the deeper need to retreat to this cabin in the dead of winter was to avoid the yearly madness that was a mandatory part of the Christmas season. She wasn't a grinch. Okay, maybe she was a little bit of a grinch. But it wasn't her fault. She was a woman without a family. And, if she was honest, without any close friends.
Usually it didn't bother her to be alone. In fact, she preferred to concentrate on her career without being encumbered by people who would be a constant distraction.
At this time of year, however, she couldn't help but feel the lack of intimate companionships. Maybe it was the sappy commercials. Or the sight of giggling children who darted through the stores. Or the distant memories of when she hadn't been alone.
Whatever the reason, she always felt the urge to retreat from the world during this time of year. And despite the fact she'd just celebrated her twenty-sixth birthday, she had the necessary funds to grant her wish.
Sipping her morning cup of hot chocolate, she watched as the snow lazily drifted from the clouds, coating the porch in a pristine layer of white.
In a few more minutes the envelope would be hidden.
She took another sip. And then another. The snow continued to float in the air. Silent. Hypnotic.
A swirling cloud of peace.
She tried to force herself to turn away. Her plans for the day included a long, hot bath. A leisurely lunch. Some prime-time romance in the form of a paperback novel. And later, a bottle of wine in front of the fire.
Nowhere in her schedule was a mysterious envelope.
Unfortunately, Carmen had one deeply imbedded character flaw.
It was the reason she'd snooped on her eighth-grade teacher after catching sight of the woman disappearing into a storage shed with the principal. That little adventure had gotten her kicked out of school. Probably because she'd posted the pictures she'd taken on the classroom bulletin board.
Three years later that same curiosity had urged her to sneak into her grandparents' attic to try to peek inside the small safe that had once belonged to her parents. She hadn't managed to open it, but she'd been caught in the act. Her grandfather had grounded her for a month and her grandmother had cried. The tears had hurt more than being forced to miss the spring formal.
On the brighter side, her curiosity had inspired her to become a journalist. And later to interview five of the most prolific serial killers to ever terrorize North America. The book she'd written after the nerve- wrenching meetings had become a number-one best seller and launched her into the world of fleeting fame.
Like disco balls and Crocs.
With a grimace she set her half-empty mug on a nearby table. She wasn't going to be able to relax until she knew what was in the envelope.
She might as well get it over with.
Wrapping the belt of her heavy robe tighter, she reluctantly pulled open the door. An instant blast of frigid air slammed into her with shocking force. Crap. The cabin had looked so picturesque in the brochure. The pine trees. The snow. The majestic mountains.
She hadn't really considered just how freaking cold it would be.
Now she scurried forward, her fuzzy slippers sliding over the icy surface. She bent down, snatching the envelope off the edge of the porch. Next year she was going to a sandy beach with lots of sun and fun.
Straightening, she paused to glance around, ensuring there was no one lurking in the small clearing. Then, with a small shiver, she darted back through the door and closed it behind her.
She brushed off the few flakes that clung to her robe before she grabbed her mug of hot chocolate and returned to the kitchen. Since she'd arrived ten days ago, the cozy room had become her favorite spot in the cabin. The wood-planked floors. The open-beamed ceiling. The worn table that was set near a window that overlooked the frozen back garden. There was even an open fireplace where she'd toasted marshmallows last night.
Now she moved to pour out the old cocoa in the sink and rinsed out her mug. She wasn't an obsessive neat freak, but she preferred to keep her surroundings organized. A psychiatrist would no doubt tell her it had something to do with her need to control some small aspect of her life. She preferred to think that she was just tidy.
Taking a seat at the table, she wavered one last time. She should toss the envelope into the fire she'd stoked to life while she was brewing her morning cup of cocoa. Snap, crackle, pop, and all her troubles would be gone. Instead, she gave a rueful shake of her head and turned it over to stare at the front.
Her name was neatly typed, along with the address of the cabin. Then her gaze shifted to the return address, not surprised to find the name of her PR firm. There were fewer than ten people who knew where she was staying.
She ripped open the envelope, only to discover another envelope inside. It was a plain manila one, with her name scrawled across the front.
Usually this would be a desperate plea for help from some unknown person.
Since the release of her book, she'd been besieged with requests for her to investigate the murder of some relative. Or pleading with her to use her contacts to get their beloved son out of prison, despite the fact he'd bludgeoned his girlfriend to death or shot a neighbor in the head. On occasion some enterprising soul managed to discover where she was staying and shoved the information under the door of her hotel, but usually the requests ended up on the desk of her agent, or even her editor, who sent them on to the PR firm.
The same firm she'd given strict orders to hold all correspondence until after the first of the year.
Which meant that they knew better than to pester her with unwanted mail unless they were hoping to be fired. Something she doubted so long as her book remained on the best-seller lists.
So why were they sending her an overnight package?
A Christmas present? An appearance on the Today Show they'd been desperate to book for her?
There was only one way to find out.
Running her finger beneath the sealed flap, she pulled out the sheet of paper. Her gaze impatiently skimmed over the handwritten note.
Holiday Greetings, dearest Carmen. The new year approaches and I offer a challenge. You can be the predator or the prey.
She scrunched her nose. Well, that was cryptic. Her gaze lowered to the signature at the bottom.
From one beat of her heart to the next, her annoyance was replaced by a bone-deep shock. With a gasp she was on her feet, knocking over the chair as she took a sharp step backward.
Details from her investigation fired randomly through her stunned brain.
Neal Scott. A forty-two-year-old truck driver from Kansas City who'd hunted whores and runaways along I-70 from Denver to Topeka. He'd killed at least twenty-seven women with a crowbar and dumped them along the highway. After his arrest in 1991 he'd admitted that he'd kept the bodies in the freezer of his semi until he found a new victim.
She pressed a hand to her racing heart, forcing herself to inch back toward the table. The envelope had been too heavy to contain only one thin sheet of paper.
Reaching out her hand, she grabbed the corner of the envelope and slowly tipped it upside down. There was a strange rustling sound and Carmen tensed. She didn't know what she was expecting, but it wasn't the stack of Polaroids that fell out of the envelope and splayed across the table.
Her breath rasped loudly in the silence as she reluctantly leaned forward. She'd seen the pictures before. They'd been found on Neal Scott when he'd been pulled over by a highway patrol. They had helped to prove Scott was the mysterious serial killer the press had dubbed the Trucker. As if the dead hooker in his trailer hadn't been enough.
Carmen pressed her lips together and reached for the pictures. She'd used copies of them in her book, which meant she was intimately familiar with the gruesome images.
On the point of shoving them back into the envelope, she stilled, her gaze locked on the shattered face of the young blond woman.
The picture was grainy, and there was blood covering the woman's brow from the brutal wound on her temple, but the rest of the features were visible.
Her face was thin, almost gaunt, with faint scars. There were newer sores on her chin. Probably from meth. And her long hair was tangled, as if she hadn't combed it in a long time.
She looked forty, but she was probably closer to twenty.
A woman who'd lived hard, and died even harder.
Carmen's hands shook as she shuffled to the next picture. Another blond. Her face was a little squarer and had been tanned to the texture of leather. But she shared the same painful thinness. And the same bloody wound on the side of her head.
There were three more pictures. All of them of young women who'd been brutally murdered.
They looked exactly like the Polaroids that'd been found on Neal Scott when he was captured. But not one of these had been used as evidence in the trial.
What the hell did that mean?
Had Scott been hiding the pictures? But where? And why send them to her?
Carmen dropped the Polaroids, wiping her fingers on her robe as if she'd been contaminated.
She had to do something. That much she knew. Unfortunately, her brain was churning without spitting out any answers. Like it was stuck in neutral.
Her gaze darted from side to side, at last landing on the large envelope that was still wet from the snow. Yes. This had started it all. The destruction of her fairy-tale vacation.
And she knew precisely who to blame for that destruction.
Cautiously backing away, she kept her gaze locked on the table. As if the pile of pictures were a rattlesnake that might decide to strike. At the same time, she stuck out her arm, blindly searching for the cell phone she'd left on the kitchen counter.
She knocked off an empty plate and tipped over a vase of flowers. Minor casualties. Then her fingers at last clenched around her phone.
Lifting it to a position where she could glance at the screen while still maintaining a close watch on the Polaroids, she hit the third button in her speed dial.
There was the sound of a buzzing as the connection was made, then a prerecorded voice floated through the air, warning Carmen that the offices were closed until after the New Year and that she was to leave a message so they could get back to her as soon as possible.
Oh, and then a bubbly wish for her to have a happy holiday season.
She ended the connection and scrolled through her contacts to find the personal number of her PR person. Lucy Cordova was ten years older than Carmen, with the sleek beauty of a supermodel and the soul of a great white shark.
It was no accident she was the top in her field. She ate her competitors and spit them out.
"Pick up, pick up, pick up," Carmen muttered as the phone buzzed and then went straight to voice mail. "Dammit."
She hit redial. Same result. She hit it again.
On the point of trying a fourth time, her phone buzzed with an incoming call.
"Okay, Carmen," a voice croaked. Obviously, Lucy had decided to sleep in this morning. "What's the emergency?"
Carmen was forced to clear the lump from her voice before she could speak.
"The package that landed on my doorstep this morning."
"What package?" Lucy demanded, and then there was the rustle of covers as if the woman was crawling out of bed. "Oh, wait. I remember sending an envelope to you."
Carmen licked her lips. Why were they so dry?
"Where did you get it from?" she demanded.
"It came by messenger three days ago," Lucy told her.
"It was from the office of the public defenders who'd handled the Scott case," Lucy explained, her voice echoing as if she'd put the phone on speaker.
No doubt the woman was pouring her morning coffee. She was a caffeine fiend who was never without her insulated cup in her hand.
"Was there a letter with it?" Carmen asked.
There was a slurping sound, then a soft breath of relief. Lucy had just had her fix.
A second later she spoke, her voice stronger as the caffeine kicked in.
"No, there was no letter. Just a handwritten note that said they'd been forwarded all of Neal Scott's possessions after his execution and that they were just now sorting through the box."
Scott had been executed three months ago. "Why would they send it to your office?" Carmen demanded.
"The note said that they'd found the envelope and tried to deliver it to your condo. When there was no one home, they sent it to our office."
Carmen's gaze moved toward the nearby window. The snow continued to fall at a leisurely pace. As if it couldn't decide if it intended to pick up speed or just call it quits for the day.
I should be drinking my coffee and enjoying the winter wonderland, she thought. Instead, her peace had been shattered by visions of death.
Not the sort of Christmas anyone wanted.
"And you decided to send it here?" she demanded.
"I thought it might contain some new information from the killer," Lucy told her. "You know, something you could add to the paperback version that would spice up sales."
Carmen made a choked sound of distress. Having the Polaroids in her home — actually touching them — somehow made them far more disturbing than the black-and-white-copies she'd used in her books.
These were more personal. Almost intimate.
"The deaths of those young women are a tragedy, not a spice," she snapped.
There was an awkward silence before Lucy cleared her throat. "You know what I mean."
Carmen forced a strained laugh. She didn't know why she was angry with Lucy. The older woman had merely forwarded the envelope. She hadn't known what was inside.
"Yeah, I guess I do," she said.
"What's going on, Carmen?" Lucy abruptly asked.
Carmen's gaze returned to the table, her stomach clenching.
"There were pictures inside the envelope."
"What kind of pictures?"
"Polaroids of dead women. Five of them."
"Christ, I'm sorry, Carmen," Lucy breathed. "I assume they were from the trial?"
Carmen shook her head even though Lucy couldn't see her.
"No. I've never seen these before."
"Wait." The word sounded like it was wrenched from Lucy. She wasn't a lady who was often shocked. "Are you saying there are pictures of dead women that haven't been released to the public?"
Carmen shuddered. She was three feet away from the table, but she felt as if the unknown women were staring at her. Pleading for something she couldn't give them.
"I'm saying I've never seen them. And you know the research I did," Carmen said. "I think it's possible that I'm the only one besides Scott to know they exist."
There was a sudden clatter through the phone, as if Lucy had dropped her coffee cup.
"God Almighty, this is fantastic!" the woman said, not bothering to hide her burst of glee. "Do you know what will happen to your book sales if you can add in pictures from new victims?" There was a pause, and Carmen imagined she could hear the calculator in Lucy's mind clicking away, adding up each new sale. "Hell, you could write a whole new book."
Carmen grimaced. She would be a hypocrite to act shocked by Lucy's response. The reason Carmen had hired her was because the woman was a ruthless master at taking advantage of any situation.
Even a situation that included dead women.
"These need to go to the authorities," she said in firm tones.
"Fine, but first we need to make copies," Lucy insisted. "It could be months or years before the cops will give back the originals."
"Let's worry about figuring out who these poor women are before we start cashing in, okay?" she said dryly.
As if sensing that Carmen wasn't in the mood to discuss business, Lucy did her best to squash her excitement.
Excerpted from "What Are You Afraid Of?"
Copyright © 2018 Debbie Raleigh.
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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