Chapter One

I was waiting, crouched behind his car in the parking lot. It was dark, and there were street lights but no cameras. I’d checked ahead of time. I’d planned this carefully, because I was going to kill him, no matter what. I figured I’d make it as easy as possible.

He came out of the bar, three sheets to the wind, which would make things so much easier. He listed to one side but tried real hard to stand up straight as he walked around the parking lot, awash in android-blue light, looking for his car. Then he took his key fob out and tapped it. The car beside me unlocked its doors and flashed its headlights. He saw it and smiled like he’d just won the lottery.

Only he hadn’t won anything. His winning days were over.

He staggered to the car, opened the driver’s door. I slipped up behind him, silent as a shadow, and jabbed him in the crease of his ass with a perfectly placed needle.

He spun around like a wobbling top, about to fall over. “What the hell!” he said and clocked me in the jaw. My head snapped sideways. I’d have gone down if I hadn’t caught myself on the roof of his car. I stood ready to take another blow, thinking it would've been worse if he wasn't so drunk and wondering how long the drug would take to kick in.

He had one hand on his ass where I’d stuck him. His eyes rolled. I grabbed his shirt front, pulled him toward me as I opened the back door of his car. Then I turned him around, because I could not do this looking at him, and shoved him face-first onto the back seat. I climbed in after him, right up his back. He was out cold in seconds, not moving. I took the wood-handled garrote from my pocket. I’d made it out of picture-frame wire, several layers twisted together to make it thick, so I wouldn’t accidentally decapitate him. I gagged a little as I put it over his head, and pulled it down between his face and the seat, over his chin to his neck. My inner voice, though it wasn’t really mine, said, Do it. Just do it. There’s no other way. He won’t feel anything. Just do it. You’re so close.

I pulled the right handle with my left hand, the left handle with my right, so they crossed at his nape. It was awful, what I was doing. My lips pulled back from my teeth with the effort it took–and not just physically. I had to force myself and my self was resisting. Tears filled my eyes. I tried to focus on my watch. It was an old-school watch, not a smart one. A delicate oval, with gold numbers and hands that swept way too slowly around its face. A narrow, pink leather band. After two minutes, he started to convulse, his body bucking underneath me, just like the internet said he would. I pulled tighter, to hold on, pressing my knees into his back like a cowboy at a rodeo. Terrible sounds started coming from him. Wet, growly, choky sounds. I wiped my wet face against my black, spandex-covered shoulder. Just hold on. It’s almost over. It’s better this way. For everyone, even him.

I didn’t know how many times the second hand had circled, but eventually it felt like it was over. The sounds stopped first, thank God. I’d never get them out of my head, though. Those sounds would haunt my dreams for the rest of my life. In silence, the twitching of his body eased, and he finally went still. I looked at my wristwatch and held the wood and wire weapon as tight as I could for three more minutes. My arm muscles were cramping up. My hands hurt despite the thick leather gloves I wore to protect them.

Murder was not easy.

When I was sure he was dead, I let go of the garrote, slid it out from beneath him, and then climbed off him and backed down his body and out of the car. My legs were shaking so hard I wasn’t sure I could stand up. But I did, I stood there beside the open car door, looking in at the man on the back seat. I sniffed, backhanded my nose with my black leather glove, forced my gaze away from him to look around. A dozen vehicles, but no people. No witnesses. His keys were on the pavement, so I picked them up. His legs were still sticking out of the car. I bent them at the knees, so I could close the door.

Then I got behind the wheel and started the car, noticing for the first time that it was a Jaguar, a newish one. Blue or black, impossible to tell which in the dark. I knew exactly where to put him. There was a burlap bag and a shovel already there, waiting.

I started the car.

The radio blasted to life, scaring me so bad my head hit the ceiling before I got hold of myself and snapped the thing off. Then I sat there, gripping the wheel, white-knuckled. I took three long, deep breaths. Okay. I was okay. I put the car into gear and pulled out of the parking lot and onto the road. I was driving through the night with a dead guy in the back seat, shaking all the way to my marrow.

This was not me. This was not anything I’d ever imagined myself capable of, not in my wildest dreams.
Well, maybe in my wildest dreams. A congested moan came from the back seat and sent a lightning bolt through my entire being.

* * *

The alarm clock went off like a freaking mind bomb. The murderous dream popped like a balloon at a birthday party, showering its deadly latex bits all around me. I sat up fast, blurting an overly loud, “Holy fuck!”

Mason sprang out of bed, landing in a ready crouch beside it. “What? What?”

My bulldog picked up her head, blinked sightlessly at me, then lowered it and resumed snoring.

I looked around our bedroom like I was searching for an explanation. But there were only the soothing green walls and rich walnut trim.

“Rachel?” Mason turned on the lamp.

I couldn’t look at him. Not yet. Lingering sparks of murder were still blinking out one by one in my head. I swallowed hard. “I’m okay. Bad dream.”

“Was it?”

I met his eyes. “You know me too well.”

“So? What was it?”

“I don’t know yet.”

Yes, you do. It’s not like it’s the first time a killer took up residence in your head, or you took up residence in his, after all.

It’s not that, Inner Bitch.

Then what is it?

Like I just told Mason, I don’t know yet.

Yes, you do.

“You okay?”

I slid up out of our big bed, planted a big, morning-breathy kiss on his face, and said, “I’d be better with coffee.”

He smacked my butt and said, “Then coffee you shall have.” He pulled on a pair of pajama bottoms and a T-shirt that said, DEFINITELY NOT A COP. Yes, I bought it for him. I think it’s hilarious. He only wears it to humor me. What can I say? I’ve got myself a keeper.

I turned back toward the bed. “Wanna go outside, Myrt?”

Myrtle did not so much as twitch her ears in reply. “I guess not.” I pulled on my fluffiest robe because it was six a.m. and also September, and went out onto the balcony. It had pretty wrought iron railings and a view of the four-mile-long, mile-wide Whitney Point Reservoir.

God, I loved seeing. I could spend hours just…seeing. As would, I guessed, anyone who’d spent twenty years of their life blind. I went to the railing and looked at the water. It was a rippled mirror, reflecting rolling hills and blue sky. The air tasted good, but its flavor was shifting. It smelled like back-to-school.

When Mason returned, he not only had our coffees, but a pair of blankets over his arm. He set the steaming mugs on the railing, and spread the blankets over our bowl-shaped wicker chairs in case there was dew on the cushions. I sank into mine, pulled the blanket around me, and he handed me my mug.

“You are the perfect man,” I said. “I don’t know if you know it or not, but–”

“I do know it.” He dropped the second blanket on his chair, but didn’t sit. He stood by the railing like I’d been doing. Only he wasn’t looking, like I had been. He was thinking.

My man was a bit of a thinker. It was his greatest flaw.

“You miss Jeremy.” It wasn’t a question.

He glanced back at me. “I just don’t get living on campus when campus is only thirty minutes away.”

Three weeks ago, we’d moved Jeremy into his Binghamton University dorm. Mason seemed to think we’d moved him to the moon. “It’s Labor Day weekend, Mace. He’ll probably be back before breakfast and not leave again until Tuesday morning.”

“Yeah.” He still sounded mopey. “Think we’ll see him this time, or he’ll just drop off his laundry and go hang with his friends?”

“Wow. Clingy much?”

“Misty sees more of him than we do.”

“You’re an uncle. Misty is a girl, and she’s better looking. Plus, she has her aunt’s DNA, so I don’t know how you can blame him. You know the females of the de Luca line are irresistible.”

He sighed, staring out at the water. I stretched my leg to kick his backside. “That was funny. You didn’t even crack a smile.”

“Sorry. You’re right. I know.”

“Kids grow up. It happens. Get over it.”

“Right. You were the one sniffling all the way home the day we moved him in.”

“Freaking campus is a pollen pit. Sue me.”

“You don’t have allergies.”

“Did that day.” I slid over in my chair, opened my blanket and patted the spot beside me. “BU is lots closer than the police academy, you know. You’d better toughen up by the time Jere heads to Albany.” I was talking a good game, but I was missing Jeremy as much as Mason was. We might only be an uncle and an honorary aunt, but we’d been raising the boys for two years, and they felt like our own kids. Even though I wasn’t nearly old enough for that.

Mason started to get in with me, then stopped because there was a ping from his PJ pocket. He pulled out his phone and looked at it.

“I reiterate my opinion,” I said, “that this balcony should be a device-free zone.”

“No such thing for a cop.” He tapped the screen and said, “What’s up, Rosie?”

Rosie was his partner. I hoped he was calling to invite us over for a barbecue.

At six-something a.m?

Yeah, probably not, I thought in reply to Inner Bitch’s query. I just hope it’s not about what I dreamed.

But it is. You know that, right?

I kind of did, but I didn’t want to admit it. Not even to my subconscious Chatty Cathy.

Mason put the phone back into his pocket, and I’d missed whatever else he’d said. But his face looked more serious than before. “I’ve gotta go. We have a body.”

I closed my eyes. “A body, huh?”

“Yeah. Joggers found him off the Rail Trial.”

I could see the man from my dream in my mind’s eye. A youthful fifty-something, fit, clean shaven, hair so light it was hard to spot the gray unless you were up close to it, with a yellow-orange tint like it had been red once. He had a perfectly bald spot the size of a silver dollar on the back of his head. I’d stared at that spot for an eternity last night.

A forefinger hooked under my chin. I opened my eyes to see my guy’s worried ones trying to get a peek inside my head. He said, “Anything you need to tell me, Rachel?”

“Only if he drove a dark-colored Jag and was strangled. Or mostly strangled.”

“Mostly strangled?”

“I woke up before he was all the way strangled. Might’ve had to bash his head in with a rock or something to get the job done, for all I know.”

He swore softly, sinking onto the edge of my bowl chair, no easy feat. “You okay?”

“It was pretty vivid. He spun around and punched me in the jaw, and I swear it actually aches this morning.” I tested my mouth-hinges experimentally, and sure as shit, the right one felt tender. “Then I was kneeling on his back, choking the life out of him with some kind of homemade garrote.”

“Do you want to come along?” he asked.
“I don’t want to leave Josh home alone.”

“He’s thirteen.”

“Yeah, but I don’t know what this is yet. So–”

“You saying it feels dangerous to you?”

“It feels…personal. Close.” I rubbed my arms, set down my coffee and used his shoulders to pull myself up out of my comfy nest. “I need to shower. Like, now.”

“So do I. Let me call in.”

I went in to start without him. The clay-tiled shower was double sized, with multiple heads. I adjusted the water, stepped in and let the hot spray blast the remnants of that dream away. There wasn't always a killer dragging me into mental ride-alongs, but it had been known to happen. The first time, it had been Mason’s dead, serial-killer brother. Long story, but suffice it to say I got a little something extra from Eric Conroy Brown along with his donated corneal tissue. He opened some kind of door.
 I knew things, felt things. I called it NFP for Not Fucking Psychic because I don’t believe in psychics.

Mason stepped into the tiled shower. He moved into the spray beside me, turned around and scrubbed his hair. I watched him until he opened his eyes and looked back at me. And then he pushed my wet hair off my face, and tucked it behind my ear, and gave me that look that said everything I needed to hear. And I forgot what I’d been so upset about.

* * *

Mason was worried about Rachel. She’d been shaken by her dream. It had taken minutes for the fear to leave her eyes. He parked where there was room, got out of his restored (by him) ’74 Monte Carlo, and headed down Binghamton’s popular walking trail. It ran alongside the Susquehanna River. Pleasant, usually. Not so much, now. Uniforms, forensics people, and his partner Rosie stood around a pile of freshly turned black earth, and a burlap shroud that wasn’t quite big enough. A pale, dead arm stuck out from elbow to fingertips. Looked like the corpse was waving hello.

He walked closer. The murmur of the river drowned out the sounds of singing birds. The body was in a hole, sort of. “Not even deep enough to cover the poor SOB,” Rosie said. He had lost twenty pounds on his latest diet, which showed exactly nowhere. He was a big guy, his Rosie. They’d been partners since their rookie days. “Jogger spotted his hand, just sticking up outta the dirt. Can you imagine?”

“It’ll make a great story, I guess.”

“Yeah, eventually.”

“Why the burlap? Why not just bury him?” Mason walked around the shallow grave to the bag’s opening, picked up an edge with a pencil, and peered inside. “Flashlight?” he asked, hand out. Someone gave him one, cold steel cylinder in his palm, and he aimed it. “Ligature marks. Looks like he was strangled.” Or mostly strangled.

Something tickled up his spine. He shrugged it away.

“Anyone find an ID on him?” he asked.

“We’re not patting him down for a wallet until we get him home where we can do it right.” That was spoken with authority from a redhead with an ultra-short haircut. “Bag him up, burlap and all,” she ordered. “Move him as little as possible. Don’t shake off trace evidence.”

As the team scrambled, she grinned at Mason. It was probably disrespectful to think she looked just like a Christmas elf. She had dimples, pink cheeks, intelligent green eyes, and a hairline that made her ears look ever so slightly pointed.

And she had her hand out, he finally noticed.

“Billie Carmichael. I’m the new forensic pathologist.”

Thinking she looked about fourteen probably proved that he was getting old. “Mason Brown,” he said.

“I know who you are, Detective Brown. I know your wife, too. I’m a huge fan.”

“She’s not my–”

“Careful!” The techs had dropped the body onto the gurney a little too hard, and the burlap came open.

Mason glimpsed the guy’s face, either pudgy or starting to swell. His hair was mostly a pale orangey-gray. He looked back at the redhead. “What’s an FP doing at a crime scene?”

“It’s my first case. I couldn’t wait.” She said it with a grin, then forced a more serious expression.

“Since he’s already bagged, you want to give me the rundown?” he asked. He was trying to remember ever being that happy to be at work, and failing.

“Male, mid-fifties, maybe a drinker. He was probably dumped last night,” Billie Carmichael said. He liked her confident tone. “There’s a car back by the trail head. Nobody else around. Might be his.”

Rosie met Mason’s eyes, brows raised, clearly impressed.

“What kind of car?” Mason asked.

“Jag,” the new FP replied. “Nice one. They're running the tags. Man I’d hate to die and leave a ride like that behind.”

“Shit,” Mason shook his head. “Shit.”

His phone buzzed. It would be Rachel, asking about all this. He wished he didn’t have to tell her, but knew he did. They didn’t keep stuff from each other.

He walked a little bit away before looking at the text. “Don’t forget, BBQ at noon. Wayward nephew and all.”

He got a good feeling from that message. He looked at Billie, and said, “You gonna be a while with the unboxing?”

“The unboxing. That’s funny.” Mason didn’t smile, and she turned all business again. “I’m gonna work straight through the day on this guy.”

“Good. I need to go home after I finish up here. Will you call me when I can come and get a look at the victim?”

“Yeah, sure.”

Rosie said, “The Jag in the parking area is registered to Dwayne Clark. Got an address, phone number, and email. We’re getting more info now.”

“You got a phone number, you said?”

Rosie nodded, showing Mason his iPad.

“That’s a cell number.” Mason tapped it into the keypad of his phone, then silenced it and listened.

The guy in the burlap bag started ringing. “Guess we’ve got a probable ID.” He ended the call. “Let’s get some background on him.”

“Already under way,” Rosie said.

“Okay, good.” He looked at the ground around the makeshift grave. There were plenty of tracks in the dirt, thanks to the team that had dug the body out. “I hope you got a lot of shots of the ground before it was trampled,” he said to the cop with the camera.

“I did.” He brought his camera over and scrolled photos across its digital screen.

Mason looked at the images of the undisturbed grave. The killer had barely dug past the grass’s knotted root carpet. He’d chopped it open, rolled it back, scraped out a little of the dirt underneath, and then tried to cover the unfortunate Dwayne Clark with it again. “Whoever put him here expected him to be found. Anything the body and this scene have to tell us could be significant. Let’s not miss anything.”

Billie’s guys carried the dead man to an ambulance that had driven over the grass to get close. “The forensics team will finish up here,” she said. “I want to stay with the body.”

Mason said. “Listen, Carmichael, just so you know, we sometimes use Rachel as a consultant on cases like this.”

“I know.” Her elf-green eyes popped wider. “Are you bringing her in on this one? Wow, I didn’t think I’d get to work with her so soon.”

Oh, hell. “Listen, if you fangirl all over Rachel, she'll make you her slave. If you want her respect, treat her like an equal.” It was a dumb request. Rachel had no equal, but still.

The change in Billie’s expression was so sudden and deliberate he almost laughed. “I’ll be completely professional, Detective. And I’ll call you when I’ve finished the autopsy.” Then she unlocked her phone and handed it to him.

He entered his number into her contacts, then returned the phone. “Thanks.”

As he walked back to his car, Mason made a mental to-do list. He had to go home, host a family barbecue, and during a free moment break it to Rachel that her link to the darkness was back, big time.

On Sale October 29th​