Web of Secrets

Web of Secrets

Susan Sleeman

May 2016 $17.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-701-4

Agents Under Fire, Book 3

 
Our PriceUS$17.95
Code978-1-61194-701-4
 
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Synopsis | Reviews | Excerpt


Back Cover Copy


A nightmare come true . . .

Years ago, a fifteen-year-old girl was abducted by a monster. Although she managed to escape, her tormenter was never caught. So the girl was given a new home, a new name . . . and the determination to save other foster kids from suffering similar horrors.

FBI Agent Becca Lange is in the middle of a credit card fraud investigation when she’s faced with her worst nightmare: a serial killer, van Gogh—given the name because he removed his victims’ ears—has resurfaced. Back in the nineties, van Gogh tortured, then killed several young foster girls. Becca was almost one of them.

Over the years, Becca’s been keeping her own investigation going. So when the police come to her for help, she’s more than ready to do what it takes to put van Gogh behind bars—even if it means working with Connor Warren, the easy-going cop whose attentions she’s been avoiding. Connor is too charming, too good-looking, too . . . tempting. He makes Becca want things she can never have. And might never have . . .

Because van Gogh isn’t finished with Becca yet. He’s been searching for her all these years. And now that he’s found her, he’s got a plan to keep her . . . forever.


Susan Sleeman is a best-selling author of clean read and inspirational romantic suspense books. Awards include the 2013 Romantic Times Reviewers Choice Best Book Award. In addition to writing, Susan also hosts the popular website TheSuspenseZone.com. She currently lives in Oregon with her husband. They have two daughters, a son-in-law, and an adorable grandson. To learn more about Susan stop by any of these locations on the web.

Susansleeman.com; Facebook.com/SusanSleemanBooks; Twitter.com/SusanSleeman


Reviews


"An absolutely incredible romantic suspense novel!”—TheSuspenseZone.com

"Web of Shadows is another winner from Sleeman. Highly recommended!”—Edits and Reviews by Leslie


Excerpt

Chapter One

SHE WAS GOING to die today.

He’d all but promised that. Now it was time, and he was coming for her, moving quickly above. His heavy footsteps headed for the cellar door, the solid footfalls confident, but uneven.

He’d developed a limp. Funny. She hadn’t noticed that until now.

Death, just over the horizon, sharpened her senses, she supposed.

Or was it the dark, the complete pitch black of the windowless space? Her mind was shrouded in pain and despair, her senses hyper-alert, the smells and sounds crisp and vivid. The musty scent of the basement. An old oil furnace in the corner emitting a metallic smell. His footsteps in the distance, growing closer as he headed for the cellar door.

For her.

Painful desperation swallowed everything around her.

Please, please, please don’t let him do this.

She heard each groan of the house. Each creak of the floor. Heard him reach the cellar door.

Her heart kicked hard, sounding a loud echo in her chest.

A key slipped into the deadbolt at the top of the stairs with a firm snick. She could picture the shiny new lock he’d dragged her past the first night. Remembered her hands clutching at anything to stay aboveground, her nails breaking as they scratched to take purchase. Raw and ragged now.

Then the descent. Down the rickety wooden steps. Kicking. Fighting. The fist to her jaw. Seeing stars before her vision cleared. The light burning bright, revealing metal castings stacked on old rotting shelves. The shackles she now bore around her wrists lying limp on the scarred linoleum floor, waiting for her.

The jars. No, stop. She didn’t want to think about them.

She’d thought of little else since she escaped from this madman who, in the late nineties, had pretended online to be Adam Smith, a man in his early twenties who’d developed a crush on her though she was only fifteen. She should have known better than to believe him, even when he’d given her a photo that showed how handsome he was. But as a foster kid, she’d craved love desperately, and he seemed to want to give it.

So she’d gone to meet him, but it turned out the picture he’d sent her had been retouched. His face was grotesquely scarred, and he soon had her handcuffed. Her foster sister, Lauren, had figured he was bad news so she’d followed, and he’d abducted the two of them. But they’d both eventually escaped.

The rusty hinges on the door groaned open like those on an old coffin. Only a stairway separated them.

Bile rose up her parched throat, gagging her. She swallowed hard and strained against the coarse rope digging into the oozing sores circling her wrists. Days of struggling had left them open. Maybe festering. But that didn’t matter. What mattered was the door groaning open. The air around her stirring, dragging a putrid current into the vortex. She retched at the smell of her own body. The stench of her own fear nearly overpowered everything. She hadn’t showered in four days or had access to a bathroom for as long.

She was disgusting.

She’d die like this. Be found like this. Would her family have to see her this way? Identify her?

God, please, no, she begged. Spare them.

A shadow of light filtered through the open doorway. His foot hit the top tread with a thud. Then the next, each step an earthshaking roll of thunder in her ears. His flashlight bobbed on the stairs. Quick circles of light moved down like a slinky before jerking back up. She saw his foot now in an arc of light. A big work boot. Size twelve or larger. Heavy lug soles, worn and scarred. His jeaned leg came next. Then a flannel work shirt. Red, she thought, but the light suddenly danced ahead.

He reached the bottom. His boot struck the linoleum with a solid thump. Not a word came from his mouth, but his flashlight spoke for him. Sliding across the space. Searching.

She recoiled. Dug her heels into the floor. Scooted back and tried to cover her nakedness by drawing her knees into her chest.

Nowhere to go.

She needn’t worry about her family seeing her. No one would find her here. He’d chosen the perfect location, an abandoned metal fabrication plant with rows and rows of buildings. Some were in use. Others had fallen into decay like this one.

He snapped the dangling string overhead. Light from a bare bulb flooded the area.

"Hello, Molly,” he said, as if they were meeting at a social event. But this wasn’t social—he was coming to kill her.

Her eyes ached from the sudden brightness. She blinked. Thought to keep her eyes closed and avoid seeing her killer’s face one more time.

Hadn’t she seen him enough in her dreams since she’d escaped his capture two decades ago? In nightmares replaying the torture of long ago. Now she was his captive once again, facing him for the last four days, his torment a blur of pain.

Yet, she couldn’t look away. She didn’t have the nerve to ignore her own death. She had to see him. To see the end of her life in his eyes.

She blinked hard until she could focus. His face was a mirror of the one in her dreams, except the passing years had etched wrinkles like a road map across his skin. The dark, dead eyes hadn’t changed. Hadn’t dulled. His chin was angular and covered in graying whiskers. Scars puckered his cheeks, and his nose was nothing more than a red knob, as if an afterthought.

Memories of their first meeting sixteen years ago came flooding back. The same revulsion curdled her stomach. It wasn’t the scars, the stub of a nose. She could handle the deformities from severe burns. It was the sneer of his lips and vile hatred in his gaze. The steady stare that never wavered.

Like now. His gaze sought her out, a hunter looking for prey. He smiled. Wide, toothy, a hint of contempt keeping his lips tight. "I hope you’ve had enough time to think and give me what I want.”

She couldn’t abide his stare, and dragged her gaze away. It landed on the shelf. Nine mason jars were lined up, a set of human ears in all but two of them, preserved in clear liquid. The jars were labeled with the numbers one through nine. Detectives had dubbed this madman Van Gogh for his penchant for removing his victims’ ears. There had been only five jars the last time he’d captured her. Now there were four more. The jars marked four and five were empty. Waiting. She wasn’t surprised to see those jars. Not when she and Lauren had both escaped. She’d figured he’d come after them again, even though they’d both done their best to disappear.

"Well, Molly. Where is Lauren?” he asked, his tone insistent and threatening.

Lauren. Shortly after Molly had overpowered him to escape, she’d seen a news report indicating that Lauren had died in a car crash. But Molly didn’t buy the story. At first, it seemed real, but the police slipped up on one little detail that only Molly would know, proving the detectives had faked Lauren’s death and given her a new identity.

Rebecca Lange. The regal name fit the current-day Lauren, a woman who had become a defender of foster children and a top-notch FBI agent. It was the name she’d always dreamt of having.

"Where’s Lauren?” Van Gogh asked again, this time removing Molly’s gag.

She gathered what little moisture she had in her mouth and spit at him.

He lurched back, anger darkening eyes she didn’t think could get any blacker. He looked up at the ceiling. Took a few breaths. "Don’t worry, Mother. I know she’s gone off the deep end. She will be cleansed today. Her funeral will draw Lauren out. I can cleanse both of them, and my collection will finally be complete.”

He often talked to his mother who was never present, so this wasn’t new. But Molly had never been successful in getting him to explain the cleansing ritual.

"Mother says it’s time to get you dressed.” He opened a box sitting on the shelf and lifted out a virginal white nightgown. "You remember this, don’t you, my pet? You will be cleansed and free. Too bad you won’t help me find Lauren so she can know the joy of cleansing sooner.”

He leaned close, an ugly smile parting his lips. The whisper of his breath, the acrid smell of his unwashed body, made her stomach roil. She couldn’t speak. And she wouldn’t, even if she did know where Lauren lived. She’d never betray the trust of her foster sister.

Never.

If she did, he’d go after Lauren and kill her. Molly wouldn’t let that happen.

"Let’s get you cleaned up.” He went to the corner and ran a bucket of water, then put it on a table near the sink. He shoved a knife with sharp teeth lining the edge into a sheath on his belt. The knife that had once carved into her body, leaving the number four. Into Lauren, who bore the number five.

Humming, he crossed the room to stare at Molly while snapping on a pair of latex gloves. "You really are a mess, aren’t you?”

She thought to try to cover herself, to maintain her dignity. But after the last few days, what dignity did she have left?

He unlocked the shackles, moved her out of her filth and toward the table. She fought, kicked, but after five days without food and little water, she was too weak to make a difference. He bathed her, each touch of the cloth making her want to vomit. Once in the demure nightgown, she lay back, defeated, on the table—his altar stained with blood—where he bound her to cold shackles mounted on the corners.

"It’s time, Molly. Tell me or...” His evil smile took his words and buried them in the recesses of the room. He lifted his knife. High. Advanced. His eyes burned with the intensity of fire. He slid his fingers over her ear—gently, almost tenderly, then suddenly backed away.

Was he going to let her live another day? Hope fluttered in her chest.

He crossed the room. Lifted jar number four, the liquid sloshing as he returned to her. He blew the dust from the rusted lid. Fine particles lingered in the beam of light before dissipating in the stale air. He held the knife between his teeth, his eyes gleaming.

He started unscrewing the lid, slowly, each twist feeling like a nail in Molly’s coffin. He set the open jar on the floor, a pungent odor smelling like pickles floated up to her nose. Fear coursed through her body.

Lauren. Remember Lauren.

He slipped his hand into his pocket and two pearl earrings emerged. She fixed her gaze on the burn scars crawling over his hands, not on the earring. He inserted the first one into her left ear. The piercing stud ripped her skin, making her feel as if she were being nailed to a cross. To her death.

This was it, for sure. The end.

She held her breath. He placed the second earring and stood back, his eyes now vacant and his mind somewhere else. Somewhere his earring ritual had taken him.

His breathing grew rapid and shallow, his chest barely moving. Eyes glazed over, he raised the knife. His smile, teeth rotted and yellowing, was the last thing she saw as he bent closer.

"Tell me or not, my pet, it doesn’t matter. The news coverage of my return will be legendary, and your death will bring Lauren to me. She won’t miss your funeral.”

The knife pricked her skin. Her heart seized and refused to beat. She ignored it. Ignored everything, her resolve still in place.

She’d die before letting this butcher near someone she loved.

And, as he’d promised... it would be today.

THERE. HE WAS OUT of commission, doubled over in severe pain.

Perfect. It was just what Agent Rebecca Lange wanted—her boss, Rolland Sulyard, the Assistant Special Agent in Charge of the FBI Portland’s office, on his way to the hospital.

She spun and shot out her leg in a roundhouse kick, landing her foot solidly where his kidney would be located, sending the red heavy bag in a swirling rotation. She recovered, imagined his face on the worn bag, and fired a jab to his nose.

Take that, Sulyard. No one shuts down my investigation.

"You trying to kill that thing, Lange?” a beefy local police officer asked as he passed by.

She shot him a quick look and swiped with the back of her arm at sweat running down her face, but didn’t bother to respond.

"You should give it a rest before you stroke out,” he added, then laughed as he headed for the locker room.

Maybe it was time for her to hit the showers, too. No. Anger still boiled in her gut. Thirty minutes at the bag and she was still mad. Good and mad. At Sulyard. At herself.

He’d shut down the credit card identity theft investigation that she’d been heading up for the agency’s Cyber Action Team. Months of hard work wasted. Just like that, in one fell swoop. She had yet to tell the team. She dreaded it. Especially telling her co-agents and friends Kaitlyn Murdock and Nina Brandt. Then there was the new intern, Taylor Andrews. She’d take it especially hard, and Becca’s reputation with the newest team member would be tarnished before it even got off the ground.

Worse yet, victims were going without justice due to her failure. She should have worked harder. Smarter. Done better. If she didn’t help those in need, who would?

She slammed a fist into the bag again. Another. Then another. Bam, bam, bam.

"Remind me never to make you mad.” The male voice came from behind her.

Her brain stalled, and her hands stilled.

What was he doing here? He was the last person she wanted to see today. A perfect addition to a perfectly dismal day.

She took several deep breaths and let them out. He’d think she was just winded, but in fact, she needed a clear head to face Connor Warren, a detective for the Portland Police Bureau. She had this thing for him when she was in no position in her life to have a thing for any guy.

Another few cleansing breaths, then she pivoted and found his gaze pinned on her, as she expected. Her heart did a quick somersault, and she chastised herself for responding.

He must have noticed her discomfort as he smirked. "Do you mind dropping those gloves so we can talk?”

She looked down to discover her hands were still raised. She swatted at hair stuck to her face and lowered the gloves. "What’re you doing here, Connor?”

He grinned, his smile lopsided and cute at the same time, turning her insides to mush. Seriously, how did he do that to her every time she saw him?

This mutual thing had started when they’d met two years ago on an investigation. It was there every time they laid eyes on each other, which was often. Too often for Becca’s liking. His partner, Sam Murdock, married her friend and Cyber Action Team member Kait, so Becca ran in to Connor all the time.

He tipped his head at the bag. "Whoever you were trying to pummel, you succeeded.”

As usual, he avoided her question and went off on his own tangent while he let his gaze take her in from head to toe.

Fine. Let him look. She would too. She ran her gaze over his six-foot-two body, lingering on his shirt molded to hard pecs and biceps. His auburn hair was more red than brown and cut short. His jaw was square, and his eyes, when he wasn’t smiling, held an intensity she understood all too well.

His grin widened. He got that she was into him. He’d have to be blind not to see it, but then, he probably had women taking a second and third look all the time. Shoot, she’d taken a whole lot more than a second look over the years, much to her annoyance. And it had to stop now.

"So, are you here to join the gym?” she asked, hoping the answer was a big fat no. She didn’t want him here. She found her relaxation at the gym the way many women found it in a spa. The words relaxationand Connor had nothing in common.

He shook his head and lifted a folder clutched in his hand. "I have information on a case Sam said you were taking lead on.”

"Oh?” She made sure to play down her interest to keep him from wanting to stay.

"He said you’ve been working a credit card fraud ring in the area.”

Right. The investigation that Sulyard just shut down.

"I think I can help you with it,” he said.

"Oh, yeah? How?”

He looked around, then lowered his voice. "I’m working a homicide where a man was murdered for his credit cards. At least, that’s our theory right now. I tailed a suspect to an apartment in the northeast and watched the place for a few days. Struck out on finding anything that could give me probable cause to enter, but it looks like I stumbled on your theft ring’s base of operation. I took some photos you might want to see.”

Pulling off her gloves and tucking them under her arm, she stepped closer. She took the folder, making sure to avoid touching him. She started flipping through the photos of teenagers carrying shopping bags taken outside a rundown apartment complex. "Did these kids all go to the same apartment?”

He nodded. "We checked the lease, but as you might expect, the ID was bogus. The manager said the rent was paid in cash three months in advance, which for that neighborhood, is a great deal for the manager, so he didn’t ask any questions. He did describe the guy who rented it. Five-ten. Dark hair. Late forties.”

"Seriously? It could be just about anyone with that description.”

Connor gestured at the folder. "You won’t find him in the pictures. No one over the age of twenty ever showed up at the apartment.”

"Not surprising. Credit card fraud crews are often recruited from runaways and homeless teens, and it’s rare to find the mastermind behind the operation.” Which was why Sulyard had shut down her investigation. It was going nowhere.

"Exactly how do they work this scam?” Connor asked.

She might not want to talk to him, but she was always happy to explain how this kind of fraud worked. "It starts with a ringleader who obtains stolen credit card information from the Internet. He then uses an embossing machine to make new cards, and recruits runaways to make fraudulent purchases at local retailers. These groups have been moving up and down the I-5 corridor and we’ve really been trying to bust one of them. If we catch the kids, we’re hoping they’ll flip on their ringleader. Did you get any of their license plates?”

"They took the bus. TriMet and street cams didn’t help ID them either.”

Becca went back to the photos to withdraw five pictures for Connor. "I can ID these five right now. If we combine your information with mine, I should have enough to get a search warrant.”

"Exactly what I was hoping for. We can work together. If we give you the ID ring’s evidence you’re after, you can probably get us in there. Then, hopefully, I’ll find something related to the homicide.”

Right, they’d have to work together. Her heart dropped.

"It’ll be a win/win.” His eyes, bright with enthusiasm, locked on her, daring her to say no. She didn’t flinch under his gaze, but she was just a moment away from turning tail and running. She didn’t like what he could do to her insides. Didn’t like it at all. And working with him on an investigation? What would happen then?

No, she didn’t need that. She didn’t need him.

"I have all my information in the car.” He gestured outside, but kept those steely blue eyes locked on her. "We could head to your office to iron out details for the warrant.”

She swallowed hard under his continued gaze. "How about you give me the files, and I let you know when the warrant has been approved?”

"Yeah, right.” He rolled his eyes and widened his stance. "Either we collaborate on getting the warrant and serve it together, or you keep punching that bag, because your case is going nowhere.”

She gaped at him. "You’d give up a lead on a homicide case, just like that?”

"Nah,” he said with a half-smile that crooked up in the corner. "Just like I know you would never turn your back on a lead for your investigation. Which means you’ll end up working with me. So, why fight it?”

He had her, right where he wanted her, and she felt herself caving. If they went straight to her office, she could get the information to Sulyard before he left for the day, and her case would be back on track.

"Okay, we’ll do it,” she agreed, hoping they might actually be able to handle a professional relationship. "But I need to take a quick shower.”

"I wasn’t planning to say anything, but since you brought it up, you are a mess.” He let that gaze trail over her again, his eyes heating up. "Not that I mind a woman all sweaty from taking her frustration out on a bag. I find it kind of hot, actually.”

Her heart gave a rebellious flutter. So much for the professional. One second, and it was gone. She shoved the folder into his chest and grabbed her gloves, thinking for a moment of wiping the look from his face with a well-placed punch.

She took a breath instead. "You can wait for me in the coffee shop across the street.”

She wouldn’t hang around for his rebuttal. Why bother? It would be a smart-aleck quip that she didn’t need to hear. She headed for the locker room. She felt his eyes on her as she walked.

Fine. Let him look. She hoped he enjoyed what he was seeing. He needed to get it out of his system so they could collaborate on this investigation as professionals.

"Yeah, right,” she muttered under her breath as she swung into the locker room. "Maybe you should listen to your own advice for once.”


 

 

Chapter Two

IN THE FBI’S WAR room, Connor swirled the last dregs of his coffee in the paper cup and didn’t try to hide his study of Becca as she presented her warrant request to her supervisor, Assistant Special Agent in Charge Roland Sulyard. They’d been talking for fifteen minutes, and Connor thought she was making progress.

Talking, shoot. They’d been arguing in the hallway, but Becca didn’t back down. She’d changed into a boring navy business suit with a tailored white blouse. Her eyes were wide, her stance firm, and she wore her usual fierce "defender of the downtrodden” expression. Some might think she was haughty. He knew she was simply passionate about her work.

He’d seen that expression often enough—showing her need to help those who couldn’t help themselves. That was her motto. And she wasn’t straying from it today.

Sulyard took a step closer to her. He was six-four, wore a black power suit, and his bald head gleamed in the light. His voice was low and controlled. "This is it, Lange. You fail to develop any solid evidence, and I won’t hesitate to shut down the investigation like I did this morning.”

So that was why Becca had been beating the bag in the gym. He could still see her—her body-hugging tank top plastered to curves she usually hid under one of her infernal suits, and faded blue shorts revealing legs as long as he’d imagined them to be. Man, she was all curves and silky skin. He tried to sound like he was kidding when he told her it was hot, but he was deadly serious. He did find it hot. Maybe not with other women, but everything Becca did got his blood boiling.

"Don’t let me down,” Sulyard said. After a long look, he turned and walked away.

Becca slipped back into the room, her eyes alive with their upcoming challenge. "We’re a go. Judge Obrien is already on standby for a different warrant, so Sulyard will submit this one along with it.”

Connor fixed what he hoped was a casual gaze on her. "Sulyard shut down your investigation, huh?”

She lifted her shoulders and stared at him. "We’re back on track. As long as your lead isn’t a wild goose chase. If it is...” The blue in her eyes darkened, her expression judging his merit.

He sat forward. "You doubt my intel?”

"No, but the crew could have made you and moved on.”

"They didn’t make me,” he said, irritated that she thought him incompetent enough to let some pimply-faced teenager catch his surveillance.

"We still need to act fast. This group never stays in one place long, and could be on the move soon.”

"Then let me map out the location for you, and we can form a plan.” He grabbed a legal pad to start sketching the apartment complex, parking lots, and adjoining roads. She bent over him, her clean, fresh scent from the shower instantly grabbing his attention.

He didn’t need to be thinking about her like this. Didn’t need to keep flirting with her when she wasn’t interested. She was into him, that was patently clear, but she didn’t have time for a man in her life. She was too busy saving the world all on her own. And he was a fool for trying anything when he didn’t really want to get involved with a woman again either.

He sat up and she took a quick step back. He slid the drawing over in front of the next chair, forcing her to move even farther away so he could concentrate.

He tapped the drawing while she took a seat. "Apartment’s on the second floor here. Patio slider on the back here. We’ll need someone to cover the rear exit.”

She nodded. "You can do that while I take the front.”

He gave her an as-if look. "I’ll call in reinforcements, and we’ll go in together.”

She appraised him for a moment. "Who did you have in mind?”

"Sam.”

"I’m good with Sam joining us.” She sounded amenable, but suspicion was lodged in her eyes. "I’ve asked our intern to tag along.”

"You’re kidding, right? An intern?” He dropped the pencil on the table. "This is important, Becca. We don’t want a green-behind-the-ears recruit screwing this up.”

She eyed him. "Taylor may be fresh out of Quantico, but she’s far from a green recruit. She’s served on an FBI Evidence Recovery Team for years, and has seen more than most law enforcement professionals.”

"So she’s seen the aftermath of man’s inhumanity to man. That still doesn’t mean she isn’t green as far as serving a warrant goes.”

She planted her hands on her hips. "We may not make nearly as many arrests as you do, but we’ve been around the block a few times. We can both handle this.”

"I was kidding.” He wished they could just relax around each other. This tension between them, hanging just below the surface, ready to erupt at any time, sapped all of his energy.

She didn’t return his smile. "You won’t terrorize Taylor, then? Because we need her. With the rise in cyber intrusions, we’ve added a slot on our Cyber Action Team. After shadowing me for a few weeks, she’ll take that job.”

"Another geek in town. Just what we need.” He laughed again, but he had to force it out this time.

She stared at him. "I need you to take this seriously.”

Right. Serious. Her middle name.

He stood and looked into her eyes for a moment, something he’d much rather do than go serve a warrant, even if it was for one of his investigations. But she was right. He had a job to do, and despite her considering him too laid-back at times, he never shirked his responsibilities. He wouldn’t start now.

RESTRAINT. REGINALD Zwicky needed to learn restraint. Restraint would have kept Molly alive until she gave up Lauren’s address. He paced the basement, his mood as dark as the dank space. Even that earthy, metallic scent of blood couldn’t erase his black mood.

He’d screwed up. Let his emotions get the best of him. How? He’d learned patience, or at least he thought he had. He’d practiced restraint all these years, honoring Mother’s request to stop cleansing girls in the nineties with the taste of blood fresh in his mouth. He’d wanted to continue, but no, she’d seen the news report that he’d failed and a girl had gotten away. She’d beaten him until he’d told her about both Lauren and Molly escaping from him and admitted that Molly had attempted to seduce him. He’d fallen prey to it and they’d struggled. She’d caught him off guard, and managed to get away. Then Mother had nagged and nagged him to find them until his ears nearly bled with her harping. At least it was a change. Usually, her sharp fingernails would pierce the tender cartridge, dragging him across the room to his closet.

"Don’t you see, Mother?” he said, her spirit still living with him though she had passed away six months ago. He pointed at Molly’s virginal body in her gown. "I found her. For you. Cleansed her. She’ll lead us to Lauren. Then you can truly rest.”

He waited for his mother to answer, but the building was quiet, save for the rats running in the rafters above.

He kicked an empty oil can across the room, the sound ringing through the space.

What a despicable place. He couldn’t even leave a body here overnight. Not with the rats. He’d had to construct a wire mesh cage to keep them from tearing apart the bodies. It was especially needed for Molly. The police had to see her peaceful repose to understand his mission.

He went to the stained porcelain sink, took the Lava soap his mother insisted he use, and scrubbed his hands. Waves of red swirled from his fingers and down the drain.

"Are they clean, Reginald?” Mother had always asked before inspection. If he’d failed to meet her expectations, she’d scoured his hands with the pumice soap, leaving his skin raw.

"You’ll be proud of me, Mother. The police will be in awe of everything you have trained me to do.”

He imagined them finding Molly and being impressed with his ability to cleanse. He wanted to do more. His body fairly vibrated with the need to continue his life’s work. To rush right out and find another girl and offer her the same purification. But he couldn’t. Not yet. He had to lie low until Lauren showed up for Molly’s funeral. Then he’d follow her. Take her. Evaluate her. If she was still pure, he’d make her his for life. If not, he’d cleanse her. It all depended on how she’d lived these past sixteen years.

Until then, he’d have to forget the lingering taste of blood, forget that nothing could assuage the desire for more. He’d gone nearly sixteen years without killing. Years without ever laying a hand on another young girl. Years of listening to his mother’s teachings. Enduring her discipline so he could achieve nirvana. She’d been his guide and spiritual leader until her sudden death from a heart attack six months ago.

Now he was a man, on his own. A disciple. Ready to save the girls.

"A man or a loser?” Billy’s voice whispered through Reginald’s mind.

"Be quiet,” Reginald told his childhood friend.

Billy was everything an imaginary friend needed to be. He’d gotten Reginald through many terrifying incidents, but he’d turned into a nagging voice that never left Reginald’s head for long.

"You’re a loser.” Billy’s tone was now high and nasally, mixed with irritation and judgment. "A madman like the news media claimed in the nineties. Sick and depraved.”

"No.” Reginald clamped his hands over his ears. "I’m not. I’m their savior. The one who cleanses. I saved their souls. I gave them the peace they need.”

"Then why hide it? Why not proclaim it to the world?”

"Humility, you fool. Didn’t you listen to Mother all these years? We must be humble.”

Billy started lecturing him, and Reginald tightened his hands over his ears until Billy went silent the way he always did when Reginald spoke unadulterated truths. But he’d be back. He always came back. Questioning. Pressuring. Trying to get Reginald to ignore his mother’s teachings.

Except during the ritual. Then there was peace. Blessed peace. Like the girls must feel. A release to a higher place.

Like Molly. At rest. He lifted her jar. Admired the curve of her ears and the glow of the pearls. "Perfect, Mother. Just like you taught me.”

He placed the jar on the shelf, then ran his fingers along the others. There. Excellent. Number four, filled and in place where it belonged, at last. No longer would Molly suffer in this world from the base physical longings she couldn’t control. He was glad for the simple way to help her. A pair of earrings. The symbol of purity and chastity. Of humility and innocence as his mother had first told him, her switch following each word, after she caught him with one of the fast girls at school who would sleep with anyone. Even him, with the twisted trail of scars running over his body.

Mother had been furious.

"Purity, Reginald,” she had snapped, dragging him by the ear and forcing him to the floor in the closet. "It’s a virtue you must learn, must keep, until you find the equally pure woman you will marry. I know it’s hard. Especially at fifteen with all those hormones rushing through your body. Let me help you learn control as my father taught me. Your father could never grasp the concept of control. It was the reason he had to leave us.”

She ripped his shirt from his back, took a tighter hold on his ear, and cracked the belt across his naked skin. The pain bit into his body, racing along nerve endings, begging him to cry out. But he wouldn’t. Didn’t. Just as he hadn’t during the fire. She would see it as his carnal nature calling out, and she’d keep going, crack after crack until it was extinguished.

Now he was the master and it had been worth it. Superb in every way. Untouchable, as long as he remained smart and in control. And he was smart. His control still needed perfecting, however. Molly had proved that.

"See. I told you, you’re a loser,” Billy said.

Reginald ignored him and stepped around the space, looking for anything he’d missed that could lead the police to his doorstep. At the shelves on the far side of the wall, he knelt on the ground to shine a flashlight into the dark recesses.

There. In the corner. A hair thingy Allie—his lovely wonderful girl number seven—had worn. Powder blue, the same color of the eyes that had stared up at him for so long. He carefully retrieved it and stuffed it into his pocket. He’d been careless. Now he’d have to go back to the clearing to add it to the bag of clothing he’d buried last week. He’d kept it all for a long time. Touched it. Smoothed it over his skin when the urge grew too strong. But when he’d found Molly, and then learned Lauren was alive, he knew he had to divest himself of all traces of the other girls. For Lauren. She’d be jealous to learn he’d moved on.

Lauren.

Why had she deceived him? Faked her death.

"And you were stupid enough to believe it all these years,” Billy mocked.

"Everyone did.”

"But you’re supposed to be this big guru. You should have known. Instead, you had to find Molly, then dig up Lauren’s coffin to look for her tiny ear bones to complete your collection.” Billy laughed. "Man, that was a day. You finding the coffin empty. Never seen you quite so shocked.”

"Wouldn’t you be shocked to learn she’d faked her death?”

"Nah, I’d go with the flow.”

"That’s because you weren’t called on to save the world like I was.” He reached into his pocket and drew out the jeweler’s box. "But now, I know her escape was meant to be. She’s pure. She didn’t want what Molly wanted. What the other girls wanted when they agreed to meet me. She only came to me to save Molly. She was pure. And if she still has that purity, she could be the one.”

He gently cupped the box. Blue velvet with a midnight-black lining that accented his mother’s pearls so nicely. They rested in slumber as she, too, rested. He ran a finger over the bright white lustrous orbs. Took one out. Stroked it along his cheek.

His mother’s pearls. A gift from her father. The finest. Worth thousands. Not that he would sell them. They were for the woman he would marry.

Maybe Lauren, when he found her.

"She’s alive, Mother!” he exclaimed. "Really and truly alive.”

He wouldn’t be alone after all. Lauren was the one. The only one.


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