Excerpt: Shadow of Perception
Book 2: CORE Shadow Trilogy
“Look at me, Daddy.”
Michael Morrison ignored the howling wind lashing against the metal building and concentrated on the old TV. A slow, bitter smile pulled at the corner of his mouth as his daughter moved across the screen. She’d just turned five and had looked so adorable and proud dancing and twirling for the camera in her lavender taffeta dress.
“Do you think I’ll win, Daddy?” she asked as she paused to admire herself in the mirror. “Mommy says I’m sure to be crowned Little Miss Hanover.” She frowned at her reflection and plucked at the puffy lace capping her slender shoulders. “But I saw the other girls during rehearsal and—”
“Don’t you worry about those other girls,” he reassured her as he’d held the camera steady. “And even if you don’t win, no matter what, I think you’re the most beautiful girl in the world.”
He still did.
His eyes misted, with grief, with regret, with overwhelming sadness.
Another strong gust swept against the building. Howling and protesting, the wind angrily pelted the metal walls. Almost as if nature, the universe, God, or whatever higher powers there may be, understood and shared his pain. Approved of what he was about to do.
He wiped a hand across his damp forehead, a huff escaping from between his dry lips. If anyone had heard his inner thoughts they’d think he was crazy. Hell, if anyone had a clue of what he’d planned they’d lock him in a padded cell until his body rotted to dust and his soul slid to the bowels of hell. But he wasn’t crazy. Angry, yes. Vindictive, you bet your ass.
Hardening his jaw, he returned his focus to the TV, where the DVD he’d created from old home movies segued to the next scene. The crowning of Little Miss Hanover. As her mother had predicted, Eliza had won. While the crowd had cheered and the judge placed a bejeweled crown on her head, Eliza had smiled for the camera, mouthing “I love you, Daddy” as she’d smoothed her tiny hands over the full skirt of that lavender dress.
Her proud, innocent smile faded from the screen as the film moved forward. Images of Eliza’s many other beauty pageants—that she’d ultimately won or placed—flew by almost as quickly as her short life.
The wind barraged the building again, the TV screen suddenly flipped, blurring the frames into a Technicolor nightmare. The old picture tube protesting its use, he supposed as he stood and gave the top of the box a slap. After a second, the screen burst to life again, but in slapping the TV, he must have accidently rattled the DVD player, too. The images jerked to a screeching halt before jumping ahead. Past Eliza’s cheerleading years, the night she’d been crowned homecoming queen, her first modeling shoot, and straight to the final scene.
He hit PAUSE and froze the image. No. Not a scene or a segment from the old home movie collection, but a still shot of his daughter lying on her bed.
Naked. Dead. Unrecognizable.
His throat thickened and his eyes filled with tears he couldn’t afford to shed at the moment. Holding his grief at bay, he focused on the anger. And as he leaned forward and traced his fingers along the TV screen, along the gaping slashes across her wrists to the blood pooling at her sides, he allowed that anger to take root. Let the hatred numb his heart and blacken the soul that would eventually belong to the devil. The devil could have him. He could give a shit if he burned in hell for an eternity so long as he took the men who had destroyed his daughter along for the ride.
He would have added her mother, the woman he’d once loved fiercely, to what he liked to refer to as his “death wish list.” But Sarah had scratched herself off his list before he’d written a single name by putting a bullet through her head at their daughter’s funeral. Not even in death could Sarah allow Eliza a moment to shine. No, the narcissistic bitch had to blow her brains all over the metal casket, making it about her. Always about her.
Now it was about Eliza. As it should have been from the beginning, as it would be now, and ever shall be, world without end. A-fucking-men.
The alarm on his watch beeped, reminding him what he’d already known. His patient would be waking soon, and by the low moan from the other room, Michael would have to act fast before the bastard regained full consciousness. Sure, he’d strapped the man down, but he didn’t want to miss the look on the shithead’s face when his eyes fluttered open, only to discover he’d just woken up in hell.
As he was about to exit the office, though, shame suddenly clouded his judgment. What he’d spent seven long years preparing for went beyond immoral and had his conscience battling with his anger and need for revenge. Sweat coated his skin and trickled down his back. His heart quickened and his head grew dizzy with the onslaught of a panic attack. Until he glanced at the letter he had framed and hung on the wall. The final contact he would ever have from his beloved daughter. While he’d memorized Eliza’s words, each bold and bubbly stroke of her script, he honed in on one line in particular for encouragement.
Make them listen, Daddy.
Another moan, this time even louder, filtered into the office. His head cleared, his heart slowed to normal, and an eerie calm settled over him.
“They’ll do more than listen, baby,” he whispered, rage suddenly sweeping away any thoughts of immorality or ethics or principles. Screw those things. Screw those quacks who had destroyed his daughter’s life.
Without hesitation he left the office and entered the main section of the thirty-by-fifty steel garage. He hadn’t needed the entire space and had chosen to fulfill his plans in the west corner of the building, where the lighting was best and the bathroom and utility sink were closest. Things would become messy, after all.
When he reached the corner that housed his private operating room he couldn’t help a stab of pride. He’d worked half his life in the medical field and knew the space he’d created here rivaled most hospitals. Although, his OR did lack a heart monitor, he amended with a grin as he rounded the operating table and stared at the man strapped to it. His patients were here to suffer, not survive.
As he reached for his scrubs, the man on the table lolled his head and his eyes began to flutter. Grabbing a water bottle from the bench next to him, Michael opened it then splashed water on Doctor Thomas Elliot’s face.
Coughing and sputtering, Elliot widened his eyes. Before the man could release a word, Michael pierced the doctor with a syringe, sending a paralytic rushing through the man’s veins.
Elliot’s eyes drifted shut and his body stilled. If someone were to walk into the room, they’d think he was dead. The drug paralyzed the body, but not the mind, or hearing, or…
Michael used masking tape to force the doctor’s eyelids to remain open. “Can’t let you off that easy, can I?” he asked Elliot, then turned the man’s head toward the bench that held the medical instruments. He wanted him to see the tools. He wanted him scared out of his mind. Helpless and at his mercy.
Make them listen, Daddy.
Immobile and paralyzed, the bastard would listen to him now. He had no choice.
“Good evening, Dr. Elliot. I’ll be handling your surgery,” he said as he shed his own clothes and reached for the scrubs again. Once dressed he pointed to the instruments on the bench.
“I’m sure these items are familiar to you considering you’re a doctor. As you can see, I have everything needed to perform your procedure. I wouldn’t want you to think I was a quack or anything.”
He glanced at his watch. The paralytic would wear off in less than a minute. He’d love to give the good doc another dose, but didn’t want to risk killing him before he had a chance to perform the surgery.
“I’ve got a schedule to meet, so let’s get this show on the road.” After slipping on his surgical cap and gloves, Michael reached for the Ziploc bags lying on the bench. He pretended to weigh the bags in his hands, fighting a grimace as the maggots inside moved. “Like you tend to do for your own patients, I took it upon myself to choose just the right size for you. With your height and build, I thought a D-cup would be perfect. Don’t you think?”
He dangled the bags in front of Elliot’s face. “No? Yes?” With an exasperated sigh, he set the bags on the man’s bare chest. “I have to admit, I am a bit nervous. After all, you’ve performed hundreds of breast augmentations and this is my first.” He shrugged. “But, gotta start somewhere, right? I just hope I don’t botch this up. Not that you would know anything about botching up a surgery. I mean, you are the expert.”
Michael noticed the bags on the man’s chest begin to move, and it had nothing to do with the contents. The drug had started to wear off and within seconds, Elliot would regain control of his body. He leaned closer to the man’s still paralyzed face. “This is truly an honor, Doctor. One I know I won’t regret. Oh, and thanks so much for agreeing to do the surgery without anesthetic. It really saves on time and money, don’t you think?”
Elliot answered with an audible wheeze. As he dragged in a deep breath, his eyes widened. He shifted and circled his gaze, the muscles around his eyes fighting against the tape holding his lids in place. “W-why…?”
Michael slapped a piece of duct tape over the doctor’s mouth. “Really, Doc. You know how tight surgery schedules can be. But because you asked so nicely and you’ve been such a good patient so far, I’ll give you a hint. Eliza Morrison. Ring a bell?”
Elliot groaned and shook his head. If he could have spoken, Michael suspected the doctor would have spewed lies to save his sorry ass. The bastard had known how Eliza had died. He’d known why. Abiding by his daughter’s last wishes, Daddy had told them and tried to make them listen. They hadn’t, though. Holding the scalpel high, Michael would bet his own sorry ass Elliot was ready to listen now.
Too little, too late.
Elliot screamed from beneath the duct tape, raised his head from the table and fought the straps holding his shoulders, waist and legs. He would need more restraints, Michael realized. But as he’d told the good doc, this was his first surgery. He’d just have to make note to purchase more restraints for his future patients.
“Hold still and we’ll be done before you know it,” Michael said as he hovered above the doctor, whose watery gaze darted from the metal blade to the bags. “Wait. You’re not worried I’m going to screw up your breast implants like you did my daughter’s, are you?”
Elliot groaned, his breath quickening through his nostrils, tears and sweat coating his face.
“Or maybe you’re worried about the implants themselves. If you are, don’t be.” Michael leaned closer, relishing the fear in the man’s eyes, and whispered, “The coyotes will have torn the limbs from your body before the maggots ever have a chance to fester in your flesh.”
Elliot screamed against the duct tape. Eyes bulging with terror, he pulled and thrashed against his bindings with renewed vigor.
Michael straightened. With a satisfied sigh, he tied his surgical mask, then turned and flipped the video camera he’d stationed in front of the operating table to RECORD.
Setting the disgusting bags aside, Michael raised the scalpel and smiled. “Let’s begin. Shall we?”
Two days later…
A muffled scream poured from the surround sound of the office, amplifying the horror on the big screen TV. Hudson Patterson shifted in his chair when another wail tore through the room. “Snuff film?” he asked, keeping his gaze on the screen.
“Not in the way you’re thinking,” Ian Scott said in a flat tone. “Keep watching.”
Frowning, Hudson did as he’d been told, albeit reluctantly. What he’d started watching less than two minutes ago first reminded him of a low budget horror film. One of those slasher types with a psychotic villain who preyed on horny teenagers.
Only the man on the screen, strapped to a table in some sort of makeshift operating room, wasn’t a horny teenager. While his facial features were indiscernible due to the angle of the camera, he had enough silver and dark brown hair covering his chest, arms and legs to rival an old Grizzly.
Another man suddenly filled the TV. He wore hospital scrubs, cap and surgical mask. The mask had been graffitied with black marker, a bubbly smile and bucked teeth drawn across the front. The doctor’s hair color—not that Hudson truly believed the man was a doctor—was indeterminable thanks to the cap. His eyes blue, maybe gray and his skin bone white beneath the bright florescent light hanging over the operating table.
“As you know,” the doctor began in a mild, easygoing tone that Hudson suspected belied his true sentiments. “I’ll need to remove your chest hair before we proceed.”
The man on the table screamed and twisted, but both had been in vain. The duct tape pressed against his mouth kept his screams muted, and the series of restraints around his body kept him prone.
“There, there,” the doctor crooned as he slapped some sort of gooey substance on the man’s chest, then coated it with a couple of strips of cloth. “Quick and painless. I promise it’ll be like yanking off a Band-Aid.”
Before the man could protest, the doctor tore first one, then the other strip. The man’s flabby pectorals instantly dotted with beads of blood.
“See, told you it wouldn’t be so bad,” the doctor said as he placed two Ziploc bags on the man’s heaving, hairy stomach. “Now let’s move on to the fun stuff.”
“What’s in the bags?” Hudson asked, knowing Ian had already viewed the DVD.
“Maggots. I had to rewind several times to figure it out, and when I did…just watch.”
Hudson stole a glance at his boss, but then the doctor spoke and forced his attention back to the flat screen. He regretted looking the moment he did.
“Let me see,” the doctor said, waving a scalpel in the air. “Like I told you, I’ve never really done this, but how hard can it be? I guess if I just make an incision…here.”
The duct tape binding the man’s lips couldn’t drown out the agonizing pain ripping through him as the doctor proceeded. Blood oozed down the side of his body, pooling on the table and when the doctor raised the thick slab of tissue he’d cut, Hudson had to turn away.
“Christ Almighty.” He leaned forward and pressed his thumb and index finger to his eyes, wishing he could blot the image from his mind.
“It gets worse,” Ian said in a clinical tone that set Hudson on edge.
“If you’ve already seen the goddamn thing, just tell me the gory details instead of making me watch them. After spending a month on the job you had me working in Detroit, I’ve seen enough blood.”
“You’ve never seen anything like this, though.” Ian turned his head and gave him a thoughtful, almost pondering look before returning his gaze to the screen. “Then again, maybe you have.”
As founder and owner of the Chicago-based agency CORE (Criminal Observation Resolution Evidence) Ian Scott knew Hudson’s history, his time spent in the Marines and the declassified missions while he’d worked for the CIA. Not the assignments or unsanctioned activities that had remained buried or likely destroyed by his CIA handlers. Yet Ian’s cryptic remark made Hudson wonder where his boss’s knowledge about him stopped. It also brought back memories he’d thought he’d purged.
The room tilted as the torturous scene continued to play out on the flat screen. Screams filled the room and his head. His mind drifted. For a moment, the florescent light on the screen turned white-hot, blinding, glaring. He forced himself not to squint, forced his body to remain rigid and his heart rate level. They might be able to see the sweat, the blood coating his body, but he couldn’t allow them access to his mind. His fears. His—
A low, keening cry pierced his ears. Hudson blinked and brought the glass he’d been holding to his lips, forcing the memories that had nearly killed him from his mind and focusing on the TV. He wasn’t the one enduring the torture. The man on the screen played that role today, fighting against his bonds with each slice of the doctor’s scalpel.
In one gulp, he drank the whiskey Ian had given him when he’d first arrived. The burn along his throat knocked back the rising bile, until the doctor stuffed one of the bags beneath the man’s loose skin.
Hudson shoved off the chair, taking his glass with him. “Enough, dammit,” he said, and helped himself to Ian’s liquor cabinet.
“We’re almost to the end anyway,” Ian said. “Let me fast forward to…here.”
Fresh drink in hand, Hudson moved back to his seat and faced the flat screen again with disgust. For Ian, for the unwanted memories, for the psycho playing doctor.
The man on the table no longer fought, and Hudson suspected he’d likely passed out from the pain. His skin gleamed with sweat and blood beneath the florescent light. Only instead of gaping holes in his chest, his pectorals were now fat and plump. Crudely sewn, lumpy and…moving.
“Oh my God,” he said the moment a bubbly, bucked toothed smile filled the camera.
“Did I get your attention?” the doctor asked as he moved next to his patient. He gave one newly filled breast a Pillsbury Doughboy press. “Bet I finally got his.”
He drew closer to the camera again. “Now, I could go on like some bleeding heart with a cause, but I’ll spare you the agony. After what you’ve just viewed, I think that’s the least I can do. So here’s the bottom line, Eden.”
Hudson sat straighter and glanced at Ian. “Eden?”
“Eden Risk,” Ian said, and nodded back to the screen as the doctor continued.
Hudson hadn’t seen Eden Risk live and in person for over two years. Hearing her name, though, brought memories he didn’t mind. Her scent, her taste, the smoothness of her skin. Too bad he’d screwed things up with her. They might have had something good. If she hadn’t been so damned hardheaded and he hadn’t been such an ass.
“I’ve been planning this for a long time,” the doctor continued. “But I wasn’t sure how to get my message out there for the world to see. When I saw your investigative series on beauty pageant kids and their moms, I realized you understood a part of what I’ve been grappling with for too many years. Now I want you to be my voice. I want you to make sure this DVD is aired. If it’s not on tomorrow’s six o’clock news, plan on receiving another.”
He moved closer to the camera, close enough so that Hudson realized his eyes were blue, not gray, lined with crow’s feet and weariness. “I didn’t want to do this. I doubt I’ll ever sleep right. But they wouldn’t listen and they’ve left me no other choice. Last year over four hundred thousand women had breast implants. Fifteen years ago that number was only thirty thousand. What does that tell you? We are being poisoned by airbrushed images of magazine models. There’s no such thing as perfect, only perception. Isn’t that right, Eden?”
Hudson frowned and rubbed his temple. He didn’t understand what the doctor had meant. Eden was a beautiful woman. Perfect teeth, nose, eyes, hair. Her body could rival the models the nut job referred to. But what had he meant by “only perception?” Did this man know Eden? Did her perception of perfection somehow connect her to this man or even the one lying on the table with new breasts?
Pulling a syringe from a nearby table, the doctor looked to the man. “I need to tend to my patient now. Do as I’ve instructed.” He raised his arm as if to turn off the camera, then stopped. “Eden, take care of yourself,” he said, his eyes sincere, almost worried. “While I’ve been watching you, someone else has been, too.”
The flat screen went black.
Hudson stared at the darkened TV and wondered how Eden had managed to tangle herself in another bad situation. “I take it you got the DVD from Eden.”
“Okay. So what do you want from me?” He didn’t bother hiding the contempt from his voice. Ian had a reason for everything he did. He also knew about his blow-out with Eden Risk.
“My thoughts? Is that all?” he asked not believing Ian one bit. Ian had been behind the scenes when the FBI had begun its profiling unit. He didn’t need Hudson’s opinion, not on something like this.
“Okay.” He shrugged. “Guy’s a sick bastard. Uses torture to send a message rather than gain information. Reminds me of…” Reminded him of another sick bastard who had tried to do the same to him.
“Reminds you of?”
He ignored the prompt and continued. “I think he’s using this message he’s sending as an excuse for revenge.”
“Interesting. Why do you say that?”
“He said he’d been planning this. Then there’s the comment about the child beauty pageants. This is personal to him. And the guy on the table with the new…chest? I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s a plastic surgeon. Maybe implants were his specialty.”
“Excellent,” Ian said with a smile. “My thoughts exactly.”
A throb built behind his eye. Releasing a frustrated sigh, he sagged in the chair. “If you already suspected as much, I’m gonna ask again. What do you want from me?”
“I want you to find him.” Ian pointed to the darkened TV. “And protect Eden.”
“I’m not a profiler, or criminalist or even an investigator. And I’m sure as hell not a babysitter. You’ve got plenty of those guys on the payroll to handle this.”
Ian stroked the side of his glass with a finger. “True. You hunt, you find, you capture. That’s your specialty. Unfortunately, I don’t have anyone else to cover this.”
“What about John? I heard he’s—”
“Busy at the moment.”
Hudson set his glass on the table beside him. He didn’t need the whiskey spiking his temper any higher. While he’d been stuck in Detroit, dealing with gangbangers with an affinity for slitting the throats of their enemies and prostituting kids, he’d learned some interesting gossip from CORE’s forensic computer analyst, Rachel Davis.
The eyes and ears of the company, Rachel had told him how John Kain had met and fallen for Ian’s daughter while working a case in Wisconsin. No one who’d worked for Ian even knew he’d had a daughter. From what Rachel had said, it appeared the daughter had had no idea Ian was her father. It all sounded like a shitty soap opera, and Hudson had let most of it in one ear and straight out the other.
“Busy my ass,” Hudson said. “I heard the whole story. Congratulations on being a father, by the way.”
Ian nodded, yet remained somber. “I know you’re not usually on the investigative end. But you did a lot of investigating with the CIA, and were very good at your job.”
“Were being the operative word.”
Ian shook his head. “Hunting and tracking criminals are just different facets of investigating and you know it.” When Ian appeared to realize he still hadn’t convinced him, he said, “Look, I need you on this. John’s working something else for me. Owen’s in California for at least another two weeks. Russo won’t be back from Texas until later next week.”
“So I get screwed babysitting.” Damn it. And to Eden Risk of all people.
“Investigating,” Ian corrected, then took a long gulp of his Scotch. After setting the glass aside he folded his hands. “I know you and Eden had a falling out a few years ago.”
“That’s putting it mildly.” She’d ripped his head off for outing her source, a source who had been under investigation by CORE as a serial rapist. A source that had been feeding her false information in order to make her his next victim. Even now his stomach seized and knotted when he thought of what could have happened had the bastard been given the opportunity to find himself alone with her.
Ian’s smile didn’t reach his eyes. “I’ve known Eden for years. There’s been a few times when her investigative reporting skills, and even her sources, have helped CORE. I also know she’s not the easiest person to understand or even like. But you’ve watched the film, you’ve heard what the man said.” Ian’s voice rose with irritation. “She has one man sending her DVDs and allegedly another stalking her. Set your ego aside.”
Hudson ignored the jab and searched for another out. Not because he’d been reduced to babysitter, but because of the DVD. Like a divining rod, the film found a way to tap into memories he hadn’t thought of in nearly four years. “Let the Chicago PD handle this.”
“The instructions to stated no police.”
“Since when do you obey the rules?” Hudson rose and reached for his coat. “Sorry to bolt on you. But I’ve been up since four AM and haven’t been home in over a month. I’m not saying yes to anything without a clear head.”
“Eden needs immediate protection.”
Guilt gave a sharp stab to his conscience. Eden might irritate the hell out of him, but he didn’t want to see anything happen to her, either. He slapped his leather gloves against his hand. “Fine,” he snapped. “I’ll do it.”
“You’ll go now?”
Hudson shrugged. “Sure.” He began counting off on his fingers. “First a psycho, then a stalker, it’s not like my night could get any worse. Why not a little reunion with a woman who thinks I’m a total asshole?”