Excerpt: Shadow of Vengeance
Book 3: CORE Shadow Trilogy
“Who did you piss off?”
Detroit homicide detective Nick Merretti looked at the dead man lying on the bed in a pool of blood. After twenty-eight years on the force, with only two left until retirement, he’d thought he’d seen it all. Until today.
“We got any ID?” he asked no one in particular, but after years of experience knew one of the half dozen cops or CSI techs would give him an answer.
“Nothing,” a tech called from across the shitty, no-tell motel room. “No wallet, jewelry, clothes. No prints either. Whoever did this, cleaned up after themselves.”
“Yeah, well, they still made one hell of a mess.” From the opposite side of the bed, Medical Examiner, Joyce Wilson, leaned over the victim, wrinkling her nose in disgust. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Nick hadn’t either, and he’d seen some fucked up shit. “Time of death?” he asked.
“I’ll have a more concrete time once I do the autopsy, but best guess?” Joyce looked at the dainty watch on her thick wrist as if it had the answer. “Twenty-four to thirty-six hours ago.”
“According to the owner, the cleaning lady found him,” his partner, Leon Smith, said as he entered the motel room. Leon looked at the body and winced. “That’s fucked up.” He looked to Joyce. “Sorry, Ma’am.”
“No worries, Detective.” She tossed Leon a pair of gloves. “You’re right. It’s totally fucked up. And I’m the one who gets to spend all kinds of time with him. Lucky me.”
Leon held up the gloves. “What do you want me to do with these?”
His partner had only been with Homicide for six months and had some growing to do. “Put them on and do whatever Joyce asks.”
“Okay,” the ME began, and gently touched the dead man’s head. “Looks as if he was bludgeoned with…” She glanced at the lamp lying haphazardly on the filthy carpet. “Likely the lamp.”
Nick nodded to the nearest CSI tech, and asked him to check the lamp for any evidence. “What do you think was used on his face?”
She shrugged. “I’m assuming some sort of acid. Look at the way the skin melted.”
Swallowing down the bile that had been burning his throat from the moment he walked into the room, he stared at the dead man’s face—or what was left of it. The acid, or whatever had been used, had practically liquefied the man’s skin, leaving behind only bits of reddish brown flesh and tufts of brown hair over the partially exposed skull. “I’m assuming the acid took care of the eyes.”
After righting the dead man’s head, Joyce checked the eye sockets. “Acid would do that, and probably did. But look.” She pointed a Latex-gloved finger to the cavity. “See these grooves here?” she asked. “Again, I’ll know more during the autopsy, but those grooves are consistent with knife marks.” She pointed to the other eye socket. “They’re here, too.”
“You’re saying he was stabbed in the eyes?” Leon’s caramel face grew ashen to the point where Nick wondered if his partner would lose his lunch. “What about his teeth? Do you think he wore dentures?”
Joyce examined the man’s mouth, dipping a finger inside and along the area where gums and teeth should have been. “Most of his gums were destroyed by the acid, but based on some of the holes I can feel where his back molars were, I’m thinking they were ripped from his head.”
Nick rubbed the back of his hand along his chin, and glanced at the man’s torso, where it looked as if he’d been stabbed dozens of times. “Total overkill,” he said. “In every sense of the word.”
“No doubt he suffered.” Joyce also looked to the deep, jagged slices tattooing the man’s chest and stomach. “Someone thought he deserved it.”
“I don’t know,” Leon said, his voice filled with dread and anguish. “Slicing off a man’s dick, sorry, I mean penis is…is…”
“Personal,” Nick finished.
Joyce met his gaze. “Based on the amount of blood, I’d say it was done while he was still alive.” She moved to the end of the bed. “I have a gut feeling my findings will prove he was alive during most, if not all of this.” She picked up the man’s gnarled, partially skeletonized foot. “Looks like acid was dumped on his feet, too.”
“Let’s roll him,” Nick suggested. “I want to see his hands and back.” They were screwed. No ID, no recognizable facial features, and no teeth meant no dental records. They wouldn’t have been able to run a footprint through AFIS like they could with a fingerprint. But just like fingerprints, a footprint was unique to each individual.
“Put those gloves to work, Leon,” Joyce said. “Help me roll him on his side. Good, now hold him steady.”
Leon stood across the bed, his head turned to the side and his face contorted in a deep grimace as he held the victim’s bloodied shoulder and hip. “Don’t take too long.” His partner’s shoulders lurched and his Adam’s apple bobbed as if he fought to keep from vomiting. “I…I don’t know how long I can do this.”
Ignoring Leon, Nick viewed the dead man’s backside. His hands had been tied behind him, the flesh around the fingers melted away, leaving behind nothing but bone. Small puncture wounds, likely from the force of a knife as it had been gouged into the victim’s torso over and over, lined his lower back. He glanced to the man’s shoulder blade, where a large chunk of skin had been removed. Swearing, he stepped away and ran a hand over his bald spot.
Two more years. That’s all he had left. Two more years of dead bodies.
When he glanced back toward the bed, Leon had just stepped away from the victim. “Get some air,” Nick told his partner. Once Leon left the room, he turned to Joyce. “They took his tattoo.”
“That was my first thought.” She sent him a wry smile that didn’t reach her eyes. “Glad you waited until Leon set the vic back down before you brought it up. I really didn’t want a mutilated corpse on my head.”
“Right.” He propped a hand on his hip, and stared at the dead man. “She made sure nothing was left to ID this guy.”
“She?” Joyce removed her gloves. “How can you be so sure? You’re obviously the detective here, but based on this motel, based on some of the prostitutes I saw when I was coming in, I figured this was a pimp putting a john in his place.”
“I’ve had my share of run ins with plenty of pimps.” He shook his head. “They might beat the hell out of a john who did one of their girls wrong.” He shrugged. “They might even stab him. But acid? Ripping teeth from his head? This wasn’t a pimp.” He glanced at the mutilated genitalia and the gouged eyes. “This was a woman. This was personal. It was also premeditated.”
“Maybe. But, and I’m guessing here, the vic is about six foot two and probably one ninety to two hundred pounds. Unless he was drugged or highly intoxicated, I can’t see a woman capable of subduing him, then mutilating him while he was still alive.”
“She didn’t drug him.” With a tired sigh, he moved toward the door, then glanced over his shoulder at the disfigured corpse. “She wanted him coherent…for every single slice.”
Eighteen months later…
Rachel Davis stared at the ringing cell phone, at the Michigan area code. Panic clamped her heart and tightened her chest. Her brother, Sean, lived in Michigan, but only called her from his cell phone, which used a Chicago area code. She glanced at the alarm clock beside her bed. He also never called her at six in the morning. Hoping something had happened to Sean’s phone and he was calling from the dormitory landline, she quickly answered.
Panic morphed into utter dread. “Yes, who is this?”
“Sheriff Jake Tyler. Dixon County, Michigan.”
Mouth dry, mind racing, she reached into the nightstand drawer and grabbed a pencil. “Why are you calling, Sheriff?”
Please let Sean be okay.
“It’s about your brother.”
She closed her eyes. Not caring that she’d just finished her hair and make-up, or that she was dressed for work in a freshly laundered suit, she slumped onto the bed and curled into the fetal position. Sean was her only family. Whatever news the sheriff was about to give her, she’d take it lying down. Fainting onto the hardwood floor would hurt like a bitch.
“Is Sean…?” She couldn’t say the words. Hurt. Missing. Dead.
“Your brother is at Dixon Medical Center. He’s been beaten, but the doc working on him says he’ll recover without issue.”
Anger suddenly surged through her veins. She shot off the bed. “Beaten? When did this happen? Where? At the university?”
Although she’d tried to encourage Sean to remain in Chicago and attend Northwestern, he’d chosen Wexman University, in northwest Michigan, instead. He’d liked the idea of going to a small school, loved the campus, the engineering program and the fat scholarship the school had awarded him for his academics. While she’d respected his wishes, and the scholarship had definitely been a Godsend considering she was paying for his education, she still wished he’d stayed closer to home. She loved his company and missed seeing his face on a daily basis.
Now he was lying in a hospital bed.
“Actually, we’re not sure where the beating took place. The doc thinks, based on the way Sean’s wounds have healed, that your brother was hurt sometime Saturday.”
“Saturday?” Pinching the pencil between her fingers, she paced the bedroom. “In case you’re not aware, Sheriff, it’s Monday.”
“I’m fully aware of the day,” he replied, his tone holding a hint of irritation. “But your brother wasn’t found until last night around midnight. He had no ID and was considered a John Doe until a couple of hours ago.”
Rachel stopped pacing and snatched the picture frame off the dresser. Staring at the photograph of her and Sean at a Chicago Cubs game last summer, memories of the cheering crowd, the mouthwatering aroma of hot dogs and popcorn, filled her mind and made her want to cry. They’d had a great time at the game, then later pigged out on pizza and wings. He wasn’t just her brother, he was her best friend. And she could have lost him.
Tears filled her eyes as she set the photograph back on the dresser. Swiping a stray tear from her cheek, she drew in a deep breath.
She needed to maintain control. Think. Obtain the facts. Analyze the situation. Leave emotion out of the picture—for now—and use every resource she had available to find out who had hurt Sean. She worked for CORE (Criminal Observance Resolution Evidence), and had helped the agency investigate and solve hundreds of cases. She’d solve this one, too. And when Sean was well enough to travel, she’d haul his ass home. Maybe even force him to be the next bubble boy. Anything to ensure he remained safe.
“Miss Davis? You still there?” the sheriff asked.
She tucked the pencil behind her ear, then rubbed her temple where a deep throb began to build. “Sorry, Sheriff, I’m still here and didn’t mean to snap at you. My brother…” He was the only family she had left. After their mother had run off with a musician six years ago, she’d become Sean’s legal guardian. Had she been old enough, the courts should have given her that right when he was born. Even at twelve she’d been a better parent than their mom. The woman had spent more time trying to land her next husband than paying attention to her children. Rachel loved Sean. Without him in her life…
Clearing her throat, she said, “I work for a private criminal investigation agency and we specialize in—”
“I’m aware you work for CORE. One of your agents recently helped the Detroit PD with a case. A few months back, another of your people helped bring down a serial killer in Wisconsin.”
“That’s right,” she said, and headed into the kitchen to where she’d left her laptop. “So, I understand that you might not be able to give me all the details while you’re still running this investigation.” She paused. “You are considering what happened to my brother as something worth investigating, correct?”
“Of course. Actually, I was hoping CORE might lend us a hand.”
While she’d planned to use CORE’s resources to find out who had hurt Sean, the sheriff’s hopes bordered on extreme. CORE didn’t usually handle cases like this unless they were high profile or the client had deep pockets. “What about the Michigan State Police?”
“They…have no interest in what goes on around these parts.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.” She closed the case file she’d been working on before her shower and the sheriff’s call. CORE had worked with the FBI, law enforcement in different cities around the country, as well as numerous state agencies. During the four years she’d been with CORE, she’d had the opportunity to work with the Michigan State Police a few times. In her experience, their personnel were both capable and professional.
“It will once I explain. Now, the county can’t afford to pay your agency—”
“We do plenty of cases pro bono.” More concerned over her brother than the sheriff’s issues with the State Police, she shifted focus. “Forget about that and give me details. It’s the end of January. Last night the temperature dipped to fifteen degrees in Chicago, and I’m betting it was even colder where you’re located. Did my brother suffer from exposure? Who found him and where? What are his exact injuries? Do you have any suspects or—?”
“Hang on, and slow down,” the sheriff said. “Let me start at the beginning. Your brother was found by a local guy. He was heading home from work and spotted his body on the side of the road. Sean couldn’t have been outside for too long because his body temperature was normal. The guy who found him even said he was surprised your brother’s skin was warm when he touched his neck to find a pulse.”
Somewhat relieved that Sean hadn’t been lying in the freezing cold for over twenty-four hours, Rachel began to type notes onto her laptop. “Who was the man who found my brother?” She’d like to thank the Good Samaritan. If he hadn’t seen Sean, he could have frozen to death.
“Hal Baker. After he brought Sean to the hospital, Hal took me to where he found your brother. Based on the way Hal described the state of Sean’s body, the doc and I both think that he was thrown out of a vehicle. Something high off the ground—maybe an SUV or a truck—and that’s how he suffered the concussion and broken arm. The broken ribs, and bruising to his face and body…I think that happened somewhere else.”
She paused her fingers over the keyboard and fought back the worry, anger and grief. Whoever had done this to her brother would pay dearly. “Did you find tire tracks on the road, or any fibers or DNA evidence on Sean’s clothes?”
“While there’s snow on the ground, there’s none on the road. There weren’t any fresh tire tracks, and I didn’t find any shoe imprints in the snow near where Sean was found. As for DNA evidence, we’re small time here, Miss Davis. I did bag Sean’s clothes and could probably send them to the Michigan State Police, but like I said, they really—”
“Don’t have any interest in what’s going on in those parts,” she repeated what the sheriff had said earlier, and shook her head. “I’m still having a hard time wrapping my brain around that nonsense, Sheriff.”
“Right. We…ah…have had some past events that have made the Michigan State Police look bad and my department look like a joke.”
“Unless these past events are in any relation to what happened to my brother, I see no reason—”
“Miss Davis,” the sheriff interrupted. “I’m afraid they do. Over the past twenty years we’ve had well over a dozen missing person reports in our county. Nineteen to be exact. Out of all of the cases, only five of those missing persons have been found. The couple of times the State Police came in to help investigate, the reports ended up being nothing but a hoax.”
Shrugging, she said, “I don’t see why that would keep the State from helping with future investigations.”
“Look, I’ve got a meeting with our town council and honestly don’t have time to go into the details right now.”
“Fine, then you can explain when I get there,” she said. “It’s about a six hour drive from Chicago, and I’ll need to stop by CORE on my way out of town.” She glanced at the clock and did the math. “Will you be able to meet with me around three? I want to see my brother first.”
“Sure. I’ll meet you at my office in Bola. If you’ve been to the university, you would have had to pass through the town.”
If Wexman University wasn’t located near the town, and she hadn’t had the best breakfast of her life there, she probably wouldn’t have remembered the forgettable Bola, Michigan. Located near the Menominee River, the small town thrived on tourism during the summer, and the students and faculty from the university throughout the remainder of the year. Except for the small manufacturing company at the edge of town, and the place she’d eaten breakfast, she couldn’t recall anything else about Bola, other than it being boring.
“I’m familiar with Bola,” she said.
“Good, then I’ll see you at three.”
While the sheriff gave her his contact information, the missing persons he’d mentioned nagged at her. Bola’s population—she remembered from the town’s billboard—was around twelve hundred. Last fall, the university’s enrollment had been almost equal to the number of residents living in Bola. Granted, those missing person cases had occurred over the course of twenty years, but with approximately twenty five hundred people living in the area nine months out of the year, the number of missing persons seemed…staggering.
“Before you go,” Rachel said, and headed for the bedroom to pack a bag. “You’d mentioned that what happened to my brother relates to the missing persons you’ve had over the years. How so?”
“I’d planned on telling you when we met. It’s also the reason why I was hoping CORE could help us.” He paused, exhaled deeply, then said, “With almost every one of those missing persons, a note was left behind. Same writing, same message. Only this time, the note wasn’t left behind. It was left on your brother, stuffed in the pocket of his jeans.”
She stopped packing, and sat on the edge of the bed. “What did the note say?”
“‘Welcome to Hell Week. You have seven days to find him.’”
A chill swept over her and prickled the hair on her scalp. During fall semester, Sean had participated in the university’s rush week, and had decided to pledge the Eta Tau Zeta fraternity. Over winter break, he’d told her he was excited to join the Zetas, that they were a great group of guys, but had worried about the expense. She hadn’t worried about the money. The cost to join the fraternity and live at the frat house wasn’t much different than that of the dorms.
What had worried her, though, were the hazing rituals that occur during Hell Week. Sean had assured her that the university didn’t allow any form of hazing, that the school’s policy was strict and if any member of a fraternity was caught or even suspected of hazing, they would be expelled. Although the universities no-tolerance rules had eased her mind, and she’d met most of the boys from the fraternity, she’d still worried about her baby brother. She’d practically raised him and couldn’t help being overprotective.
Now he was six hours away, lying in some rinky-dink hospital.
“That note might make sense if you’d found it in Sean’s dorm room,” she said, more as a way to alleviate her unease. The missing persons, the note, Sean’s beating, the way he’d been left along the road…something wasn’t right in Bola.
“I don’t think the message was meant for Sean. Have you met your brother’s roommate?”
In an instant, the image of a handsome, athletic, blonde hair, blue-eyed kid jumped into her mind. Although Josh Conway was the polar opposite to her redheaded, brown-eyed, lanky, bookworm of a brother, the two boys had become close friends, and both were pledging the Eta Tau Zeta fraternity. “Yeah, I know Josh. What about him?”
“According to the dormitory residential assistant, both Sean and Josh were last seen leaving their dorm room Saturday evening. They were supposed to meet a few others at the library for a study session. Neither showed.”
“We have no idea of his whereabouts.”
And her brother had been beaten and left for dead.
Welcome to Hell Week.
Dread settled in the pit of her stomach as a grisly thought came to mind. “Sheriff, these missing persons your town has seen over the years…were any of them students at Wexman University?”
“Not all, but most of them. Nine to be exact. With Josh Conway’s disappearance, we’re now up to ten.”
Ten? “The students, were any of them pledging a fraternity or sorority?”
“Fraternities. They were all male.”
Rachel tightened her grip on the cell phone. “When? Was there a specific time of year when these boys went missing?”
“And their bodies?”
“They’ve never been found.”
While she wasn’t a criminalist like some members of CORE’s team, her years spent with Army Intelligence, along with her hacking skills, had prepared her for the job and had made her valuable to Ian Scott, the owner of the agency. During her tenure, she’d been involved in some seriously twisted cases. Her mind worked quickly and zeroed in on one thing.
“You have a serial killer in Bola.”
“That’s right, Miss Davis. Welcome to Hell Week. We have only seven days to find Josh Conway.”
With a yawn and a stretch, he climbed out of bed and toed on his slippers. After shrugging into his robe, he raced down the staircase and into the kitchen like a kid at Christmas. Eagerness and excitement hummed through his veins. Better than Christmas or a birthday or any other holiday, today marked a special day, a special beginning. The time of year he anticipated the most.
As the coffee brewed, the strong, rich aroma of hazelnut and cinnamon wafted throughout the kitchen. While he waited for that first delicious cup, he did a mental checklist of today’s schedule. Monday was always a full workday, filled with meetings and preparations for the upcoming week. Pity. He’d love to play hooky today. He’d love to play with the pledge in his basement.
The pledge would have to wait until this evening. Work came first. Deviating from his daily routine was not an option. Besides, he knew in his heart, now, this moment wasn’t the right time. In the past, he’d made mistakes with his pledges. In his overzealousness, he’d rushed things, which had made for some…deadly results. He couldn’t rush anything with the new pledge. Twenty years ago, what began as therapy had now become legend. He had become legendary. No. There would be no rushing, no overzealousness. No more mistakes.
After what Junior had done on Saturday, there had better not be any more mistakes. He poured coffee into the mug, then blew on the liquid before taking a sip. Although still angry over Junior’s screw-up, he couldn’t stay mad at his only child. Hell Week would become Junior’s legacy. The gifts of dominance, control, power…definitely the kind of inheritance that keeps on giving. And he wanted his child to feel, to truly understand, what it is to have power over another human being. Over their pledge.
Although Junior had been born a disappointment, he never wanted his own flesh and blood to experience what he had twenty-five years ago. The powerlessness, the helplessness, the utter degradation at the hands of a monster. While it had taken him years to battle the nightmares that still haunted him, he’d made his mark on the world. Well, at least in Bola, Michigan.
Chuckling, he shrugged and looked out the kitchen window. He glanced at the trees in his backyard, now naked save for the clumps of icy snow resting on their branches, then to the path which led to the Menominee River. When he’d been a child, that path had terrified him. His parents had warned him never to walk through the forest alone, to never go near the river, or bad things would happen. Too true, he chuckled again, then took another sip of his coffee.
He no longer knew what it was like to be afraid. The Townies knew. They knew and they feared him.
Just like his parents had done, the town folk of Bola had spun terrifying stories to their children in order to keep them from venturing too far into the dense forests surrounding Bola. The university students, most of them spoiled, coddled, little shitheads, didn’t buy into the Townies’ fears and beliefs. They’d considered him a myth, akin to the celebrated Bigfoot many of the ignorant Townies had claimed to have seen roaming the area.
He was no myth. But he should be feared. Every male student at the university should agonize and wonder.
Will he come for me this year?
While he’d bet there were a few young men who worried, they wouldn’t have to concern themselves any longer. He’d taken his pledge. By noon today, word of the boy’s disappearance would reach every corner of the campus and county. And so it would begin.
Seven days of torture.
Seven days of hell.
The front door opened, sending in a loud gust of wind, then quickly shut.
“Junior?” he called as he left the kitchen and moved down the hallway into the foyer. He stopped, leaned against the stair rails and eyed his favorite mistake. “What have you learned?”
“They found Sean Davis late last night. He’s recovering at Dixon Medical Center. Depending on the severity of the concussion, he’ll likely be released in a few days.”
“And the note?”
“Sheriff Tyler didn’t mention it, but it’s obvious he found it. Around four this morning, he questioned the boys at the Eta Tau Zeta house, as well as the RA and some of the kids living at the dorm.”
He sipped his coffee, then said, “I wonder if our dedicated sheriff has tried to contact his family.”
Waving his hand, he shook his head. “I don’t care about that whiney, little skid mark. Idiot, I’m referring to our pledge.”
“Yes, sir.” Junior looked to the floor. “Sorry. I don’t know. As you’re aware, the university administration offices open at eight. I wouldn’t be surprised if they receive a call from the sheriff then. Does he need Josh’s parents to file a missing person report?”
The mug, filled with his delicious coffee, smashed and splattered on the tile. In an instant he had Junior by the throat and up against the door. “Pledge,” he said, and tightened his grip. “That is his new name. That is what you will call him. Do you understand?”
Junior nodded, and whispered, “Yes, sir.”
He reined in his anger and loosened his hold. “Josh Conway is dead, figuratively speaking of course,” he said, calmer now, and stepped over the mess on the floor.
“Yes, of course.”
Turning his back, he walked down the hallway toward the kitchen for a new cup of coffee, but stopped at the threshold. “Clean up the mess you caused and meet me in the basement.”
“I thought we wouldn’t begin with the pledge until this evening.”
“You’re right, we won’t. But he must be given a taste of what’s to come.”
Owen Malcolm stifled a yawn and waited for Ian Scott, his boss and founder of CORE, to end his phone conversation. He glanced around Ian’s luxurious, yet comfortable office, particularly at the large, leather sofa near the fireplace, and ached for a nap. Not about to curl up on his boss’s sofa, he leaned into the plush office chair instead.
The past couple months of travelling might have finally caught up with him. November, there had been California and Las Vegas. December had him in San Antonio for a few weeks, then from there, he’d flown to Virginia to spend the holidays with his family.
While he’d loved visiting his parents, sisters and nieces and nephews, he couldn’t count the trip as a vacation. If he hadn’t been working odd jobs around the house for his mom and dad, his sisters had been ushering him, and his nieces and nephews, to the obnoxiously loud, germ- and kid-infested Play World. How many times can a kid go on the same humungous, inflatable slide without growing sick of it? Infinity, he assumed, because his sisters’ kids never stopped until they’d left, then had begged to go back the next day.
He’d take the raucous Play World over this last assignment, though. While Miami in January had its perks, beautiful, warm beaches, wild nightlife, and even wilder women, he didn’t have the chance to enjoy any of it. Instead, he’d spent three weeks helping the Miami-Dade police track down the man who’d been robbing, raping, then murdering elderly women. He’d found the guy. But the prick had put a bullet into his head before the police could arrest him. The suicide might not give the victims’ families total closure, but it had made his part in the investigation easier. Now he wouldn’t have to travel back to Florida for a long, drawn-out trial.
He looked out Ian’s office window. Nothing but gray sky. Maybe a long, drawn-out trial in Miami wouldn’t have been such a bad thing. Chicago plus January equaled snow and freezing temperatures.
Ian hung up the phone. “How was Florida?” he asked.
Owen straightened. “I didn’t get much of a chance to work on my tan,” he said, then leaned forward and handed him the case file.
Ian glanced through the paperwork. “When did you get back?”
He looked at the clock. “My flight got in about an hour ago. I haven’t even been to my condo yet.”
Arching his black brows, Ian leaned into his chair and shrugged. “Go home then.”
“I didn’t mean to imply—”
Ian shook his head and offered him a slight smile. “I know you didn’t.”
“Then why are you sending me home without giving me my next assignment?” In the six years he’d worked for Ian, other than his annual holiday trip to see the family and the occasional vacation, he’d never ended a case without being handed another.
And he needed another.
When he visited his folks, they kept him too busy to think. When he took a vacation, he always made sure they were well-scheduled trips, packed with a full itinerary. Downtime, lounging on the beach or poolside, didn’t work for him. If he stopped moving, his mind would go into overdrive. Bringing up the past. His mistakes. His regrets.
Ian moved, as if to run his hand through his salt and pepper hair, then instead, scratched the back of his head. “I don’t have anything for you.”
During his time with CORE, he’d only seen one member of the team let go. And it had started with, “I don’t have anything for you.”
Flashbacks from his days with the U.S. Secret Service suddenly shifted through his head. The cover-ups. The bullshit. The lies and dismissal.
He’d been loyal to Ian because the man had helped him salvage his career. His boss could be manipulative, but it was done with purpose. Ian, although not as blunt as he’d like, was still an excellent employer. He didn’t want to lose his job with CORE. Sure, with his background, he could find a position with another private agency, but he had no interest in working elsewhere. CORE had become his life. He liked his fellow agents, his hefty salary, the bonuses and the benefits.
“Is this the start of your firing process?”
Ian’s bark of laughter filled the office. “God, no. Why in the hell would I fire you? I can work you like a dog, and you never complain. I have no complaints.” He grew serious, then said, “You’ve been working cases back-to-back, and I don’t want you to burn out. I thought you could use a week to regroup. Paid, of course.”
Most people would have jumped at the opportunity of paid time off. And while he appreciated Ian’s intentions, he didn’t want a break. He’d rather work. The assignments kept his mind busy, his thoughts focused.
“I appreciate the offer, but I’m good.”
Ian eyed him, then nodded. “If you change your mind, just let me know. Meanwhile, I have an interesting cold case that needs solving.” He pulled a file from the drawer and set it on the desk.
Owen liked cold cases, especially the older ones where modern day technology hadn’t quite been invented. They were like puzzles. He enjoyed sifting through old paperwork, crime scene photos, and evidence. Seeing what fit and what didn’t, then solving what no one else could.
A rap at the door caught his attention. As he turned, Rachel burst into the room. She came to an abrupt halt when she saw him, then looked to Ian.
“Sorry, Ian. I don’t mean to interrupt, but I…” She looked away, stared out the window, then reached for the pencil tucked behind her ear.
Something had Beaver upset. Not once, during the four years Rachel had worked for CORE, had Owen ever seen her at a loss for words. The woman always had something to say, and had an annoying habit of doing so over a mouthful of pencil.
“I can come back,” Owen said, sensing Rachel might want a moment alone with Ian.
“No, actually, I wouldn’t mind if you stayed. I might be able to use your help.”
Interesting. Rachel never liked having him around, and rarely asked him for help with anything. Why, he didn’t know. All he knew was that whenever he walked into the room, she threw verbal jabs, snarky uppercuts, and sarcastic hooks. He didn’t care, and actually liked Rachel. Although a bit…mouthy, he couldn’t deny her capabilities as CORE’s computer forensics analyst, plus he admired her intelligence and her quick-working mind.
“I’d be glad to help,” he said, still dumbfounded that she’d willingly have him part of the conversation.
She moved to the leather office chair next to him, then sat. “Yeah, well, no one else is here yet, so I have no choice.”
So much for thinking she’d been interested in his expertise.
“What’s going on?” Ian asked her.
“It’s my brother,” she began. “Late last night, he was found on the side of the road just outside of Bola, Michigan, beaten and unconscious.”
“My God, Rachel,” Ian said, and leaned forward. “How’s his condition?”
“He’s okay. I’ll know more when I see him.”
Ian nodded. “Absolutely. Take all the time you need. It’s a long drive to Bola. If you want to use the jet, feel free.”
She smiled and shook her head. “Thank you, but I’m going to drive. I’m not sure how long I’ll be gone, and I don’t want to deal with a rental.”
“Understood,” Ian said.
“I’m sorry about your brother,” Owen said, and meant it. He had three older sisters, and if anything bad had happened to them, he’d be devastated. And out for blood. While he doubted he’d ever have a family of his own, his parents, his sisters and their kids, meant everything to him. They accepted and loved him, faults and all. He knew Rachel had basically raised her brother, and couldn’t imagine how she must be feeling. “Do you have any idea who did this to him?”
“The sheriff I spoke with doesn’t have any leads. That’s why I wanted you to stick around. I…ah.” She paused and glanced to the ceiling. Seconds later she looked at him. “I’d like your advice.”
Seriously interesting. Most times when he offered his opinion, she’d somehow find a way to either dismiss him or cut him down.
“When I get to Bola I plan to investigate my brother’s beating,” she continued. “I know where to start, and have already begun a list of the people I want to interview.”
“Are you planning on running this investigation on behalf of CORE?” Ian asked.
She tapped the pencil to her lips. “Are you okay with that? If not, I can—”
Ian waved a hand. “Our resources are yours.”
She tucked the pencil behind her ear. “Thank you. I have a feeling I’m going to need it. Sean’s beating…based on what the sheriff told me, I don’t think it was random.”
“Why’s that?” Owen asked.
“The sheriff said they found a note stuffed in Sean’s pocket. It said, ‘Welcome to Hell Week. You have seven days to find him.’”
“But they obviously found your brother,” Owen countered.
“Right. They found Sean. His roommate, Josh Conway, is missing.”
“Could this roommate have gone home for the weekend?” he asked.
“No. Sean told me his parents are overseas.”
“Didn’t you tell me that Sean planned to join a fraternity?” Ian asked.
“Yes. The Eta Tau Zetas”
“Based on the Hell Week reference,” Ian began. “Is it possible that this could have been a hazing gone bad?”
She nodded, and hugged herself. “I thought about that, only…”
“What?” Owen asked.
“The sheriff said that over the last twenty years, nine male students from Wexman University have gone missing. Josh makes ten. These students always disappear in January. And with every one of these missing boys, the same note was left behind.”
Owen rubbed his jaw, both confused and disturbed. “You’re telling us that nine guys go missing, the same time of year, with the same message left behind…have any of the bodies been discovered?”
“Does this sheriff realize he has a possible serial killer in his county?” he asked, surprised that Bola, Michigan’s local law enforcement, hell, even the university, hadn’t pieced the obvious together and asked for outside help.
“He’s well aware.”
Irritated at the sheriff’s ineptness, he leaned forward and asked, “Then why not bring in the Michigan State Police?”
“The sheriff tried that route. I’m still confused as to what happened when they participated in the investigation.” She faced Ian. “I have vacation time, and you said I can use CORE’s resources. The sheriff can’t afford to pay us, but if it’s okay with you, I want to investigate what’s happening in Bola and find Sean’s roommate.”
“Of course,” Ian said. “But there’s no need to worry about vacation time and fees. Not when family is involved. Besides, this is an interesting case.”
“Very interesting,” Owen said. “A possible serial killer who targets victims at a certain time of year…strange, too.”
Ian nodded, and removed the cold case file from the desk. “Agreed. This case can wait a few more weeks. Rachel has just handed you your next assignment.”
Excitement pumped through Owen’s veins. He’d gladly take the case. What had and was happening in Bola sounded like a huge puzzle with a lot of missing pieces.
“I didn’t hand him anything,” Rachel said. “And I told you I’d like to conduct this investigation.”
“You can.” Ian smiled. “Only you’ll do it with Owen.”