Authors: Brian Freeman
Tags: #Police Procedural, #Nevada, #Police, #Missing children, #Mystery & Detective, #Minnesota, #General, #Duluth (Minn.), #Mystery fiction, #Thrillers, #Police - Minnesota, #Fiction, #Las Vegas (Nev.)
Lieutenant Jonathan Stride is suffering from an ugly case of déjà vu. For the second time in a year, a beautiful teenage girl has disappeared off the streets of Duluth, Minnesota. Gone without a trace, like a bitter gust off Lake Superior.
The two victims couldn’t be more different. First it was Kerry McGrath. Bubbly. Sweet sixteen. And now Rachel Deese. Strange and sexually charged. A wild child.
The media is hounding Stride to catch a serial killer. But Stride, haunted by personal loss and by his failure to solve Kerry’s murder the year before, doesn’t think the answer is that simple. As he exposes Rachel’s twisted background, he begins to believe that the truth behind Rachel’s disappearance is more complex than anyone imagines. And more evil.
The search carries Stride from the icy stillness of the northern woods to the erotic heat of Las Vegas. And Stride finds his own life changed forever by the secrets he uncovers.
Secrets that stretch across time in a web of lies, death, and illicit desire.
Secrets that are chillingly… immoral.
Darkness was a different thing in the north woods than it was in the city. He had forgotten.
The girl was invisible—no more than a ghost under the midnight sky—but he knew she was there, very close to him. He clutched her warm wrist in his hand. Her breathing was soft and measured; she was calm. Her perfume, always familiar to him, filled his nostrils again, a lingering, unusual essence of spring flowers. Lilac, he thought. And hyacinth. He remembered when that perfume alone, just the smell of it, could arouse him. He had missed her scent and her body. Now here they were—together again.
A fist of dread gripped his insides. A wave of self-hatred washed over him. He didn’t know if he had the courage for what came next. Waiting, planning, wanting, he had fantasized about this night. She was so much a part of his mind that when he looked in the mirror, he could actually see her behind him, like a dark raven on his shoulder. But after all the anticipation, he hesitated at the threshold.
One last little game
, he thought.
“Let’s get it over with,” the girl hissed, betraying irritation and impatience. He hated to hear any hint of disapproval in her voice. But she was right—she was always a step ahead of him. They had been outside in the frigid air for too long. The barn was a magnet for lovers. Someone might interrupt them in their hideaway, ruining everything.
He felt wolfish eyes upon him. They were alone, but even so, he felt as if strangers were hiding behind the skeletal birch trees, stalking him. He took a deep breath, trying to rein in his fears. He couldn’t wait any more.
He dug his left hand into the pocket of his coat, letting his fingers caress the blade.
Time to play.
He had waited for her in the darkest section of the street, along the route he knew she would come. Cold pellets of sleet, blown horizontal, rained down on the car, gathering like snow on his windshield. He shivered, pulled his light coat tighter around his shoulders, and nervously eyed the mirrors.
He had arrived early, much earlier than was wise. But the neighborhood was quiet. His watch said ten o’clock.
, he thought.
Each minute passed with excruciating slowness. He squirmed, his bowels like water. It occurred to him for a horrifying moment that she might not come. All the waiting, all the sacrifice, would be for nothing. As cold as it was in the car, he began to sweat. He chewed his upper lip between his teeth. The longer he sat, counting the seconds in his head, the more he felt his fears grow. Would she come?
Then she appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, looking ethereal under the pale glow of a streetlight. He gasped at how beautiful she was. His pulse raced, and more sweat gathered in a clammy film under his arms and on the back of his neck. His mouth was so dry he couldn’t swallow. As she glided closer, his eyes drank her in. She had full red lips and black hair falling in wet strands below her shoulders. The cold brought a ruby flush to her cheeks, startling against the creamy alabaster of her skin. A single hoop earring dangled in a glint of gold from her left earlobe, and a gold bracelet hung loosely on her right wrist. She was tall and took long, hurried strides. She wore a white turtleneck over her slim torso, its damp fabric clinging to her body. Her black jeans fit snugly.
He imagined what it was like to be so powerful and confident. He could almost feel himself inside her skin, keenly aware of her body: the taste of rain on her lips, the singing and biting of the wind in her ears, and the wanton, supple sensation between her legs.
Her eyes found him. He knew she couldn’t see him inside the car, but he could feel her stare anyway. And he knew those eyes, intense and green, like sea foam in which he wanted to drown. She was coming straight toward him.
He knew what to do—stay in the car, wait, let her come to him. But the aching in his heart was too much. His eyes flicked up and down the street, checking to see if they were safe. Then he opened the car door and called to her, his voice barely louder than a whisper.
Now, miles away, she was running. Trying to escape. He reached out, grabbing for her shirt. He snagged a fistful of her turtleneck, but she slapped his hand away. Slipping, he lunged again for her wrist, but his gloved fingers yanked on her bracelet instead. She wriggled free, the bracelet tumbled away, and she galloped into the tall weeds.
He followed, barely two steps behind her. But Rachel was like a gazelle, fleet and graceful. He felt clumsy, slowed by his big shoes and the sticky grasp of mud and brush. She widened the gap. He called her name, pleading with her to stop, and she must have heard him. Or maybe she stumbled in the rutted ground. When he clawed out blindly with his hands, he felt the soft flesh of her shoulder. He squeezed hard and spun her around. Their bodies collided. He held her tight as she wriggled in his grasp, her chest heaving. He smelled her sweet breath.
She didn’t say a word.
He hooked his right foot around her ankle, trapping her, and pressed their hips together. He tugged her shirt. The fabric bunched in his hand, and he brought up his other fist, the one with the knife. With just the point of the blade, he sliced the shirt like butter, hearing the cloth tear and fray. He cut the shirt again. And again, turning it into rags. He let his fingers touch her skin, feeling the swell of her breasts, which rose up and down, up and down, like a roller coaster.
He put the point to her chest, right where the heart must be, somewhere deep inside. If she truly had a heart. She struggled, playing along. A dying game. He knew she wanted him to do it. This was never about him, he reminded himself. This was all about Rachel.
He pushed. A gasp finally escaped her lips. Something wet ran on the blade. That was all it took, and they were free.
Jonathan Stride felt like a ghost, bathed in the white spot-lights that illuminated the bridge.
Below him, muddy brown swells flooded into the canal, spewing waves over the concrete piers and swallowing the spray in eight-foot troughs. The water tumbled over itself, squeezing from the violent lake to the placid inner harbor. At the end of the piers, where ships navigated the canal as delicately as thread through a needle, twin lighthouses flashed revolving beams of green and red.
The bridge felt like a living thing. As cars sped onto the platform, a whine filled the air, like the buzz of hornets. The honeycomb sidewalk vibrated, quivering under his feet. Stride glanced upward, as he imagined Rachel would have done, at the crisscross scissors of steel towering above his head. The barely perceptible sway unsettled him and made him dizzy.
He was doing what he always did—putting himself inside the mind of the victim, seeing the world through her eyes. Rachel had been here on Friday night, alone on the bridge. After that, no one knew.
Stride turned his attention to the two teenagers who stood with him, impatiently stamping their feet against the cold. “Where was she when you first saw her?” he asked.
The boy, Kevin Lowry, extracted a beefy hand from his pocket. His third finger sported an oversized onyx high school ring. He tapped the three inches of wet steel railing. “Right here, Lieutenant. She was balanced on top of the railing. Arms stretched out. Sort of like Christ.” He closed his eyes, tilted his chin toward heaven, and extended his arms with his palms upward. “Like this.”
Stride frowned. It had been a bleak October, with angry swoops of wind and sleet raining like bullets from the night sky. He couldn’t imagine anyone climbing on top of the railing that night without falling.
Kevin seemed to read his mind. “She was really graceful. Like a dancer.”
Stride peered over the railing. The narrow canal was deep enough to grant passage to giant freighters weighted down with bellies of iron ore. It could suck a body down in its wicked undertow and not let go.
“What the hell was she doing up there?” Stride asked.
The other teenager, Sally Lindner, spoke for the first time. Her voice was crabbed. “It was a stunt, like everything else she did. She wanted attention.”
Kevin opened his mouth to complain but closed it again. Stride got the feeling this was an old argument between them. He noticed that Sally had her arm slung through Kevin’s, and she tugged the boy a little closer when she talked.
“So what did you do?” Stride asked.
“I ran up here on the bridge,” Kevin said. “I helped her down.”
Stride watched Sally’s mouth pucker unhappily as Kevin described the rescue.
“Tell me about Rachel,” Stride said to Kevin.
“We grew up together. Next-door neighbors. Then her mom married Mr. Stoner and they moved uptown.”
“What does she look like?”
“Well, uh, pretty,” Kevin said nervously, shooting a quick glance at Sally.
Sally rolled her eyes. “She was beautiful, okay? Long black hair. Slim, tall. The whole package. And a bigger slut you’re not likely to find.”
“Sally!” Kevin protested.
“It’s true, and you know it. After Friday? You know it.”
Sally turned her face away from Kevin, although she didn’t let go of his arm. Stride watched the girl’s jaw set in an angry line, her lips pinched together. Sally had a rounded face, with a messy pile of chestnut curls tumbling to her shoulders and blowing across her flushed cheeks. In her tight blue jeans and red parka, she was a pretty young girl. But no one would describe her as beautiful. Not a stunner. Not like Rachel.
“What happened on Friday?” Stride asked. He knew what Deputy Chief Kinnick had told him on the phone two hours ago: Rachel hadn’t been home since Friday. She was missing. Gone.
Just like Kerry
“Well, she sort of came on to me,” Kevin said grudgingly.
“Right in front of me!” Sally snapped. “Fucking bitch.”
Kevin’s eyebrows furled together like a yellow caterpillar. “Stop it. Don’t talk about her like that.”
Stride held up one hand, silencing the argument. He reached inside his faded leather jacket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes that he had wedged into the pocket of his flannel shirt. He studied the pack with weary disgust, then lit a cigarette and took a long drag. Smoke curled out of his mouth and formed a cloud in front of his face. He felt his lungs contract. Stride tossed the rest of the pack into the canal, where the red package swirled like a dot of blood and then was swept under the bridge.