Authors: Rita Herron
“You went into the Black Forest and survived,” Clarissa said boldly. “You had to have seen things inside those woods that you can’t explain.”
A muscle ticked in his jaw. “I don’t remember what I saw in there.”
She flinched at the anguish in his haunted eyes.
Desperate, she silently willed the dead to talk to her, to give her something concrete, a detail about the killer, that might convince him she wasn’t crazy.
“Afraid . . .” Jamie whispered. “Afraid of spiders . . .”
“Their fears,” she said, realization dawning. “Billie Jo was afraid of water, of drowning. Jamie suffered from arachnophobia.”
“That’s true. Jamie was terrified of spiders,” Sheriff Waller confirmed. “She was bit when she was a kid and almost died. Her mother mentioned it when we found her body.”
The pieces snapped together in Clarissa’s mind like a puzzle. “That’s how the cases are connected,” she whispered. “This madman knows each girl’s worst fear, then uses it to kill her.”
Vincent silently cursed. He didn’t want to be here and be reminded of his past. Of his father’s violent behavior.
He especially didn’t want to remember the Black Forest or believe in Clarissa.
But dammit, her angelic voice was convincing. And her eyes were mesmerizing, her body that of a seductress.
“Just investigate, Vincent,” she said, near pleading. “Consider that I might be right, that the killer learns the woman’s worst fear and uses it to murder her. That the deaths are connected.”
He hesitated, then scrubbed his hand over his beard stubble. “All right. I suppose it’s possible a psycho is stalking women. If so, we should look at your local residents, someone who befriended each of the girls, someone each girl probably talked to and told her secrets.”
Clarissa shuddered. “One of our locals?”
“You’d be surprised at the secrets your neighbors might have.” He turned to the sheriff. “Is there anyone in Eerie with a history of violence or mental disease? A stranger in town? A new teacher or businessman, even a counselor or preacher?”
“Offhand, Bo Bennett comes to mind,” Waller said. “He did time in the pen for assaulting a woman. He’s been clean since he got out, though, runs the tow truck service.”
Vincent shifted. “Let’s bring him in for questioning, find out if he has alibis for the two cases in question. I’ll check national databases and see if there are any cases with similar MO’s.”
The telephone rang and the sheriff stepped from the room to answer it.
Clarissa turned to Vincent. “Vincent, I told the sheriff that I think another woman is missing.”
He arched a dark brow. “Who?”
“I don’t know yet.”
Her eyes implored him to believe her, then searched his face as if she was trying to see inside his head.
Hell, he should let her see his dark soul. Then she’d run like hell and he’d be done with her.
Clarissa cleared her throat. “What are you afraid of, Vincent? That I might be right? That there might actually be demons or some supernatural explanation for these murders?”
“You’ve got to be kidding.”
“I don’t kid about murder.”
A sarcastic laugh rolled from him. “First of all, there’s no proof of any murders. And second, I’m not afraid of anything. Especially you.”
She smiled slowly, then placed her hand on his arm. Heat flooded his veins, sending his pulse into an irregular pattern. “You’re lying, Vincent. You’re afraid that I’m right. That there is an evil presence here, that it’s taken root in the town, and that you can’t stop it.”
“I know there’s evil—that’s the reason I became an agent,” he snapped.
She leaned closer to him, her breath bathing his neck. That sweet scent enticed him to forget her words and drag her in his arms and taste her.
“Then it’s the evil inside you that you fear,” she whispered. “That’s the reason you left here. The reason you became an agent.”
He swallowed hard and shook his head, but her words hit too damn close to home. Worse, her touch made him ache inside, made him want to feel her delicate hands on his flesh, her lips soothing and cool on his skin, her body welcoming his inside her.
Blood surged to his loins, his cock swelling with arousal.
He struggled for control, for a reason why she made him so damn hot, for a reason he shouldn’t sleep with her, for rational thoughts to resurface.
Thankfully the sheriff rushed in, and Vincent clawed his way back from the brink of insanity.
“Clarissa, you were right.” Sheriff Waller heaved for a breath. “A jogger out at Hell’s Hollow just found Tracy Canton’s body. Someone slashed her throat and left her at the edge of the canyon.”
Vincent fisted his hands. No denying it, this sounded like murder.
Sheriff Waller grabbed his gun and hat and headed to the door.
Vincent followed. “Hell’s Hollow?”
“A small canyon between two of our highest ridges,” Waller said. “Developers built a bunch of houses there a decade ago, but they burned down one night. Killed all the people home at the time, about a hundred.” He wheezed a tired breath and scrubbed a hand through his hair.
“Arson?” Vincent asked.
“Never determined the reason. But since then, two developers have tried to build on that land and stopped.”
“Why?” Vincent asked.
“Ghosts,” Clarissa filled in as she came up behind him. “People claim they can still smell the smoke and the charred bodies, that they hear screams of women and children dying as they were burned alive.”
“The devil’s work,” Sheriff Waller added. “No other explanation. Grass won’t even grow there.”
“It was another year of the eclipse,” Clarissa said in a cryptic tone.
“What the hell does that mean?” Vincent asked.
“That more deaths will follow,” Waller said. “The massacre at Hell’s Hollow happened during one eclipse year. And a mine collapsed, killing and trapping dozens during
Vincent’s chest clenched. There had been an eclipse the year his parents disappeared.
The year he suspected his father had killed his mother.
he scent of burning cedar and flesh assaulted Vincent as he approached Hell’s Hollow. Not a deep canyon, but a groove carved out of the mountains. The earth was dry, the ground hard, the trees bare of leaves as if life couldn’t survive on the plot of land. For a moment, he actually paused to listen for the spirits of the dead Clarissa had described, but other than the whine of twigs snapping and the cry of the vultures stalking the hollow as if they smelled fresh blood, the air was eerily silent. And hot, so hot that sweat trickled down his jaw and back, plastering his shirt to his skin. Even the soles of his shoes felt the infernal heat from the ground, as if that fire still burned beneath the soil, ready to strike any second.
Déjà vu suddenly hit him. He’d been here before.
He turned around and scanned the area, his gut tightening. This place was familiar, was where his own childhood home had sat. The house that had become a torture chamber . . .
Sheriff Waller gestured toward a path to the right and a ridge that overlooked the hollow, and Vincent followed him, drawing in the mountain air but smelling the heat and stench of death mingled with dry pine.
Clarissa kept close to his back, her essence sneaking in between the vile odors to throw him off balance. Suddenly she gasped, and his gaze zeroed ahead onto the crime scene. A younger guy, whom Waller introduced as Deputy Bluster, approached, but Vincent barely looked in his direction. Instead, he balled his hands into fists to control his rage. This one was definitely a murder.
The killer had nearly decapitated the woman and had left her bloody corpse at the edge of the mountain ridge next to a camping area, as if to announce his boldness with the extent of his violence and the public location where he’d left her remains.
Her thoracic muscles had been sliced through, so her head dangled sideways; her cotton dress was shoved up her hips, exposing bruised thighs. Cuts and abrasions also marred her wrists, arms, breasts, and legs. Her own blood had been smeared all over her body, as if the killer had had a party with it.
Vincent dragged in a labored breath, battling rage. He wanted to kill the maniac who’d done this and cut him up into a zillion pieces.
Instead, he tugged at his collar, loosened his tie, and inhaled sharply, fighting the darkness inside him. He couldn’t afford one of the blackouts he’d been having recently. He’d lost time, woken up in odd places, sometimes with blood on his hands.
The state crime-scene unit roared up, descending upon them, then began to comb the area for trace evidence. Sheriff Waller and Tim Bluster questioned the scant few visitors at the park who’d ventured out this morning. A couple of homeless bums sleeping off their drunk on park benches, a pair of teenagers who’d sneaked out to have sex, and a morning jogger who’d discovered the body.
The young girl hovered next to the boy, who’d turned as pale as buttermilk. “We didn’t see anything,” the boy whined.
“He’s right,” the girl said in a haunted whisper. “We fell asleep in our sleeping bag by the creek.”
“Buddy, you know Dina’s mama is going to skin your hide for sneaking up here with her,” the sheriff said.
The boy’s knees knocked together. “You don’t have to tell them, do you?”
“Please.” Dina pulled at the older man’s arms. “She’ll ground me forever.”
Sheriff Waller shook his head. “You’re material witnesses, kids. I can’t keep this from them.”
“But we told you we didn’t see anything,” Buddy argued.
“You didn’t hear someone screaming?” Vincent asked.
The young couple shook their heads vehemently. “She must have been dead already,” Buddy said.
“And we had our iPod playing,” Dina added with a sniffle.
Sheriff Waller clicked his teeth. “All right for now. Go on home, but I’ll talk to you again later.”
Hand in hand, they ran down the hill toward the VW they’d parked on the side of the road, and Vincent and Waller approached the jogger. He was slumped on a log, head in his hands, a green cast to his pallor. The stench of vomit drifted over the bushes.
“Who would do such a thing?” he said, mumbling to nobody.
“That’s what we intend to find out,” Sheriff Waller said.
Clarissa rubbed his shoulder in sympathy. “What’s your name?”
“Riley Adams.” His face was stark with horror, his lips blue from chewing on them. “I just came for a run and I stumbled over her. God . . .” His shoulders sagged as he dropped his head forward again. “I’ve never seen anyone dead before. So sick . . .”
“Did you see anyone else in the woods? Hear anything?” Waller asked.
He shook his head back and forth, digging the toe of his sneaker into the dirt. “Just those old drunks.”
Vincent stepped closer to examine the area near the corpse. “Sheriff, it looks as if she might have been killed somewhere else, then her body dumped here. See how the brush has been crushed on the path?”
Waller jammed his hands on his hips and studied the scene. “You’re probably right. Maybe forensics will find something.”
Vincent nodded. Dammit, when the small town heard about the murder, panic would spread. Three suspicious deaths in one week was a hell of a lot. Granted, the heat wave hadn’t helped. Just as the full moon seemed to drive out the crazies, so did the high temperatures. But the MOs were all different, so the murders couldn’t be connected like Clarissa had said.
He glanced at Clarissa, and his gut clenched at the horror etched on her face. Tears streaked her pale cheeks, but she brushed them away as if angry with herself.
Forcing a detachment to his expression, he focused on the crime scene. The amount of blood suggested a sadistic killer who had enjoyed his game of torture. Multiple stab wounds, blood smeared all over the woman’s flesh, the depth of the slice to her throat . . .
How could a human do such a sadistic thing to another?
He mentally put together a profile—the killer was male. Out of control. Angry. But he also was a planner.
Clarissa curled her arms around her waist as if to hold herself together. “He’s not finished, Vincent.”
Worry tinged her voice, fear making it warble. She’d accused him of being afraid that he would never be able to end the evil in the world, but he’d denied it.
But she’d been right.
He heard that same fear in her voice now.
On the heels of that realization, his damn protective instincts kicked in, and he wanted to offer her comfort. Hold her in his arms. Banish that grisly sight from her eyes. Assure her that he would catch this maniac.
But he did none of that.
He couldn’t let himself care about Clarissa any more than anyone else on the planet.
Work and emotions didn’t mix. Although he didn’t have to have emotions to have sex with her.
You’re not going there, Valtrez. Not with Clarissa King.
Muttering another curse, he turned back to do what he did best. Leave her to slay her own demons while he forced himself to step into a killer’s mind.
Every time he did, it was a test of restraint.
A test to prove that he wouldn’t turn into one himself and let the evil in his soul, in his
blood, overpower him as it had his father.
The stench of blood, body fluids, human sorrow, horror, filled Clarissa’s nostrils, obliterating the sweet smell of honeysuckle in the air, even the lingering odor of charred wood from Hell’s Hollow.
Clarissa shuddered again at the sight of Tracy’s mutilated body. What kind of person would do this to another human?
Blood soaked Tracy’s gaunt face, and her eyes looked glassy, frozen with terror and shock. Her head hung grotesquely to the side, nearly severed, as if it might fall off if one touched it . . .
And the bugs . . . dear Lord, they were crawling and feasting on her, drinking her blood for sustenance. Above, vultures careened, waiting for their turn, and Clarissa swallowed to keep from losing the contents of her stomach.
A shout erupted from the hill near the road. Pivoting, she saw Ronnie Canton running up the embankment, gravel spewing from his heels as he wove through the trees. The deputy lurched forward to grab him and keep him behind the crime-scene tape.