Panic ripped through her as she raced through the tall underbrush, huge droplets of rain drenching her head and back, breathing in strained gasps. Her focus was trained on the busy interstate highway some five-hundred feet in front of her. If she could get to it, she could flag down an oncoming car.
Footfall from behind her ratcheted the beat of her heart to a feverish pitch. If she stopped for even a second, he’d catch her. Involuntarily, she glanced over her shoulder. She had no idea how close he was.
Shadows all around, rays of daylight hampered by the storm playing overhead had her picking up speed. One of her feet slid on the wet grass and she lost her footing, fighting like hell to regain her lead.
With force, she was pulled back by her hair, then spun around, intense pain forcing her to stop struggling.
A strangled scream ripped from her throat as she dug her nails into his forearm, tearing into the flesh. If she gave up and quit fighting, he’d win.
For a split second, pain crossed his features. Then, a sardonic grin curled his lips and his eyes darkened with an intensity that sent a chill shooting over her body.
His other hand came up.
That’s when she saw it.
The glint of a blade.
She grasped his wrist, using all her strength to fight the descent of the knife. Her arms strained until they cried out in agony. Tears filled her eyes and mingled with the rain on her cheeks. She bucked, fighting for her life, only to have his knee land hard on her chest, knocking the breath from her. She knew at that moment she was going to die, and with that, he’d have bested her for the last time.
Detective Trisha Brent stepped over the yellow tape staked across the marsh and almost lost her footing in the thick sludge. She grimaced and shook the foul gunk from her shoe, only to splatter it on her beige slacks. “Son of a—”
Why did this always happen to her? She should have worn boots, or a bikini.
Lightning flashed in the distance, followed seconds later by the boom of thunder, making her flinch. The incoming storm had her nerves on edge for more than just the obvious reason—losing evidence. Rain was forecast for the next eight to twelve hours, so the forensics team would have a small window of opportunity to process the scene before the sky opened up again.
Trish sloshed down the steep incline to the body that lay draped with dark-gray plastic.
“What do we have?” she asked the detective standing next to the body.
“White female. In her twenties,” Detective Frank Warren said.“Extensive bruising around the throat. Cause of death looks like strangulation. The killer was strong, too. He left finger depressions in the skin. Blood was found under her nails, so I bagged her hands.”
“Good work. What does it look like, murdered here or dumped?” Trisha peered around the area, trying to put herself in the mindset of a killer. One thing was certain, the rural, overgrown terrain was perfect for hiding a body.
Detective Warren shifted his stocky weight and nodded toward the road. “On the way down, I noticed a narrow path where the vegetation had been flattened, consistent with something being dragged. It started from the top of the incline. I’d say she was killed somewhere else, then brought here.” He took a weary breath and tipped his balding head, glancing at his notes. “A Mr. Winston’s retriever came across the body. The man was out walking the dog and found him barking next to the woman.”
“She’s partially nude. From the waist down.” Warren cleared his throat again. “We found no visible signs of semen on her clothes or body, but the rain from earlier could have washed it away. We’ll have to wait for the Medical Examiner to tell us if she was sexually assaulted or not. He’s en route now. He’ll be able to better determine how long she’s been dead. If I had to hazard a guess though, I’d say less than twenty-four hours.”
Trish studied her surrounding again, swallowing back the bitter taste of acid working its way up her throat. Eight years suddenly evaporated, and with it came a similar place, an uncanny odor. The only thing missing, the strong, copper smell of blood.
She shivered uncontrollably. Push the past away, Trish. The last thing you need is to show weakness around the men you work with.
“Detective Brent,” an officer called from above the embankment. “We got a purse up here.”
Maybe luck would be on their side. “Great. Bring it down.” Trisha sure as hell hoped the bag belonged to the victim.
Being with the Special Victims Unit was not an easy job. Their cases were horrific and sad in so many ways. Her unit was responsible for informing loved ones that their sons, daughters, wives, mothers were dead, difficult on a good day, downright heart-wrenching when the victims were young and had their whole lives ahead of them.
“Detective?” The approaching officer held out a brown handbag, the smell of wet leather mingling with the dank air.
Trisha pulled a pair of latex gloves from her jacket pocket and snapped them on, then took the purse. With care, she opened the flap, finding a matching wallet inside. She pulled the clutch out and flipped it open. A woman’s New Mexico driver’s license fit snugly inside a plastic holder.
Trisha flashed Detective Warren the picture. “Is this our victim?”
He glanced at the photo. “Yeah, that’s her.”
Dupont, Elizabeth Jo. 240 Weldon Hills. Birth date, 3-27-91.
That would make her twenty-three, not much more than a child in Trisha’s eyes. Ten years had passed since she’d been that age.
In the last decade, she’d witnessed things most people would be sickened by, all sexually motivated, but somehow she had gotten used to seeing the worst society had to offer.
She sighed and forced her mind back to the job at hand.
Vital Statistics: Hair: Blonde. Eyes: Blue. Height: 5′ 8” Weight: 125.
She closed the wallet, placed it back into the purse and rifled inside again, coming across a Santa Fe Continental Inn room key.
What a dive. By reputation alone, Trisha knew the motel was one of the worst in the city. One of the only motels with hourly rates. Perfect for hookers and their clientele to take care of business.
Trisha frowned. Already, some facts in this case didn’t fit. According to the woman’s license she lived a few miles from where her body now lay. So why would she have a motel key in her purse? From across town? The whole thing made no sense, unless the woman was a prostitute, and had been servicing a John at the motel. Boy, if that were the case, they’d have to interrogate half the male population of Santa Fe.
She shook her head at the idea, then allowed her mind to wrap around what they knew—which wasn’t much.
Often times, the body itself gave clues to what happened. Hopefully the woman could tell Trisha something.
She squatted next to the body and lifted the plastic. She knew from Elizabeth’s ID that she was a beautiful woman, but you could hardly tell now, with the lacing discolorations on her face. Her eyes were wide-open, and told the horror she’d endured in the last moments of life.
Trisha sighed. Would she ever understand what drove someone to kill?
A flicker caught her eye. She glanced at the victim’s wrist and spotted a gold watch, its face encrusted with diamonds. Hardly something a streetwalker could afford, unless she was doing it to supplement her income. Now that Trisha thought about it, the woman’s handbag was definitely designer quality. Not a cheap knockoff. This crime was obviously not robbery related. No, it was much worse. The person who killed Elizabeth was angry with her—wanted to see her suffer.
Maybe an affair gone bad? There was definitely a fine line between love and hate, something, she herself, had learned the hard way.
Trish glanced back at the woman’s face.
Strangulation was a horrible way to die—took long, agonizing minutes to render the victim unconscious, enough time for them to realize what was happening. This would definitely constitute as fitting the criteria for the murderer to get the death penalty. When Elizabeth’s killer was found, Trisha would see that the prosecutors insisted on that. Hell, anyone capable of such atrocities deserved to die, even if they were big shot attorneys.
Trisha took a ragged breath, shaking off the past that insisted on creeping in.
She covered the victim and stood, her cognitive process working double time. Why would a woman able to afford expensive watches and handbags have a motel key to a dump in a seedy part of Santa Fe? She’d have to check out the motel. Maybe something inside the room would garner a hint as to why Elizabeth had been there and what happened to her.
Another crash of thunder made her jump.
The officers standing around the body smirked at her reaction.
Trisha scowled at them. So she was afraid of storms. Was that a crime? They’d be too if they had gone through what she had.
Let’s see if they think this is funny. “I want the body and area around her checked for hair and fibers before it starts raining again.” She dangled the motel key from one finger. “I’m headed to the Santa Fe Inn. If you find anything, call me. Oh, and bag this.” She handed the purse to the officer, stuck the key in her pocket, then turned and trudged up the hill, working the latex gloves off her hands.
This was just another senseless murder—a man using his overpowering strength to subdue and kill a helpless woman. Would this particular scenario ever lose its popularity?
Trisha slipped, steadying herself before she went down. Darn miry mess. She’d be thankful to get out of this miserable weather and back to town. Treading through ankle deep mud was hardly her idea of paradise, especially if she ended up on her ass in front of a handful of men. Something she was sure they’d find amusing as well.
“Hey, Brent,” Detective Aiden Travis hollered from his gray sedan parked directly behind her Jeep. “Leaving the scene of a crime?”
She stopped dead in her tracks. Her skin crawled at the sight of him. Why did he always seem to show up at her crime scenes? The man was a nuisance, a real pain in her backside. Would he ever get it through his thick skull she wanted nothing to do with him? Two years ago, when she’d transferred to the Special Victims Unit in Santa Fe, he’d seemed nice enough until he opened his mouth and asked to get into her pants, then kept asking. Truth be told, she’d rather do a warthog.
He slid from his car and swaggered toward her, his thumbs tucked strategically next to his belt buckle to draw attention to the area—a region of his body he boasted about every chance he got. What was it he’d said just a day or two ago—oh yeah, “Tommy Lee had nothing on him.” Right, like she’d believe a word Aiden Travis said. The man was a walking poster-boy for over-inflated egos. He actually thought if he kept hounding her he’d get what he wanted, and to think that way would only get him a swift kick to that enormous package, fictional or not.
“How about you and I get some coffee, babe?”
“No thanks, babe,” Trisha mocked. “I’d rather contract dysentery.”
His eyes took on a hard glint that would intimidate most men, but she wasn’t going to be bullied by a womanizing man with a God complex. Not again. She’d gone that route once, and would never allow another man to have that kind of control over her.
“Why are you playing so hard to get?” His eyes did a visual sweep of her body. “You know I want you.”
“And you know I want you to drop dead. Now, I’m off to check out a motel.”
His dark brows shot up. “Did you say check into a motel? Is that an invitation?”
Trisha stared at him. How stupid could one man be? “Didn’t you hear what I said? What I always say to your advances?”
A cocky grin crossed his features, and with a heavy sigh he placed his hands on his hips. “I heard. I just don’t believe you.”
She rolled her eyes and stalked to her car, wanting to get as far from him as she could. As she climbed in and started the engine, he winked, then graced her with a lopsided smile.
Trisha returned his grin, knowing it was best to appear unscathed by his sexist attitude. Every male at SVU was nothing but a little boy in a big man’s body. She’d learned that from day one. But she planned to wipe the arrogant smirk off Detective Travis’s face today. She revved the engine and sent the vehicles tires spinning, slinging mud everywhere.
Her smile turned genuine when she saw Aiden in her rearview mirror, his face and expensive overcoat splattered with brown muck.
A flashing vacant room sign pierced through the fog in his brain, slowly brightening until it forced him to focus. Intense pain gripped the back of his head and acid forced its way up his dry throat.
He stumbled out of bed, naked, and made his way to the bathroom.
His stomach instantly gave up the fight, and he vomited into the toilet, his hands gripping the cold porcelain as if his life depended on its support.
When the rolling motion in his gut stopped, he lifted himself from the floor and turned on the water in the sink to wash his face, catching a glimpse of his distorted image in the cracked mirror on the wall.
With narrowed eyes, he leaned closer. What he saw made his stomach pitch and roll again. Blank, hooded eyes stared back at him. His skin was pasty white. Curly blond hair lay plastered to the left side of his head, and the dim lighting overhead cast an eerie glow on a strange reddish tint clotted in the strands.
He threaded his shaky fingers through the matted curls, and smears of red wetness adhered to them. When he rubbed his thumb and forefinger together, he found the substance sticky. What the hell was it? Paint? Hair dye?
“No… blood,” he murmured. His heart thudded against his ribcage—so hard it hurt.
Almost in a trance, he stared at his hand as a cold sweat washed over his body, with it, a sick sense of foreboding.
When he snapped back to reality, he turned on the tap and rinsed his fingers, transfixed on the red swirling around the drain.
Weak and breathless, he hung his head and found three long scratches running down his chest. He ran his hand slowly over them and flinched.
What the hell had happened to him? Had he been in an accident? Why did his head pound like an out of control jackhammer?
He glanced in the mirror again and inhaled deeply. What he realized next paralyzed him. Not only couldn’t he remember what happened, but he had no clue who he was.
Minutes ticked by as he stared at the stranger in the mirror.
With his thoughts in chaos, he turned and left the bathroom.
Back in the bedroom, he squinted at the bright lights on the ceiling. Dull orange paint covered the walls, and a gray, badly stained carpet stretched the length of the floor. Nothing looked even remotely familiar, and the more he tried to remember something, the worse the pain in his head became.
Thoughts collided with one another. Had he taken a blow to the head?
He quickly checked, finding a tender gash at the base of his skull. So he had taken a hard whack. That would explain a lot. But how? And did the long scratches coincide with his head injury?
Agonizing pain gripped him. He needed to get dressed and find help. Someone had to know who he was.
He glanced around, but came up short, finding not a stitch of clothing anywhere. That wasn’t possible. No way could he have checked into a motel naked.
Maybe he’d been robbed. That could explain the head injury. Someone could have broken in and stolen everything he owned, including his memories.
A huge lump formed in his throat. What was he going to do? Maybe something in the room could trigger a memory.
His gaze landed on the double bed. He walked over and ripped the sheet off the top, exposing a blood stain on the fitted linen beneath.
Wrapping the sheet around his waist, he opened the nightstand next to the bed. It was empty. Not a thing inside to tell him who he was. All he knew was that he’d taken a powerful blow to his head and it had bled, a lot.
A Bible lay atop the table. He picked it up and jumped when something hit his foot. A Polaroid photograph lay face down on the carpet.
He grasped the snapshot and studied it closely. In the picture was a pretty blonde woman with striking blue eyes.
“Who are you?” He hoped by some unforeseen miracle her identity would come to him, then felt defeated when it didn’t.
He threw the Bible against the wall and pictures inside flew in all directions. When they landed, all surprisingly face down, he stared at them. Each photo could be a possible piece of a puzzle, a chance to unlock his identity.
Swallowing hard, he was almost afraid to see what was on them. What if the pictures were his only chance to remember?
Then again, maybe they weren’t even his. They could have been in the book for years. How often did someone read a Bible in a motel?
His temples throbbed, and he held his aching head in his hands.
He took a deep, ragged breath and prayed for help. Please let the pictures trigger something.
With his heart racing, he reached for another photo only to be stopped by the sound of a key slipping into the lock of the door.
His spirits rose. Whoever stood on the other side had to know who he was. Why else would they have a key to the room?
Then a more sinister thought blindsided him, and his heart careened out of control. What if the person who’d inflicted his injuries was coming back to make sure he was dead?