Glavna Dana Gray Mystery 01-Girl Left Behind

Dana Gray Mystery 01-Girl Left Behind

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A lifetime dedicated to research. An unsolved murder case. A killer who will stop at nothing to complete his masterpiece.
Dana Grays’ life is dedicated to studying the past until an unsolved murder thrusts her parents’ cold case back to life. As the head researcher of occult origins at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., Dana Gray seems the perfect partner to help loner FBI agent, Jake Shepard crack a string of ritualistic deaths.
But when Gray detects an alarming pattern reminiscent of her tragic past, it puts her on a deadly crash course with a serial killer who might have been hunting her all along. Now, she must face her biggest fear. Going toe to toe with the murderer who killed her mother & father.
The odds are stacked against Gray and Shepard. Will this unlikely duo be able to solve the case and discover the truth before the killer strikes again?
Godina:
2021
Izdavač:
Liquid Mind Publishing
Jezik:
english
ISBN:
39EAF70B-00A6-4490-8307-1C9214E048B1
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MOBI , 404 KB
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Dana Gray Mystery 02-Girl on the Hill

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2021
Jezik:
english
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EPUB, 858 KB
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2

Dana Gray Mystery 01-Girl Left Behind

Godina:
2021
Jezik:
english
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EPUB, 775 KB
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GIRL LEFT BEHIND



C.J. CROSS



LIQUID MIND PUBLISHING





Girl Left Behind

A Dana Grey Mystery Book One

C.J. Cross

Copyright © 2021 by C.J. Cross.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be copied, reproduced in any format, by any means, electronic or otherwise, without prior consent from the copyright owner and publisher of this book.

Liquid Mind Publishing

This is a work of fiction. All characters, names, places and events are the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously.





ALSO BY C.J. CROSS


Girl Left Behind

Girl on the Hill

Girl in the Grave





CONTENTS



Prologue

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Chapter 46

Chapter 47

Chapter 48

Chapter 49

Chapter 50

Chapter 51

Chapter 52

Chapter 53

The Dana Gray Series

Girl on the Hill: Chapter 1

Girl on the Hill: Chapter 2





PROLOGUE


HE TOOK a final drag from his cigarette as his prey approached. Holding the smoke in his lungs, he savored the tranquil feeling that washed over him. This was it—the calm before the storm. His first kill. It had to be perfect.

Letting the sound of their unsuspecting voices center him, he exhaled, stubbing out the cigarette butt as he listened in on what would be the last pleasant conversation the couple would ever have.

“I don’t know, James . . . I see potential here, but it would mean uprooting our daughter. Do you really think it’s worth altering her life like this?”

“Renee, you know as well as I do our girl is exceptional. I have every faith that Dana will adjust. Besides, doesn’t;  everything feel life altering at thirteen?”

“I suppose you’re right.”

“You know I am. And don’t forget Dana is half the reason we’re doing this.”

Curiosity ate at him as the silence following the exchange between the couple dragged on. It had him moving to the peephole in the flimsy motel door. He knew he shouldn’t risk it, but he couldn’t help himself. This kill was special and so were the victims. They hadn’t been chosen at random. No, each life collected held special meaning. These two even more because they would be his first.

Holding his breath, he gazed through the peephole, getting a glimpse at the stars of his show. They didn’t know it yet, but they were about to earn a special place in history.

The couple embraced each other just outside the door, staring lovingly into each other’s eyes after sharing a tender kiss. It was their love and devotion that had won them this coveted spot over so many other contenders.

The woman wore an emerald silk blouse that emphasized the green in her hazel eyes. The man wore a brown tweed blazer almost the exact shade of his hair. They would look gorgeous laid out on the stage he’d set for them. For a moment he wondered about the daughter they spoke of. What did she look like? Did she take after her mother or her father, or was she an equal blend of the two? Maybe one day he would have a chance to find out.

Visions flashed through his mind of finding the girl and bringing her into the fold. With enough time he could make her see why her parents had been chosen, why it was such an honor, one maybe they could share together in the future. Clamping the lid on his excitement, he pushed the thoughts to a dark corner of his mind to revisit later. He had more pressing matters to focus on now.

The work had been done. Now all that was left to do was to wait for the show to begin. Stepping back from the door, he glanced one last time at the hotel room. The last one the couple would ever see. Excitement bubbled up as he stared at the pristine red and gold carpet. The pattern of starbursts called to him, the fibers aching to absorb the blood of his sacrifice.

Whispers too low for him to interpret were exchanged outside the door before he heard the key slip into the lock. His heart raced as the doorknob twisted, sealing the couple’s fate. There was no going back now.

He gripped the camera in his trembling hands, willing himself to hold steady. He didn’t want to miss this—the priceless expressions on his victims’ faces as they realized their destiny and the fact that there was no escaping it.





1



“SHEP, OVER HERE!”

Jake Shepard nodded to his steely-haired superior before donning latex gloves and blue crime scene booties. SSA Tom Cramer had been the one to call Jake to the scene. It might not be textbook procedure by Bureau standards, but such behavior wasn’t unusual between the two men. Jake and the savvy special agent had always shared a unique working relationship thanks to the unbreakable bond of brotherhood the Army afforded.

Even though Jake’s days in uniform were behind him, he appreciated the camaraderie, nonetheless. Having Cramer take him under his wing had made the transition to civilian life a bit easier, especially since joining the FBI hadn’t been the means to an end that Jake had hoped for.

Thanks to the nature of the covert special forces missions he’d served on in the military, he still had much to atone for. And from the looks of the crime scene he was standing in, he’d get to do a bit more of that today.

“Third one,” Cramer said, shaking his head at the gruesome scene as Jake approached.

Sadly, Jake wasn’t as shocked as he should have been by the lifeless bodies. It was the pentagram and antique glass vials that piqued his interest.

“Same MO?” he asked as he made his way toward the large pentagram sketched between the twin hotel beds.

“Seems that way,” Cramer replied.

Jake’s eyes scanned the occult symbol on the floor. It stood out boldly against the pale blues and yellows of the carpet pattern. Though it had been some time since it’d dried, there was no doubt in Jake’s mind that the pentagram had been drawn in blood. Just like the other two.

He crouched lower, examining the way the blood had seeped into the carpet fibers. His mind flashed back to the two previous crime scenes he’d visited in the past few weeks, then to the present bodies laid out on the twin beds. They lay motionless, their hands folded over their chests, eyes closed, hair and clothing neatly arranged. If it weren’t for the strange glass vials in their hands, he would’ve thought they were sleeping.

Apparently, that was the mistake a member of hotel housekeeping made at the first crime scene. But this was number three. Word was spreading.

DC might be a big city, but gossip was an artform here. Jake heard his uncle’s voice in his head. Lies spread faster than the devil’s radio.

Growing up in rural Nevada had left Jake with a plethora of unique euphemisms; ones he kept to himself thanks to his hard-learned lessons in the military. The Army taught him to conform or be cast out. And Jake had been cast out enough for one lifetime.

“He gets an A plus for consistency,” Jake said, noting the killer’s signature—the pentagram and glass vial in each victim’s hands. “Any word from toxicology?”

Cramer shook his head. “Preliminary findings are the same as the other two. Vials are empty of trace, but we’re still waiting for a full work up.”

Jake sighed. “This makes three. It’s officially a serial. Guess that means we’re passing this off to BAU?”

“Not just yet,” Cramer murmured.

A crime scene tech piped up. “But that’s protocol. The Behavioral Analysis Unit is specially equipped to handle a scene like this. Unless you think this is a copycat situation?”

Cramer’s nostrils flared as he stalked toward the green tech. Stopping short, he towered over the young man, who at least had the sense to cower under Cramer’s stony glare.

“What I think is that you should do your job and get Agent Shepard up to speed on the scene,” Cramer snapped, before storming toward the hotel room door.

Jake heard his boss mutter a few choice words under his breath as he ducked under the police tape and disappeared down the hall. He was clearly frustrated, and Jake didn’t blame him. They now had six dead bodies and zero leads.

“What’d I say?” the tech asked, his face noticeably paler after an up-close and personal encounter with the gruff older agent.

“Nothing,” Jake assured him. “It was a fair question. But when you’ve been doing this job as long as Cramer has, it’s not a necessary one. At least not if you want to stay on his good side,” he added with a wink.

The tech nodded.

“So, what’ve you got for me?” Jake asked, pulling out his notebook to take notes.

The tech began rattling off the details pertinent to the case.

“Two victims, DOA. Cassie Owens, twenty-eight, Tyson Kline, thirty-two. Cause of death currently unknown. Awaiting toxicology report.”

Jake had already assessed most of this himself, but he let the eager tech continue, estimating time of death and other clinical information. This was a good teaching moment and there was no better place to learn than on the job. It wasn’t until the tech got to the absurd title assigned to the killer that Jake stopped him.

“The Romeo and Juliet Killer?” Jake’s dark eyebrows furrowed with disapproval. “That’s what we’re going with?”

The tech shrugged. “I didn’t come up with it.”

Grunting, Jake flipped his notebook closed, beginning to see why Cramer needed a moment. This was the part Jake hated most. The fame and notoriety that would come along with deeming these murders serial … it would be a media circus. Most of the time, that was exactly what these sick, murderous sociopaths expected. And one thing Jake hated was doing what was expected.

Thinking outside the box had saved his life a time or two. Why stop now?

“Thanks,” Jake said, excusing himself. “Come find me if you have anything new.”

Outside, Jake found Cramer hunched over the hood of his black SUV, studying something on his cell phone, a lit cigarette dangling from his lips.

“I thought you quit,” Jake called as he walked over.

Cramer straightened. “So did I. Take a look at this.”

Jake examined the phone Cramer handed over, frowning as he read the email. He read the same line twice to make sure he wasn’t seeing things. Dr. Gray. Smithsonian Occult History and Artifacts department.

“What the hell is this?” Jake demanded.

“It’s a directive from the powers that be.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means from now on, you’ll be working this case with a partner.”

Jake worked his jaw, clenching down hard against the painful memories that began flooding back to him. “I don’t do partners, Cramer. You know that.”

“I know you prefer to work alone, but we’ve got nothing and let’s face it, this isn’t our typical case.”

“You’re right, it isn’t. And adding some librarian I need to babysit isn’t going to make it any easier.”

“Listen, Shep, my hands are tied. The Bureau wants a consult on this one. Apparently, this witch doctor has helped us out before. Just set up a meeting and get me a lead before the media turns this into a three-ring circus.”

Jake leaned back against the SUV with a sudden urge to take up smoking. It was either that or hit something, because Cramer was right. They were out of their depth here. Gang bangers, drug trafficking, terrorist cells, missing persons; that he was prepared for. But some satanic, pentagram-painting psycho? It wasn’t a mind he was eager to explore.

That was the trouble, though. They had nothing. No leads. No way to track down this killer. No way to stop more innocent lives from being snuffed out. Sighing, Jake rubbed his temples, knowing once again, his sense of duty would make it impossible to ignore the Bureau’s order to chase down every lead—even ones as crazy as talking to some “witch doctor” who probably never left the Smithsonian’s rare books department.

“Fine,” he muttered. “But I highly doubt some librarian is going to crack this case wide open.”

“So do I, but we’re not here to make assumptions. The job is to investigate every possible option until we uncover the truth.”

“I know the drill,” Jake muttered. He was expected to follow orders like a good soldier. It seemed there was no escaping the Army. On days like this, he felt like he’d merely traded one uniform for another. Sure, his Brooks Brothers suits fit a hell of a lot better than his multicam combat fatigues, but the jobs weren’t much different—do what you’re told, don’t ask questions.

A need for justice had always driven Jake. It was one of the reasons he’d enlisted in the Army. But now, at the FBI, his desire ran deeper. He needed to do more than fulfill his patriotic duty and protect civil liberties. He owed a life debt and the best way to repay it seemed to be saving as many lives as he could. Otherwise, the guilt of being spared when others had not was too much to bear.

Shaking off his dark thoughts, Jake handed the phone back to his boss. “I guess I’ve got an appointment with the witch doctor.”





2



“DR. GRAY?”

Dana Gray’s head lifted as she reluctantly pulled herself from her work. Looking up from the ancient tome she’d been deciphering, she blew at the chocolate brown bangs hanging in her eyes. Annoyed, she smoothed back the stubborn strands that had escaped her haphazard bun and added another pen into the fray to hold them in place.

Pushing her magnified readers into her hair, Dana replaced them with her regular prescription lenses as she waited for the world around her to come back into focus. The dark head of Dana’s intern timidly poked into her office.

“Oh, here you are.” Claire awkwardly halted at the door, wringing her hands. “I’m sorry to interrupt, Dr. Gray, but you have a visitor.”

“A visitor?” Dana forgot to hide the shock in her voice. She couldn’t help it. In her line of work, visitors were rare. But that was the nature of the game when studying ancient history. All her subjects existed in the past tense. Some not at all. At least that’s what mainstream society wanted to believe. But Dana believed there was more to the world than what most minds were comfortable accepting. That was why she’d dedicated her life to studying the occult. Well, one of the reasons.

Dana readjusted her glasses, which were already sliding down her nose. “Why didn’t you page me?”

“I did,” Claire rebuked, her clear blue eyes blinking behind her black cat-eye frames.

Dana’s eyes flitted to the clear green pager on her antique desk. The outdated gadget looked other-worldly against the ornate carvings and artifacts on the polished fifteenth century desk. She knew it was impractical, but it had been the last gift her father gave her, and she couldn’t part with it.

The display flashed, showing two missed pages. “Oh. So you did.” Dana pushed her glasses up into her hair, tangling them with her readers as she rubbed her eyes. “Sorry. I was making some headway with these Nordic Grimoires. I must’ve been so engrossed I didn’t hear your page.”

“That’s why most of modern society prefers cellphones,” Claire replied, her tone factual.

Dana felt the corners of her lips lift. In the two years they’d been working together, she’d come to enjoy the girl’s quirky personality. If it was possible, Claire was even more socially awkward than Dana. Although Dana preferred to think of herself as effectively concise, rather than socially inept. It wasn’t her fault if most people she encountered didn’t appreciate her honesty. It said more about their own insecurities than hers.

Dana clipped her pager to her belt and looked pointedly at Claire. “I own a cellphone. I just prefer not to bring it down to the stacks.” She found it a distraction that took her out of the world she immersed herself in when she was among her books. Besides, the cell service this deep in the library was atrocious. But she was getting off subject. “Who’s here to see me?”

Claire looked uncomfortable again. “An FBI agent.”

“Really?” Dana felt her eyebrows rise. “Did he say why?”

“Nope. Only that he was here to speak to the ‘witch doctor’,” Claire muttered, her painted black fingernails emphasizing her air quotes.

Dana’s cheeks burned. She was well aware of her horrible nickname, but most people had the decency to use it behind her back. “Maybe you should tell this FBI agent that I’m not available,” she said haughtily.

“I don’t think that’s gonna work.”

“Why not?”

Claire shrugged. “He just looks like the type who doesn’t take no for an answer, if you know what I mean.”

She did. One didn’t get to be head curator at the Smithsonian without knowing how to play the game, but Dana preferred working with the dead. They were more predictable. Having dedicated much of her life to studying rituals of death, Dana often found she didn’t have patience for the living. But she was trying to make an effort these days. Mostly, for Claire’s sake. She loved that she’d found such a dedicated intern, but Dana didn’t want the girl to turn out like she had. Claire deserved a chance at a normal life.

Deciding it was best to gain as much information as possible about her visitor, Dana quizzed her intern further so she could be prepared for her apparently inevitable meeting. “What else did you notice?”

“About Secret Agent Man?” Claire’s painted lips twitched into a momentary smirk, the deep cherry hue of her lipstick reminding Dana of a splash of blood in the snow. “He’s hot. Like hot enough to melt a popsicle in a freezer, hot.”

Dana laughed, caught off guard by her normally reserved intern’s enthusiasm. “Wow. That’s some description.”

“Best one I’ve had all day,” a gruff voice retorted.

Dana’s attention was drawn to the man in an expensive-looking suit who unexpectedly darkened her doorway. Clearing his throat, he grinned at Claire, making the young girl blush. “Thanks for that, by the way. And you were right about me not taking no for an answer.”

“Excuse me,” Dana interrupted. “You need permission to be on this level of the library.”

“I swear I told him to wait upstairs,” Claire squeaked.

The man pulled out a badge and strode forward. “I have permission. Special Agent Jake Shepard. FBI.”





3



JAKE EXTENDED HIS HAND, firmly gripping the woman’s cool palm as his preconceived notions of the “witch doctor” vanished. He still hated the idea of having a partner. He didn’t make a habit of relying on others for help, but he certainly didn’t mind the company of a beautiful woman from time to time. And this woman, with her soft, supple frame, dark hair and even darker eyes was the epitome of beauty.

She was not at all who he’d been expecting, but Jake was pleasantly surprised the witch doctor looked nothing like the decrepit windbag he’d imagined being saddled with.

“Doctor Dana Gray,” she said, returning his firm grip.

“So you’re the witch doctor, huh?”

“It’s not a nickname I appreciate,” she replied, standing taller.

“Fair enough.” Jake had earned his share of unflattering call signs in the Army as a private. More than a few he hadn’t been fond of stuck around long enough to rub him the wrong way. He made a mental note to do his best to leave “witch” off the good doctor’s name. It shouldn’t be too hard considering she looked like all of his adolescent librarian fantasies come true with those glasses pushed up into her messy brown hair.

Refocusing, he gestured for Dr. Gray to take a seat. She remained standing. Another point for the good doctor. Jake contained his smirk. He loved a challenge. “I was told you’d be able to assist with an ongoing investigation.”

She blinked those big brown eyes at him. “Assist the FBI?”

“That’s right.”

“I’m sorry but this is the first I’m hearing of it.”

Jake swore under his breath, not at all surprised the Bureau had sent him in blind. This wouldn’t be the first time, nor the last. The caseloads were many and the manpower never enough. “I apologize for the unannounced visit. You should’ve been sent a briefing.”

Pulling up a chair, he took a seat at the giant old desk piled high with dusty leather-bound books. He was puzzled by the absence of electronics in the room. And was she wearing a pager?

Maybe the Bureau had emailed Dr. Gray a memo. Little good it would do if she was stuck in the Stone Age. Dr. Gray’s office reminded him of an Egyptian tomb. He wondered how anyone could work in such a creepy time capsule.

Her workspace looked more like a museum than a place to conduct business. The only normal item on her desk was a picture frame. Jake picked it up, observing the smiling couple. The woman in the photograph was the spitting image of Dr. Gray, or she would be if the witch doctor ever smiled. “This your sister?”

Dr. Gray snatched the frame out of his hands, placing it face down on her desk. “It’s none of your business.”

“Okay ...” Her reaction was as strange as her field of study. Jake’s training told him she was hiding something, but he wasn’t going to make his job any easier by questioning her. Resisting a shiver from the cool, dry air circulating through the room, he returned his focus to his mission. “I can get you up to speed on the investigation.”

“Now?”

“Yes. Is that a problem?” he asked, trying to feign patience. Jake liked a challenge, but not more than he liked putting criminals behind bars. He never understood it when others didn’t share that same sense of duty.

“Actually, yes,” Dr. Gray replied with annoyance. “I’m in the middle of a noteworthy Nordic discovery that could help link modern shamanic contexts.”

“That’s what’s so great about history, Doc. It’ll be there tomorrow.” Jake was momentarily entertained by his own sarcasm, but Dr. Gray was not. The way she crossed her arms indicated she didn’t share his humor—or maybe any sense of humor. “Look, all I’m trying to point out is that some old Viking scribbles can take a backseat to the warm bodies I’m dealing with.”

Dr. Gray drew in an offended breath. Jake could tell she was gearing up for an argument, but he knew the best offense was a good defense. “Listen, Doc, I don’t want to be here any more than you want me here, but I have six victims and a feeling there will be more. Help me get a lead on the Romeo and Juliet Killer, then I’ll be out of your hair, and you can go back to doing whatever it is you do here.”

The woman’s dark eyes widened, showing her first hint of interest. “Your case is Shakespearean? That’s fascinating, but you might be better off contacting one of my colleagues in the Elizabethan literature department. My area of expertise is in Occult History and Ritualistic Artifacts.”

“Trust me. I’m aware.”

She crossed her arms again. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Jake dropped all pretenses. “It means dragging you out of the library wasn’t my idea. I’m just following orders to have you assist me on this investigation.”

“I still don’t see how I can help you.”

Jake stood. “Once you see the crime scene, you’ll understand.”

“Crime scene?” Genuine fear flashed across her features. “I don’t go to crime scenes. I’m a historian. I study artifacts and rituals.”

“Well, today’s your lucky day. Someone’s been bringing your satanic rituals to life.” He tossed a case file onto her cluttered desk.

Dr. Gray rushed to her desk, but not to look at documents in the folder. She seemed much more concerned about protecting her precious books that were making a home there.

Was Cramer out of his mind? Working with this woman wasn’t a viable option, and Jake was done wasting time.

“Well, if you change your mind, you know where to find me. That is if you care at all about helping the living.”





4



“IT’S NOT GOING to work, Cramer,” Jake yelled into the speaker as he fought the endless Pennsylvania Avenue traffic. “The witch doctor was just another dead end, so feel free to pass that on to whatever genius set up that waste of time.”

“Relax, Shep. She’ll come around.”

“I’m not so sure.”

“Did you leave a copy of the case file with her?”

“I didn’t have much choice considering she refused to come to the crime scene.”

“She’s consulted on other cases for us before.”

“It certainly didn’t seem like it.”

Cramer sounded like he was holding in laughter on the other end of the call. “Let’s just say Dr. Gray has a reputation for doing things her own way, but I assure you, her input will be invaluable to this case.”

“If you say so.”

“I do. Get some rest, son. We’ll regroup at o-six-hundred.”

Jake disconnected the Bluetooth call, trying to ignore the flare of anger his boss’s fatherly comment triggered. He respected Cramer, but there was only one man who’d earned the right to call him son, and that was his uncle.

When Jake’s biological father refused to take responsibility for the result of his off-base extracurriculars, Jake’s Uncle Wade took over. Master Sergeant Wade Shepard helped raise Jake in his early years, when Jake’s mother was too shattered by heartbreak to do so. Jake counted himself lucky that her big brother Wade stepped up. It had formed an unbreakable bond between the two men—one that continued to this day.

Guilt stabbed Jake as he realized how long it’d been since he was home. But ever since he’d returned from his last tour, Nevada didn’t feel like home. How could it when his unit had returned one man short?

Pushing the painful memories aside, Jake switched lanes and headed toward his favorite outlet for the anger building beneath his skin—the shooting range.



FRESHLY SHOWERED, Jake toweled off and padded barefoot through his empty apartment. At the wet bar, he poured himself a glass of bourbon. He hadn’t bothered turning on the lights or dressing. Walking around naked was one of the perks of living in his own private bachelor pad.

He stood in front of his floor to ceiling windows, enjoying his eagle eye view of the National Mall. No matter how many times he saw it, DC at night took his breath away. Especially from the vantage point of his high-rise apartment.

For a rare moment, he allowed himself to study his reflection in the glass. Not just the definition of the muscles a lifetime of military service had sculpted or the way the remaining beads of water glistened on his tan skin, but he let his eyes travel over the damaged flesh his bad choices had left behind.

His scars were many, depicting a roadmap of his life. The problem was, there were just as many scars buried deep below the surface, waiting to detonate like an IED on anyone who got too close.

Deep down, Jake knew that was why he was keeping his distance from home. He didn’t want to unleash his demons on Wade or his mother. They’d raised him to be a better man than he was right now. That’s why he didn’t plan on going back until he got his head right.

It was a long road back to the man they remembered. Jake had been walking a new path for four years since he left the service. But he still had a long way to go.

Pulling himself from his inner darkness, Jake took his first sip of bourbon, savoring the warmth that spread through him. It instantly eased his mind. He grinned faintly as he heard his uncle’s voice in his head. There’s nothing quite as divine as a bottle of bourbon. That’s why it’s called spirits.

Wade had taught Jake to drink his bourbon neat, Like a real man.

Thinking about Wade tugged at the guilt Jake had just spent hours trying to bury. He quelled it with another sip of bourbon. A few hours at the shooting range, then his home gym hadn’t been enough to rid him of all his demons. But his anger had at least subsided enough to allow him to think clearly again.

As he sipped his bourbon, Jake’s thoughts drifted back to the murder investigation, and of course the infuriating witch doctor, whom he couldn’t seem to get out of his mind.

She was gorgeous and no doubt a genius in her field, but in his opinion, working with her wasn’t worth the hassle. Which brought Jake to two important conclusions. Working this case with someone as attractive and frustrating as Dana Gray was a recipe for disaster. Ergo, working the case alone was the only solution.

Now he just had to convince Cramer of that.





5



DANA COULDN’T HELP HERSELF. The folder was sitting on her desk, tormenting her curiosity. Of course, that’s probably why the obnoxious FBI agent left it there. Claire had been right. The man was conventionally attractive, but in Dana’s opinion, he was about as appealing as the idea of curling up with a slab of granite.

Agent Shepard carried himself in a cold, chiseled sort of way. He seemed like the type who enjoyed tormenting people. And with those good looks of his, he was probably used to getting what he wanted. But Dana wasn’t about to give him the satisfaction. Between his rude comments about her work and his superiority complex, she had half a mind to ignore the folder just on principle.

There was little she hated more than being talked down to about the importance of her work. Yes, she studied the mystic rituals of the past. But societies that ignored the mistakes of their past were doomed to repeat them and lose any hope at a thriving future. By researching why certain occult rituals and artifacts were believed to hold power or value, she was uncovering key subcultures that still exist in current civilizations.

In today’s society, these practices didn’t go by archaic names like witchcraft, voodoo or alchemy anymore. Now they identified as cults, sects and extremist religious groups. All were real-world issues that her studies could help shed light onto—light the world desperately needed if world news headlines were to be believed.

It wasn’t completely unheard of for specialists like herself to cooperate with police or government officials. Findings in her field helped gain a better understanding of groups like the one involved in the Waco Siege and structured a path of rehabilitation for those who were misinformed or inducted into such practices against their will.

Dana had consulted on findings for the FBI before, but never on an active case. She was usually called in after the fact whenever strange artifacts were discovered. Her most memorable had been a case involving a Russian man who attempted to assassinate a congressman. After his conviction, she was granted access to his apartment. It was full of priceless Russian artifacts. She’d spent months examining the findings and comparing them to the Slavic and Baltic artifacts the Smithsonian had access to.

In that case, she’d been called in to authenticate the artifacts since the man had claimed he was a Russian spy. And though his belongings were legitimate Russian relics, it was discovered the suspect was little more than a fervent collector diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. The man would now spend the rest of his days at a secure facility for the criminally insane.

Dana carefully closed the book she’d been studying and pushed her readers into her hair. She removed her gloves and rubbed her eyes before putting on her regular glasses again. Despite her best intentions, she was too distracted to get any real work done on the Nordic text she was deciphering. She’d read and re-read the same page a dozen times, unable to keep Agent Shepard and his words at bay.

That is, if you care at all about helping the living.

Of course she did. Not that he had any clue, but that’s how she ended up in this field. Dana knew better than most that studying the dead was a way to serve the living.

Her eyes automatically lifted to the framed photo on the corner of her desk. The one the arrogant agent had rudely manhandled. It was one of the few photographs she had of them. Growing up, her family didn’t have a lot of money. Photographs were a luxury they could rarely afford.

After Agent Shepard left, Dana returned the frame to its rightful spot. She’d grown used to the way the smiling faces of her parents haunted her, a constant reminder of the importance of her work. It had been their deaths that had set her on this path, and through her research she believed she was honoring them.

Sighing, she reached for the FBI case file. Inhaling deeply, she prepared herself to open it, knowing that her parents would want her to do what she could to help. Just because she’d yet to solve their murders didn’t absolve her of the obligation to help others.

Tracing her finger along the edge of the green folder, she flipped it open, inhaling sharply at the crime scene photograph staring back at her. Despite her field of study, Dana had never been the type to believe in destiny, but she found it difficult to ignore that her life’s trajectory had been preparing her for this very moment.

She knew she was staring at two unknown victims, but it was her parents’ lifeless faces that she saw lying in the twin beds. And the pentagram sketched on the floor … it was the very thing that had haunted her dreams since she was thirteen years old.

Overwhelmed with emotion and sudden nausea, Dana shoved back from the desk, stumbling to her feet.

“Dr. Gray? Are you all right?”

Dana whirled to see her intern in the doorway. How long had she been standing there? She quickly moved back to her desk to close the folder. “Claire, what can I do for you?”

“Nothing, I just wanted to let you know I was done for the day unless you needed me.”

Dana glanced at her watch, surprised by the time. “No, that’ll be all. You can go home.”

“Do you want to walk out with me?” Claire asked. “I don’t mind waiting.”

Dana shook her head. “I have a bit more to do.”

“It’s late,” Claire replied, concern in the younger woman’s voice.

“Time is but a window.” The Ghostbusters quote was out of Dana’s mouth before she could stop herself. She was a closet junkie for cult classic fantasy films. Blushing at Claire’s obvious confusion, Dana sat back at her desk to busy herself. “I’ll be fine. Have a good night, Claire.”

“You too, Dr. Gray.”

Dana looked up when she didn’t hear Claire retreat. “Is there something else?”

“Well, I was just wondering if you were going to help Agent Shepard.”

“I haven’t decided yet.” That was a lie. The moment Dana saw the crime scene photographs she knew she couldn’t turn away from this case. But saying it out loud brought back emotions that were too raw. She preferred to lie to herself just a little bit longer.

She’d face the truth tomorrow.





6



THE BRIGHT LIGHT pouring in from the excessive number of windows in the J. Edgar Hoover Building was making Dana’s headache worse. She should’ve taken Claire’s advice and left the library at a decent hour last night. But the dark, quiet atmosphere of her subterranean office seemed to exist in a world that time and light couldn’t penetrate, lulling her into an endless cradle of research.

She hadn’t gone home last night. And although she considered her research library at the Smithsonian a second home, it lacked certain creature comforts. Namely, her bed and steam shower. Thankfully, she kept a change of clothes at the office so she didn’t look wrinkled on top of exhausted.

Dana hadn’t meant to spend the night in the library, but time slipped away as she scoured every inch of the FBI case file. She must’ve fallen asleep at her desk on her third pass through.

Right now, Dana found herself missing her safe, dark world in the belly of the Smithsonian Library. There she was queen of her domain. Here she felt like a patient, being shuffled from one waiting room to the next. For all his guarantees, Agent Shepard was not as easy to locate as he’d promised.

Dana had been in the FBI building for over an hour, and she was still being promised that her time was valuable.

Standing, she gathered her things and began walking up to the receptionist when she heard Agent Shepard’s deep voice echo down the empty corridor. “I was wondering when you’d turn up. Took you long enough.”

Dana’s teeth gritted in annoyance. “Me? I’m the one who’s been waiting!”

He had the nerve to smirk. “Maybe you’re not the only witch doctor I’m consulting with.”

“Oh really?” Her ego got the better of her. “Did your other consultant identify the type of poison used in this case? Because I did.”

Agent Shepard crossed his arms. “Not possible. We don’t have the tox screen back yet.”

“You don’t need a tox screen. You have me.” Dana marched forward and thrust her findings at him.

He took the folder and opened it, leafing through her notes. From the way he was squinting, she knew he might as well be looking at hieroglyphics. Sighing, she invaded his space, getting a whiff of his spicy aftershave. She didn’t let the alluring scent of sandalwood distract her as she peered over the paperwork with him. “It’s atropa belladonna. Also known as nightshade; a deadly perennial herbaceous plant. Translation, it won’t show up on your tox screen.”

“Why not?”

“Well, it only stays in your system for a few hours, but mostly because it’s an alkaloid, not a toxin that’s traditionally on a drug panel.”

“How do you know that?”

Dana fought her urge to roll her eyes. She wasn’t the one on trial here. She exhaled. “Because it’s been used as a poison since at least the fourth century BC in Egyptian and Roman rituals. It then moved into Islamic Empires before finding its way to Europe. If you’re interested, I can recommend a few pagan manuscripts that detail the many uses of nightshade.” Agent Shepard blinked at her; his clueless expression almost endearing. “Stop me if I’m going too fast.”

“All right, I get it. You know your stuff. I don’t need a history lesson, just the CliffsNotes that pertain to our case.”

“Our case?”

“You’re here, aren’t you?”

Dana ignored his sarcasm. She’d earned it with her boastful tète-a-tète. But she couldn’t help it. Shepard’s arrogance got under her skin. Exhaling, she decided the best course of action was to table their differences. It was the only way she was going to get answers. And she desperately wanted them. “Nightshade is a nearly untraceable drug used in all manner of pagan rituals. It can cause a myriad of deadly side effects like delirium, hallucination, paralysis and tachycardia.”

“We’re still waiting to hear about the current scene, but heart attack was COD on the first four vics.”

“That makes sense. It can render the body immobile while having the complete opposite effect on the heart.”

“Why would this be used in a ritual?”

“Some cultures believed a few drops in the eyes would not only make you more attractive by dilating one’s pupils, but it could also grant the gift of sight.”

“So what happened? Some freaky witches took a bad trip and figured out they could use their flower power to murder people?”

“I wouldn’t put it quite that crudely, but yes. Only nightshade hasn’t been used in a murder on record in the US in nineteen years.”

Agent Shepard’s icy gaze narrowed. “That’s specific.”

Dana ignored his accusatory look. “I wrote my dissertation on it.”

“What made you choose that for a thesis?”

Feeling exposed she changed the subject. “Is there somewhere we can go to discuss this further?”

“Actually, I was on my way to the crime scene. I could use another set of eyes.”

Dana balked. “I don’t think I’m ready for that.”

She hated how weak her voice came out. Everything about this case made her feel vulnerable. She knew if she agreed to work with the FBI, her connection to the case would come out. But she didn’t know Agent Shepard, and she certainly didn’t trust him.

He took a step closer, his demeanor shifting as he dropped the stony-faced government agent act just long enough to let a sliver of compassion slip out. “I’m sorry. I know visiting a crime scene isn’t easy. I won’t push you. But if you’re right about this drug—”

“I am,” she interrupted.

A ghost of a smile played on his lips. “Then I think you could be the key to solving this case and giving the victims’ families the closure they deserve.”

Dana’s heart froze in her chest. For a moment she could do nothing but stare at Agent Shepard, wondering just how much he knew about her, because his words rang true. They were the exact thing to say to get her to agree to committing herself to this path, no matter what it revealed about the secrets she kept locked away.





7



JAKE CHEWED the inside of his cheek, a bad habit he’d developed when he felt skeptical. He heard his uncle’s voice as clear as day in his head. You’ll never beat me at poker with a tell like that.

Considering Jake’s current position with the FBI required a poker face at all times, it was something he worked on. It’s why he’d taken up a new habit. Unwrapping a piece of cinnamon gum, Jake popped it into his mouth to mask his worrisome chewing.

Dr. Dana Gray sat across from him in his office looking as out of place as he had in her cave-like library lair. She sat ramrod straight in the chair on the opposite side of his desk, her thumb absently scraping the skin on the back of her tightly clasped hands. Her thick, dark hair was down today. It hung in lazy waves past her shoulders. Dr. Gray’s hair was the only relaxed thing about her—another thing that made Jake uneasy.

What did she have to be so nervous about?

He wasn’t satisfied with her vague answers about her choice of dissertation or her absolute certainty that the tox screen would validate her claims about the nightshade. She was holding something back from him. The question was, why?

But that would have to wait. The fact was, the vexing brunette was giving him his first lead in this case, and he couldn’t ignore it.

“Well, if what you’ve outlined here is true, it seems there’s only one thing left to do,” Jake said.

Dr. Gray leaned forward. “What’s that?”

“Make it official.” Jake opened his desk drawer and pulled out a temporary access card, placing it on the desk in front of Dr. Gray. “Welcome to the FBI.”

“W-what?”

He tried to hide his amusement at her startled, doe-like eyes. “Relax. It’s just a temporary access card. You’ll need it to get clearance to this level of the building and it’ll grant you access to the case files. Make sure you wear it when we visit the crime scene.”

“If I visit the crime scene,” she clarified.

“I realize you’re stepping into uncharted territory here, but if we’re going to work together, I need you to commit fully. That’s the only way this type of partnership is going to work.”

“A partnership goes both ways,” she warned.

Jake stood and stepped around his desk. “I’m aware of that.”

Dana stood, too. She was tall for a woman, but his muscular frame still dwarfed hers, though she didn’t seem intimidated.

“Fine,” she said. “I’m in.”

Jake picked up the plastic access card and clipped it to the lapel of her blazer, hoping he wouldn’t come to regret inviting her weird world of the occult into his orderly one. “Welcome aboard, Doc.”





8



A WAVE of dizziness crashed over Dana as she followed Agent Shepard down the hotel corridor. It felt like the walls were closing in on her. Trying to calibrate her breathing, she looked down at the floor, concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other, but all she could focus on was the carpet pattern. It brought the images from the case file crashing back.

She knew there was no sense in trying to block it out. In a few minutes, they’d be in the very room where it happened. The same room where the killer had stood. Bile burned the back of her throat and her eyes watered, but she forced herself to keep it together. Agent Shepard was right. The victims’ families deserved closure. Never having gotten that herself, she knew what a gift it could be. She was determined to do her best to make that happen for these suffering families.

Steeling her nerves, she stopped outside the hotel room door and took a deep breath. Her parents’ unexpected death had taken so much from her. She refused to let it have more power over her by being too weak to do this job. Exhaling, Dana walked into the room, ready to examine the first lead in the mystery she’d dedicated her life to solving.

She knew what she’d find—police tape, print rosin, evidence markers—but still, she wasn’t prepared for how heavy her heart would feel actually being in the space. It was like a stone in her chest, making it impossible for her to pull air into her lungs. The stillness of the room was suffocating, almost like the essence of the violence that had taken place here lingered, waiting to attach onto the next unsuspecting victim.

With a hand over her mouth, Dana did her best to breathe through her sleeve. She should’ve brought a mask. The chemical odor from the forensic team mixed with the smell death left behind was making her sick. On the drive over, Shepard had explicitly warned her to go into the hall if she thought she was going to be ill so she wouldn’t contaminate the scene.

“Remind me why we’re here again?” Dana asked, hoping that talking would distract her from her queasiness.

“I like to walk in the shoes of the killer. Sometimes it helps uncover more clues.”

Agent Shepard pulled the folder from under his arm and spread photos of the victims on each bed, making it impossible for Dana not to imagine what their last moments must’ve been like. The woman was blonde and petite. The man was broad shouldered and wore glasses. Dana’s father wore glasses. Was that part of the killer’s MO?

Dana pushed her parents from her thoughts. The similarities in their murder and this current one were undeniable, but Dana had been searching for their killer for nineteen years with no luck. Maybe focusing on this case would finally give her the answers she’d been trying to find. Tying her hair back tighter, she thought, what have I got to lose?

Focusing on the photos on each bed, Dana tried to do what Shepard said and put herself in the shoes of the killer. But no matter how hard she tried, her mind slipped into the role of the victim. It’s not that she saw herself that way—far from it actually—but it was hard not to empathize with them and what they must’ve gone through.

She wondered if they’d known what was coming when they entered this room? Had they suffered? Had her parents?

Her head swam with lifeless faces, the victims’ features melting into her parents’ until she didn’t know where one ended and the other began. This wasn’t helping. Coming here had been a mistake. The only things Dana ascertained from the crime scene were horrible new images to haunt her sleepless nights.

Agent Shepard’s voice pierced her nightmare. “Thanks to the hotel cameras we have a time stamp of when the victims entered the room, which was shortly after eight pm. We’re estimating TOD between eight and nine.”

“TOD?”

“Time of death,” he explained without looking up from the folder. “That means our unsub,” his gaze left the folder this time. “Unsub basically means unknown suspect.”

“I know that,” she snapped. “I’ve seen CSI.”

Shepard shut his folder. “Fantastic! Well I guess my job is done here.”

This time Dana couldn’t stop her eyes from rolling. She wanted to wipe the smug look off his face, but she wanted answers more. “Please continue.”

Shepard didn’t even try to hide his cocky smirk as he opened the folder again. “Based on TOD, the unsub didn’t waste any time. There’s no forced entry at this crime scene or any of the others. No one caught on the security footage entering the room with the vics. No sexual assault or mutilation. The empty poison vials and pentagram are his signature. Letting us know he used some type of unknown substance to kill them.”

“And you tested the vials for traces of poison?”

“Of course. But they were bone dry. Free of prints and never used for anything other than to taunt us. I even traced them to the dozens of big box stores that carry them in the tri-state area which was a big fat dead end.” Shepard tucked his folder under his arm. “The only thing we have out of the ordinary is this.”

He pointed to the pentagram drawn on the carpet, but Dana was already looking at it. It was hard to ignore. She hadn’t been able to tear her eyes away from it for very long since entering the room. It was identical to the one she’d burned into her memory save one thing. All the points weren’t filled in. Meaning this killer wasn’t finished.

A clammy wave of sweat broke out on her neck as Dana felt the world go fuzzy around the edges. She turned to leave the room before she broke the one rule Shepard had implicitly warned her not to. But she’d only taken two steps before her knees buckled.

She opened her mouth to cry out, but her throat was so dry nothing came out. Gasping, she reached for anything to keep her from falling. She wasn’t sure she could handle it if she ended up on the floor just like the victims probably had. But her concern was premature because Agent Shepard’s reactions were as fast as his witty comebacks.

The last thing Dana remembered was the scent of his cinnamon gum as Shepard’s strong arms slipped around her, lifting her to safety.



IN THE HALL Dana caught her breath, sipping slowly from the water bottle Agent Shepard offered her. His hand was still on the small of her back, like he expected her to black out again at any moment. She hated herself for being so weak. She hated herself even more for craving the warmth of his touch. It was spreading through her like coffee.

What had made her think she could handle this? She’d always had trouble maintaining focus in the real world. That’s why she preferred the orderly and controlled environment of her research library. Outside its protective walls, there was nothing to stop the flashbacks of her parents’ murder from overwhelming her. Today was proof of that.

Suddenly insecure about her ability to help, Dana felt her confidence dissolving. She swallowed, collected what was left of her pride and stood taller, breaking their connection as she turned to face Shepard. “I’m sorry. I want to help, but I can’t do this.”

“Hey, don’t apologize. I know this isn’t easy, but you’re doing fine. Better than I did at my first scene.”

She brushed off his comment, knowing he was just saying what he thought she needed to hear so he could get her back on the job. But she was on to him.

“You don’t believe me?” He hung his head, chuckling softly. “I wish I was making it up, but I got sick at my first scene.”

Dana cut her eyes at him, not in the mood to be patronized.

“I’m serious. My nickname was Yak for a whole year. Why do you think I drilled the no puking rule into your head on the drive over?”

“I saw the medals in your office. You served in the military before coming to the FBI.”

“I did. Army. 101st.”

“And you expect me to believe you didn’t see worse during your time in the Army?”

“I did, but that was different.”

“How?” she challenged.

Jake’s blue eyes grew dark and distant. It was like watching a storm roll in. Dana instantly regretted her question. It obviously sent him back to a place he wasn’t fond of. She was searching for a way to change the subject when he surprised her with an answer. “In war, death is inevitable, expected. But here, we’re supposed to be safe. And walking into scenes like this, seeing the pointless hate people can inflict on each other … it’s not something you can be prepared for or get used to.”

“How do you do it?” she asked, her voice barely a whisper.

Jake’s gaze came back from that faraway place, his eyes calm again when they met hers. “I believe I’m making a difference. Setting right some wrongs.”

His words hit home again and just like that, a renewed strength enveloped her. “That’s what I want to do.”

“I can see that.” Jake’s gaze softened. “It’s okay to take your time. You’ll know when you’re ready to go back in.”

She nodded. “I’m ready now.”

Back in the hotel room, Dana took in the scene with a new determination. She’d removed her emotions, compartmentalizing the painful memories of her parents and even the unknown victims. She was here to do what she did best, research and analyze.

“Two of the points aren’t filled in.”

Agent Shepard scratched his head. “What?”

“The pentagram. Only three of the five points are filled in.”

“Okay . . .” Shepard drawled.

“It means the unsub’s not done.”

“Excuse me?”

“The pentagram is drawn in blood, correct?”

Jake nodded. “Yes, but we’re not sure whose blood. Forensics confirmed it’s not the victims’ and they haven’t gotten any hits in the system.”

“It could be the killer’s blood.”

“And why do you say that?”

“This scene is reminiscent of sacrificial rituals for passage to the afterlife. In these types of sacrifices, the individual conducting it offers their own blood in order to gain the power granted by sacrifice. Each time a sacrifice is made, a point of the star is filled in until all five have been completed symbolizing the price has been paid in full.”

“The price?”

“For passage into the afterlife.”

“So, this unsub is killing innocent people to get to some imaginary afterlife?”

“There’s no proof afterlife is imaginary, Agent Shepard.”

He huffed his disagreement. “I’m not here to debate heaven and hell with you, Doc. But there’s a flaw in your theory.”

“What’s that?”

“We have six victims. That negates your little satanic scheme.”

“It’s not a scheme. Human sacrifice has been practiced for centuries. Some cultures held tournaments, the winners earning the right to be sacrificed to the gods. The Inca sacrificed children, pampering and fattening them for years to appease their gods with their offering. And in the city of Ur, human sacrifice was an event celebrated annually, most often sacrificing pairs, lovers or mates to be exact.”

The creases on either side of Agent Shepard’s frown deepened. “Do I even want to know?”

“The relevance of pairs predates biblical times. Think of the Ark. ‘Two by two they have come in unto Noah, unto the ark, a male and a female, as God hath commanded Noah’.”

Shepard balked at the bible verse. “Whoa, whoa, whoa! Are you saying our killer is some kind of religious nut?”

“Not at all. By my estimates, we’re dealing with an educated extremist with basic knowledge of law enforcement.”

“That narrows it down,” Agent Shepard muttered.

“It does if we can identify the drug.”

“I thought you already did that?”

“Oh, I’m certain it’s nightshade, but I’d still like to see a copy of the toxicology report.”

“So would I, because if you’re right, we’re racing against the clock before this guy strikes again.”





9



ALTHOUGH SHE HAD STUMBLED at the crime scene initially, Dana was proud of herself for pushing past her comfort zone. She’d been able to shed new light on the case and saw now why Agent Shepard and the FBI had turned to her for answers.

If they only knew the half of it, she thought as she used her keycard to access the staff elevator. Shepard followed her silently into the cold metal box, standing as still as a statue as they moved slowly to sub-level three. Dana used the few moments the quiet voyage allowed to separate the scene she’d witnessed today from the one she knew by heart. She’d need to compartmentalize them in her mind if she was going to be at her best.

Trying to solve the mysterious deaths of her parents led Dana to carve a career out of occult studies. It seemed it was finally paying off. The similarities she’d just examined at the crime scene today were so eerily akin to her parents’ that she’d ruled out any chance of coincidence. Besides, there were no coincidences in science.

Many colleagues Dana had worked with argued that occult studies weren’t a science. And from Shepard’s sarcasm, it was obvious that he held little stock in its value. But Dana disagreed, and she wasn’t going to stop until she proved them wrong and solved this case. And maybe her parents’ too.

“One step at a time,” she whispered to herself.

“What was that?” Shepard asked, his voice startling her.

He’d been so still she’d momentarily forgotten he was there. “It’s nothing. Just a mantra I sometimes use.”

Agent Shepard’s keen blue eyes studied her. She felt herself warm under his scrutiny, grateful when the elevator doors slid open. She rushed out, his footsteps following behind her.

The cool atmosphere and scent of aged papyrus instantly put her at ease. Back in her element once again, Dana’s mind began to clear, allowing her to process her thoughts. She bypassed her office and went straight to the stacks.

She liked to sort out problems in her head, letting them filter and rearrange until they fit together like perfectly arranged Tetris pieces. This was a learning technique she’d developed as a child, and it required utter silence—something that caused social isolation and led to ridicule by her classmates.

She remembered that time in her life—when she’d thought things like popularity were important. Losing her parents at such a young age had changed Dana’s priorities. She saw the world through a clearer lens now, and she was grateful for it. Other people’s opinions of her didn’t matter. Only the truth did.





10



“SO WHAT ARE WE DOING HERE?” Jake asked as he followed Dr. Gray past the dimly lit rows of tables into an even darker row of towering bookshelves.

“Give me a moment, I need silence while I think.”

He huffed a laugh. “We’re certainly in the right place.”

The stillness of the stacks gave him the creeps. It seemed like a crypt where books went to rot. And considering the titles that stared back at him, he wasn’t that far off. The Book of Thoth. The Mystical Qabalah. The Dark Lord. The Philosophy of Natural Magic. The Voodoo Doll Spellbook.

Damn. He’d always heard the pen was mightier than the sword. Whoever wrote these books was determined to prove it in a sinister way.

Forcing himself to take deep breaths, Jake pushed away the pressing fact that he was deep underground. He’d always feared confined spaces. Even though this floor of the library was massive with over thirty-foot ceilings, knowing he was on a level buried underground still made the walls feel like they were closing in on him.

Popping another piece of gum into his mouth, Jake focused on keeping his mind busy. Studying Dr. Gray while she worked proved the perfect distraction from his claustrophobia.

She looked more relaxed than she’d been all day as she walked down row after row of the looming stacks, her fingers absently reaching out to stroke a spine here and there as if acknowledging an old friend. Again, Jake found himself admiring her features.

Dana Gray had a subtle kind of beauty, not bothering to accentuate it with makeup or flashy clothes, which made her even more attractive to him. Jake had never liked the Capital Hill Honeys that his brothers at the Bureau went for. He attracted plenty himself, but he knew better.

In his experience, women who laid it all out there for the taking were usually more trouble than they were worth. Besides, his days of playing rescuer to damsels in distress were behind him. Now the only rescuing he did was for his victims, giving their families the closure they needed.

Jake fought the quirk of his lips as he briefly let his mind wander inappropriately about the good doctor. He wondered if any man had ever attempted to crack her rigid exterior. Even if he still was that guy who liked to play hero, he had a feeling she wouldn’t be into it. Despite what happened at the crime scene today, everything about Dr. Dana Gray screamed she could take care of herself.

She was the complete opposite of any woman Jake had ever been with. Opinionated, uptight, untrusting. He held in a snort when he realized he was describing himself. He wasn’t a narcissist but still, there was something about her that drew him in. He’d always had a secret thing for glasses, but he had a feeling it was the eyes behind them that made it hard for him to look away. Jake had only ever seen that same forlorn look in one other place—his own reflection.

“Here,” Dr. Gray said, turning to place a giant dusty book in his hands.

“What’s this for?”

Her slender brows furrowed. “I thought you were interested in the poison used to kill the victims.”

“You don’t just have the answers up here?” he teased, tapping his temple.

“Of course I do. But I assumed you wanted proof.”

Jake couldn’t hide his grin. “That was a joke, Doc. I’m with the FBI. Proof is kind of our thing.”

“Right,” she noted, before giving him a disapproving look. “That book is priceless. Use both hands.”

“Yes ma’am.”

Dana ignored his salute and solemnly returned to business.

Jake sighed, wondering how he was supposed to forge a connection with this woman. If he had it his way, he’d be working this case solo, but if he was going to be saddled with a partner, it was important they build some kind of rapport. And that meant he needed to find something beyond his obvious attraction to her.

So far, even his sense of humor wasn’t working.

Dr. Gray seemed like the type who didn’t even appreciate humor, which Jake found sad. Sometimes, being able to lighten the mood was the only thing that saved him from the darkness of this job. It was a difficult thing to be surrounded by on a daily basis. If she was going to survive this investigation, she’d need something bright to hold on to.



JAKE’S ARMS were full when he followed Dr. Gray back to an empty row of tables. She flicked on a light and sat down, depositing her armful of books on the table much more delicately than Jake had.

“Careful,” she warned, her voice a low library whisper.

“We’re the only people in here, right?”

“My assistant is here somewhere.”

“Okay ...”

“Why do you ask?”

“Just wondering why you’re whispering. Afraid you’re gonna wake the dead?”

Again, she ignored his humor and rolled up her sleeves. She donned a pair of white gloves and handed Jake a pair, too. “Put these on so the oils in your skin don’t damage the books.”

Then she dove into her research, propping open books to pages she seemed to know by heart while she babbled on about the origins of witchcraft and human sacrifice. It was obvious she was in her element here, and Jake couldn’t help but admire it. There was just something sexy as hell about a confident woman.

Dr. Gray’s conviction grew as she discussed the strange world of the occult as naturally as if she were reciting what she had for dinner. Jake didn’t believe in such things and hearing words like black magic, pentagrams and devil worship thrown around like they were anything more than folktales was hard to swallow. But he did his best to keep an open mind even though he was almost certain this was a waste of time.

In his opinion, the likelihood that this unsub was some sort of occult fanatic was a reach. It was more probable they were dealing with a twisted individual who watched one too many horror movies.

“This is how we find him,” Gray said, pointing to a disturbing illustration of a horned beast kneeling over a mutilated body.

“Well, why didn’t you say we were looking for a guy with horns? I’ll put out an APB right now.”

Dr. Gray glanced up at him and her brown eyes narrowed. “That was a joke, right?”

Jake nodded, earning himself his first grin from the doctor. He gave her one back, unable to resist the way she came alive in the library. It was perhaps the sexiest thing about her. He quickly reminded himself he wasn’t supposed to find her sexy, and occupied his mind by trying to make sense of the witchy history lesson she was babbling on about. As attractive as she was, he wasn’t buying what she was selling. “I don’t see how some sketchy illustration about an old witchy cult proves anything about the poison used.”

“That’s because you’re not looking at it all together. Here … and here …” She pointed to the horrific drawings in the books crowding the work surface. “What do you notice in all of these illustrations?”

“That there are some fucked up people in the world, but I didn’t need some decrepit old books to tell me that.”

Dr. Gray shook her head and started carefully moving the books around, layering the relevant pages next to each other. “These books span centuries and cultures. They’re written in different languages, but all of them are saying the same thing.”

“That evil walks among us?”

Dr. Gray’s solemn gaze met his and for a moment her pain reached out and touched his. “That’s something we can agree on.”

He nodded, struck by the fact that maybe they weren’t as different as he’d first thought. But he was here for answers about a case, and he needed something factual to go on. “Listen Doc, I understand this wacky world of witchcraft is important to you, but I don’t need a history lesson. I need answers that apply to the real world.”

“This library is my world. It’s real to me. You asked for my expertise, and this is it. I’ve dedicated my life to understanding these rituals. Research in this field may not appear scientific at first, but if you peel back the layers, things begin to align and can be applied to the modern world.”

Looking closer, he followed her fingertip as she guided him from one morose drawing to the next, pointing out the connecting thread that was initially hidden behind the hideous celebrations of death.

Jake blinked in disbelief as he recognized the same star-shaped plant in each one. Nightshade. “Well I’ll be damned. You’re like the Neo of this place, aren’t you?”

Dr. Gray’s dark eyes lit with surprise. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”

Jake stifled a shocked laugh. “You’ve seen The Matrix?”

“I study the dead, Agent Shepard. That doesn’t mean I am dead.”

“Did you just make a joke?” he teased. When she shrugged, Jake grinned. “There might be hope for us yet.”

“Because I like cult classic films?”

“Because you just proved there’s an interesting human buried beneath all of your witch doctor babble.” She rolled her eyes, but he pressed for more, not wanting to lose the ground he’d just gained. “What other movies do you like?”

“Ghostbusters is my favorite.”

“Get out! Me too.” Ghostbusters wasn’t really his favorite. He was secretly an X-Men fan. He loved anything in the Marvel universe, mostly because he could always relate to their antiheroes. But that wasn’t important. His goal was to break down Dr. Gray’s walls, since she was going to be his partner for the foreseeable future. “You know, you can tell a lot about a person by the movies they like.”

“Really?”

“Absolutely. There’s a psychological link between our personalities and the movies that appeal to us. FBI profilers rely heavily on those kinds of connections.”

Dr. Gray tilted her head, curious. “So you’re going to profile me based on my movie preferences?”

“I’m not a profiler.”

“Then why’d you bring it up?”

“Because it would be fun to have something in common. You have heard of fun, right?”

“You want to have fun?” Her tone was offended. “We’re supposed to be solving a murder.”

“I know that, but we’re not going to get anywhere until we learn to work together, which is easier if we can find some common ground and start building trust.”

Dr. Gray mulled the idea over for a moment. “I can do that.”

“Look at that! Progress.”

She frowned, and Jake worried his sarcasm was eating up the ground he’d gained when Dr. Gray spoke again. “I’m sorry I’ve been difficult. This case … it’s opened up old wounds.”

“What do you mean?”

She shook her head, the vulnerability in her voice vanishing. “Nothing. I think being at the scene just rattled me more than I expected.”

“If you weren’t rattled, I’d be concerned.”

She offered him a tight smile. “I’m going to do everything I can to help you solve this case.”

“Glad to hear it.” Jake returned her smile, and for the first time he felt like he might have actually found solid ground with the incredibly gifted doctor. “I’ll make you a deal. Solve this case and we’ll have a Ghostbusters movie marathon.”

Grinning, she pointed back to the drawing in the book closest to her. “Then we’d better prove that nightshade is what killed the victims.”





11



“ALKALOID TOXINS ARE DERIVED from atropa belladonna, also known as nightshade. The plant was prevalent on multiple continents dating back to the fourth century BC. Wealthy families in Europe kept it along with other medicinal plants in what they called poison gardens.”

Agent Shepard frowned. “So they were like the original meth heads?”

Dana understood the reference, but the prestigious position of tending a royal poison garden was nothing like cooking meth. She decided not to burst his bubble. She could tell the surly FBI agent was doing his best to find solid footing in her “wacky world of witchcraft,” as he’d called it.

To his credit, he was at least pretending to take her seriously, scribbling furiously in his notebook. They’d been at it for hours. Whether he believed in the rituals she dedicated her life to studying was irrelevant. All that mattered to her was that she was making progress on the investigation.

This was the closest Dana had ever been to uncovering another key element of her parents’ murder. When they were found dead in a hotel room, bloody pentagram on the floor, empty vials in their hands, their death was ruled a suicide. But Dana knew in her heart they never would have left her by choice, and now that she was a part of Agent Shepard’s nearly identical case, she was that much closer to proving it.

They’d moved to her research lab where the computers and modern electronics were housed. It was Dana’s least favorite room on her floor of the library. The harsh fluorescent lights buzzed overhead, disrupting her concentration. She knew sometimes technology was a necessary evil, but she didn’t enjoy it.

Shepard was hunched over a laptop, scrolling through the FBI’s database he’d accessed. They were cross referencing crimes with known poisons. So far, they had no hits for nightshade, which was discouraging. But she couldn’t deny this part of the investigation felt symbiotic—both of their worlds joining in such a scientific way.

“Well, I don’t know what to tell you,” Shepard said, staring at the ‘no search results found’ screen again.

Dana stared at the blinking cursor in the white box. “Did you spell it correctly?”

“I may not have a PhD, but I did pass English 101.”

“Knock, knock,” Claire called, interrupting their debate. “Have you been down here all day?”

“Mostly,” Dana replied.

“I paged you.”

Shepard snorted a laugh. “Did you say paged? You mean that thing is actually functional?”

Dana ignored him and pulled the green pager from her belt. Damn. It was dead again. She muttered her apologies to Claire. “Sorry. It’s not holding a charge like it used to.”

“You’ve heard of cell phones, right?” Shepard teased.

“It holds sentimental value,” Dana snapped, tenderly tucking the pager into her blazer pocket.

Shepard held up his hands, and Dana turned back to Claire. “Did you need me for something?”

“No, I just assumed you forgot to eat again,” Claire said, moving fully into the lab. “So I just ordered your usual.”

She plopped her clunky black backpack onto an empty table, the metal spikes clanking loudly against the white resin tabletop. Claire pulled out a large brown paper bag with bright red lettering that Dana knew all too well. Thaiphoon made her favorite vegan kung pao dish. Just thinking about the perfect mix of savory spices was making her stomach rumble.

As usual, Claire was right. The hours had gotten away from Dana. She was too well practiced at ignoring her grumbling stomach these days. If it wasn’t for Claire, Dana would probably end up living on coffee and waffles, her only daily ritual before leaving the house. Thankfully, her intern’s stomach was more reliable than any alarm clock.

Dana’s mouth watered as the sweet scent of jasmine rice and spicy stir fry filled the lab. She glanced at Shepard. From the way he eyed the bag, Dana wasn’t the only one who’d skipped a meal.

“I’m not sure what secret agents like,” Claire said, her cheeks pinking as she continued to unpack the brown bag, “so I just got you my favorite.”

Agent Shepard straightened, stretching his arms over his head as he sniffed the air. “Whatever it is, I’m grateful. I’m starving.”

Claire settled in her usual spot, crossing her legs in the white overstuffed chair in the corner of the lab. The place might appear white and sterile, but to Dana, it was home. She and Claire ate all their meals in this room since Dana didn’t allow food in her office with so many priceless books and artifacts around. After Claire had been hired, they’d added a cafe table and chairs, along with the overstuffed wingback where Claire liked to curl up and read.

“So, did you crack the case yet?” Claire asked, stabbing a shrimp with her chopsticks.

Dana moved to the small dining table and unwrapped her dish. “I think we may have found the source of the poison.”

“Doc, we don’t talk about on-going investigations,” Shepard warned, taking up the empty chair across from her.

Claire paused, a chopstick hovering near her lips, and exchanged a questioning look with Dana.

Dana cleared her throat. “Claire is my research assistant, Agent Shepard. If you want me at my best, she’s part of the deal.” She could tell he was going to object, so she continued singing her assistant’s praises. “Claire has a near eidetic memory and is better than any online resource when it comes to reciting facts or definitions. She’ll be an asset to our investigation.”

“Very well. I’ll work on getting her clearance.” Shepard’s stern glance fell on Claire. “It goes without saying that everything discussed here doesn’t leave this room, understood?”

Claire’s already rounded shoulders slumped further, but she agreed, her voice suddenly mousy. “I can keep a secret.”

Dana caught her assistant’s eye, giving her an encouraging nod, to which Claire frowned. She clearly didn’t approve of this new addition to their dynamic.

Claire had come to Dana two years ago. She was a Georgetown grad student getting her PhD in Egyptology. She reminded Dana of herself—an ambitious outcast in the modern world. But under Dana’s guidance, the awkward twenty-something had blossomed, finding a home at the Smithsonian, just as Dana had.

It was sad to admit that the intern was the closest thing Dana had to a best friend. They ate all their meals together and could discuss theories over their fields of study—not something she could do with outsiders.

A quick glance at Agent Shepard as he dug into his sesame ginger dumplings had Dana feeling a strange twinge of excitement. There was no doubt the government man was out of his element, but he was making an effort, and that was more than any other man had ever done. But Dana didn’t have time to get her feelings involved. She was already too invested in this case to put her heart on the line more than it already was.

Besides, she’d made a decision a long time ago that love was not a ritual she wanted to explore.





12



JAKE HELD the door to the forensics lab open for Dr. Gray. He followed her inside, trying to ignore the floral scent of perfume that trailed behind her.

After spending all night in the bowels of the Smithsonian, Jake was no closer to catching the killer than he’d been before he signed on to work with the occult specialist. There was no denying they’d made progress with their partnership, but Jake still wasn’t convinced he wasn’t better off going it alone.

That’s why they were here. Felix Raynard was the best in the Bureau. If he couldn’t connect nightshade to the case, no one could. And they finally had the toxicology report to reference.

Jake led the way to Raynard’s office. He may have a more socially acceptable job than Dr. Gray, but his office was even more disturbing. Averting his eyes from the jars that held pickled remains, Jake made introductions.

“Witch Doctor, meet the Alchemist.”

Raynard stood, extending a pale, boney hand. “Dr. Felix Raynard,” he amended, cutting his eyes at Jake. “And you are?”

“Dr. Dana Gray.”

Shepard stood by for as long as he could bear, letting the two scientists compare credentials and accolades.

“Yeah, yeah. You both have big brains, I get it. Let’s get to the case.”

Raynard nodded. Taking his seat, he spun his chair back toward his wall of monitors. “So, Shepard tells me you think atropa belladonna is the culprit?”

Dr. Gray nodded. “I do. But we searched the FBI database last night without any success.”

Raynard grinned. “And I wouldn’t expect you to.”

“What do you mean?” Jake asked.

“Nightshade isn’t something we’d ever test for unless it was of specific interest. And even if we did, naturally occurring toxins like nightshade are notorious for not showing up on tox screens because they have such a short half-life, something your unsub probably knows,” Raynard added. “If you ask me, you’re looking for someone with a background in forensic toxicology or police procedures.”

Dr. Gray beamed. “Exactly what I said.”

Jake was doing his best to overlook her smug grin, but it wasn’t easy. Not only had she been right about the poison, but her gloating smile was sexy as hell.

“So what do we do now?” she asked.

“Now we put in a request to the coroner’s office for specific labs to identify the drug.”

“It’s a long shot,” Raynard warned. “Your vics have been cold for over 48 hours, and nightshade can leave the system without a trace in as little as three hours depending on the dose.”

“We at least have to request the labs.”

“Even if they’re useless?” Dr. Gray asked.

Jake nodded. “Chain of evidence. We have to follow procedure. There’s no way I’m letting this monster off on a technicality. While we wait for labs, we can go back to my office and take a look at the archives to see if we can link any other cases using this kind of drug.”

“Actually, my department at the Smithsonian has an entire section dedicated to ancient harvesting techniques of plants like nightshade. We might have more luck tracking the lab and greenhouse equipment required to procure enough nightshade for this many poisonings.”

Raynard nodded his approval. “That’s where I’d start.” His gaze flickered to Jake. “You finally got yourself a worthy partner. Hold on to this one.”

The comment hurt more than Raynard had meant it to, but Jake was grateful for the reminder to keep Dr. Gray at arm’s length. The last thing he needed was to get too close. His line of work was dangerous and no place for emotional attachment. Emotions caused distractions and distractions could be deadly. It was something he’d learned the hard way.



“WANT me to drop you at the Smithsonian?” Jake asked once they were back in his SUV.

Dr. Gray slipped her seatbelt into place. “You’re not coming?”

“Do you really need me to carry more dusty books around for you?”

“I thought we were partners?”

“We are, but sometimes divide and conquer is the best tactic. I need to file the lab request.”

“All right. I’ll look to see if anyone was researching nightshade at the library.”

“I can do you one better. One call and I can have a whole team of data analysts sorting through the browsing history of everyone in the DC area.”

“Yes, but if we find someone who’s checked out a book about how to grow and harvest it in the date range of the crimes, we’ll narrow down our suspect pool even more.”

Jake couldn’t deny she had a point, but it was doubtful it would be that easy. “I’ll drop you at the bat cave. You can send out a signal if you find any leads.”





13



UNHAPPY THAT AGENT SHEPARD had brushed off her ideas so easily, Dana did what she did best. She went to work, throwing herself into research mode.

It wasn’t easy to push her anger away. Just when she thought she and Shepard were on the same page and finally getting somewhere, the moody FBI agent was pushing her out. But he had another thing coming if he thought she was going to be edged out of this case when she was getting so close to the answers she’d spent a lifetime searching for.

The case had to reveal something about what happened to her parents all those years ago. She would accept no other alternative. Doing so would feel too much like giving up. And that was something Dana didn’t do.

“If it wasn’t for you, he wouldn’t even have a lead to chase down,” Claire quipped, helping Dana look through the library database once she’d tracked down the relevant titles.

Dana looked up, regretting sharing her frustrations about Agent Shepard with Claire. From the spots of color dotting the girl’s pale cheeks, she was even more upset about the snub than Dana was.

She had a feeling Claire knew all too well what it felt like to be excluded. The black clothes, dark nail polish and heavy eyeliner made the awkward girl a target for prolonged stares and whispers. Pairing that look with cardigans and combat boots only exacerbated the situation. Not that Dana held her unique fashion statement against her. In her own way, Dana had been an outcast, too.

After her parents died, she was sent to live with her grandparents. They were sweet and meant well, but they did nothing to help Dana fit in at her fancy new school. In DC the hand-me-down treasures that she and her mother enjoyed hunting for at thrift stores didn’t have the same appeal. Without the designer jeans and preppy blazers of her classmates, she was quickly exiled.

A long-forgotten memory prickled in some dark corner of her mind. A flash of an emerald green sweater, her mom’s laughter, kids teasing her for wearing it too many days in a row. Tension squeezed her chest. Dana hadn’t thought about things like that in years. She didn’t let herself. It was hard to move forward when dwelling upon the past. But it was always there, tapping her on the shoulder, begging her to remember.

Dana looked down at the emerald green blouse she wore. It was her color. At least that’s what her mother had told her years ago. Her stubborn memories resurfaced, pulling her back … back … back …

Dana remembered the day vividly. It was her thirteenth birthday and her mother took her shopping at their favorite Salvation Army thrift store. A few minutes into hunting through racks of treasures, Dana’s mother called her over. She positioned Dana in front of the mirror and held a deep green sweater to her chest. “Oh sweetie, it’s perfect. Look, it brings out the tiny flecks of green in your brown eyes.” Her mother pressed her cheek to Dana’s, her eyes wrinkling in the corners as she grinned.

“You have the same green flecks in your eyes, Mom.”

Her mother winked. “Then I guess green can be our color.”

That sweater had become Dana’s favorite. It was the last thing her mother bought her. After she lost her, Dana clung to the sweater like it still somehow held a piece of her mother in the threadbare fibers. She wore it almost daily. Something the kids at her new school teased her about. But Dana didn’t care. The sweater was special to her because her mother had picked it out. It was one of the few things she had left that made her feel close to her.

Her mother had been wearing the same color blouse the night she died. Dana knew this thanks to the news article she’d read that leaked two photos from the crime scene. They were the only two photos Dana had ever seen. She’d tried for years to access the files without luck. She kept a photo of her parents on her desk. It was a reminder to Dana to never stop searching for the truth.

Chasing the stinging memories away, Dana focused back on the task at hand. She scrolled through page after page of the report she’d run, cross referencing books on her list checked out during the timeline that fit the crimes. So far, only one name came up. But it was on three books, all referencing nightshade.

That had to mean something. “I think I found a suspect,” she whispered.

“Who?” Claire leaned over her shoulder, blinking those wide, clear blue eyes of hers at the screen.

“Anson Barnes. He checked out, Cultivating a Sinister Species. The Poison Gardener’s Handbook. Betrayed by Botanicals: a guide to growing and harvesting deadly plants.”

“That can’t be a coincidence.”

Dana grinned. “You know how I feel about coincidences.”

“There are no coincidences in science,” Claire recited, making Dana feel like a proud professor.





14



“HOW ARE THINGS GOING?”

Jake lifted his head from his desk with a jolt, surprised when a paperclip fell from his cheek. He must’ve dozed off while looking through reports.

Chuckling softly, Cramer walked into Jake’s office. “That good, huh?”

“Actually, I think we’re making progress.”

Cramer’s brows arched. “Oh really? So the witch doctor wasn’t a waste of time?”

Jake shrugged. “She’s a lot more helpful when you don’t call her that.”

Cramer huffed. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

“She may have identified the poison, but it’s a waiting game now. I spoke to the coroner and ordered more tests, this time searching for a specific toxin. It’s a long shot though. Apparently, it doesn’t stay in the system very long. In the meantime, I have the nerd herd looking for any suspicious browser history since there’s nothing to go on in CODIS.”

“You got a warrant for the browser history I’m assuming?”

Jake nodded as he leaned back in his chair and yawned. “It’s not easy to track down a judge at this time of night.”

Cramer laughed. “It’s morning, Shep. Which probably explains why you look like you’ve been on a base leave bender.” Cramer grinned, his hand moving to his own flawless jawline. “Speaking of, keep it tight, soldier.”

Jake didn’t need to look at his reflection to know he needed a shower and shave, but not more than he needed some actual sleep—desk naps didn’t count. He stood, saluted the old Army captain and grabbed his jacket and keys, ready to head home.

“Why don’t you get some shut-eye?” Cramer suggested.

“That’s the plan.”

“Good. I need you to see this case through.”

Jake felt his jaw tighten. “Don’t I always?”

Cramer’s steel gray gaze met Jake’s. “I’m not talking about Ramirez. Everyone knows that wasn’t your fault.”

The mention of his old teammate’s name hit Jake like a bolt of lightning. For a moment he heard nothing beyond the pounding of his heart and the ringing in his ears. It brought him right back there to that moment when all hell had broken loose, and he’d lost his best friend.

Cramer was wrong about one thing.It was Jake’s fault, and that was precisely why he would see this case through, and all the rest that came his way. Ramirez was the better of them and for that, Jake would endlessly be repaying a life debt to the man who’d given his own to save Jake.

“Jake …” The sound of Cramer’s voice brought Jake back to the present. The concern on his boss’s face was too much to bear. It was the exact reason he didn’t call his family back home. They all looked at him the same way—full of pity.

Pushing past Cramer, Jake stalked toward the door, grabbing his cell phone on the way out. The beeping voicemail button caught his attention. Jake couldn’t remember the last time someone actually left a voice message. His curiosity was piqued when he saw the message was from Dr. Gray. He motioned Cramer over as he hit the speaker button and pressed play.

Dr. Gray’s voice was breathless with excitement. “Shepard, I think I found him. Call me back.”

Grumbling, he hit the redial button, knowing this was all part of her strategy. If she’d given him the name, he could’ve left her out of it. She didn’t seem to consider that maybe he was doing it for her own good.

She answered on the first ring. “Where have you been? I called you hours ago.”

“I was tied up. You have a name for me?”

“Yes, but are you sure we can discuss it over the phone?”

“You watch too many detective movies, Doc.”

He could practically hear her rolling her eyes.

“His name is Anson Barnes. He checked out three titles that fit the profile during our timeline.”

Jake was back at his desk, typing the name into the system. “Got anything else for me?”

“A home address, according to his library card.”

Library cards were still a thing? He kept that thought to himself. “Give it to me.”

Dr. Gray rattled off the address. Jake jotted it down, put Dana on speaker, and set the phone on his desk. With a few strokes of his keyboard, Jake had Anson Barnes’ profile staring back at him. “Well look at that. Our book worm has an arrest record. But it seems he doesn’t live in DC anymore.”

“Where is he now?” Gray asked.

“Current home address is listed as Las Vegas, Nevada.”

“Vegas?” She huffed into the phone. “But that doesn’t make any sense. Our system shows the books were checked out a few months ago.”

“Maybe your system is wrong.”

“It’s not.”

“How can you be sure?”

“You carefully catalog your evidence, don’t you?”

He hadn’t missed the clipped tone of aggravation in her voice. “Yes.”

“Well, we keep track of our books with the same precision. The dates aren’t incorrect.”

“Point taken.”

“What was Mr. Barnes arrested for?” The anticipation in her voice had returned.

“You don’t want to know.”

“Actually, I do.”

Cramer moved behind Jake’s desk to get a better look at the man’s arrest record as Jake rattled it off. “A couple of B and Es, carjacking and my personal favorite, illegal possession and distribution of pornography.”

Cramer’s face wrinkled in disgust. “Sounds like you found yourself a real winner.”

“It could explain the staged crime scenes,” Jake offered.

“I don’t believe the crime scenes were staged,” Gray argued.

“That may be so, but we have to explore all options. Let me look into this guy and see if we can confirm his location.”

“Then what?”

“Then I go knock on some doors.”

“You mean we go knock on some doors. I want to come.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Jake warned. “Besides, it might not even come to that.”

Before she could argue, he hung up the phone and looked at Cramer. “Looks like I’m going to Vegas.”

“Go home and get cleaned up. I’ll make sure the plane is ready for you and Dr. Gray.”

Jake stopped short. “You want me to take her with me? Into the field?”

“Didn’t you already do that when you took her to the crime scene?”

“That was different. Besides, she didn’t do so well.”

“She found evidence that led you to a suspect, didn’t she?”

Thinking of how she’d almost passed out made a surge of protectiveness flash through Jake. “She’s been helpful so far, but I don’t think Vegas is going to be her scene. She’ll be safer if she stays in the library.”

“She goes with you. That’s an order.”





15



AS THE PLANE approached Las Vegas, Dana couldn’t quell her excitement.

Despite Jake’s numerous warnings, she’d gotten her hopes up that this was their guy.

At first, she’d had her doubts, but when a deeper search into Anson Barnes’ most recent credit card purchases revealed suspicious activity, she couldn’t deny he was a viable suspect.

Digital forensics had verified he was using illegal pass-through accounts associated with the dark web; something she knew of, but not how to navigate. To her knowledge, it attracted exclusively sinister activity, including the purchase of drugs like nightshade.

They hadn’t been able to find that Barnes had made any purchases for the drug or other similar substances. That would’ve been too easy. But that didn’t mean he hadn’t.

The fact he was using such complicated methods to disguise his financial transactions meant he was hiding something.

The discovery had thrown Dana for a loop. It was hard to ignore all the evidence pointing to Anson Barnes, but she still found herself unable to believe her parents had been mixed up with the sort of crowd Barnes associated with. But how well had she really known them? She’d been just a kid when they’d died. There could have been all sorts of things they’d kept from her.

Dana pushed her doubts away. Anson Barnes might be to blame for the current case she was working on, but she had a hard time accepting he was responsible for her parents’ deaths, no matter how similar the crime scenes were.

For one thing, he was too young.

Anson Barnes was thirty-seven. That would’ve made him barely eighteen at the time of her parents’ death. Not impossible, but unlikely. Dana flipped through his file again. Even now, he was scrawny. She found it hard to believe that he could’ve overpowered her father and mother. Sure, the element of surprise might’ve worked in his favor, but not against two people.

Her mind worked through endless scenarios of how it might’ve gone down. Had her mother been surprised and used as leverage against her father? Were they both poisoned somewhere other than the hotel room? Had they been the targets or just in the wrong place at the wrong time? Did the killer work alone or have help?

Questions like these were a constant for Dana, and often why she filled the majority of her time with tedious research. It was in the silent, idle spaces like these where her mind was free to flood her with horrific hypotheses about who had taken her parents from her.

She was no stranger to these morbid imaginings, but one thing had changed. Now the previously faceless assailant took the form of Anson Barnes. The problem? No matter how hard she tried, Dana couldn’t make the image stick. But that’s why she was on this flight to Las Vegas. To find out once and for all if Anson Barnes killed her parents.

Heart pounding with anticipation, Dana glanced over at Jake, wondering how much longer she could keep the truth from him. She’d thought about telling him why she was so invested in solving this case when they’d first boarded the private flight, but Jake had fallen asleep almost immediately, and the moment passed.

Dana couldn’t help being envious that he’d taken advantage of the flight time to catch up on sleep. She hadn’t had much since the FBI Agent walked into her life, but she was used to surviving on little sleep. Besides, she was too wired to rest when answers finally felt within reach.

As the bright lights of the Las Vegas Strip approached, Dana’s chest tightened with anticipation. Though her research had taken her all over the world, she’d never been to Las Vegas. She’d always wanted to go; ever since she saw the magnet on her parents’ refrigerator. Her mother told her it was a souvenir from their wedding. Dana had always loved her parents’ wedding story. Her mother had told it to her so many times it became as familiar as a fairytale.

Her parents met at a party. Her father had been playing guitar. When her mother saw him, their eyes locked, and it was love at first sight. They went out to get waffles at midnight and stayed up until sunrise talking. Her father dropped her mother off at home, only to show up a few hours later with an engagement ring he pawned his guitar for. He barely managed to propose before Dana’s grandpa chased her father off the property. Her mother’s parents opposed the marriage because they were so young. But being desperately in love, they eloped to Las Vegas rather than wait.

The tale had always reminded Dana of Romeo and Juliet. It wasn’t lost on her how ironic that was, considering the name assigned to the current case she was investigating. But that was even more reason for her to believe that her parents’ death had been a part of something sinister.

It always bothered her that the police had labeled their death a murder-suicide and simply shut the case. Dana just couldn’t accept that her parents would have planned such an end to their epic love story. It didn’t make sense. Her parents ran away to get married. They would never voluntarily end their lives. They were too much in love.

Others might argue that love made people do irrational things, but Dana chose to find beauty in the illogical. Science was full of such examples: males of the seahorse species birthing their young, an immortal species of jellyfish, snails that slept for three years at a time.

The list was endless. It was an argument Dana used often to defend occult studies. If there was so much that wasn’t understood about their own world, how could people close their minds to the possibilities of a seemingly supernatural ideology?

The plane touched down, jostling Dana from her thoughts. The squeal of the brakes woke Agent Shepard from his sleep. Gone was the peaceful, calm expression that softened his features during sleep. His hardened mask of a government agent was back, pushing away any inclination Dana had to tell him about why she was really here.





16



AFTER A SHORT RIDE from the private airport, Dana followed Agent Shepard into the Las Vegas police headquarters. The bare, beige walls were a welcome change from the bright flashing lights of the Strip.

She’d always thought herself well-traveled, but nothing had prepared Dana for some of the sights she’d witnessed during the drive.

Showgirls paraded down the street in high-heels and practically nothing else, inebriated tourists drank slushy beverages from neon cups as they stumbled down the sidewalk, prostitutes waved their wares to those cruising the Strip, and people spilled out of casinos, blinking like prairie dogs at first light. All the while, the police stood by calmly monitoring the chaos.

“Are you sure they’re going to be able to help us?” Dana asked Shepard as they waited to be buzzed out of the busy police station booking room. It was currently full of drunks and hookers. Dana’s eyes lingered on a handcuffed man in a batman costume who’d just vomited into his lap. “They seem like they have their hands full around here.”

“The FBI maintains a working relationship with local PD when in their jurisdiction.”

It wasn’t an answer to her question, but she knew enough about Shepard to see he was in business mode and not in the mood to play twenty questions. Keeping her mouth shut, she followed him further into the precinct when one of the Employees Only doors buzzed open.

It was much quieter away from the people being booked. They were shown to a small room and told to wait for their officer liaison. Dana sat down and took the moment to get her bearings. She couldn’t quite believe where she was. She didn’t spend a lot of time “in the real world” as Shepard would say, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t a place for her here. Moments like this made her wonder what career path she might’ve chosen if her life had been left to follow its natural course.

“Agent Shepard, sorry to keep you waiting.” A thin man strode into the room, hand extended.

“No problem at all, Sheriff Bishop. Thanks for making time for us. This is Dr. Gray. She’s assisting me with this case.”

Dana stood, but before she could shake Bishop’s hand he turned back to Shepard, frowning. “I wasn’t aware you were bringing your own forensics team.”

“Oh, she’s not with the FBI. Dr. Gray was called in to help with possible ties to cult activity. She’s good with the witchy stuff,” he added patronizingly.

“Actually, I have PhDs in Cultural Studies and Religious Philosophy,” she corrected. “So I’m a little more than good at the witchy stuff.” Throwing a glare at Shepard, she stepped around him to shake the police chief’s hand. “I’m the curator of occult rituals and artifacts at the Smithsonian. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

Bishop’s wide smile gleamed under the fluorescent lights. “The pleasure’s all mine.”

“Let’s get down to business,” Shepard interrupted. “We’re here to investigate Anson Barnes.

Bishop nodded. “Yes, I got the briefing you sent. What do you need from us?”

“For now, I need some local manpower, backup if this guy rabbits. I want to surveil his home address, usual haunts, speak to known associates. The plan is to tail this guy in case he’s working with others.”

Bishop grinned. “We got you, Agent Shepard. I’ll have my guys on Barnes like sweat on a whore in church.”

“Perfect. When can I meet the team? I’d like to run point on the task force. We need to get started right away.”





17



GLARING out the window of his twenty-eighth floor hotel window, Jake took in the busy Strip below. From so high above, the people looked like drunken ants stumbling over each other to get to the next flashy thing. With a grunt, he closed the drapes, blocking out the harsh Nevada sun.

Jake hated Vegas. It was nothing but a hedonistic paradise for gamblers and sinners. That and it was also only a stone’s throw from his hometown. He’d grown up in Ellsworth, a little blip of desert town that had popped up thanks to Nellis Air Force Base. The base was only a few miles from the Strip, so of course as a rebellious teen, he and his friends would escape to Vegas to blow off some steam.

It wasn’t that his memories from those times were all bad, but he shared most of them with Ramirez, and that made looking back painful. So was the fact that he was so close to home. Jake felt guilty that he hadn’t reached out to his family. Shutting everyone out while he dealt with what happened to Ramirez was the only way he knew how to cope. His mother and uncle understood, but that didn’t make it fair. And being this close to them now only made his guilt weigh on him more.

Jake let his mind wander to a time when this case would be over. Maybe he’d tie it up neatly right here and make a quick trip up to see his family before heading back to DC. His Uncle Wade had retired from the Air Force a few years back, but he still couldn’t bring himself to move away from Nellis and the familiar comforts that came with living near a functioning military base.

Much of Nevada was designated for US military use. That’s what happened when land was cheap and uninhabited. It was a fine place to serve out your base life years, but now that his uncle was a civilian, Jake wondered why he didn’t move somewhere more hospitable.

He’d tried for years to get his mother and Wade to move to the Florida Keys. Jake had gone once on leave with a fellow private. The guy’s brother was retired special forces and ran a fishing charter business. Crystal clear water, palm trees, ice cold beer, running Reds all day. It had been the best five days of Jake’s life. Which was pretty sad, now that he thought about it.

The Keys had always been the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow to Jake. He promised himself, someday when all this was over, he’d end up there. Having his mother and Wade there would only make that dream more likely to become a reality.

But Jake didn’t have time for wishful thinking at the moment. He pushed the useless thoughts from his head to focus on the task at hand. He’d settled into his hotel room, showered, and would soon rendezvous with Dr. Gray to take a ride by Anson Barnes’ place.

Bishop had assembled an acceptable task force, a