“We’ve found another victim.”
Lexi Simmons tensed at Sergeant Tomlinson’s words flowing through her Bluetooth. Not again. She eased to a stop at a red light and gripped the steering wheel more tightly. “Where this time?”
“A couple miles outside Harmony Grove.”
Harmony Grove. Home. She closed her eyes, dread sifting over her.
Tomlinson continued. “Look, you’re from there. You might know the victim. So if you need to be excused from this one, all you’ve got to do is say the word.”
She swallowed back the bile rising in her throat. Criminals who preyed on women were the worst. And Tomlinson was right. She probably did know the victim. Harmony Grove was a tiny town.
“No, I’m all right. I can handle it. Give me what you’ve got.”
A horn sounded behind her and she stepped on the gas. She had left Polk County Sheriff’s Office five minutes earlier, looking forward to a girls’ night out with her cousin Kayla. Dinner and a movie.
Her plans had just changed.
Tomlinson began relaying the details of the case in that impersonal monotone that underscored the subject’s status as just another statistic. Each new case was a repeat of the last; five in all. Except this one had occurred in Harmony Grove.
She braked to a stop at the last traffic light before leaving town and disconnected the call. She would phone Kayla, leaving a message if she had to. Kayla would understand. Lexi’s job came first. There was a reason she had changed her major from business to law enforcement, and that girl lying in the woods, cold and alone, was it.
Three miles before reaching the outskirts of Harmony Grove, the road ahead disappeared under a flashing display of red and blue. Other law-enforcement officers were already on site, securing the scene, keeping away the curious. So was the Polk County Sheriff’s Office Crime Scene Unit.
She slipped between two Harmony Grove Police Department vehicles and ground to a halt. This was the county’s jurisdiction, but so close to the city limits that Harmony Grove P.D. had responded, too. Chief Dalton was there. His car was prominently labeled Chief of Police. If she was lucky, Tommy Patterson was the other officer who’d responded. At least her chances were fifty-fifty.
She swung open the door and before she could step from the car, a dark-haired, muscular figure crossed the clearing with brisk, sure steps. Alan White. She frowned. Yep, fifty-fifty. She never had been good with odds.
“Hello, Alan.” She greeted him with the same stiffness that had characterized their interactions for the past six years.
“Lexi.” The stiffness was as pronounced on his end as hers.
She stepped from the car, her gaze shifting upward. A blanket of steel gray wrapped the western sky and a musty-scented breeze whipped the ends of her ponytail into her face. The storm had been building for the past couple of hours, an ever-increasing threat. Now it was more of a promise.
She pursed her lips and swung the door shut. They had their work cut out for them without being hampered by one of central Florida’s spring thundershowers. Of course, if this case was like the other four, there wouldn’t be anything to gather. The killer had a knack for leaving behind no evidence except a body.
Her eyes circled the area. Up ahead, slashes of yellow interrupted the solid green of the woods. Crime scene tape. She headed in that direction.
Alan White fell in beside her. “How much information have you gotten?”
Her gaze settled on him for several moments before she answered. If it was someone they knew, he would have told her up front. “White female, twenty to twenty-five years of age. Punched in the face several times, then strangled.”
Same as the others. The pictures hadn’t arrived yet. But they would. They always did. The creep got some sick thrill out of photographing his crime, step by step, and sending the pictures to the Ledger. Fortunately the newspaper had turned them over to Lakeland P.D. right from the start, without a single one going to print.
“Is that all you’ve been told?”
“She was found by a couple of teenagers walking their dog in the woods.”
Lexi stopped at a section of the yellow tape stretched between two trees. A few feet away Shane Dalton, Harmony Grove’s chief of police, stood with his back to her. In front of him, two Polk County crime scene investigators took photos. Her colleagues. They would be there for the next several hours, scouring every square inch of the area, combing the body for clothing fibers, strands of hair, and bits of skin under the fingernails, anything that might bring them one step closer to linking a person to the crime.
When she reached for the tape, her eyes met Alan’s again and she hesitated. Something wasn’t right with him. It wasn’t just the customary stiffness. Deep creases of concern marked the bridge of his nose and anguish had settled in his blue eyes. What wasn’t he telling her? “It’s someone we know, isn’t it?”
“I’m afraid it is.”
She ducked under the tape and when she straightened, Alan had stepped in front of her. He was trying to shield her.
It wasn’t necessary. She was a professional. And she wouldn’t let her personal feelings get in the way of doing her job. Right now, that job entailed performing the best investigation she could to catch this monster and bring him to justice.
Summoning strength she didn’t feel, she pushed Alan aside and moved past Shane Dalton. Not more than fifteen feet away lay a body, partially obstructed by a downed limb. Detective Vickers squatted, sitting on one heel to shoot another photo, further blocking her view. She moved slowly closer, longing with all her heart to run the other direction and never look back, while at the same time needing to know.
She took another step. It was definitely a woman, judging by the clothing: baby-blue silk sleepwear.
“Lexi, wait.” Alan put a restraining hand on her arm.
She shook him off. Took another step. And another.
A torso appeared. A silk-clad leg. A bare foot extending from the hem of the pajama bottoms, toenails painted hot pink.
Then Detective Vickers straightened and moved aside, offering her an unobstructed view of their newest victim. Her eyes locked onto the scene and her brain shut down. Alan said something, but the words didn’t register.
Matted auburn hair flowed over a blanket of dying leaves. Green eyes, one swollen almost shut, stared unseeing at the leafy canopy overhead. Blood had trickled from a cut on one cheek, but had long since dried. The mouth was hidden behind a piece of neatly applied duct tape, and a blackish-red ring circled the creamy white neck.
Lexi shook her head. The ground seemed to tilt beneath her and she took a stumbling step backward to steady herself. A scream of protest clawed its way up her throat, followed by a wave of nausea that almost brought her to her knees.
Alan’s words finally penetrated her befuddled brain, several seconds too late.
“Lexi, it’s Kayla.”