He imagined how she would look dead. The fixed brown eyes, gaping mouth, and the cool feel of her young, bloodless skin against his flesh. His would be the last face Felicity Parker would see. The idea thrilled him; having the power over life or death was something he craved. Felicity would beg and scream but in the end, she would respect him before he cut her throat. He stared at the images lined up on his desk of the girls he had chosen, but for now, he had one girl on his mind. He traced the trembling tip of his index finger down the image of Felicity. A pretty girl with a full figure and glossy raven hair, long enough to twirl around his fingers. He loved to stroke his girls’ hair and let the silken strands slide across his palm. Even in death, their hair remained untainted and he could add a small piece to his collection as a reminder of their time together. Excitement curled in his belly. Meticulous planning and three long months of watching led to his choice. He had secretly gained intimate details of their lives. She would be his first in Black Rock Falls County. No one could hide from him.
Inside the confines of their bedrooms, he observed his girls parade in their skimpy underwear, chatting about boys or discussing how they wished the local cowboys would screw them. He had seen the way they enticed with their short skirts and brief tops. The way they used their well-practiced moves and sultry looks to lure men. At the free Wi-Fi benches at the local computer store that sold everything from games to candy, or at Aunt Betty’s Café, he would make an excuse to speak to them, but his girls often ignored him. Engrossed in the latest game app, they hardly lifted their heads from their smartphones to take nourishment. Teeming with anticipation he picked up his bag and got in his car After a short drive, he parked deep in the forest. His last image of Felicity was her tossing her hair over one shoulder and smiling as if she knew he watched her every move. Girls like her drive men insane with lust. So many wicked girls to choose from, so many eager to join in the fun. He called them “his” girls because they would all come to him eventually.
Soon Felicity would come to him. He let out a long breath. Time to get into position. He took the bag from the seat, slid from the car, and headed deep into Stanton Forest. He had planned the route with care, taking a remote hiker’s trail rather than the direct pathway to the river, then making his way along the riverbank, walking along the water’s edge to disguise his footprints. Forty minutes later, he reached a clearing beside the river. The out-of-the-way nook was a popular place for the local teenagers to make out during summer break. The large, flat boulders running from the riverbank to a secluded clearing in the pine forest offered a place to sit. Surrounded by dense trees, the area was too far from the road for anyone to hear her screams, and the wall of black mountains opposite offered him complete privacy. He wanted his girls to fight and beg for forgiveness—it made the experience oh so deliciously memorable.
Felicity would approach from the opposite side of the clearing, take Stanton Road, and walk adjacent to Black Rock Falls High School then follow the well-worn path through the forest. She would be relaxed and excited entering the woods. The clearing posed no threat—until now. Oh, how he loved to leave his mark on a town; he would change the idyllic place forever. As he checked his watch, his belly quivered with anticipation. She would be hot and fragrant from the long walk. He remembered how sweet she smelled the day he accidentally bumped into her at Aunt Betty’s Café. His palm still tingled at the memory of brushing her bare arm. He gave himself a mental shake. He needed to concentrate.
He glanced around but the place, as usual, was empty. The preparation would only take a few moments and he had plenty of time to savor the rush of adrenaline. He removed his clothes and pulled on a pair of shorts. After observing the area for a week, he discovered the only visitors in the mornings appeared to be two kids who ventured to the river to fish, and always at the same time. It would be over an hour before they arrived and the teenagers never arrived until the afternoon, no doubt most of them slept until noon. He selected a flat boulder close to the river but within sight of the clearing to display his offering and another small rock close by but well hidden from view to act as a table. Satisfied he had found the perfect place, he pulled on a pair of surgical gloves and laid out his impedimenta in a row, meticulous to have each item within easy reach. He attached a hunting knife to the belt on his shorts and slipped a sock filled with coins inside a pocket. The flat boulder would be a perfect canvas, and he would create a work of art for all to see, for all to remember. As he checked each detail, excitement surged into tremors.
He strolled back along the path and searched through the bag to retrieve a wrapped packet of cord. His shaking fingers hampered an attempt to untie the skein. He sucked in a deep breath to calm himself then played out the string. After selecting a suitable spot toward the riverbank, he tied the rope between two trees at neck height. If Felicity tried to run, the cord would stop her and she would be his. His groin ached and he checked one more time for the strip of condoms inside his pocket. A shimmer ran down his spine as he melted into the cover of the trees to wait for his prize. He could creep up on her and she would not hear him. Girls deafened by loud music thumping through their earbuds made such easy prey. ONE Felicity Parker sat at the table and picked at the bowl of cereal her mother had insisted she eat before heading to her friend’s house.
Dying to read her messages on her phone, she huffed out a long sigh. Her parents hated cellphones at the table, and if she broke their stupid rule, it would mean no phone or social media for an entire long boring week. Summer vacation meant one thing: the rodeo at the local fairgrounds and the arrival of cowboy stars Lucky Briggs and Storm Crawley. Sure, she had asked her parents—no, begged them—to let her go to the rodeo dance with her friends, and in fact she had made a point of doing extra chores to show her appreciation. Of course, the idea of them being at the dance to watch every move she made would be embarrassing. She had to persuade them that at sixteen she was old enough to attend a dance with her friends alone. She glanced at her father, who was engrossed in reading a pile of documents. “Dad, have you thought over letting me to go to the dance with Aimee and Kate?” “Are you planning to go with Derick?” Her father’s gaze remained fixed on the papers spread out before him. Felicity stood and took her bowl to the sink. “No, we had an argument last night and he isn’t speaking to me right now.
” “I’m not sure why you want to go.” Her father lifted his annoyed gaze and looked at her. “It will be a rowdy crowd of cowboys and who knows how many criminals with the number of drifters in town. I’m not sure I’m happy for you to go. Why you are so set on having no adult supervision?” Felicity gave him her best tragic stare. “Please, I’m sixteen and Aimee is nearly seventeen. If I don’t go, the other girls will make fun of me. It is only one night, from seven until ten. What could happen in three hours? Please, Daddy, let me go.” “She has been doing her chores.
” Her mother leaned against the counter and sipped a cup of coffee. “Maybe if we drop her at the dance and pick her up it would be okay. I know quite a number of people going who could watch out for her.” “We’ll discuss it when I get home.” Her father stood and gathered his papers then glared at her. “Don’t bother your mom about this again today—understand?” “Okay. Can I go now, Mom?” “Yes.” Her mother smiled. Felicity dashed upstairs to her room and dressed quickly. The moment she turned on her cellphone it rang, and to her surprise the caller ID told her it was Derick.
“Calling to apologize?” “Nope. I don’t want you mixing with Lucky Briggs. Don’t you know that young girls like you are just another notch on his belt? He’ll forget you the moment you walk away.” Felicity wound a strand of hair around one finger and giggled. “You jealous?” “Maybe. Look, can we talk some more about this? I’m going to be close by in ten minutes or so. I have to drop off a car for a customer and pick up the loaner.” She picked up her bag and slung it over her shoulder. “I don’t have time. I’m meeting Aimee and we’re going into town.
” She huffed out a sigh. “You’re acting too serious, like we’re married or something. I’m going to the dance without you, and if Lucky Briggs asks me to dance, I will so get over it.” “I don’t want us to break up but it’s him or me. Make up your mind.” She smiled. No matter what she did, Derick would come back to her. He was like a little puppy dog that needed a home. “Have it your own way. I’ve gotta go.
” She disconnected and headed out the bedroom door. In the hallway, she called out to her mother, “I’m going over to Aimee’s house then we’re going into town to hang out.” “Okay, will you be back for lunch?” Felicity opened the front door, inserted the earbuds into her ears and turned up the music. “No, but I’ll be home for dinner.” TWO Sheriff Jenna Alton tipped back her chair and yawned. Stepping out of life as undercover DEA Special Agent Avril Parker and into the “safe” role of Sheriff Jenna Alton had not been easy. Since David “Dave” Kane arrived in Black Rock Falls six months previously, life had been interesting to say the least. They had solved four gruesome murders together and she had appreciated his expertise. She had picked him as ex-special forces from the get-go, but whatever his reason to be off the grid in Black Rock Falls she did not care. Having him around as backup was a bonus in spades.
Her new deputy had changed considerably since his arrival. He now sported collarlength hair to cover the scar left from the metal plate in his head courtesy of a gunshot wound received in the line of duty. She had not heard him complain once of the headaches that obviously plagued him, and she hoped the pain had eased with the warmer weather. She liked Dave Kane, and his considerable skills added another asset to the team she needed to do her job. She had learned from the best that in a crisis, a good leader delegated the work to keep sane. After dealing with psychopaths last winter, and losing Pete Daniels, the rookie her team, her job and that of her deputies had deteriorated into negotiating neighborhood squabbles and finding lost cattle. Life had slowed to a relaxed hum. Cowboy hats and open-neck shirts had replaced the thick winter gear, and women in town wore splashes of color. Summer had arrived with warnings of a crime wave from the impending visit of the rodeo circuit cowboys. Anything would be a relief from the current boredom.
Voices at the front desk drew her attention. The new deputy was due to arrive: Shane Wolfe, a family man with three daughters, and from his résumé, a qualified medical examiner waiting for his license to be issued for Black Rock Falls. She welcomed the idea of dealing with problems in-house rather than relying on a mortician to conduct autopsies and the state forensics team, who took on anything they could not handle. With her experience in the underworld of firearms, vice, and narcotics—and with Kane’s profiling abilities, which had already saved her life— the chance of adding another highly qualified deputy to the team was a dream come true. There will be nothing we can’t handle. She pushed to her feet and strolled out of her office then waved at Deputies David Kane and Jake Rowley to join her at the front desk. Rowley had shaped up well over the last six months and was as solid as a rock, but having Shane Wolfe on the team would make life easier. Before Kane had arrived, her previous outlet for some serious crime investigation conversation came in the form of old Duke Walters, and she might as well talk to the mop bucket. “Is that the new deputy?” Rowley pushed his thumbs through the loops on his regulation pants and grinned. “He looks like a Viking marauder.
” “Military police background, I believe.” Kane strolled toward the front desk. “Professional all the way.” “Are you all settled in?” The office secretary, Magnolia Brewster, or Maggie as she preferred to be called, tossed her black curls and smiled broadly at the tall blond man standing at the counter. “Ah, there is Sheriff Alton.” “Good morning.” Jenna held out her hand. “Jenna Alton, nice to meet you, and this is David Kane and Jake Rowley.” Wolfe’s handshake was firm and outweighed his weary expression. “Thanks, this place is a little further off the beaten track than I envisaged.
” He glanced around the room. “How many deputies do you have on staff, ma’am?” “Not enough.” Jenna frowned. “Right now it’s just four. You, Kane, Rowley, and Duke Walters—he is over there taking a statement.” She waved toward the gray-haired Deputy Walters. “Come into my office.” Her attention moved to Rowley. “Handle the desk with Magnolia. I’m sure you can all get better acquainted later.
” “Yes, ma’am.” Rowley turned on his heel and went behind the front desk. Jenna moved behind her desk and waved Kane and Wolfe into the seats in front. She sat down in her squeaky office chair. “Did you find the house okay?” “Yes, and it is very comfortable, thank you.” Wolfe smiled. “It’s better than I expected and walking distance from the elementary school and here, which is good. Since my wife died, caring for the girls alone has been difficult.” He sighed. “Emily is watching Julie and Anna at the moment but I can’t expect her to do it full-time—she is in her senior year at school.
Losing her mother and moving here will make it difficult enough for her.” “I can imagine.” She towered her fingers. “I’ll get Rowley to bring us some coffee.” She lifted the phone and spoke to the deputy then disconnected. “I have a list of the available housekeeper nannies and had them checked out. Take whatever time you need to interview them. You can use my office if necessary.” She handed him a list. “We don’t have many open cases at the moment, and Kane will be able to bring you up to speed.
” She drummed her fingernails on the desk. “I read from your résumé that in addition to your impressive qualifications in forensic science, you have a degree in computer science. Does that mean you can take a look at our systems? They’re pretty old and need a bit of updating.” “Yeah, I can ‘tweak’ systems.” Wolfe leaned back in his seat and the corner of his mouth quirked up in a smile. “What do you need?” “What we need—” she leaned forward, gripping the arms of her chair “—is a better system for logging case files. Every three months, this system archives all the files, open or closed. We can’t compare cases. We have no secure uplink to local systems. It’s run on the Boolean system, but if someone gets one letter wrong in a name, all the information goes missing.
” She grimaced. “We don’t have the luxury of computers in the cruisers to check a license plate or a person’s criminal record. No on-board camera. Out at night, we are sitting ducks.” She sighed. “Unfortunately, my electronics expertise falls into a different area. Luckily, our new mayor, Mayor Petersham, gave us funding for earbuds and power packs. They should be arriving soon.” “Do you have access to the case files using your cellphone? Can you write tickets via a handheld?” “No, none of the above.” Alton waved Rowley into the room and took the tray of steaming coffee mugs from his hand with a smile.
“Thanks.” “It all comes down to budget.” Wolfe ran a hand over his blond buzz cut and shrugged. “I can write you a new program to run the nitty-gritty, but the other stuff you want costs money.” He pulled out his cellphone and checked the bars. “Here in town the reception is good but not so on the way here, so you have blackspots. If you all have smartphones, I can create an app so you can access all areas of the mainframe direct.” “That would be wonderful.” Alton sipped her coffee and eyed him over the rim. “Perhaps we have a good reason to ask Petersham to up our budget this year.
After all, he has allowed me to employ another two deputies.” She looked at Kane. “Although, we haven’t had one application for the positions I’ve posted.” “I guess we could keep looking or manage for another year and use the funding to update the office?” Kane leaned his wide shoulders into the chair. “Thank you, Kane, I’ll give that idea some thought.” Wolfe looked as if he was carrying the world on his shoulders. Jenna met his gray gaze. “I guess you’d like to get some lunch after your long journey? I’ll let you go and leave Kane to explain how I do things around here.” “Yes, ma’am.” Kane rubbed his chin and turned to Wolfe.
“I’ll introduce you around then we’ll head down to Aunt Betty’s Café; I’m due for a break and I can bring you up to speed. As you need to get your kids settled and hire a housekeeper, I’m happy to cover for you for a couple of days.” “You don’t need to.” Wolfe emptied his cup and stood. “I’m used to coping under pressure, and my daughter Emily is seventeen and old enough to care for her sisters in my absence until school starts again.” “Maybe so, but I want my deputies to have their minds on the job, not worrying if their kids are okay.” Jenna stared at him, allowing no retort, and leaned back in her seat. “The cowboys are drifting into town for the start of the rodeo season and I’ll need all hands on deck by the weekend. At the moment, my biggest concern is a domestic disturbance over a cat peeing on a neighbor’s car.” She waved them toward the door.
“Go… I’ll contact you if a riot breaks out.” “Okay.” Wolfe smiled. “I do appreciate your concern. I’ll work on the program at home to make up the time.” He strolled out the door. Kane stared after him then swung around to look at Jenna and raised one dark eyebrow. “Hmm.” “Oh, man.” She grinned at him.
“I could cut the testosterone in this room with a knife. I think you’ve met your match with him.” “Moi?” Kane wiggled his eyebrows and flashed a white grin. “Never.” An hour later, Jenna had finished updating her daybook when the phone rang and Maggie asked her to hold for a call. A woman came on the line. “Sheriff Alton, this is Prue Ridley.” “Yes, Mrs. Ridley, what can I do for you?” “I think there’s been a bear attack. My son and his friend found a girl in Stanton Forest.
I checked her. She is dead and cut up real bad.” Horrified, Jenna swallowed the bile creeping up her throat and reached for a pen. “Can you give me the exact location?” “The northern end of Stanton Forest, near the river. We are waiting by the road.” “Are you in a safe location?” “Yes, I could see no signs of the bear in the area, but if we see one we’ll get in the car.” “Okay, good. Wait there, we are on our way.” She hung up the phone and massaged her temples. Bear attacks were scarce this close to town.
It could be another homicide. Indecision plagued her of late, but she refused to allow the flashbacks of her kidnapping six months earlier to affect her work. She considered calling Kane then dismissed the idea. Rowley could give him the details. She lifted the phone and called the mortician to attend the scene then explained why her new deputy would be attending the autopsy. Standing, she strode out of her office. “Rowley and Walters, with me.” “Yes ma’am?” Rowley jogged to her side with Walters close behind. “We have a possible bear attack. Someone found a body with multiple injuries at the northern end of Stanton Forest.
” She looked at Deputy Rowley. “I want you to take charge until Kane gets back, but first, run down to Aunt Betty’s Café and inform him. Tell him to wait for my call, and grab something for lunch while you’re there. I’m not sure how long this will take. I’ll need to examine the scene and speak to the kids who found the body.” She glanced at Deputy Walters. “You’re with me. Let’s go.” She headed for the door.