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Copyright 2005




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Chapter One



          Sheriff Nathan Benson pulled up behind a police cruiser, putting the shift in park and climbing out of his SUV. He glanced around at the bevy of flashing lights against the darkened night, from five police cruisers to three ambulances and the crime lab van. Shaking his head, he crossed the street to the long driveway, three cars parked inside the cordoned off area. Yellow crime scene tape stretched all around the little bungalow, men in blue and drab black suits littering the yard.

          Nathan shook his head again as he strode over past an officer who gave him a curt nod and lifted the tape so that he could pass. He had been on vacation for two weeks and this was what he got to come home to. It made him long to be back in Cabo San Lucas with Trisha, the stewardess he’d been having a fling with for the last three months.

          Gritting his teeth, he walked up to the house and stepped inside. What greeted him was something straight out of a horror movie. Blood splattered across the floor and along the white painted walls. Three women lay lifelessly on the floor, naked, their ivory flesh stained with crimson. He cocked his head to the side, noting that each body was posed the exact same, spread eagle with their hands bound above their head.

          He had been a homicide detective for six years in New York City, had seen the very worst things. But nothing could have prepared him for this, right here in Small-town, USA.

          Nathan had moved away from the city, had come to this little haven in the middle of nowhere because he had seen enough of the blood and guts. He had seen all that he could withstand of human nature and men killing men for no reason other than deep-rooted wickedness. Signing on as sheriff of this small town had been a godsend…up until now.

          He felt a hand on his shoulder and turned around, facing the man in charge while he was gone. The young officer was ashen-faced, his normal charismatic smile gone. His gray eyes were haunted as he stared down at the fallen bodies of the women.

          Deputy Sheriff Mike Taylor ran a hand over his sandy blond hair and whistled through clenched teeth. “It’s good to have you back. Sorry you had to come home to this.” He waved his hand over the scene, his voice faltering. “I honestly have to say, I’ve never seen anything like this before.”

          Nathan was certain of that. Mike had lived in this small town all of his life. And until now, this town had been quiet and ideal. They had never really had a murder in their city limits, other than the occasional accidental manslaughter. This, Nathan was certain, was going to be a first for most of his officers, which made him cringe.

          “What have we got so far?” Nathan asked gruffly, still reeling from the scene before him.

          Mike inhaled deeply. “About two hours ago, a neighbor heard a commotion in the drive over here, saw a blue sports car pulling out across the lawn and hightailing it down the road. She called the cops instantly; not knowing what had actually went down over here. It was a good thing she didn’t come check it out.”

          “Yeah,” he quipped, kneeling down by the bodies and examining their wounds. “Looks like knife wounds.” Nathan cocked his head to the side. “Something like four stab wounds to the abdomen and one to the chest.”

          Nathan straightened up and looked at Mike. “The neighbor… did she get a license plate or anything?”

          “Nope. She said it happened too fast.”

          “Make and model of the car?”

          “No again. All she could tell me was that it was a two door, navy blue sports car.”

          “That’s helpful,” Nathan growled, sarcasm tainting his voice. “We’ll need to come back and talk to her.”

          “I’m already ahead of you. Got her name and her number.”

          “What about the women? Do we have an ID?”

          “I have names but no positive ID. We were afraid to go messing through the house in case we destroyed evidence.”

          “Once forensics are done, we need to get some officers to go through and see if they can find some ID’s on these girls. Maybe find a picture or something and show it around the neighborhood.”

          “There’s more,” Mike piped in quickly. “There was another victim.”

          Nathan turned on Mike, his eyes narrowing on him. “Where the hell is the other body and why didn’t you say something sooner?” he practically shouted.

          “Sorry, Nate. This is all new for me.”

          Nathan forced himself to breathe. He knew this was going to be hard, considering all of his men had never been involved in a homicide before. If worse came to worse, he would have to call in a few favors. In the meantime, he would give his men the benefit of the doubt. “Okay,” he tried in a calmer voice. “Where is the other body?”

          “She was airlifted to Raleigh a few hours ago.”

          “You mean she’s alive?” Nathan asked incredulously.

          “Barely. She sustained multiple stab wounds to the chest and abdomen, the same as these three. We’re waiting for a report, but the medic said it didn’t look so good.”

          “Damnit!” Nathan growled.

          “The odd thing is, she was fully dressed. It’s almost as if she walked in right in the middle. And she wasn’t holding a crucifix.”

          “Okay, I want forensics on this immediately. I want the crime scene investigators to do a thorough sweep of the house. They take anything that could suffice as evidence into the lab. And I want them to dust for fingerprints from top to bottom. I want fingerprints of everyone that has been in and out of this house for the last six months. I’m going back to headquarters and make a few phone calls, see if I can get some information on the other victim.” He stared at Mike for a long moment. “We need her to live. She’s the only witness we’ve got at this point. I want you to call and set up around the clock protection for her. I want two officers posted outside of her door at all times.”

          “Yes, sir,” Mike nodded and turned away.

          Nathan’s eyes swept the scene again before he reached into his pocket and pulled out a pair of latex gloves, shoving his hands into them. Carefully, he walked around the den, glancing at mementos on the bookshelves, pictures scattered along the mantle of the fireplace. In one picture was the four women, three he recognized as the deceased. The fourth had to be the other victim.

          From left to right, he leaned forward and examined each woman’s face in the picture. First was a lady with short red hair, pale ivory skin, and glittering green eyes. Next to her was a woman with long ink black hair, almond colored skin, and dark brown eyes. She was of Mexican or South American descent, he was almost positive. The third woman was a tanned little blonde with gray eyes and a stunning smile. Her hair was shoulder length and tapered around her face, her skin seemingly flawless. The last lady in the picture was an exotic beauty with tanned skin, long waves of brown hair reflecting blonde in the sunlight, and eyes as blue as the sky on a clear day. Her face was heart shaped, her features model perfect. All four were standing in front of the ocean, clad in bikinis with their sunglasses perched on the top of their heads. And all four had the most radiant smiles on their faces.

          Nathan shook his head. They all looked very young, probably in their late twenties, and they were all attractive women. He studied the picture for a long moment before he glanced back over at their shattered remains sprawled out across the floor. What a shame, he thought to himself.

          His cell phone rang, jarring him back to reality. Quickly, he retrieved it from his pocket and placed it next to his ear. “Benson.”

          “This is Dr. Richard Hanover. I understand you were the one to call when the stab wound victim came out of surgery.”

          “Yes?” Nathan prompted, not able to judge the outcome by the man’s stone cold voice.

          “Well, she made it through the surgery all right. But, she lost a lot of blood. I don’t know how long she’s going to make it. For right now, she’s holding her own. Unfortunately, she is in a coma. The next few days are just a waiting game.”

          “Wait a minute! Coma? Was there head trauma?”

          “Very minimal head trauma. However, that doesn’t mean anything. Sometimes the mind can slip into a coma-like state in order to allow the body to heal. But the coma is the least of our worries. Like I said, she lost a lot of blood before she got here.” The doctor remained quiet for a moment before he sighed softly. “It’s not looking too promising.”

          “I need to have officers posted outside of her room. Is that going to be a problem?”

          “We will keep her in recovery for the next few hours. As soon as a bed opens up, we will be moving her to intensive care. For right now, we have two of our own security guards watching over her. When she moves to intensive care, you can post whatever you need to in front of her door.”

          “Great. Thank you, Dr. Hanover. If there are any changes, please let me know.”

          “You will be the first to know. By the way, do we have an ID on her yet?”

          “Not yet. We’re working on it.”

          “As soon as you have a next of kin, I need to know. If something happens and she doesn’t recover…” His voice trailed off.

          Nathan didn’t need him to finish. He knew exactly what the good doctor was saying. If the woman didn’t pull through, they needed a next of kin to take her off of life support. Nathan only hoped that it wouldn’t come to that. He needed this woman to live if he was going to catch the person that had turned this peaceful little town upside down.

          He shut off the phone and returned it to his pocket just as Mike was approaching. In his gloved hand, he was carrying a yellow and black backpack and a wallet. “I’ve got an ID on the victim airlifted to the hospital.” He pulled out the driver’s license and handed it to Nathan. “Jessica Porter, age twenty-eight. And…” Mike handed him another laminated card. “She’s a student at Hilliard.”

          Nathan accepted both and stared at the picture of the woman. The brunette with the pretty blue eyes. Jessica Porter, he thought to himself. It gave everything a new spin when he actually had a name to go with the face. Staring at that picture, Nathan realized that she was their one sure shot at finding out who did this. They needed her to live.

          At that moment, she was no longer just another victim, nor their sole witness. She became a young woman, in the prime of her life. She was someone’s daughter, sister, girlfriend… a woman with a story. And he was determined to find out what that story was.

          His eyes met Mike’s again. “I need you to talk to the neighbors. Find out whatever you can about these women. I want to know their comings and goings, their guests… that sort of thing. I’m going to head to the university later today and see what I can dig up. If you need me, you can get me on my cell phone. Right now, I’m going to go back to headquarters.”

          “Gotcha,” Mike said and stalked away.

          Nathan turned around the room again. A photographer was knelt down by the bodies, snapping his camera furiously so that the women could be removed from the house and taken to the city morgue. Then, perhaps, he would have a name to go with their faces as well.

          Snatching the picture from the mantle so he could show it around and maybe get identification on the other three women, he pivoted on one foot and started towards the door.

          He kept his eyes straightforward as he headed out of the house, trying to pay no heed to the eerie reflections cast by the red and blue lights of the emergency vehicles. He noticed the sea of reporters gathering along the main road and groaned inwardly. It never took them very long to jump on a hot story.

          Nathan reached the bottom of the drive where he ducked under the crime tape and started toward his SUV, but was stopped by a slim and petite woman standing by the edge of the drive.

          She was of small build, petite in height, her blonde hair short. Her eyes were the color of coffee, large and frightened as she stared at the house.

          “What happened?” she asked in a panicked voice.

          “I can’t discuss that,” Nathan admitted solemnly. He watched the woman as she stared at the house, her face filled with horror. She didn’t seem like the common passer-by that had stopped for curiosity sake or a reporter trying to get a story out of him. She seemed completely affected by the chaos in front of them. “Do you know them?”

          The woman sighed, shaking her head emphatically. “I go to school with Jessie. I’ve been over a few times for study groups, but I don’t know her roommates all that well… only by name.” She glanced over at her car, still running in the middle of the road with the driver door swung wide open. “I drive by here every morning on my way to class. Usually, I pass Jessie as she’s getting in her car and she waves.”

          He heard her voice tremble and placed a consoling arm around her as she inhaled a shaky breath. “You must know Miss Porter pretty well.”

          “Well enough. She’s one of those people that just emanate friendliness. It’s hard not to know her.”

          Nathan pulled out the framed photo he had taken off of the mantle and placed it in front of her. “Can you tell me their names?”

          The woman reached for the photo and stared at it for a long moment before holding it out and pointing to each woman. From left to right, she named them off. “This is Sherry Phillips,” she said, pointing to the redhead. Moving her finger to the right, she placed it over the black-haired beauty. “Maria Melendez.” Further to the right, the blonde. “Karen Shephard.” And her finger rested on the brunette. “And this is Jessie… Jessica Porter.”

          As she was naming them off, Nathan was writing down the names in his notebook. He glanced up at her, noticed the way she stared at Jessica Porter’s face. “She’s still alive,” he offered, figuring he could at least give her that.

          “The other three?”

          He simply shook his head.

          “I’ve never really talked to Sherry or Maria. I’ve spoken to Karen a few times, but not enough to really know her.”

          “What about Jessica? What can you tell me about her?”

          “Jessica,” she sighed, “is the sweetest person you’ll ever want to know. She’s one of those people who treats everyone as if they’re her best friend.”

          “You said she was in one of your classes?” he prompted.

          “Yeah. We take Romanticism in Poetry together. She’s going for her masters in literature.”

          “So,” he surmised, writing in his notebook as she spoke, “she’s a full-time student?”

          “She’s a full-time student. Plus she works full-time at The Gazette. She’s a copy editor there.”

          “Do you know if her folks live around this area?”

          The woman shook her head. “Nah. Her folks died when she was real young. She grew up with her grandmother. But her grandmother is in a nursing home from what I understand. She had a stroke and just couldn’t take care of herself anymore. Jessie was going to drop out of school and stay with her but her grandmother insisted on going into a nursing home.”

          “Which nursing home?”

          “I’m not sure. She told me once before, but I can’t remember.”

          “That’s okay.” Nathan stared at the woman for a moment, his heart constricting for her. “Do you know if Jessica was seeing anyone, had a significant other we should contact?”

          “No. She didn’t really have time for men. School, her job, and her grandmother kept her busy. Not that she would have had a problem meeting men. She was a magnet wherever she went.”

          Nathan could see that. She was a beautiful girl. Hell, if he had seen her walking down the street, he would have all but pulled over and broke his neck to get a moment of her time. “Did she say anything to you about anyone hanging around the house with one of her roommates?”

          “From what I gather, her roommates had a different man every night. They were a bit promiscuous. Jessie would come in with big circles under her eyes and joke about how she didn’t get any sleep because a banging headboard kept her awake all night.”

          “Do you know of any other friends she was close with?”

          “Not really. She pretty much has a full plate, not a lot of time to socialize.”

          “No one at all?” he probed, hoping to get something out of her.

          “Well, there is Cam.”

          “Cam?” he asked, his pen poised over his notebook.

          “Cameron Demauro. They’ve been friends ever since they were kids. He’s always hanging around. I think he’s in love with her,” she whispered confidentially.

          “Do you know where I can find him?”

          “Sure. He works at Lowden’s Bookstore.”

          “Thank you for your help,” Nathan offered as he scribbled the name down in his notebook. “Can I get your name and a number if I have any more questions?”

          “Sure. My name is Cynthia Dawson.” She rattled off her phone number.      

          “Thank you so much Miss Dawson.”

          She stared at him quietly for a moment before asking, “How is Jess?”

          Nathan exhaled a long breath. “She’s in critical condition. That’s all I know at the moment.”

          “She’s a fighter. She will pull through,” Cynthia replied with conviction.

          He gave her a thoughtful smile before pulling a card out of his pocket and placing it in her hand. “Cynthia, if you think of anything else, please call me.”

          She glanced at the card, reading the name imprinted there. “Sheriff Nathan Benson.” Cynthia lifted her eyes to his. “You look awful young to be a sheriff.”

          Nathan didn’t know what to say, had heard that a million times before.

          Smiling, he reiterated, “Call me if you think of anything.”

          “I will.” She turned on shaky legs and walked back to her car.

          Nathan slid in behind his steering wheel and put the keys in the ignition. Glancing in his rear view mirror, he saw his reflection staring back at him. His eyes were already bloodshot, black circles embedding the underneath. He had just gotten in the door from his trip, had checked his messages and bolted out of the house without an ounce of sleep. Now, Nathan was already feeling fatigued and he had a whole day ahead of him still… a long day at that.


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