With the patience and precision of a surgeon, he sliced into his victim's upper arm and carefully lifted the triangular piece of flesh. After placing the small chunk in a cubbyhole of the sectioned plastic cooler he had brought with him, he returned to the job at hand. One by one, he cut out more triangles from the dead man's arms and legs and then carefully stored them in the container.
"I always used a new scalpel and then tossed it afterward."
He had purchased disposable scalpels online. They came ten to a pack, with plastic handles and individually wrapped and sterilized high carbon steel blades. Cost didn't matter. He always spent whatever necessary to accomplish the job. But the scalpels were one of the least expensive tools he had ever used less than a dollar each. And the little blades did double duty, first to slit the neck and then to make the intricate carvings. He hummed as he worked, a mundane little ditty that he had heard somewhere years ago. He took pride in his kills. He never did less than his best.
"I wanted the kill to be clean, quick, and relatively painless. The sweetest pleasure is in those few seconds of initial horror they experience. I prefer psychological torture to physical torture."
Whether or not the death was quick and painless didn't matter to him one way or the other. He was not opposed to making a victim suffer and had on occasion used both physical and psychological torture, but not with these particular people.
"It's such a quiet way to kill a person. With their trachea severed, they can't scream."
His preference was not the upcloseandpersonal. He preferred killing from a distance. A quick, clean shot to the head, if death was the only agenda. However, he always did whatever was necessary to accomplish his goals. That's why this kill, like the three before it and the ones that would come after it, required him to get his hands dirty. With his task completed and the four triangles carved from each arm and each leg now stored neatly in the cooler, he lifted the old man by his broad shoulders and dragged him along the bank of the river.
"I never left them where I killed them. I would move the body, usually near a river or lake or stream. I even dragged a woman from her bedroom outside to her pool. There is something peaceful about water, don't you think?"
He had been forced to leave the first body in her apartment, but he had taken her into the bathroom and filled the tub. Not exactly a river or even a pool, but under the circumstances, it had been as close as he could get her to water. As luck would have it, he had been able to drag the second victim from the back porch, where he had slit her throat, to the river nearby. He had dumped the third victim in a shallow streambed located on the man's property.
"I always struck after midnight. Never before. I wanted the body to be found in the morning. There is something beautiful about the morning sunlight caressing a corpse."
In his opinion, there was nothing beautiful about a corpse, neither in the dark nor in the full light of day. As a general rule, the time of day or night was inconsequential, unless there was a reason for specific timing. But he was following a sequence of events with these murders, somewhat like following a road map to reach a specific destination. Each step in the procedure was a necessity. The exact time of death was not important as long as the person was dead by morning.
"I had a special upright freezer where I kept my carvings."
He never kept trophies. He didn't want or need any.
The souvenirs from these kills were not for him. They were for someone else. Someone who would appreciate their significance.
Maleah and Derek arrived in Cullman shortly after midnight, checked into the Holiday Inn Express, dumped their bags, and drove straight to the sheriff's office. As they had expected, someone from the Powell Agency had called ahead so the sheriff himself was there to meet them. Griffin Powell and his agency had become legendary, their success rate far exceeding that of regular law enforcement. Only occasionally did the agency come up against police chiefs or sheriffs who resented Powell involvement. Thankfully, Sheriff Devin Gray welcomed them with a cautious smile and a firm handshake. Looking the man in the eye, Maleah instantly felt at ease.
Gray was about five-ten, slender and young, probably not a day over thirty-five. Clean shaven, his sandy hair styled short and neat, he projected a squeaky-clean appearance.
"Come on into my office." Sheriff Gray backed up his verbal invitation by opening the door and waiting for Maleah and Derek to enter.
The moment she crossed the threshold, she saw the heavyset, middle-aged man sitting in the corner, his gaze directed on her. He rose to his feet and waited until the sheriff closed the door, affectively isolating the four of them from the activity outside the office.
"This is Freddy Rose, the Cullman County coroner," Sheriff Gray said. "Freddy, these are the Powell agents we've been expecting."
Freddy's round face, rosy cheeks, and pot belly made her think of Santa Claus, but his bald head and smooth face brought up an image of a short, rotund Mr. Clean.
Offering his meaty hand to Maleah, Freddy said, "Ma'am." And once they shook hands, he turned to Derek.
"Derek Lawrence." He exchanged handshakes with the coroner, and then nodded toward Maleah. "And this is Ms. Perdue."
"Ordinarily, we wouldn't share any of this information with outsiders," Sheriff Gray explained. "But when the governor calls me personally . . . Well, that's a horse of a different color, if you know what I mean."
Maleah knew exactly what he meant. Griffin Powell's sphere of influence reached far and wide, not only to the office of state governors, but to the powers that be in Washington, D.C. Griff's connections were strictly behind the scenes, of course, but she suspected he wielded far more power than anyone knew.
"We appreciate your both being here this late," Derek said. "Mr. Corbett's son Ben is one of our people. Ben is on his way here now and Ms. Perdue and I would like to get the preliminaries out of the way before he arrives. He will have enough on his plate as it is coming to terms with his father's murder."
"Absolutely," the sheriff agreed. "That's why Freddy's here. He hasn't performed an autopsy, of course, since the state boys will be here in the morning to claim the body, but he's certain about the cause of death."
"Sure am," Freddy said. "No doubt about it. Mr. Corbett's throat was slit, pretty much from ear to ear. Sliced through the carotid arteries on both sides and the trachea as well. Death occurred within a couple of minutes."
"Any idea about the blade the killer used?" Derek asked.
"The cut was smooth and straight," Freddy said. "No jagged edges. I swear it looked so damn precise, I'd swear a surgeon did it using a scalpel."
Maleah's gut reacted instantly to that bit of information. The medical examiners in each of the previous cases believed that Kristi, Shelley, and Norris Keinan had been killed with a scalpel, their necks cut with the expertise of a surgeon.
"Does that fit other murders?" the sheriff asked. "I was told you'd want to compare this case to some previous murders."
"Yes, so far, it does fit," Derek said, and then turned to Freddy. "What else can you tell us about the body?"
Freddy's gray eyes widened. "Damnedest thing I've ever seen. The killer cut out these little triangle-shaped pieces from Mr. Corbett's upper arms and thighs." Freddy shook his bald head. "Did it postmortem, thank the Good Lord."
"Does that match what was done to the other victims?" Sheriff Gray looked at Maleah. "Are we dealing with a serial killer? Is that what's going on?"
"Yes, the other victims also had triangular pieces of flesh removed from their limbs," Maleah replied. "And yes, with three murders, now four, it appears to be the work of a serial killer, but --- "
"But that's all we know at this point," Derek finished for her. "We're working under the assumption that a serial killer has murdered four people now. Unfortunately the latest victim was the father of one of our agents."
Why had Derek cut her off mid-sentence like that? What had he thought she was going to say? My God, did he actually think she'd been about to reveal the fact that all four victims were in some way related to the Powell Agency? Did he think she was that stupid? Up to this point, the press had made a connection only between Kristi Arians and Shelley Gilbert. But since no "guilty knowledge" details of either murder were ever released, it was assumed that Shelley died in the line of duty on assignment in Alabama and that Kristi's murder in her Knoxville, Tennessee, apartment had been the work of another killer. The fact that they were both Powell Agency employees was believed to be simply a coincidence. Norris Keinan, a corporate lawyer, had lived in Denver, Colorado, and the fact that his younger brother was a Powell agent had not been an issue, either with the Denver PD or the local Denver media.
"I didn't know Mr. Corbett personally," the sheriff said. "But he and the mayor's dad played golf together. I understand he was a fine man, well thought of in the community. We're sure sorry something like this happened in Cullman."
"Would it be possible for us to get copies of the reports, once they're filed, and also copies of the photos taken at the scene?" Maleah asked.
"Yes, ma'am, I can see to it that you get copies of whatever you need."
"Then I can't think of any reason we should keep y'all up any later than we already have." Maleah glanced from the handsome young sheriff to the fifty-something coroner. "Mr. Lawrence and I are at the Holiday Inn Express." She pulled a business card from her pocket and handed it to Devin Gray. "We'd like to stay here and wait on Ben Corbett, if that's all right with you?"
"Certainly," Sheriff Gray said. "Feel free to use my office."
When Sheriff Gray and Freddy said their good-byes and started to leave, Derek called to them. "By any chance, was Mr. Corbett found in or near a body of water?"
Both men froze to the spot. Freddy cleared his throat before glancing over his shoulder and saying, "He was found on the riverbank, face down, his feet in the river."
"Were the others found in water?" Sheriff Gray asked, his gaze sliding slowly from Maleah to Derek.
"Yes, they were," Derek replied quickly.
"Just another similarity, huh?" Freddy said. "Guess it's looking more and more like the same person who killed those other people killed Mr. Corbett."
"Apparently so." Derek glanced at Maleah.
She knew what he was thinking.
Four innocent victims, their only connection the Powell Agency. But who had killed them? And why?
Maleah and Derek waited for Ben Corbett. When he arrived at the sheriff's office at a little after three that Sunday morning, they shared with him all the information the sheriff and coroner had given them.
Ben had been with the agency for several years, coming straight from the army after his retirement. Three-fourths of the Powell agents had either law enforcement or military backgrounds. A few, such as Maleah, had been chosen because of their high IQs and willingness to learn on the job.
Although Ben had managed to control his emotions, Maleah hadn't missed the subtle signs of anger and hurt. While they had explained what had happened and how they suspected his father's death was related to the other three murders, his gaze wandered aimlessly, often focusing on the wall. Once or twice he had mumbled incoherently under his breath, then quieted suddenly and clenched his jaw, as if it was all he could to maintain his composure.
"Dad was a ladies' man," Ben told them. "He loved to flirt. Never bothered Mom. She'd just laugh about it. He never cheated on her, loved her to the day she died." He swallowed hard. "I suspect he loved her till the day he died."
"We've been authorized to help you in any way you need us," Maleah said. "If you'd like us to make the arrangements or help you make them --- "
"Thanks. That won't be necessary. Dad made all the arrangements right after Mom died. Paid for everything. Chose his casket, picked out the suit he wanted to be buried in. Made his will. Told the minister what songs he wanted at the funeral. He said he didn't want me to have to worry with any of it when the time came."
For several minutes, the three of them remained silent. Then Ben asked the inevitable question. "Who the hell is doing this and why?"
"We don't know," Derek said. "The only thing the victims have in common is their connection to the Powell Agency. The killer's MO is identical in all four cases, so we're relatively certain we are dealing with one killer. But we have no idea what motivates him or how he chooses his victims."
"At random, maybe," Ben said. "Anybody associated with the agency is a target, right? And for whatever reason, the killer picked my dad." Ben's dark eyes misted. He turned his head.
Derek clamped his hand down on Ben's shoulder. "We're going to catch him and stop him."
"Is there anything, anything at all, we can do for you?" Maleah asked.
Ben cleared his throat a couple of times. "No, thanks. I can't think of anything. I'm going over to Dad's place and try to get a few hours of sleep. When are y'all heading up to Griffin's Rest?"
"If you don't need us here, we probably won't stay longer than mid-day tomorrow," Derek told him. "Copies of the reports and the crime scene photos can be sent directly to the office as soon as they're available. I expect Nic and Griff will be moving forward with their plans to form their own task force and since I'm the agency's profiler --- "
"Count me in on the task force," Ben said. "After Dad's funeral."
Neither Derek nor Maleah responded, knowing it would be up to Griff and Nic to choose the agents who would lead the investigation and those who would assist. If Ben had been a police officer, he wouldn't have been allowed near the case because his dad had been one of the victims. But Griff's rules and regulations differed from regular law enforcement. On occasion, the Powell Agency came damn close to doling out vigilante justice, a fact that often created tension between Griff and Nic.
He could go days without sleep and could easily get by with four hours per night on a regular basis. He was no ordinary human being. Years of training, self-sacrifice, and stern discipline had honed both his mind and body into a superior being. He had no weaknesses, wasn't vulnerable in any way, and therefore was practically invincible.
The espresso at the airport coffee bar was barely acceptable, but it served the purpose of giving him a caffeine boost. To pass the time while he waited for his flight to Miami, he flipped open his laptop and scanned the information about Errol Patterson.
Patterson was a former member of the Atlanta PD SWAT team, a crack shot and a decorated officer. He had loved his job, but when his fiancée had insisted he find a less dangerous profession, he had chosen love over duty and signed on with the Powell Agency.
You made a life-altering decision. Too bad for you that it was a deadly mistake.
How could he or his fiancée have known that choosing to work for the Powell Agency would cost him his life?
Patterson had been chosen for two reasons --- he was associated with the Powell Agency and he was male.
I chose two women and then two men for the first four kills . . . But after that, I altered my choices, just to throw them off. I kept them guessing. That's how I stayed one step ahead of them.
He did more than stay one step ahead of the authorities. He outsmarted them, never leaving behind even the vaguest clue to his identity. Over the years, he had gone by many names, so many that it was easy to forget who he really was. His true identity was a guarded secret, known by only a handful of individuals. In certain circles, he was known as the Phantom. Nameless. Faceless. An illusion. Unseen. Unheard. A dark angel of death.
Maleah woke to the sound of incessant pounding. Inside her head? No, outside her hotel room. Some idiot was knocking on her door and calling her name.
Go away. Leave me alone.
She shot straight up in bed where she lay atop the wrinkled floral spread. Groggy and only semi-alert, she slid off the side of the bed and stood unsteadily on her bare feet for a few seconds.
"Maleah," Derek called to her through the closed door.
Damn it! What time was it? She glanced at the digital bedside clock. 8:30 A.M.
She groaned. Three and a half hours was not nearly enough sleep.
"I'm coming," she told him as she padded across the carpet. When she reached the door, she cracked it open, glared at Derek, who looked fresh as a daisy, and asked him, "Where's the fire?"
He shoved open the door and breezed past her. She closed the door and turned to face him. Obviously he had shaved, showered, and pressed his slacks and shirt. His stylish, neck-length hair glistened with blue-black highlights. His deep brown eyes focused on her with amusement.
"I forgot how grumpy you are in the morning," he said.
"You'd better have a good reason for beating down my door."
He looked her over, taking in her sleep-tousled hair, her wrinkled clothes and her makeup-free face. "Griff called. He wants us at Griffin's Rest ASAP."
Maleah groaned, and then when Derek's smile vanished, she asked, "What's happened?"
"What makes you think --- ?"
"Damn it, Derek, it's too early in the morning to play games, so let's not do twenty questions."
He clasped her shoulders, turned her around and urged her toward the bathroom. "Toss your clothes out to me and I'll press them while you grab a quick shower. We'll pick up coffee and biscuits on the way to Griffin's Rest."
She curled her toes into the carpet and dug in her heels. "I'm not moving another inch until you tell me what's going on."
"Why do you have to be so stubborn?"
"Why do you have to be such a macho jerk?"
Derek frowned. "Griff and Nic are organizing the task force today." He paused, studied her expression and then said, "I'm pretty sure they plan to put the two of us in charge."
She groaned. "Why us? Why not you and Shaughnessy or you and Angie or you and Michelle or you and Luke or --- ?"
"I get it. You don't want us to be partners on another case. But I don't think it really matters what we want. It's what Griff and Nic want."
"I can't believe Nic would pair us up again, not when she knows...well, she knows that we mix like oil and water."
"I thought we made a pretty good team on the Midnight Killer case."
Maleah huffed, hating to admit that he was right. "Yeah, yeah, I suppose we did."
"Besides, Shaughnessy is more muscle than strategist. His expertise lends itself to the physical. And now that she's pregnant, Angie isn't working in the field. Michelle is on a much-needed vacation after that last two-month case in South America. As for Luke, you know Griff reserves him for special duty."
Accepting his explanation, she nodded her acquiescence and said, "Give me five minutes." She turned and went into the bathroom.
She closed the door, stripped hurriedly, and then eased the door open enough to toss her clothes toward Derek. Smiling at the thought of him ironing her slacks and blouse, she adjusted the hot and cold faucets on the shower and stepped under the spray of warm water.
The FedEx truck had been stopped at the front gate by the guards on duty. Shaughnessy Hood had been dispatched from the main house to drive down and pick up the package addressed to Maleah Perdue in care of the Powell Private Security and Investigation Agency at Griffin's Rest.
Barbara Jean Hughes, Griff's right-hand man Sanders's assistant, best friend and lover, took the sealed, insulated shipping box from Shaughnessy, placed it in her lap and carried it with her down the hall to Griff's private study. The door stood open so that she could see Griff behind his desk, a cup of coffee in his hand. Sanders stood nearby, his gaze fixed on the box she held.
She cleared her throat.
Griff glanced up, saw her, and motioned for her to enter.
Without hesitation, Barbara Jean maneuvered her wheelchair into the study. Sanders reached down, took the box from her and placed it on the desk directly in front of Griff.
He studied the insulated container for several silent minutes. "Did you notice the sender's name and address?"
"Yes," Sanders replied. "Winston Corbett, Cullman, Alabama."
Griff scrutinized the shipping label. "What time frame did the Cullman County coroner give for Winston Corbett's death?"
"Between midnight and five A.M., yesterday," Barbara Jean replied.
"Then I'm curious as to how Ben's father managed to send Maleah a package after he died."
Cyrene Patterson stretched languidly on the beach towel, her bikini-clad, five-eight body soaking in the morning sunshine by their pool directly outside the bedroom's French doors. The deluxe honeymoon package at the Grand Resort there in the Bahamas included not only a luxury villa suite, but butler service. She and Errol had enjoyed breakfast in bed, and then made love as if they hadn't already spent half the night screwing like crazy. She had left him asleep, slipped into her bathing suit and taken a dip in the pool. Life was good. Just couldn't get much better. She had waited a lifetime for Mr. Right --- thirty years. But he had been well worth the wait.
Neither she nor Errol had been naïve youngsters, with stars in their eyes, when they said their I-dos. Both had been married before when they were too young and too stupid to know what they were doing. She had married the first time to get away from home, an alcoholic mother, a father who showed up once in a blue moon, and younger siblings who were more than her grandmother could handle. Her two-year marriage to Polo had proven the old adage about jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire. Thank God she'd been smart enough to leave the abusive son of a bitch before she got pregnant. Errol, on the other hand, had married at nineteen the first time because his girlfriend told him she was pregnant. She had lied to him, but by the time he had found out the truth, she actually was pregnant. He had lived in hell for three years. But before little Tasha's second birthday, Errol had known he needed to end the marriage and had sued his wife for full custody. Two weeks before their divorce was finalized, Errol's wife, who had been granted visitation privileges, had taken their child for a joy ride and both had been killed in a head-on collision with an eighteen wheeler. Witnesses had said that it appeared she had deliberately caused the "accident."
Cyrene lathered SPF 15 sunblock on her arms and legs to protect her golden skin from UV damage. The popular belief that darker skin didn't need protection from the harmful rays was false. Even the darkest skin could burn.
She intended to do everything possible to take care of her skin and her overall health. That's why she'd never taken drugs. Sometimes, Errol accused her of being a health nut. If following an exercise routine, being a vegetarian, not smoking, doing drugs or drinking to excess made her a health nut, she would gladly don the label and wear it proudly.
"Any place you can't reach?" Errol asked her, his voice husky with innuendo.
The moment Cyrene heard his voice, she smiled, but she didn't look at him. Instead, she held the sunblock bottle up over her head. Once he grasped the bottle in his hand, she untied her bikini top and dropped it to the patio floor. With her breasts bare, she tilted her head and gave him an enticing come-here-big-boy glance.
"Start wherever you'd like." She loved to tease him. "But don't miss a spot."
He came around the back of the lounge chair, knelt beside her, upended the open sunblock bottle and squirted a large dollop of the scented cream into the center of his open palm. After setting aside the bottle, he started at the base of her neck, lathering the lotion onto her skin. He moved steadily from shoulder to shoulder in downward swipes until his big hands hovered over her naked breasts. Her nipples tightened in anticipation. The moment his fingers caressed the hard tips, she moaned with pleasure.
Errol slid his hands beneath her, lifted her into his arms and carried her off the patio and through the open French doors. She laughed with pure delight as he tossed her into the center of the unmade bed, stripped off his bathing suit and came down over her.
Cyrene reached for him, her arms and her heart open wide for the man she loved.
Maleah and Derek arrived at Griffin's Rest that evening well before sunset. They would have arrived sooner, but they had backtracked to Dunmore to pick up Maleah's vehicle, a new Chevy Equinox. Although they had lost sight of each other during the trip from Alabama to northeastern Tennessee, he caught a glimpse of her in his rearview mirror just before the I-40 Bridge crossing Douglas Lake. The moment he saw her, he couldn't help wondering if she was pissed because he was ahead of her in the home stretch. Not that he had consciously been trying to arrive at Griffin's Rest before she did or that he saw everything in life as a competition. But during their working partnership on the Midnight Killer case, he had come to realize several things about Maleah. She hated to come in second to anyone, but especially to any man. The fact he had reached the gates outside the Powells' Douglas Lake retreat moments before she had seemed completely insignificant to him, but probably not to Maleah. Sometimes her competitive spirit drove him nuts.
"You've never had to struggle for anything in your entire spoiled rotten rich life," she had once accused him. "You're an arrogant son of a bitch because you have an inflated ego. You overestimate your self-worth."
"And I believe you underestimate yours," he'd told her.
His comment had ended that conversation once and for all. Didn't she realize that he could see past all the pseudo-confidence she tried so hard to project? He suspected that deep inside Maleah Perdue a small, helpless, vulnerable child warned her not to give up a single ounce of the hard-won control she had over her life.
Derek stopped his silver Corvette at the enormous iron gates flanked by two massive stone arches decorated with large bronze griffins. After he used the voice-activated entry code, the gates opened and he drove onto the long, tree-lined lane leading to the house overlooking the lake. Maleah followed at least twenty feet behind him. He parked in front of the house, got out, and waited for her as she pulled in behind him.
The Powell home was large, approximately ten thousand square feet, but actually rather modest for a man worth billions. Despite the mansion's size, there was nothing ostentatious about either the house itself or the décor. It had been built and decorated to accommodate the man who owned the property. Since his marriage to Nicole Baxter a few years ago, Griff had allowed his wife to make any changes she wanted. But almost as if she didn't quite think of Griffin's Rest as her home, Nic had made few alterations.
Derek snorted. Good God, why did he always do that? Why did his brain instantly delve into other people's psyche and try to figure out what made them tick? Instinct, pure and simple. His instinct dictated that he profile everyone.
Maleah emerged from her white SUV, slung the straps of her small leather bag over her shoulder and approached him. If she took more time with her appearance, she could be strikingly beautiful. She had all the ingredients, from pretty face to shapely body. Shapely? Get real, Lawrence. The woman is built like a brick shithouse and you know it.
"Waiting on me?" she asked.
"Yeah. What took you so long?"
She glared at him, giving him an eat-dirt-and-die look. "I'm tired, I'm hungry and I'm totally pissed at you."
"What did I do now?"
"You drove like a bat out of hell, that's what you did."
He stared at her, totally puzzled by her comment. "You lost me somewhere there, Blondie. I have no idea --- "
"I got a speeding ticket, thanks to you."
He grinned. "How is it my fault that you got a ticket?"
Glowering angrily at him, she clenched her jaw and huffed. "Never mind. Forget I mentioned it. Let's go inside and --- "
Before she could finish her sentence, the front door opened. Sanders glanced from Maleah to Derek. "Please, come in. Griffin and Nicole are waiting for you."
Sanders had been Griffin Powell's right-hand man for as long as Derek had known either of them. Griff and Sanders's association went back a good twenty years. Rumor had it that they had met during the ten missing years of Griff's life, when he had disappeared off the face of the earth shortly after graduating from the University of Tennessee nearly two decades ago.
A couple of inches short of six feet, the bald, dark-eyed, brown-skinned Sanders possessed the bearing of a much larger man. His stance, his attitude, and his appearance practically screamed military background. His slightly accented English suggested a foreign birth and upbringing.
Ever the gentleman his mother had raised him to be, Derek waited for Maleah to enter first. Sanders led them past the large living room with the floor-to-ceiling rock fireplace and down the hall to Griffin Powell's private study. The door stood open and inside Griff sat behind his antique desk placed in the corner by the windows overlooking the lake. The moment he saw them, he lifted his two hundred and forty pound muscular body from his desk and stood at his impressive six-four height. Griff was a big man, his mere physical presence intimidating. Include his wealth and power and that added up to a man only a fool would ever cross.
But out there somewhere was a fool who was killing people connected to the Powell Agency.
Nicole Powell stood with her back to them in front of the massive rock fireplace, one of several in the house. When Griff rose from his desk, she instantly turned to face them, her soft tan eyes focusing on her friend Maleah. Physically, the two women were opposites. Nic was a tall brunette; Maleah a petite blond. Whenever he saw Nic, the first thought that came to mind was Amazon Warrior. Standing five-ten in her bare feet, with an hourglass figure reminiscent of Hollywood sex symbols of the 1950s, the lady's size was every bit as impressive as her husband's. Derek genuinely liked both Mr. and Mrs. Powell, but it had been easier to like Nic immediately because of her outgoing personality. Griff was more reserved, a man who made others earn his approval.
"Please, come in," Griff said, then he looked at Sanders and told him, "Close the door."
Once the five of them were closeted in Griff's private study, everyone except Sanders seated, Griff spread his big hands out over the folders lying atop his desk.
"These contain all the information we have on the four murders. The info on Winston Corbett came in mid-afternoon, so we've had a chance to go over it."
"As you already know, Ben's dad's murder fit the same pattern as the previous three," Nic said. "We don't need to wait on the autopsy report to know that."
"Our killer, for whatever reason, has targeted Powell employees and members of their families." Griff reiterated an undisputable fact.
Studying the big man's somber expression, Derek noted suppressed anger combined with grief and frustration.
Sanders said, "Protecting the Powell Agency employees and their families is of paramount importance." He stood, as he so often did, at Griff's side, his body stationed slightly behind his boss.
"Everyone is vulnerable because there is no way to predict who will be chosen as the next to die."
"I've given orders for the security here at Griffin's Rest to be expanded. As of tomorrow morning, we're doubling the guards and bringing in more agents to the estate," Griff explained. "There will be guards here at our home, twenty-four/seven, as well as at Yvette's retreat."
Most people would not have noticed the slight tensing in Nic's body, but being an observer of human nature, Derek noticed. Whenever Griff mentioned Dr. Yvette Meng, Nic reacted in a subtle, barely discernable way. He suspected Nic's friendship with Yvette hinged precariously on Nic believing that her husband had never shared a sexual relationship with the exotic Eurasian beauty. Derek also suspected that there was far more to Griff's apparent symbiotic relationship with both Sanders and Dr. Meng than anyone, including Nic, knew.
"Obviously, the problem is that we have no idea who the killer has chosen as his next victim," Nic said. "We've read and re-read the reports." She glanced at Griff's desktop. "The only thing the four victims had in common was their link to the Powell Agency. They were different ages, different sexes, were murdered in different states. One was a Powell secretary, one an agent, one a lawyer who was the brother of an agent. And now, Ben's father, a retired businessman, has been killed."
"If we could figure out how he chooses his victims --- " Nic said.
Derek cut her off. "To date, he's chosen two women and then two men. If he follows this pattern then the next two victims will be female."
Griffin grunted, the growling sound coming from deep in his chest. "If that's the case, then every female Powell agent as well as every agent's wife, mother, sister, daughter, and niece could be at risk. How the hell can we narrow down the choices when we have no idea what criteria he's using to make his decisions?"
"We can't," Derek said. "My educated guess is that he is following a specific plan and that he probably won't deviate from it. He's too methodical, too precise, as if he has a blueprint that leads him step by step."
"The way a copycat killer would mimic the original killer's MO," Griff said.
Derek's gaze met Griff's and he understood that Griff and the others knew something that he and Maleah did not.
"Are you saying you think we're dealing with a copycat killer?" Maleah asked.
"I believe it is a good possibility." Griff picked up two file folders and handed them to Sanders. "Later, I want you both to read over this information." He motioned to Sanders to distribute the folders, which he quickly did.
Derek glanced at the typed heading on the folder.
The name sounded vaguely familiar.
"Who's Jerome Browning?" Maleah asked.
"He is a convicted serial killer serving half a dozen consecutive life terms at the Georgia State Prison." Griff made direct eye contact with Maleah before he continued. "Browning became known as the Carver when he viciously murdered nine people by slitting their throats and carving triangular pieces of flesh from their upper arms and thighs. His first kill was twelve years ago and his killing spree lasted less than three years before he was caught, tried and convicted."
The way everyone else in the room seemed focused on Maleah piqued Derek's curiosity. He sensed that Griff was on the verge of revealing information that would in some way personally affect her. His protective instincts kicked in automatically, urging him to place himself between Maleah and whatever might harm her.
"I'm getting the distinct impression that I'm not going to like whatever else you have to say." Maleah glanced around the room, taking note of how everyone was staring directly at her.
"Maleah, I'm so sorry..." Nic's voice trailed off.
"Jerome Browning's third victim was a young man living and working in the Atlanta area," Griff said. "His name was Noah Laborde."
Maleah gasped, the sound sharp and highly exaggerated in the hushed stillness. "He killed Noah?" She spoke the man's name softly...sadly.
"Who was Noah Laborde?" Derek asked.
Nic walked over to Maleah and draped a comforting arm around her shoulders. Maleah looked at Derek. "Noah was my college boyfriend. We...we were almost engaged. We broke up right after graduation. His sister called me a year later to tell me that Noah had been killed, but I...Oh, God, I never knew the details. I never asked."
Of all the killers this person could have chosen to imitate, why had he picked the man who had murdered Maleah's former boyfriend?
The answer was obvious, of course --- because of the Powell Agency connection.
"So what do you think, Derek?" Griff asked.
"I don't think it's a coincidence." Derek knew exactly what Griff was asking. "Our killer chose this man Browning because he had killed Noah Laborde, Maleah's former boyfriend. Maleah is a Powell agent and therefore connected to the agency. He handpicked the Carver as the killer he would imitate for the same reason he has chosen his victims."
"Because they are all, in one way or another, connected to the Powell Agency." Griff pummeled the desktop with his huge fist. "God damn son of a bitch."
"I can only surmise that his real target is the Powell Agency." When Derek's gaze met Griff's, he saw the pain in his employer's eyes. "I would assume that means his target is either you, Griff, or you, Nicole." He glanced at Nic. "Or possibly both of you."
"It's not Nic. I'm his real target," Griff said. "He's striking out at me through my people."
"That's one possible scenario," Derek agreed.
"I could be his target," Nic said. "He could be someone from my past, someone connected to one of my cases when I was a federal agent. After all, he has chosen to copy a killer who has a direct connection to my best friend."
"We can debate this all day and still won't know for sure," Maleah told them. "Once we find out who the killer is, we'll have the answers to all the whys, won't we? That has to be our first order of business --- identifying our killer."
"Maleah's right," Derek said. "Since it seems obvious that the new Carver murders are copycat killings, that means we need to start with some basic questions. Is our guy someone who has been in contact with Jerome Browning, maybe visited him in prison? Is he an admirer? A student of the Carver's methods? Is he perhaps even a protégé of Browning's?"
"There is one person, other than the killer himself, who may be able to answer those questions," Maleah said.
"Jerome Browning." Derek's voice filled the quiet room. All eyes turned to him.
"Browning is the reason y'all decided to pair me with Derek on this case." Maleah stared right at Nic.
Nic simply stared back at Maleah.
"I think it's obvious that our killer wants you involved," Griff said.
Maleah gave Griff her undivided attention. "You think because of my connection to Noah, Browning's third victim, the copycat is sending me an invitation to become personally involved."
Griff nodded. "Don't you agree, Derek?"
Reluctantly, Derek replied, "Yes, I agree. And it could be that by singling out Maleah this way, it's the copycat killer's way of getting as close to Nic as he possibly can without actually involving her. At least not yet."
"See, I told you that this could be all about me and not you." Nic glared at her husband.
Griff frowned, but didn't verbally acknowledge Nic's comment. Instead he spoke directly to Maleah. "Someone will have to interview Browning. Since the killer chose a specific connection between you and the killer he is imitating, it would seem logical that you should be the agent I send to Georgia to talk to Browning."
"I'll accompany her, of course." No way in hell was Derek going to let Maleah confront Browning alone. She might project a tough as nails image, but he knew just how vulnerable she really was.
"Of course," Griff agreed. "We'll want you to study Browning while Maleah interviews him."
"She needs to know the rest." Nic glared at her husband. "No secrets. If Maleah is going into this, she needs to go into it armed with all the facts."
Derek's gut tightened.
Griff nodded. He stood, reached down behind his desk and lifted a small thermal cooler from the floor.
"We received a package sent via FedEx this morning," Griff said. "There was a small plastic case inside an Arctic foil insulated package, the type used to ship perishables such as food and medical supplies."
Griff flipped back the lid on the cooler, reached down inside and lifted out the plastic case. "The package was addressed to you, Maleah, in care of the Powell Agency. The sender was, supposedly, Winston Corbett."
Derek sensed that Maleah was holding her breath as Griff removed the top from the plastic case. He inched in closer, placing himself directly behind her. Looking over her shoulder, he had a perfect view of the sectioned interior of the case and the first layer of its contents.
"Are those . . . ?" Maleah swallowed hard. "Are those what I think they are?"
"We've had our lab verify that those small triangular objects are human flesh," Griff said. "I think we can be relatively certain that the pieces in the top section were cut from Winston Corbett's body and those in the other three sections belong to the other victims."
"And he sent them to me." Maleah balled her hands into fists and pressed her fists against her upper thighs.
Derek reached out and clamped his hand over Maleah's tense shoulder, conveying his support. "We're in this together, Blondie. You and me. From here to the bitter end."
Excerpted from DEAD BY MORNING © Copyright 2011 by Beverly Barton. Reprinted with permission by Zebra. All rights reserved.