Happy Autumn, Friends, Followers and Family!
Over the past month I have been out of commission due to a health issue. I threw my back out and it’s doing much better now, in case you were wondering. While I was laid up my companion reminded me that I have a manuscript that was, essentially, collecting dust on a hard drive.
In 2009 I was dealing with a partially torn rotator cuff and had some time on my hands. I sucked up the fear of public dislike and went ahead and wrote the mystery that had been playing around in my head for a year or more. The title started out as one thing and ultimately ended up being Extremity.
I sent the book out to a few publishers, had a few email conversations with an agent and it petered out in the end. See, I believed that current times were the same as the times gone by in the writing community. Authors such as Nora Roberts, Catherine Coulter and so many others started with Harlequin. I thought I would have to do the same thing, get my name out there and eventually I’d be able to write whatever I want.
Self-publishing has changed the dynamic. I have no regrets in writing and publishing Freedom’s Treasure. It was a story I wanted to tell and, in fact, may continue to tell at a later date. The difference now being that I can publish what i feel is appropriate, you all can read it and the only thing that slows me down in whether or not I am happy with a manuscript. For the most part I have been. I intend to finish At Wit’s End very soon and will make that announcement when it happens.
In the meantime I thought I would drop a sample of Extremity here. Check it out and let me know what you think. If you enjoy the sample the link I have provided will take you to Amazon’s site where you can purchase Extremity. Freedom’s Treasure is still available and, believe it or not, enough have sold that it’s searchable. Very, very cool!
The man with the camera focused his gaze on the deep end of the Olympic-sized swimming pool. He slicked his tongue over dry lips and felt hot breath rasping through his lungs and throat. Desert air didn’t agree with him, left him coughing and sneezing, his eyes burning, but he knew this time it would be worth it. He was going to find the perfect girl, he had no doubt.
The last one, his Georgia Peach, had been a severe disappointment and he had an unfulfilled appetite. Never before had he wanted to court a new girl so soon after the last. True love is supposed to last forever, he thought, but most bitches have the morals of an alley cat.
They always left in the end, no matter how he tried to cling to them and the last one hadn’t satisfied him, had hurt him in fact, and a few months later the hunt was on again. He was keeping his Peach in mind for a later visit. He wouldn’t be so nice.
The dark haired, dark skinned beauty flipped at the wall and continued her laps. He quickly snapped off some shots as he had done the past few times she had been this close to him. A little too dark for his taste yet there was something about this Latina girl… and he hadn’t even seen her eyes yet. It was the eyes that normally held him but her grace as she stroked through the water, fighting a battle she had no intention of losing, held him deep in his gut.
He could see her in black and white, the only color in the photo the bright red of her two piece bathing suit. It would look like a slash of blood at chest and crotch, distorted beneath the water. He felt his cock stir and smiled lightly to himself.
He glanced up and noticed the lifeguard look away just before their eyes met. Not good to be noticed, he reminded himself, a few more pictures, that’s all I want… almost the perfect shot… got it! He stood up and gave a little wave to the lifeguard, snapping a picture of him as he grabbed the knapsack with his equipment and headed out the gate back to the golf course. He had been paid a great deal of money by the resort chain to visit each hotel in the country and take panoramic photos for a brochure they intended to distribute to all the Fortune 500 companies next year.
Nothing wrong with mixing a little business with pleasure, he figured, unless the pleasure became more time consuming than the business.
He turned back and framed the hotel and pool into a shot with the mountains and sunset perfectly featured. As he did so, he glanced at the lifeguard to see if he was being watched and saw the kid staring at the same raven-haired woman. She had stepped out of the pool, droplets of water cascading through her hair, down over her luscious breasts and pooling at her feet. Her bathing suit had bunched up at her perfect ass and it was all the man could do not to explode then and there. He winced lightly as he adjusted his pants around his erection. It was going to be a good week.
You’re Kidding Me, Right?
Just Outside Phoenix – Present Day
The rent-a-cop was puking in the bushes and had been for 45 minutes, since he had called 911. Sean had timed him for the last bit of it and wondered if the man was going for a world record or if eventually the man’s stomach would come out instead of the bile. It might make things easier on the old man, he reflected. Not that Agent Sean Stone could blame him.
A body baking in a hotel room for three days in Arizona’s summer heat didn’t smell like a bouquet of roses and it didn’t make the prettiest of pictures either. Decomp had set in and it was difficult to tell exactly what had happened to the woman beyond knowing that it had been painful, long and horrifying.
Chief Higgins stepped out onto the balcony, taking a deep breath of fresh air he wished were cooler than 80 degrees at midnight. He glanced over at the younger man who was nothing like he expected an agent of the Fascist Bastards of Intimidation to be. Agent Stone was in his early 30’s, about 5’ 9”, 175 pounds. His dark hair was a little long, coming down well over the collar of a Hawaiian print shirt. The baggy corduroy shorts didn’t quite fit the image but at midnight Chief Higgins wasn’t exactly wearing his uniform either. With chagrin he realized he had his bedroom slippers on with his khaki shorts, a white polo shirt and, oh man, mismatched socks too. He scuffled back.
The agent turned startling green eyes to him and raised one eyebrow that may or may not have been waxed. Higgins wondered about manscaping. He knew that was a new habit of this generation of men, something he would never have considered but this was a new era. High cheekbones and full lips completed the picture. Perhaps a bit of Native American or Latino in the history, he wasn’t sure.
“Yes, Chief? Can I help you?” Sean’s patience with the old man was coming to an end though he had barely dealt with the old lawman. He knew the FBI didn’t have the best reputation with the smaller town sheriffs or even the larger towns but the fake deferential attitude was definitely starting to grate on a last nerve that had already been stretched taut.
“Excuse me, excuse me. They’re ready to remove the body, take her on down to the Coroner’s office, if you’re through looking at her,” the tone was somewhat disapproving as Sean had only spared a quick glance at the unfortunate woman.
The agent had not been invited into this investigation and the veteran officer wasn’t quite sure what he was doing here or how he had arrived at the crime scene so quickly. For someone who had rushed here as such, he was showing a marked disinterest in their victim and in their investigative techniques. Chief Higgins had sent each of his men to a class at Quantico and wanted the agent to be impressed. He wasn’t.
It took every bit of Sean’s remaining patience not to snap at the man. “That’s fine, Chief. This is your investigation. I appreciate you letting me come take a look. Do you think you could clear some of your men out of the room? You may be losing some valuable evidence.”
It looked like a circus inside with Management coming in to take a look and then rushing off to the executive washrooms to vomit (God forbid their minions see them acting human). Nearly every officer from Buckeye’s small force trampled through on some semblance of business though nothing was getting done.
“There’s something I would like to check before I go, once they’ve taken her, if it’s all right with you.” Sean wondered if the man could hear the agitation in his words or if it was just him feeling the strain of maintaining a normal speaking tone.
If Chief Higgins nodded any faster his neck would snap. “Sure, sure, that’s fine, Agent Stone, fine, whatever you want,” so long as you get the Hell out of here soon.
“Are they planning on taking the mattress with them to look for fluids from the killer?” A gentle suggestion never hurt anyone, Sean thought. He had an ulterior motive for wanting them to remove the mattress but he wasn’t ready to share that with a man who was completely unprepared for what had happened in that room.
“Of course, of course. We’ll be sending her off to Phoenix just as soon as we log her into evidence.” The Chief’s habit of repeating himself and referring to everything as her made Sean wince. Knowing it would take a few minutes for this gruesome task to be completed Sean turned his back to the man and lit one of the three cigarettes a day he normally allowed himself. This was number 8 in the past 6 hours.
Chief Higgins took the curt dismissal as he should and disappeared, muttering about arrogant young pups not knowing their place in the scheme of things.
Sean turned when he heard the sliding door open again a short time later. The rent-a-cop had finally disappeared, most likely gone home to tell his wife, neighbors and anyone else who cared to listen about the body he had found in all the glorious detail. There would be no chance of keeping this quiet, Sean knew, as every person who had been through the room had an excited gleam in their eye.
There is no greater fortune than someone else’s misfortune, he reflected and there’s no faster telegraph of said misfortunes than a small town’s gossip line. Something he knew all too well.
“Agent Stone, there’s, ah, there’s… oh man, there’s something for you in here, yes right in here.” Chief Higgins’ repetition habit didn’t get any better under stress Sean noted. He hoped it wasn’t contagious.
Without a word he followed the man to the bedroom of the suite and looked down at the Queen sized box springs. They had removed the mattress as he had suggested and found exactly what he thought they would. A black garbage bag with a note on the top, his name typed neatly and in a bold font. “AGENT SEAN STONE, FOR YOUR EYES ONLY. UNTIL WE MEET AGAIN”. The killer knew it wouldn’t remain FYEO but for this one moment in time the game was between the two of them and Sean was not going to change that until required to by his bosses.
His voice was steady, completely controlled though his insides were near boiling with a perfect fury. “Chief, may I borrow a pair of gloves? I would hate to contaminate the evidence.”
A crime scene tech handed a pair to him and he slipped them on, not sure he was prepared for what he knew he was about to see. This wasn’t the first time and he was desperately afraid it wouldn’t be the last. Georgia had been a few months ago, Chicago a bit before that, California 2 ½ months before that and Michigan was the very start.
A year of gruesome packages had left a sour taste in his mouth and a suspension on his record. While pursuing this bastard he had broken more rules than he dared to count and only half of which his superiors knew about. They had said he was too personally involved and until he could step back, he had been on paid leave. Somehow he had maintained and, though he had not solved this mystery he did feel much closer. They had put him back on the active roster after the murders in Chicago and Sean was ready to put an end to this “game”.
He carefully opened the note and found it blank, something he had been worried about. A couple of the other kill sites had notes with his name on it, just as this time, and almost chatty notes with the killer taunting him. Now it was different; the point had been made that this was the next move in murderous chess and Sean’s king had been placed in the check position. The only way to know what his next move could be was to open the bloody garbage bag and see what was inside.
Sean used a pocket knife to cut through the duct tape sealing the edges of the bag. Smart bastard, he thought, to guarantee the package didn’t get ruined this time. In Michigan there had been a mixture of human waste, blood and bile smeared all over the message. It had taken some quick thinking on the part of the evidence techs to clear it enough to get the first clues about this killer and where he would be heading next. One of the deputies nudged his arm trying to get a better view. The bag slipped from Sean’s grasp, spilling pictures all over the floor.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” slipped out of Chief Higgins mouth before he even knew he was going to speak. The bloody tableau would have stunned the most seasoned investigator much less one from a small town. Sean realized he felt not horror, per se, but anger. “Are you kidding me? Is that, that, wait wait, is that…? What is that?” The man’s babbling was cut off as he paled, turned a vague green, and ran out to the hall to vomit.
“Yes, it is a pictorial journal of this woman’s death done in black and white with the part of her he ‘loved’ the most, the part of her he was most attracted to, in color. He generally uses red for his highlights though he isn’t above using blue when he isn’t satisfied with the woman or yellow when he is feeling playful.” Sean answered the question though the man wasn’t there anymore, a lecturing tone in his voice. Not one of the men could take their eyes off the photos.
“Each picture is numbered and, as you can see, they are taken 2 minutes apart. He poses the camera above the bed and sets a timer. Before he leaves the room he prints out copies for us and, we believe, copies for himself that he puts into a scrapbook he calls his Snapshots.” Sean was putting the photos back in order, looking only at the numbers and time stamps.
He was not ready to look at the pictures, not until they were in the order they were meant to be in. The order the killer wanted them to be seen, the order they had been taken. The story was more important than the photos themselves though what was in them would send the photographer to death row several times over. Assuming Sean didn’t kill him first.
“I’m sure if you check the ceiling above the bed you’ll find marks from a screw where he hung his camera to get the best angle. He’s been practicing this for a long time and he isn’t afraid of showing his own face though it’s always blurred or in quarter profile only. He’ll be in several of the photos.
“Has she been identified yet? Is she a guest here at the resort?” Sean finished straightening the pictures and rose to take them into the other room. It was too crass, even for his jaded eye, to view them in the same room they were taken.
Chief Higgins reentered the room abashed for having proven his stomach couldn’t handle what an FBI agent’s – or even his own men’s – could. “Her name’s Amanda Bennet. She’s on a 10 day vacation here, using the spa and golf resort as she recuperates from a nose job and breast implants. She hasn’t been answering her phone or knocks on the door from housekeeping so they sent in Carl” the rent-a-cop “to see what was what.
“She hasn’t been seen by anyone in about 4 days, has missed most of her appointments but they said she’s been flighty like that since she got here – missed 2 days of massages and golf lessons when she went to Phoenix to shop.
“They weren’t real concerned until she didn’t check out or let them know she planned to stay after her check-out date. Poor Carl. Poor Carl.” Chief Higgins hung his head and a burp smelling of vomit rolled from his mouth. “Excuse me. Excuse me.” He was gone again. Sean figured housekeeping was going to have one Hell of a time on this floor.
Sean and the few remaining men moved into the living room area of the 4 room suite. 2 bedrooms, each with their own bath, a living room and a kitchenette that had definitely not been used except for a fruit basket, a corkscrew and one clean red wine glass left on the counter.
Everything was in different tones of tan with turquoise here and there. Sean figured if they removed the walls the rooms would blend in perfectly with the desert. The only color came from paintings on the walls. They were nice enough rooms and probably ran the husband $600 a night minimum. He was stunned the man hadn’t called to check on his flighty wife.
Sitting on the sofa he tapped the edges of the photos on the coffee table to straighten them and mentally prepared himself. The stack was approximately 2 inches thick, maybe 100 pictures and at 2 minutes in between each it was a safe bet that this was the longest time the killer had taken with a victim. Over 3 hours and maybe longer if there had been breaks during the killing as there had been before. It could have been 3 days and that thought worried Sean the most. Forget Carl, poor Amanda.
“Gentlemen, may I have some privacy please? As you see on this note, it’s for my eyes only… yes, yes, I know, we all want to see. Just step into the hallway please, you’ll get your chance soon enough.” Though he had no authority at this scene, the men started filing towards the door.
When he was finally alone, grumbling from the men still echoing throughout the room, he took several deep breaths and tried to clear his mind. His anger was boiling over and that would not help him catch this guy, nor would the pity he was feeling for each of the victims.
“Okay, Amanda, let’s see what you can show me.”
Picture 1: A smiling, flirtatious Amanda framed in the doorway, an expectant look on her face and wearing only a robe. Time stamped 9:21 p.m. on Tuesday. Tuesday? Sean was nauseous. She had been in this room rotting for almost a week. He had no estimate on time of death yet but he had a bad feeling about this.
Picture 2: Amanda on the floor with a gash on her forehead and a full wine bottle next to her. She must have been waiting on room service which would explain the corkscrew being out and the clean glass. Sean noticed it was Darioush, a California Cabernet he was particularly fond of. He wondered if that was a message for him. He made a note to ask the crime scene techs if they had found the bottle anywhere in the room. He was slightly afraid of the answer. Time stamped 9:25 p.m.
Picture 3: Amanda lying on the bed, wrists duct taped to the headboard and ankles taped to the bottom. The tape looked to be wrapped around and around the boards. The better to hold her steady when the cutting started, Sean knew. She appeared to be unconscious and the killer would wait for her to wake up. He would have conversations with her though there was no way to know what they discussed. That had been in pictures from previous victims. Time stamped 9:40 p.m.
Picture 4: A new angle, the camera must have been set into the permanent position. It was a bird’s eye view of the bed and only parts of the nightstand. Sean could see it was slightly angled and hung from the ceiling as he had suspected. He could see a corner of the photo album the killer kept his souvenirs in. Amanda’s eyes were wide open in terror and her mouth was blurred as though she had been talking – most likely trying to scream.
Something was stuffed in her mouth. Sean could see the back of the killer’s head, noted he was blond or gray-haired this time around, it was hard to tell in black and white.
The killer’s arm was also visible, stretched across the woman’s torso as he angled a knife to slice away the crotch of the woman’s thong. A lighter lace, Sean saw and jotted a note to himself to see if the thong was still somewhere in the room. He knew the man took trophies and he varied from victim to victim with no discernible pattern. It had taken a little while for Amanda to wake up. Time stamped 10:45 p.m.
Picture 5: Amanda is alone in the picture, still taped to the bed. Her eyes are wide open and her mouth is now taped shut. All of her clothing had been removed – cut away Sean corrected himself. He looked closely for blood and saw only a small nick where she must have struggled when he cut her camisole away. The camisole, also lighter lace, lies in a puddle at the foot of the bed underneath her feet. Sean dutifully notes this information though he starts to believe he may never forget these pictures as long as he lives. He wondered if the camisole would be found anywhere in the room and doubts it. With all the blood splatter on the bed it was difficult to tell what was there and what was missing. Time stamped 10:47 p.m.
Unable to bear it, Sean flipped forward several pictures, flashes of fear and panic, profile pictures of the killer as expected.
Picture 17: Only the whites of Amanda’s eyes were visible and her mouth was wrenched open in a silent scream, the tape hanging over her chin. There were what appear to be random cuts across her breasts and, oh my God, is that a wine bottle showing… ? Sean gasped in abject horror. The man had raped her with a Darioush bottle, one of the larger, heavier bottles made. He jotted a note in illegible handwriting to look for the bottle. He was sure the killer has taken it with him. Time stamped 2:03 a.m.
Sean stopped flipping through the photos. Suddenly it was just too much to bear. The coroner would be able to tell them what she had gone through. He was only 32 but felt as though he had lived a century in the past 15 minutes. He forced himself to look at the last photo, wanting to know what color had been chosen for Sweet Amanda, if this was love or fun or what.
Amanda lay on her stomach on the bed, taped no more, breathing no more if the splatters on the bed were any indication. She had no skin on her buttocks or in a stripe across her back that seemed to correspond with a bathing suit. The color there was red. “It was love,” Sean spoke on the lightest of exhales, “oh thank God we’ll have more time than we did in Georgia.” Then he saw the message. In a beautiful cursive that would make a nun proud, the killer had carved a very personal message on her back. “See you where it all began, beautiful.” He checked the day and timestamp on the photo – Friday, 9:21 p.m.
Sean cursed. He’d been a day late. His reservation had been made for Friday, he’d been in town since Monday, waiting and watching and all to no avail.
Sean realized how tightly he gripped his phone. Speed-dialing Nino he grappled with the facts. Not only had this woman been killed, it had taken 3 days to do it. 3 days! Voicemail: “Nino, it’s Sean, we’ve got another one. Book us tickets for Michigan. We’re going back to Kalamazoo. That’s where we’ll find him.” He knew he didn’t need to be more specific, Nino was well aware. He’d been in on the chase almost from the start.
The two men had been together in Michigan on vacation the first time this killer had struck. Sean had been called in specifically by the killer – he had brought Nino with him for an extra set of eyes. This was one case neither of them would forget. It had almost torn their friendship apart and even now things were tenuous between them but, when this killer called, they both went running.