I remember as a child hearing the stories about the Man in the Moon. I suppose we all did. If you’re like me—curious—you also wondered if he lived all alone up there on that big old moon. As we move to the sixth level in the Faces of Evil, we encounter a ruthlessness that hits so very close to home. Thirty-three years ago little girls started to go missing in Birmingham, Alabama. One each year around the harvest moon. You know, that’s the time when the moon seems closer to the earth. Some suggested that maybe the moon got so close that the man who lived there reached down and stole a child so he wouldn’t have to be alone anymore.
Read on for a first look at RUTHLESS which will be released on August 27!
Birmingham, Monday, August 16, 10:45 p.m.
He waited until well after dark before setting out to do his work. It wasn’t a task to be done in the light of day.
No, this rotten burden was best carried out in the dark to hide his shame.
Yet nothing was hidden from God.
His raised his face heavenward. “I have no choice, Lord. Forgive me.”
He dropped to his knees beneath the burying tree. Thousands of trees stood all around him, but he knew this was the one. He had not visited this secret place in many years, but he knew it by heart. He skimmed the beam of his flashlight over the towering, gnarled Live Oak. Excitement pumped through his veins, and he cursed himself for allowing the vile reaction.
“Satan!” he growled. “Get thee behind me!”
He ripped open his shirt and reached for the obedience belt he wore. Gritting his teeth, he tightened the wide leather to the next notch. He screamed as the nails dug deeper into his flesh. With small, shallow breaths, he forced his body to relax and savor the agony of his failure.
Hands shaking, he fastened the buttons of his shirt. The sooner he was done with this, the better for all concerned.
He clicked off the light and set it aside. No need for light. The map of his treasures was emblazoned across his soul. He was as familiar with the texture and terrain of this place as he was his own body.
He swept aside nature’s blanket. The heat of dog days had caused the leaves to start to fall earlier than usual, but that was no hindrance. His fingers roved and caressed until he found the spot where he wanted to begin. He lifted the portable spade from his backpack and began the slow, tedious work of moving the rain-softened soil.
“Bless me, Father,” he implored, his teeth clenched against the searing pain of his every move, “for I have sinned.”
The shaking that had started in his hands traveled throughout his body as his pleading words grew more fervent. Thirteen years. Thirteen long years he had abstained from the sweet allure of his one true weakness. No matter how intense the urge, he had remained stoic. His life had changed, and with that change came the necessity to turn aside from the sinful lusting that had haunted him all his days.
Finally, he put the spade aside and closed his eyes. The rest he must do with his bare hands. A renewed thrill dared to trickle through him as the memories of the night he had tucked his prize in this place whispered through his mind. He prayed harder, fought the carnal sensations. He worked his fingers through the earth until he found her. His heart thundered so frantically he wondered if he would survive the coming moments.
He begged for death…but it did not come.
There was no choice but to continue.
He lifted the bundle from its earthen cradle, and his chest ached with the sheer effort of breathing. “Hello, precious one.” Scorching tears flowed down his cheeks as that old craving howled in the deepest recesses of his soul. “I’ve missed you so.”
Birmingham Police Department, Tuesday, August 17, 10:00 a.m.
Her chest too tight for a decent breath, Jess Harris stared at the television mounted on the wall. The images of three young women, brunette and beautiful, remained frozen on the screen. The scroll beneath those bright, smiling faces urged anyone who recognized one or all to contact the FBI’s hotline.
Every news channel, website, and newspaper in the state was running the photos. The story, a tragic true-life reality show guaranteed to boost ratings, had been picked up by the national news. Fox, CNN, they all posed to the world the single question that burned in Jess’s brain:
Have you seen these women?
The Player had started a new game. And Jess was caught in the middle.
The Bureau was in charge of the case, since it involved their ongoing investigation into the serial killer known as the Player, a sadist who was suspected of having murdered countless young women already. Not to mention the two federal agents he and his protégé, Matthew Reed, had murdered last month.
Damn you, Spears…I will get you somehow.
This time the tables were turned. They knew the perpetrator, but they couldn’t identify the victims…and there was no way to predict when the crime would occur. The Bureau and every law enforcement agency in the state were on alert for a crime that hadn’t happened yet.
Jess glanced at her cell phone that lay, oddly silent, on the conference table. Spears had repeatedly turned her life upside down, starting with the demise of her career at the Bureau. And now, the bastard had sent the photos of those three women with a warning that one was about to become his first victim in a new game. Then he’d shut Jess out. She hadn’t heard a word from him since the package containing the photos arrived nearly forty-eight hours ago.
Eric Spears, aka the Player. She squared her shoulders and tried to clear the lump from her throat. No one, not even the Bureau, was denying that Spears was the Player now. Didn’t matter that Jess had told them weeks ago. She hadn’t been able to prove it. So here they were more than a month later, and Spears was out there, free to torture and murder whomever he pleased.
Starting with one of these young women.
Wherever Spears was, rather than communicating with her, he had one of his friends or a hired lackey watching Jess. The texts he’d sent last week proved that much. How else would he know to send Cheers when she was having a glass of wine? Or Bang right after some creep in a dark Infiniti sedan took a shot at her? And she couldn’t forget the fishing worms someone stashed in the fridge at her apartment. Are you going to fish or cut bait?
Spears had gone fishing all right. Jess had to find him…before anyone else died.
“Damn it!” She shoved back her chair and stood. She couldn’t just sit here.
From his desk, Chief of Police Dan Burnett swung his attention toward her. “What’s wrong?”
God, didn’t he get it? Everything was wrong. “You mean besides the fact that you won’t let me out of your sight even to do my job?”
His need to protect her had gone from excessive to completely unreasonable, numerous long and heartfelt talks be damned. No matter how Dan claimed to trust her abilities and instincts, no matter that she had warned him this incessant hovering was making them both look bad to the rest of the department, Spears had made a move and all that had gone out the window.
For the past hour Dan had been going over updates on open cases while she sat here at his conference table pretending to review reports from her detectives on cases she couldn’t investigate. She’d closed out the Five investigation yesterday with a full confession from the perpetrators of that travesty. This morning she’d pretty much been twiddling her damned thumbs.
Visibly resigned to a battle, Dan set aside the report he’d been reviewing and pushed back his chair. Those same grim lines he’d been wearing since Sunday were etched even deeper in his face.
Before she could outmaneuver him he stood in front of her, his strong hands curled around her upper arms, making her long to fall against his chest. Get a grip, Jess. Just went to show how crazy not being able to do something about Spears or anything else was making her.
“You’re worried sick,” he said softly. “I get that.”
Why the hell did he have to treat her as if she were made of glass? “No.” Tears stung her eyes, making her all the angrier. “You do not get it. At least one of those girls will die.”
Fear and anger tore at her heart, stealing her voice for a moment. “She’ll be tortured for days…until he grows weary of her and then she’ll die an ugly, brutal death.” A sharp breath stabbed through Jess. “And it’s all because of me.” Her hand went to her throat as if she could somehow hold back the hurt rising there. “I started this.”
She wished his blue eyes didn’t reflect so very accurately the fear and pain torturing her. This was ripping him apart, too. “Gant and his team are doing everything possible to identify and locate those women. They will find Spears.”
Jess choked out a laugh. She couldn’t help herself; the anguish was giving way to hysteria. “They won’t find him, much less stop him, Dan, you know that.”
This time he looked away. He couldn’t deny the truth any more than she could. Her lips started that confounded trembling again, and she couldn’t manage to summon the proper words to explain the rest of what needed to be said.
Someone would die soon…because of her.
Her heart pounded in her ears, ticking off the silent seconds. If he would just back off…give her some space…so she could do what needed to be done.
“All right.” He exhaled a heavy breath. “But you will not make a move without Sergeant Harper or Detective Wells right beside you. You will not go home or anywhere else without one of them or without me. Understood?” He shook his head, the look on his face dead serious. “No exceptions, Jess. No pretending this time that the danger isn’t real and imminent.”
Relief rushed through her so hard her knees almost gave way. “You have my word. You can put a tracking device in my bag. Whatever makes you feel comfortable.” Truth was, that wasn’t a bad idea. As desperately as she wanted to do something besides sit here, she understood the danger was all too real. And definitely imminent. As badly as she wanted to stop Spears, she didn’t want anyone to die in the process—including her.
The MO he was using this time around was similar to the games he’d played before, he’d simply taken a different and startling new strategy to get from selecting his victim to abducting her. Spears wasn’t playing with her this time. Jess sensed that cold, hard fact to the very core of her being. What did a killer who sat at the very top of the most evil scale do for a finale?
“I’m glad you feel that way,” Dan said, hauling her back to the here and now. “I’m assigning a surveillance detail to you 24/7.”
Daniel Burnett, her friend, lover, and boss—not necessarily in that order—wasn’t going to take any chances this go-around. He knew her a little too well. Jess had a habit of going rogue when the need arose.
“Whatever it takes. Cooperation will be my middle name,” she promised. As long as she got to get back to work and out from under his thumb.
He assessed her a moment longer before heading for his desk to put his warning into action. “You’ll keep me apprised of your every move.”
“Absolutely.” She felt like a bird just let out of its cage as she gathered her bag and files. “I’ll head on down to SPU now and let you get back to your work.” The Special Problems Unit and her office was just a short flight of stairs or a brief elevator ride away—the latter being her preferred method of getting from here to there. Four-inch heels and stairs just didn’t go well together.
Dan shook his head. “I’ll have Harper come get you.”
Her jaw dropped. She couldn’t move about inside the building, for heaven’s sake, without an escort? Before she could demand an answer to that question, Burnett—she was too mad now to keep calling him Dan, even in her mind—made the call.
Opting to choose her battles, she snapped her mouth shut and decided that getting her way with Harper would be a whole lot easier than trying to get anything over on Daniel T. Burnett. He was far too hardheaded and impossible to persuade into seeing things her way when any measure of risk was involved.
“Harper’s on his way.” He tossed his cell phone back on his desk. “Don’t make me regret this decision, Jess. I’m counting on you not to let me down.”
“I gave you my word.” If her record didn’t show otherwise she might be offended. But she had a well-documented history of doing things her own way regardless of instructions from her superiors. “Besides,” she added with a shrug, “I’ve never once disobeyed orders unless it was the best for the victim or the case. You can’t say otherwise.”
That part was the irrefutable truth.
Even her former employer, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, couldn’t claim she’d bent—or broken, more often than not—the rules without the best interest of the case at heart. There were some evils out there that simply couldn’t be stopped by the book. The Player was one of those.
Fortunately, a rap at the door prevented Dan’s pursuit of that topic.
“You wanted to see me, sir?” Harper glanced from Burnett to Jess.
She gave her detective a nod sans the victorious smile now tugging at her lips and waited quietly, obediently, as Dan laid down the law. Her frustration dissipated faster than fog clearing beneath the rising sun as the reality that she was really getting out of this office-turned-prison seeped fully into her veins.
I will get you, Spears.
When Harper had been fully informed of his grave duty, he gave a nod without so much as another glance at Jess. “I understand, sir.”
Jess was out of the chief of police’s office and heading for freedom before Harper could turn around. She bypassed the elevator, since it was monitored by security, and she needed a word with her detective in private. She waited until she and Harper were in the stairwell headed down to SPU before voicing her request.
“I need a disposable phone, Sergeant.”
“Something wrong with your phone, ma’am?”
At the door to their floor she gave him a skeptical look. “You don’t want to know the answer to that. Just get me one I can use without anyone tracking it.”
“I’ll send Cook to Walmart.”
“Thank you.” She finally let that triumphant smile she’d been holding back make an appearance. “We have work to do.”
He gave her a nod. “Yes, ma’am.”
A kind of calm descended and Jess’s pulse rate steadied as she entered her own domain. Her small staff waited for her. SPU’s team consisted of her and only three others, and the floor space allotted for their offices was just one big room, but it was her unit and she couldn’t be happier for some sense of normalcy. The past forty or so hours had been unbearable.
“Good morning, Chief.” Detective Lori Wells looked as relieved to have her back as Jess felt at being here.
More so than anyone else at the BPD, Lori had as much reason as Jess to want Spears caught. His protégé, Reed, had kidnapped and tortured her just to lure Jess into a trap that mercifully fell apart, but not before people died.
“Good morning, Lori.” Jess gave her and then Officer Chad Cook, the youngest of their team, a nod. “Cook.”
“Ma’am,” Cook greeted. “We’ve missed you.”
A statement as simple as that shouldn’t have had her struggling to hold a fresh rush of emotion back, but it did. This was her new home and it felt exactly like that. A mere six months ago she wouldn’t have believed she would ever be back in Birmingham feeling like she belonged. But here she was and it felt right.
The television mounted on the wall opposite their case board was running the same news coverage as the one in Burnett’s office. Jess hoped someone out there would recognize those three women and call in. Soon. There was no way to know if one or all three were already missing or even where they lived. For now, the Bureau was focused on the state of Alabama, since the package containing the photos had been mailed from Montgomery. But the truth was they had no clue who or where these women were—they had nothing except the photos and the promise of bad things to come.
Spears was too smart to get caught easily. He had no doubt selected very carefully for this pivotal game. Women who were loners, maybe had no families. Women who wouldn’t be missed right away. That strategy would buy him the time he wanted to draw out the game.
Every step he took was judiciously calculated for optimal gain and leverage.
While Harper pulled Cook aside to give him his task, Jess parked her stuff on her desk and headed for the case board. Lori, with a manila folder in hand, joined her there.
“I was waiting until you got here to start.” Lori opened the folder and revealed copies of the photos of the unidentified women and a photo of Spears.
The unsavory combo of anxiety, fear, and frustration almost got the better of Jess again. “Thank you.” She was extremely lucky to have Lori and Harper on her team. Cook, too. The vacant desk reminded her that SPU was a member short since Valerie Prescott had moved on to the Gang Task Force.
A sense of foreboding churned in Jess’s belly. Captain Ted Allen, head of Birmingham’s Gang Task Force, was still missing. More than a week now. Whatever else she knew, Jess understood with complete certainty that his disappearance had something to do with her. Yet she couldn’t connect Allen’s disappearance with Spears and his game. Had to be the high-profile Lopez drug case she and Allen had repeatedly butted heads over. Although there was plenty of gossip floating around the station that she’d had something to do with Allen’s disappearance. She didn’t like the captain, and liked the fact that he may very well have planted a bomb in her car even less, but there was only one man she wanted dead enough to do the deed herself.
If she let herself contemplate all that had happened in the last six weeks or so, she might just lose it. After all, what forty-two-year-old woman wouldn’t want a serial killer kidnapping innocent women to get her attention and a cop who hated her going missing—after possibly planting a bomb in her department vehicle? Gave new meaning to the term mid-life crisis.
“I was thinking about a replacement for Prescott,” Lori said, evidently noting Jess’s lingering attention on the vacant desk.
Thankful for the reprieve from the other thoughts, Jess set the self-pity party aside for now. “I doubt we’ll get any cases thrown our way until this—” she blew out a big blast of frustration “—is over, but we do need to fill that vacancy. Who’d you have in mind?”
“Lieutenant Clint Hayes. He’s over in Admin right now, but he’s been looking for an opportunity to get in the field.”
Jess placed the photo of Spears on the case board. She hated those pale blue eyes of his. Not the same deep, true blue of Dan’s. Spears’s were that pale, ghostly color that warned pure evil thrived beneath them. “Give me some stats on Hayes.”
“Thirty-four. Single. Went to Samford. Finished law school with high honors but opted not to go that route. Instead he hired on with the BPD.”
Jess stalled before getting the final photo on the board. “Decided he’d rather be one of the good guys, is that it?”
Lori gave a halfhearted shrug. “Something like that.”
There was more to this story. “Something like what…exactly?”
“There was a morals issue in the background check,” Harper chimed in from his desk.
With the last photo in place Jess turned to her senior detective. “What kind of morals issue?”
“The state bar association discovered he had worked his way through college”—Harper strolled up, hands in pockets and wearing a smirk—“as a gigolo. They refused to certify his character.”
A frown puckered her eyebrows. Jess rubbed at what would end up another wrinkle if she didn’t stop the habit. A gigolo? Do tell. “Evidently he was never arrested for solicitation.” That kind of mark on his record would have kept him off the force as well.
“Never,” Lori confirmed. “Character references killed his chances with the state bar association—a couple of his own friends ratted him out. Cost him his chosen career and the city one hell of a sharp attorney.”
“Good Lord.” Jess looked from one detective to the other, certain she had misheard. “You’re telling me the bar association ignored his superior academic prowess and refused to admit him because he’d worked as a manwhore?” She could think of far worse things lawyers did every day, and it rarely got them disbarred.
“I’m telling you,” Harper chuckled, “that the BPD hired him because he was a manwhore.”
Now Jess was really confused.
“It was the mayor’s idea,” Lori interjected, wearing her own smirk now. “Rumor was that Clint’s little black book included Mayor Pratt’s wife’s name.”
In spite of the insanity going on around her, Jess had to laugh. Seemed like for all their old money and power the mayor’s family and friends just couldn’t resist dancing around the dark side. And in the South, even in a city the size of Birmingham, everyone who was anyone knew everyone else. “Don’t you just love small-town justice?”
Harper leaned in closer. “You think he called up Mayor Pratt and asked for a favor, or do you think the mayor’s wife took care of it for him?”
“Good question.” Jess cleared her throat. “If the two of you think Hayes would prove an asset to our cozy little group, I’m fine with a probationary period.” She wouldn’t mention the idea that having a little dirt on the mayor would make her immensely happy. “Talk to him,” she said to Lori. “If he’s agreeable and Burnett approves it, we’ll bring him over as soon as possible.”
Before Jess turned her attention back to the case board she wanted one more administrative issue out of the way, since their youngest member was out of the room. “We need to start grooming Cook for the detectives’ exam.”
“I can handle that,” Harper offered.
“Excellent.” Whether or not Cook got a promotion wasn’t such a priority right now, but Jess needed to hang on to a few threads of normalcy. Spears was doing all within his power to take that from her.
Ruthless, that was what he was. Ruthless and pure evil. If she had her way he would die screaming.
Satisfaction warmed her heart. Oh yes. I will get you this time.
“Your Realtor called.” Lori hitched her head toward Jess’s desk. “There’s a message. Something about the last week of September for the closing date on your house.”
There was another normalcy Jess had been hoping for. It also meant she only had to pay one more house payment before that burden was lifted. There would be some fees involved with the sell, but her equity in the house would take care of that.
“I’ll give her a call back later today.” Jess realized then that both detectives were staring at her. “Oh, sorry. With all that happened, I forgot to tell you. My house in Virginia finally sold. Full asking price.” Thank God for that last part. “The call came Sunday afternoon just before”—she gestured to the board—“this happened.” A splinter of fear needled its way back into her chest.
You have to do something, Jessie Lee. Something that will stop him in his tracks. Fast.
“So.” She walked to her desk to prowl for her glasses. “The hotlines have no confirmed leads on the identities of these women.”
“A few callers,” Harper said, “insist they’ve seen one or the other around their hometown but they don’t know their names. Most of the calls are coming from the Montgomery and Mobile areas.”
“The FBI’s adding an additional layer to the searches in those towns, but it’s like the proverbial needle in the haystack,” Lori added.
“No matches to Alabama driver’s licenses?” Glasses in place, Jess moved back to the case board.
Harper hummed a note of regret. “Nothing yet.”
There was no way to know how much time they had before Spears took the next step, but Jess suspected it wouldn’t be enough. “These women are the right age to be college students. Maybe students from other states. That could explain why we didn’t get a hit with the DMV.” Damn it. Or new residents of Alabama who hadn’t had time to make all the documentation changes.
“The FBI is checking all databases at their disposal,” Lori mentioned.
That was something. But unless these women had passports or had committed a felony they wouldn’t likely be in any of those databases.
Across the room Jess’s cell clanged. Wouldn’t be Dan. If there was a new development he would just appear at the door. Maybe Lily had news. Her sister was pretty frustrated with the inability of her doctors to figure out what was going on with all these crazy symptoms plaguing her. Jess was damned frustrated herself. Her sister had always been as healthy as a horse. The concept of a serious health issue just didn’t seem possible.
“Carry on,” Jess suggested to her detectives, as she hurried back to her desk.
Lori created the time line and added the notes Harper recommended. The two had been dating for a few weeks now, and thankfully so far the fledgling relationship hadn’t affected their work in any way. Jess hoped it stayed that way. She knew from experience it wasn’t an easy balancing act to sustain.
At her desk she picked up her cell and frowned at the screen. Why would Gina Coleman be calling her? Jess had nothing on the Spears case to give Birmingham’s favorite reporter. As far as Jess was concerned, after the business with the Five case the two of them were even on who owed whom what.
“You need to get over here, Harris. Now.”
Adrenaline kicked Jess’s heart back into that same frantic pace she’d been suffering since Sunday afternoon. “What’s going on?”
“A package was left with the receptionist at the studio. It’s addressed to me but there’s a message on the inside flap that says I should give it to you. I don’t know what it is, but it smells dead.”
12:45 p.m., Channel Six Studios
The fact that he was the chief of police with a job to do gave Dan no comfort when what he wanted right now more than anything in this world was to protect Jess from opening that damned bundle.
Every part of him howled with the need to do this himself, but Jess would never stand for it and with a unit from the Bomb Squad as well as a dozen other cops including evidence techs standing by, he couldn’t exactly argue with his newest deputy chief.
Deputy Chief Jess Harris had a job to do, too.
The building had been evacuated of Channel Six personnel, including Gina Coleman, who had argued the edict all the way out the door. The experts had examined the box intended for Jess and pronounced it free of incendiary materials and other destructive substances. That assessment made the package’s contents no less explosive.
After a thorough analyzing, including digital X-rays and probing, the contents were deemed skeletal remains wrapped in disintegrating burlap and plastic.
Once placed on a trace sheet to ensure no evidence was lost, the bundle had been removed from the cardboard shipping box. With Harper standing on one side and an evidence tech on the other, Jess carefully opened the bundle of fabric. Dan and the rest of those gathered stayed back. The fewer bodies crammed around that table, the less likelihood of contaminating whatever evidence the package contained or represented.
The Channel Six security video showed the delivery was made to the station via UPS just after ten that morning. Detective Wells and Officer Cook had interviewed the clerks at the originating UPS Store. One clerk remembered the guy, who’d given his name as Smith Johnson. Johnson was old with thick-lensed glasses, thin gray hair, and a walking cane. His long sleeves and gloves despite the August heat wave hadn’t triggered the usual alarms. The clerk figured he was just an old man trying to avoid sun exposure.
The return address Johnson gave was just as bogus as the name he’d used.
Detective Wells was standing by at the UPS Store for a copy of the video footage from the security system.
A new rush of frustration rammed Dan. What the hell was Spears up to now? Had he dared to disguise himself and waltz into that store right here in Birmingham so he could personally mail this package to Jess? Wasn’t it enough that he was torturing her with potential victims?
More outrage threatened to consume Dan whenever he thought of the SOB, and it had to be wrestled back. If he was going to be any good to Jess or this department, he had to keep his emotions in check.
Harper and Jess exchanged a look, and Dan’s attention zeroed back in on the here and now. “Chief,” Harper said with a grim look in Dan’s direction, “you should call Deputy Chief Black.”
Black? Why would they need another cop on the scene? To hell with it. Dan strode to the table. Harper pointed to the newspaper article preserved in a small plastic sleeve that he had placed on the trace sheet next to pieces of crumpled newspaper and ragged burlap along with the first of several small human bones.
Search Continues for Missing Child.
Recognition slammed Dan in the gut, and the blood in his veins went cold. Dorie Myers. “Jesus Christ.”
Jess stared up at him, her face showing the same shock and confusion he felt. “Do you know the name?”
The dread resonating in her voice made what he had to say all the more difficult. “A third grader who went missing twelve…” he shook his head “…no, thirteen years ago.”
“The Man in the Moon,” Harper said quietly.
God Almighty, this would rip open old wounds in this community that went back decades.
Jess’s breath caught. “Oh my God. I remember that case.”
Though she hadn’t lived here for the past twenty years she would remember the case from before…when she was a kid. Just as Dan did. Like anyone who had resided in or around Birmingham in those days would. He’d been almost ten when the first little girl went missing. His heart felt like a massive rock in his chest.
Twenty little girls had gone missing and were dubbed victims of the so-called Man in the Moon. For two decades he had struck every fall on the night of the harvest moon, like clockwork, and then, thirteen years ago, he suddenly stopped…with Dorie Myers.
This wasn’t Spears’s kind of evil, but it was the work of an equally ruthless monster.
BPD Conference Room, 4:00 p.m.
Mayor Joseph Pratt and all the deputy division chiefs lined the long table in the center of the room. The somber sound of Black’s voice filled the heavy air. Dan’s mind still reeled with this latest turn of events.
Deputy Chief Harold Black headed up Crimes Against Persons. Kidnappings and murders fell under his domain. For nine years after making detective with the Birmingham Police Department, Black had worked the Man in the Moon case. He knew the case. Knew the families involved. Had suffered as much as anyone when the monster couldn’t be found.
Dan stretched his neck and attempted to stay focused on Harold’s briefing. The man was not going to like it when he got the news that this case would not be his this time.
But the cold, hard truth was that all of Harold’s experience with the case couldn’t trump Jess’s uncanny instincts when it came to hunting down killers like the Man in the Moon. This killer or someone who knew him had reached out to Jess, so assigning SPU to handle the investigation was the only reasonable move. SPU had been created for precisely this sort of case. Equally important was the fact that Dan needed Harold working with the FBI on the Spears case as well as leading the investigation on Ted Allen’s disappearance. Harold couldn’t argue that rationale.
But he would.
“Why ‘Man in the Moon’?” Wells asked. “Was it because the missing children attributed to him all disappeared during a full moon?”
“That was part of it.” Harold stood in front of an elaborate case board he had put together in record time for this briefing. Photos of all twenty children suspected to be related to the case lined the board.
“Each year for approximately two decades a female child between the ages of seven and nine went missing on the night of the harvest or hunter’s moon, the full moon nearest the autumnal equinox,” he explained. “That particular full moon always seems closer to the earth. At some point there was a comment in the media about how it was almost as if the moon got so close to the earth that the man living there reached down and snatched a human child so he wouldn’t have to live alone.” Harold shrugged. “The legend stuck and the unknown perpetrator has been referred to in that way since.”
“Has this sudden delivery after all these years,” Mayor Pratt spoke up, “given us new evidence as to the identity of the monster we’re looking for?”
“Not yet, sir,” Harold admitted, “but our forensics personnel are still analyzing evidence. We hope to have something soon.”
Pratt grunted. “What do you propose to announce to the press?” he inquired with blatant skepticism. “This won’t stay under wraps long, I can guarantee you that. People have waited a very long time to know what happened to these children.” He surveyed the table, his attention landing lastly on Dan. “This department has enjoyed a lengthy reprieve from this monster but the people, particularly the families still seeking closure for their immense losses, will demand action. How do you intend to handle that, Chief Burnett?”
“This department,” Dan said emphatically, “will do what it always does—everything possible to find the person or persons responsible for these despicable acts. As soon as the remains are officially identified, the family will be contacted and we’ll make an announcement to the press. I hope to do that by six this evening.”
Pratt gave him a look that suggested he wasn’t convinced, then he shifted his holier-than-thou regard to the next unexpected aspect of this development. “Why was this package sent to Harris?” he asked, as if she weren’t in the room and he wasn’t looking straight at her. “She had nothing to do with this case. She wasn’t even here for the better part of the time frame we’re looking at.”
Before Dan could suggest there was rarely any logic to the acts of a deranged killer, Harold interjected, “I’m certain Chief Harris’s recent notoriety has garnered his attention. Sociopaths and psychopaths often crave that sort of attention. He most likely feels a connection of sorts with Chief Harris.” Harold presented an indulgent smile to Jess. “No offense intended, of course.”
“None taken,” Jess assured him. “I’m sure you’ll have your own fan club one day.”
Dan scrubbed a hand over his jaw, mostly to cover the smile her comeback aroused but also to prevent telling Harold to sit down and shut up. “Considering his probable age”—Dan directed this at Harold—“it’s possible he’s suffering health issues and has decided to reveal himself through the highest-profile deputy chief in the department.”
Harold’s posture stiffened. One day the man would learn to play nice with Jess.
“I hate to disagree with the two of you,” Jess said, as she divided her attention between them, “but I sincerely doubt either of those scenarios.”
Silence expanded in the room. Just like old times. What was a briefing without a standoff between Jess and Harold? Or Jess and everyone else in the room, for that matter? How that made him love her all the more was a mystery.
“Well,” Harold said, waving his hand in invitation, “I’m quite certain we’d all like to hear your analysis, Chief Harris.”
“Since I had little time to review the case, my impressions are based primarily on what I’ve heard here today.” Jess adjusted her glasses and surveyed the case board. “If these abductions, only one each year over a two-decade span, are indeed the work of a single perpetrator, then he is incredibly disciplined. He has likely led a normal life within the community. Married with kids and grandchildren.” She shrugged. “He has shown no desire to draw attention to his work in the past. If all the cases are indeed connected to him and he’s still alive—”
“They are all connected to him,” Harold interrupted.
“By date alone?” Jess challenged. “How many other children went missing during those same years? Children of the same age group,” she pressed, “and with no clues left behind as to why they were taken? Timing alone is a skimpy link, Chief.”
“Your points carry merit,” Harold agreed, his back still ramrod straight and his expression no less skeptical of Jess’s opinion.
Dan waited for the other shoe to drop.
“But only one child in a one-hundred-mile radius around this city went missing precisely on the night of the harvest moon each and every one of those years. Coincidence?” He held his hands out, palms up. “Perhaps.”
Jess acknowledged his move with a dip of her head. “Then again, after the third or fourth year, the media made a big to-do about the harvest moon connection. Copycats love to capitalize on that kind of attention.” She looked around the table, confident in her assessment. “Whatever we think we know, it’s our job to dig deeper and find the elements that connect the victims to the person or persons who chose that date to do his dirty little deeds. Bottom line, we need a motive. Was he lonely? Satisfying sadistic sexual urges? Are we dealing with one perpetrator or several? Can we adequately connect all of those cases? We have a lot of questions and not nearly enough answers.”
While Jess and Harold continued their debate, Harper slipped out of the room. Dan’s instincts went on point. He hoped the detective was seeking privacy for an update from the forensic techs. They could damn sure use a break about now. So far they had three decades of nothing except missing little girls and no clues.
“Who’s lead on this case?” Pratt demanded, evidently weary of the back-and-forth between the deputy chiefs. He glared at Dan. “We need forward momentum, not this pointless rehashing and butting of heads.”
“I couldn’t agree more.” Dan had intended to discuss this with Harold in private. So much for keeping the peace in the department. Since all eyes shifted to Dan, there was no getting around making that announcement here and now.
The door opened and Harper returned. He walked straight to Dan and passed a note before taking his seat.
As he read the words Harper had scrawled on the page, Dan’s throat went dry.
He’d read the words twice before the silence in the room dragged him from the haze of disbelief. “The forensic techs have been analyzing and dissecting the packaging used for delivering the remains to Channel Six. The perp left us a note by circling letters on the pages of newspapers.”
Reluctance and more of that frustration coiled deep in his gut. “Hello, Jess.” Dan’s gaze connected with hers. “We’re all waiting for you to find us.”
The pain on Jess’s face ripped open his chest a little wider. How the hell could this happen? Another killer wanted to play games with her?
“How do you intend to proceed, Chief Harris?” Pratt demanded. “Obviously the decision as to who will be lead on this case has been made. This monster wants you to find him and his victims.”
“This year’s harvest moon will be on September nineteenth,” Detective Wells offered when no one else in the room seemed able to find their voice.
Before Jess could answer, Tara Morgan cracked the door open and stuck her head in the room. Dan motioned for her to come on in as the debate between Harold and Jess reignited, a little hotter this time. Tara lingered near the door rather than coming to the table, the signal loud and clear. She had news to relay that she didn’t want the others to hear. Dan didn’t bother excusing himself from the table. He doubted anyone would notice.
As soon as he reached her, Tara leaned close and whispered, “Chief, there are…” she chewed her lip a second before she said the rest “…people in the lobby demanding to see you. I told them you were in a briefing, but they won’t take no for an answer.”
“People?” Confusion jumped into the mix of frustration and worry churning inside him. “Reporters?”
Tara shook her head. “Parents of some of the—” she nodded toward the case board “—children.”
A press briefing was tentatively scheduled for six. Nothing about this investigation was supposed to be released to the public until then. A wave of fury gave his gut a twist. “How many, Tara? How many parents are we talking about?”
“Four.” She gave him the names.
“Okay. Show them to my office.” His cell vibrated. Bloody hell. If there was more news like this he could do without it. “I’ll be there as soon as I can,” he assured her.
To tell them what?
The cell phone in his pocket started that damned vibrating again. He checked the screen. Gina. She’d better have one hell of an excuse for this breach of trust.
It was one thing to hold a press briefing to inform the public that remains from a cold case had been discovered and to assure the citizens that the BPD was on top of the matter. It was entirely another to inform the parents of victims before remains were properly identified Gina had given her word that she wouldn’t release a word until he gave her the go-ahead.
Now he would have to deliver the heartbreaking news that they had nothing…except the promise of more anguish to come.
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