Black at Heart

black_at_heart_L Even as he devotes himself to catching the Internet’s most despicable criminals, Wyatt Blackstone has become a master of detaching himself from his work. But after losing the vulnerable young agent for whom he cared deeply, Wyatt’s famed icy control is starting to crack. He finds himself haunted by her beautiful image, especially now that someone has started picking off evildoers, with one brutal murder after another. Because the clues point to an absolutely impossible suspect: the woman the world thinks is gone forever…

Book 3
September 2009

EXCERPT
As far as murder victims went, Dr. Todd Fuller didn’t, on the surface, seem a likely candidate to be sliced to ribbons in a no-tell motel in the middle of nowhere. A respected dentist from Scranton, he had a wife, a pricey house, a nice car, a thriving practice, no criminal record. A charmed life, in fact.

There was nothing charming about him now.

Wyatt surveyed the scene from the doorway, wondering why he still had any capacity to be surprised by what man was capable of doing to his fellow man. After everything he had witnessed throughout his life, including some of his very earliest memories, he should be able to muster no dismay that such things were possible.

Yet he found himself having to close his eyes, take a moment to prepare, before entering the room. Because scenes like this one were usually reserved for twisted movies that delivered terror to the masses. Not the real world.

Steady now, calm and emotionless, he stepped inside. His shoes covered with plastic, he skirted the wall with a nod to the crime scene investigators in acknowledgement of their work area. He didn’t bend to examine any evidence, didn’t focus on anything except the overall feeling that lingered in the room long after the crime had been committed.

He could only imagine the rage that had inspired it. In his years with the FBI, he had seen multiple homicides with less blood, inner-city gang war battlefields without as much gore.

Todd Fuller had suffered greatly in his final hours.

Some murders were passionate and some impersonal. He had met killers who claimed to have merely lashed out in a moment they regretted one second too late and others who truly believed they had simply taken care of something that needed to be done. A few were remorseful, some soulless and happy with what they had achieved. Others calculated their crimes, meticulously planned them, with death the goal and the act of killing merely the means to achieving it.

This had been like all of those, and yet, like none of them.

Wielding a knife on a helpless victim, feeling the gush of warm blood spill from his veins, could never be an impersonal act. Yet the planning involved, and the time it had taken, would have required a level of removal, a dispassion. This killer hadn’t lashed out, he had reined in. Inhaled his rage and his emotion. Controlled himself completely while also savoring every minute of it.

In this room, the killer had calmly and patiently accomplished the objective-a man’s death-in the most vicious way possible.

Wyatt knew all that. Because it wasn’t the first time he’d seen this unsub’s handiwork. Like the two that had preceded it, this murder had been carefully orchestrated by someone whose goal was not just death. Something deeper was at work here.

Pleasure? Insanity?

Revenge? Are you wreaking vengeance on all of them because you can’t get to the one you want?

He thrust that thought away, not wanting to let any preconceptions color what he was about to learn regarding the murder of the dentist.

“You Blackstone?” a voice asked.

Nodding, he watched as a plain-clothes officer stepped into the doorway. “Detective Schaefer?”

“Yeah. You made good time. Didn’t think you’d show up until mid-morning.”

Considering how little he slept these days, it had been no great feat to leave his Alexandria home within thirty minutes of the detective’s four a.m. phone call. And the desire to arrive before the body could be removed had prompted him to drive a little faster than normal. He’d pulled up outside the western Maryland hotel just as the automatic street lights had clicked off, hazy, gray morning chasing away the last remnants of dark night.

Wyatt extended his hand to the detective. “Thank you for contacting me about the case.”

Schaefer, a middle-aged man with a strong grip and intelligent eyes that belied the crumpled suit and rumpled hair, nodded as they shook hands. “Not a problem.”

“Have you learned anything more?”

The detective shook his head. “Just the basics I told you about on the phone. Guy went missing two evenings ago. Pennsylvania police were investigating. A local cruiser spotted his car in the parking lot late last night and ran the tag. When he noticed the smell coming from inside, he got the manager up and they found the vic like…” he waved an expansive hand, “well, like you see.”

Steeling himself against the smell of death, Wyatt stepped further inside and scanned the room. “What do you know about him?”

“Not a lot. Missing persons report gave us the basics, but I’m sure we’ll learn more about him as the day goes on.” He shook his head and snapped his chewing gum. “One thing I do know, his funeral ain’t gonna have an open casket.”

“Indeed.”

Wyatt already knew more about the victim than this detective did, including the fact that Fuller’s wife was a thin, slight blonde with a pixie haircut, freckles, and a child-like figure. He had a picture of her on his Blackberry, as well as one of the pre-sliced-up dentist.

Handsome couple, although they’d looked more like father and daughter than man and wife. Which came as no great surprise.

As soon as he’d heard about the murder, he’d contacted the one person he could trust with this particular situation, I.T. Specialist Brandon Cole, and asked him to find out everything he could on the victim. The always-energetic young man had not wasted a second, working from home in the pre-dawn hours. And he’d called him back forty minutes later, following up with an e-mail detailing what he’d found.

Brandon knew the stakes here. He knew what Wyatt was thinking about this case, about who could be killing these men and why. He didn’t believe it. But he knew.

Actually, Wyatt didn’t truly believe it either. And yet here he was.

You know you have to consider the possibility.

Was it possible? Of course. Anything was.

But probable that someone he knew, someone he liked, someone he’d protected, could be responsible for this?

It seemed beyond belief. The evidence, however, could not be ignored.

“Sounded like you weren’t too surprised by what we found here,” said Schaefer.

Again surveying the room, the massacred victim, the dried blood, the lingering aura of violence, he shook his head. “No. Not surprised.”

Then his gaze focused on one spot. On the item that had most drawn his attention when he’d learned of this particular murder. “A tiger lily,” he murmured.

“That what it is?” Schaefer followed his stare. “I don’t know shit about flowers.”

“I’m fairly certain.” Wyatt’s even tone betrayed none of the intensity coursing through him all because of that one vivid, tropical flower.

“Well, like I said on the phone, I saw the bulletin last week about brutal murders of men in small, out-of-the-way hotels. The flower thing sounded nutty. But once I saw this one, I figured this was exactly the kind of case you were watching for.”

“It is. And I appreciate getting the call so quickly.”

Drawn to that single blossom, Wyatt stepped to the bedside table, still cautious to avoid the remains and evidence markers littering the floor. Fortunately, the particular type of flower had no scent, unlike the one at the Virginia crime scene. Last time, it had been an Easter lily, the scent of which always made him think of funeral homes, caskets and grief. The room had already reeked of death, just as this one did. The flower had just made it worse.

This one, though, did not. It was beautiful, its pale-orange petals, though brownish and wilted around the edges, still curled closely together. It had obviously been cut just as it began to open and blossom, before it reached its full potential.

The roar of the tiger cut off with a sharp snick of the blade. A symbol for what had gone on in this room a few nights ago? For why it had gone on?

There was much to learn about Todd Fuller. Wyatt wanted to know if there were any hush-hush rumors about him swirling in his community. Rumors that persisted despite his upstanding reputation as a good dentist, a family man, a generous contributor to children’s charities. He wanted to understand the man’s relationship with his little-girl’ish wife. And he most wanted to know exactly what he had been doing here, so far from home, in this dingy hotel.

If this case proved to be like the last two, he suspected the answer to all of those questions would be found in the man’s computer hard drive. His browsing history would show visits to secret, twisted websites that appealed to a certain type of sadistic individual. His email file would contain communications between murder victim and killer. And they would invariably involve a child.

Yes, if Fuller was like the others, he had come to this hotel thinking he was meeting a father with a young son or daughter he was willing to exploit.

“So what’s the deal? Some florist get mad about the prices of roses around Valentine’s Day and tumble off his rocker?”

Wyatt forced a faint smile. “Not exactly,” he said, barely paying the detective any attention. He had questions for the man, but for now, his focus was on that lily. And on the single drop of blood that lay beside it, congealed and dark on the cheap Formica tabletop. Had it accidentally fallen from the killer’s gloved fingertip as he lovingly left the fragrant calling card?

More imagery. The soft flower resting beside the ultimate symbol of violence-spilled blood-in a blatantly symbolic display of innocence shattered.

Not an accidental drop. Intentional.

A crime scene investigator glanced over. “Place like this, we’ll find tons of prints.”

“Of course you will.”

On the headboard, on the table. On the door, on the walls, on the television remote, on the cracked ice bucket. None of which would matter.

Because none of the fingerprints would match any of the hundreds found in the hotel room just outside of Trenton, New Jersey, or the room in Dumfries, Virginia. Any prints, smears or partials would be from the nameless travelers who had stopped here days, weeks, months ago.

A faint dusting of powder at the previous scenes, and a tiny speck of rubber told them this unsub wore medical gloves. And if he took them off, he wiped clean anything he touched. The faucets in the other two cases had been immaculate-the only place without a single smear. Wyatt believed the unsub had touched them bare-handed, while washing the blood off his tools and himself.

He didn’t doubt these crimes were the work of one killer. The signature was the same, the means, the locations, everything right down to the type of flower left at each scene. Lilies.

“There is a strange looking blood stain on the carpet, over there by the closet door. It’s curved, like maybe from someone’s heel.”

Wyatt’s brow shot up in interest.

“But I dunno, it could have been the handle of a weapon or something,” the CSI said, sounding resigned. “It was pretty small to be from the man who must have done this.”

Too small for a man. The investigator didn’t even speculate on something that immediately entered Wyatt’s head.

A woman. God.

The small-town CSI had never even considered it, obviously not thinking a woman would be capable of such ferocity, such viciousness.

Wyatt knew better. He knew full well what a woman was capable of. Had known since his very early childhood, the memories of which sometimes taunted him with all he’d lost and all the darkness that was possible in this world.

But this case? This woman?

No. He couldn’t believe it. Not until there was not one bit of doubt.

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