Read an Excerpt
The figure did a macabre dance as flames leapt to engulf it. Screams knifed through the night shadows, hideous and agonizing. The smell of gasoline lingered strong and heavy in the air, mingling with the stomach turning stench of seared flesh and hair. Garbled pleas for mercy interspersed the screams.
But there would be no mercy from the watcher.
Nude, he stood just close enough to feel the searing heat on his bare skin. The flames beckoned madly, enticing him to join them. Just a step closer, they seemed to hiss. Feel it. Share it. Make us one.
He withstood the furnace like blast as long as he could before moving further away, his gaze transfixed by the writhing human torch. Fire was endlessly fascinating. Unstopped, it would gild the body, melt skin, and singe bone until it was sated. By that time, the figure would be little more than charred fragments of teeth and bone. Flames purified, cleansed the act of evil until only the motivation mattered.
And no one had better motivation than him.
He flung out his arms like a preacher inciting the heavens, his form silhouetted against the brilliant glow. Justice had been a long time coming. And it couldn’t be evaded any longer.
Marisa Chandler fought through the weight of sleep in a desperate bid for consciousness. Rolling from the bed, she immediately dropped to the floor, her limbs unresponsive.
But the jolt yanked her firmly from dream to waking, and for that alone she was grateful.
A bit painfully, she pushed herself to sit upright, leaning against the side of the bed. Sweat slicked her body, as if the flames in her nightmares had emitted real heat.
It had felt real. They always did.
She took a moment to will away the shudders that still racked her body. It hadn’t been the same nightmare that had plagued her for four long months. She could give thanks for that, even as she fought to shrug off fear of what the vision might portend.
Resting her head against the mattress, she closed her eyes. Dreams like this one didn’t mean anything. Not anymore.
The recognition brought both relief and despair.
The peal of the doorbell shrilled though her thoughts. Risa opened her eyes. Thought about ignoring it. But there was faint light edging the shades over the window, heralding dawn’s approach. Her mother would have just gotten off her cleaning shift a few hours ago. She deserved the sleep.
The bell rang again insistently. Heaving herself to her feet, she padded barefoot to the door, checked the judas hole. The image of the stranger on the front porch was tiny, but she didn’t need a larger image to identify him as a plain-clothes cop. Faintly intrigued, she pulled the door open, leaving the screen door latched in case she was wrong.
Her instincts hadn’t been exactly foolproof recently.
She took her time answering, scanning first the detective shield he held up for her perusal, then, more slowly, him. Caucasian, six feet, about one-eighty, all of it muscle. Black hair and eyes. Hard jaw, uncompromising chin. Only visible identifying mark was the small crescent shaped scar above one eyebrow. And despite his lack of expression, impatience was all but bouncing off him.
“Detective Nate McGuire, Philadelphia Police Department.” He slipped his shield inside his jacket. “I’m on my way to a possible crime scene. My captain passed along a request from the Chief Inspector of the Detective Bureau that I extend you an invite to ride along. In an unofficial capacity, of course.”
A chill broke out over her skin, chasing away the remnants of heat that still lingered from the nightmare. “Why would he do that?”
McGuire lifted a dark brow. “I figured you’d know.”
She shoved her heavy mass of hair from her face and shook her head. Risa hadn’t looked up any old friends from the force since coming home four months ago. Had avoided news like the plague. That hadn’t been difficult given her mother’s penchant for watching only game shows and inspirational broadcasting.
“Apparently your employer, Adam Raiker spoke to Chief Inspector Wessels about it.” His midnight dark gaze did a fast once over, clearly wondering what it was about the woman in faded yoga pants and an ancient Penn State T-shirt that would catch the attention of the head of the detectives. “So I was told to stop and ask if you’re interested. I’m asking.”
She swallowed, just managed to avoid shrinking away from the door. “No.”
He nodded, clearly not disappointed. “Sorry to wake you.” Turning, he began down the stairs, leaving her to stare after him, fingers clutching the doorjamb.
Raiker. Damn him, her boss wouldn’t leave her in peace. Wouldn’t accept what she’d already accepted herself. Guilt, well earned, had rendered her useless. To him. To his forensics consulting company. And certainly to this detective.
The small house didn’t have a driveway or garage. McGuire was halfway to the street where he’d left his ride, a discreet black Crown Vic. He moved like an athlete, his stride quick and effortless. She had the impression she’d already been forgotten as he mentally shifted gears to his first priority, his response to the call out.
“What’s the crime?” For a moment she was frozen, hardly believing the voice had come from her. She didn’t do this anymore. Hadn’t for months. Likely never would again.
But still she waited, breath held, until he hesitated, half turned to call over his shoulder, “Possible homicide. A burned corpse was found about fifteen minutes ago.”
The air clogged in her lungs. Blood stopped chugging through veins. Organs froze in suspended animation. The figure in the dream danced in her mind again, the engulfing flames spearing skyward.
But those dreams had become meaningless. Hadn’t they?
Oxygen returned in a rush. “Wait!”
McGuire had reached the car now. And he made no attempt to mask his irReneetion. “For what?”
“Give me five minutes.”
His response followed her as she turned away to dash toward the bathroom. “You’ve already used three.” So she paused only to brush her teeth, drag a comb through her hair and shove her bare feet into sneakers. Then she headed out again, snatching her coat and purse in one practiced move as she passed the closet. Risa took a moment to lock the door behind her before jogging down the steps toward his vehicle, already regretting her decision.
She didn’t do this anymore. Couldn’t do it anymore.
Which didn’t explain why her legs kept moving her in the direction of the car.
She’d barely slid inside the vehicle before he was pulling away from the curb. Shooting the detective a quick look, she pulled the door shut and reached for the seat belt. “What’s the location?”
“Body was found in a wooded area in the northern part of the city,” he said in clipped tones.
“So you’re from the Northeast Detective Division? Or the homicide unit?” She busied herself buttoning her navy jacket. It had occurred to her that the day was likely to be long and chilly. The temps had been unseasonably cool for May.
It was what he didn’t say that caught her attention. “If you’re homicide, the call must have sounded fairly certain that there was foul play involved. Or else the crime bears some resemblance to one you’re already working. Which is it?”
Dawn was spilling soft pastels across the horizon, but the interior of the car was still shadowy. Even so, she would have to be blind to miss the mutinous jut to his jaw. “What’s your story, anyway?”
His attitude managed to slice through her self-doubt and land her squarely into familiar territory. She was well acquainted with suspicious cops. They would be the one element of her job she wouldn’t miss if she left it. When she left it.
“I assume Inspector Wessels told you whatever he wanted you to know.”
The sound he made was suspiciously close to a snort. “The chief doesn’t talk to me. And Captain Morales wasn’t in the mood for details when we spoke.”
She was sidetracked by his words. “Captain Morales? Eduardo Morales?”
Surprised delight filled her. “When’d he get his bars? I hadn’t heard about his promotion.” If she’d looked up old friends while she’d be in town maybe she’d have caught up on department gossip. But first she’d been focused on recovery and rehab for the physical wounds and then…the thought skittered across her mind before she had a chance to slam that mental door shut.
Then she’d been licking her emotional wounds.
“How do you know Morales?” He did a quick right on red in an effort, she suspected, to avoid waiting for the light.
“I was eight years on the force here before joining Raiker Forensics five years ago. Worked out of the Major Crimes Unit—Robbery and Burglary.” Amazing that the words would be accompanied by a tug of nostalgia. “Morales and I were tapped for special duty on a Violent Offenders task force for several months. He’s a good cop. How long have you worked with him?”
“Just a couple months.” And it was clear that he was nowhere close yet to deciding if he shared her opinion of the captain. He shot her another sidelong glance. “You don’t look like a cop.”
“Chances are if I’d been knocking at your door at the crack of dawn, you wouldn’t roll out of bed looking much like one either.” She gave him a bland smile. “Unless you sleep with your shield pinned to your. . .chest.”
Amazingly, his teeth flashed, although he didn’t shift his attention away from his driving. “So you were on the job. But not homicide. Makes me wonder why Wessels wants you tagging along for this.”
“My experience has broadened since leaving the force.” And now it was her turn to go silent and brooding. Nothing could be gained from this outing, unless it was ammunition for her ongoing argument with Raiker. She was done with this work. The only question was why her boss remained unconvinced.
Risa recognized the area of town he drove to as one that used to be the haven of young drug users who wanted a remote place to get high. But it was deserted now, save for the police presence. The crime scene unit van was parked next to an unmarked car, and there were four other black and whites nearby. They got out of the car and made their way through a heavily wooded area before entering a clearing. It looked like the scene was secured and taped off, but those details were noted with a distant part of her brain.
Her focus was fixed on the blackened corpse lying inside the police tape.
A CSU tech was snapping photographs, and another man was kneeling next to the body fiddling with a machine she couldn’t make out from here. But those observations registered only dimly. It was the victim who consumed her attention.
Because her palms had gone suddenly, inexplicably damp, she wiped them on her pants as she walked with more than a little reluctance to the scene. And wished once more that she were anywhere but here.
“Which one of you took the call?” McGuire stopped outside the tape and scanned the half dozen uniforms in the vicinity.
“That’d be us.” Two men stepped forward, both of them casting Risa a questioning gaze. One was tall and beefy, a good six inches taller than McGuire. The speaker was several inches shy of Risa’s five ten height. With his thick neck, skinny limbs and sturdy torso, he bore an unfortunate resemblance to SpongeBob, of cartoon fame. “Officer’s Tready and Lutz.” A jerk of his thumb indicated his partner as the former.
“Detective Nate McGuire. Homicide.”
The flash of Nate’s shield seemed to only partially pacify the man. He was still eyeing Risa quizzically.
“So run it down for me.” McGuire’s tone held enough of an edge that it captured Lutz’s total focus.
“The lady who found it—Heather Bixby’s her name--was out walking her dog. Wasn’t sure what it was, but the body was still smoking when she came upon it. She called 9-1-1. Tready took her statement. She’s waiting over in the car there.”
“Walking her dog in this area? Alone, while it was still dark?” Doubt dripped from McGuire’s tone as he shot a look at the car the officer had indicated. Risa seconded his disbelief. Philadelphia had dozens of parks, many of them updated with miles of paved trails. There was one within walking distance of here. While this spot, if anything, had grown seedier since her time on the force. The trees and bushes were overgrown, and it didn’t appear as if public dollars were going to be spent anytime soon on creating recreation paths for joggers.
Lutz lifted his shoulders. “That’s what she claimed, and she’s sticking with the story. Making noises about needing to get to work, so if you want to talk to her, might need to make it quick.”
“Did you see anything else? Anyone else in the area?”
This time it was Tready who spoke. His low rumbling voice matched his craggy features. “No one. But the usual freaks who hang out here would have taken off first sign of a uniform.”
Nate nodded and dug in his pocket for a card. Handed it to Lutz. “Take the other officers and canvass the nearest neighbors. Write it up and send it to me at the homicide unit.” He headed in the direction of the witness, who was sitting on the edge of the back seat in one of the squad cars, feet on the ground, with the huge brindle mastiff planted squarely between them.
Risa hesitated. No matter how much she hadn’t wanted to come, she was stuck for the moment. And following the detective took her further away from the blackened figured in the scorched grass. The distance would be welcome. She trailed after McGuire, who was already speaking to the witness.
“Mrs.,” she was correcting him, one hand on the dog’s neck. “Like I told them officers, I brought Buster out for a run. I just live over on Kellogg.”
If Risa remembered correctly, Kellogg was a street of tired row houses, in a neighborhood still clinging to a fraying aura of respectability. Of course, that had been five years ago. Things changed fast in urban centers, and north Philly had long been one of the roughest areas of the city.
“You live there alone?”
Impatience settled on the woman’s face. “I’ve been through this once already. I live with my husband. He drives truck. I work a split shift at Stacy’s Diner, on Seventeenth and Spruce, and I’m way late. Hal-that’s my boss-is going to be a total prick about it, too. So if you could write me something, maybe on police letterhead, telling him I was helping you, it would go a long way.”
“We can work something out. So you were heading to work earlier?”
Letting out a stream of breath, Bixby leaned forward to give the dog an affectionate pat. “I came to run Buster like I do every morning. My shift starts at eight, so we left the house at five or so.”
“And you always come here?”
The woman’s hesitation was infinitesimal. “In winter we stick to the sidewalks. But yeah, when it’s nice we come here sometimes.”
“Reason I ask, it’s not the best area.” McGuire seemed impervious to the morning chill in the air, although it had Marisa turning up the collar of her spring coat. “This is a known spot for drugs.”
The woman lifted a shoulder. “Users, not dealers. And not this time of day, anyway. Doesn’t matter. No one bothers me when I have Buster with me.” She gave the animal a vigorous ear rub, which had it closing its eyes in canine ecstasy.
The woman was lying. McGuire had to realize it. But his voice was easy when he asked, “Did you see anyone else around this morning?” When she shook her head vigorously, he pressed, “Even in the distance? Someone running off, maybe?”
“No, it was just me and Buster. He was straining at the leash, dragging me toward…that.” Marisa resisted the impulse to turn her head in the direction the woman pointed. The longer she could put off looking at the victim, the longer she could dodge recalling elements from the dream. “I got close enough to realize it was something dead. Burned. Didn’t know if it was human but I called 9-1-1 anyway.” Her heavily made up eyes gleamed avidly. “It is, though, isn’t it? Human. You all wouldn’t be so interested otherwise.”
The detective reached in his pocket and withdrew a business card to give to her. “If your boss gives you any trouble, let me know and I’ll call him.” He accurately read the doubt flickering on the woman’s face. “The cell is department issued. It’ll show up on his ID screen.”
Shrugging, she slipped it into her pocket. “So I can leave?”
“Has a tech taken a sample of the dog’s hair yet?”
McGuire slid Risa a narrowed look. Clearly she was supposed to be seen and not heard on this outing. When the woman shook her head, the detective said only, “Wait here. I’ll send someone over right away.”
Bixby’s voice was plaintive as Nate walked away. “But why? I really gotta get to work.”
Following a hunch she didn’t question, Risa stayed behind. “It’s in case they find hair on the scene. They need a sample from your dog, so they can eliminate it in the identification process.”
“I didn’t let Buster get close enough for there to be any of his hair on that…thing.” If Bixby didn’t seemed resigned to waiting, the dog did. It flopped down on its belly, drooling copiously.
Risa shoved her hands in the pockets of her coat and gave the woman a knowing smile. “So what time were you supposed to meet him?”
“Who?” Heather frowned.
“The guy you were planning to meet this morning. What time did you have scheduled?”
She had the woman’s attention now. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I said I didn’t see anyone. You heard me tell that to the detective, right?”
“But you were lying. Or least not telling the whole story.” Risa squatted down on her haunches and offered the dog her hand to sniff. “If you left the house at five you would have had to get up shortly after four. Because first you showered, dressed, put on makeup before taking the dog out to a place you had to know would be a bit messy.” She nodded at the woman’s attire. Her sneakers were muddy, as was the hem of her tight jeans. “You’re not a runner, at least not today. You aren’t dressed for it.”
“Jesus, I got ready for work first, okay?” Bixby folded her arms over her ample chest.
“You said.” Risa nodded. “Dressed and ready to go three hours before your shift. Stacy’s Diner is only a few miles from here. Walking the dog for thirty minutes still has you back home at five-thirty, two and a half hours before your shift begins. Plenty of time to sleep in for another hour or two and wait for daylight. So I’ll ask you again, who were you meeting here?”
The woman smirked. “Can tell you’re no cop. Your detective skills suck. And I know when a person is just fishing. So go to hell.”
Buster was much friendlier than his owner. He gave her hand a lick and Risa stroked his massive head. “No problem. What time does your husband go to work? Maybe I’ll have better luck fishing with him.” She didn’t relish the flicker of panic on the woman’s face but she’d also never been fond of being lied to.
“There’s no reason to bother Hal. He drives all night and needs some rest before going on the road again.”
Rising, she contemplated the other woman. “Then don’t make me.”
Moistening her lips, Heather said, “He never even showed up. We were supposed to meet but he was running late. I called him when I found…that. He said call 9-1-1 but he turned around and went home.”
Instincts she’d thought lost and buried were humming now. “Because he didn’t want to be around when police showed up.”
“It’s not like that.” But she could tell from Bixby’s expression it was exactly like that. “He’s still on parole. Just a misunderstanding,” she hastened to explain. “He used some of the company’s money for a couple weeks, and even though he put it back later, when the head of accounting figured it out, they nailed him on it. Bastards cost him two years in prison.”
Risa didn’t point out that two years was practically a gift for embezzlement charges. “His name.”
Heather’s mouth set in mutinous lines. “That’s all I’m going to say. I don’t want to jam him up. He wasn’t even here and doesn’t know anything about this.”
“Your husband is Hal Bixby, right? On Kellogg Street?” Risa turned away. “Thanks for your time.”
When Risa faced her again, the woman was staring at her with open dislike. “You’re a real bitch, aren’t you?”
“You have no idea.”
After several moments obviously spent waging an internal war with herself, Bixby finally said, “His name is Sam Crowley. But I swear, if you make trouble for him, I’ll hunt you down and kick your ass.” She smiled thinly. “I can be a bitch, too.
“I don’t doubt it.”
It had been far easier, Risa thought grimly, as she approached the crime, to play Bixby than it was to force herself closer to the charred remains in the grass. With every step closer her heart increased its tempo until it was a beating a rapid tattoo she feared could be heard by the officers at the perimeter.
Was that nearby tree familiar, with its branches growing in an X shape, studded with leafy buds? Perspiration dampened her brow. Her palms. What about that building beyond the trees to the west, with its boarded up windows and tar paper roof?
“Hey, lady, you can’t go in there.” The hand on her elbow sliced through the sticky haze of memory and had her jumping in surprise. The officer released her when she shot him a look, but stood his ground. “Crime tape is up for a reason. You need to stay back.”
She was tempted, more than she should have been, to do just that. To wait quietly for the detective back at his car. To forget the dreams that seemed far too entangled with the scene inside the tape.
The dreams that had been blessedly absent for four long months.
Instead, she scanned the area for McGuire and pointed. “I’m with him. You saw us come together, didn’t you?”
The officer, with a fresh youthful face that pegged him as barely out of the academy, looked uneasy. “Well, yeah. But I thought…”
Mystified, Risa waited for him to go on. “You thought…”
The kid—and he really was little more than that—actually shuffled his feet. “Ah…look! The detective is waving you over.” The relief on his face was almost comical. “Guess it’s his call if he wants you to go inside.”
Still confused, she gave a little shake of her head before bending down to snag shoe covers from the opened box at her feet. Donning them, she grabbed a pair of latex gloves from the other opened box and ducked beneath the tape. She was halfway to where McGuire stood speaking to a slender blond man standing next to the remains--
--charred bones, melted flesh—
--when comprehension belatedly struck.
The officer had thought her presence here was due to a personal relationship with McGuire, rather than a professional one. Under normal circumstances, the realization would have had her grinning. But her chest was tight. Her throat closed. The closer she drew to the body, the more conscious effort it took to keep oxygen moving through her lungs. To resist the urge to sprint, far and fast, in the opposite direction.
“…use an accelerant?” McGuire was saying.
“Like I was saying…” The man broke off as Marisa approached. “Well, hello-o beautiful.”
Resisting an urge to look for someone he might be addressing behind her, she focused instead on the gas chromatograph the man was using. “What’d the VTA indicate?”
Because it seemed churlish to refuse the hand the man thrust out, she took it for a moment. “Marisa Chandler.” When she would have pulled away, he made a point of squeezing her fingers for a moment longer before releasing them.
He sent a quick glance to Nate before responding. “That’s right. For the PPD.”
She nodded. As the fourth largest police department in the country, the force was plenty large enough to employ their own arson investigators who were also trained police officers. “And the VTA results?”
Brandau patted the side of the Vapor Trace Analyzer’s heating element. “Did three samples of the air over and around the body. Each yielded a substantial bump in temperature.”
“Meaning a flammable residue is present in the area,” she murmured, intrigued despite herself. It made sense. Starting someone on fire—if that’s what had happened here—was more difficult than it sounded. Fire required fuel. The fabric of the victim’s clothing would provide some, but with the wide range of fibers used, couldn’t be relied upon to burn evenly. If total conflagration were the intent, an accelerant would guarantee it.
“Let me know when you’re done getting the samples you need off the body so I can let the ME in. Then you can take comparison samples in the area as we finish searching each grid.”
“Will do.” The investigator shot her a smile that was probably supposed to be boyish, but to her jaundiced eye looked more than a little smarmy. “You’re welcome to stay and help.”
Her response didn’t seem to faze him. He set down the VTA on one corner of the concrete pad before approaching the body with an evidence kit. “Hey, where’s Cass?” The comment was directed at Nate and brought, to Risa’s mind, a definite reaction.
The detective’s lips tightened momentarily before he turned away. “She’s running late.”
“Reason I ask, I thought maybe the lovely Miss Chandler was her replacement.” Brandau deftly managed flirting with his other duties. He was already kneeling beside the body and opening his kit before looking up at her again. “It is miss, isn’t it? As in unmarried? Or really really unhappily married?”
“No, it’s dis.” When both men looked at her she gave them a small smile. “As in disinterested.”
“Ouch.” But there was no offense in the man’s tone as he carefully cut off a sample of charred fabric from the corpse and dropped it in a glass container. “On the other hand, I miss Cass.”
“I’ll wave Chin over since you seem so desperate for companionship.” Nate turned and gestured toward a slight Asian woman leaning against the medical examiner’s van who headed toward them with surprisingly long strides.
“No.” The panic on the man’s face was mirrored in his frantic movements as he sped up his collection process. “Seriously, no. I’m going as fast as I can here.”
“Concentrate,” McGuire advised blandly.
“You try to concentrate when you’ve got a pint-sized she-devil standing over you…hey, Liz.” His movements were almost a blur of motion as he quickened his pace even further.
The ME stared down at him with her hands on her hips, eyes narrowed. “How long are you going to be, Brandau? We’ve only got about a dozen hours of daylight. I’d like to start my examination before nightfall, so if you can just give me an approximate timeline…”
“A few minutes. Ten at the most.”
The diminutive woman cast a quick look at Risa then at Nate. “Where’s Cass?”
Mystified, Risa was getting the distinct impression there was something in the air regarding the absent Cass, but it was apparent no one was going to enlighten her about it.
“I appreciate you coming yourself, Liz.”
Nate’s words spiked Risa’s interest. Normally an assistant from the ME’s office was sent to collect the bodies. The appearance of the ME herself was unusual. Not for the first time, Risa considered that this homicide might be one in a series.
He went on. “When Jett’s done here you can start your examination. Pinning down time of death would be very helpful to us, so the sooner…”
The medical examiner shot him a look that would have scorched metal. “You want me to pronounce time of death before I even get back to the lab with this? No problem, I’m a magician. I also pull elephants out of my ass in my free time. Which trick do you want to see first?”
“I don’t have to eat sarcasm to recognize the flavor, Chin. I was just saying.”
“You know I don’t deal in assumptions. After I get the remains back to the morgue and do a proper exam, you’ll be the first to know.”
“But they’re still warm, right, Jett?”
“Air around the corpse is about one hundred thirty-six degrees. Liz is going to have to use a shovel to transfer them to the gurney. You find the ID yet?”
“I just got here, remember?”
From the easy banter between them it was clear they’d worked together before. Risa was the outsider here. And that was fine with her. She was still regretting the impulse that had made her accept McGuire’s invitation to begin with.
And fighting a similar impulse to gaze at the steaming remains on the cracked cement pad beside her.
Back in her rookie days, she’d responded to her share of house fires or fiery car accidents. It was impossible to forget the sickeningly sweet, metallic smell of burnt flesh. She would have recognized it even had she not known the circumstances surrounding the call out today.
The pitted concrete square on which the body lay had once been roofed, and meant to hold a couple picnic tables. But roof and tables had disappeared long ago, leaving only skeletal wooden posts and rafters. The rafters were completely scorched, and fragments from them littered the cement pad. The pavement had kept the fire from spreading into the neighboring trees and brush. Risa wondered if the choice had been intentional.
She forced herself to gaze at the burnt figure clinically. This close, there was no mistaking it for anything other than human. Its limbs were drawn up in a hideous fetal position, wrists and ankles close together.
Intrigued despite herself, she sank to crouch beside it. “Were the wrists and ankles bound?”
The ME threw her a quick glance. “You mean because of the positioning? I won’t know for sure until I get back to the morgue. But the limbs will shrivel on a burn victim, and they’ll draw up toward the body.”
“Pretty damn hard to set someone on fire if they aren’t bound,” Nate observed.
She thought of the agonized dance of the victim in her dream. From its movements, at least the legs had seemed to be unfettered. But those visions might have nothing to do with this homicide. Especially if this death were related to other similar ones.
“Even if his limbs were completely secured he could still roll, trying to put out the fire.” She nodded toward the area in question. “There’s no evidence of that. Which makes me wonder--”
The detective followed the direction of her gaze, and her thoughts. “--if he were kept in place by a rope thrown over those rafters.”
“We’ll know more when after the body cools down and I can examine all sides.”
Risa nodded at the ME’s words. Had the person been burned while lying down, it would be reasonable to expect the burns to be uneven. It wasn’t unusual for burn victims to look relatively normal on the side pressed against the ground, where the flames had been unable to wreak their damage.
But the figure in the dream hadn’t been prone.
She looked at the detective. “How many others like this have you found?”
At first she thought he wasn’t going to respond. Instead he watched as the ME rose and strode rapidly toward the city van, snapping out orders to her assistants. But finally he responded, “This makes the third, although it’s too soon to tell if it’s connected to the others.”
“What linked the first two?”
He shot her a grim smile as he rose. “The first victims were found in remote areas. A combination of gasoline and diesel fuel was used as an accelerant. Both had their hands bound with duct tape but not their feet. They weren’t gagged.” His frown sounded in his voice. “That’s hard for me to figure. It’s easier to control the victims if they’re completely secured. Gagging them would ensure their cries wouldn’t summon help.”
“But neither would be as satisfying.” Her voice was soft, but from the sharpness of his gaze she knew he’d heard her. “The remote locations give a guarantee of privacy. And even if someone comes…by that time it will be much to late to save them.”
“You think he needs that? Their screams? But that still doesn’t explain why he wouldn’t bind their feet.”
“Maybe he needs that, too.” The death dance, she thought sickly, her eyes on the charred victim once again. The frenzied movements of panic and agony. She’d felt the watcher’s ecstasy as he surveyed the spectacle. The near-orgasmic exultation from seeing what’d he’d wrought. “It might be part of his signature.”
Something shifted in the detective’s expression, leaving it impassive. “Signature. You’re a profiler then?”
She rose, scanning the area. “All of Raiker’s investigators are trained in profiling, too.” Memory of the dream skated along the hem of her mind and she sought to gather it in, to examine the details more closely.
That had been the last thing she’d been thinking of when she’d wakened from it this morning. Although she had art supplies in her bedroom closet, she’d gotten out of the habit of keeping an easel in her room with fresh drawing pencils and paper, to sketch the visual elements.
The dreams had been gone for months. She hadn’t missed them.
And although Risa was far from accepting this one as anything more than a sub-conscious mind bump, it was second nature to draw on it to wring any useful information from it that she could.
If it were the victim’s death alone that had so satisfied the watcher, a gun or knife could have been used with far less effort. Her shoulder throbbed, as if in agreement. No, his pleasure had been linked to the particular type of death he’d arranged. The flames had driven him delirious with delight and he’d stayed as close to them as he’d dared.
Like there was an affinity there. Not just a murderer, but also one who chose fire deliberately because it satisfied a need inside him.
“It has to be death by fire,” she said finally. “And he needs to watch.” To experience it, deriving a sort of vicarious thrill from the flames. One of the crime scene investigators was photographing the area. Another was sketching it. Two others appeared to be waiting for direction from McGuire. “What’d the crime scene techs turn up in the other two deaths?”
“No wallets but IDs were left nearby.” When she turned to him, brows raised, he said, “Yeah, just far enough away to be sure they weren’t destroyed in the flames. Whoever the son-of-a-bitch is, he wants to make it easy on us.”
His jaw was clenched and Risa suddenly realized there was more going on here than a killer choosing random victims.
“So you’ve established a pattern in the victimology?”
Nate’s face was a grim mask. “Pretty hard to miss. If this one follows the same pattern, we’ll discover the victim is either currently on the job, or he used to be on the force.”