Martin turned his head toward the woman, just a small shift in angle, and Monica caught a strong view of his profile.
Her cheeks iced, then pinpricks of heat shot across her skin.
“Monica?” Luke’s fingers curled around her arm, and she realized that she’d stumbled back.
Martin—she did know him. Take off about fifteen years, add more of that hair, and he’d be…
A young deputy, pulled into Hell. Reaching out a hand to help a victim in the darkness.
“You okay?” A soft rumble from Luke.
She pulled away from him. “Of course.” Perfectly calm. “Sheriff, is there a quiet office we can use to review this information?”
He glanced at her, smiling now. “Ah, ma’am, this whole place is quiet. I transferred over here about ten months ago, and I can tell you, not much happens in Gatlin.”
Except an occasional murder. Once in a blue moon, a woman was tied to a tree and terrorized. Did that really count as “not much”?
Four hours later, they were in the woods.
Not her favorite place to be. Monica could completely sympathize with Saundra. Insects chirped all around them, and Monica was pretty sure the temperature had kicked up another twenty degrees out there.
Pine trees stood, still and tall, around them. She and Luke jumped over branches and headed deeper into the woods.
“Wanna tell me what all that was about back at the station?” Luke asked.
Monica glanced down at the map in her hands, then back up—the better to avoid tripping over a root and slamming into the ground. “All what?”
“The sheriff.” He stopped and faced her, putting his hands on his hips. “You knew him, didn’t you?”
Careful. “If I did, I don’t remember him.”
“But he remembers you.” Too watchful. That gaze of his was way too watchful. “And Monica, let me just tell you, you don’t have one of those faces.”
What was that supposed to mean?
“No one else looks like you,” he said. “No one.”
Was that a compliment? He’d always given compliments so easily to the other women she’d seen him with. But he’d only complimented her in bed.
And why did she care? “Look, I don’t know what the guy was talking about. Maybe we met at a convention or something. Maybe he heard me do a lecture.” She paced ahead of him. Turned to the right. “I don’t know. I’m not going to worry about it now and—there.”
His footsteps hurried up behind her.
Monica stared at the thick pine. Her eyes trekked from the base, up the thick trunk—had to be at least thirty inches in diameter—and on up to the top branches that seemed to touch the perfect blue sky.
Dead flowers, looked like roses, sat at the base of the tree. Someone had cared about Saundra’s death out here.
Maybe her parents.
Maybe her killer. Wouldn’t be the first time a serial had come back to the scene to pay respects to the victim.
“It’s been a year,” Luke said, “What do you really hope to find out here?”
She didn’t know, but there had been damn little to help her in that case file. Black-and-white photos of the scene. Saundra’s bloated body, sagging against the tree.
Inside the yellowed box, they’d found some recorded interviews with two of Saundra’s co-workers at a dive called Gatorbait. They’d read a deputy’s notes about Saundra’s home and her family.
No fingerprints were recovered on the rope that had bound Saundra. The techs hadn’t discovered any fibers or hairs from the person who’d left her tied to the tree. And though the ME ruled that the bites came from rattlers, none of the snakes were found at the scene.
Though two rattlesnakes were killed a week later outside of a church. That careful notation had been in the file.
But with all those bites on her body, there would have been more than two snakes. A lot more.
She flinched at his voice and realized she’d been staring at the tree and those dead flowers for way too long. “I’m not sure what we’ll find, but this is the earliest kill we know about—”
“How can you even be sure this is the same guy?”
“Because it’s all about fear.” Twenty-one-year-old Saundra had been dying to shake the dust of Gatlin from her boots. She’d been working, saving her cash, and planning to head out as soon as she saved five grand.
She’d never wanted to see the woods or the swamp again. She’d hated the woods, hated snakes. Pity she’d died there.
“It’s too much of a coincidence,” Monica said, and it was. “She was bound to the tree. The killer brought in the snakes.” Easy enough to transport if he knew how to capture them. Then, once he’d been at the scene, he’d probably had a snake hook with him—he would have used that to herd the snakes, to get them exactly where he wanted. Ready to attack Saundra. After he was finished, he’d probably tossed the snakes and the gear into the swamp. “He wanted her to suffer.” To be afraid.
“You know there was no mention of a note in the file.”
What scares you?
“Doesn’t mean there wasn’t one.” She knelt before the tree, her brows pulling together. “Or maybe he added that little touch as he went along.”
“Developing his signature?”
“Something like that.” She eased down beside the flowers. Monica stretched her arms out as she tried to match that death pose, the one that was now seared into her memory.
“Sweetheart, what the hell are you doing?”
Her head jerked up. That’s a good girl… aren’t you, my sweetheart? “Don’t call me that.” Fired out—fast and angry.
He stared down at her.
Those damn crickets seemed way too loud right then.
“My mistake.” Wooden. “How about this… Monica, what the hell are you doing?”
She managed not to wince. Barely. It was just being here in the woods, with those insects driving her crazy and with death hanging around her.
Why couldn’t memories just stay dead?
Breathing slowly, evenly, Monica fought to hold onto her calm. “Sorry.” The apology came out quietly. “I just… don’t call me that, okay?”
He strode toward her, blocking the rays of the sun as they filtered through the tree branches. “Keeping it only business?”
“No, it’s not that, it’s just—” How’s my sweetheart? Pretty little sweetheart, I’m gonna break you.… She licked her lips. “I don’t like it. Sweetheart. Not for me, okay?” Where was her control? It was because of that guy, Martin. He’d thrown her off. Made her start to remember.