Sam’s head flew up.
More sirens blared to life. Monica watched as two cruisers spun out, heading behind the ambulance.
“I’m sending some deputies to Jasper Memorial Hospital.” The sheriff strode toward her. “They’ll make sure she’s safe.”
Like they did for Laura? But Monica bit the words back because Laura’s death hadn’t been his fault. It had been hers. I should have protected her.
Davis shook his head and eyed the house. “This place hasn’t been rented out in over six months. After the last storm hit, we haven’t had a whole lot of tourists.”
“He knew it was empty.” Just like he knew everything else. All the signs were indicating the perp was local, but Kyle West had been from Gatlin. If the perp was Kyle West… was he in the town? A good old boy, hiding in plain sight and trying to disguise the monster inside?
If so, he was doing one fine job.
“Ma’am.” Deputy Vance’s voice. She glanced at him. The guy was sweating, but he seemed to be doing better at this crime scene. But then, there hadn’t been a body shot to hell to shake him. “I—uh, we found something inside you’re gonna want to see.”
“Show me,” she said. Monica followed Vance into the house, with Luke close at her heels and the sheriff bringing up the rear. They filed down the small hallway, took a left and entered what was probably the master bedroom.
Lee Pope glanced back at them. Sweat slickened the hair near his temples, and his face had a white cast. “It—it’s blood, isn’t it?”
Monica’s eyes went to the only window in the room, the window that looked out over the water. Over what would have been Sam’s grave.
The curtain had been pulled away from that window, and just below the glass, someone—their killer—had painted on the wall. In blood.
“What the hell?” Luke’s gruff voice. “Whose blood?”
Good question. Monica crept forward.
“Guess we got us a damn artist,” Davis muttered, and he pressed close to get a better look.
“No one’s touched this?” Monica asked through numb lips.
“I pushed back the curtains, that was all,” Lee said. “When we saw it, Vance went for you.” His head cocked to the right. “Does that look like a flower to ya’ll?”
Not just any flower. She rolled her shoulders. “It’s a rose.” Hyde. She needed to talk to him and find out what the hell he wanted her to do.
The jackass was taunting her.
The other kills had been staged so that a final message was sent to the victims. Saundra saw her lost love. Laura saw the house that started her nightmare. Patty died in her childhood home. Sally was forced to re-experience the horror of her husband’s car crash. Jeremy died on the same street that his father’s blood had stained.
But this time, the final message wasn’t for the victim. Not for Sam.
For me. Monica’s gaze lifted to the lake. If she’d come inside the house first, she would have looked through the window and seen Sam’s body floating on those glittering waves.
“I’ve seen this before,” Luke muttered. “Dammit, I know I’ve seen this.”
Her heart slammed into her ribs. “Get the techs to dust everything.” No killer was perfect. Something would be left behind. Some hair, some fiber, something. “And sheriff, I’m betting you’ve got some damn fine hunting dogs in this area.”
A grim nod. “The best.”
“Get them because we’re combing these woods.” They didn’t need to worry about being quiet now. Time to bring out the dogs.
Luke crouched down, his eyes narrowed as he studied the blood. “Doesn’t make sense.”
She whirled away. Yes, it does.
“Maybe he’s leaving a mark to claim his kills.”
Monica froze near the doorway and glanced back at Luke.
“The more they kill, the more serials perfect their methods.” His gaze was on that flower. “Maybe our guy is evolving.”
“No.” The word shot from her. The bastard wasn’t evolving. He was playing a f**king game.
Luke rose, staring out the window. “Planned every damned bit, didn’t he?”
Her eyes strayed to the deputies. “Vance, Lee, why don’t you go join the search outside?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Vance’s gaze darted to the sheriff. He and Lee nodded quickly, and they hurried outside.
When she was sure they were gone, she asked the question she had to voice. “Sheriff, how many people knew that Sam was flying in from D.C.?”
He shrugged. “Don’t know. Lily got the call. Left me a note and—” His bushy brows snapped up as understanding seemed to sink in, but he still asked, “What are you sayin’?”
She stared back at him, sure he knew exactly what she was saying.
The sheriff edged toward her. His eyes glittered. “You’re not thinkin’—”
“I’m thinking I have an agent who was nearly killed,” her voice lowered, “and the killer shouldn’t have even known she was in the county, but somehow, he managed to be in the right place to grab her. Interesting, isn’t it?”
His jaw dropped. “You’re sayin—”
“I’m saying I want to know the name of every person who knew about Sam’s arrival.”
“Anybody at the station could have—”
“That’s right.” He knew where she was going with this. At the station, she’d counted at least a dozen deputies and three assistants. All of them would have been given access to the sheriff’s message board. Any of them could have learned about Sam.
And that damn phone had been dumped right there, at the sheriff’s office.
Could be that they needed to search harder for the killer.
Or it could be that he was standing right beside them and they didn’t even know it.
Luke stepped forward. “I’ll organize the team in the woods.”
And she’d take the house, in case there were any more messages. They went into the hall, the sheriff’s curses following them.
Luke caught her hand. “You saved her.”
“No, you and Kenton, you—”
He yanked her close and kissed her. Hard, fast, not enough. His tongue plunged into her mouth, and her fingers dug into his arms, holding on tight as she kissed him back with a stark hunger, the hunger and need that was always there. Even in the midst of hell.