Nine times out of ten a dead body will win a staring contest.
Christina blinked and looked away from the lifeless eyes of the twentysomething vic, a gruesome slash across her throat, a tarot card shoved between her stiff fingers.
Tarot cards—Christina knew a thing or two about them. She would’ve expected death on his white horse in this case, but the killer had left the maiden and the lion, an indicator of strength.
Her gaze shifted away from the body and skimmed the trees, their leaves rustling with impatience. “Has anyone checked the surrounding area yet?”
Lieutenant Fitch with the San Francisco P.D. waved his pale hand. “You go right ahead, Agent Sandoval.”
She ground her back teeth together, adjusted her shoulder holster and tromped toward the tree line. If not for that tarot card, she wouldn’t even be here.
The dense nature preserve enveloped her in a cool embrace, muting the voices of the crime scene investigators in the trail behind her. The weak San Francisco sun, still shrugging off the fog, penetrated the foliage in wisps and strands, throwing a beam of light here and dappled shadows there.
She inhaled the scent of eucalyptus, which cleared her senses and ramped up her adrenaline. The murder victim had been jogging on the trail either early this morning or sometime last night. The predator had surprised her, flying at her like an animal on the prowl—lying in wait.
Her nostrils flared and she scanned the underbrush. Lying in wait. He must’ve been watching, waiting for his prey.
Hunching forward, she crept farther into the darkness, her footfalls silenced by nature’s carpet beneath her, the strands of a willow brushing her face. She veered to the right, aligning herself with the body on the trail.
She cranked her head over her shoulder and detected flashes of color and movement from the cops and techs milling around the vic. He could’ve seen her coming from here, but would’ve had no time to prepare his attack.
She looked up. A live oak tree towered a few feet in front of her. She approached it, studying the ground around the base of the trunk. Something had disturbed the leaves layered on the dirt, but plenty of creatures roamed this area—not just the two-legged, deadly kind.
She reached out, running her hand down the rough bark that scratched her fingers. Here and there she traced smooth areas of the trunk where pieces of bark had broken away from the old tree.
Stretching her arms out, she wedged her palms against the tree trunk and hung her head between her arms. She closed her eyes.
The subtle sounds of nature came to life—the rustle of a bird’s wings, the creak of a branch, the scurrying of an insect across a log.
And then it slammed into her chest. The evil. She felt it like a palpable curtain dropping around her, smothering her. He’d been here.
She jerked her head up, her eyes narrowing. She shed her jacket and secured her weapon in her holster. The bark of the tree chaffed her palms as she grabbed the first branch with both hands. She hoisted herself up and planted the rubber soles of her practical shoes against the trunk. Walking up the tree trunk, she lunged for the next branch and then swung her legs over the side of it.
Straddling the branch, she could just see over the top of the lower bushes and trees that bordered the jogging trail. She pulled herself into a crouch and reached for the next branch that curved against the trunk—a natural seat, a window on the world.
She nestled her back against the trunk, her legs hanging over the side of the branch. Lieutenant Fitch came into view, pointing and gesturing with his hands—which she’d noticed before were sprinkled with red hair—basically running the show.
Farther down the trail a clutch of people crowded against the yellow police tape, all leaning toward the crime scene like magnets drawn to some irresistible force.
She got it. The same morbid curiosity had propelled her into a job with a special serial killer unit within the FBI. She’d been fascinated with these crimes ever since she’d followed the Phone Book Killer case at the tender age of twelve.
She shivered—that fascination, along with an uncanny ability to empathize with both the killers and their victims, drove her to this work. She didn’t really empathize with the killers, but for some reason she could tune in to their thought processes. Not that she’d ever told anyone that before—anyone but Eric.
And that had been a colossal mistake.
She sat up straighter on the branch and peered at the trail beyond the spectators. He would’ve seen her coming from this vantage point. Would’ve been able to jump from his lookout post and intercept her on the trail, introducing her to the sharp edge of his knife.
She took a deep breath. Was that artificial smell among the natural elements cologne? Tobacco?