The Marine Next Door
I want to see you.
KCPD desk sergeant Maggie Wheeler had never seen an uglier flower. Not that there was a thing wrong with the cultivated shape and color of the pink spring tulip or the matching ribbon and tall bud vase.
But the florist's card burned her fingertips, and everything the flower that had once been her favorite represented stirred like a swarm of angry bees in her stomach. She breathed a measured sigh between tight lips. Why couldn't the past just stay buried in the past?
If the young man who'd delivered the gift hadn't already disappeared, she'd have sent it back to be delivered to a hospital or nursing home where the tulip and baby's breath could be appreciated. But because that option had left the building, she had no choice but to drop the whole thing into the trash at the end of the counter and empty out the shavings from the front desk pencil sharpener on top of it. She wadded up the card and tossed it in for good measure, too.
"Maggie." Fourth Precinct chief Mitch Taylor tapped the counter as he strode by, then flicked his finger toward the bank of meeting rooms on the far side of the maze of detectives' desks that filled the main floor. "You're with me. Bring your computer and sit in on this meeting."
Maggie shot up to attention, as startled by the order as she was by the interruption. "Me, sir?"
The chief turned and winked, walking backward without slowing his pace. "If you want to see how a task force works, get in here and take notes for me."
She didn't wait to be asked twice.
The flower was forgotten as Maggie grabbed her laptop off her counter, made sure Officer Allen could cover her station at the front desk, and hurried down the hallway after Chief Taylor. She followed him through the door into Interview Room A and quickly slid into the closest empty seat around the long conference table.
She was used to handling odd jobs around the precinct office, but anticipation had her perched on the edge of her chair. Her gun and badge were just as real as the other hardware in the room. And even though her expertise was paper pushing and patience, she was more than ready to move up in both pay scale and prestige at the police department. At thirty-five, she might wind up being the oldest rookie detective on the force, but she'd finally earned her college degree. She was ready to take on investigative work, ready to take the professional rank test and do the interviews to earn her detective's shield. A little casework experience, even vicariously tagging along at the inaugural meeting of KCPD's new major crime task force, would look good on her resume when she put in for the promotion.
Per the chief's specific request, she'd notified each of the law enforcement professionals gathered here this morning. Detectives. A police psychologist. Uniformed officers like herself. A representative from the crime lab.
You deserve to be here, she reminded herself. It had taken her a long time to feel like she was worthy of anything good or exciting in her life. Sometimes, a new situation like this one could still make her flash back to that awful time when she hadn't believed in herself—when she hadn't even thought she'd survive.
But she believed now. She was here for herself. Here for her ten-year-old son, Travis, and their future. She was in this room because Chief Taylor believed she should be.
Letting those positive thoughts drown out the unsettled worry over the message and flower she'd received, Maggie wiped the perspiration from her palms on the navy twill of her pant leg, steadied her nerves with a quiet breath and opened her laptop. All right, so maybe she was just here as a glorified stenographer to take notes, but her pulse still raced. This was the kind of work she wanted to do. Not just man a desk and be the smiling, efficient, nonthreatening face of KCPD that most citizens saw when they came into the building.
Maggie knew Chief Taylor had a soft spot for her. She'd served in his precinct back when he'd been the newly appointed captain of the first watch. Now he was running the show. She'd lost a little girl, given birth to a son, gotten divorced and worked her butt off to maintain a full-time job to support her child while she'd taken classes to earn the degree her ex had once denied her. The chief understood how badly she wanted that promotion and had no doubt invited her to sit in on this meeting to give her some real experience and a taste of where she wanted her career to go.v
She was expecting formal introductions, maybe some kind of pep talk to get them fired up for a particular project. At the very least, she expected Chief Taylor to spell out the new team's purpose and why the commissioner had charged him with the job of selecting a task force for a special investigation.
She wasn't expecting the terse greeting from her barrel-chested boss when he reached the head of the table. "He's back."
He followed up the cryptic pronouncement by slapping a file folder on top of the table.
Even from the opposite end of the room, she could see the crime scene photos that spilled out. She could make out a woman's blond hair and a puffy, bruised face. She could see a lot of crimson on those photographs. Blood.
Nick Fensom, the stocky, dark-haired detective sitting closest to Chief Taylor pulled the folder in front of him and opened it. "The Rose Red Rapist?"
Maggie's stomach knotted beneath her thick leather belt and her gaze darted up to the chief's brown eyes, questioning him. Maybe his invitation to sit in on the meeting hadn't been an impromptu gesture of kindness after all. She'd once been in photos like that.
But Chief Taylor wasn't even looking at her. What if she had a unique understanding of that victim's emotions—shock, betrayal, pain, rage, fear, distrust? That didn't mean the chief had an ulterior motive for inviting her to the meeting. A decade had passed since that horrific time, and she'd put it behind her to focus on the present and future. She was simply overreacting to a gruesome coincidence. She was a cop. A future detective. A fast typist.
Not a sacrificial lamb lured into the room to be probed and profiled by the others at the table. Get a grip, Sarge.
Maggie's nostrils flared as she eased the prickly instinct to defend herself on a deep, quiet breath, and dropped her gaze to the screen in front of her. While that feverish impulse to guard against any sort of attack dissipated through the pores of her freckled skin, she concentrated on typing in the names and initial comments of everyone in the room.
Chief Taylor spelled out the details included in the file. "Same M.O. as that unsolved serial rapist case we worked a few years back. Blitz attack. Threat of a weapon once the victim is conscious. None of the victims have been found at the actual scene where the rape occurred, although how they're moved from one place to another isn't always clear. We've got nothing but the vaguest of descriptions of our perp. Male. Tall. There's not even a consensus on his race. He wears gloves and a mask. None of them have seen his face although this most recent victim has some other identifiers that might give us a lead."
"Other identifiers?" Detective Spencer Montgomery, whose short red hair had occasionally earned a question about whether he and Maggie were siblings—other than her son, Maggie had no relatives in the Kansas City area—sat across from his partner, Nick Fensom. Detective Montgomery adjusted his tie and leaned forward. Glancing around the room, she could see he was the senior detective, and his cool and confident demeanor reflected that status. "Such as?"
"Voices can be altered," Montgomery pointed out.
"Smells," the chief countered. "She thought she detected something chemical."
"That's pretty vague." Detective Montgomery wasn't easily convinced.
A dark-haired woman, wearing a CSI windbreaker and sipping something from a stainless-steel travel mug, introduced herself as Annie Hermann, the task force's liaison with the crime lab. "If we can identify the chemical or compound the vic smelled, then that could be a significant clue. It might give us the perp's profession or a medical condition. Or tell us something about his vehicle."
Detective Fensom shot CSI Hermann a look across the table and shook his head. "The perp leaves a red rose with each of his vics. It's probably fertilizer or preservative from the florist's shop."
The petite Annie Hermann straightened in her chair. "Then maybe he works with flowers. The back of a florist's van would be the perfect place to hide a body. The lab is running tests right now to isolate and eliminate any chemicals absorbed by the rose."
Maggie continued to type. Analyzing a rose? Would an analysis of the tulip she'd just trashed reveal the motive behind the anonymous gift? Not that she had any doubt as to the sender and the seeming innocence of his request.
"It's a viable clue," Annie Hermann insisted.
"We'll see." Detective Fensom rocked back in his chair, unconvinced.
The CSI poked the tabletop with her finger. "Science gives us facts. It eliminates false leads and solves cases."
"Not without any context to put those facts in. Cops solve cases. I'll bet my gut has led to more arrests than your science."
"Back to your corners, you two." Chief Taylor silenced the debate. "The perp's smell isn't much to go on, but it's a lead. Hermann, I want you to follow up on it." He turned to the dark-haired detective. "And, Nick, I want you to use that gut to lead you to anyone on the streets who can tell us about this guy or these abductions. Anything is more than we've got right now."
"Yes, sir, Chief."
As the detective and the CSI settled back in their chairs, Maggie typed in the information, ignoring the crawl of memories over her skin beneath her uniform. Smell was indeed a vivid identifier because it left such an impression on the senses. Some of the most indelible memories she had from that hellish weekend her ex had gone off the deep end were of the smells—blood, booze, smoke, sweat—and the flowers he'd given her afterward. And to this day she would not use scented fabric softener or scented detergent in the laundry because of the memories that particular fresh smell evoked.
She nodded in silent approval of the victim's power of observation. If she could identify her attacker by whatever scent was uniquely his, then the task force had a good shot at nailing him.
Provided they could catch him first.
Detective Fensom grumbled as he gathered up the photos. "What's with the rose, anyway? It's as though he thinks that hint of romance makes it an act of passion instead of violence." He shoved the folder onto the blond woman in an elegant suit sitting beside him.
Dr. Kate Kilpatrick was more interested in skimming through the transcript of the report from the investigators who'd originally handled the case. Although Maggie had received counseling from the police psychologist years earlier, she'd never known Dr. Kilpatrick to work actively on an investigation before. "Maybe it's a sign of remorse?"
"More like a sick memorial for everything he's taken from her." Edison Taylor was the only other uniformed officer at the table. But the patch on the short sleeve encircling his biceps indicated he was a specially trained K-9 cop. "I thought he was off the streets, Uncle Mitch. What's it been? Eight—"
"Ten years, Pike," the chief answered, using a nickname that Maggie knew referred to the surname Edison had before he'd been adopted into the Taylor family as a young teen. "Either he went away to prison for some other crime and now he's back on the streets, or we've got us a nasty copycat."
"So why exactly am I here?" Pike asked. "I'm not an investigator, a profiler or a lab tech."
"I'm counting on you and your unit to provide extra security around the crime scenes. Run searches for us and so on."
Dr. Kilpatrick nodded. "Everything I've read so far on the case indicates our perp is someone who blends into the community well. His victims appear to be unfortunate targets of opportunity. Yet no one seems to notice anything suspicious, much less feel threatened, before the attacks. It would make sense that he'd also be around after the fact, perhaps reliving the assault by watching the neighborhood and police response to his crimes."
"Flying under the radar the entire time," Chief Taylor continued. "The commissioner and I agree that stepping up patrols all across the city might drive our perp underground and create an unnecessary panic. If this is the same guy from before, he'll stick to a part of Kansas City he knows. I want to narrow down the area where he hunts for his victims and use your unit and the dogs to keep a close watch in the neighborhood where he's most likely to strike again."
"And that would be?"
"Right now we're looking at Irish Town and the City Market district. There are a lot of new businesses, renovated offices and apartment buildings there. Plenty of women live or work there, or travel in and out to shop and socialize. That's where he abducted his latest victim." He circled the table to scan the file for the info he needed. "She was abducted just after an appointment at the Fairy Tale Bridal Shop."
"I know the area well enough." The blue-eyed officer reached down and scratched between the ears of the muscular German shepherd stretched out at his feet. "Hans and I will be ready."