Not to mention she had so many similar qualities to Lilly Carmichael. Dark hair, slim build, porcelain skin. It might explain why the sheriff had dated her in the first place despite the fact that she was a shallow bitch and not his type at all.
She stirred in his arms so he didn’t waste time securing her wrists and ankles to the yoga ropes against the wall. Normally he preferred a flatter surface on his own turf but he couldn’t risk transporting her somewhere else.
Not now. Not when he was so close to finally making Lilly pay.
After stripping out of his clothes, he laid out his small array of tools and sheathed himself with a condom. He couldn’t afford to get sloppy now. Leaning against the wall, he positioned himself so that their faces were inches apart. He wanted to see that moment when she opened her eyes and she realized she was going to die.
She didn’t disappoint. Her dark eyes widened, and when she started to scream, he shoved a strip of heavy-duty masking tape over mouth. This was a little different than he normally did things, but he couldn’t risk someone hearing her screams.
“Are you ready to play?” he murmured against her cheek.
With tears streaming down her cheeks, she tried to jerk away from him, but she had nowhere to go.
Lilly took a step back as she glanced between Braden and the coroner. On a scale of one to ten on the weird scale, they were acting like a fifteen. Why on earth were they asking her about her tattoo?
And why had Braden’s face suddenly paled?
“Okay, what’s this all about?” She placed a hand on her hip.
“I…” Hailey trailed off and shook her head.
“Why don’t you take a seat?” Braden motioned behind her, but she didn’t move.
“No, why don’t you two tell me what’s going on?”
“We need to show her,” Hailey said.
Braden scrubbed a hand over his face. “You’re right. This way.”
As they filed into the hall, Lilly fought the eerie sensation that had settled into her gut. Braden didn’t lose his cool. Ever. Or he hadn’t when they’d been younger.
Two doors down, he held open another door for them. She followed Hailey who flipped on the lights. The garish fluorescent bulbs put off a high frequency sound as they lit up, compounding her uneasiness.
Two wooden desks were pushed together in an otherwise bare pale green room. The wall by the desks had three giant corkboards. Blown-up pictures of crime scenes, computer printouts and photos of various women’s head shots were tacked up. “What is this place?”
“The detectives have a work station set up at headquarters for the case I told you about but Hailey and I sometimes work late here and it’s easier than heading back to the station. With the exception of hard evidence, this is a copy of basically everything my detectives have.” Braden nodded toward the corkboards.
Lilly thought it was interesting that he worked late with Hailey, but she had no right to feel jealous if they had a relationship. “So what’s the deal with my tattoo?”
“Look.” Hailey walked to one of the boards and pointed toward a row of four pictures.
Lilly’s stomach roiled as she tried to comprehend what she was seeing. “Is that what I think it is…Is that skin?”
“These are pictures taken from our last four victims. After torturing and killing them, our guy carves this symbol into the center of the victims’ backs. I’ve been trying to figure this out for a year. I’ve been running this image through different databases with no luck. Until now. I can’t believe this.” Hailey muttered a string of surprising curses as she shook her head.
“When did you find this sketch?” Braden asked.
Lilly glanced back at him. He stood near the door, his face an unreadable mask.
Hailey kept her focus on Lilly as she answered. “This morning. I started looking up different symbols of death. It was a shot in the dark but at this point, we had nothing to lose. The lily symbolizes fertility and purity but it’s also a symbol of death. I was up all night and when I put ‘lily death symbol’ in the search engine, I found this,” she held out the piece of paper still clasped tightly in her hand, “on a tattoo website.”
Lilly’s gaze strayed back to the photos. A familiar numbness spread throughout her arms and legs like hot lava. The carvings were frighteningly similar to her tattoo. Without the colored ink it would be difficult to discern what the symbol was, but compared with the print out, it was obvious. It could be random that her tattoo was carved into the victims’ backs, but she didn’t believe in that much coincidence. “What does this mean?” Lilly rasped out.
“I have no idea, but I think you’re somehow involved. Starting now, you’re officially under protective custody.” Braden’s deep voice echoed in the small room. “You’re not going anywhere without my protection.”
“Okay.” Under normal circumstances, she’d probably argue with him, but considering she was conjuring up images of a masked man, she kept her mouth shut. She might be a trained agent but she had too many demons to deal with on her own. “Do you know if any of the women were taunted or harassed by this guy before he killed them? Did any of them file police reports before their death?”
Eyeing her curiously, he shook his head. “No. Why?”
She contemplated mentioning the masked figure she’d seen but knew it had to be part of her PTSD. Any sane woman would report being stalked by someone so if the others hadn’t been, it wouldn’t make sense for this guy to change pattern with her. And there was no way she was admitting her hallucinations to Braden. “Just trying to cover all bases.”
Another batch of photos caught her gaze. Bile rose in her throat as she picked up one of the enlarged prints. “This is what he does to them?”
Lilly looked between Braden and Hailey. They both nodded silently. As if pulled by a magnet, her gaze was drawn back to the picture of a woman who had no doubt been very pretty before her death. Cuts covered her chest, stomach and legs and burn marks covered her back and legs. And there was a cluster of burn marks between her thighs.
“We still don’t know what he’s using to inflict those burn marks,” Braden murmured.
Placing the picture back on the desk, she looked at Braden. “It’s not a Taser?”
He shook his head. “The prongs are too far apart and we haven’t been able to match it to anything on the market.”
Frowning, she glanced back at the pictures and it registered that she’d seen those markings before. “Have you checked it against farm equipment, like a cattle prod or something?”
“No, but I will,” Hailey said.
Lilly turned from the disturbing photos and met Braden’s dark gaze. Dozens of questions raced through her mind but the only thing that mattered was getting away from those photographs. Her stomach pitched and she was afraid she’d be sick if she didn’t get out of the room. In the last year she’d seen some of the most horrid things a human should have to, but it didn’t mean she’d gotten used to any of it.
Braden immediately took her arm in a gentle grasp. “Come on. I’ll fill you in on the way to breakfast.”
With a mute nod, she mumbled a goodbye to Hailey. Once they were in Braden’s truck, Lilly’s racing heart had calmed a little, but a heavy ball congealed in her stomach.
“You okay?” Braden asked.
She shook her head and strapped in. “This is insane.”
“Tell me about it,” he muttered. “You still feel like getting breakfast?”
Despite the horrors she’d seen around the world, this was too personal. She didn’t want to eat and she didn’t want to think about any of this. At least not this instant. Over the past year she’d learned to compartmentalize everything so she’d just do it now. “Can we wait until lunch instead? I don’t think I can hold anything down right now. I’d rather talk to the reverend now and get it over with.”
“All right. Let me make a few calls.” He paused for a moment before continuing. “Lilly, we’ve got to talk about your tattoo.”
“I know,” she muttered.
Lilly stared out the window, taking in the familiar sights as Braden drove through town talking on his phone. All the stores were open this time of day. Chalkboards were out on the sidewalks displaying the restaurant specials and awnings and umbrellas were open at the various coffee and pastry shops. Unfortunately for her, the tint on Braden’s truck windows wasn’t very dark. Most of the people eating outside were tourists, but as they pulled to a stoplight, she received a few double takes from people she hadn’t seen in a decade.
When she heard her name, she glanced at Braden and frowned. His answers were one-worded grunts so she wasn’t sure who he was talking to. Braden hung up as he turned left onto Maple Street.
“Who was that?”
“The secretary at the church. She told me Reverend Ingram is at the funeral home going over last minute details for another service. I told her we’d meet him there, but only if you’re up to it.”
“I’m not going to have a breakdown if that’s what you’re worried about. Let’s do this, then I have a ton of questions for you. Besides my tattoo and your connection to the victims, are there any other links?”
His jaw clenched as he steered into the parking lot of the funeral home. “Nope.”
The coffee she’d had earlier rolled around like battery acid in her stomach. She’d been gone for so long. What possible connection could she have to Braden and a local maniac killing people? None of this made sense. “So what do you think that means?”
Sighing, he put the car in park and shifted to face her. “I honestly don’t know. We’ve got someone from the FBI arriving the day after tomorrow.”
“FBI? So you really do think this is a serial killer at work then?”
He nodded. “I have since we found the second victim. The wounds on the victims were depraved but methodical.”