“Have you run the profile of the killings through any databases?”


“Yeah. We’ve cross-referenced NLETS and I’ve been in contact with the FBI’s NCAVC. So far nothing in either database has yielded a pattern elsewhere in the country.”


“Who is the FBI sending?” The NSA rarely worked with the FBI, but they had on occasion when national security was at stake. She figured she might know the agent.


“Special Agent Simon Levenson. Do you know him?”


Her eyebrows lifted. “Not personally, but I’ve heard of him. He worked with the DEA before the FBI. He’s got a lot of field experience and he’s really good at what he does. How’d you land him?”


“Don’t know. We’ve been trying to get someone since the third killing, but they kept telling us they were stretched too thin. After last night, I guess they decided this warranted their time.”


She didn’t miss the annoyance in his voice, but decided not to comment. All of their departments were stretched tight at the moment and national security trumped a string of small town killings any day of the week, especially if there wasn’t a pattern popping up elsewhere in the country. Didn’t make it right, but sometimes it was just the way things were.


“So what made you think of a cattle prod?” he asked.


She shrugged. “I’ve seen the markings before. I don’t know how much you know about what I do, but I study a lot of real world situations like how certain areas would handle the aftermath of a nuclear attack or how countries under dictators would fare if a democratic system was put in place. Stuff like that…” She trailed of as she realized she technically couldn’t tell him where she’d seen the markings before. For one of her first projects with the NSA she’d studied Serbia and the political dynamic that existed there a decade ago. In Kosovo, during the so-called ethnic cleansings, she’d seen classified pictures with eerily similar markings on countless dead women and children.


“Uh, Lilly?” Braden interrupted.


“I’m sorry…well, it doesn’t matter where, but I’ve seen those markings before.” She made a V shape with her hands to illustrate. “The prods used for animals are wider, like the burns on those women. I think that’s what your guy is using. It might explain why the marks are so visible too. Animal skin is tougher so those things are made with higher voltage.”


He frowned, but didn’t respond.


“Come on. Let’s get this over with,” she said as she opened her door.


There were only a couple cars in the parking lot as they made their way to the double doors of the one-story building. Funeral homes in general weren’t the happiest places to hang out, but Watson’s Funeral Home had always creeped her out. Lilly resisted the shudder that threatened to overtake her as Braden held open the door for her.


They both glanced around the empty lobby. From somewhere, speakers pumped out monotonous elevator-style music.


“This way.” Braden motioned toward the left. He opened a door into a hallway.


As they walked down the bright yellow hallway, past visions of holding her aunt’s hand as they came to talk to the funeral director about her parents’ caskets played in her head.


Braden knocked once on the door at the end of the hallway. When no one answered, he eased it open, then glanced back at her. “Reverend Ingram said he’d be around here somewhere. Want to wait in here while I check around?”


She nodded, thankful for the suggestion, and took a seat on the brown leather chair in front of the desk. That annoying music trailing down the hall didn’t help the atmosphere. She tapped her finger against the desk as she waited for Braden to return.


“Lilly.”


She glanced around when someone whispered her name. The door was still open and no one was in the hall. Great, now I’m imagining voices too. Closing her eyes, she massaged her temple. She really needed to get a grip.


“Lilly.”


Her eyes flew open at the sound. This time the whisper was a little louder.


“Lilly.” The voice was sing-songy and low and she was pretty sure she hadn’t imagined it.


“Braden?” It didn’t sound like him, but no one else knew she was here. She pushed out of the chair and took a few steps into the hallway. When no one responded, she continued down the hall. Only one door was half-open so she pushed on it with her foot. It creaked open to reveal a room full of display caskets. She fought off a shudder. Talk about creepy. Thank God her aunt was having a wake.


Shaking her head, she headed back toward the office. Braden would find her when he was done. There was no sense—


“Liiilly.”


The sing-song voice sounded just like one of the monsters who had killed her team. Her counselor had told her she might have auditory hallucinations too, but she’d never thought it could happen. The creepy voice had taunted her as he chopped members of her team into pieces. It was bad enough she had nightmares about it.


Her mouth dried up and she swiveled back toward the open doorway. Face my fears. I can do this!


Her counselor had warned her that her PTSD could get worse before it got better. She’d just assumed she’d already hit rock bottom. Apparently not.


Whatever was going on was a figment of her imagination and she simply needed to stare it down. Placing a steadying hand on her abdomen, she took a few steps inside. As she gazed around the room, she felt foolish, but also relieved. Forcing her feet to obey, she stepped further inside until she was in the middle of the room. There were six shiny wood coffins with the tops propped up and a display stand of brass and silver hardware.


A soft click sounded behind her. Her heart jumped, but she forced herself to turn around. Her hand flew to her throat.


Her nightmare was standing in front of the door. “You’re not real,” she whispered, the three words scratchy and barely audible.


As chills snaked through her veins, she stared at the sight before her. Black mask, black sweater, black jeans, black shoes and…her heart nearly leapt out of her chest when she saw clusters of dirt by his foot. This wasn’t her imagination. He wasn’t some shadowy figure in her dreams.


Instinct kicked in and she let out an ear-piercing scream as she dove for the display stand. She’d left her gun in her purse and it was the only thing she might have been able to use as a weapon.


She was fast, but so was he. Surprise registered in his dark eyes, but the second she opened her mouth, he catapulted into action. She barely made it one step.


Strong, beefy arms clamped around her upper body as he tackled her to the ground. She struggled, thrashing around, trying to get a punch in, but his grip only increased, cutting off her air supply.


“Get off me,” she yelled.


Using what little strength she had to shout was a mistake. When the rest of the air sucked out of her lungs at the effort, he squeezed tighter, rolling her so that she was face down.


Fear and bile filled her mouth as her face scraped against the carpet. The smell of cleaning products and tobacco filled her nostrils. Something primal inside her screamed as she struggled.


She managed to free one of her hands. Using raw adrenaline, she clawed at the carpet and tried to find a hold or some way to wiggle free. She might have been trained in self-defense but this guy outweighed her by at least seventy pounds. He slammed his hand on hers, gripping her wrist with brutal force as he shoved himself tighter against her.


His body smothered hers, making it increasingly harder to breathe or think. When she felt his erection prodding at the small of her back, she bit back a cry. He was turned on by this! The realization made her want to vomit.


She opened her mouth to scream but he pressed harder onto her back, pushing all the strength from her. “Help.” The word was a whisper. Coughing and struggling she tried to shriek, but it was impossible. Where was Braden? Her mind screamed for him.


“We don’t have time now, but later I’m going to enjoy every inch of you,” her attacker whispered in her ear, the vile meaning echoing in her brain.


She dry heaved at his words, but before she had a chance to react, he shoved something over her face. He kept his hand there until she couldn’t fight him any longer. Sweetness filled her nostrils before blackness engulfed her.


Chapter 4


Lilly fought through cobwebs, trying to clear her brain and open her eyes. A deep throbbing fractured through her skull. She raised a hand to massage her temple, but her knuckles hit something hard.


She blinked a couple times, but everything was pitch-black. Writhing around, she tried to sit up and move her hands, but her skull cracked against something solid. Pain splintered through her head. Oh my God! She didn’t know how she knew, but that maniac had locked her in a coffin. Her throat threatened to close up as panic set in. She clawed around until her hand clasped on silky material and she started pulling and ripping.


Lilly pounded at the lid with the heels of her hand. “Help! Braden! Somebody help me!” Screaming and pitching her body around, she tried to push on the top but it was useless.


Struggling to use her knees and feet, she continued kicking at the lid. The harder she kicked, the more her lungs seemed to shrink in her chest. As she gulped in musty air, she forced herself to calm down and think. If she didn’t stop thrashing, she might run out of air. Think, don’t react. She chanted the words over and over in her head.


When she heard her name being called as if through a tunnel, her heart leapt. “Help! I’m in here!”


The sound of Braden’s voice calling her name immediately calmed her nerves. Her entire body jostled as the coffin shook. Fear and panic threatened to overwhelm her again when light hit her eyes.


“Lilly! What happened? Are you okay?” Deep lines etched around Braden’s eyes as he lifted the top half of the coffin. She tried to sit up but with the bottom half still closed she could barely move. Braden looked over his shoulder. “A little help here!”


A moment later Reverend Ingram lifted the bottom hatch open. As soon as her feet touched solid ground, she crumpled into Braden’s arms. His heartbeat was as strong as his embrace and strength was exactly what she needed right now.

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