“Then we have no idea who has them.” Head spinning, Stella closed her eyes. Was Mac or Gianna being tortured right now? Having their fingers smashed with a hammer or their flesh cut with a knife?
But there was no way to compartmentalize this horror. If she wanted to save them, she would have to face it.
She turned and gave the board her full attention. Horner walked around the table and stood next to her. They faced the case board side by side. The answer had to be here somewhere.
“What do all the victims have in common?” Horner asked. “Why would he take Mac when his previous victims were all women with former drug addiction problems?”
“They all have a history of drug abuse.” Stella stopped, nearly tripping over her own momentum as the pieces fit into place. She’d been so afraid for Mac and Gianna that she hadn’t questioned the killer’s motivation in taking him.
“But what about Mac? Did he find something?”
“No.” She whirled. “He’s one of them.”
“Seriously?” Horner’s brows stretched upward.
“When he was a teenager,” she explained.
“Who would know that?”
“I don’t know.” What other suspects did they have? Her eyes went back to the board.
“What about Lyle Jones?” Horner asked. “He has a record.”
“Domestic squabble. It sounded personal.” Stella shook her head. “Plus, he was Dena’s physical therapist. He has no connection to Missy or Gianna.”
“Both Dena and Missy were treated at the New Life Center,” Horner said.
Stella thumbed through her file. “I already cleared Dr. Randolph of any criminal record. I wanted to check the story about his brother dying of an overdose.”
“What was his name?” Horner opened the laptop on the table.
Stella scanned her report. “Lucas Randolph. It happened approximately fifteen years ago.”
Horner scrolled. “Did he live in this area?”
She flipped to Josh’s background report. “He’s from Manchester, New Hampshire.”
“Josh said his brother was mentally ill,” Stella continued.
“Here’s the story.” Horner turned the screen. “Lucas Randolph, age nineteen, died of a heroin overdose.”
She skimmed the text. “Everything is exactly as he said.”
Horner flipped through one of Stella’s detailed reports. “What about his assistant, Reilly Warren?”
“I was waiting for the report on his assistant. Let me see if it’s in.” Stella hurried to her cubicle, grabbed the report from her inbox, and returned to the conference room. She flipped through the pages. “No criminal record here or in Atlanta.”
Horner typed Reilly’s name into the Google search bar and scrolled through the list of hits. “Here’s something.” Horner paused. “Three years ago in Atlanta, a Reilly Warren was the victim of a brutal beating, sexual assault, and robbery. The perpetrator was caught and convicted.” Horner looked up. “His attacker was a crack addict and was later found to be HIV positive.”
“That would certainly give Reilly motivation to kill some drug addicts.”
“How did he know Gianna Leone?” Horner asked.
“I don’t know. But if he’s targeting drug addicts, he could very well have staked out the NA meetings. We did.”
“Let’s get an address and a warrant on Reilly Warren.”
Stella read the address. “He lives at the center.”
“You realize this lead is thin,” Horner said. “If you’re wrong, we’ll be raiding a medical facility for no reason.”
Stella was well aware that they were acting on a hunch, but the possibility of the department getting egg on its reputation didn’t factor into her decision.
If she was wrong, then Mac and Gianna were both going to die.
Brave Gianna had been through so much already. And Mac . . . At the thought of losing him, pressure built in Stella’s chest until she could barely breathe. No! Mac was going to be all right. She had to believe that. Otherwise, fear would cripple her, and then she’d be useless.
She forced a deep breath into her lungs. “It’s the best—and only—lead we have.”
Horner nodded. “Then let’s follow it. It’ll be daylight in an hour.”
“We can’t wait.”
“Sir, you can’t go in there.” Cecily’s shout came through the open door.
“Like hell.” A deep male voice boomed in the hallway.
Stella turned to see Grant in the doorway, his wide shoulders filling the space.
Horner rounded the table and confronted Grant.
Good luck stopping him, Horner.
Grant might be retired from the military, but he still wore battle-fit like a uniform. Horner rode a desk, not a tank.
As predicted, Grant plowed past him. He turned laser focus on Stella. “So you think he’s at the center. What’s the plan to get him out?”
Grant must have overheard their conversation.
“Grant, you’re a civilian. I can’t let you participate. This is going to be dangerous.”
“You need all the help you can get,” Grant said. “And I’m going in, with or without you. So don’t shoot me. FYI, my sister will probably be there, too.”
Frustration filled Stella’s throat. “Grant . . .”
He crossed his arms. “I can be in and out of there before you even get your official operation underway.”
Stella thought back to Mac helping her with a search the previous November. The Barretts had specialized skills that had proved useful in the past. And the only way to ensure Grant stayed out of the way was to keep him with her. Grant had been an infantry officer. His military experience could be invaluable.
“With Chief Horner’s permission, I’d love to have your input. There isn’t any time for elaborate planning.”
Horner threw his hands into the air. “Why the hell not? We don’t have enough bodies for the op anyway. Let’s get a map.”
In the next twenty minutes, Grant proved to be the master strategist Mac had claimed. Horner called for assistance from the state police and county sheriff’s office. The rehab property backed onto a national park. Horner called in every officer that wasn’t already on duty handling the fire and the flood issues.
“I can’t imagine him keeping a woman prison at the center. There are people there all the time. He’d have to be very concerned with screaming.” Especially while he tortured them. Picturing Gianna or Mac being cut made Stella lightheaded. She put a hand on the tabletop to steady her legs.
“Basement?” Horner suggested.
Stella straightened, an image popping into her head. “There was an old barn a short distance from the main building.”
“We’ll go in quiet,” Grant said.
“I’d rather wait until we can get state and county assistance.” Horned frowned at the map.
Grant shook his head. “I’m not waiting.”
“Sir, there isn’t time.” Stella wasn’t waiting either. She’d throw down her badge and go in as a civilian if necessary.
“All right.” Horner tried to look authoritative, but it was hard to pull off next to a former combat officer. “But you will follow my orders and stay out of the way.”
Grant didn’t answer.
“See if we have a vest that will fit him.” Horner walked out of the room.
They finished their prep in the station’s parking lot. Stella briefed the small team.
Carl joined them, fresh from the fire scene. “I don’t believe it.”
Stella followed his gaze. Chief Horner was suited up for the op, complete with body armor and an AR-15.
Carl leaned close. “Do you think he knows how to shoot that?”
“I hope so.”
Horner tugged his dark blue cap low on his brow. He nodded to Carl. “Let’s go.”
“Yes, sir.” Carl got into his car.
“You can ride with me,” Stella said to Grant as she donned her Kevlar vest.
Grant shook his head. A car pulled into the lot and Hannah got out. Dressed in black cargos and a T-shirt, she tugged a black knit cap over her bright blonde hair.
“Hannah and I will follow,” Grant said.
Stella put her foot down. “I won’t let your vehicle anywhere near the property. If you’re going, you’re going with me.”
She could not have the Barretts going rogue on her out in the woods and possibly being shot by law enforcement. “You both must stay at the command post. That’s not negotiable.”
She knew the Barretts well enough to predict they were going to ignore her instructions.
“Of course,” Hannah said, bumping Grant with her elbow. “We don’t want to get in the way.”
Grant’s expression said he very much wanted to do just that.
A rumble of distant thunder foreshadowed the stutter of lightning on the horizon. Another storm was rolling in.
“Let’s go.” She gestured to her car. Hannah slid into the backseat. Grant rode shotgun. And as much as Stella worried about their presence, something about having the two of them in her car bolstered her confidence. She drove out of the lot as the storm burst from the sky.
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