Two Years Later—Savannah, Georgia
Detective Raul Cortez stared at the pair of black silk panties tied around the woman’s throat and cursed.
The Savannah Strangler had struck again. The third time in three weeks.
Another young girl dead. A blonde this time.
And they had no clues as to the killer’s identity.
The sicko. He’d stripped her naked, strangled her with a pair of silk underwear, then left her posed in the woods in a sexual position with hands folded at her breasts and legs spread wide as if to make a statement.
Raul’s partner Eddie Keegan lumbered up beside him, swatting at a fly buzzing around his face. “How long do you think she’s been here?”
Raul shrugged and stepped aside as the medical examiner stomped through the woods toward them. “At least a day, but the M.E. will have to pinpoint time of death. Have you found anything on the other girls’ computers?”
Keegan shook his head. “Not yet. I gave them to the tech guys to look at.”
“We need to find out where he’s buying the underwear.”
Keegan kicked at a loose root. “The press is going to be all over us on this. Make us look bad.”
Raul glared at him as he mentally assessed the crime scene for details. “Make us look bad? What about these poor women?”
“Hey, I love women,” Keegan growled. “That’s why I’m here in the damn woods at 5:00 a.m.”
“Then do your job,” Raul muttered. No wonder Keegan had had sexual harassment charges filed against him on his other job. “We have to find a connection between the vics.”
“I told you the tech team is on it. But the guy probably just hooked up with them in a bar. Happens every night of the week. Something you’d know, Cortez, if you ever got out and had a social life.”
“Some of us put work first,” Raul snapped.
“Yeah, and some of us want a life, too.”
A life to Keegan meant getting laid every night. He was competent enough, but Raul was tired of his sexist comments and disparaging attitude toward women. Keegan thought females had been put on earth for his pleasure, and that they all loved him. One day someone would put Keegan in his place. He hoped to hell he was around to see it.
Buckner, the new assistant M.E., shuffled up and knelt to examine the body. Raul muttered a silent prayer for the girl’s soul to rest in peace, promising her in that same prayer that he would find her killer. Then he focused on the details—the way her body had been positioned, how the grass and brush looked around the scene, the type of tree that was nearby. Details that might not be important but ones that might prove helpful at some point, maybe in finding a pattern.
So far, all three girls had been left in wooded, deserted areas. No real significance except that it meant the victims hadn’t been located immediately. Hiking vacationers or locals had discovered all three.
The killer hadn’t sent photos or notes to anyone that they knew of. For his trophy, he took the girl’s underwear.
The crime-scene unit was taking photographs, although Raul had snapped a few of his own when he’d arrived. He had been first on the scene, had secured the area and had searched for footprints but found nothing but some crushed dead plants and a few broken twigs. It had recently rained, which made finding evidence more difficult, but he still held out hope that the CSI team might find something. A piece of clothing, hair, a shoe print…anything they could trace.
Captain Black approached, wearing a grim expression. “Damn. It looks like we may have to call in the feds.”
Words Raul didn’t want to hear. “Give us another week.”
Black shrugged. “I already talked to a friend of mine at the bureau. It’ll take that long to get someone out here. I asked for a profiler, but he suggested a local counselor that he thought could help us.A sex therapist named Jenny Madden.”
“Not a shrink,” Raul mumbled.
Black arched a brow. “I know your history, Cortez, but we have to use every available resource. If it means bringing in a counselor or psychiatrist, then we’ll do it.”
Raul grimaced. Black could do what he wanted. But no way in hell was he ever going to trust a shrink again or take her word on anything.
He’d solve the damn case without her.
DR. JENNY MADDEN took a deep breath before entering her mother’s hospital room at CIRP, the Coastal Island Research Park mental facility. She reserved Sunday mornings to visit—not that her mother displayed signs of being aware of her presence—but Jenny’s conscience and her heart wouldn’t allow her to be anywhere else.
After all, Sundays had been about family when they were growing up: a big breakfast of pancakes or homemade cinnamon rolls; hurriedly dressing for church, putting on the Sunday dress her mother had made, her lacy Sunday socks and patent leather shoes; Bailey, her little brother, grumbling and complaining but her mother dragging him along anyway, saying his protests meant that he needed it.
Emotions crowded her chest. Her parents had been such a handsome couple. At least for the first six years of her life. Then one day everything had fallen apart.
Pain sucked the air from her lungs as she remembered hearing her mother’s screams the night he’d walked out. The terrible fight, her mother chasing after him. Her father’s car spewing dust as he drove away and never came back.
She brushed at a tear, wishing for once that she could think of that day or visit her mother without her heart breaking, but twenty years later the memory was fresh and raw like an open wound that wouldn’t heal.
Forcing herself to regain control, she inhaled the scent of the daffodils she held in one hand along with the fresh cinnamon rolls from the bakery, hoping they would evoke fond memories for her mother and miraculously open the doors of communication. Although hope was fledgling these days. After all, years of silence would probably not be broken by cinnamon rolls or flowers.
Determined to present a cheery picture, she pasted on a smile, pushed open the door and waved as she entered the room. “Hi, Mom. I brought flowers and those cinnamon rolls you like so much.”
Her mother lay propped against the bed pillows, her now-graying brown hair tangled, her mouth drooping slightly to the left as she stared into space.
“I’ll just put these in fresh water,” Jenny said. “Then we’ll get you a bath and I’ll brush your hair before we have breakfast.”
Her mother said nothing, but Jenny tacked a smile on her face, put the flowers in water, then placed them on the small table across from her mother so she could see them.
“Which gown would you like to wear today?” She plucked a lavender one from the drawer, along with its matching bed jacket. “How about this one? Lavender looks so pretty on you, Mom. Remember that lavender dress you wore to church on Easter when I was ten?” She filled the basin with water, poured in scented bath gel and gave her mother a sponge bath. Her mother made a soft whispery sound as if she enjoyed the process. “What is it, Mom? You want to talk to me. I know you do.”
Then the second passed, and that empty gray look returned to her eyes. Jenny willed the lump in her throat to dissipate, and turned away to gather her composure. She emptied the bathwater, then returned with the brush, sat down beside her mother and began to slowly work the tangles from her hair. Her mother sighed contentedly. Twice during this ritual she’d reached out and touched Jenny’s hand and squeezed it.
At that moment she’d known her mother was still inside the shell of her body. That she wanted to talk but something was holding her back.
Jenny had become a doctor to find the answer.
Unfortunately, her education and experience had yet to yield results. The very reason she’d moved her mother to CIRP. Hopefully, the psychiatrists at the center would find a treatment for her that would prove successful.
Dr. Zovall hadn’t been happy about the move. He’d been treating her mother for years, and had been a friend to her parents before the breakdown. A bigger friend since. He mourned her mother’s loss almost as much as Jenny and her brother, Bailey, did.
Yet he hadn’t been able to help her….
She counted the strokes as she glided the brush through her mother’s hair, a hundred strokes just as her mother used to do for her when she was little, sweeping her hair down over her shoulders until it lay in soft folds. “There, you look lovely now, Mom.”
She helped her mother settle back, inserted a jazz CD in the portable player, then set out their breakfast. Coffee for her, juice for her mother. Her mother nibbled at the food with no reaction, but ate the cinnamon roll and even licked her fingers when she finished. Jenny chatted about her week, telling her about the small house she’d bought in downtown Savannah, about the renovations, all mundane details, but if her mother could hear, she wanted to include her in her life.
Her cell phone vibrated against her belt, and she frowned and checked the number. The hospital. Darn it, there must be an emergency.
“Mom, I have to take this,” Jenny said, then she kissed her cheek and stepped into the hallway.
“Dr. Madden, this is the emergency service. Captain Black with the Savannah Police Department needs to speak with you as soon as possible.”
Jenny clenched the phone with sweaty fingers. Was one of her patients in trouble? Had one of them been hurt or committed a crime? “Did he say what it was about?”
“No, he just said he needed to talk to you, today if possible.”
“I’ll give him a call right now.”
She hung up, then phoned the police precinct. Seconds later, they patched her through to his cell phone. “This is Dr. Madden. How can I help you, Captain Black?”
“We found a murdered girl this morning, same MO as the two other strangled victims.”
“You think it’s a serial killer?” Jenny asked.
“Yes. And you come highly recommended.”
“I’ll do whatever I can to help.”
“Can you meet me at the crime scene?”
“Sure. Let me have the address.” He gave it to her, and she ducked in and said goodbye to her mother. “I’ll try to stop back this week, Mom. I love you.” She squeezed her hands and hoped for a response, but her mother close…