Lisa Langley couldn’t breathe.
Heat engulfed her, and perspiration trickled down her brow and neck, the cloying air filled with the scent of decay, blood and foul body odors.
Her captor’s smell.
She was suffocating. Being buried alive. Swallowed by the darkness.
Cold terror clutched her in its grip. The wooden box imprisoning her was so small her arms and legs touched the sides. An insect crawled along her chin, nipping at her skin, biting at the flesh. She tried to scream, but her throat was so dry and parched that the sound died.
Tears mingled with the sweat on her cheeks, streaming into her hair and down her neck. What kind of maniac buried a woman alive?
The same kind that robbed you of your life the last few days.
William White. The man she’d dated off and on for the past six months.
How could she not have known what kind of monster he was?
She trembled as the terrifying memories rushed back — the first day the suspicions had crept into her mind. The subtle nuances that William possessed a violent streak. His morbid fascination with the articles in the paper describing the murders.
The odd look in his eyes when the press named him the Grave Digger.
Above her, a shovel scraped the ground. Dirt splattered the top of the box. Rocks and debris pinged on top of her. The shovel again. More dirt. Over and over. The eerie drone of his voice humming an old hymnal faded in and out as he worked.
The past few days had been a living nightmare. He’d heard her call the police. Had known she’d figured out his identity, that the FBI was coming for him.
There was nothing else he could do, he’d told her — except treat her as he had his other victims.
She’d thought each day she would die. But each time, when he’d finally left her, bruised and hurting, she’d managed to will herself to survive. Because she’d thought she might be rescued. That Agent Brad Booker would make good on his promise to protect her.
Particles of dirt pinged off of the mound above her again, the sound growing faint as she imagined him finishing her grave.
And then the silence.
It frightened her the most.
He had gone. Was never coming back. Her body convulsed with fear. She was hidden beneath the ground, locked in the endless quiet.
No one would ever find her.
She tried to raise her hand, to roll sideways to so she could push at the lid. Her right hand was broken, throbbing with pain, but she dragged her left one to her side, twisted enough to turn slightly and clawed at the top. Her nails broke into jagged layers, and her fingers were bloody and raw, splinters jabbing her skin.
He had nailed the top shut. And laughed as she’d begged him to stop.
A few grains of sand sifted through the cracks, pelting her face. She blinked at the dust. Tasted dirt.
It was so dark. If only she had a light.
But night had fallen outside when he’d lain her in her casket.
She pushed and scraped until her fingers grew numb. In spite of the unbearable heat, chills cascaded through her as death closed in. Then slowly peace washed over her as she reconciled herself to the fact that she was going to die.
The life she’d dreamed about flashed into her mind — a beautiful white wedding dress. Getting married on a warm, sandy beach with the breeze fluttering the palm leaves, and the ocean lapping against the shore. Moonlight shimmered off the sand as they exchanged vows, while her father stood in the distance smiling proudly.
Then she and her husband were making love beneath the open trees. Promising to hold each other forever.
And later, a baby boy lay nestled in her arms. A little girl danced toward her.
A little girl she could buy a birthstone ring for her just like her mother had for her. As she’d outgrown it, she’d made it into a necklace. But William had stolen that, too. Had ripped it from her throat and thrown it to the ground. It was lost forever. Just like her dreams.
Too weak to scream, the sob that erupted from her throat died in the dusty abyss of her prison.
The hopes of that life, of a family, faded with it as she closed her eyes and floated into the darkness.
She had to be alive.
The tires of Special Agent Brad Booker’s sedan screeched on the wet asphalt as he veered onto the narrow dirt road leading around the old farmhouse. It was pitch dark, a cloudy moonless night. He’d reached Death Valley.
Now he knew why it had been dubbed the gruesome name.
The grass and trees all looked brittle and frail from the drought, the outbuildings run-down and dilapidated, the lack of life a sign that it was deserted. He’d heard rumors about the area. That the soil wasn’t fertile. That plants and animals couldn’t thrive here. That families didn’t either.
He threw the car into park, jumped out, grabbed a flashlight and shovel from the trunk and took off running. Behind him two other cars raced up and parked. One, his partner Ethan Manning. The other a squad car from the local Buford police.
His heart pounded as he tore through the dark, wooded area searching for fresh ground that had been turned. Limbs cracked and branches splintered beneath his boots. It had been over twenty minutes since Brad had received the call from the reporter.
The call describing the spot where Lisa Langley was buried.
Brad had promised to protect her.
But he’d failed.
Behind him, the men’s voices sounded, each deciding which direction to go. It was so damn dark they could barely see their own feet, the towering oaks and pines like a jungle that drowned out any light. They parted, the locals with the police dogs allowing the hounds to lead. Brad wove behind them to the right, shined his flashlight over the dry ground, ignoring the buzz of insects and threat of snakes as he raced through the briars and bramble. A voice inside his head whispered to him that it was too late.
Just as it had been for the other four victims.
Another voice ordered him to fight the panic.
But the air in the box wouldn’t last long. If the oppressive summer heat didn’t cause Lisa to have a heatstroke first. And then the bugs would feast on her body.
He banished the image and forged on.
It seemed like hours, but only a few minutes passed. Then one of the police tracking dogs suddenly howled.
“Over here!” the officer yelled. “I think we’ve got something.”
Brad spun around and raced toward him. Seconds later, he spotted the mound of dirt. The single white rose lying on top.
The Grave Digger’s signature.
“Damnit!” His heart clutched painfully as he imagined Lisa Langley down below. Terrified. Dying.
Or dead already.
He loosened the knot in his tie, then jammed the shovel into the ground, swiping at the perspiration on his face with the back of his shirtsleeve. Manning and the locals followed, digging with a frenzy. Dirt and rocks flew over their shoulders as they worked. Sweat poured down his face, the sound of the shovels and the men’s labored breathing filling the humid air.
Finally, the shovel hit something hard. A wooden box. Just like the others.
His heart pounding, he dug faster, raking away the layers of soil until they uncovered the top of the box.
“Give me a crowbar and some light!” Brad shouted.
Ethan knelt beside him, shoved the tool into his hand. Brad attacked the box while the locals shined flashlights on the dark hole.
The wood broke and splintered. Brad clawed it open. His throat jammed with emotions. Fury. Rage. Guilt.
Lisa Langley. Such a beautiful young girl. Left naked and dirty. Bruised and beaten. Her fingers were bloody from trying to dig her way out. Her eyes were closed.
Her body so still.
“Too late,” one of the locals said.
“Shit,” the other one muttered.
“No!” He couldn’t accept it.
Even though he never went to church, wasn’t sure he was even a believer, a prayer rolled through his head as he reached inside and lifted her out. She was so limp. Heavy. Cold. He spread her across his lap, then immediately began CPR.
Ethan ran to the car and brought back blankets, draped them across her body, then felt for a pulse.
The two men’s gazes locked. Paralyzed for just a second.
Brad continued CPR, muttering under his breath. “Come on, damnit, Lisa, breathe! Don’t you dare die on me.”
Time lapsed into an eternity as they waited. Finally her chest rose slightly.
Ethan made a choked sound. “Jesus Christ, she’s alive.” He jumped into motion, punching in his cell phone. “Where the hell’s that ambulance? Get it here asap — our vic is breathing!”
Brad sent a thank-you to heaven, then lowered his head and wrapped the blankets more securely around her, rocking her back and forth. “Come on, Lisa, stay with me, sweetheart,” he whispered. “Help is on the way.” He shook her face gently, trying to rouse her into consciousness, but she was in shock. He wrapped the blankets tighter, hugging her closer to warm her. Somehow, if she lived, he’d make it all up to her.
And when he found the bastard who’d done this to her, he’d make him pay with his life.
Four Years Later
“The Grave Digger is back.”
Special Agent Brad Booker stared at the crime scene in shock, the detective’s voice mimicking his own thoughts The Grave Digger case — this whole scenario reeked of it.
That first one had almost cost him his career, his entire life.
His mind ticked over the similarities. Four years ago, the final victim, Lisa Langley, had been found on another moonless night. It had been dark, and so damn hot the heat had literally robbed his breath. As if the thought of her missing hadn’t already done so.
Just like the other victims, he’d found her in a rural, deserted wooden area. Rotting vegetation and overgrown bushes marred the trail. Yet they had plowed their way through and found the grave tucked into the midst of Death Valley.
Except today, there was no white rose on the grave. This killer was making his own statement here. Adding his personal signature with the gold cross dangling around the woman’s neck. But what was the significance?
Hopefully Joann Worthy’s battered body would give them some answers. The stench of blood, decay and death permeated the air. Crime scene technicians combed the woods with flashlights searching for evidence in the inky night. Insects buzzed noisily by. Cameras flashed, capturing all angles of the woman’s lifeless body and her burial spot. The medical examiner was busy logging details of injuries and determining the cause of death. A rookie Buford cop named Surges turned green as he spotted the already decaying body, and ran toward the bushes.
Brad stood rooted to the spot, sweat coating his neck and trickling down his back. An image of Lisa’s grave four years ago flashed back. Digging furiously in the heat of the night. Praying she was alive. Knowing it was his fault if she didn’t survive.
Barely resuscitating her.
And then the trial. Watching Lisa face her attacker. Listening to the gruesome details describing what the man had done to her. Then seeing the man finally locked away.
Another local, Gunther, sidled up next to him. “You sure it’s not the same man? Maybe that first Grave Digger got out of jail.”
“Impossible.” Brad swiped at a gnat swarming around his face. “William White died in prison nine months ago of a massive head injury from a prison fight. I identified his body myself.” In fact, he had flown directly to the jail the minute he’d heard about White’s demise. Had wanted to make sure for himself the sadistic psycho was really gone. That he could never escape and hurt another woman again.
Then he’d driven to the mountain cabin she’d rented near Ellijay to deliver the news himself. To see the relief on her face.
To see if the ghosts still haunted her.
He’d somehow known they would, that she’d never fully escape them. And when he’d seen her reaction to him, that he reminded her of the worst time of her life, he’d forced himself to leave. But he’d never forgotten her. Never stopped blaming himself.
Never stopped admiring her courage or …imagining that things could have been different if she’d never been a victim.
But a personal relationship with Lisa Langley was a pipe dream, especially a short term one which was all a jaded man like him had to offer. He knew nothing about love. Commitment. Families.
Dealing with a traumatized victim.
His own mother had thrown him out as a kid, discarded him like day-old meat. His bitter childhood had nearly turned him into the type of men he chased today. And there were times even now when he thought he might cross the line. Times when he’d come so close that he’d nearly tripped and fallen over to the dark side.
He had actually done so in the past.
The night he’d finally gotten his hands on William White, that killer instinct in him had emerged again.
Sweet blissful relief to have caught the man had filled him, just as the rage and injustice of what White had done to his victims had made Brad nearly take the man’s life. Because Brad Booker was a man without mercy.
And White had seen that wrath..
Brad had no regrets. He would have enjoyed watching the man die.
Forcing himself back to the present, he glanced at the victim’s body as the ME rolled her over. Bile rose in his throat. When they’d found her, Lisa’s lower back had been covered in welts in much the same way. Thank God she was safe now.
And keeping her safe continued to be part of the job. No one knew where she was. The new name she’d assumed.
And he intended to keep it that way.
But this poor woman…it was too late.
“Can you believe this?” His partner, Ethan Manning, strode up, notepad in hand, rubbing at the sweat on his neck. “We were in a drought back then, too, a real scorching heat wave.”
Brad nodded. “And the killer always left the body in an isolated place.” The proximity to his own cabin on the lake seemed eerie, too coincidental. He didn’t like coincidences.
“Wooden box was nailed shut with the same kind of nails,” Ethan said. “And he chops off the victims hair. Brutalizes them. Even calls a reporter to gloat.”
Brad grimaced. “But this time he left a cross instead of a rose.”
“What’s that all about?” Ethan asked.
“Maybe some sign that he’s a religious freak.” Brad scoffed at the idea. “Any sign of rape?”
The one thing Lisa had been spared. Thank God. Apparently White had been impotent.
“Can’t tell yet, but I’ll let you know,” the ME said. “He cuts the fingernails off to get rid of trace evidence.”
If the woman had been raped, then the copy cat was deviating slightly from the first killer’s MO. Still, there were so many similarities. “How could this copy cat know every last detail?”
“The papers carried the trial,” Ethan suggested. “And he could have read the transcript of Lisa’s testimony.”
Brad’s gut clenched. Every word of that agonizing testimony had been seared into his brain.
“Or hell, he probably bragged about it in prison,” Ethan said. “You know how these sickos are. White was a sociopath.”
Brad nodded. Right, the bastard had no conscience.
Brad almost understood. He’d been forced to get into the perps heads too many times. Had seen their handiwork. Had witnessed the unthinkable.
Had begun to think he might be tainted himself from the violence. Not knowing his daddy or what genetic pool he’d come from made him wonder all sorts of things in the dark hours of the night.
The M.E. lifted a maggot from inside the box and bagged it. July first, the dead of summer, and the Atlanta temperature was soaring near a hundred. The heat in the box must have been even more suffocating because of it.
The poor woman. How long had she been kept down there before he’d called? He turned toward Gunther, the local officer. “She the one you’ve been looking for?”
“Matches the sketch,” Gunther said tight-mouthed. “I’ll phone the family to meet us at the morgue and verify her identity.”
Brad grimaced. One of the worst parts of the job. Telling the victim’s family.
He still remembered Dr. Langley’s reaction when he phoned to relay the news that they’d found Lisa. Alive. Only the man hadn’t reacted as he’d expected.
“We’ll question the other inmates where White was imprisoned,” Ethan said.
Brad mumbled agreement. “And I want to talk to that reporter.”
“I’ll get someone on the lumber supply companies,” Ethan said. “He may be building these boxes himself like White did. Maybe we can get a jump on where he bought the wood.”
Surges staggered up, wiping at his mouth. “Sorry.”
“Don’t sweat it, kid. You’ll get used to it,” Brad said. “Just start canvassing those cabins around the lake.”
Surges nodded, and Brad contemplated different possibilities — what if White hadn’t been operating alone years ago?
Sometimes serial killers worked in pairs…
The hairs on his neck tingled. They’d explored that angle during the original trial, but had never found any evidence to support it. But they could have been wrong.
Ethan moved up to his side. “Are you going to tell Lisa?”
Brad jerked his head toward his partner and swallowed hard. He’d never confided his feelings for White’s final victim, but Ethan had sensed the attraction. That Brad had nearly lost perspective.
But Lisa hated him. Would barely even look him in the eye.
How could he blame her? He’d hounded her for information on her boyfriend for weeks, accused her of covering for the man, even suggested White had used her, that she was a fool if she didn’t know the truth.
Then when she’d finally phoned him to admit her suspicions, he’d promised to protect her. But White had gotten to Lisa first. The week that had followed had been hell for him.
But nothing compared to the ordeal Lisa had endured. Seven days and nights of pure torture.
Ethan cleared his throat. “Booker?”
“No, not yet. I don’t want to alarm her.”
“You think that’s wise? Maybe she remembered something during the last four years that might help us. Like the place where White kept her. Or a second man.”
Ethan nodded, looking resigned while they both tried to focus on the details regarding this other woman.
But as things wound down, and Brad strode back to his car, a sense of foreboding followed him. Could he ask Lisa to relive those nightmarish details again? To tap into her subconscious where she’d repressed some of the horror?
Of course, you can. You’re the man without mercy. You can do whatever it takes to get the job done.
His stomach knotted as another thought struck him — if this psycho was copying White’s crimes down to a tee, would he go after Lisa just as the last madman had?