by Kate Calloway
A sadistic serial killer is abducting young women and leaving their mutilated bodies along Oregon’s coastal highway. Kings Harbor policewoman Martha Harper believes the clues lead to a local college, but her superiors don’t see it that way. Desperate for help, she turns to her best friend, Cassidy James.
Posing as a teaching assistant in the Theater Department, the undercover investigator soon finds herself surrounded by a cast of intriguing characters, including the alluring Professor Lauren Monroe—whose talents, Cassidy will soon discover, are not limited to the classroom. But the more she learns about Lauren and the people around her, the more Cassidy suspects she’s not the only one playing a role…
Cassidy James Mystery Book 5.
Originally published by Naiad Press 1998.
|July 19, 2018
He watched his next victim step off the bus and felt the excitement surge through him like a warm electric current. It pricked his skin with a pleasant burning sensation and he trembled, confident he’d chosen well.
He anticipated her fear and swallowed hard. He was an empathetic guy, after all. When they begged for mercy, his own throat always tightened with emotion. When they pleaded, quite often his own eyes welled up with tears. So it wasn’t unusual for him to feel their fear, even before they felt it themselves. Like now, he thought, watching her move with the carefree confidence of someone who didn’t realize her time was almost up.
Dressed in a tight black skirt and pale pink silk blouse, she was oblivious to his presence. That would change, though. It always did. Just thinking about that special moment, when she’d get that first inkling of his existence, made him sweat with longing. That was always the best part, that first undefined fear, when they sensed him, looked over their shoulder, and unconsciously quickened their pace.
But for now, he practiced nonchalance. There was plenty of time.
He licked his lips and sauntered forward. She was leaning over, one foot on the bus-stop bench, replacing the black heels she’d worn to work with a pair of Nike tennis shoes for the walk home. He’d seen her do this before, had known she’d do it today.
“Excuse me,” he said, stepping back to avoid the collision as she moved to put her other foot on the bench. His nostrils flared, taking in the heady scent of her perfume.
“Hey,” she said, glaring at him for an instant, before her face softened. It was the same look he’d seen her use on the grocery store clerk last week, a mixture of impatience and annoyance. She recovered her manners in time to say, “I didn’t know you were there. Sorry.”
He’d barely brushed against her, but the contact was almost more than he could bear. He wanted to take her right then and there, and he felt the knife inside his pants, cool metal against his burning skin, calling to him. It took tremendous control to ignore it. But control was his specialty.
“No problem,” he managed. For one brief second he let his eyes meet hers. There was no fear in them, which excited him even more. Because he knew that soon there would be. And it would be because of him.
“Nobody barbecues in the rain,” Rick said, sticking his head out the sliding glass door. He set four beers on the deck and disappeared back into the warmth of the house. Sheriff Booker went to retrieve them.
“He’s got a point,” he said, handing Towne a bottle of Red Dog Ale.
We were standing around the Weber under the overhang, warming our hands over the black kettle. The turkey inside was sizzling and the aroma was incredible. My best friend, Martha Harper, slipped her arm around my shoulders and pulled me close.
I shook my head, trying not to shiver. “I’m hungry,” I said.
“So what else is new?” the three of them chimed in unison. I laughed. No point in denying it. I was a self-avowed glutton. Luckily, I had a fast metabolism.
The rain was coming down in a steady torrent and Rainbow Lake was riddled with dimples. There was no breeze at all, but the late November air was chilly. I was tempted to join the others in the kitchen, but I was fascinated with the case Booker and Martha were discussing.
“The FBI done a profile on the guy yet?” Booker asked. His blue eyes looked almost gray, matching the slate-colored clouds. His silver moustache twitched, as it always did when he was thinking. Approaching sixty, Sheriff Booker was still as handsome as ever.
“Hell, Tom, they’re just now getting around to admitting that it might be a serial killer. I guess one woman wasn’t enough. Now that we found a second body down in Gold Beach, they finally sent out a couple of rookies. One of them looks about sixteen. I’m not kidding. He’s got zits and everything.” Martha laughed, but her big brown eyes looked worried. “Anyway, they ran the stats through VICAP, but so far nothing’s turned up, so it looks like this guy is just starting out.”
Ever since she’d found the first victim six months ago, brutally murdered and dumped along Highway 101, Martha’s eyes had been puffed with the tell-tale signs of insomnia. I’d never seen her so consumed with a case, and even Tina, Martha’s longest-lasting Significant Other to date, seemed unable to quell Martha’s anxiety.
I knew that the first victim, Sarah Ringer, had been a student at Kings Harbor Community College. Her mutilated body had been found propped against a fifty-year-old cedar by a passing motorist on the highway. She’d been bound, beaten, chewed on, cut up and raped. The cause of death had been strangulation, though the other wounds would likely have killed her eventually. Weirder still, the M.E. had found a semen-filled condom inside her vagina, which the general public did not know. It had been tied on one end like a balloon, trapping its contents inside. Even before the second victim, Tracy Lee, was found, Martha had worried that she might be seeing the work of a serial killer. She’d tried to get Captain Grimes to enlist the help of the FBI then, but he wasn’t interested.
“Why do you think it might be a serial killer?” I’d asked her one night. We’d been drinking red wine with our dinner and had taken the rest of the bottle out to the hot tub.
“Because one thing serial killers have in common, Cass, is that they tend to take souvenirs. Sarah Ringer was missing her pinky finger.” This was another detail the general public was not privy to.
The second victim, Tracy Lee, also a young woman, had lived in Gold Beach, about a hundred miles south of Kings Harbor. She was a clerk in a video store, had never been to college and, aside from being young and attractive, didn’t seem to have much in common with Sarah Ringer. Martha had explained that many serial killers go after the same type, but Sarah’s blond hair and blue eyes contrasted sharply with the Asian woman’s darker features. What the two victims did have in common was the horrific way in which their bodies had been mutilated prior to death, and the way the killer had positioned them along the side of the road.
“Look at that,” Martha had said, showing me two grisly crime scene photos. “He’s displaying them like works of art. He props them up, and see their hands?”
“Looks like they’re praying,” I said, trying to quell a surge of nausea. Both women had been propped against trees, their legs crossed at the ankles, heads bowed, hands clasped in their laps.
“Or maybe he’s covering their genitals. The bastard’s definitely trying to send a message of some kind.”
If anything, the second murder had been more brutal than the first. Tracy Lee had been bound, beaten, bitten, stabbed, sliced and finally choked to death. The big toe on her left foot was missing, and like Sarah, she’d had a semen-filled condom inserted into her vagina. Autopsy reports showed the semen matched that found in the first victim. Martha had been racking her brain trying to find a common link between the victims. The fact that she was discussing the case in front of Towne on Thanksgiving was proof of how obsessed she’d become.
“It’ll be good, though,” Sheriff Booker said, “now that you’ve got some help. Are they working with you, or are the Feds pulling that holier-than-thou shit they’re so famous for?”
“I’m trying to keep an open mind, Tom. But they spent two whole days pumping me for information, and now when I ask them something, they clam up. Johnson, that’s the one still going through puberty, gave me some shit about running a parallel investigation. What they’re doing, though, is re-doing everything I’ve already done. Makes me look stupid. And what’s worse, Captain Grimes is practically drooling over these guys. I’ve never seen him so excited. We’re talking some major ass-kissing going on. Meanwhile, he’s taken away what little help I had. He reassigned Langly last week. I guess he figures now that the real experts are here, my role’s not important.” Martha was trying diligently to suppress her fury. She took a long swallow of beer.
I squeezed her waist, surprised to feel the hip holster beneath her blazer. It was Thanksgiving, after all. But ever since she’d been promoted to detective, she seemed to be on call nonstop. Still, it seemed silly to be wearing a gun on Thanksgiving. Mine was safe at home, hanging next to a purse I hadn’t carried in over a year.
“What did they say about the college girl?” Booker asked.
“What college girl?” I asked. It irked me that Booker seemed to know more about these cases than I did. Obviously Martha had been confiding in him instead of me.
“Last week another kid from the community college turned up dead,” Martha explained.
“A third victim? Why didn’t I hear about this? I mean, why wasn’t it in the news?” What I really wanted to ask was, why hadn’t she told me instead of Booker?
“The girl wasn’t necessarily murdered,” Booker explained. “She was found on the beach, drowned. There’s no reason to believe there’s any connection to the serial murders. Martha was just mentioning the other day how odd it was for two kids from the same school to end up dying in such a short timespan.”
“I read about that,” Towne said. Even in the brisk autumn air, Towne was wearing a cotton T-shirt, and I marveled at the lack of goose bumps on his finely muscled arms. Towne was a Nautilus buff and worked out five days a week. “A body like Adonis, and a face like Godzilla,” he liked to say about himself, referring to the pockmarks he carried with him as testimony to his agonizing teenage acne.
“I tried to get the Feds to look into it,” Martha said, answering Booker’s question. “They looked at me like I was some kind of moron. Johnson started going into a sermon about M.O.s and signatures. Like way out here in little ol’ Kings Harbor we hadn’t heard of such things. Like I was too stupid to realize that a killer who mutilates, rapes and strangles his victims and then inserts sperm-filled condoms in their vaginas as a parting gift, isn’t suddenly going to wake up one day and decide he prefers to simply drown them.”
“So they’re not even going to look into it?” Booker asked.
“They don’t believe there’s anything to look in to. They weren’t even interested in the autopsy report.” For the first time, her brown eyes took on something other than anger. I recognized that look. Martha was up to something. Booker must have seen it too.
“I don’t suppose the autopsy revealed anything of interest?” he asked. His moustache was twitching again.
“Well, she did drown, as suspected, but the coroner suspects she had sex before she did. There was no trace of semen, but she did have some pubic hairs mixed with hers. She also had a pretty hefty dose of Rohypnol in her system,” she stated.
“Ro-what?” Towne asked.
“Better known in the college circuit as ‘roofies,’” Martha explained. “Down south they call them roches.”
“What’s a roofie?” I asked.
“It’s an illegal sedative. Around here they come in small, white tablets. They don’t leave any taste or odor and they’re cheap. Mixed with alcohol, they’re the quickest way to getting smashed. And Lisa Lane also had a point-one-four alcohol count. Could, of course, mean nothing. But we know the killer likes his victims subdued. Both of his victims had at least some trace of chloroform in their systems. I’d say poor Lisa Lane was pretty subdued before she decided to go for a swim in the ocean that night. In pretty frigid temperatures, I might add.”
“The paper said the kids had been partying in the dunes,” Towne said. “That’s not unusual, even this time of year. Even I’ve gone swimming in the winter, though I have to admit, I’ve never stayed in for more than a couple of minutes.” Towne looked at his watch again, something he’d been doing off and on for the last hour.
“If that thing isn’t done soon, I’ll eat it raw. The smell is driving me nuts,” Booker said.
“It’s not a smell,” Towne insisted. “It’s an aroma. And it’s supposed to drive you nuts. That’s the point of standing around the barbecue. And it will be done in exactly seven and a half minutes.” Towne may have looked like a lumberjack, but by profession he was an accountant, and was notoriously meticulous and punctual. Rick, his gorgeous, slightly built, artistic lover who was inside cooking, was his complete physical and emotional opposite. They made a charming couple.
“The thing that’s bugging me, I guess,” Martha said sighing, “is the coincidence. I mean, what are the chances, do you think, of two girls going to the same little college, in the same drama department, both dying within six months of each other? I mean, they knew each other. That’s the thing I keep coming back to. I don’t care what the FBI says. I don’t believe in coincidence.”
Towne reached over and affectionately smoothed Martha’s short brown hair behind one ear.
“It’s a small town, Martha. Half the citizenry knows one another. Don’t get mad at me, but I just don’t see where one girl’s being murdered has anything at all to do with another girl’s drowning.”
Martha patted Towne’s hand and sighed. “I know. I know. But I can’t shake this feeling I’ve got, and I don’t know how to explain it. I certainly can’t go to the FBI with a feeling. I mentioned it to Grimes and he about laughed me out of the office.”
“I still say it’s too bad you can’t get someone in there undercover,” Booker said. “Just to get a feel for things. Hell, someone posing as one of the drama students could probably find out more in a week than the police could in a month. At the very least it would serve to rule out any connection. That way, you could concentrate your efforts elsewhere.”
“Grimes would never go for it,” Martha said. “He’s already dismissed the drowning victim as an unrelated case. Not to mention a closed case. Even if we had someone who could pass as a college student, who could kind of work their way into the same social circle those two girls were in, I’d never get his okay. Besides, most of the students there are straight out of high school. We don’t have anyone on the force young enough to pull it off.”
A brief look passed between Booker and Martha, so quick I almost missed it. For a second, it didn’t register, and then, with a suddenness that made me nearly cough on my beer, I understood.
“Just tell me one thing,” I said, laughing. “Which one of you thought this up?”
Booker raised his eyebrows, feigning total innocence, but Martha’s face took on a pinkish hue.
“What?” Towne asked, looking confused.
“They want me to go undercover,” I explained. “They want a thirty-two-year-old P.I. to pose as a college student. For free,” I added.
“You could pass,” Booker said. “Hell, half the time you don’t look a day over twenty.”
I thought about this, trying to look mad. “How old do I look the rest of the time?”
“It’s probably a dumb idea,” Martha said. “I mean, even if you could pull it off, it would probably just be a big waste of time. It’s just that, with Langly being pulled off the case and all, I don’t have any time to pursue the college angle. I just hate to leave this thing hanging.”
Actually, the idea of working a new case intrigued me. Especially one that might be important. I was tired of following unfaithful husbands around with my zoom lens, hoping for a closeup shot proving their infidelity to the suspecting wife. Besides, anything would be better than sitting around moping over Maggie Carradine.
Suddenly, I wondered if Martha hadn’t just made up this whole college-connection thing for that very reason. I looked at her, but her eyes revealed nothing. Would she do that? I wondered. Make up a bogus case just to keep me occupied? Just to help me survive a broken heart? She would, I decided. Which was one reason I loved her. But I doubted that’s what she was doing now.
Suddenly, Towne’s watch began to chirp.
“Get the door!” he ordered. Martha rushed to the glass slider, giving me a “we’ll talk later” look.
“Hold the platter!” Towne said to Booker.
“Finally,” Booker muttered.
“Cassidy, behold. Is this, or is this not, the most beautiful, perfectly cooked Thanksgiving turkey you have ever laid your eyes on?” Towne lifted the black lid off the Weber, revealing the golden brown bird beneath and, my mouth watering, I had to admit, it was.
The table was a work of art. Rick had used all his fancy china and silver, and Booker’s wife, Rosie, had contributed a beautiful lace tablecloth which her great-grandmother had brought over from Spain. Tina was filling the wine glasses, Towne was carving the turkey, and Rick and Rosie were bringing out bowls and platters by the armload. I wasn’t used to being waited on, and it was kind of nice. Because I love to cook, I’m usually the one who ends up in the kitchen.
“You realize, of course, who’ll be doing all the dishes,” Booker said, winking at Martha and me.
“It’ll be worth it,” Martha said. Martha, who hardly ever cooked but who loved fine food, did the dishes a lot.
“You obviously haven’t seen the kitchen,” Tina teased, kissing Martha’s cheek as she filled her glass. She was a slender, coffee-skinned woman with huge almond eyes and short cropped hair. I thought she looked like a model and told her so often. Martha was as smitten as she’d ever been, and even I was beginning to think she’d finally found someone to settle down with. Officially, they still had separate places, but the last time I’d been over to visit, I’d noticed a good deal of Tina’s personal belongings scattered about Martha’s condo.
When at last everyone had settled down and all the food had been heaped onto plates, Rick raised his glass for a toast.
“To the best friends a person could have,” he said.
“To the cooks!” Booker replied.
“To family,” Martha said. We clinked glasses, sipped the wine and dug in.
For once in my life, despite the fact that I was famished, I was having trouble eating. My throat had tightened up, and I was finding it difficult to swallow. I knew what Martha had just said was true. We were family. These were the people I loved. So why was I feeling so miserable?
I looked around the table. Martha and Tina were radiant with their mutual infatuation, Rick and Towne were as perfectly suited as two complete opposites could be, and Tom and Rosie were the most happily married straight couple I knew. And here I was, Cassidy James, a supposedly attractive, intelligent woman, alone on Thanksgiving.
Well, not alone, of course. But without the person I’d begun to consider my own Significant Other. It still hurt.
Four months had passed, and I still raced to the phone every time it rang, hoping it would be Maggie Carradine. Sometimes it was, which only made it worse. Because instead of being ten miles away in Kings Harbor, she was calling me from Paris, France. And instead of calling to say she was coming home, she would say how important it was that she had gone, how there was so much unfinished business between her and Cecily, how being there and helping Cecily through the dying process was teaching Maggie so much about her own life.
I knew in my heart that what Maggie was doing was a truly noble thing. Part of me was proud of her. I, too, had watched a lover die, and I wouldn’t wish that pain, that unbearable helplessness, on anyone.
But part of me was devastated. I knew this was uncharitably selfish, but I couldn’t help it. Maggie had scarcely even mentioned this Cecily person. Sure, I’d seen the pictures: Cecily on water skis, the white spray splashing her tan, laughing face; Cecily throwing a snowball, her bright eyes beaming at the camera. But whenever I asked about her, Maggie clammed up. I sensed deep hurt and always backed off. I trusted that in time she’d be able to talk about it.
But I hadn’t expected this. When I first broke the news to Martha, her brown eyes went wide with disbelief. “She just up and left you?”
“Her ex-lover is dying,” I said. I was trying hard to sound like someone who wasn’t falling apart.
“But there must be someone else who could take care of her!” Martha had always idolized Maggie so I was surprised by her outrage.
“She wants to be there,” I said. Just saying it made the lump in my throat swell.
“For how long?” Martha asked.
I’d asked the same silly question. Maggie had just looked at me, her eyes so infinitely sad that I felt I would suffocate.
“This is something I’ve got to do, Cass. I can’t explain it and I can’t justify it. I can’t ask you to wait for me and I won’t blame you if you don’t. You know how I feel about you. But this isn’t about us. Cecily is unfinished business. We never had closure and it’s haunted us both. I always figured that in time we’d find a way to wrap it up. Now I realize there’s never going to be another time. This is something I just have to do.”
There wasn’t really anything I could say. I told her I understood. I told her I’d be here and that she could call me whenever she wanted but I’d understand if she didn’t.
Of course, this turned out to be a big lie. When Maggie didn’t call, I was devastated. When she did call, I felt even worse. I tried to sound cheerful and supportive, but in reality I felt lonely and abandoned. And then, out of the blue, Cecily went into some sort of remission.
I was ecstatic! If Cecily was well, Maggie could come home!
“She wants to go to Switzerland,” Maggie said, her own excitement coming over the miles between us.
“Uh huh?” Caution had crept into my voice.
“The cancer isn’t gone, Cass. The doctor says there’s no telling how long this reprieve will last. Right now she feels good. I’m going to take her.”
“Are you sleeping with her?” The second the words left my lips I wanted to take them back. I’d had no intention of ever asking this, though I’d been wondering for months. My heart pounded and my cheeks burned through the long silence.
“I’ll call you when we’re back,” she said. I cradled the buzzing receiver against my cheek as tears fought their way to the surface. I should never have asked that question. Because the truth was, I didn’t really want to know the answer.
* * *
Through it all, I tried to carry on as if nothing were wrong, but Martha was concerned. She’d known me since college and sensed I was hurting. Lately she’d quit trying to convince me that Maggie would be back. I think she was starting to doubt it herself.
Even Rick, the eternal optimist, had quit mentioning Maggie’s name in my presence. The only one who still talked about her was Booker, and that was mostly out of guilt. He’d been fairly instrumental in keeping us together back when Erica Trinidad had threatened to sweep me off my feet. He’d convinced me to let Erica go and to dedicate myself to Maggie. And now Maggie had gone off to Switzerland with her first love, and I was left battling emotions I’d never even known I had.
“You’re not eating!” Rick scolded.
“You’ve hardly touched a thing,” Rosie said. “You’re not coming down with something, are you?”
I was about to offer some feeble excuse when Martha’s pager went off.
“Not on Thanksgiving,” Tina said, looking worried. But Martha was already moving toward the phone. When she came back in, her face was grim, her voice tight.
“They just found Number Three,” she said. “In Lincoln City.”