She was headed to her car. He could hear the demon’s voice chanting in his ear. Get her. Get her. Get her. He bolted after her. He could hear himself panting as he closed the distance.
He was almost on top of her when he was suddenly blinded by bright lights. What the …? Ducking his head down, he turned, desperate to find the darkness again.
He hit something slick, went flying, and crashed into a tree, his right shoulder bearing the brunt. Cursing his own clumsiness, he looked down and saw what he had slipped on. It was a folder with papers spilling out. He bent down, hurriedly shoved the papers back inside, thinking he could use the folder to lure her out of her car.
He picked it up and shouted to her again, but she wouldn’t stop. Too late. He was too late. She was already backing her car out of the parking space.
Filth spewed from his mouth, obscene words he hadn’t even known were part of his vocabulary and he had certainly never uttered before. He found it impossible to stop the foul litany. He was losing control of himself, could feel himself slipping away, acquiescing to the demon.
Concentration was difficult, and he tried with all his might to focus. The car that had blinded him had its blinker on, obviously waiting for her parking space. His beautiful, golden prey had stopped. Why wasn’t she leaving? What was she doing?
He ran across the lot keeping her car in sight. The lights made him squint. He reached up to pull the bill of his baseball cap down lower. The cap was gone.
Could she see him through his disguise? Could she see his hatred? She wasn’t moving. What could she be doing? Oh, God, a cell phone. She probably had a cell phone and was using it right this second. She was calling 911. That’s what she was doing.
He panicked. He actually ran around in a circle while he tried to think what he should do. If she was calling the police, how long would it take them to get here?
Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. The cap. He had to get his baseball cap back—it had his fingerprints all over it—and then he needed to get out of the park.
He raced back to the tree he’d crashed into, dropped to his knees, and began to search in the dark. What’s this? His hand curled around a silver cell phone, and his heart leapt with joy. She hadn’t called the police. When she’d dropped her folder, she’d also dropped the phone. Yes, yes, it had to be hers.
Relief flooded over him until he remembered he needed to find his cap. Where was it? Frantic now, his mind screamed hurry, hurry. And then he found it and let out a low, anguished sob. Jumping up, he started running to safety, clutching the folder and the cell phone and his cap in his hands, his mind in such a confused state, he could barely concentrate.
He couldn’t hear himself think. The roar of the demon blocked out all other sounds.
HE CAME OUT OF NOWHERE. HE WAS RUNNING TOWARD HER. SHE could hear his footsteps on the pavement as she was turning. His face was twisted in rage. He was a big, muscular man. What was he doing? And why was he so angry?
Her mind tried to make sense out of why he was there. He was probably a jogger who just got caught in the rain. Maybe he was trying to get to his car just as she was trying to get to hers, and when she turned toward him, she’d so surprised him that he’d stopped.
No, no. There was something all wrong about him. Without understanding why, she knew the anger was directed at her.
Her instincts were screaming at her to get out of there. Fear, a powerful motivator, overrode the pain in her knee as she struggled to get up off the ground.
Her car key still dangled from the bracelet on her wrist. It was a miracle it hadn’t slipped off in the fall. The car was safety. Run, her mind screamed. Run.
The rain was pouring now. Head down, she stumbled to get to her car.
Was he coming after her? She dared a quick look back. Oh, God, he was running at her, closing the distance.
Wait. He was waving something at her and shouting at her to stop.
No, no, it was wrong. It was all wrong. Faster, she had to run faster. Her brother’s warning popped into her head. Spencer had always told her that when in doubt, go with your instincts, and her instincts were screaming at her to get to safety.
She finally made it to the car. The key nearly fell out of her hand when she pulled the coiled bracelet off her wrist, but she grabbed it in time. Her hands were slick from rain, and she was shaking so much it took her two tries to get the key in the lock.
He was almost there. She swung the door open, dove inside, threw her purse out of her way, and pulled the door closed. Twisting around, she hit the lock button down with her fist.
She didn’t take time to recover her breath. She shoved the key into the ignition and started the engine, turning the bright lights on as she backed out. Her foot slipped off the pedal.
“Oh, God,” she whispered. He was standing just twenty, perhaps thirty feet away. The light shone on his face, and his expression terrified her. He didn’t move. She frantically wiped the rain away from her eyes.
She blinked and he was gone.
She grabbed her purse from the floor and frantically dug through it, searching for her cell phone. Where was it?
A car behind her honked. Cordie and Sophie … they were waiting for her to pick them up. And the lunatic was out there.
She gripped the steering wheel and drove like a wild woman to the conference center. Aiden was right, she thought. She did need a new car, one with power locks and an alarm. It had been childish for her to hang on to the old clunker just to spite him.
Her friends were standing on the porch waiting for her. Regan put the car in park and slid across the bench seat to unlock the back door for Sophie. She rolled the window down and called out to Cordie, “You drive.”
“What happened to you?” Sophie asked, and after she got in, she scooted to unlock the driver’s door for Cordie. “Your face is gray.”
“I fell. Actually I—”
Sophie interrupted. “You hurt your knee again, didn’t you? Did it just give out on you?”
“Yes, but …”
“You really should get that fixed,” Cordie said. She was adjusting the mirror.
“Stop interrupting and listen. Something happened. Sophie, give me your phone. I can’t find mine, and I need to call the police.”
Her voice trembled as she related what had happened. Although it seemed odd to her, retelling was almost as frightening as the experience itself, because she now realized how close she might have come to fending off a madman.
Cordie was so shocked by what she was hearing that she grabbed Regan’s hand to comfort her.
“Thank God you got away from him,” she whispered.
Sophie wanted more details. “Could you identify him if you saw him?”
“I don’t know. Yes … maybe. I was so scared. I turned and there he was. He wore thick glasses.”
Cordie found her cell phone and handed it to Regan. “Call right now and tell them there’s a lunatic roaming around the conference center.”
“I’ll bet he’s long gone by now,” Sophie said.
“Are you saying she shouldn’t call?” Cordie asked, ready to argue.
“Of course she should call, but after you give the police the description, tell the officer we’re on our way to the police station. There’s one about two miles from here.”
“Let’s get out of here,” Cordie said. She put the car in drive and headed out while Regan made the call.
“We’ve got to get some ice on Regan’s knee,” Sophie said. “And the sooner the better.”
Regan motioned for her friends to be quiet when the phone was answered. She worried she would end up talking to another detective like Sweeney, but fortunately, the officer who took the call was efficient and polite. As soon as she explained what had happened, he dispatched policemen to the conference center to search for the man.
“I think he believed me, but I don’t know why,” Regan said after she had ended the call. “I rambled, didn’t I?”
“A little,” Cordie said.
“Turn left at the next corner,” Sophie directed. “There’s a QuikTrip where we can get her an ice pack, and a police station is just about a mile farther down that street.”
“How come you know where all the police stations are?” Regan asked.
“Not all of them, just some,” she corrected. “I’m going to be an investigative reporter, remember? It’s good to know these things.”
“I liked Officer Martinez,” Sophie said an hour later as the three left the police station.
Regan was replaying what she had said and shaking her head over her descriptions. “I sounded like an idiot. There was a man … dressed like a runner,” she quoted herself. “He appeared out of nowhere and I fell, and I think he might have been chasing me. But then again … maybe he wasn’t …”
“You were smart to run, Regan,” Sophie said. “That’s what Officer Martinez said. You went with your instincts.”
“He also said there hadn’t been any problems at the center in over a year.”
“You still did the right thing,” Cordie said. “You reported the incident, and if he’s some kind of wacko, which, by the way, I think he is, they’ll be on the lookout for him.”
“Could we not talk about this anymore?” Regan said. “How about eating in the hotel dining room? I’ll get you both settled at a table in the restaurant, run upstairs to change out of these wet clothes, and we’ll have a lovely dinner.”
“I don’t think you’re going to be able to run anywhere,” Cordie said. “And you need to keep ice on that knee.”
“Then come up to my suite, and we’ll order room service.”
They both agreed, and the rest of the evening was blessedly uneventful. As far as Regan was concerned, the matter was closed.
HE HAD BLOWN IT. AFTER ALL THE WORRYING AND THE PLANNING and the practicing, he had let her get away. He’d worked so hard. It wasn’t fair. No, it wasn’t fair at all. It was his right to take her life, his duty.
She’d tricked him into feeling confused and sympathetic when she’d fallen. She’d blindsided him. Yes, that’s exactly what she had done.
He pulled the Jeep over to the curb, put it in park, and began to pound the dashboard with his fists. He knew he was behaving like a child having a full-blown tantrum, but he didn’t care. He had failed. He kept beating the console until the shaking subsided. By the time he was able to think clearly again, his knuckles were raw.
Panic didn’t set in until he’d reached the safety of his garage. He stayed in the car until the garage door was down and he was safe inside his frigid cocoon. And still he didn’t move. He leaned against the seat and closed his eyes while he thought about his situation, his mind jumping from one thought to another. He knew it was only a matter of time before the police found the accident he’d buried. Would they connect him to that crime? If they did, he’d be locked away for the rest of his life, and his Nina, his dear, sweet Nina … how could she exist without him?
Stay cool, he told himself. There would be other chances. He wouldn’t get caught. The beast wouldn’t let that happen. It was going to be okay.
He continued his internal monologue as he crept through the house and opened the bedroom door to check on Nina. She was sound asleep. He quietly closed the door and went into the laundry room just off the kitchen. He stripped out of his clothes, tossed them into the washer, and grabbed the box of Tide.
His mind wouldn’t quiet down. He analyzed his poor performance this evening, and he was appalled and disgusted. He had to do better next time. Had to.
He couldn’t stop thinking about her. He kept picturing her, his beautiful angel with the broken wing, falling, so gracefully tumbling down. Had he heard her cry out, or had he only imagined she had? His chosen one, his perfect angel, was innocent, as innocent as his beloved Nina.
He closed his eyes and bowed his head. He had seen her weep, and his heart ached for her. He was so confused, torn between worrying about her and raging because she had gotten away.
“Can’t have it both ways,” he whispered. And he knew, in his heart he knew, that he had to appease the demon.
Stark naked, he went back into the garage. His chest and arms were covered in goose bumps. There was a small mirror propped on a shelf near the door. He paused to admire himself. His body was that of a Greek god, he thought with a great deal of pride. He’d worked hard to get it that way. Flexing his muscles, he smiled at his reflection.
He stood there a full minute before he turned away. He had the sudden urge, no, need, to look at her things, just to make sure they were where he’d hidden them in the small wooden crate with a stack of rags on top. The crate was tucked in the corner. It wasn’t a very clever hiding place, and tomorrow he planned to move the box.
The hammer, the girl’s driver’s license, and her pepper spray were just where he’d put them. He still wasn’t sure why he’d taken them, but he couldn’t make himself get rid of them just yet. He picked up the license and read her name. Haley Cross. In the photo, she was smiling. The picture he had of her in his mind was a face contorted in terror. He dropped the license on top of the spray and picked up the hammer.
The sound of a phone ringing close by jarred him. He whirled around with the hammer upraised in his hand. It took him a second to realize the noise was coming from his Jeep. Of course. Her phone. Someone was calling her. He waited, frozen, with the hammer in midair, until the ringing stopped. He found the phone and her folder on the backseat.
Shivering from the night chill, he hurried into his kitchen. He placed the phone and the folder on the table, went to the sink to wash his hands and clean the cuts on his knuckles, and then made himself a drink.
He dropped into a chair and opened the folder. He spread the contents across the table and began to read.
ALEC BUCHANAN WAS ONE OF THE LAST PASSENGERS TO LEAVE the plane. A flight attendant had to wake him. He’d fallen asleep about ten seconds after he had clipped on his seat belt and stretched his long legs in a poor attempt to get comfortable.
Alec could sleep anywhere, anytime, much to his brother Nick’s consternation. Nick was afraid to fly and went to great lengths to avoid it, which, of course, made him the brunt of many family jokes. Alec didn’t mind flying at all, though he thought the flight from Boston to Chicago was too short. Since he’d stayed up most of the night with his five brothers and two sisters catching up on all the news, he would have liked a much longer nap.
He knew he looked like hell. He hadn’t shaved since his interview with the FBI Thursday morning. He was pretty sure the job was his if he wanted it. Ward Dayborough, the head of the special crimes division, had been actively recruiting him for over a year and had all but guaranteed that he’d be based out of Boston.