Present day April 8 Tennessee
Case Edgerton ran along the narrow trail, aware of his burning legs but concentrating on his breathing. The last mile was always the hardest, especially on his weekly trail run. Easier to just zone out and run when he was on the track or in his neighborhoodpark; this kind of running, with its uneven terrain and various hazards, required real concentration.
That was why he liked it.
He jumped over a rotted fallen log and almost immediately had to duck a low-hanging branch. After that, it was all downhill--which wasn't as easy as it sounded, since the trail snaked back and forth in hairpin curves all along the middle quarter of thislast mile. Good training for his upcoming race. He planned to win that one, as he had won so many his entire senior year.
And then Kayla Vassey, who had a thing for runners and who was remarkably flexible, would happily reward him. Maybe for the whole summer. But there'd be no clinging to him afterward; she'd be too busy sizing up next year's crop of runners to do more thanwave goodbye when he left in the fall for college.
Sex without strings. The kind he preferred.
Case nearly tripped over a root exposed by recent spring rains and swore at his wandering thoughts.
Concentrate, idiot. Do you want to lose that race?
He really didn't.
His legs were on fire now and his lungs felt raw, but he kept pushing himself, as he always did, even picking up a little speed as he rounded the last of the wicked hairpin curves.
This time, when he tripped, he went sprawling.
He tried to land on his shoulder and roll, to do as little damage as possible, but the trail was so uneven that instead of rolling he slammed into the hard ground with a grunt, the wind knocked out of him, and a jolt of pain told him he'd probably jammedor torn something.
It took him a few minutes of panting and holding his shoulder gingerly before he felt able to sit up. And it was only then that he saw what had tripped him.
Incredulous, he stared at a hand that appeared to belong to a man, a hand that was surprisingly clean and unmarked, long fingers seemingly relaxed. His gaze tracked across a forearm that was likewise uninjured, and then--
And then Case Edgerton began to scream like a little girl.
"You can see why I called you in." Sheriff Desmond Duncan's voice was not--quite--defensive. "We're on the outskirts of Serenade, but it still falls into my jurisdiction. And I'm not ashamed to admit it's beyond anything the Pageant County Sheriff's Departmenthas ever handled." He paused, then repeated, "Ever."
"I'm not surprised," she replied somewhat absently.
His training and experience told Des Duncan to shut up and let her concentrate on the scene, but his curiosity was stronger. He hadn't known what to expect when he contacted the FBI, never having done so before, so maybe any agent would have surprisedhim. This one definitely did.
She was drop-dead gorgeous, for one thing, with a centerfold body and the face of an exotic angel. And she possessed the most vivid blue eyes Duncan had seen in his life. With all that, she appeared remarkably casual and unaware of the effect she was havingon just about every man within eyesight of her. She was in faded jeans and a loose pullover sweater, and her boots were both serviceable and worn. Her long gleaming black hair was pulled back into a low ponytail at the nape of her neck. No makeup, at leastas far as he could tell.
She had done everything short of taking a mud bath to downplay her looks, and Des still had to fight a tendency to stutter a bit when speaking to her. He wasn't even sure she had shown him a badge. And he was nearly sixty, for Christ's sake.
Wary of asking the wrong question or asking one the wrong way, he said tentatively. "I'm grateful to turn this over to more experienced hands, believe me. I naturally called the State Bureau of Investigation first, but . . . Well, once they heard me out,they suggested I call in your office. Yours specifically, not just the FBI. Sort of surprised me, to be honest. That they suggested right off the bat I should call you folks. But it sounded like a good idea to me, so I did. Didn't really expect so many fedsto respond, and I sure as hell didn't expect it to be so fast. I sent in the request less than five hours ago."
"We were in the area," she said. "Near enough. Just over the mountains in North Carolina."
"Ongoing. But not really going anywhere, so coming over to check this out made sense."
Duncan nodded, even though she wasn't looking at him. She was on one knee a couple of feet from the body--what was left of the body--her gaze fixed unwaveringly on that.
He wondered what she saw. Because, word had it, the agents of the FBI's elite Special Crimes Unit saw a lot more than most cops, even if the what and how of that was rather vaguely defined.
What Duncan saw was plain enough, if incredibly bizarre, and he had to force himself to look again. The body lay sprawled beside what was, among the high school track team and some of the hardier souls in town, a popular hiking and running trail. It was a wickedly difficult path to walk at a brisk pace, let alone run, which made it an excellent trainingcourse if you knew what you were doing--and potentially deadly if you didn't.
There were numerous cases of sprains, strains, and broken bones in this area all year-round, but especially after the spring rains. Still, Duncan didn't have to be an M.E. or even a doctor to know that a fall while running or walking hadn't done this. Not this.
The dense undergrowth of this part of the forest had done a fair job for the killer of concealing most of the body; Duncan's deputies had been forced hours before to carefully clear away bushes and vines just to have good access to the remains. Which made it a damn good thing that this was obviously a dump site rather than a murder scene; Duncan might not have been familiar with grisly murders, but he certainly knew enough to be sure the feds would not have been happy to find their evidence disturbed.
Evidence. He wondered if there was any to speak of. His own people certainly hadn't found much. Prints were being run through IAFIS now, and if that avenue of identification turned up no name, Duncan supposed the next step would be dental records.
Because there wasn't a whole lot else to identify the poor bastard.
His left arm lay across part of the trail, and it was eerily undamaged, unmarked by so much as a bruise. Eerily because, from the elbow on, the damage was . . . extreme. Most of the flesh and muscle had been somehow stripped from the bones, leaving behindonly bloody tags of sinew attached here and there. Most if not all of the internal organs were gone, including the eyes; the scalp had been ripped from the skull.
Ripped. Jesus, what could have ripped it? What could have done this? "Any ideas what could have done this?" Duncan asked.
"No sane ones," she replied in a matter-of-fact tone.
"So I'm not the only one imagining nightmare impossibilities?" He could hear the relief in his own voice. She turned her head and looked at him, then rose easily from her kneeling position and stepped away from the remains to join him. "We learned a long time ago not to throw around words like impossible."
"And nightmare?" "That one too. 'There are stranger things in heaven and earth, Horatio. . . .' " Special Agent Miranda Bishop shrugged. "The SCU was created to deal with those stranger things. We've seen a lot of them." "So I've heard, Agent Bishop." She smiled, and he was aware yet again of an entirely unprofessional and entirely masculine response to truly breathtaking beauty.
"Miranda, please. Otherwise it'll get confusing."
"Oh? Why is that?"
"Because," a new voice chimed in, "you're likely to hear all of us referring to Bishop, and when we do we're talking about Noah Bishop, the chief of the Special Crimes Unit."
"My husband," Miranda Bishop clarified. "Everybody calls him Bishop. So please do call me Miranda." She waited for his nod, then turned her electric-blue-eyed gaze to the other agent. "Quentin, anything?"
"Not so you'd notice." Special Agent Quentin Hayes shook his head, then frowned and pulled a twig from his rather shaggy blond hair. "Though I've seldom searched an area with undergrowth this dense, so I can't say I couldn't have missed something."
Duncan spoke up to say, "Our county medical examiner hasn't had to deal with any but accidental deaths since he got the job, but he said he was sure this man wasn't killed here."
Miranda Bishop nodded. "Your M.E. is right. If the victim had been killed here, the ground would be soaked with blood--at the very least. This man was probably alive twenty-four hours ago and dumped here sometime around dawn today."
Duncan didn't ask how she'd arrived at that conclusion; his M.E. had made the same guesstimate.
"No signs of a struggle," Quentin added. "And unless this guy was drugged or otherwise unconscious or dead, I would imagine he struggled."
With a grimace, Duncan said, "Personally, I'm hoping he was already dead when . . . that . . . was done to him." "We're all hoping the same thing," Quentin assured him. "In the meantime, knowing who the victim was would at least give us a place to start. Any word on the prints your people took?"
"When I checked in an hour ago, no. I'll go back to my Jeep and check again; like I told you, cell service is lousy up here, and our portable radios next to useless. We have to use a specially designed booster antenna on our police vehicles to get anykind of signal at all, and even that tends to be spotty."
"Appreciate it, Sheriff." Quentin watched the older man cautiously make his way down the steep trail toward the road and their cars, then turned his head and looked at Miranda with lifted brows.
"I don't know," she said.
Quentin lowered his voice even though the nearest sheriff's deputies--Duncan's chief deputy, Neil Scanlon, and his partner, Nadine Twain--were yards away, crouched over a map of the area spread out on the ground. "The M.O. is close. Torture on the inhumanside of brutal."
She slid her hands into the front pockets of her jeans and frowned. "Yeah, but this . . . this is beyond anything we've seen so far."
"From this killer, at least," Quentin muttered. Miranda nodded. "Maybe it's simply a case of escalation, the usual he-gets-worse-as-he-gets-better-at-it, but . . . I'm not seeing a purpose for what was done here. Whether he was dead at the beginning is still arguable, but this man was most definitelydead a long time before his killer was finished with him, and that hasn't been the case with the other victims we've linked together. If this was torture, why keep going after the vic was dead?"
"For the fun of it?"
"Christ, I hope not." "You and me both. Am I the only one having a very bad feeling about this one?" "I wish you were. But I think we've all picked up on something unnatural here and at the other dump sites. For one thing, I have no idea what means this killer used to strip the body literally to the bone."
Quentin glanced toward the remains. "I didn't spot any obvious tool marks on the bones. Or claw or tooth marks, for that matter. You?"
"No. Or any visible signs that chemicals were used, though forensics will tell us that for certain."
"We ship the body--or what's left of it--to the state medical examiner?"
"We do. Duncan already okayed it; he's been very frank about the state of technology in this area."
"As in the fact that there is no technology? I mean, we've been to some pretty out-of-the-way places, but this is what I'd call seriously remote. How many people you figure the town of Serenade can boast? A few hundred at best?" "Nearly three thousand, if you count those living outside the town limits but still using Serenade as their mailing address." She saw Quentin's brows go up again and explained, "I checked when we were flying in."
"Uh-huh. And did you happen to notice that the one motel we passed looks an awful lot like the sort that would have Norman Bates behind the desk?"
"I noticed. Though I thought of it as your typical small-town no-tell motel." Miranda shrugged. "And we both know it may not matter. If this victim fits the pattern, then where he was found is only a small piece of the puzzle. In which case we won't bestaying here long."
"I wouldn't be too sure about that."
She looked at him, her own brows rising. "Hunch," he explained. "We're only about thirty miles away from The Lodge, as the crow flies, and there were a lot of unnatural goings-on there for a very long time."
"You and Diana put that to rest," Miranda reminded him.*
"Well, we--she, mostly--put part of it to rest. Hopefully the worst part. But that doesn't mean we got it all."
"It's been a year," she reminded him.
"Yeah, to the month. Hell, almost to the day. Which I'm finding more than a bit unsettling."
Miranda Bishop was not in the habit of discounting either a hunch or an uneasy feeling expressed by someone around her, especially by a fellow team member, and she didn't start now. "Okay. But, so far, nothing leads us in the direction of The Lodge. Noconnection to the place or to anyone there, not that we've found."
"I know. Wish I could say that reassured me, but it doesn't."
"Do you want to drive over to The Lodge, take a look around?"
"If anybody goes, it should be someone with a fresh eye and no baggage," Quentin answered, so promptly that she knew the question had been on his mind for a while. "And probably a medium, given the age and . . . nature of the place."
"You know very well we have only two available. Diana shouldn't go because of all the baggage, and I'd rather keep Hollis close."
Quentin eyed her. "Why?"
Miranda's frown had returned, but this time she appeared to be gazing into the distance at nothing. Or at something only she could see. And it was a long moment before she replied. "Because her abilities are . . . evolving. Because every case seems tobring a new ability and ramp up the power on an existing one. And that's faster than we've ever known psychic abilities to evolve. It's unprecedented." From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Blood Ties by Kay Hooper. Copyright © 2010 by Kay Hooper. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.