Ava Washington loved nothing more than kayaking down the Powell River, eventually landing in the vast waters of Wallace Lake. Every Saturday at six a.m., rain or shine, Ava loaded her truck while her mother and younger brother slumbered on. She made her way down to the water’s stony edge where she paddled until the Ohio winter months stopped her. It wasn’t just the promise of a solid upper-arm workout that kept Ava coming back every week. It was the silence and the way she could hear the sounds of her own breath, the pound of her heart inside her ears, and the slice of the paddle through the current. It was how she felt when the water rushed about the bobbing kayak bringing with it the smell of the surrounding river and woods. Unlike the other kayakers she encountered on the waterway, Ava used no music. She despised those tiny earbuds that drowned out the sounds of nature, particularly in late October when the river and all its inhabitants were preparing for a long winter. Ava’s life during the week was so noisy; she wanted nothing but quiet. Despite the thick fog that coated the land and wafted off the river today, Ava hoped the sun would burn the fog away, allowing her to stay on the water until sundown.
Ava was a sophomore at Wallace Lake High School and had never enjoyed school. She wasn’t an athlete or the cheerleader type; she fell somewhere on the spectrum between the smart kid with no social skills and the talented but low-achieving student. Then, a few months ago, everything changed.
Ava went to her first bodybuilding practice with her best friend, Sadie Reid, mostly because Sadie had begged her to. Bodybuilding wasn’t something Ava would have ever thought of trying on her own, but everyone had a crush on the new coach, Mr. Allard. She wanted a chance to check him out, and now that Sadie had a job helping out the team, Ava could do so with her friend at her side. Joining the team also meant Ava could be around Sadie even more, and truth be told, this was the real motivation for her joining the team. Ava knew that Sadie had it rough. She had been taken from her mother, a heroin addict and rumored prostitute, and had lived with her grandmother ever since Ava met her in second grade. Since then, there were two rules that Ava’s mother regularly pestered her with. One, stay away from heroin, that insidious drug which had sucked the life from their town ever since the factory jobs left. And two, stay away from Sadie Reid.
The oaks, elms, and pines were losing their summer greens and exploding with oranges, yellows, and reds. Ava wound the paddle in the figure-eight motion. When she hit a patch of rushing water, she let the paddle rest on the rim of the kayak and took a deep breath while the water around her burbled and tumbled on itself. The thick morning fog allowed her to see only a few feet ahead, and she let the crests of the river waves and the swelling movement of the water pull her along.
Eventually, the water slowed to a crawl as Ava neared the bend in the Powell River. Beyond was the junction, the place where the river met Wallace Lake. The locals called the point of the river’s connection to the lake Dead Man’s Point, mostly because of the road that ran along the waterway. The site of many auto and motorcycle accidents, the road had a hairpin turn that froze easily in the winter and covered with water in the summer, sending cars hydroplaning to crash through the guardrails and into the river. Many had lost their lives on that turn, and it was a popular spot for ghost stories around Halloween.
The water level was low, and when Ava rounded the corner, she saw the twin land bars, one mass in front of the other. She’d heard a teacher describe them once as the broad, mossy-brown backs of two hippos cresting the water, and she now understood that image. Most days, Ava couldn’t see so much of those higher patches of silt, rock, and sand; today, they took her by surprise. Something white caught her eye, something so white it nearly glowed. She looked hard. Then again. There, spread-eagle on top of one of the bars, was what looked like a person lying facedown.
Ava shook her head. She told herself it was only the fog playing tricks on her eyes. I’ve been watching too many of those crime shows. No matter how many times she shut her eyes and reopened them, though, the figure was still there. Maybe, she reasoned, it was a mannequin or some sort of sick joke meant to scare people on the river and carry on the haunted name. But it certainly looked real. Ava pulled the paddle back hard to stop the forward motion of the kayak. She fought to cross the current over to the exposed bar of land.
“Hello?” Ava called. “Do you need help?”
The body was naked—a white woman with her heavy breasts shoved into the earth of the sandbar. Dark shoulder-length hair was strewn across her face. Ava docked the kayak and climbed out, but the boat’s rocking motion left her balance unstable. When Ava took a step, her knee gave out. She fell forward, her hands breaking the fall not far from the woman’s leg.
The woman didn’t move. Slowly, Ava reached out her hand. Just a quick touch, she told herself, just to make sure it’s real. The woman’s skin looked so pale and hard. Ava’s fingertips grazed the cold calf before her. The breath seized in her throat, and she felt the heavy pulse of blood thumping in her head. A strange voice echoed in her mind and it took a minute before Ava realized it was her own: Take a deep breath, stand up, and call for help.
Ava pushed herself up to her feet and rushed back to the kayak. Her cell was strapped to the waterproof compartment on the side of the boat. As Ava’s foot sank into the sand next to the kayak, she saw it—a gray, lifeless hand floating just under the water’s surface. Ava’s eyes followed the hand to the bend of the wrist and forearm. She saw the tattoo, that wavering image dulled by the river’s water. Her eyes followed the arm to the shoulder of the submerged body below.
Ava screamed, and her heart felt like it could rocket out of her chest.
Was it her? My God, Ava thought, could it really be her?
Day One: 8:30 a.m.
I held the pillow over my head and tried to will the incessant banging on my front door to go away. It was a cop’s knock, that loud fist bang we all learned in the academy. Dammit, I wasn’t in the mood to be around cops so early in the morning. I’d fallen asleep in my clothes and on the couch again. Judging from the sunlight seeping through the only window in the apartment, it had to be before nine a.m. Much too early for me to be up and about during my weeklong vacation.
“Come on, Hansen.” That familiar fist pounded against my door again. “I know you’re in there!”
“Vacation,” I shouted. “Come back next week!”
“No such thing as vacation. Open up!”
I tossed the pillow on the floor. Colby Sanders was not only one of the most stubborn men I knew, he was also my boss: Director of the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation. He’d also been a close friend of my father’s before my dad passed on. My dad always told me Sanders was a good man, someone I could trust.
“This better be good,” I mumbled, one socked foot stumbling over an empty cardboard case of beer. I twisted the two dead bolts and swung the door open.
Sanders grunted hello as he pushed past me into the apartment. He’d just taken a shower; the scent of aftershave and shampoo trailed after him. He wore his standard work uniform: black suit pants, a short-sleeved white button-up, and a black tie. This wasn’t just a friendly house call.
“Come on in.” I shut the door, my sarcasm lost on him.
Sanders stood inside my TV room/ dining room/ den, only about five steps from the front door, and reached for his cigarettes. “You mind?”
“Go ahead.” I knew Sanders couldn’t go more than an hour without a cigarette. There were no ashtrays in the apartment, so I grabbed an empty beer bottle from the floor.
“Jesus, Hansen.” He lit the cigarette. “I heard your new place was a dump, but come on. You can do better than this.”
“It’s not the best area in Columbus,” I agreed, “but it works.” In truth, I hated the apartment and the undergraduate neighbors that came with it. It was nothing like the home I’d left, a place that felt comfortable and safe.
“Huh.” Sanders turned to me, his thick white eyebrows squinting together the way he does when he’s putting a crime scene together in his head. His eyes gave me a good solid look up and down. I definitely didn’t look my best: I’d been wearing the same worn and wrinkled Fleetwood Mac T-shirt for a few days, complete with remnants of a recent meal dribbled down the front. My cutoff jean shorts were so desperately in need of a laundry cycle, they could probably have stood on their own. In my bare feet, I suddenly felt exposed like I was naked; I crossed one leg over the other and my arms over my chest.
“What’s going on here, Luce?”
I couldn’t look Sanders in the eye. He was seeing me at my worst, and I didn’t like it. “You could have called.” I pushed a thatch of greasy hair away from my eyes. God, when had I last taken a shower? I’d lost track of time.
“Goes straight to voicemail. Where’s your phone?”
I picked up a towel on the couch along with a few stray socks and located the cell that was stuck between two cushions. Dead battery.
Sanders asked again, “What’s going on here, Hansen?”
“I’m fine,” I tried to recover. I pulled my mass of hair up into a knot at the top of my head in an attempt to hide its rattiness. “I wasn’t expecting anyone.”
“You’re in a bad way,” Sanders shook his head. “You should have told me.”
I almost laughed. Me call him for help? Maybe in some other lifetime. I tried to explain. “When your girl leaves you and takes everything, there aren’t too many options.”
Sanders blew a stream of smoke through his nostrils. “It’s been months since you split with Rowan.”
“Only seven,” I said, more defensively than I meant to. Then, as if it could make the sorry fact that I was still devastated any better, I added, “She kept the dogs.”
“I’m sorry,” Sanders said in a soft voice.
His sudden stroke of kindness brought on the sting of tears collecting in the corners of my eyes. I willed them not to fall.
“You haven’t been eating,” Sanders said. He nodded at the empty cases of beer scattered around the room. “And you’ve been drinking too much.”
“A regular Sherlock.”
Sanders reached out to me then, his warm, solid hand surprising me. He gave my shoulder a quick squeeze. Although Sanders was never a man who was good at expressing his emotions, concern laced his touch. I waited for him to pull away; his touch felt strange, foreign. Other than running into the random person on the street or nudging up against someone on the public bus, his touch was the first I’d felt in weeks. I almost forgot that I was mad at him.
“Why are you here, Sanders?”
He took a drag on his cigarette. “We might have something.”
I perked up. “A serial killer?”
He nodded. “Two bodies were found this morning along the Powell River. Two more were found a few months ago in the same location, where the river meets with Wallace Lake.”
“Let me see the file.”
Sanders shook his head. “We need to get to Wallace Lake. Shower, and we’ll talk over breakfast.”
“Tell me about the case first.”
Sanders held firm. “Shower. Make it fast.” He reached for the TV remote and flipped the channel to the morning news. “And pack a bag. You’ll be there a few days.”
The morning news anchors squawked as I closed the bedroom door behind me. I knew what Sanders was doing—scanning the stations for any breaking reports on the murders. Once the media caught hold of a possible serial killer, an investigation could descend into chaos in a matter of hours. Sanders’s actions told me one thing. This case at Wallace Lake was going to be a big one.
Inside the bathroom, I peeled off my well-worn clothes, ignoring my image in the bathroom mirror. It alarmed me to see myself; I looked a whole lot like a woman who had nothing left to lose.
The shower stream of cool water felt good—the smack of it against my bare skin—and I let it run over my face until it warmed up. I reached for the gold Irish cross that was always around my neck to make sure it was still there, and then let the water pound against my breastbone. The collection of rowdy undergrads next door took about fifteen showers a day and sucked up the majority of the building’s hot water. Every day, I missed the house that I’d been in the process of renovating with my ex, Rowan. Every day, I missed the land that surrounded our house, the quiet of suburbia that bordered on country. And every day, my heart ached for the dogs I’d left with Rowan, Toto and Daisy. Leaving them with her was the right thing to do; the Labs wouldn’t be happy without their yard, and they had bonded more with Rowan, who stayed home most days to do her artwork. After all, I’d bought the dogs for her when we first moved in to the house. An added layer of safety, I told Rowan. Criminals stay away from homes with dogs. She’d reached for me then and smiled. I have a strong detective to protect me, but I love the dogs. Nothing made the pain in my chest go away when I thought of the dogs and the home I’d left behind. And Rowan.
I scrubbed clean my hair that stank of stale beer. I’d let it grow since Rowan and I split, giving my brown hair and everything else in my life very little attention. It had grown down to the middle of my back. Rowan would like it, I thought, fingering through the dirty strands. What did my hair or anything else matter, anyway? Rowan was gone. She said she couldn’t compete with what she considered to be the other woman in my life any longer—my job as a special agent with the Ohio BCI. Rowan might have thought the other woman was my job, but what really held my heart was the water. It had saved me once from a serial killer and had been saving me ever since.
I toweled off and wrapped myself up to move to the bedroom. The towel went around my body farther than usual. Sanders was right; I hadn’t been eating much. I also hadn’t been keeping up with my exercise routine. I always swam three miles in the morning before my shift, but I hadn’t been in a pool in over two months. My nights had been filled with bad TV and cheap beer or boxed wine. I’d gotten soft and thin. I stood still for a few moments, took a long, deep breath, and finally listened to my body for the first time in months. I found that I was hungry. Starving, actually.
I dug into the closet for some work clothes. The apartment was small, and outside my closed door, I could hear Sanders rummaging around in the living room and kitchen.
“I’m famished,” I called out to him. “What are you doing out there, anyway?”
“Just giving you a hand.” Sanders turned the volume down on the television. “Did I tell you to bring your suit? I booked a hotel with a pool.”
The pool. A wave of guilt washed over me. I’d been apart from the water for too long.
I pulled on my only clean work shirt, a blue silk button up, and cursed Sanders under my breath. He was trying too hard to be nice, and I could smell the stink of his guilt complex all the way in my room. I didn’t appreciate him showing up at my apartment. Yes, my cell was dead, but he could have sent an agent out. He could have met me at the office. I hadn’t spoken much to Sanders in months other than to discuss my weekly case reports. He knew I was angry. I knew I needed to get over it—it wasn’t like I could get away from the man anytime soon unless I quit my job.
I pulled the legs of my black pants up to the knee and stepped into my Frye boots, a good luck charm I always wore to work. My dad had given me the same boots he’d worn throughout his entire career as the Chesterton Chief of Police when I graduated from the academy. It was the last gift my dad ever gave me, and I missed him every day. As I laced the boots, I thought about what had happened over the last eight months of my life.
Last January, Sanders elected me for my first serial killer case. It just so happened that case was in Willow’s Ridge, Ohio, a town I had history in as a child. In the summer of 1989, my first love, Marci, was murdered. Her case went unsolved, and Sanders knew there could possibly be a connection with the current crimes. He sent me in, anyway. He used my past to unlock the case, to get in deeper and faster than any outsider could have. After the case was finally closed and the killer had been caught, Sanders promised me that my work would put me in line for a shot at the FBI. Sanders, however, had made promises he couldn’t keep; he blamed it on the lack of positions in DC and pointed out regularly that he needed me on his team. I let his words run in one ear and out the other. I’d trusted him. He was my father’s friend. I never thought he’d manipulate me to solve a case. Yet here he was in my apartment commenting on my struggles partly brought on by his actions. It didn’t matter that he was now sorry for what he’d done. I’d lost my trust in him. What hurt me most, though, was that it wasn’t just my exuberance for the job I’d lost after the Willow’s Ridge case. I’d also lost some of my trust in the criminal justice system. Ethics and personal commitments, it appeared to me, were something of the past.
The bottom line in our business is that we are paid to catch serial criminals. How Sanders went about completing that mission wasn’t really the point—it was all about the capture. He succeeded in the Willow’s Ridge case by ending the reign of a murderer who’d killed seven young lesbians, and those who helped the killer were now in jail awaiting prosecution. Job done and done well. In the grand scope of things, it didn’t really matter that Sanders used my past as a way into the case or that he’d put me in harm’s way, both emotionally and physically. He got the job done. There wasn’t much room for sensitive feelings and hurt egos when it came to catching serial criminals.
My father always told me I needed to toughen up if I wanted to go far in the Bureau.
“Think Ice Queen, Luce,” he told me. “And always remember, there’s no crying in baseball.”
I missed my father. While he’d been gone for a few years, his ghostly image hadn’t. He had regularly appeared when I worked tough cases. He’d been a huge help to me on the Willow’s Ridge case, the one who helped guide me through those explosive minefields of my past. Since that case ended, though, I’d rarely sensed or seen my father’s presence.
My fingers reached toward my neck again for the confirmation of the Irish cross. It was still there, the sharpened edges of the cross dulled with time. I hadn’t taken the necklace off since the day Marci’s brother gave it to me in memory of her. I’d been touched beyond words at the family’s generosity when we closed the Willow’s Ridge case. I’d always felt like they blamed me for Marci’s death; in fact, it was me who couldn’t stop blaming myself. Marci’s Irish cross provided me with comfort—a physical reminder that she was always with me.
I unlocked my safe and clipped the badge to my belt, now a few notches tighter on my shrinking waist. I checked the gun’s safety lock and pulled on the shoulder strap, a device I was forced to use given my boyish not-there hips. I reached for the black suit coat next to my mirror and caught sight of my hair. It would take too long to dry. Instead, I brushed through it and weaved one long braid down my back.
In the other room, I heard commotion. I opened the bedroom door and found Sanders standing at a kitchen sink full of soapy water, holding an overflowing trash bag. He wore my purple dish gloves that came up to the middle of his forearms and smiled at me. “You have a lot of dirty dishes, Hansen.”
I stared at him for a long minute. Could I really be seeing this scene correctly? Sanders doing my dishes and collecting my trash? In purple gloves? Once I started laughing, I couldn’t stop.
I followed in my truck behind Sanders’s beige sedan, a ride he thought was completely nondescript but actually screamed cop. He took a no-name exit, and we wound our way through rural routes where the woods grew thick and road signs warning of deer and animal crossings ticked past every few miles. Lucinda Williams had been on constant spin in my truck’s CD player since my split with Rowan. Her songs spilled from the truck speakers about the need for love and forsaken trust. There was something about Lucinda’s throaty knowledge that I recognized, truths that resonated deep within me. I was almost disappointed when Sanders turned and we rolled into the battered and pitted lot of The Breakfast Nook where the sign promised locally grown, homemade food.
The waitress dropped off a bowl of oatmeal for Sanders and a heaping plate of scrambled eggs and waffles for me. Sanders loaded his oatmeal with pepper and then handed me the shaker. “You sure you’re ready to get back on this horse?”
“What horse is that?” I filled my mouth with a forkful of syrup-dripping waffle. “A serial killer?”
Sanders nodded. “You know how dark these things can get. You’re the best I’ve got, Hansen. I just want to make sure you’re up for it.”
“I’ve been cleared by counseling. I’m good to go.”
“You know that’s not what I mean. I need to hear it from you.”
I took a deep breath and savored my bite. Real food—fresh and homemade—not the take-out crap I’d been surviving on the past few months. I didn’t want to talk about counseling or the state of my mental health. Sanders knew I’d completed the required counseling that all law enforcement had to participate in once they shot or killed anyone while on duty. I’d killed Nick Eldridge, the serial killer in the Willow’s Ridge case, not because he deserved it or because I wanted to, but because there was no other choice. He would have killed me if I let him live a second longer. I never let on that the death of Nick Eldridge bothered me, but I wished the outcome could have been different. Death was the easy way out for him since he didn’t have to face any jury members or survivors of the victims. There would be no long hours in the prison cell for him to contemplate his actions. He checked out far too early, and I’d wanted the man to face justice. Instead, I was left to contemplate his death and what I could have done differently and why it took me so long to find him. That didn’t feel much like justice to me.
“I’m sorry things didn’t work out, Hansen,” Sanders started.
I shrugged. “You made promises you couldn’t keep.”
Sanders nodded and swallowed a mouthful of coffee. “For what it’s worth, the DC gig isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”
“Maybe not. I should have been given the chance to figure that out for myself.” I leaned against the back of the chair and considered Sanders across from me. It was much easier for me to confront him about the job rather than the real violation I’d suffered. He’d never apologized for what hurt me most—the exposure of my past for his gain and the trust I’d lost in him because of it.
“I need to know something,” I said.
“Did you really send a letter of recommendation to DC for me? Or was that your way of appeasing me after Willow’s Ridge?”
He almost dropped his fork. “Are you serious? Do you really think I wouldn’t send a recommendation letter for you? I gave you my word,” Sanders said. “I have it saved on my computer if you’d like to see it.”
I said nothing. A letter from someone as respected as Sanders carried a lot of weight. I wanted to believe he’d supported me but wasn’t sure I could completely trust him.
“Hansen, I’m sorry it didn’t work out, but it had nothing to do with me.”
An awkward silence settled between us until I finally broke it. “You know as well as I do what makes me tick,” I said. “I have to work. If I don’t, I’ll drown in whatever is going on back there in my apartment.”
Sanders stirred his oatmeal and considered me across the booth. Finally he said, “It’s a lonely life. We’re hunters, Hansen. Not many can survive the sidelines in our lives.”
“Is that why you’ve been single forever?”
Sanders chuckled. “There have been a few women here and there. It’s hard, though, to be the ones who watch us become so obsessed and climb inside those dark minds in order to capture them. It’s the rare woman who can stand us, I tell you.”
I thought of Rowan, along with the many arguments we’d had over my obsession with work and the late nights.
“I can work on it,” I tried to promise her.
“I don’t think so,” Rowan said. “You’ll never be able to leave a case at the end of the day, come home to me, and really be here. We just don’t fit together, Luce.”
“There are always the times I’m in between cases.”
Rowan shook her head. “I’m nobody’s backup plan. I won’t be anyone’s second choice.”
I realized then that Rowan had always had a plan in mind, an image of what we would be like together. She wasn’t willing to alter that image in any way—something I admired and hated her for, all at the same time.
Sanders wiped his mouth and pushed his plate to the side of the table. “You ever been out to Wallace Lake?”
“A few times. One of Rowan’s friends had a boat, and we went waterskiing with them on the lake.”
“They’re nearing the end of their busy season. The water sports and camping might be the only things keeping that town afloat. They tried to put in snow skiing a few years back, but it never really took off.”
I’d heard about many of the factories closing up that way and leaving so many in the rural areas of Ohio without work. “So, fill me in. What’s waiting for us in Wallace Lake?”
“I’ll spare you the photos while we’re eating. Basics—four bodies dumped in the Powell River and Wallace Lake area. White females all over the age of fifty. Only the first two victims have been identified.”
“No strong leads?”
Sanders shook his head. “Nothing has panned out.”
I opened the file and picked up a crime scene photograph. A much-too-pale body was lodged on a log at the river’s edge. Facedown with her arms spread too wide, her long, thin fingers pointed downriver.
“Who were the first bodies found?” I asked.
“Betty Geiger, fifty-eight, and Mary Kate Packard, sixty-two. Drifters, as far as anyone can tell.”
“What ties the bodies together?” I asked. There had to be something more than location that connected these four dead women to the same killer. Rivers and waterways were notorious dumping grounds for all kinds of killers, particularly in the Midwest.
“Besides the location, gender, and age, they all have signs of drug abuse—track marks and decayed teeth.”
I loaded my fork with another bite of waffle. “This part of Ohio is notorious for opiates. Drug deaths can be slippery.”
Sanders agreed. I watched him closely; he was holding something back.
“Come on, Sanders. There has to be something more for you to come knocking on my door and drag me out of my vacation.”
Sanders twisted his near-empty coffee cup between his hands. “There are tattoos.”
Sanders grunted a yes and reached for his bag.
He pulled out two photographs, close-up shots labeled left inner wrist. The tattoo featured two plump bright red hearts seated side by side, with the right edge of the left heart spilling over into the left edge of the right heart. In that shared space of the two hearts was a black number 2.
“No connection to any groups or churches in the area?”
“Not that anyone has found so far,” Sanders said. “All the victims have them in the same spot. Those photos have enlarged the tats. They aren’t any bigger than a half-dollar.”
“Could it be a marker for human trade?”
“They’ve looked into that, but no known runners use the hearts. Besides, these women are older and wrung out with drug abuse and prostitution. Not the sort of girls the runners are looking for.”
“The two earlier victims died of ethylene glycol poisoning. We’re waiting for toxicology on the two found this morning.”
Antifreeze poisoning was a very painful way to die as the body shut down, organ by organ. Since the liquid was odorless and sweet tasting, it could easily be masked inside a soft drink or sports drink, a favorite method of poisoners who don’t want their victims to know they are dying until it’s too late.
“There’s also a change in the murder method. The two women found today were stabbed from behind. One has multiple stab wounds. She put up a real fight, apparently.”
The violence against the victims was escalating, a telltale sign that the killer was gaining confidence and possibly spinning out of control.
“We’re up against a clock here, Hansen. You know as well as I do that once a killer gets a taste for violence and power, it’s only a matter of days before another victim is killed. Everything inside that person needs to match that first perfect high.”
Addiction, I’d found, took many forms including murder. It drove so many of the crimes we worked, leaving destruction and loss in its wake. “No signs of sexual assault?”
“Not on the first two victims. No word yet on the two found this morning.”
“Wallace Lake is a small community. Has the local PD turned up anything?”
“Wallace Lake PD started locally with the drug angle,” Sanders said. “They’ve looked into a few known dealers in the area, a pimp or two. I guess the latest excitement with the heroin epidemic in the area is to lace the drug with propofol. The dealers are making money hand over fist.”
“Propofol. That’s the drug that killed Michael Jackson, right?”
“That’s it,” Sanders said. “It’s what they use in hospitals to knock people out before surgery.”
“It’s something, isn’t it? I mean, what twisted thing will dealers think of next? Anyway, the local PD came up empty. Our best chance is for something to hit on the two women found today. We need an ID on them, and hopefully, some evidence will be found at the scene.”
“So we’re heading into this case with next to nothing.”
“That’s why they need us,” Sanders said. “That’s why they need you, Hansen.”
Sanders didn’t need to convince me to work the case. My mind was already circling with possible profiles for this killer. Before I realized it, the hooks of the case had already sunk into me. I couldn’t have stopped the pull toward these women if I tried. For the first time in months, I’d forgotten about Rowan and the disappointment in my job.
My body was on high alert with a sort of vibration pulsating through me, my breaths deeper, my heartbeat stronger. I was ready for the hunt. I was ready for the chase. And I was more than ready to go into that dark place once again.
I felt alive.
Day One: 10:45 a.m.
The day was warm, a perfect seventy degrees, and the blinding sun reflected off the large tent that had been erected at Dead Man’s Point. The thick white cover helped to shield the bodies and slow down their degeneration. It had already been more than four hours since the bodies were found. Local police, however, could not remove them until the chief medical examiner arrived. Because violent crime was rare in these parts of Ohio and funds were low, multiple rural counties shared the services of one medical examiner. The doctor had been detained at another death site in a neighboring county, and the delay was a rare stroke of luck for us. Crime scene photographs and videos always help, but I’d always been a visual investigator. Nothing got my gut instincts going like seeing the full crime scene before the body has been removed.
Orange barrels and cones cut off access to parts of the two-lane road while Wallace Lake police officers detoured traffic through town. Sanders and I couldn’t get very close to the crime scene—all sorts of emergency vehicles were parked in a large bubble around the side of the river. We parked out by the barrels and hiked in. The beautiful fall weather had brought everyone out to the river and lake, a high volume of hikers, kayakers, canoeists, and those out for a scenic drive to see the leaves changing colors. The warm afternoon sun glistened off the water’s current and the canopy of trees that surrounded it. Stones of all shapes and sizes lined the river’s edge, a collection of muted colors against the bluish-gray water.
And then there was the crime scene—it seemed that most humans couldn’t help themselves from gawking at the sight of death. Officers had to be planted at various locations along the river to direct canoes and kayaks away from the scene. Crime scene investigators canvassed the water surrounding the land bars, inching their way downstream. They combed the area for anything out of place or any object that could be related to the crimes. There were boots in the water and divers scanning the bottom of the river. Initial photographs and videos had already been taken of the scene, and neon-yellow tented markers littered the area where the bodies had been outlined. At least this small police station was following all protocols, dotting their i’s and crossing their t’s.
I followed Sanders down the muddy embankment to the river’s stony edge as a rubber rescue raft pushed off the land bar to come for us. Our paper-like booties made it even harder to keep hold of our footing. Cool river water lapped against my covered boots and shins. The land bars were approximately fifty feet from the shoreline, but we’d been advised the water depth was well over four feet in some places.
Captain Tom Riley pointed the tip of his canoe near us and stepped out to secure it to the land. Since the bodies had all been found in his jurisdiction, Wallace Lake County, he’d been the one to call us in. “Glad you made it,” he said, giving Sanders and then me firm handshakes. Riley wore a sheriff’s hat with a large bill to keep the sun off his face.
“Glad to help.” I climbed into the boat.
“Any new developments since we last spoke?” Sanders asked.
Riley’s strong grip on the paddle told me he wasn’t a stranger to rowing. He guided us quickly through the water’s strong current. “We’ve been fighting the gawkers like crazy, but you know how that goes.”
Despite the fact that we were outdoors and odors could easily dissipate, the smell of death surrounded us. Many of the officers had white paste smeared under their noses to take the odor away. I immediately began breathing through my mouth—a lifesaving trick I’d learned early in the academy.
“Who found the bodies?” I asked.
“A local girl out kayaking the river this morning. Scared the bejesus out of the poor thing.”
“I bet. We’ll need to talk to her.”
The two large humps of land in the middle of the river were larger than I expected, one following the other. Both had enough space for minimal equipment and a few people. Sanders stayed in the canoe to get more details from Riley while I stepped out and squatted next to the body on land. Her wide back was a sickly white, and a shock of dark hair spilled over her ears and the sides of her face. I used the tip of my pen to get a closer look at her scalp. She’d recently dyed her hair much too dark for her skin tone. Her roots, more than an inch long, were a solid iron gray. She was flabby along the back and buttocks, her naked skin white and puckered from the elements. She’d been stabbed twice between her shoulder blades. There were two wounds lower on her back, within the liver and kidney area, and it looked as though the killer pulled down once the blade was inside the body, damaging internal organs. Most who killed with a knife stabbed quick and hard and then pulled the blade directly out of the victim. This difference and the damage that came with it could indicate the victim struggled; perhaps she tried to get away, and the killer wouldn’t let go of the knife.
The body couldn’t have been on the land bar for more than a couple of days, but the wildlife had already found her. Chunks of the woman’s flesh had been torn away, leaving behind masses that looked like raw crabmeat. The woman’s face had been partially planted into the sand, saving it from the hungry animals. Outside crime scenes could always be messy, but I despised the scavenging of animals on a body. While the animals were only doing what came naturally to them, it seemed like such a violation. Not only did the victim suffer a violent and painful end, but her body was also desecrated in death in a way that sometimes made it difficult for us to catch the killer. Not one iota of fairness in this scenario.
With my gloved fingers, I followed her pale thick arms down to the hands and fingers hardened with death. The nails had been polished a bright pink, but the polish had chipped away in the elements leaving only swatches of color on each nail. No jewelry. I turned over her left hand and found the tattoo centered at the bend of her wrist. The coloring was strong; the tattoo was relatively new and hadn’t had time to naturally fade. I made my way back up to the woman’s face and used the shaft of the pen to pull back more of her hair. Her face was pitted and bloated with death, one eye open just enough to gaze out at me with a glazed brown iris. I looked into her open eye and thought about how someone somewhere must have loved this woman. Addict or not, she was someone’s daughter, sister, cousin. She could be someone’s mother or wife.
“The second body is submerged over here.”
The sound of the woman’s voice surprised me.
“Over here,” she said.
I looked over my shoulder to see a tall woman behind me. She was on the other side of the land bar’s hump. I waved and made my way over to her.
“I’m Harper Bennett. Medical examiner for these parts.”
Dr. Bennett stood close to six feet and towered above my small frame. She was athletic, with the long, lean body of a beach volleyball player. She looked down at me through dark frames, her brown eyes warm and alert. “It’s good to meet you, Special Agent Hansen.”
I shook her hand. “Likewise.”
Bennett’s hand wrapped around mine. Once she let go, she tucked her dark hair behind an ear. Cut in a bob, thick, natural curls fell perfectly around her face.
“I figured you’d want to see the scene as police found it. I arrived not long before you, and I haven’t moved either body. The submerged body has a leg caught on a log. Otherwise, she probably would have been carried out into the lake by the river’s current. She’s been lodged here approximately three days.”
I squatted down at the edge of the land bar next to the woman whose body floated face up just beneath the water’s surface. She looked boneless and serene in the weightlessness of the water, and she reminded me of an old painting I’d seen in one of Rowan’s books. A woman had committed suicide and lay just under the water’s surface inside a creek: Ophelia. This particular woman looked equally ethereal. Only visible up to her breasts, the long bleached hair swam about her face in a sort of halo, and I could make out a slight grin on her lips.
“Strange,” I said. “The killer used two different methods to dump the bodies.”
“Yes,” Bennett said. “The other body was clearly placed on the land bar. There’s no evidence of water exposure. No footprints, but the rain in the last few days would have washed those away.”
I thumbed over to the body on the land bar. “It took some time to pose that body. This one, though,” I pointed to Ophelia, “is different. The killer might have been seen so the plans were thwarted—he had to dump that victim fast, probably over the side of a bridge or boat.”
“There is a bridge a few miles up the river,” Bennett offered.
Anyone who dumped a body had a lot to lose. And a lot to hide. “You mentioned the recent rain. The water level is higher than normal?”
Bennett nodded. “I kayak these waters regularly. I haven’t seen the levels this high in over a year.”
A kayaker. That’s what gave Bennett the strong, defined shoulders of a swimmer.
Bennett gave me a few moments to examine the body while it was still underneath the water. Then, she called for two techs as Sanders and Riley joined us. Bennett and the techs hoisted the submerged woman’s naked body up onto the land bar, placing her faceup. Any dead body was heavy, but a bloated waterlogged body was worse. Water poured from every orifice, and the putrid odor of decay smacked all of us in the face. Bennett and a tech struggled to dislodge the victim’s leg from the log. Once it came free and the woman was fully placed on the land bar, we all saw it—both her legs had been multiple meals for the local turtles, frogs, and fish.
“Jesus,” Sanders said, beside me.
“Not very pretty, is it?” Bennett said. She punched the pointed end of the thermometer through the body’s skin above the hip to get the liver’s temperature. It was a sight that always turned my stomach. It reminded me of a cook checking a turkey’s temperature before a Thanksgiving dinner. “This river is full of snapping turtles. They might be keeping their distance from us now, but the turtles are rabid feeders at night.”
“Must have been a smorgasbord for those critters,” Sanders said. His hands were restless, his fingers tapping against his thumb. He was jonesing for a cigarette, but he couldn’t smoke at the crime scene and risk contaminating it.
The victim’s skin looked rubbery, whale-white, and pruned from the water. It would be difficult at best to get any reliable prints from her bloated fingers.
Bennett examined the stab wound to the neck. “She bled out through the carotid artery. That’s about all I can tell you at this point. I’ll run toxicology today.”
“What about all these scrapes and bruises?” I pointed to the contusions on her knees and thighs.
“Most likely postmortem,” Bennett said. “Help me turn her.”
I held the dead woman’s shoulders and pulled her to me while Bennett pushed her from the back. “There are the same types of scrapes on her shoulder blades. I need to run tests, but I’d guess these are from the killer pulling or dragging the dead body across cement or blacktop.”
Sanders and I followed Bennett to the other body and watched while techs turned her over. The woman’s face had been preserved in the earth while the rest of her body had deteriorated considerably. Bennett examined the head and opened the woman’s mouth. “Meth teeth. She also has the pitting in her cheeks and jawline. No active sores, although some of her arm veins have been blown. Looks like she hasn’t used for a while.”
“Possibly new to recovery,” I said.
An officer in a wet suit and snorkel gear stood up a few feet from us in the shallow water. “Baggie!”
Water ran in rivulets down the officer’s black bodysuit, her strong leg muscles rippling against the fabric. Riley met her at the edge of the land bar, and she dropped an object into the bag. He sealed it as the snorkeler pulled off the hood and mask, shaking out a mop of short blond hair. She flashed a perfect white smile.
“Detective Alison Harvey. She’s lead on the case along with Sam Richardson.” Riley thumbed over to an older man scouring the shoreline with a trash pick. “Richardson’s a whiz on the computer. He’ll help locate anything you need in the databases or online.”
Harvey pumped my hand a little too hard and long, and I guessed this handsome woman to be in her late twenties. She spilled over with enthusiasm while rattling on about the Willow’s Ridge case. I tried to smile. It was always hard for me when people brought up what happened in Willow’s Ridge. The case had been very public with an onslaught of media once reporters smelled the possibilities it had for sales, but the case had been deeply personal for me. I didn’t like to be reminded of it.
Sanders chuckled. He loved that his lead agent had such a following, but I also sensed it was more than that. Comments and reactions from people like Harvey reinforced Sanders’s ideas that using my painful past to solve the crimes in Willow’s Ridge had been worth it.
It struck me then that Harper Bennett hadn’t said a word about Willow’s Ridge. Given her profession, she would have recognized my name. She might have even been involved in the autopsies and medical testing of victims who were eventually sent to the state crime labs for further investigation. Many Ohio medical examiners were called in to work the case. I admired Bennett for focusing on the case at hand and not bringing my grisly past into the present.
Working with others wasn’t my strongest asset, and I still mourned the death of the last partner I was placed with, Cole Ainsley, who was killed protecting me in Willow’s Ridge. No matter where this case led, I didn’t want to connect with anyone on this team the way I did with Ainsley. I didn’t have it in me to survive another partner’s death.
When Harvey finally took a breath, I was able to get a word in edgewise. “Any leads on the tattoo?”
“Nothing so far. We ran an image search through the databases for tats on inmates and victims. We’ve had a lot of hits featuring similar designs but nothing identical.”
All four of the victims had the identical tattoo in the same body location. My gut told me that if we could unlock the meaning of the tattoo, the rest of the case would fall into place.
Day One: 6:00 p.m.
Ava Washington gave me a weak smile while her mother went to the kitchen for some iced tea. The teen looked tired. Her eyes were bloodshot and puffy from tears. Ava’s untouched dinner of salad and fruit sat on the kitchen table.
“I’m sorry to bother you, Ava. I know you’ve had a long day.”
“That’s okay.” She tucked her bare feet underneath her, all knees in her too-short shorts. Her long hair was tied in a knot at the top of her head with chunks of blond coming loose, and it made her look much younger than fifteen.
“How long have you been kayaking?”
She shrugged. “About a year.”
“You must like the water.” Beside me, Harvey cleared her throat. She wasn’t convinced Ava could offer us any information that wasn’t given to Captain Riley earlier in the day. She was anxious to move on, but I insisted on the meeting. In the process, I’d come up against Harvey’s impatience. Like a lot of rookies, Harvey thought she knew everything. Listening was not her best asset.
Ava nodded. “It always calms me down. Plus I need the workout for weightlifting.”
“Ah, you lift?” I asked.
Ava’s face lit up with a big smile. “I’m on the team at school. Coach Allard says I’ve got a good shot at the championship this year.”
Judging from Ava’s size, she’d be in the lightweight category. “That’s exciting. I guess it wasn’t too calming to see those two bodies today, though. Tell me how you found them.”
Ava took a deep breath and recounted for me the story she’d probably already told twenty people.
“Was there anything covering the body on top of the land bar?”
“You mean clothes?”
I nodded. “Or leaves and sticks. Anything that made it look like someone was trying to hide the body.”
“No. She was naked.”
“Anything around the bodies?”
Ava shook her head.
“What about along the shore? Did you hear anything unusual in the woods?”
“No, it was just me,” she said. “And them.”
Ava’s mother smiled and handed us all glasses of weak tea. She was dressed in clean professional clothing, but the edges were frayed from long-term use, similar to the furniture inside the trailer. She was a woman who didn’t have much money but took good care of what she had.
“You must have been terrified.”
Ava’s eyes grew big. “Especially when I thought I might know one of them.”
I set my glass down on a coaster. “Know them? What do you mean?”
Ava shrugged. “There can be a lot of drugs around here.”
“You think this is related to drug use?”
Ava nodded. “It’s the druggies that end up killed in the river.”
“Ava,” her mother cautioned.
A strange silence settled in the room as if someone had said too much or a secret might have been given away. Ava’s mother’s tone rang of We don’t talk about those things. The heightened level of drug use in the Wallace Lake area, however, was no hidden detail. In fact, most people familiar with the area probably would have guessed that these crimes were drug related.
“Why did you think you might have known one of them?”
“I was wrong,” Ava shook her head. “I thought it might be one of my friends’ mom. But it wasn’t.”
“The woman on the land bar?”
“No, the one in the water.”
Ava’s mother grabbed her hand. “Sadie’s mother? I told you to stay away from that girl!”
“Mom! Relax, okay?”
Ava’s mother ignored her and turned to me. “I’ve warned Ava a million times. But she won’t stay away from Sadie. I swear, that girl leads to nothing but trouble.”
“You don’t even know her!”
“Ladies, please.” I used my best calming voice. “Can we focus on what happened this morning?”
Both grumbled an apology, but I could tell this wasn’t the end of the argument between the mother and daughter.
“Ava, that woman was submerged in the water. How did you see her face?”
She stared at me incredulously. “I didn’t.”
“Then how did you know it could be Sadie’s mom?”
“I saw her hand and part of her arm. Sadie’s mom has long nails and she paints them wild colors. The dead woman’s nails were bitten down below her fingertips.”
Ava’s mother scoffed. “How do you know what Sadie’s mom’s fingernails look like?”
Ava ignored her mother.
It seemed odd that the teen could recognize her friend’s mother by her fingernails. Then I thought of something. “I just have one more question.” I pulled up the picture of the victims’ tattoos on my cell phone screen. “Have you seen this image before?”
Immediate recognition flashed in her eyes. It was the tattoo made her think of Sadie’s mother.
“Tell me, Ava. Where have you seen this before?”
Ava’s mother watched her daughter carefully.
The teen shook her head. “I haven’t seen it before.”
I set the cell phone down on the coffee table between us. “Ava,” I said, “we need to know everything to help these victims.”
“Jesus, Ava,” her mother said. “If you know something, tell them.”
Ava suddenly burst into tears. When her mother didn’t move to comfort her, I nudged Harvey to remove the mother from the room. It was clear we weren’t going to get anywhere with her hovering over her daughter’s every word. Once Harvey had the mother in the kitchen and out of earshot, I moved over to sit beside Ava. She took the fresh tissue from me.
“My mom would kill me if she knew some of these things.”
I made an X over my chest with a fingertip. “Cross my heart, Ava. I’ll do my best to keep everything you say between us.”
She sniffled and dried her eyes. “I saw that tattoo on Sadie’s mom. Her wrist. When I saw that lady’s arm in the water, I was so scared because I thought it could be Sadie’s mom. I didn’t want to have to tell my best friend I found her mother dead.”
A shot of anxiety ran through me. Since we still hadn’t identified either of the bodies Ava found, it was entirely possible one of them could be her friend’s mother.
“Why doesn’t your mother want you to see Sadie?”
“She says they are all trash.” Frustration came through in her voice. “She says they will only hold me down and get me into trouble.”
“You said they all. Whom are you referring to?”
“Sadie, her mom, and her grandmother. Sadie’s dad died, and her mom is a drug addict, so she lives with her grandma. My mom went to school with Sadie’s mom and says she was trash back then, too.”
“What do they do that could get you into trouble?”
“I’m not sure what my mom means by that. She thinks that since Sadie’s mom is a druggie and prostitute that Sadie will end up the same. She won’t, but even if Sadie did, it doesn’t have anything to do with me.”
“Have you been in contact with Sadie today?” I asked.
“She doesn’t talk to her mom much, but Sadie said someone saw her mom today at that bar where she works.”
The rumor mill dissolved some of my concern about the identity of the body. The last thing this girl needed was to find that her fear was a reality. I noticed, however, she hadn’t answered my question.
“What does the tattoo mean?”
Ava shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“But you remember seeing it on Sadie’s mother.”
“I saw it when she handed me something.” She wiped her nose. “I thought it was cute.”
“Have you ever seen this tattoo on anyone else?”
Ava shook her head. She watched me quietly while I scribbled a few notes. Then she added, “I want to help you catch this killer.”
“I appreciate that, Ava. You’ve already helped us quite a bit. Thank you.”
“I want him out of my town.”
“Him?” I questioned.
“You know. The killer.”
“I’m curious—what makes you think this is a male killer and not a female?”
Ava looked at me like I was the dumbest person on earth. “All the serial killers in shows and movies are guys. Women can’t do that stuff.”
I chuckled. Nothing like the mass media dictating the profile for a serial killer. “Fair enough, Ava.”
When Harvey and I walked out of the Washingtons’ trailer, though, I’d learned two valuable pieces of information. One: the tattoos weren’t only located on dead women, but on living women as well. Two: Ava Washington knew a lot more than she was letting on.
The nostril-burning odor of fresh chlorine. My body sank into its watery depths and into a safety beyond measure. It had been too long since my last swim. For years, water had been my refuge from panic, the place I went in my mind when I felt the crippling seize of my breath and the uncontrollable racing of my heart. During the Willow’s Ridge case, I found out that water had been more than just the escape hatch I needed for a mental time-out; it had literally saved my life when I was fifteen. The killer had been terrified of water. Since those secrets of my past had been revealed, the role of water had changed in my life, but its purpose of safety and refuge had not.
True to his word, Sanders found a hotel for me with an indoor swimming pool near the Wallace Lake highway exchange. The block of a building was only half full of travelers who were on their way somewhere else. I appreciated Sanders’s efforts. He could have set me up in the hole-in-the-wall motel near the police station and saved the Bureau fifty bucks a night.
“You need to eat and swim every day,” Sanders had said once he cleared the billing at the hotel, his wallet fat with yearly school pictures of two grown children he rarely saw. “Promise me you will—every day you’re here.”
I nodded and patted my bag. “I have a suit, remember?”
“Good,” he said tucking his wallet into his back pocket. “And consider getting some therapy when you get back to Columbus, for God’s sake.”
When I rolled my eyes at him like a petulant teenager, he stopped me cold in my tracks. “I’m not speaking to you as a supervisor right now, Luce, but as your friend. The body has needs and you aren’t tending to them,” he said. “You don’t always make the best decisions for yourself. I’m only trying to help.”
The problem, I wanted to tell him, was that I have never been good at accepting other people’s help. I nodded anyway. It had been a long day, and I only wanted to swim.
Honestly, I was surprised that Sanders supported my long swims. Most of our team worked out in the weight room and used the track the BCI headquarters offered its employees. Because there was no pool at headquarters, I always worked out alone and was generally able to surpass most of my teammates on our yearly physical tests. Despite my physical strength and endurance, Sanders wanted me to be a part of the workouts and the team-building experience. He wanted us to bond over repetitions and build community through runs that made our thighs burn and our chests heave. I preferred to sweat alone and continually ignored those yellow notices in my box warning of the missed team workouts. Sanders never missed a chance to point out that these lone wolf moves of mine held me back and ultimately hurt my chances of promotion. Here he was, though, pushing me to swim. Perhaps he was worried I wouldn’t be able to surpass my teammates on the physical tests again this year. Judging from the difficulty I was having getting back into my stroke, he could have been right.
I was also surprised that Sanders was willing to let me work the Wallace Lake case without him. He didn’t hide his concerns about my mental health. Sanders, however, had many smaller cases that needed to be closed and a lot of paperwork waiting on him at headquarters. He promised to return to Wallace Lake in five days if we hadn’t made sufficient progress on the case. My goal was to find the killer in less than five days, not only to save any future victims, but also because I wasn’t ready to work so closely on a case with Sanders yet.
Air bubbles streamed from my nose, and the water churned past as I did a flip turn. The hotel’s pool was smaller than what I was used to, and given its kidney shape, it was hard for me to calculate three miles. It didn’t really matter; I’d been swimming for only an hour, and my body felt heavy and awkward. I was fighting the water rather than moving with it, struggling to carry all the cheap beers and takeout I’d consumed over the last few months. It was clear I wouldn’t be able to make my usual three-mile workout, so I focused on acclimating my stroke and strengthening my kick.
Earlier, Harvey and I located Sadie’s biological mother at a strip club near the freeway exchange. Records indicated that Sadie’s grandmother did, indeed, take custody of her when she was eight; Sadie’s mother, Wilma Henderson, did not contest the proceedings and declared herself as drug and alcohol dependent. Henderson also listed her place of employment as Gary’s Girls at the time of the custody hearing. Gary’s Girls, I found, was a local bar known for prostitution and a favorite of many lonely long-haul truckers on the Midwest interstate. To entice clientele, the owner, Gary, offered free overnight parking for rigs in his lot along with abundant showers and laundry facilities. According to the local PD, Gary’s Girls was standing room only most weekend nights, and with its 24/7 open door policy, lonely long-haul truckers rolled in and out at all hours during the week.
Detective Richardson lived up to his stellar reputation with the search engines and databases. It only took him a few minutes to pull up police records and mug shots for Wilma Henderson along with court documents and leases associated with her. Sadie’s mom had a lengthy record of drug and prostitution charges. She was what we call in law enforcement a Frequent Flyer—an individual who commits nonviolent crimes regularly. They serve their short sentences, usually no longer than eighteen months, and end up back in jail on similar charges within a year or so. Frequent Flyers like Henderson jack up the country’s recidivism rates and drive law enforcement crazy. Whether it is due to lack of familial support, poverty, or addiction, these individuals struggle to figure out how to make it on the outside for long. Sometimes the entire process for law enforcement feels a whole lot like the plight of Sisyphus, the poor guy who was charged with pushing the boulder up the hill only for it to roll back down again, eternally.
I wanted to interview Sadie, but Harvey convinced me we needed to start with the woman who had a matching tattoo with our victims. I was interested in both the girl and the mother that Ava’s mom deemed a bad influence. Sadie could wait, though, at least for the time being.
Ava told me she’d been terrified that one of the bodies could have been Wilma Henderson. Once I saw Henderson’s most recent mug shot, I understood why. She physically resembled the type of women who’d been found murdered along the Powell River in the last eleven months in every way. I imagined Henderson would be scared of becoming the target of a killer, just like any other woman in this area matching the description. I was wrong.
Henderson wanted nothing to do with Harvey and me. We waited almost an hour to speak with her while she worked the crowd onstage. I nursed a soda at the bar while Harvey weaved through the tables to the bathroom. Songs from Prince’s 1999 boomed from the stage, and I was willing to bet Henderson spent her early thirties hanging on Prince’s every song and interview. Her dance moves were straight out of a Prince music video circa 1980.
I settled onto my bar stool and watched the attractive bartender mix drinks. The ponytail at the crown of her head gave the woman a punkish eighties look. She had a smile that lit up her entire face. She caught me looking and gave a quick wink as she made her way over to me.
“I’m Rhonda. What can I get you?”
“Hi, Rhonda. I’m here to see your boss, not for a drink.”
She shrugged and went back to her mixing beside us. “Suit yourself.” It was only when she turned to walk away that I saw the large scar running up the side of her neck from her shoulder area.
The older man beside me nudged my arm. “She’s not bad, huh?”
I nodded then asked, “Rhonda or the dancer?”
He laughed. “Both.”
“Are you local or just passing through?”
“Local. Been in Wallace Lake, Ohio, my whole life.” He nodded to Henderson on the stage. “She’s local, too. I like that Gary uses our own girls.”
This man obviously spent a good deal of his time hanging out at the bar and with prostitutes. Morally, he might not be upstanding, but I could tell he wanted to talk. “Do you know her?”
“Who, Wilma? Sure. She was a few years behind me in school. We socialized together after I graduated.”
I offered my hand. “I’m Luce Hansen.”
“Albert Finley.” His cracked, worn hand pumped mine. I took him for a woodworker, possibly a retired craftsman. His hands read of the years of hard labor and nicks from tools. “You passing through?”
I flipped my jacket open to reveal my badge. “I’m in the area to work the recent crimes.”
Albert leaned back on his stool, and his eyes grew wide. “Those poor girls. What an absolute shame.” He shook his head. “You know those drugs. They get into the system, and you can’t live without them.”
“You think it was drug related.”
I shrugged. “We’re looking into it.”
His hand wrapped around the beer in front of him. The sight of the near-full mug made my mouth water, but I’d made a promise to myself not to drink while in the field.
“Do you think it could be someone around here killing these girls?” he asked.
Albert’s face showed visible signs of distress at my answer. “Oh, I hope you’re wrong about that. I’m not sure our little town could take that.”
“Have you seen anything out of the ordinary this past year? People or events that you don’t normally see?”
Albert shook his head. “We sometimes get the weird out here, you know? But nothing weirder than usual.”
Harvey made her way back to my side. “Only a few minutes left in her set,” she said. “Gary wants to see us.”
“The owner himself,” Albert marveled.
“Good to meet you, Albert.” I slipped him my card, and while I was at it, I handed one to Rhonda, the bartender. She’d heard every word of our conversation, though she was good about hiding her eavesdropping. “Let me know if you think of or see anything out of the ordinary.”
I followed Harvey to a side door marked Employees Only where a man waited for us. We followed him down a long musty hallway to an open dressing room for the girls.
Gary turned to talk to us over his shoulder. “I want you to know my club has nothing to do with the murders. I run an up-and-up business. Nothing shady about it.”
Gary surprised me with his youth and fashion sense. I expected an older man in his late sixties, sleazy as all get-out with a comb-over and a polyester suit. This Gary was far from that in his Gucci shoes and hundred-dollar haircut. “We are looking into every angle of the case,” I told him. “We appreciate your cooperation, and we will keep our presence here quiet as long as you do so. We’ll need to talk to all the women who work here.”
His shoulders relaxed when he realized we weren’t there to shake the place up. He led us to Wilma Henderson’s area, the room strewn with bikinis and brightly colored feathers. “Anything to help—we all want this guy behind bars,” he said. “It’s hard, knowing someone is out there targeting women, you know?”
I nodded and handed him my card. “How long have you owned the club?”
Gary smiled, and his tanned skin showed off his perfect white teeth. “I bought the place from my uncle. He was the original Gary, and the one who ran the finances into the ground.”
Henderson exploded into the dressing room from the stage breathing heavily and sweating profusely. Overweight and soft around the middle, she hid it well with boas wrapped around her torso and a long rope of beads that settled between her heavy breasts. She stomped through the dressing area and groaned when she saw us waiting for her. She threw herself on the bar stool in front of a mirror.
Gary pulled over two stools from a neighboring station. “Give these officers your full cooperation, Wilma. Don’t let me hear any different.”
She grumbled something in response and leaned into the mirror until Gary left us, dabbing her sweat-filled brow with a dirty towel.
“I don’t know what you all think I know,” she said, licking the tip of her pinkie and smudging away black streaks from the wrinkles around her eyes as she touched up her eyeliner. “I don’t have time for this.” She crossed one leg over the other, and her miniskirt revealed the loose skin of her thighs. I could see the remnants of track marks on her legs, telling me that her arm veins were most likely blown.
“Make it quick,” she barked.
I pulled up the tattoo image on my phone and held it out. “We’ve been told you have a similar tattoo.”
The image stopped her a second, and then she tossed the eyeliner down. “You were told wrong.”
“Was I?” A thick red bandana had been wound around Wilma’s left wrist. Ava’s call to Sadie had obviously done more than confirm Wilma Henderson’s life; it tipped her off that we’d be coming, and the tattoo would be questioned. Sadie’s mother might have abandoned her daughter, but that didn’t mean the teen wouldn’t do whatever she could to protect her mother.
“I’ve never seen that before.” She looked away from the photograph and stared defiantly at me.
“You mind taking off the bandana?” Harvey pointed to Wilma Henderson’s wrist.
“Not today, darlin’.” Her words slurred against a chipped front tooth.
Harvey reached for her wallet and spread it wide. Henderson’s hand closed over the wallet. “Girl, I’m more than you can afford.”
“I’m sure,” I said, and tried another angle.
Slowly, I laid a photograph of the woman from the land bar and one of the woman pulled out of the river on the dressing table. We didn’t know who the women were yet—the ME had pulled fingerprints from one of the victims and Robinson had them crawling the national registries—but Bennett had confirmed that the blood tests revealed traces of antifreeze in both of the recent victims just like the two before them.
Henderson turned away from the photos of the women in autopsy. “I don’t know her.”
I leaned in close to Henderson, so close that the edge of my shoulder nearly touched hers. “It’s official, Wilma. There’s a serial killer working hard in Wallace Lake.”
“You don’t know anything, or you wouldn’t be here.”
“This one”—I tapped one of the photos with my finger—“this woman looks a little like you, doesn’t she?”
A visible shiver ran through Henderson, and her hand shot to her wrist where she rubbed the bandana covering the tattoo. “I said I don’t know her,” Henderson grumbled.
“What does the tattoo mean, Wilma?” Harvey asked. “And what does it have to do with you?”
Henderson slid off the stool and puffed up her thinning hair with some spray. “I told you, I don’t know anything about nothing. I’m back onstage in four minutes.”
I collected the victims’ photos and tried a different route before Wilma Henderson completely shut us out. “You’ve heard from Sadie, then, right?”
The mention of her daughter caught Wilma off guard. She watched me close in the reflection of the mirror. “She’s got nothing to do with this.”
“Maybe,” I said, “but it must be hard on the girl whose mom works the stage and streets every night. These killings must be making her sick with worry.”
“My mom takes good care of Sadie. She’s all right. Besides, she’s eighteen now and not my problem.”
“Sounds like you never considered Sadie your problem.”
I stood, making sure I could still see her expressions in the reflection of the mirror. “Your daughter is enmeshed in your world whether you want her to be or not, Wilma. If she wasn’t, you wouldn’t have gotten the call from her to hide the tattoo.”
Wilma Henderson tried to ignore me as she primped one last time and then rushed toward the stage when a buzzer sounded. Loud music and the sounds of men cheering filled the entire bar.
Harvey and I watched a few minutes after Wilma Henderson took the stage. Despite her age, Henderson moved well, flipping her long bleached hair over her face and then behind her shoulders. She spilled out of her top, heavy breasts hoisted up with all the colorful fabric strings. Henderson pranced about the stage in her high heels, and I recognized a toughness in her flint-hard edges that had been formed through years of rough living. There was a loyalty to Wilma Henderson, a code of silence that I respected in some ways. Her refusal to discuss the tattoo confirmed something I’d been thinking all along—whatever the double-hearted image and its number two meant, it wasn’t just a mark of loyalty among the members of the group. It wasn’t something meant to give its members bragging rights, but rather it stood as a marker that told them they belonged. Sometimes knowing you belong to a place and to someone is all a person really needs in this lifetime. And sometimes that safety of belonging is enough to kill for.
I stopped swimming in the shallow end of the pool and floated for a few minutes watching the giant light fixtures as they buzzed above me. It was after ten p.m. Exhaustion racked my body, but it felt good to be in a pool again. I let my arms and legs relax, giving myself up to the will of the water. I took a deep breath just before my face slipped under the water’s membrane, and its heavy pressure encased me. My heartbeat thumped inside my ears as I sank. Down, down, down.
It was moments like these in the water when I did my best thinking, when my brain finally quieted and I felt safest. The water gave me the space to flip and turn that Rubik’s Cube of a problematic case into multiple possibilities. My dad always told me it was the relaxation of the mind that allowed the pieces of a case to connect. He swore he did his best work while he jogged his daily five miles. The repetitive motion of running had done for him what swimming did for me, and I let my mind wander wherever it wanted to go. Images filtered across my closed eyelids: the women who had died, the river and its reputation for fog, the ominous Dead Man’s Point where so many had died in accidents. I thought of the forest that surrounded the rivers and Wallace Lake, the coverage it provided, and the very real opportunities the forest offered to hide a body that might never be found. Over the last hundred years or so, there had been a few instances in the Wallace Lake area of a person disappearing without a trace. If these options were easily available to the killer, why choose to dump the bodies in a location they would be found by people on the water or driving the road? Three of the victims had been found on the land bars. Clearly, the killer wanted the women found and had positioned them just so, with their heads pointed toward the forest. Whoever killed them also showed the victims a sliver of modesty or respect: the victims were placed facedown in the sand hiding most of their nudity. And with the faces partially buried, the killer had saved parts of their skin from the rodents and wildlife. Such a placement indicated that the victims most likely knew who killed them. Whoever committed these crimes couldn’t stand to leave the victims in the open for long. And then there was the use of antifreeze and the stab wounds to the back. All of these details led me to believe the victims trusted the killer.
I’d seen something like this before. Hadn’t I?
My head burst through the surface of the water, and I gulped in a large breath of air as the sounds echoed in the empty poolroom. I nearly laughed out loud: I did recognize a lot of these traits.
Why hadn’t I thought of Linda Clarke earlier?