Chapter One

“Please,” New Jersey Detective Thomas Branson said as he tried his restraints again. He struggled to lift his head an inch—the only freedom he had.

After a night of fun with his buddies to celebrate another successful arrest, he’d woken up to this nightmare. Even scarier, he recognized the walls of his bedroom. This fucker was going to kill him a foot from his own bed, and he was glad to die alone. The family his mother, Myrna, had bugged him about, but he’d never gotten around to acquiring, would’ve only complicated this scenario.

“Please what?” The person on the bed spoke, their voice muffled by a leather mask.

Tommy couldn’t even tell if it was a man or a woman from the way they were dressed. Except for the short questions, the only sound was the scraping of a knife against the sharpening stone. He’d screamed at first, but the slice into his chest warned him not to repeat that mistake. The deep cut stung, and trickles of blood ran down his sides. The scraping stopped, and he took a deep breath in preparation.

“I asked you a question. Please what?”

“Let me go.” That wasn’t going to happen. From the moment he’d opened his eyes, the situation was ominous, and he knew exactly what came next. He’d testified in court step by step how this would go and what the police would find.

“That’s exactly what I plan to do,” the person said, still out of his sight. “This should be a lesson to you.”

“A lesson in what?”

“Hubris, Detective Thomas Neely Branson, hubris.” The large, shiny knife slapped down on his wound, and Tommy screamed, opening his mouth wide enough for the gag to go in. Once he was silenced, his executioner strapped his head down. Now he was no better than a bug pinned to a board.

He would be the next victim of the butterfly killer. The large owl butterfly tacked to the ceiling above his head was the killer’s only calling card and the only clue. The big butterfly had been left at the twelve murder scenes they’d investigated, along with the FBI, until Eugene Paul Masters had been apprehended on a fluke. And it had been a fluke, since Eugene hadn’t left one bit of evidence at any of those crime scenes that could in any way be traced back to him.

The arrest had come from luck, but he and his team had been thorough and made it stick. Eugene was now waiting his turn on the table where his life would end for the atrocities he’d committed. With all the evidence against him, it’d taken the jury only two hours to come back, and an hour of that time had been their dinner break. Eugene was the guy, but who the hell was this fucker?

“Your ego was hard to swallow after you captured Mr. Masters,” the person said, stripping away the rest of Tommy’s clothes with the sharp blade. He knew they’d be neatly folded, even though they were ripped, and stacked in a very precise way. His shoes would top the stack, and his eyes would be found inside. Eugene never gave up why he put them in the shoes, no matter how hard the headshrinkers had pushed him on that little tidbit.

“You could’ve said you were doing your job, but even then Eugene dropped in your lap. That’s the truth, because it certainly wasn’t your stellar detective skills.” Tommy saw a gloved hand point to the butterfly on the ceiling. “Did you notice the edge of the wings? The butterfly uses it to scare off predators because it looks like a snake’s head. That, along with the owl eyes, makes this species almost untouchable in the wild. Its greatest enemy is man. Eugene wanted you to understand that freedom shouldn’t be taken away from something so beautiful only to beat your chest at the capture. Winning the game by chance shouldn’t go without punishment.”

The knife came into view next, so Tommy sent a silent message to his mother. It wasn’t his job to die before her, she’d said over and over after he’d gotten his shield. I’m sorry, Ma, he thought as the carving began. I failed you, but don’t give up on life. I love you.

“But even in nature some mindless animal gets lucky and kills something that seems so deadly it should be by all accounts untouchable.” The killer hesitated a moment before going back to work. “Luck ran out today, so look at the butterfly, Detective, and know you should’ve left well enough alone.”

He bit down on the gag and bowed his body as much as he could when the knife plunged deeper and started the filleting process. It was the only way he’d been able to describe it. The sadistic bastard followed the same shape as the bug on his ceiling. The skin flap shaped like the butterfly would be his death shroud when it covered his face, his empty eye sockets matching the owl spots on the insect’s wings.

“This should make Eugene’s fate interesting, but don’t worry. He’s not going anywhere.”

Tommy moaned when the blade rested under his balls.

“Your shoes need something to show what a bad boy you’ve been. This little trick should guarantee this as a copycat crime, but your buddies will be busy trying to figure out what it means to find you like this.”

The cut was clean, and his scream was swallowed by the rubber ball in his mouth, but the killer only chuckled. “Come on. It’s not like you were using them for anything useful. Mama wanted grandkids to spoil, but you could only get it up for those cheap whores who charge twenty for a blow job. Myrna’s little boy was a figment of her imagination, so she’ll cherish the memories, but you’ll be forgotten in no time. No more twenties to buy some friends in your future.”

Tommy struggled in one last attempt to free himself, but feeling the skin on his chest come off made him lose consciousness. The sweet relief of blackness saved him from knowing when the blade went through his heart. Tommy Branson was just a statistic now.

The hunter finished the staging necessary from the notes committed to memory. Only Tommy’s testicles in his shoes would differ in this crime scene his fellow detectives would comb over. Eugene’s trophies weren’t their style, but the snips removed Tommy’s small toe, which appeared ghoulish when dropped in a small bottle of alcohol. It went into a small bag on the bed, since it was a calling card for the next place. New Orleans was going to be fun.

“Time to move on and make Father proud.”

 

v

 

The small boat rocked on the smooth lake surface, but Keegan Blanchard could give a damn as her lover Sept Savoie slammed her fingers in, bringing her closer to orgasm. Six months together hadn’t blunted the ferocious need to have Sept touch her and love her.

“Don’t stop, baby,” she said, digging her own fingers into Sept’s shoulders to keep her in place on top of her. “So good…don’t stop.”

Sept pumped her hips into her as if to make her thrust upward more powerful, and Keegan wanted to cry now that Sept was completely healed from the gunshots that could’ve taken her away from her. The remaining souvenirs of Sept’s last case had left scars on her left forearm and leg, but she was alive and in love with her. Keegan felt that emotion in every touch and every time she made her completely insane like now.

The end came quickly, and she fell into Sept, content to float and listen to the birds around them. “I can’t believe I’ve never liked fishing before now,” she said, and Sept laughed.

“Good.” Sept pulled her hand free and held her. “If you’d learned this technique from someone else, I might’ve gotten jealous.”

“Your jealous days are over, Seven,” she said, using her favorite nickname for Sept since her name was actually the French word for the number seven. “Your only job now is to get Della to love you.” Della Blanchard was the current head of the Blanchard restaurant empire and Keegan’s grandmother, and she lived to tease Sept until she cried for mercy.

“Your grandmother can pretend all she wants, but I know she loves me,” Sept said and laughed. “Want to head in and take a shower?”

“Don’t tell me you’re tired.”

“Nothing’s biting but you, so I want to get more comfortable before we continue our afternoon. Tired has nothing to do with it.” Sept wiggled her eyebrows as she pulled her shorts on, and Keegan laughed along with her. “We’ve got four more days of vacation left, and I’m not interested in catching another fish.”

“What can I interest you in then?” She straddled Sept’s legs when she sat up. It had taken Sept three months to be cleared from desk duty, and Keegan had enjoyed every single day of it. Sept had closed one of the worst cases in New Orleans history, but not without penalty. The serial killer she, along with the rest of the department, had hunted for weeks had shot her twice before he was taken into custody. The normality of the hours and having Sept next to her every morning had spoiled her. “You want lunch?”

“Yes, I do, but I’d like an appetizer first,” Sept said and kissed her. “Della was nice enough to rent us that cabin, so let’s go practice some of that happily-ever-after.”

She nodded and leaned forward to press against Sept. Her grandmother had arranged their getaway with the hint of them starting the family Della wanted. “I love you,” she said, and Sept kissed her.

How they’d made it to this place from such a gruesome beginning she didn’t know, but the death of the Blanchard pastry chef had brought Sept into her life. All the deaths that followed hadn’t blunted what was happening between them, and their relationship had only deepened. Sept Savoie was everything Keegan wanted in a partner, and she was looking forward to the rest of her life because she’d spend it with Sept.

“What are you thinking so hard about?” Sept asked, cupping her butt and tugging her closer.

“I’m thinking about you, and it’s all good.” She lost her smile when Sept’s phone rang and understood why Della always looked like she was sucking a lemon when she heard the damn thing go off at their Sunday brunches. “Tell them you’re off until Monday.”

“Hey, Dad,” Sept said, nodding and listening for a few minutes. “We won’t be back in time for that, but if it’s important I’ll swing by your office Monday morning before I go in. I’ll do that, but are you sure you don’t want to tell me now?” she asked as Keegan rested her head on her shoulder and sighed. “Love you too,” Sept said and hung up.

“Something wrong?” Keegan asked, not moving.

“He wanted to talk to me about something that’s not work, but he can wait until Monday, so it can’t be that important.” She kissed Keegan’s temple and rubbed her back. “Let’s go in and talk about china patterns.”

She lifted her head and stared at Sept, trying to figure out what she meant. “China patterns?”

Sept slid the tackle box closer and opened it. The velvet box was in the corner compartment, and the sight made Keegan press her hands to her mouth. “Last week I had lunch with the three most important people in your life, and I’m going to tell you what I told them.”

“What?”

“The best day of my life was the day you basically told me off, which guaranteed I’d be back for more because you’re damn beautiful when you’re angry.” She smiled at the memory of Sept accusing her of murder. “The morehas been the best days of my life, but I’m greedy. I want all your days, and I’ll spend them making you happy. I love you, Keegan Blanchard, and I promise to love you for the rest of my life. Will you marry me?”

“Yes,” she said, kissing Sept through her tears. “I love you so much.”

“Before I open this, you need to know I love you too, and Della loves you as well,” Sept said and smiled. “After she asked for my fingerprints, a DNA sample, a physical evaluation, and following a thorough interrogation under a naked lightbulb, she asked a favor of me.”

“Considering what a hard time she gives you, I’m shocked you haven’t cuffed her yet. Your patience with her does prove how much you love me.” She combed Sept’s hair back, kissing her again. “What was the favor?”

“To consider this ring instead of the one I’d gotten.” Sept opened the box, and Della’s ring fell into Sept’s palm. Della had inherited it from her own grandmother, and Keegan had loved it from the first time she saw it. The large diamond flanked by two sapphires was simple but beautiful. “She told me how much you loved this ring and that she’d promised it to you.”

“You bought me a ring?” She loved Della’s ring but didn’t want to insult Sept.

“I did, but the most important part of this was the girl saying yes, at least to me it is. Della also told me how much happiness her own marriage had brought her, and she wanted the same for us. I love you, and you love this ring, so,” Sept took the ring and held it close to her finger, “marry me.”

“I love you, and my answer will always be yes.”

Sept slipped the ring on her finger and kissed her.

“The setting could’ve been more romantic, but I couldn’t wait any longer,” Sept said as she held her hand. “I’m looking forward to spending my life with you.”

“You could’ve proposed at the landfill, and I would’ve loved it, and my answer would’ve been yes. I can’t believe you actually had lunch with my family and I didn’t figure it out.” Sept was such a no-nonsense person, and that wasn’t her family at all. They loved her, but they were hard to take all at once if you weren’t used to them.

“When I said the three most important people, I didn’t mean at the same time. Even I’m not that brave.” Sept came closer and kissed the side of her neck. “So you better be nice to me.”

“You aretoo good to be true,” she whispered in Sept’s ear before sucking on her earlobe.

“And you’re a lucky woman.” The way Sept hugged her warmed her body. “I already knew this before talking to them, but your mom, sister, and grandmother love you very much.”

“Thank you for doing that. I’m sure it made points with all three of them.”

“If that’s your fishing technique for more information, it needs work,” Sept said and laughed. “Come on. Jacqueline gave me some champagne that she promised would knock your pants right off.”

She sat next to Sept and pinched her side as she lifted anchor. “She didn’t say that.”

“I’m sorry, but have you met Jacqueline?”

Sept guided them back in and carried their gear to the large wrap-around porch overlooking the lake. The hanging bed at one end had a bouquet of yellow roses next to it, and a bottle of champagne waited in an ice bucket. Keegan couldn’t believe how much trouble Sept had gone to. Then again, Sept knew instinctively what made her happy, so it wasn’t such a shock.

“To the years to come,” Sept said, handing her a glass. “And the joy we’ll experience.”

“Definitely.”

 

Chapter Two

“The meeting is set up for Monday, but Sebastian Savoie seems to be on board,” Gwen Berger said in her very succinct manner, wanting to get off the phone as soon as she could.

Gwen had been Nicole Voles’s secretary for the last five years and three best sellers, and Nicole appreciated how the young woman could almost think for her. The flight to New Orleans wouldn’t leave for another hour, so Nicole had used the time in the United concierge lounge to look over the file her mole in the NOPD was able to get a copy of.

There was still plenty to see, but the district attorney’s office would have the complete file, as well as a record of Detective Sept Savoie’s cooperation in putting the serial killer, Alex Perlis, away. The legal system was only a few months from the trial they hoped would land Perlis on death row. That Savoie had apprehended a crime-scene technician working his own crimes after going on a killing spree was impressive, but she was more interested in Alex Perlis.

“Sept Savoie agreed?” Nicole asked as she stared at Tameka Bishop’s crime-scene photos. The call girl had met a horrific end, but Alex Perlis hadn’t stopped there. He’d killed again and again, twisting the Santeria religion to meet his needs. She planned to use the story of why Alex had turned to murder and how Sept Savoie had captured him as the subject of her next book.

“Not yet, but Detective Savoie promised she’d be at the meeting Monday. I’m sure you can use your charm to persuade her to agree to whatever you want.” She could hear Gwen typing as they spoke, but that was her norm. Her assistant prided herself in her ability to multitask.

“Oh, believe me, she’ll agree.” She pulled out a newspaper article written after the case had concluded. It was fairly standard but did include a large picture of Sept Savoie.

Sept wasn’t, in appearance, what she was expecting. The detective was young, but the full head of white hair made her memorable, as well as incredibly attractive. Maybe this assignment wouldn’t be as boring as usual, and maybe the detective would be interested in a little fun along with telling her story. After the phone call with Jacqueline Blanchard, she doubted it, but she loved a challenge. And sometimes after the reality of a monogamous relationship set in, the challenge was as trying as stepping over an ant hill.

Nicole studied the picture a minute longer, then skimmed the article. The subject of her book, at least one of them, wasn’t real talkative when it came to giving anything up to the media, but that was good. Sept was a mine she was getting ready to strip of information. The detective simply didn’t realize it yet.

“Keep after our contact,” she said, starting to pack. She still had time to get a drink before her flight. “I want the whole case file along with Savoie’s notes, if we can get them.”

“I’ll try, but don’t count on it.”

“Try some of that charm you used on me when you convinced me to give you this job.”

Nicole ordered a drink, rested her head on the back of her chair, and closed her eyes. Of all the stories she could’ve tackled next, Alex Perlis had been at the top of her list because he’d come up with an almost ingenious way to kill people. As a crime-scene technician working his own crimes as a way to control evidence collection, that made him almost perfect. If it hadn’t been for Sept Savoie, Alex would still be killing and trying to get his gods to resurrect his wife and son.

Luck had led Sept to Perlis, according to her father, after Nicole had shared the file with him. Nicole had read six months earlier that her dad, Brian Voles, was coming to the end of a distinguished career with the FBI, but his contributions would be remembered long after. He was the division head of counterfeiting operations in Los Angeles but could’ve done anything within the bureau because of his brilliant mind. Telling the stories she did, in her opinion, paid tribute to her father and his work, and she wanted the world to know how special he was.

“Ms. Voles?” A woman stood close to her chair with a hopeful expression. “I hate to bother you, but could you sign this for me?”

Nicole accepted a copy of her latest best seller and smiled. Having your eyes closed should be the universal hint for leave me alone, but unautographed books seemed to trump every rule of common courtesy. “Sure. I’d love to.”

“I really should stop reading your stuff at night since you scare the hell out of me, but I can’t help myself. I’m addicted to you.”

She smiled as she flipped to the title page. “So should I make this out to ‘addict,’ or would you prefer your name?”

“Kelly…can you sign it to Kelly?”

“Sure,” she said as she wrote her usual phrase but added “sweet dreams” before she finished with her signature. “I hope you’re enjoying it.”

“This is my second reading so I can say I totally loved it. You’re one of the only authors I read more than once.”

“Thank you. That’s kind of you to say.” She handed the book back and wanted to laugh when the woman made a move to touch her hand. “Where are you headed today?”

“Going home to New Orleans,” Kelly said, and seemed to lose her shyness as she sat on the arm of her chair. “Are you on my flight?”

“Looks like it.” She didn’t move when Kelly put her arm around her shoulders and leaned closer. “Maybe we can find something to make the trip more interesting.”

“My thoughts exactly,” Kelly whispered in her ear, then stood. “The restroom is right over there.” She pointed to the right and smiled, her book pressed against her chest.

“The nap I thought wasn’t going to happen might be possible, depending on how talented Ms. Kelly is,” Nicole said softly, hoping a bit of fun would relax her enough to sleep. This was her last frivolous dalliance before she concentrated on bending Sept Savoie to her will.

“Tell me what you want,” Kelly said after Nicole entered and locked the door.

“Everything, so get on your knees.”

 

v

 

“I still can’t believe it,” Keegan said as she sat between Sept’s legs in front of the roaring fireplace Sept had lit after cranking up the air conditioner.

“You shouldn’t be too surprised.” Sept kissed the side of her neck before pouring her more wine. “I had to ask before someone else came along and tried to steal you away from me.”

“You’re good at flattery, baby.”

“Not really.” She scratched Keegan’s abdomen, making her laugh. “You’re a beautiful, sexy woman. I can flatter all I want. It’s in the contract, especially since you’re mine.”

“That last part is right. I am yours, and I’m incredibly happy about that.” The sun had set, and she wanted to enjoy every bit of their alone time, so she ran her hands down Sept’s thighs. “And in case you didn’t realize how much I loved this trip—I do.”

“I’ve got one more thing to give you.”

She turned and knelt between Sept’s legs. “You’re sure about this, right? If you think I’m rushing—” She stopped when Sept pressed her fingers to her lips.

“I waited on the proposal this long so you wouldn’t think I’m some kind of stalker, so stop talking. I’m where I most want to be.” Sept kissed her and smiled. “Before we left I asked my father for a job downtown.”

“Downtown?” She put her hands on Sept’s shoulders and squeezed. “What does that mean?”

“It means a desk job and regular hours. I don’t think it’ll be hard to get because of the last case I cleared.”

Keegan had waited to hear these words since the first time Sept kissed her. She closed her eyes and pressed her forehead to Sept’s. She’d wanted the safety and comfort of the words, but not at the price it would cost her lover. Detective Sept Savoie was a cop who came from a long line of cops, and it’s who she was. Taking her position away from Sept was like asking Keegan to leave the kitchen of Blanchard’s and run her family’s corporate finances. She could manage it, but she’d be miserable anywhere except as head chef at their flagship restaurant.

She couldn’t help the tears that started to fall because of Sept’s giving nature. No matter what they’d been through, she’d found someone who not only loved her, but understood her. That was rare.

“Hey. Why are you crying? Trust me, the only danger I’ll be in now is from a paper cut.”

“Thank you,” she said, swiping at her cheeks impatiently. “The way you love me is beyond perfect.” Sept held her gently as she kissed her and waited her out when she leaned back so Sept could see her face. “That you would do that makes me very happy, but you’re really good at your job, so I don’t want you to quit. I also don’t want Nathan to hate me forever if he’s stuck behind a desk alongside you,” she said of Sept’s partner, Nathan Blackman.

“I told Dad to reassign him,” Sept said, sounding like she wasn’t ready to let the idea go.

“Do you honestly think he’d do that? Believe me, Batman, your Robin isn’t going anywhere.” The muscles in Sept’s neck were tense, but she tried to smile. “Believe me, honey. I may not always love what you do, but I do understand why you have to do it. More important, I don’t want you to stop.”

“This is about both of us,” Sept said, placing her hands on Keegan’s hips. “If it makes you nuts every time I go to work, I’m afraid you’ll get tired of it and leave.”

“You asked me to marry you and gave me a ring, so you’re crazy if you think I’m going anywhere. I love you and I’m stubborn like Della, which means you’re stuck with me.” She put her hands over Sept’s and kissed the tip of her nose. “But you do have to promise me something besides picking out china with me.”

“Name it.”

“Swear you’ll do your best not to get shot again.”

Sept laughed and nodded. “That’s an easy one, and if you were wondering, the way you love me is perfect too. All I want is a long happy life with you.”

“We’ll have that, since the Alex Perlis case has to be a once-in-a-career one, right?” In her heart she truly believed that. Perlis had to be an anomaly that would probably define Sept’s career, but surely she’d be involved in only run-of-the-mill murder cases from now on. “Tell me crazy serial killers aren’t the norm.”

“They aren’t, and I pray to God no one like Perlis ever enters our lives again. Crime is down right now, but it’s only a matter of time before that trend’s over. As people start to come home after Hurricane Katrina, they’ll start killing each other, but one at a time.”

Keegan jumped when someone pounded on the door. “Were you expecting anyone?”

Sept shook her head. “It’s probably Della making sure I didn’t screw up the proposal, and if I didn’t, she’s had the prenup drawn up.”

She laughed as she got off Sept to answer the door, since whoever it was didn’t seem to want to stop knocking. “I’m coming,” she said, with Sept right behind her. “Or I could be if someone wasn’t at the door,” she said softer to Sept.

The UPS delivery guy had his fist up to knock again when she opened the door, almost falling forward into her, but she stopped his momentum. “Sorry to bother you, but I have a delivery for Detective Sept Savoie. Is she here? She has to sign for it.”

“From who?” Sept asked. The box in the guy’s other hand was small and nondescript.

“I don’t have any information on that.” He held up his electronic clipboard. “You her? If so, please sign right here.”

Sept did as he requested and asked the guy for his name as she directed him to place the box on the kitchen counter.

“What’s wrong?” Keegan asked as Sept told the guy to hold on after he followed her directions. On a blank sheet of paper, she had him press his fingers down to get a good set of prints. “Seven, you’re freaking me out. What’s the matter?”

“Do you think Della or anyone in our families sent us something through a carrier service? When we open it, I want to know everyone who touched it.”

The delivery guy didn’t seem to want to leave after Sept said that.

“If Della did send us something, I doubt it could kill you.” She tried to joke, but Sept’s grim expression didn’t change. “What is it?”

Sept shook her head and, with as little contact as possible, opened the package. She sat down with a thud when the small jar rolled out.

“Is that a human toe?” Keegan took a few deep breaths, but they weren’t helping much with her nausea. “It is, isn’t it?”

“I’m going to need all the information your company can send me on this delivery,” Sept said to the driver. “Let’s start with where it originated.” She put her arms around Keegan. “You okay?”

“What’s happening?” Sept’s last case had been so bizarre that it had shook her, and she didn’t want to repeat the experience.

“I wish I knew, baby, but it’s not good.” Sept stepped in front of the counter, blocking the disgusting gift from her view. “If I had to guess, it’s like an invitation.”

“To what? That’s fucked up…sorry,” the delivery guy said.

“He’s right about that,” Keegan said, nodding and shivering at the same time. “Everything we’ll get invited to from my end will only involve hors d’oeuvres and drinks. Nothing like that will ever be given as a party favor.” Sept finally laughed as she held her tighter. “What now?”

“We call the local police and hope they’re willing to punt to the NOPD.”

The delivery guy snorted, then stopped when Sept glared at him. “You’re not from around here, are you?” She and Sept shook their heads. “The local sheriff, Earl Boonebury, has waited his whole life for something like this. Do you get me?”

“Totally,” Sept said.

“So, no punting?” Keegan asked.

“More like trying to block a brick wall wearing mirrored sunglasses, once he gets one look at this,” Sept said, turning her head a little to glance at the counter again.

“Ah,” the guy said. “You really do understand.”

 

Chapter Three

The NOPD headquarters appeared to still be in hurricane-recovery mode like much of the city, as a cleaning crew moved around the main entrance with lethargic movements that nonetheless stripped grime off the floor. A few others were wiping the walls with a strong-smelling cleaner, but they too were moving in slow motion.

It was Monday morning so they couldn’t blame a hard, long workweek for their utter laziness. Seven months had passed since Katrina, but still most of the city was uninhabited and slow to rebuild, so it was easy to understand why the cleaning crew was so low-energy. Nicole studied them for a moment and thought of a few lines for her book.

“Can I help you?” one of the officers manning the desk asked.

“Hello, I’m Nicole Voles, and I have an appointment with Captain Savoie. Could you let him know I’m here?”

She moved to the spot the guy pointed out and tried to imagine the desperation of this city in the hours and days after the storm. Nothing she’d read or seen in the news had captured the darkness of those moments, followed by the fear that began when Perlis started killing. That was the angle she was trying to aim for in her book.

“Ms. Voles,” a tall, handsome man said, and he seemed to instantly size her up.

“Captain Savoie?”

“No, ma’am.” He pointed to her seat and took the one across from her. “Captain Savoie was called away on business and apologizes for not being here.”

“Nothing bad, I hope,” she said, trying not to show annoyance at the wasted morning. She’d been sitting around since she’d arrived on Friday and was ready to get started.

“It’s not anything I can discuss at this time, and he really does send his regrets for not calling you sooner to save you the trip. I’d reschedule, but there’s no way to know how involved he’ll be for the foreseeable future.”

“I’ll give you a few days and call back.” She stood and plastered on a smile.

“I have your number, so I’ll call you. Are you staying in town?”

“This project will keep me busy for at least three months, maybe more, so I rented a place in the warehouse district.” She took a card from her purse and handed it over. “There’s my contact information, so please call me. The books are always better with local cooperation, but I can proceed without you. Only then, don’t complain about any misunderstandings that are open to interpretation.”

“Captain Savoie has been my boss for five years, ma’am, so trust me, he doesn’t respond well to threats. The facts of this case, like any other we bring to the district attorney’s office for prosecution, are black-and-white. They’re not open to any interpretation, so if I were you, I’d stick to the facts.” He placed her card in his jacket pocket and stood. “I’ll call you when the captain wants to reschedule.”

“Shit,” she said under her breath, realizing she hadn’t played that one smart at all. Local cops were either eager to spill everything about themselves, or they wanted to keep quiet as a way of hiding any mistakes. The quiet ones were the kind that loved to sue if you exposed them to the world for their incompetence.

“You’re done already?” Gwen asked once the call connected, and Nicole could sense the smile on her assistant’s face. “Was it a meeting to simply schedule interviews?”

“Savoie wasn’t there, and his gatekeeper wouldn’t tell me where he was. Today was a total waste of time.” She crossed the street and stared at the building where Sebastian and his like ran the city. Everything her father had said about local law enforcement made sense. “Have you talked to our friend in the department?”

“I did, and I need more time. The files we got are all we’re getting. I’ve put everything together in a report.” Gwen typed something, which added to Nicole’s aggravation. “It’s in your email.”

“Text me the contact information. I want all the case files, and I’m going to get them.”

“Be careful. I’m sure you’ve done this before, but heavy-handedness could derail any cooperation we might get.”

“Thanks, but I know what I’m doing. Just send me what I asked for.” She hung up and flagged a cab. The only thing she could do while in limbo was read all the facts again. “Let’s see what makes you tick, Sept Savoie.”

 

v

 

“Are we really going to court over this?” Sebastian said, sounding like he’d lost every ounce of patience he possessed. “It shouldn’t matter where the jar was sent—”

“It matters who it was sent to,” Sheriff Earl Boonebury said, leaning back in the office chair that appeared to be original to the hundred-and-forty-eight-year-old courthouse and police station. “The problem is,” Earl said, seemingly enjoying his captive audience, “the jar arrived here. And because it did, it’s my case.”

“Court it is, then,” Sebastian said, throwing up his hands.

“Dad,” Sept said, patting him on the back. “Sheriff, how about a compromise, since it is your case.”

“What you thinking, little lady?” Earl said, and her father snorted.

“You keep the jar and investigate from here, but you let us bring our forensics team in to take a look. Once they’re done, we share whatever we find to help your guys crack the case.” Sept winked at Sebastian, deciding to let the little-lady condescension go for now.

“And if I say no?” The sheriff really was a brick wall and appeared to be digging his heels in.

“Then we go to court and drag it out as long as it’ll take to suck up the rest of your department’s budget for the rest of this year and maybe cut into next year’s coffers. I don’t want to sound threatening—” Sept explained, smiling the whole time.

“Ha.” Earl slammed his fist on his desk. “It sure as shit sounds like it.”

“Believe me, I’d love nothing more than to drive back home and forget this and let you handle it. My last case gave me enough excitement for a lifetime, so why not compromise and everyone goes away happy?” Sept asked.

“They’d do the tests here?”

“Yes,” Sebastian said. “They’re right outside, so all they need is a place to work.” Earl grunted, which they all assumed meant yes, so they left before he changed his mind.

Sept’s uncle, George Falgout, was standing out in the hall with a young woman who Sept assumed was Alex Perlis’s replacement on the crime-scene unit. “Hey, Uncle George. You’re set to go?”

“Let me introduce you to Jennifer Shultz,” George said, making the young woman put down the cases she was carrying. “She just started on my team.”

Sept wondered why Jennifer had joined his team but would never bring it up. Her uncle was in a way the most haunted by their last case, having worked with and mentored one of the worst killers in the city’s history. Her father had told her George had wished she or her partner Nathan had pulled the trigger. In his opinion, Perlis didn’t deserve to live, and given the chance, George would’ve ended his life.

“Welcome aboard, Jennifer,” Sept said, shaking her hand. “You two have the go-ahead, so take all the time you need. Dad will go with you to keep George from strangling Sheriff Earl.”

“Where are you going?” George asked.

“To pick up Keegan and relieve the deputies the sheriff assigned to her.”

“Tell her congratulations from me and your Aunt Mary. You finally wised up and snagged the best girl in town,” George said and hugged her. “Having Keegan keeping you in line will give your poor mama a rest.”

“Don’t tell people I’m already whipped, Uncle George. I’ll lose all my street creds.”

Sept drove back to the cabin, glancing in her rearview mirror occasionally to make sure no one was following her. The chance was nil, and her gift in the mail probably wouldn’t amount to much, but she wasn’t taking any chances. She had so much more to worry about now that she was with Keegan, and she didn’t want some sicko touching anything in Keegan’s world.

“Learn anything?” Keegan asked when she got out of the car.

“The mailing information was a dead end, and Uncle George and his new assistant are working on the mystery toe.” She waved to the deputies, who didn’t seem inclined to leave but were staring at them like they expected herto commit a crime. “We can stop at the courthouse and check on their progress, but if they don’t need us for anything, we can go home.”

“George’s new assistant doesn’t have any marital problems, right?”

She laughed at Keegan’s ability to stay upbeat even when she was afraid. Even before Alex Perlis had started his killing spree, he’d been a serial abuser, his wife and young son his first victims. “She came across okay, but I’ll check her personal life later. You ready to go?”

“We’re all packed, but will you promise me something before we head out?” Keegan pressed against her, and the deputies leaned forward and removed their sunglasses as if shocked and wanting to get a better look.

“Name it.”

“When we go on our honeymoon, can we skip stuff like this? Not that I don’t love your family, but I prefer the non-work-related stuff instead.”

She laughed, since her father had spent the last two nights with them, mostly using his time to fight with the sheriff from hell. “You got it, baby, and I promise to open the door only to room service.”

They packed the car and got the okay to leave, so she started the five-hour trip back, which would give her time to think about what this was all about and how best to tackle it. Usually when someone wanted to send a message or make a point, there wasactually a message. Body parts were good for shock value, but nothing beat a handwritten note.

“What are you brooding about?” Keegan asked.

“The delivery, considering where we were, is strange,” she said hesitantly, not having her thoughts in order. “Like I said, it’s almost an invitation to something, but I’m not interested. Don’t you think it’s someone else’s turn to hog the headlines?”

“Maybe it’s an invitation to play with the cop who captured Perlis.”

“I doubt they’re interested in playing with our dog, babe,” she said, and Keegan elbowed her.

“Mike is brilliant, but he can’t take credit for all your hard work. And I almost forgot. What did your dad call you about a few days ago? It slipped my mind to ask when he arrived.”

“Some woman called him and Chief Jernigan about writing a book on the Perlis case. She wants to interview me and everyone who worked the case, but she’s concentrating on me.”

“That’s wonderful,” Keegan said, squeezing her hand. “Isn’t it?”

“You know how much I love media and being the center of attention.” She laughed along with Keegan, but what she’d said was true. “The job and doing my best is enough for me, and it’s not me against the world. I have a good team and plenty of support.”

“I know that, love, but if Fritz Jernigan okayed this, you know how he is, so I doubt he’ll let it go if it’s something he wants you to do. After some of the stuff about the department that made national headlines during the storm, he’s going to want all the good press he can get.” Keegan rested her head back and ran her hand up and down Sept’s arm. “And I know how you are. If you’re forced to do this, you won’t make it about you.”

“I’m ready to get back to work, but I’m nervous about it too. Perlis took a little of what I most believe in and count on, and I’m trying to convince myself it was a one-time thing.” It had been a long time since she’d taken time off simply to have a good time, and she couldn’t wait to do it again with Keegan. “You’re the one thing I can count on, and I’m happy about it. It’s good to have you all to myself.”

“That’s always going to be true, but tell me what you think he took from you.”

“Trust, and I mean absolute trust in my team. I’ve never worried about the people who are supposed to have my back. Getting shot by one of my own isn’t the way it should go.”

“Alex Perlis is a crazy bastard who fell through the cracks, so don’t lump everyone else you work with in with him. You’re a good cop, and I’m going to be blissfully happy sharing my life with you since, aside from being the noblest person I’ve ever met, you’re sexy as hell. You just have to promise me that you’ll talk to me no matter what.” Keegan moved and kissed her cheek, then her neck. “You promise?”

“I promise, and the same goes for you. If anything’s worrying you, don’t clam up on me.”

“I’m not the tough, stoic one in this relationship, baby, so that’s a given.” Keegan’s phone rang, and she put it on speaker after her tease. “You didn’t burn the restaurant down, did you?” she asked her sister Jacqueline.

“Be nice to me. I’m calling to congratulate you and stud muffin, and to check on you guys. Gran said Sept’s dad had to go up there and meet you two for something. Are y’all okay?”

“How in the hell does Della know everything that’s happening in the city?” Sept asked, and she and Jacqueline laughed. “Someone sent us a toe as an engagement present, so Dad came up and tried to take charge of the investigation.”

“A human toe?” Jacqueline paused as if not knowing how to respond. “Never mind. I don’t want to know right this minute, since I’d rather hear about the happy, hot time you two had.”

Keegan rolled her eyes and laughed. “We’re not talking about our sex lives no matter how often you ask, so drop it already.”

“It’s spectacular. That’s the only thing you need to know on the subject,” Sept said.

“Thank God one of you is sensible. When are you getting home?”

“By six, if the traffic’s decent,” Keegan said, and she nodded.

“Good. Meet me at Blanchard’s at eight, and do not put on the muumuu outfit. We’re celebrating your engagement, so you can start cooking tomorrow.”

“We’ll be there, and thank you for the champagne,” Sept said.

“In case you haven’t figured it out, we’re glad you’re going to be a part of our family.”

“Thank you,” she said as Keegan said her good-byes. “Let’s hope your family always feels that way.”

“You’re stuck with us now, Seven, no matter what happens.”