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by Lorrie unites-Struiff
Description: Can gypsy magic stop a serial killer? Homicide Detective Rita Moldova has a secret: a crystal amulet, a Roma family heirloom that allows her to see the last thing a person saw before they died. When a ritual killer starts terrorizing her town, FBI agent Matt Boulet is sent to lead the task force to catch the murderer. While Rita feels she has a connection with Agent Boulet, she senses he is holding back a deep dark secret about the killer. Her suspicions deepen when she learns another secret about her Roma family--one she finds impossible to swallow.
eBook Publisher: Eternal Press/Damnation Books LLC/Eternal Press, 2010 2010
eBookwise Release Date: March 2010
10 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [161 KB]
Reading time: 97-136 min.
Chapter One * * * *
Detective Rita Moldova peeked around the corner to make sure the hallway was empty. Making a quick right turn, she slipped into the autopsy lab to have a few minutes alone with the body. She tucked her white shirt tighter into her jeans and zipped her windbreaker to stay warm in the chilly room. The harsh odor of formaldehyde hit her nostrils and stung her throat.
Her heart twisted at the sight of the young, auburn-haired woman lying on the stainless-steel table. A white sheet covered her to the navel; bruises blemished the once pretty face. Contusions marred the pallid skin from elbow to shoulder. The gash on the front of her neck gaped, exposing open veins and torn tissue.
Rita flipped her thick, dark braid back over her shoulder, snapped on one latex glove, leaned over the corpse and peeled back an eyelid. In her bare hand she clasped a star-shaped crystal hanging from the gold chain around her neck, an endowment from her maternal Roma bloodline. The crystal heated in her palm, warm energy pulsing up her arm to her shoulder. The face captured in the victim's eye coalesced and stared back. Rita drew in a sharp breath. Bobby Driscoll! She had known him since high school, and now he worked as a uniform in her precinct. What the hell was going on?
"You know better than to touch the deceased before I've completed my examination, Rita."
She jerked upright and looked straight into the age-lined face of Doc O'Toole. The chill of the laboratory did nothing to stop the hot flush creeping up her cheeks. "Um, sorry. Just checking the eye color. You know how antsy I get waiting for your report."
O'Toole ran a hand through his thinning hair. "I'm waiting on the results of the samples I sent to the County Lab in Pittsburgh." Doc motioned for her to follow him into the large, glass-walled cubicle next to his examining room.
When Doc turned, Rita quickly tucked the crystal hidden in her palm back under the lace of her bra. She snapped off the glove and trailed him into the enclosure. "Same MO as the other two prosty murders?"
He nodded and went to the computer sitting on a small desk. O'Toole sank onto the metal chair. The screen brightened. "Yes. Here it is. I'm sure this will sound familiar. The specimen results haven't been verified yet. And, as you know, there was very little blood found at any of the scenes, just a drop or two on the victims."
Doc read from the screen. "Body completely exsanguinous. Time of death between eleven p.m. and one a.m." He looked up at Rita and pushed his glasses higher on the bridge of his nose. "Like the others, this woman was alive when the killer began extracting the blood from her jugular. Once drained, he excised the vein with a sharp instrument, postmortem. Why does he bother?"
Rita shrugged. "He's performing some sort of a ritual, then taking a trophy. Doc, I still think the women had to be unconscious or bound while he took their blood. Any rational woman would fight or run like hell."
"The evidence disagrees. There are no ligature marks on the wrists or ankles of any of the bodies. The bruises on the arms indicate a frontal assault, as if they were pinned or held still. Other than the bruises, no needle marks were apparent, no drugs in any of the stomach contents, no contusions on the heads to indicate they were unconscious until the loss of blood weakened then killed them. Lack of tissue under the nails also indicates they didn't struggle at all."
"This doesn't make any damn sense." Rita shivered, imagining the women awake, not fighting, as the life drained out of their bodies.
Doc rubbed his jaw, shook his head. "And no matter what weapon I come up with, nothing matches the excised wounds. All evidence so far suggests the killings took place elsewhere. The bodies were moved."
"That's what my gut is telling me, too." She glanced through the glass at the woman on the table. The Y incision was puckered and ugly under the harsh lighting in the examining room. "The jogger who found this one on the river path yesterday freaked. Can't say as I blame her."
Rita had become familiar with a few of the prostitutes during a previous case and found the women to be friendly and open, once they knew she wasn't there to hassle them. When she had inspected the first victim, the dead woman's eyes reflected another working girl Rita had met before. Carmella.
Carmella had told Rita that she had bummed a cigarette from the woman before a black van pulled to the corner. Her brief glimpse as the interior light of the van flashed on had revealed a dark-haired man with a noticeable bump on his nose. Carmella didn't bother to look at the plates. The woman who had entered the van turned up dead in an alley a day later. Rita had confirmed Carmella's alibi.
Her confusion deepened with a different reflection in the eyes of the second dead prostitute. The pizza delivery boy remembered seeing the woman at the Ridge Motel, but his alibi also proved solid.
She should see the last person the victim's eyes captured--the killer's. Damn. The crystal had never failed her before. She rubbed her arms to ward off the feeling of dread creeping over her skin.
Rita glanced at her watch. A little after twelve. She had time to find out how good ol' Bobby Driscoll fit into this scenario.
She jumped when Doc nudged her elbow.
"I'm still trying to determine the gouging tool." His thin lips tightened into a scowl. "We've made the impressions, but nothing matches. Tell the chief I'll fax what I have to him in a few hours. You know he'll want you on the task force."
"Yeah. He already set up the meet."
The only ones who knew of the crystal's abilities were Chief Lipinski, Rita's mother and her uncle. Her gift had spooked the chief, but he had sworn to keep her secret. If the others found out, she may as well have "Freakazoid" stamped on her forehead.
Rita patted Doc's hand. "Thanks, I really appreciate the heads-up." They left the cubicle. She looked at the dead woman again and sighed. "Damn it, Doc, we need to nail this dude's ass fast. The newspapers are already calling him 'Keyport's own Jack the Ripper'." * * * *
Rita drove her battered Range Rover across town to the three-story brick shoebox that housed the precinct. Parking spaces in front were jammed, so she wheeled around the corner to the back lot. Small stones pinged against the undercarriage as the wheels rolled over the gravel. The engine coughed to a stop. Rita stepped out and unzipped her windbreaker. The early fall weather had turned to Indian summer and the sun beat hot on her head. She noticed Nancy, Bobby Driscoll's wife, sitting in a red Ford parked in the shade of an oak tree near the back entrance. A phone was wedged against the petite brunette's ear. A toddler slept strapped into a safety carriage on the back seat, sucking his thumb. Nancy's lips twisted into a scowl as Rita closed the gap, heading for the back entrance.
"Gypsy Girl, long time no see." Nancy clicked off the cell and set it on the dash. She laughed in the same high-pitched tone that had always made Rita's scalp itch when they were in high school. "How's the big-shot detective doing?"
Rita offered her a cool smile. She hated the nickname the kids in school had tagged her with, and Nancy knew it. "Just peachy, Nancy. Is Bobby on his way out? I need to ask him something."
"You'd think he could have a few hours off duty to spend with his family without being bothered by someone in the department." Nancy glanced into the rearview mirror and tucked a stray lock behind her ear, then ran her pinky under her lip to erase a slight smear of lipstick. "But without a husband and kids you wouldn't understand. I hear you're still a loner."
Rita hunched closer and looked Nancy square in the eyes. "Hey, smart women go to college. Not all of us are content to be dependent on a man these days."
"Well," Nancy huffed, her eyes narrowed. "You're still a somewhat attractive woman in that dark, gypsy way, though a little meat on your bones would help. 'Course, maybe a man isn't your preference."
"Oooh, tired of Bobby already?" Rita winked. "Are you coming on to me?"
Nancy's cheeks mottled with pink. "It's no wonder you live alone. You're still the same crazy, trailer-park bitch you were in school."
"Damn, some people just never change. Is Bobby on his way out or not?"
"There's my husband now." Nancy leaned forward. "Tick-tock, Gypsy, you're not getting any younger." She picked up the phone, punched in numbers and turned her face to the opposite window.
Rita smothered a nasty comment and stepped back. She berated herself for letting a slimy slug like Nancy dredge up those old, outcast feelings.
When Rita's parents had grown tired of migrant work, traveling from state to state and living out of a small camper, they decided to give up their nomadic lifestyle. They left the clan before Rita's eleventh birthday and settled into a used, three-bedroom trailer. Her father acquired a permanent job as a carpenter.
Three years later, after the accident that led to her father's death, Uncle Dragus arrived from Romania to live with Rita and her mother. Her mother pitched in to keep them a step up from dirt-poor by telling fortunes in their trailer, and Uncle Dragus's small bakery helped with the living expenses.
Rita's family had been looked down upon, considered an oddity, by the town folk. But she never let that intimidate her. She was damn proud of her Roma heritage.
Rita made her way across the loose stones of the parking lot towards Bobby, her western half-boots sliding on the coarse pebbles. She took a long, slow breath, trying to shake off those teenage memories. The smell of freshly mown grass, mingling with a damp earth scent, wafted from the small park across the alley. The leaves had turned to shades of mustard and pumpkin and magenta. Soon, all the vivid colors would wither, fall away and strip the trees to a bare ugliness--much like the world in which she worked.
"Gypsy Girl, imagine running into you here at the station, of all places." Bobby wedged his hands into his uniform pockets and snickered at his joke. He glanced over at his car. "What's up?"
Rita bit the inside of her cheek to ignore the nickname. "I'm on the prosty murders. That part of town is your regular. Did you or Gus pick up on anything screwy?"
"Gus and me saw the vic. Told her to warn the other gals to be extra careful, what with the murders." He looked down and kicked a stone. "Guess it didn't help."
"What time did you talk to her?"
"After eleven. When Gus ran into the Hobnob for some coffee."
"Did you bother to check out any black vans? Or did Gus happen to see someone odd in the Hobnob?"
Bobby gave her a cold stare. "We know our job. It's all in our report." He wiped the sweat from his forehead then spat on the ground. "Hey, maybe your gypsy mother could look in her tea leaves and help us out again like she did when she found that ballsy car thief. You know, the guy who ended up being a legit repo-man." He let out a long, wheezing laugh.
Rita bristled. "Well, he was the one taking the cars." She beetled her eyebrows and made a cross with her forefingers in front of his face. "Maybe I'll put a hex on you for making fun of Ma's help." She smirked at the quick spark of fear in his eyes, spun on her heels and walked away.
Reacting to Bobby's baiting had been as immature as getting upset with Nancy's jibes. When Bobby had called her a "gypsy slut" in front of their junior English class, she had punched him in the mouth, splitting his lip and knocking his front tooth loose. She chuckled. At least that was a pleasant memory. Even with the one-month detention.
Her grin faded as she entered the building. She had grown-up worries now. Three women in the morgue. How many more would die before they bagged the bastard? Bobby must have warned this last prosty right before she met the killer.
The crystal felt like a chunk of steel against her chest. She tugged her jacket tighter when a sudden chill washed over her.