Forensic expert "Cat" Ferry has a stellar reputation until a panic attack paralyzes her at a New Orleans murder scene. Praying the attack is a one-time event, she continues working, but when the same killer strikes again -- raising fears that a serial killer is at large -- Cat blacks out over the victim's mutilated corpse. Suspended from the FBI task force, Cat returns to her hometown of Natchez, Mississippi, to regroup. Though her colleagues know her as a world-class forensic odontologist, Cat lives a secret life. Plagued by nightmares, and deeply involved with a married homicide detective, Cat holds herself together with iron nerves and alcohol, using her work as a substitute for life. But her family's secluded antebellum estate provides no sanctuary. When some of Cat's forensic chemicals are spilled in her childhood bedroom, two bloody footprints are revealed. This discovery sets in motion a quest to piece together Cat's past -- buried memories that could tie her father's murder to the grisly deaths occurring in New Orleans in the present. For only by finding this remorseless killer can Cat save her sanity -- and her life.
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Greg Iles was born in 1960 in Germany. He founded the band Frankly Scarlet, plays guitar for the Rock Bottom Remainders, and is the New York Times bestselling author of nine novels, including Blood Memory and 24 Hours. He lives in Natchez, Mississippi.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
When does murder begin?
With the pull of a trigger? With the formation of a motive? Or does it begin long before, when a child swallows more pain than love and is forever changed?
Perhaps it doesn't matter.
Or perhaps it matters more than everything else.
We judge and punish based on facts, but facts are not truth. Facts are like a buried skeleton uncovered long after death. Truth is fluid. Truth is alive. To know the truth requires understanding, the most difficult human art. It requires seeing all things at once, forward and backward, the way God sees.
Forward and backward...
So we begin in the middle, with a telephone ringing in a dark bedroom on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain in New Orleans, Louisiana. There's a woman lying on the bed, mouth open in the mindless gape of sleep. She seems not to hear the phone. Then suddenly the harsh ring breaks through, like defibrillator paddles shocking a comatose patient. The woman's hand shoots from beneath the covers, groping for the phone, not finding it. She gasps and rises onto one elbow. Then she groans and picks up the receiver from the bedside table.
The woman is me.
"Dr. Ferry," I croak.
"Are you sleeping?" The voice is male, taut with anger.
"No." My denial is automatic, but my mouth is dry as a cotton ball, and my alarm clock reads 8:20 P.M. I've been out for nine hours. The first decent sleep I've had in days.
"He hit another one."
Something sparks in my drowsy brain. "What?"
"This is the fourth time I've called in the past half hour, Cat."
The voice brings up a well of anger, longing, and guilt. It belongs to the detective I've been sleeping with for the past eighteen months. Sean Regan. An insightful, fascinating man with a wife and three kids.
"What did you say before?" I ask, ready to bite off Sean's head if he asks me to meet him somewhere.
"I said, he hit another one."
I blink and try to orient myself in the darkness. It's early August, and the purple glow of dusk filters through my curtains. God, my mouth is dry. "Where?"
"The Garden District. Owner of a printing company. Male Caucasian."
"Worse than the others."
"How old was he?"
"Jesus. It is him." I'm already getting out of bed. "This makes no sense at all."
"Sexual predators kill women, Sean. Or children. Not old men."
"We've had this conversation. How fast can you get here? Piazza's hovering over me, and the chief himself may be coming down for a look."
I lift yesterday's jeans off the chair and slip them over my panties. Victoria's Secret, Sean's favorite pair, but he won't be seeing them tonight. Maybe not for a long time. Maybe never again. "Any gay angle on this victim? Did he use male prostitutes, anything like that?"
"Not even a tickle," Sean replies. "Looks as clean as the others."
"If he's got a home computer, confiscate it. He might -- "
"I know my job, Cat."
"I know, but -- "
"Cat." The single syllable is a probing finger. "Are you sober?"
A column of heat rises up my spine. I haven't had a sip of vodka for nearly forty-eight hours, but I'm not going to give Sean the satisfaction of answering his interrogation. "What's the victim's name?"
"Arthur LeGendre." His voice drops. "Are you sober, darlin'?"
The craving is already awake in my blood, like little teeth gnawing at the walls of my veins. I need the anesthetic burn of a shot of Grey Goose. Only I can't have that anymore. I've been using Valium to fight the physical withdrawal symptoms, but nothing can truly replace the alcohol that has kept me together for so long.
I shift the phone from shoulder to shoulder and pull a silk blouse from my closet. "Where are the bite marks?"
"Torso, nipples, face, penis."
I freeze. "Face? Are they deep?"
"Deep enough for you to take impressions, I think."
Excitement blunts the edge of my craving. "I'm on my way."
"Have you taken your meds?"
Sean knows me too well. No one else in New Orleans is even aware that I take anything. Lexapro for depression, Depakote for impulse control. I stopped taking both drugs three days ago, but I don't want to get into that with Sean.
"Stop worrying about me. Is the FBI there?"
"Half the task force is here, and they want to know what you think about these bite marks. The Bureau guy is photographing them, but you have that ultraviolet rig...and when it comes to teeth, you're the man."
Sean's admiring misstatement of my gender is typical cop talk, and it tells me he's speaking for the benefit of others. "What's the address?"
"Twenty-seven twenty-seven Prytania."
"Sounds like an address with a security system."
"Just like the first one. Moreland." Our first victim -- one month ago -- was a retired army colonel, highly decorated in Vietnam.
"Just like that." Sean's voice drops to a whisper. "Get your lovely ass down here, okay?"
Today his Irish intimacy makes me want to jab him. "No 'I love you'?" I ask with feigned sweetness.
His reply is barely audible. "You know I'm surrounded."
As usual. "Yeah. I'll see you in fifteen minutes."
Night falls fast as I drive my Audi from my house on Lake Pontchartrain to the Garden District, the fragrant heart of New Orleans. I spent two minutes in the bathroom trying to make myself presentable, but my face is still swollen from sleep. I need caffeine. In five minutes I'll be surrounded by cops, FBI agents, forensic techs, the chief of robbery homicide, and possibly the chief of the NOPD. I'm accustomed to that kind of attention, but seven days ago -- the last time this predator hit -- I had a problem at the crime scene. Nothing too bad. A garden-variety panic attack, according to the EMT who checked me out. But panic attacks don't exactly inspire confidence in the hard men and women who work serial murder cases. The last thing they want is a consulting expert who can't hold her mud.
The word got around about my little episode, too. Sean told me that. Nobody could really believe it. Why did the woman that some homicide detectives call "the ice queen" suddenly lose her composure at the scene of a not-very-grisly murder? I'd like to know that myself. I have a theory, but analyzing one's own mental condition is a notoriously unreliable business. As for the sobriquet, I'm no ice queen, but in the macho world of law enforcement, playing that role is the only thing that keeps me safe -- from men and from my own rogue impulses. Of course, Sean gives the lie to that little strategy.
Four victims now, I remind myself, focusing on the case. Four men between the ages of forty-two and sixty-nine, all murdered within weeks of each other. In a single thirty-day period, to be exact. The pace of the killings is virtually unprecedented, and if the victims were women, the city would be gripped by terror. But because the victims are middle-aged or older men, a sort of fascinated curiosity has taken hold of New Orleans. Each victim has been shot in or near the spine, mutilated with human bites, then finished off with a coup de grÂce shot to the head. The bites have increased in savagery from victim to victim, and they've also provided the strongest evidence against any future suspect -- mitochondrial DNA from the killer's saliva.
The bite marks are the reason for my involvement with the case. I'm a forensic odontologist, an expert on human teeth and the damage they can do. I acquired this knowledge in four boring years of dental school and five fascinating years of fieldwork. If people ask me what I do for a living, I tell them I'm a dentist, which is true enough and all they need to know. Odontologist doesn't mean anything to anybody, but in post-CSI America, forensic prompts questions I'd just as soon not answer in a grocery store. So, while most acquaintances know me as a dentist who's too busy to accept new patients, an assortment of government agencies -- including the FBI and the United Nations Commission for the Investigation of War Crimes -- knows me as one of the leading forensic odontologists in the world. Which is nice. I take my identity where I can find it.
The task force wants my expertise on bite marks tonight, but Sean Regan wants more. When he sought my help on a murder case two years ago, he soon learned that I knew about a lot more than teeth. I completed two years of medical school before I withdrew, and that gave me a strong foundation for self-education in forensics. Anatomy, hematology, histology, biochemistry, whatever a case requires. I can glean twice as much information from an autopsy report as any detective, and twice as fast. After Sean and I became closer than the rules allowed, he began using me unofficially to help with difficult cases. And used is the proper word; Sean Regan lives to catch killers, and he'll exploit anything and anyone to help him do it.
But Sean isn't simply a user. He's my comrade-in-arms, my rabbi, and my enabler. He doesn't judge me. He knows me for what I am, and he gives me what I need. Like Sean, I'm a born hunter. Not of animals. I've hunted animals, and I hate it. Animals are innocent; men are not. I am a hunter of men. But unlike Sean, I have no license to do this. Not really. Forensic odontology brings only tangential involvement with murder cases; it's my involvement with Sean that puts me into the bloody thick of things. By allowing me access -- unethical and probably illegal access -- to crime scenes, witnesses, and evidence, he has put me in a position to solve four major murder cases, one of them a serial. Sean took the credit every time, of course -- plus the attendant promotions -- and I let him do it. Why? Maybe because telling the truth would have exposed our love affair, gotten Sean fired, and freed the killers. But the truth is simpler than that. The truth is that I didn't care about the credit. I'd tasted the pulse-pounding rush of hunting predators, and I was addicted to it as surely as I am to the vodka I need so terribly at t...
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