When a local girl falls prey to a sadistic serial killer, Nashville homicide lieutenant Taylor Jackson and her lover, FBI profiler Dr. John Baldwin, find themselves in a joint investigation pursuing a vicious murderer. The Southern Strangler is slaughtering his way through the Southeast, leaving a gruesome memento at each crime scene – the prior victim’s severed hand. Ambitious TV reporter Whitney Connolly is certain the Southern Strangler is her ticket out of Nashville; she’s got a scoop that could break the case. She has no idea how close to this story she really is – or what it will cost her. As the killer spirals out of control, everyone involved must face a horrible truth – that the purest evil is born of private lies.
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J.T. Ellison is the bestselling author of the critically acclaimed Taylor Jackson series, including All The Pretty Girls, 14, Judas Kiss and The Cold Room. She is the bi-monthly Friday columnist at the Anthony Award nominated blog Murderati, and was named "Best Mystery/Thriller Writer of 2008" by the Nashville Scene.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
No. Please don't." She whispered the words, a divine prayer. "No. Please don't." There they were again, bubbles forming at her lips, the words slipping out as if greased from her tongue.
Even in death, Jessica Ann Porter was unfailingly polite. She wasn't struggling, wasn't crying, just pleading with those luminescent chocolate eyes, as eager to please as a puppy. He tried to shake off the thought. He'd had a puppy once. It had licked his hand and gleefully scampered about his feet, begging to be played with. It wasn't his fault that the thing's bones were so fragile, that the roughhousing meant for a boy and his dog forced a sliver of rib into the little creature's heart. The light shone, then faded in the puppy's eyes as it died in the grass in his backyard. That same light in Jessica's eyes, her life leaching slowly from their cinnamon depths, died at this very moment.
He noted the signs of death dispassionately. Blue lips, cyanotic. The hemorrhaging in the sclera of the eyes, pinpoint pricks of crimson. The body seemed to cool immediately, though he knew it would take some time for the heat to fully dissipate. The vivacious yet shy eighteen-year-old was now nothing more than a piece of meat, soon to be consigned back to the earth. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. Blowfly to maggot. The life cycle complete once again.
He shook off the reverie. It was time to get to work. Glancing around, he spied his tool kit. He didn't remember kicking it over, perhaps his memory was failing him. Had the girl actually struggled? He didn't think so, but confusion sets in at the most important moments. He would have to consider that later, when he could give it his undivided thought. Only the radiant glow of her eyes at the moment of expiration remained for him now. He palmed the handsaw and lifted her limp hand.
No, please don't. Three little words, innocuous in their definitions. No great allegories, no ethical dilemmas. No, please don't. The words echoed through his brain as he sawed, their rhythm spurring his own. No, please don't. No, please don't. Back and forth, back and forth.
No, please don't. Hear these words, and dream of hell.
Nashville was holding its collective breath on this warm summer night. After four stays of execution, the death watch had started again. Homicide lieutenant Taylor Jackson watched as the order was announced that the governor would not be issuing another stay, then snapped off the television and walked to the window of her tiny office in the Criminal Justice Center. The Nashville skyline spread before her in all its glory, continuously lit by blazing flashes of color. The high-end pyrotechnic delights were one of the largest displays in the nation. It was the Fourth of July. The quintessential American holiday. Hordes of people gathered in Riverfront Park to hear the Nashville Symphony Orchestra perform in concert with the brilliant flares of light. Things were drawing to a close now. Taylor could hear the strains of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, a Russian theme to celebrate America's independence. She jumped slightly with every cannon blast, perfectly coinciding with launched rockets.
The cheers depressed her. The whole holiday depressed her. As a child, she'd been wild for the fireworks, for the cotton-candy fun of youth and mindless celebration. As she grew older, she mourned that lost child, trying desperately to reach far within herself to recapture that innocence. She failed.
The sky was dark now. She could see the throngs of people heading back to whatever parking spots they had found, children skipping between tired parents, fluorescent bracelets and glow sticks arcing through the night. They would spirit these innocents home to bed with joy, soothed by the knowledge that they had satisfied their little ones, at least for the moment. Taylor wouldn't be that lucky. Any minute now, she'd be answering the phone, getting the call. Chance told her somewhere in her city a shooter was escaping into the night. Fireworks were perfect cover for gunfire. That's what she told herself, but there was another reason she'd stayed in her office this holiday night. Protecting her city was a mental ruse. She was waiting.
A memory rose, unbidden, unwanted. Trite in its way, yet the truth of the statement hit her to the core. "When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things." Or became a woman. Her days of purity were behind her now.
Taking one last glance at the quickening night, she closed the blinds and sat heavily in her chair. Sighed. Ran her fingers through her long blond hair. Wondered why she was hanging out in the Homicide office when she could be enjoying the revelry. Why she was still committed to the job. Laid her head on her desk and waited for the phone to ring. Got back up and flipped the switch to the television.
The crowds were a pulsing mass at the Riverbend Maximum Security Prison. Police had cordoned off sections of the yard of the prison, one for the pro-death penalty activists, another comprised the usual peaceful subjects, a third penned in reporters. ACLU banners screamed injustice, the people holding them shouting obscenities at their fellow groupies. All the trappings necessary for an execution. No one was put to death without an attendant crowd, each jostling to have their opinion heard.
The young reporter from Channel Two was breathless, eyes flushed with excitement. There were no more options. The governor had denied the last stay two hours earlier. Tonight, at long last, Richard Curtis would pay the ultimate price for his crime.
As she watched, her eyes flicked to the wall clock, industrial numbers glowing on a white face: 11:59 p.m. An eerie silence overcame the crowd. It was time.
Taylor took a deep breath as the minute hand swept with a click into the 12:00 position. She didn't realize she was holding her breath until the hand snapped to 12:01 a.m. That was it, then. The drugs would have been administered. Richard Curtis would have a peaceful sleep, his heart's last beat recorded into the annals of history. It was too gentle a death, in Taylor's opinion. He should have been drawn and quartered, his entrails pulled from his body and burned on his stomach. That, perhaps, would give some justice. Not this carefully choreographed combination of drugs, slipping him serenely into the Grim Reaper's arms.
There, the announcement was made. Curtis was pronounced at 12:06 a.m., July 5. Dead and gone.
Taylor turned the television off. Perhaps now she would get the call to arms. Waiting patiently, she laid her head down on her desk and thought of a sunny child named Martha, the victim of a brutal kidnapping, rape and murder when she was only seven years old. It was Taylor's first case as a homicide detective. They'd found Martha within twenty-four hours of her disappearance, broken and battered in a sandy lot in North Nashville. Richard Curtis was captured several hours later. Martha's doll was on the bench seat of his truck. Her tears were lifted from the door handle. A long strand of her honey-blond hair was affixed to Curtis's boot. It was a slam-dunk case, Taylor's first taste of success, her first opportunity to prove herself. She had acquitted herself well. Now Curtis was dead as a result of all her hard work. She felt complete.
Taylor had stood vigil for seven years, awaiting this moment. In her mind, Martha was frozen in time, a seven-year-old little girl who would never grow up. She would be fourteen now. Justice had finally been served.
As if in deference to the death of one of their own, Nashville's criminals were silent on this night, finding better things to do than shoot one another for Taylor's benefit. She drifted between sleep and wakefulness, thinking about her life, and was relieved when the phone finally rang at 1:00 a.m.
A deep, gruff voice greeted her. "Meet me?" he asked.
"Give me an hour," she said, looking at her watch. She hung up and smiled for the first time all night.
"I sure am glad we don't live in California."
Detectives Pete Fitzgerald, Lincoln Ross and Marcus Wade were killing time. Nashville's criminal element seemed to be taking a vacation. They hadn't had a murder to investigate in nearly two weeks. The city had been strangely quiet. Even the Fourth of July holiday had procured no deaths for their investigative skills. No one was scheduled for court, and their open cases were either resolved or held up by the crime lab. They had hit dead time.
The three men were crammed in their boss's office, watching TV. A perfectly acceptable pastime, especially since the department had inked a deal with the cable company. Ostensibly, the televisions were to be tuned to twenty-four-hour news networks, but the channels invariably got changed. Usually to accommodate the guilty habit of daytime soaps to which many of the detectives were addicted.
Today though, a car chase through the mean streets of Los Angeles had captured the three detectives'attention. Exciting, splashy. A kidnapping, a semiautomatic weapon at the ready, even a stolen red Jaguar. The car rolled through the various highways, rarely going under seventy miles an hour, captivating the news announcers that speculated breathlessly about whether the kidnap victim was in the vehicle or not. The homicide team cheered on their brothers in blue.
Fitz swept a beefy arm up and looked at his watch. The chase had been going on for nearly two hours now. "They put that spike strip down about five minutes ago. Wheels should start coming off here soon."
"There you go." Marcus pointed to the screen, where a large piece of tire had flown from the back wheel of the Jag, narrowly missing the pursuit car. His brown eyes were shining, excited. Fitz gave him a grin, the kid was just so young.
"You ever done a chase, Marcus?" he asked, leaning back, arms over his prodigious belly.
"No, but I have done all the training for it. I can drive, man, I can drive."
"Remind me not to give you the keys. It's over now." Lincoln Ross stood and stretched, brushing invisible wrinkles from his...
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