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Available now from Avon Impulse®, HE KILLS ME, HE KILLS ME NOT…
A Serial Killer’s Lone Surviving Victim Turns the Tables and Becomes the Hunter
Amanda Stockton lost everything in a brutal attack by a fledgling serial killer. Forced to play his twisted game of chance, she watched in horror as he plucked the thorns from a rose, one by one, chanting, “He kills me”, “He kills me not.” Refusing to let a sick game of chance decide her fate, she escaped, but left her friend to die in her place. Haunted by survivor’s guilt and unable to bear the flinches and curious stares when others catch sight of her ravaged face, Amanda withdraws from the world around her.
Years later the discovery of another body signals the return of the killer. Forced to face her past or become the killer’s next victim, Amanda works with Police Chief Logan Richards to stop the killer before he kills again. As Logan begins to close in on a suspect, he’s horrified to discover the killer who attacked Amanda is the same one he once let go because of a rookie mistake. Can Logan forgive himself in time to save Amanda? Or will his guilt destroy her last chance to win the game?
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“Chilling from the first scene on. Diaz has crafted the kind of tense psychological thriller that’s impossible to put down.” – National Bestselling Author Eileen Rendahl w/a Eileen Carr
“It’s all there. . .sizzling love scenes and a shivery good thrill ride.” – Romantic Suspense Author Margaret Carroll
Romance Writers of America© Golden Heart© Finalist
TARA (Tampa Area Romance Authors) Award Winner
Daphne du Maurier Award Winner for Excellence in Mystery and Suspense
The sweet music of her screams echoed in his mind as he inhaled the lavender-scented shampoo he’d selected for her. He sat cross-legged on the carpet of pine needles, stroking her hair, his fingers sliding easily through the silky brown mass he had washed and brushed.
Underlying that scent, the metallic aroma of blood teased his senses. He traced his fingers across her naked belly to the sweet center of her. The temptation to linger was strong, but the ritual wasn’t complete.
He picked up the blood-red rose and tucked its velvety petals between Kate’s pale, generous breasts. Molding her cool fingers around the stem, he pressed her palms together, embedding the single remaining thorn in her flesh. As he stood, her sightless pale blue eyes stared at him accusingly, just like they had in Summerville the first time he gave her a rose.
Let her stare. She couldn’t hurt him anymore, not today.
A rhythmic pounding noise echoed through the trees, an early morning jogger trying to beat the impending heat and humidity of another scorching summer day. The sun’s first rays were starting to peek through the pine trees, glinting off the rows of swings and slides.
Thump. Thump. Closer. Closer. A cold sweat broke out on his forehead as he listened to the jogger approach. Was Kate coming for him again, already? No matter how many times he punished her, she always came back. He’d walk around a corner and there she was, condemning him with a haughty look, taunting him with her sinfully alluring long hair.
He risked a quick glance down and let out a shaky, relieved breath. She was still lying on the ground. She hadn’t come back to torture him.
After one last, longing glance at her body, he slid between some palmettos and followed his makeshift path through the woods. He emerged at the parking lot of Shadow Falls’ only mall, next to a row of dumpsters. Exchanging his soiled clothes for the clean ones he’d hidden in a plastic bag, he quickly dressed. Then he stepped around the dumpsters, pitched the bag into his trunk, and got into the patrol car.
* * *
Loosening his tie in deference to the already sweltering eighty-degree heat, Police Chief Logan Richards did his best to blend into the shadows beneath the moss-covered live oak tree. Several feet away, Officer Karen Bingham interviewed the young female jogger who’d discovered the body. Logan had offered to help, but Karen had informed him the young woman didn’t need an NFL linebacker hovering over her when she was already terrified.
He’d never been a professional football player, but he conceded the point. His size intimidated people. That had served him well when he’d worked as a beat cop here in Shadow Falls, and later as a detective in the roughest precincts of New York City. But intimidating this young witness was the last thing he wanted to do.
She sat on a wooden bench a few feet away, sheltered from the press’s cameras by a stand of pine trees. Her freckled face was pale and her shoulders hunched as she wrapped her thin arms around her abdomen, shaking as if she were in the middle of a snowstorm instead of the Florida Panhandle in July.
Someone called Logan’s name. He looked toward the obscenely cheery yellow tape that cordoned off a section of the park, contrasting starkly with the macabre scene within its borders. Medical Examiner Cassie Markham was waving at him, ready to share her initial findings.
Logan crossed to the tape, ducking beneath it, careful not to step on any of the bright orange tags his detectives were using to mark off their search grid.
Cassie was kneeling next to the body, sliding a brown paper bag onto the victim’s hand. One of two Walton County medical examiners who rotated on-call duties for Shadow Falls and the neighboring communities, Cassie rarely had the need to visit this small rural town in her official capacity. Logan had only met her once before, about six months ago when she’d handled a domestic violence case, right after he’d moved back to take the job as chief of police.
“Hell of a way to spend a Sunday morning,” he said when she looked up at him.
“You got that right.” She tossed her head to flip her short blonde bangs out of her eyes. “Is she your missing college girl?”
He gave a short, tight nod. “Carolyn O’Donnell.”
“How long was she missing?” Cassie picked up another brown bag and gently lifted the victim’s other hand.
“A little over three days. She disappeared late Wednesday night, from this same park.”
“I’m guessing a young woman her age wasn’t playing on the swings. Neighborhood hangout?”
“So I hear.” An uneasy feeling gnawed at the pit of his stomach as he noted the way the body seemed posed, her legs spread for maximum shock value. Ligature marks darkened her wrists and ankles. Stab wounds riddled her abdomen and extremities. Many of her bruises were deep purple or black, indicating they’d begun to heal before she was killed. Dreading the answer, he asked, “How long has she been dead?”
Cassie finished securing the paper bag before answering. “She’s not in full rigor yet. Liver temp indicates about six hours, but it’s hard to be specific in this heat. Might be longer.”
Logan scrubbed his hand across his brow to ease the dull ache that was starting to bloom. While he and his men had been searching door-to-door, the killer was sadistically torturing this young woman. Where the hell had he stashed her? And where was he now? Was he already searching for a new victim? Logan blew out a frustrated breath. “Tell me what you have so far.”
“Not much beyond the obvious.” She peeled off her gloves and stowed them in her kit, then stood up beside him, her head barely reaching his shoulder. “The amount of blood doesn’t fit the injuries. She was killed somewhere else and washed down before he dumped her.”
Logan nodded, having reached the same conclusion. “Trace?”
“A few cotton fibers, nothing remarkable or distinctive. No hairs. No bite marks. He sliced off her fingertips. I figure she scratched him and he wanted to make sure we couldn’t get his DNA from under her nails.”
The perp was aware of forensic techniques. Then again, who wasn’t these days, with all the crime scene investigation shows on TV? Logan didn’t ask if the victim had been raped. The answer was painfully obvious. “Semen?”
“I’ll take swabs but I doubt we’ll find anything. As careful as he was not to leave any other evidence, he probably wore a condom. There’s bruising on her neck, petechial hemorrhaging in her eyes.”
“He strangled her.”
“Yes, but I suspect that was the killer’s version of ‘love play’. I can’t be sure until I perform the autopsy, but I’m leaning toward exsanguination as cause of death. She has deep puncture wounds in her abdomen. She would have bled out in minutes.”
“What about her face?” A deep, ragged wound splayed her open from temple to jaw. Logan hoped to God she was already dead when the killer cut her.
“That’s unusual, isn’t it?” Cassie said. “It would have bled all over the place. Not enough to kill her, but it would have hurt like hell.”
Logan’s hands curled into tight fists as he struggled to tamp down his anger. Ten years ago he’d allowed his emotions to control him, and he’d made a tragic, rookie mistake that allowed a killer to go free. How many other women had suffered and died at the hands of that killer because of Logan’s screwup? That question haunted him every day. The whole mess was the reason he’d fled Shadow Falls so long ago and had gone to New York City.
He’d worked in the toughest precincts to be the best detective he could be, so he’d never make that kind of mistake again. No matter how much he wished he could wrap his hands around the throat of the animal who’d tortured Carolyn O’Donnell, he couldn’t let his anger cloud his judgment. Other women’s lives hung in the balance if he made any mistakes with this investigation.
“Did you hear about the rose?” Cassie asked, breaking into his thoughts.
“The responding officer said Carolyn was holding a long-stemmed, red rose.”
“That’s right. The rose bud was nestled between her breasts and the stem was stripped clean of all but one thorn, which he embedded in her right palm, postmortem. Creepy.”
Definitely creepy, but if Logan’s suspicions were correct, that rose might be part of the killer’s signature, his pattern. Everything about the scene told Logan this was the work of a killer who’d killed before–and would kill again.
Cassie motioned for her assistants to bring the gurney. “When I finish the autopsy, I’ll overnight the samples to the state lab.”
“Hold onto the samples. I want to give the Feds first crack at the evidence.”
Cassie nodded, her relieved expression telling him she was just as anxious as he was to get help with this case. Shadow Falls was a small town with limited resources. And although Logan had worked on several serial killer cases in New York, no one else in the Shadow Falls Police Department had that kind of experience. He couldn’t do this alone.
Cassie gave him a friendly wave and turned to help with the removal of the body.
Once the body was carried outside the taped-off area, Logan crouched down to examine the footprints he’d noticed earlier. He followed the trail to a group of palmetto bushes. Some of the palm fronds were bent and twisted as if someone had recently passed between them. When he parted the leaves, he saw a narrow trail hacked through the woods. Someone had spent hours, maybe days, cutting this path. The killer? Had he also selected his victim ahead of time? Or did Carolyn O’Donnell just have the bad luck of being in the park when the killer made his move?
Looking back, Logan located his lead detective, David Riley. At thirty, Riley was only five years younger than Logan, but a lot less experienced. When Logan had taken the job as chief and inherited Riley as the lead, he’d assumed Riley was in that role just because the department was so small and there weren’t a lot of candidates to choose from. But Riley had quickly proven his abilities.
He was smart and friendly, able to play good cop or bad cop, depending on the need. He could charm a confession out of a suspect before they’d even seen the trap he’d set.
Unfortunately, Riley was speaking to Randy Clayton, a well-seasoned officer with a mouth that never quit. Clayton, who’d already been a veteran back when Logan began his career, wasn’t a bit pleased that the rookie he’d once taunted was now his boss. Logan only tolerated his smart-ass attitude because Clayton was due to retire in a few months.
Sighing in resignation, Logan motioned for Riley to join him and wasn’t surprised when Clayton tagged along, his usual smirk firmly in place.
Logan ignored Clayton and addressed Riley. “Has anyone searched this area yet?” He parted the fronds, revealing the path between them.
Riley’s brows rose in surprise. “We stayed out of this section, waiting for the medical examiner.”
Logan drew his gun from the shoulder holster beneath his suit jacket. He stepped between the palmettos, careful to avoid their sharp tips, keeping to the edge of the path so he didn’t tread on any of the footprints. “Let’s see if we have company.”
Riley and Clayton glanced at each other with wide eyes and drew their weapons. The three men followed the path through the thick brush. A few minutes later they emerged at the edge of the mall parking lot, next to a row of dumpsters.
Logan motioned to the others and they fanned out, checking possible hiding places. When he was sure there was no danger, he holstered his weapon. “I’ll call for another team to tape off the area. Secure the scene until they arrive.”
Clayton tugged on his pants to pull them up over his protruding belly. “Riley, doesn’t this seem similar to that other murder when you were a street cop? About four years ago?”
A look of realization crossed Riley’s face. “You’re right. I should have thought of that.”
“What murder?” Logan glanced back and forth between them.
Clayton scratched at the gray stubble on his jaw. “There was another girl that went missing, and then turned up in a cabin all cut-up a few days later. There was a rose in her hands too. I can’t remember her name though, something like Diana, Deana—”
“Dana,” Riley said. “Dana Branson. I should have thought of her as soon as I saw the body this morning. I wasn’t a detective back then, but I heard the details, saw the pictures.” He shuddered, his Adam’s apple bobbing in his throat. “It seems like an obvious tie-in now, but I was at the convention when O’Donnell went missing, and didn’t think about it when you called me, Logan. Maybe if I’d been here a few days ago, I might have—”
Logan waved Riley into silence, impatient to hear the details about the other murder. “Clayton, tell me what you remember about the other case.”
“The vic was Caucasian, mid-twenties, long, brown hair, blue eyes. She, ah…” He cleared his throat, his face flushing red. “She was missing for three days before we found her. Just like O’Donnell.”
Logan’s throat ached with the urge to shout his frustration. He wished his men had told him about the earlier case when O’Donnell first went missing. Would it have changed how he’d directed the search? Maybe, maybe not. It all depended on the details of that first case and whether there were any clues to that perp’s identity. Without knowing for sure, he wasn’t about to lay that kind of guilt on someone else. He was the chief. Ultimately, he was responsible. “Who were the suspects in the original case?”
“There weren’t any suspects. All the leads went cold,” Clayton said. “But Branson wasn’t alone. There was another woman with her.”
Disbelief had Logan clamping his jaw shut to avoid saying something he knew he’d regret. How could his men have forgotten a brutal, double homicide in a town of fifty thousand people? Especially since the only murders around here were usually the result of a drunken bar fight or a crime of passion between two people who supposedly loved each other. He took a deep breath and prayed for patience. “Who was the second murder victim?”
Clayton shook his head, his smug look returning. “You got it all wrong,” he said. “The second girl, Amanda Stockton, she got away.”
* * *
Amanda eased her tired body down onto her leather couch to take a much-needed break from her computer. Making a living by writing computer programs at home rather than having to go into an office was a blessing, but it was also a curse. She’d become the hermit her sister had once accused her of being, working inside on a beautiful weekend rather than going out. The sky–visible from her back windows–was so blue it hurt to look at it. And she knew if she went outside she’d smell the salt in the air, might even be able to hear the waves crashing on the shore a few miles away.
She’d enjoyed the ocean once, a lifetime ago. She’d loved hearing the sand crunch beneath her feet, feeling its cooling touch between her toes, listening to the cries of sea gulls overhead. But those days were gone, a part of her past. She could never be that carefree again, that ignorant of the people around her, that exposed, vulnerable.
Wary of the all-too-familiar path her tired mind was taking, she forced those thoughts aside and curled her legs beneath her. With one click of her remote, her brand-new, sixty-one- inch, high-def TV snapped to life. A decadent luxury, it had put a huge dent in her savings. But she’d only turn thirty once, so she’d splurged.
Instead of spending her birthday last week visiting her parents’ graves like she usually did, she’d watched two action flicks on her new TV, and shoveled handfuls of fattening, buttery popcorn into her mouth.
She didn’t regret buying the TV.
She did regret the popcorn.
An extra hour on the treadmill had been enough to keep her from indulging again anytime soon.
After clicking through the movie guide, she selected a crime scene drama. With her past, she knew most people would think her odd to like those kinds of shows, but it made perfect sense to her. It was all about control, facing and overcoming fears.
Not letting him win.
But instead of the show she’d expected, the screen filled with a live shot of the outside of the building that housed Shadow Falls’ city hall and police station. A red banner underneath the picture declared “Breaking News.”
When anchorwoman Tiffany Adams stepped in front of the camera, Amanda knew this was something far more important than another fluff piece on the upcoming mayoral race. Adams rarely left the anchor desk to report in the field, probably because her heavy makeup and hairspray didn’t respond well to the Florida humidity.
In a tone far too upbeat for what she was saying, she informed viewers that a jogger had discovered a woman’s body in the city’s main park early this morning, and that the mayor and police chief were about to give a news conference.
Amanda’s stomach fluttered and she twisted the hem of her pink tank top between her fingers. Four solemn policemen filed up to stand shoulder to shoulder behind a podium at the top of the steps. She shook her head at the bitter irony. If she went to a store without a written shopping list, half the time she’d come home without the very items she most needed. And yet, even though she hadn’t spoken to those policemen in years, she could still remember their names. Some things she could never forget.
Even though she wanted to.
Mayor Edward Montgomery heaved his bulk up the steps and stood red-faced in front of the officers lined up behind the podium’s bank of microphones. His usual jovial personality and rotund appearance had given him the nickname of Santa. He wasn’t jovial today. After giving one of his briefest speeches since the start of election season, he introduced Police Chief Logan Richards and motioned toward someone off-camera.
A man with short, dark hair strode into view and stood next to the mayor, towering over him. Impeccably dressed in a navy blue suit–in spite of the stifling heat–Richards radiated confidence and authority.
The previous police chief had retired about six months ago and moved to California. Amanda knew Richards was his replacement and that he was from New York, but she hadn’t paid much attention to the news reports about him when he was hired. That part of her life was over and she wanted nothing to do with any more policemen.
He looked younger than she’d expected–maybe mid-thirties–although the tiny shots of silver in his blue-black hair might mean he was older. His skin was smooth and tanned, with a slightly darker shadow along his jaw. He was probably one of those men who always looked like he needed to shave. She bet it drove him crazy; it contrasted starkly with the rest of his crisp, polished appearance.
When he spoke, his rich, deep baritone cut across the chatter of the reporters and demanded everyone’s attention. His speech was short and concise, confirming what Tiffany Adams had reported earlier but adding little else.
He nodded at a reporter from the Shadow Falls Journal, the same reporter who’d badgered Amanda with relentless, personal questions when she was released from the hospital four years ago. After suffering through his crass, intimate questions about her abduction, she’d never agreed to another interview–not with the press, anyway. The detectives had interviewed her so many times she’d sarcastically threatened to move into the police station to save them time.
“Chief, can you confirm the body in the park is missing college student Carolyn O’Donnell?” the reporter asked.
“Until the next of kin are notified, I can’t speak to the identity of the—”
“Do you actually expect us to believe the dead woman isn’t O’Donnell?” the same reporter shouted.
Richards pointed to another reporter, effectively dismissing the Journal reporter, leaving him red-faced and sputtering.
Amanda couldn’t help but grin.
“Yes, the body was discovered just off the main jogging trail in a remote section of the park,” Richards said in response to a question.
“No, the jogger who found the victim isn’t a suspect in the slaying.”
“I can’t confirm or deny sexual assault until the autopsy is completed.”
“No, I can’t speak to the cause of death at this time.”
For several minutes, the questions continued. When another reporter repeated the question about the victim’s identity, Chief Richards thanked everyone for their time and walked away, abruptly ending the press conference. Amanda smiled at his audacity.
The angle of the camera shifted, focusing again on Tiffany Adams. Quoting unnamed sources, she callously confirmed that the nude body found in the park was the Florida State University sophomore who’d gone missing while home on summer break. She quoted an unnamed source and didn’t express a twinge of remorse that O’Donnell’s family might be watching the broadcast.
The anchorwoman seemed to delight in going into more detail, telling the audience about the multiple stab wounds and speculating that the victim was strangled. Then she mentioned something Richards hadn’t: the victim was found clutching a long-stemmed, red rose.
Amanda shivered and clasped her arms around her middle, barely feeling her fingernails biting into her skin through her thin, cotton tank.
Was the stem smooth? Had the killer removed all of the thorns? All but one?
The TV screen faded away and she was back in the cabin four years ago, lying on the hardwood floor in a puddle of her own blood, listening to the sound of Dana’s terrified sobs behind her.
Amanda’s attacker straddled her stomach and held a red rose above her, its sweet perfume wafting down and mingling with the metallic scent of blood. He plucked one thorn from the stem. “He kills me.” He broke off another. “He kills me not.”
His sickening version of the childhood chant continued as he snapped off each thorn to drop one by one onto her blood-smeared stomach. When only one thorn remained, his obsidian eyes shone through the holes of the hooded mask that covered his head and most of his face, but not the cruel slant of his lips as they curved up in a delighted smile.
He leaned down, pressing his lips next to her ear, his hot breath washing over her bare skin. She shuddered in revulsion and his hand tightened in her hair, painfully twisting her head back. “He kills me,” he rasped.
Dropping the rose, he reached behind his back and pulled out a long, jagged knife. Its wickedly sharp teeth winked in the dim light as he raised it above his head.
With a muffled cry, Amanda tore herself away from the nightmare of her past, collapsing against the couch as she struggled to breathe and slow her racing heart. The TV gradually came back into focus. Channel Ten was still covering the gruesome discovery in the park. Adams speculated on a possible connection between this morning’s murder and Dana Branson’s murder years earlier. A picture of Dana at Florida State University filled the screen. Then the camera zoomed in on a closeup of her tombstone.
When they showed a file photo of Amanda leaving the hospital, she flipped the TV off and dropped the remote to the floor. She reached up and ran a shaking finger down the rough edges of the long, puckered scar that zigzagged down the right side of her face, a scar that four painful surgeries had failed to completely erase, a scar that reminded her every day of the horrors she wanted so desperately to forget.
But no matter how hard she tried, she could never forget the price of her cowardice: Dana’s life.
Furiously wiping at the hot tears cascading down her cheeks, Amanda wondered who had really escaped all those years ago. Her? Or Dana?
* * *
Logan thought he knew what hell was. He’d lived it for the past decade, trying to atone for a split-second decision that could never be undone.
But that wasn’t hell.
Not even close.
Hell was telling the O’Donnells their daughter had been murdered. Hell was watching the light of hope die in their eyes, watching Carolyn’s mother crumple to the ground, her tear-streaked face ravaged with grief.
If they’d been angry or had cursed at him for failing to save their daughter, it might have been easier. Instead, Mr. O’Donnell shook Logan’s hand, thanked him for trying, and patted him on the shoulder as if Logan was the one who needed to be comforted.
This wasn’t the first time he’d told someone their loved one had been killed, but it never got any easier. Every time it was like a punch in his gut, reminding him of the tragic mistake he’d once made. Had the killer he’d let go hurt anyone else? How many lives had been lost, how many families destroyed because of his lapse in judgment all those years ago?
He blew out a shaky breath and blinked his tired eyes, trying to focus on the computer screen in front of him. The most important thing right now was finding Amanda Stockton. The similarities between O’Donnell’s killing and what had happened to Amanda and her friend were too overwhelming not to have been committed by the same man. She was the only living witness to his crimes. If there was any chance the killer thought she might remember something that would help the police find him, she could be in terrible danger.
None of the detectives understood Logan’s obsession with finding her, but none of them could know the kind of guilt that ate at him every day. God willing, they never would.
He’d already browsed through dozens of law enforcement and government web sites searching for her, but he wasn’t giving up. No one was going home tonight until he was certain Amanda Stockton was safe.
He glanced at his watch, cursing when he saw how many hours had passed since he’d begun his search. How could one woman be so hard to find? She wasn’t on the tax rolls of any municipality within five hundred miles of Shadow Falls. The local utility companies didn’t have her on their customer lists. Neither did the cable or satellite TV companies. If she’d gotten married or changed her name, she hadn’t done it in Walton County.
Everything pointed to her not being a local anymore, which meant she wasn’t in immediate danger, at least for now. But without knowing why the killer had shown up again after four years, Logan couldn’t risk giving up on the search. Finding her, making sure she was safe, was his primary goal, but it wasn’t his only goal.
He wanted to interview her about her abduction. Asking her to relive that horrific experience didn’t sit well with him, but finding the killer before he could kill again was more important than sparing anyone’s feelings. She’d been with her attacker for three days. Even though the killer had worn a disguise, Amanda had to have seen something that could help identify him. She could hold the key to the entire investigation without even realizing it.
A knock sounded on Logan’s open office door, and one of the detectives helping him search for Amanda leaned in around the doorway, his eyes lit with excitement.
“Chief, I found her.”