Someone is targeting young girls, and it's Georgia Dennis's job to stop the monster. She'd spent years working for the FBI, stopping creatures just like this one. And she was good at what she did.
But her boss Hellbrook has different ideas.
He'll do anything to protect the single mother from the darkness that was their job...
Especially from the threats that existed so much closer than the two criminal profilers ever knew...
Thank God it wasn't her child's crime scene they were hiking toward. That thought ran continuously through Dr. Georgia Dennis' mind as she picked her way over fallen branches and loose rocks, only steps behind her partner.
What would the girl have felt as she'd been forced up this hill? What fears would have run through the child's mind as the leaves cracked beneath her feet, as the mud slipped out beneath her steps? Had her hands been bound the entire time? Had she lost her balance? Had he pushed her down? How would the UNSUB--the Unknown Subject--have controlled his...catch?
Georgia's breath caught in her throat as she tried to put herself in the girl's shoes. She pushed away the feelings the girl's parents must have felt, though those thoughts threatened to choke her. How could someone do this? To a child? How could he do this and not think of the pain and terror the child would be experiencing. How? "He may be a ****** or a mission killer."
"Any evidence to back up your theory so early in the investigation?" her partner and supervisor Michael Hellbrook asked.
"Method of death...sir."
"Continue. Talk it out for me." Impatience was evident as he waited for her to climb the log.
The local agent, Elias Stanton, had met them at the base of the mountain to lead them to this crime scene. He darted nervous glances between her and Hellbrook. The tension between her and her supervisor was old news to her, something that just was. She hardly noticed it anymore.
Georgia adjusted her backpack, scanning the overgrown trail for any signs of the killer the locals may have missed. She continued on. Her foot slipped on a loose rock and she kicked it aside. Had the killer considered that stone? Had he carried the rocks with him up the trail? "Stoning. It's a traditional method of killing, used as far back as Biblical times. A young girl, just becoming aware of her sexuality. He sees it, decides to cleanse--therefore, mission killer. He could also be a classic ******. Someone who wandered into the idea of stoning, possibly by throwing rocks at a small animal--or even a smaller child. Someone who enjoyed watching his victims suffer. Someone who picked those who couldn't retaliate. Or those he put into positions where they couldn't fight back."
"So someone who enjoyed hurting others?" Confusion tinged the local's tone. It didn't surprise her. Many agents--even if they were good agents--struggled with the idea of profiling.
"Yes. And he's raging against all females, especially those similar in type to the four victims. Were there any signs of sexual assault?" Georgia hated to ask, especially since the victims in this case were all teenage girls. She hated when the victims were kids, always imagining her four-year-old son Matthew in their place. Imagining herself in their parents' places. That was what she took from each case that dealt with children--the pain on the parents' faces.
She slipped her hand into her pocket, running a finger over the toy car her son had tucked in there that morning before they'd left the house.
He was why she did this. For each of these monsters she took off the streets, the chance that one would get her baby lessened. She never lost sight of that. Her son would not be a victim.
"Preliminary findings were inconclusive. M.E. was nervous about doing an extensive autopsy. They're waiting for our go ahead to bring in our own medical examiner." Hellbrook barely looked at her. That also didn't surprise her. They didn't have the strongest of relationships, by any means. His fault. She'd tried.
"And nothing's been found in the seven hours since we were first notified?"
Georgia kept her eyes on Hellbrook's back as she followed him and the other man when they began hiking again. "I take it our medical examiner is on the way?"
Calling for one would have been Georgia's job had she been left behind at the precinct. She normally handled the miscellaneous tasks that other agents didn't have time to handle. That was her normal lot with Hellbrook's team. Six months since she'd been assigned to his unit, and today was the first he'd let her out of the precinct. He'd had no choice--his customary partner was too sick to leave the precinct, and there were too many crime scenes for the rest of the team to cover.
She hated that it had come down to necessity for him to grant her request--one she'd made on every new case--but she was glad he finally had. She wanted to do her job, all aspects of it. And she really wanted the creep who'd targeted these four little girls for his sick game.
She wanted to be out there, needed to be out there, stopping the monsters who preyed on the weak. That was why she'd joined the FBI in the first place, that was why she'd studied hard and earned two doctorates by the time she'd hit twenty-five.
"Of course. Come on. It'll be sunset soon and we need to get what we can before that point."
Georgia hurried to keep up with him as his long legs ate up the trail. She understood his impatience; she needed to be at the scene just as much as he, but both she and Stanton were struggling to keep up. What good would that do Hellbrook?
Hell kept one eye on Georgia, wanting to make certain she--the smallest member of his team--could handle the hike to the first crime scene. The animal trail they followed was not an easy path for any of them, but the petite Georgia would have a tougher time. She had to stretch in a few places or climb over logs and rocks that he and Stanton had little difficulty scaling.
He wanted to grab her arm and drag her along. He had always been an impatient man, especially when on the hunt for child-killers. He forced himself to keep his hands off his partner, letting the local agent help her when needed.
Hell sensed the other man enjoyed helping her. And she would fight like the devil if he ever offered to help. That was mostly his fault for the way he'd treated her over the last six months. But habits were hard to break. Even for him.
"He's athletic," she said when they took a short break. "Comfortable in this area."
"Local," Hell added. It had been a tough climb for them, and he suspected it would get worse. The man they were searching for would have known that. And would not have attempted the climb if he hadn't thought he'd be able to complete it. Confidence? Arrogance? Or just skilled? "Stanton, how much farther?"
"The pit's about another mile or so. Three or four decades back this area was mined for fill dirt. These pits scar the hills, most are overgrown now, most are filled with water. Terrain made it difficult to dig large holes around here, so there are quite a few smaller ones. Steep sided, and not very wide at the bottom. Made it easy for the guy to trap these kids and use them for his target practice. First body was found in a forty-foot hole. Cadaver dogs sniffed her out."
They hiked the rest of the way in silence. Hell ran a quick eye over his partner, making sure she was still with him. She looked fine, as if she'd barely broken a sweat. She looked better than fine, if Hell was being honest. She always did. Had he ever seen a woman look so put together when climbing through the mud-drenched woods? Only Georgia Dennis, princess of the division her father had created.
The late April sun tangled in the dark brown curls poking out the back of the FBI issue cap she wore, distracting him for a moment. Dr. Dennis was an incredibly attractive woman; Hell couldn't deny that. He had been aware of that from the moment they first met. Even when dressed in nondescript jeans and windbreaker like she was today, that small, exquisitely formed woman with pale skin and dark hair had a way of drawing male eyes. Had a way of tempting male hands to touch, to stroke. To tangle in that dark hair.
Dammit; Hell shook off thoughts of his unwanted partner and refocused on the job at hand. He didn't have time for the distraction that was Georgia Dennis.
The crime scene was as the photos had portrayed and taped off with standard yellow police tape. They stepped up to the barrier and studied the forty-foot hole. Hell's stomach clenched in reaction; he'd struggled with heights since the age of five when he'd fallen out second story window.
Georgia suffered no such weakness. She fingered the crime tape and peered down into the pit with careless disregard that she was four stories above the bottom. "The hole's what? Forty feet deep?"
Both Stanton and Hell nodded.
"Still, with the overgrowth on the sides, the grade's about fifty to sixty degrees. The fall would injure, but probably not kill," Stanton said. "We figure the guy used these pits as a type of holding pen."
"An organic cage, hard for his victims to escape, but not impossible," Georgia said, her tone full of disgust and fury. Hell understood. He felt the same. "He likes to play games."
Hell itched to grab the handle of the black backpack she wore everywhere and yank her back to his side. And hold her there. Far away from that damned edge. She stepped back seconds before he acted on that impulse.
She turned to Stanton. "How many miles from the other three crime scenes?"
"Six miles. Is that important?" Stanton asked.
"It may tell us something later. No detail is too insignificant at this point." The nerves in Hell's stomach loosened as Georgia took another step away from the edge.
"Has anyone other than the search teams and the local M.E. and deputies been down there?" Georgia asked.
"No, a spring snow came in on the heels of finding the first and second bodies. Then there was the race of keeping up with the body count. Last two victims went missing two days ago and yesterday. Both bodies were found yesterday evening, less than six hundred feet apart." Stanton peered over the side once more. "Why?"
"Because we need to go down there." She didn't ask or wait for Hell's permission, ducking under the crime tape and disappearing from his view within seconds.
Hell cursed before following. "Dennis--you could have waited for permission!"
She moved quicker than a damned goat; the weeds, brambles, and mud slowing her only slightly. Hell stumbled the last few yards, then stopped a foot from his wayward agent and glared down at her. "Next time, Dr. Dennis, you wait for my orders before entering a sealed off area--especially one forty feet down! What if you'd fallen?"
"Yes, sir. Next time you and I are at a crime scene together, I will be sure to ask your permission before entering."
Her words held something Hellbrook couldn't quite identify. He glared. He didn't need this problem, even if he currently needed her. "See that you do. I'd hate to have to explain to your father why I let you fall off a cliff."
She mumbled something under her breath that he swore was he'd assume you pushed me! Surely she hadn't said that? Did she honestly think that? "Excuse me, Dr. Dennis? What was that?"
"She could have climbed out, sir." Georgia stepped away from him, then shielded her eyes from the sun. She stared up the side. "Why didn't she?"
Hell mimicked her actions, making a mental note to keep a closer eye on her if they remained partnered up for the investigation. Something in his gut told him he'd need to. Hell always trusted his gut. It had gotten him this far. "There were no drugs in her system--at least, according to the preliminary autopsy. Estimated time of death was mid-evening, day after disappearance."
"Question is--was she already dead when she entered the pit, or did he stone her while she was down there?" Georgia pulled on a pair of latex gloves as she spoke, handing him a second pair.
"Probably waited until she was down here. Either rolled her, carried her, or simply pushed her over the edge. The growth would have slowed her enough to not kill her outright." Hell pulled on his gloves. He examined the disturbed spot where fourteen-year-old Hailey Ann Michaels' body had landed for the final time. That poor child hadn't deserved to be tossed aside like a man's trash. Hell would find him and render him as insignificant as garbage. Hailey Ann deserved that much and so much more. "When she was awake and aware enough he began pelting her with these."
He motioned to the palm--sized stones that littered the area. He grabbed one and examined it.
"Still, why couldn't she have hidden until he grew tired and left? Or did he out-wait her? There's several places a girl her size could have hidden. Maybe he waited until she'd almost made it out and then pushed her down? That demonstrates an extreme amount of patience." Georgia mimicked him, grabbing another stone. Her brown eyes narrowed as she eyed him. Her hand clenched on the rock. "Go back up...sir."
He considered, wondering if she planned to heave the rock at him. Her eyes were cool, her face a mask of professionalism. But there was something in her eyes. Hell mentally shrugged, then nodded. He wasn't familiar enough with her style while in the field to know what she was thinking.
He'd never had her out in the field, either with him or any of the other CCU members. Not once since she'd been transferred to his team. She'd not been in the field with him since the afternoon they'd been with Agents Brockman and McLaughlin on a Seattle rooftop, working a joint case just days after they'd met. A sniper they'd been chasing had put a round through Georgia's right shoulder. He'd never forgotten--still had nightmares--about her blood staining his favorite leather jacket, of how pale and small she'd been as he'd used his body as a human shield between her and the shooter. Had she not turned at the last second, she'd be dead. He'd also never forgotten how she'd trembled against him as he'd carried her to the waiting ambulance ten stories below. How light and insubstantial she'd felt as she'd clung to him, her arm clenched around his neck. How she'd not made a single sound.
He shifted almost unconsciously, putting his body between hers and the top of the pit as he climbed. He hated having her out here, exposed.
He was silent as he climbed the incline. It wasn't an easy climb for him--and he made every effort to keep his body in optimum physical shape. The job demanded it. It would not have been an easy climb for a petite and terrified teenage girl.
He turned back and looked down at his agent. She looked even smaller than he knew her to be, and she was no bigger than any of their victims. "Now what, doctor?"
"Can you see me here?" she yelled back at him before moving to various places in the pit. It was only about thirty feet in width, but the overgrowth--even beaten down by the last remnants of melting snow--would have provided some potential covering. Georgia stepped behind the largest copse of weeds and brambles. All he could see of her was the black ball cap.
"Now what?" he yelled.