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Minds of Madness and Murder. The glossy poster advertising today’s seminar was taped to the closed auditorium door. Someone had drawn tears of blood dripping from each of the M’s.
Lathaniel Montgomery’s gut gnawed at his backbone, but not because of the poster or the bloody tears.
Holy Jesus. How was he going to manage being in an audience surrounded by hundreds of people, with all their smells, all their memories?
Gill touched his arm like he always did to get Lathan’s attention. “Going in?”
“Yeah.” But Lathan’s feet had grown roots into the floor. He hated how nothing in his life was normal. He hated the fucked-up sequence of genetic code that had enlarged the olfactory regions of his brain. He hated that he smelled everything. And he especially hated the ability to smell the energy imprints of people’s memories. Scent memories. Memories that could overwhelm him and annihilate his reality.
Gill stepped up close and examined Lathan’s left eye—the eye the SMs always invaded first, the eye that would roll around independently of the other one, making him appear in need of an exorcism.
“Quit with the eye exam. I’m alright.” For now. Concentration kept the SMs out of his mind. ViGillance kept them under control.
“Your seat is directly in front of the podium. You won’t have any trouble reading Dr. Jonah’s lips. After the presentation, introduce yourself. He’ll recognize your name.” Gill gave him the don’t-screw-this-up look. “Convince him about the Strategist.”
Lathan’s freakish ability had generated leads for nearly every cold case he worked. Except for the Strategist’s.
“Explain how each person has a scent signature. Explain that you smell the same signature on thirty-eight unsolved murders. Explain that the FBI won’t do anything unless he confirms there is a connection among the kills.”
“Save the lecture. This whole fucking thing was my dumbass idea.” Could he maintain control of the SMs long enough to make it to the end of the presentation? “If I—”
“There is no ‘if.’ You’re not going to lose control.” Gill had read his worries as easily as Lathan read his friend’s lips. “Maybe I should go in with you.”
“I don’t need you holding my hand.” Lathan showed him a raised middle finger—a salute they always used in jest, forced a smile of bravado across his lips, and then pushed through the doors before he made like a chickenshit and bolted from the building. Barely inside, the SMs hit. Millions of memories warred for his attention, tugged at the vision in his left eye. He sucked air through his mouth to diminish the intensity, to maintain control.
Never in his life had he been around so many people at once and been coherent. Maybe he should leave.
He clenched his fists. Knuckles popped, grounding him, giving him an edge over the SMs.
He strode down the steps toward the front of the room. Thank whoever-was-in-charge the presentation hadn’t started yet.
An empty seat in the front row had a pink piece of paper taped to it: RESERVED. Lathan would’ve preferred the anonymity of the back row, but he couldn’t see Dr. Jonah’s face from that far away. He ripped off the sheet and sat in the cramped space.
His shoulders were wider than the damned chair. His arms overflowed the boundary of his seat. The woman on his left angled away from him, the cinnamon scent of her irritation infusing the air. Typical reaction to his size. And with the tattoo on his cheek, she probably assumed he’d served a sentence in the slammer.
The woman on his right reeked. But it wasn’t her fault. The rot of her body dying was a stench he recognized, along with the sharp chemical tang of the drugs that were killing her so she could live. Cancer and chemo. Her emaciated features evidenced the battle she fought. And yet, she was here. At this presentation. She was a warrior. And he was a fucking crybaby for bellyaching about the SMs.
His ears picked up a faint snapping noise. Clapping. Everyone applauded enthusiastically.
Dr. Jonah walked to the podium. His clothes were baggy and ill fitting, his face wrinkled, his head topped with a mass of fluttery gray hair. Even though he looked like he’d just awakened from sleeping under an overpass, he possessed the look of frazzled genius. The look of someone whose work mattered more than living life. The look of the nation’s most respected profiler.
A door on Lathan’s right opened. A young woman lugged a folding chair across the room. Toward him.
He held his breath.
No. She couldn’t be there for him. No one here knew him. Knew about him. Except Gill. And Gill wouldn’t—
She opened her chair and sat facing him. With an overly enthusiastic smile that showed the silver in her back molars, she started to sign.
He looked away. A long bitter whoosh of air escaped his lips.
He didn’t need an interpreter.
The combination of what little hearing he still possessed, speech reading, and his nose worked just fine. Most of the time.
Anger burned a gaping hole through his concentration. The interpreter’s memories invaded the vision of his left eye.
She swiped a quick stroke of mascara across her lashes and examined the effect up close in the bathroom mirror. Good enough. Getting the day over with, getting back to Cara mattered more than her makeup.
“I should go.” Her voice lacked as much conviction as her will.
“Baby, come on back to bed, just for a little while.” Cara threw back the covers. She’d strapped Big Johnnie around her waist. He pointed proudly perpendicular.
She glanced at the bedside clock. She was going to be late. It’d be worth it.
The SM continued to play in front of his left eye. His right eye focused on Dr. Jonah. Lathan pressed his left eye closed with his fingers to block out the images, but they projected on the back of his eyelid. Hard to focus on reality. Disorienting as hell. Don’t lose control.
His right-eyed vision of reality wavered. Almost like a double exposure, he was able to see the stage, see Dr. Jonah, but superimposed over it was the interpreter and her sex bunny having a girls-only party.
Lathan’s heart punched against his chest wall, pumping so hard he felt the echo of it in his damaged ears. Fuck. The SMs were about to stage a coup.
“I’m out of here.” Did he shout the words, whisper them, or even speak them at all? Didn’t know. Didn’t care.
He sprinted out of his seat and up the auditorium stairs, feeling the weight of hundreds of eyes watching him.
Gulping giant fish-out-of-water breaths through his mouth, he slammed through the door, burst into the hallway, and then barreled out the exterior door.
Away from the people, away from the damned interpreter, the SMs vanished. His sight returned to normal. He’d figure out some other way to talk to Dr. Jonah. No way was he taking that kind of risk again.
The stark fall afternoon held a hint of winter chill, but he didn’t mind. He was always hot, and the temperature suited his mood. He hurried across the lawn to his motorcycle.
A wisp of scent tickled his nostrils. The fleeting aroma possessed a sickening familiarity that felt out of place for his surroundings. He plugged his nose against the smell, refusing to allow one bit of air to enter his nose until he was on the road.
Someone grabbed his arm from behind.
His heart stopped. Adrenaline shot from his brain straight to his fist.
He swung at the same time he turned. Punch first, ask questions later—his body’s default reaction ever since the attack that cost him his hearing.
He barely stopped himself from impacting with the guy’s face. Lathan lunged forward a few steps, feigning aggression, expecting the guy to retreat, and he did, tripping over his own feet, almost falling on his ass. Good. That was one way to get someone to realize he took his personal space seriously.
“Don’t fucking touch me.” From the force of the vibrations in his throat, he had yelled the words. He didn’t care. He forced himself to breathe from his mouth. Didn’t want to look like more of freak than he already did by standing there plugging his nose.
The guy swallowed and nodded, then swallowed again. “I’m Dr. Jonah’s partner.” The guy’s mouth formed the words in perfect precision. “Dr. Jonah wants…return…presentation.”
The words you, to, do, new all looked identical when spoken. Conversation with a stranger was a recipe. Mix the bits of sound he heard with the speech he read. Sprinkle in the context of the sentence. And bake with the emotions he smelled.
Why would Dr. Jonah want him to return to the lecture? Why would Dr. Jonah stop the presentation to tell his partner to come after him? He wouldn’t. Lathan must’ve read the guy’s words wrong. He sure as hell wasn’t going to ask the guy to repeat himself. Every time he did, people spoke in such an exaggerated manner even God wouldn’t be able to divine the words leaving their mouths.
The guy opened his mouth to say more, but scratched at a spot on the side of his nostril, blocking every word from Lathan’s view. His ears only picked up random sounds, nothing that added up to a word. The best way to handle not understanding speech: silence. Anything else ended with people looking at him like he was stupid.
He sat on his bike and flicked the ignition switch. Underneath him, the engine pulsed; the vibrations traveled through his body. His heart, his breath, the engine all moved in one synergistic rhythm. The closest he ever got to music.
The guy stood in front of the bike, waving his hands like an amateur cheerleader to get Lathan’s attention.
He backed the motorcycle from the space.
The persistent little pecker jogged next to him.
Lathan kicked his Fat Bob into gear and shot out of the parking lot. He needed to be alone. Alone meant no SMs. He needed to be home. Home meant sanctuary.
But every sanctuary was part prison.
“What time you off work, Evan?” Carnivorous anticipation spread across the trucker’s face.
At some point during every shift at Sweet Buns and Eats truck stop, Evanee Brown was grateful the label maker had run out of ink halfway through her name. The patrons spoke the name on her tag with a familiarity that made her stifle her gag reflex. If they had used her complete name… Well, full-blown barfing would’ve been bad for business.
She pasted a super-huge smile across her mouth and lied. “Oh, I’m, uh, working a ten so, hmm, whatever time ten hours from now is.” Hopefully, her voice carried the right amount of empty-headed dingbat. Acting stupid earned better tips than being smart.
“Evan, one of these times I’m passing through I’ll have to show you the inside of my truck. It’s real nice.” He stretched the words real nice into one long taffy-like string.
She smothered an eye roll.
The trucker was old enough to have known the original Casanova, yet still made the same X-rated offer every time he came in. She glanced at the clock hanging above the door. Any minute, Shirl—her replacement—should be arriving. Couldn’t happen quick enough.
“How about an Ernie Burger, rare, everything, side of onion rings?” She worked to maintain her light tone. She wanted the twenty-dollar bill he always left for her tip.
“You remembered my usual.” He smiled, his teeth a post-apocalyptic city—abandoned, jagged, decayed. “You know I can’t resist an Ernie Burger.”
She scrawled his order on the slip and then left the table, feeling the slime of more than one man’s gaze on her body. That was to be expected when the uniform requirements were four-inch heels, shorts that barely covered her ass, and cleavage. Lots of cleavage.
Ernie liked his girls barely decent, said it was the best business decision he’d ever made. He was right. Sweet Buns was packed twenty-four seven, three sixty-five. Most days, the tips were great. Hell, there wasn’t anywhere within forty-five minutes where she could earn as much as she made at Sweet Buns.
Ernie met her at the kitchen window with a pair of tongs in his hand and anger on his face. His sharply slashed brows met over his eyes, a scowl constantly gripped his lips, and the strange vibe of restrained violence intimidated most everyone and kept the patrons from being too grabby-feely. He looked like a homicidal hashslinger, but he didn’t have any bodies stashed in the freezer. At least none she’d found.
Bald head glistening from working over the grill, he scanned the new order, then turned to flip a burger while he spoke. “Shirl’s in back. Today she’s green.”
“Kermit or neon?” Shirl changed her hair color as often as most people changed their socks.
“Kermit.” Ernie flashed one of his rare smiles in her direction and then hid it behind a frown. “You keeping up the maintenance on that little car of yours?”
Her Miata. The only thing that remained from her old life. Keeping it was impractical, stupid even, but she refused to lose everything. It was her beacon of hope that one day she’d have enough cash to drive it right out of Sundew, Ohio, and never look back. “I haven’t been driving much.” Code for paying my bills and trying to save money is my priority.
Ernie smacked two quarter-pound burgers on the grill. Flames hissed and sizzled over the meat. He didn’t look up. “After shift tomorrow I’ll change your oil and check it over for you. And I don’t want nothing for it.”
His offer percolated in a slow drip through her ears and finally into her brain.
He gave her a sideways glance. “You hear me?”
She’d forgotten how to flap her lips and make sound to form words so she rocked her head up and down on her shoulders. His unexpected kindness left her muddle-minded. When was the last time someone had been kind without expecting something in return?
When was the last time she hadn’t felt absolutely alone?
Ernie removed a burger from the grill and slapped it on the bun. He motioned with his head toward the back room. “Get out of here. Soak your feet in Epsom salts and stay off them for the rest of the night.”
His words, spoken at the end of every shift to every one of his girls, knocked her out of her stupor.
“Okay.” She started around back.
“Shirl! Order up!” Ernie yelled, his voice loud enough to be heard throughout the diner.
Shirl dashed down the hall, her heels clattering as loud as a shoed horse. Evanee handed her open checks to the green-haired girl like a member of the Olympic relay team passing a baton, then walked out the back door.
The first thing she noticed was the rumble, roar, and release of pressure from the eighteen-wheelers parked behind the diner. The noise was as constant as a heartbeat.
A brisk autumn breeze raised goose bumps on her skin. Sunshine melted them away. Tilting her face to the sun to soak up some vitamin D, she leaned against the building and pried her pumps from her swollen feet. Each shoe came off with an indecent sucking sound and left a deep red cleft around her foot.
Ahhh. The cold pavement was a delight against her hot soles.
She walked across the parking lot, her legs moving in an awkward flamingo step as they recalibrated to being flat-footed.
The hardest part of the day wasn’t the eight hours in the heels. It was this moment, when she had time to remember her belly flop off the cliff of comfort into the cesspool of white trash. From a safe, easy life to this truck-stop waitress existence. From her trendy apartment to living behind Sweet Buns at Morty’s Motor Lodge. From privacy to sharing a room with Brittany, the town whore. From profound ignorance to the realization that everything good she used to have came from being a whore too.
But she wasn’t going to think about that. Nope. Not going to.
Halfway across the parking lot, she spotted Brittany’s special signal.
The ribbon tied to their doorknob used to be pretty-girl pink, but had long since faded to a shade of old and used.
“Damn it, Brittany.”
The steady stream of truckers kept Brittany bumping around the clock. At least she always made her guys rent another room for the hour. Unless she had a loaded one. Someone with thousands to burn. Being customer service–oriented, Brittany gave those guys a discount by letting them use her room—the one she shared with Evanee. They’d be in there all night, possibly even days.
Now Evanee stood eyeball to eyeball with being homeless for the night.
A weight bore down on her shoulders, threatened to buckle her knees, crush her into the pavement.
She shook her head, flinging the bad thoughts out of her mind like a dog shaking off water. There had to be a bright side. If she looked hard enough, long enough, she could find something good hiding behind every bad thing. Or maybe the search for good was just a distraction from the bad. She’d have to think about that one later.
She wasn’t homeless. Homeless meant no roof over her head, nowhere to go. She had her car and could drive herself anywhere.
She fished through the wads of cash and change in her tiny apron pocket, finding her key ring. Once inside the Miata, she locked the doors and then counted through the day’s tips. Some ones, but mostly fives, tens, even a few twenties from the most desperate of truckers who thought if they tipped high, they’d eventually earn some alone time with her.
With her tips from yesterday, she had enough cash for her car payment with twenty-three dollars left over. Not enough for another motel room. She shoved the money back into her apron pocket and set it on the floor.
The bow on the door fluttered on the breeze, its movement more effective than a neon sign flashing Sex In Progress. Heat scorched her cheeks. She felt like a slow-witted Peeping Tom staring at the ribbon, knowing all manner of sexual acrobatics were occurring inside the room.
Evanee started her car. The motor turned over with a quiet hum that instantly lifted her mood. No matter how impractical or how flashy, she loved her Miata.
With no particular destination in mind, she pulled out of Morty’s and headed toward the country, away from semis and people. She took one winding, hilly road after another until she found an isolated spot.
The road passed through a serpentine valley encircled by low, undulating hills. A barbed-wire fence ran parallel with the pavement. Cows probably grazed there in the summer, but this late in the fall, the grass had shriveled to spikes of straw. The lonesome beauty of the land, the way the hills folded around her, soothed something inside her she hadn’t realized needed comfort until that moment.
See, there was always a bright side. She would never have found this place if Brittany hadn’t confiscated their room for a conjugal visit with a horny trucker.
She pulled over and cut the ignition.
She could spend the night here. It’d be like camping out. Sort of.
Leaning back against the headrest, she let her eyes slide shut. Sometimes she forgot a world existed beyond Sweet Buns, Morty’s, and the constant rumble of semis.
Silence. Pure and perfect. The best thing she’d heard in weeks. The quiet lulled her into relaxation, into sleep.
Evanee startled awake with a full-body lurch. Her heart ping-ponged off the walls of her chest. Breath choked in and out of her lungs.
She’d had a nightmare.
Another nightmare in the infinite string of bad dreams she could never remember. But this time fear walked up her spine while she was awake, like the nightmare was just beginning.
“I thought you might be in trouble.” The words, muffled and muted through the closed driver’s window, didn’t disguise the voice’s sinister chocolaty smoothness.
Fight or flight or freeze? She froze, solid as an ice sculpture.
She glanced in the rearview mirror. Junior’s tow truck was parked behind her car. Confirmation. It really was him. She couldn’t remain paralyzed. Fight and flight stood on either side of her, better friends to her than frozen ever would be. She turned her head toward the window to face her stepbrother.
Junior’s straight nose, his plump lips, his sharp, handsome features captured the best of Zac Efron, Tom Cruise, and a young Robert Redford in a body that everyone in Sundew was irresistibly drawn to. Women fought for his attention, men wanted to be him, and everyone adored him for his wholesome nice-guy personality.
No one saw the real him, except for her. Junior Malone was nothing more than a beautifully wrapped package. Gorgeous on the outside, but inside he was something more vile than maggots squirming and writhing on rotting roadkill.
“Fuck off.” Anger and a childhood full of pain—caused by him—dictated her volume.
“Darlin’, I was worried about you. You’ve been out here awhile.” Sincerity, kindness, concern all sounded in his voice—all bullshit. His voice might be the sweetest siren’s song to everyone else, but she knew the real him. He didn’t have any feelings, except for the sadistic kind.
“How do you know how long I’ve been out here?”
He raised his palms in the air. “I’m sorry. It wasn’t my idea. I swear. Tiffany at Sundew National wanted me to make sure you didn’t skip town with their car.”
Their car? What kind of bank freaked if the payment was only a few days late? The kind in Sundew where the loan officer knew every mistake Evanee had ever made and expected her to dive headfirst into the shallow end of stupid. Again.
But what if Junior’s words were chock-full of lies and designed to manipulate her behavior?
Had he been tracking her? Had Tiffany told him to? Tomorrow, she’d get answers when she went to make her payment.
Evanee started the car, shifted into gear, and then slammed her foot down on the gas pedal. Her hip punched off the seat from the force. The Miata’s tires spun, she heard gravel flying, imagined the stones hitting Junior’s perfect face. Ha!
The engine sputtered. Died. The car coasted forward only a few feet.
Her heart sank down, down, down, until it rested on the pavement beneath the Miata.
Damn her and her genius idea to save money by canceling her cell phone service.
Hands in his coverall pockets as if he were out on a nature jaunt, Junior strolled the ten feet—all the further her Miata had gotten—to her. Each step closer squeezed the air from her lungs until the only sound was her wheezing.
“You got a leak in your fuel tank.”
“You did it.” She knew that as well as she knew his name.
“I’ll patch it for you. But I need you to get out of the car so I can jack it up.”
“I’m not getting out of this car.” She wasn’t going to give him what he wanted. Her.
“Aw…now don’t be that way. Come on out here. We can chat—you know, catch up on things—while I fix your car.” He paused, waiting for her to capitulate to his wishes.
She had never given in passively or politely, and she wasn’t going to start now.
“I saw Matt in town the other day.” His tone was innocent gossipy, but the words were a barbed whip, lashing her, raising painful welts of memory—of her choosing to stay in town for Matt, of her deluding herself into believing sex and money equaled affection, of him randomly casting her off like a used napkin.
“Dad’s watching Matt. Looking for that special moment when Matt sticks a toe out of line, and then he’ll arrest him. He’s not going to be passive like Sheriff Bailey was.” Junior and his dad hated Matt solely because being with Matt had made her untouchable. Matt was rich, prominent, and good friends with both the old sheriff and the mayor.
“Leave Matt out of this.” She didn’t want Junior’s dad, the shiny new sheriff, to cause Matt any problems.
“You shouldn’t be defending him.” Junior lashed the barbed whip again.
She heard the quiver of anticipation in his words—a warning. He pulled a tool from his coveralls pocket and held it in the middle of the driver’s window. The glass shattered. Shards sprinkled over her legs like glittering confetti. The glass hadn’t even stopped falling, and she was already scrambling across the console to the passenger side. Grabbing for her shoes, she jumped out the door.
Her heels were her only weapon. Fight her only friend.