Daryl Eugene Wardell wasn’t a smart man. Never claimed to be. After all, genius had never alighted on the branches of the Wardell family tree. Like him, his daddy never finished highschool. And neither had his mother, who-according to Daryl Senior—ran off when junior was barely out of diapers, taking up whoring to pay for her drug habit. But it was his brother who’d been the dumbest dumbass of the brainless lot, dead at age twelve after adopting the


unexplained, overnight notion that he was Superman and could stop a speeding train along the Conemaugh & Blacklick Railroad just west of Wildcat Run. 
   Yes, the Wardell lineage was like a dip in the shallow end of a sun-bleached, kiddie-sized gene pool.
   And so, Daryl Eugene Wardell lived by his strengths. His third-grade teacher had noted in his report card that young Daryl had a ‘keen sense for problem solving’ and seemed more ‘mechanically inclined.’ Of course, his daddy—with his limited literacy—interpreted the notation literally and assumed Ms. Agnew was suggesting junior become a mechanic. From that day forward, Daryl carried a wrench in the back pocket of his jeans, proud in the knowledge that he would follow in his daddy’s footsteps.
   But genius and mechanical inclination aside, Daryl Eugene Wardell knew it didn’t take brains to recognize a good specimen when he saw one.
   From behind the wheel of his 1965 Ford F-100, Daryl watched her negotiate the trash-littered sidewalk of Govans. He studied her form: the slope of her shoulders under the spaghetti straps of the hot-pink halter top, the roundness of her hips and rump under the latex mini skirt, and her long, lean calves made even longer by the three-inch pumps she wobbled on.
   She didn’t look at home in the shoes. Or maybe she was just too pissed off to walk straight.
   He’d first spotted her back on Edmondson where the rest of the hookers plied their trade to a thinning stream of late-night johns in the 2 a.m. heat. She’d stumbled out of a grey Cavalier idling at the curb, hurled a few choice words at the john then slammed the car door and strutted off in those heels.
   It was when she turned up the side street that Daryl recognized his opportunity.
   He followed with the truck, saw the quick flame from a lighter when she lit up. A nasty habit. Cigarette smoke wafted through the open window of the pickup and somewhere down the block he heard a corner dealer yelling out his wares: “Yellow-tops. Yellows. Got yellow-tops here.” like he was selling fruit at some farmer’s market instead of crack-cocaine.
   The dealer’s call reminded Daryl of his junkie mother, but he pushed the hatred deeper. Focused on his mission.
   He trailed her at a distance, past a burned-out store and deserted row houses, past a small clutch of jugglers heading down to the Edmondson corners to sell their dimebags of rock, until a block and a half in she finally glanced over her shoulder.
   She eyed the truck. Shook her head. Then waved a dismissive hand at him as the end of her cigarette flared.
   Daryl moved the truck up alongside her, his good Bridgestones rubbing the curb. Her small breasts jiggled with each step as she maintained her determined pace. When she finally glared at him through the open passenger window, her anger excited him.
   “You still working?” he asked her over the truck’s idle.
   “In your dreams, asshole.”
   His laugh erupted before he could stop it.
   “You think that’s funny, dickhead?”
   But he didn’t answer, only laughed again as he gunned the 352 V-8 under the hood and left her there in the canyon of dark row houses.
   In your dreams. He wondered if she’d think it was funny when he explained to her later the reason he’d laughed. Wondered if she’d believe him when he told her she had been in his dreams.
   It wasn’t that Daryl Eugene Wardell entertained notions of psychic powers or E.S.P. and he didn’t believe in omens either. But sometimes...when he really needed them, answers came to him in his dreams.
   Last night he’d had such a dream.
   And the answer his dream had presented to him was now perfectly framed in the Ford’s rearview mirror.
   Daryl Eugene Wardell’s smile faded. Sweat snaked down his back under his damp shirt as he watched her grow smaller in the mirror and finally disappear when he took a left two blocks up.
   Circling back onto Harlem, he parked the pickup just past the mouth of a cluttered back alley, the hood bathed in the sodium glare of a street lamp. He left the headlights on, grabbed his rope, and got out of the cab, then jogged across Govans. From one block down he could just make out the staccato of her heels striking the concrete.
   He nudged back the beak of his cap and clenched the rope tighter. Pressing himself flat against the rough Formstone of the corner row house, he closed his eyes. Rehearsed the moves in his mind.
   The clacking of her heels grew louder.
   Anticipation bristled every hair, and a prickling heat climbed up between his shoulder blades and the back of his neck. Unbidden, the memory of his last girl seeped into his brain. The sweet smell of the shed. The feel of her pinned beneath him. The rhythmic slapping of his thighs against her rump. Her flesh between his teeth and her muffled squeals. And finally...finally, the taste of her blood, glorious and hot, filling his mouth when he exploded inside of her.
   And tonight a new one. New tastes. New opportunities.
   Nestling his head back onto the paint-chipped windowsill, he felt his heart rate surge as adrenaline spilled into his blood stream. His senses heightened.
   She was so close. He imagined he could almost smell her now: her perfume, and beneath that her sweat. He could sense the warmth of her flesh, hear her blood coursing through her veins. And when she emerged at last around the corner of the row house, he wondered how she couldn’t hear his own predator’s heart hammering in his chest.
   She stopped, her gaze swinging left to the pickup’s blazing headlights. He saw tension tighten the muscles along her bare back, then heard her mutter: “Fucking asshole.”
   Daryl knew she couldn’t see inside the truck through the street lamp’s glare across the windshield, knew she couldn’t tell if he sat behind the wheel or not.
   She flicked her cigarette into the gutter. It tumbled through the air, sparks flying from its tip when it hit the asphalt and rolled away. Every detail crackling in his brain, registering in slow motion as the hunt unfolded.
   And when she finally turned, his heart roared in his ears.
   A thin gasp of surprise barely escaped her lips when he stepped away from the house and took out her legs in one well-aimed kick. She went down like a sack of feed, one arm pinwheeling uselessly behind her.
   She hit the sidewalk hard, the air coming out of her in a rush. Stunned. And he was on top of her. His training kicking in.
   She was winded. Couldn’t scream. He threw her over, face into the concrete, his knee driving into the small of her back, pinning her as his hands expertly worked the rope.
   The street was empty, but he had to work fast. Headlights whipped by a block west.
   Daryl Eugene Wardell smiled as he she struggled beneath him, her feeble desperation arousing him. And when she threatened to scream, he clamped one hand over her mouth.
   His first error.
   He swallowed his own scream when her teeth sank into the flesh of his hand, and the sharp, crushing pain coursed up his arm. With his good hand he grabbed her hair and slammed her forehead into the concrete. Once. Twice. And on the third blow his hand came free of her jaws at last.
   She was still then. Knocked-out, he guessed. He leaned in close, smelled her fear oozing from every pore, and he couldn’t help himself.
   He slid his tongue along the back of her neck, greedy for the elixir of that fear. One taste. Tide him over.
   Daryl Eugene Wardell realized his second error too late.
   The pain blinded him before he’d even registered her tactic, her head snapping back, her skull connecting solidly with the softer bone and cartilage of his face. Searing, fucking pain like a knife driving into his forehead. Stars exploding behind his eyes.
   This time he did scream.
   His blood flowed, and he felt her squirm away. He expected to open his eyes and see her in full flight down the sidewalk.
   But this one was full of surprises.
   Kneeling on the gritty concrete, his bloodied nose cradled in one hand, he looked up. And she was there. Her mouth covered in his blood, and undiluted rage in her eyes as she glared down at him.
   And then Daryl knew: this one was different.
   “You low-life piece of shit!” she said. “You have no fucking clue who you’re dealing with, do you, motherfucker?”
   He tried to see past the blood-red blur of the pain, tried to collect the scattered thoughts that stumbled through his brain. So scattered that Daryl Eugene Wardell didn’t immediately realize how lucky he was that she wore those three-inch pumps. Only later would he thank his maker for them, because when she raised her foot, determined to strike out at him, she teetered on one stiletto heel. It took little effort to bring her down then. Snatching her kick in midair, he clamped onto her small ankle and yanked hard.
   This time when the whore came down, she stayed down.

  and now for a special sneak peek from deep within Blue Justice and deep in the Catoctin mountains of western Maryland...  


     Finn could already smell the decay. It hung in the thick, sultry air. Putrid and unmistakable. Clinging to him like his sweat-soaked shirt.
   When Kay finally stopped the ATV next to two others, Otis Reaney had just made his way up out of the ravine fifty feet away. The Sheriff’s Office detective was a bull of a man. Solid and wide, and perhaps just a little out of shape. He was winded when he joined them, and he used one sleeve to wipe the perspiration beading across his brow.
   Kay made the introductions. Between the vibrations of the Outlander and the white-knuckled grip he’d maintained during the ride into the site, Finn could barely feel Reaney’s handshake.
   “Glad you could make it,” he said, his attention going back to Kay. And as she shut off the ATV, Reaney seemed impressed that she’d been the one to maneuver the four-wheeler over the unforgiving terrain.
   “Even if you hadn’t come seen me two days ago and put Frances fresh in my mind,” Reaney told Kay, “I would’ve thought of her the second I saw this girl.”
   Reaney gestured for them to follow him through the raspberry and sticker bushes, along a single path that had been tamped down between the ATVs and the ravine. “Some buddies out on a fishing trip found her last night, but didn’t want to risk four-wheeling it out in the dark. First light they rode back to their trucks and called it in. Watch that,”       Reaney said as he held back a branch of thorns for Kay.
   “Lucky for us they had a GPS with ‘em. They waypointed the body, then went south to their trucks. With the data from their unit we were able to find a closer access point.” He shoved a thumb in the direction of the road, still a ten-minute, bone-jarring ride out.
   “No way someone brought her in all this way just to dump her,” Reaney speculated, swatting at a mosquito as he stopped at the brink of the steep ravine. “I figure she must’ve wandered in on her own, lost her footing and fell down this bank, or the other side. Can’t say for sure right now, but it looks like her neck’s broke.”
   About thirty feet down, the trees gave way only marginally, and sunlight dappled the slow-moving creek below. Through the undergrowth, Finn could just make out flashes of white skin down where the creek spilled out into a shallow, rocky pool.
   He was immediately impressed with Reaney’s handling of the crime scene. Where it could have been overrun with FCSO and Thurmont PD scoping for a gawk, the detective had kept the personnel on the scene limited to only those absolutely necessary: two crime-scene technicians, three uniforms who searched tediously through the ferns and forest-floor growth, and a plainclothes whom Finn guessed was Reaney’s partner.
   “Detective!” one of the TPD uniforms called out to Reaney from the ATVs. He held up a thick, black Motorola radio. “O’Hearn’s at the road. You want me to get him?”
   “Meet Dave halfway. I want O’Hearn asap.”
   “Rudy O’Hearn,” Reaney explained to Finn and Kay. “Armed Forces Police. Specializes in entomology. Sure, we can collect whatever’s needed and send it on to O’Hearn. But I figured, given the possible connection to your missing cop and the press this thing might get, we’d better not screw around. I’d rather have O’Hearn collect his own maggots.”
   “Maggots? How long do you figure she’s been down there?” Kay asked.
   “More than a few days,” Reaney said. “County ME can probably narrow it down when he gets here. Or O’Hearn can age his creepy-crawlers. I think decomp might have been worse except she got snagged up in the creek. It’s spring-fed so the water’s pretty cold. She’s still a mess though.”
   “Let’s see her,” Kay said, and Finn heard the restlessness in her voice.
Reaney pointed to the guideline secured between the trees and the smaller saplings along the precipitous slope. But when Kay’s hand closed around the rope, Reaney stopped her.
   “There’s something else you should know,” he said, and there was a graveness in Reaney’s expression as the detective looked toward the body in the creek.
   “What is it?”
   “The girl...she’s not the only victim here.”

* * *

   Sixteen years on the job, half to those working murders, Kay couldn’t remember if she’d ever been as deeply affected as she was by what lay at the bottom of the ravine.
   Making their way down the sheer slope, the smell of decay intensifying with every step, Kay knew it wasn’t good even before she’d laid eyes on the naked, bloated remains listing in the stream. In the mid-summer heat the body in the creek, in spite of the eight or ten inches of cold spring water, had certainly passed the early stages of decomposition.
   It wasn’t Micky.
   The woman had fallen face-up, and Reaney’s guess at a broken neck had been a no-brainer, her head wedged in a severely wrong angle between a rock and her shoulder. Across her bloated body, the skin had blistered and was peeling. Marbling was pronounced along the limbs, extending across the chest and distended abdomen, the greenish-black discoloration marking the decomposition of blood within the vessels just below the skin’s surface.
   Her face was the worst: swollen beyond recognition, the lips mushroomed out, and the skin almost purple in color. There would be no visual identification of the remains, and Kay hoped she was a hooker. That her prints were on file somewhere.
   The hands and feet were already gloving, the skin sloughing off, detaching in one piece like a glove. It would be work, but Kay suspected they’d get at least a couple useable prints.
   She waved at several slow, metallic-colored flies. Reaney had given both her and Finn a good dose of bug repellent before they’d gone down into the ravine. It worked for the mosquitos, more or less, but did nothing for the flies. And as they crawled across Kay’s skin, she shuddered as she imagined where they’d been.
   More than any decomp case Kay had worked, this one was rife with insect activity. Rudy O’Hearn, the Armed Forces Police entomology specialist, had arrived not long after Kay and Finn had finished their preliminary survey. Now the bug guy squatted in the shallow stream, the water lapping over his boots, as he examined the insect microcosm playing out across the woman’s body. He was a small, eager man with a careful and serious demeanor. He’d already snapped dozens of photos of the insects laying claim to the exposed flesh, and now picked through the maggots and carrion beetles with a pair of long forceps. Some he deposited into jars of ethanol, while others were placed in live-specimen containers.
   He smiled when he lifted one of the flat receptacles to the light and rattled several maggots around its bottom.
   “We’ll raise these little guys in the lab,” he explained when he noticed Kay’s stare.
   “And then what?”
   “Determine species. That’ll give us a time frame. Different insects are drawn to carrion at different stages. Some prefer the freshly dead. Others aren’t attracted until the putrefactive gases are present. And then there are others who are only interested in the molds or the other insects. But these here are likely your typical blue blowflies.”
   “And what does that tell you?”
   “Blowflies are generally your first on the scene. They can arrive within minutes of a body hitting the ground.”
   “So what’s your guess on how long she’s been out here?” Finn asked.
   “Won’t know until I run all the stats. Temperature, humidity, weather data for the past few days. Then replicate the conditions in order to raise these beauts.” He leaned across the body and extracted several larger maggots from the corner of the girl’s nose. “These look to be second instar. Meaning, your second crop. In this heat, blowfly eggs can hatch in one or two days.”
   “Which means what? She’s been here three, maybe four days?”
   O’Hearn’s balding head bobbed once. “It’s a good estimate. But like I said, I’ll have a more accurate time-frame once I factor in the temperatures and other environmental factors.”
   Kay swatted at a couple of mosquitos. She felt faint. It was the heat, she was sure. The sauna-like humidity had sapped her energy. And she should have eaten before they’d left the city.
   Time had ceased to have any meaning in the heat and stench of the small clearing. She had no idea how long she’d stood there at the water’s edge, the toes of her runners already soaked from sliding on the slick rocks, her gaze raking over and over the dead girl, scrutinizing every aspect as though, somehow, something would speak to her, give her direction.
   And always, involuntarily, Kay’s eyes returned to the other victim in the ravine.
   The other life that had been lost.
   She wondered if the men who’d found her had recognized the double tragedy in the woman’s death.
   Just below the stream’s surface, the tiny, perfectly-formed feet and legs were barely noticeable between the woman’s swollen and peeling thighs. The feeble current stirred them, making them appear almost animated. She’d heard of it happening: the bloating and putrefactive gases expelling a fetus, and Kay wondered if another day in the heat would have caused a full discharge.
   “You doing okay?” Finn’s voice was a whisper as he moved alongside her.
   Kay nodded.
   “You don’t look too good.”
   “It’s this fucking heat.”
   The little feet dipped and swayed in the stream.
   A life ended before it had ever taken a breath. All because of a monster.
   “Someone’s gotta be missing this girl, Finn.”
   “You mean a husband?”
   “Or boyfriend.” She couldn’t take her eyes off the fetus. “Why haven’t we heard about a missing pregnant woman?”
   “Not every Laci Peterson becomes a media frenzy.”
   Kay looked past the stream into the thick woods. “He’s got to be close.”
   She scanned the bank, the dense underbrush and beyond. “She can’t have come far,” she said, and suddenly Kay imagined Micky somewhere beyond the dark trunks of the maple and basswood, the choking creepers and kudzu. She imagined screaming Micky’s name into the woods. She imagined getting an answer.
   “Or she might have wandered for days,” Finn argued. “If this was one of his victims, I doubt he would have hunted for a new victim until she was gone.”
   “You mean Micky.”
   Finn nodded. He looked as sapped of energy as she felt. His T-shirt was damp and even his hair under the short ponytail was soaked with sweat. “Micky was snatched Saturday night.” Kay knew he was thinking aloud. “If Micky was this girl’s replacement, then she could have been out here since Saturday. Maybe longer if you figure he might have spent a day or two looking for her.”
   “Unless he realized she was pregnant and didn’t want her,” Kay said. “Maybe he wanted to get rid of her. Drove her out here, dumped her in the dead of night so she wouldn’t find the road. Or maybe even pushed her down into this ravine himself.”
   “Which means he could live in the next county. Or fucking West Virginia for all we know.”
   Kay’s frustration was about to brim over.
   “But what about the shackle then?” She pointed to the steel jaws around the woman’s ankle, held together with a heavy padlock. The device looked medieval, but even though rust had started eating the surface, it wasn’t that old. And forged directly to the shackle was what looked to be at least twenty pounds of chain, the heavy links snaking through the rocks along the creek’s bank. “She had to have escaped,” Kay said. “The eye-screw is still attached to the chain. If he was dumping her, why wouldn’t he have removed the shackle and chain?”
   But Finn didn’t have an answer.
   “Jesus Christ, Finn. Who is this son of a bitch?”
   Loose stones rained down the slope as Reaney descended again. He crossed the rocky streambed to join them. “We’re not finding any kind of footprints, Detectives. Ground’s too hard up on either side of the ravine. There’s no telling which direction she came from.”
   “We need a dog out here,” Kay said, and Reaney was already nodding.
   “Once we get some of the personnel cleared out, and lift her out of here, we’ll bring in the K9 unit.” He removed his cap and ran one meaty hand through his sandy-colored hair. “You two be wanting a ride back outta here soon?”
   Kay shook her head. “No. I want to help carrying her out of here.” It wasn’t that she didn’t trust the County’s technicians to handle it properly. Kay just wanted to be there for the girl. And the fetus. She couldn’t explain why.
   Reaney nodded, then moved on, giving instructions for his men to wrap up the scene.
   Kay scanned the forest again, the heat and humidity washing over her. And she imagined eyes, imagined they were being watched, but she doubted that was true.
   Where are you, Micky?
   And as Kay considered all the copies of all the case files collecting dust in Ed Gunderson’s basement, all the missing prostitutes over the years, she wondered how many more bodies these woods must be hiding. How may girl’s bodies were lost out here on this mountain side, never to be found?




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