The killer smiled when Brian McKittrick accepted the friendship request on Facebook. This one was the fastest response yet. It had taken Brian less than a minute after the request was sent for him to accept it. A request from a complete stranger. Another narcissistic person signing their own death sentence. It was funny—disgusting, really—how desperate people were for attention these days. How much they craved showing others how popular they were. The more friends they had on Facebook, the more popular they must be in the eyes of others.
The killer tsk-tsked with disapproval. Vain, vain creatures…
If only they knew how big a price they were about to pay for accepting every friend request they got. One could only hope they thought it had been worth it in the end.
Brian would be the next to pay and the killer would make sure the man suffered, more than the others even. With each victim, it was getting easier to inflict extreme pain. The killer had plenty of practice, so, by now, it took little effort. Each move had become second nature.
Brian would by no means be the last victim. No, siree! The killer had a record to break. If the plan was to become the world’s most prolific serial killer, there was plenty of work to do. So far, the killer had not even managed to complete seventy kills. No way near what the big-timers in that field had achieved.
The killer was confident that the number would be surpassed fairly soon, though. Another year and the killer would have them all beaten for sure. After all, there was an advantage. The killer was special, smarter than regular people. Of a different kind.
And this was why the killer was unstoppable.
Ian raised his chin and considered the blue-painted house for a few seconds, then lowered his gaze back to the battered man nailed to the wooden porch. “I’m guessing our perp thought there were too many windows to nail him to the wall. I don’t think I ever saw a house with that many windows.”
When I didn’t say anything, Ian turned to look at me where I stood frozen beside him. I couldn’t take my eyes off the thirty-something man lying before me, who’d been beaten and whipped so viciously his clothes were in tatters. A piece of rag had been stuffed into his mouth, most likely to keep him quiet as he’d been brutalized and the neighbors oblivious to what had been occurring. Of course, the houses in this residential neighborhood weren’t built closely together exactly—the nearest one was at least fifty yards away, and the tall hedges growing around this house further secluded it. Plus, the man had been dead for several hours, which meant the killing must have occurred at night when people slept.
Ian placed a hand on my shoulder, his voice worried. “Are you okay, Gabi? You look like you’re about to get sick.”
I wanted to tell him that, yes, I was fine, but the more I kept staring at the victim, the worse I felt. The dead man reminded me of the way my husband, Nick, had looked when I found him tortured and beaten to death on our bedroom floor a couple of years ago. Not only was this fourth victim similarly butchered, but he looked so much like Nick that he could have been his twin brother.
I couldn’t make myself remove my gaze from him, even though I knew that I should, that it would make me feel better. I was compelled to keep my gaze trained on the lifeless man.
It didn’t take long before lightheadedness threatened to overtake me, and I struggled not to gasp out loud to fill my lungs with much-needed oxygen. I failed miserably, panting quietly for air. Ian must have sensed how my knees were weakening and that I was close to passing out, because he grabbed my shoulders and forced me to face him, removed my eyes from the man finally.
“Gabi,” he said, shaking me gently to get my attention. “What’s going on? Talk to me. You’re pale like a ghost.”
“I… I don’t know,” I managed to get out. “I think I may be coming down with something. I feel sick.”
I wasn’t about to tell Ian the truth; any reference to Nick after the big fight we had the other night was a bad, bad idea. I needed for some time to pass before I brought up my dead husband’s name in any conversation. So instead I kept the act of feeling suddenly ill going.
Ian placed an arm around my shoulders and pulled me close, scrutinizing me like a doctor, a finger under my chin. He nodded. “Yes, your eyes look a bit bleary and your nose is a touch red. You’re probably coming down with something. Let’s get out of here and get you home. Then I’ll come back and finish up on my own.”
I opened my mouth to tell him that I wasn’t feeling so bad I had to leave. We could finish up going over the crime scene together like planned; I just needed a moment to pull myself together. But before I could get the words out, an image of Ian’s hurt face as we’d yelled at each other after dinner flashed through my mind, and I decided that I would do as he’d suggested. It was far better that he thought I was in need of some rest due to illness. I could always come back on my own later. Not only had I seen plenty already, but, with the exception of the removal of the body, the crime scene would remain pretty much untouched for the next couple of days. There would also be plenty of crime scene photos that I could study.
So I nodded and let him lead me off the porch and around to the front of the house, back to our car that was parked on the street. He opened the passenger side door for me and helped me into the seat, then closed the door and walked around to the driver’s side where he took a seat.
Soon we were zipping along the quiet, winding road, heading back to New York City.
As he kept driving, he threw worried glances in my direction, all the while maintaining a firm grip of my lower thigh. To infuse me with strength, I presumed.
“How are you feeling?” he asked. “Any better?”
I was leaning back against the seat, still acting like I was out of it. It wasn’t very hard; all I had to do was picture the butchered vic who looked so much like my murdered husband, and that sick feeling overtook me again.
I gave a small smile and patted Ian’s hand on my thigh. “Don’t worry, I’ll be fine. I just need to lie down a little and it’ll be all good. Thank God, we’re not far from home, so you’ll be back at the house in no-time. One of us should be in place before forensics gets there.”
It was true; it was only two in the afternoon, and our place on Manhattan was only a thirty-minute drive from the address in Stamford, Connecticut, where we had been told the body was. The nanny had found it when going over to pick up something she’d forgotten the last time she’d babysat for the vic and his wife, who was out of town with the kids. I was glad I didn’t have to be the one to inform the wife what had happened. The nanny had already taken care of that in a hysterical phone call to her, who, in spite of the devastating news, had had the wherewithal to tell the nanny to call 911 and report the incident. Because of the nature of the crime—similar to other crucified, tortured individuals across the Tri-state area—the sergeant at the Stamford Police Department had notified the FBI. Ian and I were already working the case together, so as soon as we heard, we had gone to investigate.
Ian squeezed my knee. “As long as you’re okay, luv. That’s my priority right now. The bloke isn’t going anywhere.”
“Right,” I said neutrally, swallowing back the moan of pain that had been on the verge of escaping me at the reminder of the man. Oh, God. I could easily imagine how much pain his poor wife must be in at this very moment. Well, at least she’d been spared the sight of him. That was something.
I wasn’t in the mood to keep talking, so I closed my eyes and pretended like I needed the rest badly. Ian instantly took the cue and drove along in silence, not attempting to speak to me again.
Due to light traffic, we were at our apartment building in midtown Manhattan within short, a gleaming thirty-floor high-rise. Ian double-parked the car on the street and turned to me. I was already making my way out of the vehicle. When I saw that he switched off the ignition and got ready to get out as well, I put a hand on his arm.
“You don’t have to come with me,” I told him. “Really. I’m already feeling a little better. I can make it into the building and up to our place on my own. You should get back to the crime scene and finish up. How about I just text you when I’m upstairs so you know I’m okay?”
He gazed at me with a serious expression, not appearing like he was okay with my suggestion at all.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Gabi. I should make sure you get to bed safely. If you’d have seen yourself before, you’d agree. You looked really bad.”
I smiled at him. “Yeah, but now I’m feeling better. Honestly, babe, I’ll be fine. I’ll ask Norman to help me upstairs.” I tilted my head toward our doorman, who was standing under the frosted-glass awning that stretched out before the building entrance.
“Fine,” Ian said, not sounding overly pleased with my solution. Norman must have spotted our car in that moment, because he turned in our direction, a grin spreading across his weathered face. I opened the door and got out, turning back to Ian before I closed it.
“I promise I’ll text you the second I’m inside. I love you.”
“I love you, too,” Ian said, then got out of the car as well and glanced at Norman. “Hey, Norman. Can you please make sure Gabi gets to our apartment? She’s not feeling well.”
“Of course, sir,” Norman said, nodding eagerly. “Don’t you worry. She’s in good hands.”
“I appreciate it,” Ian responded curtly and got back inside the car.
I could feel his eyes on me as Norman offered me his arm, which I immediately accepted.
Together, we walked into the fancy apartment building in which I had shared a three-bedroom apartment with my British-born boyfriend for the last year. Now that neither of us needed to keep a low profile, Ian wanted us to enjoy the money he had inherited from his parents and quadrupled on his own through daring investments. Every single trial of all the businessmen, medical professionals, and politicians involved in the huge Adler Conspiracy that he and I had taken down together was finally over and most of them in jail. We had decided that we wanted to continue our work in law enforcement, both of us on a federal level now, working for the FBI as special agents. This was our calling in life and, even though we realized there were more people than ever who wanted to see us dead, we refused to cower from them. Thankfully, I didn’t have to worry about my old nemesis, Felipe Cardoza, plotting revenge. When he found out that The Adler Group’s evil attempt to radically change the world had failed, he experienced a fatal heart attack.
“Are you feeling okay, Ms. Longoria?” Norman asked me as we waited for the elevator to come down, peering at me with concern.
“Yes, Ian is just being a drama queen as usual,” I replied and smiled at the old man. “I’m perfectly fine.” I wasn’t lying; now that I was far away from that gruesome picture over in Stamford and had had some time to pull myself together, I was back to normal. “You really don’t have to escort me upstairs. I was just feeling a little lightheaded, and Ian somehow convinced himself that I was coming down with the flu or something and needed to lie down.” Norman didn’t have to know that it had been the other way around, me convincing Ian.
“No, no, I promised Mr. Armory that I would make sure you were safely taken to your apartment and I intend to keep my word,” Norman said, and I could tell both from the way his arm stiffened and the tone of his voice that this was not a subject up for discussion.
The elevator arrived and I let him lead me into the car, thinking that I might as well humor the man.
I thanked him and again assured him I would be okay when I let myself into our place. Closing the door, I fired off a short text to Ian, telling him that I was inside and in bed. Instead of going to bed, though, I found my laptop and switched it on.
As I waited for it to load, my thoughts went back to the fight we’d had the other day that began because I had declined Ian’s marriage proposal. And this time around the proposal hadn’t been a casual aside, but he had gone down on one knee and presented me with an insanely expensive but tasteful vintage diamond ring that had once belonged to his mother. I explained that my saying no didn’t mean I didn’t truly love him—which was how he’d interpreted my answer—all it meant was that I wasn’t ready to get married for a second time yet. Frankly, I wasn’t sure if I’d ever be as, technically, I was still married to Nick, dead or not. However, seeing how upset Ian had been, I kept that part to myself. Nonetheless, I thought that Ian, if anyone, should understand why I felt the way I did after what had happened to Nick. The fact that he happened to propose on the two-year-anniversary of the day I found Nick didn’t exactly make me more inclined to accept, quite the opposite, I’d pointedly explained to him. Which of course only made him more upset since he hadn’t realized what day it was.
I pushed the thoughts of our fight aside and focused on the report I pulled up on my laptop. While Ian was gathering information at the crime scene of the latest victim in the Crucifix Killer case, I would go through the reports filed about his other casualties. We had both read through them already, but I for one had been tired at the time and really couldn’t remember all of it. I had just taken Henry’s word for it when he’d claimed the killer was one and the same, because the modus operandi was identical, as well as the signature left next to the victims’ bodies—three circles either carved into or painted onto the wall.
A tiny circle encircled by a bigger circle, then a third even bigger around that one.
Henry was Ben Hurley’s aide. Hurley, also known as Eagle Eyes at the Bureau, was our current supervisor and the FBI Assistant Director in charge of the NYC-based criminal investigative division. Everyone who worked under Hurley quickly learned that little escaped his probing gaze.
I hadn’t gotten around to checking whether those three small circles within each other had been anywhere near this latest vic due to my intense reaction when I’d seen his face. Ian claimed the circles were an Adinkra symbol. As soon as he was back, I’d ask him about them, and also check the crime scene photos for them. Hopefully the photos would suffice, saving me a trip back to Stamford. On second thought, after that visceral reaction, I really didn’t feel like revisiting the crime scene unless absolutely necessary.
As I read through the reports now, I soon concluded that Henry had gotten right everything he’d briefed me and Ian about regarding the first three murders. At least when it came to the big picture. Each victim had indeed been crucified, though unlike Jesus, their hands and feet had been nailed to walls—or a billboard in one case—instead of to a wooden cross. All of them had been beaten and whipped severely before and after the crucifixion, especially their faces, then stabbed in the stomach to bleed out, either in an act of kindness to end the victim’s suffering or because the perp was running out of time. My gut told me it was the latter. All of them had had a piece of cotton cloth stuffed into their mouths to render them mute during their torture. None had been reported missing before they were found, which told us the killer operated swiftly, abducting and immediately proceeded to murdering his victims.
I couldn’t remember Henry having mentioned that they were all completely different in terms of age, gender, profession, sexual preference, and ethnicity, though. The first victim was a twenty-four-year-old white girl from an affluent family in New Jersey. She’d worked as a hostess at a nice restaurant in Jersey City and had a college degree. The second was a skinny gay male, forty-three years old and black, who worked as a casting director for a Manhattan-based company and was single like the Jersey girl. Unlike her, he only had a high school diploma, however. The third was a fifty-nine-year-old Asian woman with a Ph.D in philosophy, a happily married woman with three grandkids. Assuming the thirty-something male nailed to the porch was the fourth in the Crucifix Killer’s string of murders, we already knew he was white and probably straight, married with two kids. Based on where he lived, he was solid middleclass.
I frowned as I considered just how different from each other these four people were. Yet, they had died in the same fashion, murdered by the same person. What did they all have in common? Had they pissed off the killer somehow and he’d sought revenge? There was no indication of sexual abuse, so we had no reason to believe the killer’s gruesome acts gave him sexual gratification. The M.O. instead spoke of pure, unsubdued rage.
I stared at the three circles. Was Ian right when he claimed they were an ancient Adinkra symbol that meant power? What did it mean in that case? I was fairly sure we were dealing with a male since it would require lots of strength to crucify a person on a wall, even if he or she had been knocked unconscious prior. According to the medical examiner’s reports, there had been no traces of sedatives in any of the first three victims’ blood, but several of the blows to the head that the killer had delivered before and after he crucified his victims could easily have rendered them unconscious.
Also, the vast majority of serial killers were male, especially when we were talking about violent murders such as these. Women serial killers tend to poison their victims and usually kill husbands or relatives or patients at hospitals or nursing homes where they work.
Of course, as of the last decade—actually, two or three decades depending on how you saw it—several women existed who were as strong, if not stronger than your average male, what with all the genetically enhanced babies The Adler Group had created in labs in their attempt to develop a master race. In addition to manipulating the genes of embryos, the scientists had later introduced animal genes into their genetic makeup to make them even stronger, faster, healthier, and smarter. It was estimated that the oldest living superhumans—now more commonly referred to as meta-humans or metas—were about forty-five years old. Metas were the ones in which animal genes were not present. The ones who’d had their genes mixed with animal ones were considered meta-hybrids or simply hybrids and made up about three fourths of the eight thousand people who’d had their genes engineered. The oldest known hybrid was about thirty-two.
Out of all these genetically engineered people, there were only three known cases in which they had displayed violent, psychotic tendencies—one woman and two men.
In all three cases, Ian and I had been the ones stopping them.
I chewed on a hangnail as I stared at the computer screen. Were we dealing with a fourth meta gone mad?
Read the rest of the book here.