I See You – Mary Burton

“One hundred bucks,” Nikki McDonald said. “That’s all I’m paying.” The building manager’s gaze dropped to the creased bills carefully smoothed out so they did not look like they had been jammed in a pantry mason jar. “I could lose my job.” Nikki’s cash reserves were on vapors, and her credit cards bumped against their respective limits. What resources she still had needed to last until the end of the month, when her corporate freelance gig coughed up the two grand needed for rent. “No worries. Open the door, and no one will be the wiser.” A string of sixty-watt bulbs skimmed along the top of the low, dark ceiling, dribbling light on the storage units housed in the basement of the Alexandria apartment complex they served. Moisture clung to the walls, and a musty scent filled the air. God only knew what the mold count was down here, and because Nikki’s medical insurance expired at the end of the month, she did not need some kind of bullshit allergic reaction. The manager quickly pocketed the money and thumbed through a collection of keys until he found the right one. He jammed it in the lock and twisted. It did not budge. He removed the key, inspected the worn ridges and teeth, and then tossed her a baffled expression.

Nikki grinned but sensed her attempt to appear patient fell flat as the man’s brows knotted, and he refocused on a second attempt. He wiggled the key back and forth. This time he teased the tumblers into alignment. The lock clicked open. His expression triumphant, he pushed open the door. “What are you looking for?” “A trunk,” she said. She had received a tip through her website, Crime Connection, which she had set up two months ago after she’d left the news station. The purpose of the site was to turn cold or hot case tips into stories that would earn her another job in television. So far, the tips had been either bogus or so vague they had been unusable, but this one was so specific it gave her hope it would be different. The sender had detailed the building’s address and this specific storage unit, along with a note to open a gray trunk.

A little digging into the building’s history, and the unit’s owner revealed a Helen Saunders rented this space. By all accounts the eighty-eight-year-old lived quietly and had been retired for over two decades. She still volunteered at a food bank, had no criminal record, and always paid her rent on time. When Nikki had visited her yesterday, the woman had had trouble concentrating and had admitted she did not own a computer. Clearly, Helen had not sent the message via Nikki’s website. Look in the gray trunk. Nikki studied the dusty brown boxes covered in what looked like a decade’s worth of dust. She fished her GoPro from a large black purse and clipped it onto the V of her blouse, between her breasts. Back in the day, she would have had her cameraman, Leo, do the filming. But Leo, along with the steady paycheck and insurance, was gone.

“Can you find Helen Saunders’s original rental application?” “Those records would be in the warehouse, if we still have them.” “There’s five hundred bucks for the guy who can find it for me.” “Why?” “Never know.” “I don’t know. I could lose my job.” She leveled her gaze on the guy, sensing that despite his worry, he would be looking for that application. “Thanks for your help. I can take it from here.” “I should stay. I got an obligation to my tenant.

” “I’m not here to steal,” she said. “Just following up on a tip.” The manager eyed the camera and its strategic placement several beats before he raised his gaze to her face. “Do I know you?” “I don’t think so.” He shook his head, wagging his finger. “You do the news.” Nikki switched the camera on. “Did.” “You got canned, right?” “It’s complicated.” She had been chasing a story on political corruption and government contracting.

The deeper she had dug into the systemic graft, the more committed she had become to the story. In the end, she had been damn proud of the final draft, which was some of her best work. However, the politically savvy station manager had not been as thrilled, and his heavy-handed edits had gutted the story. The stubborn streak that had propelled her up the career ladder now demanded she dig in her heels. Despite her manager’s ultimatum, she had read the story on the air during prime time. The next morning, when she had arrived at the station, her manager had canned her on the spot and had had her escorted out of the building. She had been taken aback, though not surprised, but as she had marched out of the office with her box of belongings, she had been optimistic because she’d believed her credentials would land her a job in another market. What she’d discovered was that her story had offended some powerful people who had seen to it that every major and minor news market was closed to her. Refusing to let her temper rise, she angled her camera toward the building manager’s face. “Make sure I don’t accidently film you when I go live.

” He turned his face away. “I can’t be on camera. We’re not supposed to be here. I could get fired.” “Take it from me—you don’t want that.” The manager eased away from the door. “I’ll be back here.” “Whatever works.” Of course, she wasn’t actually going live. Given her luck, this entire adventure could be a stunt designed to humiliate her.

She plucked her phone from her back pocket and held it up, knowing a second camera angle might come in handy during editing. In selfie mode, she began to record. “I just received an anonymous tip through my website, Crime Connection,” she said, loud enough for the camera to pick up her voice. “My source tells me to look for a gray trunk in this particular location.” She panned around the space and then propped her phone on an old dresser mirror and continued to move boxes filled with crap that should have been tossed a decade ago. Dust soon coated her jeans and very expensive turquoise top. The grime would enhance the television drama but would be hell on the dry cleaning bill. The camera jostled when she bumped it with a dusty box. “It’s an average storage unit that most of us who’ve lived in an urban apartment would have used at one time or another.” She moved a lamp from an ugly 1970s-style end table and angled her body around the table.

Nikki looked directly into the frame, wanting the lens to catch her pensive look. As she turned, she spotted the gray trunk. After grabbing the leather side handle, she hefted the trunk and found it much lighter than expected. She set the trunk in the hallway, where the light was marginally better. Though she felt a rush of excitement, she did not hurry the opening. The buildup could be as important as the payoff. “A gray trunk.” She picked up the phone and pointed it toward the tarnished brass lock. Multiple angles always worked well in editing. Her fingers hovered over the lock.

As she adjusted the lens in for a close-up, the manager peered over her shoulder, partly blocking her shot. She swatted him back as she pressed the release button on the lock. To her delight, it popped open. She lifted the lid. The box was filled with stained, brittle tissue paper, which crumbled on contact. Her insides tingled. She still lived for this and remembered how much she missed investigative journalism. As she scooped up paper, she froze as she stared at the box’s contents. “Is this a joke? Did Rick put you up to this?” “Who’s Rick?” “My former boss at the news station.” “I don’t know Rick,” the manager said.

“It looks like a Halloween decoration.” It was a complete skeleton that was discolored and darkened. She reached into the box and wrapped her hands around the skull, expecting it to feel slick like plastic. However, the moment she touched the skull, she knew it was not made of a smooth synthetic. It was porous like a pumice stone. She raised the skull, and the jaw immediately dropped. Darkness radiated from empty sockets as the lower jaw dangled in silent laughter before the delicate hinge joints failed and sent the mandible to the cement floor. It broke into several pieces. The manager stepped closer. “Is that real?” Her heart raced in her chest as she thought back to the person who had sent her the message.

The tip had been anonymous, and she had not bothered to trace the sender. Why her? She was a pariah in television news now. All the visitors to her website were really drawn by morbid curiosity over the epic implosion of her career. She had yet to receive a legitimate tip. Until now. Maybe Nikki still had a few fans out there. She dropped to her knees and carefully collected the broken bits of bone. Normal people did not get juiced over what looked like a torched skull. But she did. Especially if it got her out of purgatory.

For the first time in months, she felt like things were looking up. Her brain shifted into tactical mode. She had been around long enough to know this skull could belong to your garden-variety murdered guy. He would get his five minutes of fame, and that would be it. But she had always been a glass-half-full kind of gal. The story could be bigger. And if it was, her former backstabbing boss would be forgotten, and she would be back in the game. Nikki reached for her phone as she unhooked the camera and aimed it at her face. “It’s real.” “Who are you calling?” the manager asked.

She looked into the camera. “The cops.” CHAPTER ONE Sunday, August 11, 11:00 p.m. Alexandria, Virginia Two Days Before Fresh from the shower, he dried his dark hair and walked across the drab, worn carpet of the motel room toward the television tuned to the local news station. Beside it sat a pizza box. He flipped open the top and grabbed the last slice, plucked off the onions and pepperoni, and discarded them into a pile with the others. “It was a waste to order the extra toppings.” He liked his pizza plain and simple. “But I was trying to be a nice guy.

” The woman behind him said nothing. After tossing a sliver of onion into the box, he grabbed the remote and turned up the volume. The mattress sagged as he sat on the edge of the bed. The news anchor was blathering on about local traffic congestion caused by a car accident during evening rush hour. “Same old, same old.” He took a large bite. The pizza was cold and the cheese hard, but he had worked up an appetite and was willing to settle. The television newscaster continued on about politics, weather, and a soft piece on the elderly, but again did not mention the story he had been expecting for weeks. “Such bullshit. You and I both know she has the story, but there’s been nothing on her site or in the news.

She’s got to have figured it out by now.” Silence. “It’s a good story, one people will want to know about. The public might not care about the bones of a dead whore, but they’ll care about a missing rich girl.” He ate the rest of the slice, watching until the thirty-minute news show ended. Pizza grease, smelling faintly of onions, glistened on his fingertips. “Paid two extra bucks for nothing.” He wiped his fingers on the comforter before he walked to the window. An overhead vent blasted cold air as he pushed back a small portion of the thick oily curtain. Through a window streaked with condensation, he looked up toward the stars, drowned in a sea of lights flooding from streetlights and neon signs.

“I miss Nevada. The stars. Big sky. A man can hardly breathe in the city.” He let the curtain slide from his fingers as he moved toward the dresser. He opened the top drawer, where he had placed his neatly folded clothes. He pulled on his underwear and then his faded jeans before turning toward the woman. She was on her back, mouth gagged and sightless blue eyes still brittle with fear as she stared at the popcorn ceiling. Her hands were tied to the bedpost; laid bare were her breasts and the five oozing stab wounds. Blood painted her pale skin red, soaked the bedding, and arched over the headboard and across the framed print of the US Capitol hanging on the wall.

She was petite and so lean her stomach was nearly concave. Unnaturally blond hair framed a pale, hollow face that was unremarkable. Large silver hoops dropped from her earlobes. The sight of her naked frame awash in her own blood was a shot to his loins, and he was tempted to have another go at her. There was nothing better than fucking a woman in her own blood. He drew his fingertips over her pale leg, still warm to the touch. The darkness inside him, starved for too long, had finally turned ravenous. Insatiable. “I went for a long time without doing this, and then two of you in as many months.” The first one had been easy enough to charm.

He was a good-looking guy, and when he tried, he could charm the pants off almost any woman. She had cost him the price of five cocktails in a trendy bar. This one was a pro and had willingly climbed into his car as she’d smiled and asked him how he liked to party. He traced a finger through the blood, creating a pale path that unveiled a rose tattoo. “After a man gets a taste for death, even the best fuck just doesn’t cut it.” Reluctantly, he moved from the bed and washed his hands in the bathroom sink. The hot water stung his palm, and when he looked down, he noted the small nick above his lifeline. He remembered how the handle had grown slick as he had plunged it into his date and, on the last strike, how it had slipped. But he had been so possessed that a small cut had barely registered on his radar. Now, he could see he had been lucky.

The wound was superficial and would not need stitches. He dried his hands on a fresh towel and wiped off the sink, the toilet handle, and the hot and cold shower knobs. Next, he cleaned the remote control and the doorknob before dropping the towel into his backpack. The cops were going to collect DNA and prints, but this room was loaded with both from all previous guests. Assuming this case even made the priority list, it would be at least a year before the samples got sorted and tested. By then he would be on a beach in Mexico. “You aren’t that important, girl,” he whispered. “Hookers are a dime a dozen, and cops got better things to do than find me.” He pulled his still-clean shirt over his head, tucked it in the waistband of his jeans, and shoved his feet into a pair of sneakers. He double knotted the laces for good measure.

A last glance in the mirror confirmed there was no blood on his face. He combed his fingers through his hair and then rubbed the stubble darkening his chin. He could use a shave. The mirror’s reflection caught the woman’s body lying in the pool of blood now fully bloomed on the white sheets. Soon it would be brown and lose its luster. He hoisted the backpack on his shoulder. “No one is going to bother you, darling. Room’s paid for until tomorrow. You’ll finally get that rest you were complaining about needing so bad.” CHAPTER TWO Monday, August 12, 9:30 a.

m. Quantico, Virginia One Day Before The eyes were critical. They reflected secrets. Even when an individual tried to fake it, the eyes still echoed loss, love, fear, or hate. They were the visual portals to the soul. And they were the hardest to capture in a facial reconstruction sculpture. Special Agent Zoe Spencer stepped back from the clay bust she had been working on for weeks. The woman’s likeness featured an angled jaw, a long narrow nose, and sculpted cheekbones. She had chosen brown for the eyes, a guess based on statistics. And it was not lost on her that the most telling part of who this woman had been was conjecture.

Zoe’s attention to detail was both her superpower and her Achilles’ heel. Many questioned her ceaseless fretting over the minutiae such as a chin’s dimple, the flare of nostrils, or the curve of lips into a grin. Some in the bureau still believed her work was purely art and not real science. Her sculptures were not an exercise in art and creativity. The point of her work, like this bust, was to restore a murder victim’s identity and see that they received justice. But instead of arguing with the nonbelievers, she simply allowed her 61 percent closure rate to do her talking. Sculptor, artist, and FBI special agent were her current incarnations, but she’d had others. Dancer. Wife. Young widow.

Survivor. Each had left indelible marks, some welcome and some not. On a good day, Zoe would not change her history. Her past had led her to this place, and she was here for a reason. But on a bad day, well, she would have killed to get her old life back. She had been with the FBI criminal profiler squad for two years and almost immediately had put her expertise to work. She caught the cases requiring forensic sketches or sculptures not only because of her artistic abilities and expertise in fraud but also because of her keen interview skills. Armed only with questions, a sketch pad, and a pencil, she burrowed into the repressed memories of witnesses and victims, penciling and shadowing those recollections into useful images. She certainly did not have a master artisan’s skill, but she was good enough. And from time to time, local law enforcement brought her a skull and requested a forensic reconstruction.

Such was the case of her latest subject. The lab door opened. “How’s it going?” The question came from her boss, Special Agent Jerrod Ramsey, who oversaw a five-person profiling team based at the FBI’s Quantico office. Their team specialized in the more unusual and difficult cases. In his late thirties, Ramsey was tall and lean with broad shoulders. He had thick brown hair cut short on the sides and longer on the top, a style reminiscent of the 1930s. His patrician looks betrayed the upper-class upbringing that had financed his Harvard University undergrad and Yale law degrees. Naturally skeptical, he was considered one of the best profilers, and though many wanted him in the FBI’s Washington, DC, headquarters overseeing more agents, he had skillfully maneuvered away from the promotions. Zoe raised the sculpting tool to the bust’s ear and shaved down the lobe a fraction. The artist always wanted more time to tinker.

The agent understood when good had to be enough. “I’m ninety percent of the way there.” Ramsey approached the bust and studied it closely. His expression was unreadable, stern even, but interest sparked in his eyes. He was impressed. “This is better than ninety percent.” “Thank you.” Ramsey leaned in, closely regarding Jane Doe’s glassy stare. “It’s really remarkable that you could create this likeness given the damage.” Nikki McDonald had done Zoe no favors when she had handled and then dropped the scorched skull.

“I’ve worked with worse.” “I understand standard skin depths and predetermined measurements for determining facial structure, but how did you decide that she had brown eyes?” Ah, always back to the eyes. “Over fifty percent of the world’s population has brown eyes.” He grinned slightly. “So, a guess?” “A calculated guess, Agent Ramsey.” “I stand corrected. How long did this take?” “On and off, about six weeks. I had to work it around other cases.” “We all juggle. Nature of the beast.

” “Not complaining. I like the work.” I’m married to it was more like it. “What else can you tell me about Jane Doe?” he asked. Zoe shrugged off the smock she wore over her white tailored shirt and black slacks and exchanged it for her suit jacket, hanging on a peg. “Bone structure tells me she was a Caucasian female in her late teens. The few teeth that remain indicate she enjoyed good nutrition and dental care, which suggests she had resources when she was alive.” He walked around the bust, getting a 360-degree view. He pointed to the hair tucked behind the ear, as a girl in her teens might do. “Was the hair also a calculated guess?” “In part.

Given her bone structure, I assumed it was a lighter color.” “Do you know how she died?” “Knife marks on her ribs indicate she was stabbed at least once in or near the heart.” “The bones were badly burned. Could a fire have killed her?” “We’d need soft tissue to determine. There are marks along the sides of the skull suggesting someone took a blowtorch to it.” “Why torch the skull?” “Your guess is as good as mine. Perhaps the killer wanted to minimize the smell of rotting flesh. Or he wanted to destroy DNA, which he did accomplish when he also pulled most of her teeth. Or he could have been exorcising extreme rage.” “He wanted to obliterate the woman’s identity,” he said, more to himself.

“That’s what I think.” “The killer or someone messaged the tip to Ms. McDonald’s website,” Ramsey said. “Why now?” “Another guess? The killer is tired of hiding,” she theorized. “He wants recognition for a job he considers well done. Maybe he’s sending a message to someone else?” “Who?” “An accomplice.” She sighed. “Or a witness who now feels secure enough to act.” “How long has Jane Doe been dead?” Ramsey eyed the bust as if the face troubled him. “No way of knowing.

Though Jane’s dental work is modern.” “Any personal items found with the skull?” “No.” She was Jane’s last and best hope for identification. Ramsey straightened. “Impressive work, Agent Spencer. The bust will be a significant help to Alexandria police. You’re working with Detective William Vaughan?” “Correct.” “He attended several of the profiling team’s workshops in the spring.” The spring training sessions had been designed to help local cops solve crimes. Detective Vaughan had been one of her best students.

She had discovered he had a master’s in theoretical math, a reputation for thinking outside the box, and, over his ten years on homicide, a closure rate edging toward 90 percent. Her respect for his work had grown into desire, and when he had asked her out for coffee, saying yes had been easy. It was not long after that that they had started sleeping together. “I’ll send Vaughan a picture of the bust so he can cross-check it against any pictures he has on file,” she said. “His department’s public information officer is arranging a news release. If we can publicize her face, we might get an identification.” “Good.” “Ms. McDonald has called my office several times,” she said. “I haven’t taken her call, but her voicemail messages make it very clear she wants access to the case.

Kind of a finder’s fee.” “She’ll get the news along with everyone else.” His mouth bunched in curiosity as he regarded the still face. “I understand the apartment building where the skull was found is a half mile from I95.” The north-south interstate’s twelve hundred miles of roadway ran through a dozen states and was a main artery for running drugs and weapons and human trafficking. “Correct. Jane Doe could be from anywhere.” Ramsey stood back from the bust, folding his arms over his chest. “Her face is familiar.” Zoe looked again at the bust.

“You’ve seen her before?” He leaned forward, his eyes narrowing. “Ever had a name on the tip of your tongue, but you couldn’t quite grasp it?” Instead of pressing him for the name, she took a different tactic. “You’ve worked hundreds of cases.” His gaze cut back to Zoe. “Yes. And I’ve seen the faces of a thousand victims.” “Given she was in the basement for up to twenty years, you could have been a new agent when you saw her.” “Early 2000s.” “Remember, she’d have been a girl of means and likely missed when she vanished.” He flexed his fingers and then suddenly straightened, snapping his fingers.

“I can’t believe I didn’t see it right away. This is Marsha Prince.” “Prince?” Zoe said. “Why is that name familiar?” “She was a rising sophomore at Georgetown University and was in Alexandria working in her father’s business. She was days away from returning to school in August 2001 when she vanished.” Tumblers clicked into place, and the memory unlocked. The case had been profiled at the academy. “She was living at home with her parents, who lived in Alexandria. She literally vanished, and the cops never figured out what happened to her.” “That’s the one,” Ramsey said.

There had been search crews scouring the region. Cadaver dogs had canvassed the parks, fields, and riverbeds, dry from drought that summer. As Zoe studied the face, more fragments of the forgotten case slid together into a cohesive picture. Young, blond, smart. With the world before Marsha Prince, her disappearance had set off a firestorm that had rippled through all levels of law enforcement, local politics, and television news shows. Her name had been kept alive for a few years until finally time had cast Marsha into the sea of lost souls. “Should we notify her family that we may have found her?” Zoe asked. “Mom and Dad are both deceased,” he said. “She does have a sister, Hadley Prince, but last I heard, she’d moved away.” “Without DNA, we’ll need a visual identification from family.

” “Turn it over to Detective Vaughan. The ball’s in his court now.” I rocked the finals! This is going to be an epic summer. Marsha Prince, May 2001

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