Tess Volker’s nose wrinkled as the smell of old skin and adult diapers permeated her world. Another day of work at Juniper Grove Extended Care Facility, tending to the needs of the elderly and waiting for the right time to strike.
What a bunch of disgusting old farts.
“Tess, dear?” The wavering voice came from a desiccated old lady in a wheelchair. “I’ve dropped my quilt. Could you get it for me? My legs are cold.”
Tess grabbed the tattered cloth from the floor and pasted a stupid, cheery grin on her face. Behind the smile, her teeth gritted hard enough to make her jaws ache. Stupid bitch, it’s not like you’ve felt anything below the waist in decades.
Tucking it around the woman’s boney appendages, she said, “There now, dear. Is that better?”
The woman’s bony hand reached out and patted at Tess’ arm. It took everything Tess had not to flinch away. The liver spots alone were making her skin crawl. The chipped cherry red nail polish grossed her out, too.
“You always take such good care of me,” the old lady said, a fine mist of spittle accompanying her every word.
Oh, I’ll take good care of you. You wait and see.
“Then again, that’s your job.” The woman tittered like a schoolgirl. “You’d walk away in a heartbeat if they weren’t paying you, wouldn’t you, dear?”
If you only knew.
“It’s more than a job, sweetie.” Tess’ grin widened but didn’t quite warm her inside. Only one thing could do that, and this wasn’t the time. Even if it was the place. “It’s a calling.”
“Tess?” A wrinkled, old fart across the common room wiggled his fingers to get her attention. “Can you push me closer to the television? I can’t see to read the clues on Jeopardy!”
She rolled her eyes. Every day Mr. Harpton asked to be rolled next to the window. Then he wanted to be by the door. Then wanted to be closer to the TV. It’s not like he actually cares where we park him. Dirty old man only ever has one thing on his mind..
As she leaned to remove the parking brake on his chair, one gnarled hand reached up and groped her ass. Every damn day. “Mr. Harpton? We agreed you wouldn’t do that, didn’t we?”
He laughed at her and gave her a jaunty wink, like she was someone he could’ve picked up in a bar or something. As if.
A dark-skinned man slouched into the room and winked at her. He could’ve been a bum living under a bridge, but someone was paying his way at Juniper. Why they couldn’t dress him better and make him look presentable was gross enough. Until he presented her with his toothless grin, which took gross to a whole new level. One look at the pink orifice rimmed with shiny, wet gums made Tess remember why she no longer ate lunch before she went to her second shift job. Any food on her stomach would end up all over these slobs.
I can’t take this anymore. Tonight. One of them has to go tonight.
“Young lady! Young lady! I demand you get over here, now!”
Her teeth ground together until she was certain this time she’d break a molar. “What can I do for you today, Mrs. Brown?”
“I need my medicine. You were supposed to bring me my medicine an hour ago.”
“I brought your pills to you.” As if you’d remember, you raging bitch.
“You most certainly did not!”
“I brought them and watched while you took them. And then we made a little mark on your calendar. Remember?” She reached past the senile bat to the date book. “See? Right there?”
The woman grabbed the soft flesh under Tess’ arm in a chunk and pinched hard. “You marked that there when I wasn’t looking so I wouldn’t get my meds. You want me to die, don’t you?”
If you only knew. “No, ma’am. I want you to live to see your great-grandchildren’s grandchildren. Wouldn’t that be lovely?” She grinned again. The time was right for Mrs. Brown to go visiting but her ancestors, not her progeny. And it would be lovely.
Every day Tess Volker came to work, pasted on a smile and did the job they paid her twelve-fifty an hour for. She hadn’t lied when she said it was her calling. Only it wasn’t paychecks calling to her since she’d found this job three years ago. Not like the paychecks at her first job in a nursing home had called to her twenty years before. She’d needed those. These paychecks were a part of the damn job, sure, but not a part she cared too much about.
Tess had other means of support. This work paid her in other ways.
She realized a long time ago how much additional satisfaction she could receive from her occupation. A faked checkmark like the one in Mrs. Brown’s book amounted to a little payback. But those little things weren’t nearly enough to cover the bill of what Tess had suffered through. And when Mrs. Brown’s eyes grew dull and glassy, when they plugged her brittle bag of bones into a dirt hole, it wouldn’t begin to reduce the balance of hate.
After lights-out, Tess would make sure Mrs. Brown got the meds she’d been withholding, along with some of Mr. Harpton’s heart medication. And perhaps a few other meds, too. Lord knew she had stashed a sufficient amount of stolen pharmaceuticals from every patient to kill off one old bitch without making it look suspicious.
And she’d get away with the next one as easily as this one. As easily as the ones before.
She gave Mrs. Brown her best fake smile and went on about her work. All she had to do was wait a little longer for another morsel of delicious payback.
Agent Ned Washington walked out of the staff meeting at the Detroit branch of the Serial Crimes Investigation Unit trying desperately not to shake his head. Dealing with his supervisor, Rick Jensen, and the man’s overwhelming obsession had been hard enough over the past couple months. Director Graham sending this new gal into the mix could only make it worse. And, to make matters crappier, she was someone who’d turned pasty-gray at the idea of dealing with the kind of cases their boss was fixated on at the time.
Ned was glad he was beating feet out of Detroit to deal with this assignment in Toledo. Whether he would have any backup from the S.C.I.U.—either at his assigned branch or from the headquarters in Dallas—was anyone’s guess.
Hell, he didn’t have much more to go on with this Toledo case than Rick did with the whole suspected serial rapist thing. But Ned had a gut feeling the detective down there was correct. Too many people were dying of ‘natural causes’ for it to be natural, even if they had all been old. The local higher-ups in the police department hadn’t wanted to deal with one detective’s mission, so they’d used the label of ‘serial murder’ and shunted it up to the feds. Where it landed on his desk.
Sure, one local cop down there gave a shit. From what he’d heard, she had tried her damnedest to hang onto the case, keep it local and win herself the collar. He couldn’t blame her. She had done some major legwork. She’d compiled at least a baker’s dozen worth of deaths that fit the M.O. If there was an M.O. to fit.
Old people. Thirteen old people at three separate assisted-living facilities. All dead. But old people died all the time. The coroner down there had listed the causes as natural in every case but one. And that one had been reported as ‘undetermined’.
Outside his cubicle, he caught Rick ushering the new girl into an office. Any other agent would be pissed as hell. Ned didn’t care because he didn’t actually give a shit about office politics. He didn’t need an actual room with a door to do his job. He had a computer and a flat space to put it on. He had a chair that suited his ass for the long periods of time it spent there pouring over data. In the parking lot sat a government-owned sedan where he did the majority of his real work. Today, the car would carry him south into Ohio. He wouldn’t see his cubicle again for however long it took to wrap up this case.
Ned thought about his houseplants and sent a quick email to the one neighbor he trusted with a key, asking the guy to water things while he was out of town. If he came back to a jungle of dead, brown things, he’d make a run to the home improvement place and buy more. Thank goodness he’d never succumbed to the need to adopt a pet.
Going through a mental checklist, he prepped his workspace for an extended absence. The laptop went into its bag. He glanced toward the reception desk. The lady who sat there was nice enough but not the most competent or efficient person. He opted to do an end-around on her. His voicemail message would instruct everyone not to leave a message, but to instead call his cell phone. If she screwed that up, he’d deal with it then. Most of his contacts already had his cell on speed dial anyway.
A glance toward the back told him Rick was ensconced in the new girl’s office. What was her name? Buckman… Buchanan… She seemed on the ball, and he sent her mental good wishes. Whether she figured out what their boss’s major maladjustment was in time to save her own ass was out of his hands.
Nodding to the few others in the office, Ned made his way outside without another word. They had their jobs to do. He had his. It wasn’t like they were going to miss him at the nightly after-hours dinner thing. Even when he was in town, he didn’t bother. Socializing with the other agents wasn’t his thing. Hell, socializing with anyone wasn’t really his thing. Work was his thing, and he couldn’t wait to get back to it. Sitting around holding Rick’s hand through this potential serial rapist thing had worn pretty thin.
Truth be told, the whole idea made him nauseous. Give me a cold-hearted killer any day and twice on Sundays.
Other than the thoughts swirling in Ned’s brain, the drive to Toledo was uneventful. Crossing into Ohio wasn’t that big a deal. Like crossing into Canada had been in the old days. Now, a man needed a passport to go a half-hour east. With a soft chuckle to himself, he wondered when the country would stoop to such a level they’d need border guards between the states. The way things were looking, Ned didn’t think the bizarre idea was as far off as people liked to think.
The idea had his mind wandering toward other far-fetched things, like the conversation he’d had with his father the day he declared he’d be entering service to the government as a Federal agent. The day he’d forgotten that his hopes and dreams weren’t exactly in keeping with his old man’s.
“No son of mine is going to work for the man.”
He shook his head. Dad hadn’t exactly been part of the militant movement. He hadn’t joined the Black Panthers, but he’d supported them with his words and his ideas. Maybe even with his money—when Dad had extra money to throw around. Ned had another path in mind, and lucky for him, his grandmother had raised him to think for himself. Even when his thoughts and hers were headed in different directions.
Too bad Gran hadn’t been around to see him fulfill his dreams. Of course, Dad disowned him. His Mom? She hadn’t been happy, but she also hadn’t been quite as final.
“If this is what you really want for yourself, Neddy, then I support you.” Her words then had filled him with hope. But that had been twenty years ago. He’d been fresh out of high school and on his way to college on a football scholarship. Football had been the means to his end. He played hard enough to stay on the team and keep his scholarship, but his heart hadn’t been in it. When he graduated cum laude with a degree in Criminal Justice, his mother had seen the path of gold laid before him by offers from the NFL. He’d seen it all as pyrite and applied to Quantico.
“And that has made all the difference,” he said aloud, winking at himself in the rearview mirror.
The trip down I-75 south from Detroit didn’t take more than a couple hours, thanks to midday traffic. He couldn’t imagine what the snarl would be like at rush hour. He’d deal with it if and when the time came. Using the map in his head, he located police headquarters in Toledo easily enough. If only finding Detective Britney Matthews had come off as cleanly.
“She’s out of the office at the moment. If you leave your name and number, I’ll let her know you stopped by.”
Ned had already given his name and his reason for being there. Maybe the guy hadn’t been listening. He pulled out his credentials and laid them on the counter in front of the uniformed officer. “Agent Ned Washington. Serial Crimes Investigation Unit. She knows I’m coming.”
The guy blinked twice. He gazed at the ID and back at Ned. “Yes, sir. I’m sorry, sir. A lot of nuts around these days. Have to be extra—”
“I understand. If you could let Matthews know I’m here?”
Within minutes, a tall blonde strode into the foyer. He tried not to let the surprise show on his face, but he figured he failed when her first words came flying out.
“What’s your major maladjustment?” She practically barked the question, and he hadn’t even introduced himself yet.
“Who wants to know?”
Taking a deep breath, he tried to center himself before her abrasiveness rubbed him raw. “Agent Washington.”
“Ah, the fed. I bet you were expecting a female version of Barney Miller or some shit.”
“Yeah, yeah. I know. I don’t look like I belong in Homicide.” She cocked her hip to one side and stared at him like he wasn’t actually there, as though she was seeing a parade of stereotypical assholes instead. “So, I’m blonde, my name is Britney, and I’m built like a brick shithouse. You got a problem with that? I did my time. I spent five years in Vice pretending to be a hooker because someone higher up thought I was a dead ringer for a hooker. I think I’m more useful here, but a lot of people have other ideas. You’re not going to be one of them, I hope.”
Ned raised his hands in surrender as her verbal waterfall washed over him and threatened to sweep him out the door. This chick had a chip on her shoulder and the big bowl of dip to match. “You’ll have no problems with me unless you got me all the way down here for nothing.”
Her eyes narrowed. “That’s what the others think, and why they bumped this up to you instead of letting me handle it.”
The uniform at the desk stared off into space, but Ned knew the guy was mentally recording everything they said. Grist for the rumor mill he did not want to be. Holding his hand out, he ushered the both of them deeper into the station and hopefully, away from prying ears. Once they’d stepped into the hall beyond the door, he addressed her previous assertion the only way he knew how. “Let’s go over what you’ve got and let me be the judge of whether this is nothing. Deal?”
“Sorry. It’s just...” She reddened and then dropped her hands to her sides.
“You feel like you have something to prove? I get that. Tell you what, you hold off on judging me, and I’ll hold off on judging you until all the evidence is in.” He smiled, but the line between her eyebrows deepened and the hands she’d lowered clenched into fists.
“I don’t need you to tell me how to do my job.”
Great. A pissing contest in the first ten minutes. He opened his mouth to tell her off but a calmer part of his head prevailed. He nodded and once again encouraged her deeper into the station. She took the hint this time and took the lead deeper into the station.
When they reached a conference room, he could tell she’d been preparing for his arrival. Boxes of files were stacked against the walls. A whiteboard was covered in neatly marked areas of individual information. Papers were painstakingly arranged on the table, each with multi-colored tabs and highlighted in a rainbow of fluorescent ink.
“For a gal who doesn’t want me here, you sure laid out the welcome mat.”
“This isn’t for you. It’s for me, so I can get it all straight in my head.”
If that’s what she needed to tell herself, he was fine with it. Whatever made this interaction smoother. If this was the serial case she thought it was, then they needed to find some common ground so they could work together.
“Show me what you’ve got.”
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