- Published: 5 January 2021
- ISBN: 9781787461796
- Imprint: Arrow
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 368
- RRP: $19.99
It's her first case. It could be her last.
Forensic Media Analysis Report
Case agent: William Keats, ASAC, FBI Field Office, Boston, MA
Evidence marker #43BX992
Media: iPhone 11, serial 0D45-34RR-8901-TS26, registered to victim, Gwen Petty
Recovered file: Unknown source mixed-media electronic message transcript. Source investigation pending.
I want to touch you. Your face, your skin, your thighs, your eyes. I want to feel you shiver as my hands explore every part of you.
I want to hear you. Your voice, whispering my name. Your breath in my ear. Your soft moan as I give you everything you want, and so much more.
I want to taste you. Your lips. Your kisses. Your beautiful flower, opening to my touch, my mouth, my tongue.
I want to take in the scent of you. I want to smell the perfume of your hair. The musk of your desire, bringing us closer, always closer.
More than anything, Gwen, I want to see you. Face to face. Body to body. I could pour my heart out with words forever, but words will never be enough.
It’s time we finally met, don’t you think?
Please say yes.
THEY TOLD ME ahead of time to prepare myself for the dead bodies. But nobody told me how.
When I pulled up outside of 95 Geary Lane in Lincoln, all I knew was that a family of five had been killed and that I was supposed to report to Agent Keats for further instruction. Talk about jumping into the deep end, but hey, this was exactly the kind of assignment I’d been jonesing for. On paper, anyway. Real life, as it turns out, is a little more complicated than that.
“Can I help you?” a cop at the tape line on the sidewalk asked.
“I’m Angela Hoot,” I said.
“Good for you,” he said.
“Oh.” I’d forgotten to show him my new temporary credential. I held it up. “I’m with the FBI,” I said.
I could hardly believe the words coming out of my mouth. Me? With the FBI? Not something I ever saw coming, that was for sure. I certainly didn’t look the part, and I didn’t feel like I belonged there for a second.
Neither could the cop, apparently. He eyeballed me twice, once before he even looked at the ID, and once after. But that seemed to take care of it. He handed back my card, gave me an if-you-say-so kind of shrug, and lifted up the yellow tape to let me into the crime scene.
“Watch out for the smell,” he said. “It’s pretty bad in there.”
“Smell?” I said.
It hit me on the porch steps, before I was even through the front door. I’d never been anywhere near a dead body, much less smelled one, but what else could that acrid nastiness be? A gag reflex pulsed in my throat. I switched to mouth breathing and fought the urge to run back to my safe little cubicle in Boston.
What was I doing here? I was a computer jockey, not some CSI wannabe.
Up until two hours ago, I’d been a lowly honors intern at the Bureau field office, focusing on cyberforensics. Clearly, I was here to look at some kind of digital evidence, but knowing that didn’t make it any less bizarre to walk into my first real crime scene.
The house was almost painfully ordinary, considering what I knew had gone down here just a few hours earlier. The living room was mostly empty. I saw all the expected furniture, the art on the walls, the fan of cooking magazines on a glass coffee table. Nothing at all looked out of place.
Most of the action was centered around the kitchen straight ahead. I’d noticed police officers stationed outside the house, but inside, it was all FBI. I saw blue ERT polo shirts for the Evidence Response Team, techs in white coveralls, and a handful of agents in business attire. Voices mingled in the air while I tried to get my bearings.
“No signs of a struggle,” someone said. “We’ve got some scuff marks here on the sill, and over by the table . . .”
“Looks like the back door was the point of entry. Must have shot this poor guy right through the window.”
They all sounded like they were discussing the score of last night’s game, not a multiple homicide. It just added another dreamlike layer to the whole thing.
The lights were off in the kitchen, and one of the techs was using some kind of black light to illuminate spatters on the linoleum floor. It was blood, I realized, fluorescing in the dark. I could just make out a half empty glass of milk on the table, and a sheet-covered body on the floor, next to a tipped-over chair.
I was still standing in the doorway, silent until one of the bunny-suited techs brushed against me on his way out. I started to speak and had to clear my throat and try again, just to get the words out.
“Excuse me. I’m looking for Agent Keats?” I said to him. Even then, my voice sounded so small, so unlike me. I wasn’t used to feeling this way, and I didn’t like it one bit.
“Sorry, don’t know who that is,” the guy said, and kept moving. Somehow, I’d expected for everything to make sense here, and that I would know what to do as I went along. Instead, I was left standing there with a growing sense that I’d been dropped off in the wrong nightmare.
“Hoot, up here!” I heard, and turned to see one of my supervisors, Billy Keats, at the top of the stairs. Thank God.
He hurried down to meet me. “You ready for this?” he said, handing me a pair of latex gloves matching the ones he was already wearing. I put them on. His demeanor was all business, and his face was grim.
“I’m okay,” I said.
“You don’t look it.”
“I’m okay,” I repeated, as much for myself as for him. If I said it enough, maybe it would come true. And maybe my stomach would stop folding in on itself, over and over, the way it had been doing since I’d arrived. “Where do you need me?”
“This way.” He led me up the carpeted stairs, briefing as we went. “We’ve got one of the victims’ cell phones in a Faraday bag. They’re just clearing the body now.”
The body. Some person who had been alive yesterday, now just “the body.”
But that other phrase—Faraday bag—was like a piece of driftwood, something I could latch on to in the middle of all this unfamiliarity. At least I knew what I was supposed to do with that. A Faraday bag blocks out any digital signals and preserves the device in question exactly as it was found until it can be forensically examined.
“Eventually, I’m going to want you to cover every machine in the house, but this phone is going to be your primary concern.”
We passed two open bedroom doors along the upstairs hall. I told myself to keep my eyes straight ahead, but they didn’t obey the impulse. Instead, I stole a glance into each room as we passed.
Through the first door, I saw something truly horrendous. A woman lay on her back on the king-size bed, eyes wide-open, with a small but unmistakable dark hole in her forehead. A halo of blood stained the pale-blue pillowcase under her hair. Outside of the few family wakes I’d been to, this was the first corpse I’d ever laid eyes on. The sight of it seemed to jump right into my long-term memory. No way I’d ever forget that moment, I knew right away.
As awful as that tiny moment had already been, it was the bunk beds in the next room that really split my heart down the middle. Each bunk held a covered body, draped with a white sheet. On the lower bunk, I could see one small hand sticking out, spiderwebbed with dark lines of dried blood, which had also pooled on the rug.
Jesus. This just got worse as it went along. The tightness from my stomach crawled up into my chest. I didn’t want to throw up anymore: now I wanted to cry. These poor, poor people.
“Hoot? We’re in here.” I looked over to see Keats already standing outside the last door on the hall. He stepped back to make way for two EMTs rolling out a gurney with a black zippered body bag on top. Beyond them, I could see what looked like a teenage girl’s room, with a floral comforter and an LSHS Warriors banner.
As I came closer and got a full look, one thing jumped out at me right away. I didn’t see any blood. Not like with the others.
“What’s her name?” I asked Keats, looking back at the gurney as they moved it down the hall. Somehow, I needed to know who she was.
“Gwen Petty,” Keats said. “Mother Elaine, father Royce, and twin brothers Jake and Michael. But if anyone in this family had information we can use, it’s going to be this girl.”
I only nodded. There were no words. Or maybe there were too many, racing around inside my head. It was hard to know anything right now.
“Come on, then,” Keats said. “Let’s get you to work.”
I WASN’T PRESENT at the courthouse in Erva, Alabama, on that morning in June, when events unfolded that would suck me into the undertow of Douglas County.
The forest had a particular scent to it, a dewy moistness off the Columbia River mixed with Douglas fir, ponderosa pine, red cedar, hemlock, and maple.
A board a Night Stalkers Special Operations MH-60M Black Hawk helicopter code-named Spear One, Navy chief Nick Zeppos of SEAL Team Six checks his watch.
LIGHTS, CAMERA, action. This could mean everything to Latham. It could be his ticket out.
CINDY THOMAS FOLLOWED Robert Barnett’s assistant down the long corridor at the law firm of Barnett and Associates in Washington, DC.
I CHECKED THE street in both directions in front of an upscale coffee house called Flat Bread and Butter on Amsterdam Avenue near 140th Street. The street was about as quiet as New York City gets.
IT TOOK BOBBY a week to decide where to park. It had to be close to the wedding, but not too close.
DEVON MONROE TORE HIS EYES off the two dead bodies in the powder-blue Bentley convertible, top down, idling not twenty yards away, and glanced at his best friend.