Quinn & Costa Thrillers Book #1
February 4, 2020
The Third to Die
An edgy female police detective…
An ambitious FBI special agent…
Together they are at the heart of the ticking clock investigation for a psychopathic serial killer. The bond they forge in this crucible sets the stage for high stakes suspense.
Detective Kara Quinn, on leave from the LAPD, is on an early morning jog in her hometown of Liberty Lake when she comes upon the body of a young nurse. The manner of death shows a pattern of highly controlled rage.
Meanwhile in D.C., FBI special agent Mathias Costa is staffing his newly minted Mobile Response Team. Word reaches Matt that the Liberty Lake murder fits the profile of the compulsive Triple Killer. It will be the first case for the MRT. This time they have a chance to stop this zealous if elusive killer before he strikes again. But only if they can figure out who he is and where he is hiding before he disappears for another three years. The stakes are higher than ever before because if they fail, one of their own will be next…
Wednesday, March 3
Liberty Lake, Washington
Warm blood covered him.
His arms, up to his elbows, were slick with it. His clothing splattered with it. The knife—the blade that had taken his retribution—hung in his gloved hand by his side.
It was good. Very good.
He was almost done.
The killer stared at the blackness in front of him, his mind as silent and dark as the night. The water lapped gently at the banks of the lake. A faint swish swish swish as it rolled up and back, up and back, in the lightest of breezes.
He breathed in cold air; he exhaled steam.
As the sounds and chill penetrated his subconscious, he moved into action. Staying here with the body would be foolish, even in the middle of the night.
He placed the knife carefully on a waist-high boulder, then removed his clothes. Jacket. Sweater. Undershirt. He stuffed them into a plastic bag. Took off his shoes. Socks. Pants. Boxers. Added them to the bag. He stood naked except for his gloves.
He tied the top of the plastic, then picked up the knife again and stabbed the bag multiple times. With strength that belied his lean frame, he threw the knife into the water. He couldn’t see where it fell; he barely heard the plunk.
Then he placed the bag in the lake and pushed it under, holding it beneath the surface to let the frigid water seep in. When the bag was saturated, he pulled it out and spun himself around as if he were throwing a shot put. He let go and the bag flew, hitting the water with a loud splash.
Even if the police found it—which he doubted they would—the water would destroy any evidence. He’d bought the clothes and shoes, even his underwear, at a discount store in another city, at another time. He’d never worn them before tonight.
Though he didn’t want DNA evidence in the system, it didn’t scare him if the police found something. He didn’t have a record. He’d killed before, many times, and not one person had spoken to him. He was smart—smarter than the cops, and certainly smarter than the victims he’d carefully selected.
Still, he must be cautious. Meticulous. Being smart meant that he couldn’t assume anything. What did his old man use to say?
Assume makes an ass out of you and me…
The killer scowled. He wasn’t doing any of this for his old man, though his father would get the retribution he deserved. He was doing this for himself. His own retribution. He was this close to finishing the elaborate plan he’d conceived years ago. He could scarcely wait until six days from now, March 9, when his revenge would be complete.
He was saving the guiltiest of them for last.
Still, he hoped his old man would be pleased. Hadn’t he done what his father was too weak to do? Righted the many wrongs that had been done to them. How many times had the old man said these people should suffer? How many times had his father told him these people were fools?
“The system is fucked! It’s us versus them, kid. They think they know it all. They think they have all the answers. They take everything I have and leave me with shit.”
Yet his father just let it happen and did nothing about it! Nothing! Because he was weak. He was weak and pathetic and cruel.
Breathe. Focus. All in good time.
All in good time.
The killer took another, smaller plastic bag from his backpack. He removed his wet gloves, put them inside, added a good-sized rock, tied the bag, then threw it into the lake.
Still naked, he shivered in the cold, still air. He wasn’t done.
Do it quick.
He walked into the lake, the water colder than ice. Still, he took several steps forward, his feet sinking into the rough muck at the bottom. When his knees were submersed, he did a shallow dive. His chest scraped a rock, but he was too numb to feel pain. He broke through the surface with a loud scream. He couldn’t breathe; he couldn’t think. His heart pounded in his chest, aching from the icy water.
But he was alive. He was fucking alive!
He went under once more, rubbed his hands briskly over his arms and face in case any blood remained. He would take a hot shower when he returned home, use soap and a towel to remove anything the lake left behind. But for now, this would do.
Twenty seconds in the water was almost too long. He bolted out, coughed, his body shaking so hard he could scarcely think. But he had planned everything well and operated on autopilot.
He pulled a towel from his backpack and dried off as best he could. Stepped into new sweatpants, sweatshirt, and shoes. Pulled on a new pair of gloves. There might be blood on the ATV, but it wasn’t his blood, so he wasn’t concerned.
He took a moment to stare back at the dark, still lake. Then he took one final look at the body splayed faceup. He felt nothing, because she was nothing. Unimportant. Simply a small pawn in a much bigger game. A pawn easily sacrificed.
He hoped his old man would be proud of his work, but he would probably just criticize his son’s process. He’d complain about how he did the job, then open another bottle of booze.
He hoped his father was burning in hell.
He jumped on the ATV and rode into the night.
Los Angeles Police Detective Kara Quinn was technically on vacation. Technically, because she was being paid. She hadn’t come up here to Liberty Lake willingly. But the only reason she hadn’t thrown a complete fit with her boss was because she had been wanting to check in on her grandmother anyway. Emily Dorsey had been sick over Christmas and unable to visit Kara in Santa Monica as she’d done every year since Kara moved from Liberty Lake to California. So the mandatory vacation—otherwise known as paid administrative leave—was a good excuse to come up to Washington and visit.
But that didn’t mean Kara was going to sleep in or watch television half the day.
She didn’t relax well; she needed something to do. Anything.
The cold morning air burned in her lungs as she ran along the familiar eight-mile Liberty Lake Trail. She’d already run the loop her second day here, worked out at a gym in nearby Spokane the next day, and was taking the trail again this morning. She much preferred to exercise outdoors than in a gym, no matter how cold it was.
A February storm a few weeks earlier had left behind two feet of snow that was now a slushy mess. While there would likely be at least one more good snowfall before spring officially arrived, right now Kara took advantage of the unseasonably warm weather—if anyone could call the expected fifty-eight degree high warm. She was surprised that she didn’t hate the cold as much as she thought she would after living in L.A. for the last twelve years. In fact, she found it refreshing. Of course, anything was better than ten degrees in the middle of January, as it had been when she left this place for good at the age of eighteen with a GED in her pocket and the hope of being a cop in her heart.
Eight miles was a good run for Kara. Longer than the five miles she regularly trekked. She liked to push herself. If she didn’t challenge herself, who would?
She stopped at the four-mile marker, drank half her water bottle, and stretched. The morning sun glistened off the water, refreshing and calming. When she first arrived on the trail, a low layer of thin fog had covered the ground, but as the sun rose, the fog evaporated. She almost wished it hadn’t—she loved running in the mist, where she couldn’t see the rest of the world around her, where she felt like she was wrapped in a damp blanket, the only person on the planet. She’d commented about that feeling once to a long-ago boyfriend, and he said he thought it would get lonely. She just smiled and let him think he was right, but truth be told, she liked solitude.
People, mostly, sucked.
The fog would return. March in the Pacific Northwest? Oh yeah. She’d see rain and fog and more snow before she left—if her boss held her to the two weeks he’d ordered her to take. She’d already been laying the groundwork for an early return, but she couldn’t ask her sergeant for at least a week. That gave her three more days here to suck up her punishment before plotting her return. Maybe she could sneak back early to L.A. and grab a case before Lex even knew she was in town. He probably expected as much, so what would be the harm?
It’s administrative leave, Kara, not a vacation. You lost it with a suspect.
Lex’s voice bounced in her head. She wished she could make it shut up.
The snow that had built up along the banks was nearly melted, except in the shadows the sun couldn’t touch. No one else was running this early. Liberty Lake was a tourist town during the summer when the population more than doubled, but in March? Only the local yokels. One of the benefits of living in the middle of effing nowhere was that she didn’t have to see anyone if she didn’t want to. She loved Los Angeles, but she didn’t like all the hordes of people. Fortunately everyone in L.A. tended to ignore everyone else. She took comfort in that—unlike going to high school in Liberty Lake where everyone knew everyone else’s business.
She wasn’t naturally a people person, though she could be if she had to. She could be anyone she needed to be. That was her job.
Her grandma wanted her to move back to Liberty Lake permanently. If Kara was going to do anything for anyone, it would be for Em.
“Spokane isn’t far. They need detectives in Spokane. The nice policeman who didn’t arrest you when you vandalized that car in high school? Remember him? His mom—Bridget, I think. Yes, Bridget Maddox. She’s always asking about you, says her son talks about you from time to time.”
Such was the life here—where no one forgot anything. She’d slashed the tires and dented up the car of a bastard who’d drugged and raped Kara’s one real friend. People forgot about that, because, you know, no fucking proof of rape. But no one forgot what she did to the rapist’s damn car.
Of course Kara remembered Brian Maddox. He’d been a cop in Liberty Lake at the time. He’d stopped her from doing something more stupid than vandalism, taught her more about right and wrong, crime and punishment, than her parents ever had. He hadn’t wanted her to drop out of high school, but when she was eighteen, she had had enough. She got her GED, and he then suggested she test for the police academy.
“I’m transferring to Spokane. More opportunities. They could use a cop like you. You have great instincts, Kara, especially for a kid. The sky’s the limit with a little training and experience.”
It was because of Maddox that she became a cop, that she hadn’t followed in her parents’ criminal footsteps. She’d been so angry as a teenager—angry at everyone, including herself. Mostly, she recognized now, her anger stemmed from feeling she had no control over her life. That the luck of the draw or a cosmic joke had given her two of the craziest, stupidest parents who had ever procreated.
No way she’d move back now to this seven-thousand-person town after living more than a decade in a city of millions where she cherished her anonymity. It wasn’t like Liberty Lake—or even the larger neighboring Spokane—was really home to her; she hadn’t had a real home growing up, not until her mother dumped her at her grandmother’s house when Kara was fifteen.
“Just for a few months, baby, until we get back on our feet.”
Right. Kara knew it was a lie the minute her mother opened her mouth. As if her mother—or any of her asshole boyfriends she ran with when she wasn’t with Kara’s father—could actually do anything productive with their lives. Now the only time Kara heard from either of her parents was when one of them needed something—money, a place to crash, bail. Losers. Both of them. Every time one of them walked into her life, shit happened. She had enough shit in her job, which she actually liked, that she had no desire to deal with anyone else’s shit.
But for all intents and purposes, Washington’s Liberty Lake was Kara’s hometown. She loved her grandma Em in all her weirdness. At least Em had given her a home base. Still, as soon as her boss cleared her, Kara was going back to L.A. The longer she was away from her job, the more nervous and jittery she got.
What did that say about her? She was an undercover cop—all she did was play the part of anyone except herself. She preferred it. Who was she anyway? She’d much rather be another person and forget the two who’d spawned her.
Kara started to run again, but the break had tired her out more than rejuvenated her. All those damn memories that coming home had stirred up. She should go back to the gym and beat on one of the dummies. That always brightened her mood.
She was only a few minutes past the marker when she saw deep tire impressions in the mud off the path heading toward the lake. Riding ATVs was a blast—she’d loved it as a teenager. But why go toward the lake? It was usually too rocky and thick with vegetation to maneuver effectively.
Something bright in the direction of the tire treads caught her eye. Neon? Maybe the ATV driver lost control and crashed.
Her cop instincts took over before she consciously thought about it. She stopped, assessed her surroundings. No one was around. The ATV tracks had come from the left of the trail, over the path, and then down toward the lake.
“Hey! Is anyone down there? Anyone hurt?”
Her voice echoed, but there was no answer.
She walked parallel to the tracks, hands free where she could grab her gun if needed.
Yeah, she was weird—she ran with a gun in a fanny pack. Better safe than dead was her motto. It was probably nothing, but something was down by the lake, and neon was a favorite color of bikers and hikers, especially in rural areas where you didn’t want to get mistaken for a deer during hunting season.
She hadn’t heard anything but nature’s sounds since she arrived at the lake for her run—no trucks or ATVs or snowmobiles, so these tracks were likely more than an hour old. But they were relatively fresh, the peaks of the melting snow still sharp. That told her the sun hadn’t hit the tracks, so they were made after sunset last night.
The tracks led almost directly to what Kara had thought was a neon vest. But as she got closer she realized it was much smaller—a bright pink stethoscope. A stethoscope that was wrapped around the neck of a dead woman dressed in green scrubs.
The woman lay faceup, eyes open and glassy, on the rocky ground near the water’s edge. Her stomach had been flayed, and blood soaked into the damp earth beneath her. Her face was so pale, so young, so lifeless, that Kara hesitated. A shiver ran through her body before she locked down her emotions and focused on the crime scene. She realized she’d drawn her gun. She hadn’t consciously remembered, but seeing a dead body did that to a cop—muscle memory took over. Murder victim equals murderer; he might still be around.
She stood silently and assessed the surroundings. Making sure the killer wasn’t somewhere, watching her. She heard nothing except birds happily chirping even as this woman lay dead. Everything else was still. Not even a breeze to rustle the leaves or stir the water. More blood was on the ground to her right, opposite the ATV tracks. How did she come to notice it? How had she picked up on its subtlety?
It’s your instinct. You’re a cop.
But she was more than a cop. She was also a con artist. And being a con artist meant you had to read every person, every situation, every landscape perfectly.
She looked back at the dead woman. From the visible injuries, blood, and lack of bruising around the neck, she was likely exsanguinated. A nurse, by the look of her clothing, as if the stethoscope wasn’t the giveaway. Probably too young to be a doctor.
Too young to be dead.
Kara walked back the way she’d come, retracing her footprints to avoid further contamination of the crime scene, until she reached a spot on the trail where she had a cell signal. She called 911.
“This is LAPD Detective Kara Quinn. I’m about a quarter mile past the four-mile marker on Liberty Lake Trail. I have a DB, adult white female. You’ll want to call in Spokane’s crime scene unit. She’s been murdered, and it ain’t pretty.”
FBI Special Agent in Charge Mathias Costa hated sitting at a desk and itched to get out in the field, but he had a team to fill. He’d been stuck in the DC headquarters since the New Year, when the new Mobile Response Team was officially approved and budgeted, and he and his boss, Assistant Director Tony Greer, could start interviewing agents and requesting transfers.
The MRT was Tony Greer’s brainchild, but Matt immediately understood the value of the unit when Tony tapped him to run it. Many areas of the country were underserved by law enforcement, either because of limited forensic capabilities or lack of trained investigators. Several FBI jurisdictions covered hundreds of thousands of square miles—two field offices covered three states each.
Besides himself, the only full-time hire who’d already started working for the team was Ryder Kim, the team analyst. The kid was smart, fast, and didn’t seem to have the animosity toward bureaucracy that Matt had. Ryder knocked on Matt’s open door.
“Assistant Director Greer needs you in his office immediately, sir.”
Ryder’s only problem was formality. Matt had plucked him right out of Quantico. The kid had served three years in the military out of high school, studied criminal justice at SUNY Albany on the GI bill, then spent fourteen weeks in the advanced analyst program at the FBI Academy. He was fucking brilliant, and Matt enjoyed grabbing him out from under three other offices who’d wanted him.
Matt took the stairs up two flights to Tony’s much nicer digs—which included not one but three windows. His secretary motioned him to go right in.
“The Triple Killer is back,” Tony said.
Serial killer. Contrary to popular television, there weren’t many out there. Depending on which report or analysis you read, the figure was anywhere from fifty to two thousand. Matt leaned toward the smaller number, but there was compelling evidence that hundreds were operating completely under the radar.
“The sicko who murders three random victims—including two cops—three days apart, every three years?”
“That’s him. And each of his cycles have started on the third of March.”
“That’s today. We were looped in fast.”
“At the beginning of this year, the Behavioral Science Unit sent out a memo reminding all law enforcement agencies what to look for in a Triple Killer crime scene.” Tony handed Matt a slip of paper. “From a Detective Andy Knolls—the only detective in Liberty Lake, Washington.”
“Never heard of the place.”
“Town of seven thousand outside of Spokane—which itself is not a major metro center. Served by a small Resident Agency under our Seattle field office.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“It’s your first MRT case, Matt. I have you and Ryder booked on the last flight out to Spokane tonight—you’re gaining three hours, so you should be able to hit the ground running in the morning. I asked Ryder to print out the complete case files on the previous murders, but they are bare bones—two different states, bodies found at various stages of decomp. But we did a preliminary profile on the case three years ago.” Tony paused, and Matt knew what was coming next. “Catherine wrote it.”
Dr. Catherine Jones was arguably the most brilliant profiler the FBI had currently working for them. She was one of Matt’s closest friends—at least, she had been until last summer. Still, there was no one else Matt would rather have working with him on a complex case like the Triple Killer.
“That’s terrific,” he said.
“She’s not coming back, Matt. You know that,” Tony said.
“For this case she will.”
“She’s been on leave for eight months.”
“Six months of that was a suspension, which was bullshit, and you know it.” Matt glanced at his watch. It was five-ten. “I’ll get her back. What time does the plane leave?”
“Nine-forty. Brief layover in Chicago.”
“I’ll pack a bag and stop at her condo on my way to Reagan. I can bring her onto my team, right? That hasn’t changed, has it?”
“Of course not, but she doesn’t want the position. I talked to her twice in the last month, and she is not budging.”
Tony continued as if Matt hadn’t spoken. “Catherine recommended a new profiler, a Dean Callahan. He has solid references—before Quantico he worked in—”
Matt cut him off. “I want Catherine.”
Tony threw his hands in the air. “Good luck.”
“She wrote the profile on the Triple Killer—she’ll want to be involved. You and I both know that.”
Tony nodded his agreement. “So you’re going to guilt her into it?”
“If that’s what it takes.” Matt had known Catherine since their time in the academy. They’d become good friends over the years, to the point that he’d been an usher in her wedding and had become best friends with her husband. Matt understood her better than she knew herself, and he wasn’t going to let her sit this case out. Not when she’d written the original profile.
“I suppose if anyone can convince her, it’s you—but tread carefully. Catherine has been through hell and back. I don’t have to tell you that.”
No, he certainly didn’t. Matt opened the door to leave, then turned and said, “If this guy kills three people every three years, how much time do we have?”
“Six days total.”
“Two and a half to his next strike. He’ll attempt to kill again on March 6 and then again on March 9 if his pattern holds.”
“So we have less than three days to stop him.”
“Good luck with that—based on his profile, he has his second victim—and likely his third—already selected. He stalks them, knows their habits, when to grab them without anyone seeing. Seven dead and no witnesses, no DNA, no suspects. Once you’re out there, you’ll have less than forty-eight hours before another body drops.”
“I’m not willing to accept that we’re going to lose someone else,” Matt said. “Like you said, we have forty-eight hours and more information about him now than we did in the last two killing sprees. The local cops are already on it, plus we have my new team.”
Tony shrugged. “Read the files. We have shit on this guy, even with the murder today. An MO and a rough profile. You’re going to have to make some fast hiring decisions. Right now, besides Ryder, you’ve only approved Michael Harris out of Detroit—I’ll expedite his transfer. And we have Jim Esteban from Dallas ready to come on board.”
“The cop who ran the Dallas crime lab?” Esteban was both a sworn officer and a crime scene investigator—many jurisdictions required at least one member of their forensics team to be a law enforcement officer.
Tony nodded. “He might see something in the forensic reports that others have missed. I’ll have Ryder send him everything we have before he leaves, and Esteban can get started before he gets to Spokane.”
“What’s up with the candidates I put on your desk this morning?” Tony asked.
Matt sat back down, realizing he couldn’t avoid this conversation. “No, no, and absolutely not.”
“We need this team staffed, Matt. I don’t like sending you out West with only three people besides yourself—two of whom aren’t going to be there for more than twenty-four hours.”
“I’m not bringing in just anyone.”
“I thought the kid out of Sacramento would be a good fit.”
“Can we talk about this after we stop the Triple Killer?”
Tony sighed and rubbed his eyes. “I have a few more files to go through—I’ll send them through Ryder after I vet them.”
Matt stood again. “I’ll call you after I talk to Catherine.”
“If she’ll let you in.”
“I’ll break down her damn door if she doesn’t.”