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Hunter stripped off his paper gown. The autopsy, at last, had come to an end. Dr. Carver left his assistant to close up the body, and he and Hunter headed for Carver’s office for a recap of the results.
“It didn’t appear that she was sexually assaulted before the murder,” Carver said, sitting behind his desk, “but she led a very active sexual life.”
“You think she was engaging in sex work,” Hunter said.
“I think it likely,” Carver said. “Again, her age was somewhere between twenty and twenty-four, tops. She must have been on the streets for a while as she was showing signs of malnutrition. As to the murder, yes, she was tied to that stake. She struggled fiercely. And it took more than one person to drive that spear into her heart. She was on the cross when it was done—that was obvious from the blood flow.” He hesitated and shrugged. “The slashes were done to her face before she was raised on the cross. That murder was carried out with great cruelty. She didn’t just die. She was tortured before she was killed.” He leaned back, shaking his head. “South Florida, especially the big cities on the east coast, has their share of violence. It’s mostly drug-related, domestic or even accidental when people become the victims of gunfire when they happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time—mostly stray bullets. I’ve been at this job for almost ten years now. Started in the lower ranks, of course. I’ve seen bodies in barrels, half-consumed by fire, stabbed, strangled and shot. But I’ve never seen anything so brutally carried out as this. Hunter, you’ve got to catch this guy.” He was silent a minute. “These people… As I said, the force needed took two people.”
“Two strong people, right?” Hunter asked.
“Yes—to lift and wield that spear. But that’s not just my knowledge as an ME. I’m going to say that it’s simple logic. It isn’t easy to pierce through bone and the human body like that. But that doesn’t mean both killers had to be male, though it’s likely.”
Hunter’s phone was buzzing in his pocket. Carver checked his, as well.
Amy had them both on her list for sending out messages from the hospital; they were receiving the same information at the same time.
And it was another text from Amy. Dr. just came out again; John remains stable. They’ll be moving him to intensive care. He doesn’t believe, at this point, that irreparable damage has been done. Still in the waiting room; hope to be let in soon.
He saw Carver was busy texting back even as he texted back himself.
Thank God. Keep us posted.
He saw Carver’s reply. Thank God. Keep us posted.
They looked at each other and grinned.
“Medically, we should be optimistic, right?” Hunter asked.
Carver nodded. “He had the good sense to have that heart attack with a medical doctor near. Yes, I’m a medical examiner but I went to med school to get that job, you know.”
“Right,” Hunter said, and smiled. “I’m glad you were there.”
“You don’t need to go over there yet,” Carver said. “They’ll let in one visitor at a time, when they do. Give it until tonight.”
“John was divorced, and his ex-wife passed away in a traffic accident around six years ago,” Hunter said. “But he has a son and a daughter. I’m sure Amy is contacting them now. Might take a bit for them to get here. His daughter is in Virginia and his son is up in Jacksonville. I know Amy isn’t going to want to leave until someone else has arrived to be with John.”
“He’s going to need to be in that hospital a few days, though— and then he’s going to need to get some rest and change some of his habits.”
Hunter shook his head. “Amy was just scolding him for eating pizza last night. He’s a good man, and we’re going to need him around a long time to come. I’ve known John to down a twenty-two-ounce steak. Yes, he will have to change a few of his ways.” Hunter stood. While he wanted to see John and assure himself that his friend and sometime-coworker was hanging in, he knew there was nothing he could do at the hospital.
“All right, I’m going to head back out to the murder site and interview a few of the locals.”
“Have a nice conversation with the cows,” Carver said.
“Yep, lots of cows. And a big enough population to support several different churches and a synagogue.”
“But the population just isn’t that big. You don’t think the murderers were looking for isolated places to carry out their barbarity?”
“I don’t have a theory yet. I have a body in Maclamara, which is a tiny place. And a body on a road through the beaten edge of the Everglades, although it’s hard to tell what natural topography is in many places now. Thing is, that road is barely used these days with the highways. Locals use it—easier access to point A and point B when they’re close enough to each other. But that’s the point—someone knew there was a good likelihood they could spend hours out there without being seen, and yet, eventually someone would come by. A display like that is meant to be seen.”
“You don’t mean the killers intend to be caught?”
“No,” Hunter said. “But they do mean for their murders to be a message.”
“And you think there will be more.”
He nodded grimly.
Carver rose to shake his hand. “I’m happy to help in any way at any time.”
“Great, and thanks again.” Hunter left the morgue behind. Carver had spoken for the dead.
Now he needed information from the living.
Amy had held John’s hand in the ambulance, but since he’d been rushed into emergency, she’d been relegated to sitting. And waiting.
A few other members of the FDLE had dropped in. They’d checked with her and moved on. It didn’t make sense for too many people to just sit.
She’d kept up with Dr. Carver and Hunter Forrest, had tons of coffee, paced and wasted a great deal of time with her head in a whirl. She’d contacted John’s children, though she had waited to be able to give them the good news that he was stable before she had done so.
She was still waiting.
Her phone rang. They would be taken off the case, she thought, seeing the number for Mickey Hampton, her immediate supervisor, on her caller ID.
John had been the experienced agent in their duo; Hampton was probably going to hand it over to another agent.
Hampton asked her first about John. She told him what she could.
“I have a feeling John will pull through fine,” Mickey told her. “When you’re comfortable, get back out to the murder site. I have orders from above that we’re to stay on this. When the kids get there to be with John—and you can think and act rationally, of course.”
“I’m…lead?” she asked.
“For a few hours at least,” he said dryly. “The same great voice that wants you on it has warned the lead investigation is going to be FBI. But this is still Florida, and he’ll be working with us. We had a recent meeting here in the office. Their tech and our tech will follow any digital leads, and you can call either with questions—or for help. Apparently, ownership of the swath of land she was found on is debatable—state or federal. Anyway, this is Florida. You’ll partner with that specialist fed.”
“Yes, sir. Do you…know this man? The FBI agent?”
“Only by reputation, but he has a great reputation and he’s worked with FDLE before. They say he’s a team player, so you should be fine. Stick with him.”
“Like glue.” “You’ll make a fine team.”
“Yes, sir,” she said again. There was nothing else to say.
When she finished the call, she found she was still waiting. She wished she had files; she wished she had a laptop or a tablet with her. She did, however, have her phone. And finally, she settled down enough to pull it out and explore what she could on the internet. She thought she’d read up on cults.
And it was terrifying.
Ugandan police had reported more than nine hundred people had recently committed suicide. Equal to or above the number dead from the People’s Temple, the followers of the charismatic Jim Jones in Jonestown. There had also been those who had died over several years related to the Solar Temple, those who had died following David Koresh of the Branch Davidians, and notable cults in Korea and Mexico that had brought about suicides—and possible murders.
Charles Manson’s followers, his “family,” had perpetrated horrendous murders.
She began reading about the horrors of Jonestown—how some had escaped before the end had begun. When Congressman Leo Ryan had visited, members had tried to leave with him. His truck was attacked, but he survived that attack and made it to the airport. He was then attacked by other members of the cult at the airport and shot and killed. Four others died and eleven were wounded.
Soon after, the murder/suicide began, with three hundred of those dead being under the age of seventeen.
Jones had gained his followers in several ways; he had convinced them he was a mind reader and a faith healer. He convinced people of color that if they weren’t under his protection, the government would round them up and put them in a concentration camp. He used blackmail and beatings to keep control. And he brought his “family” to Guyana, hoping to better leverage his position there.
“Special Agent Larson?”
Amy looked up. For a moment, she felt as if her heart stopped. At the very least, it skipped a beat. John’s doctor, looking weary, stood by her.
She almost dropped her phone as she stood to face him. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to frighten you. You may see John now. He’s resting, but conscious, and he’s doing well. We have him in the ICU, and we ask that you keep him restful and calm.” He directed her toward the correct room.
She walked quickly, stopping to use the intercom to gain entry, and then hurrying to the door. Large windows were open to the nursing station; if John was in distress, he would be seen.
That was assuring.
When she entered the room, she did so as quietly as possible. His color remained pale, but he appeared to be breathing easily.
Sleeping, she thought.
But as she paused by the door, he spoke to her.
“Get in here, kid.”
A swell of relief washed through her; his voice sounded surprisingly strong.
She strode to his bedside; he was ready to take her hand.
“How do you feel?” she asked him.
“Like I was hit by a triple-decker bus. But I’m lucky. I’m going to be good. And no more pizza. They have a dietician coming tomorrow, and by then my kids will be here, and with them being as obnoxious as you are…well, I’ll eat better in self-defense!”
She smiled and sat on the chair by his side, still holding his hand.
“What are you doing, sitting?” he asked her.
“I’m staying here.”
“You have a murder to solve. But I suppose Hunter is out there, and you wanted to come with me, and he insisted you did.”
“Maybe he was just trying to get rid of me,” Amy said.
John laughed at that, then stopped. Laughter seemed to cause him pain.
“Guess we can’t joke around for a while,” he said.
“Don’t laugh, but I’m not sure I was joking.”
John didn’t laugh; he did smile. “He’s a good man, kid. You’re going to do all right with him. And you’re going to have to do all right for the two of us.”
“We’ll be fine,” she assured him quickly.
“They’re going to have me on sick leave for some time, I imagine. That doesn’t mean I stop being an officer of the law. You make sure you keep me up on what’s going on.”
“Definitely. I’ll be in—”
“Don’t say you’ll be in here every day,” John said firmly. “You just keep me updated every few days. I’ll get a tablet in here—” “Your kids are not going to want you working. The department is not going to want you working. John, you had a heart attack—”
“Right. Not a brain attack. I can still use my eyes and deductive reasoning.”
“But you need to rest and be calm.”
He lowered his voice, though it was just the two of them in the room, as he said, “I can lie here and think while you two do the grunt and footwork. Amy, promise me—yes, I know, the department, everyone else, will want me just sleeping. I can’t do that, Amy. I’ll go nuts. Please, you want me to rest and relax? Then promise me that you’ll keep me in the loop.”
She nodded slowly. She knew John.
“All right,” she said softly.
“And give Hunter a chance.”
“I will, of course, just—”
“Good. You two will do all right together.”
“That’s it. Now, I’m tired,” he said. He closed his eyes, then slipped one open. “You’re still here? Get going—get out of here. Go to work.”
Amy sat stubbornly still.
He looked at her again.
She smiled. “Not to worry. My industrious FBI partner is out there doing his thing. He’ll report to me, and I’ll join him for our next step.” She leaned toward him. “Just as soon as one of your kids gets here.”
Detective Victor Mulberry met Hunter at a local coffee shop between several stretches of sugarcane, ranch land, cows, a small neighborhood and several houses of worship.
“How is Agent Schultz doing?” Mulberry asked him anxiously. Hunter was happy he could tell him John was stable, doing as well as could be expected, talking already, and the doctors believed he’d make a full recovery, along with lifestyle changes.
Mulberry was glad to hear it.
“I have Rabbi Goldstein—the mainstay of our Jewish community—on his way. Along with Father Brennan, of the Catholic church, Father Westin, Episcopalian, and Pastor Colby, Unitarian. Naturally they’re all horrified, and they’ve assured me their congregations couldn’t have had anything to do with the murder. So…”
He looked at Hunter warily, as if afraid Hunter would rip the men apart, determined they had to be involved.
Hunter smiled and shook his head. “They are holy men in their various houses of worship. People come to them. They know what’s going on with people, especially in a small community like this.”
“I’ll tell you, a Catholic priest will not break a vow regarding words he hears in the confessional,” Mulberry told him.
“I don’t want him to. Trust me, please,” Hunter said.
Mulberry nodded, then he turned slightly, looking toward the door.
Hunter had taken the seat facing the door; by habit, he never chose a chair from which he could not see the entrance of any establishment.
He didn’t need Victor Mulberry to tell him it was Rabbi Goldstein who had arrived first; the rabbi was wearing a prayer shawl and a yarmulke. He appeared to be a man in his forties, and he was quick to smile as he greeted a few of the other diners in the small coffee shop.
Hunter stood and Victor Mulberry did the same. They had the only large table in the little place, toward the back to the left, behind the counter.
But Rabbi Goldstein saw them and hurried to them, offering his hand as Victor introduced him to Hunter and Hunter said, “Thank you for your help, Rabbi Goldstein.”
“Call me Rabbi David. I always felt more comfortable with my given name.”
Hunter inclined his head.
“I’ll cut to the chase,” the rabbi said, taking a seat. “I love many of my colleagues. I’m sure Victor will tell you we all get together now and then and discuss ways to help the town so that it helps everyone. We’re a small community, very neighborly— strange when you think of the size of the cities and counties near us. But few people think of the middle of the state or cows when they think of Florida.”
“You’re right, sir,” Hunter said. “But I’m hoping you might have heard something. Had a stranger drop in, or maybe even lost a member of your synagogue to a different type of lifestyle.”
“No, I haven’t lost anyone. But while I haven’t heard or seen anything unusual, Pastor Colby thinks he might have something to tell you. I’ll let him explain. I only know his story secondhand.”
“Would you like coffee? Something to eat?” Hunter suggested.
Rabbi David Goldstein called to their waitress, a young woman he obviously knew.
But then it seemed everyone here knew everyone else here.
While she brought coffee—a carafe and more cups, the others might want coffee, too—the rabbi asked her about her family.
“Mom is doing better. The Parkinson’s medication is kicking in,” she said.
“I’m so happy to hear that,” he told her.
When she was gone, Hunter asked, “One of yours?”
“No. I just know the family. We are the epitome of a small town.”
Hunter smiled and then quickly stood. The other three men they were expecting were arriving.
Fathers Brennan and Westin, and Pastor Colby.
Brennan was an older man with neatly clipped graying hair and a handsome face, somewhat worn, and bright blue eyes. Westin was perhaps just about fifty, lean and balding, and Colby was the youngest of the group, forty or so, a man with a quick smile who moved with energy.
“Coffee on the table! Leave that to a cop,” Colby said, happily pouring a cup.
But Rabbi Goldman corrected him. “No, sir. Leave that to a rabbi!”
There was laughter.
“Thank you, Lord, for the rabbi,” Father Brennan said. But then he looked at Hunter and said, “I’m here, Special Agent Forrest, because we’re all ready and willing to help with this horrible situation. I’ve weighed my thoughts, as have the others. But I honestly can’t think of anyone in my congregation who could even conceive of such a brutal and vicious thing to do to anyone.”
“Nor can I,” Father Westin said, “but again, we’re here if you need to ask any questions, if we can think of anything.”
“I may have something,” Colby said gravely. “It wasn’t a situation that occurred with me, specifically, but with one of our younger ministers, a young woman named Karyl Vine. She was at the back of the church a few Sundays ago singing—we do a lot of singing, have a great group up at the altar—and she noted a girl in one of the pews who was singing her heart out, but who looked as if she was a bit down and out. She had a strange conversation with Pastor Vine about sin and redemption. I thought she had to be someone’s cousin, a relative…new to the area? But even though she stayed for coffee and donuts, talking, and Karyl invited her back and to groups, assuring her we were there to help at any time, she didn’t make another appearance.”
He hesitated and glanced at Father Westin.
Westin said, “He’s afraid she might have been the victim. Karyl got the feeling the young woman was running from something—or someone.”
“Can I speak with Pastor Karyl Vine?” Hunter asked.
“She went a few days ago to see her family in South Carolina, but I think she might be coming into church this afternoon. She was due back last night, and she always comes to choir practice, which starts at seven. I can find out if she’s there now, or when she will be there. I know Karyl is going to want to help as she’s our liaison for troubled youth—a very sweet and wonderful young lady.”
The others at the table nodded. “Very caring,” Rabbi David said.
“Can you call her?” Hunter asked.
He glanced at his own phone while Pastor Colby called Karyl to make sure she was back and find out if she was going to be at the church ahead of the choir practice. He had another text from Amy.
John is doing well. His daughter is arriving soon.
He hesitated. He could handle the rest alone. But he wasn’t the lead investigator on the case yet; John Schultz had been, officially, which now meant it was Amy Larson’s case.
He assured himself he was a team player.
She might be young, but she was intriguing. A determined agent, she seemed able to handle herself well. And then there were her sketches. He remembered watching her at the autopsy, thinking she was just right for law enforcement. The grotesque nature of the crime demanded empathy with the victim, without falling prey to an emotional reaction that could cause problems while questioning those who might help with the case.
He did need to give her a chance. He wondered what made him wary of her.
There was something about her—maybe the fact she seemed to like him just as much as she might like Florida mosquitos. Or because she thought this was her state—and he didn’t belong.
She didn’t know how much it was his state, as well.
He needed to pull her in. He put through a few calls to the field office, arranging for transportation for his “partner.”
Pastor Colby looked at him and gave him a thumbs-up sign, ending his call.
“Karyl is home. She heard about the woman who was found… murdered,” Colby said. “She’s afraid it’s the young lady she met, too, just because the girl was so distraught. She’s happy to do anything at all that will help.”
“We can meet her at your church?” Hunter asked.
Pastor Colby nodded. “An hour or so okay for you? The café here has good food.”
“I could eat,” Father Brennan said.
“It is dinnertime. Early dinner. But neither Father Brennan nor I are spring chickens anymore. Early is supposed to be dinnertime for the aged.”
“Dinner, it is,” Hunter said. “And you can tell me about your churches. And what you know, if anything, about ritual murders.”
The men looked at one another and then back at Hunter. Brennan cleared his throat. “None of our religions condone ritualistic murders.”
“No, of course not,” Hunter said. “But, Rabbi David, the punishments for certain sins are pretty harsh in the Old Testament, right?”
“Stoning to death for adultery,” Rabbi David said, “and various other infractions. But your victim was strung up on a cross. I didn’t get that from the news, and none of us intends to share specifics—Detective Mulberry told us she was up on a cross.”
Hunter glanced at Mulberry.
“I was asking for help,” Mulberry said.
“We would never share things like that,” Rabbi David assured him.
“We have to answer to a pretty high power, so we’re careful that way,” Father Westin said.
“I didn’t say a word,” Hunter muttered. “Still, in this case, I’m all ears when it comes to anything at all you can tell me about the various books of the Bible.”
“Old Testament,” Rabbi David said.
“New Testament,” Father Westin said, grimacing slightly at Father Brennan and Pastor Colby.
“What interests you?” Colby asked.
“The Apocalypse,” Hunter said.
“Well, you need to read—” Father Brennan began.
“I have read,” Hunter interrupted quietly. “What I’d love to hear is your interpretations. I mean, what do you think? Revelations 6:8. Is the rider of the pale horse Satan himself? Or, as some say, do you believe it might be Christ, and he has come to take us all home?”
For a moment, the rabbi, two priests and the pastor were silent.
Then the discussion began—lively and passionate, with even the rabbi putting in his opinion.
Hunter sat back and listened.
Brenda Schultz Nelson arrived about a half hour or so after Amy at last convinced John she wasn’t leaving until his daughter arrived.
Amy saw her moving through the ICU with such an anxious look on her face that she hopped up to meet her outside the door.
John was attached to all kinds of medical tubes and lines, and she wanted to assure Brenda her father was stable and coming along well.
She made it out and closed the door just in time, catching Brenda just feet away. Brenda, an attractive young woman with short-cropped dark hair and her father’s gray eyes, had obviously been crying as she’d anxiously made her way here.
She threw her arms around Amy, sobbing, “Oh, my God! He’s alive, right, he’s…he’s okay?”
“He was helped right away, Brenda, and yes, they say he’s going to be fine. He’ll need rest, here, and then at home. But—”
“He has to retire!”
“Brenda, I’m just going to suggest you’ll give him a second attack if you say that to him. You know how your dad loves his job,” Amy warned, and then hoped she hadn’t been offensive.
“I know, I know, but—”
“We’ll all look out for him. And don’t worry, the department is going to keep him behaving while he recuperates from all this.”
“Of course, of course. And I guess it’s not just his work. Dad hasn’t ever seen a hunk of fatty meat that didn’t have his name on it.”
“We’ll watch him, I promise, Brenda.”
Brenda seemed to stand a little straighter. She wiped her face and tried for a smile. “Right, I know. I know he loves you and you care for him. I mean, I think my dad believes he’s just about working with one of his own kids.” She managed a laugh. “That has to be hard at times.” She sighed softly. “So, he wasn’t running after anyone or anything?”
“We were in autopsy,” Amy told her.
“Well, that’s ironic.”
“It was lucky. Dr. Carver was there and knew what to do.”
“And you stayed with him. Thank you, Amy. I’m… I’m fine. My husband has the kids for the next few days. He took the time off. He wanted to be with me here, but I didn’t want the kids seeing their beloved grandpa like this, so…”
“I’m here if you need me. You dad is on the mend.”
“I’ll take over. You go and do what you need to do.” She hesitated. “The media is all over it. I know about the case you’re working on.”
“Of course. Sensationalism. I hope we’ve kept most of the details out of the press.”
“All I got from the media was she was found dead, and it appeared to have been a ritualistic killing. No other details.”
“Good. So, your dad is in and out of sleep. I know how happy he will be to see you and your brother, too.”
“Johnny Jr. is driving, and he will be here soon.” She stood very straight. “I don’t forget I’m a lawman’s daughter. I’ve got this. Go!”
Amy smiled. “All right.”
Brenda hugged her fiercely again, and Amy headed out of the ICU and down the stairs, only then remembering she didn’t have her car. She’d come with the ambulance after Hunter Forrest had driven them to autopsy.
As she debated the issue, her phone rang.
It was Hunter, right on cue.
“I’ve sent a car for you. John just called me on his daughter’s phone and said he kicked you out. An agent from our satellite office is picking you up and bringing you out here. Sending you a picture of the car and license plate. Special Agent Ryan Anders will be there any minute, outside the main door.”
Amy was startled and silent for a minute.
“You do want to come out on the investigation, right?” Hunter asked.
“Yes, of course, thank you. I’m outside the main door.”
“Good. This is an interesting little town. Nice people.”
Apparently, nice people could prove to be vicious killers.
They both knew that.
And they both knew to play the game.
“Where is he bringing me?”
“The Church of the People,” he said.
“The Church of the People?” she said suspiciously.
“A sect? Are they a cult?” He laughed softly. “No, not a cult—we’d have been all over that like fleas on an old dog. Unitarian.”
“But you think that—”
“No. I don’t believe any legitimate pastor, priest, rabbi, imam or leader of any recognized religion would sanction such a thing. But we may have found what I’m looking for—someone who passed through such a church, searching for redemption. Anyway, I’m heading there in a bit myself. I’ve just enjoyed a lovely meal with several men of various creeds, and I’ve met a pastor who may lead us somewhere. See you soon.”
Excerpted from Danger in Numbers by Heather Graham, Copyright © 2021 by Heather Graham Pozzessere Published by MIRA Books
Heather Graham is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of over two hundred novels, novellas, and short stories including suspense, paranormal, historical, mainstream, and Christmas family fare. She lives in Miami, Florida, her home, and an easy shot down to the Keys where she can indulge in her passion for diving. Travel, research, and ballroom dancing, and a love of reading—anything, fiction, non-fiction, cereal boxes when there’s nothing else—also help keep her sane; she is the mother of five, and resides with two dogs, and two cats and considers family and friends her greatest assets in life. She is CEO of Slush Pile Productions, a recording company and production house for various charity events. She has been honored with the Romance Writers of America Lifetime Achievement Award, a Thriller Writers Silver Bullet for charitable contributions, and in 2016, she received the prestigious Thriller Master Award. She is grateful every day of her life to be writing for a living.
Look her up at www.TheOriginalHeatherGraham.com.