The first thing that registered was the sound of someone humming. She awakened to near darkness; there was just enough light for her to identify dirt overhead, disturbingly close. A surge of dizzying adrenaline swept through her, adding to her disorientation. Jesus God. Am I buried alive?
She got her answer when strong hands clamped around her wrists and dragged her, her arms over her head. The surface beneath her was rough, and as she was pulled along, a few feet at a time, dirt insinuated itself into the back waistband of her jeans. Instinctively, she tried to dig in her heels to stop the forward momentum, but her legs were leaden and wouldn't obey. The humming stopped briefly, punctuated by a heavy grunt of exertion.
Where was she, and how did she get here? Who was humming? All she was certain of was her inability to fight back. Her heart was beating so fast it was almost suffocating.
With all her energy and willpower, she craned her head upward to try to see who had her by the wrists. But the light was too dim and her mind and vision too blurred. The mere effort was exhausting, and once again, darkness enveloped her.
She wasn't sure how much time elapsed, but when she reawakened, there it was again-the humming, a tune she vaguely recognized. She wasn't moving any more, and she was lying on something hard and cold. Panic tried to reassert itself, so she took a deep, calming breath and immediately wished she hadn't. Her lungs burned from a horrible smell she identified as chemicals and mold. A strong, harsh light blinded her when she forced her eyes open in the direction of the humming. The rest of the room was dark, but when her pupils eventually adjusted, she saw him and it all came roaring back. He was turned away from her, his focus on the syringe in his upraised hand. The humming stopped.
"You're going to be my best work yet," he said without turning around.
His words and the certain knowledge of his intentions energized her. She struggled to sit up, but soon realized her legs and hands were bound and she was tied to a smooth steel table.
"I promise you, this won't hurt," her captor calmly continued. "Not if you cooperate."
She wanted to scream for help but knew it would be futile. From the looks of this place, it was unlikely anyone would hear. They had to be underground, for the walls, ceiling, and floor were made of dirt and there were no windows. One entrance lay straight ahead. It wasn't a door, just a mere hole carved into one of the walls, not large enough to stand upright. To her left was another, similar hole, though smaller, and next to it, a sink and counter. A round table with a single wooden chair occupied one corner.
Then she saw them. Hanging on the wall to the right of the main entrance were faces. Two of them. Grotesque masks of once beautiful young women.
Women like her. She stared at them in horror and swallowed hard against the sudden cramping nausea that knotted her insides. "Perfect, aren't they?" he asked.
She looked back in his direction. Facing her now, he moved slowly toward her. She thrashed desperately against her restraints like a wild beast caught in a snare, the cords digging deep into her wrists and ankles. Her bindings held her fast, but she kept struggling to free herself, the pounding of her heart so loud in her ears it was deafening.
He stopped when he was within reach, his face obscured by the brutally bright lamp overhead. Humming again, he waited patiently until her strained muscles gave up and she collapsed back against the table. There was no point in asking him why she was there, or in trying to plead with him to let her go. She knew what he wanted, and that no amount of bargaining could change his mind. She needed to stall, although she had no idea what for. A few minutes of delay would not alter her predicament. Did she really think she could somehow talk him out of his twisted nature?
They say that when you're about to die, your whole life flashes before your eyes. It wasn't true. Not for her, anyway. Only one face flashed before her eyes, and her mind seized on the memory of their precious short time together. Could it be that this one person was her whole life? The realization made her heartsick.
He was humming again, and the name of the tune popped into her head. "Dream a Little Dream of Me."
"You're beautiful," her captor whispered as he raised the syringe to the lamp. "And soon, your beauty will be mine."
The Wiener Konzerthaus was not the most outwardly impressive venue of the Philadelphia Symphony's Fall European Tour. The orchestra already had played at the stunning Art Nouveau Municipal House in Prague and at the Palau de la Música Catalana in Barcelona, with its richly decorated façade and arched concert-hall walls of stained glass. But few cities could match Vienna's rich historical embrace of the arts, and the 1,840 seats of the Großer Saal were filled to capacity with an appreciative and discerning audience of classical music enthusiasts.
During the extensive applause that preceded their last piece, Vivaldi's lively La tempesta di mare, Cassady Monroe glanced up to admire the ornately gilded oval dome that roofed the stage while the second violinist who shared her stand readied their sheet music.
As silence returned to the massive concert hall and the conductor raised his baton, she tucked her Jenny Bailly violin beneath her chin and held her breath. She'd been playing since the age of six, and at the tender age of twenty-five had already performed with more than a dozen symphonic orchestras, but she never lost that thrill of exhilaration that preceded the execution of a particularly challenging piece.
When the concertmaster-the leader of the first violin section-rose to take his solo, she allowed herself a brief moment to imagine herself there in his place. She'd been offered the esteemed position, and the conductor had been astounded at her polite but firm rejection of the honor without explanation. But she could afford neither the visibility of serving as first chair nor the responsibility it entailed of attending every performance and rehearsal. And so she remained in the more anonymous second section as a freelance artist, where she had the flexibility she needed to accept engagements that didn't interfere with her other work.
She glanced at her right hand, poised with the bow, about to create beauty, and not for the first time wondered how it could so easily adapt, with equal skill, to butcher with a blade.
When the concert ended, the orchestra rose and departed the stage to the sound of lingering acclaim. Soon after she arrived at the artists' dressing room backstage, there was a knock on the door.
"Delivery for Fraulein Monroe."
When she opened the door, the young man on the other side presented her with a bouquet of red roses. The attached card read simply, You were wonderful. It wasn't the first time she'd gotten flowers from her secret admirer, and she had her suspicions about who'd sent them. But she knew her gruff boss would never admit to any such show of sentimentality.
Cassady retrieved her coat, purse, and case and headed out, declining invitations from some of the other musicians for a late dinner or drinks. The orchestra was a generally social group, especially when on tour, but she always avoided situations where questions might arise about her background, her family, or her life outside the stage. Though she had practiced answers to any such inquiries, she was by nature a reclusive individual, preferring her own company. And nighttime was her favorite time to prowl alone, curiously scoping out unfamiliar territory.
Now and then she would satisfy earthier needs by picking up a stranger for an evening of fun. No matter the city, her looks attracted women both gay and straight, and she never had a problem arranging such an encounter. But those primal desires were quiet tonight, and the idea never even entered her mind.
She'd return to the hotel only long enough to change from her formal black dress and heels into jeans, sneakers, a V-neck sweater and leather jacket. Temperatures were in the forties, but she didn't mind the cold the way most people did. Winter's chill invigorated her and drove others indoors and off the streets, and that was fine with her.
The audience had dispersed by the time she was ready to depart the Konzerthaus. She was alone in a hallway leading from backstage to one of the exits when her cell phone rang. She checked the caller ID and frowned. "Lynx 121668," she answered. "Can it wait a day? I have one more performance tomorrow."
"Family emergency. Not an option," the familiar voice on the other end said. "Your return flight is tonight at twenty-three hundred." The line went dead.
Damn it. Cassady hated that she couldn't finish the tour. Performing in a concert hall, regardless of the country, always gave her a sense of fulfillment and belonging. She was good-hell, she was a great violinist. And being able to share her talent with people just as appreciative and passionate about music gave her a high that so far nothing could compare to.
Passion was something she brought to everything she enjoyed. And it was for that reason that her irritation over being summoned home didn't last long.
As much as she wanted to show a broad audience how talented Cassady Monroe was with a violin, she also longed to prove to the few who knew her best what she was capable of as Lynx. It was a code name that fit, for she had much in common with her feline namesake: solitary, curious, and agile. An exceptional tracker and patient hunter.
The Elite Operatives Organization had always treated her well and had given her the opportunity to pursue a future and dream that apparently her biological family never cared to.
Sacrifices came with the life that had been chosen for her, and she knew that some operatives had a hard time giving up a normal life for the sake of the institution. But so far, life had treated her generously and she was willing to give her best to show her appreciation.
What do you have planned for me this time? So far, she had only done some minor jobs, and assisted on big ones. She still had a lot to prove to her teachers and to the EOO in general. But she knew without a doubt, just as she had when she picked up a knife for the first time, that she would hit her target.
Perhaps this call was her big break-the important solo assignment that would give her the chance to show them how capable and ready she was.
Sonoran Desert, Arizona
Eleven days earlier
"Did you hear that?" Judy Ellroy glared at her boyfriend Doug. Their portable radio had just interrupted the weekly top forty playlist with a special weather bulletin warning of an approaching storm with gale-force winds. The teenagers and two friends had been hiking for more than an hour. Their jeep was miles behind them and the sky was already darkening. It was Doug who'd talked them into this isolated camping adventure amidst Saguaro cactus and tumbleweed, extolling the awesome sunsets and brilliant night sky.
"We all heard it," Doug replied evenly. They made a handsome couple, he the Cougars' fair-haired football star and she the school's prettiest cheerleader, with long, dark hair. But it wasn't worth this kind of grief. He vowed then and there to dump her when they got back, preferably by texting her. "This time it wasn't just the voices in your head."
"Bite me. I told you this was a bad idea." She took off one of her sneakers to empty it of sand. "We could've so been sitting poolside in Vegas right now, but no, you had to-"
"Christ, do you think you can stop bitching for at least three minutes?"
"We should look for a place to take cover." Tom, the team's redheaded quarterback, protectively put his arm around his girlfriend Mary. "These things usually blow over pretty fast."
"Where, genius?" Judy shouted at him. "In case you hadn't noticed, we're in the middle of nowhere. We need to turn back."
"I'm with you, Judy," Mary agreed. Cheerleaders always stuck together. "The wind's already started to pick up."
"Too late. Look." Doug pointed west. Not more than a mile away, the sand had already started to spin into one of the desert's infamous "dirt devils"-mini tornados that blocked the sun and drove sand and dust into eyes, ears, and mouths. "Holy fuck, it's coming our way."
Judy scowled at the approaching whirlwind. "Oh, great. There goes my hair."
Tom picked up his backpack. "Can it, Judy. Everyone grab your gear." He gestured toward a small cluster of boulders nearby.
"Our best bet is behind those rocks. Move."
They huddled together, spitting sand and covering their faces as best as they could. Debris from the desert floor pelted them mercilessly, but finally the sandstorm passed and everything grew quiet again.
"Ouch." Judy rubbed her head as she got to her feet. "Am I the only one that got beat up? What the hell was that hitting us?" Tom and Mary ignored her and stood as well to dust themselves off. Doug began to do the same, but stayed on his knees when he spotted something mostly hidden in the sand. Curious, he reached for it. "What theâ€¦?" It was a human arm, complete from shoulder to fingertips-female, and mostly decomposed. He stood up and stumbled backwards as his stomach churned.
Almost at the same moment, Judy shrieked and they all turned to look.
She was surrounded by arms, legs, skulls, and other body parts in various stages of decay.
Two days later
"Any news from the lab?" FBI Special Agent Paul Ripley asked fellow agent Nick Bianconi. The latter was hunched over a computer in the Violent Crimes Division of the Phoenix FBI field office.
"At least another day, maybe more," Bianconi replied. "They're pushing the results, but the samples weren't prime quality."
"We can't keep a lid on this forever," Ripley groused, running his hand impatiently over his newly shorn gray crew cut. "We need an ID before it hits the media circus." Ripley, an ex-Marine with sharply chiseled features, had been leading the investigation into the Headhunter murders since the first cases ten years earlier. When news of the Sonoran bodies reached Quantico, he was on the first plane out of Washington.
Bianconi, an agent with a slight paunch and trimmed black goatee, was assigned to assist.
The feds had sealed off the desert sixty miles to the northwest where the bodies were found, and were still gathering and processing evidence from the scene. So far, they'd uncovered one recent victim, with her regio facialis-or face region-carefully removed, and bits of skin under her fingernails. The skeletal remains of at least twenty others were also being analyzed.
Ripley had imposed a strict gag order on all information related to the case at both the FBI station and at the Wickenburg Police Department, which was first to respond to the 911 call from the teenagers who'd stumbled on the remains. The Headhunter had finally resurfaced, and Ripley wasn't about to let the bastard get wind of the discovery and move his grisly practice to yet another remote location.
One of the forensic specialists working the case appeared in the doorway. "Get in here. You have to see this."
Ripley and Bianconi followed him to the outer office, where several agents were gathered around a television. A news reporter was interviewing a pretty high school girl with dark hair drawn into a high ponytail.
"I was like, so scared. The bones were, like, everywhere." The caption beneath her image read: Judy Ellroy/Witness.
"God damn it." Ripley slammed his fist onto the desk in front of him. "Telling teenagers to keep their mouths shut is like asking my wife not to burn dinner."
Chino Valley, Arizona
Humming contentedly to himself, Walter Owens dipped his fine camelhair brush into the red paint and laboriously edged the lips. His early efforts had not been satisfying, but with practice, his skills had improved. The last few masks were almost perfect, the coloring, shape, and lines flawlessly deceptive. From a distance, they appeared real.
Except for his small work light, the basement was dark. There were no windows, and the doorway to the upstairs was shut. Though the air reeked of the formaldehyde and other chemicals he used, he'd grown so accustomed to the stench he rarely paid it notice, except on those infrequent occasions where it triggered a headache. Displayed around him on the concrete-block walls were his masterpieces, carefully arranged chronologically.
He'd come a long way, he told himself, since the day he discovered the power of masks. How they could give him a sense of power and security. When his real face was obscured, he felt brave and confident, able to command the fear and respect he was due but which always had eluded him. He smiled, remembering his first masks as a child. His favorites had been a handsome, blond Flash Gordon Halloween mask and a Phantom of the Opera half-mask he'd made himself out of papier-mÃ¢chÃ©. He'd always identified with the Phantom because he too was shunned because of his disfigurement.
When he got older he had to get rid of the childish masks, replace them with something more real, more perfect-and therefore more powerful. It became an obsession. He'd stayed in his room every moment he wasn't in school and thought up ways to make it happen. When he had the information and inspiration he needed, the only other thing missing was money, and the answer came to him the night of his high-school graduation, when his father had said, "Soon you'll want to leave home, son, but your mother and I want to help any way we can."
Walter put his brush down and held up his latest face, needing only a final coat of preservative to make it complete.
The local ABC affiliate's noon newscast blared from his portable television. Midway into the first block, he froze when he heard the words bodies in the Sonoran desert near Wickenburg. On the screen, a dark-haired teenager was relaying how she and her friends found themselves surrounded by skeletons and decaying body parts while on a camping trip.
"And there was this arm," the girl said. "I mean, like, fresh, you know? I could see the nail polish and everything. Totally gross. Mary puked."
The reporter recapped how the teenagers had called 911 and Wickenburg police had responded. "Despite repeated inquiries to the Wickenburg police chief and mayor's office, authorities are refusing comment. A source inside law enforcement, however, has confirmed that DNA samples from the scene are being analyzed."
Walter rose and slipped off his mask of the day. One of his favorites, it was painted to match his natural skin tone and the lips were stretched into what he considered a playful yet enigmatic smile. It no longer matched his mood, so he replaced it with an earlier creation, one depicting a grim and determined expression.
He'd been certain he'd picked the ideal site this time. The desert sun and scavengers were effective accomplices in disposing of his discards. And he thought the odds were infinitesimal of someone stumbling upon his resting place, out in the middle of a hundred thousand square miles of sand and scrub. But he was more annoyed than unduly concerned about the discovery.
After his misfortune in North Carolina, he'd been even more meticulous not to leave evidence behind or put himself in the position where he might in any way be linked to the 'givers' who provided him with his masks. He had little fear that police might focus on him in their investigation.
Walter turned off the TV and work light and headed upstairs, going over in his mind all the tasks that needed to be accomplished to obliterate any traces of his artistic endeavors.
The desert would be watched now. It was time to move again.
Special Agent Nick Bianconi nodded and grinned at Ripley as he jotted down the information from the lab. "Got a match on the suspect's DNA," he confirmed, enthusiasm in his voice as he hung up the phone and Ripley hurried to his side. "Strange, though. The hit was with a sample in the Forensics Index, done by a lab in Iowa."
"Forensics? You sure?" Ripley had expected that if they were lucky enough to get a match on the first DNA the Headhunter had left behind, it would be with a sample on the Convicted Offender or Arrestee Indexes, not from the one that contained samples gathered at crime scenes.
"Like I said, strange."
"Call the lab and get the name of the PD that submitted the sample," Ripley instructed, "and have them fax the case file to us ASAP."
"I'm on it."
An hour later, Ripley was poring over the documents sent by the Pleasant Hill, Iowa, police department, with Bianconi looking over his shoulder.
"Walter Owens. Prime suspect in the 1995 arson murder of his parents. He was twenty at the time," Ripley recited. "Torched their house while they slept, but firefighters managed to save a couple of rooms and forensics was able to get his DNA. He disappeared right after-apparently he had power of attorney over the parents' accounts and drained them just before the fire."
"That would make him thirty-five now." Bianconi took a seat at a desk across from Ripley and began searching federal databases to see if Walter Owens had resurfaced under his own name somewhere.
"Five foot eleven, hundred and sixty pounds, black hair, dark brown eyes," Ripley continued to read. "Hey, here's something-he was badly burned in an accident when he was nine. There's a third-degree burn mark that begins at his left temple and extends to cover nearly the entire left side of his face. Deep purplish color, with pitted scars throughout. He also burned off his left eyebrow and eyelashes. Had some reconstructive surgery right after, but was considered permanently disfigured."
"It should be easy to recognize him, then, unless he's had additional work done more recently."
"Yeah, possible. There've been a lot of advances in burn reconstruction in twenty-six years. Let's get a plastic surgeon in here. See if our guy will still have anything distinctive to ID him by if he did." Ripley kept reading. "Teachers and neighbors interviewed by the police described Walter Owens as extremely bright but introverted. He bullied kids and killed a neighbor's cat. After his face was burned, he became even more solitary and worryingly detached. Parents sent him to a psychiatrist, but nothing changed."
A psychological profile of the Headhunter had been prepared by the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit a decade earlier. Ripley had it with him, and he compared it with the facts known about Walter Owens. Everything jived. The BSU had assessed that the Headhunter lived and killed in less populated areas not only because he wanted to avoid detection, but also because he probably had an aversion to crowds. The fact that Owens was scarred and had chosen a remote desert as his latest dumping ground, gave credence to that theory.
"Call BSU," he told Bianconi, "and have them update the Headhunter psych profile with all of this."
"Roger that. I'm having no luck finding him." Bianconi scratched his goatee. "Hasn't filed taxes, gotten a driver's license, been arrested. No work or death record with Social Security. Looks like he changed his name."
Ripley frowned, though the news was not unexpected. "Most recent picture of him was taken before he was burned." He studied the black-and-white school photo taken when Owens was eight. "I'll get Special Projects to age this and add the scars as described by these neighbor accounts so we have an idea what he looks like now." Rubbing his eyes, he prepared himself for the inevitable circus that was about to complicate his life even more. "God damn it."
"Looks like we don't have a choice." He glanced up at Bianconi. "I want his ugly mug posted everywhere. Every airport, train station, bus terminal, and border crossing. Every damn public toilet if we have to. And get it up to the Arizona Burn Center. See if anyone there recognizes him." The Burn Center, just three and a half miles from the FBI offices, was the premier burn treatment center for several southwestern states, and had outpatient programs and adult burn survivor support groups.
"And the media?"
"Call them. And I'll get in touch with Washington to see if we can up the reward. I'm not letting the bastard get away this time."