(the Mindhunters series, Book 3)

(ISBN: 9781426895883)

Chapter One

Late July

Finally. Who would have thought an asshole with a broken moral compass would be working this late on a Friday? But then again, maybe the almighty Illinois State Senator Roy Beechum had unfinished business with his piece-on-the-side secretary before going home to his wife for the weekend.

From the floor of the backseat of the bastard’s Mercedes, Toxin could see—with only a slight movement of his head—both the side-view and rearview mirrors. In the latter, Beechum’s image finally appeared. He stepped off the elevator without so much as a glance at his surroundings. His attention was glued to the screen of his phone as he confidently made his way across the basement-level parking garage, his shiny shoes reflecting the dim yellow light. His steps echoed off the concrete walls.

The guy’s suit was tailored to an average-sized body kept in above-average shape. Toxin’s surveillance had revealed that Beechum worked out daily and was careful about what he put into his body. Hell, the senator took care of everything in his life—including this Mercedes with the vanilla-scented air freshener and the untouched leather backseat. He took care of every fucking little thing except defending the helpless constituents who needed him. Yet the majority of Chicagoans thought Beechum was John F. Kennedy reincarnated. There were even rumors of a future presidency in a decade or two.

The guy could be Superman and none of that would matter. Once Toxin’s little surprise hit Beechum’s bloodstream, his heart would stop beating within, oh, two and a half minutes. Kryptonite in the form of a lethal venom. No amount of healthy living could counter that.

Justice: one. Two-faced politicians: zero.

Besides, Beechum wasn’t the only one who’d been working out. In order to carry out his mission, Toxin had been strengthening his body and mind against weakness for months. A warrior had to prepare for anything.

Careful not to make any detectable movement, Toxin’s glance slid toward the side-view mirror as Beechum got close. Still clueless, the guy simultaneously texted someone with his right hand and pulled his keys out of his pants pocket with his left. Toxin’s quick glance to the rearview mirror showed the garage was still deserted, long ago emptied of cars that belonged to people eager to be home for the weekend.

A distracted target. A secluded, deserted location. Easy peasy lemon squeezy. This one’s for you, Josh.

Adrenaline flooded Toxin’s bunched muscles as he clutched the needle in his left hand. His black hooded windbreaker, carefully matched to the Mercedes’ black leather interior and tinted windows, would hide him until Beechum was too close to evade the attack. He ignored the pain in his legs, which burned and cramped from crouching behind the driver’s seat. Not much longer now. His breathing quickened and he reviewed the anger management tips he’d picked up in those mandated group therapy sessions, surrendering himself to a focused calm. Good to know those unbearable hours surrounded by miscreants had yielded something useful. Little did that chirpy do-gooder who taught the classes know the skills she’d bestowed upon him would be used to kill. The upshot was Toxin would find much relief for his anger in about twenty seconds.

Beechum stopped at the driver’s side and tucked his phone into the pocket of his pants, then shifted his keys to his other hand to unlock the door. Definitely right-handed, as previous observations had indicated. It was a useful tidbit of information when it came to withstanding any attempts by Beechum to deflect the attack.

Toxin wasn’t going to fail. He hadn’t before. He wouldn’t now. He was unstoppable because he was right and these other people were so, so wrong.

Beechum pulled open the door. The car’s equilibrium shifted slightly to the left and the leather creaked softly as he sat in the driver seat. Keys jangled. Before making a move, Toxin waited for the gentle scrape of metal indicating Beechum had inserted his key in the ignition.

Leaping into action, Toxin wrapped his right arm across the guy’s neck and shoulder from behind. He put his forearm against Beechum’s chin, forcing his head up and back into the headrest and silencing any attempt to scream or shout. Not that there’d be anyone to hear.

Beechum grunted and tried to open his mouth to bite, but with Toxin forcing his chin up, it was useless and ended in more grunts and groans. As expected, Beechum’s hands came up to Toxin’s arm, trying to dislodge it.

With his free hand, Toxin jabbed the needle into the exposed left side of the man’s neck. His thumb depressed the plunger. Beechum’s hands clawed, his manicured fingertips ineffective against the polyester windbreaker and gloves sheathing Toxin. The senator bucked in his seat, but Toxin held firm.

Right makes might.

He hummed a tune that would fill the final two and a half minutes of Beechum’s pathetic life.

“He’s supposed to be here by eight-thirty, after staying up late with friends?” Holt made his doubt and suspicion clear. He was having what his nine-year-old son Theo would have called an opposite day—if Theo had been where he was supposed to be this beautiful Saturday morning. Everything that was supposed to go smoothly was as lumpy as his mother’s oatmeal, starting with Holt showing up to pick his son up from his parents’ house, only to find they’d given Theo permission to sleep over at a friend’s house the night before. “Didn’t he know I’d be picking him up?”

His mother set down a bowl of steaming scrambled eggs next to a plate heaped with pancakes, freeing her hands to flutter about. “We asked him to be home by ten.” Anxiety was evident in the edge in her voice and her jerky movements, but Betty Patterson never let anyone see her sweat. His mother had an agenda—and it smelled suspiciously like an intervention. The expansive breakfast so artfully arranged on the table was the bait.

“Ten?” He could have gotten two more hours of case analysis done.

Betty’s gaze went to her plate. “We were hoping to talk to you. We never get a chance to sit down together. You’re always rushing this way or that.”

Holt’s father pushed his plate aside. “Oh, for God’s sake, Betty,” Ron muttered. “You’d think he was some stranger. Just tell him.”

Betty glared at Ron before turning a miserable look on Holt. “We’re worried. You’re not okay, and it’s time you admitted it and let us help you. It’s been nearly a year.”

Holt laid his fork down on his plate, leaving the rest of his pancake sitting there, soaking up a puddle of syrup. The sweet smell of maple was suddenly abhorrent, and his stomach clenched. His mother couldn’t seem to sit still. She rose and retrieved the coffeepot from its perch on the counter, then returned to the table and refilled everyone’s mugs. Just what Holt needed, more caffeine to amp up his racing pulse.

“And in the meantime, Theo is also suffering,” Betty continued. “More so, since it seems he’s lost his father too.”

Theo had lost a mother and Holt had lost a wife and a good friend. Yeah, the world was sometimes a shitty place. But Theo hadn’t lost his father. “I’m here for him.” Holt was unable to keep the defensiveness from his voice.

“On the weekends, yes. And on nights that you’re not working late, which isn’t all that often.”

“He knows I’m only a phone call away.”

“He knows nothing of the sort. In fact, he’s been acting out at school, trying to get your attention.”

“He’s nine. It’s normal for kids his age to engage in pranks.”

“And Theo is a bright boy who shouldn’t have to go to summer school, and yet that’s where he’s spending his time.”

Better there than with his father. Holt smashed the thought. At his elbow, his phone rang, jostling against the table where it sat. Relief flooded him until he realized the call must be from work. On a Saturday morning, that was never a good sign. It looked like today’s metaphorical oatmeal had formed another lump. He picked up the phone.

The lines that bracketed his mother’s mouth deepened. “Can’t that wait? We’re talking about your future, your son’s future. Sara is very concerned.”

Sara. The name set Holt’s teeth on edge even as a memory of warm, soft lips slipped past his defenses. He stuffed it away. “It’s work. I’ll just be a moment.”

He went out the sliding door onto the patio and took a deep breath of cool, summer-morning air. Freedom. He didn’t want to discuss his future. He was just starting to get his bearings in an Elizabeth-less world. His wife had been a bright light, a firecracker that added spark to the monotony. For the past few months, he’d finally been able to climb out of bed each morning without an anchor weighing his chest down. But flashes of the past and his failure to save Elizabeth sometimes left him curled into the fetal position. Was that what his parents wanted to hear? It wasn’t something he particularly wanted to share.

He answered the phone before it could go to voicemail. “Dr. Patterson.”

“Good morning, Holt. Your assistance has been requested.” Damian Manchester’s voice was deep and sure and rarely fluctuated. The man was all business, but he was damn good at that business. As one of Damian’s employees, Holt appreciated that.

“Where and when?”

“Here in Chicago. Now. The CPD found a body they believe is linked to two other murders over the past several months. They called us because the latest victim is high profile.”

Us was the Society for the Study of the Aberrant Mind, otherwise known as SSAM, a private organization that assisted law enforcement agencies in hunting repeat violent offenders. Another function of SSAM was to teach the public to both recognize danger and avoid it. Holt’s role as a profiler—a mindhunter who delved into the minds of the criminals they hunted—was more focused on detection than prevention.

“The victim?”

“Illinois State Senator Roy Beechum.”

“A politician?” Damn. It would be a particularly sticky case. Profiling potential suspects could be complicated by myriad interested parties with their own agendas.

“I’m sending you the details now. Head over to the scene ASAP. I want you to get the lay of the land while the coroner’s still there.”

Holt hung up and surveyed the backyard that was as familiar as his hand. Summer barbecues and winter snowmen. Growing up in the suburbs north of Chicago had given him a childhood blessed with all four seasons and oblivious to the dangers in the real world. His mother was a gardener and landscape designer, constantly surrounded by all things lovely. His father, who’d been a police officer with the Evanston Police Department for thirty-two years before retirement, had, one day when Holt was nine, sat him down and told him all about the dangers of the world. I should do the same thing with Theo. Holt’s throat tightened. Of course, the kid already knew about loss and grief.

“Holt?” His mother stepped out onto the patio. Her eyes brimmed with concern. “Is everything okay?”

His heart softened. He shouldn’t have been so hard on his parents. He’d probably given them good reason to worry that he was slipping into a depression. It had been a very real possibility for weeks after Elizabeth’s death, especially as it had followed many months of chemo and radiation. But he was getting his feet under him.

“Yeah.” He tucked his phone into his pocket. “Just got a new case.”

“We don’t mean to chase you away by talking about Theo’s future.”

“It’s just hard to think about the future, period. But I’m starting to. I promise.”

“We love having Theo here. You know that.” They’d set up the arrangement when Elizabeth’s health had taken a nosedive after the third round of chemo had failed. Theo stayed with Betty and Ron whenever Holt was working odd hours. Luckily, they didn’t live more than fifteen minutes from his place, or from Theo’s school.

“I know. And I miss seeing him more. I do,” he said when his mother continued looking at him with concern. “But my job is no place for a kid.” And what the hell did that say about his life choices? With Elizabeth around, it had been manageable. Sane. But the kind of hours—and cases—Holt worked weren’t optimal for raising his son alone.

His mother stepped forward and embraced him. Her lilac scent flooded him with memories of a secure, happy childhood. But the subtle jiggle in his pocket from his phone reminded him Damian’s email, with the details of the horror he would be facing today, had arrived in his inbox.

He squeezed his mother and stepped away, bending to brush her creamy cheek with a kiss. “I have to go. Duty calls.”

“We didn’t get to discuss Theo. Sara says—”

Holt stepped away and moved toward the house. “Sara doesn’t know everything.” When he’d first gotten to know Sara, she’d struck him as intelligent, thoughtful and funny. He’d sensed something special about her. He’d been wrong.

His mother inhaled sharply, then followed him inside as he retreated from the argument. “She’s excellent as the Academy’s director. And she really cares about Theo. Since you won’t return her calls, I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know her while we talk about my grandson’s issues.”

“Theo doesn’t have any issues. He’s in transition, dealing with a major life change. It’s normal.”

“Whatever happened between you and Sara and Elizabeth is in the past. Having her in Theo’s life was what Elizabeth wanted.”

But his trusting mother didn’t know the full score. Before she’d died, Elizabeth had finally forgiven her former best friend, but he didn’t see why he had to.

“Theo needs you. Sara says he’s had more issues at school. The fact that a bright kid like him even had to take summer school should have told you something was wrong.”

Holt heaved a sigh. “He seems okay to you, though, right?”

His mother hesitated before nodding. “He’s okay at home, but at school…”

“Good. Look, I promise if Theo’s issues worsen, I’ll contact his teachers. Right now, I have to get to work.” He gave his mother a sheepish look.

She sighed. “You want us to keep Theo for the day?”

“That would be great. If it weren’t so important…”

“But it is. One day, though, you’re going to reassess your priorities and realize experiencing every aspect of Theo’s childhood is—or should have been—important too.”

Thankfully, the heat of the summer day didn’t penetrate the stark confines of the concrete building, especially on the basement sublevel. The parking garage was cool, dark and smelled of stale motor exhaust and death.

The area had been cordoned off by the CPD, an easy feat since the government building the garage lay beneath was closed up tight on the weekends. There were no other cars, no curious bystanders. At least something was going right today.

As Holt approached the only car and the few people gathered there to process the scene, he nodded to the detective who stood to the side. The other man’s scowl wasn’t exactly a warm-fuzzy greeting. Of course, he’d probably been stuck in this place for hours and now Holt was treading on his territory. Judging by the cold welcome, SSAM must have been called in by one of his superiors. Holt was accustomed to the lack of appreciation of his talents and let the man’s assessment roll off him. In the end, what mattered was apprehending a murderer.

Behind him, the coroner was squeezing into the passenger seat of a black Mercedes, careful of any evidence, assessing the body in the position it was found before it was removed and taken to the morgue. Talk about up-close and personal.

Holt offered his hand to the detective. “Dr. Holt Patterson. My specialty is forensic psychology.”

The detective accepted his hand with a clammy grip. He was shorter than Holt’s six-foot-two, but the guy’s paunch made him twice as wide. “Detective Wayne McDowell. My specialty is catching murderers.” His tone held a degree of sarcasm that Holt chose to ignore.

“Then let’s get to it.”

McDowell jerked his head toward the Mercedes. A crime scene technologist circled, taking pictures of the car and the garage. Judging by the coroner’s actions, the body and the car interior had already been extensively photographed and processed. “Victim is Roy Beechum. State senator with an office upstairs. Worked late yesterday. Was found this morning as the weekend cleaning crew arrived. They’ve been questioned and cleared.”

“Any suspects?”

“I suppose that’s why you’re here. Ask anybody around here and nobody hated the man. Christ, one of the cleaning ladies was actually in tears when she found out. At forty-five years old, Beechum was young, attractive and relatively competent. What’s not to like? In fact, recent polls showed he has the highest approval rating of any Illinois state senator in history. Happy marriage too. Nineteen years. Nuclear family with a son and daughter in high school. No rumors of shady side dealings, at least nothing we know of yet.”

“Why didn’t his wife report him missing?”

“Apparently Beechum was due to leave town last night. She didn’t expect to see or hear from him until today.”

Holt glanced into the dark recesses of the garage. Sure enough, a camera hung in the corner near the elevator. Hallelujah. “Video surveillance should give us more.”

“We have someone processing it.”

“If you don’t mind, SSAM has an expert who can help out too. Einstein has a lot of experience.”


“Just a nickname. But an accurate one.”

McDowell eyed him a moment, then sighed. “Sure. I’ll have someone send a copy over.”

The coroner was now standing beside the car, pulling his gloves off. The yellowish light of the garage glowed against his bald spot as he joined them. He nodded a hello to Holt before turning his attention to McDowell. “Same signs of struggle, same style wound, same weapon of choice as the previous two scenes. I’d say your guess about this being the same killer has merit.”

“Fuck. That’s what I thought. Thanks, Rick.” The detective dropped any lingering signs of an attitude as he turned back to Holt. Lines formed across his wide forehead. “We found black fibers under a few of Beechum’s broken nails, but I doubt it’ll lead anywhere. Just like the others. This murderer doesn’t leave any traceable evidence behind, except for what he wants us to find.”

“Which is?”

“A hypodermic needle and syringe. Other than the weapon, he’s careful. Methodical. And deadly. Beechum wasn’t the first victim, or the second. And I’m guessing he won’t be the last. That’s why you’re here, Dr. Patterson. We suspect we have a serial killer on our hands, and I’ll be damned if I have any idea who’s next on his list.”

Theo Patterson’s creativity was off the charts but Sara couldn’t say that. Not yet, anyway. As director of the Hills Boys’ Academy, she had to hide her surprise behind a mask of disapproval as he and his science teacher faced off across the desk from her. It wasn’t even ten in the morning and her Monday was veering off a cliff. Summer was supposed to have a more relaxed atmosphere with fewer students around, yet this was Theo’s fourth time in her office. There was clearly more going on here.

“This—” Mr. Lockhart, a valued professor at the Academy, shook a spiral notebook in Sara’s face, “—is why he’s going to be held back and forced to retake fourth grade. Summer school is his chance to finally pass this class, yet he’d rather doodle about nothing than learn something useful.”

She bit back the defense that sprang to her lips. The doodles had hardly been aimless. Given Theo’s youth and lack of training, they were amazing. In a comic book format, the boy had created an entire cast of unique characters that told a coherent and compelling story. Sure, it had elements of violence, and she would speak to him about that, but at least the notebook was a healthy outlet.

Sara took Exhibit A from Lockhart before he could shove it under her nose again and tucked it into a drawer of her desk. Theo’s groan was audible, but one sharp look from her quelled the outburst she knew was brewing. The boy showed signs of his father’s intelligence and his mother’s devil-may-care attitude. Still, she had a soft spot for the son of her best friend. More than that, she’d made a promise before Elizabeth had died.

“Thank you for bringing this to my attention, Mr. Lockhart. You can return to your class now.” Sara’s words had the man’s jaw dropping.

“You’re going to let him get away with this?”

“Absolutely not. He’s staying so we can have a little chat.”

“Chat?” Lockhart’s neck turned bright red.

“I understand how serious this is, and you can be sure I’ll be addressing it.”

“I’ve spoken to his other teachers, and we all agree his attention span is equal to a gnat’s and nowhere near par for this school. Punishment is the only acceptable recourse.”

Sara rose from her chair and came around the desk to stand toe-to-toe with Lockhart. Though he had a few inches on her average frame, he took a step back. “As director, my goal is to act in the best interests of the school as well as its students. I assure you, I plan to. I take my job and the reputation of this school very seriously. Don’t ever doubt that. Will there be anything else?”

“No, uh…no.” Lockhart glared at Theo. “I’ll expect that extra work on my desk by the end of the week.”

As the door closed behind Lockhart, Sara retreated behind her desk, then dropped into her chair. She picked up the phone and dialed the outer office, where Cheryl, efficient as always, picked up immediately.

“Shall I hold your calls?” her secretary asked, a hint of amusement in her voice. Sara added mind reader to the list of Cheryl’s talents.

“Yes, please. Thank you.” She put the phone back on its cradle and eyed Theo.

After a moment of quiet, he lifted his head to meet her gaze. “I thought we were going to chat.

She didn’t miss the sarcasm slathered in a thick layer over that comment. “We are. But a conversation requires two participants, and our previous experience together suggests you won’t exactly be eager to talk.”

Theo shrugged. “Not much to say.”

“I disagree, but I think you’d rather communicate in other ways.” She pulled the notebook from her drawer and laid it on the desk between them. “You’re very talented.”

“Thanks.” His mumble was reluctant, but she caught the glint of pride in his eyes before he glanced down at his lap. When he looked up again, the seriousness of his gaze immediately brought Holt to mind. Her heart squeezed. “Can I have my notebook back?”

“No.” Just like that, she felt their tremulous connection break. “At least, not yet. Let’s talk about the content. Your story has a lot of violence.”

Theo rolled his eyes. “They have to fight. They’re an army of mutants who battle the minions of death. They’re not just going to lie down and take a beating.”

Sara wondered if Theo realized how his comic illustrated his own frustrations, fears, and pain of the past year and a half. He’d probably channeled all those deep emotions into this creative outlet. “You’re right. It’s hard to fight evil forces without a battle or two. But we don’t approve of violence here at the Academy. I have to be sure you don’t intend to act out any of these fantasies.”

Theo looked surprised. “I would never hurt anyone for real.”

“I’m glad to hear that.”

“So, can I have my notebook now?”

Sara wanted to give in, but there was no better opportunity to connect with Elizabeth’s son. “How about I make you a deal?”

His eyes narrowed in suspicion. “What kind of deal?”

“I’ll return your notebook if you promise me one thing.”

His response was swift. “Deal.”

She held up a hand. “You haven’t even heard the deal yet. You’ll meet with me on Friday afternoons, after your summer school class, for the rest of the term.”

He scowled. “To do extra homework or something?”

“No. You’ll be working on a special project with me. I hope you’ll share your notebook with me too.”

“You want me to work on my story?” Surprise chased the frown from his face.

“Absolutely. But if your grades don’t improve and your teachers don’t stop complaining, we’ll have to chat about other ways to curb your distractions—maybe the extra homework or chores you mentioned. Do we have a deal?”

“Sure.” Theo accepted the hand she reached across the desk toward him and punctuated the agreement with a tentative smile.

Again, Sara thought of Holt and his reluctant grins. He’d always been serious in a thoughtful, distracted, studious way. But when he smiled, it seemed to be filled with boyish wonder or mischief. She wished she could forget that smile.

“So, that’s it?” Theo asked. “That’s my punishment?”

“Nice try, but there’s more. This is the fourth time you’ve been sent to my office in the last few weeks—”

“—because my teachers have no sense of humor—”

“—and I’m seeing a pattern here. A disturbing pattern that has to end now, before school rules require I expel you.” She stifled a smile as Theo paled. At least the kid wanted to be here. “Pranks, cutting class, and distractions like comic books…I am going to have to call your dad. He might decide on an additional consequence.”

“He won’t answer.” Where other kids might have sounded triumphant at the prospect of getting out of further punishment, Theo sounded sad. Worse, she suspected he was right. That certainly had been the case in the previous instances she’d attempted to reach Holt. She’d ended up discussing things with Theo’s grandparents, with whom Theo seemed to spend most of his spare time anyway. At least they’d been concerned and supportive.

Hoping Theo was wrong this time, she dialed the number she found in his contact information. The phone rang and went to voicemail once again. Holt’s recorded voice requested she leave a message.

Keep it professional, no matter how much you want to wring his neck. “This is Sara at the Academy. Theo is in my office once again. Please call me at your earliest convenience so we can arrange a parent-teacher conference. It’s imperative that you contact me.” She left her number, hung up and met Theo’s gaze.

To his credit, Theo didn’t back down, didn’t look away. There was wisdom beyond his years in those hazel eyes, tinged with pain. His shrug was deceptively casual. “Told you.”


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