Worth Dying For by Rita Herron
Lovers reunite to hunt a serial killer who is keeping body parts as his souvenirs – will she be his next victim?
The hand floated in the creek in the thin stream of light. A golden circle illuminated the blood seeping from the mutilated cartilage and skin.
It was beautiful, really, the fingers curling upward as if reaching for help.
Pathetic as well as beautiful.
A bitter laugh escaped him.
Or maybe those gnarled fingers that had once clawed to escape were now curled toward the sky, reaching for the hand of God or some angel to grab it and pull it up to heaven.
The hands of a woman were supposed to comfort a child. To gently stroke and ease a little one’s pain. To be loving.
But that hand had never been loving.
And it certainly did not belong in heaven.
It had brutalized him and so many others.
Rightfully so, it lay in its own abyss of misery, separated from the body and mind of the person who used it in vicious ways. A bloody stump drifting aimlessly in Slaughter Creek where the fish and bugs would gnaw away the remaining bits of skin until only the thin layers of jagged bone remained.
An eye for an eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand…
The woman’s vile face suddenly flashed in his mind. A wicked gleam had brightened the dull hues of her eyes as she prepared to strike.
That gleam had faded tonight.
Pure, sweet pleasure stole through him, rippling through the very air that he breathed as his body hummed to life.
She had deserved to die.
It is my time. I don’t intend to waste it entertaining mindless, frivolous things. I have an agenda.
This woman was only the beginning of those who were to receive their punishment.
From them I will take back my sanity and my mind, and get my revenge.
They would suffer.
And then I can live.
“Two teenagers found a severed hand floating in Slaughter Creek.”
Special Agent Rafe Hood tightened his grip on his cell phone. At Special Agent Nick Blackwood’s words, an image of another case where a woman’s body had been left near water flashed in his mind, making his gut knot with dread.
That case hadn’t ended well.
Rafe had nearly lost his job.
And his relationship with Special Agent Liz Lucas, the profiler on the case, had been permanently damaged.
Could this possibly be the same killer?
No. Different MO. That woman’s neck had been slashed; her hands hadn’t been amputated.
Besides, Rafe had shot the bastard, sending him over a ridge into the raging current below. There was no way he could have survived.
“Has the rest of the body been recovered?” Rafe asked.
“I’m on my way,” Rafe said as he jogged to his black SUV.
“Jake and I will meet you there.”
Rafe hit disconnect to end the call, flipped on the engine, punched the address into his GPS, and sped from the parking lot of the TBI office. He’d just finished a debriefing with his chief where they’d hopefully tied up the case revolving around Arthur Blackwood—aka the Commander—and the inhumane experiments he and others had conducted on innocent children years ago at the Slaughter Creek Sanitarium.
The latest arrest of Senator Stowe had come as a shock to everyone. Stowe had finally admitted he’d worked with Blackwood in spearheading CHIMES—Children In Mind Experiments—which had destroyed numerous lives.
Seven children had been used as guinea pigs, tortured, drugged, and given electroshock treatments to alter their personalities and minds, all in hopes of creating perfect soldiers for the U.S. Instead of using their names, they had been known by their numbers to make the project less personal and eliminate the human element.
Neither Nick nor his brother Jake – Blackwood’s sons, the elder now the sheriff of Slaughter Creek, the younger an agent with the TBI – had known that Rafe had an underlying agenda. He was supposed to discern if the brothers had known about the project and their father’s activities.
Rafe had cleared the two men and passed along that info to his superiors.
And now this severed hand? Was it a random crime, or could it be related to the project?
The city landscape gave way to wilderness and the Tennessee mountains as he drove toward Slaughter Creek. Thick forests of trees, wildlife, and deserted areas stretched for miles, the tall ridges and winding switchbacks scenic but dangerous. It would only take seconds and the wrong move for a car to fly over the edge and dive into the ravine below.
He lost track of time as anxiety needled him. Everyone at the bureau knew that Nick and Jake had been searching for the missing subjects of the experiment, but the original files were missing, complicating the investigation. Four of the subjects had been murdered to cover up the project and one had become a trained killer before committing suicide at Blackwood’s commands. Amelia Nettleton, a local and Jake’s sister-in-law, the third subject, had developed multiple personalities, and was undergoing therapy to merge her alters.
The last subject they’d located, Seven, Jake and Nick’s sister, had murdered several men, and been dubbed the Slaughter Creek Strangler, but they’d finally apprehended her, and she was in prison under psychiatric care.
Subject Six was missing, his real name unknown. Law enforcement believed Six and Seven had escaped a compound where they’d been held prisoner.
Seven refused to reveal where Six was hiding out.
Rafe reached the turnoff for the deserted RV campsite along the creek where the severed hand had been discovered, and wove between the rows of pines and oaks lining the graveled road. Late night shadows flickered between the overgrown moonlit patches, creating an eerie glow.
Ahead he spotted Nick’s black sedan, Jake’s sheriff’s car, and a battered Jeep Wrangler. Two other vehicles he assumed belonged to the crime unit and the ME were also there, although if they hadn’t found a body, this might not be a murder.
Rafe swung his SUV between two trees and parked, then climbed out and strode toward the Blackwood brothers. Crime scene tape had been strung around the area, and flashlights dotted the woods as searchers combed for the body.
As he neared, a camera flashed as one of the techs photographed the scene. Two teens were near a boulder by the water. The taller one leaned against a pine tree, his face ashen-looking. The stocky guy tried to look tough although he jiggled his leg up and down, betraying his nerves.
“These are the boys who found the hand?” Rafe asked.
Nick gave a quick nod. “Bo and Roy Crowley. Said they were here for a campout and fishing. They’re both pretty shook up.”
Rafe studied them for a moment, wondering if they could possibly have put the hand there for attention. Some teenagers played sick, twisted pranks. He also couldn’t dismiss the idea of gang warfare. And god knows drugs could be a factor.
But the boys’ eyes appeared clear. And he didn’t see any tats or clothing that indicated gang association.
“Where is it?” he asked.
Nick gestured to the ME with a grim look. “Dr. Bullock is examining it now.”
Bullock peered over the rims of his glasses where he was stooped by the water’s edge. “Hand belonged to a woman. My guess is she was mid forties. Bone cut straight through, probably by an ax.”
Rafe grimaced, and the stocky boy leaned over the rock and threw up. His friend looked like he might join him, but he dropped his head into his hands and gulped in deep breaths.
“Did you find the weapon?” Rafe asked.
Jake knelt to look at something on the ground while Nick answered Rafe. “No weapon. No body. But the crime unit will scour these woods and drag the creek until we find it.”
“It’s possible the person survived,” Rafe said. “Have you contacted ERs and hospitals?”
Jake looked up at him. “Done. I also called to see if any mental patients had been released recently or escaped, but both were dead ends.”
“Except for Six,” Nick interjected.
Jake nodded. “Except for Six.”
Rafe shifted. “We’ll need to look for inmates who’ve been paroled as well.”
Jake stood. “I’ll get right on it.”
Rafe nodded then turned to the boys. “When did you guys get here?”
The boy wiped clammy sweat from his forehead. “We camped down the creek last night, then hiked up here this afternoon. Went swimming for a while, roasted some hotdogs, then decided to fish.” He shuddered, his eyes straying to the hand. “That’s when we…found…it.”
Understanding dawned as the ME pulled a fishhook from the index finger. He had a feeling these kids wouldn’t be fishing in the dark again.
“I’m going to give them a lift home.” Jake’s sympathetic gaze shot toward the kids.
Rafe raked a hand over the back of his neck. “Go ahead. I’ll wait here with Nick and help search.”
Maybe by morning they’d have the body. Then they could identify their victim. That identification might lead them to the killer.
Nick’s cell phone buzzed, and he checked his phone. Lips thinning into a straight line, he punched connect. “Special Agent Blackwood.”
Leaves rustled in the wind. An animal howled somewhere from the forest. The creek water lapped at the shore.
Nick angled his body toward the creek and looked across the mountains, his shoulders going rigid.
“What the hell?” A pause. “You’re fucking kidding me.” Another tense second, then Nick spun back toward him and Jake.
Rage glittered in Blackwood’s dark eyes.
“What’s wrong?” Rafe asked.
“The Commander escaped prison.”
Liz Lucas jerked awake, gasping for a breath. But the air couldn’t get inside her lungs because she was trapped.
Back in that hellhole where she’d been kept for days.
She jumped from bed, throwing open the blinds to let the sunlight stream in. Heedless of the temperature outside, the windows flew open next.
She needed air as much as she needed light.
She’d been deprived of them once.
Self-recriminations screamed through her head. Had she survived? Or was she just the broken shell of the woman she’d once been? A woman afraid of her own shadow?
Hearing sounds and voices in her sleep — and that grating sharpening of the man’s knife as he prepared for his next kill?
That kill was supposed to be her.
Desperate to regain control – and her sanity – she leaned against the French doors in her bedroom, wishing she could open them and step outside without worrying about being attacked. Dawn was just cracking the sky, the moon still a sliver on the horizon as early morning shadows flickered above the trees.
Spanish moss hung like spider webs draping the ground, making the woods look even creepier.
But she didn’t dare go out yet. What if he was out there? Ned Harlan, aka the Blade. What if he found her and returned to finish the job?
He’s dead, she reminded herself. At least, according to the police report.
But his body had never been found.
Although Liz was a profiler and had studied behavioral analysis, she also dealt in facts. Without a body, she could never be quite sure that Harlan hadn’t made it out of that river alive.
But it had been months since the attack. It was time for her to get over it.
Hating the paranoia clawing at her, she rushed to close the windows again, then brewed a pot of coffee, took a mug, and sat on the glider on her screened-in porch that ran the length of her Williamsburg house and overlooked the river. A porch with a security alarm to keep intruders out.
Instead, it felt like a prison trapping her inside.
How many sleepless nights had she spent curled up like a terrified cat watching the woods? Seeing imaginary shadows, stalkers and predators lurking in the dark just waiting to snatch her and kill her?
God knows she’d considered selling and moving to another state. Every time she looked out at the water she remembered the cabin where he’d kept her. The section of river where he’d taken her to slice her throat.
The same place where her mother had died.
Rafe had run up to her and saved her. Except her captor had escaped.
And it had been too late to lock up Harlan and make him face the families of his victims.
Too late because Liz had made a mistake and gotten the profile wrong. Hadn’t realized the man who’d killed her mother and several women had been working with a partner. A female.
Rafe had killed the accomplice and shot Harlan. But his body had never surfaced.
If he had survived she would find him one day and make him pay.
She had to take it one day at a time. Focus on the fact that she was alive.
Liz studied the photo of her mother in the locket she wore close to her heart to keep her mother near. The photo had been taken at Christmas. Wavy brown hair curled around her heart-shaped face, and she was smiling. That particular day, Liz had given her a pair of silver earrings that she’d bought from a local art festival The earrings were supposed to be light catchers and twinkled different colors depending on the way the sunlight refracted from the cut glass inside the base.
Her mother had been wearing the earrings the day Harlan abducted her, but they’d never been recovered.
Liz balled her hands into fists. That phone call from the police had changed everything in Liz’s life. At sixteen, instead of dating and shopping for a prom dress, she’d been grief stricken and in shock. Instead of looking at college catalogs, she’d studied crime scene photos of her mother’s death and hounded the local police for answers.
Her grandmother had begged her to move on and let the case go. To enjoy her teenage years.
Then her Gran had passed, and she’d been alone.
Graduation night, she decided to study police work. The courses in behavioral science and analysis interested her most.
She was obsessed with understanding why the man who’d killed her mother had been so brutal. Why he’d slashed her throat.
Why he’d taken her life when there had been no apparent reason to target her. He hadn’t known her personally. She’d never wronged him in any way that the police had discovered.
The need for those answers had become the driving force in her life.
So she’d earned a degree, joined the TBI, and worked her way up until she’d landed a position as a behavior analyst.
Meanwhile her mother’s case had gone cold. But not in her mind.
Then last year, fourteen years after her death, Liz caught a break.
Guilt nagged at her for thinking of another woman’s murder as a break, but the similarity in MOs had given her reason to have her mother’s case reopened. Rafe had agreed to help her look into the murder.
Because they had already become involved. Had slept together.
Then a woman disappeared. Another single mother.
The day after Liz’s profile aired, the killer came after Liz, but not before killing the woman he’d abducted before her.
Liz had to live with that death.
She rubbed the puckered scar along her neck, a constant reminder that she wasn’t the same woman she had been before the kidnapping. That even with all her training, she’d still been weak, had lost to him. That he’d marked her with his ugliness.
The fact that he’d stolen her confidence hurt more than anything.
. He’d also ruined her reputation – or at least Rafe Hood’s trust in her.
Trust that had meant so much to her, just as he had. But how could she ask Rafe to totally trust her again when she’d kept things from him…
She wouldn’t allow Harlan to take anything else.
Her determination renewed, she returned to the kitchen and grabbed a breakfast bar while she watched the news, mentally outlining her day.
Yoga after the news to relax her. Then she’d hit the gym for fitness training. After a pounding workout, the shooting range.
She had to stay in shape in case Harlan rose from the dead.
And when – or if — her boss finally assigned her to a case, she needed to prove she could do the job..
“This is Brenda Banks reporting to you live from Slaughter Creek where last night a woman’s severed hand was found floating in the creek near Pine Grove RV Park. Sheriff Jake Blackwood along with Special Agent Nick Blackwood, who headed up the investigation into the Slaughter Creek Sanitarium project, are both at the scene along with the medical examiner Dr. Barry Bullock.” Cameras panned to the wooded area where she spotted Nick Blackwood in a heated phone conversation.
Her stomach lurched as the camera focused on another man who Brenda approached with her microphone.
The world seemed to stop, life crashing in around Liz. Rafe looked even more handsome and intimidating than he had the last time she’d seen him when he’d been standing over her hospital bed.
He’d walked away because she’d failed.
Sunlight flickered off his dark chiseled jaw. His thick black hair was too long, brushing his wide shoulders which stretched the confines of that white button-down shirt.
Lord God, she knew the muscles that lay beneath, and for the first time in months, her body hummed to life, aching with the need to touch him.
But that had been a mistake the first time.
One she wouldn’t repeat.
Not that Rafe wanted her. He’d made that plain and clear the night he’d left her alone, traumatized and angry and …so in love with him she could barely draw breath.
Still, she craved his arms around her. To feel his lips on hers. To have him remind her that she was still desirable even though the killer had scarred her inside and out.
And tainted her soul with the need for revenge.
In the background, she saw Nick heading toward Brenda. Other crime techs combed the woods in search of evidence.
“Special Agent Rafe Hood of the TBI is here as well,” Brenda continued, drawing Liz’s attention back to the reporter. “Can you tell us what you know pertaining to this case?”
“Not much at this time,” Rafe said in that gravelly voice. “I can verify that a severed hand was discovered in the river. It belonged to a white female, late forties. As of now, we haven’t located a body, but we’re still searching. If anyone has any information regarding this crime, please contact the local police.”
“You have search teams combing the creek for the body now?” Brenda asked.
Rafe nodded, but he looked distracted. His dark brown eyes were scanning the woods as if he expected the person who’d severed the hand to be watching.
Maybe he was, Liz thought. He could be anywhere, even right in front of them and they might not know it. Some criminals liked to return to the scene and watch the police scurry around chasing false clues.
Some even insinuated themselves into an investigation.
The police had to stay on their toes.
She’d learned the hard way — no one could be trusted.
He placed the jar on the shelf he’d built for his trophies.
Trophies — that was what the federal agents and profilers called the treasures men like him took.
The bloody stump and fingers were dirty and vile, the fingernails jagged and bitten to the quick, the skin pocked with early liver spots. An ugly hand.
And a reminder that that hand would never hurt anyone else.
A smile curved his mouth, and he massaged his cock, which had grown thick with relief and excitement as he’d watched the life drain from the bitch.
The cops would recover the rest of the body soon. A pity that he hadn’t had a meat grinder to dispose of it so nothing else would be left behind except for this hand. The bad hand.
Really, he had no use for the rest of the woman’s remains. Just the hand.
His medical training kicked in, his photographic memory flashing anatomical details. Twenty-seven bones comprised the skeleton of the wrist and hand. Three main nerves – the median, ulnar and radial – innervated the hand. The bones – carpals, metacarpals and phalanges. Five metacarpal bones made up the fingers. The thumb was the most mobile. Each digit contained three phalanges.
More information about the wrist and the scaphoid that linked the two rows of bones streamed through his mind as he studied the treasure in his jar..
It wasn’t the anatomy that had enticed him to keep the hand. That hand spoke to him. Had punished him. Had slapped and beaten him and made him feel intense, excruciating pain.
It was only justice that she felt the same before she died.
Then again, leaving the body would give the police something to do. Things to investigate.
Then he could prove that he was smarter than them.
He was in charge of his own destiny. And he could be anyone he wanted to be. A chameleon.
Pure joy warmed his insides as he traced a finger along the jar holding his souvenir.
Her blood was on his hands now, and it tasted like wine.
Anticipation flooded him.
Soon, it would be time for another drink.
Bestselling author Rita Herron has written over sixty romance novels and loves penning dark romantic suspense tales, especially those set in small Southern towns. She earned a RT Book Reviews Career Achievement Award for her work in Series Romantic Suspense, and has received rave reviews for the Slaughter Creek novels Her Dying Breath and Dying to Tell. A native of Milledgeville, Georgia, and a proud mother and grandmother, she lives just outside of Atlanta.
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