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Count to Ten

Chapter One

Saturday, November 25, 11:45 p.m.

A branch slapped the window and Caitlin Burnette’s jaw clenched. “It’s just the wind,” she muttered. “Don’t be such a baby.” Still, the howling outside was unsettling, and being alone in the Doughertys’ creaky old house wasn’t helping. She dropped her eyes back to the statistics book that was responsible for her being alone on a Saturday night. The party at TriEpsilon would have been a hell of a lot more fun than this. Noisier, too. Which was why she was here, studying the most boring subject in the quiet of a boring old house instead of trying to study with a party going on all around her room.

Her stat professor had scheduled an exam for Monday morning. If she failed it, she’d fail for the semester. If she failed one more class, her father would take away her car, sell it, and use the money to take her mother to the Bahamas.

Caitlin ground her teeth. She’d show him. She’d pass that damn test if it killed her. And if she didn’t, she had nearly enough money in savings to buy the damn car herself or maybe even a better one. The money the Doughertys were paying her to take care of their cat was chintzy, but enough to put her over the top and—

A different noise had her chin jerking up, her eyes narrowing. What the hell? It came from downstairs. It sounded like... a chair scraping against the hardwood floor.

Call the police. She had her hand on the phone, but she drew a breath and made herself calm down. It’s probably just the cat. She’d look pretty stupid calling the police about a twenty-pound, overly pampered Persian. Plus, she really wasn’t supposed to be here right now. Mrs. Dougherty had been clear about that. She was not to “stay over.” She was not to “have parties.” She was not to “use the phone.” She was to feed the cat and change the litter box, period.

The Doughertys might get mad and refuse to pay her if they found out she was here. Caitlin sighed. Besides, word would get back to her dad and wouldn’t he just have a field day with that? All over a stupid fluffy cat named Percy of all things.

Still, it didn’t hurt to be careful. Quietly Caitlin moved from the spare bedroom the Doughertys used as an office to the master bedroom where she pulled the small gun from Mrs. Dougherty’s nightstand drawer and disengaged the safety. She’d found the gun when she was looking for a pen. It was a .22, just like she’d shot dozens of times at the range with her dad. She descended the stairs, the gun pressed against the back of her leg. It was pitch black, but she was afraid to turn on a light. Stop this, Caitlin. Call the cops. But her feet kept moving, soundless on the carpet, until two steps from the bottom, a stair creaked. She stopped short, her heart pounding, listening hard.

And heard humming. There was somebody in the house and they were humming.

The screech of something heavy being dragged across the floor drowned out the humming. Then she smelled gas.

Get out. Get help. She lurched forward, stumbling when her feet hit the hardwood floor at the base of the stairs. She fell to her knees and the gun flew from her hand, skittering across the floor. Loudly.

The humming stopped. Desperately she made a move for the gun, grasping for it in the dark, her hands frantically patting at the cold hardwood. She found the gun and scrambled to her feet. Get out. Get out. Get out.

She’d taken two steps toward the door when she was hit from behind, knocked to her knees. She tried to scream, but she couldn’t breathe. Together they slid a few feet before he pushed her to her stomach, lying on top of her. He was heavy. God, please. She struggled but he was just too heavy. In a second he twisted the gun from her hand. His breath was beating hot and hard against her ear. Then his breathing slowed and she could feel him grow hard on top of her. Not that. Please, God.

She clenched her eyes closed as he thrust his hips hard, his intentions clear. “Please let me go. I’m not even supposed to be here. I promise I won’t tell anyone.”

“You weren’t supposed to be here,” he repeated. “How unlucky for you.” His voice was deep, but fakely so. Like a bad Darth Vader imitation. Caitlin focused, determined to remember every last detail so that when she got away, she could tell the police.

“Please don’t hurt me,” she whispered.

He hesitated. She could feel him take a breath and hold it, as time stood still. Finally he let the breath out.

Then he laughed.

Sunday, November 26, 1:10 a.m.

Reed Solliday moved through the gathered crowd, listening. Watching their faces as the house across the street burned. It was an older, middle-class neighborhood and the people standing outside in the cold seemed to know each other. They stood in shock and disbelief, murmuring their fear that the wind would spread the flames to their own homes. Three older women stood to one side, their worried faces illuminated by the remains of the fire that had taken two companies to bring under control. This fire was too hot, too high, too many places within the house to feel like an accidental fire.

Despite their shock, this was the time to interview the onlookers, before they had time to share stories. Even in groups of people with nothing to hide, shared stories became homogenized stories in which relevant details could be lost.

Arsonists could go free. And making sure that didn’t happen was Reed’s job.

“Ladies?” He approached the three women, his shield in his hand. “My name is Lieutenant Solliday.”

All three women gave him the once-over. “You’re a policeman?” the middle one asked. She looked to be about seventy and tiny enough that Reed was surprised the wind hadn’t blown her away. Her white hair was tightly rolled in curlers and her flannel nightgown hung past the hem of her woolen coat, dragging on the frosty ground.

“Fire marshal,” Reed answered. “Can I get your names?”

“I’m Emily Richter and this is Janice Kimbrough and Darlene Desmond.”

“You all know this neighborhood well?”

Richter sniffed. “I’ve lived here for almost fifty years.”

“Who lives in that house, ma’am?”

“The Doughertys used to live there. Joe and Laura. But Laura passed and Joe retired to Florida. His son and -daughter-in-law live there now. Sold it to ’em cheap, Joe did. Brought down all the property values in the neighborhood.”

“But they’re not home now,” Janice Kimbrough added. “They went to Florida to see Joe for Thanksgiving.”

“So nobody was in the house?” It was what the men had been told on arriving.

“Not unless they got home early,” Janice said.

“But they didn’t,” Richter said firmly. “Their truck is too tall for the garage, so they park it in the driveway. It’s not there, so they’re not home yet.”

“Have you ladies seen anybody hanging around that doesn’t belong?”

“I saw a girl going in and out yesterday,” Richter said. “Joe’s son said they’d hired somebody to feed the cat.” She sniffed again. “In the old days Joe would have given us his key and a bag of cat food, but his son changed all the locks. Hired some kid.”

The hair on Reed’s neck stood on end. Call it instinct. Call it whatever. But something felt very bad about all this. “A kid?”

“A college girl,” Darlene Desmond supplied. “Joe’s daughter-in-law told me she wasn’t going to be living in. Just coming in twice a day to feed the cat.”

“What other cars did the Doughertys drive, ladies?” Reed asked.

Janice Kimbrough’s brow furrowed. “Joe Junior’s wife drives a regular car. Ford?”

Richter shook her head. “Buick.”

“And those are the only two vehicles they have? The truck and the Buick?” He’d seen the twisted remains of two cars in the garage. A sick feeling turned in his gut.

All three ladies nodded, exchanging puzzled glances. “That’s all,” Richter said.

“Thanks, ladies, you’ve been a big help.” He jogged across the street to where Captain Larry Fletcher stood next to the rig, a radio in one hand. “Larry.”

“Reed.” Larry was frowning at the burning house. “Somebody made this fire.”

“I think so, too. Larry, somebody might be in there.”

He shook his head. “The old ladies said the owners are out of town.”

“The owners hired a college kid to watch the cat.”

Larry’s head whipped around. “They said nobody was home.”

“The girl wasn’t supposed to stay overnight. There are two cars in the garage, right? The owners only kept one in there. Their other vehicle is a truck that they took with them. We’ve got to see if she’s in there, Larry.”

With a curt nod, Larry lifted his radio to his face. “Mahoney. Possible victim inside.”

The radio crackled. “Understood. I’ll try to go back in.”

“If it’s too dangerous, you come back out,” Larry ordered, then turned to Reed, his eyes hard. “If she’s in there...”

Reed nodded grimly. “She’s probably dead. I know. I’ll keep canvassing the crowd. Let me go in as soon as you can.”

Sunday, November 26, 2:20 a.m.

His heart still pounded, hard and fast. It had all gone just as he’d planned.

Well, not just as he’d planned. She’d been a surprise he hadn’t expected. Miss Caitlin Burnette. He pulled her driver’s license from the purse he’d taken. A little souvenir of the night. She wasn’t supposed to be there, she’d said. Let her go, she’d begged. She wouldn’t tell anyone, she’d promised. She was lying, of course. Women were full of lies. This he knew.

Quickly he moved the dirt away from his hiding place and lifted the lid of the plastic tub. Shiny baubles and keys struck his eye. He’d buried this the first day he’d come here and hadn’t opened it since. Hadn’t had cause to. Hadn’t had anything to put inside. Tonight he did. He tossed Caitlin’s purse on top of his other trinkets, replaced the lid and carefully arranged the dirt on top. There. It was done. He could sleep now.

He walked away licking his lips. He could still taste her. Sweet perfume, soft curves. She’d practically been dropped in his lap. Like Christmas come early. And she’d fought him. He laughed softly. She’d fought and cried and begged. She’d tried to tell him no. It just made him harder. She’d tried to scratch his face. He’d easily held her down. He shuddered, the memory still so fresh. He’d nearly forgotten how good it could feel when they said no. He was getting excited again, just thinking about it. They always thought they could fight back. They always thought they could say no.

But he was bigger. Stronger. And no one would ever tell him no again.

From a window above the boy watched, his heart pounding. Tell someone. But who? He’ll find out I told. He’d be so angry and the boy knew what happened when he became angry. Sick with terror the boy went back to bed, pulled the covers over his head and cried.

Sunday, November 26, 2:15 a.m.

It had been a nice house, Reed thought as he walked through what was now a ruined shell. Damage to one side appeared less extensive than the other. It would be daylight soon and he’d be able to get a better view. For now, he flashed a high-powered light on the walls, looking for the burn lines that would lead him to the fire’s origin.

He stopped and turned to the firefighter who’d manned the inside line. “Where was it burning when you got here?”

Brian Mahoney shook his head. “There were flames in the kitchen, the garage, the upstairs bedroom, and the -living room. We got as far as the living room when the ceiling started to crumble and I got my guys out. Just in time, too. Kitchen ceiling caved. We focused on keeping it from spreading to the other houses after that.”

Reed looked straight up through what had been two stories, an attic and a roof and saw stars in the sky. They could have multiple points of origin. Some bastard wanted to be sure this place burned. “Nobody hurt?”

Brian shrugged. “Minor burns on the probie, but he’ll be okay. One of the guys got some smoke. Captain sent them both to the ER to get checked out. Listen, Reed, I came back in to look for the girl, but there was still too much smoke. If she was here...”

“I know,” Reed said grimly. He started moving again. “I know.”

“Reed!” It was Larry Fletcher, standing in the kitchen next to the far wall.

Immediately Reed noted the stove pulled away from the wall. “You guys pull that stove out?” he asked.

“Not us,” Brian answered. “You’re thinking he used the gas to start this thing?”

“It would explain the first big explosion.”

Larry continued to stare down at his feet. “She’s here.”

Reed gritted his teeth and moved to Larry’s side. He shone his light down, dreading what he’d see. And drew a breath. “Goddammit,” he hissed.

The body was charred beyond recognition.

“Dammit,” Brian echoed, tightly furious. “Do you know who she was?”

Reed moved the light around the body, schooling his mind to be detached, not to think about the way she’d died. “Not yet. I got the number of the old owner of this place from the ladies across the street. Joe Dougherty, Senior. His son, Joe Junior, lives here now. Joe Senior said Joe Junior and his wife went on a chartered fishing boat twenty miles off the Florida coast for the weekend. He doesn’t expect him back until Monday morning. He did tell me his daughter-in-law worked for a legal firm downtown. Supposedly the girl they’d hired was the daughter of one of the wife’s officemates. A college kid. I’ll see if I can locate her parents.” He sighed when Larry continued to stare at the body on the floor. “You didn’t know she was here, Larry.”

“My daughter’s in college,” Larry returned, his voice rough.

And mine will be soon enough, Reed thought, then banished the thought from his mind. Thoughts like that would drive a man crazy. “I’ll get the medical examiner out here,” he said. “Along with my team. You look like shit, Larry. Both of you do. Let’s go outside so I can debrief your crew, then go back to the station and get some rest.”

Larry nodded dully. “You forgot to say ‘sir.’” It was an attempt at levity that fell miserably flat. “You never said ‘sir,’ not in all the years you rode with me.”

They’d been good years. Larry was one of the best -captains he’d ever had. “Sir,” Reed corrected himself -gently. He pulled Larry’s arm, making his old friend move away from the charred obscenity that had once housed a young woman’s soul. “Let’s go.”

Sunday, November 26, 2:55 a.m.

“I’ve got the lights set up, Reed.”

Reed looked up from the notes he’d been making sitting in the cab of his SUV. Ben Trammell stood a few feet away, his eyes troubled. Ben was the newest member of his team and like most of the team members, had been a firefighter for years before joining the fire marshal’s office. This was, however, Ben’s first death as an investigator and the strain was already visible in his eyes.

“You okay?” Reed asked and Ben jerked a nod. “Good.” Reed gestured to his photographer who waited in the warmth of his own car. Foster got out, his camera in his hands and a camcorder hanging around his neck.

“Let’s go,” Reed said briskly, walking up the driveway, around the debris left by the firefighters. They’d work on processing everything outside when it was daylight. “For now we touch nothing. We’re going to document the scene and I’m going to take some readings. Then we’ll see what we have.”

“Did you call for a warrant?” Foster asked.

“Not yet. I want to make sure whatever warrant I request covers the right things.” He had a very bad feeling about the body lying in the Doughertys’ kitchen and being a meticulous man, he was mentally preparing for all the legal angles. “We’re good to go in for origin and cause. Any more and I want a court order, especially since the owners aren’t here to give us permission to enter.”

Reed led them through the foyer, past the staircase and into the kitchen where the lights shone bright as day. The room was destroyed. The glass had blown from the windows and the ceiling had collapsed in one spot, making it difficult to cross the room without climbing over fallen roof supports. A thick layer of ash covered the tile floor. But most riveting was the victim, who lay where Larry Fletcher had first discovered her.

For a long moment all three men stood motionless, staring down at the victim, forcing their minds to process what was more horrific in the light than it had been in the dark. With a deep breath, Reed finally pushed himself into action, pulling on a pair of latex gloves before pulling his mini-tape-recorder from his pocket. “Foster, start with the camcorder. We’ll get stills once we’ve done our first walk-through.”

He lifted his own recorder to his mouth as Foster began to shoot tape. “This is Lieutenant Reed Solliday, accompanied by Marshals Ben Trammell and Foster Richards. This is the Dougherty household, twenty-six November, oh-three-hundred. Outside conditions, twenty-one degrees Fahrenheit with winds from the northeast at fifteen miles per hour.” He drew a breath. “A single victim has been found in the kitchen. The skin is charred. Facial detail has been destroyed. Gender is not immediately apparent. Small stature indicates a female which is consistent with witness accounts.”

Reed crouched next to the body and with his free hand pulled the sniffer from the bag he wore slung over one shoulder. Carefully he passed the instrument over the body, the sniffer’s tone instantly switching to a high-pitched whine. He wasn’t surprised. He glanced up at Ben. He could make it a trainable moment at least. “Ben?”

“High concentrations of hydrocarbons,” Ben said tightly. “Indicates presence of accelerants.”

“Good. Which suggests?”

“Which suggests the victim was doused in gasoline before being lit.”

“Gasoline, or something.” Reed focused, not allowing the stench to cloud his senses or the image of the dead young girl to tear at his heart. The first was nearly impossible, the second completely so. Still, he had a job to do. “The ME will be able to tell us exactly what was used on her. Good, Ben.”

Ben cleared his throat. “Do you want me to call for the dog?”

“I did already. Larramie’s on duty tonight. He should have Buddy here in twenty minutes.” Reed straightened. “Foster, get the victim from the other side, will you?”

“Yep.” Foster videotaped the scene from several more angles. “What else?”

Reed had moved to the wall. “Get a shot of this entire wall, then close-ups of all these marks.” He leaned closer with a frown. “What the hell?”

“Narrow ‘V,’” Ben noted, steadier now. “The fire started down at the baseboard then moved up the wall fast.” He looked over at Reed. “Really fast. Like with a fuse?”

Reed nodded. “Yeah.” He ran the sniffer across the wall and once again they heard its high-pitched whine. “Accelerant up the wall. A chemical fuse.” Unsettled, he studied the wall. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like that before.”

“He used gas from the stove,” Foster commented, turning the camera toward what was left of the appliances. He leaned closer, capturing the area between the stove and the wall. “The bolt’s been removed. Had to have been deliberate.”

“I thought so,” Reed murmured, then brought his recorder back to his mouth. “The gas was flowing into the room, rising to the ceiling. The fire was ignited low to the floor, then traveled up this line of accelerant. We’ll take samples here. But what about this?” He stepped back and took in the pockmarks that mottled the width of the wall.

“Something exploded,” Ben said.

“You’re right.” Reed ran the sniffer along the wall. Short screeching bursts emerged, but no long whine as before. “It’s like napalm, the way it sticks to the wall.”

“Look.” Ben was crouching near the door that connected the kitchen to the laundry room. “Plastic pieces.” He looked up, puzzled. “They’re blue.”

Reed bent down to look. They did look blue. Quickly his eyes took in several more pieces scattered across the floor and a picture formed in his mind. It was a photo in a book. An arson investigation manual, at least fifteen years old. “Plastic eggs.”

Ben blinked. “Eggs?”

“I’ve seen this before. I bet if we can get enough pieces, the lab will be able to put them together like a plastic egg, like kids hunt at Easter. The arsonist fills it with accelerant, either solid or a viscous liquid like polyurethane, runs a fuse through a hole in one end. He lights the fuse and the pressure from the blast blows the egg apart, spewing the accelerant all over.”

Ben looked impressed. “That explains the burn patterns.”

“It does. It also goes to show if you do this job long enough, you’ll see it all. Foster, get all the pieces and their location on tape, then close-up stills of everything in the room. I’m going to call in for a warrant to cover us on the origin and source samples, too. I don’t want any lawyer -telling us we can use the search samples for the arson, but not for the assault on that poor girl.”

“Cover your ass,” Foster muttered. “Damn lawyers.”

“We’ll get the plastic pieces after Larramie and the dog are finished. Maybe there’s a piece big enough for Latent to get a print.”

“You optimist, you,” Foster said, still muttering.

“Just take the pictures. Also get pictures of the doors and first-floor windows, especially the locks. I want to know how he got in here.”

Foster moved his camera away from his face long enough to stare at Reed. “You know if that girl’s a homicide, they’re going to yank this case right out from under you.”

He’d already thought of that. “I don’t think so. I’ll have to share, but there’s plenty enough arson here for us to keep our hands in the pot. For now, we’re here. We’ve got the ball. So move it into field-goal territory, okay?”

Foster rolled his eyes. He wasn’t a sports fan. “Fine.”

“Ben, there are two cars in the garage. The old ladies said the Doughertys had the Buick. Find out who owned the other one. And, Foster, at first light, I want you out there snapping pictures of the ground. With all this mud, he’s bound to have left us something.”

“Optimist,” Foster muttered once again.

Sunday, November 26, 2:55 p.m.

His thoughts had cleared after a good night’s sleep and now he could consider exactly what he had accomplished. And what he had not. He sat with his hands neatly folded on his desk, staring out the window, analyzing the events of the night. This was the time to determine what went well so that he could do those things again. Conversely, he needed to decide what had not gone well and whether to fix or eliminate those things. Or perhaps even add something new. He’d take it point by point. Keeping it in order. It was the best way.

The first point was the explosion. His mouth curved. That had gone very well, art and science all rolled into one. His little firebomb worked perfectly, the design easy to implement. Not a single moving part. Elegant in its simplicity.

And very successful. He grimaced a little as he tested his sore knee. Maybe a little too successful, he thought, remembering the force of the blast. It had knocked him off his feet, throwing him to his hands and knees as he’d run down the Doughertys’ front walk. He guessed he’d cut that fuse a little too close. He’d wanted ten seconds to get out of the house and down to the street. Mentally he counted it out. It had been more like seven seconds. He needed ten. Ten was very important.

The next time, he’d cut the fuse a little longer.

The first egg he’d put in the kitchen worked beautifully, just like his prototype. The second egg, the one he’d put on the Doughertys’ bed... He’d intended to kill the old man and his wife, then burn them in their own bed. When he’d discovered they weren’t there, the second bomb became symbolic, but ultimately not a viable part of his plan.

He’d realized as he stood ready to light its fuse that by the time he ran downstairs and lit the fuse for the kitchen egg that the upstairs one would already have blown. That blast might have set off the gas before he was out of the house, trapping him inside. So he’d left it there, hoping it would blow when the fire spread. Judging from the way the fire had burned through the roof of the house, he believed that had happened. But had it not, the police may have found it and learned more than he wanted them to.

So even though the concept of two bombs was sweet, lighting them simultaneously was impractical, the risk too great. From now on, he’d stick with one. Everything else about the explosion itself had been a textbook success. Everything had gone just as he’d planned. Well, not entirely.

Which brought him to the second point. The girl. His smile widened to a grin, wicked and... powerful. Just thinking about her made his body tighten.

When she begged, when she tried to fight, something inside him had snapped and he’d used her. Completely. -Savagely. Until she lay on the floor quivering, unable to say a word. That’s the way it should be. The way they all should be. Quiet. If not voluntarily, then by force. His grin faded. But he’d used her without a condom, which was incredibly stupid. He hadn’t considered it then, he’d been too wrapped up in the moment. Once again, he’d been lucky. The fire would take care of any evidence. At least he’d had the presence of mind to douse her with gasoline before he ran. She’d be destroyed, along with anything of his own he’d left behind when he’d run.

Which left point three. His escape. He hadn’t been seen running to his own car. Lucky, lucky. Next time he couldn’t count on that kind of luck. He’d have to come up with a better means of escape. One that, even were he spotted, would do the police no good. He smiled. He knew just what to do there.

He considered his plan. It was good. But, he had to admit, it was the sex that had made the evening complete. He’d killed before. He’d taken sex before. But now, having experienced murder and sex together, he couldn’t imagine one without the other.

It should come as no surprise, really. It was, he supposed, his one... weakness. And perhaps his greatest strength. Of all the weapons he’d ever wielded, sex was the finest. The most basic.

Of all the ways to put a woman in her place, it was the very best. Young, old... it didn’t really matter. The enjoyment, the release, was in the taking—and knowing they would never go a day without remembering that they were weak. And he was strong.

His biggest problem was that he’d let them live. It was almost what had gotten him caught before. It was almost what had earned him a punishment far greater than he’d experienced in the laughable juvenile detention system. He’d learned from that, too, as evidenced by Caitlin Burnette. If one planned to rape a woman, make sure she didn’t live to tell the tale.

But he had to be completely honest. Technically, the night had gone off much better than he’d dared hope. Realistically, he’d failed. He’d missed his target. In the light of day, the fire, even taking Caitlin, paled. This couldn’t be about fire. The fire could only be the tool. This was about payment. Retribution. Old lady Dougherty had escaped her fate. She was out of town. For Thanksgiving. He’d gotten that much from the girl. But she’d come back and when she did, he’d be waiting.

Until then, he had more to do. Miss Penny Hill was next on his mental list of offenders. She and old lady Dougherty had been thick as thieves. Penny Hill had believed Dougherty’s lies. So did I, in the beginning. In the beginning, Dougherty had promised them safety. His lips twisted. Hope. But in the end she’d turned, accusing them of things they hadn’t done. Her promise of safety was mercilessly broken. She kicked them out on the street and Hill had shipped them away, like cattle. It’s for the best, Hill had said as she’d driven them away, straight into hell on earth. You’ll see. But it hadn’t been for the best.

She’d lied, just like all the others. He and Shane had been helpless, homeless. Vulnerable. Old lady Dougherty was home-less. Soon enough she’d be helpless. And then dead. Now it was Penny Hill’s turn to become helpless and homeless. And dead. It was only fair. To use her own words, it was for the best. She’d see.

He checked the clock. He had someplace to be. He didn’t want to be late.

Count to Ten
by by Karen Rose

  • Mass Market Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
  • ISBN-10: 0446616907
  • ISBN-13: 9780446616904