The Dancing Girls
"I was just blown away by its climax, wandering around going OMG… Found it totally gripping… impossible to put down." ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐Muse Books
Jo pulled together the victims’ pictures. In all cases their arms were askew, in a way that looked like—what? It was like they were freeze-framed in the middle of some action. It was like they were dancing.
When loving wife Jeanine Hammond is found dead in a small leafy town in Massachusetts, newly promoted Detective Jo Fournier is shocked to her core. Why leave her body posed like a ballerina? Why steal her wedding band and nothing else? Hungry for answers, Jo questions Jeanine’s husband, but the heart-breaking pain written on his face threatens to tear open Jo’s old wounds. It’s the same pain she felt when her boyfriend was cruelly shot dead by a gang in their hometown of New Orleans. She couldn’t get justice for him, but she’s determined to get justice for Jeanine’s devastated family.
But before Jo can get answers, another woman is found, wedding ring stolen, body posed in the same ritualistic way.
Digging through old files, Jo makes a terrifying link to a series of cold cases. She knows a serial killer is on the loose, but nobody will listen to the truth – not her bosses, nor the FBI. Still, Jo won’t let her superiors keep her from stopping the murderer in his tracks, even if it means the end of her career.
Just as she is beginning to lose hope, she finds messages on the victims’ computers that feel like the crucial missing link. But she knows the murderer is moments away from selecting his next victim. Will she be able to take down the most twisted killer of her career before another innocent life is lost?
An absolutely unputdownable and brilliant new crime thriller series that fans of Robert Dugoni, Lisa Regan and Melinda Leigh will devour in one sitting.
Discover more Detective Jo Fournier thrillers. Each book can be read as a standalone:
1. The Dancing Girls
2. Taken to the Grave
3. Her Daughter's Cry
Release date: May 17, 2019
Print pages: 350
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The Dancing Girls
The man adjusted his fedora as he collapsed into the hotel room. The woman with him stumbled and laughed as they pushed through the door, unaware she’d finished their bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon alone. He pulled her into an embrace, teased her with a long kiss, then whispered in her ear, “Where’s the switch?”
Her hand slid along the wall until light filled the room.
He gauged her lack of coordination. She tossed her purse onto the laminate nightstand a little too hard, then teetered and almost fell while kicking off her heels. He nodded to himself, loosened his tie, and eased toward the bed.
“Come here.” His most charming smile slid over his face and he extended his hand. “I can’t wait anymore.”
She met his gaze through lowered lashes and reached back to the zipper of her dress.
“No, my love, I want to undress you.”
She ambled toward him, head tilted, and raised her hand to his.
Humming a snippet of the last song they’d danced to at dinner, he twirled her in a slow circle, then drew her into his arms, her back to his chest. A soft moan escaped her lips as he kissed her neck and ran his hands down the sides of her body, then trailed a hand back up the smooth aubergine silk to cradle her breast. She gasped as he caressed her nipple.
He pulled his tie past her cheek, smooth fingers stroking her skin as they slid by, and his teeth tugged at her earlobe. He gathered the thin, blond hair off the nape of her neck with a single finger, brushed his lips against her exposed skin, then paused to drink in the woodsy notes of her perfume mingling with the floral scent of her hair.
His hand slipped from her breast to her elbow, and he pressed her closer, closing his eyes to relish the softness and warmth of her abdomen.
“Ouch, darling, that’s too tight.” She gave a throaty laugh.
He made no move to loosen the grip. With a pickpocket’s light touch, he wound the tie, now draped around her neck, through the fingers of his free hand.
Then he twisted, with one fierce, swift pull.
She tried to call out, but only managed a hoarse hiss. His wrist wrenched the joined ends a second time with a practiced swivel, then a third, driving the fabric deep into her flesh.
Her body tensed and jerked, seeking any escape. First, she tried to pull away, then pushed back against him—futile movements, with her arms pinioned against her sides. When she tried to kick backward, he smiled—he’d positioned her mere inches from the bed, without enough distance to gain purchase and damage him. She tried to push off from the bed frame, desperate to angle enough leverage, and failed.
A sublime sense of power surged through him.
He pulled his attention from her struggle to the side of her face. He memorized her expression, the panic in her brown eyes, let the faint sound of her stifled grunts imprint their melody on his brain. Then he shifted to the delicious tension in her muscles and waited for it to drain away, his signal that her oxygen had run out and her world had dimmed.
He remained in place for several minutes after she went limp, to make sure. He closed his eyes again and used the time to savor the weight of her limp body in his arms and his complete control of her fate. You danced at my command. Ate and drank according to my whims. Rose to a fever pitch of desire because I willed it. And now, finally, you die.
And you never suspected.
His erection pushed against his trousers.
He twirled her body around to face him and held her right hand up and out. Cursing her extra pounds, he lifted her slightly and placed his feet under hers. He whistled the opening strains of ‘Roses from the South,’ then glided forward, swaying her through the steps in his makeshift ballroom.
Dance, my marionette, because I will it. Compliant. For my pleasure alone.
Her head lolled back, a grotesque caricature of a traditional closed hold. The accident delighted him, swelling his erection so painfully he was forced to stop.
Laughing, he brought her back to the side of the bed, dropped his arms and stepped back, allowing her to slide down the bed and onto the floor. He untangled his tie from her neck and smoothed it out, then put it back under his collar. He knelt beside her, slipped off her wedding ring, and put it into his breast pocket. Then he pushed her right arm out at an angle, left hand back toward her body, and recreated the accidental loll of her head. He stood back up and considered. She could just as easily be a ballerina as a ballroom dancer—but it would do. He captured a freeze-frame into his mind.
Then he scanned the room, running his mental eye over every movement he made since entering. He hadn’t touched anything. He hadn’t dropped anything. Nothing to clean up.
Satisfied, he pulled a tissue out of the box in the bathroom, used it to open the door, and stepped into the hallway. As the lock clicked into place behind him, he tucked the tissue into his pocket on top of the ring, then pulled his fedora down again and angled his head so the security camera wouldn’t capture his face.
The man kept his face down and his hat angled even after reaching his rental car. The parking lot had no cameras—he’d done his research—but the devil was in the details.
He laughed at the accidental irony of the cliché.
He slid behind the wheel of the car and eased out of the parking lot. Under the cover of darkness, the cloyingly quintessential New England college town was far easier for him to stomach—this way, the gabled Georgians and flat-faced colonials held an air of mystery as they clung to the splotches of street light, stretching away from the inky woods that crept up on them. But the university was better lit, and as he drove through the mixture of quaint red-brick federal buildings and clashing uber-modern architecture, he fought the temptation to hunch down. Students were far more likely to notice a bent-over creeper than someone simply going about their business. He watched a student pick up a leaf from the sidewalk, twirl it to show off the golden-red color, and hand it to the girl holding his hand. She smiled, then thanked her beau with a long kiss.
His eyebrows rose in admiration. A simple, easy trick for charming a girl—he’d stash that away for future use.
He turned onto the highway leaving Massachusetts, then glanced at his watch. Just before midnight, right on schedule. The drive to Syracuse should take about four hours this time of night, even with a long enough detour to safely fill up the tank. Then he’d return the car, grab something to eat at the airport, and sleep on the flight home.
He double-checked the timing and ticked each step off his mental list. When the car pulled onto the nearly empty highway, he tossed the fedora over to the passenger seat and ran his fingers through his squashed brown hair.
The delay was agonizing but vital. No matter how much he assured himself the police would never know his actual name, he’d be haunted by flashes of it listed on flight manifests and Avis rental records. His mind was a terrier that couldn’t release that type of bone—a blessing and a curse—and he’d toss and turn for weeks, covered in sweat as he tried to sleep. Driving the entire way was also out of the question; it would take days, and exhaust him. Either way, he wouldn’t be able to savor the kill properly after the fact.
This was the compromise. No records left in the target area but fast enough to get home within a day. Tomorrow he’d be safe, everything would be tended to, and he’d linger over the reward in his own bed.
Lieutenant Josette Fournier stepped out of the elevator cradling her latte, the closest she could get to an old-fashioned café au lait this far from New Orleans. She’d only managed three hours sleep the night before, and it was hitting her like a meteorite trailing a wrecking ball. When she was twenty, even thirty, she could get by with next to no sleep for days, even work two or three days with no sleep at all. At thirty-seven, her days of consequence-free all-nighters were behind her. She took a deep draw from the Starbucks cup, let the warm liquid glide down her throat. God bless caffeine. She looked down and sighed as a drop landed on the front of her gray suit. And dry cleaning.
What else could she do? The work didn’t stop because she needed sleep. Once she’d mastered the rhythm of the new position, this intense phase would pass. But for now, it left little time for anything other than work, including sleep. She pushed her hand through the layered chestnut hair overdue for a cut and rubbed the brow above her tired green eyes.
Jo strode down the long hotel hallway toward the group of officers standing near the target room. They nodded and stepped aside to let her pass. Detectives Bob Arnett and Christine Lopez stood just outside the door while the forensic team examined the crime scene. Arnett, whose graying black hair was always just a little longer than looked good on his round face, was checking his notes against the scene. Jo had partnered with him for years before her promotion and trusted him implicitly. Lopez, a new transfer, bent forward in a squat, her long black hair piled into a protective cap, directing the team to take specific pictures. In the short time she’d known Lopez, who was ten years her junior, she’d come to admire her attention to detail and her computer savvy—but worried about her intensity. Jo glanced at the tech next to her, a man she’d never seen before—broad-shouldered, with blue eyes and black hair, he was just the type her mother always tried to match her up with. Oppressive fatigue washed over her at the thought of both her mother’s fix-ups and the effort involved in dating. Her mind flashed to the romantic dinner her boyfriend Karl had scheduled for later that night.
She peered into the open room, past the entry bottleneck. A slight, blond woman lay collapsed on the floor, limbs askew. No blood or other evidence of a struggle. From this distance, she might simply have passed out, suffered a heart attack or stroke.
“Catch me up,” she said.
Arnett looked up and lifted his chin in greeting. “Woman found strangled in her room. Maid found her during routine housekeeping this morning. Noticed marks on her neck and was smart enough to leave her alone, except to take a pulse. Victim was strangled with some sort of thick cord, no other marks. No murder weapon yet.”
“Do we know who she is?”
“License says Jeanine Hammond, thirty-five. We’re pulling her information. Home address is listed as Green Rapids, Ohio.” Arnett didn’t glance at his notes; he rarely needed to.
“What brings her to beautiful downtown Oakhurst?”
“No idea yet. Checked in yesterday around 4:15 p.m., alone, room booked in her name only. Looks like very little has been touched. She left again shortly after she arrived, and the log shows her key opened the room again at 11:39 last night. Medical examiner’s first estimate is she was killed shortly after that. The door opened one final time fifteen minutes later.”
“Did anybody see her come in?”
“Not sure yet. We need to talk to the night clerk and check the surveillance tapes.”
Arnett shook his head. “Doesn’t look like it. Cash and credit cards in her wallet, and she’s sporting a diamond necklace. Laptop on the desk, bags nearly pristine.”
The bottleneck cleared, and Jo stepped forward as far as the tape would let her. “She was strangled on the floor, but there’s no sign of a struggle. That seems odd.”
“She wasn’t strangled on the floor. The ME said the bruises and ligature marks indicate she was strangled while standing up.”
“Really.” Fournier craned her neck left and right. “Mind if I take a look myself?”
Arnett smiled—they both knew she didn’t have to ask for permission. He gestured to the protective gear. “Help yourself.”
She suited up, ducked under the tape, and followed him over to Jeanine. Over fifteen years on the force, and she still felt the same anger, desperation, and fear every time she faced a dead body: Anger at the distorted egos that fueled such callous disregard for life, desperation that she couldn’t prevent such tragedies, and fear that she’d be unable to find justice for this victim. Even so, this one hit her harder than they normally did. The woman’s face, flushed red from the petechiae spreading angrily across her cheeks, mouth open and tongue slightly swollen, had an unusual expression that tugged at Jo—there was an element of sadness to the expression, like the woman had died realizing that none of her hopes and dreams would be fulfilled.
Jo stooped for a closer look at the red welts encircling her neck. “Fairly even ligature marks. Do we know what he used to strangle her? No way he used his bare hands.”
“Not yet. We’ll take in any possibilities we find and test them out.”
She nodded and straightened up, then took a step back, taking in a bird’s eye view. “The ME’s sure she wasn’t strangled lying down?”
“Seemed to be. Why?” He followed her glance to Jeanine.
“The angle of her neck feels odd to me. And that left arm, would it fall like that otherwise?”
Arnett shrugged. “No idea. I’ll ask him.”
She bent down again. Jeanine’s left ring finger was dented where a ring had been, the line clearly demarcated as though something invisible were pushing the skin back. That didn’t last for very long once a ring was removed if it had been worn for any length of time—as Jo knew too well. She pointed to the finger. “Have you found a wedding ring lying around?”
“Nope, and we’ve looked.”
“Maybe. We’ll know soon.” Arnett’s brows drew together at an angle, an expression Jo recognized. Something wasn’t sitting right with him.
“Met the wrong guy at a bar?”
“Could be. But there’re no signs of sexual assault we can see.”
“We can’t be sure yet, so we’ll have to put a pin in that. Anything you need from me before I head down for my chat with the manager?”
“Not as yet.”
“Then I’ll go do the drill.” She nodded her head to acknowledge Lopez, who was still talking to the forensics team.
Jo walked back down the hall, deep in thought, her fingers toying with the diamond necklace nestled into the base of her neck. Oakhurst was deceptively big, despite a carefully cultivated small-town feel, and murders had been increasing the last few years. Still, she shared Arnett’s feeling; there was something odd about this one she couldn’t pinpoint. Just an uneasy sense that something wasn’t right, like when you walk into a room filled with silent people and can taste the tension.
Didn’t look like she’d be making that dinner with Karl tonight after all.
Jo flipped the deadbolt on her door well past midnight. She dropped her keys onto the coffee table and winced as they clanked against the glass. Light flooded the hall from the bedroom; Karl was still awake. She hung up her coat to the sound of his feet thumping the floor—not his normal relaxed tread, but a pointed, angry clomp. She looked up to find him glaring silently at her, arms wrapped across his chest.
“What’m I supposed to do, Karl? It’s my job. You know that.” Her eyes pleaded with him.
“A phone call, maybe, rather than a text. Or take a half-hour break to touch base with me, I’ll come to you. You have to eat one way or the other.”
She crossed the living room to his side and tried an apologetic smile. “I haven’t eaten, actually, and you know how rare that is for me. But you’re right. I should have called you.”
“Why didn’t you?”
Her smile faltered. The truth wasn’t going to help, but she was too burned out to come up with a way to finesse. “Honestly, because I knew you’d be upset and I was avoiding it for the moment.”
“We’ve been waiting on those reservations for three months, Josette. Three months.” The words jerked out.
“I know. I’m sorry.” She slid her hand onto his arm.
He remained motionless and silent.
The fatigue washed over her again, bleaching out her normally abundant tact and good sense. She turned and crossed back through the living room to the kitchen. “I know, I know, you’ve heard it before. I’ll see if I can’t convince the next killer to pick a better night.” She registered his shocked silence, followed by his footsteps back to bed.
She sighed. There was such a thing as too much truth, and she knew better. She’d apologize in the morning.
She started some soft jazz playing through her Bluetooth speakers and turned to pour herself a drink. She grimaced—the counter was covered in coffee grounds. As she wiped it down and pushed the coffee maker back into its place against the wall, her therapist’s voice echoed through her head, reminding her not everybody felt the need to be as freakishly clean and orderly as she did.
She reached into the cabinet and pulled down a bottle of calvados and a snifter. She worked too hard, she was never home, she always disappointed him. And despite all that, she was struggling to get a handle on work too, even after two months as lieutenant. Maybe she wasn’t the right person for it. The saying claimed you rose to the level of your incompetence, promoted until you sat forever in a job you weren’t good enough to be promoted out of. She used to laugh at the cynicism of that; now she wondered. She’d been a damned good detective, by every measure. She’d made detective faster than anyone in the history of the Oakhurst County State Police Detective Unit, had the highest rate of solved homicides in each of her eleven years as detective, and had received three commendations over her fifteen years of service. Not just because she loved what she did, but because it was what she had to do. She shook her head to clear the painful memories, one in particular, from her visits back to New Orleans as a teenager. She hadn’t been able to get justice for Marc’s death, and she’d never allow another criminal to go free on her watch.
So she’d hesitated when Assistant District Attorney Rockney came to her, and only considered the promotion to lieutenant because he’d assured her she’d be allowed a hand in investigations. But until today, that hadn’t happened, and her anchor to the work she loved slipped further and further away. And while she’d always been good at managing a team, this was different. Her choices now affected people’s careers, and someone’s nose was always out of joint. She’d believed a moral person who always tried to do the right thing for the right reason would ultimately be respected for her choices. She was wrong.
And more and more, a voice whispered to her that maybe the promotion had been a mistake, that it wasn’t what she was meant to do. Maybe she should just quit, go back to detective. Make everyone happier.
Her phone rang. Arnett.
“Do you have a minute for me to catch you up on the hotel strangling?”
She poured two fingers into the glass. “I’m at the house. Fill me in over a drink?”
“You know me, never turn down free booze.”
Five minutes later, Arnett’s brisk knock broke the silence. Jo motioned him into the living room where a gin and tonic waited. Arnett settled in and leaned back on the sofa, drink in hand.
“How’s everything coming with Laura?” Jo asked.
He took a long sip. “She moved back home, but she’s sleeping in the guest bedroom for now. We’re walking on eggshells, trying to figure it out.”
Jo studied the mix of emotions on his face. “That’s a step in the right direction.”
“Yeah, funny how it works. She cheats, and I’m the one that’s hard to forgive.”
“Nobody ever said marriage was easy.”
He raised his glass in a toast. “Truth.”
Jo clinked with her snifter. “So, what’s the news with the case?”
“Information’s coming quickly about Jeanine Hammond. She’s married alright, not divorced or separated, and her husband was expecting her back at the end of the week. With her wedding ring. No kids. She was here for a management training retreat. You know, motivation and team-building skills. She worked for Gelarking & Scribes Inc., a paper goods company specializing in high-end stationery. Oversaw her own small department. I contacted the company and they confirmed the purpose of her trip. So did the company heading the retreat.”
“Anybody else missing?”
“Nope, otherwise all present and accounted for.”
“How was the relationship with the husband?”
“Here’s the thing. They informed him and got the basics, took the computers, all that. But I don’t want to probe too much until we can talk to him in person, and I’d like to do it myself. I’d prefer you to come if you can break away. The missing wedding ring is bothering me—seems significant, with no other theft. We can do some digging while we’re there.”
“Why not Lopez?”
“Her mother’s in the hospital, had a nasty fall. Stable for now, but Lopez doesn’t want to leave town. So, I thought you and I could put the band back together for a day.” Arnett met her eye over his drink. He knew her well enough to read her restlessness.
Frustration stabbed through Jo. She didn’t just want to conduct these interviews, she needed to. Needed to sink her teeth into something, feel herself making a difference the way she had when she was a detective—and glossing over official business with the hotel manager hadn’t been enough. She glanced toward the bedroom and tried to shut out the thousand responsibilities sitting on her desk at the station. “How long do you think it’ll take?”
“From what I can tell, we should be able to handle it in a day. The husband’s the main thing, maybe the boss.”
Karl was pissed anyway—maybe space for a day or two would help. And dammit, the only promise she’d made to herself when she took the job was that she’d stay hands-on with cases.
“Rockney can keep the wheels on for a day. Make the arrangements. Anything else come back yet?” She sipped the calvados.
“I talked to the ME. He confirmed there was no sexual assault of any kind. Cause of death was asphyxiation; she was strangled with some sort of cloth. The marks on the neck suggest that something was wrapped around and twisted at the right front side to tighten it. No fibers left in the wound that they can see, but they’ll take a closer look. Some bruising on the arms around the elbows. Their guess is that she was held in place by someone standing behind her while she was strangled. And, while he agreed that the positioning of the limbs and head was odd, he couldn’t rule out it could have happened just from her falling.”
She nodded, but remained unconvinced. “Any clues from the room?”
“They’re still working on it, but it doesn’t look good. Plenty of fingerprints—don’t get me started on how bad the maids clean—so we’re eliminating those that have a reason to be there. But even then, any good defense attorney can make a good case for why a print’s in that room unless we come up with something else to go along with it, and we got nothing so far. It doesn’t look like she spent any real time in the room before she was murdered, hadn’t unpacked, nothing. She used the toilet, and there are a few hairs in the bathroom; we’re waiting for the tests, but they looked like a match for the ones in her brush. I don’t see us getting much unless we get extremely lucky.”
“What about the surveillance tapes?”
“Good news is, camera caught her coming in the north side entrance with a male companion in a fedora. He came back out the same entrance, alone, seventeen minutes later. Bad news is, camera’s angled up so high, we can’t see his face. I’m having Renny take a look at it, see if he can do some enhancement to pick up anything useful.” Arnett’s index finger tapped the side of his glass.
Jo registered the tapping. Something was on Arnett’s mind. He was an excellent detective, with good skills and good instincts; if he was bothered, there was a reason. “Want to. . .
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