Once, She Got Away
The body lying on a cold steel slab bears all the hallmarks of the Chicago Butcher. There's a cruel slash across her throat, deep enough to sever the carotid artery, and a small crescent carved into her right breast. Her delicate features are painfully familiar to Ash Marcel, once a rising star in the Chicago PD. But though the victim resembles his former fiancee, Remi Walsh, he knows it's not her.
But This Time
Though Remi escaped a serial killer five years ago, her father died trying to save her. Grief and guilt caused her to pull away from the man she loved. Now Ash is back in her life, insisting that Remi is still in danger.
It's a Dead End . . . .
Someone is targeting women who look just like Remi. With or without a badge, Ash intends to unmask the Butcher. But the killer isn't playing games any longer. He's moving in, ready to finish what he started, and prove there's nothing more terrifying than a killer's obsession . . . .
Release date: December 31, 2019
Publisher: Zebra Books
Print pages: 323
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The Intended Victim
With a grimace, he dropped into his seat behind the cluttered desk. A sigh escaped his lips. It was only noon, but he was grateful he was done teaching his classes for the day.
The students weren’t the only ones looking forward to the end of the semester, he wryly acknowledged. Early December in the Midwest meant short, brutally cold days. A bunch of twentysomethings trapped inside for weeks at a time was never a good thing. His classroom was choking with their pent-up energy.
But it was Friday. And Monday the students started finals. Which meant that in less than seven days, he could look forward to a month of peace and quiet.
Pretending he didn’t notice the tiny ache in the center of his heart at the thought of spending the holidays alone in his small house, Ash opened his laptop. He needed to get through his email before he could call it a day.
He’d barely fired up the computer when the door to his office was shoved open. He glanced up with a forbidding glare. His students were told on the first day of class that they could come to him during his posted office hours. He’d discovered his first year of teaching that they would follow him into the toilet with questions if he didn’t set firm guidelines.
His annoyance, however, swiftly changed to surprise at the sight of the man dressed in a worn blue suit who stepped through the opening.
Detective Jackson “Jax” Marcel.
At a glance, it was easy to tell the two were brothers. They both had light brown hair that curled around the edges. Ash’s was allowed to grow longer now that he was no longer on the police force, and had fewer strands of gray. And they both had blue eyes. Ash’s were several shades darker, and framed by long, black lashes that had been the bane of his childhood. And they were both tall and slender, with muscles that came from long morning jogs instead of time in the gym.
Ash rose to his feet, his brows arching in surprise. It wasn’t uncommon for his family to visit. The university was only a couple of hours from Chicago. But they never just appeared in his office without calling.
Jax stretched his lips into a smile, but it was clearly an effort. “Hey, bro.”
Ash studied his companion. Jax was the oldest of the four Marcel brothers, but they had all been born within a six-year span, so they were all close in age. That was perhaps why they’d always been so tight. You messed with one Marcel, you messed with them all.
“What are you doing here?” Ash demanded.
“I need to talk to you.”
“You couldn’t call?”
Jax grimaced. “I preferred to do it face-to-face.”
Fear curled through the pit of Ash’s stomach. Something had happened. Something bad. He leaned forward, laying his palms flat on the desk.
Jax gave a sharp shake of his head. “The family is fine.”
“Then what’s going on?”
Ash clenched his teeth. His brother’s attempt to delay the bad news was twisting his nerves into a painful knot. “Shit. Just tell me.”
Perhaps realizing that he was doing more harm than good, Jax heaved a harsh sigh.
“It’s Remi Walsh.”
Ash froze. He hadn’t heard the name Remi in five years. Not since he’d packed his bags and walked away from Chicago and the woman who’d promised to be his wife.
“Remi.” His voice sounded oddly hollow. “Is she hurt?”
This time Jax didn’t torture him. He spoke without hesitation.
“Her body arrived in the morgue this morning.”
“No.” The word was wrenched from Ash’s lips as his knees buckled and he collapsed into his chair.
Jax stepped toward the desk, his expression one of pity. “I’m sorry, Ash.”
Ash shook his head. “This has to be a mistake,” he said, meaning every word.
It was a mistake. There was no way in hell that Remi could be dead.
“I wish it was a mistake, bro,” Jax said in sad tones. “But I saw her with my own eyes.”
Ash grimly refused to accept what his brother was telling him. He’d tumbled head over heels in love with Remi from the second she’d strolled into the police station to take her father for lunch. Ash had just made detective and Gage Walsh was his partner. Thankfully, that hadn’t stopped him from asking Remi out. She’d been hesitant at first, clearly unsure she wanted to date someone who worked so closely with her father. But from their first date, they’d both known the sensations that sizzled between them were something special.
That’s why he couldn’t accept that she was gone.
If something had happened to Remi, he would know. In his heart. In his very soul.
“How long has it been since you last spent time with her?” he challenged his brother.
Jax shrugged. “Five years ago.”
“Exactly. How could you possibly recognize her after so long?”
“Ash.” Jax shoved his fingers through his hair, his shoulders stooped. He looked like he was weary to the bone. “Denying the truth doesn’t change it.”
Anger blasted through Ash. He wanted to vault across the desk and slam his fist into his brother’s face for insisting on the lie. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d given Jax a black eye. Of course, his brother had pounded him back, chipping a tooth and covering him in bruises, but it’d been totally worth it.
Instead, he forced himself to leash his raw emotions.
“It’s official?” he demanded.
Jax gave a slow shake of his head. “Not yet. The medical examiner is overwhelmed, as usual. It will be hours before they can run fingerprints, even with me putting pressure on them.”
The anger remained, but it was suddenly threaded with hope. Nothing was official.
The words beat through him, echoing his heavy pulse.
At the same time, he continued to glare at his brother. “Why come here before you’re sure it’s Remi?”
Jax coughed, as if clearing his throat. “I wanted you to be prepared.”
Ash narrowed his gaze. The shock of Jax’s announcement had sent his brain reeling. Which was the only explanation for why he hadn’t noticed his brother’s hands clenching and unclenching. It wasn’t just sympathy that was causing his brother’s unease.
“No. There’s something you’re not telling me,” he said.
Jax glanced toward the window, then down at the scuff marks on his leather shoes. Was he playing for time? Or searching for the right words? “Let’s go for a drink,” he finally suggested.
“Dammit, Jax. This isn’t the time for games,” Ash snapped. “Just tell me.”
Jax’s lips twisted before he forced himself to speak the words he’d clearly hoped to avoid. “She was found with her throat slit.”
Ash surged to his feet, knocking over the chair. It smashed against the wooden floor with a loud bang, but Ash barely noticed.
“Was there a mark?” he rasped.
It’d been only a few weeks after he’d started dating Remi that Gage had put together the connection that a rash of dead women was the work of a serial killer. They’d tagged him the Chicago Butcher because it was suspected he used a butcher’s knife to slice the throats of his victims. Only the cops knew that there had been a hidden calling card left behind by the killer: a small crescent carved onto the women’s right breast. No one knew if it was supposed to be a “c” or a moon, or perhaps some unknown symbol. But it was always there.
“Like the others?” he pressed.
Jax nodded. Ash reached into his pocket to pull out his keys. He’d gone from white-hot emotion erupting through him like lava to an ice-cold determination.
The Chicago Butcher had destroyed his life five years ago. If the bastard was back, Ash was going to track him and kill him. He didn’t care if he had a badge or not.
He tossed his keys to his brother. “Go to my house and pack a bag.”
Jax caught the keys, his brows tugging together. “Ash, there’s nothing you can do.”
“I have to see her,” Ash muttered, not adding his secondary reason for returning to Chicago. His brother was smart. He knew Ash would be hungry for revenge. “She was my fiancée.”
Jax grimaced. “It was all a long time ago.”
Ash snorted. It had been five years, not an eternity. And most of the time it felt like it had all happened yesterday. “We both know it doesn’t matter how long ago it was or you would never have come down here to tell me.”
The older man hunched his shoulders. “I didn’t want you to hear it on the news.”
Ash didn’t believe the excuse for a second. “Pack a bag,” he commanded, reaching down to right his chair. “I’ll be ready by the time you get back.”
“What about your classes?” Jax tried a last-ditch effort to keep Ash away from Chicago.
“Finals are next week.” Ash sat down and reached for the cell phone he’d left on his desk. He might be under thirty, but he held the old-fashioned belief that there was no need for phones in his classroom. Including his own. “I’ll call the dean and warn him there’s been a family emergency. If I’m not back by Monday, my teaching assistant can proctor the exams.”
“I can go back with you or I’ll drive myself,” Ash interrupted.
“Hell, I don’t want you behind the wheel.” Jax pointed a finger toward Ash. “Don’t move until I get back.”
Ash ignored his brother as he turned and left his office. He not only needed to contact the dean, he wanted to make sure that his assistant knew he would be expected to take over his classes if necessary, as well as making his excuses to the dozens of holiday invitations that were waiting in his in-box.
He was just finishing his tasks when his phone pinged with a text, telling him that Jax was waiting for him in the parking lot.
Grabbing his laptop and the coat that hung in the corner, he left the office and closed the door behind him. Then, using the back stairs, he managed to avoid any acquaintances. Right now, he would be incapable of casual chitchat.
Pushing open the door, he stepped out of the building and headed for the nearby parking lot. The sun was shining, but there was a sharp breeze that made him shiver. Like all his brothers, he enjoyed being out in the fresh air, either jogging or spending the weekend camping near the river. But with each passing year, he found he was less willing to brave icy temperatures.
Soon he’d be spending the long winters sitting in front of a warm fire with a comfy sweater and his favorite slippers.
Shaking away his idiotic thoughts, he stopped next to his brother’s car. Opening the door, he slid into the passenger seat and wrapped the seat belt across his body.
“Have you heard anything from the medical examiner?” he demanded as his brother put the car in gear and pulled out of the lot.
“Not yet.” There was silence as Jax concentrated on negotiating the traffic out of town. It wasn’t until they reached the interstate that Jax glanced toward Ash. “Mom will be happy to have you home for a few days. She complains you never bother to come to see her anymore.”
Ash pressed his lips together. It was that or snapping at his brother that this wasn’t a damned social visit. Eventually, however, he forced his tense muscles to relax. He wasn’t so far gone that he didn’t realize that Jax was trying to distract him. And that there was no point in brooding on what he was going to discover once they reached Chicago.
“Mom’s too busy planning Nate’s wedding to notice whether I’m around or not,” he managed to say.
Nate was the youngest Marcel brother, who’d moved to Oklahoma after leaving the FBI. He had proposed to his neighbor, Ellie Guthrie, a few months ago, and she didn’t have a relationship with her own parents, so June Marcel had eagerly stepped in to act as her surrogate mother.
Jax released a short laugh. “She’s been in heaven running around the city to find the perfect flower arrangements and sewing the bridesmaids’ dresses,” he agreed. “The poor woman assumed with four sons she would never have the opportunity to be so involved in all the froufrou nonsense that comes with a wedding.” Jax set the cruise control and settled back in his seat. “Still, you must have been gone too long if you’ve forgotten Mom’s ability to concentrate on more than one thing at a time. I remember her baking cupcakes for Ty’s Boy Scout club while helping Nate with his math homework and at the same time making sure I raked every damned leaf in the backyard because I missed curfew.”
Ash’s lips curved into a rueful smile. His mother was a ruthless force of nature who’d occasionally resorted to fear and intimidation to control her four unruly sons. Mostly she’d smothered them in such love that none of them could bear the thought of disappointing her.
“True. She has a gift.” He felt a tiny pang in the center of his heart. It’d been too long since he’d been home. “I could use her in my classroom.”
“Lord, don’t say that. She’ll be waiting next to your desk with a ruler in her hand,” Jax teased.
Another silence filled the car, then Jax cleared his throat and abruptly asked the question that had no doubt been on his mind for the past five years.
“I never knew what happened between you and Remi.” Jax kept his gaze focused on the road, as if knowing that Ash wouldn’t want him to witness the pain that twisted his features. “One day you were planning your wedding and the next the engagement was off and you were moving away.”
Ash’s breath hissed between his clenched teeth. “The Chicago Butcher happened.”
He expected his brother to drop the issue. His breakup with Remi was something he refused to discuss. His family had always respected his barriers.
But whether he was still trying to keep Ash distracted, or if it was the shock of seeing a woman he believed to be Remi at the morgue, Jax refused to let it go. “You both suffered when she was captured by the Butcher and her father was killed trying to save her,” he pointed out. “I thought it would draw the two of you closer together.”
Ash turned his head to gaze at the frozen fields that lined the road. The memories of that horrifying night were firmly locked in the back of his mind. The frantic phone call from Remi telling her father that she was being followed. Gage Walsh’s stark command that Ash drive Remi’s route in case the killer forced her car off the road on the way home, while he went to his elegant mansion on the North Shore. And then Ash’s arrival at the mansion to discover that he was too late. Gage’s blood had been found at his home, but his body had never been discovered. No one knew why the Butcher would have taken it, unless he feared that he’d left evidence on the corpse that he didn’t have time to remove. The killing, after all, wouldn’t have been planned like the ones of the females he stalked and murdered. Thank God Remi had been alive, although she’d been lying unconscious in the kitchen.
But while he wasn’t about to go into the agonizing details, Jax deserved an answer. The older man had been an unwavering source of strength over the past few years. Whether it was to shut down his father’s angry protests when Ash announced that he was leaving the police department, or driving down to the university and getting him cross-eyed drunk when he was feeling isolated and alone.
“After I brought Remi home from the hospital she started to shut me out,” he said in slow, painful tones. “At first I assumed she would get her memory back, and that she would be able to heal from the trauma she’d gone through.”
“But the memories never came back,” Jax murmured.
“No, they never came back.” Ash grimaced. He’d wasted a lot of emotional energy trying to convince Remi to get professional help to retrieve her memories. As if the return of them could somehow heal the growing breach between them. It was only with time and distance he could see that they were struggling with more than the trauma of her being attacked by the Butcher. “But it was the guilt that destroyed our hopes for the future.”
His brother sent him a sharp glance. “Guilt for what?”
Ash gave a sad shake of his head. “Remi felt guilty for her father’s death. She had a crazy idea that if she hadn’t called to say she was being followed, her father would still be alive. And to be honest, it only made it worse that his body was never found. I think a part of her had desperately hoped he would miraculously return. With each passing day, she blamed herself more and more.”
“And your guilt?” Jax pressed.
“I should never have let Gage go there alone. I was his partner.”
Jax muttered a curse. “His younger partner. Gage was your superior, and it was his call to split up so you could cover more ground. Just as it was your duty to obey his order.”
Ash shrugged. Easy to say the words; it was much harder to dismiss the gnawing remorse. If only . . .
Heaving a sigh, he leaned back his head against the seat and closed his eyes. He’d given Jax the explanation he demanded. He didn’t have the strength to argue whether it made any sense or not.
Ash kept his eyes closed even as the traffic thickened and they slowed to a mere crawl. He’d driven to the morgue enough times to know exactly when they were pulling into the side parking lot.
Lifting his head, he studied the long, cement-block building with two rows of narrow windows. Nothing had changed in the past few years. Maybe the trees lining the street had grown a little taller, and they’d replaced the flags out front. Otherwise, it was the same stark structure he remembered.
Jax switched off the engine, turning his head toward Ash. “I wish you wouldn’t do this.”
“I have to.” Ash unbuckled the seat belt and pushed open the door before stepping out.
Behind him was the sound of hurried footsteps as Jax rushed to keep up. Not that Ash was going to get far without him. He was no longer a cop, which meant he would have to hang on to the hope that Remi still had him listed as an emergency contact to get past security.
Much easier to let Jax do his thing.
Quickly at his side, Jax took charge as they entered the building. They were halted twice, but Jax flashed his badge and quickly they were stepping into a harshly lit room that felt ice-cold.
Ash shivered. He hated coming here. Even when it was a part of his job. Now his stomach was twisted so tight, it felt like it’d been yanked into knots.
They were led by a technician down a long row of steel racks where bodies wrapped in heavy plastic waited for an official ID. Or perhaps for an autopsy. He’d tried not to really notice what was going on behind the scenes. Now he felt as if he was in a dream as the technician waved for them to stop and Jax wrapped an arm around his shoulders. No, it was more like a nightmare. One that wasn’t going to end if it truly was Remi who was being slid out on a steel slab.
Taking care not to disturb the body any more than necessary, the technician slowly pulled back the plastic cover. Ash made a choked sound as he caught sight of the long, black hair that was glossy enough to reflect the overhead light. It was pulled away from a pale, beautiful face, just like Remi liked to wear it.
He swayed to the side, leaning heavily against his brother as pain blasted through him. “Christ.”
“Steady,” Jax murmured.
Ash’s gaze absorbed the delicate features. They were so heart-wrenchingly familiar. The slender nose. The high, prominent cheekbones. The dark, perfectly arched brows. The lush lips.
“I didn’t want to believe,” he rasped, his voice coming from a long way away. As if he was falling off a cliff and was waiting to hit the bottom.
Would he die when that happened?
He hoped so.
What would be the point of living in a world without Remi Walsh?
“I’m sorry,” Jax said, his own voice harsh with pain.
Ash’s gaze remained locked on Remi’s lips. It’d been five years, but he still remembered their last kiss. He’d just told her that he intended to take a job at the university. Deep inside, he’d hoped she would be furious at his decision. He wanted her to fight for their future together. Instead, she’d offered a sad smile and leaned forward to brush her mouth over his in a silent goodbye.
He’d nearly cried even as he’d savored the taste of her strawberry lip balm . . .
Ash stilled. Lip balm. Why was there a warning voice whispering at the back of his fuzzy brain? Maybe he was going crazy. What the hell did her lips have to do with anything? He frowned, telling himself to turn away.
He’d done what he came there to do. What was the point of gawking at Remi as if he hoped she would suddenly open her eyes? It was time to go.
But his feet refused to budge. He knew Jax was staring at him in confusion, and that the technician was starting to shift from one foot to another, but still he continued to run his gaze over Remi’s pale face.
Something was nagging at him. But what?
Then his gaze returned to her mouth, and he realized what his unconscious mind was trying to tell him.
She was wearing lipstick. A bright-red shade. And more than that, there was makeup plastered on her skin and what looked like false lashes stuck to her lids. The harsh lighting had washed everything to a dull shade of ash, which was why he hadn’t noticed it the minute the cover had been pulled back.
“That’s not her,” he breathed.
“Ash.” Jax’s arm tightened around his shoulder. “I know this is tough, but—”
“It’s not her,” Ash interrupted, his heart returning to sluggish life.
How had he been so blind? Remi never wore makeup. Not even when her mother insisted on dragging her to some fancy-ass party. She claimed that it made her skin itch, plus she didn’t feel the need to slap paint on herself to try to impress other people. If they didn’t like her face, they didn’t have to look at it.
Her down-to-earth attitude was one of the things he’d loved about her.
Of course, as far as he was concerned, she was gorgeous. She didn’t need anything artificial to make his palms sweat and his pulse race.
“How can you be sure?” Jax demanded, his voice revealing his fear that Ash had gone over the edge. “Like you said, it’s been five years. She could have changed in that time. Unless there’s something you haven’t told me?”
Ash jutted his chin. He wasn’t going to explain about the makeup. Jax would tell him a woman might very well alter her opinion about cosmetics as she started to age. Or perhaps she had a boyfriend who wanted her to plaster her face with the gunk. Besides, now that he was looking at the dead woman with his brain and not his heart, he could start to detect physical differences. The nose was just a tad too long. Her brow not quite wide enough. And her jaw too blunt.
“I’m sure.” His voice was strong. Confident. “It’s not her.”
“He’s right.” A new voice cut through the air, echoing eerily through the racks of dead bodies. “I just got back the results from the fingerprints.”
They all turned to watch as Dr. Jack Feldman, one of the city’s top medical examiners, stepped out of the shadows. A short man with salt-and-pepper hair and a neatly trimmed beard, he was wearing a white lab coat that didn’t hide the start of an impressive potbelly. He’d been a good friend of Gage Walsh, and had extended that friendship to Ash when he’d become Gage’s partner.
He’d also adored Remi, treating her like she was his own child. It must have been a hideous shock to have a woman who looked so much like her show up in his morgue.
“Feldman,” Ash murmured, stepping away from his brother so he could pull the older man into a rough hug.
They shared a silent moment of tangled emotions, then the doctor slapped him on the back and pulled away to study him with a sympathetic gaze.
“Good to see you, Ash, although not under these circumstances.”
Ash cleared his throat, his attention moving toward the electronic pad clutched in Feldman’s hand. “Did you get an ID?”
Feldman held up a hand before he glanced toward the silent technician.
“I’ll take it from here, Jimmy,” he told the young man. They waited until Jimmy turned and left the room before Feldman led them to a distant corner. His dark gaze rested on Ash’s face. “I shouldn’t be talking to you, but I’m pretty sure you’ll get the information one way or another. Plus, you’re one of us, even if you did jump ship for a while. Eventually you’ll come back where you belong.”
They were words he’d heard from a dozen different lawmen when he’d announced his decision to leave the Chicago Police Department and take a job teaching. And in truth, a part of him had secretly agreed.
Being a detective was in his blood.
He shook away the thought, nodding toward the electronic pad. “Who is she?”
Feldman lifted the pad and touched the screen to call up a file. “Her name is Angel Conway. She’s a twenty-five-year-old white female. Five feet, six inches tall. One hundred thirty pounds.”
Ash frowned. “Is she local?”
“No.” Feldman brushed his finger over the screen. “Her address is Bailey, Illinois. A small town fifty miles south of the city.”
Ash glanced toward Jax, who gave a shake of his head. He’d never heard of the town.
“Do you have any other info?”
Feldman was silent as he read through the short report. Ash knew Feldman must have shouted and bullied and called in every favor owed him to get any information so quickly. The Chicago coroner’s department was notoriously understaffed and overworked. It was only because of their dedicated staff that they weren’t completely overwhelmed.
“It looks like she worked at a convenience store and has a rap sheet for petty crimes,” Feldman murmured. “Mostly stealing and one count of prostitution.”
Ash tried to process what he was being told. Not easy when his brain was still foggy from the extreme emotions that had battered him. Fear. Shock. Grief. Soul-shaking relief.
He did, however, tuck away the information so he could pull it out later and truly consider what it all meant. “Where did they find her?”
“Jameson Park,” Feldman said.
Ash lifted his brows in surprise. Jameson Park was built along the shores of Lake Michigan, and popular enough to be crowded this time of year despite the frigid weather. Plus, it would have a regular patrol officer who would do sweeps through the area.
A dangerous place to do a dump.
“That doesn’t fit the pattern,” he said.
“No. But everything else does,” Feldman told him, turning around the pad so Ash could see the photos taken of Angel Conway’s naked body.
For a second his stomach rolled in protest. It’d been a while since he’d seen death up close and personal. And the violence one person could inflict on another. Then he sucked in a slow, deep breath.
Shutting down his emotions, he studied the picture with a professional attention to detail. He’d learned as a detective it was too easy to be overwhelmed by death. He had to break it down to small, individual pieces to keep himself focused on what was important.
Leaning forward, he studied the cut that marred the slender throat. It was thin and smooth and just deep enough to slice through the carotid artery. There were no hesitation marks, no ragged edges to indicate nerves or anger. It was a precision kill that seemed to be oddly lacking in emotion.
Next, his gaze moved to the small wound on the woman’s upper breast. It was carved into a neat crescent shape. This was the one detail they’d never revealed to the public.
“Christ,” he breathed as he straightened. “He’s back.”
Jax reached out to grasp his shoulder. “We can’t jump to conclusions, Ash.”
Ash understood his brother’s warning. There was nothing more dangerous for an investigator than leaping to a conclusion, then becoming blind to other possibilities.
But he was no longer a detective, and his gut instinct was screaming that th. . .
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