Tag Archives: Psychological Suspense

Book Review: ‘Sweet Karoline’ by Catherine Astolfo

 

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000040_00070]“I met Ethan on the day that I killed Karoline.”

Thus begins this psychological mystery. One has to admit, it is a great hooky first line for a book!

What if, in a moment of thoughtless anger, you were to wish your best friend’s demise, then, soon after, that friend ended up dead?

This is the story of our smart, beautiful, psychologically fragile protagonist Anna Williams who, tortured by feelings of shame and guilt after Karoline’s death, suffers an emotional breakdown.

Yet…did Anne really kill Karoline? I couldn’t help but wonder as I turned the pages, asking myself, “Is she a psychopath?” I kept having the unsettling sensation that what I was reading wasn’t what it appeared to be. In this sense, this is a deliciously engaging novel.

Through Anna’s twisted perspective, and with the help of brief and somewhat odd journal entries, author Catherine Astolfo explores the complex relationship between the two friends. The reader will get a glimpse of Anne’s inner journey as she uncovers painful childhood events and discovers a family history filled with unexpected crimes and betrayals.

Sweet Karoline is an exploration into the dark corners of a young woman’s psyche as she falls into a vortex of greed, lies, and deceit.

I enjoyed reading this novel. It was different from many other books I’ve read recently. Written in a stream-of-consciousness manner that well suits the complicated mind of the protagonist, this multi-layered, well-paced story could be considered literary mystery. Astolfo pays a lot of attention to language and her prose, drily witty at times, is eloquent and fluid. What leads people to harm others? What prompts a good person to commit evil acts? These are just some of the questions explored in this dark tale of suspense.

If you enjoy a good psychological mystery, you should try this one out. Recommended.

Purchase on Amazon. Visit the author’s website. Read my interview with the author on Blogcritics.

This review first appeared on Blogcritics and was given in exchange for a review copy provided by the publisher, Imajin Books.

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Read-a-Chapter: ‘Sweet Karoline,’ by Catherine Astolfo

Read a Chapter is *NEW* added feature at As the Pages Turn! Here you’ll be able to read the first chapters of books of all genres to see if you like them before you buy them. Today we are featuring the psychological suspense, SWEET KAROLINE, by Catherine Astolfo. Enjoy!

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Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000040_00070]

“I met Ethan on the day that I killed Karoline.” But is Anne Williams really a murderer? Or was her best friend’s death a tragic accident for which Anne blames herself?

This compelling central character embarks on a rollercoaster ride of self-exploration that causes the reader to breathlessly follow her. Throughout an emotional breakdown in the present, sprinkled with flashes of the past that brought her to this point, Anne questions her own decisions, her lifestyle, and those of the friend she thought she knew.

The gripping twists of Karoline’s duplicity are vicious and deplorable. Entangled in the arms of the homicide detective who helped rule the case a suicide, Anne learns about love and decides to trace her complicated past. The journey uncovers dark family secrets, an unusual history, and criminal treachery. Anne must answer the classic question, “Who am I?” amidst a backdrop of racial tension, lies and hidden chronicles. Eventually she has to confront a deadly threat before the entire story becomes clear. Can she survive this maelstrom of revelation and betrayal with her sanity intact?

Title: Sweet Karoline

Genre: Psychological Suspense

Author: Catherine Astolfo

Website: www.catherineastolfo.com 

Publisher: Imajin Books

Purchase on AMAZON

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Chapter One

I met Ethan on the day that I killed Karoline.

Other than a few minor adjustments, I believe that I have handled her murder exceedingly well.

The state of my car, for instance, has become something of a nuisance. Bits of tissue, used napkins, paper cups and pop cans litter the floor at my feet or fly out the window as I drive along. I am invariably subjected to a barrage of honking whenever I reach a red light.

People these days have no patience. They ought to understand that I am busy examining the stray bits in my car. Some of them are works of art. I don’t notice the change to green because they are so infinitely interesting.

This study of creative possibilities has become somewhat of an obsession. In the back of my mind I know that all I have to do is clean it up. Yet the thought of actually tackling the onslaught of debris leaves me inert and helpless.

Ethan offered recently to take me to the car wash. He’d help me dump the debris and vacuum the inside, but I have seriously considered the idea that I may be destroying a future Picasso. I have thus far refused his proposition. Not that I have shared my vision of a Picasso with him, of course. I just say that I never have time.

I have acquired a habit of going shopping. I make lists of things in my mind—groceries, toiletries, cosmetics, medicines, vitamins or clothing—that seem absolutely essential to the arrival of tomorrow. But once inside the pharmacy, the clothing store or the shopping center, the bright lights mesmerize me. My eyes blur and I can’t for the life of me remember what I have come for.

When I do buy something, I am left vaguely dissatisfied, certain that I could have gotten a better bargain somewhere else had I only looked a little longer. Depressed because I had to use my credit card again and this purchase will become just one more thing to do. Write the check. Buy the stamp. Walk to the post box. Mail the envelope.

The little, unfinished things do sometimes bother me. Dirty laundry is piled up in the closet. The bed is always unmade. In the bathroom, the ceiling is slowly cracking from some unspecified leak that I have failed to report to the superintendent. The drapes in the living room neither open nor close anymore.

At first I tended to watch television all night long, despite the fact that the next day I was a zombie. After I decided to go on an extended sick leave, it didn’t matter. I started to sleep all night and all day, never moving unless forced to by some phone call, knock at the door or the call of nature.

I spend hours at the sink. For some reason, the suds and the water are calming. So far I have washed every dish, bowl, and ornament in the apartment two or three times. I reenact advertisements for the latest dishwashing liquid, showing off my lovely long fingers and hands to, well, myself. I speak in a sing-song voice to the imaginary audience, telling them how kind the dishwashing liquid has been to my hands over the years, encouraging them to run right out and buy this product before it disappears from the shelf.

After I’ve allowed the water to swirl down the drain, I shift to spending hours in front of the little mirror that hangs in my kitchen. People tell me that I am a very beautiful woman. On good days, when I feel haughty and happy, I can gaze into the polished glass and agree with their assessment. On other days, I notice the nose that’s a little too upturned. The lips that protrude a bit too much. The dark birthmark above my left eyebrow. The ears that don’t lie flat against my head. I have no idea why I am considered flawless, for I have many perceptible flaws, both inside and out.

My father is white and my mother is black with some Native American thrown into her background. My parents have always bragged that I inherited all the great physical features of those races. Their perspective is far less critical than mine. They focus on all the positives. Naturally wavy hair. Large brown eyes with long curling lashes. High, full cheekbones. A small, pert nose. Lips just thick enough to be called luscious.

I am one of those fortunate people who can eat all day and not gain an ounce. Thus I am described as tall and lean as opposed to thin. I have full breasts and a narrow waist. I am a fast runner and good at any sport I attempt. In Hollywood, I am considered full figured.

My skin is a light brown, the color of coffee with cream I guess you would say, that makes me look as though I’ve just stepped out of a tanning bed. Heads literally turn to stare at me in the street, from across a room, or on the subway. Male and female. To me, it’s a constant source of surprise, chagrin and exasperation.

Lots of people, especially women, have jealously told me that I should be grateful for my looks. But I hate being identified as beautiful. Men tend to stare only at my chest when they talk to me. Or they show me off like some trophy and do not bother to ask my opinion on anything. I have been approached in bars and stores alike. Even in this land of plastic enhanced faces, I literally cannot go anywhere without being stared at or even followed. Most people, in fact, are convinced I am a movie star or model. These are not careers I’ve ever wanted.

I have often been stalked, thus the three sets of locks on our door. Our telephone number is always unlisted and has to be changed once some obsessed man discovers it. When you are lovely on the outside, it’s always difficult to entice people to look for the true person underneath. I’m learning through Ethan that it’s exactly the same for truly ugly people.

Over the years, I learned to live at the surface. It wasn’t hard to do in Los Angeles, where even the air is insipid.

I would prefer to be considered intelligent, but that’s probably not an attribute anyone would mention when they speak of me. I worked very hard to acquire the position of Executive Assistant at Grace Film Productions, which is where I was employed up until last month. I was one of the very lucky ones who loved what I did every day and rarely considered it an effort. My former office is surrounded by windows and is fairly well designed. My desk is large and my chair comfortable. The office building, which houses Grace as well as several other companies, is an architectural beauty. All blue glass and steel, round and elegant, surrounded by greenery and topped with a beautiful grey crown that’s actually an enormous rooftop patio. The front doors open with a swish. The security desk is classy, the carpet plush. The employees are welcoming and friendly. In the lobby and elevators, hushed music fills the air to calm nerves on the way to hear someone’s decision on the success or failure of a movie script.

Grace Films takes a script all the way from the editing stage to production. Sometimes my employers are heavily involved in the resultant movie and sometimes they take an Executive Producer role, basically handing the project off to other producers for the detailed work. My position requires juggling numerous prickly clients, writers, producers, and even actors, who are either nervous or over-confident artists.

I also organize the lives of my bosses, who have enormous egos and expect everything to be done yesterday. I am able to handle details and disasters with a calm, objective exterior and an inner patience that stems from my adoration of talented people. Or, as Karoline would tell you, my love of power.

I frequently go on set to distract or pacify our clients. I learn about their backgrounds, families, likes and dislikes, and treat them accordingly. Some of my employers have become my friends. Some of the writers and directors and actors are now my dependents.

When my bosses are on location, I am solely responsible for answering the myriad of calls and managing the frantic problem solving. I am able to handle the stress of my position quite serenely. Or, make that, I used to be able to…

I am aware that looks are part of the charm. I can give the clients a smile and they are instantly under my spell. Mine was the first voice they heard. The first face they saw if they got that far. I was often the one to give them the bad or good news about their scripts. In fact, I was the one who often read the first scenes to see if it was worthy of being handed to our producers.

In the good times, I did feel grateful for my appearance. I learned to use it to my advantage. Happiness and overconfidence would swell like the ocean tide warming the shore. I had been taught by my parents to be self-centered and proud. I lived a hedonistic lifestyle, unaware that there could be any other way to live.

In the very recent past I loved getting up in the morning. On weekdays I looked forward to traveling into the city. I would hop out of bed, anticipation fuelling my energy level, already going over the day in my head. Living in Pasadena meant rising very early, but it was worth the long commute, the clogged roads, the incessant weaving in and out of traffic.

Our little section of L.A. County is green, safe and friendly. I’d go for a quick run most mornings. When it was too hot or, infrequently, rainy, I’d swim or work out in the gym. It’s amazing the number of people I used to meet jogging on the street, doing laps in the gym pool or running on the treadmill.

Our apartment building is like a village. Everyone knows everyone and all their business, too. When someone dies as ostentatiously as Karoline did, the gossip is rampant. Now my fellow residents avoid me as though I have an infectious disease or have changed places with an alien life form who speaks no discernible language.

On weekends, there was always something going on. Every Friday night I’d be in a bar, toasting and talking over the week with my colleagues at Grace, before I hopped back into the car. In the past, Karoline and Giulio would either come drinking with me or they’d be off with their own colleagues and we’d meet in the parking lot.

Saturdays and Sundays were usually untouchable. Film stars don’t want to work on weekends. Whenever Karoline was away for the weekend on business, which was often, I hung out with Giulio or stayed home reading scripts. We had settled into a comfortable, satisfying routine that lasted until Italy. My life didn’t often involve worrying about men or going out on a date.

I have not had many happy or haughty days lately, that’s for sure. I no longer get up from bed eager to start the day. In my little mirror I see only the lines below my lip, etched by worry and stress. I see the dark shadows under my eyes created by sleepless nights or pills that cause unconsciousness but not rest. I am jumpy and pimples have sprung up out of the unnatural hormones racing through my fearful body. I spend much of the day gazing at the distortions of a face that used to be peaceful, content, ambitious and young.

Recently I hadn’t even answered my mother’s telephone messages. My mother and father still live in Bell Canyon. I haven’t really let Mom in on the aftermath of the tragedy, not the details at least. I don’t want to worry her. She is a well-meaning mom, despite the fact that I spent half my life being ashamed of her. I’m not sure she ever knew of my treachery, but somehow I cannot bring myself to turn to her, or to my Dad, for comfort. Although I am not deserving of their support, my main reason for avoiding them is that they are part of the betrayal. They have a mutual treachery of their own.

Another thing I used to love is our apartment. It’s part of a Moorish-Spanish designed collection of buildings that boast a beautiful stone façade, light brown stucco walls and rounded bay windows. Every balcony is bounded by gorgeous wrought iron, except for ours, which has rather high stone walls instead. The only drawback is that we have to stand up to see any view.

I used to shiver with delight and pride every time I entered the stone archway that graces the front entrance. Now I shiver for a wholly different reason.

Karoline and I lived in the top of two turrets that face the garden-side of the complex. In the 1940’s, her Jah-jah and Boosha—don’t ask me the real spellings of the Polish words—came to California to live on streets of gold. As soon as Jah-jah died, Boosha hightailed it back to Poland.

By then, Karoline’s mother was already married and residing in Bell Canyon. Halina’s brothers went back to the old country, too. Maybe that’s why she got pregnant so quickly and so young. Otherwise, she would have been alone.

For years Boosha rented out the old family apartment. The income must have been pretty good, because she never bothered to sell it. When Karoline, Giulio and I acquired jobs in L.A., Karoline wanted to buy her family’s old place. Boosha said yes, they worked out a rent-to-buy arrangement and here we are. Rather, here we were.

Unlike newer buildings that are all boxy and small, the rooms in our apartment are huge, aside from the galley kitchen. We have a generous dining area in which Karoline and I used to have dinner parties for up to ten people. Our living room is enormous, with windows that span its entire length. The two bedrooms are in the rounded section of the turrets, which makes them interesting though hard to decorate.

Since her death, I am often reminded of the night I saw Karoline in bed with Glenn. Every time I opened her bedroom door, her eyes seemed to be there still, staring at me with that steely look from beneath the flabby man whose mantra was more porn than romance. For months her door has remained shut. I walk around it, avoiding the waft of air from under the frame.

Mature trees and palms lean toward us from the side garden, giving us cooling breezes that almost negate the need for air conditioners. We can just see the mountains if we peer around the edge of the balcony.

We are tucked slightly away from the busy street, so we don’t hear the traffic much at night. There’s a sidewalk underneath that runs along a big square yard that residents can enjoy. Across the street on this side is a huge park.

Karoline decorated the apartment because she has—had—a knack for design. She went with bright, bold colors and accessories, big comfy furniture and artifacts from our various journeys spread carefully throughout. Pictures have been placed with an eye for artistic showcasing. We have two carpets from a trip to Turkey that massage your feet as you pad down the hall to the bathroom or through the living room. We even have a small CoJon painting on the entrance wall.

Nowadays, the paint seems dark and gloomy. The nooks and crannies are full of ghosts. The door to the second bedroom remains closed and the balcony is off limits. The yellow crime scene tape still flies in tatters around the railings. I spend my time in my bedroom, bathroom, or the kitchen, terrified to spread out, ashamed to sit on the couch. I skirt around the carpets, my bare feet stubbing the hardwood. I refuse to look toward the windows, afraid I might see her face reflected in the glass.

I would move if I could work up the energy or if I had anywhere else to go.

There’s a picture of Karoline on the end table that glares out at me every morning as I slide past the living room into the kitchen. I used to love that image, thought of it as a true portrait of the person she was. She looks very pretty in this particular exposure, although she wasn’t really good looking. Her teeth protruded quite dramatically and, unfortunately, she never seemed motivated to get them fixed. Her hair was a mousy brown and had that wispy thinness that made her appear somewhat balding. She was very short with a body that looked childlike when she was young, but gave her a dumpy appearance in her thirties.

Karoline never wore make-up or selected clothing that enhanced her figure in any way. She gave the impression that she had no interest in the external. I loved Karoline for this reason in particular and for lots of other reasons, too.

Dear Diary,

Such an inane, cliché-ish way to start, but I can assure you there will be nothing cliché or inane about the thoughts within these pages. I read recently that keeping a journal is healthy. I am discovering that I love being able to explore random ideas without censure. Put feelings and facts down on paper. Pardon the lack of order, Dear Diary, but it’s about me, not you.

 

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Read-a-Chapter: Before He Kills Again, by R. Barri Flowers

Read a Chapter is *NEW* added feature at As the Pages Turn! Here you’ll be able to read the first chapters of books of all genres to see if you like them before you buy them. Today we are featuring the suspense thriller, Before He Kills Again, by R. Barri Flowers. Enjoy!

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Before He Kills Again_Cover

From R. Barri Flowers, award winning crime writer and international bestselling author of Dark Streets of Whitechapel and Killer in The Woods, comes a gripping new psychological thriller, Before He Kills Again: A Veronica Vasquez Thriller.

FBI psychologist and criminal profiler Veronica Vasquez returns to her hometown of Portland, Oregon to assist police in apprehending a ruthless serial killer dubbed “The Rose Killer,” who kills beautiful women in pairs, leaving a rose on top of each corpse.

Heading the investigation is homicide Detective Sergeant Bryan Waldicott. Veronica must win him over, along with the entire task force, and prove herself worthy of the job. Since losing her husband three years ago, Veronica had been focused on her work to escape the pain of loneliness and separation. A romance with Waldicott, who has issues of his own, complicates things for them both as they try to stop a serial murderer before he kills again.

When she begins to suspect that the new husband of her estranged sister Alexandra could be the killer, Veronica pursues that delicate angle and, in the process, becomes a target herself.

Before He Kills Again is tense thriller that will keep readers on edge till the very end.

Amazon Trade Paperback / Kindle /Kindle UK / Kindle CA / Barnes and Noble Nook eBook / Smashwords / Kobo

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PROLOGUE

He walked around inconspicuously, nodding in a friendly manner to other shoppers who nodded back and smiled as if they really meant it. There were flowers of every type imaginable—Dutch tulips, pretty campanula, fresh lilies, and magnificent daisies—giving him ample choices. But he already knew what he wanted long before he got to the store. In fact, he had known for months now…the notion was etched in his mind. After a suitable time spent wandering around like a lost puppy, he walked up to the counter and waited to be helped.

The florist flashed him an exaggerated smile and said: “Can I help you, sir?”

“Yes, I’d like a dozen of those white roses,” he said cheerfully, pointing at a large vase behind the counter.

“Sure thing,” she said.

He watched her ass jiggle as she walked over and pulled out twelve long stemmed roses.

“White roses seem to be pretty popular these days,” she commented.

That was exactly what he was counting on.

“With good reason,” he said, pouring on the charm. “I think they are the prettiest roses.”

“I agree,” she told him.

He knew she would have said that no matter what color roses he had chosen to buy. But that was fine with him. She was just doing her job.

The woman pulled out some red paper from beneath the counter, set the roses atop it, and began to wrap them. “Looks like some lucky lady will be grinning from ear to ear this evening,” she said.

He smiled. “You’ve got that right.”

As always, he paid for the flowers with cash, was careful not to touch anything else, and left the store humming. In the parking lot, he walked over to a black van. Once inside, he tossed the flowers on the passenger seat.

“Bought something for you lucky ladies,” he said, glancing in the back of the van at his guests. “But you can’t have it yet. I’m sure you understand. You’re not exactly in a position to show your gratitude right now.”

He laughed, pleased with his dry humor, started the engine, and took off. Within minutes, he was on Interstate 5 heading south from Portland. Dusk had settled in like sand in the desert and he turned on his lights to cut through the newly formed darkness.

In the back, he could hear one of his prisoners starting to moan and squirm, as if this would somehow lead to her rescue. Sorry, but that’s not gonna happen, he thought gleefully. Though her hands and feet were bound securely and her mouth taped shut, he could not get to his destination fast enough. Alerting the attention of a nosey passerby with a cell phone could ruin his plans in more ways than one.

“Save your breath,” he shouted at her, hiding the fact that he could never be totally at ease. Not until the job was done. The bitches had to pay…with their lives. All in good time. “Believe me,” he admonished the moaner, “you’ll need it later when you really have something to whine about. And don’t even think about getting away. Escape is damn near impossible! Hell, there is no way out—at least not in the way you think.”

The prisoner increased her moaning and wriggling with the desperation of a terrified person who knew she had nothing to lose at this point. If she only knew. He turned up the volume and sang along to Louis Armstrong’s gravelly rendition of “Mack the Knife,” effectively drowning her out.

“And the shark bites,” he sang along, “with those pearly white teeth, dear…”

Looking into the rear view mirror, he observed the woman. She was in her late thirties with almond brown skin and thick curly black hair that reminded him of a baby lamb’s wool. Taller than most women and slender in all the right places, she was just the way he liked them. She had on well-worn jeans and a bright pink blouse that was so tight across her large braless breasts he was surprised it had not ripped apart during her valiant struggle to elude capture. Of course, he had been one step quicker, physically superior, and more determined to have what he wanted.

He glanced at the other prisoner. She was motionless, obviously still under from the isoflurane he’d used to sedate her. The woman, in her mid-thirties, was white with permed auburn hair and somewhat on the slim side. She was a few inches shorter than his other captive and wore a faded, oversized jersey and jean shorts. Her bony legs were less than appealing, but he knew she would have to do.

Both bitches would do tonight. They had to pay the ultimate price for what she had done to him.

And that whining bitch will be the first to get it, he thought, eyeing the squirming, moaning black woman.

The speedometer read sixty-five and he was tempted to kick it to eighty, maybe ninety. He loved going fast and feeling the pungent air hitting his face as if to snap him back to life. Instead, he let up on the pedal, bringing his speed down to the limit of fifty-five along this stretch. He couldn’t take any chances that the cops might pick his vehicle randomly amongst the many speeders to stop.

That would certainly interfere big time with his plans for these two.

Not to mention put him on a one-way trip to prison—or worse.

As if to validate his paranoia, or perhaps ensure that he would not go down without one hell of a fight, he leaned over, opened the glove compartment, and pulled out a .357 Magnum. The cool steel felt good in his hands. He rested it against his face for a moment or two before putting it back in its resting place…knowing it was ready to grab at a moment’s notice.

He took the exit for Hillcrest. Soon he was passing by the familiar gas station and a strip of stores and places to eat. He turned onto an unpaved road and headed down about three miles, made a right, and went past farmhouses, pastures, and pine trees. It was about as far away from Portland as you could get and still be within a short drive of the city.

Soon he reached his destination. He drove onto a winding gravel road that led to his property. The one story western red cedar log cabin sat on two acres of overgrown weeds and tall evergreens. The nearest neighbor was a mile away, which suited his purposes just fine.

He pulled up to a dirt path in front of the cabin that served as a sidewalk and shut off the engine.

“Welcome, ladies,” he told his captives, “to my own little private hideaway. Now it’s your home, too…at least temporarily.” He chuckled nastily.

He dragged the black woman into the cabin first, enjoying her resistance.

“Scream your pretty head off,” he spat. “It won’t do you one bit of good—except maybe give you some pointless satisfaction that you didn’t go down without making your whiny voice heard.” He laughed. “Too bad I can’t understand a thing you’re saying with that tape strapped across your lips.”

In the back room, he left her on the floor with her arms and ankles still secured while he went out to get the white bitch. She had begun to stir, as if coming out of a bad dream.

But he knew her nightmare had only just begun.

She joined the black bitch in the room. He left them to contemplate their fate while he got the roses out of the van. He put the flowers on a small wooden table in the front room. As usual, he needed only two, tossing the others in a wastebasket to rot.

He put one of the roses on some newspaper and grabbed a can of black spray paint. After shaking it, he sprayed it liberally on the rose till it was as black as charcoal.

Perfect, he thought, nodding with approval. Just perfect. It would be nice and dry by the time he finished with his captives. Then the black and white roses could be presented to them appropriately for their cooperation and participation in his game of life and death.

The mere thought of killing them infuriated and excited him like nothing else he could imagine.

Except the thought of his next kill…

And the terror in the eyes of those who would soon become his next victims.

CHAPTER ONE

Veronica Vasquez was admittedly a bit nervous as she waited in the office of Homicide Detective Bryan Waldicott of the Portland Police Bureau. At the Bureau’s request, she had been loaned to the department as a criminal psychologist and profiling member of the FBI’s Serial Killer Unit. She was proud to have earned her stripes as a certified FBI profiler and determined to stay one step ahead of those who would like to see her “put back in her place.”

Her current assignment was to help track down a vicious sexual serial killer terrorizing Portland, Oregon and its surrounding neighborhoods. Dubbed by the press as “The Rose Killer,” the unsub had murdered six women thus far. The murders occurred in pairs, involving a Caucasian woman and a woman of color. The women had all been severely beaten, disfigured, and strangled. Most had also been sexually assaulted.

As grisly and unusual as this was, Veronica’s frayed nerves were not due to the morbidity of the case or being uprooted from her home in Washington, D.C. at a moment’s notice. Nor was she shaky at the prospect of having to deal with a temporary new boss who had once been one of the FBI’s most brash and bright special agents, until he inexplicably walked away from Quantico three years ago.

It wasn’t even the fact that she had just turned thirty-five and was already a widow with seemingly the best years of her life behind her.

No, what disturbed Veronica more than she cared to admit was returning to her hometown of Portland for the first time in nearly eight years. Not too coincidentally, that was the last time she had seen her sister, Alexandra, who was two years her junior. In fact, the two had not seen eye to eye on much of anything ever since their parents died when the sisters were in their late teens.

If the truth were told, they were about as different as night and day in Veronica’s mind, leaving little ground for a stable, steady relationship, much less a bona fide sisterly bond. It had just seemed better all the way around if they went their own separate ways.

Or at least one of them.

And it ended up being her.

Now, against her better wishes, she had come back. She knew she would have to face Alexandra sooner or later to see if they could possibly salvage anything out of their kinship or if they would remain lost to each other forever.

Veronica forced these thoughts aside as she saw a tall, well-built man approaching the office. Even from a distance, she could see that he was handsome and looked to be in his late thirties. Thick hair that was as black as the night surrounded a chiseled face with a long, pronounced nose. When he got closer, she could see that his eyes—never parting from hers as if in a trance—were pools of deep blue with an intensity that probably matched her own green eyes with gold speckles. He wore a navy suit that was only slightly wrinkled, as if to indicate that he refused to go more than a few days without having it pressed. His striped tie was only loosely fastened over a crisp, white shirt.

Veronica immediately sat up in the chair, as if she had been slouching and did not want to make a bad first impression. She had chosen to wear a gray suit that flattered her five-foot-seven inch slender frame, along with a pink shirt, and black low-heeled pumps. Her straight black hair hung across her shoulders, bordering a heart-shaped face.

She rose to her feet as the man entered the office, self-consciously pulling down her jacket. Her mouth opened to a soft smile after she saw him do the same.

Don’t let him see you sweat, she told herself. You’ve done this enough times. No reason to be intimidated now.

“Mrs. Vasquez—?” he asked in a strong baritone voice.

Veronica hadn’t been called Mrs. Vasquez much in recent memory. Not since Daniel died three years ago. Did the detective think she was still married? Had he forgotten that she was an FBI agent and should be referred to as Special Agent Vasquez, if not simply Vasquez? Or, if the conversation was strictly informal, he could just call her Veronica.

Perhaps he was just being polite out of respect. Whatever his rationale was, Veronica realized that the formal title of Mrs. had the effect of dating her current status more than she wanted it to as a single woman. Though she was not looking for love, per se, she was no longer close-minded to it.

She gave a slight nod. “Special Agent Veronica Vasquez at your service,” she said, realizing too late that she had sounded as if it was a military pronouncement. She quickly tried to correct her tone. “And you must be—?”

“Detective Sergeant Bryan Waldicott, Homicide Division, Portland Police Bureau,” he said with obvious amusement. He stuck out his hand, which Veronica shook in an obligatory show of greeting that seemed to last longer than either of them had probably intended. Waldicott was the first to pull away, while giving her a hard look. “Right off the bat, Special Agent Vasquez, I think I should be perfectly honest with you and say that I was initially opposed to calling in someone from the FBI to help with this case. I figured the last thing we needed was to have the Feds looking over our shoulders while we try to get a handle on a murder case that’s strictly local as far as I can tell.”

Veronica thought about the word initially. Why should he, of all people, be opposed to assistance from his former employer? Was there a story there? Did she need to know it? She hadn’t heard specifically that there had been bad blood when he left the Bureau. But that didn’t mean there wasn’t any.

“So what changed your mind?” she asked, assuming that he had made an about face.

Waldicott ran his hand the length of a square jaw and sculpted chin with a deep cleft its centerpiece and sighed thoughtfully. “Well, I guess I came to realize that at this point we could really use all the help we can get. Even from the FBI. We’ve got a ruthless serial killer on the prowl and he’s not only elusive, but he’s frightening the hell out of the women in Portland. And a few of us men, too. So who was I to tell my boss, much less the families of the victims, that I wasn’t willing to do anything and everything in my power to bring this monster to justice?”

“I’ll be happy to do all I can,” Veronica promised, feeling somewhat relieved that she hadn’t apparently made an enemy of the man she had been assigned to work with. “And, just for the record, I’m not here to step on anyone’s toes, Detective. I just want to fit in as part of the team working on this case. Fair?”

He looked at her for a moment as if weighing his options, before cracking a slight smile. “More than fair, Agent Vasquez.”

Veronica flashed a tiny smile of mutual cooperation. So far, so good, she thought. Realistically, she knew there was only so much a profiler could do—no matter her skills and intuition. Yes, she could draw a composite of the killer and the likely victims. She could even tell them all they ever wanted to know about the psyche of a serial killer. But the real blood and guts work was performed by the people who had to follow up on leads, which often went nowhere, and sort through mounds and mounds of evidence and would-be evidence until they ultimately captured or killed the serial killer. Or stood by helplessly as the trail went cold while he continued to evade and taunt them.

“Please, sit down,” offered Waldicott with a sweep of his long arm.

Veronica sat again in the black leather chair. She watched as Bryan Waldicott sat at a desk that somehow seemed too small for a man his size. A file folder lay open on it. Waldicott looked up at her, down at the folder, and up again.

“So this is a homecoming of sorts for you,” he commented with a brow cocked whimsically. “It says here that you grew up in Portland.”

Veronica shivered. “Yes, on both counts.”

Waldicott looked at her curiously. “So why did you leave? In many respects, this seems like the ideal place to live and raise a family.”

Veronica wondered if this was a chauvinistic statement against women being in the work force, much less law enforcement, which was still mostly a male dominated profession. On the other hand, she could also imagine that Bryan Waldicott had a knock against FBI agents, in specific, as a former member of the ranks himself.

As if he sensed the implications of the question, Waldicott answered it himself with a shrug. “Why does anyone ever move away? Usually because they found something—or someone—better elsewhere. So which is it?”

Veronica considered the question and decided to reverse the tables. “Is that why you left the FBI?” she asked bluntly, seizing the moment. Or maybe it was the mystery behind the man himself that made her curious. “Because you found something…or someone better?”

Veronica could see that she had definitely struck a nerve, as Waldicott’s brow furrowed and his eyes narrowed to little more than razor slits. Immediately, she wished she had kept her mouth shut, if only because he was technically her superior. She had placed a courtesy call to the FBI field office in Portland and they had made it very clear that her current orders and assignment came from the man before her. A sinking feeling told Veronica that she had no more right to pry into his personal life than he had to pry into hers.

Waldicott’s mouth had become an irregular line, but then softened. “Looks like you’ve done some of your own homework, Agent Vasquez. I suppose that’s only fair, all things considered.” He took a breath. “If you must know, I left the Bureau because it seemed the best thing to do at the time. I have no regrets.”

Veronica could tell that he was clearly troubled by this, whatever the issue was, but managed to put on a brave face. His smile returned and he seemed to be waiting for her to respond to his original question of why she’d left home and the idyllic setting of the Pacific Northwest for a life elsewhere.

I’m not ready to share the intimate details of my personal life with him or anyone else at this time, she told herself.

After Veronica thought about it, she realized she could be just as succinct and mysterious with her response as he was, while keeping her own little secrets to herself. “I had an offer to join the FBI in D.C.,” she said simply. “And I took it.”

“All right,” Waldicott said. He seemed content to settle for that.

Veronica breathed a sigh of relief. As far as she was concerned, you could ask her anything about her profession or skills and she would be happy to respond, but her private life was to remain a closed book. It was too painful to open. Especially for someone she just met. Even though Bryan Waldicott seemed like he was used to getting what he went after sooner or later. She was determined to be the exception to the rule.

Waldicott closed the folder and stood up in one motion. “I’ll introduce you to everyone you haven’t already met. Then we’ll put your psychology and profiling skills to work—”

Veronica was sure she detected no sarcasm in his tone, which would make it much easier to work with him. She indicated her readiness by standing up. As they locked eyes, she had an uneasy feeling that they had not finished what they started. Strangely, she was not really even sure what that was.

Waldicott proffered his arm toward the door like a perfect gentleman and Veronica walked out ahead of him, lightly brushing against his jacket sleeve. She instantly felt electricity pass between them, causing the hair on the back of her neck to rise. She wondered if he felt it, too.

 

 

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