END GAME

(the Mindhunters series, Book 6)

(ISBN: 9780990314523)



Prologue




“Are you going to do it, or should I?” He gestured to the pill in Rocky’s hand. He was being generous, giving the man control over his destiny—the final chapter, anyway.

As the boss of an international crime ring, he wore many hats—including one few people knew about: the serial killer known as the Charmer. Each hat he wore had its own specific responsibilities and challenges, but he could handle it all—as long as his hired help did what they were paid to do. Unfortunately, the idiot on his knees in front of him had failed.

Rocky’s lip quivered and he pressed his mouth into a thin line, as if he could prevent the inevitable.

The Charmer’s nostrils flared. “I’ve got things to do.” He glanced at his watch. “The outcome is the same, no matter what. But if you choose the easy way, it’s less mess for me to clean up.” Not that he’d actually have to do much. Rocky was kneeling on a plastic tarp in the warehouse on one of Chicago’s piers. He’d have the Circle’s cleaner collect the garbage and toss him into Lake Michigan. It would give him a chance to try the new guy out. Maybe he could manage to complete a simple order.

“The easy way?” Rocky’s voice cracked. “I can’t commit suicide. I have a wife and two young daughters. The shame would…” His Adam’s apple bobbed as hope battled reality.

The Charmer grinned. “I’ve seen your girls. They’re going to be beauties in about ten years.”

Panic widened Rocky’s eyes. “You stay away from them. You and your…perversions.”

“Perversions?” He laughed. “You don’t have a clue what I do with my girls. It’s not about that at all. I tell you what… I’ll keep a close eye on your girls for you.” They’d never know their dad was an incompetent ass.

“Don’t.” Rocky’s eyes flicked to the gun as the Charmer raised it.

“You should have thought of them before you fucked up.” He hadn’t led the biggest, most respected organized crime syndicate in the world for decades by going easy on employees. “All you had to do was take the girl.”

“I’ll get her next time. I promise, I…” Sweat mingled with snot and tears as Rocky finally saw the writing on the wall. Saw that his boss didn’t forgive. Forgiveness was for the weak. The Charmer was far from weak. He was in control, having learned early and often that those in power got what they wanted. That was the way the world worked. But Rocky’s fuckup would delay his plans for Damian Manchester and the agents at SSAM.

He pulled the trigger, and the gun, its silencer in place, made a soft thwump before Rocky fell on his side. The sequence was so quick that the sound of the plastic crumpling beneath him was louder than Rocky’s death moan. See? He could be merciful when the occasion allowed.

But not with Damian and his crew. They would see no mercy. And they would acknowledge the Charmer’s power—right before he killed them.




Chapter One




A dozen bodies were sprawled on yoga mats, unrolled like little plots of land across the gleaming wood floor. Trying to ignore her wayward thoughts, Abby directed her students through a series of positions. Half Moon, Downward-facing Dog, Tree Pose. While the endless summer heat was driving most Chicagoans crazy, her class had found a cool midmorning oasis at Inner Beauty Dance and Yoga Studio.

Nearly an hour of Zen-inducing stretches later, she rose and surveyed the group. “Remember to stay hydrated out there—and stay centered, too.” She’d found peace, even if only for a few precious minutes. But turmoil awaited her just outside the door.

The women rolled up their mats and dispersed to the locker room before hurrying back to offices and homes. Abby slugged water from her bottle, in no hurry to rush back to her life. One of her students approached, waddling gracefully as her third-trimester belly preceded her. Dr. Maggie Levine-Townsend was a radio psychologist and a professor at Chicago Great Lakes University. She was about to add mother to her impressive resume. Her dark red hair was pulled back into a ponytail, but several stray wisps were stuck in the perspiration around her heart-shaped face.

“Great class,” Maggie said.

“The modifications have been working for you?” Abby had shown her less strenuous versions of the yoga poses.

“They’re fantastic. I don’t know what I would have done if I’d had to quit. I need this outlet.”

“I know what you mean.” Abby was missing her kids. While teaching yoga gave her a second income and something to fill her summers, she looked forward to seeing the smiling faces of a new crop of kindergartners at South Loop Elementary in a few weeks.

If they didn’t fire her before then.

Lines creased Maggie’s forehead. “Everything okay? You seemed distracted during the session.”

“I’m sorry—”

Maggie interrupted her apology with a shake of her head. “No need to apologize. I don’t think most people noticed. It’s my job to pick up on subtle nonverbal cues. Something’s wrong.”

“I’ll survive.” Abby swallowed her anger and fear and summoned a smile. “But thank you for checking on me.”

“Anytime you need to talk, give me a call.” Maggie fished a business card out of her bag and handed it over.

“Thanks. That means a lot.”

“Hell, you’ve saved my sanity this summer. Unbearable heat and eight months pregnant? Not a good combination. Come to think of it, you probably saved my husband’s sanity, too.”

Abby laughed. “Just a few more weeks. Soon you’ll have a little one to cuddle.”

“And even more danger to my sanity.” But Maggie’s laugh indicated she was looking forward to the challenge. After a quick farewell, Maggie left with a friend, laughing over some shared comment. A pang of loneliness hit Abby square in the chest and she set about ignoring it. Feeling maudlin was counterproductive. Keeping busy was the cure.

As the last of the students said their good-byes, Abby moved about the room with a push broom and cleaning wipes. A glint of sun on metal on the floor near one of the windows caught her eye. She moved closer to inspect its source. A charm bracelet. She hurried to the door and poked her head out to look up and down the sidewalk, but saw none of her students. She returned to the bracelet and scooped it up, holding it to the light to study the dozen or so nickel-sized silver medallions dangling from the links, each etched with a different symbol.

Her breath caught as her eyelids closed. The dam broke and images flooded her mind like a series of snapshots.

No. Not now. Not here.

Even as she struggled to slam that mental door shut, her throat squeezed and her exhalation came out as a strangled moan. Her skin grew moist and her mouth went dry. Her pulse pounded in her head.

Too late. The message wanted—needed—to come through.

Shelves and shelves of framed photographs of smiling young women, a spotlight highlighting each one. The joy she felt vicariously upon looking at them was incongruous with the black fury that swelled in her chest as her fingers moved along the charms.

And then she was each of the young women. Her upper arm burned as if someone had pressed a cigar there. The cloying scent of moist dirt and decaying leaves enveloped her. The breath choked from her throat as a wave of cold water washed over her mouth and nose. Panic clawed at her insides, scrambling for release, but she couldn’t move. Couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t shake off the threat.

Darkness seeped through the edges of the vision, swallowing everything in its path, snuffing out the spotlights on each picture one by one. One, two, three… Eleven in all.

Abby gasped for air as she fought to return to reality. The bracelet clattered to the floor and the yoga studio came into focus as she emerged from the vision, as if breaking the surface of water after running out of breath.

Staring at the bracelet as if it might bite her—or suck her into the terrifying black void again—she dropped it then backed away until her shoulder blades hit the wall. She walked herself through an abdominal breathing exercise and slowly regained control of herself.

It was just a message. It wasn’t reality. Not her reality, anyway.

She shivered, though sunlight streamed through the window. Outside, people on the sidewalk hustled by, oblivious to her pain and confusion. The air conditioner kicked on and the air from the vent pressed cool kisses along her sweat-drenched skin, raising an army of goose bumps. But the belly cramps and shivers that suddenly racked her body stemmed from an entirely different source.

The girls. They were dead, or soon would be. And somebody, possibly a killer who’d once held those charms, was happy about that. Had she seen something that had already happened or something that might happen? Or was what she’d seen simply the dream or imagination of whoever owned the bracelet?

These episodes were never clear.

Abby had smothered her psychometric abilities for so long she’d forgotten what it felt like when they took over. She’d trained herself to control them, insulating herself from both positive and negative messages—unless her defenses were down or the images were particularly powerful. Both were the case today.

Her emotions were raw, making her vulnerable. The impending lawsuit had wrecked her confidence and she was in danger of losing her job. On top of that, her grandfather, whose battle with emphysema was nearing its end, had refused to be admitted to Mercy Hospital last week. He argued that he’d rather die at home. She was torn between being supportive and railing in anger. Of course, the latter wasn’t an option. She loved Grandpa. But watching her last living family member waste away was killing her spirit.

If she’d tuned in to her gift sooner, could she have prevented Grandpa’s illness by forcing him to take better care of himself?

If she’d continued to tune it out, would she have avoided trouble at work?

It was all so messed up in her head. A jumble of thoughts, ideas, worries… How could she even trust what she’d just experienced?

But how could she ignore it? Dear God, the girls she’d seen in the images were budding teenagers. How could they be dead or in such danger?

Once the dark joyful and reverential feelings of their killer had passed, the prevailing emotions when she’d touched the bracelet had been of abandonment. Hopelessness. Feelings so close to how Abby had felt lately that she could barely distinguish her own emotions from those connected to the charms.

Abby used the edge of her shirt to keep her fingertips from touching the bracelet as she picked it up again. The charms seemed to pulse with life, calling her to explore. Instead, she dropped it into the lost and found box under the studio’s front counter and rushed to the locker room where she struggled, with shaking fingers, to peel off her clothes.

She showered, scrubbing vigorously to rid herself of the remnants of summer heat and exertion, but the images of the dead girls wouldn’t be washed down the drain. She sank onto the shower bench and let the water wash over her. The warmth penetrated her hair, turning it into a dark curtain around her.

Had they been real? Or was it the sign of things to come? And what the hell was she supposed to do about it?

The last time she’d let down her guard, she’d picked up a child’s toy in the park, intending to hand it back to the child who’d dropped it. She’d gone to the police after receiving a horrifying image. They’d called her crazy and dismissed her. She never did find out if her fears about what had happened to the mother of that child were confirmed.

But this time? So many. Girls on the brink of womanhood. She’d sensed their teenage angst and promise. And it had been snuffed out…or would be. Had the murders already occurred? How could she sit by and ignore the possibility that these innocent girls were still alive and could be harmed? The dark images might even be connected to the bracelet’s owner, to some previous owner, or some other freaky coincidence. It was even possible that whoever had committed these heinous crimes was already behind bars.

Abby’s frustrated tears mingled with the cascade of water. Nobody would see. Nobody would know what she’d seen. Nobody would care.

Nobody, except those girls.



Einstein needed to see her face like he needed a shot of caffeine. Desperately.

The smile of the woman he knew only as Abby—he’d heard the barista call out her name at his favorite place to caffeinate—always radiated a quiet glow of calm and understanding, of optimism and hope. Qualities he was sorely depleted in even though it was only midday on a Monday. His faculties were already taxed by a lack of sleep and an overload of frustration from the dearth of leads on his current case. 

Yeah, he could use a dose of Abby’s sweet smile today—and the coffee, too.

But the dead girls and their grieving families needed him more, so he stayed at his desk in his darkened office and studied the files for the thousandth time, trying to ignore the headache looming on the horizon.

Family photos of beautiful faces on the cusp of their teen years had become evidentiary photos connected to recovered skeletal remains. Twenty years’ worth of murders. Eleven victims who deserved justice, and countless loved ones who yearned for closure. He had to find a new algorithm, a new way to compare the data compiled from the FBI and police departments across the United States. Something, anything, that would lead them to the killer known as the Charmer. But his brain had started a steady knocking against his skull.

“Jesus, it’s like a cave in here.” Max Sawyer’s Texas drawl came from the doorway, his words lazy but his gaze astute as he surveyed Einstein’s desk, littered with papers, photos and manila folders. “You need to get out. Let’s grab lunch.”

Max was Einstein’s best friend, a fellow ex-SEAL and coworker at SSAM, the Society for the Study of the Aberrant Mind. A private agency, SSAM was dedicated to enlightening the public about safety issues and to hunting violent serial offenders who’d fallen through the cracks of the usual channels of justice. SSAM’s founder, Damian Manchester, had started the agency twenty years earlier, after his daughter Samantha had become the first victim of the Charmer.

“Can’t take a break,” Einstein said. Maybe after his eureka moment, if it ever came.

“Reviewing the files again?”

“I’m missing something. The answer should be there.” His analysis of data hadn’t failed him in the other cases he’d worked over the past six years. But he’d been over the FBI and police reports, news articles and SSAM interviews with the victims’ families so many times he could recite all of them from memory. He could describe the details of each of the eleven victims—pre- and post-murder—enough to satisfy any sketch artist.

A young woman’s happy, blond, blue-eyed image had been the last to fill the screen. Fourteen-year-old Tiffany Allsup. Healthy. Happy.

Dead.

Found just a couple months ago in Texas, she’d been the latest victim of the Charmer. SSAM had recently learned that the Charmer was in fact the man also known as the Boss, the head of the Circle crime syndicate. Despite that break in the case, the killer’s true identity remained a mystery.

Einstein stood and stretched, then nudged a gap in the blinds with two fingers so he could see the world five stories below. He blinked against the piercing sunlight. The coffee shop occupied the bottom corner of a tall building across the street. Though it was lunchtime, there were few people about. Or maybe the masses were holed up, escaping the heat. The unrelenting triple digits of the past week had prompted the city to institute rolling blackouts to conserve energy, starting this afternoon. He made a mental note to check Chicago’s utility site’s schedule, back up all of the SSAM computers and ensure they were plugged into the surge protectors. As an added precaution, he’d arranged for a backup generator. A mission could go FUBAR in the blink of an eye if one wasn’t prepared for all possible outcomes. Like Kamdesh.

One second, he’d been crouched behind the cover of a large rock, checking the infrared chemical lights he’d be using to delineate the pickup point after sunset. The next, a blast had sent him hurtling through space and landing him flat on his back with a gash in his head…

“Yo, Einstein, where’d you go?” Max’s eyes narrowed in concern.

To fucking Afghanistan.

They exchanged a look and Max sighed. “Flashbacks are a bitch.”

“Not a flashback. A memory.” A flashback would have had him breaking out in a cold sweat.

Max’s jaw tightened briefly, as he fought memories of his own. They’d been together in Kamdesh, their final battle before injuries had forced them into a new line of business. Memory lane wasn’t a leisurely stroll for them so much as a dark alley where they ran for their lives. “How are the headaches?”

Automatically, Einstein’s hand brushed over the back of his head. “Better.” But not for long. The knocking against his skull was becoming more urgent. He just wished he knew how to answer the damn door and make it stop.

He released the blinds and they snapped back into place. The headaches weren’t so bad when he wasn’t exposed to too much bright light, too little sleep, or sudden loud noises.

Or silence. That was almost worse.

Give him a room full of softly humming computers and he was happy. His electronic world made sense. There, things were predictable. Safe.

Unfortunately, the rhythmic pounding in his skull indicated some trigger had been squeezed and retreating into his computers wouldn’t help.

Max called his bluff. “Bullshit. The lines in your forehead are so deep you could hide a SEAL team in there.” He came around Einstein’s desk and pushed him into his chair, then rummaged in the corner mini-fridge for a moment. He resurfaced with a canned energy drink. “Caffeine?”

This was the kind of headache that might benefit from the stuff. Einstein nodded only once because it was starting to hurt too much. He caught the can Max tossed him and pressed it to his eyelids for a moment.

“You sure you won’t come?” Max’s voice radiated gruff concern. “Now that we’re not roomies anymore, I don’t get to act like your mama and tell you to put your computer devices away and go outside and play.”

He snorted. He didn’t need a mama. Never had. “As if you could make me do anything I don’t want to do.”

Max grinned. “Lie to yourself if it makes you feel better. Text me if you want me to bring you back a sandwich.”

Once he was alone, Einstein popped the tab on his drink and took a swig. Pretending the throbbing was some sadistic dance beat that could fade into the background, he studied the information on his screen, looking to make sense of the dates, locations, and other characteristics of the murders. So far, no clear picture had emerged other than the commonalities of the victims’ ages and gender. It was like looking at a Magic Eye poster and trying to make out the image. There was something there, if only he could see it—some pattern that formed the foundation for the Charmer’s crazy world. Just like the fractals that formed microscopic repeating designs throughout nature.

Half an hour later, he leaned back with a sigh. The drumbeat was still pounding away and the words on his screen were jumbling. Perhaps what he needed was something unpredictable to reset his world.

He glanced at the clock. Brave the midday heat for a chance to bump into Abby at her usual break time or soldier through the hunger and ignore his headache?

No contest.

A minute later, he was dodging traffic as he jogged across the street. His sneakers absorbed the heat from the pavement, warming the soles of his feet. Absently, he recalled the melting point of rubber and looked down at his toes, expecting to see them dripping or sticking like a piece of gum to the sidewalk. He wasn’t paying attention to his surroundings as he reached the door of the coffeehouse.

“Oh!” A female voice—her voice—and the feeling of skin when his brain had been expecting metal brought Einstein back to reality. “Excuse me,” she said. Abby. His fingers had landed on top of hers on the door handle. She withdrew her hand from beneath his. “Guess we’re both distracted today,” she said.

Actually, he’d been focused. So damn focused on his inner thoughts that he’d almost let real life slip by unnoticed. His undivided attention was now hers. He pulled the door open for her.

Her lips curved into the smile he’d been looking forward to all day. The dimple that dipped inward on one side of her mouth entranced him. Soft, dark chocolate hair curled against her cheek. Longer layers hugged her shoulders. But her blue-gray eyes, usually vibrant with life, had a haunted look. Shell-shocked, even. Apparently, she was having a worse day than he was.

They were both standing there, baking in the sun, staring at each other.

With his free hand, he gestured to the open door. “After you.”

He followed her as she claimed a place in line. Behind his dark sunglasses, his gaze perused her body, following shapely tan calves upward to a slash of purple in the form of a hip-hugging skirt that matched the splash of amethyst beads in her sandals. The straps of a gray camisole top peeked out from beneath an overshirt.

Einstein had never been one to take notice of fashion, but he was intrigued by her choices. Especially as she moved to the counter and the filminess of her blouse flowed like butterfly wings. She passed under the air conditioning vent and the material pressed to her chest, outlining the curves of her breasts and the dip inward at her waistline.

It had been a while since any female had captured his attention—and his imagination—so thoroughly. Abby had started consuming his thoughts when he’d first seen her a couple months ago. But looking, and daydreaming, was all he would do. Computers, he could understand and deal with—women, not so much. They took work and a level of comprehension that was beyond him.

Still, the fantasies were a nice break from reality. The cases he analyzed were gruesome, and after such dark preoccupations, seeing her somehow made things better.

She cast an unreadable look over her shoulder, then looked away again. He had the ridiculous urge to talk to her, to ask why she seemed so disturbed today. Instead, he retreated to his safe zone—scientific observation. She ordered her usual and gave her name to the barista, flashing her a smile as she slipped her change into the tip jar.

She moved aside and he stepped forward to place his order, tracking her movements in his peripheral vision and then moving beside her to wait near the pickup counter. It was crowded, and as his shoulder briefly brushed hers, he could have sworn she sucked in a breath and held it.

“I thought your name was Andrew,” she said after several moments of silence.

“What?”

“That’s what you usually tell the barista.” She’d noticed. A warmth spread outward from his chest to his limbs. “Today, you told her you were Einstein. Two e’s, two i’s.”

Shit. His mind was so much into work he’d forgotten who he was to the outside world.

Her lips twitched, but the amusement didn’t reach her troubled eyes. “Delusions of grandeur?”

He grinned. “Nickname.”

“Ah.” She glanced around. “Busy today. They’re herding us through like cattle.” She shifted an inch away as his arm again touched hers. He frowned. Was she reluctant to touch him?

Wait. What had she said? “Cattle,” he repeated.

A tiny furrow formed between her eyes, but he barely registered it. The ideas zinged through his brain as if he’d already consumed his triple-shot of caffeine.

Cattle. He knew how to get to the Charmer.



Did I just touch a killer?

Abby pressed a hand to her churning stomach and tried to avoid touching the man at her side as she waited for the mocha she no longer wanted. Her body warred with her brain, which was par for the course today. She’d been attracted to Andrew—Einstein—in the past. Her body still was. But her brain had questions—such as why had the horrible images hit her again when his hand touched hers?

The pictures of those girls were so similar to the ones she’d seen when she’d touched the bracelet that the experience had stolen her breath. Her pulse was still beating out a staccato rhythm as she struggled to hide her tumultuous thoughts behind friendly conversation.

He was, in a word, intense. He was hot in that sexy-nerd, distracted-professor kind of way that had fueled many late-night fantasies since he’d first spoken to her a couple months ago. He’d been wearing some silly T-shirt with a joke about caffeine and they’d shared a laugh. She’d discreetly admired the biceps peeking out from beneath his short sleeves. Her gaze might have dipped briefly to his cargo pants to take in his trim waistline, too. His hard, muscular body indicated he wasn’t the complete nerd his wardrobe would suggest.

Most days, a storm of thoughts and emotion seemed to churn beneath the tranquil surface of his hazel eyes and reserved smile. His hair was reminiscent of a military cut that had been allowed to grow out a couple weeks too long—long enough to give him a slightly spiky, tousled look as though he had a tendency to run his hands through it during the day, perhaps in frustration—or absentmindedness, while focused on a problem. Even now, his attention seemed to turn inward after her lame comment about cattle.

Had he used that concentration to kidnap and kill those girls? Had they been a problem he’d had to solve? Her brain was playing devil’s advocate with her body.

“Abby.” The barista called out her name and set her hazelnut mocha on the pickup counter. Abby had hoped sticking to her familiar routine and indulging in her decadent Monday treat would calm her nerves and add a spot of happiness to an otherwise chaotic day. Instead, she was more confused than ever.

She felt his eyes on her as she stepped forward to claim her drink. Her body tightened in response. His gaze, an amalgam of heat and amusement, met hers as she turned around. One side of his mouth quirked upward as he reached beyond her—she was still blocking the counter, she realized with chagrin—to pick up his iced coffee. Should she say something to him? Engage him in conversation and see if he’d reveal the kind of man he was—maniacal murderer or sexy nerd?

Sure, like he’s going to simply confess his hobby is killing young women.

Her body and her subconscious were telling her he was the real deal, a trustworthy man who would be worth talking to. Einstein couldn’t be a killer.

But, her brain reminded her, she’d been wrong before. If he had nothing to do with the murders, why had touching him caused the same girls to flash through her mind? The images had been slightly different this time and yet somehow the same. Connected.

Or maybe her girls, as she’d come to think of them over the past couple hours, were simply insisting she pay attention, speaking out of turn, and Einstein had nothing to do with them.

He reached past her for a straw. “I missed seeing you Friday.”

“I had an appointment.” With a lawyer. It was costing a small fortune she didn’t have, but she wouldn’t have anything if she lost her job due to the lawsuit. Her lawyer had told her she had a good chance at winning the case if it went to trial, but the parent who threatened to sue could ruin her reputation as a good teacher. “Why? Are you stalking me or something?” She forced a smile, not sure whether she was joking or not, but desperately wanting him to reassure her.

His brows came together. “No, of course not. Maybe I should have worn another funny T-shirt.”

“What?”

“You know, to break the ice.” He glanced down at his attire, plain black tee and well-worn jeans. Which gave her absolutely no idea whether he was caffeinating before going to work out, going back to work, or going out to kill.

He seemed to be struggling for something to say and she got the sense he was disappointed and confused. Welcome to the club.

“Consider the ice broken,” she said. After all, she’d possibly gotten a glimpse of his deepest secrets. “See you around.” Unable to bear the confusion, she gripped her drink and fled, forcing herself to walk like a normal person down the street, though she felt like running.

A few seconds later, she stopped and glanced back over her shoulder, where Einstein expertly dodged traffic to cross to an office building. He probably worked there. Geographically speaking, it was perfectly logical they’d bump into each other so often. Of course he wasn’t stalking her.

Her gift had been wrong. A measure of relief loosened her limbs even as an odd tug of disappointment tightened the knot in her chest. She was, once again, in a position of not knowing what or whom she could trust—including herself.






BACK TO BOOK’S PAGE

order now:

order now:

Copyright © 2009-2016 by Anne Marie Becker. All Rights Reserved.