He stood behind the apartment building, sunlight streaking his brown hair, a battered old Nikon grasped comfortably in his long fingers. His keenly dark eyes shone as he tilted his head for a better view of the building's dirty flank, angular features hidden as he peered through the camera's viewfinder. A blink matched the shutter's brisk snap. One side of his mouth tilted in an unbalanced smile as he lowered his camera to advance the film.
At that moment, his gaze flickered to the building's back door as it opened carefully and a young woman walked out, her eyes fixed on the pavement. Frozen like a cautious serpent, he surveyed her through half-lidded eyes, noting her gleaming metal kit and the features that were now familiar to him. One finger vaguely stroked the camera case as he saw the scar on her freckled cheek. She was absorbed in her work, tall frame striding slowly across the pavement. His smile widened with satisfaction at her single-minded oblivion, even as his senses sharpened rapidly at her proximity. Time unfolded in his mind until each second slowed to a narrow eternity of thought and sensation. With precise control, he raised his camera and hit the shutter button.
Her gaze flashed up at him in an instinctual reflex, like a startled doe. From that microscopic first expression, he instantly absorbed the situation and gleaned her mental state. This Sara Sidle, CSI level three, was looking for something the elusive Silver State Strangler may have left in his departure three nights before.
She did not recognize him.
A curving flash of lightning seared his mind in that fraction of a moment. Of course not. The deluded hounds were still chasing some false scent, unaware of the fox sliding sleekly beneath their noses. It irritated him to think that they were so foolish as to leave their weakest member alone and unprotected, even after his earlier warning attack. The disrespect of it was grating. Still, here was a second opportunity. With a swift blink, he smoothed everything beneath a glossy calm surface. "Oh, I'm sorry," he smiled politely. "You made an interesting composition. I hope I haven't interrupted your work."
"Not at all," she smiled back, shaking her head. "I get so absorbed in what I'm doing that sometimes noises startle me."
"I know exactly what you mean," he replied with a wry smile. She had such an uncultured voice, like the edge of unhemmed fabric—yet her smile was true, though laughably naive. He tilted his head, gazing at the gleaming metal kit in her hand. "What's in the shiny suitcase?"
Sara shrugged. "My kit. I'm a crime scene analyst."
A note of pride in the excessive term made the corner of his smile twitch faintly. He never could tolerate such incongruity. "Ah, a scientist. You must be with the officers from Las Vegas, on that murder case—what is it, the Silver State Strangler?" he ventured. It was best to confirm the extent of his opponents' knowledge.
"Yeah," Sara nodded with a weary sigh. "It's a rough case."
"Mmm," he nodded thoughtfully, half-lidded eyes burning as his finger absently traced his camera's strap. Restraining the images wracking his mind, he composed a suitable reply. "You know, I came up here for a vacation—to see Old West towns, and take some photographs. It seems like I picked the wrong time to do it. It's such a shame, really," he added with a sigh, changing quickly into a smile. "But you're going to crack the case, right?"
"Hopefully." She tilted her head with an apologetic smile. "But I can't really discuss it."
"Yes, I know," he smiled back, annoyed by her self-righteousness. "Such a good girl."
Sara's lips pursed in a demure smile, then she glanced at her watch. "I gotta get back to the station," she apologized, shaking her head.
"Of course." His eyelids flashed in a twitching blink. "I'm sure your coworkers wouldn't want you to be late."
Sara smiled and nodded in a polite goodbye, then turned and walked toward the apartment building. Her tightly calm self-control began to fray, throat choking with the desperate instinct to run back inside. Every muscle burning with restrained fear, Sara opened the door, stepped inside, and turned to close it behind her.
The sharp fang of a steel blade stabbed into the gap, grinding in a harsh metallic groan between the door and casing.
A scream caught behind her teeth, Sara threw all her weight against the door, kit sliding to the floor. She struggled to hold it and draw her gun as the knife stuck out beside her, flickering like the darting eyes of a predator scenting blood. With a final sharp cry, she slammed the door closed, hands flying to force the rusty deadbolt into place. Spinning around, Sara backed away from the door and into the apartments' first floor corridor, gun trained on the door in a tight cold line. She froze, poised and alert, her heart's primal rhythm the only noise violating the dim space. After a moment of raw terror, she heard the sudden wail of sirens raging like fire in her blood, followed by smashing and shouting in a voice that filled her with relief.
"Las Vegas Police!"
Sara lowered her gun, her breath quickening as she ran toward the front of the apartment building. She nearly collided with Brass as he charged down the corridor with the black-clothed special response officers, gun ready, his face a mask of fury and dread. "Sara!" he gasped, devouring her in a single sweeping glance. "Are you okay?"
"I think he's still in the back," Sara panted quickly, brown eyes hardened with determined focus, knuckles turning white as she gripped his arm. "We can't let him get away."
Dark blue eyes fierce, Brass brushed her cheek with his hand. "Stay put," he ordered gently, then slid past her after the officers, shoulders braced in a strong line.
Sara shifted in a restless instant, then followed him, safely a few steps behind. In a gleaming black tide, the officers surged forward and forced the door open, blazing sunlight crashing into the broken darkness. As they plunged into the alley behind the apartment building, they were met by two other teams and a handful of squad cars, their lights swirling in time to their screaming sirens. At the bull's-eye center of this brilliant hurricane stood the compactly powerful Douglas Belanger, motionless as a storm-battered rock, the knife still gleaming in his lowered hand.
"Drop it now!" Brass roared as he stepped forward, strong grey figure terminating in gaping gunmetal.
Belanger turned slowly to face him, the officers' guns encircling him in a strange shining wreath. Lips curving in a disturbing smile, the knife clattered from his hand to the burning pavement.
"Hands on your head—down on your knees!" Brass commanded.
Darkly keen eyes bright with fathomless hate, Belanger complied. A few of the officers swarmed in around him like black flies around a corpse, handcuffs snapping around his wrists with the finality of a gunshot. The officers yanked Belanger to his feet, and Brass stepped forward, lip curled in disgust, eyes colder than death. They gazed at each other for a moment, minds circling like dueling lions, both sizing up their opponent with a strange satisfaction at finally meeting.
"Captain," Belanger stated quietly, his voice like poisoned velvet.
Brass did not reply, his chin lifting a fraction as his sharp blue gaze flashed in a silent challenge. "I want him waiting for me," he ordered the officers in a low calm voice, ever undercut with steel. Without speaking, the officers nodded and dragged Belanger to a waiting squad car that squealed away once he was secured inside.
Sara walked forward toward Brass, standing beside him and following his gaze after the departing squad car. She glanced back at him silently, her adrenaline-charged breathing slowing as she studied his resolute expression.
"Now comes the fun part," he sighed, still looking down the sunlit street. "I'll have some guys keep searching the records—it could take a long time to come up with anything. With luck, we'll get Belanger to tell us where he's keeping her."
"Without her captor, Nora probably has no food or water at all," Sara finished solemnly.
"Which means we don't have much time."
Sara and Brass turned to see Grissom standing behind them, their reflection caught in his sunglasses. "We've got the killer," he continued grimly, "but that's only the first step."
"Exactly," Brass nodded, squaring his shoulders. "I'm gonna go start on him. Wish me luck." With a nod to Sara, he turned and marched across the bright alley.
Grissom glanced sideways at Sara. "You okay?" he asked, his voice neatly reserved.
"Yeah," Sara nodded, taking a breath. "He, uh, put a letter in the mailbox up front. We should go get it."
Grissom held up his kit, head tilting in a slight nod. Silently they walked to the front of the apartment building, uncomfortable but moving in familiar unison. Sara felt a chill as they stopped by the battered blue mailbox and she glanced up at Nora's window. Leaning down to open the mailbox, Grissom looked at her, still feeling the old sting of fear at how near she had come to danger. Carefully he slipped on his latex gloves and pulled out a letter from the top of the stack. "Addressed to the Elko Daily Free Press," Grissom stated with a frown.
Sara looked back at him, her mouth drawn in a serious line. "So he came back to his current victim's apartment to mail a letter to the newspaper," she stated, shaking her head. "That's . . . sick."
"Yeah," Grissom nodded, carefully opening the envelope and pulling out a single crisp sheet of plain white paper. Sara took a step closer as he tilted it so she could read at the same time.
You've wasted no time in following me up here. The hours of staring at maps have paid off? Not that knowing where I go will help you. You're still so far behind that you have to wait around for a new body. Maybe you two can hit the bars and discuss your little feud over a few beers, that always seems to help things.
I'm getting sick of dealing with you people. You haven't learned a thing from me or my warnings. Pathetic, really. Do I have to kill your dear Sara Sidle for it to sink in? Do I?
You'll find number seven sooner than later. Unfortunately I don't think I can tolerate the stubborn bitch for much longer. You may find a bit more damage than usual.
It's not easy you know
And still she cried, and still the world pursues
Grissom tilted his head. "This isn't as neat as the others. Look at the missing punctuation, slightly awkward construction in places. He sounds almost frantic."
"Serial killers' burnout," Sara remarked. "His control over his mind is slipping."
"Right," Grissom nodded thoughtfully as he slipped the letter into an evidence bag. "The blending of fantasy and reality. He'll be disordered for a short time, like Ted Bundy when they finally caught him. It won't take him long to get it together now that he's been caught, though."
"That's true," Sara agreed, "but he's a psychopath. He can manipulate and maneuver brilliantly for a few hours under interrogation, but then the rage starts to crack through. If we're determined, we'll be able to break him."
"We need as much from him as we can get," Grissom added. "There's very little physical evidence right now to tie him to the serial murders."
"Nora did injure him," Sara returned. "His blood is on her sofa. Obviously we need to test the DNA, but the pattern tells the story pretty clearly."
"Good," Grissom exhaled with a nod. "We need the help." He gazed across the street, brilliant afternoon sun bleeding through his dark lenses to the clear blue eyes beneath. "Well, for a little while, the battle's moved from the world of proof to the world of the mind. We'll see how it goes."