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Sunday, December 14
A vermilion puddle reflected off the halogen lamps. It was frosting over, lightening as it inched toward the freezing point. Little bits of black hair floated under the hardening surface, veining the blood. As it froze, it pulsed once, twice, like the death of a heart. Life's blood, indeed.
The woman was naked, purple with bruises. She was sprawled on her right side, facing back toward the hill leading up to the Capitol. Long, jet-black hair flowed around her like a muddy stream. Her face was white, paler than a ghost; her lips were painted crimson. She looked like a fairy-tale princess locked in a glass coffin. But a poisoned apple hadn't propelled this girl to her final resting place, surrounded by love and remorse. Instead, she had been thrown away on the marble pedestal, discarded like so much trash. Her naked body arched around the center pole. The smaller flags circled her protectively, snapping with every gust of wind. Her left leg sprawled wildly, blocking one of the recessed lights tastefully highlighting the scene.
On closer inspection, a gaping knife wound was clearly visible, slashing merrily across the woman's neck. In the darkness, it smirked and shone deep burgundy, nearly black in places, with bright hunks of cartilage and bone showing through the wound.
Taylor arched an eyebrow at the mess. Oh, the joys of being the homicide lieutenant. She shivered in the gloaming, pulled her arms tight to her sides and rocked slightly. She was dressed for the weather—a thigh-length shearling jacket over a cream cable-knit sweater and jeans, mittens and a scarf, but the cold seeped in through minuscule cracks, making her own blood sluggish. The air smelled of snow, sharp and bitter. The temperature had been hovering well below the freezing mark for several days, and the atmosphere was dense, portending a storm for Nashville. Winter's coming this week, people said. Taylor scuffed a cowboy boot in the frozen grass.
Waiting. She was tired of waiting. It seemed she spent her whole life in some form of suspension, glancing at her watch, knowing it would only take a few minutes, a few hours, a few days for something or another, for someone.
The M.E. would be on the scene soon. All she had to do was wait.
It was too chilly to stand still any longer. Taylor stretched her arms to the sky, felt a kink release below her right shoulder blade. Too tense, and the freezing temperature didn't help. She wandered into the night, happy to let the stench of death leave her sinuses, only to draw back in pain as the reek was replaced by mind-searing cold. Her eyes teared. Giving a brief glance back over her shoulder, she paced the granite wall bordering the amphitheater. Distanced a bit, she turned, taking in the entire scene.
She had to admit, Nashville's Bicentennial Mall was a lovely setting for murder. Opened in 1996 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Tennessee's statehood, it had never reached the pinnacle of success the city leaders had hoped for. It was still a charming walking mall, a favorite for outdoor lunches and the odd midday jogger. A very quiet area at night, too. The only crowd that had gathered to mark this murder was a multitude of blue-and-white patrol cars, still flashing at attention. That would change as soon as the media got wind of the scene. And the condition of the victim. Most likely, this was victim number four.
The national news vans would continue to line the streets of downtown Nashville, waiting for any police misstep that would give them another day in the news cycle. Two months of constant media attention had everyone's nerves frayed. Three families were torn apart— make that four, once they had an ID on this new girl. More sleepless nights than Taylor could count.Keep moving. It's going to break soon.
The south edge of the mall, where the dead girl lay prostrate, was a tribute to the Tennessee State Flag. Eighteen flags, eight encircling one taller, delimited each side of a granite walkway. They waved gaily, buffeted by the chilled breezes, unaffected by the gory scene in front of them. Perhaps that was fitting. Tennessee had earned its nickname—The Volunteer State—for the multitudes of men who joined in the fight during the Civil War. LeRoy Reeves of the Third Regiment, Tennessee Infantry, had designed the flag. The crimson fabric, overlaid with three white stars, highlighted the blood and bone inert at the base of the flagpole.
It was a beautiful scene, if you liked postcards from hell. The fourth such tableau since the Snow White Killer had materialized from under his goddamned rock and started killing again.
Taylor looked past the flagpoles, past the body. Bordered by an ornate concrete railroad trestle, the view rose directly up a well-manicured, lighted hill, atop which perched the state Capitol, its neoclassic lines glowing majestically in the darkness. The heart of downtown stretched beyond the building. Her town. Her responsibility. Taylor turned away, continued her walk.
Their killer wasn't being subtle, the setting was designed to capture their attention. Two blocks from Channel 5 and four from police headquarters. There were traffic circles on either side of the mall, an easy way to slip in, throw out a body and continue right on out to James Robertson Parkway. Taylor was shocked the local CBS affiliate wasn't already on the scene.
A flake of snow drifted in front of her eyes, its fragile crystalline beauty entrancing. How something so beautiful could wreak such havoc—the weather was turning for the worse. The forecast called for at least a foot in the low-lying areas around Metro, up to fifteen inches on the plateau. Midstate gridlock.
To top it all off, in a little less than one hundred twenty hours, five short days, Taylor was due at St. George's. For her wedding.
Taylor took a deep breath and walked back to the body.
She pulled up a sleeve and glanced at her watch. The M.E. should have been here by now. She was good and ready to have this body moved. To get out of the cold. To get some rest before the big day. To do whatever needed to be done to assure that the event would go on as planned. A little voice niggled in the back of her mind.It wouldn't be the end of the world if we needed to push it back. How the hell are we supposed to get married and go on a honeymoon in the middle of a major murder case?
A media satellite truck slipped by on the main street, silent as a shark. Taylor figured they were angling for a full shot of the scene, coming around the back of the mall on James Robertson Parkway, slinking up to Charlotte and Sixth. Shit. Time to move.
Shivering in the cold, she reached into her coat pocket for her cell phone. As she flipped it open, a white van with discreet lettering pulled into the klieg lights. The M.E. Finally.
Taylor snapped the phone closed and strode across the grass, heedless of the groomed path she was supposed to follow. She fairly leapt to the side of the van, motioning for the driver to put the window down. The medical examiner, Dr. Samantha Loughley, complied, and Taylor shoved her face into the warm interior. Bliss.
"Taylor, get out of the way." Sam put her hand under Taylor's chin and nudged her face back out the window. She slammed the gearshift into Park and stepped from the van. Clothed for the weather in a black North Face fleece jacket, Thinsulate-lined duck boots and pink fur earmuffs, she nodded brusquely.
"Okay, where is she?"
"On the flagpole pedestal. You really should take a minute before you start, walk down the mall and look back up here. It's quite pretty." Taylor smiled.
"You're a ghoul. Any idea who she might be?"
"No. She's naked, no sign of any purse or clothing. Do you think it's going to snow as much as they said?"
"I heard we might get twelve inches. Or more." Sam winked at Taylor and started for the body. Taylor followed her, questioning. Visions of airport closures, snowplows running into ditches, caterers with no electricity ran through her mind like drunken mice. She shouldn't be so happy at the thought of her wedding being postponed.Good luck with that, Taylor. Even if it snowed ten feet, in five days people would manage to get it in gear.
"They're never accurate, though. Seriously, weathermen are notorious for getting the forecast wrong. Right? Sam?"Maybe the snow would hold off until Thursday….
The M.E. wasn't listening anymore. She'd just caught her first glimpse of the body. She went rigid, stopped in her tracks.
Taylor put a hand on her best friend's shoulder, all personal worries pushed away for the time being.
"I know," she murmured, squeezing Sam's shoulder. "It looks that way to me, too. Meet Janesicle Doe."
"Wow. Certainly appears to be his work." Sam knelt by the body, staring intently at the dead girl's face.
"He's changing it up. This isn't a separate dump site— judging by the amount of blood, I'd bet my badge she was killed right here."
"And not that long ago, either." Sam reached for her bag. Taylor knew what came next and stepped away to let Sam do her work.
The lights of the sneaky satellite truck snapped on with an audible hum, catching Taylor in the gleam. She excused herself, went to block the cameras. The media was getting bolder with each killing, Taylor had no intention of letting them ruin her case with suppositions.
Behind her, she heard Sam whisper, "Bingo."
Monday, December 15
Taylor fidgeted under the hot studio lights of the Fox affiliate in Nashville. Their parent network, Fox News, wanted to get the lowdown on the Snow White case from the inside, and Taylor had been ponied up for the slaughter. As soon as she'd been set and miked, the remote anchor had been drawn into a breaking-news story: a suicide bomber had taken out a group of diners at a restaurant in Jerusalem, claiming the lives of fifteen and injuring two Americans. The news alert had been going on for a while, giving her plenty of time to second-guess agreeing to be interviewed.
She was grateful for the opportunity to get the word out, though she would have preferred the newspeople talk with Dan Franklin, Metro's official spokesman. She wasn't fond of doing on-air interviews. Understandably, the reemergence of the Snow White Killer had the entire country up in arms, not to mention her own city and her homicide division. That meant everyone was pulling cross duties.
She wiped her fingers across her forehead, gathering little beads of sweat. It would be nice if they turned off the lights while she waited. She stared blindly into the bowels of the studio, her mind in overdrive. The network had specifically requested Taylor's presence. She suspected it had more to do with her notorious background than the fact that she was the lead investigator on a sensational series of crimes. The anchor had been warned to steer clear of the Win Jackson story, and Taylor hoped they would listen for once.
Oh, Win. Where in the world are you?
There was a commotion. The tech was signaling they were going live. He counted down, then went silent, showing his fingers. Three, two, one. She took a deep breath, blew it out slowly and smiled for the camera.
"We're back now with Homicide Detective Lieutenant Taylor Jackson from the Metro Nashville Police Department. We're talking about the horrific string of murders plaguing Music City, a town more accustomed to the shenanigans of country music stars than murderers. Just last night, a new victim of this dreadful killer was found.
"Lieutenant Jackson, have you identified the body of this latest victim?"
"No, we haven't. We—"
"And this is victim number four, correct?"
"It's too soon to—"
"Two months ago, police found the battered body of young kidnap victim Elizabeth Shaw. The girl had been raped and her throat cut with a sharp object presumed to be a military-style knife. Three weeks later, the body of Candace Brooks was discovered, the cause of death identical. Last week, a young woman named Glenna Wells was found near Percy Priest Lake, raped, beaten and showing signs of exsanguination due to a knife slash across her throat. The crime scenes showed eerie symmetry, and the Nashville police are investigating what seems to be a serial murderer."