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B E F O R E H E H U N T S
(A MACKENZIE WHITE MYSTERY—BOOK 8)
B L A K E P I E R C E
Blake Pierce is author of the bestselling RILEY PAGE mystery series, which includes eleven books (and counting). Blake Pierce is also the author of the MACKENZIE WHITE mystery series, comprising seven books (and counting); of the AVERY BLACK mystery series, comprising six books; and of the new KERI LOCKE mystery series, comprising four books (and counting).
An avid reader and lifelong fan of the mystery and thriller genres, Blake loves to hear from you, so please feel free to visit www.blakepierceauthor.com to learn more and stay in touch.
Copyright © 2017 by Blake Pierce. All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior permission of the author. This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return it and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictionally. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. Jacket image Copyright Will Amey, used under license from Shutterstock.com.
BOOKS BY BLAKE PIERCE
RILEY PAIGE MYSTERY SERIES
ONCE GONE (Book #1)
ONCE TAKEN (Book #2)
ONCE CRAVED (Book #3)
ONCE LURED (Book #4)
ONCE HUNTED (Book #5)
ONCE PINED (Book #6)
ONCE FORSAKEN (Book #7)
ONCE COLD (Book #8)
ONCE STALKED (Book #9)
ONCE LOST (Book #10)
ONCE BURIED (Book #11)
ONCE BOUND (Book #12)
MACKENZIE WHITE MYSTERY SERIES
BEFORE HE KILLS (Book #1)
BEFORE HE SEES (Book #2)
BEFORE HE COVETS (Book #3)
BEFORE HE TAKES (Book #4)
BEFORE HE NEEDS (Book #5)
BEFORE HE FEELS (Book #6)
BEFORE HE SINS (Book #7)
BEFORE HE HUNTS (Book #8)
AVERY BLACK MYSTERY SERIES
CAUSE TO KILL (Book #1)
CAUSE TO RUN (Book #2)
CAUSE TO HIDE (Book #3)
CAUSE TO FEAR (Book #4)
CAUSE TO SAVE (Book #5)
CAUSE TO DREAD (Book #6)
KERI LOCKE MYSTERY SERIES
A TRACE OF DEATH (Book #1)
A TRACE OF MUDER (Book #2)
A TRACE OF VICE (Book #3)
A TRACE OF CRIME (Book #4)
A TRACE OF HOPE (Book #5)
CHAPTER TWENTY ONE
CHAPTER TWENTY TWO
CHAPTER TWENTY THREE
CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR
CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE
CHAPTER TWENTY SIX
CHAPTER TWENTY SEVEN
CHAPTER TWENTY EIGHT
CHAPTER TWENTY NINE
The plane was taking her to Nebraska.
Mackenzie blinked, unable to shake the thought from her mind.
She usually had no problem falling asleep on a plane. But this flight was different. She felt like there was something out west that was literally pulling the plane toward it like a magnet. And she would not be returning to Washington, DC, until she had solved a current case that reached nearly twenty years into her past—pointing at the death of her father.
It was a case that had been calling her for years. She’d gone above and beyond to prove herself, and McGrath was finally setting her loose on this case. It was no longer just about the unsolved murder of her father seventeen years ago; similar murders were occurring now, all connected by a mysterious clue that no one had yet deciphered. Business cards featuring the nonexistent business name of Barker Antiques.
Mackenzie thought about those business cards as she looked out the window. The afternoon sky was clear. Beyond the scattering of plump white clouds, she could just barely catch sight of the vein-like structure of roadways that carved through the Midwest down below. Nebraska was close now, its cornfields and flat expanses looming about forty-five minutes ahead.
She blinked and looked away from the window, turning to her right. Ellington sat in the seat next to her. She knew he was nervous, too. He knew how much this case meant to her and was putting unnecessary pressure on himself. Even now, he was nervously picking at the lid of the cup that had held ginger ale ten minutes ago.
“Yeah, I’m good,” she said. “If I’m being honest, I can’t wait to get started.”
“You got a plan in mind?” he asked.
“I do,” she said.
As she wound her way through her plan of attack, she realized that this was one of the reasons she had fallen in love with him. He could tell that she needed to talk through it all but would shut down if he asked her point-blank. So instead of asking about her emotional state, he used the façade of work to pry. She was on to his tricks, but that was okay. He knew how to work around her defenses in a way that was charming and caring.
So she discussed her plan of attack. It all started by meeting with the local PD and the small team of FBI agents that had been working the case. She also planned to bring Kirk Peterson, the private detective who had worked the case for a while, in on it. Although he had been in a miserable state the last time she had seen him, he had the most insight to offer.
From there, she wanted to find and speak with a man named Dennis Parks. His fingerprints had been found on Gabriel Hambry, a man who had been strategically set up as a red herring a week ago. She was well aware that Parks could also be another red herring, but the fact that Dennis Parks had once known her father made it all the more appealing. The connection was a small one—a mutual acquaintance as Parks had served as a police officer for one year before calling it quits and getting into real estate.
Her father, after all, seemed to be the first victim in a string of seemingly random murders that had been spread over nearly two decades.
After meeting with Dennis Parks, she wanted to meet with the family of a man who had been killed several months ago—a man named Jimmy Scotts. Scotts had died in an almost identical fashion as her father and had been the murder that had effectively reopened her father’s case.
She stopped her plans there although she knew there was more to it. But it was something she was not ready to contend with yet—much less verbalize in front of Ellington.
At some point, she was going to have to face her past. She’d been there before, tiptoeing through the house where she grew up. But it had been fleeting. At the time she had not realized it, but it had terrified her. It was like willingly walking into a house you knew to be haunted, locking yourself inside, and then throwing away the key.
She’d have to face it this time around. It was hard enough to admit that to herself without wondering what Ellington would think of it.
He nodded in all the right parts as she carried him through her step-by-step approach. They’d briefly discussed their roles in a meeting with McGrath as they had booked the trip to Nebraska. One element to the seemingly multilayered case was the recent murder of vagrants. The body count was now up to four, each body left with one of the Barker Antiques business cards. Ellington had volunteered to do his best to get that end of the case in order while Mackenzie stayed closer to the core of the case—the deaths of her father and Jimmy Scotts, and the more recent death of Gabriel Hambry.
“You know,” Ellington said when she was done, “if we can wrap this one up, I think your career in DC might hit the stratosphere. You’re already one of the better field agents the bureau has. I hope you like dealing with bureaucratic bullshit and sitting behind a desk. Because that’s what a stellar record with the bureau gets you.”
“Is that so?” she asked. “Then why aren’t you parked behind a desk yet?”
He smirked at her. “That stings, White.”
He reached out and took her hand. She could feel tension in his grip but there was the usual degree of comfort at his touch as well.
She was grateful that he was with her. While she was usually all for tackling things on her own, even she had to admit that she was going to need the moral and emotional support that only Ellington could provide if she had any hope of wrapping this case up.
She held onto his hand as the Midwest continued to roll by beneath them. Nebraska drew closer and closer, the plane pulled on by that magnetic hold that Mackenzie’s past seemed to have over her.
The Omaha field office was pleasant to the eye. It was smaller than the headquarters in DC, meaning there was less chatter. There was also not the tension of something always on the brink of happening, a trait that the offices in DC were usually rife with. The place felt calming.
As they were signing in at the front desk, Mackenzie noticed a man headed directly for them. He was walking with purpose, a thin smile on his face. His face was familiar but she could not for the life of her recall the man’s name.
“Agent White, it’s great to see you again,” the man said as he approached. He was roughly six feet tall and carried himself well. He was rather slim but still intimidating looking. His slicked back black hair made him look a bit older than he probably was.
“Likewise,” she said, shaking the hand he extended to her.
She was thankful that Ellington remembered his name, using it as the two men greeted one another. “Agent Penbrook,” he said. “Great to see you.”
She then remembered; Agent Darren Penbrook had been the lead on the case when she had flown out in the hopes of arresting Gabriel Hambry—only to find out within less than an hour that he had been killed.
“Come with me,” Penbrook said. “There won’t be much of a meeting, but there are a few details I think you guys should be caught up on…some of which are fairly recent.”
“How recent?” Mackenzie asked.
“Within the last twenty-four hours.”
Mackenzie knew how things worked at most levels within the bureau and assumed they were no different in Omaha than they were in DC. There was no use asking questions in that moment. So during the elevator ride to the second floor and a quick jaunt through a hallway that led to a blocked-off conference room, the three of them passed the time with small talk: the flight, the weather, how busy things stayed in DC.
But those niceties were dashed the moment Penbrook took them into the conference room. He closed the door behind them, leaving the three of them in the large room with an elegant and finely polished conference table. There was already a projector set up and ready to go in the center of the table.
“So what sort of updates were you referring to?” Mackenzie asked.
“Well, you know about the fourth murdered vagrant, right?” he asked.
“Yes. It happened yesterday, right? Sometime in the afternoon?”
“That’s right,” Penbrook said. “He was killed with the same model of gun the others were killed with. This time, though, the killer had placed the business card between the victim’s lips. We had the card tested and there were no fingerprints. The vagrant wasn’t a local. His last known address was in California and that was four years ago. Looking for family members or people he worked with has turned into nothing but a ghost hunt. And that’s been the case with most of these vagrants. We did, however, find his brother. He’s also a vagrant and according to his reports, might be slightly delusional.”
“Is there anything else?” Ellington asked.
“Yes. And this one really sucks. It’s actually thrown us for a loop and is currently where the case is stuck at the moment. You recall the fingerprints we got off of Gabriel Hambry’s body, correct?”
“Yes,” Mackenzie said. “They belonged to a man named Dennis Parks—a man who had a history with my father.”
“Exactly. Sounded like a promising lead, right?”
“I take it the lead fell through?” Mackenzie asked.
“It never had a chance. Dennis Parks was found dead in his bed this morning. Shot in the back of the head. His wife was also killed. From what we can tell, she was also killed while in the bed but her body was moved to the couch.”
Both Penbrook and Ellington looked in Mackenzie’s direction. She knew what they were thinking. The killer set it up to look like the scene at Jimmy Scotts’s murder…like my father’s murder.
Penbrook took this moment to show a slide from the crime scene. It was of Dennis Parks, face down in bed with the back of his head blown out. The positioning of it was almost too eerie for Mackenzie. Had she not known the identity of the victim, she could have easily thought she was looking at a photo from her father’s crime scene all those years ago.
The slide then shifted to an image of the wife. She was on the couch, her dead eyes staring slightly upward. There was dried blood on the side of her face.
“Was there a business card at the scene?” Mackenzie asked.
“Yes,” Penbrook replied. “On the nightstand. And, just so you can get the scope of it all, here’s a shot from the latest vagrant scene.”
He changed slides and Mackenzie found herself looking at a man lying on a city sidewalk. The side of his head was a bloody mess, contrasted almost too perfectly with the white business card that had been partially shoved between his lips.
“It seems like the killer is just having fun at this point,” Ellington said. “That’s messed up.”
He was right. Mackenzie was sure that there was an almost playful nature to the way the card had been placed in the victim’s mouth. Add that to the fact that the killer was also apparently placing fingerprints on the cards and other victims to lead them to red herrings and that meant you had a determined, smart, and morbid killer.
He thinks he’s being funny here, she thought as she looked to the picture of the victim.
“So why is he choosing vagrants to kill?” Mackenzie asked. “If he’s coming back to kill more so long after having killed my father, why the homeless? And is there any connection between these vagrants and Jimmy Scotts or Gabriel Hambry?”
“None that we have found,” Penbrook said.
“So maybe he’s just rubbing our noses in it,” Mackenzie said. “Maybe he knows the deaths of vagrants aren’t going to be as high of a priority as if he were killing everyday citizens. And if that’s the case, he really is doing this as an almost playful act.”
“That about the vagrant community,” Ellington said. “If we ask around, do you think we might get some sort of information from other vagrants in the area?”
“Oh, we’ve tried,” Penbrook said. “But they won’t talk. They’re afraid whoever is doing the killing will come after them next if they speak up.”
“We need to talk to the brother of the latest victim,” Mackenzie said. “Any idea where he might be? Does he live around here?”
“Sort of,” Penbrook said. “Like his brother, he’s living on the streets. Well, he was. He’s at a correctional facility right now. Can’t remember what for, but maybe public intoxication. His record is filled with little misdemeanors that put him in prison for a week or two at a time. It happens a lot, you know. Some of them do it just to get free housing for a few days.”
“You have any problems with us going to see him?” Mackenzie asked.
“Not at all,” Penbrook said. “I’ll have someone make a call and let them know you’re coming.”
“I feel like I should be thanking you,” Penbrook said. “We’re excited to finally have you out here working on this thing.”
Finally, she thought. She said nothing, though, and left it at that.
Because the truth was, she was excited, too. She was excited to finally have the opportunity to wrap up a truly bizarre case that reached all the way back into her childhood and pointed directly back to her father.
Delcroix Correctional Facility was tucked back off of the highway on a patch of land that was bland and featureless. It was the only building on a strip of about five hundred acres of land—not quite a prison per se, but certainly not somewhere a standard person off of the street would want to spend any significant amount of time.
Mackenzie and Ellington were waved through the small security partition at the entrance and directed to park in the employee lot on the back end of the property. From there, they were checked in at the main security check-in and ushered into a small waiting area where there was already a woman waiting for them.
“Agents White and Ellington?” she asked.
Mackenzie shook her hand first as introductions were made. The woman’s name was Mel Kellerman. She was fairly short and slightly overweight yet had the demeanor of a woman who had seen hard time and laughed in its face.
As Kellerman led them out of the waiting area, she gave a brief rundown of the place.
“I serve as Security Administrator,” she said. “As such, I can tell you that the man you’re here to see poses no threat. His name is Bryan Taylor. Fifty years old and a recovering heroin addict. He sometimes has conversations with people that aren’t there. His record is minor but he stays on our radar because this is the fourth small-time crime he’s committed in the last year. We think it’s just to get free room and board.”
“And what was his latest crime?” Mackenzie asked.
“He took a piss on the back tire of a city bus in broad daylight.”
Ellington chuckled. “Was he drunk?”
“Nope,” Kellerman said. “Just said he really needed to take a piss.”
She led them down a small hall and then down an even smaller corridor. At the end, they came to a door which Kellerman opened for them. The room contained only a table and five chairs. A disheveled-looking man occupied one of the chairs while a man in a security uniform occupied another. The guard turned as they came in and got up from his seat right away.
“Is Mr. Taylor giving you any problems?” Kellerman asked the guard.
“No. He’s on a rant, though. The Russians and Trump again.”
“Ah, one of my favorites,” Kellerman said. She turned to Mackenzie and Ellington. “I’ll be one room over if you need me. But I think you’ll be okay.”
With that, Kellerman and the other guard exited the room, leaving them with Bryan Taylor.
“Hello, Mr. Taylor,” Mackenzie said as she took a seat across the table from him. “Did they tell you why we were coming?”
Taylor nodded his head sadly. “Yeah. You want to know about my brother—how he died.”
“That’s right,” Mackenzie said. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
Taylor only shrugged. He was drumming his fingers on the table and looked back and forth between Mackenzie and Ellington.
“Well, I’m Agent White and this is my partner, Agent Ellington,” Mackenzie said.
“Yeah, I know. From the FBI.” He rolled his eyes when he said this.
“Mr. Taylor…tell me…did your brother have any enemies? Any people that might have something against him?”
Taylor barely even thought about it before answering. “Nope. Just our momma, and she’s been dead for seven years now.”
“Were you close with your brother?”
“We weren’t best friends or anything like that,” Taylor said. “But we got along well enough. He hung out with some shady fuckers, though. Illuminati types. I honestly wasn’t too surprised to hear he died. Those Illuminati creeps have something against the homeless. The famous, too. You know they killed Kennedy, right?”
“I heard that,” Ellington said, barely able to contain his smirk.
Mackenzie stepped on his foot under the table and did her best to forge on.
“Have you had any other friends that were murdered recently?” she asked.
“I don’t think so. But I don’t really hang with the same crowd very often. On the streets, more friends just means more people to rip you off.”
“Just one more question, Mr. Taylor,” Mackenzie said. “Have you ever heard of a business called Barker Antiques?”
He didn’t think very long about this answer, either. “Nope. Can’t say that I have. Never stepped foot into an antiques shop. I don’t have cash to be dropping on old dusty relics. Crazy-ass rich people run places like that. Shop there, too.”
Mackenzie nodded and let out a little sigh. “Well, thank you for your time and cooperation, Mr. Taylor. I do ask that if you think of anything else about your brother that might help us figure out who might have killed him, please let someone that works here know so they can get the information to us.”
“Oh yeah, I will. You know…you might head out to Nevada. I bet there are some answers there.”
“Nevada?” Mackenzie asked. “Why’s that?”
“Area 51. Groom Lake. It’s not the Illuminati, but everyone knows those top secret government places have been nabbing homeless folks for ages. They run experiments and tests on them out there in the desert.”
Mackenzie turned away before Taylor could see her hesitant grin. Based on what she knew about him, she knew he couldn’t help it—that he was a few bricks short of a load. Ellington, on the other hand, was not able to remain quite as professional.
“Good tip, Mr. Taylor. We’ll certainly look into that.”
As they reached the exit, Mackenzie nudged him and leaned in close enough to whisper. “That was borderline mean,” she said.
“How do you figure? I was just trying to make him feel like he had legitimately contributed to the investigation.”
“You’re going to hell,” she said, smiling.
“Oh, I know. Down with all the Illuminati for sure.”
As they headed back to their car, Mackenzie had already started to piece together their next step. It felt solid, yet at the same time, she could also understand why it was an avenue that had not been properly explored by the bureau yet.
“You know, Taylor did make one good point,” Mackenzie said.
“Yeah?” Ellington asked. “I must have missed it.”
“He talked about how some of those homeless communities are pretty tight. I think the bureau has been so concerned with how the vagrants might be connected to one another that they failed to seriously consider how people like Jimmy Scotts and Gabriel Hambry might be connected to them.”
They got into the car, Ellington opting to take the driver’s seat this time. “Ah, but that’s not true. Homeless shelters and soup kitchens were contacted to see if either man had any affiliation with those kinds of places.”
“Exactly,” Mackenzie said. “It was assumed that they would have been connected to the vagrants in a way that had them over the vagrants. Maybe there’s something else there.”
“Like what? You think Scotts and Hambry might have been homeless at one point?”
“No idea. But let’s say they were. That gives enough of a connection and would tell us that this guy is, for some reason or another, going after vagrants only.”
“It’s worth considering,” Ellington said. “But that leaves one very important question: why?”
“Well, first, let’s make sure I’m not getting too far ahead of myself.”
“From what I read in the reports, Gabriel Hambry has no next of kin. The only family he had left around are a set of grandparents that live in Maine. But Jimmy Scotts has a wife and two kids in Lincoln.”
“And you want to head out that way?” Ellington asked.
“Well, considering the place I want to go after that is over six hours away, yeah…I think we should start there.”
“Six hours away? Where the hell do you want to go? The other side of the state?”
“Yes, in fact. Morrill County. A little town called Belton.”
Having to suppress a little shiver, Mackenzie answered: “My past.”
They spent the drive to Lincoln going back and forth on possible theories. Why kill vagrants? Why wait so long to start killing again? Why Ben White, Mackenzie’s father? Were there others before Ben White who had simply not been discovered?
There were far too many questions and basically zero answers. And while Mackenzie usually hated to speculate, it was sometimes the only tool to use when the real world offered you nothing. It seemed even more necessary now that she was back in Nebraska. It was a deceptively large state and without solid leads, speculation was all they had to go on.
Well, there was one lead but it seemed to be a phantom: business cards with the name of a nonexistent business on it. Which did them no good.
Mackenzie kept thinking about the business card as they made their way to Lincoln. It had to serve some purpose, even if it was nothing more than some elaborate riddle that the killer was asking them to unravel. She knew that there were a few people back in DC who had been consistently trying to crack such a code (if there was indeed one to be cracked) but they had come up with nothing so far.
The business cards on each body so far only pointed to one teasing conclusion: the killer wanted them to know each murder was his work. He wanted the authorities to keep count, to know what he was responsible for. It spoke of a killer who took pride not only in what he was doing, but also in the fact that he was sending the FBI in circles trying to find him.
This frustration was ripe in Mackenzie’s mind as Ellington parked their car in front of the Scotts residence. They lived in an upper-middle-class home in the kind of neighborhood where all of the houses were built to resemble one another. The lawns were trimmed perfectly, and even as they got out of the car and headed for the Scotts’s front door, Mackenzie spotted two dogs being walked by masters that were busy scrolling through their phones while they walked.
Based on the case files, Mackenzie knew the basics about Jimmy Scotts’s wife, Kim. She worked from home as a technical writer for a software company and her kids were at school every day until 3:45. She had moved to Lincoln a month after Jimmy’s death, stating that everything about Morrill County was nothing more than a devastating reminder of the life she had once lived with her husband.
It was 3:07 when Mackenzie knocked on the door. She’d love to be in and out without having to drag the kids through conversations and memories of their deceased father. According to the reports, the oldest of the two girls, a promising junior in high school, had taken the death especially hard.
A strikingly pretty middle-aged woman answered the door. She looked confused at first but then, perhaps after she took in their attire, seemed to understand who was on her doorstep and why they were there.
She frowned a bit before asking: “Can I help you?”
“I’m Agent White, and this is Agent Ellington, with the FBI,” Mackenzie said. “I do apologize, but we were hoping you might be able to answer a few questions about your husband.”
“Seriously?” Kim Scotts asked. “I’ve put this behind me. So have my daughters. I’d really rather not head back down that road if it can be helped. So thank you, but no.”
She started to close the door on them but Mackenzie held out a hand. She stopped the door from closing, but not using much force.
“I understand that you’ve done your best to put it all behind you,” she said. “Unfortunately, the killer has not. He’s killed at least five others since your husband was killed.” She nearly included the fact that there was a good chance that the killer had also killed her father nearly twenty years ago but decided to keep it to herself.
Kim Scotts opened her door back up. Instead of inviting them inside, though, she came out onto the porch. Mackenzie had seen this approach before. Kim was choosing to keep any and all conversation about her dead husband outside of the four walls of her home.
“So what do you think I can offer?” Kim asked. “I went through this at least three times after Jimmy died. I don’t have any new information.”
“Well, the bureau does,” Mackenzie said. “For starters, after your husband and one other man, it appears that the killer took an interest in vagrants. He’s killed four that we know of so far. Do you know of any connections Jimmy might have had with the homeless community?”
The question apparently baffled her. The expression on her face was one of confusion and annoyance. “No. The closest he would have come to being involved with the homeless was taking the clothes he had grown tired of to the Salvation Army. We do that twice a year to free up closet space.”
“What about people he worked with? Do you know if any of them might have had connections with homeless people or maybe even just those in dire need?”
“Doubtful. It was just him and two other guys that ran a small marketing company. Don’t get me wrong…Jimmy was always a compassionate guy but he—neither of us, for that matter, ever really got into community involvement.”
Mackenzie searched and searched for her next question but it would not come to her. She was now fairly confident that Jimmy Scotts had been randomly targeted. No reason, no motive, just the unfortunate luck to have been seen and apparently followed by the killer. This also made her think that maybe the deaths of Gabriel Hambry, Dennis Parks, and her father were also random.
Well, maybe not. There’s a connection between my dad and Dennis Parks. So if they aren’t random, why would the others be?
“What about your daughters?” Ellington asked, picking up the thread. “Are they perhaps involved in some sort of community outreach projects at school or something?”
“No,” Kim said. The look on her face made it clear that she did not like viewing her daughters in light of this killer at all.
“You mentioned that your husband worked with a few friends at a marketing company. Do you know if they ever had any clients that might have been tied to some sort of community outreach?”
“That I don’t know. If they did, it would have been a small project. Jimmy only ever talked about the big projects. But if you like, I have copies of all of their invoices. Somehow all of that came to me when he died. I can get them for you if you like.”
“That would be helpful,” Mackenzie said.
“One moment, please,” Kim said. She walked back inside, closing the door behind her and still not inviting them in.
“Good call on the clients,” Ellington said. “You think anything will come of it?”
She shrugged. “It can’t hurt.”
“That could be a lot of digging,” he pointed out.
“Yeah. But that will give us something to do on that six-hour drive out to Morrill County.”
Kim came back out onto the porch with five large folders all stacked together and held in place with binders and a huge rubber band. “Honestly,” she said, “I’m glad to get rid of it. But if it’s not asking too much, could you let me know if you find anything? I might have tried putting his death behind me, but that doesn’t mean the mystery of it all doesn’t drive me nuts sometimes.”
“Absolutely,” Mackenzie said. “Mrs. Scotts, thank you for your time and cooperation.”
Kim gave them both a brief nod and stood there as they made their way back down the steps and toward the car. Mackenzie could feel the widow’s eyes on her, making sure no mention of her deceased husband made it inside her house. Kim did not relax her posture until both Mackenzie and Ellington were in the car.
“Poor woman,” Ellington said. “You think she’s really moved on?”
“Maybe. She says she’s moved on but she wasn’t about to let us into her house. She didn’t want mention of his death in there.”
“But at the same time,” he said, hefting the folders she’d handed them, “she seemed pleased to be rid of these.”
“Maybe she also wants to remove reminders of him from the house, too,” she said.
They pulled away from the house, the car pointed in the direction of the interstate. They were both quiet, almost in a respectful silence of the grieving widow they had just spoken to.
They were back at the field office just as the nine-to-five workers were packing up for the day. Mackenzie wondered what it was like to have a clock command your time rather than the pressing worries that came with the sordid cases she often found herself tasked with. She didn’t think she’d be able to handle it.
She and Ellington met up with Penbrook in the same conference room they had visited that morning. It had been a long day, the early flight out of DC making it an early one, too. But knowing the next step in their process, Mackenzie found herself energized and ready to get moving again.
They filled Penbrook in on their talk with Kim Scotts and took some time to read through the invoices she had given them. It was done quickly, almost as an obligatory sort of exercise.
“What about here on the home front?” Ellington asked. “Any developments?”
“None,” Penbrook said. “Quite honestly, I’d love to hear what you two have. I understand this case is close to you, Agent White. What’s our next step?”
“I want to go out to Morrill County. It’s where my father and Jimmy Scotts were both killed. And since my father’s death seems to have been the first in this line, I think that’s the best place to start.”
“Looking for what, exactly?” Penbrook asked.
“I don’t know yet.”
“But don’t let that fool you,” Ellington told him. “She gets some of her best results when she goes in without a clue to what she’s looking for.”
She cut him a sly smile and returned her attention back to Penbrook. “I grew up in a town called Belton. I’m going to start there. I’ll know the next step when it presents itself.”
“If that’s what you want to do, I won’t try to dissuade you,” Penbrook said. “But Morrill County is what…like six hours away?”
“I don’t mind the driving,” she said. “It’ll be fine.”
“When will you leave?”
“Maybe soon. If I can get out of here by six, that’ll place me in Belton by midnight.”
“Well, happy trails then,” Penbrook said. He seemed disappointed and a little pissed off. Mackenzie assumed this was because he had been under the impression that she and Ellington were going to be by his side until the case was wrapped.
Making no real attempt to mask his feelings, Penbrook headed for the door. Barely looking over his shoulder at them, he gave a perfunctory wave. “Let us know if you need anything.”
Once Penbrook had closed the door behind him, Mackenzie let out a sigh. “Wow,” she said. “He really didn’t take that very well, did he?”
Ellington took a moment to think of his response. When he did finally say something, his voice was low and measured. “I think I understand where he’s coming from, though.”
“How’s that?” Mackenzie asked.
“The most recent deaths have all been around Omaha. To go all the way to the other end of the state seems like a needless errand.”
“Everything started there,” she said. “It just makes sense.”
She could tell he wanted to get out of his seat and come to her—maybe to hug her or take her hands in his own. But he had worked hard on drawing the line between professionalism and their love life. Therefore, he remained in his seat.