Before he Sees (A Mackenzie White Mystery—Book 2) - Blake Pierce - ebook
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From Blake Pierce, bestselling author of ONCE GONE (a #1 bestseller with over 600 five star reviews), comes book #2 in a heart-pounding new mystery series.In BEFORE HE SEES (A Mackenzie White Mystery—Book 2), FBI agent-in-training Mackenzie White struggles to make her mark in the FBI Academy in Quantico, trying to prove herself as a woman and as a transplant from Nebraska. Hoping she has what it takes to become an FBI agent and leave her life in the Midwest behind for good, Mackenzie just wants to keep a low profile and impress her superiors.But all that changes when the body of a woman is found in a garbage dump. The murder bears shocking similarities to the Scarecrow Killer—the case that made Mackenzie famous in Nebraska—and in the frantic race against time to stop a new serial killer, the FBI decides to break protocol and give Mackenzie a chance on the case.It is Mackenzie’s big break, her chance to impress the FBI—but the stakes have never been higher. Not everyone wants her on the case, and everything she touches seems to go wrong. As the pressure mounts and the killer strikes again, Mackenzie finds herself as a lone voice in a sea of experienced agents, and she soon realizes she is in way over heard. Her entire future with the FBI is in jeopardy.As tough and determined as Mackenzie is, as brilliant as she is in hunting down killers, this new case proves an impossible riddle, something just beyond her reach. She may not even have time to crack it as her own life falls apart around her. A dark psychological thriller with heart-pounding suspense, BEFORE HE SEES is book #2 in a riveting new series—with a beloved new character—that will leave you turning pages late into the night. Book #3 in the Mackenzie White Mystery series will be available soon.

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B E F O R E   H E   S E E S

(A MACKENZIE WHITE MYSTERY—BOOK 2)

B L A K E   P I E R C E

Blake Pierce

Blake Pierce is author of the bestselling RILEY PAGE mystery series, which include the mystery suspense thrillers ONCE GONE (book #1), ONCE TAKEN (book #2), ONCE CRAVED (#3), and ONCE LURED (#4).  Blake Pierce is also the author of the MACKENZIE WHITE mystery series and the AVERY BLACK mystery series.

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 © 2016 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 lassedesignen, 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)

MACKENZIE WHITE MYSTERY SERIES

BEFORE HE KILLS (Book #1)

BEFORE HE SEES (Book #2)

AVERY BLACK MYSTERY SERIES

CAUSE TO KILL (Book #1)

CONTENTS

PROLOGUE

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

CHAPTER NINETEEN

CHAPTER TWENTY

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

CHAPTER THIRTY

CHAPTER THIRTY ONE

CHAPTER THIRTY TWO

CHAPTER THIRTY THREE

PROLOGUE

Susan Kellerman understood the need to dress nicely. She was representing her company and trying to win over new buyers, so her appearance went a long way. What she did not understand, though, was why in God’s name she had to wear heels. She was wearing a pretty summer dress and had the perfect pair of flats to go with it. But no…corporate insisted on heels. Something about sophistication.

I doubt heels have anything to do with acquiring a sale, she thought. Especially not if the would-be client is a man. According to her sell -sheet, the person in the house she was currently approaching was a man. Given that, Susan checked the collar of her dress. She was showing some cleavage but nothing scandalous.

That, she thought, shows sophistication.

With her rather large and cumbersome display case in hand, she clomped up the steps in her heels and rang the doorbell. As she waited, she took a quick glance around the front of the house. It was a basic little house situated on the outskirts of a middle-class neighborhood. The grass had been recently cut, but the small flower beds bordering the tiny set of stairs to the front door were badly in need of weeding.

It was a quiet neighborhood, but not the kind Susan would live in. The houses were one-story little saltboxes splattered along the streets. Most, she assumed, were owned by older couples or those struggling to pay their bills. This house in particular looked about one strong storm or financial crisis away from becoming the property of the bank.

She reached out to ring the bell again but the door was answered before she could touch it. The man that answered was of average size and build. She guessed him to be about forty or so. There was something feminine about him, something she could see from the way he simply answered the door and gave her a wide, bright smile.

“Good morning,” the man said.

“Good morning,” she said.

She knew his name but had been instructed by those that trained her to never use it until the lines of communication were wide open. When you greeted them by name right away, it made them feel like targets rather than customers—even when they had scheduled the appointment ahead of time.

Not wanting to allow him a moment to ask her questions and therefore take control of the conversation, she added: “I was wondering if you might have a moment to speak with me about your current diet.”

“Diet?” the man asked with a smirk. “I’m not on much of a diet. I sort of eat what I want.”

“Oh, that must be nice,” Susan said, putting on her best charming smile and chipper tone of voice. “As I’m sure you know, not many people over the age of thirty can say that and maintain a healthy body type.”

For the first time, the man looked at the case in her left hand. He smiled again and this time it was a lazy one—the sort of smile someone might flash when they know they’ve been had.

“So what are you selling?”

It was a sarcastic comment, but at least it wasn’t a door closing in her face. She took that as the first victory toward getting inside. “Well, I’m here on behalf of A Better You University,” she said. “We offer adults over the age of thirty a very easy and methodical way to stay in shape without hitting the gym or altering their lifestyle too much.”

The man sighed and his hand went to the door. He looked bored, ready to send her packing. “And how do you do that?”

“Through a combination of protein shakes made with our very own protein powders and more than fifty healthy recipes to give your daily nutrition the boost it needs.”

“And that’s it?”

“That’s it,” she said.

The man considered it for a moment, looking to Susan and then to the large pack in her hands. He then looked at his watch and gave a shrug.

“I’ll tell you what,” he said. “I have to leave in ten minutes. If you can convince me in that amount of time, you’ve got a customer. Anything to keep me from going back to the gym.”

“Splendid,” Susan said, cringing internally at the fake cheer in her voice.

The man stepped aside and waved her into the house. “Come on in,” he said.

She stepped inside and entered a small living room. An ancient-looking television sat on a scarred entertainment center. A few dusty old chairs sat in the corners of the room along with a crumpled sofa. There were ceramic figurines and doilies everywhere. It looked more like some old woman’s house than a forty-something single man’s.

For reasons she did not know, she heard internal alarms going off. But then she tried to thwart her fear with shaky logic. So he’s either incredibly off or this isn’t his house. Maybe he lives with his mother.

“Is here okay?” she asked, pointing to the coffee table in front of the couch.

“Yes, right there is fine,” the man said. He smiled at her as he closed the door.

The moment the door was closed, Susan felt something stir in her gut. It felt like the room had grown cold and all of her senses were responding to it. Something was wrong. It was a bizarre feeling. She looked at the nearest ceramic figure—a little boy pulling a wagon—as if for some sort of answer.

She busied herself by opening up her case. She took out a few packs of the A Better You University Protein Powder and the complimentary mini-blender (a retail value of $35 but yours absolutely free with your first purchase!) to distract herself.

“Now,” she said, trying to remain calm and ignore the chill she still felt. “Are you more interested in weight loss, weight gain, or maintaining your current body type?”

“I’m not sure,” the man said, standing over the coffee table and looking at the goods. “What would you say?”

Susan found it hard to talk. She felt scared now and for no real reason.

She looked over at the door. Her heart thumped in her chest. Had he locked the door when he closed it? She couldn’t tell from where she sat.

She then realized that the man was still waiting for a response. She shook the cobwebs away and tried to slip back into presenter mode.

“Well, I don’t know,” she said.

She wanted to look to the door again. Suddenly the fake eyes of every porcelain figure in the room seemed to be staring at her—leering at her like a predator.

“I don’t eat too bad,” the man said. “But I do have a soft spot for key lime pie. Would I still be able to eat key lime pie on your program?”

“Possibly,” she said. She sifted through her materials, pulling the case closer to her. Ten minutes, she thought, getting more and more uneasy with the passing of each second. He said he had ten minutes. I can make it that long.

She found the small pamphlet that showed what the man would be able to eat on the program and looked up to him to hand it over. He took it and when he did, his hand brushed hers for just a moment.

Again, alarms sounded in her head. She had to get out of there. She’d never had such a reaction from stepping into a potential client’s house but this was so overpowering that it was all she could think about.

“I’m sorry,” she said, gathering the case and her materials back up. “But I just now remembered that I have a meeting to attend in less than an hour, and it’s all the way on the other side of town.”

“Oh,” he said, looking at the pamphlet she had just handed him. “Well, I understand. Sure. I hope you can make it on time.”

“Thanks,” she said quickly.

He offered her the pamphlet and she took it with a trembling hand. She put it into the case and started for the front door.

It was locked.

“Excuse me,” the man said.

Susan turned, still reaching for the doorknob.

She barely saw the punch coming. All she saw was a blinding white fist as it slammed into her mouth. She felt blood flowing right away and tasted it on her tongue. She fell directly back onto the couch.

She opened her mouth to scream and felt like the right side of her jaw was locked up. As she tried getting to her feet, the man was there again, this time driving a knee into her stomach. The wind rushed out of her and she could do nothing but curl up, fighting for breath. As she did, she was dimly aware of the man picking her up and throwing her over his shoulder as if she was some helpless cavewoman that he was dragging back to his cave.

She tried fighting against him, but she still could not draw any breath into her lungs. It was like being paralyzed, like drowning. Her whole body felt limp, including her head. She was dripping blood onto the back of the man’s shirt and this was all she saw as he took her through the house.

At some point, she realized that he had taken her into another house—a house that was somehow attached to the one she had been in just moments ago. She was dropped to the floor like a sack of rocks, striking her head on a scarred linoleum floor. Bright dots of pain flared across her eyes as she was finally able to take in the smallest of breaths. She rolled over but when she managed to get to her feet, he was there again.

Her eyes were growing hazy but she could make out enough to see that he had opened some sort of small door in the side of a wall—hidden behind some sort of false paneling. It was dark in there, layered with dust and some sort of puffy insulation that hung down in torn tatters. Her heart slammed against her chest as if trying to break through her breastbone when she realized that he was taking her in there.

“You’ll be safe here,” the man told her as he hunched over and dragged her into the crawlspace.

She found herself in the dark, lying down on stiff boards that served as the floor. All she could smell was dust and her own blood, still trickling from her busted nose. The man…she knew his name but could not recall it. The word was blood and pain and a tight pain in her chest as she still fought for breath.

She finally drew one in and wanted to use it to scream. But instead, she let it fill her lungs, relieving her body. In that moment of brief relief, she heard the crawlspace door close somewhere behind her and then she was stranded in the darkness.

The last thing she heard before her world went black was his laughter, just outside the door.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “This will all be over soon.”

CHAPTER ONE

The rain was coming down steadily, just hard enough so that Mackenzie White could not hear her own footfalls. This was good. It meant that the man she was chasing down would not be able to hear them, either.

Still, she had to advance with caution. Not only was it raining, but it was late at night. The suspect could easily use the darkness to his advantage just like she could. And the weak flickering streetlights were doing her no favors.

With her hair nearly soaked and her rain coat so wet that it was basically plastered to her, Mackenzie crossed the deserted street in a near march. Ahead of her, her partner was already at the targeted building. She could see his shape crouching low by the side of the old concrete structure. As she neared him, illuminated only by the moonlight and a single streetlight a block away, she tightened her slick grip on the Academy-issued Glock she carried in her hands.

She was starting to like the feel of a gun in her hands. It was more than a sense of security but something closer to a relationship. When she held a gun in her hands and knew that she was going to shoot it, she felt an intimate connection to it. She had never felt this while working as an underappreciated detective in Nebraska; it was something new that the FBI Academy had chiseled out of her.

She reached the building and huddled up along the side of it with her partner. Here, at least, the rain was no longer pelting her.

Her partner’s name was Harry Dougan. He was twenty-two, well-built, and cocky in a subtle and almost respectable way. She was relieved to see that he looked a little unnerved, too.

“Did you get a visual?” Mackenzie asked him.

“No. But the front room is clear. You can see that much through the window,” he said, pointing ahead of them. There was a single window there, broken and jagged.

“How many rooms?” she asked.

“Three that I know of for sure.”

“Let me lead,” she said. She made sure it did not sound like a question. Even here in Quantico, women had to be assertive to be taken seriously.

He gestured for her to go ahead. As she dashed in front of him, she slid to the front of the building. She peered around and saw that the coast was clear. These streets were eerily empty and everything looked dead.

She gave a quick motion for Harry to come forward and he did without hesitation. He was holding his own Glock steady in his hands, holding it low to the ground in their pursuit, just like they had been trained to do. Together, they crept toward the front door of the building. It was an abandoned concrete slab of a place—maybe an old warehouse or storage place—and the door showed its age. It also made it obvious that it was open, a dark crack revealing a sliver of the building’s interior.

Mackenzie looked at Harry and counted down with her fingers. Three, two…one!

She pressed her back tight against the concrete wall as Harry went low, pushed the door open, and strafed inside. She wheeled in behind him, the two of them operating like a well-oiled machine. However, once inside the building, there was almost no light. She quickly went for her flashlight at her side. Just as she was about to click it on, she stopped herself. A flashlight beam would be a dead giveaway for their location. The suspect would see them far in advance and could likely escape them…again.

She replaced the flashlight and reclaimed the lead again, creeping in front of Harry with the Glock now trained ahead to the door on her right. As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she could see more details of the place. It was mostly barren. A few soggy cardboard boxes were pressed against a far wall. A sawhorse and several old cables lay discarded near the back corner of the room. Other than that, the central room was empty.

Mackenzie walked toward the door to her right. It was really just a doorway, the actual door having long been removed. Inside, shadows concealed nearly everything. Other than a broken glass bottle and what looked to be several rat droppings, the room was empty.

She stopped and started to turn around when she realized that Harry was following far too close behind her. She nearly stepped on his feet as she backed away from the room.

“Sorry,” he whispered in the dark. “I thought it—”

He was cut off by the sound of a gunshot. This was instantly followed by an oof noise from Harry’s mouth as he went to the ground.

Mackenzie pressed hard against the wall as another blast came. The shot pounded the wall from the other side; she could feel the impact of it against her back.

She knew that if she acted quickly, she could take the perp down right now rather than engaging in a shootout from around the wall. She looked at Harry, saw that he was still moving and coherent for the most part, and reached out to him. She hauled him through the doorway, out of the line of fire. When she did, another shot came. She felt it go just over her shoulder, the air whizzing around her raincoat.

When she had Harry to safety, she wasted no time and decided to act. She grabbed her flashlight, clicked it on, and tossed it out the door. It clattered on the ground seconds later, its white beam dancing wildly along the floor on the other side of the wall.

Following the clattering noise, Mackenzie whirled her body out of the doorway. She was crouched low, her hands skimming the floor as she curled herself into a quick, tight roll. As she rolled hard to the left, she saw the shape of the perp directly to her right, still focused on the flashlight.

Coming out of her roll, she extended her right leg with a vicious amount of force. It caught the perp on the backside of the leg, just below the knee. The suspect buckled a bit and that was all she needed. She sprang up and wrapped her right arm around his neck as he sagged and brought him hard to the ground. With a knee to the solar plexus and a deft motion with her left arm, the perp was down, trapped, and quickly disarmed as his rifle went to the floor.

From somewhere else within the old building, a loud voice said, “Halt!”

A series of bright white bulbs popped on with audible clicks, flooding the building in light.

Mackenzie stood up and looked down to the suspect. He was smiling up at her. It was a familiar face—one she had seen in her training modules several times, usually barking orders and instructions at the agent trainees.

She held her hand out and he took it from his place on the floor. “Damn good work, White.”

“Thank you,” she said.

From behind her, Harry stumbled forward, holding his stomach. “Are we absolutely certain they’re just packing bean bags in those things?” he asked.

“Not only that, but these are low-grade,” the instructor said. “Next time we’ll use the riot bags.”

“Awesome,” Harry grunted.

A few people started filing into the room as the Hogan’s Alley run came to an end. It was Mackenzie’s third session in the Alley, a mock-up of a derelict street that was heavily used by the FBI in training agent trainees for real-world situations.

While two instructors stood by Harry, letting him know what he had done wrong and how he could have prevented being shot, another instructor headed directly over to Mackenzie. His name was Simon Lee, an older man that looked like life had dealt him a crap hand and he had responded by beating the hell out of it.

“Amazing work, Agent White,” he said. “That roll was so damn fast that I barely saw it. Still…it was a little reckless. If there had been more than one suspect out here, it could have gone totally different.”

“Yes, sir. I understand.”

Lee smiled at her. “I know you do,” he said. “I tell you, at the halfway point of your training cycle, I’m already over the moon about your progress. You’re going to make an excellent agent. Good work.”

“Thank you, sir,” she said.

Lee took his leave and walked elsewhere into the building, speaking with another instructor. As they started to file out, Harry came over to her, still grimacing a bit.

“Well done,” he said. “It doesn’t hurt half as bad when the person that came out on top is exceptionally pretty.”

She rolled her eyes at him and holstered her Glock. “Flattery is useless,” she said. “Flattery, as they say, gets you nowhere.”

“I know,” Harry said. “But would it at least get me a drink?”

She grinned. “If you’re paying.”

“Yeah, I’ll pay,” he agreed. “I wouldn’t want you to kick my ass.”

They exited the building and walked back out into the rain. Now that the drill was over, the rain was almost refreshing. And with several instructors and consultant agents skimming the grounds to end the night, she finally allowed herself to feel proud of herself.

Eleven weeks in, she had passed through the majority of the classroom-oriented part of her Academy training. She was almost there…about nine weeks away from wrapping up the course and potentially becoming a field agent for the FBI.

She suddenly wondered why she’d waited so long to leave Nebraska. When Ellington had recommended her for the Academy, it had essentially been her golden ticket, the push she needed to test herself, to break out of what had been comfortable and safe. She’d gotten rid of the job, the boyfriend, the apartment…and she’d picked up a new life.

She thought of the flat expanse of land, the cornfields, and the open blue skies that she had left behind. While they held their own specific beauty, it had, in a way, been a prison for her.

It was all behind her now.

Now that she was free, there was nothing left to hold her back.

*

The rest of her day proceeded with physical training: push-ups, sprints, crunches, more sprints, and selective weights. For her first few days at the Academy, she had hated this sort of training. But as her body and mind had gotten used to it, it seemed to her that she actually craved it.

Everything was done with speed and precision. She ran through fifty push-ups so fast that she wasn’t aware of the burning in her upper arms until she was done with them and headed for the mud-flecked obstacle course. With just about any sort of physical activity, she had gotten into the mindset of thinking that she wasn’t really pushing herself until her arms and legs were trembling and her abs felt like slabs of serrated meat.

There were sixty trainees in her unit and she was one of only nine women. This did not bother her, probably because her time in Nebraska had hardened her to not really caring about the gender of the people she worked with. She simply kept her head down and worked to the best of her abilities, which, she wasn’t too proud to say, was pretty exceptional.

When the instructor called time on her last circuit—a two-mile run through muddy trails and forest—the class broke apart and went their separate ways. Mackenzie, on the other hand, took a seat on one of the benches along the edge of the course and stretched her legs out. With nothing much else going on for the day and still pumped from her successful stint in Hogan’s Alley, she figured she’d head out for one last run.

As much as she hated to admit it, she had become one of those people that liked to run. While she wouldn’t be enlisting in any themed marathons anytime soon, she had come to appreciate the act. Outside of the required laps and courses in her training, she found time to run along the wooded trails of the campus that sat six miles away from the FBI headquarters and, subsequently, about eight miles away from her new Quantico apartment.

With her workout tank top drenched in sweat and a flush in her face, she rounded out her day with a final sprint around the obstacle course, leaving the hills, fallen logs, and nets out of it. As she did, she noticed two different men watching her—not out of some sort of lustful daydreams, but in a sort of awe that, quite frankly, spurred her on.

Although, truth be told, she wouldn’t mind a few lustful glances here and there. This new svelte body she had worked so hard for deserved to be appreciated. It was weird to feel so comfortable in her own skin, but she was growing to like it. She knew Harry Dougan liked it, too. But so far, he’d said nothing. Even if he were to say something, Mackenzie wasn’t sure what she would say in return.

When her last run (just under two miles) was wrapped up, she showered in the training facilities and grabbed a pack of crackers from the vending machine on her way out. She had the rest of the day at her disposal; four hours to do whatever she wanted before hitting the treadmill at the gym—a little routine she’d managed to fall into just to stay one step ahead of everyone else.

What to do with the rest of her day? Maybe she could finally finish unpacking. There were still six boxes in her apartment that she had not cracked the packing tape to. That would be the smart thing to do. But she also wondered what Harry was up to this evening, if he would hold good for his drinks request. Did he mean tonight or some other night?

And, beyond that, she wondered what Agent Ellington was doing.

She and Ellington had nearly met up a few times but it had never stuck—likely for the best, as far as Mackenzie was concerned. She could go the rest of her life without being reminded of the embarrassment that had occurred between them back in Nebraska.

As she tried to decide what to do with her afternoon, she headed for her car. As she slid the key into the door lock, she saw a familiar face go jogging by. The jogger, a fellow agent-in-training named Colby Stinson, saw her looking and smiled. She jogged over to Mackenzie’s car with energy that made Mackenzie think that Colby was starting her run, not wrapping it up.

“Hey there,” Colby said. “Did the class leave you behind?”

“No. I snuck in an extra run.”

“Well, of course you did.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Mackenzie asked. She and Colby knew one another fairly well, although it might be a long shot to say that they were friends. She was never sure when Colby was being funny or trying to get a rise out of her.

“It means that you’re super-driven and a bit of an overachiever,” Colby said.

“Guilty.”

“So what are you doing?” Colby asked. She then pointed to the pack of crackers in Mackenzie’s hand. “Is that lunch?”

“It is,” she said. “Sad, huh?”

“A bit. Why don’t we go grab something? Pizza sounds awesome to me.”

Pizza sounded good to Mackenzie, too. But she really didn’t feel like suffering through small talk, especially not with a woman that tended to lean a little too close to the gossipy side of conversation. Yet, on the other hand, she also knew that she needed more in her life than training, extra training, and holing herself up in her apartment.

“Yeah, let’s do that,” Mackenzie said.

It was a small victory—stepping out of her comfort zone and trying to make friends in this new place, in this new chapter of her life. But with each step, a new page was turned and she was, quite frankly, eager to start writing.

*

Donnie’s Pizza Place was only half full when Mackenzie and Colby arrived there in the afternoon, the lunch crowd thinning out. They grabbed a table in the back and ordered a pizza. Mackenzie allowed herself to relax, resting her sore legs and arms, but was not able to enjoy it for long.

Colby sat forward and sighed. “So, can we address the elephant in the room?”

“There’s an elephant?” Mackenzie asked.

“There is,” Colby said. “But it’s dressed in all black and sort of blends in most of the time.”

“Okay,” Mackenzie said. “Explain this elephant to me. And tell me why you’re waiting until now to mention it.”

“Something I never told you is that the first day you showed up at the Academy, I knew who you were. Just about everybody did. There was a lot of whispering. And that’s why I’m waiting to tell you now. As we get to the end of this, I don’t know how it is going to affect things.”

“What whispering?” Mackenzie asked, pretty sure she already knew where this was going.

“Well, the important parts are about the Scarecrow Killer and the meek little lady that bagged him. A little lady that was so good being a detective in Nebraska that the FBI came calling.”

“That’s a rather glorified version of it, but yes…I recognize that elephant. You said the important parts, though. Are there other parts?”

Colby looked suddenly uncomfortable. She tucked a strand of her brown hair nervously behind her ear. “Well, there are rumors. I’ve heard some agent played a hand in getting you on board. And…well, we’re in a male-driven environment. You can imagine how the rumors go.”

Mackenzie rolled her eyes, finding herself embarrassed. She had never stopped to wonder what sorts of hushed rumors might have been circulating about her and Ellington, the agent that had indeed played a large part in getting her a shot at the Bureau.

“Sorry,” Colby said. “Should I not have said anything?”

Mackenzie shrugged. “It’s okay. I guess we all have our stories.”

Apparently sensing that she may have said too much, Colby looked at the table and sipped nervously from her soda. “Sorry,” she said softly. “I just thought you should know. You’re the first real friend I’ve made here and I wanted to be as blunt as possible.”

“Ditto,” Mackenzie said.

“We good?” Colby asked.

“Yeah. Now how about you throw out some other topic to talk about?”

“Oh, that’s easy,” Colby said. “Tell me about you and Harry.”

“Harry Dougan?” Mackenzie asked.

“Yes. The would-be agent that seems to undress you with his eyes every time you’re in the same room together.”

“Nothing to tell,” Mackenzie said.

Colby smiled and rolled her eyes. “If you say so.”

“No, really. He’s not my type.”

“Maybe you’re not his type,” Colby pointed out. “Maybe he just wants to see you naked. I wonder…what type are you? Deep and psychological, I bet.”

“Why do you say that?” Mackenzie asked.

“Because of your interests and tendency to excel in profiling courses and scenarios.”

“I think that’s a common misconception about anyone interested in profiling,” Mackenzie said. “If you need proof, I can point you to at least three aging men on the Nebraska State Police.”

Conversation dwindled down to the mundane after that—their classes, their instructors, and so forth. But all the while, Mackenzie seethed on the inside. The rumors Colby had mentioned were the exact reason she had decided to stay under everyone’s radar. She had not gone out of her way to make many friends—a decision that should have afforded her plenty of time to get her apartment set up.

And under it all was Ellington…the man that had come into Nebraska and changed her world. It sounded clichéd to think such a thing, but it’s essentially what happened. And the fact that she still couldn’t get him out of her head was slightly nauseating.

Even as she and Colby shared pleasantries as they finished their lunch, Mackenzie wondered what Ellington was up to. She also wondered what she would be doing right now if he had not come strolling through Nebraska during her attempt to bring down the Scarecrow Killer. It was not a pleasant image: she’d probably still be driving those agonizingly straight roads, bordered by either sky, fields, or corn. And she’d likely be partnered with some chauvinist prick that was just a younger and more stubborn version of Porter, her old partner.

She did not miss Nebraska. She did not miss the routines of the job she’d had there, and she certainly did not miss the mindset. What she did miss, though, was knowing that she fit in. More than that, she was in the top tier of people in her department. Here in Quantico, that wasn’t true. Here, she had massive competition and she had to fight to stay at the top.

Fortunately, she was more than up for the challenge and was happily leaving the Scarecrow Killer and her life before his arrest behind.

Now, if she could only get the nightmares to stop.

CHAPTER TWO

The next morning started bright and early with weapons training, something Mackenzie was finding that she was quite adept at. She’d always been a decent shot, but with the proper instruction and a class of twenty-two other hopefuls competing with her, she got eerily good. She still favored the Sig Sauer that she’d used in Nebraska and had been pleased to find that the Bureau’s standard-issue sidearm was a Glock—not too dissimilar.