Alan had more evidence than anyone had ever had in one of these cases. The forensics were astounding! They proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the victim was in fact Mary Drake. They were also able to match fingerprints found on the scene with the fingerprints taken from Rick’s wine glasses. The best he could put together, the man involved had been the primary butcher – the prints on the surgical instruments all belonged to him. The woman had helped hang the plastic sheeting and apparently had set up Mary’s restraints.

It was the most horrific crime scene the department had ever seen, so they called in help from the FBI field office, who flew in the agents that had investigated the other killings. They’d never found the actual crime scene before, but Alan quickly figured out why.

The building where they’d found Mary’s discarded corpse had been scheduled for demolition by implosion the week after her disappearance. From what he gathered from the contractors who were hired to perform the demolition, their team would never have had to enter that particular room. Their charges would have primarily been set around the perimeter of the building, depending on its weight to pulverize and destroy the interior.

After showing the foreman the location of the room where they’d found the body he was confident the scene was well planned. There would have been a large charge placed on the other side of the wall – Mary’s body and everything else in the room would likely have been vaporized in the explosion.

“That explains why they didn’t bother with gloves. The explosion would’ve covered everything up perfectly.”

He had started piecing together bits of information from the other disappearances. In each case, there was a building somewhere in town that had been imploded within the same week. Of the ten different cases they were aware of, four only had one implosion within a week. Of those, only two of the sites were still accessible. The Feds dispatched agents to sift through the rubble. It took a few days, but they managed to uncover fragments of human bone at each site.

The DNA matched the missing women.

Alan was confident now that they were on the right track. They still didn’t understand the pattern the killers were using to select their victims, but they at least knew the M.O. Case a neighborhood for a too-trusting young couple with a husband who spent a significant time away from home. Wait for a scheduled nearby implosive demolition. Kidnap the woman, kill her in the condemned building, and let the contractors clean up the mess.

Really, it was an efficient system. If not for the city workers who delayed the demolition in the interest of air quality for a nearby marathon, they probably would never have found this site. Now they were one step ahead of the game.

Alan’s team did everything they could to keep the find out of the papers. The breach of ethics didn’t sit right with him, but they had signed agreements with a handful of journalists for rights to cover when they brought the killers down in exchange for their silence. After the forensics team finished cleaning out the building, they continued with the rescheduled demolition.

He didn’t want anything to tip off their suspects. It needed to appear that they had gotten away with it. Alan even placed Rick in protective custody, just to make sure he didn’t spill his guts to the press. Rick was broken; when he’d woken up the day they found Mary he just babbled nonsense. He had spent a day under observation in the hospital before the doctors felt he still had a close enough drip on sanity to go home.

There was an unmarked car parked in front of his house 24-hours a day with an FBI detail. Alan also had one of his own men inside the house to personally keep an eye on Rick at all times. To be safe, they’d confiscated his cell phone and disconnected his landline.

Though Alan was certain Rick hadn’t done anything, he’d instructed the team to treat him as a prime suspect under house arrest. It was the only way they could be sure he stayed out of the way. After he inexplicably beat the team to the crime scene, even Alan didn’t trust his judgment.

It took the combined FBI-police task force a month to set up their trap. They spent their time finding a location in another state that fit the suspects’ M.O. A vacant house next to a younger couple with no children. An abandoned building out of the way in an industrial section of town scheduled for demolition.

Even though it was far out of Alan’s jurisdiction, the Feds let his team assist in the preparation and monitor the operation. They all took the case very personally, and no one wanted to be left out – even if they had to give up being the one in front of the camera at the final press conference. The two FBI agents moved into the house last month and set up their covers – Agent Wright had legal training and was able to secure a spot as an attorney down town. He’d be away from home sufficiently enough to set up his “wife,” Agent Brooks, who had taken a job as a substitute teacher in the area.

They spent a month establishing their covers before anyone was ready to set the trap. Their lives needed to look perfectly legitimate. Alan took on the responsibility of hiring the demolition team. He fed stories to the press about the upcoming implosion, explaining that an unnamed firm had bought the land to put in a new rail shipping depot. He also fed stories to the community about the environmental dangers of imploding older buildings.

The controversy raised to national levels for a day before the city shut down protests in the interest of “progress.” It was just enough to bait the trap – everyone hoped the suspects had heard it.

They kept an eye on every off-the-market vacant home in town and made efforts to put bogus bids down on as many as they could. They even convinced the local police to step up patrols in every residential neighborhood but the one their bait house was in. Alan was impressed with the level of interagency cooperation they had achieved. He just hoped it would work and herd their suspects to the right house in the right neighborhood of the right city.

Three nights later, they struck gold. Brooks phoned in to say they were having dinner with a new couple in the neighborhood who matched the suspects’ description on Monday. It wasn’t enough to arrest anyone yet, but it was a start.

They set surveillance in place and got ready to spring the trap the night of the dinner. Alan took the day off and went home to take his turn watching over his friend. He explained everything they’d done to this point and that they’d need Rick rested and refreshed to identify the suspects once they were brought in.

“I could just go back with you and watch the surveillance videos.”

“No, I need you to stay away from this for now. Let me do my job and bring them in. Then you can ID them and we can put this case to bed.”

It was Monday morning; Agent Brooks was at “home” because the district didn’t need any substitutes that day.

“I pity the real teachers. This waiting around for a phone call thing sucks,” she said as she realized a call wouldn’t come. If the school didn’t call by 9 there wouldn’t be work that day. Rather than break her cover and assist with the surveillance tweaking, she went to the store for groceries – to keep up appearances. Even though the assignment would be over in the morning, she didn’t want to tip off anyone by not continuing with “daily life.”

It was entertaining to play the role of doting wife for a while. Brooks wasn’t ready to be married for real, though. These temporary assignments shows her just enough of that life to realize that much. Still, it was fun while it lasted.

She picked up a week’s worth of groceries and paid with her cover’s credit card. I’ll miss all the free money, though, she thought to herself. Living for a month on someone else’s credit card was refreshing. She was saving a bundle! That must be why identity theft is such a lucrative crime.

Pulling in to the driveway she glanced purposefully away from the cable van out front. The agents inside were likely putting the finishing touches on the wireless video system. They’d start it up in a few hours to test things – since she had originally planned to be at work all day they hadn’t actually set anything up in the house yet. She’d scheduled a 4pm appointment with the cable company to install an HD receiver. It was a ploy to allow one of the FBI technicians in the house to set up the cameras.

Brooks grabbed her bags out of the trunk and managed to shut it again with her foot – a new skills she’d picked up on this assignment. She balanced the bags carefully on her hip while she unlocked the front door, then carried them across the house to the kitchen in the back corner.

She started unloading vegetables and other perishable goods into the refrigerator, regretting she wouldn’t get to keep them after the assignment was over. Brooks sighed and turned back to the counter to un-bag the bread.

She didn’t see the shadow approach silently behind her. She didn’t hear him step into the kitchen. As she closed the breadbox, Brooks caught a reflection of motion in the microwave door. By the time she’d turned around to face her attacker, though, he’d already grabbed her by the hair and flung her against the wall.

Brooks fell to the floor, unconscious. John smiled to himself at how easy it’d been. Housewives never put up much of a fight, teachers were no different. He pulled a syringe from a pouch on his belt and injected it into Brooks’ thigh.

“Sleep soundly, dear. You’ve got a check up with the doctor tonight.”

Then he bound her wrists and legs and carried her out the back door, through the back yard, and heaved her over the fence into the padded bed of his pick-up. John quickly retraced his steps from the house, erasing any evidence that he’d ever been there. Then he, too, went over the fence and joined Cari in the cab of the truck.

“Thanks for not making me meet the husband this time, baby.”

“We got lucky. She didn’t have to work today. Count your blessings.”

He kissed her heavily, and they got into it in the front of his truck. Five minutes later, they started the engine and drove away, physically satisfied and excited for what was to come later that night. It would take 6 hours or so for the sedatives to wear off. They had plenty of time.

Meanwhile, the agents in the van finished prepping their equipment. Agent Patrick checked his cable company uniform, grabbed a clipboard, and climbed out the side door. He had 6 wireless cameras in his pocket, and each was ready to be set up and transmit. He knocked on the door and waited. When Brooks didn’t respond, he knocked again. And again.

He’d seen her drive up, and it was time to finish the prep work for tonight. Where is she? He pulled out his cell phone and called hers. A slight breach of protocol, but he could fake calling the company to confirm the address of the appointment.

He heard ringing from in the house, but the call went to voicemail.

“Something’s wrong.”

Patrick hung up and immediately called it in. Then he pulled a key out his pocket and unlocked the door. He froze when he saw the overturned chair in the kitchen – and the blood on the wall from where her head had struck.

Alan answered his own phone and turned pale.

“What’s wrong?” asked Richard.

Alan just stared back, unmoving.

“Seriously, man, what’s wrong?”

“They got her. I don’t know how, but … they got her.”

“What about the warehouse,” Richard offered.

Alan’s expression lightened. There was still hope. He thanked his friend and started barking orders into the phone. They’d set up shop at the warehouse instead – a significant change in plans he wasn’t ready for.

“Have a helicopter ready for me, I’ll be there in two hours.”

They had a lot to set up, and he had no idea when they’d make their move. He frantically dialed Agent Wright’s number. The game was over, and Alan could definitely use the extra gun if it came to that. He wasn’t going to lose another one to these psychopaths.

Richard sat back in his chair. Alan had told him a great story. How they’d spent the last month working to set things up to catch the two who’d killed his wife. Alan had explained the intricate set up in town, tricking the city press into advertising for them. Everything sounded perfect – it should have been fairly easy to lure them in and catch them unguarded at dinner.

A dinner like Mary had prepared for their new “neighbors.” Trying to reach out to a new couple in the neighborhood. It made Richard sick to think of how their hospitality was used in such a way. It made him feel dirty to think his insistence that Mary connect more to the community had a hand in her death. He was an unwilling accomplice, but no less guilty than those who’d brutally murdered his wife.

For the past month, all Richard had done was brood about the crime. He hadn’t been outside at all, and rarely opened the windows for fresh air. He’d turn on the TV from time to time, mostly to convince his ‘escort’ that he hadn’t lost his mind. In reality, Richard had done only one thing since they’d found Mary.

He imagined the million different things he’d do to John should he ever get his hands on him.

His dreams were darker than they’d ever been. He fantasized about every kind of torture he’d ever seen in the movies. Intricate grisly games, drugging him to stay awake while his limbs were severed, merely shooting him, clean and easy.

There wasn’t a thing in the world that Richard wouldn’t do – if he had his way, he’d will John back to life so he could kill him over again.

Will him …

Richard thought back to the day they’d found Mary and the mysterious fashion with which he’d arrived at the crime scene. It was almost as if he’d willed himself to the clinic. He remembered wanting to be there, being consumed by the mindfire from his dreams, then standing in the parking lot.

I wonder …

Richard sat back in his chair and closed his eyes. He stared into the black depths of his closed eyelids and concentrated. For a moment, he tried to force his body to sleep. If he could just sleep, he’d be in the field again, then he could figure out how he’d made it to the clinic.

Richard thought as hard as he could, strain and perspiration forming on his forehead. He quickly realized how ridiculous this was – he was sitting in a chair trying to force himself to sleep so he could ask a figment of his imagination how to teleport to a distant location. It was laughable! Richard should probably have himself committed.

Just as he began to open his eyes, though, he felt it. A tickle. A slight burning sensation just behind his left shoulder. He reached out with his mind and probed the candle-like feeling. The flicker grew, and Richard opened his mind to it.

Slowly, like a log beginning to take flame, the mindfire entered Richard’s consciousness. It seemed more in control this time, less like a headache and more like the feeling of a hot drink after working outside on a cold day. He let the fire grow in the back of his mind and cleared his thoughts so he could focus on what he wanted most.

He started to conjure a question in his mind, asking the mindfire where to find Alan.

“There are no questions,” a small voice reminded him.

Richard took a different approach. He pieced together the description of the warehouse he’d gotten from Alan and reached into the flame. Gradually, the image of the warehouse cleared itself – Richard could see it as clearly as if he were looking at a photograph. There was a pick-up truck parked near a loading gate, and Richard could tell there were three people inside the building.

Richard reached again into the fire, this time forcing the image to change. He pushed it so that, rather than looking at a photograph, he was looking as if he were standing near the truck.

A tiny nudge, and the image became real.

The mindfire blew out, dramatically silencing the flood of images, thoughts, and knowledge within Richard’s head. He was standing beside the pick-up truck, miles away from the comfort of his easy chair.

He still sensed the three people inside the warehouse, but he didn’t understand why. He knew that there were two people in the back office and he knew a third was sleeping on a stack of palettes near the door just like he knew it was impossible for him to be here.

Richard walked a full circle around the building. There were two entrances – the huge rolling door on the loading dock, and a smaller windowed door that led to the office. He had an idea who would be waiting for him on the other side of the small door, and forcing open the rolling door would be a mistake.

Richard walked to the opposite side of the building, near where he felt the third person sleeping. He leaned against the building and tried to think.

OK. I’m in another state next to a warehouse holding an unconscious, kidnapped FBI agent and the two people who killed my wife. The rest of the FBI are maybe two hours away … what do I do?

Once again he felt the flame over his right shoulder, this time reaching out to him. Almost saying, ‘ask me, I know the answer.’

“There are no questions,” Richard said under his breath.

He closed his eyes and cleared his mind again. He opened himself to the flame and it wandered familiarly into his mind. It was no less powerful than before, but it seemed a bit thinner than it had a few minutes ago – like a bed of coals that’s been spread away from a log.

Richard opened his eyes, his mind fully engulfed, and looked at the building. Not at its walls, but at its core. For a moment, Richard regarded the concrete walls as nothing more a layer of fog – through the fiery storm in his mind he saw all inside.

He cocked his head to the side and latched on to the image of the walls as fog. Not hesitating, he took a step forward. Then another. Then another. He stopped a few steps past the fog … past the concrete wall.

The shock of the experience confused him, and he lost his hold on the mindfire. The concrete walls were again solid and impenetrable. But now, Richard was standing on the other side. He looked down and saw Agent Brooks strapped to a palette. He bent, checked her pulse, and when he was confident that she was OK walked over to the small office.

He could clearly see John and Cari inside. The had cleared the desk and were using it as a makeshift mattress, obviously aroused by the events of earlier that day. Richard found a discarded crowbar hanging on a 50-gallon drum and armed himself.

He reached for the handle on the door, then his nerves cried aloud and stopped him.

“What am I doing? I can’t go in there. There are two of them, and they managed to take out a trained FBI agent.”

He looked at the crowbar in his hand, a tiny voice in his head promising it would be enough.

He felt the fire again, a comforting familiar presence in the midst of all that made no sense. Richard looked at the crowbar, then thought back to how he’d come into the building. Although non-physical, the mindfire was obviously a more formidable weapon.

Richard cleared his mind and opened it again, then he kicked the door to the office in and stepped inside.

John recognized him immediately. He pulled back from Cari and threw her protectively behind the desk. She grabbed a few clothes and scampered for the exterior door. Richard looked at her for only a second, then turned his attention instead to John, who had managed to grab a gun and point it straight at Richard’s chest.

The rage from so long ago flooded into Richard and, fueled by the unnatural power of the mindfire, drove him forwards, despite John’s gun. John fired 3 quick shots at him before Richard closed the distance and knocked the gun from his hand. Screaming, Cari crawled out the door and ran for the pick-up.

Richard ignored her exit and threw John through the window into the main warehouse space. The bullets that had hit home just a moment ago did nothing more than to intensify Richard’s anger. He walked out of the office, unharmed, and glared intently at John.

A million forms of torture flashed before his eyes. A million deaths, a million torments, a million ultimate sins. John saw something flicker in Richard and screamed as the fire in Richard’s mind reached out and consumed him.

In a moment no longer than the breadth of a human thought, John suffered a million different deaths a million different times. He was broken beyond all sense of worth and humanity, and consumed into a living hell conjured by the mind of the man he’d wronged.

Richard breathed in his waning strength and consumed all that was left of John Durram, leaving a burnt out husk of a corpse behind.

Then Richard faltered. He had done it. He’d found and killed the man who’d killed his wife. He tried to smile, but realized he couldn’t. He was no longer in control of his body. Richard stood, staring at the charred remains of a man lying on the floor in front of him in horror. I did that?

There are no questions, came the response.

Richard relived the moment, more horrified of what he’d willed upon this man than of what the man had done to wrong him in the first place. No, I couldn’t have done that. How could I do that?

There are no questions.

Richard was forced to relive the moment again, tasting every bit of the bitter rage that had fueled him. He tried to take it back, reaching out to John in the moments before he’d expired.

So he’d really dead?

There are no questions.

Richard felt like he was lying on the floor. He smelled fear, and realized it was his own. He looked back at what he was running from and stared back at himself – at what he had become.

IT walked with purpose from the office and stared into the depths of his soul. He felt himself cry out, “forgive me!” but it was too late. IT stared with a look that burned through his mind and consumed the essence of his soul. He screamed in horror as he was torn to pieces, burned in acid, strangled, suffocated, consumed by fire, and destroyed in a million of the most unthinkable ways possible.

When IT was finished, he was staring again at the charred corpse. He was looking out from behind ITs eyes. He could no longer tell if he was the man who had walked into the office, or the man who had run screaming from IT. They were indistinguishable, yet irreconcilable – the man with the murdered wife, and the man who had murdered her. One and the same.

His mind screamed at the impossible paradox as it tried to reconcile the memories of two lifetimes. He fought with himself, unable to come to terms with the duality of his mind.

There was a rustling to the right, and IT turned to look at the woman strapped to the palette. The heat of the fire had disturbed and woken her.

I need to get her out of here!

Small consolations, at least I can still finish with her before the Feds arrive.

Both thoughts came to him at once, and he was again torn between the good-natured man who’d come to save the day and the cold-hearted killer who’d set this all in motion. IT grabbed ITs head and shook the contradictory thoughts from ITs mind.

Either way, you’re a killer, both voices said at once. He stopped fighting, and opened ITs eyes. IT walked to the palette and opened John’s surgical bag. Then IT looked upon its latest conquest

“I think your tongue and your heart,” IT said, injecting an anticoagulant into ITs victim. Then IT took John’s scalpel from his bag and held her head still. “Yes, a good pairing for a teacher.”

As IT began to cut into Agent Brooks’ jaw, he died to himself inside. John was no more, but neither was Richard. IT had consumed them both.

The fire behind ITs eyes flickered and danced, almost laughing as IT continued ITs work.

Alan didn’t know what to make of things. When they got to the warehouse, it was a mess. It looked like there had been some kind of a struggle in the office. There were clothes and supplies strewn everywhere, not to mention the gaping hole in the window. He was even more confused when they found two bodies. One was obviously Agent Brooks, the other … no one could explain.

They’d found a charred corpse in the middle of the warehouse. It was frozen in a position of protection, arms protecting the head, knees curled inwards to protect the core. But there were no defensive wounds, and no traces of accelerants anywhere on the body. For that matter, the floor beneath the corpse looked unscathed as well.

The forensics team was able to place both John and Cari in the building, their fingerprints were all over the office. They were even able to get some DNA evidence off the desk. What bewildered Alan, though, was the third set of prints on the surgical tools near Agent Brooks’ body. Though he couldn’t figure out why, they were Rick’s.

He’d called his men back home when he discovered this, but they couldn’t find Rick anywhere. They hadn’t seen the house and hadn’t heard anything suspicious, but he wasn’t there.

After everything was moved to the lab, Alan and his ME went to work looking over Brooks’ body. The FBI were bringing in their own specialist, but they let Alan have the first crack at things since it had started as his investigation. This is where the questions stopped and the real mystery began.

First of all, Brooks had been dismembered in a different fashion that Mary Drake. While it was obvious she’d been drugged to make her bleed out, they determined the cause of death wasn’t blood loss. From the looks of things, the killer had removed her tongue, then snapped her neck before she could bleed out.

Was it some sick form of compassion?

As he continued to investigate evidence from the scene, a very strange picture emerged. The suspect started with Brooks while she was alive, but barely conscious – there wasn’t much of a struggle. He – or she, Alan reminded himself – injected her with an anticoagulant to make her bleed out faster. Then he removed her tongue.

The next part was the confusing part. The killer had paused. He couldn’t tell if it was out of enjoyment for the act, some perverted sense of arousal, or if he questioned what to do next. What he had done next was snap Brooks’ neck. Then he stopped again; for at least a half hour. Then it was back to the horror show they’d found Mary in: expert dissection of the body, but this time with a different souvenir in a bottle. Brook’s brain had been removed, and her tongue sutured inside.

“Boss, DNA’s back on the charcoal,” one of the techs poked his head in the morgue.

Alan left the ME to keep doing her job and took the manila folder from the DNA tech, who just stood there, looking smug.

“What, you want a tip? Get back to work.”

Alan turned his back and started reading the report as he walked back over to where the ME was picking through Brooks’ remains. Then he stopped.

“Not possible,” he said under his breath.

“What’s not possible?”

“This says the crispy guy on that table over there is John Durram.”

Even the ME was confused. “That doesn’t make any sense. I’ve seen the sketches of his wife. There’s no way she could have broken Agent Brooks’ neck in this fashion. Whoever did this,” she gestured to the autopsy table, “was definitely a man.”

“So … either John killed her and then got toasted. Or …”

“We’re looking for another accomplice.”

Alan flashed back to the crime scene and Rick’s prints littered everywhere. “No, it couldn’t have been him. I took a helicopter and still showed up too late.”

“All evidence to the contrary?”

“So walk me through this, doc.”

“Well, let’s come back to the physical impossibility of him beating you later. From what we’ve seen so far, there was no forced entry into the warehouse, right? So whoever ‘helped’ either had a key or was let in by John or Cari.

“We still haven’t found Cari, so we can’t corroborate any of this, but I think she spooked and ran when the other two got in a fight. Considering how long the … uh … dissection took, the fight must’ve occurred before. So our unknown suspect fought with John, killed him, and torched the body.”

She raised a hand to stop Alan’s objection. No, she still didn’t know how John had been burned.

“Then our guy goes to work on Agent Brooks. He starts following the same pattern of John’s other victims, either because that’s how he was taught or because he was trying to shift blame. Halfway through, he loses the stomach for it and kills her. Mercy, pity, or just tired of the game, I don’t really know.

“He finishes the dissection post-mortem and then clears out himself. Considering we have no evidence of a fourth suspect on the premises, we only really have one person at a likely Suspect Number Three.”

“Doc, I agree entirely with your logic. But I know this guy. He’s an upset, grieving, alcoholic. Not to mention, there’s no way he could have been there in the first place. I left him in his house and went straight to the warehouse. Unless he somehow snuck past both my officer and the two Feds in front of the house and then took a bullet train across the state, there’s no way he could have beat me.”

The ME put up her hands. “Hey, I’m just repeating what the evidence tells me. He was there. From what I can tell, he’s also the person who cut up our Agent friend here. I don’t know how he got here or why he did it, but I’ll leave that job to you.”

Alan knew she was right and slumped his shoulders in defeat. He still couldn’t explain how, but it was obvious that his friend had tracked down his wife’s killers and exacted some twisted kind of revenge. Why he’d let Cari go was a mystery. Why he’d killed Agent Brooks was an even more disturbing one. This definitely wouldn’t be the last of this particular investigation.