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Redemption for Avery
Special Forces: Operation Alpha Series
Now available

Redemption for Avery
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When he sleeps, the hunt begins.

FBI Profiler Ryker Townsend is a rising star in Quantico's Behavioral Analysis Unit, but his dark secret could cost him his career. When he sleeps, he has visions of his next case. He sees through the eyes of the dead, the last images imprinted on their retinas. His nightmares are riddled with clues he must decipher to hunt humanity's Great White Shark—the serial killer.

While he's investigating the shocking slaughter of a seventeen-year old girl at Big Bear Lake, the tormented soul of another dead child appears to him in broad daylight. Twelve-year old Avery Reed reaches out to Ryker—a disheveled and haunted girl, unable to speak—held earthbound out of love for her grief-stricken brother, Sam. Avery's presence draws Ryker to a more sinister conspiracy and she has a desperate message for her brother, if she can make Ryker understand.

Navy SEAL Sam "Mozart" Reed has been haunted by the brutal death of his little sister Avery when Sam was only fifteen-years old. He vowed to seek and destroy the killer who splintered his family, wiping out everything he'd ever known. Nineteen years later, his darkest wish came true when he found Hurst, her alleged killer, and stopped him from murdering one last time. But when Mozart learns the FBI has reopened Avery's case, he fears the worst. His SEAL team may have ended the carnage of a serial killer, but for the first time, Mozart doubts Hurst was the man who took Avery's life. A heartless predator is still butchering young girls and Mozart's worst nightmare is back with a cruel vengeance.


Excerpt
Chapter 1

Woodbridge, Virginia
Before dawn

Ryker Townsend

I dreamed about a girl, her pale skin glimmering in moonlight, mottled by drying flecks of malevolent crimson. The pungent smell of the earth underneath her body mixed with the odor of something rotting in a nearby bog. The stench made looking at her worse, if that were even possible.

The atrocities committed on her once perfect young body robbed her of dignity as she lay naked and displayed. She did not possess all her internal organs, yet despite that fact, her milky eyes locked on me and followed wherever I moved in her deathbed of bulrush grasses, as if she were still alive.

She didn't speak. She couldn't.

As her soul left her body, she must've reached out to my fertile receptive mind as I lay asleep in my bed in Woodbridge, Virginia. This was how I'd come to terms with my gift. I'd chosen to believe that the dead touched me while I slept, and by sheer logic, the dearly departing must know how to find me. That's far better than assuming my mind was an open portal to an alternative world of non-breathers—and that while I slept, I went looking for them. That would've been impossible. My sense of direction wasn't that keen, even when I'm upright.

At times when I'm exhausted, I can sense—and even see—the truly desperate souls make contact while I'm awake. This can be highly unnerving. The dead have little regard for polite behavior, but I sensed this girl would be the exception. She would wait for me to come to her. She'd made her wishes known. The rest would be up to me, even though I had no idea how I would accomplish such a feat.

She could be anywhere.

From our brief encounter in my dream, the isolated terrain where she died did not look familiar, but I had faith our face-to-face would indeed happen. She would make sure of it and I would soon know her name. Once the dead find me—with their single-minded, unearthly purpose—they never backed off.

When my morning alarm sounded at six, I was already staring at the ceiling of my loft bedroom, still thinking of her.

"I'll find you. I promise."

*   *   *

San Bernardino National Forest, California
Two days later

Ryker Townsend

Ever since I'd dreamed of the girl, I had my 'go bag' ready with heavy-duty gear that I knew I would need for the terrain once my team's services were requested. That call came before dawn two days later and we were given only an hour's notice to mobilize, wheels up. After we landed in Los Angeles, we hit the road with a rendezvous plan and coordinates.

I wore my uniform—khaki tactical pants, navy polo, my FBI windbreaker, sturdy boots, with my Glock 21 in a holster—as I followed my team along an overgrown trail in the San Bernardino National Forest. Towering pine trees and overcast skies surrounded us in a vacuum of shadows and gloom, allowing a late morning chill to permeate my clothes.

Walking beside me was Lucinda Crowley, a fellow profiler. Ahead were Dr. Julian Martinez, my team Medical Examiner, and Special Agents Devin Hutchison and Camilla Devore, my evidence recovery techs. The last member of my team had stayed in DC, my computer specialist and resource wrangler, Sinead Royce.

No one on my team spoke. We rarely did before we saw a crime scene for the first time. We all dealt with death in different ways. My mind stirred with the disturbing images of the girl from my dream. Before I saw her in this reality, I knew what I would find and it would never be easy.

"Are you okay?" Lucinda Crowley touched my arm, her voice low and conspiratorial. "Is this going to be one of your special cases?"

"They're all special, Crowley."

"You know what I mean."

After I shrugged and nodded, she let it drop.

No one on my team knew I had an inside track with the dead, except for Lucinda Crowley, my number two profiler and my number one girlfriend. We hadn't worked out all the perplexing tangles to our personal relationship, but I had hope. My chronic nightmares were unpredictable and I wasn't used to sharing the dark hellish corners of my 'calling' with anyone, but it felt good to have someone who understood my odd idiosyncrasies and didn't chronically suggest a therapist.

I'd grown bone weary of living my life alone.

After Lucinda saved my life last year, when I had trusted my visions too much and nearly fell victim to a prolific serial killer, alone and without backup, I made the difficult choice to share my secret with her. Someone on my team—a person I could trust with the type of secret that had the potential of ending my career as Supervisory Special Agent with the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit—someone had to know about my gift, in case I hit a rough patch of stupidity again. With my unit being under ViCAP, the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program, serial killers were likely to be in my future.

When I saw a break in the trees ahead, my pulse raced with a punch of adrenaline. A glimmer of sun forced me to slide on my sunglasses as I stepped into a familiar clearing, a place I had never been, except in my dream two days ago.

She's here. This is it.

I took in the breathtaking sight of the San Bernardino Mountains rising above a wetland, the marshy edge to Big Bear Lake, situated a hundred miles east of Los Angeles. The rays of the sun speared through the clouds and shed muted light onto a maze of waterways, bordered by buggy whips of tall grasses. Crime scene tape fluttered in the morning breeze, creating a perimeter around the bulrush deathbed of my dream girl.

My team would be working the forensics and evidence gathering, along with the local Sheriff's department and state officials. From the looks of it, the locals hadn't waited for our arrival. We would have to contend with a tainted crime scene.

"Hutch. Cam. Gear up," I said as I pulled on latex gloves and slipped into Tyvek booties. "Clear out any non-essential personnel and do what you can. Pitch a tarp over the body, in case we get rain. I don't want any surprises that could cost us evidence."

"You got it, boss." Hutch stepped into his protective clothing.

"I'll clear the scene, politely of course." Cam smiled and joined her partner in donning her work gear.

"I'll make contact with the locals, see what they know. Go and do your thing." Crowley knew I wasn't big on 'meet and greets.'

I had already zeroed in on who I came to find. The girl. I knew exactly where to look. Vultures and crows circled the corpse en masse, their feast interrupted.

I'd seen enough dead bodies to know the girl would not look the same, not after two days exposed to the elements. As I stared down at her, I could see that scavengers had already ravaged the remains. Her arms and legs were splayed in a vulgar manner. Her chest cavity had been pried open, and as I remembered from two nights ago, some of her internal organs were missing. The stench triggered the horror from my dream.

I waited for Crowley to return, standing in the same spot where I first 'met' the girl, until I needed a closer look and crouched down. When a shadow blocked the warmth of the sun, I knew Crowley stood over me.

"Who found the body?" I asked, without looking up.

"Hikers. A boy and girl." She gave me names and a brief summary of their grisly discovery.

I stared down into the girl's cloudy eyes. Her otherworldly gaze did not fix on me as it had before. She was a hulled empty shell now, her life force gone. I wanted the girl in my dream to return. Even in death, she had tethered me to her as I slept. She made me miss her. Perhaps that was the point.

Potassium. It's only potassium.

To distract myself from the horror, I focused on the science. Her eyes were open when she died. It would've taken only a few hours for them to turn milky. Corneas turned opaque after death, caused by potassium concentration in the vitreous humor--a thick, jelly-like substance in the eyeball. When I saw her in my sleep, her eyes were only beginning to turn. That meant I had been with her, right after the UNSUB, the unknown subject we would hunt, had staged the scene for us to find.

I'm sorry this happened to you. I ached for her passing from this life, a bright candle snuffed out far too soon, but the way my mind worked, I couldn't leave it at that.

"You feel the last bit of breath leaving their body. You're looking into their eyes. A person in that situation is God!"

I recited the quote and blurted it out, without filter. It was my process, to access the countless facts in my head, as if I were a computer. But the way my mind worked, without censor, made it hard to be in civil company.

"Who said that?" Crowley asked.

"John Wayne Gacy."

Gacy raped and killed thirty three boys, all while dressed as a clown. When he was executed on May 10th, 1994, his last words were, 'Kiss my ass.' I didn't demonize the UNSUBS I hunted, or call them names. I stayed objective to study them, to crawl into their heads and live there. I had to embrace what they did and how they did it, to become them for a time--yet another reason that made dating a challenge.

"Do we have a name for the victim?" I asked, without taking my eyes off the dead girl's marred face.

"The locals scanned her prints. Her name is Lily Rae Hubbard, seventeen years old."

"A seventeen-year old has prints in the system?"

"We lucked out," Crowley said. "California is one of the few states where DMV collects fingerprints to get a driver's license."

"Lily Rae Hubbard." I said her name aloud, a name I would never forget now.

Lily, a beautiful symbol of chastity, innocence, and purity of the heart. My mind drilled into the depths of my memory to search for facts I had read about the flower. Lilies were used at funerals, because it was believed that after death, the departed were restored to innocence. I prayed for this to be true. I didn't want her last memory to be one of such horrific depravity.

"This isn't the work of a practiced hand. Someone butchered her. The incisions are sloppy." I peered closer at the carnage. "This looks like the work of a disorganized killer."

Descriptive words flashed through my mind that would go into my profile. Low IQ. Socially inadequate. Lives alone. Poor hygiene. Nocturnal habits. Blitz attack. Depersonalizes the victim into a thing. Chaotic crime scene. I would work with Crowley on her input before we shared our profile with local law enforcement.

Dr. Julian Martinez, my team Medical Examiner, examined Lily.

"She wasn't killed here. There'd be more blood. Whoever did this, carried her to this spot," the ME said.

I stood and gazed over the remote location to get a sense of it before I hunkered next to him again.

"It had to be someone strong to haul dead weight this far into the park, or maybe he used a four-wheeler with a small trailer. My guess is he did it at night, to make sure no one saw. Placing her near a trail was deliberate. He wanted her to be found."

Martinez nodded.

"Time of death, doc?"

I knew TOD would be a challenge, given the condition of the body. Without a liver to take the body's temperature, my ME might've used a rectal thermometer, but he would not want to interfere with DNA trace identification if Lily had been sodomized.

That would leave him with the crude methods of body temp, rigor mortis, and putrefaction to make his preliminary determination on time of death. Entomology, the study of insect life cycles, would also play a part, once he did a closer examination of her body in autopsy.

"With the body exposed to the elements and no liver, it'll have to be an estimate. I'll have something more definitive after I get her on my table," Martinez said. "I'll also have Cam take insect samples, but based on rigor and other factors, I'd estimate she died approximately forty-eight hours ago."

"Was she sexually abused?"

"There's evidence of that, yes."

My next question had to be asked, but its necessity made it harder to stomach.

"Was she alive when he...did this?"

"There's evidence of that, too."

I had no words for such cruelty. A weighty silence settled onto the crime scene and my team, after they heard what Dr. Martinez had to say.

Cases often made me question my life's choices. I chose this sometimes unbearable calling, not for public recognition or anyone's gratitude. My motives had to come from me. I had to put the gift I had to good use, otherwise I would be nothing more than a freak with chronic nightmares who couldn't talk about it. Some cases made me question everything. I couldn't save innocents like Lily, but I could stop the UNSUB from flourishing, unchecked.

Lucinda Crowley was the first to break the stillness.

"What do you think the UNSUB did with her organs?" she asked.

In my sleep, the bog smelled of rotting death, but I couldn't share my thoughts, except to call it my gut instinct if anyone asked. I stood and pointed toward the nearest body of water.

"Have the locals search the bog. I don't think they'll have to look far."

Lucinda eyeballed me as if she had a question on the tip of her tongue, but she didn't push.

"Yeah, sure. I'm on it."

As Hutch and Cam continued taking measurements, drawing diagrams, and bagging and tagging evidence, Crowley took photos of the crime scene. I walked the perimeter of the body dump site, trying to determine how the UNSUB could've pulled it off.

Why did you pick this spot?

I closed my eyes and listened to the sounds around me, clearing my thoughts to let the mind of a killer in. When I opened them again, I caught movement to my left.

A small little girl with tangled brown hair stood among the tall grasses. With all the activity at the crime scene, I would've expected her attention to be drawn to the others—but she held her gaze on me. That's when I noticed the gaunt, haunted look in her eyes. She looked disheveled and bruised. Even from a distance I could see something was terribly wrong about her.

She looked dead.

The instant my thoughts turned toward death, it was as if she read my mind. She vanished in the blink of my eye. I searched for her, yet saw nothing until a frail shadow popped into view—closer this time.

I dared to look for Crowley, to see if the little girl wasn't merely my imagination, but after she disappeared again, a blistering cold wind blew through me from a world beyond my own. I knew instinctively what would happen next and braced for it. The dead girl reappeared in a blinding flash and stood inches from me, staring into my eyes—willing me to understand.

Oh my, God. Her sudden manifestation jolted me. I almost gasped in shock, but I choked it down, doing anything to preserve what little remained of my manhood. I couldn't move. Couldn't breathe.

What is it? I wanted to ask, but my lips wouldn't move. She inched closer until I smelled her decay—the familiar tang of old death. I fought hard not to wince, until an abrupt spark of intuition crept into my mind like an insidious beast—and a notion took shape.

Clarity struck a chord between us. When I grasped her intent, my gut twisted with the realization that I stood in the middle of a mass murderer's dumping ground. Stunned, I peered over the land surrounding me—certain that other bodies would be found under my feet—before I once again gazed down upon the child.

With a broken smile, she slowly nodded and chills raced down my spine.


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