Scene of the Crime Mystic Lake
Author:Carla Cassidy

Chapter One

Amberly Nightsong watched the children pouring out of the grade school, the variety of shapes and sizes and colors decorating the last of the summer grass as they raced to awaiting school buses and parked cars.

As always, her heart swelled as she saw the small, slender dark-haired boy running toward her, his face lit with a beatific smile. Max. At six years old, he owned her heart in a way no other male ever had before.

He opened up the passenger door, threw his bright blue backpack onto the backseat and then got into the car. “Hi, Mom.”

“Hi, Max, how was your day?” she asked as she waited for him to buckle in and then pulled away from the curb.

“Good, except for at recess Billy Stamford called me a sissy boy because I wear a necklace.”

Amberly glanced over at her son and the necklace she’d placed around his neck when he was three years old. It was the same necklace Amberly’s grandmother had placed around her neck when she’d been three years old.

The silver owl had been hand pounded and crafted by her grandfather and was a talisman against evil. The rawhide string that it hung from had been replaced many times over the years, and even though Amberly didn’t live the Cherokee way of her ancestors, when she’d draped it around Max’s neck, she’d figured a lucky charm from her grandfather, intended for protection, couldn’t hurt.

“Did you tell him it isn’t just any necklace but a very special protection necklace? Did you explain to him that the owl and the cougar were the only creatures that stayed awake for the entire seven days of Creation?” she asked.

“Nah, I just told him he was a poo-head, and then we played baseball.”

Amberly bit back a smile, wishing all conflicts could be resolved so easily. But as an FBI profiler, she knew that wasn’t the way life worked. Conflicts got messy and people could be twisted, and by the time she was called to work a case, somebody was almost always dead.

“I’m ready whenever you are,” Max said, a touch of eagerness in his voice.

“Okay.” Amberly slowed the car a bit as they drove by a coffee shop where several people were seated outside, enjoying the early-September sun. “The man in the red shirt,” she said. Their car drove slowly past the shop, and then she stepped on the gas. “Go.”

Max frowned thoughtfully and then began. “His shirt was red and he had on blue jeans. One knee was ripped out and he had on blue-and-white sneakers. He had blond hair and a mustache.”

“Excellent, Max,” Amberly said proudly. “You’re going to be the best FBI agent in the whole world when you get old enough.”

It was a game they played every day on the way home from school, honing his powers of observation. He loved it, especially when he noticed something about somebody or someplace that she hadn’t noticed at all.

They were almost home when her cell phone beeped to indicate a text message. She dug it out of her purse and frowned.

“Looks like I’ll be going to Dad’s,” Max said as he saw her expression.

“Looks like,” she agreed and hit one on her speed dial. Her ex-husband, John, answered on the second ring. “What’s up?” His deep voice, as always, whispered an edge of guilt through her.

“I just picked Max up from school and then got a message that I need to go in.”

“Bring him by. Tell him we’ll order pepperoni pizza for dinner.”

“Okay, be there in ten.” She clicked off and glanced at Max. “Dad said he’ll order pepperoni pizza for supper.”

“Awesome, that’s my favorite. Am I going to spend the night there?”

“Hopefully not, but you know how this goes. I need to find out what’s going on, and then I’ll call later and let you know the plan.”

“Okay,” Max agreed easily.

Amberly thanked the stars that when she and John had divorced four years ago they had remained close friends, both committed to maintaining a healthy relationship for Max’s sake. She was also incredibly lucky that John worked from home and was always available to keep Max, as her work hours were so unpredictable.

Within ten minutes, she pulled into the driveway of the neat ranch house where she had once lived as John Merriweather’s wife. She’d kept her maiden name when they married as an honor to Granny Nightsong, the grandmother who had raised her. Max was a Merriweather by name, but definitely a Nightsong in spirit.

John greeted them at the door, his handsome face wreathed in a smile as he gave Max a fist pump and then smiled at Amberly. “Just dinner or overnight?”

“I don’t know yet. I got a text to see Director Forbes as soon as possible. I’m not assigned right now to anything specific, so I have no idea what to expect. I’ll call you?”

“We’ll be here,” he said as he scuffed the top of Max’s gleaming black hair.

Twenty minutes later, Amberly walked into the downtown Kansas City FBI building. She flashed her badge and identification to the security guard on duty, despite the fact that she’d been coming into the office at least five days a week for the past eight years, since four weeks after her twenty-second birthday.

The passion she should have felt for John when they’d married had always been superseded by her passion for her job. She’d known in her heart as she’d walked down the wedding aisle that she was making a mistake, but three months pregnant and desperate to create a family unit for the baby she carried, she’d said “I do.”

For the next three years she had tried to make it work. But she’d known her own unhappiness with the marriage and had sensed John’s. Ultimately, she’d left the marriage behind when Max was two, with the determination to keep the divorce as friendly and healthy for her son as possible.

All thoughts of John and her failed marriage fled her head as she knocked on Director Daniel Forbes’s door. “Enter,” his deep voice boomed.

She opened the door to see her boss seated at his desk. Even sitting, he was an imposing figure with his steel-gray hair and matching eyes.

“Agent Nightsong.” He gestured her into the chair in front of his desk. “Mystic Lake.”

Amberly blinked. It always took her a minute or two to adjust to Director Forbes’s form of abrupt communication. There were times she wasn’t sure if he knew nouns and verbs could be used to form a complete sentence. She waited for him to continue.

“You know it?”

“Not well. Small town about twenty miles from here.” When she was with Director Forbes she found herself talking in sentence fragments, as well, as if he had a communication disease that was contagious. “Problems?”

“Three murders. Ritualistic overtones. The third victim was found forty-five minutes ago.”

“Have we been invited in?” Amberly asked.

Forbes frowned, a deep vertical cut appearing in the center. “The mayor called me. Doesn’t want us in officially but would like somebody there to unofficially aid law enforcement.”

“So, local law enforcement isn’t eager.”

“That’s probably an understatement,” he replied. “You’re assigned in a consulting capacity, and they’re holding the latest scene for your arrival. It’s in the city park. Your contact is Sheriff Cole Caldwell.” He gave a curt nod of his head toward the door, his official dismissal.

Minutes later, Amberly was back in her car and headed to the small town of Mystic Lake. All she knew about the little town was that it was built at the edge of a small lake and that its Main Street had a reputation for quaint antique shops, crafty boutiques and intriguing eateries, which drew tourists during the summer months.

As she drove, she reached into the center section of her car console and withdrew a length of red licorice from a package she kept stashed there. She’d quit smoking on the day she’d found out she was pregnant with Max, changing that addiction to one for red licorice.

Sheriff Cole Caldwell. She chewed thoughtfully. She could just imagine what she would be up against, some good old boy who ran the place with an iron fist and wore a fat belt buckle to hold in his immense beer belly.

In her experience, small-town sheriffs hated two things—anyone questioning their authority and FBI agents. She glanced at her watch. It was already almost five. She might as well give John a call and tell him it was going to be an overnighter with Max.

She had no idea what she was walking into, but if it was serial kills with ritualistic overtones, then she had a feeling there were going to be a lot of overnighters with John for Max in the near future.

She took the highway exit that would lead to the town north of Kansas City. One of the things she loved about this city was the fact that within a fifteen-minute drive, you could be out of the concrete jungle and into rolling pastures and shady woodlands.

There were times she thought about moving out here, someplace outside the city limits, where Max could have room to maybe have a horse, but she couldn’t discount the convenience of having John living a mere three blocks from the small house where she and Max now lived.

As she turned onto Main Street of Mystic Lake she wondered where, exactly, the city park might be. As she looked up and down each side street she passed, she steeled herself for joining a party where she was, in effect, an uninvited and unwanted guest.

“The willow tree bends but rarely breaks in the force of a gale.” It was Granny Nightsong’s voice that whispered through her head. Amberly smiled, the warmth of her memory tempered by grief.

Granny Nightsong had been a curious blend of Cherokee and flat-out crazy. Although she’d passed some of the traditions of her heritage to Amberly, Granny was also prone to making up legends and old, wise sayings to fit the circumstance. When Granny had taught Amberly the Stomp Dance of their people, Amberly had recognized more than a little bit of jitterbug in it.

Granny Nightsong fled from her mind as she looked down a side street and spied what appeared to be the city park. As she turned and headed in that direction, she knew she was right. Yellow crime-scene tape was strung from one tree to another, and several official cars were parked in the graveled lot.

She pulled up next to them and got out of her car, immediately halted by a stern-faced young deputy. “Crime scene working, nobody is allowed in this area,” he said.

She flashed her badge and continued forward. As she got closer to the scene, her mind processed several things at one time…the victim, a pretty, blond-haired young woman, lay beneath the overhanging branches of a tree, and in the tree limb above her head was a bright red-and-yellow dream catcher…and Sheriff Cole Caldwell was a tall, dark-haired hottie without a belly bulge in sight as he leaned closer to the dream catcher for a better look.

He suddenly snapped his head around as if he’d somehow sensed her approach. She had one instant of noticing strong, handsome features before they twisted with anger and the blue of his eyes went icy cold as he straightened to his full height.

“Lady, can’t you see this is a crime scene? Deputy Walkins, escort this woman away from here.” His voice was deep, authoritative, as if he was accustomed to people jumping immediately to obey his orders.

Amberly held up a hand to stop the deputy, who moved toward her with a sense of purpose. She showed her identification and flashed the sheriff a bright smile. “Don’t worry, I might look like a Native American, but actually I’m the Cavalry sent to save the day.”

It was at that moment that she realized Sheriff Cole Caldwell had absolutely no sense of humor.

“I DIDN’T CALL FOR FBI assistance,” Cole said. Cole hadn’t been fond of the FBI since they’d botched a kidnapping job eight years ago that had resulted in the murder of his wife. “It was our mayor who called.” And that call had held up the entire process while they all stood around and waited for Ms. I’m-Going-To-Fix-Your-Work-FBI-Agent to arrive.

“Yeah, I wasn’t exactly expecting the welcome wagon to be drawn up for me,” she replied dryly. “Agent Amberly Nightsong,” she said and held out a hand to him.

“Sheriff Cole Caldwell.” Her skin was soft, but her handshake was firm.

One thing was clear: the FBI agents of his memory were nothing like the stunning woman standing before him. It was obvious she was Native American. Her skin was a dusty bronze, and her cheekbones were high and well-defined.

She had doe eyes, round and dark and long lashed, and her hair was a rich, deep black that was captured in a braid that fell down the length of her back.

Worn jeans hugged long legs, and the bright yellow T-shirt she wore seemed to make her eyes darker and her skin glow with an inner light.

She took a step closer to the victim, and he watched her through narrowed eyes. “First of all, I’m not sure what your thinking is, but no self-respecting Native American would have done this and left those cheap Made In China dream catchers at the scene,” she said.

In truth, he’d wondered if perhaps the perp was a Native American, but he wasn’t about to admit that to her. “You have an ID?” she asked.

“Victim is twenty-seven-year-old Barbara Tillman.”

“A local?” she asked.

Cole nodded. “She worked as a teacher’s aide at the grade school and lived in an apartment complex just off Main Street.”

“And there have been two others before her?”

A fire of frustration burned in Cole’s gut as he nodded once again. “Twenty-six-year-old Gretchen Johnson was found in front of a trash can next to a pizza place, and twenty-five-year-old Mary Mathis was found in front of the library.”

“And dream catchers were hung at all three scenes?”

“Yes. When Gretchen Johnson was found, my first suspect was her boyfriend, but I couldn’t break his alibi for the time of death. Then Mary showed up. Both women had been stabbed multiple times at some unknown location, then left at the sites, and the dream catchers were hung at both scenes. Both bodies had Taser marks and indications that they’d been bound and gagged.”

“So, he Tasers them to incapacitate them and then ties them up and takes them someplace else, where he stabs them and then stages the dump scene with the dream catchers.” She frowned thoughtfully. “And how long has it been since Mary’s murder?”

“Two weeks. And it was four weeks between Gretchen’s and Mary’s murders. Have you seen enough? I’d like to start processing the scene. We haven’t even allowed the coroner in yet.”

“Knock yourself out,” she said with a step backward.

As the coroner, a fat, balding man named George Thompson, moved in to assess time and method of death, Cole called to the three deputies who he’d meticulously trained in crime-scene procedure.

He gathered them in a group just far enough from where Agent Nightsong stood that he hoped she wouldn’t hear the conversation. “Do your jobs and do them well,” he said in a low voice. “I don’t want any mistakes.” Especially with the eyes of the FBI watching…judging their every move.

Once the coroner was finished with his examination of the body, he announced that he believed the murder had occurred at some point the night before, probably between the hours of midnight and three. Method of death was obvious, multiple stab wounds to the chest. He then stepped back to allow the deputies to begin their work.

Cole moved to stand next to Agent Nightsong. Beneath the odor of death that hung in the still air, he could smell the faint scent of her, a welcome smell of blooming exotic flowers.

The scent, so distinctly feminine and wafting from such a beautiful woman, stirred him on a base level that made him slightly uncomfortable.

“I suppose you already have a profile of the killer, neatly tied up with a bow,” he said, vaguely aware that he sounded a bit surly.

She turned to look at him, her eyes filled with an edge of amusement. “You aren’t the vision of a small-town sheriff that I had in mind while I was driving here, and hopefully you’ll discover I’m not the uptight, upright FBI agent that you assume I am.”

He narrowed his gaze as he stared at her. “And what vision did you entertain of me on your drive here?”

“Definitely shorter and rounder.” She turned her attention to his men, meticulously moving around the crime scene with evidence bags and tweezers, their feet covered in booties. “I anticipated nobody who knew the first clue about a murder investigation, because I doubt if you see much of this kind of crime in this size of town, but it looks like your men all know what they’re doing.”

He didn’t know if she expected him to be pleased about her assessment of him or his men’s work. To be perfectly honest, he didn’t much give a good damn about what she thought.

“And no,” she continued, “I don’t have a profile all neatly tied up with a bow in my head. It’s far too early in the game for a full profile. Once this scene has been processed, I’d like copies of the files of the other two murders.”

“Once we’re finished up here, you can follow me to the office, and I’ll see to it that you get copies.” He was confident she would find nothing wrong with the way he’d conducted his investigations so far.

Unfortunately, there weren’t many leads to follow at the moment. He’d already had one of his deputies find out the availability of the dream catchers and discovered that they were sold in most dollar stores and some craft and hobby shops in and around the area.

“The dream catchers…they’re supposed to keep bad dreams away or something like that, right?”

She smiled and the beauty of that gesture shot an unexpected heat through Cole. It had been years since he’d allowed himself to feel anything for any woman, and the fact that a little lick of lust stirred in him for this woman didn’t improve his mood at all.

“The legend is that the dream catcher was used by the Woodland Indians to catch all dreams, both good and bad. The bad dreams get caught in the webbing and burn off with the morning sun. The good dreams are caught and make their way to the hole in the center, where they filter down the feathers and are dreamed.”

He looked back at the victim and the dream catcher hanging over her head. “So, our perp wants to make sure our victims have only good dreams in death?”

“Or he wants you to believe that he’s of Native American descent,” she replied.

“But you don’t think he is,” he countered.

She frowned thoughtfully. “At this point, there’s no way of really knowing. Certainly most Native Americans I know who own dream catchers have the real thing made with their own hands with either soaked willow or grapevine. They’re usually very personal and made with lots of love.” She flashed him another quick smile. “But of course, that’s the old way.”

He wondered if the FBI powers-that-be had specifically chosen her for this job because of her Native American background.

They fell quiet as the men continued their jobs, and the victim was eventually taken away. It was growing dark when the last of the work was done at the scene of the crime, and Agent Nightsong followed Cole to the sheriff’s office.

He’d found her an irritant all evening. It wasn’t anything she’d said. For the most part, she’d been silent. It had been the way she’d watched them with those intelligent, enigmatic eyes.

Cole had found himself snapping at his men, feeling as if both he and all of them were on display and Agent Nightsong was just waiting for errors to occur so she could step in and take over.

As he drove toward the office, with her in her own car just behind him, he drew in a deep breath to ease the tension that had crackled through him since the moment she’d arrived on scene.

He wasn’t arrogant enough to believe he didn’t need some kind of help. This latest murder had definitely shaken him up. Not only did he lack the manpower for the kind of investigation these murders required, but he also lacked resources. Mystic Lake was a small town with very little crime, and it had been years since Cole had done the kind of police work that was now required of him.

He probably would have asked for help, but it ticked him off that the mayor hadn’t even discussed the issue with him and instead had just gone behind Cole’s back and then told him he’d called the feds.

As far as Cole was concerned, it had shown a lack of respect, which heated his insides along with the other feeling that fired inside him each time his gaze landed on Amberly Nightsong.

He’d give her the copies of the files of the other murders, and then she’d be on her way back to Kansas City. She wasn’t officially a part of the case. She was just here as a consultant of sorts. She’d read the files, call him with her thoughts, and that would be the end of it.

His hands relaxed on the steering wheel as he turned into the parking lot behind his office. Funny that his lust hormones hadn’t been active for eight long years and now had suddenly decided to awaken for the one woman he wanted absolutely nothing to do with.

She parked beside his car and joined him at the back door of the building. “It should take about twenty minutes or so to get copies of those files ready for you,” he said as he used his key to unlock the back door of the building.

He gestured her into the hallway. A door on the left led to a conference room, a second to a small break room, and to the right was his private office. There was also an interrogation room. Ahead were the reception area and the deputy desks, with the jail in the basement of the building.

He took her into the conference room, where the old wall-size bulletin board was covered with crime photos of the two previous murders. It had become their war room, devoted specifically to the murders since the second one had occurred.

“If you’ll wait here, I’ll be back with copies of the files,” he said.

She nodded absently, already engrossed in the photos on the board.

She was still standing in front of the board when he reentered the room fifteen minutes later. She appeared to be so deep in thought she didn’t hear his return.

He took a brief moment to admire the curve of her butt in her tight jeans, the waist-length braided rope of thick hair that seemed to beg to be released from its binding. He cleared his throat, not liking the drift of his thoughts.

She whirled around to face him. “I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t some sort of a mercy-killing element to these. He killed them and then tried to assure that they would have happy dreams through eternity. Were any of the women sick? Maybe terminally ill?”

“According to the autopsy reports, both Mary Mathis and Gretchen Johnson were in perfect health, and of course we won’t know about Barbara Tillman until George performs the complete autopsy. I should have something from him by midday tomorrow.”

She frowned. “Well, that shoots my potential initial theory right out the window.” She smiled. “But then it isn’t unusual for me to throw out several of my theories before settling on the one that’s right.”

The room was too small and filled with that evocative scent of her. He was suddenly far too focused on her lips, which were covered with a nude, glossy lipstick. He should be thinking about the photos of the victims on the board, not the vibrant, beautiful woman in front of him.

“Here are the files,” he said briskly and thrust them toward her. He wanted her gone, away from him. She unsettled him in a way that was distinctly uncomfortable.

“Thanks. Once I plow through these, I’ll feel like I’m up to speed.”

He gestured her out of the conference room and down the hallway toward the front of the building. When they reached the main area, he introduced her to Linda Scott, who served as receptionist/secretary and dispatcher.

“Where do you send your forensic evidence for analysis?” she asked when they stepped out the front door and into the warm September night.

“We use a lab in Kansas City. We don’t have any facilities here.”

“I could get you access to the FBI lab.”

“That’s not necessary,” he replied. “I’m satisfied with the lab we’re already using.”

She shrugged her shoulders. “Suit yourself.”

“Do you sleep under a dream catcher?” he asked, the personal question leaping from his mouth before he’d actually considered asking.

“My son does. The day he was born my granny Nightsong made him one to hang above his bed. I don’t sleep beneath one.” Her chocolate-brown eyes seemed to grow a tad bit darker. “I need to allow myself to have nightmares. It’s one of the ways I get in touch with people who do things like this.” She held up the files.

“You must have terrible dreams,” he observed.

“Sometimes I do. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

He watched as she got into her car. He wasn’t surprised that she had a family. A woman as bright as her, as beautiful as her, would have been snapped up by some man as quickly as possible.

As her car disappeared in the distance, he felt a touch of relief that she was definitely off-limits. Not that he was interested, not that he cared.

Cole had locked his heart away eight years ago when he’d lost his wife and every dream he’d ever entertained of being a husband and a father, and he had no intention of ever unlocking it.

If he was lucky he wouldn’t see Agent Amberly Nightsong again. She’d phone in a report to him and that would be the end of her involvement in this case.

He turned on his heels and headed back into the office. He had three murders to solve and didn’t have time to entertain thoughts of a hot-looking, married FBI agent who, for a moment, had stirred emotions long dead inside him…emotions he intended to remain dead for the rest of his life.