Hunting Fear

By Kay Hooper

Random House

Copyright (C) 2004 by Kay Hooper
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0553585983

Chapter One


Present day

Thursday, September 20

Sssshhhh. Be very quiet,” he said. It was almost impossible, but he managed not to groan or moan or make any other sound behind the duct tape covering his mouth. The blindfold kept him from seeing anything, but he had seen all he’d had to before the blindfold had been tied in place: his abductor had a very big gun and he clearly knew how to handle it.

His instincts were screaming at him to struggle, fight, run if he could.

He couldn’t. The time for even attempting escape, if there had ever been one, was past. His wrists were duct-taped together, like his ankles. If he so much as tried to get up from the chair where he’d been placed, he would fall on his face or on his ass.

He was helpless. That was the worst of it. Not the fear of what might be done to him, but the realization that he couldn’t do a goddamned thing to stop it.

He should have paid attention to the warning, he was sure of that much. Even if it had sounded like bullshit, he really should have paid attention.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” his abductor said.

He unconsciously tipped his head a bit to one side, his agile mind noting the slight emphasis on the first word. He wasn’t going to hurt him? What did that mean—that someone else would?

“Don’t try to figure it out.” The voice was amused now but still careless as it had been from the beginning.

Mitchell Callahan was no fool; he’d weighed far too many powerful men over the years to be deceived by a quiet voice and seemingly negligent manner. The more ostensibly indifferent a man seemed to be, the more likely he was to blow your balls off, metaphorically.

Or literally.

I can’t even reason with the son of a bitch.

It was truly Callahan’s idea of hell, being helpless and unable to talk his way out of it.

“I’m sure your wife will pay the ransom, and then you can go home.”

Callahan wondered if the duct tape and blindfold hid his reflexive grimace. His wife? His wife, who was on the verge of filing for divorce because she had arrived at his office unexpectedly after hours to find him screwing his secretary on his desk?

Oh, yeah, she really wanted him back. She was undoubtedly just eager as hell to pay major bucks to save her husband’s cheating ass.

“Don’t worry; I asked for a reasonable ransom. Your wife can get her hands on it easily, I imagine.”

Callahan couldn’t stop the strangled sound that escaped him, then felt his face get hot with furious embarrassment when his captor laughed.

“Of course, she may not want to, when that private investigator she’s hired discovers that your secretary is only the latest in a long line of women you’ve enjoyed. You really don’t know how to keep your fly zipped, do you, Mitchell? And she’s such a nice lady, your wife. She deserves better. You really should have been a good and respectful husband to her. It’s not all about being a successful breadwinner, you know. And, after all, why does the world need another cookie-cutter subdivision ruining the view up here?”

Callahan felt a sudden chill. His captor was talking too much. Why give his victim a chance to memorize the sound of his voice? Why betray so much knowledge of Callahan’s life, his business?

Unless you know he’ll never get the chance to tell anyone.

“Unsettling, isn’t it?”

Callahan jumped, because the low voice was right next to his ear now. Soft, cool, menacing without even trying to be.

“To have some stranger dissect your life. To have all your power, all your certainty, taken away. To be absolutely helpless in the knowledge that someone else controls your fate.”

Without meaning to, Callahan made another strangled sound.

“I do, you know. I do control your fate. At least up to a point. After that, it’s in someone else’s hands.”

Callahan was more than a little surprised when the blindfold was suddenly removed and for a minute or two could only blink as his eyes adjusted to the light. Then he looked, saw.

And everything became much clearer.

Oh, Christ.

Monday, September 24

“The ransom was paid.” Wyatt Metcalf, Clayton County Sheriff, sounded as angry as any cop tended to be when the bad guys won one. “The wife kept quiet out of fear, so we didn’t hear anything about it until it was all over with and he hadn’t come home as promised after she left the money.”

“Who found the body?”

“Hiker. It’s a busy area this time of year, with the leaves changing and all. We’re surrounded by national forests and parkland, and we’ll have tourists coming out of our ears for weeks. It’ll be the same all along the Blue Ridge.”

“So he knew the body would be found quickly.”

“If he didn’t, he’s an idiot—or doesn’t know the country around here at all.” Metcalf eyed the tall federal agent, still trying to get his measure. Lucas Jordan was not, he thought, a man who would be quickly or easily assessed. He was obviously athletic, energetic, highly intelligent, both courteous and soft-spoken; every bit as obvious was the focused intensity in his striking blue eyes, something close to ferocity and just as unsettling.

A driven man, clearly.

But driven by what?

“We’re holding the body as requested,” Metcalf told him. “My crime-scene unit was trained by the state crime lab and took a few Bureau courses, so they know what they’re doing; what little they found here is waiting for you and your partner back at the station.”

“I assume there was nothing helpful.”

It hadn’t been a question, but Metcalf replied anyway. “If there had been, I wouldn’t have needed to call in this Special Crimes Unit of yours.”

Jordan glanced at him but returned his attention to the rocky ground all around them without comment.

Knowing he’d sounded as frustrated as he felt, Metcalf counted to ten silently before he spoke again. “Mitch Callahan wasn’t a prince, but he didn’t deserve what happened to him. I want to find the son of a bitch who murdered him.”

“I understand, Sheriff.”

Metcalf wondered if he did but didn’t question the statement.

Jordan said almost absently, “This was the third kidnapping reported in the western part of this state this year. All three ransoms paid, all three victims died.”

“The other two were in counties outside my jurisdiction, so I only know the general facts. Aside from being fairly wealthy, the vics had nothing in common. The man was about fifty, white, a widower with one son; the woman was thirty-five, of Asian descent, married, no children. Cause of death for him was asphyxiation; for her it was drowning.”

“And Mitchell Callahan was decapitated.”

“Yeah. Weird as hell. The ME says it was very quick and exceptionally clean; no ax hacking at him, nothing like that. Maybe a machete or sword.” Metcalf was frowning. “You’re not saying they’re related? Those other kidnappings were months ago, and I just figured—”

“That it was a coincidence?” A third person joined them, Jordan’s partner, Special Agent Jaylene Avery. Her smile was a bit wry. “No such thing, if you ask our boss. And he’s usually right.”

“Anything?” Jordan asked her; she had been working her way around the mountainous clearing where Mitchell Callahan’s body had been found.

“Nah. This near a rest and observation spot, a lot of people pass through and by. Far as I can tell, though, nobody paused for long.”

Metcalf took due note of tone and expression as well as posture and body language between the two of them: Jordan was the senior partner, but Avery was entirely comfortable with him and confident in her own right. The sheriff had a hunch they’d been partners for quite a while.

As seemingly relaxed as Jordan was wired, Jaylene Avery was a lovely woman in her early thirties with black hair she wore rather severely pulled back, flawless coffee-with-cream skin, and intelligent brown eyes. A slight Southern drawl said she was probably closer to home here in North Carolina than she was while at Quantico.

Unlike Jordan, whose low, quiet voice was also a bit clipped and rapid, and pegged him as being from some point considerably north of his present location.

“What did you expect to find?” Metcalf asked Avery, not quite able to keep the tension out of his own voice.

She smiled again. “Just trying to get a feel for the place, Sheriff, not look for anything you and your people might have missed. Sometimes just stepping back and looking at the big picture can tell you a lot. For instance, from walking around here where the body was found, I can feel pretty secure in saying that our kidnapper is in excellent physical shape.”

“To get the body out here, you mean.”

“We know the vic wasn’t killed here. Hiking paths crisscross the area, but they’re for dedicated hikers, not Sunday sightseers: steep, rocky trails that are barely visible unless you know what to look for. Just getting here from any of the main trails is enough of a chore, but to carry something heavy and not exactly ergonomically balanced all that way? No marks from any kind of wheel or hoof, no drag marks. And he not only had the body of a larger-than-average man to transport out here, he had the head as well.”

Metcalf had to admit he hadn’t given the matter of transporting the body—and disembodied head—quite so much thought. “I see what you mean. He’d have to be a bull and damned lucky not to fall and break his own neck while he was at it.”

She nodded. “Treacherous terrain. And since we know there was dew found under the body, he must have carried it up here either during the night or very early morning. So he could have been juggling a flashlight as well.”

Jordan said, “Late or early, he brought the body here when there was the least chance of being seen. He was careful. He was damned careful.”

“Maybe he was just lucky,” Avery said to her partner.

Frowning, Jordan said, “I don’t think so. The pattern is too clear, too set. All these people were taken at a point in their day when they were most likely to be alone; all were held forty-eight to seventy-two hours before they were killed; and all were killed, according to the medical evidence, after the ransom was paid. And in every case, the ransom call came in on a Thursday, giving the families time to get their hands on the money and ensuring that banks would have plenty of end-of-the-week payroll cash on hand. He’s never asked too much, just the upper limit of what the relatives can manage. He planned every step, and he kept these people alive and in his control until he was certain the money was his.”

“Cold-blooded,” Metcalf noted.

Understanding exactly what the sheriff meant, Jordan nodded. “It takes an utterly calculating nature and a particular brand of ruthlessness to spend time with someone you know you may have to kill. A nameless, faceless victim is one thing, but if they become individuals with personalities, if you put a human face on that object, then destroying it becomes much, much more difficult.”

It was the sheriff’s turn to frown. “How do we know he spent time with them? I mean, he could have kept them locked in a room or a basement somewhere, tied up, gagged, a bag over their heads. I would have. What makes you believe he actually interacted with them?”

“Call it a hunch.”

“Not good enough.” Metcalf’s frown deepened. “What did we miss?”

Jordan and Avery exchanged glances, and she said, “You didn’t miss anything, Sheriff. There’s just some information you weren’t aware of. For the past eighteen months, we’ve been following a series of kidnappings in the East and Southeast.”

“Following being the operative word, since we tend to get there too late to do anything to help the victims,” Jordan said, half under his breath and with more than a little bitterness.

His partner sent him a brief look, then continued to the sheriff, “We believe they’re connected. We believe this kidnapping and the other two in the area are part of that series; as Luke says, they certainly fit the pattern.”

“A serial kidnapper? I’ve never heard of that.”

It was Jordan who responded this time. “Because the vast majority of successful kidnappings for ransom are designed and engineered to be one-shot deals. Whether the victim lives or dies, the kidnapper gets his money, usually enough to live in some kind of style for the rest of his life, and vanishes to do just that. Even when they’re successful, very few try a second time.”

His partner added, “In this day and age, it’s become increasingly difficult for any kidnapping for ransom to be successful, and because of the inherent complications it really isn’t a common crime.”

Thinking of possible complications, Metcalf said, “Electronic security, bodyguards, ordinary surveillance at banks and ATMs, now even on the streets—that sort of thing?”

Jordan nodded. “Exactly. Plus stiff penalties and the sheer logistics of abducting and holding a living person. Many victims end up being killed simply because it’s too much trouble to keep them alive for the time necessary.”

“That isn’t what’s happening with this serial kidnapper, assuming there is one?”

“No. He doesn’t leave anything to chance. Holding his victims securely as long as necessary is just another step in his plan, and one he takes obvious pride in successfully devising.”

“Like interacting with them is another step?”

“We believe so.”

“Why do you believe so?”

Again, Jordan and Avery exchanged glances, and he said, “Because we had one survivor. And according to her, he was very friendly, very chatty. He treated her like a person. Even though it’s at least possible that he intended to kill her from the beginning.”

Carrie Vaughn was not what anyone would have called an easy person to live with, and she was the first to admit it.


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