I hung up my office phone. My pulse tick-tocked in my veins, and the birthmark on my calf warmed and throbbed. My last lead was a dead end. The last thing my little sister could afford was dead ends.
I sighed. I should have been used to disappointment by now. I should have recognized the costume it wears. I should have picked up on the emotion’s nervous tics. Nervous tics no criminal could hide.
My calendar notice popped up on my computer. Time for my next appointment.
I pushed back from my desk and dodged stacked boxes stuffed with patient case files. The Vernon campus of the North Texas State Hospital for the criminally insane wasn’t known for its abundance of office space, and the lack of organization made my eye twitch. I straightened the one picture hanging on the wall, a selfie of me and Rainey at the county fair from last summer, riding the Tilt-a-Whirl. Just before we realized she was sick.
“Focus, Piper,” I muttered as I left my office. My next patient would require all my brain power. He’d pick up on any vulnerabilities I had and do his best to use them against me.
I paused outside the interview room, adjusted my suit jacket, and made sure my silk pants covered my birthmark.
Ari Fawkes had a thing for birthmarks.
Nodding to the two guards in the hallway, I entered the room. “Good morning, Mr. Fawkes.”
I took my seat across the table, where Ari sat leaning forward over his hands, his identification bracelet tapping against the worn wood, with that familiar, vacant smile combating the glint of genius in his eyes. Many of my patients had that. That stroke of genius that cracked their brain and made mass destruction seem like a legitimate hobby.
My colleagues and I tended to encourage less violent hobbies like reading, chess, or, for men like Ari, counting the tiles above your head in solitary confinement.
“You’re looking beautiful today, Piper.” Ari’s full lips ticked up, and he lowered his chin so that his eyes—one blue, one green—fell into shadow.
My stomach tightened beneath the button of my black suit jacket. I’d chosen my appearance carefully—slicked-back bun, black suit, pale-pink button-down. Authoritative with a touch of compassion.
My compassion ended at lusty leers.
“That’s Dr. Prince, Mr. Fawkes.” I opened my leather portfolio, flipped to a new page on the legal pad, and clicked open my pen. “Please remember our boundaries.”
The corner of his mouth twitched. “As you wish, Doctor Prince.”
For a split second, he went fuzzy at the edges. I blinked to clear my eyes, my occasional problem of blurriness always worse around Mr. Fawkes.
I shook my head. I’d learned my childhood lessons well.
He shifted in his seat, and I wrote down the date of our session. “So let’s talk gods.”
The tap, tap, tap of his bracelet stopped. “What do you wish to know?”
I sifted through my notes. Ari had the typical narcissism, psychopathy, and pathological lying of most mass killers. But it was his delusions that had landed him at the state hospital and clinched me being named his primary therapist.
My own brief bout of childhood hallucinations had resulted in seeing a hospital ward psychologist, giving me the ability to understand my patients on a deeper level. But I’d quickly learned the difference between belief and fiction, and my hallucinations had never led to violence.
“Do you still believe that the gods directed your actions? That the gods”—I found his exact wording from one of our previous sessions—“‘Zeus, Thor, Poseidon, Osiris’—are real and speak to you?”
He leaned back and spread out his hands. “Does it make me insane to believe in gods?”
“It’s not about your beliefs, Mr. Fawkes. It’s a question of how your beliefs impact those around you. In the past, your beliefs have proved very dangerous to others.”
He didn’t answer but stared with unbreaking focus.
“Your belief in these gods led to the murders of four women.”
“They were marked.” He shrugged like their deaths were not his problem, not his doing.
“By their birthmarks?”
Like most serial killers, Ari had a type. Women with dark hair, big brown eyes, and a visible birthmark on their arms or legs.
Women like me.
“I didn’t mark them. The gods did.” His voice pitched up. “A gift of power for those willing to see. Each captured mark serving to give me strength. But”—he licked his lips and refocused his intense stare on me—“no one’s in danger at the moment.” His chin jutted into the air, but his eyes never left mine. “Surely you don’t feel in danger.”
I shouldn’t have. We sat in a three-walled room, one side open to the hallway where the guards stood within a loud whisper’s reach. A red light glowed from the camera mounted in the corner of the room, assuring me that our session was being recorded. Ari was unarmed and separated from me by a broad table. And the Board had already accepted my recommendation and concluded that he was fit to stand trial, meaning this was our last session.
And yet, the sun-shaped birthmark on my calf warmed under my pants leg. Odd reaction, but my doctor and the specialist had concluded it was a stress response.
“Should I feel in danger?” I asked.
His only response was a grin.
The hair on my neck prickled.
“Tell me about the number thirteen. It seems like a special number to you.” With him leaving soon, this was my last opportunity to tie up loose ends. Once again, I examined his expression for his tells. Chewing on the inside of his cheek, blinking rapidly, adjusting his sleeves or his bracelet.
He did none of them. Instead, the first genuine smile I’d seen from him in the past year spread across his face. “You really don’t know, do you?”
“No matter. We finally have something interesting to discuss.”
My breaths shallowed as I stilled my body, not wanting any sudden moves to startle him away from his secrets. “Do we?”
Ari had sliced the birthmark off his victims and drawn the Greek symbols for one, two, three, and four in their blood at the scenes. He’d been stopped after the fourth victim. At first, the FBI had believed him to be some sort of a sorority killer. Alpha, beta, gamma, delta.
But once his trophy book had been found, we knew different.
Ari Fawkes had glued his victims’ marks to some sort of book made of old parchment. A book with exactly thirteen pages, nine of them blank.
“The number thirteen.” Ari slowly stroked the table with his index finger. “Thirteen is power. Thirteen is upheaval. Thirteen is change. Thirteen is rebirth. Are you a fan of numerology, Piper?”
I didn’t bother correcting him on my name this time. “I’m familiar with the concept, yes.” A few strands of my dark hair fell out of the bun at my neck, and Ari’s gaze roved over my hair, seemed to stroke my cheek. I resisted tucking it back into place. Control, Piper.
“We all have a number that is the essence of who we are. It is our life path. Yours, for instance, is nine. A natural leader, though you find it hard to ask for help.”
“Is thirteen your number?”
Thirteen was considered unlucky. However, this man wasn’t here for a lack of luck but a surplus of cruelty.
“My number is still awakening.” There went that smile again. It was almost lazy, that smile, and all the more dangerous for its slow confidence. That smile had ensnared four women, maybe more, in his trap.
He blurred at the edges again, his smile morphing into something fanged, and I suppressed a shudder, blinked away the vision.
“So how does thirteen play into your ‘life path’?” I studied his mouth carefully, but the fangs had disappeared.
“You want to know if I killed more?” He scratched at his throat, as if we were discussing mundane matters over coffee, not life and death.
“I want to learn everything I can, Mr. Fawkes, about your actions and your reasons, so we can help you.”
“You want to help me?” He stretched as close as his restraints allowed and whispered, “Acknowledge the gods. They tried to speak to you before, a long time ago. Do you remember?”
My hands trembled over the pad, a small tremble, like a distant tremor from an earthquake a hundred miles away. “Excuse me?”
“I have a key to your past.” His eyes flashed bright blue, bright green, and his tongue flicked out, forked, as if he were part snake.
Uncomfortable bubbles fizzed in my stomach, collected in my throat. “What do you know of my past?”
He didn’t know anything. My sister’s and my past were buried in a cold case, and despite my renewed search for our parents after Rainey’s diagnosis of cancer—or rather, my renewed search for our parents’ bone marrow—nothing had turned up.
Ari was merely a clever criminal randomly stabbing with guesses, hoping to make contact with a vulnerability.
“Don’t fret, Piper Prince. I will show you the way.” His bare foot brushed against the birthmark hidden under my pantsuit.
My heartbeats backfired. I jumped out of my chair, away from his touch. I steadied my breath. He couldn’t know about my mark. Of course not. He couldn’t. I’d kept it hidden.
Still, I slapped my portfolio shut, signaling the end of our session. “Mr. Fawkes, our time together is at a close.”
“Already done today, Doctor Prince?” He stayed seated, following protocol.
I avoided eye contact, not quite brave enough to face the flare of fire in his one blue eye. “Not just today. It is my and the Board’s belief that you are ready to stand trial for your crimes.”
I picked up my briefcase and stuffed my papers and folders inside.
Ari clinked his bracelets against the table. “You still believe I’m here against my will, don’t you?”
“You are here because a talented team of law enforcement apprehended you and an even more talented lawyer bought you some time with an insanity defense.” I clenched my jaw, frustrated by my momentary loss of control.
I smoothed out my clothes, swung my bag over my shoulder, and forced myself to look into his eyes again, those agitating, clairvoyant blue and green eyes. I would not let him, or anyone, rattle my professionalism or my sanity. “I hope you find peace, Mr. Fawkes.”
As I left, I felt his stare drilling into my spine. It wasn’t until I rounded the corner, out of his sight, that his response came through the open archway, quiet and controlled.
“I’ll see you again. Very soon. And not peace, Piper. Power.”
I nearly stumbled on my kitten heels. Not because of his empty threat, but because he’d spoken the same word the hallucinations used to whisper—power.