If evil had a scent, this was it.
It smelled like rotten meat and curdled milk with an undercurrent of something darker. Sulfur, brimstone, and the wrath of the gods. Or was he letting his imagination run riot? Allowing the reality of what this bastard had done overcome his rational thoughts? Powering up his psyche instead of letting reason do the work?
Because what he wanted to do was forget his day-to-day human persona. Tear off his uniform and badge, find this evil lowlife cur and rip the head from his shoulders. Most of the time, there was no conflict between being a werewolf and being a cop. On days like this, keeping his inner wolf under control was a fucking nightmare.
Getting close enough to smell him, but not close enough to catch him . . . that was a special kind of hell. Eighteen months of hunting the murderer known as the Cage Killer and this was the only time they had gotten within touching distance. Now it was starting to look like just another one of his sick jokes. He delighted in taunting them, showing them what he had done, and what he could do. Pushing further every time. Giving them glimpses inside his twisted mind and grinning to himself when they recoiled in horror. Making them wonder what fresh nightmare he had in store for next time.
Remote, run-down, and bleak as hell, Piedmont House fit the description of the other locations. Perched on the farthest edge of a rocky cliff here in Resurrection Bay, it appeared to have no place in this lonely, beautiful Kenai Peninsula landscape. Who would choose to live here? Kyle Madden turned his face into the icy Alaskan wind, enjoying its bite. He might find the bitter climate pleasant, but he was an Arctic werewolf. His wolf self delighted in this environment. His team, all humans, huddled uncomfortably into their thermal padded clothing, their expressions gloomy.
They had found nothing in the house, but Madden was sure the call to his cell phone in the early hours of the morning a few days ago had been authentic. The Cage Killer’s voice was imprinted on his brain after all this time. He knew every nuance of that nasal, gloating tone, even though he believed it was disguised. Knew, when he jerked awake as his cell phone rang at precisely two A.M., exactly who it was and what the message would be.
“Got a little present for you, Detective Madden.” The words had been accompanied by a familiar, high-pitched snicker. “I know how much you enjoy my gifts.”
Sure enough, the packages had started to arrive at the station. Only this time they had no missing person to whom they could be linked. His team had been working around the clock, trying desperately to find out who the latest victim was, when they got the breakthrough they had been hoping for. An anonymous tip-off had led them to this place. For the first time ever, they had a chance at rescuing a victim before the Cage Killer left them another broken body to examine. This was the location the caller had given. This desolate-as-fuck house on the edge of nowhere.
I don’t want to find another torn-apart body. I don’t want to have got this wrong and find we could have saved someone.
They had never been in time before. Once the Cage Killer selected a victim, the poor bastard never stood a chance.
It’s not my imagination. I can smell the son-of-a-bitch. But he couldn’t tell his team that. They had no idea who Madden was. They thought their chief was a regular cop. Just another human. He couldn’t sit them down explain how he knew they had missed the guy they were hunting by minutes. Couldn’t watch their expressions change from respect, passing through incredulity before finally settling on pity as he explained how his finely tuned senses had picked up the killer’s scent. The same sickly aroma that had lingered around the other crime scenes. How he knew it was recent because it was so much stronger and fresher here. How do I know that? Well, there’s this little secret I’ve been keeping all these years . . .
“What is this place?” He switched off any thoughts of coming clean about his werewolf persona, and went back into cop mode.
Callie Monroe, a junior detective assigned to Madden’s team from the Anchorage Police Department, came over to stand next to him. They surveyed the house together. “Piedmont House. It was built fifty years ago by an artist who was an eccentric recluse. When he died, it was taken over by a commune, but it was too remote even for them. It’s been empty ever since. That’s all the information I could find on it.”
“It’s not big enough to attract a commune.” Madden nodded at the house. “It has what—five bedrooms?—what sort of commune is that?”
Callie laughed. “You’re right. More of an ambitious family than a commune.”
Madden narrowed his eyes, studying the house again. “No, we must be missing something. Is there a basement?”
Callie shook her head. “Not that we could find. There are no doors leading to a lower floor. No trapdoors. We even checked for hidden panels. Nothing.”
Madden looked out at the expanse of lake again. Every other time, the victim—or victims—had been found underground. The Cage Killer liked privacy and enclosed spaces. Cellars, disused mine shafts, even, on one occasion, the quiet cloisters of an abandoned monastery. What was there about this house that had attracted him? Unless . . .
Ignoring Callie’s look of surprise, Madden moved to the extreme edge of the cliff and lay down, levering his upper body out as far over the ice-encrusted, rocky rim as he could get. There! Directly below the house, in a line, almost as if they had been designed as part of the building itself, was a series of cave openings.
Madden beckoned Callie over. “That’s our basement.”
* * *
The darkness was worse than the pain. At least the pain was a reminder that she was alive. For now. But the darkness got inside her head, filling it with fear and dread. He was the subject of her nightmares, of course. She had no idea how long she had been here. Time had ceased to exist inside this total blackness, inside this bubble of agony he had created. All she knew was nothing her imagination could create was anywhere near as bad as the reality.
In the times between his appearances, there was no sound. So how did she know for sure she wasn’t alone? Some animal instinct, heightened by captivity, told her another creature was close by. When she tried her voice and attempted to communicate with the other person, only a raw croak emerged. There was no response.
The scent of her imprisonment was the smell of her own unwashed body and her bodily wastes. After the first few days the shame of that had disappeared. Now it had become further proof of life. I shit therefore I am? If she hadn’t been about to die at the hands of a sadistic serial killer, she could almost have laughed at her own wit. Now, even her bodily functions were closing down. She still grabbed the cup of water and handful of crackers he brought, but they no longer seemed to be sustaining her. She supposed it didn’t matter when he was only keeping her alive so he could torture her.
It felt like rational thought was deserting her. Like she no longer had the ability to think in a linear way. Everything had become a jumble. Random images, reflections, and memories intruded at will. She let them come, figured there was a sense behind their disorder. Childhood recollections thrust themselves alongside pictures of old boyfriends—the good and the bad, although even the bad didn’t seem quite that awful anymore—reminders of jobs that needed doing around her apartment, half-remembered snippets of conversations, they all drifted in and out of her mind.
None of it mattered, she thought with a dry sob. From the moment she had turned her head as he called out her name on the steps of the art gallery, she had been a dead woman. It had all happened so fast. She hadn’t seen his face, not then and not since. Just felt the gun in her ribs and his hand encircling her upper arm.
She’d followed the news reports, so she knew immediately who had captured her. As he placed the hood over her head and pushed her into the trunk of his car, she had known it was the Cage Killer.
The knowing made it worse. It wasn’t as if she went out of her way to read the newspaper reports or watch the TV, but everyone was talking about the Cage Killer murders. Everywhere she went, she heard something about what he did to his victims. Those conversations had come back to her as she’d rolled around in the trunk of his car.
“ . . . shaves off all the hair on their head and brands them like an animal . . .”
“ . . . cuts off their fingers one by one and sends them to the police . . .”
“ . . . when he’s finished with them, they must be glad to die.”
They were wrong about that last statement. She still had six fingers left and she wasn’t ready to die yet. At first, she had tried fighting him. It was hopeless. Setting aside his superior strength, each show of defiance met with increased violence.
She had tried talking to him. Telling him her name. Didn’t they say it was harder to kill someone if you saw them as a person?
“I’m Maria.” Each time she said it, his fist had connected with her ribs. She had stopped saying it to him, but continued saying it to herself. Whispered it over and over. Because it mattered. Broken, beaten, starved, and subdued, she might be waiting for death, but she sure as hell wasn’t welcoming it. Not yet.
A noise startled her out of her semiconscious state. She had no way of measuring time, but it felt like it was too soon for him to be returning. Her whole body trembled with anticipation. Her brutalized hands began to throb all over again. Her remaining fingers twitched, already feeling the knife cutting into them. Her shoulder, the place where he had held the red-hot metal brand against her skin, seemed to be on fire. She could smell the burning flesh, hear the sizzling sound, feel the nausea as the floor came up to meet her when she blacked out.
But these noises were different. It isn’t him! Her heart gave a joyful leap, and she quickly quashed it. She must be delirious. That was the only possible explanation. The Cage Killer didn’t make mistakes. No one ever got away from him. Her imagination had finally broken free of this cage in a way her body couldn’t. She was picturing a rescue that could never happen.
“My name is Detective Madden. I’m coming down there.” It was a man’s voice, calm and authoritative. She liked it. Her imagination was doing a good job, sending her a pleasant daydream featuring a strong rescuer.
She curled up into a ball and gave herself up to her imaginings.
* * *
This handcrafted cage was like all the others. The difference was that this time the victim was still alive. Barely. And this cage was suspended by a chain over a pit inside the cave. Without specialist lighting, it was impossible to see what was below the cage. The drop could go on forever into nothingness.
Madden was faced with an agonizing choice. If he put too much weight on the chain, he risked snapping it and sending the cage hurtling down the narrow shaft. If he waited for the right equipment to come and winch the cage out of there, the woman—he could just about see from his kneeling position at the edge of the pit that the naked figure curled on the floor of the cage was a woman—might die from her injuries.
Madden had headed up the squad hunting the Cage Killer ever since the kidnapping and murder spree had started eighteen months ago. Given the cryptic title of Alaskan Frontier Force, the elite team drew on specialist officers from across the state. Because this killer was a statewide problem. He was an unheard of phenomenon, a prolific, brutal murderer who drew his victims from across the vast territory of Alaska. And his uniqueness didn’t stop there. No, their guy had a few other little quirks that made the psychologists scratch their heads.
Victim profiling was a nightmare on this case. Location didn’t matter to him. He was a wanderer. One week he was in Anchorage, the next he might be right up as far north as he could get in Barrow. His victims came from a range of backgrounds and occupations. The killer didn’t seem to care if they were male or female, eight years old or eighty, a millionaire or living on handouts.
The only thing they had in common was their looks. Their striking coloring. Each of them had white-blond hair and brilliant gold eyes. Madden had a theory about that. It was the coloring of the true Arctic werewolf. But he couldn’t explain his theory to anyone. Not unless he wanted to lose his job or, at the very least, get himself kicked off this squad and enrolled in some lengthy psychoanalysis.
All this introspection wasn’t getting this woman out of her cage. Fuck it. He was going to have to take the risk and climb down there. Shrugging out of his fleece-lined jacket, he handed it to Anton Rainer. When Madden had spotted the caves below Piedmont House, he had contacted the environmental agency for information about the property. After a short wait, he had been put in touch with Rainer, a local environmentalist who knew the area better than anyone. Anton had brought Madden and his team by boat to the base of the cliff, showing them the concealed steps that led from the water’s edge up to the caves. As he led them into the network of caves, Rainer had explained to Madden that his grandfather was the artist who had built the house.
By the light of the flashlight Callie held, Madden saw Rainer’s face whiten. “You’re going down there?”
Madden sat on the hard ground, tugging off his boots and socks. “Unless you’re offering to go in my place?”
Rainer swallowed, the sound making an audible click. “I . . . uh . . .”
“Joke.” Madden didn’t have time to continue the conversation.
Sitting on the edge of the pit, Madden caught hold of the chain, testing its strength. It was attached to the ceiling of the cave by a huge hook in the rock surface. Madden eyed the hook warily. He was about to trust his life, and that of the unknown woman, to the ability of that hook to remain fixed into the rock. Taking a deep breath and gripping the chain, he lowered himself over the edge.
Climbing down the chain was marginally easier than climbing down a rope. The links in the chain acted like knots in a rope and he was able to use them as small platforms to anchor himself on his climb. It wasn’t a long way down and he was soon standing on the roof of the cage. Crouching there, he tried to see a way to get inside. There was nothing obvious, but Madden had seen enough of these cages to know there would be a hinged flap on the top.
This was the way the Cage Killer got his victims into the cage. These iron enclosures were custom made. There had been twelve victims so far. Twelve identical cages. This guy had to have a workshop somewhere, a private space where he was able to build these structures without arousing suspicion. It had been one of their lines of inquiry. Like all the others it had taken them nowhere.
Feeling his way around in the gloom, Madden found what he was looking for, the raised lip of the opening. Hooking the tips of his fingers underneath it, he lifted it. After some initial resistance, it came up all the way.
“Hey.” Kneeling, he leaned down, so that he could get his head inside the cage. “I’m a police officer. I’m coming into the cage.”
The only response was a pitiful whimper. Madden’s lips tightened in anger. Whatever it takes, I will get this bastard.
He dropped down into the cage, landing in a crouch, a few inches from where the naked woman lay curled in a fetal position on her side. The action triggered a rocking motion that set his nerves jangling. There was hardly any light filtering down here from the flashlight above him and he reached out a hand in the direction of the woman. When he touched the flesh of her shoulder, she gave a soft cry and flinched away from him.
“I’m going to need to figure a way to get you out of here.” As he was speaking, Madden tugged his sweatshirt over his head. “My name is Madden. What’s yours?” When she didn’t respond, he continued talking, keeping his voice low and even. “Are you hurt? Can you sit up so that maybe I can help you put this on?”
He held the sweatshirt out to her as he spoke. As he inched closer she scooted away from him, pressing herself tight into a corner of the cage. The chain creaked alarmingly and Madden bit back a curse. Dropping to his hands and knees, he moved slowly toward her. This time she didn’t back away. One hand came up and carefully touched his face. To his horror, he could tell she was missing a few fingers.
“You’re real.” Her voice came out as a gravelly whisper, like she’d damaged it doing a lot of shouting or crying.
“I’m real.” He eased the sweatshirt over her head. “And I’m going to get you out of here.”
It wasn’t easy getting her arms into the sweatshirt, mainly because she locked them around his neck as she hurled herself into his arms.
“I’m Maria.” She kept saying it. She said it as he lifted her onto the top of the cage and the team in the cave above got hold of her and pulled her to the surface. She said it as they got her into the boat, and as the air ambulance arrived. She said it again in the hospital as they bathed her and tended to her injuries. She murmured it over and over in her sleep.
The medical team caring for her struggled to see to her damaged fingers, mainly because she refused to let go of Madden’s hand.