“Too late. You broke the rules. Now you have to pay the consequences.”
“I… I swear I won’t do it again.” She choked back a sob as she strained against the bonds holding her in place.
“You told me when I met you that you’re a naughty girl.” His voice lowered, took on a dark intensity. “You were right. You’ve been very naughty. So now I have to punish you. I’m going to strip off all your clothes. Then I’m going to lay you across my lap and spank your bare ass until you’re begging me to stop. And then I’ll spank you some more—until I think you’ve had enough. You can yell, you can cry all you want. There’s no one to hear you.”
A hot bolt of lust shot through her at the thought of being draped stark naked over the hard thighs of this virtual stranger. Then fear kicked in, driving away the eroticism and flooding her mind with horrible images from the past. Her eyes darted frantically around the room. One wall, solid glass stretching to the peak of the vaulted ceiling, framed endless miles of wilderness outside where the only light came from the full moon.
She sagged against her bonds, realizing that even if she broke free, she could wander out there for days without running into another human being. Not a living soul knew where she was. There’d be no one coming to rescue her—and there was no place to go if she escaped.
Frantic, she struggled harder, as though doing so would change the harsh reality of her situation. But it was no use. He knew how to restrain a captive.
After all, that’s how he made his living.
Twenty-four hours earlier
“The usual. It’s been one helluva day.”
Brittley shook her head. “Redneck.” She dumped a handful of ice into a tall glass, poured in a shot, then reached under the bar to fill the rest of the glass from a two-liter bottle kept there just for this customer.
“Not guilty,” Cass protested as she sank down on the padded stool. “A redneck wouldn’t insist on Gentleman Jack.”
“Like you could tell the difference after drowning it in Diet Mountain Dew! It’s a waste of good liquor.”
“You’d rather I drank it straight? Then I’d be an alcoholic instead of a redneck. The caffeine keeps me going. And I mix it with diet soda because I’m watching my waistline.”
“Having one drink when you come in here hardly qualifies you as an alcoholic. As for your waistline, every guy in this dump is watching it too. Along with your tits and your ass. You have a body that belongs in one of those old black and white movies—you, know, the ones with the gritty FBI agent trying to get the mob boss. You’d be the bad guy’s slutty girlfriend with big boobs and a tiny brain.”
Cass didn’t have to look down. Her friend was right—about the boobs anyway. She hadn’t been able to see her belt buckle without looking in a mirror since she was twelve. If she dressed to hide her figure, she ended up looking like a dowager from Downton Abbey. So she went the other way, flaunted her assets a little. So what?
“Yeah, well, this bod helps me get those great interviews. Most men are so busy imagining their hands roaming all over the girls that they lose track of what they’re saying.”
“You do know how to make bad boys sound appealing. I watched the clip on TV of you talking with that serial killer when your last book came out. I ended up feeling sorry for him. With such a rotten childhood, he never had a chance at a decent life.”
“Yeah, well, that’s the trouble with edited sound bites. He’s a lying psychopath with a paper-thin veneer of charm. Just enough to allow him to get close to his victims. In the part they chose not to include, I talked about how I tracked down his parents and interviewed childhood friends. Turns out he came out of the womb defective. It happens. His folks are decent people with three other normal kids, who don’t understand how they gave birth to a monster.”
Brittley shivered. “No wonder you’re in here drinking! How can you stand your job?”
“I don’t drink that often. Usually only when I’ve been wading through autopsy reports and crime scene photos all day. They’re enough to cause nightmares. Most of the time, I love what I do. I get to choose my own assignments, set my own hours, travel all over the country. Yeah, I have to deal with some heavy shit. But every one of these criminals is unique. The ones who get away with murder for years manage to do it because they really are likable—when they’re not slicing and dicing their latest prey. Intelligent. Funny. I can see how their victims could trust them, even fall in love with them.”
Cass took a sip of her drink, swirled the ice around in the glass. “I’ll admit it does make it hard for me to get into a new relationship.” She leaned forward. “Truth be told, I haven’t gotten laid in ages. The creeps are easy to spot. It’s the smooth, charming ones I’m leery of now. Doesn’t leave me anyone to date. So I’m home alone every night. At least I have plenty of time to write.”
Brittley shook her head. “Maybe it’s time you found something else to write about. Go interview nice people for a change. You know, the ones who post kitten videos on the Internet.”
“Funny you should mention that. The child predator from my last book Young At Heart lured his victims in by asking them to help him shoot a YouTube video of his puppy.” She took another sip of her drink. “Puppy was damn cute.”
Brittley backed away a few steps. “Ohh…kay then. I’m through giving advice. But if I run across a nice guy, can I set you up? Don’t worry,” she hurried on, “chances of my meeting a nice guy stuck behind this bar all day are probably slim to none.”
“Why is it every newly married woman wants everyone around her to be hooked up too? I’m glad you and Rick are blissfully happy together, but blind dates will have to wait. This is my last night in town for a while. I’m heading for Atlanta in the morning. I’m scheduled to interview an enforcer for the mob before he enters the witness protection program.”
“This one is an article for a startup true-crime website. They read my last book and contacted me. I don’t usually do short pieces but they offered me a nice retainer and the check actually cleared. So I’ll be gone for the next couple of weeks.”
“I know how you are when you start a new story. You disappear for days on end. Thanks for letting me know this time. At least I won’t worry when I don’t see or hear from you.”
Cass finished her drink and sat the glass down with a thunk.
“Gotta make it an early night. I still have to do the final edit on the last three chapters of my latest manuscript and send it off before I leave.” She stood and gave Brittley a swift hug. “See you soon.”
“Be careful, sweetie. And don’t go falling for one of your bad boys!”
Five hours later, Cass hit ‘send,’ then stood up, stifling a groan as she stretched her cramped muscles. Once again, she vowed to make time in her schedule for visits to the gym. She’d had so much more energy, slept better, felt calmer when she lifted weights with Marko. But that was a long time ago. She quit seeing Marko when she and Trent split up. It made her too uncomfortable to work out with her ex-husband’s best friend.
She always planned to find another trainer, even tried working out with a few females. But no one drove her as hard as Marko had. He treated her like a serious weightlifter, not some babe hanging around the gym to pick up a hot hunk. She missed the sweat, the burn. Missed the endorphin-induced high.
With a shock, she realized it had been five years since she quit. No wonder her clothes didn’t fit as well as they used to. She was in her mid-thirties now, already losing muscle. If she didn’t do something soon, it would only accelerate. Cass swore she’d call the new gym in town and make an appointment when she got home from Atlanta. Maybe instead of setting her up with a twenty-something ex-cheerleader like the last place did, they’d have a twenty-something hunky male trainer available. One who wasn’t gay.
Cass spent a few pleasant moments picturing a testosterone-laden figure with rock-hard muscles and gorgeous sculpted abs bending her sweat-soaked body over the weight bench after hours. He’d yank down her little black gym shorts and spank her ass while delivering a lecture on not trying hard enough during her workout. She sighed, heading for the bedroom to pack. If she didn’t have sex soon, she’d explode.
Packing didn’t take long. Cass threw her work uniform into a small suitcase. Two blazers—one black, one vanilla cream. Half a dozen casual t-shirts in tan and white and black and soft gray. V-neck, so that at the right time she could unbutton her blazer and give her subject just a glimpse of the top curves of her breasts before posing a crucial question. But not so low that she’d look like a slut. Sexy but with class. She added jeans, a couple pairs of black pants. She’d learned the hard way that wearing bright colors into a prison interview room made her even more of a target for unwanted attention from the inmates she passed along the way. Like waving the proverbial red flag in an arena packed with horny bulls.
She got out her favorite super-high black heels and a pair of leather platform sandals. Cass didn’t even own a flat pair of shoes. She always wore heels to add a few inches to her five foot five frame. Last but definitely not least, her signature piece—a gorgeous long silk scarf that had cost her every dime of the check she’d gotten for the first story she ever sold. The designer’s name meant nothing to her. She hadn’t bought it to impress anyone. Back then, she’d simply fallen in love with the swirling riot of color.
Even after all these years, it still made her happy to look at it, eye candy to make up for the conservative black and white and beige she wore while working. As soon as she was through for the day, she’d toss it around her neck or, if the weather was hot, tie it to the handle of her purse. She stroked the soft silk, rolled it up tight so it wouldn’t wrinkle, then tucked it into a corner of the huge leather shoulder bag she toted everywhere she went.
Cass grabbed the African basket she used to carry her makeup and toiletries, setting it on the bathroom counter to fill as she got ready in the morning. She brushed her teeth, turned out the lights, and climbed into bed, pulling up the covers with a sigh. Another night—alone.
She let her mind drift back to her latest fantasy. The faceless trainer had her bent over the weight bench again, gym shorts bunched around her knees, spanking her bare ass good and hard for not finishing that last set of bicep curls. He yanked her shorts all the way off and shoved her legs wide apart. Running his fingers down to spread her pussy juices all the way to her clit, he plunged his cock into her from behind. Cass’s fingers slid down between her legs, stroking faster and faster as she imagined the spicy sting of his hard palm on her ass. She moaned, aching to feel a real bare-bottom spanking. Maybe someday she’d find the courage to confess her shameful secret desire to another man. Telling Trent had certainly been a disaster.
The memories that thought evoked ruined her hot little fantasy. Cass sighed and rolled over. She tried to empty her mind, but sleep was long in coming.
The soft pink line of dawn peeked out over the horizon as she barreled down the highway the next morning. She’d be in Atlanta long before noon—time to check into her hotel before meeting the marshals who would escort her to the interview.
This one wasn’t her usual subject—men who committed horrific crimes while leading an outwardly normal life, sometimes with an unsuspecting wife and kids at home. She’d done her homework. Zander Coleman was the guy the mob called in when it was time to break legs or smash ribs. He’d agreed to testify against Big Tony Abruzzi, giving up the list of people he’d threatened and beaten up on Tony’s orders. A dozen of those people later disappeared. But Zander swore he knew nothing about that. Smart of him, since the Feds could hardly grant immunity to someone who admitted committing murder for hire.
As she drove, Cass wondered why she’d ever agreed to this assignment. Exploring the mind of a mafia-type thug didn’t excite her. The guy probably wasn’t capable of any thought deeper than whether to have pepperoni or sausage on his pizza. She loved the challenge of delving into a complex character, making her readers see how a woman could fall in love with someone inherently evil or why a young man would look up to a serial killer as a heroic father figure.
But money was money and these small jobs helped pay the bills. She hoped to save up enough to devote six straight months to finishing the suspense thriller currently lingering on her back burner. She’d come up with a great twist for a female serial killer. Her lead character was the daughter of a hooker who’d been strangled, one of dozens of victims of a criminal who’d never been caught. Bent on her warped need for revenge, the character Cass created murdered every man who tried to bed her.
She’d based the back story on a real serial killer case she found while doing research for one of her books. Eight prostitutes had been strangled in Grand Rapids, Michigan in a single year back in the 1980s, their bodies left in downtown trash dumpsters. The case got very little in the way of press coverage by the strait-laced local newspaper and never made the national news. No one in a position of authority wanted to publicize the fact that Grand Rapids even had hookers, let alone a morgue full of dead ones. Eventually the murders stopped. But the killer was never found.
Cass had learned so much about the mentality of mass murderers over the last few years, she knew she could make one come alive. She would lie in bed at night planning the subtle clues she’d drop for discerning readers to discover, the tiny quirks she’d build into her killer’s personality.
Sometimes when she couldn’t sleep, she’d amuse herself casting the lead roles in the blockbuster movie they’d make from her book. Angelina Jolie? The audience would have no problem accepting her as a sinister character with murder in her heart. No, she needed someone outwardly sweet, someone they’d never suspect as a stone-cold killer. Maybe Sandra Bullock. Or she could draw in a younger audience with someone totally unexpected like Zendaya.
She pulled into a rest stop, dug her laptop out of the huge leather carryall on the seat beside her, and made a few notes for her next chapter. Putting it aside, she hopped out of the car to stretch her legs.
It was a beautiful day for a drive. Trees covered with pastel blossoms dotted the soft green landscape, coaxed into bloom by the April sun. Cass had abandoned the gray skies and slushy snow-covered streets that Chicago called early spring long ago. She’d moved to Charlotte when she and Trent got married. He left, she stayed. One decision she’d never regretted. She closed her eyes and lifted her face to the sun, breathing in the sweetly scented air. Life in the South suited her just fine.
Two hours later, she pulled into the lower level of the parking garage next door to the Federal Building in downtown Atlanta. Slipping on the black blazer, she grabbed her shoulder bag and headed for the elevator, mentally preparing herself for the ordeal ahead.
An armed security guard stopped her in the lobby of the sixth-floor suite of offices for the North Georgia district of the U.S. Marshals service.
“Can I help you, ma’am?”
“My name is Cass Newcombe. I’m here to interview Zander Coleman.”
He consulted a clip chart. “Oh, yes. Marshal Jacobs will be escorting you to him. Have a seat.” He turned aside, murmuring something into a small mike attached to his collar.
Cass settled on one of the hard plastic chairs lined up along one wall and looked around. Typical government décor, which was to say no décor whatsoever. Bland beige walls enlivened with yellowing federally mandated posters and notices that nobody ever read. She busied herself with a favorite mental exercise. How would she describe the guard to make him come alive in a reader’s mind?
Two minutes later, as she searched her mental thesaurus for the perfect word to describe a once-hard fifty-year-old body sadly gone to flab, the double glass doors across the room flew open. A surprisingly small woman strode into the lobby. Somewhere in her mid-forties, she wore a navy jacket over a no-nonsense white cotton blouse, black polyester slacks, and gray running shoes—with neon pink laces. Not exactly standard Fed attire for pursuing your common criminal. Cass let her eyes travel up, away from the shoes. Fluffy blond hair, soft blue eyes, pink lipstick in a color only one shade less vibrant than her shoelaces.
She offered a hand. “Katherine Jacobs.”
Cass stood up and shook it. A long time ago, she’d attended a women’s power luncheon where the speaker spent a great deal of time discussing the importance of a firm handshake for a woman in business. She even made all of them stand up and practice shaking hands with everyone else at their table. Apparently Katherine had similar training along the way, because her handshake was every bit as decisive as that of a CEO.
“Cassandra Newcombe. I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but you’re not what I pictured as a U.S. Marshal.”
“Yeah. I’m not what most of our ‘clients’ picture either.” Katherine grinned, waving a hand at her attire. “The jacket and black pants are strictly for the office. Usually I’m in jeans or sweats. It’s useful to look like a clerk at the checkout counter or a soccer mom when I’m doing a routine maintenance visit on someone we’ve placed in the witness protection program. The last thing new residents trying to blend into the neighborhood need is a six foot three guy with dark glasses and a navy blue suit showing up on their doorstep in the middle of the afternoon while the folks next door are peeking out behind the curtains.”
Cass smiled back. “I never thought about that but it makes sense.”
“Follow me. We’re doing this interview in a private room the DOJ offered us in their suite downstairs.”
Katherine led the way back down in the elevator. Cass caught the marshal giving her the once-over in the elevator’s mirror. She knew her black open-toed heels with the fire engine red toenails peeking out didn’t square with the conservative black blazer and tailored slacks she had on. Neither did her flowing mane of copper hair shot with streaks of gold, thanks to a very expensive salon that was her one indulgence.
“I must say, you’re not what I imagined either,” Katherine remarked, without a trace of embarrassment at having been caught staring. “I read your bio. You’ve interviewed some pretty tough characters.”
“They weren’t choirboys, that’s for sure. But I bet you’ve got some great stories you could tell.” Into her interviewer mode, Cass automatically turned the conversation away from herself. Katherine obliged, sharing a few funny anecdotes that Cass suspected she dragged out whenever asked about her work. Carefully couched to entertain without divulging a single substantive detail about herself or her work.
They stopped at a lower floor where Katherine flashed her badge at an armed guard who could have been a twin to the one upstairs. Must be something about trading a life of action for hanging out all day in a sterile lobby that made a man turn to meatball subs for comfort. He took her enormous shoulder bag over to his desk and pawed through it, piling the contents in front of him and inspecting every item thoroughly before replacing it in the bag. Katherine made small talk but Cass had a feeling the woman was studying her the whole time for any hint of nervousness or undue impatience. She didn’t take offense. In her line of work, the marshal must have to consider every person she saw as a potential threat to the life of her witness.
After what seemed like hours, the guard handed it back and buzzed them through the door, where they were met by another man. Cass sized him up. Finally someone who matched her preconceived idea of a Fed. Hefty build, all muscle. Dark suit, crisp white shirt, black tie. Sensible black dress shoes. No smile.
“I’m Agent Smith.”
Sure you are, Cass thought. And I’m J.K. Rowling.
Katherine introduced her and he led them down a series of brightly lit hallways lined with solid doors marked only with numbers. He opened #427 and ushered them in. The room inside was bare except for a rectangular metal table and four straight-backed wooden chairs. The single sparkling clean window offered a birds-eye view of blossoming cherry trees lining the street below. Cass couldn’t help noticing there was no way to open it.
Other than the sexy dark stubble on his face and the expensive charcoal suit he wore, the lone guy sitting at the table inside could have passed for a Fed himself. Somewhere in his mid-thirties, she guessed. Big and solid with wide shoulders, like a linebacker. Dark hair cut short with military precision, square jaw, the planes in his face so sharp they could have been chiseled out. Expressionless deep blue eyes looking back at her, impossible to read. This guy would be one hell of a poker player.
The well-cut suit hid his body but Cass had a feeling there wasn’t a spare ounce of fat on it. She swallowed hard. He could have stepped straight out of last night’s personal trainer fantasy. Tough. Hard. And definitely hot.
He lounged on the unforgiving chair, looking as comfortable as if he’d been at home on his leather recliner in front of a big-screen TV with a cold beer in his hand. That is, if he sat around at home in handcuffs.
“Zander Coleman, I’d like you to meet Cassandra Newcombe. Cass will be interviewing you for a new true-crime web magazine. I believe you already signed the release.” Katherine gave them both one of her engaging grins. “To tell you the truth, I think it’s owned by a nephew of the assistant director. I can’t think of any other reason why the guys in charge would allow an interview with someone about to be ushered into our supposedly super-secret witness protection program.”
Cass had been in enough of these situations. She knew better than to reach out to shake hands with him. There would be no physical contact allowed between her and her subject, handcuffed or not.
Katherine pulled out a chair on the other side of the table and motioned for Cass to take a seat before sitting down next to her. “I’ll be joining you for the entire interview. I hope that’s all right,” she added, turning to Cass.
“It’s fine. I’m used to having a security detail present when I work. But if you don’t mind, maybe you could pull your chair over there for now,” Cass replied, waving to a corner near the window. “You can see both of us clearly, but Mr. Coleman and I won’t feel quite as much like we’re on our first date, being chaperoned by my aunt Maude.”
Pulling out the line she always used to establish the first tentative bond with a subject, she flashed him a warm smile, making it clear she wasn’t on the same plane as his guards.
Zander Coleman sat up a little straighter, sizing her up. Intelligent brown eyes, strong cheekbones. Wide mouth—perfect for sucking a hard dick. Shoulder-length shiny reddish-brown hair, shot with streaks of gold.
And that body. He gave it a slow once-over, starting at the bottom. Sexy black heels that made her long legs look even longer. Every guy knew shoes like that weren’t made for taking long walks in the park. When he saw a woman in a pair of shoes like that, all he could think about was how she’d look if she didn’t have anything on but those shoes.
The legs in question ended in full hips curving into a narrow waist. He couldn’t see her ass, but judging from the rest of her he’d bet it was fine. The severe black blazer she had on did nothing to hide a magnificent pair of tits, outlined by the form-fitting white t-shirt she wore underneath. He stared straight at them, gauging her reaction. She never attempted to close her jacket, simply leaned back in her seat directly across the table, letting the jacket fall open a little further. No annoyed frown, no “Hey, my eyes are up here.” He smiled. The lady was definitely playing him.
Classic moves straight from the good cop–bad cop book, but with a little twist. That seemingly offhand remark laden with sexual innuendo, delivered with a very feminine smile. Designed to create a personal connection—with his cock. The fuck-me shoes. The no-nonsense blazer pretending to hide a set of boobs that would have done a Hooters waitress proud. After being locked up for a long time, the average sex-starved psycho would buy into the whole package, letting his imagination run free.
His smile deepened. He could play too.
“Why would you need a chaperone?” His voice dropped, took on a rough note. “Does your daddy think you’re a naughty girl who puts out on the first date?”
She laughed. “Daddy has no idea how naughty I am.”
This one didn’t rattle easily. His opinion of her went up a notch. When the subject first came up a few weeks ago, he thought the whole idea of sitting through an interview was stupid. But what the hell. He had nothing better to do right now. If the lady wanted to indulge in her version of oral sex, he’d oblige.
“Naughty girls get punished.” He saw her eyes widen a little at that and knew he’d hit a hot button. She glanced at the marshal sitting off to the side before replying.
“You like to punish? Is that how you got into your… line of work?” Her tone may have been playful, but Zander recognized she was all business underneath. Already trying to peel away the edges of the mask of sanity worn by every psychopath.
“What I do isn’t always work, Ms. Newcombe. In fact, sometimes it can be fun. Really naughty girls like it when I punish them.”
She squirmed a little in her chair, just the tiniest move, and Zander knew he had her pegged. In his profession, he’d become a master at reading the reactions of a subject. This one projected an air of confident, even blatant, sexuality. But underneath he sensed a deeply guarded secret. Probably one with a tinge of shame tied to it. If they were alone, he’d home in on that, exploit her weakness. That’s how he’d become successful at his craft.
She ignored his last comment. “Please, call me Cass. May I call you Zander?” He nodded once and she went on. “Let me tell you a little about how I work, Zander. I don’t believe in using a tape recorder during our sessions. I think it hampers freedom of expression.”
She smiled again, that warm smile designed to put him at ease. “No one can be comfortable if they’re worried about hearing their own words in their own voice used against them at some point. But I would like to make sure I get your story right for our audience. Would it be okay with you if I take a few notes while we chat? I’ll be happy to let you read them afterwards.” She met his eyes squarely, waiting for another nod before rummaging in her huge bag for a notebook and pen.
He had to admire the care with which she chose her words. Making them sound like a team while appealing to his vanity with the ‘our audience’ remark. She’d definitely done her homework, probably already pegged him as a Class Three. He’d read the profilers. Class Three included serial killers like Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy. Charming, witty, even outgoing—and completely egocentric, lacking both empathy and guilt.
“Where are you from originally?”
“I grew up in Ohio.”
“I’ve been to Ohio. Cows and cornfields. That must have been boring. What did you do for fun?”
“Tortured the neighborhood pets.”
She put down her pen. “I have an excellent bullshit meter, Zander, and I’m sure you do too. Right now mine is clanging so loud I’m not going to be able to hear anything else you say. So I’ll tell you what—how about if we make a deal? There’s got to be some payoff here for you as well as for me. What if we make this fun—turn it into a little game and see who goes the longest? Like truth or dare. You ask me a question and I’ll answer. If you think I’ve answered honestly, then I’ve earned the right to ask you a question and get an honest answer. Does that sound fair?”
No doubt about it. She was good. Appealing to his feeling of superiority, giving him the opportunity to pit his intellectual skill against hers. Seeing which of them could delve deeper into the psyche of the other, carving out the emotional entrails of their opponent and spreading them out on the table.
He smiled again, but the smile never reached his eyes. “So we both agree to take turns answering each other’s questions. Honestly. The game stops if one of us even thinks the other is lying. And I go first. Right?”
“Okay, Cass. You’ve got yourself a deal.” He was silent for a moment, allowing the suspense to build. “Tell me—when’s the last time some guy dragged you across his lap, then yanked your panties down and spanked your bare ass good and hard until you begged him to stop?”