Present Day. Wolf River, Oregon
Hundreds of Virgin Marys stared at Rife St. Cloud from every surface inside the old church, their serene eyes in direct contrast to the bloody bodies of the six dead women at his feet.
Staring at a grisly multiple homicide and running on less than four hours of sleep, Rife slid his car keys into the worn pocket of his jeans and wondered what he was doing back in Wolf River. What he was doing on the West Coast in general. This is what I get for taking a vacation.
Vacation or not, his mind automatically registered the stats of the six women as crime scene techs buzzed around them. All Native American with matching tribal tattoos depicting a quarter moon over waves above their left breast. All early to late twenties. Stab wounds and an assortment of symbols carved into the skins of five of the bodies who were staged to circle a sixth.
A ritualistic killer. Rife eyed the various wounds and estimated the depth and number of marks on each woman. Or just a disorganized one trying to cover his tracks?
A heaviness knocked him in the chest. During the past five years as a profiler for the FBI, he’d seen a lot of brutality, but he never got used to the sight of murder victims, especially women and children.
The killer’s weapon, a wicked-looking knife, lay on the stomach of the female in the center. Beautiful, even in death, the woman’s skin, sharp cheekbones and dark hair spoke of pure ancestry. Chinook? Makah? Tribes existed throughout Oregon, but few pure bloods lived in Wolf River. Unlike the others, she had only one small carving on her breast, in the shape of flames. Thin, bloody lines intertwined and partially encircled her tattoo as if a fire were about to consume it. While she appeared to be the same age as the others, her tat was faded and showed an old wound—a single, shallow white scar cut through the center of the quarter moon.
The knife rested with its bloody tip pointing at her pubic hair. The killer’s signature?
James Chee, Wolf River’s police chief and only detective, snapped on latex gloves as he bent down to study the body. He’d had far more sleep than Rife, even though it was just before three on a Sunday morning. Pressing his fingers against her throat, Chee double checked for a pulse. “EMTs called it,” he mumbled, more to himself than Rife. “But I have to be sure.”
After a full fifteen seconds, he shook his head and lifted the knife off her stomach with two fingers, examining the ornate hilt. “Definitely not a spree killing. The wheel-spoke pattern with this one in the middle suggests a ritual of some sort.” His heavy sigh conveyed grief and pity. “Could be a hate crime. Possibly premeditated.”
Rife sunk his left hand into his other pocket. “Ritualistic killings are always premeditated.”
Chee bagged the knife and continued to examine it through the clear plastic. “No signs of forced entry or even much of a struggle. Suggests they knew the killer.”
Keeping his hands in his pockets, Rife examined the central figure in closer detail. Thick eyelashes balanced her long nose. Her throat showed several old bruises. Had someone tried to choke her previous to tonight’s killing? “Cause of death?”
Chee shook his head, the gray braid hanging down his back moving as he studied the woman along with Rife. His finger pointed to the flames. “Keva only has one obvious wound and not a mortal one. Coroner will have to call it.”
“Keva? You knew her?”
“Keva Moon Water. Owned the church and the grounds. Set it up as a sanctuary for some of her women kin from what I understand.”
Rife shifted his attention to the room, ignoring the crime scene techs marking blood splatter and snapping photos. He shouldn’t be here. At the crime scene or in his home town at all. But when a mass murder happened under Chee’s nose, and his grandson was sleeping—or not sleeping, as the case were—in the spare room in his cabin, Rife was going to be pressed into action. At least unofficial action. Truth was, he didn’t really mind. Anything was better than twiddling his thumbs. Killers didn’t do vacations and neither did Rife.
The usual trappings of the Catholic religion were missing, save the Madonnas, stained glass windows and the Saints carved in stone behind what had once been the pulpit. Instead, the immense room displayed the ingredients of a normal home: sofa, chairs, flat-screen. Plants with yellowing leaves lined an antique buffet. A women’s magazine lay open on a coffee table as if its owner had simply got up to answer the phone or get a soda. A stack of paperbacks stood next to a chair, patiently waiting to be read. One corner of the room was set up as an office, complete with computer, fax and several printers.
“They kept to themselves up here,” Chee continued unprompted. “The closest neighbors live half a mile away and gossiped about vandalism. Kids, probably. They thought she was a witch, gave her grief, but she never turned them in.”
A witch who collected Madonnas. Rife’s eyes went back and forth between the beautiful dark-haired woman and the solemn dark-eyed Virgins. From the primitive hand-carved wooden statues to the detailed oil painting in the nave, the Madonnas crossed the spectrum of antiquity and worth. In the mix, native artifacts stood out in bas relief. “Who called it in?”
Chee’s already narrowed eyes tightened. He pointed to a cell phone bagged as evidence and lying on a nearby table. “One of our gals here. Dialed 911, but only got part of the address out before the line was disconnected. Dispatch is county-run, but the woman working the phones put two and two together with the location of our one and only cell phone tower and the partial address. The bodies were still warm when I got here, but we were too late. They were all dead.”
The mew of a cat caught Rife’s attention. A fat gray tabby circled a pole as tall as Rife and carved from a cedar log. Rubbing against the totem, the feline made another circle before sitting on its haunches and staring at him. Rife’s gaze ran up the totem which depicted three females: a child raising her mother up above her head, and the mother in turn raising a grandmother above her. A fat raven head with enormous eyes and open beak topped the totem. A thunderbird. Traditional Northwest Coast art.
The mix of Native art with traditional Catholicism didn’t surprise him. Whether Indian or Virgin Mary, the thread was the same—the wisdom and power of women.
“A ritual killing in a church,” Rife murmured, jingling his keys. “Guess our guy’s not afraid of damnation.” The bastard also wasn’t interested in the numerous artifacts or computer equipment. Rife locked eyes with the cat. If only she could talk. “Sexual assault?”
“Not obvious.” Chee rose and paced around the other women, pointing at the symbols with his free hand. “From the amount of blood, our killer carved them premortem, but lack of struggle indicates they didn’t fight. Sure would like to know why.”
“Drugged, my guess.”
“Lot of that these days, even in this backwoods part of the world, but all of them?”
“Just be sure your techs bag all the cups, pop cans and glasses as evidence.”
The old man grunted with what Rife understood to be an acknowledgment before scrutinizing the naked bodies again. “What about the symbols? What do they mean?”
Glancing down, unease stirred Rife’s gut. The symbols in question were ancient. Too ancient for him, even with his extensive knowledge of native languages and religions. What bothered him more was the fact that disorganized criminals didn’t perform organized ritualistic killings.
Chee replaced the knife, examining the direction of the tip. “The killer sending us a message?”
Rife shrugged. “Who understands the mind of a killer?”
“You do, Mr. Profiler. That’s why I called you even before my CSU team unpacked their equipment.”
“It’s Special Agent to you,” he shot back with no enthusiasm. “And as you might recall, I’m supposed to be on vacation.”
“Yeah? How much wood you need to chop in August?”
Rife ignored the goad and the fact that Chee, like everyone else in Wolf River, knew every move he made. This wasn’t Virginia; this was his grandfather’s town. James Chee’s town. Rife had to get used to that.
Chee stepped outside the circle of death and handed the knife to a young officer to be added to the growing pile of evidence. He called out to a CSU tech hustling by, “You get a close up of Keva’s tattoo?”
“Six angles,” the female photographer replied. The click of her camera echoed in the high-ceilinged room as she shot pictures of an old communion table that now held an assortment of primitive Virgins. “You ever see a collection like this, Chief? Some of this is museum-grade stuff.”
Sadness warred with Rife’s unease as he stared down at Keva. Maybe it was the Madonnas. Maybe it was the fact that the women here were native like him. No matter that his training insisted he stay detached, this crime felt personal. The woman in the center of the circle was dead at the hands of a sick murderer. The Madonna Killer. He could see the headline in the Wolf River Sentinel now.
Who are you, Keva Moon Water? As usual, he found himself more interested in the victim than the criminal. A vague sense of recognition rippled through him. His grandfather knew her, but had never mentioned her, and Rife knew he’d never met her on any of his trips home to Wolf River. She certainly hadn’t grown up in town or gone to the dilapidated school house he had attended all those years ago. He had an excellent memory and would recognize her if she’d been part of the town’s landscape during his childhood. So why did he feel that ripple? Who was she? What sacrifices had she made to provide this sanctuary for her relatives and why did they need one? What had she, or her family, done to attract a violent, sadistic person?
Even as he turned the questions over in his mind, the real question nagging at him surfaced like a dead body floating to the top of a lake. When will I finally stop the killers that prey on the innocent?
To hell with vacation. He pulled his hands out of his pockets. “I’ll help however I can, Grandpops.”
The cat cried again in the corner of the room as if giving her approval. Rife ignored her and the light that brightened Chee’s dark eyes. He focused on Keva’s tattoo. Moon Water, he thought, again trying to place why that name rang a bell.
A muscle under her tat spasmed. Blinking, Rife told himself it was only the body’s natural response as death set in. Either that or he needed sleep. Nothing new about that.
But when he saw it spasm again, his gaze shot to her face. Her eyelids twitched and the ripple turned into a wave of pure adrenaline. “Holy shit,” he whispered.
Dropping down beside her, his fingers found a pulse at the base of her throat. As faint as the beat of butterfly wings, it stirred under his touch. He glanced up at Chee. “You said she was dead.”
“She is.” Chee’s eyes were wide as he stared at Keva. “You saw me double check her.”
Keva’s full lips parted, and Rife’s heart jumped with hope as she drew in a weak, shaky breath. Her eyes fluttered open.
“Get your EMTs back in here.” He smiled into the soft, Virgin-like eyes of Keva Moon Water. “She’s alive. Very, very alive.”