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Split Second (Maggie O'Dell Novels)by Alex Kava
Northeast Virginia (just outside Washington, D.C.)
Five months later—Friday, March 27
Maggie O'Dell jerked and twisted, trying to make herself more comfortable, only now realizing she had fallen asleep in the recliner again. Her skin felt damp with perspiration and her ribs ached. The air in the room was stale and warm, making it difficult to breathe. She fumbled in the dark, reaching for the brass floor lamp, clicking the switch but getting no light. Damn! She hated waking to complete darkness. Usually she took precautions to prevent it.
Her eyes adjusted slowly, squinting and searching behind and around the stacks of boxes she had spent the day packing. Evidently Greg had not bothered to come home. She couldn't have slept through one of his noisy entrances. It was just as well he didn't come home. His temper tantrums would only annoy the movers.
She tried to get out of the recliner but stopped when a sharp pain raced along her abdomen. She grabbed at it, as if she could catch the pain and keep it from spreading. Her fingers felt something warm and sticky soaking through her T-shirt. Jesus! What the hell was going on? Carefully, she pulled up the hem and even in the dark she could see it. A chill slipped down her back and the nausea washed over her. A slit in her skin ran from below her left breast across her abdomen. It was bleeding, soaking into her T-shirt and dripping down into the fabric of the recliner.
Maggie bolted from the chair. She covered the wound and pressed her shirt against it, hoping to stop the bleeding. She needed to call 911. Where the hell was the phone? How could this have happened? The scar was over eight months old, and yet it was bleeding as profusely as the day Albert Stucky had cut her.
She knocked over boxes, searching. Lids popped open as cartons fell, scattering crime scene photos, toiletries, newspaper clippings, underwear and socks and sending pieces of her life bouncing off the floor and walls. Everything she had taken such care to pack suddenly flew, rolled, skidded and crashed around her.
Then, she heard a whimpering sound.
She stopped and listened, trying to hold her breath. Already her pulse beat too rapidly. Steady. She needed to stay calm. She turned slowly, cocking her head and straining to hear. She checked the desktop, the surface of the coffee table, the bookshelf. Oh dear God! Where the hell had she left her gun?
Finally, she saw the holster lying at the foot of the recliner. Of course, she would have kept it close by as she slept.
The whimpering grew louder, a high-pitched whine like a wounded animal's. Or was it a trick?
Maggie edged her way back to the recliner, eyes darting, watching all around her. The sound came from the kitchen. And now she could smell a foul odor seeping in from that direction, too. She picked up the holster and tiptoed toward the kitchen. The closer she got, the easier it was to recognize the smell. It was blood. The acrid scent stung her nostrils and burned her lungs. It was the kind of stench that came only from massive amounts of blood.
She crouched low and eased through the doorway. Despite the warning smell, Maggie gasped at the sight of it. In the moonlit kitchen, blood had sprayed the white walls and pooled on the ceramic tile. It was everywhere, splattered across the countertops and dripping down the appliances. In the far corner of the room stood Albert Stucky. His tall, sleek shadow hovered over a whimpering woman who was down on her knees.
Maggie felt the prickling start at the back of her neck. Dear God, how had he been able to get inside her house? And yet, she wasn't surprised to see him. Hadn't she expected him to come? Hadn't she been waiting for this?
Stucky yanked the woman's hair in one hand and in the other he held a butcher knife to the woman's throat. Maggie prevented another gasp. He hadn't seen her yet, and she pressed herself against the wall, into the shadows.
Steady. Calm. She repeated the mantra in her head. She had prepared herself for this very moment. Had dreaded and dreamed and anticipated it for months. Now was not a time to let fear and panic unravel her nerve. She leaned against the wall, strengthening her position, though her back ached and her squatting knees trembled. From this angle, she could get a clean shot. But she knew she'd be allowed only one. One was all she needed.
Maggie gripped the holster, reaching for her gun. The holster was empty. How could it be empty? She spun around, searching the floor. Had the gun dropped out? Why hadn't she noticed?
Then suddenly, she realized her startled reaction had just blown her cover. When she looked up, the woman was reaching out to her, pleading with her. But Maggie looked past the woman, her eyes meeting Albert Stucky's. He smiled. Then, in one swift motion, he slit the woman's throat.
Maggie woke up with a violent jolt, nearly falling out of the recliner. Her fingers groped along the floor. Her heart pounded. She was drenched in sweat. She found her holster and this time ripped the gun out, jumping to her feet and swinging her outstretched arms back and forth, ready to spray the stacked cartons with bullets. Sunlight had only begun to seep into the room, but it was enough to show that she was alone.
She slumped down into the chair. The gun still clenched in her hand, she wiped the perspiration from her forehead and dug the sleep from her eyes with trembling fingers. Still not convinced it was a dream, she clawed at the hem of her T-shirt, pulling it up and twisting to see the bloody cut across her abdomen. Yes, the scar was there, a slight pucker of skin. But no, it was not bleeding.
She leaned back in the chair and raked her fingers through her tangled, short hair. Dear God! How much longer could she put up with the nightmares? It had been over eight months since Albert Stucky had trapped her in an abandoned Miami warehouse. She had chased him for almost two years, learning his patterns, studying his depraved habits, performing autopsies on the corpses he left behind and deciphering the bizarre messages for the game he, alone, had decided the two of them would play. But that hot, August evening, he had won, trapping her and making her watch. He had no intention of killing her. He simply wanted her to watch.
Maggie shook her head, willing the images to stay away. She knew she'd be successful as long as she remained awake. They had captured Albert Stucky that bloody night in August, only to have him escape from prison on Halloween. Her boss, FBI Assistant Director Kyle Cunningham, had immediately taken her out of the field. She was one of the Bureau's top criminal profilers, and yet Cunningham had stuck her behind a desk. He had exiled her to teaching at law enforcement conferences, as if complete boredom would be some sort of protection from the madman. Instead it felt like punishment. And she didn't deserve to be punished.
Maggie stood, immediately annoyed at her wobbly knees. She weaved through the maze of cartons to the cabinet in the corner. She checked the clock on the desktop and saw that she had almost two hours before the movers arrived. She laid her gun close by, sorted through the cabinet and brought out a bottle of Scotch. She poured herself a glass, noticing that already her hands were more steady, her heartbeat almost back to normal.
Just then she heard a high-pitched whine coming from the kitchen. Jesus! She dug her fingernails into her arm, feeling the sting and finding no comfort in the fact that she was, indeed, awake this time. She grabbed for her gun and tried to steady her pulse, already racing out of control. She slid against the wall, making her way to the kitchen, trying to listen and sniffing the air. The whining stopped as she got to the doorway.
She prepared herself, arms secure and close to her chest. Her finger pressed against the trigger. This time she was ready. She took a deep breath and swung into the kitchen, her gun pointed directly at Greg's back. He spun around, dropping the freshly opened can of coffee, jumping backward as it crashed to the floor.
"Damn it, Maggie!" He wore only silk boxers. His normally styled blond hair stuck up, and he looked as if he had just gotten out of bed.
"Sorry," Maggie said, desperately trying to keep the panic from her voice. "I didn't hear you come in last night." She tucked the SmithandWesson .38 into the back waistband of her jeans in an easy, casual motion, as if this was a part of her regular morning routine.
"I didn't want to wake you," he snapped through gritted teeth. Already he had a broom and dustpan and was sweeping up the mess. Gently, he lifted the tipped can, rescuing as much of his precious gourmet coffee as possible. "One of these days, Maggie, you're gonna shoot me by mistake." Then he stopped and looked up at her. "Or maybe it wouldn't be a mistake."
She ignored his sarcasm and walked past him. At the sink, she splashed cold water on her face and the back of her neck, hoping he didn't notice that her hands were still shaking. Though she needn't worry. Greg saw only what he wanted to see.
"I'm sorry," she said again, keeping her back to him. "This would never happen if we had gotten a security system."
"And we would never need a security system if you'd quit your job."
She was so tired of this old argument. She found a dishcloth and wiped the coffee grounds from the counter. "I'd never ask you to quit being a lawyer, Greg."
"It's not the same thing."
"Being a lawyer means just as much to you as being an FBI agent means to me."
"But being a lawyer doesn't get me cut up and almost killed. It doesn't have me stalking around my own house with a loaded gun and almost shooting my spouse." He returned the broom, slamming it into the utility closet.
"Well, after today I guess it won't be an issue," she said quietly.
He stopped. His gray eyes met hers and for a brief moment he looked sad, almost apologetic. Then he looked away, snatching the dishcloth Maggie had set aside. He wiped the counter again in careful, deliberate swipes as though she had disappointed him even in this small task.
"So when are the guys from United getting here?" he wanted to know, as if it were a move they had planned together.
She glanced at the wall clock. "They'll be here at eight. But I didn't hire United."
"Maggie, you have to be careful about movers. They'll rip you off. You should know " He stopped, as if reminding himself it was no longer any of his business. "Suit yourself." He started filling the coffeemaker with level, precise scoops, pursing his lips to confine the scolding he normally would have unleashed on her.
Maggie watched him, predicting his movements, knowing he'd fill the pot to the three-cup line and that he'd squat to eye level to make certain it was exact. She recognized the familiar routine and wondered when they had become strangers. After almost ten years of marriage, they couldn't even afford each other the courtesies of friendship. Instead, every conversation seemed to be through clenched teeth.
Maggie turned and went back to the spare room, waiting, but hoping he wouldn't follow her. Not this time. She wouldn't get through this day if he continued to scold and pout or worse, if he resorted to telling her he still loved her. Those words should have been a comfort; instead, they had come to feel like a sharp knife, especially when he followed them with, "And if you loved me you would quit your job."
She returned to the liquor cabinet where she had left the glass of Scotch. The sun had barely risen and already she needed her daily dose of liquid bravery to get her through the day. Her mother would be proud. The two of them finally had something in common.
She glanced around the room while she sipped. How could this stack of cartons be the sum of her life? She rubbed a hand over her face, feeling the exhaustion as though it had taken up permanent residence in her bones. How long had it been since she had slept through an entire night? When was the last time she had felt safe? She was so tired of feeling as though she was trapped on a ledge, coming closer and closer to falling.
Assistant Director Cunningham was fooling himself if he believed he could protect her. There was nothing he could do to stop her nightmares, and there was no place he could send her that would be out of Albert Stucky's reach. Eventually, she knew Stucky would come for her. Although it had been five months since Stucky's escape, she knew it with certainty. It could be another month or it could be another five months. It didn't matter how long it took. He would come.
Tess McGowan wished she had worn different shoes. These pinched and the heels were too tall. Every nerve ending in her body concentrated on not tripping as she walked up the winding sidewalk, all the while pretending not to notice the eyes that followed her. The movers had stopped unloading the truck as soon as her black Miata pulled into the drive. Sofa ends stayed in midair. Hand-trucks remained tipped. Boxes were ignored while the men in sweaty, blue uniforms stopped to watch her.
She hated the attention and cringed at the possibility of a wolf whistle. Especially in this well-manicured neighborhood where the sanctuary-like silence would make the whistles even more obscene.
This was ridiculous; her silk blouse stuck to her, and her skin crawled. She wasn't close to being stunning or beautiful. At best, she had a decent figure, one for which she sweated hours at the gym, and she still needed to monitor her cravings for cheeseburgers. She was far from being Playboy-centerfold material, so why did she suddenly feel naked though dressed in a conservative suit?
It wasn't the men's fault. It wasn't even their primal instinct to watch that bothered her as much as what seemed to be her involuntary reflex to put on a show for them. The annoying habit clung to her from her past, like the scent of cigarette smoke and whiskey. Too easily she found herself reminded of Elvis tunes coming from a corner jukebox, always followed by cheap hotel rooms.
But that had been a lifetime ago, certainly too many years ago to trip her up now. After all, she was on her way to becoming a successful businesswoman.
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