No one had seen them together. He could easily hide the wound on his wrist until it healed. No one would ask any questions. It was even easier than he’d imagined it would be.

Father would be proud.

“Everything is going to be all right, Jessie,” he said softly as he stared at her. He tried to imagine what it was like for her in that moment ... darkness clouding into the sides of her vision ... the image of her boyfriend leaving her alone in the whirlpool ... water and blood dripping together onto the linoleum.

Water and blood. Water and blood.

“Where are you going?” Her words were soft, hardly audible. A whisper.

“Don’t worry, Jessie.” He was holding the towel up against his wrist to stop the bleeding. “Everything is going to be just fine.” Her mouth formed a silent question for him, but the words never came. Her arms quivered slightly and then stopped moving forever as Aaron Jeffrey Kincaid sat down beside the gently humming water to watch his girlfriend bleed to death in her parents’ whirlpool.

Oh yes. Father would be very proud.

***

Chapter One

Thursday
October 23, 2008
Somewhere above the mountains of western North Carolina
5:31 p.m.

I peered out the window of the Bell 206L-4 LongRanger IV, helicopter of choice for both the Georgia State Patrol and the Department of the Interior, as we roared over the mountainous border of Georgia and North Carolina. Clouds rose dark on the horizon.

The colors of autumn were still lingering on the rolling slopes of the southern Appalachians, although winter had started to creep into the higher elevations. Far below us, the hills rose and fell, rose and fell, zipping past. For a few minutes I watched the shadow of the helicopter gliding over the mountains and dipping down into the shadowy valleys like a giant insect skimming across the landscape, searching for a place to land.

Even though it was late fall, ribbons of churning water pounded down the mountains in the aftermath of a series of fierce storms. In the springtime these hills produce some of the most fantastic whitewater rafting in all of North America. I know. I used to paddle them years ago when I spent a year working near here as a wilderness guide for the North Carolina Outward Bound School. Now, it seemed like those days were in another life.

Before I became what I am. Before any of this.

But as I looked out the window, the waters weren’t blue like I remembered them. Instead, they were brown and swollen from a recent rain. Wriggling back and forth through the hills like thick, restless snakes.

I glanced at my watch: 5:34 p.m. We should be landing within the next ten minutes. Which was good, because with the clouds rolling in, it didn’t look like we had a whole lot of sunlight ahead of us. Maybe an hour. Maybe less.

My good friend Special Agent Ralph Hawkins had called me in. Just a few hours ago I was in Atlanta presenting a seminar on strategic crime analysis for the National Law Enforcement Methodology Conference. Another conference. Another lecture series. It seemed like that was all I’d been doing for the last six months. Sure, I’d consulted on a couple dozen cases, but they weren’t a big deal. Mostly I’d been teaching and researching criminology. Trying to forget.

I’d have to say that despite how disoriented my life had become, the biggest casualty had been my sixteen-year-old—wait, seventeen-year-old—stepdaughter Tessa. After the funeral, I tried to get close to her, but it didn’t work. Nothing did. Eventually we just drifted into our separate routines, our separate lives. Case in point: here I was in the Southeast while she stayed with my parents back home in Denver.

Ralph wasn’t the kind of man to waste time or words being cordial. He’d jumped right to the point when he called my cell earlier in the day. “Pat, I hear you’re back in the game.”