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Critical Instinct

By:Janie Crouch


This book is dedicated my husband, Kevin. If I could go back in time twenty years to our wedding day, the only thing I would tell my younger self is that I was making the greatest decision I could possible make by marrying you.

For all the times I’ve looked at you in the middle of a book and said, “this is the worst book ever” and you’ve told me how to fix it.

And how your advice on fixing it always involves adding alien drug runners and space ships. Because, you’re right, those things always make books better. Particularly romance novels.

I loved you 20 years ago, I love you now.

I will love you forever.

Chapter One

He sat with the pictures of the women in a perfect circle surrounding him. How innocent they all looked. As if they would never betray a man in the worst way possible. Abandon him then continue to take —to purloin— month after month after month.

Betray. Abandon. Steal.

Their pattern was unmistakeable and brutal. So he had created his own, just as brutal.

Strangle. Stab. Burn.

Each woman surrounding him now had a pre-determined place in the pattern. But regardless of where they fell in it, the lesson was the same: a woman would not be allowed to betray, to abandon, to steal from a man.

He was saving future men from these women. The men would never thank him, of course, because they would never know that he’d preemptively destroyed those who would no doubt attempt to destroy them.

But he didn’t need thanks.

He touched every picture gently, running his fingers across each face from left to right at the same angle. He touched all ten photos except one, the one that had broken his pattern.

But he would not think about her tonight. Her time was coming. He flipped that picture over and slid it back from him.

He turned to the eighth picture instead. This was the next one. The one he must focus on.

He ignored the voice in the back of his head that said the pattern was ruined. That until he took care of the one he pushed away, none of the others would have meaning. But that would have to wait. He couldn’t get to her now.

So he focused harder on the other picture. Memorized the lines of her face as she stared back at him in the photo. Touched the picture again as if he could stroke the strand of auburn hair that had fallen over her forehead as she stared out, no idea he was taking her photograph.

He studied the picture all night until it was all he could see in his mind. Would be all he would see in his dreams. Would be all he would think about until he made sure she would never betray, abandon, steal from another man.

Across town, in the deepest darkness of night, an artist stood in front of an easel, a colored pencil clutched in her fingers. Eyes staring unfocused in front of her, her hand drew the image of a woman. Beginning with a strand of auburn hair that had fallen over a forehead.

She drew —unable to stop, unable to see, unable to feel the blood dripping down from her nose and the agony of clenched muscles within her own body— until she finally finished and collapsed to the ground, exhausted.

Chapter Two

Damn it was good to be home.

Brett Wagner brushed the last of the cold rain from his head as he sat down at his desk in the homicide division of the Portland PD and turned on his computer. He’d never thought he’d miss the gloom of early spring in the Pacific Northwest, but he had.

South Florida, for all its bikinis, really only had two seasons: hot and melt-your-face-off hot. But it had served his purposes for the last fifteen years, since at eighteen he’d accepted a football scholarship at a mid-sized university there. It had gone on to give him a place to live, and a police force to join, and ranks to move up. Brett had loved it in South Florida, had thrived there.

Yet the 305 had never really been home.

But it had been as far from Portland as he could get and still be in the United States. A distance he’d needed when his parents and two younger sisters had been killed in a car accident and his life had pretty much imploded a few months before he’d finished high school.

Who would’ve thought he would end up back here where it all started? Brett took in the organized chaos around him. Phones ringing. People walking, talking. The constant click of keyboards, printers, doors opening and closing. Some things didn’t change much. Law enforcement stations were one of them.

“Here you go, QB. A gift from Captain Ameling.” A uniformed officer dumped a load of files, at least half a dozen deep, off on Brett’s desk.

“Seriously, Randal? More?” Brett rolled his eyes at both the high school nickname that still followed him even though he hadn’t played ball in nearly a decade and the files that had been piling on his desk all week. Captain Ameling was making his displeasure at Brett’s hiring known.

“That’s what happens when the Chief of Police is your uncle and you get hired despite the Captain’s wishes. Cold cases.”

“Chief Pickett isn’t my uncle,” Brett muttered, grabbing the uppermost file before it slid off the top. But he had been Brett’s father’s best friend and in Brett’s life so long that the title was more true than honorary.

“Look, man.” Randal’s grin was just as big as it had been in high school. “You don’t have to sell me. We’re all glad to have our beloved QB back in town. Terri says hearts, and certain lady lingerie parts, are already melting.”

More eye rolls. “Randal, you do know that leading a high school team to a state championship doesn’t actually have any bearing on real life all these years later, right? And definitely isn’t why I got the job here.”

“Your success record from Miami was impressive from what I’ve heard so nobody doubts you’re qualified for the homicide detective position.” Randal shrugged, still grinning. “I say take your passion and make it happen.”

Brett could practically feel his eyebrows finding a new home in his hairline, but he couldn’t keep from chuckling. “Did you just quote Flashdance to me as life advice?”

“Hey, I’m just saying don’t let it get you down. Captain Ameling’s just a little pissed that Pickett went over his head. Who knows, maybe Ameling thinks you’re gunning for his job.”

Because Brett’s dad had been police captain before his untimely death.

“Trust me, I have no desire to be captain. Hell, I’ll be lucky if I ever get to any current homicide cases the way I’m getting loaded with cold cases.”

“Well, Chief Pickett did mention you had a knack.” Randal clapped him on the shoulder. “I’ll leave you to them. Terri wants me to invite you over for dinner. Says there’s a number of old friends that would love to get reacquainted.”

Randal waggled his eyes and Brett had no doubt Terri meant some of her cheerleader besties from back in the day. Tall and blond like Terri herself.

But Brett had already done that. Had married a high-maintenance ex-cheerleader only to be divorced by her a couple years later when she realized how much attention Brett couldn’t pay her because of his job. He had no interest in someone who needed his attention all the time.

Brett waved Randal off. “We’ll see.” The other man chuckled and took off down the hall. Brett hoped Randal wouldn’t be back with more cases. Or dinner invitations.

Brett would ease into those when he was ready. Maybe in about three or four years.

He opened and glanced down at the file that keep threatening to slip off the top. He grimaced; an aggravated assault and battery of a young woman from two years ago. The bruises that covered her face and body were difficult to look at, no matter how long he’d worked violent crime. But unfortunately, there was nothing particularly unusual about the case. It was just something terrible that happened to yet another person.

Brett closed the file and tossed it into a mesh organizing tray on his desk. Really, this case wasn’t even his problem. Assault and battery, even as horrific as this, wasn’t a homicide, so it wasn’t one of the unsolved cases Brett would be looking into.

With a population of nearly two and a half million in the greater Portland area, there were plenty enough homicide cases –hot and cold– to go around. He didn’t need to pick up any others.

Brett looked at his desk and sighed. It was already buried under paperwork, from HR forms he needed to fill out to all the cases that were being dumped on his desk. It was beginning to eerily resemble his new townhouse; buried in stuff Brett needed to sort through.

“Ah, the weary detective sigh. Well-known in departments all over the country.” Brett heard the familiar, friendly voice behind him and turned.

“Chief Pickett.” He stood up and held out his hand, glancing around to see if the chief’s presence was disturbing the workflow of the area. Evidently not since none of the other detectives or officers were paying much attention to the other man. It meant Adam Pickett spent enough time in this area that it wasn’t unusual for him to be here. Brett wasn’t surprised.

Brett smiled. “You down here to see where the real police work gets done?”

Adam shook Brett’s outstretched hand before slapping him on the shoulder good-naturedly. “Yeah, I can see all the police work right there.” He pointed at the multiple files littering Brett’s desk.

The chief sat in the chair next to the desk. Brett sat back down in his own seat and attempted to make some sort of organization of the mess on his desk. Not easy since he didn’t have a bulldozer.