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The Bride Collector
By Ted Dekker
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It’s there that he meets Paradise, a young woman who witnessed her father murder her family and barely escaped his hand. Diagnosed with schizophrenia, Paradise may also have an extrasensory gift: the ability to experience the final moments of a person’s life when she touches the dead body.
In a desperate attempt to find the killer, Raines enlists Paradise’s help. In an effort to win her trust, he befriends this strange young woman and begins to see in her qualities that most ‘sane people’ sorely lack. Gradually, he starts to question whether sanity resides outside the hospital walls . . . or inside.
As the Bride Collector picks up the pace-and volume-of his gruesome crucifixions, the case becomes even more personal to Raines when his friend and colleague, a beautiful young forensic psychologist, becomes the Bride Collector’s next target.
The FBI believes that the killer plans to murder seven women. Can Paradise help before it’s too late?
Table of Contents
"THANK YOU, DETECTIVE. We'll take it from here."
FBI Special Agent Brad Raines stood in the small barn's wide doorway and scanned the dimly lit interior. Dusk fell on an ancient wood floor covered in dust disturbed by numerous footprints. Shafts of light streamed from cracks in a sagging roof.
Long abandoned. A natural choice.
"With all due respect, Agent Raines, my team is here," the detective replied. "They can work the scene."
"But they won't, Detective Lambert."
Raines turned his head slowly, taking it all in.
One rectangular room roughly fifteen by forty, covered by a tin roof. Interior walls formed by six-inch graying wooden planks. Ten, twenty, thirty, thirty-two on the narrow side. Fifteen feet, as estimated. Two shovels and a pitchfork on the floor to his right. A single window with dirty, tinted panes, crowded by empty cobwebs.
A dust-covered wooden bucket rested in the corner, its rusted handle covered with filth. Several old rusted tin cans—GIANT brand peas with the label mostly missing, HEINZ canned hot dogs—scattered on the floor, left by campers long gone. An old plow blade lay against the near wall. An even older worktable sat to the left, near the far wall.
All unsurprising. All but what had brought Brad.
The woman's body was glued to the wall to his left, arms wide, wrists limp. Like the other three.
"… Chief Lorenzo for clearance." The detective's voice edged in on his thoughts. Lambert was still here.
Brad looked over his left shoulder where Nikki Holden, a leading forensic psychologist, stood staring at the woman's body with those wide blue eyes of hers. She caught his get-rid-of-the-cop glance and turned to face Detective Lambert. Brad returned his gaze to the shed's interior as she spoke.
"I'm sorry, Detective," she said in her most reasonable tone of voice, "but I'm sure you can appreciate our position here. Give my team a few hours. If this isn't our guy, you'll be the first to know. The police department's been more than helpful."
Brad looked up to mask his knowing grin. One of the rafters was cracked, and its gray husk revealed a lighter, tan core. Freshly broken.
"I don't like it," Lambert said. "For the record."
Brad pulled his eyes from the crime scene and smiled at the detective. "Thank you, Detective. Noted. There's quite a bit about this job not to like. If your men could secure the perimeter, that would be helpful. Our forensics team will be here any minute."
Lambert held his gaze for a moment, then turned away and addressed a man behind him. "Okay, Larry, cancel the forensics, this is now an FBI investigation. Tell Bill to secure and hold the perimeter."
Larry muttered a curse and flicked away a bit of straw he'd taken from a pile of old bales. A white unmarked van rolled over the yellow perimeter tape and slowly crunched over the gravel driveway. It had taken the forensics team an hour to reach the scene, just south of West Dillon Road, from the Stout Street field office in downtown Denver. A farm had evidently once occupied this empty field in Louisville, twenty-plus miles northwest from Denver up the Denver-Boulder Turnpike.
Brad glanced at Nikki. "Tell them to start on the outside," he said flatly. "Give us a minute. Bring Kim in when she arrives."
Kim Peterson, the forensic pathologist, would determine what the body could tell them postmortem. Nikki headed for the van without comment.
Brad turned his attention back to the small barn. The shack. The farm shed. The killer's nest. The rest of the story was here, in the dark corners. The walls had watched the killer as he'd methodically ended a woman's life. The worktable had heard his words as he confessed his passions and fears in a world turned inside out by his compulsions. It had witnessed her pleas for mercy. Her dying moans.
Careful not to step on the exposed markings in the dust, Brad entered the room and approached the wall on which the woman was affixed. He stood still, filtering out the sounds of voices from a dozen law enforcement personnel outside. The hum of rubber on asphalt from the main road two hundred yards down the driveway settled in with the sound of his breathing. Both faded entirely as he brought his senses in line with the scene before him.
Her nude torso rose pale in the glow of a single light shaft. As though by magic, her body seemed perched on the wooden wall behind her, both arms stretched out on either side. Two round dowels that supported much of her weight protruded from the wall under her armpits. Her heels were together, each foot angled away from the other to form a V.
A white veil of translucent lace had been carefully arranged to cover her face, like a bride.
The outthrust posture sent a collage of art-history remnants cascading through his mind—the Venus de Milo, a thousand renditions of the Crucifixion, the Louvre's Winged Victory statue, her marble bosom jutting forward as if it belonged on the prow of an ancient ship plowing through a Mediterranean surf.
But this was no museum. It was a crime scene, and the mixture of cruelty and ostentation pouring from the garish exhibit filled him with a sudden wave of nausea.
Slowly, his analytical faculties began to reassert themselves.
She was naked except for thin cotton panties and the veil. Blond. White. Everything about the placement was symmetrical. Each hand was set in identical form, with thumb and forefinger touching, each shoulder, each hip had been carefully manipulated into perfect balance. All but her head.
Her head slumped gently to the left so that her long blond hair cascaded over her left shoulder before curling under her armpits. Through the veil he could see that her eyes were closed. No blemish, no sign of pain or suffering, no blood.
Only blessed peace and beauty. She could as easily be an angel painted by da Vinci or Michelangelo. The perfect bride.
Brian Jacobs, seventeen, had brought his girlfriend here after school for reasons unrevealed and found the Bride Collector's fourth victim. Brad preferred to think of them as angels.
He peered closer and felt strange words of empathy well up inside of him.
I cry with you, Angel. I weep for you. For every strand of hair that will never again blow in the wind, for every smile that will never brighten someone else's day, for every look of desire that will never quicken another man's pulse. I am so sorry.
"She's beautiful," Nikki said behind him.
He felt a momentary stab of regret for having been pulled away from his connection with the woman on the wall. Nikki walked past him, eyes fixed on the woman, touching his arm gently with her fingers as she passed. Her breathing was steady, slightly thicker than usual. He knew the cause: the dark waters of the killer's mind, which she now probed by staring at his handiwork.
Like an avalanche, the poignancy of his relationship with Nikki crashed through his mind… and then was gone, replaced by the image of her standing next to the woman. A blond angel hovering over a brunette. One with arms stretched wide in complete resignation, the other with arms folded. One nearly naked, the other dressed in a blue silk blouse with a black jacket and skirt.
She's beautiful, he thought.
"What a shame." Kim Peterson's voice cut softly through the room, grasping what the other two were too proud to verbalize. The forensic pathologist stepped up next to Brad, withdrew a pair of white gloves from her bag then set it down. "What do we know?"
Brad would have preferred to spend more time alone with the victim, but the opportunity had passed. "No ID. Discovered an hour ago by two teenagers."
They stared in a moment of silence.
"She's beautiful," Kim said.
"This makes four."
"Looks like it, doesn't it?"
The pathologist approached opposite Nikki, who remained quiet, lost in thought as she studied the body with searching eyes.
Kim sank to one heel and gently lifted the woman's toes for a better view under the foot. "Care to tell us how you think it happened before I begin my preliminary examination?"
He wasn't ready, of course, not yet, not without a complete analysis of evidence still to be gathered. But he'd been credited with an uncanny ability to accurately judge events from the thinnest of evidentiary threads. He'd cracked three major cases in the Four Corners region since leaving Miami and joining the Denver field office a year ago. At thirty-two years of age, he was on the fast track for high ground—much higher ground, according to his superiors.
But unlike them, his motivation had nothing to do with climbing an organizational ladder.
"Male, size eleven by the shoe prints. They were here for a while, maybe a day…"
"How so?" Nikki asked.
A distant murmur carried to him: an officer speaking to the curious driver of an approaching car outside, instructing him to head back to the main road. The roof over their heads ticked as it began to cool in the late afternoon.
"That smell. It's baked beans. He was hungry, so he ate. You won't find the can. He wouldn't leave any DNA evidence in here."
"She was alive when he brought her here?"
"Yes. And he killed her like the others, by draining her blood from her heels. No struggle. A tarp under the table caught most of the trace evidence—bodily fluids, skin cells, hair. He was careful not to use too much force, keeping her on the edge of control and submission. She was lying prone, sedated, conscious and fully aware when he numbed her heels and drilled up into them. He was forced to clean up the blood on the table and floor where it ran off the tarp. Then he sealed the wounds, lifted her into position, held her long enough for the glue on her shoulder blades to cure on the wall, reopened the wounds on each heel, and watched her blood drain into a three-gallon bucket."
All of this, Brad had guessed from the markings on the table and floor, the ring from the bucket beneath the woman's heels, and the lack of bruising. The physical evidence had painted a picture in his mind as clearly as if he were staring at a Rembrandt.
"He did it out of respect, not rage," Brad said.
"Love," Nikki said.
He nodded, even willing to go that far. "Love."
"Both heel wounds are plugged with the same fleshy putty we found on the other three," Kim said, standing. "And what kind of love is this?"
"The groom's love," Brad said, savoring his response.
Special Agent Frank Closkey spoke from the door. "Sir?"
Brad held up his hand without looking back. "Give us a few more minutes, Frank."
The agent retreated.
Kim continued her initial examination, gently prodding the woman's flesh, checking her eyes, lifting her hair, inspecting the backs of her shoulders. But Brad already knew what she would find.
The question was, Why? What motivated the Bride Collector? How did he make his selections? What good or evil did he think he was doing? What had been done to him to motivate his taking of life in such a manner? Who had he decided to kill next? When would he take her?
Where was he now?
The questions spun through Brad's mind as one, yet distinguishable. Some were clearer than others, but all whispered from beyond, tempting him to listen because each question already contained an answer. He simply had to find it and unpack it.
Nikki paced with one arm pressed against her belly, the other propping up her chin. It struck him that like her, two of the victims had been brunettes. Like her, all four had beautiful complexions.
What would enter the killer's mind if he were staring at Nikki through a hole in the wall at this moment? Brad pushed back a fleeting impulse to check the wall behind them to see if there might indeed be a hole, filled with a single eye peering in at them.
Instead, he let his eyes wander over Nikki—her calves well defined beneath the hem of the black skirt. Her wavy long hair cascading on her shoulders, her eyes bright with question. Her forefinger absently brushing full lips. A perfectly symmetrical face.
Would the killer feel any desire?
No. No it wasn't desire, was it? She was beautiful, but beautiful women filled the world. Something else drew the Bride Collector, in the same way that something else was drawing Brad now, though he had a difficult time putting a finger on it.
Of the numerous women he'd dated over the past ten years, only four relationships had lasted two months or more, each ending sooner than the previous one. Nikki had once accused him of playing the role of bad boy. He thought picky was a better label. He had taste, after all.
After what he'd been through, he needed to be picky.
Nikki was thirty-one, married once at age nineteen, divorced six months later. She held her doctorate in psychology from CSU. Highly intelligent, witty, reduced to deep introspection by scenes that left most people heaving.
This would excite the killer, wouldn't it? And if Nikki came on to the killer, would that excite him?
No, Brad thought.
"He would like you," Brad said.
Nikki glanced back at him, arm still around her waist. "Excuse me?"
He caught himself. This was one of those frequent times when honesty might not be so wise.
"I was just thinking that he liked her. You. That is, speaking to the victim. He. He would like you, meaning he would like her."
Kim saved him. "Speaking to cadavers now, Brad? Don't worry, I do it all the time."
"You were looking at me when you said it," Nikki said.
"So I was. I tend to do that."
"What, stare at women? Or specifically at me?"
"Both, on occasion."
A faint smile turned the corners of her mouth up. She winked. Not a full wink, but the movement in her right eyelid was unmistakable. Or was it?
Nikki turned to face the wall, leaving Brad to feel somewhat dirty. In an attempt to help the woman on the wall, he'd somehow violated her privacy. Yet her story was still unknown and demanded respect.
Silence. Remorse. Shame.
"Sir?" Frank's voice intruded again.
Brad turned from the wall and walked to the door. "Bring the team in. Photograph every inch, dust every exposed surface. Blood, sweat, spittle, hair; bag and tag the air if you have to. I want preliminaries from the lab this evening."
"Um… It's getting late. I don't—"
"He's staring through a peephole at another woman already, Frank. We have less than a week to stop him from showing that woman his love. Preliminaries tonight."
Brad left the shack thinking he might have chosen better words to express the urgency burning across his nervous system.
FBI FIELD OFFICE, Stout Street, Denver, 9:00 PM.
Nikki Holden stood next to Brad beside the stainless-steel examination table in the basement morgue. Watching Kim gingerly turn the body onto its back, she noted the pathologist's care not to disturb the shoulder-blade skin they'd cut to release it from the wall.
The victim was a twenty-one-year-old named Caroline Redik. The name had surfaced when the lab ran her prints through the Automated Fingerprint Identification System, better known by its acronym, AFIS. The ever-expanding database now included anyone who'd applied for a passport, which Caroline had done before taking a trip to Paris one year earlier, for reasons yet unknown.
Calm and delicate, Kim labored with a plastic face shield in place. Not much could ruffle the forty-three-year-old. She was as comfortable dipping her hand into a bloody gunshot wound as, when it mattered, peeling back the layers of society's skin with a well-placed question. She kept her blond hair short. Easier to keep out of the way. If there was a mother in the office, it was Kim. Her manner created an interesting but somehow fitting contrast with her well-known love for a smorgasbord of men.
Nikki turned her attention back to the body. The skin was very pale, translucent, showing the blue veins beneath. She lay prone, looking like a dressmaker's dummy, displaying perfectly formed breasts, a flat belly, and well-defined hips. Nikki found her rather bony, actually. While affixed to the wall, her flesh had settled over her bones and given her a less emaciated appearance. On her back, however, she looked quite gaunt.
The eyes stared up at the ceiling, blue but lifeless. Her makeup was far more obvious under the bright halogen lights than it had been before the evidence team illuminated the shack. The eyeliner and eye shadow had been carefully applied, evidence of a steady, experienced hand. Was the killer a cosmetologist? Or a drag queen, even? Nikki could just see vertical streaks running down from the corners of her eyes and ruining the perfect surface, as if poor Caroline had cried before the final application.
Nikki recalled a memory of her father holding her shoulders when she was twelve. He'd knelt and brushed a tear from her right cheek, where a dime-size birthmark had once darkened her skin. "You are beautiful, Nikki, and your birthmark makes you even more beautiful. You don't need to cover it up. And if the boys don't see that, it's only because they're foolish, prepubescent puppets of the system." Then he'd kissed her on the cheek.
The memory still brought a tightness to her throat, maybe because his noble ideals hadn't really survived him. She'd had the brown mark surgically removed when she was eighteen.
If she had it to do over again, would she remove it today?
"… drugs in her system," Kim was saying. "Benzodiazepine, the same psychoactive sedative he's used on all four. More than enough to make her susceptible to suggestion."
"No sign of sexual contact?" Brad said.
Nikki caught Brad's sharp look. "That doesn't mean this wasn't a sexual act," she interjected.
He offered her a slight nod. Just that, a simple gesture of acknowledgment and appreciation for her input. Funny how he could lighten her mood without the slightest knowledge of his overall effect on her.
The other women in the office insisted he was a dead ringer for a blond-headed George Clooney, ten years younger, perhaps. She could see the similarities. The dark, perpetually smiling eyes, probing deep. The short hair, the soft boyish face, slightly elongated. The quintessential look of a perfect gentleman reinforced by his often thoughtful and polite demeanor.
But her closer working relationship had taught her that those qualities didn't make Brad a soft or pliable man. If anything, his edges were rougher than they first appeared. Clean on the outside, giving great attention to detail, but confident enough to say what was on his mind whenever he saw fit.
His unapologetic talent for drawing women with his boyish good looks and strong conviction was tempered only by his notorious refusal to commit. Which, in turn, made him a considerable mystery.
To Nikki's way of thinking, he carried all the markings of a man with a past so deeply scarred that he was compelled to build walls of self-preservation. Which was why she had resisted her own attraction to him for so long. Even if he was interested in her, as she suspected, she wasn't sure she was interested in a man she couldn't quite peg. As a psychologist, it was her job to analyze people down to their uttermost depths. The fact that she could not do so with Brad nagged her with an unshakable sense of wariness.
His eyes were soft and kind, but what lay hidden behind those eyes gave her pause. The unknown. She'd misjudged a man once before and wasn't eager to do it again. Her training in behavioral science hadn't made her any more trusting.
"He wouldn't grow impatient," she said. "He would relish his time with her."
Another nod, this time looking at the cadaver. "He would."
Kim looked up, then turned to the victim's other side and dramatically ran her index finger over the foot, tracing each toe. Always one for theatrics when the opportunity presented itself.
"She took care of her feet. The toenail polish is fresh, applied in the last twenty-four hours. But she's taken care of her feet, her whole body for that matter, for a long time."
"He likes to apply makeup and give pedicures," Nikki said.
A half-inch hole, now bloodless and black, ran up into the heel. "He used the same half-inch bit size, maybe the same bit. Ran it directly through the skin, the calcaneus bone, severing the peroneus longus tendon, and into the anterior tibial artery. Everything's as it was with the other three, except for this." Kim traced her finger down to the victim's right heel. "This is what's new."
She picked up a small roll of bloody paper, maybe two inches long, and held it up between her thumb and forefinger. "This time he left this in the right heel."
Brad stepped forward. "Writing?"
"I can see some markings, yes. But I haven't unrolled it yet. I thought you would want a look before I sent it up to the lab."
Brad's face lightened a shade.
The killer had left them a message.
SPECIAL AGENT IN charge James Temple sat against the edge of the secretary desk on the conference room's north end and gazed at them with brown, glassy eyes, hands folded up by his chin. Nikki leaned against the wall, arms crossed, fixated on the enlarged photograph of the Bride Collector's note on the screen. Two other agents, Miguel Ruffino and Barth Kramer, lounged in chairs, their focus divided among the note, the SAC, Nikki, and Brad, who paced at the head of the conference table.
There was a reason these two would always be good, but not great, at their jobs, Brad thought. They lacked the obsessive personality required to bring inordinate focus to any single task.
"So this is it," Temple said to Brad's left. "We have us a certified wacko. A freaking lunatic from some funny barn who's out there drilling holes in women to make a point." He looked around with a bemused look. "No pun intended, of course."
Ruffino and Kramer guffawed, just as Nikki shot the SAC a sharp look. "I wouldn't put it like—"
"Spare me the psychobabble." Temple stood and shoved his hands into his pockets. "If this isn't certified crazy, I don't know what is."
The man stood maybe three or four inches shy of six feet, wiry as a bull snake. He shaved his head and took pride in his body, which he regularly and rigorously brought into submission at the gym. The man was a misfit in Denver, Brad thought. In the Southeast, from which he'd been transferred a month earlier, his attitude would have been less of a problem. But up here, gunslingers were frowned upon, and James Temple was most definitely a gunslinger—hotheaded, quick to conclusions, and choleric to the bone.
"On balance, most pattern killers are mentally stable," Nikki said. "They are well educated, financially stable, often good looking, seemingly well-adjusted people. Unlike mass murderers, whose delusions feed beliefs of supremacy, serial killers act for personal gain or revenge. They do so in a calculated, thoughtful way. Hardly your freaking lunatic."
"Read it." Temple frowned and jabbed his sharp, dimpled chin in the direction of the screen. "Any idiot can see that this religious nutcase slobbers on himself. You're saying you see something different?"
Nikki's face reddened, but she didn't point out the man's blunder in essentially calling himself an idiot. She looked at the screen.
The note was written in black lettering, with a fine ballpoint pen. The two-by-three-inch piece of white paper had been cut using a straightedge, then was folded several times before being rolled and inserted into the hole in Caroline's heel, at least several days after it had been written.
Brad read through the poem again.
The Beauty Eden id Lost
Where intelligence does centered
I came do her and she smashed da Serpent head
I searched and find the seventh and beautiful
She will rest in my Serpent's hole
And I will live again
"He can hardly spell."
Brad regarded the man. "I'm sorry, James, but I don't see an imbecile."
- On Sale
- Apr 13, 2010
- Page Count
- 448 pages
- Center Street