Trying to maintain a smile and a normal conversation, despite the nervousness rising higher with each passing minute, wasn’t the easiest thing Sam had ever done. Somehow, though, she pulled it off. With her shaking hands clasped together on the table, a steady supply of water in her dry mouth, and constant chatter from her mother and Tricia to cover up her silence, she honestly thought she conveyed an I’m-perfectly-fine attitude.
Not an I’m-freaking-out one.
She hadn’t freaked out at first. In fact, when she’d first logged on this morning, she’d been so relieved to find Darwin still had not responded to her blog post, she’d been almost complacent. A quick check of e-mail and of her site right before she walked out the door an hour later had been simply a matter of habit. So it hadn’t sunk in at first.
Oh, she’d noticed the fake blog post immediately, but, as she’d said in her message to Alec, it wasn’t the first time. It hadn’t happened often; usually the content management software she used for blogging was good enough to prevent such attacks. But spammers loved to target sites like hers, if only to show they could “get” the Spaminator.
Today’s annoyance, therefore, hadn’t been unusual enough to inspire panic. Already running late, she had figured she’d handle it when she got home from lunch.
The panic had come a few minutes later. Not wanting to deal with parking, she’d grabbed a cab, and while sitting in the backseat, idly staring at passing cars, she’d finally allowed herself to really think about the words that had filled the screen.
What was in the box?
Her heart had nearly stopped, though she’d called herself a fool. It was pure coincidence that someone would post such a thing less than twelve hours after Alec carried the boxed computer up to her place.
But what if it wasn’t?
Jesus. What if it wasn’t?
“Hello, Earth to Sam!”
She jerked when Tricia waved a heavily ringed, spangle-braceleted hand in front of her face. Tricia Scott wasn’t a typical real estate agent. No conservative blazers or Lincoln Continentals for her. The attractive red-head wore silky pantsuits in jungle patterns and drove a monster SUV when showing her clients around the city. She’d managed to survive the downturn in the market through sheer personality and verve. Sam had stayed with Tricia for a short time after she’d walked out on her marriage and credited her friend with keeping her sane.
“Sorry. Just deep in thought.”
“Well, stop it,” her mother scolded. “You look so serious. You’ll get frown lines.”
“You don’t have any, Mrs. H.” Tricia’s smile was far too ingratiating. Her next words showed why. “Who’s your plastic surgeon?”
Beside her, Uncle Nate, who had hovered in the background, quiet and content to be surrounded by chatty women, coughed into his napkin to hide a laugh. Love Sam’s mother he might, but he also saw Christine Harrington for what she was: a somewhat vain, overly romantic woman who longed to be taken care of and kept herself in tip-top shape as she watched for the next prospect to do exactly that. That she had never even considered him as a prospect had to have hurt him, though he’d never said a word.
Her mother had sparred with Tricia for too many years to be surprised by the jab. She smirked. “I’ll get you his number; I can see you already need it.”
Tricia snorted a good-humored laugh. The two women had a lot in common. Though they would never admit it, they also liked each other.
“Do you have any special plans for your birthday tomorrow, Samantha?” Nate asked.
Staying alive would be good. Avoiding a certain psycho who might have been watching her last night? Good also.
“Not really,” she murmured. “Maybe I’ll take you up on your standing offer to come up to the sportsmen’s club and learn how to shoot.”
He appeared pleased. “You know I’ll teach you anytime you want.” He leaned over and patted her shoulder, studying her closely. “A girl can’t be too careful nowadays.”
“Neither can a judge,” she said with a pointed stare.
“Touch'e,” he replied, his slight smile acknowledging that he had a gun somewhere on his person at all times.
Tricia had overheard.“I should learn, too. You wouldn’t believe some of the sleazeballs in my business. A few weeks ago, I did an open house for one of my listings, and this couple came in, but then disappeared. I went looking and found them in the master bedroom closet, going at it right on a pile of the owner’s dirty clothes.”
Sam’s mother wrinkled her nose.“Imagine that. I’d have to throw everything away and buy a new wardrobe.”
“Disgusting, yeah. But as disgusting as being the one to lie naked on somebody else’s dirty underwear to have sex? Talk about doing the nasty,” Tricia said.
Sam honestly didn’t know which was worse: coming home to find your dirty clothes all sexed on, or going at it with someone on a pile of dirty clothes belonging to a stranger. Either way: ick. Yet somehow, she found herself smiling at the conversation, rather than cringing. Because after the week she’d had, it was nice to watch her best friend try to scandalize her mother, and the older woman take it in good grace, their typical song and dance.
Falling silent, Sam sat back and listened to the others converse. It was more than nice; in fact, being here was pretty wonderful. Watching the verbal sparring, seeing the reactions. It was all so normal. Which felt better to her right now than any wild, dangerous adventure ever could.
She wanted to let them know that, to thank them for coming and admit she might actually have reached a personal milestone and would hopefully be returning to some kind of normal life.
Before she could say a word, though, a male voice intruded. “Sorry I’m late.” Sitting in the empty chair beside her, he smiled pleasantly at everyone, particularly Sam. “Happy birthday.”
She gawked. “Rick? What on earth are you doing here?”
His brow went up in confusion. Sam cast a quick glance across the table and saw the excitement sparkling in her mother’s eyes.
Matchmaking. I’ll kill her.
How could her mother do this? Jeez, so much for starting her bright new life. A vivid reminder of her dark old one had just plunked down right beside her.
“Uh, wait.” Rick stared back and forth between Sam and her mother, obviously embarrassed. She couldn’t imagine what he must have thought when her mother had invited him to meet them, probably saying Sam had been all for the idea, despite her rejection of a dinner date two days ago.
He immediately confirmed as much. “Please don’t tell me you didn’t know I was coming.”
Her mother glared, silently warning her not to be rude. Sam was about to do the nice thing and lie her face off, but before she had to, the most welcome words she had ever heard interrupted. “Sam, I need to talk to you.”
She was rising from her seat before she’d even looked up to confirm who had spoken. Something inside her simply responded to Alec Lambert’s voice, excitement picking up her pulse, her breath tripping to rush in and out of her body.
Mixed with the excitement was relief. He had come. He’d heard her message and responded to it, and was here to tell her everything was okay. That she had simply made a mountain out of a box.
“Hello, Alec,” she said, wondering if something about her expression or the warm tone of her voice would reveal how she felt about this man to the people who knew her better than anyone else in the world.
Those people had gone utterly silent, watching wide-eyed. All four of them. Not only because Alec’s arrival was so unexpected, but, at least for Mom and Tricia, because they had to have been struck a little dumb by his good looks. He was that kind of man, the type women couldn’t help staring at. Wondering about. Maybe not as classically perfect as Samuel Dalton Jr., but more masculine, more rugged. Way more sexy.
Tricia obviously noticed. Sex on a stick! she mouthed.
Sam thought quickly. “Alec is a friend. He’s, uh, helping me with some research.”
Seeing the grin Tricia didn’t try to hide, Sam knew what kind of research she was imagining. Her mother was smiling, too. Nate watched curiously, and poor Rick Young looked as if he wanted to climb under the table.
She took pity, bending over to grab her purse from the back of the chair, taking the opportunity to whisper, “Sorry; my mom’s a terrible matchmaker, but give Tricia a chance anyway. She’s fabulous.”
He mumbled, “Thank you,” which told her he might not realize she’d said that so he could save face.
Straightening again, she looped her purse over her arm and addressed the others. “Will you all excuse me for a minute?”
“Aren’t you even going to introduce us?” her mother asked, sounding highly excited.
Knowing she wouldn’t get away without doing it, she quickly made the introductions. Uncle Nate, always polite, asked Alec to join them.
“I appreciate the invitation,” he said. “And I hate to be a killjoy, but the truth is, we have a bit of a situation, and I’m going to have to ask Sam to come with me.”
Sam froze, her hand on the back of her chair, reading between the lines. Noting the tense way he held himself, she realized he definitely hadn’t come here to tell her everything was okay. That had been a ridiculous, wishful hope. His presence indicated the exact opposite. She’d just been so relieved to see him she hadn’t wanted to admit it.
This was bad.
“Darling, you can’t just run out!”
Walking around the table to her mother, she put her hand on the woman’s shoulders, bent down, and kissed her cheek. Her voice low, she gave the older woman the only excuse that would allow her to escape without a battle. “Mom, he’s someone special.”
Her mother’s mouth rounded. “Oh. You were going to tell us about him a few minutes ago, weren’t you? I’m so sorry.”
“Next time,” Sam muttered, avoiding the question,
“forget about the matchmaking, would you? I’m doing all right on my own.” Heck, maybe it wasn’t even too big a lie. She wouldn’t say she was having a wild, passionate affair with the handsome man waiting impatiently to take her out of here. But stranger things had happened. Even to her.
Lately? Especially to her.
Noting the thumbs-up from Tricia, she let Alec lead her to the door and help her with her coat. The moment they were outside, he pulled her out of view of the restaurant window. “I’m sorry I interrupted. I tried to call.”
She shook her head in silent apology. “I was accused of being incredibly rude for using the phone before we’d even been seated, and was glared into turning it off. Believe me, I would have called you again the minute we were finished.”
Staying close beside her, his strong hand warm on the small of her back, Alec led her to his car, which was parked up the block. He didn’t look at her, his gaze continually scanning the sidewalk, the side streets, even glancing back to the pedestrians behind them.
He looked like someone who expected trouble. “Let’s get out of here, go somewhere private where we can talk.”
Forcing herself to remain calm, she asked, “How’d you get here so fast, anyway?”
He paused. Not even realizing it, she kept walking, going two steps forward before having to turn around. “Alec?”
“I was in town,” he admitted. “Down by the harbor.”
“Has there been a break in the case?” A possible explanation suddenly arose. “Oh, my God, you haven’t been in Baltimore all night, since your boss called you, have you?”
“No.” He started walking again. “Come on.”
“Where are we going?”
They had reached his car. Alec unlocked it and opened the door for her, not replying until she’d climbed into the passenger seat. Then, with a firmness that didn’t disguise the hint of worry in his voice, he finally answered her question.
“Somewhere as far away from your apartment as I can take you.”
Figuring out Samantha Dalton was working with the authorities to try to capture him had been the most disappointing moment of Darwin’s entire life.
Worse than the death of his parents in that stupid, completely avoidable accident when he was a child. Worse than finding out he was an orphan, wanted by no one. Worse than being thrown into the foster-care system. Even worse than the first time his foster father had slipped into his room at night for a special lesson that was to be their secret.
He had not been crushed by any of those moments. Expecting nothing more than bad things made receiving them less bitter.
But her… He had expected more from her.
You betrayed me.
She had destroyed something inside him. Not only her actions, but the realization that he had misjudged her.
He would never allow himself to be vulnerable again. Never let anyone build his expectations, only to be crushed by their inevitable failures.
Thank God he had been there to see that man leaving her apartment last night. If he hadn’t, his suspicions might never have been aroused. He mightn’t have gone snooping into Samantha’s e-mails, into her private files, using the passwords and account information he had obtained during his extensive visit to her apartment on Christmas Eve.
In the dark hours of last night, he had read her correspondence, all nicely archived on Gmail. Noting the absence of any mention of a man, he had grown more confused. Until, finally, he found one clue. A message from her whorish friend Tricia, apologizing for having left a rude voice mail the previous day when a mystery man had been there to hear it.
There had been nothing else. The trail had gone cold, and he’d almost given up. Then he’d thought of something. He had already figured out Samantha hadn’t been home a few hours after posting her article.Was it possible she had actually been gone much longer? A full twenty-four, perhaps, until the following night, when she’d come home with that man? Had she posted her entry and her follow-up comments from somewhere else?
And, if so, would knowing where help him learn whom she had been with?
Not as easy to find out, but not impossible. His notes from that night at her place were thorough, so he knew which blogging package she used. He’d been able to infiltrate her blog as if he owned it. Becoming an instant administrator, he saw what she saw, the history laid out in front of him like a well-traveled road.
One of the detours on that road had been a glimpse at the hidden server logs, specifically, information on her own posts for the week.
Samantha’s comments Thursday had come from a new IP address. Not merely a new ISP, which would be expected. But a completely different Internet provider than she had ever used before. One from Washington, D.C.
His suspicions at a fever pitch, he’d dug further. It had taken two more hours of research, visits to government Web sites, law enforcement databases, and conspiracy-theory blogs, but he had finally put it all together.
The IP she’d used to post her responses to him serviced the federal government. More specifically, the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Damn her. Damn them.
He had no idea how the authorities had seized upon his Darwin comments as being of any importance, but they had. And Samantha had helped them.
The man who had escorted her home had been an FBI agent.
Part of him was relieved that the stranger’s relationship with Sam was not a personal one.
Definitely not a sexual one.
Another part truly didn’t give a fuck; he just wanted to kill them both.
Funny, really, given all the efforts he had gone through during the night to identify his rival. For today, the truth-including the identity of the FBI agent who was working with her-had been simply handed over to him. And Alec Lambert had gone on his personal list of people whose presence in this world needed to come to an end.
Samantha’s name was there as well.
Patience. He had to be careful, had to use his intellect.
Darwin had always known the day would come when he would have to deal with the deadweight dragging Samantha down. Those closest to her had no redeeming qualities, as far as he could tell, and he was already positioned to begin eliminating them.
Now, however, he no longer wanted to free her from them in order to help her live up to her fullest potential. He wanted to hurt her. Crush her completely. Emotionally first, then physically.
He had given the matter careful consideration before deciding his next move, knowing he had to cut her down in stages, like a charging animal being broken by a hunter. Finally, he’d come up with a way to torment her, as well as let the FBI know he was onto them. Hijacking her own blog, he had posted a very personal message this morning.
He had known it might not hit her at first, might merely confuse her. But once she did begin to suspect, Samantha’s shock and nervousness would bring her to the very edge of terror.
Then he would push her over it.
Alec took her to headquarters. He didn’t give her a chance to argue; he didn’t go by her place for clothes or supplies. Anything she needed, they could get her. No way was he taking her back to the apartment where, he firmly believed, she was being stalked by a serial killer.
Fortunately, Wyatt was in agreement. He had been every bit as worried about this morning’s Web attack, seeing it as Alec did-as a taunt to Sam, a way to say he could get to her if he wanted to. His boss had begun arranging for Sam’s protection right after Alec called him from the top of that high-rise.
He’d also sent the damned elevator back up.
The very second his feet hit ground level, Alec had taken off across the city to find Sam. Thank God for GPS. And thank God he’d heard the name of the restaurant where she was dining.
“Maybe we’re all overreacting,” Sam said as Alec parked the car once they reached D.C. It wasn’t the first time she’d voiced the theory since he’d grabbed her from the restaurant.
“No, Sam. We’re not. I told you what Lily said when she called just now. It’s not only the blog post; he left a taunting comment on the message board less than fifteen minutes ago.”
An ugly one. He hadn’t even told her exactly what it said, though Lily’s voice kept echoing in his brain. You’re worse than the brainless sheep. How can you be smart and yet such a whore?
No. He did not want her hearing that. She was already frightened enough without realizing this psychopath had made this extremely personal.
“Now let’s go.”
His thoughts, his focus, were strictly on getting her protected, then going back and finding the son of a bitch who had been watching her. They knew the Professor had been in two places in Baltimore last night: the harbor area where the operator was killed, and in the vicinity of Sam’s apartment building. Finding evidence of any vehicle or person who had been spotted at both could be exactly the lead they needed. In addition to watching Sam’s message board, Lily was also working on satellite imagery of the two locations. Wyatt and Jackie had remained on the scene of last night’s murder, but Dean and Kyle had taken the third car over to Sam’s neighborhood, looking for anyone who might have seen a strange car. Brandon, armed with Sam’s passwords and IDs, was trying to trace whoever had hacked her Web site.
Something would break. It had to.
He walked around to open her door but she didn’t get out. Nor did she even look up at him as she mumbled, “I told you I’ve been hacked before. How can we know for certain this is any different?”
The beautiful woman wasn’t being difficult or sulky or stubborn. She was simply afraid, like any normal person would be in her situation.
Alec crouched beside the car, putting a hand over hers, which were clenched together on her lap. “I know you want to believe that, and honestly? Part of me does, too.”
Surprise softened her expression.
“Thinking that monster knows where you live and has taken a personal interest in you scares me to death,” he admitted. “The very idea that he was out there last night, watching us…” He swallowed as anger rose high enough to choke him. “What if he saw us through the window? Watched me kiss you? It makes me sick.”
Lord, how stupid had that been? Everything he’d told himself, everything he’d told her about needing to keep things strictly business, at least until the case was over, and he hadn’t been able to keep his mouth off hers for one night.
He should regret it deeply. But until this morning, when he’d realized they were being watched, he hadn’t. How could he regret feeling the softness of her hair tangled around his fingers, the warmth of her breath, the sweetness of her mouth?
It won’t happen again, though. Not until this case is over.
“Look, I’m a believer in coincidence as much as the next guy, but we have to be realistic,” he said, cutting off her arguments. “It goes way beyond me carrying a damn box up the stairs and somebody mentioning a box twelve hours later. Even beyond him making a crude comment on the message board.”
Though Sam eyed him curiously, he did not elaborate, instead pushing on. “Darwin was in Baltimore last night, less than ten miles from your home.”
She blanched. He’d told her there had been another murder, nothing more.
“So look at the big picture here.” He ticked off the truth, one point after another, needing her to believe it, if only so she kept her guard up so high nobody could climb over it. “We know a highly intelligent, highly organized serial killer reached out to communicate with you. We knew he would be cautious about responding once you directly addressed him. That he would check you out, make sure he could trust you before taking that next step of actual interaction, especially if there was something in your responses that aroused his suspicions.”
There might have been. He just didn’t know.
“You’ve already admitted you wouldn’t be that hard to find if somebody really looked. And he is somebody who would look.”
“So he looked and he didn’t like what he saw.”
She sat with her head down, letting the truth of it fill all the doubting corners of her mind.
He wished he didn’t have to remove that doubt. Would give anything if Sam could go on thinking ugliness like she’d seen in the past few days really wasn’t so close to her, so intricately entwined with her normal life.
Neither of them had the luxury of denying the truth.
“You’re right,” she finally whispered.
She wrapped her fingers in his and let him help her from the car. Once outside, she didn’t release his hand, as if needing to keep him close. Only when they walked into the building and approached security did she let go and step away.
A few minutes later, inside the elevator, Alec jabbed the button, watching the doors close. When they were alone, he turned to her. Pure adrenaline and worry had been driving him since the minute he’d heard her message. Now, inside a safe zone, he finally allowed himself to let it go. He also resisted the urge to put his hands on her shoulders, not sure whether he most needed to hold her close or shake her like a kid who had run out in front of a car for scaring him the way she had with that message and by then turning her phone off.
“When am I going to be able to go home?” she asked.
“When he’s in custody.”
She shook her head. “I can’t believe this is happening. Why me? How in the name of God did I attract the notice of this psycho?”
“I don’t know what drew his eye to you.” He rubbed his temple to try to ease the pounding. “It could have been anything. Ryan Smith could even have said something about you warning him before the Professor left him to die.”
Grief visibly plunged into her, making her body quiver.
“Or he could just have been researching scams to lure his victims and found your book,” he quickly added. “Who knows why or how he first became aware of you. Once he did, though, I think I know why he stayed around.”
“Why? What possible interest could he have in me?”
“Didn’t you say that Flynt guy was interested in you because of the way you were trying to help the very people he liked to victimize?”
Nodding, she murmured, “Yes, he was. I think I amused him, in a sick way. Are you saying this Darwin is the same? That he enjoys seeing my sad little efforts to help people?”
“It’s possible. And he’s angry that you’re working with us to try to stop him.”
Alec had another, darker thought, though he didn’t share it with her. Sam was a beautiful, intelligent woman whose personality sparkled on the pages of her book and her Web site. For all they knew, the Professor might see her as someone like himself, educated and informed, not readily deceived. But someone who’d gone to work for the “wrong” side, wanting to save the very people he wanted to kill.
A man with an ego the size of the killer’s might relish the challenge of trying to change Sam’s mind. To educate her, perhaps, win her over to his way of thinking. His posts of Wednesday night, when he seemed to be trying to make rational arguments that contradicted her rant column, certainly leaned that way.
Now, though, he no longer wanted to educate her. Alec greatly feared he wanted to punish her.
“How could he know I’m working with the authorities?”
“Because he saw you with me last night.”
“You weren’t exactly in uniform.”
Far from it. But the license plate on the car he had been driving would have provided a big clue. Damn, he couldn’t believe he hadn’t noticed anything suspicious. His focus had been in the wrong direction. He’d been tunnel-visioned, seeing Sam’s involvement in this only as a personality, a Web site owner, not as a person who might interest their unsub.
“He has survived and gotten away with what he does by being very cautious and very thorough. He would have worked on it until he figured out who I was.”
“And me working with the FBI, you think that was what made him go from wanting to be my teacher to wanting to scare the crap out of me?”
“Yes. It angered him.”
“So he was trying to get me back for being untrustworthy. To let me know he’s out there, watching.”
He shifted his gaze. Darwin hadn’t called her untrustworthy; he’d called her a whore. “Right.”
She simply nodded, as if she’d been seeking only to understand rather than reacting emotionally. Smart woman. Smart to have been afraid. Smart now to have calmed down and assessed the situation logically.
Everything about her was so put-together. Maybe it hadn’t been when he’d first met her. There had been no missing Sam’s self-imposed isolation, the lack of confidence and the uncertainty about herself. But in the past few days, she’d thrown off those restraints. Sam had revealed herself to be exactly the kind of woman he most admired: reasonable, rational, with a lot of common sense and a quick wit.
That she was sexy enough to stop his heart and one simple kiss had sent every ounce of his blood straight to his groin just made her even harder to resist.
Alec managed to keep those thoughts off his face as they reached their floor and he led her to the office. Once inside, they headed straight for the team’s two IT specialists. “Lily and Brandon have been working on figuring out how the blog attack could have happened,” he said. “Knowing how he got in could help us find him.”
“Let’s let them fill us in on that,” he said, feeling suddenly uncomfortable. He didn’t want to discuss some of the possibilities Lily had mentioned on the phone. Like the idea that this bastard knew so much about Sam- about her personal life-that he had been able to guess her passwords.
“Everything okay?” Lily asked when they entered. “Are you all right, Sam?”
“For somebody being watched by a serial killer, I guess so.”
“It’ll be okay.” The blonde briefly touched Sam’s shoulder. “We’re not going to let anything happen to you-you have an entire team watching your back.”
“Can I get you something to drink?”
“Got any Jack Daniel’s?” she said, with a humorless laugh.
“Sorry. But I made the coffee, not Brandon,” Lily said. “So I can promise you it won’t put your heart into arrhythmia and keep you awake for ninety-six hours straight.”
Brandon smirked. “Yeah, yeah, you just wish you had my energy.”
“Wishing for your energy would be like wishing to live inside a tornado.”
Beside him, Sam’s body relaxed as she listened to the pair go back and forth like siblings. The very normal-ness of their sniping seemed to bring the tension down a notch. Which was, he assumed, exactly what they had intended. Not for the first time, he realized how glad he was to have ended up here, with this particular group.
“Coffee would be great,” Sam murmured. “Thanks.”
“Not a problem.”
Though Alec wanted to get right back to Baltimore, something about Sam’s expression made him stay. She might like Lily and Brandon, but she’d fixed on him as a personal ally. Someone more than a law enforcement professional trying to help her.
Maybe because he’d kissed her breathless about twelve hours ago.
“Okay, Cole, show us what you’ve got. And make it good,” he said.
The younger man nodded. “You live in an apartment in Baltimore, right?”
Sam’s face paled, and she cleared her throat before answering. “It’s a good neighborhood, though not an upscale one. As secure as an older apartment building can be, I guess.” She wrapped her arms around herself as if to ward off a chill. “Certainly not the kind of place where I’d expect someone to sit outside with a pair of binoculars, trying to watch me through my windows.”
“Is there any chance he’s been closer than that?” Brandon asked.
Sam went very still. “What do you mean?”
Alec had a feeling he knew where this was going, and he did not like it.
“This wasn’t a random hack attack, and it wasn’t a dummy front page.” Brandon clicked a few keys on his keyboard and brought up a blog hosting site. “This post was made directly on your account. Whoever this was, he knew exactly which content-manager software you were using, Sam. He was logged in as an administrator.”
To his surprise, Sam took the statement with utter calm. “Figuring out the CMS wouldn’t be that difficult.”
“No, it wouldn’t.” Brandon leaned forward, dropping his elbows onto his knees to stare intently at her. “But your ID and password-they weren’t exactly common. It’s not like you were using your dog’s name; they were random letters and numbers.”
She looked away. “Well, not exactly random.”
Brandon tilted his head, waiting.
“I know, the expert who says to never use relevant dates or initials, right?” She blinked, as if her eyes had suddenly grown hot. “The initials are my late grandmother’s name. The numbers are the date she died.”
“Ahh.” Brandon sat up straight, nodding. For some reason, he looked almost relieved, though Alec didn’t know why this was good news. As if realizing that, he looked over and explained. “Anybody who Googled Sam here…”
“Would find my name in my grandmother’s obituary,” she said. “Along with her initials and date of death.”
“You were close?”
She nodded. “I have mentioned her on my blog on a few occasions. She, uh, was my inspiration, the reason I became Sam the Spaminator.”
The eyes blinked again, moisture definitely in evidence. Alec somehow suspected he was finally on the verge of learning why Sam did what she did, beyond the need to take some time out of life to heal from what her ex had done to her. This crusade she was on… it suddenly sounded as though it had started for very personal reasons.
“Even better,” Brandon said.
“Why better?” Alec asked.
“Because we already know he reads her site. If he knew she was close to her grandmother, and he was trying to figure out her passwords, it would be a logical thing to try. Especially if you’ve mentioned her as an inspiration, Sam.” Brandon nodded, as if convincing himself of what he said. “This really is good news.”
He didn’t have to explain further. Alec got the alternative. If Sam’s relationship with her grandmother had been a closely held secret, that would imply the unsub had dug deeper into her life. Something none of them really wanted to contemplate.
“Okay.” Brandon tapped his fingers on his desk. In the brief time they’d worked together, Alec had noticed the guy couldn’t remain still, a picture of frenetic energy. As if his body had to stay in motion to keep up with his constantly moving mind. “So forget my concern that he might have actually gotten into your apartment.”
Sam flinched as if struck. “What?”
“No, seriously, forget it. It was a passing concern, when I thought your password was totally random.”
“Jesus, Cole,” Alec muttered, seeing the way Sam’s face had completely lost its color.
“Master of tact,” Lily added. She had just returned, holding a steaming cup of coffee, which she placed on the desk close to Sam. “Ignore him.”
“Sorry,” Brandon said. “Gimme a sec to check something.” He swung back around, attacking his keyboard with a vengeance, muttering something under his breath.
Lily took a seat at her own desk. “I’ve got satellite images from last night. Too many vehicles on Sam’s street at the time you took her home,” she said, sounding disappointed. “And nothing within two blocks of the construction site. He probably intentionally parked in another area, since a vehicle would have stood out there.”
“Red-light cams between the crime scene and Sam’s?”
“Already working on them.” As if suddenly remembering, she added, “Oh, and I heard back from Flynt through his attorney.”
He glanced over at Sam, who didn’t appear to be paying attention to anything except the images flying across Brandon Cole’s monitor.
“His client would be happy to talk to you. If Ms. Dalton accompanies you.”
“Told you.” The softly spoken comment came from an obviously listening Sam.
Lily wasn’t finished. “He also has a time restriction. This weekend or never.”
“You’ve no idea.” Another interjection from Sam.
Alec gave her his full attention. “Do you honestly think it’s worth talking to this guy?”
She thought about it, not snapping off a casual reply. Sam was in this up to her neck now; she knew they had no time to waste. Every minute they didn’t catch the unsub was another one she had to spend in fear and in hiding.
Finally, she nodded. “I do. I’m no expert, but I really think he is just a less violent version of your Professor. If you want to think like your suspect thinks, Flynt’s is a good mind to explore.” She offered him a weak smile. “Besides, it’s not like you can just dump me at home now, anyway. If you have to keep an eye on me for my own protection, what could be safer than doing it at a prison filled with armed guards and security?”
“She has a point,” Lily said. “In case you’re wondering, when Wyatt called to see if you were back yet, he said to tell you to go with your instincts if you think it is worth pursuing.”
Great. All obstacles cleared. There really was no legitimate reason for him not to bring Sam with him to interview Flynt. Nothing except his own reluctance.
“Do you need to go today?” Brandon asked, looking over his shoulder. “I’m trying to track any failed password tries on the account, figure out where he posted from. I might need some input from Sam.”
“I need to get back up to Baltimore this afternoon, anyway,” he said. “Maybe talk to Flynt tomorrow.”
Sam sipped her coffee, then said, “My day’s pretty wide-open.”
“Why do you want to do this?” He had no idea what she was up to-why she wanted to remain involved with something she’d admitted scared her spitless.
Alec had at first assumed she needed to feel as if she had some control over what happened in her life, like anyone who’d had a brush with a violent crime would. Since this morning’s developments, though, she hadn’t just brushed up against the world of a psychopath; it had turned and aimed directly at her. He’d figure any smart person would be lying low until the threat was eliminated.
“What else am I supposed to do?” she asked with a simple shrug. “Sit at home and worry some more? That hasn’t gotten me very far.”
They were talking about more than a visit to the prison; he knew that much.
“I need to start taking an active role in my life again, instead of merely reacting to what goes on around me,” she added. “Not just with this case, but with everything.”
Meaning them. She’d certainly been active last night, laying out what she’d wanted. Though the sexual invitation had been wrapped in innuendo, it had also been pretty damned clear.
“Can you understand that? The need to act, to move on, get past the fear and insecurity?”
Oh, hell, yeah, he could understand that. It was exactly what he’d been trying to do since the minute he’d come back to work: Regain his footing, his confidence in his own intuition. He needed to stop seeing the mental pictures of Ferguson taking a bullet to his heart, to stop feeling the slow, steady pump of his own heart pushing the blood out of his body, to stop hearing the blasts-pop-pop-pop-pop-and to stop wondering if he was ever going to be able to trust his instincts again.
He meant it. But he still didn’t like it.
The woman who had started out as a one-shot interview had practically become his pseudo-partner. Not to mention the target of a serial killer. Could things possibly have gotten any more fucked-up from the day he’d walked through the Black CATs’ doors?
“You should know, Jimmy will say he’s cooperating, but he’ll talk in circles,” Sam said.
“It’s okay. Alec has a built-in bullshit detector, from what I hear.” Lily printed off the directions to the prison, which was situated between D.C. and Baltimore, and handed it to him.
“Guess it’s that profiler thing,” Sam murmured.
He wondered if Lily heard the same undeniable note of warmth in their witness’s voice, or if it was audible only to Alec, like the knowing, confident whisper of a lover. Which they both knew they were going to be, sooner or later.
Alec abruptly stood. Sam was in good hands; she was relaxed and calm. And most of all, safe. She didn’t need him here. “I want to get going. Sam, would you allow us to search your apartment, on the off chance this son of a bitch is watching you even closer than we suspect?”
“Are we talking hidden-camera stuff?”
His jaw tight, he nodded once.
She reached into her purse and dug out a key ring. “Do you think… Could you maybe ask Agent Stokes to grab me something to wear?”
“Want me to tell her to pack your all-men-suck nightshirt?”
She chuckled. “Nah. I’m beginning to think maybe they don’t. Not all of them, anyway.”
There went that soft, intimate tone again. And this time, judging by the quick look of surprise on her face, Lily had noticed.
If she read anything into their light banter, Lily had the discretion not to mention it. “We’ll take good care of her.” She glanced at Sam. “I’ve already booked a suite at a local hotel. Jackie will take you over this evening, and I’ll come and relieve her at ten or eleven, so she can kiss her kids good night.”
“Oh, okay.” Sam nibbled her bottom lip, as if not exactly thrilled with the arrangement. As if she thought someone else would be her babysitter.
Huh. If she thought Alec was going to stay with her, she needed to rethink, and fast. He was good at his job and knew how to do it, but talk about putting the fox in charge of the henhouse. No way would he be able to spend a night alone in a hotel room with her without letting things get a whole lot more personal than either one of them could afford right now.
Next week? Maybe.
After this case was over? Definitely.
But not now. Not while the Professor was still out there.
Not while he had Sam Dalton in his sights.