As the chief forensic anthropologist for the FBI’s Chicago field office, Christine Prusik has worked her fair share of bizarre cases. Yet this one trumps them all: A serial killer is strangling young women and dumping their bodies in the steep, forested ravines of southern Indiana.
With each victim, the killer leaves a calling card: A stone figurine carved like the spirit stones found among the native tribes of Papua New Guinea―the same tribes Prusik worked with a decade earlier while doing field research. The personal nature of the similarity is eerie and, frankly, terrifying; Prusik still carries trauma from her time in the field.
As the dark details continue to surface, Prusik has to wonder if the connection is real or if her nightmares have finally wormed their way into her waking life.
The air had a film in it like her eyes did upon first waking. By midmorning the Fourth of July heat pressed in, almost choking her. Missy Hooper tapped end, dropped her cell phone into her purse, and closed the bag with a sigh. A second later she double-checked to make sure she’d turned the clasp all the way. The amusement park was jam-packed, and it would be easy to get pickpocketed if she wasn’t careful.
Now what? Glenna had gone in to cover for a waitress who’d called in sick at the diner where they both worked and couldn’t meet her as planned. What a drag. Wandering around alone in a park full of so many people her own age out on dates was not her idea of fun. Damn, Glenna. Why couldn’t she have just told Rickie no? Missy sighed again. Glenna let people take advantage of her. She needed to learn to stick up for herself better.
A tattooed carny drifted her way, holding out three baseballs with a toothy grin. “Whaddya say to a game of chance, little lady? Got some nifty prizes for a purty girl like you. Three balls for a dollar.”
Missy turned to avoid him and ran smack into a wiry young man with sandy-brown hair and bright blue eyes.
“Whoa! It’s the bottles you’re supposed to knock over, not the other patrons.” He smiled and ran his hand through his crew cut.
Missy took a step back. “I’m sorry,” she stammered. “I guess I wasn’t watching where I was going.”
“No problem. What’s your poison: bulldogs or monkeys? One of those prizes would look mighty good sitting on your bedroom shelf.” He leaned in closer. “It’s on me.” He gave the carny a five-dollar bill and got handed back four ones from the man’s change bib.
“Beg your pardon?” Missy said, blushing. “Are you speaking to me?” The young man had the weather-beaten appearance of someone who worked outdoors, like both of her brothers, and his face was strangely familiar though she couldn’t recall from where.
“Sure am.” He bowed from the waist, clothed in paint-spattered jeans and a red T-shirt. His orange Timberland work boots were flecked with paint stains. “Just point out the prize you want,” he boasted, his arms akimbo, “and it’s yours.”
Missy tugged at the front of her blue tank top, which immediately rode back up, exposing her belly button. She squinted up at the stuffed animals that hung from hooks. “That bulldog looks kind of cute.”
“Wish me luck then.” He winked.
Missy giggled. “Good luck.” She watched him collect the first baseball from the carny and palm it lightly, judging the target’s distance. He turned toward Missy and gave her a confident grin.
The shriek of a girl mid-drop on a roller coaster spun Missy around just as the coaster banked steeply and disappeared behind a high-topped tent.
Thwack! The sound of the bottles toppling spun her back again.
“Darn if you aren’t the best of me!” The young man pumped a fist, obviously pleased with himself. “Now ain’t it just true that faith moves mountains?” He winked at Missy again. “Yours sure did.”
Missy awkwardly rode the outsides of her sneakers—the young man’s addressing her so forthrightly embarrassed and flattered her at the same time. A moment later her arms were full of the bright-blue bulldog, which was as awkward to carry as a bale of hay.
“Got a car to put that thing in?”
She rolled her eyes. “I wish. A friend dropped me off. Someone else was supposed to meet me here.”
“Not a problem. You can leave it in my truck if you’d like.” Before she could respond, he blurted, “Say, are you hungry?” He stepped up to a concession booth and then turned his head back to her. “Want a Coke with your elephant ear?”
She was suddenly aware of the smell of fried dough and sugar permeating the air. Her stomach, as if on cue, gurgled loudly. “Sure.”
She decided she liked being waited on better than being the waitress. Even his doing all the talking felt nice, like he was taking care of her. He returned with the drinks and two fried elephant ears, each wrapped in wax paper. She rested the prize on the ground between her legs.
“Thanks. I can pay you back.”
“Your money’s no good here,” he said. The words were overly gracious, but his tone was self-mocking. He was funny, Missy decided, and cute in an odd, scraggy sort of way.
“Thank you,” she said. “My name is Missy.”
“Glad to meet you, Missy. I go by Jasper. On account of I like carving rocks in my spare time. Shall we go drop your prize in the truck then?”
They finished their fried dough and drinks and then walked out the park entrance.
“Say, if you’d like, I can drive you home.” He climbed in the driver’s side, leaned over the bench seat, and shoved open the passenger door, adding, “I’d be more than grateful to do you the honors, Missy.”
The thought of having to call and ask one of her brothers to come get her made her cringe. It would be a hot, sweaty wait, with Jimmy at his coed bowling league and Dean over in Odon at his girlfriend’s house. “Sure. I guess that’d be all right.”
“Spilt some paint in the back bed. It’s still a bit messy,” he said. “Why don’t you put the bulldog up front?” He gestured toward the passenger seat.
Missy pushed the bulky prize across the seat, then climbed in herself. The bulldog caught on cracks in the vinyl covering; yellowed foam padding protruded, and an acrid, salty smell hit her in the face.
He goosed the engine and shoved the vent window out all the way, told her to do the same. The road wound through a state forest. Although the amusement park was only a couple of miles away, it felt like they were in another world entirely. Everything here was quiet. Peaceful. Splintering sunlight shot between the trees.
“Ever been to Clear Creek before?” he said across the rush of incoming air.
She glanced at him over the stuffed animal. “You mean that swimming place?”
He shook his head. “Nah. Different place. I suspect it’s about as sweet a spot as you could find.” Jasper turned to look at her and smiled, almost shyly. “I’d like to show it to you if I could.”
They were on State Road 67. Her house was only five miles farther south. He seemed polite. “How far did you say it is?” she said, squinting in the sunlight that blazed through the side window.
“We’re almost nearly there.”
She nodded. “All right then, I guess.” She looked over at him again, trying to place him. The man was working something around in his mouth, and the edge of something glistened between his teeth.
“Got any more?” she said. “Of those candies you’re sucking?”
He lifted his lips. A dark sliver jutted out, glistening and wet. “Not what you think.” It slid back into the pocket of his cheek. “Didn’t your mother ever tell you sugar’s bad for your teeth?”
“OK. Well, what is it then?”
“Ever since I was a kid I always liked cutting stone. Carving small things, you know, like faces, animal shapes. Even cut some people out of rock. It’s tricky.” He slid a quick glance her way and then looked out the windshield. “Easy to break the stone in two if you aren’t real careful doing it.”
Missy grew quiet and gazed out her side window, not exactly sure how to respond. The truck passed familiar landscape. She could see a friend’s farmhouse on a ridgeline opposite the road. She was about to ask him to stop the truck and say that she just remembered she was supposed to drop by her friend’s house this afternoon when the man extended an open palm near her lap.
“See?” he said. “I finished this one yesterday. Hand carved from chert, a variety of jasper.” He smiled at her. “Like my name.”
Missy stared at the reddish stone still wet from being in the man’s mouth. It was about the size of a chess piece. At one end, a distinct head and face were carved. Grooves along the small stone outlined arms and legs.
“I bet that takes you a long time.”
“Yup.” The man closed his palm and pocketed the charm.
“So where do you work, Jasper?” Missy asked, changing the subject. “I bet it’s outdoors, on account of your tan.”
“Well, aren’t you a smart young lady,” he said, nodding slowly. “I sign paint different places, business establishments. Some people think hand-painted signs are old-fashioned. I guess I’m what you call a throwback.” He grinned and flicked the tips of his fingers gently against her bare shoulder.
She started at the casually intimate touch.
“A regular artist I am. Do my best work when I’m left alone, know what I mean?”
She glanced down at his spattered jeans. “Yeah. But it kind of looks like you work for the fairground people, painting clowns.”
He chuckled, shaking his head. “That’s a funny one. Truth is, the damn Sweet Lick Resort can’t buy near enough of me. I get worn out working so much.”
“You mean that fancy golf course place?” she asked. “My friend’s uncle is a groundskeeper there. His name is Lonnie Wallace. Ever hear of him?”
“No, I don’t think I’ve ever met the man. But then…” He arched his brow and hesitated as if pondering her question. “I’m not apt to talk to anyone when I’m on the job. Better to concentrate.” He fidgeted his hands over the top of the steering wheel, twisting his grip. “Like throwing that baseball, winning you this prize.” He tugged one of the stuffed animal’s ears. “It truly was worth all the tea in China meeting you like this, Missy.”
The truck jounced over a bump. Missy rocked forward and pushed back her hair away from her face. He winked both his eyes at her, and Missy laughed right on cue. He told her how earlier in the year he’d been put in charge of a painting crew renovating a Chicago museum—a hundred men working under his watchful eye repainted primitive exhibits, ones that displayed spear-wielding cannibals in their native jungle habitats.
“Really? That must have been amazing.”
“I fib you not.” She felt his eyes brush over her and smiled self-consciously. “I’m only the greatest damn sign painter on the whole darn planet, you know? No splash-and-dash operation, no ma’am.”
“Well, yeah. Sure.” It puzzled her—his saying first how he worked solo most of the time and then right afterward saying a hundred men had worked under him in a museum renovation. She chalked it up to male insecurity—his needing to boast so much. Besides, he was funny and sweet in his own way. And she’d finally figured out why he looked so familiar.
He slowed the truck and pulled off under a high canopy of evergreens. The air was a full ten degrees cooler than the fairgrounds and smelled piney sweet.
She leaned an elbow over the stuffed bulldog, rubbing one of its ears between her fingers. “Know why I really came along with you?” A coy smile broke across her face.
“I suspect you wanted to see Clear Creek.”
“You don’t remember me, do you?” she said, dipping her chin shyly. “Science class junior year?” She looked straight into his eyes. “Weaversville High?”
He hesitated. “If you say so.”
“Come on. Really, don’t you remember? You were the only one too afraid to cut open that cow’s eye.” Nodding, feeling more certain of herself, she said, “You walked out of class too grossed out to even touch it.”
He scratched hard behind one ear. “You sure got a memory for things, I’ll say that.” He opened the truck door and hopped out.
Missy followed him around to the hood, hands tucked in her back jeans pockets. “You were so shy back then. What happened?”
“I guess”—he covered his face, peeking out between his fingers—“because I started playing hide-and-seek so damn much! Better run and hide before I count to ten,” he yelled.
Like a lit firecracker, Missy took off. She plunged down the wooded bank like a kid half her age would, sparked by Jasper’s boyish charm and his clear interest in her. There was nothing but the petticoat rustle of leaves and the nutty smells of the forest telling her that this was one of those rare occasions in life when wishes might just come true. When finally, finally you met someone meant just for you. Like magic, it was happening exactly the way it was supposed to, the way her mother had met Missy’s father and had known in that instant he was the man for her.
The grade slanted steeply. Missy took choppier steps and had to grab hold of slender saplings to keep from falling. Far below, she caught glimpses of water sparkling between the trees.
She deftly slalomed in and out of a mixed grove of beeches and oaks, then dropped onto the sandy bottom of a partially dry creek bed. Beyond were standing pools of water. She crouched behind a massive overturned sycamore, giddy with expectation. Peering up the wooded ravine she’d just descended, she listened intently for his footfalls over her rapid heartbeats but could hear nothing.
She registered a dull thud behind her, across the creek. How could he be there already? Missy bolted away from the sound across the deep, damp basin, each step slowed by the sucking sand. Something wasn’t right.
From behind, she heard him splashing through a deep pool. “You sure are…fast on your feet,” he panted. His voice sounded taunting somehow, not charming at all, and a sharp bolt of fear ripped through her chest.
Scattered sunlight glinted on the water. Instinctively, Missy’s eyes scanned what lay ahead, searching for an exit. Her eyes picked out a line of escape: a patch of harder ground that veered back up along the edge of the woods. She swung her arms for added speed, unnerved that she hadn’t heard him coming through the forest. She hadn’t heard a damn thing until he had dropped down from the opposite bank.
She ran while looking behind her and plowed straight into a fallen tree, sending her sprawling to the ground. Frantically, she clawed at the bark, tumbled back down the sandy bank, and tore her shirt in the process. Tendrils of panic worked their way into her brain, nearly sending her headfirst into a deep pool. The collision with the tree had left a nasty gash on her left kneecap, and blood was trickling down her shin.
The sound of a semi downshifting nearby brought her struggle to a standstill. She could just make out the moving hulk’s flickering shadow in breaks between the trees that rimmed the steep ravine high above her. A coal carrier chugged by with a full load from the Lincoln Mines in Blackie, where her father worked. Her dad’s kind, weathered face flashed through her brain. The slow-moving truck was only a football field’s distance away as the crow flies, but deadfall formed a near-insurmountable barrier.
Missy suddenly realized it wasn’t her own breathing growing louder, but her chaser’s, from directly above her on the bank. She looked up, blinked.
“Thought I’d lost you for a minute.”
Confusion spun the contents of Missy’s mind as she tried to make sense of what she was seeing. The man was reclining, arms crossed and utterly relaxed, on the fallen tree that had sent her flying to the ground. His face was covered by an elaborate feathered mask.
He tucked the mask back over the top of his head and gazed at her sympathetically. “Got a little hung up, didn’t you?” His hand flopped over the side of the trunk, pointing out her torn shirt. A stone of some kind dangled from his neck.
She crossed her arms over her ripped shirtfront and stepped backward into the cool water, warily maintaining eye contact with him. She’d lost her sneaker during her mad dash, and her one bare foot slipped on creek stones coated with algae. She had been badly mistaken. Jasper wasn’t the name of the student from science class, and the face gazing down at her wasn’t anything like that of the shy boy she’d known in high school.
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Excerpted from Stone Maidens with permission from the publisher, Thomas & Mercer. Copyright © 2012 by Lloyd Devereux Richards. All rights reserved.