He was going to kill her.
Emilia Sanchez ran through the woods, her bare feet slipping over the pine needles and leaves. Her calf burned from a stab wound. Rope dangled from one wrist and the cuts on her forearm were bleeding. Frigid air sank into her skin. Her blouse and skirt were little protection from the December night, but there hadn’t been time to grab anything heavier before escaping from the hunting cabin.
She was lucky to have the cell phone. And her life.
Emilia stumbled. Her knees hit the hard earth with a jolt. The world swam before her eyes. She’d been drugged during the initial kidnapping, and the medications were wreaking havoc with her coordination. She sucked in a desperate breath and blinked to clear her vision.
“Emilia, my pet.” The singsong voice came from some place behind her. “You’ve been a baaaaad girl.”
She glanced over her shoulder, a scream rising in her throat. A shadow shifted. Man-sized. Big enough to be the serial killer who’d captured her. Emilia was intimately familiar with his crimes. As a trained behavioral analyst, she’d been requested by the task force to create a profile of the killer. She’d seen the crime scene photos of the previous victims, studied the cases.
Three women. Dark-haired. Pretty. Unmarried. All had been sliced with a knife in an intricate pattern before being stabbed through the heart. Emilia hadn’t known she would become the killer’s next target.
Victim number four.
“Oh, Emilia….don’t run, my pet.”
His laughter surrounded her. He was close. Too close. Panic rose, threatening to crush her, but she battled it back. Her hand tightened around the cell phone. Help was a call away. She just needed to get to a place with cell service. Please, God, give me strength.
Emilia struggled to her feet. Blood ran down her leg from the wound in her calf and a sharp pain accompanied every step. She ignored it, weaving and dodging deeper into the woods. An owl hooted above her. In the distance, a lake shimmered in the moonlight.
Where was she? Emilia had no idea. Someplace remote.She paused, leaning against a tree. Her breath came in gasps. She tried to listen for the killer, but it was too hard to hear anything over the pounding of her heart. Should she check for cell service? It was risky. The light could give her position away, but without help, she wouldn’t survive.
Emilia clicked the side button. The screen glowed. One bar.
Relief made her knees weak. The cell phone wasn’t hers, but thankfully it didn’t require a passcode to access the keypad. She could call 9-1-1 but it would take too much time to explain her circumstances to dispatch. Instead, she punched in a familiar number. Texas Ranger Bennett Knox was her colleague, and they’d formed a close friendship over the last few weeks while working the murder cases together.
Emilia's fingers shook as she hit the call button. Blood from the wounds on her arm dripped onto her hand and the phone. She glanced over her shoulder. Moonlight filtered through the trees, casting eerie shapes. There was no sign of the killer, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t close. The sour taste of fear filled her mouth.
His voice was brisk and authoritative. Inexplicable tears flooded Emilia’s eyes. “B-B-Bennett. The killer—”
“I know, Emilia. Where are you?”
Concern and fear layered his tone. Bennett must’ve been looking for her. How long had she been missing? Emilia had lost all sense of time.
She licked her dry lips. Shudders overtook her body as an icy wind snaked around her petite form and cut through her thin clothes. “I don’t know where I am. In the woods. There’s a lake. Can you trace this phone number and get a GPS lock on me?”
“Already doing it.”
Indistinct voices filtered over the line. It sounded like Bennett was in the Fulton County Sheriff’s Department. How far away was Emilia from help? Would they be able to reach her in time?
There were things Bennett needed to know. Emilia glanced behind her again, checking for movement. “Bennett, the killer is Derrick Jackson.”
The Texas Ranger inhaled sharply. Derrick had been one of their suspects, but he wasn’t high on the list. Emilia scanned the surrounding area. Leaves moved in the wind. “He’s hunting for me.”
“Emilia, can you get to a safe place? Do you see a road? Or a house nearby?”
Pain coursed through her body. The cuts on her arm and leg were throbbing. Emilia sagged heavier against the tree. Her vision swam. Blood loss coupled with whatever drug Derrick had injected her with were taking their toll.
“I…I don’t feel…I’m hurt…” She pressed a hand to her arm, but the blood rushed around her fingers. The cut was too big. Too deep. And she was so cold. Her teeth chattered.
“Hold on, Emilia. I’m coming. Just hold on.”
A branch snapped. Emilia whirled as a figure slammed into her. The cell phone flew from her hand as she tumbled to the ground. The attacker landed on top of Emilia. The air whooshed from her lungs and stars danced in front of her eyes.
“There you are, my pet.” A gloved hand caressed her hair. “You escaped.”
Bile rose in the back of her throat. Had Derrick seen the cell phone? Did he know she’d been talking to someone? Emilia didn’t think so. Otherwise, she’d be dead now. Derrick wouldn’t waste time torturing her if he knew police were on the way.
“I underestimated you.” Derrick leaned down and whispered in her ear. His breath was hot on her cheek. “You’re better than the others.”
The others. The three women he’d killed. Their faces flashed in succession before her eyes—and those were ones she knew about. There was little doubt Derrick had been killing for a long time. There were more victims.
He was a monster. And those women deserved justice.
A wave of rage mixed with the fresh course of adrenaline pumping through her veins. Emilia jabbed with her elbow, nailing her attacker in the ribs. His hold loosened. Relying on years of karate practice, she twisted away before kicking out with her good foot. The hit landed square in his gut. He fell back with a groan.
Emilia scrambled to her feet. She ran blindly as sheer survival instinct took over. Footsteps pounded behind her. It seemed the killer’s breath was on her neck. Branches slapped her face and roots threatened to trip her already unsteady gait.
Suddenly the trees were gone, and the lake loomed large. She bolted, seeking cover. Somewhere. Anywhere.
The bare soles of her feet slapped against wood. Too late, Emilia realized she’d diverted onto a dock extending into the lake. The water yawned like a black hole beyond the wooden railing.
It was a dead end.
She spun. A man dressed in black stood at the end of the dock. His face was in shadows, but Emilia didn’t need to see it to know he was smiling. Derrick enjoyed the fight and her fear.
He ambled closer. “We’re going to have so much fun together.”
Derrick lifted his hand. Moonlight bounced off the sharp blade.
Emilia’s heart thundered. She glanced at the lake. The water would be icy, cold enough to cause hypothermia. That is, if she didn’t drown first. A likely outcome given her weakened state.
Boots thumped against the dock as Derrick came closer.
There was no choice.
Emilia scrambled up the wooden railing. Behind her, Derrick yelled, his feet pounding harder on the dock. She felt the brush of his hand on her arm as he grabbed for her.
She dove into the inky water.