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Breath of Malice by Karen Fenech (1)

CHAPTER ONE

He was here. FBI Special Agent Paige Carson gripped her service weapon harder and blinked sweat out of her eyes as she moved deeper into the Adirondack Mountains. Thick, wild bushes that she was unable to hold back while clutching her weapon snagged the protective gear she wore over her clothing and scraped the exposed skin on her face.

Fallen leaves, twigs, and branches littered the ground, masking the uneven terrain beneath. She took small steps to keep from tripping and landing on her face, but despite that care, her foot sank beneath a patch of decayed earth. Shit. She stumbled, righted herself. She held her breath, released it in a rush, then took another quick glance at the GPS locator strapped to her wrist. Not far now. Every muscle tensed. She moved on.

Her squad leader had told her to wait. To hell with that. She’d left her squad members behind to follow her at their ridiculously slow pace and moved ahead on her own. Waiting for the Bureau to dot its i’s and cross its t’s before going in would have been a mistake. She was tired of sitting through meetings. Of sitting on the sidelines. There was no time to waste. The Bureau was already far behind. The suspect had proven to be a step ahead of them time and time again.

Three women had been murdered by the man she was chasing into the mountains now. Forensic testing revealed that the bodies had been buried, then exhumed, before they were found. The FBI, and Paige in particular, had been pursuing him for five months, since she’d joined the Bureau. This may have been Paige’s first case, but she knew what she was doing. Knew that she was right. The man the Bureau was hunting was accomplished—at killing and keeping himself under the radar. This was their first solid lead to his whereabouts. If they missed him this time, they may never get another chance.

That wasn’t the only reason Paige was determined to apprehend him now. She squared her shoulders. She wanted to be the one to bring him in. Would be the one to bring him in. By the time her squad arrived, she’d have him in custody. What better way to make a name for herself with the Bureau than to capture a serial killer? Bringing this murderer in would cement her career. Adrenaline and nerves had her skin tingling.

Clouds hung low, promising rain. Despite the chill in the overcast April day, sweat trickled down Paige’s spine. According to the GPS, her destination was just up ahead. Then she saw it. A cabin. Well maintained, with a supply of wood stockpiled neatly to one side. Not a chip in the dusky-blue paint on the covered wraparound porch.

Paige took cover behind a tree, taking in the sight. Smoke curled from the chimney. She could smell meat roasting and something else . . . something sweet. Chocolate. Someone was melting chocolate.

Postcard pretty, buds of wildflowers dotted patches of the land around the cabin. All was quiet, as if even nature was reluctant to disturb such perfection.

The sights and smells gave her pause. Was she at the wrong place? Could the lead be wrong?

It certainly looked like the intel was off. Like this cabin belonged to a nice family. Paige blew out a breath filled with anger and disappointment. She relaxed her stance, lowering her gun hand.

Something stirred the air behind her. The slight breeze felt like a breath on her exposed neck. The fine hairs there prickled. The breeze carried the strong and cloying odor of a floral cologne.

Blood pulsing, Paige sucked in a breath, raised her gun, and was about to swing around to face the person behind her but . . . too late. The barrel of a gun pressed against her temple. The click of the gun being cocked sounded as loud as a bomb.

The gun slid from her temple and along her forehead, raising goose flesh everywhere it touched. When it was centered between her eyes, the man who held the weapon moved out from behind her and faced her.

He wasn’t much taller than her own five-foot-five frame, maybe an inch or two more, with a paunch visible beneath the jacket he wore open over a white button-down shirt. His hair, a white blond, blended with his pasty complexion.

Paige’s heart rate skyrocketed. Her mouth went dry. She needed to say something, to do something to gain control of the situation, but all she could do was stare at the man holding the gun to her head, his stubby, pale fingers wrapped around the butt with a grip that was rock steady.

His eyes, a clear arctic blue, focused on her so intently he had yet to blink. And he was smiling.

Paige opened her mouth to speak, to tell him she was a federal agent, that he was caught, but no words came out. And he had yet to utter a word.

Still, Paige got his message. She was going to die. He was going to kill her, then likely bury her as he had the other women. Were there others besides the three women they knew about? If so, the only consolation in her death would be the possibility that by locating her body via the tracking chip she wore, federal agents might find other victims.

His eyes widened slightly, lifting skin that had sagged at the corners. His smile grew, showing an overbite and uneven teeth. She could see in his expression that he would kill her now and saw that he would enjoy it. Paige inhaled her last breath.

“Federal agents! Drop your weapon and put your hands behind your back now!”

Paige recognized the voice of her squad leader. Agents swarmed from the tree line, taking up positions all around her and the man holding the gun to her head.

Paige continued to stare into the man’s eyes. His smile didn’t waver. Nor did he break eye contact. For an instant, Paige thought he was going to ignore her squad leader’s command and kill her anyway, but then he dropped his gun at her feet. And winked at her.

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