Each skeleton is flawless—gleaming white and perfectly preserved, a testament to his skill. Every scrap of flesh has been removed to reveal the glistening bone beneath. And the collection is growing…
When bleached human bones are identified as belonging to a former patient of Dr. James Dixon, Detective Malcolm Kier suspects the worst. Dixon was recently acquitted of attempted murder, thanks to defense attorney Angie Carlson. But as the body count rises, Kier is convinced that Angie is now the target of a brutal, brilliant psychopath.
Angie is no stranger to the dark side of human nature. But nothing has prepared her for the decades-long legacy of madness and murder about to be revealed—or a killer ready to claim her as his ultimate trophy…
Praise for the novels of Mary Burton
“A twisted tale…I couldn’t put it down!”
—Lisa Jackson on Dying Scream
“Taut, compelling…delivers a page-turner.”
—Carla Neggers on I’m Watching You
“A chilling thriller.”
—Beverly Barton on Dead Ringer
The foul odor of decaying flesh roused the woman
from her drugged haze, burning her nostrils and lungs
like a freshly snapped ammonia capsule.
She blinked, clawed toward consciousness, searching
the pitch-blackness for a landmark to anchor time or
place. However, there was nothing except the stench that
grew more potent with each hitching breath. She coughed
and gagged. The contents of her stomach churned and
rose up in her throat.
She lifted a trembling hand to her mouth but discovered
the slight movement drove a cutting pain through
her muscles and ribs. She froze, didn’t want to move,
fearing more agony, but nausea overruled everything
and had her rolling to her side. Tears burned her eyes as
she gripped the edge of the metal table and vomited
until her throat burned.
When the worst of the vomiting had stopped, she
collapsed on her back, allowing only small shallow
breaths as she stared into the darkness. She closed
watery eyes and gently swiped her fingertips across her
lips. The odors still hovered, but the worst of the nausea
With the sickness satisfied, there was only the pain.
Only. Every square inch of her flesh pulsated. Throbbed.
Fear rose up, but she quickly wrestled it down. Now
was not the time to crumble.
She blinked. Once. Twice. But the fetid darkness
didn’t diminish. It could have been the middle of the day
or night, winter or summer. She couldn’t tell.
She tried to rise again, but her insides screamed.
Again, she collapsed.
Where was she? What had happened? She had to
In the last few weeks, she’d sensed that she was being
watched. At first she’d chocked up the feelings to an
overactive imagination. But as much as she denied the
feelings, they grew stronger whenever she’d stepped out
of her apartment, whenever she arrived at work, or
whenever she took a Pilates class. Soon she’d thought
twice before she went anywhere. She’d stopped going to
the gym and her favorite nightclubs. Her world shrank
to the small path between home and work.
And then the notes arrived. I love you. Together
always. You are never out of my mind.
The notes had been a relief. In fact, she’d laughed
when she’d received the first. Of course! Her ex had
been her stalker. It had been three weeks since they’d
shared a bed or seen each other, but she knew he was the
one watching. He enjoyed dark, erotic games. He liked
scaring her. Keeping her off balance.
Knowing he was watching, she’d worn tighter skirts
and sweaters, proudly strutting and hoping she tortured
him with jealousy. She met a younger man and took
pleasure kissing him, knowing her ex was lurking in
When she’d found the red velvet box with the ivory
pendant nestled inside, she’d known she’d won. She’d
been energized by her power over him, knowing soon
he’d beg for forgiveness. Men were so easy. So weak.
“Oh, God,” she whispered.
Someone had been stalking her. Watching. Planning.
But it had not been her lover.
Pushing through pain and sickness, she sat up. “I’m
alive. And that counts for something.” She repeated the
words like a mantra.
She blinked again and again, willing the blackness to
fade and the stench and pain to vanish. But no lights
magically flicked on. It hurt to breathe, and her thoughts
moved like thick muddy waters.
Where had she been last? The theater? Her apartment?
And then she remembered. She’d been at the Duke
Street Café. There’d been an impromptu party. Someone
had decided to celebrate another large donation to the
theater. The donation ensured that the theater would be
able to make its payroll and mount a grander, more
expensive production in the spring.
The party had been a glittering, exciting affair, and
she’d been happy. There’d been lots of champagne—so
much so, that she’d lost count of how many times the
waiter had refilled her glass. Of course her ex had not
come. He never met up with her at public events. But another
old boyfriend had hit on her, and because she’d felt
so good she’d flirted back. It had been fun. Intoxicating.
How had she gone from such magical moments to
this cave of horrors?
She ticked through the evening’s events. Wine. Music.
Singing. A bite or two of food. Some guy, one of her
ex-boyfriend’s buddies, had offered her cocaine, but
she’d turned him down, knowing the drug would keep
her wired most of the night and make her look too puffy
for tomorrow’s photo call.
Had the actor and his friend slipped her something
Thoughts blurred in her mind. She couldn’t cut
through the misty mosaic to access the right memories.
All she had was the party and then this dark, dank hole
that smelled of death. The middle had vanished.
It didn’t matter how she got here. What was important
was escaping. And if she was good at anything, it was
cutting her losses.
As much as she strained to see, she couldn’t make out
the room’s details. The place was as still as a grave, and
then suddenly she heard a tap turn on and water trickle.
She cocked her head. “Is someone there?”
Water gurgled and bubbled, but no one answered.
Struggling with a choking fear, she swung her legs
over the side of the metal table. Her head spun, pain
slammed her, and her stomach threatened another revolt.
She hesitated and waited for her body to calm.
Gingerly, she set bare feet on a floor made of cold,
wet stone. Her toes curled. She hated the slimy surface,
so much like a lake bottom.
Wobbly limbs screamed under the protest of her
weight as she stood. Every muscle ached. Her dress felt
damp, but she had no idea of the cause.
The soothing drip, drip of water remained her only
reference. It sounded as if it was off to her right. At least
now she had a direction.
Get to the water, and she’d figure out her next move.
She took a tentative step away from the table. Sweat
dampened her body. Her dress clung to her breasts,
hugging her nipples in an intimate way that left her feeling
exposed. But as tempting as it was to cover up with
her arms, her outstretched hands were all that kept her
With each step, the stench grew worse, and the urge
to turn away increased. Still, she kept shuffling toward
the water. Without warning, her knee bumped painfully
into the side of what must have been a giant metal tub.
Bolts of pain shot out and reverberated up and down her
leg. She gasped, and the smells nearly overpowered her.
Instinct had her turning from the tub. “Shit.”
She didn’t have the strength to retrace her steps to the
table now swallowed up in shadowy obscurity.
Tears filled her eyes and rolled down her cheeks. It
would be so easy to surrender. But she’d never been a
Summoning her most imperious tone, she said, “I
demand to know if anyone is there.”
The shadows hovered around her, mutinously silent,
still, and unmoved by her practiced sternness. Her only
answer was the steady, quiet trickle of water dripping
into the tub.
“I shouldn’t be here,” she said. “This is a terrible mistake.
People are expecting me to show up at work.
They’ll call the cops if I don’t show.”
She shoved a shaky hand through feathered curls and
righted her hunched shoulders. Body and bones creaked
as if she’d just passed her ninetieth birthday and not her
twenty-sixth. What had happened to her? “I demand to
know where I am.”
This time a shadow in a corner shifted. “You demand?
If I were you, I wouldn’t demand. I’d beg.”
The rough, clipped voice had her head jerking
around. “Why should I beg?” Even as she asked the
question, she saw the absurdity. She’d beg or do whatever
was asked of her to get out of here. “What do I
need to beg for?”
“Your life would be a good start.” His voice was so
silky and gentle. And for a moment, it sounded very familiar.
Had he been at the party? Where had she heard
his voice before?
She leaned against the tub, fearing her legs would
give way and she’d fall to her knees. “I am not afraid.”
A soft chuckle snaked through the gloom, unsettling
her more than if the shadow man had hurled threats.
“You should be afraid.”
Tears streamed down her cheeks, but she raised her
chin. “What is that smell?”
This time her knees did crumble. She dropped to the
ground, digging long fingers into the stone. “Why?”
“Why? Why are you here? Why is there rotting flesh
in the room? Why what?”
His voice sent fear knifing into her. “Why me?”
She heard the clip of his shoes on the stone floor as
he moved away. For a panicked second she thought he’d
leave her alone in this room of horrors. Instead, he
flipped on a light.
In a blink, overhead fluorescents clicked on, flooding
the room with light and forcing her to wince and shield
her eyes from the burning glare. Carefully, she cracked
her lids, letting the light leak into her pupils.
When her gaze finally focused on her jailer she saw
he stood directly in front of her. He wore crisp jeans, a
dark sweater, and rubber gloves. He looked so normal.
“Do I know you?”
“Doesn’t matter.” He clapped his hands. “Want to
have a good look around before we get to work?”
The source of the smell had her turning back toward
the tub. It was a vile, putrid concoction of greasy, black
water. Loose fatty deposits floated on the surface. Oh
shit! Was it flesh clinging to bone?
She screamed and lurched back. “What is that?”
“It’s where the polishing process begins. Flesh must
be stripped from the bones before I can polish them.”
The lightness in his voice told her he was truly enjoying
this moment. “Now, we better get moving. We’ve got
work to do.”
“Work? Where is this place?”
“Far enough from anyone that can help you.”
Tremors started to move through her limbs. “Where
“It’s where I do my work. My art.”
“What kind of art?”
“Look behind you.”
She turned and saw a workbench. Equipped with
saws, carving knives, and buffing pads. It reminded her
of a jeweler’s workstation. Until she saw it—the polished
“That’s not art!”
“You seemed to like the cameo I gave you.”
Her hand rose to her throat where the brooch had
rested just days ago. “That was bone?”
He winked. “I love the way the light glistens on the
bones, don’t you? Human bone carves like sandstone.”
“You are demented.”
Blue eyes sparked. “To each his own.”
“Please, don’t do this to me.”
“No going back now.”
“Of course there is. I won’t tell.”
And then as if she hadn’t spoken, he said, “If we get
started now, we’ll be done by this time next week.” He
hooked a steady, gloved hand under her elbow and
pulled her to a standing position. “Let’s get you back
on the table.”
Her legs wobbled, and her insides ached with fire.
When she glanced down, she saw that blood stained her
skirt and legs. Crimson droplets covered the ground
around her feet. “What have you done to me?”
He guided her toward the table. “I haven’t done anything.
Now up you go.”
“My body hurts.” She’d been invaded, assaulted.
Flickers of what had happened flashed: an attacker
shoving into her with such force she’d screamed. He’d
laughed, pushed harder, and then he’d leaned down and
bitten her shoulder until her blood had spilled. He’d
taken pictures. “You did this to me! You did this!”
“Not me. Him.”
Her head spun, and her pain paralyzed her muscles.
“There are two of you?”
He ignored the question. “You know you have the
most perfect bone structure. Your cheekbones are symmetrically
perfect. It’s as if an artist sculpted them.”
“Please,” she whispered.
“Mother Nature can be so haphazard and fickle, but
with you she really outdid herself.”
She lay back against the cold metal, her body collapsing
with exhaustion. Whatever reserves she’d possessed had vanished. She was empty. “What are you going to do?”
Out from the shadows stepped another man. She
knew this man. She’d run her fingers through his hair.
She’d kissed his face. Gotten to know the feel of his
broad shoulder blades under her hands. “You did this
Smiling, he snapped another picture. “I’m finished
with her. She’s yours now.”
“No, please,” she said.
He didn’t answer but simply turned. He left her alone
with The Other, who grinned as he selected a knife from
“Don’t leave me here with him!” she screamed.
A door closed.
The Other picked up a knife. Light glinted from the
steel. “I’m going to make the pain go away.”
As much as the pain scorched through her body and
stole her breath, it was proof of life. Without the pain,
she feared, she’d be lost. “I want to leave.”
Gently, he smoothed his fingertips over her forehead.
“Shh. We can’t do that.”
The gentle touch detonated shivers. And then he
dragged the razor sharp blade over the tender flesh of
her neck. The pain was sudden and searing. Warm blood
drained so quickly from the wound.
She inhaled, but her lungs didn’t respond. She tried
to pull in a second breath. Nothing. Panic exploded as
she directed her energy toward her lungs.
A gurgling sound rose in her chest as the air already
in her lungs seeped out through the wound. More blood
pooled around her shoulders. She gripped the table,
clinging to her final hold on life.
He kept smoothing gentle fingers over her head.
“Don’t fight it. Fighting only makes it worse. It will just
be a few more seconds, it will all be over, and I can get
you in that tub with the others.”
Her vision blurred. Her lungs and flesh howled for
air. Gentle fingers stroked her hair and cheeks.
Delight danced in his eyes. The more she struggled
to breathe the greater his enjoyment. In these last moments
of her life she realized bliss for him was watching
The blackness returned to the edges of her vision, and
with each second her constricting pupils squeezed out
She had no breath to scream.
And then, like the final curtain call in the theater, the
He stared down at her. It was a miracle that she’d
gotten up off the table. After what the First One had
done, it was a wonder she was alive. But he’d have been
furious if she’d died. The killing was his treat. His well deserved
He’d not expected she’d be such a fighter. She was a
beautiful woman accustomed to using her beauty to get
what she wanted. She’d never tasted the harshness that
life really could offer.
But she’d faced him with a haughty arrogance that he
found a bit charming. It was always more fun to bring
the bossy ones down a peg.
He clicked on an overhead light and studied her face.
Her flesh had been torn and bruised. If anyone saw her
now, they’d be appalled by the damage. He didn’t like it
when skin was mauled and ruined.
But thankfully, her injuries were only skin-deep.
Flesh may have been torn, but her bones were sure
She would make a fine addition to his collection.