THIS IS BOOK TEN IN THE BO AUSTEN SERIES. If you have not read:
1. THE SURGEON
2. THE DOLLHOUSE MURDERER
3. THE HUNTER
4. THE PUPPET MASTER
5. THE WHITE ROSE BUTCHER
6. THE ACID BATH KILLER
7. THE GHOST
8. THE COPYCAT, and
9. THE BONEKEEPER,
it is highly suggested that you stop now and read the previous nine books before continuing.
Monday: February 23, 2026
5:57 AM; LOS ANGELES, STELLAR HOTEL & SPA, ROOM 204
A cell phone buzzed on the hotel nightstand. Bo Austen cracked an eye open, squinting at the bright light already shining from his phone. Jensen Taylor’s arm tightened around Bo’s chest as the blonde reached out to grab his phone. Bo blinked several times, barely adjusting to the light. Clearing his throat, his blue eyes skimmed the message on his screen.
Clinstone dispatch for a presumed ten-fifty-six. Bo frowned. A suicide? His heart skipped a beat as he scrolled through the rest of the message. A presumed suicide at the school. Bo dialed Jacob Mason’s number, pressing his phone to his ear.
“Yeah?” Jacob asked after the second ring.
“The school,” Bo said plainly, his voice quiet.
“It’s not a homicide, so it’s not something I’ve been informed of,” Jacob said. “But I am on my way back to the school now to pick up my kids. School’s canceled for… obvious reasons.”
“Do you know how it happened?” Bo asked.
“No. I know basically as much as you do,” Jacob said. “Your girls are safe, if that’s your concern. I think your parents already took them back home, actually,” he said.
“Good,” Bo whispered. “Are you sure it’s a suicide?”
“Well, like I said, I don’t know much of anything about it. I think dispatch said presumed,” Jacob said. “Body’s an adult male, though.”
“An elementary school’s not a normal place to kill yourself, Jake,” Bo said simply.
“I know. I feel weird about it, too,” Jacob admitted. He cleared his throat. “Tell you what. I’ll have Misty and Gwen take a shitton of pictures, okay? Just in case.”
“Thank you, Jake.”
“You betcha. You enjoy the rest of your honeymoon, brother.”
“I’ll do my best, Jake.” Bo ended the call, bringing up his text thread with his mother instead.
Bo: Are the girls okay?
Renee Austen’s response came less than twenty seconds later.
Mom: They’re okay. We just got back to your house with them.
Bo: Did they see anything?
Mom: Kayla did. But she covered Amber’s eyes before she could turn toward anything.
Bo let out a heavy sigh, closing his eyes. He looked back at his screen, typing up a response.
Bo: How is she? Kayla?
Mom: Quiet, but she says she’s all right.
Bo: We’re coming home today then.
Mom: Bo, sweetheart, she’s okay. She’s always quiet. Your dad and I have this under control.
Bo called his mother, carefully sliding out from under Jensen’s arm. Jensen groaned, rolling onto his stomach, an arm stretched across Bo’s side of the hotel bed. Bo walked into the bathroom, flipping on the light just as his mother answered the phone. “Let me talk to her,” Bo said before Renee could even manage a greeting.
“She’s in the bathroom, sweetheart. You gotta give me a second here,” Renee said softly. “Take a breath, Bo. Breathe. Relax, okay? You’re over a thousand miles away. No need to drive yourself crazy from halfway across the country.”
Bo let out a heavy breath, dropping down to sit on the edge of bathtub. “I know. I’m sorry. I just… She’s my little girl, Mom. I worry about her.”
“And there’s nothing wrong with that, baby. It just means you’re a good parent,” she explained. “Just breathe, okay? When you’re relaxed, and when she walks back out here, I’ll put her on the phone for you. All right?”
“Okay. Thank you,” Bo murmured, running his fingers through his blonde hair.
“No problem, sweetheart.”
Less than a minute later, Renee passed the phone off to Kayla and Bo was greeted with a soft, “Daddy?”
“Hi, baby,” Bo whispered. “How are you?” he asked.
“I’m… I’m okay,” Kayla said. She fell silent for a moment before asking, “When’re you gonna be home, Daddy?”
Bo dropped his head to rest in his hand, his free hand holding his phone tightly against his ear. “Tonight.”
“Because of me? You shouldn’t… you shouldn’t come home because of me.”
“You’ve been through enough hell already, Kay. Your dad and I will come home tonight,” Bo said. “How much of it did you see?”
“Enough,” she said plainly. “I stopped Amber from seeing him, though.”
“I know you did, baby. That was so good of you. You’re… you’re so brave,” Bo said softly. He sniffled, clearing his throat. “I have to make a few calls, but we’ll see you soon. Six or seven hours. Okay?”
“Dad, you don’t have to. I’m okay,” Kayla promises.
“Don’t tell me you’re all right just because you’re scared I’ll be mad that we’re coming back to Clinstone. I’ve been looking for an excuse to come home to you guys since we left,” Bo said.
Kayla can’t help but laugh. She knew her father well enough to know that he wasn’t lying. “Okay, Dad,” she agreed. “I… I’ll see you soon.”
“Okay, baby. I love you,” Bo whispered.
“I love you, too, Dad.” Bo waited for Kayla to end the call before he dropped his phone from his ear. He closed his eyes, listening to the near silence of his surroundings, broken only by Jensen’s soft snores in the next room. Bo sighed. He figured he would be able to pack up their clothes and whatever else they had brought along with them without waking Jensen up. Neither one of them had slept more than an hour or three at a time since leaving Clinstone. Between worrying about the girls, Cecilia, and their unborn twins, sleep simply wasn’t in the cards for their days.
Bo lifted his head, meeting Jensen’s green eyes. He offered a smile. “Morning, love.”
Jensen nodded slightly, scratching his cheek. He was more than aware that he needed to shave again, but Bo had, more or less, given him a break from shaving for their time away. Bo considered it a gift of sorts, and Jensen was thankful for it. “Whatcha doing?” the younger man asked.
Bo held up his phone. “Clinstone dispatch. Apparent suicide,” he said. He cleared his throat. “At the school.”
“Jesus Christ.” Jensen crossed the room quickly, sitting down beside Bo on the edge of the bathtub. “Are the girls okay? Did they see something?” he asked.
“Kayla saw the body. I don’t know anything about it yet. Jake promised to have Gwen and Misty take pictures for me.” Bo cleared his throat. “Kay covered Amber’s eyes so she couldn’t see the body. I told Kayla we’d be home in six or seven hours. I… I don’t want to be away from them right now.”
Jensen nodded. “Are you all right if I grab a quick shower? Then I can help pack stuff back up before we get outta here.”
“That’s fine with me. I have to give Jamal a call anyway.” Bo pressed a kiss to Jensen’s temple, pushing himself to his feet. “I think I’ll join you, actually. I’ll call Jamal first and then be with you.”
Again, Jensen nodded. “I’ll have the water warm for you.”
One corner of Bo’s mouth lifted. “Thanks, love,” he said softly, squeezing Jensen’s shoulder. He walked out of the bathroom, dialing Jamal Pitman’s number.
After the first ring, Jamal’s voice came through the line, “Listening.”
“We’re going to be heading home sooner than planned,” Bo said.
“There’s an issue in Clinstone, and Kayla saw a dead body. I just…”
“I get it, Bo. Have a cab take you out to Palmdale. The plane will be waiting in… an hour and a half or so.”
“Thank you,” Bo said quietly.
“My pleasure, kiddo.”
3:41 PM; CLINSTONE POLICE DEPARTMENT, LIEUTENANT JACOB MASON’S OFFICE
Gwen Tanner knocked on the open door of Jacob’s office. “LT?” she questioned. Jacob lifted his head. “I’ve got the pictures you asked for,” she said, holding up a flash drive.
Jacob nodded. “Yeah, come on in.”
Gwen crossed the room, handing the flash drive over to the lieutenant. “Those are the best pictures of all the ones we took.”
Again, Jacob nodded. “What’d you think of the scene?” he asked.
“I don’t know. A man jumping off of a school building with a noose around his neck is… odd, to say the least,” she said. “Not a place most people would choose, for starters. Not a lot of people jump off a building to hang themselves. I’ll admit it doesn’t make sense.” She cocked her head to the side. “Is that why you had us head down there for pictures. You think it’s a homicide?”
Jacob snorted. “I don’t think anything. Bo called me, said it was unsettling,” he said. “I just figured we’d take the pictures as a backup plan, you know?”
Gwen nodded, a faint smile tugging at one corner of her mouth. “Makes sense enough. When’s blondie and his boy toy coming back?”
Jacob chuckled as he pushed himself to his feet. “I think today. If Bo didn’t have his damn phone wired to our dispatch, he wouldn’t be worried about anything. But we’ve known Bo long enough to know he’d never stay away from a potential crime scene.”
“Especially if he’s worried about his kids. He loves those girls,” Gwen said.
“I know he does. He’s a damn good father to the both of them,” Jacob said. He crossed the room, pulling open a drawer on the file cabinet. “But I would assume he’ll be back in Clinstone later tonight. I don’t see Jamal’s plane making it here successfully with the snow, so he’ll probably land elsewhere and then drive back here,” he said. He sorted through the folders before dropping a stack of paperwork into one of the files. “You got anything else for me?” Jacob asked.
“Oh, yes, I do. There’s an autopsy report for the scene yesterday down in the lab.” She smacked a hand against Jacob’s desk. “I’ll run down and grab that for you before I head out for the day.”
“Awesome. Thanks, Gwen.”
“Sure thing, Jake.”
5:28 PM; CLINSTONE POLICE DEPARTMENT, LIEUTENANT JACOB MASON’S OFFICE
Jacob stood up, shrugging his suit jacket on over his shoulders. He lifted his head, smiling faintly. “Hey, brother.”
Bo offered a smile, hands tucked behind his back. “Hey, Jake. What’re you still doing here?”
“Finished up some paperwork,” Jacob said. “I’ve got a flash drive here for you. Gwen and Misty took a lotta pictures for you, Blondie.”
Bo crossed the room, grabbing the flash drive in question. “Thank you.”
“You betcha.” Jacob smoothed out his tie, clearing his throat. “So, while you were gone, did you guys manage to have a good time?”
“Yes and no.”
Jacob chuckled. “Let me rephrase it. Did you have fun?” he questioned.
Bo smiled faintly, his gaze shifting to the floor as a soft smile formed on his face. “I… I had quite a bit of fun.”
“That’s my brother. That’s all that matters, you know. As long as you’re still having fun with the person you love… That’s the part that matters, even if your honeymoon was cut a little shorter than planned.” Bo nodded. “You seen your girls yet?”
“Not yet. We just got back. We got grounded for a bit because of the snow,” Bo said. “Home is our next stop, though. Ready to see the girls and my parents and… and just back to normal.” He lifted his head to meet Jacob’s gaze. “You’re heading home, then?”
“Yeah, finally. Allie’s grounded in Chesterwick, so I just told her to grab a hotel room and sleep out the snow. I can’t get a call that she’s been in another car accident,” Jacob murmured. Bo glanced up briefly, unable to recall a car accident since he had known Jacob. He does, however, remember reading an article from an accident she had been in years before he moved to Clinstone.
He had found that one during his days of keeping track of each individual he met, watching their rituals and figuring out their habits to see which member of CPD was a serial killer. The blonde couldn’t help but be glad he was out of that terrible stage of his life. Jensen had helped him get past the lurking suspicions and far too careful tiptoeing around his coworkers.
“Well, you make sure to drive safe, Jake.”
Jacob nodded. “Of course. Tell Jensen to do the same.”
Bo smiled faintly. “I will. I’ll see you tomorrow?”
Jacob chuckled. “You betcha. As long as we don’t get snowed in,” he added.
Bo nodded, lifting a hand. “Either way, I’ll see you around, Jake.”
11:25 PM; CLINSTONE, THE AUSTEN-TAYLOR HOUSEHOLD, MASTER BEDROOM
Bo lifted his head from the open book on his lap, turning as the door opened. “Daddy?” Kayla questioned in a whisper. Silently, Bo patted the bed. Kayla crossed the room and climbed onto the mattress, curling up beside him. Jensen was already sound asleep, one arm crooked beneath his pillow, the other stretched across Bo’s pillow, just behind the blonde’s back.
“Are you okay?” Bo asked softly, running his fingers through her hair.
“I can’t sleep,” she denies instantly. “I tried, Dad, I swear, but…”
“But when you close your eyes, all you can see is that man,” Bo murmured. Kayla nodded, curling her fingers around his shirt. Bo glanced down at the page number of his book—two hundred and eighty-three—and closed it. He reached back, setting it on his nightstand. “You can just sleep in here. Or try to, anyway.”
“Really,” he promised.
“What if I can’t sleep?”
“Then I’ll stay up with you,” Bo promised. He reached back with one hand, pulling Jensen’s arm off of his pillow. The younger man groaned, rolling onto his back. Bo smiled faintly, pulling his pillow away from the headboard. He lay down, scooching back enough to give Kayla more than enough room to be comfortable. She lay down beside him, burying her face in his chest. Bo reached up and turned off the bedside lamp.
He held Kayla close to him, gently running the fingers of one hand through her hair. They talked back and forth, voices quiet, and within half an hour, her breathing had evened out and she was sound asleep. Bo knew she wouldn’t stay asleep all night, so he was thankful he was a light sleeper. If her breathing changed, he’d wake up to comfort her.
Kayla, unlike Amber, had never seen the body of her dead mother. The dead man hanging from the roof of her school was new to her.
Bo closed his eyes. He’d look at the pictures tomorrow. He hadn’t had the chance to do so that evening, but he’d have time tomorrow. Something about it being a suicide just didn’t sit well with the blonde.
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