THIS IS BOOK NINE 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, and
8. THE COPYCAT
it is highly suggested that you stop now and read the previous eight books before continuing.
Tuesday: June 3, 2025
4:00 AM; CLINSTONE, THE AUSTEN-TAYLOR HOUSEHOLD, MASTER BEDROOM
For the first time since early April, Bo Austen and Jensen Taylor were still sound asleep. The couple had been raising the youngest set of Mason twins since April second, and their ritual consisted of late nights, early mornings, and little to no sleep.
The door to the bedroom opened, and Amber Austen-Taylor poked her head into the room. After fostering the little blonde girl for over a year, the couple adopted her, changing her last name from Spade to a hyphenated form of their own last names. She hurried into the room, jumping onto the bed. Bo grunted as Hati, their Boxer, jumped off the foot of the bed.
Bo cleared his throat, lifting his blue eyes to Amber’s face. “What’re you doing up?” he asked, his voice rough.
“I’m not tired.”
He turned toward the alarm clock, sighing. “Baby, the sun doesn’t even come up for… another hour and a half,” he said, rubbing at his eyes. “You have school today,” he added for good measure.
“That’s why I can’t sleep. It’s the last day!” she exclaimed.
Jensen groaned, pulling away from Bo and rolling onto his back. “You gotta go back to bed, sweetheart,” he said quietly. “We’re too old to only get four hours of sleep.” Bo snorted.
“Daddy!” Amber laughed, reaching over to shove at Jensen’s chest. “You aren’t that old,” she said.
Jensen lifted his shoulders, rolling onto his side. “Well, I tried.”
Bo tapped a hand against Amber’s knee. “Move back, sweetheart.” Amber moved back on the bed, allowing Bo to sit up. He climbed out of bed and held out a hand. “Come on.” Amber grabbed his hand, jumping off the bed. “So, you really aren’t tired?” he asked as they walked out of the bedroom.
“Nope. I’m just so excited, Daddy,” Amber said.
“Mm.” Bo smiled softly, bending down to pick her up. Standing at a height of three-foot-eight, Bo knew it wouldn’t be long before he couldn’t carry the seven-year-old around at all, so he took the opportunity to carry her whenever it presented itself. She had taken to calling both he and Jensen ‘Daddy’ a month ago, and Bo loved every second of it.
“It’s track and field day, Daddy. We get to be outside all day.”
“I know, baby.” In the kitchen, Bo set her on the counter and turned on the coffee maker. He and Jensen had taken to filling the water reservoir and putting in the coffee grounds before going to bed. It made the process that much quicker in the morning.
“You guys are gonna be there, right?” Amber asked.
One corner of Bo’s mouth lifted. “Of course we are.” He leaned back against the counter, crossing his arms over his chest. “We’ll be there for you and Kayla, and then we’ll go out for pizza with the Masons after school gets out.”
“And Aunt Celia?” Amber questioned. Bo nodded. “Awesome,” she whispered.
Bo closed his eyes, sighing as one of the Mason twins started crying. He pushed away from the counter, pulling open the refrigerator. He knew from experience that if one was up, the second would soon follow. He grabbed two prepared baby bottles, letting the door shut again. He turned on the water in the sink, adjusting it to a warm temperature. He held one of the bottles under the water, clearing his throat. “Are you hungry, Am?”
“I could eat,” Amber said.
Bo smiled faintly. “Okay. You figure out what you want and let me know.” He flicked a drop of milk onto his wrist. Satisfied with the temperature, he set the bottle on the counter and repeated the process with the second bottle. As he dried the water off the bottles, Jensen came into the kitchen, laying a hand on Bo’s lower back.
“I’ve got Noah,” he said quietly. He picked up the bottle with the blue lid and walked out of the kitchen. Noah and Eve Mason were on different kinds of formula. Eve needed extra support to her immune system, while Noah didn’t need quite as much help. All of Noah’s bottles were marked with a dark blue lid, while Eve’s were marked with a soft pink.
Bo grabbed Amber’s hand and helped her off the counter. “I’ll feed Eve, and then I’ll come back and make breakfast, okay?”
“Okay, Daddy.” Amber squeezed his hand before scampering off toward the family room. Bo smiled softly. Grabbing the bottle from the counter, he headed back to the nursery. At the end of March, Amber had been moved into Kayla’s bedroom so that he and Jensen could set up the cribs and changing table for the twins. Amber and Kayla had gotten a bunkbed to share, the bottom bunk larger than the top, an aspect both girls appreciated, as Amber ended up in the bottom bunk with Kayla most nights anyway.
Bo set the baby bottle on the small table by the door and crossed the room. He lifted Eve out of her crib and sat down in one of the two rocking chairs in the room. He grabbed the baby bottle and positioned at Eve’s mouth. He smiled as she took it without complaint. He lifted his gaze to Jensen’s face. Jensen smiled back at him. They had worked out a routine, and one day, when they had twins of their own, the routine would carry over and continue to be a success.
11:21 AM; CLINSTONE ELEMENTARY, FOOTBALL FIELD, BLEACHERS
Bo pulled his phone from his back pocket, his eyes scanning the text on his screen. “Oh, you have to be kidding me,” he whispered.
“What?” Jensen questioned.
“There’s a damn homicide across town,” Bo said. “Misty’s here, and Gwen’s out of town, so I have to go in.”
“That’s one word for it.” Bo sighed heavily. “You watch the twins, watch our girls, and I will try to make this as fast as possible,” he said. Jensen nodded, wrapping a hand around the double stroller beside him. Bo leaned up and kissed him. “Jake was heading to the bathroom last time I saw him. Let him know we have a scene, please?”
“Will do, babe,” Jensen promised.
Bo smiled faintly, turning back toward the track that circled around the field. “Run your little heart out, baby!” he shouted. Kayla smiled at him, offering a thumbs-up as she readied herself to start running. The starter gun was fired and she took off. “Text me, let me know how she does.”
“I will. Or I’ll make Jake tell you,” Jensen said.
Bo nodded. He squeezed Jensen’s hand and, with a sigh, headed toward the parking lot.
11:30 AM; CLINSTONE, TROJAN PARK BASEBALL FIELD
“All right. What’dya got?” Bo asked, pulling off his ring. He dropped it into the side pocket of his camera case before pulling a pair of gloves over his hands.
“Dead gal washed up on the edge of the grass around the field,” Detective Skye Ramirez said. “Rock River runs right along the edge.”
“Heavy winds last night. Storm could’ve washed her up,” Bo suggested as he followed the Detective across the field.
“Warning. She’s headless,” Skye said.
Bo shook his head. “Wish I could say I was surprised.” He set his camera case down on the grass several feet away from the body. Unzipping it, he pulled out his camera, quickly attaching the lens and external flash. He walked back to the woman’s corpse, turning his camera on. “Good news is that she wasn’t in the water long. I’ll probably be able to pull a fingerprint, see if she’s in the system.”
“If she’s not?” Detective Anna Floyd questioned.
“Then we’ll see if her blood’s in the system,” Bo said. He lifted his camera, snapping a picture of the corpse. “Or if she’s a familial link to anyone in the system. Go from there,” he said. “Coroner on his way?”
“Yeah, he’ll be here in a few,” Anna said.
Bo nodded, squatting down for a better picture of the woman’s throat. “Ah, Christ,” he said quietly.
“She was alive when the killer started sawing through her throat.”
“Ay, Dios Mío,” Skye whispered.
Bo cleared his throat, snapping a picture of the cut mark. “I’d say it was done with a bone saw rather than an actual saw, but I’ll take measurements back at the station to find that out for sure.” He moved to the side, taking a picture of the bruising around her wrists. “She was strapped down. Not with rope, by the looks of it.”
“Leather?” Anna suggested.
“Possibly,” Bo agreed. “Again, I’ll look into at the morgue later today. I hate to be a dick to a dead lady, but I kind of had plans today,” he said quietly. He cleared his throat. “Marks on the ankles and around the waist, as well. I’d say she was strapped down in all those places. Not the throat, though. Killer maybe… had a hand on the woman’s forehead or around her jaw or chin to keep her still,” he said. “Did any clothes wash up with her?”
“No,” Skye said.
“Mmhmm. Killer probably wasn’t remorseful, then in any way, shape, or form. They would’ve at least left her dressed if they were remorseful,” Bo noted. He let his camera rest on his thigh, the strap hanging around his neck. He pulled his phone from his pocket, unlocking the screen. Clearing his throat, he lifted the woman’s hand and pressed her thumb to the home button of his phone. His brow furrowed. Her nails had been removed. “She was in supine when you found her?”
“Yeah,” Anna said. “Why? Was she not like that in the water?”
“It’s hard to tell. Water messes with the way blood settles in the body, and it makes livor mortis basically useless when it comes to figuring out body position,” Bo said. “But she was definitely killed on her back, based on the initial throat laceration,” he added. He looked up as he heard a car door shut.
Sergeant Jacob Mason walked across the field, hands shoved into the pockets of his jeans. “What’ve we got?” he questioned.
“Dead woman. I’d say at least in her thirties. Head removed, not found on scene. No clothes found on scene. She was strapped down and the killer started cutting at her throat while she was alive,” Bo said.
“Jesus Christ. With a fucking saw?”
“Looks that way,” Bo agreed.
Jacob pulled a hand from his pocket, pushing his glasses up on his nose. “Do you have an ID?”
Bo glanced down at his phone. “No. Not yet,” he said. “My tester’s in my camera bag.” Jacob nodded, turning around and heading over to Bo’s camera bag. He came back, handing a small box over to Bo. Bo opened it, grabbing the tester and plugging it into the headphone jack on his phone. “Kayla?” he questioned.
“She won,” Jacob said.
“Good girl,” Bo whispered. He pulled a small needle from the box and pricked the woman’s finger. Squeezing it tightly, he swiped a tester strip through the blood that beaded on the pad of her finger. He slid it into the tester. “Her nails have been torn off, too,” he said, closing the box and pushing himself to his feet.
“Dead or alive?” Jacob asked, taking the small box from the blonde.
“Dead. It would’ve been done after the head was removed,” Bo said. Wrapping a hand around the lense of his camera, he held it against his chest, easing some of the weight around his neck. “Best guess is that the woman scratched the killer and the nails were removed to avoid the risk of getting caught by DNA.”
Jacob nodded. “Anything else?”
“Nothing that I can tell without being at the morgue and cutting her open,” Bo said. He looked down at his phone. “Serena Bishop,” he said softly. He used his thumb to click on her driver’s license. “She doesn’t live here,” he said.
“Where does she live?”
“Ellepath,” Bo said quietly.
Jacob frowned. “Where the hell is that?”
“So… what do we do?” Jacob asked.
Bo sighed. “Call Ellepath’s station and see what they want to do. It’s their citizen, not ours,” he said. “The coroner will take her back to the morgue, but I can’t touch her until Ellepath is contacted.”
Jacob nodded. “I’ll call David, fill him in,” he said. “You two good to stay here until the coroner gets here?” he asked. Anna nodded. “Come on, Blondie.” Bo followed Jacob across the field, thanking the sergeant as he picked up his camera case. “Looks like we got another bone keeper, huh?” he asked quietly.
Bo sighed. The Hunter, Steven Brady, had kept bones, among other things, from his victims. “Looks that way,” he agreed.
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