At the Stroke of Madness (The Maggie O'Dell Series, Book 4)

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9780778320555: At the Stroke of Madness (The Maggie O'Dell Series, Book 4)

With only an old man afflicted with Alzheimer's as a witness, FBI Special Agent Maggie O'Dell is on the trail of a serial killer who targets people with physical disabilities, removing each victim's imperfections to keep as a twisted trophy.

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About the Author:

Alex Kava has a bachelor's degree in art and English. Before writing novels full-time, she ran her own graphic design firm and later was director of public relations for one of the last all-women's colleges in the Midwest. She is a member of Sisters in Crime and the Mystery Writers of America. Kava lives in Omaha, Nebraska.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Saturday, September 13

Meriden, Connecticut

It was almost midnight, and yet Joan Begley continued to wait.

She tapped her fingernails on the steering wheel and watched for headlights in her rearview mirror. She tried to ignore the streaks of lightning in the distance, telling herself the approaching storm was headed in the other direction. Occasionally, her eyes darted across the front windshield. She barely noticed the spectacular view of city lights below, more interested in getting a glimpse in the side mirrors, as if she could catch something the rearview mirror may have missed.

"Objects may be closer than they appear."

The print on the passenger-side mirror made her smile. Smile and shiver at the same time. Not like she could see anything in this blasted darkness. Probably not until it was right on top of her car.

"Oh, that's good, Joan," she admonished herself. "Freak yourself out." She needed to think positively. She needed to keep a positive attitude. What good were all her sessions with Dr. Patterson if she threw out everything she had learned so easily?

What was taking him so long? Maybe he had gotten here earlier and had given up on her. After all, she was ten minutes late. Not intentionally. He'd forgotten to mention the fork in the road, right before the final climb to the top. It had taken her on an unexpected detour. It was bad enough that it was pitch dark up here, a canopy of tree branches overhead so thick even the moonlight couldn't penetrate it. What moonlight was left. The thunderheads would soon block out, or rather they would replace, the moonlight with what promised to be a hell of a lightning show.

God, she hated thunderstorms. She could feel the electricity in the air. Could almost taste it, metallic and annoying, like leaving the dentist with a fresh filling. And it only added to her anxiety. It pricked at her nerves like a reminder that she shouldn't be here. That maybe she shouldn't be doing this...that she shouldn't be doing this, again.

Those stupid, distracting thunderclouds had even caused her to lose her sense of direction. Or at least that's what she was blaming, though she knew full well all it took was getting into a rent-a-car. As soon as she closed the car door her ability to tell direction flew right out the window. It didn't help matters that all these Connecticut cities were made up of streets that ran every which way except at right angles or in straight lines. She had gotten lost plenty of times in the last several days. Then tonight, on the entire trip up here, she kept taking wrong turns, despite telling herself over and over that she would not, could not, get lost again. Yet, if it hadn't been for the old man and his dog, she would have been driving around in circles, looking for the West Peak.

"Walnut hunting," he had told her, and she hadn't thought anything of it at the time, because she was too anxious, too preoccupied. Now, as she waited, she remembered that he wasn't carrying a bag or bucket or sack. Just a flashlight. Who went walnut hunting in the middle of the night? Odd. Yes, there had been something quite odd about the man. A lost, faraway look in his eyes, and yet he didn't hesitate in giving her animated directions to the top of this wind-howling, branch-creaking, shadowy ridge.

Why in the world had she come?

She grabbed her cell phone and punched in the number from memory, crossing her fingers, only to be disappointed when the voice-messaging service picked up after the second ring. "You've reached Dr. Gwen Patterson. Please leave your name and phone number and I'll get back to you as soon as possible."

"As soon as possible might be too late," Joan said in place of a greeting, then laughed, regretting the words because Dr. P. would try to read between the lines. But then wasn't that what she was paying her the big bucks for? "Hey, Dr. P., yes, it's me again. Sorry to be such a pain in the ass. But you were right. I'm doing it again. So no, I guess I haven't learned my lesson, because here I am in the middle of the night, sitting in my dark car and waiting for...yeah, you guessed it, a man. Actually Sonny is different. Remember I told you about him in my e-mail? We've been getting together to talk, just talk. At least so far. He really does seem like a nice guy. Definitely not my type, right? Not like I'm a good judge of character when it comes to men. For all I know he could be an ax murderer, huh?" Another forced laugh. "Look, I was just hoping. I don't know. Maybe I was hoping you would talk me out of this. Save me from...oh, you know... Save me from myself, like you always do. Who knows, maybe he won't even show up. Anyway, I'll see you Monday morning for our usual rendezvous. You can yell at me then. Okay?"

She hung up before the string of prerecorded options, one of which would have allowed her to review her message, revise it or even delete it. She didn't want to be faced with any more choices, not tonight. She was sick and tired of making decisions. That's all she had done the last few days: The Serenity Package or the Deluxe-in-case-you're-feeling-guilty Premium Package? White roses or white lilies? The walnut casket with brass trim or the mahogany with silk lining?

Good heavens! Who would have thought there were so many stupid decisions involved in burying someone?

Joan tossed the phone into her bag. She drew her fingers through her thick blond hair, batted impatiently at damp strands to push them off her forehead. She glanced in the rearview mirror, turning on the overhead light to get a look at her dark roots. She needed to take care of those soon. Being a blonde sure took a lot of work.

"You've become high maintenance, girlfriend," she told the eyes in the mirror. Eyes she hardly recognized some days with new ravens cutting into what were once cute little laugh lines. Would that be her next project? A part of the new image she was creating for herself? God! She had even visited a plastic surgeon. What was she thinking? That she could re-create herself like one of her sculptures? Mold a new Joan Begley out of clay, dip it in brass, then solder on a couple of new attitudes while she was at it?

Maybe it was hopeless. Yet she did seem to be gaining control over the yo-yo dieting. Okay, control might not be the right word, because she wasn't totally convinced she did have control, but she had to admit that her new body felt good. Really good. It allowed her to do things she could never do before. She had more energy. Without the extra weight she could get back to maneuvering around her metal sculptures and didn't get winded every five minutes, waiting like her blow torch for more fuel to pump through before she could get going again.

Yes, this new slender self had an impact on her work, too. It made her feel like she had a whole new lease on work, on life. So why in the back of her mind was she unable to stifle that damn annoying little voice, that constant nag that kept asking, "How long will it last this time?"

The truth was, no matter how wonderful things were, she didn't trust this new person she was becoming. She didn't trust it like she didn't trust sugarless chocolate or fat-free potato chips. There had to be a catch, like a bad aftertaste or chronic diarrhea. No, what it came down to was that she didn't trust herself. That was it. That was the real problem. She didn't trust herself and that was what got her into trouble. That was what had brought her to the top of this ridge in the middle of the fricking night, waiting for some guy to make her feel good, to make her feel—Jesus, she hated to admit it—waiting for some guy to make her feel complete.

Dr. P. said it was because she didn't think she deserved to be happy. That she didn't feel worthy, or some psychobabble crap. She had told Joan over and over again that it didn't matter that there was a new improved exterior as long as the old interior didn't change.

God! She hated when her shrink was right.

She wondered if she should try calling her again. No, that was ridiculous. She glanced at the rearview mirror. He probably wouldn't show up, anyway.

Suddenly Joan realized she was disappointed. How silly was that? Maybe she really did think this guy was different. He was different from her regular fare—quiet and shy and interested. Yes, actually interested in listening to her. She hadn't imagined that part. Sonny did seem interested, maybe even concerned about her. Especially when she gave him that load of bull about her weight problem being caused by a hormone deficiency, like it was something out of her control that made her overeat. But instead of treating it like the gutless excuse it was, Sonny believed her. He believed her.

Why kid herself. That's why she was up here in the middle of nowhere, waiting in the dark. When was the last time a man had taken an interest in her? A real interest in her and not just in her new slender exterior with the artificial blond hair?

She shut off the overhead light and stared out at the city lights below. It was quite beautiful. And if she would relax, she might be able to see that it was quite romantic, despite that annoying rumble of thunder. Was that a raindrop on the windshield? Great! Wonderful! Just what she needed.

She tapped her fingernails on the steering wheel again and went back to her vigil, checking the side mirrors, then the rearview mirror.

Why was he so late? Had he changed his mind? Why would he change his mind?

She grabbed her handbag and searched inside, digging to the bottom until she heard the crinkle. She pulled out and ripped open the bag of M&M's, poured a handful and began popping them, one after another, into her mouth, as if they were Zoloft tablets, expecting the chocolate to calm her. It usually worked.

"Yes, of course, he'll come," she finally announced out loud with a mouthful, as if the sound of her voice was necessary for confirmation. "Something came up. Something he had to take care of. He's a very busy guy."

After all he had done for her in the last week.... Well, surely she could wait for him. She had been kidding herself to think that l...

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