By: Sandra Brown

“Rudkowski can go fuck himself.”

“Rumor is, he’s tried, but can’t quite figure out how to go about it.”

Gif’s quip got a rare snort of humor out of Mike and a reluctant grin from Drex. Gif was good at defusing a tense situation. Of average height and weight, with thinning brown hair, and not a single feature that was distinguishing, Gif’s averageness was his camouflage. He could observe others unnoticed and unremembered, which made him a valuable asset to the team. He was also a reliable predictor of human behavior, as he’d just demonstrated.

Drex’s impulse had been to rush in hell-bent and create havoc.

Needing a moment to collect his thoughts, he motioned toward the minibar. “Help yourselves.” He stood up and began pacing in the limited space between the bed and the window.

Mike and Gif made their selections and popped the tops off soda cans. Mike complained that he needed a crowbar to get the lid off the jar of mixed nuts. Gif offered to give it a try. Mike scoffed at that and called him a weakling.

Drex tuned out their bickering and focused his thoughts on his quarry, a man he first knew as Weston Graham, although that could be just another of his many aliases. Having eluded the authorities for decades, he could have turned up enjoying a Frosty at the Wendy’s across the freeway or burning incense in a monastery in the Himalayas, and neither would have surprised Drex.

He was a chameleon, exceptionally good at altering his appearance and adapting to his environment. Among the ones in which he’d lived comfortably and without arousing suspicion were a penthouse on Chicago’s Gold Coast, a horse ranch outside of Santa Barbara, and a yacht moored in Key West. Other locales that he had oozed his way through—those that Drex knew of—weren’t that ritzy. They hadn’t had to be. All had been extremely profitable for him.

When his cohorts had resettled, Drex asked, “What put you onto the guy in South Carolina?”

“I run my trot lines continually, but what finally tipped me?” Mike said around a burp. “An online dating service. Figuring he vets his victims somehow, I troll those services periodically just to see if something clicks. Day before yesterday, I came across a profile that did. The wording of it jostled my memory. Felt like I’d read it before.

“Took me a while to find it, but there it was. Except for the physical description of himself, it was word for word, comma for comma, identical to this most recent one. Likes, dislikes, five-year goals, philosophy of life and love. All that bullcrap. But the kicker? It was posted six months before Pixie went missing.”

Patricia Montgomery, known as Pixie to her friends, had vanished from her Tulsa mansion, never to be seen again.

“Coincidence, Mike,” Drex said. “Acquaintances of Pixie’s who were interviewed swore that she never would have used a dating service to meet men.”

“The acquaintances of all the missing ladies have sworn that. They’ve also sworn their friend was too savvy to be taken in by a con man. But Pixie disappeared within days of selling her stocks and emptying her bank accounts of her oil fortune.”

Gif said, “The only thing missing from her home was her PC. Her seducer left behind tens of thousands of dollars in jewelry and furs but took an outdated computer.”

“So there wouldn’t be evidence of an online flirtation,” Mike said. The leather seat beneath him groaned as he leaned forward to take the near-empty jar of nuts from Gif. “You’re frowning,” he said to Drex.

“I want to be excited, but this is awfully thin.”

“You’re right. Thin as onionskin. So I went back to his victim after Pixie. At least the one we suspect to have been his victim.”

“Marian Harris. Key West.”

“Eight months before her disappearance, the same damn profile was posted. Different dating service, but one that also caters to ‘mature’ clients with ‘discriminating tastes.’”

“Word for word?” Drex asked.

“Like a fingerprint.”

“Bad joke,” Gif said.

The man they sought had never left a fingerprint. Or if he had, no one had found it. Freakin’ Ted Bundy.

Mike shook the last of the nuts straight from the jar into his mouth. “Pittsburgh didn’t take him as long,” he said as he noshed. “He solicited ‘companionship’ with ‘a refined lady’ only three months before Loretta Doan’s disappearance, more than six years ago.”