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CHAPTER ONE


It was the mark of the devil carved into a man’s chest that made Detective Paige Aldridge offer a rue smile. The blood was dry, meaning he’d been dead at least for a little while. Another murder victim. She was happy this one was not connected to the Demon, Leraje, with whom Paige had been battling for the last few months. This was something different. It even felt like another world. Paige didn’t want to think the Devil’s Mark Killer was anything beyond a satanic worshipping serial killer and not the real deal. However, she put nothing too far out of her mind. She’d seen enough to know better. And she had one of her feelings.

On her knees beside the victim, Paige knelt in three inches of snow. She ignored the shivers as she looked up at Officer Tom Miller, who was hovering over her and rifling through the victim’s wallet. Tom was her personal police bodyguard following a recent attempt on her life. “Do you have an ID?” she asked.

“Yep. This one is Brian McIver from High Street. Aged forty-two.” Tom said as he examined the driver’s license. “There’s credit cards and cash still in here. Other than being a victim, I’ll bet there’s no connection to the others. But I’ll run it anyway. How long?” he asked the CSI agent, Tamara Evans, who was busy zipping up evidence bags.

“About twenty-four hours,” Tamara replied. “He was most likely killed yesterday. Give or take a few hours. I’ll know more soon enough.”

Paige nodded. With a blue gloved hand, she carefully turned the victim’s head to examine him further. This was the fifth victim with an inverted pentagram carved into the skin. The Devil's Mark. The killer had been busy. The victim's hands had apparently been bound at one time as there were rope burn marks around his wrists. However, there was no sign of rope or cuffs or anything of the sort nearby. The snow had just fallen over the last few hours. This made investigating the scene nearly impossible. This was the same MO as the other victims. No sign of robbery. No sign of abuse. Just bound, murdered, and mutilated. Only there was always one more thing...

“Thanks,” Paige said as she carefully turned the victim’s head the other direction and noticed his face had turned purple and his eyes looked a little bugged out. “Looks to have choked as well. How much ya wanna bet I find an upside-down crucifix shoved down his throat?”

“I’d bet on you,” Tom tried to laugh but it faded away.

Tamara walked toward the CSI van. Tom took the opportunity and leaned down so only Paige could hear him. “Get anything yet?”

“No. Not yet. I’ve been in and out of the Collective Conscious looking for the killer all month. I’ve not gleaned a thing. Not even from the victims. Not even today,” Paige said as she pried the victim’s frozen mouth open with a pen from her pocket. She glanced over her shoulder to make sure no one was watching. She had to be careful not to disturb the body even more, but she just wanted a peek inside. Sure enough, the end of a three-inch-long crucifix was visible and lodged top side down in his throat. “I need to be sure to get this from Evidence once the autopsy is done. I want to find who’s buying these things.” Paige groaned as she stood up. “I’m not giving up. I’ll keep looking. I’ll find them.”

Tom touched her shoulder, “I don’t doubt that. Not even for a second.”

“I wish I had as much faith in myself. I would have found my sister.” Paige’s voice drifted away.

After the initial investigation was over, Paige stood and watched as the paramedics carefully strapped the body onto a gurney and then pushed it into the ambulance. Watching their breath form a mist in front of them fascinated her for some reason. She imagined Brian McIver’s last breath in the cold. The crucifix had been shoved in violently after the victim had been strangled. The thought depressed her. She had to find the killer. Five victims. All males. No apparent connection to each other, that is, other than being murdered by a serial killer with the same MO. Why the Devil’s mark? What’s going on? What are we missing? Paige said quietly, under her breath. After looking around to make sure no one was watching, she leaned against her car, closed her eyes, and tapped into the Collective Conscious.

Paige was called a Reader and able to read everyone's thoughts that flowed through the Collective Conscious. At times, if she wanted, she could manipulate other’s thoughts. Only thoughts and images could be read and only as people thought about them. They didn’t stay in the Collective Conscious, waiting to be discovered. They only passed through quickly, never to return unless someone thought of them again. Feelings could not be read unless the words were formed in the thinker's mind like “Man, I feel sick” or “I’m so in love with her.” After training with the FBI and a mystical boost from a fellow Reader, Visette, Paige had become excellent at accessing the Collective Conscious at will.

She was one of six Readers and a strong one at that. She knew of four Readers already but was currently looking for the last. Paige needed each to fight the demon, Leraje, who was trying to take each of their powers for his own.

But she couldn’t think about that now. She needed to find the serial killer before he struck again. In the moment, Paige, she whispered to herself. Live in the moment. She settled into her thoughts and returned to the Collective Conscious. She looked for someone who would be thinking about any of the murders, a crucifix or the mark. Even though she shuddered at the thought, she looked for someone thinking about carving the pentagram into someone’s skin. Again today, she came up empty.


*****


As Tom stood by the ambulance, he looked to his left toward Paige. It was his job to keep an eye on her, and the other Readers, as much as possible. He and Agent Riggs from the FBI were the two Keepers of the Secrets about the Readers and their abilities. Although Agent Riggs was missing, Tom did his best to keep an eye on Paige as they searched for Junna, Paige’s sister, and one more unknown Reader. He worried about Paige. Even as strong as she was, she was becoming extremely stressed out and he wondered how much more she could take. Being assigned by the Chief of Detectives to be her bodyguard was a blessing.


*****


Paige drew in a deep breath and listened to the thousands of thoughts which moved through. She tried to visualize them as she looked for someone who might be thinking of the murders or planning the next one. Again, she even looked for someone just looking at a crucifix. Anything that might be connected.

After several moments, as Paige drifted from thought to thought, she gleaned an image. It was faint at first, but as the image became clearer, she could see another inverted cross. It too was in someone’s mouth. She was onto something. She tried to see more of the surroundings to determine if maybe another murder was in progress or if the killer was just remembering, thinking about what he had done.


*****


A strange light suddenly emanated from the slits in Paige’s nearly closed eyes. Tom wondered if anyone else noticed it. It was faint, but obvious. He knew she was on to something. Something big. A strange sense of relief consumed him. Tom quickly talked to the other investigators at the scene as he tried to draw everyone to the other side of the ambulance to keep them from noticing what Paige was doing. He wished she had just climbed into her car. It would make his job of keeping her talents hidden much easier. The ambulance suddenly drove away, leaving her exposed to those that stood by.

What to do? Tom thought and then pretended to see something in the snow. Anything to keep them away from Paige. "Hey, there's something over there," he pointed in the opposite direction. As the other officers left to go look, he took one more glance at Paige. She had slid down and sat in the snow against her car. Her head lowered now so no one could see her eyes. Relieved, Tom said, “Sorry. I thought I saw a rope in the snow. Must have been my imagination.”


*****


Paige watched images fly by like an old-timey picture show in the Collective Conscious. She could see a pair of hands prying open the mouth of a woman. Another victim. The first female victim that she knew of. The hands forcing open the jaw of the victim appeared to be male. Big hands. Paige took a deep breath. Where are you? Who are you? She whispered in her thoughts and sent them toward the man. She could see as if through his eyes as he looked around at their surroundings. They were in an alley. Paige could barely make out a street sign. Frankfort Avenue. Okay, Paige knew the area. She could find the body. She had only to scour the alleys along Frankfort. The man then slowly looked down at the victim. Paige could see the top of what looked like an inverted pentagram scratched into her chest, just above her blouse. The blood was fresh and bright red. The stain on her blouse was still growing slightly. Two murders in two days. He was stepping it up.

The woman was blonde, pretty, and not someone Paige recognized. She watched as the man brushed the woman's hair with his hand and trailed his finger down her cheek. Come on now. Show me who you are. Paige said to the man. He then slowly stood up and removed a wallet from his jeans pocket. He flipped the wallet open and glanced at his driver’s license. After a moment he slipped it back into his pocket. Paige had the name of the Devil’s Mark Killer. Victor Riley McCain.


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