Today's Reading

He glanced around the desolate area. Who would be out here? A hunter? Only a fool would hunt in the restricted area with all the unexploded ordnance around. And why would a hunter be down in a pit? He peered at the dark opening. Why would a hunter have ventured into this particular lava tube? Koa saw nothing unusual about it. He searched the ground for anything that might give him answers. Not much. Just the heel marks and disturbed rock.

He directed his beam of light into the lava tube. He didn't like caves—they held too many unpleasant surprises. Carefully, he picked his way into the darkness. A putrid smell assaulted him instantly. "Oh God," he exclaimed, pulling a handkerchief from his pocket and fastening it across his nose and mouth. Then he saw the body.

Koa stepped closer and stopped short. Even as a veteran of the Special Forces in Somalia and a witness to more than a few murder scenes, he struggled to suppress his nausea. Control. Stay in control. Block emotion. Concentrate. He clenched his teeth until they hurt. His nausea receded.

It was a horrendous crime scene, and Koa sensed that catching the killer would require all of his resources. He'd have to focus his military and police training, his intense powers of observation, and his own criminal experience—as a teenager he'd killed the man who'd tormented and ultimately killed his father and gotten away with it—to find the perverted killer who left this corpse.

In the dozen years since 2003, when he'd left the Army to join the police, Koa had heard about ritual killings, but had never actually seen one. Until now. The naked body lay with its legs toward him, feet slightly separated. The trunk was bloated from putrefaction. The skin had blackened. The genitals had shrunk into the body, but the deceased was unmistakably male. The sight, the smell, and the walls squeezed in upon Koa.

The victim's arms had been drawn out to the sides. The upper arms were swollen, but below the elbows the flesh had shriveled. Bones protruded from shredded hands and smashed fingers. Slash marks cut wide ribbons across the distended chest. The incisions must have been deep, he judged, for the swelling to open up the flesh in those straight, wide tracks. A sharp knife or, perhaps, a straight razor. Something with a real edge. It wasn't easy to slice human flesh. The killer had been strong. Koa looked around for a knife but saw none.

The face had blackened to pulp, much of it bludgeoned beyond recognition. The lower facial bones had been shattered. Nose broken. Jaw smashed. Most of the teeth knocked out. The killer must have directed numerous blows at the victim's mouth. Dental identification would be difficult, maybe impossible.

An empty socket leered at Koa from the left side of the dead man's face. A gaping blackened hole surrounded by withered flesh. The hole on the left side of the skull seemed to fix upon him. Koa's own eye, his left eye, began to hurt. He shook his head to dislodge the false pain. Mutilated hands, battered faces—he'd seen those before, but desecration of an eye was something new. The killer must have gouged out the eyeball.

But why? Why pluck out the left eye? Some savage had derived great pleasure from acting out this rite. That was Koa's job, to stop people from acting like ancient savages.

Koa swung the light back and forth, searching for any other evidence. Trying to absorb every aspect of the scene. To miss nothing. To avoid being misled by false clues. No clothes. No shoes. Where were the victim's clothes? The killer must have taken them.

Farther back in the cave his light revealed piles of small rock fragments. A blackened spot. Remnants of charcoal. A fire ring. A long-doused fire. It looked as though it had been there for ages.

The light fell on a peculiarly shaped dark gray or black rock next to the victim's left leg. It was rectangular at one end, angled in the middle, and tapered to an edge at the other end, like a cutting instrument. A man-made shape, not a natural rock form. Some kind of primitive stone tool. The ancient fire and now this strange rock. Maybe this place had some historical significance. Koa made a note to call the state archaeologist.

He stooped down, keeping his back straight, and directed his beam of light to examine the object more closely. Dried blood covered part of the dark gray stone.

Blood? He examined the floor around the corpse. Blood was only in one small place, where a puddle had congealed and dried. He looked more closely. Not much blood. Odd. There should be more blood—a lot more blood—given the carnage wreaked upon the body. Koa walked out into the sunlight. Tearing the handkerchief from his face, he sucked in the clean, dry air. Questions ricocheted in his mind. It was always like that at the beginning of an investigation, and he'd learned to let the questions accumulate unanswered. Questions opened the mind to unlikely possibilities. That and his own secret criminal history were what made him such a good investigator.
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