Read an Excerpt
Thursday, 4 September 2008
Friday was going to be the night.
He knew Savannah’s schedule, knew her habits, knew exactly when she’d be alone. And on Friday night, she would be. Her superhero Navy SEAL husband had planned to be in town for the weekend, but he’d cancelled.
Instead, he would be waiting for her.
He couldn’t wait to see her face, couldn’t wait until she realized that she was going to die, couldn’t wait until she screamed and sobbed in fear and pain.
And oh, it had been so long since he’d last relieved the nightmarish pressure that built up inside of him, pressing out from within his chest, making it hard to breathe, hard for his very heart to beat.
And yes, he’d learned to control it, pushing it back, far back. Sometimes so far back, he nearly forgot he wasn’t one of them. But he never forgot for long.
Over the past week, the pressure had returned, growing stronger and more powerful—every beat of his pulse seeming to shake him with the knowledge that it was time, it was time, it was finally time. . . .
It was time, and he’d take her tomorrow tonight. And although he loved to linger, this one he’d kill quickly. And while he knew he’d regret and miss the power and pleasure he got from drawing out her pain, he’d still get some relief.
And for that alone, as short term and temporary as it was destined to be, it would be good.
But merely good—not perfect. Perfect was reserved for her. Still, he’d have that perfection soon, because he knew, without a doubt, that, upon news of Savannah’s gruesome death, she would come.
She would come, and this game he’d been playing for all this time would begin its final quarter, this play its final act. But until then, until Friday night, he had to be patient and wait. He had a morning ritual to help him through the day.
He’d say her name aloud—just a whisper, but it would echo in the pristine, sterile bathroom—the S’s gloriously sibilant, the K sound crisp.
Then he’d go into his bedroom, and pick out a picture of her from his vast collection—some that he’d taken himself, which had been a thrill—and he’d carry it with him, all day, in the breast pocket of his jacket.
It was dangerous for him to do so. Savannah knew Alyssa well, and would ask all sorts of awkward questions if she ever saw it. He made sure she never saw it—although there had been one particularly close call. He’d had it on the table, but had swept it into the trash before Savannah got too close. He hadn’t been able to rescue it, though, before the janitor took it to the dumpster, and he’d had to print out another.
But such risks were part of the game, and carrying the photo with him gave him the comfort and strength he needed to make it through another long, dull day.
Today’s picture was one of his favorites. It had run in the Manchester newspaper. In it, Alyssa was a mere shadow, a shape, standing with a number of other law enforcement officers—police and FBI—at the place where he’d left one of them. Amanda Timberman. It had taken them six months to find Amanda, and unlike all of the others, he’d hoped that they never would.
But they had, and good had come from bad when this picture was taken.
He’d since found out that Alyssa was an investigator with a personal security firm called Troubleshooters Incorporated. She’d been hired by Amanda’s former fiancé—her job being to find Amanda, long gone missing. And find Amanda, she finally had.
When he’d first seen this picture, he hadn’t known Alyssa from any of the other shadowy person- sized shapes in the photograph. But he knew her well now—he recognized her just from the way she was standing, from the tilt of her head.
She thought she had both the brains and the skill to stalk and capture the serial killer that the media had dubbed “The Dentist.” She’d been after him for years.
But now, the Dentist was stalking her. And unlike her, he always caught his prey.
It had started on the very same day that this picture was taken— this journey he was now undertaking; a journey that would end— soon—with her blood on his hands and her pretty white teeth on a necklace he would wear close to his heart.
Her phone rang, shrill and startling in the darkness.
Jenn fumbled for her glasses, knocking them off her bedside table and onto the floor, peering at her alarm clock through the blur made worse by her grogginess.
As she picked up her glasses, the phone rang again, and she knew it had to be Maria—notorious for her insomnia. She also knew, if she answered it, that she’d be forced to recount last night’s terrible, horrible, no- good date with Scooter Randall—an ordeal which she’d driven all the way out to Long Island to endure.
“Maybe he’s changed since high school,” Maria had said, urging her to accept the dinner invitation.
A clue that he hadn’t changed might’ve been the fact that, after twelve years, he was still calling himself by his high school nickname. But Maria, despite being one of the smartest people Jenn knew when it came to most things, was a complete and total idiot when it came to relationships.
Jenn settled back in her bed, willing the call to voice mail. She knew that if Maria really, really needed her, she’d call back and she wouldn’t stop until Jenn picked up.
But then, crap, her cell phone started ringing, too.
Jenn rolled and grabbed for it, because although Maria could be something of a drama queen, there had been only one other time that she’d made a two- fisted phone call like this: when Jenn’s dad had been rushed to the hospital with a heart attack.
“I’m awake,” Jenn said now. “I’m here, what’s wrong?”
“Ford. Garage or street?” Maria’s voice was tight, clipped.
“The car, Jenn. Did you park the car in the—”
Jenn understood. “Street.” She’d gotten home last night well after the time that Vincent lowered and locked the gate to the parking garage.
A few weeks ago, she and Maria had gotten a great deal from the wizened little man. For a fraction of the price it normally cost to keep a car in New York City, they were able to garage the beat- up Taurus that they bought at the beginning of the campaign and cleverly named “Ford”—the catch being that they didn’t have access to it from midnight to 6 a.m.
So far, so good—except for the many nights they missed Vincent’s deadline, and had to park it on the street.
“Get dressed and get over here,” Maria ordered. “On second thought, don’t get dressed, just get here. We need a ride to the airport, now.”
“The airport?” Jenn asked, tucking the phone between her shoulder and ear as she pulled on the pants she’d worn on the date from hell. She kicked aside the heels she’d bought for the occasion— she was a fool to think that shoes like that made her look sexy instead of freakishly big and stupid—and stepped into her worn- out flats instead. “What airline has flights leaving at this time of—”
“We need a ride out to Westchester,” Maria interrupted. “Van’s grandmother’s chartered a plane to San Diego, and it leaves from there. Jenn, just get over here, okay? Ken’s been badly wounded. He was shot.”
“What?” Despite her disbelief, Jenn had heard what Maria said. Savannah’s Navy SEAL husband Ken had been shot. But the words didn’t line up with what she knew to be true. “Van told me he’s back from Iraq.”
“He’s not in Iraq,” Maria said, as Jenn grabbed a sweatshirt and went out the door. “He’s in San Diego. He was doing some kind of bodyguard assignment as a favor for a friend.”
“Oh, my God.” Jenn waited all of three seconds for the elevator, then bailed and took the stairs.
Maria continued, lowering her voice. “Jenni, it looks bad. He was hit three times, twice to the chest. He’s in surgery right now, but . . .” She exhaled, hard. “I’m going to fly to California with Savannah. I’m pretty sure she’s going to find out on the flight that . . . I don’t want her to get that news alone.”
“Oh, my God,” Jenn said again. “Should I come? I could come, too.”
“It was a tough enough battle,” Maria said, “to talk her into letting me go. She’s already said that she wants you to stay here and hold down the fort.”
Which made sense. They were in the middle of a political campaign, and also, well . . . Jenn was nothing if not realistic. Because even though both Maria and Savannah jokingly referred to the three of them as “Charlie’s Angels,” they were just being nice when they included her that way.
A more accurate pop- culture TV reference would’ve been for them to sing that song from Sesame Street that went “One of these things is not like the others . . .” as pictures of Maria, Savannah, and Jennilyn flashed on the screen.
The drastic differences were not merely physical.
Maria and Savannah had met at an Ivy League law school, and then renewed their friendship when they both went to work, at a huge salary, for some big, sell- your- soul law firm here in New York City. They both also left, souls miraculously intact, at about the same time—Savannah to move to California to be closer to Ken, and Maria because she got an opportunity to clerk for a high- level judge.
They both came from old money and had trust funds up the wazoo, but they both never, ever flaunted it.
And then, of course, there were the physical differences.
They were both shorter than average and beautiful—Savannah blond and blue- eyed, Maria with her midnight eyes and lustrous, dark brown waves. And they were both slender; size eight or smaller to Jenn’s not- quite- sixteen, yet somehow, freakishly, definitely notfourteen. On top of their striking beauty and ability to wear clothes that fit perfectly, they were also both brilliant, always knowing exactly what to say and how to say it. It would have been frustrating to spend so much time with them—if they also both weren’t so ridiculously nice.
So the truth was, although Jenn had been friends with Maria during high school, she’d only attended a state college and was too far in debt from that even to consider grad school, regardless of her near- perfect grades. So she’d gone out and gotten herself a crappy job. And then another crappy job. And then, finally, a slightly better job. And a marginally better one after that.
Last year, she’d been working as an administrative assistant at a rental car company’s corporate headquarters in New Jersey when Maria and Savannah dropped by. It was a surprise visit, and they took her to lunch—and sketched out their plan to get Maria elected to the office of governor of the state of New York.
Step one was to run for state assembly in 2008—run and win. Savannah, they’d told her, was going to be Maria’s campaign manager. And they both wanted Jenn to work for them, to run their office, and when Maria won—they always said when not if—Jenn would continue on, working as Maria’s chief of staff. Well, to start out, she’d be both chief and staff, but they were planning, here, for the long term.
And that long term included a possible run for the White House.
So Jenn had bid farewell to the land of the cubicle and had become the only paid employee in the Maria Bonavita for State Assembly office—everyone else was an intern or a volunteer. Despite that, she was still making buckets less than she had been. Plus she no longer got a huge discount on car rentals—hence the purchase of Ford.
But she was, absolutely, working to change the world—starting with their little corner of New York City—and she loved every second of it.
She’d moved into the very neighborhood they’d be representing in the state house in Albany. It was a diverse district, i.e., parts such as this one were somewhat rough. The streets were spookily empty as she let herself out of her apartment building—it was that rare time of night in the city when the late- goers had finally gone home, and the early risers had yet to emerge.
“I’m two minutes from Ford,” she reported to Maria, cell phone still to her ear as she walked briskly down the sidewalk, “and two minutes from there to your place.”
Last night, after driving out to the Island—to listen to Scooter whine endlessly about how he was still in love with Maria and could Jenn please, please, pretty please, put in a good word for him—she’d driven back and had miraculously found a parking space just around the block from their campaign office. Which was, in turn, just a few blocks from her apartment.
“We’ll be waiting outside for you,” Maria told her now. “I’m going to drive. Van’s got a whole list of things she wants to review with you—the events for the next few days.”
“She doesn’t have to do that,” Jenn said. “I know what’s on the schedule.”
“She wants to.” Maria lowered her voice again. “She needs the distraction.”
“How did this happen?” Jenn asked. She and Maria both lived in fear of Van getting this type of phone call when Ken was off on some secret Navy SEAL mission, either in Iraq or Afghanistan. This wasn’t fair—he was home and safe. Or so they’d believed.
“All I know,” Maria told her, “is that Ken sometimes moonlights for his former commanding officer, Tom something, who runs a personal security firm called Troubleshooters Incorporated. He was helping to guard someone, and . . . They were attacked. Tom was shot, too, but he’s not as badly injured. He’s in right now for a CAT scan—a bullet creased his skull. That’s really all we’ve heard. He’s supposed to call Savannah when the test is done. Until then . . .” She sighed. “We wait and . . . Hang on a sec.”
Jenn heard the muffled sound of voices, then Maria came back on the phone.
“Change in plans,” her friend and boss reported. “We’re not going to Westchester—well, we are, but we’re not driving there. We’re going down toward Wall Street. Van’s uncle knows a guy who owns a building with a heliport. We’re getting picked up there by a chopper that’ll take us to the airport, where we’ll meet the charter flight. If you’re close, you can drive us, if not we can get a cab.”
“I’m at the car,” Jenn reported, unlocking Ford with an electronic whoop and sliding behind the wheel. She put her handbag on the passenger seat, locked the door behind her, fastened her seatbelt and put the key in the ignition. Dang, it smelled funky in here, as if someone had left a sandwich or a piece of fruit under the seat and it was turning into a distant cousin of gin, with a little middle- school gym locker thrown in. No doubt about it, it was time to hose this puppy down. “I have to hang up.”
“We’ll be waiting down in front,” Maria promised, and cut the connection.
Jenn tossed her cell phone into her bag, put the car into reverse and looked into the rearview mirror.
And screamed at the top of her lungs.
There was a hulking shape of a man in the back seat—his eyes glistening in the dimness. She slammed it back to park and fumbled for the interior lights, for the door lock, for her belt release—getting everything on and opened at once.
She flung herself out of the car and into the street, with every darkly pointed comment her mother had ever made about living among all of the muggers and gangbangers and serial killers in New York City replaying loudly in her head. But she wasn’t completely reduced to a terrified eleven- year- old—part of her brain was functioning clearly and calmly, assessing the situation, thank God. And thank her squad of boisterous older brothers who’d taught her selfdefense by forcing her to defend herself against their teasing and taunts.
Her phone was in her bag, which was still on the front seat. Her keys were in the ignition. She could run, but she wouldn’t be able to get back into her building or her apartment.
There was a twenty- four- hour convenience store two long and one short block away, but she wasn’t much of a runner. Still, running—while continuing to scream loudly—was probably her best option. But before she took off, as she filled her lungs with air to scream again, she realized that the man, too, was scrambling out of the car. But he was going out the far door, on the sidewalk side— moving not toward her, but away from her.
And then she recognized him in the glow from the street light. He was the ancient- seeming homeless man that she’d seen in the neighborhood over the past few months. She’d spotted him many times, going through the dumpster in the back alley behind the office or napping in the waning sunshine in the little park down the street.
Everything about him was grayish- brown—his clothes, his long, scraggly hair and beard, his hands and face, his teeth.
“Sorry,” he mumbled, slamming the car door and backing away, his hands outstretched, as if he were attempting to calm a wild animal. Or to show he was unarmed, which was good. “So sorry. Saw you park it earlier, figured you wouldn’t be back until mornin’. You done scared me half to death.”
She’d scared him?
“You were trespassing,” she told him, her voice too loud to her own ears, her heart still pounding. She was still not completely convinced that he was harmless and that she was safe, so it was stupid to take such an accusing tone, but her fear was rapidly morphing into heat—into anger and indignation. “This car was locked.”
He shrugged as he shuffled away. “Lock’s not a lock to everyone, missy. Jus’ wanted to be outa the rain. Stormy weather’s comin’.” It was starting to rain, Jenn realized. It was coming down lightly in a mist that she wouldn’t have noticed unless she was walking more than a few blocks—or sleeping on the street.
He faded into the shadows as Jenn exhaled hard, and—peering into the back of the car first, to make sure he hadn’t left behind a companion—she climbed back in and locked all of the doors. Her hands were shaking, but she put them on the steering wheel and forced herself to drive. Traffic was nonexistent, and in just a few minutes she made it to the building where Maria and Savannah both had condos.
Van’s place was just a pied- à- terre—a home base for when she was in town—yet it still managed to be bigger and nicer than Jenn’s miniscule studio apartment, and yeah, she so wasn’t going to complain or even be envious. Nuh- uh. Not her. At least she had a place to live, unlike a lot of people these days, including Strong Aroma Man, who hadn’t been even remotely stymied by Ford’s security system. True, it wasn’t close to state of the art, but still. . . . Note to self: get one of those steering- wheel locks, ASAP.
As she pulled to the curb, there came Maria and Van out of a door held respectfully open by the always- on- duty doorman. Maria came around to the driver’s side—that’s right, she wanted to drive. But that was Maria—always wanting to drive.
Jenn grabbed her bag and slid out, climbing into the back seat as Savannah and Maria took over the front. They were both traveling light and they passed their bags back so that Jenn could stow them on the seat next to her.
“Van,” she started to say, “I can’t imagine—”
“He’s going to be all right.” Savannah spoke with total conviction. “Oh, thank God,” Jenn said with a rush of relief. She looked from Van to Maria, who glanced back at her in the rearview mirror as she pulled into the street, doing a hair- raising youie that pointed them downtown. “You spoke to the doctor?”
But Maria’s dark eyes were filled with warning as she looked into the mirror again and shook her head no.
“Not yet,” Van admitted. “But I spoke to Meg. She’s at the hospital, and she knows the surgeon. KatiAnn Watson. Meg said she’s the best—Ken’s in good hands.”
“That’s good to know,” Jenn said, looking to Maria again for more information.
“Meg is the wife of one of the officers in Ken’s SEAL team,” Maria explained, driving as she always did—like a NASCAR champion.
“Is she the FBI agent?” Jenn asked, sitting back so she could fasten her seat belt. There was something hard back there, and she reached beneath her to pull free an old sock, its toe filled with God knows what—coins or marbles or maybe even gravel.
Ew. It obviously belonged to the homeless man, and she didn’t want to look inside. She didn’t want to touch the thing more than she had to. She dropped it on the floor, on the other side of the center bump.
“No, that’s Alyssa,” Maria was saying. “She’s former FBI. She works for Troubleshooters now.”
“She wasn’t hurt, too, was she?” Jenn asked, as she saw that the sock wasn’t the only thing the homeless man had left in the car. He’d stuck a ragged photograph of a dark- haired woman into the pocket in the back of the driver’s seat. It must’ve slipped down during the drive, because only the woman’s eyes and the top of her head protruded, as if she were peeking out at Jenn.
Van shook her head as Jenn pulled the photo free. “I don’t think she was there.”
The woman in the picture was African American, with short hair that framed her exceptionally beautiful face. It was hard to see in the dim light, but her eyes looked to be light- colored, and they seemed to sparkle as she looked into the camera’s lens—her smile warm for the photographer.
She was young enough to be Aroma Man’s granddaughter. Jenn flipped the photo over, but there was nothing written on the back— no date, no Happy Birthday, Grandpa. She reached over and tucked it into the top of the sock—then checked the pocket to see if he’d left anything else there when he’d moved in. But it was empty.
“Meg’s married to John Nilsson,” Maria explained as they sped south on the island, green traffic lights stretching out in front of them on the nearly deserted avenue, “who just got promoted. He’s the new executive officer of Team . . .” She looked at Savannah.
“Twelve,” she corrected.
“But Ken’s still with Team Sixteen?” Jenn asked, and Savannah nodded.
Just last week, Van had showed her what looked like a class picture of the men in SEAL Team Sixteen—although it was unlike any class picture Jenn had ever seen before. In it the group of men were wearing swim trunks that looked as if they’d last had a design update back in 1943. Which was a good thing. The trunks—small by today’s baggy standards—fit snugly and highlighted the men’s amazingly sculpted bodies. Van had gone through the rows of men, name by name, teasingly picking out her choice for a potential hookup for Jenn—some junior grade lieutenant who bore the nickname Grunge.
Yes, Grunge. Thanks a million, Van.
Many of them—particularly the youngest, fresh from SEAL school, which Van had said was called BUD/S training, which stood for Basic Underwater Demolition slash SEAL—had ridiculous nicknames that made poor pathetic Scooter’s self- proclaimed handle seem ordinary and lame.
Cosmo, Jazz, Gilligan, the Duke, Chickie, Hobomofo—who had a one syllable sub- nickname, Fo, for his nickname, and yes, there was no doubt a good story behind all four syllables of that one—Wiley, WetDream, and, of course, the esteemed Grunge. Ken’s nickname was WildCard, which, okay, was kind of cool, but Jenn had never, ever heard Van call him that.
“Ken’s going to be really angry,” Van said now from the front seat, the streetlights that flashed across her face illuminating her anxiety. “Meg told me that the man he was guarding got taken. I want to be there before they tell him, because he’s going to try to climb out of his hospital bed to be part of the team that goes and gets him back.” She laughed, but her eyes filled with tears. “He’s going to be all right,” she said again, more to herself than to them.
“He has to be.”
“I’m sure he will,” Jenn murmured.
“My laptop is in the office,” Van turned back to tell her. “I didn’t want to take the time to stop and pick it up.”
“I’ll send it to you,” Jenn promised. “First thing in the morning.” But Van shook her head. “Let me get to California,” she said, “and figure out where you should send it. I’m going to be at the hospital with Ken, and—”
“Wait to send it,” Maria instructed, “until you hear from us.”
“Absolutely,” Jenn said. “And just let me know if there’s anything else you need.”
“We’ll be in touch,” Maria said.
“I made a list of all the meetings both Maria and I had scheduled for the next two days.” Van handed Jenn a legal pad. “Maria should be back after that.”
“But if I’m not—” Maria interjected.
Jenn didn’t let her finish. “I’ll take care of everything,” she promised again, flipping through the pad. Savannah had filled five pages with notes and lists.
“Page three and four are the interns’ schedules,” Van instructed.
“Keep them going with the voter registration drive—these next few weeks are vital. Oh, and Douglas was helping me organize both a literature drop and weekend canvassing—again, focusing on getting out the vote. He can be a little defensive and I’ve found he’s easiest to deal with if you give him plenty of time to talk. You don’t have to do it his way, you just have to hear him out, okay?”
“Got it,” Jenn said.
“Gene and Wendy are working with him to create a list of block captains,” Savannah continued, “and . . . You have my number. If you have any questions—”
“Call me,” Maria interrupted, as she pulled to the curb in front of . . . Zachary Towers?
No way. The “friend” that Savannah’s Uncle Alex knew was Robert Zachary?
But yes, as they all clambered out of Ford, as Jenn humped her friends’ bags out of the back seat, she saw that it was, indeed, the real- estate mogul emerging gracefully from his trademark stretch limo, dressed down in jeans and a sweatshirt. His eyes widened, as most men’s eyes did, when he caught sight of Maria and Savannah. But then Savannah’s uncle was there, too, pulling up in a cab, introducing them all.
Well, almost all.
Jenn wasn’t affronted by the oversight, just resigned. The good news was that she would never need a cloak of invisibility when her gorgeous friends were around.
“Thank you,” Van said, giving Jenn a hug.
“If you need anything,” Jenn said again, but then they were gone, swept away into the building as the night guard leapt to unlock the door for his rich and famous boss.
Jenn climbed back into Ford and headed for home.
It was going to be a long night.
Savannah was gone.
She’d flown back to California before the sun had come up, long before he’d realized she’d escaped him and that his plan was ruined.
He’d wanted to scream when he found out. Scream, and wail, and tear at his clothes and hair.
He wanted to kill her—Jenn, the one who’d told him the news—right there and then. He hated her in that moment more than he’d ever hated anyone, as she promised all who were standing there in that pathetic little office that she’d keep them posted as to the husband’s condition.
He was glad that he’d decided, back when he’d first worked out the details of his plan, not to make her his girlfriend. He’d done that before—played at normal with his victim, sometimes for weeks, before making her more permanently one of his own.
But Jenn wasn’t his target and the thought of having to talk to her, to sit with her, to share her bed and make love to her . . . He couldn’t do it, couldn’t settle for her mundaneness, couldn’t betray his powerful emotions.
And although he wanted to, he didn’t now slash Jenn into a hundred bleeding pieces—because doing so would not get him that which he wanted most.
Alyssssa . . .
He knew he was going to have to be patient again, he was going to have to wait longer. Maybe the husband would die, or maybe he’d live—either way Savannah would eventually return and he’d proceed as he’d long planned. He’d kill Savannah, and Alyssa would come.
Still, his chest was so tight and the roaring in his ears so loud, he knew he needed to find relief.
But it couldn’t be now, and it absolutely couldn’t be here. It had to be far enough away, and it had to be different—no long, lingering terror, no teeth.
Somehow he walked home.
Maybe . . . one tooth, broken as if accidentally, perhaps from a tire iron to the face.
Somehow he changed his clothes, changed his appearance, changed his very identity.
He knew how to not get caught, how to not get noticed, and he rented a car using a credit card he kept on hand for emergencies like this one. The camera behind the counter recorded the transaction, but its grainy images wouldn’t help them find him, even if they got as far as connecting his rental to that which was to come.
He was more calm now, knowing what his immediate future held.
He left the garage, careful to obey the speed limit, careful not to cause gridlock, or to otherwise break the law.
He drove for hours, heading south through Jersey, almost to Baltimore. There was a mall in White Marsh, upscale and sprawling, with vast parking lots that became deserted at night—except for the areas near the movie theater. It had a Sears, and as the sun began to set, he parked and he went inside and bought a tire iron with cash. And she was right there, behind the counter, as if waiting for him, a little worn around the edges, older than he usually liked and stinking of stale cigarette smoke. But she was blond and blue- eyed like Savannah—and as different from Alyssa as night was from day. So he smiled at her and she flirted with him and there was no one behind him in line, so he lingered.
She was working until nine-thirty, did he want to go out and get a drink . . .?
It was that easy.
He went to his car to wait, and to look at his pictures—he’d taken a dozen with him for this trip—and to dream.
Of blood on his hands.
And of Alyssa Locke.