Crush by Alan Jacobson - Karen Vail #2CRUSH

(Karen Vail novel #2)

Copyright (c) 2009 Alan Jacobson. All Rights Reserved.

 

PROLOGUE

 

675 15th Street NW
Washington, DC

 

“So the dick says to the woman, ‘I got nothing.'”

Karen Vail burst out laughing. Here she was, out on the town with Detective Mandisa Manette—just about the unlikeliest of acquaintances she’d socialize with—and she was guffawing at another of Manette’s crass jokes. But she noticed Manette was not enjoying her own punch line. In fact, Manette’s face was hard, her gaze fixed. And her hand was slowly reaching inside her jacket. For her weapon.

“Don’t wanna ruin your evening,” Manette said, “but there’s a guy packing, and he looks real nervous. Over your left shoulder.”

Vail turned slowly and casually snatched a glimpse of the man. Six foot, broad, and as Manette noted, under duress. Sweating, eyes darting around the street. In a minute, his gaze would land on Vail and Manette. The guy looks familiar. Why? She watched his mannerisms and then, as his head turned three quarters toward them, she got a better look at him and—

Oh, crap. I know who he is. In a few seconds, he’d probably make them as cops, and then the shit would hit the fan. The image conjured up a mess—and that’s what would no doubt result.

Vail quickly turned away. “Don’t look at him. Definitely bad news, and stressed as hell. With good reason. That’s Danny Michael Yates.”

Manette’s eyes widened. “No way. The goddamn cop killer? You sure?”

Vail slid her hand down to her Velcro pouch. “Damn sure. What do you want to do?”

Manette moved her hand behind her back, no doubt resting it on her pistol. “Make a call, DC Metro, let ’em know what we got here. I’m gonna circle around behind him.”

Vail pulled out her phone and made the call. With her back to Yates, she watched him in the reflection of the Old Ebbitt Grill storefront. Meantime, she assessed the situation. The sidewalk was knotted with people waiting for tables, enjoying a drink with friends, spouses, and business associates. She wished she could yell, “Everyone down!” so they wouldn’t get hurt. Because she had an intense feeling that this was going to get very ugly, very fast.

Vail ended the call and slipped the BlackBerry into her pocket, her right hand firmly on the Glock 23 that was buried in the pouch below her abdomen.

She made eye contact with Manette’s reflection in the window and nodded, then stole a glance at Yates. He looked at Vail at precisely that moment, and Crap—he made me—

Yates turned and pushed through the clot of people standing behind him. Vail followed, doing her best to navigate the tumbled bodies with her still-sore postsurgical knee. Manette, she figured, was also in pursuit. Manette was tall and thin, and she looked athletic—whether she was or not, Vail could only guess—but she had to be faster than Vail and her recently repaired leg.

She caught a glimpse of Yates as he turned left on H Street—and, yup, there was Manette, pumping away, in close proximity. Christ, this was not what she had in mind when she suggested they have a girls’ night out.

Vail turned the corner and picked up Manette as she kept up her pursuit of Yates. The shine of Manette’s handgun caught the streetlight’s amber glow and suddenly a bad feeling crept down Vail’s spine. They were extremely close to the White House, where Secret Service agents and police outnumbered the citizens in the immediate vicinity. Snipers were permanently stationed on the roof, and—here was a black woman, chasing a white man, a big gleaming pistol in her right hand. No uniform. No visible badge.

This was not going to turn out well, and Vail had a sinking feeling it would have nothing to do with Danny Michael Yates.

Yates veered left, into Lafayette Park, and damn, if the guy wasn’t a stupid one—he was headed straight for the wrought iron of the White House gate. Stupid isn’t quite the word . . . insane might be more like it. Vail heard Manette yell, “Police, freeze!”

It had no effect on Yates except to have him veer left, parallel to the iron fence—which he had to do anyway.

But Vail had her answer: Manette was apparently a superb athlete, because she was now only fifteen yards behind Yates, who was moving pretty well himself.

Lights snapped on. An alarm went off.

Vail fumbled to pull her credentials from her purse, then splayed them open in her left hand, held high above her head, the Glock in her right hand, bouncing along with her strides. Showing the snipers she was a federal agent, not a threat to the president. And hopefully, by association, they’d realize Manette was a cop, too.

But as she processed that thought, a gunshot stung her ears like a stab to her heart. And Manette went down. Only it wasn’t a sniper or diligent Secret Service agent. It was Danny Michael Yates, who had turned and buried a round in Manette’s groin. She went down hard and fast.

And she was writhing on the ground. DC Metro police appeared behind Yates and drew down on him. Half a dozen Secret Service agents traversed the White House lawn with guns drawn and suit coats flapping. Snipers on the roof swung their rifles toward the plaza, their red laser dots dancing on clothing and pavement.

Vail brought up the rear, huffing and puffing, the cold night DC air burning her throat. She was heaving, sucking oxygen, when a weak “FBI!” scraped from her throat. She stopped fifteen feet from Yates, who was inching closer to Manette.

“She’s a cop,” Vail yelled. “She’s a cop!” She wanted all the law enforcement personnel on scene to understand what was going on. Manette was on the ground, her handgun a foot from her hand. But she was in no condition to reach for it. She was curled into a fetal position.

Yates took a step closer to her, and his gun—it looked like a Beretta—was raised slightly, pointing vaguely toward Manette. “Stop right there,” Vail yelled. “Take another step and it’ll be your last!”

“Just kill me now,” Yates said. “Because there ain’t no way you’re taking me in. I killed a cop, you think I’ll make it through the night alive in lockup?”

“I’ll personally guarantee your safety, Danny.” Vail stood there with her Glock now in both hands, her credentials case on the ground at her feet, spread open, her Bureau badge visible for all who cared to look. “I’ll make sure you get your day in court. I understand the way you think, I know you didn’t mean to kill that cop.”

“Bullshit. I did mean to kill him! I hate cops, they raped my mother. You bet I wanted to kill him!”

Damn, he’s a dumb shit. No hope for this one. Served up a valid defense for his actions and he tells me I’m wrong.

“There’s only one way this can end good, Danny. You put the gun down and let me help my partner there. You got that?”

Yates took another step forward, his Beretta now aimed point-blank at Manette. Vail brought up her Glock, tritium sights lined up on the perp’s head.

“Now,” Vail yelled. “Drop the gun!”

But Yates’s elbow straightened. His hand muscles stiffened. Given the angle, no one else could see what she could see. He didn’t ‘drop the fucking gun,’ so Vail shot him. Blasted him right in the head. And then she drilled him in the center mass, to knock him back, make sure he didn’t accidentally unload on Manette as his brain went flat line. Two quick shots. Overkill? Maybe. But at the moment, truth be told, she didn’t really care.

Yates fell to the ground. Vail ran to Manette. Grabbed her, cradled her. “Manny—Manny, you okay?”

Manette’s face was drenched with sweat, pain contorted in the intense creases of her face.

And then Vail lost it. She felt the sudden release, the stress of the past couple of months hitting her with the force of a tornado, knocking her back against the lower stonework of the White House fence.

Commotion around her, frantic footsteps, shouting, jostling. Someone in a blue shirt and silver badge knelt in front of her and pried the Glock from her hand.

 

DARK-SUITED SECRET SERVICE AGENTS stood in front of the White House fence, stiff and tense. White, red, and blue Metro Police cars sat idling fifty yards away. Half a dozen motorcycle cops in white shirt/black pant uniforms milled about.

Thomas Gifford, the Assistant Special Agent-in-Charge who oversees the Behavioral Analysis Units, badged the nearby Secret Service agent and walked to the ambulance backed up against the short, concrete pillars that sprung from the pavement. Vail sat on the Metro Medical Response vehicle’s flat bumper, her gaze fixed somewhere on the cement.

Gifford stopped a couple of feet in front of her and raked a hand through his hair, as if stalling for time because he didn’t know what to say. “I thought you had dinner reservations. You told me when you left the office you had to leave early.”

“Yeah. I did. And then we saw Yates, and I called it in—”

“Okay,” Gifford said, holding up a hand. “Forget about all that for now. How are you doing?”

Vail stood up, uncoiled her body, and stretched. “I’m fine. Any news on Mandisa?”

“Going into surgery. Shattered pelvis. But the round missed the major arteries, so she’ll be okay. She’ll need some rehab, but she’s lucky. She’s lucky you were there.”

“With all the snipers and Secret Service and DC police around? I think she would’ve been fine without me.”

“That’s not what I’m hearing. They were assessing the situation, moving into position, trying to sort out what the hell was going on. The snipers weren’t going to act unless there was a perceived threat to the president. And callous as it may seem, Danny Michael Yates was only a threat to you and Detective Manette. After Yates said he’d killed a cop, Metro started to put it together. But I honestly don’t know if any of them would’ve shot him before you did. You saved her life, Karen.”

Vail took a deep, uneven breath. “I had a good angle, I saw his arm, his hand—I knew he was going to pull that trigger.”

Gifford looked away, glancing around at all the on-scene law enforcement personnel. “You still seeing the shrink?”

Vail nodded.

“Good. First thing in the morning, I want you back in his office. Then get out of town for a while. Clear your head. A couple months after Dead Eyes, this is the last thing you needed.”

A smile teased the ends of her mouth.

“What?” Gifford asked.

“It’s not often we agree on anything. I usually have some smartass comeback for you. But in this case, I’ve got nothing.”

Vail realized that had been the punch line of the joke Manette had told earlier in the evening. It didn’t seem so funny now.

Vail headed for her car, looking forward to—finally—getting out of town. Where? Didn’t matter. Anywhere but here.

 

ONE

 

St. Helena, California
The Napa Valley

 

The crush of a grape is not unlike life itself: You press and squeeze until the juice flows from its essence, and it dies a sudden, pathetic death. Devoid of its lifeblood, its body shrivels and is then discarded. Scattered about. Used as fertilizer, returned to the earth. Dust in the wind.

But despite the region in which John Mayfield worked—the Napa Valley—the crush of death wasn’t reserved just for grapes.

John Mayfield liked his name. It reminded him of harvest and sunny vineyards. He had, however, made one minor modification: His mother hadn’t given him a middle name, so he chose one himself—Wayne. Given his avocation, “John Wayne” implied a tough guy image with star power. It also was a play on John Wayne Gacy, a notorious serial killer. And serial killers almost always were known in the public consciousness by three names. His persona—soon to be realized worldwide—needed to be polished and prepared.

Mayfield surveyed the room. He looked down at the woman, no longer breathing, in short order to resemble the shriveled husk of a crushed grape. He switched on his camera and made sure the lens captured the blood draining from her arm, the thirsty soil beneath her drinking it up as if it had been waiting for centuries to be nourished. Her fluid pooled a bit, then was slowly sucked beneath the surface.

A noise nearby broke his trance. He didn’t have much time. He could have chosen his kill zone differently, to remove all risk. But it wasn’t about avoiding detection. There was so much more to it.

The woman didn’t appreciate his greatness, his power. She didn’t see him for the unique person that he was. Her loss.

Mayfield wiped the knife of fingerprints and, using the clean handkerchief, slipped the sharp utensil beneath the dead woman’s lower back. He stood up, kicked the loose dirt aside beneath his feet, scattering his footprints, then backed away.

 

TWO

 

As Karen Vail walked the grounds of the Mountain Crest Bed & Breakfast, holding the hand of Roberto Enrique Umberto Hernandez, she stopped at the edge of a neighboring vineyard. She looked out over the vines, the sun setting a hot orange in the March chill.

“You’ve been quiet since we got off the plane. Still thinking about your application to the Academy?”

“Am I that transparent?” Robby asked.

“Only to a sharp FBI profiler.”

Robby cradled a tangle of vines in his large hand. “Yeah, that’s what I’m thinking about.”

“You’ll get into the Academy, Robby. Maybe not right away, with the budget cutbacks, but I promise. You’ll make the cut.”

“Bledsoe said he could get me something with Fairfax County.”

“Really? You didn’t tell me that.”

“I didn’t want to say anything about it. I don’t really want it. If I talk about it, it might come true.”

“You don’t really believe that.”

He shrugged a shoulder.

“Fairfax would be a step up over Vienna. It’s a huge department. Lots more action.”

“I know. It’s just that there’s an eleven-year wait to become a profiler once I get into the Academy. The longer it takes to get into the Bureau, the longer I have to wait.”

“Why don’t you call Gifford,” Vail asked. “I thought he owes you. Because of your mother. Because of their relationship.”

“That was Gifford’s perception, not mine. He promised her he’d look after me.” Robby glanced off a moment, then said, “He doesn’t owe me anything. And I don’t want any favors.”

“How about I look into it, quietly, under the radar, when we get home?”

Robby chewed on that. “Maybe.”

“I can call first thing in the morning, put out a feeler.”

“No. We’re here on vacation, to get away from all that stuff. It’ll wait.”

They turned and walked toward their room, The Hot Date, which was in a separate building off the main house. According to the information on the website, it was the largest in the facility, featuring spacious main sleeping quarters, a sitting area with a private porch and view of the vines, and a jetted tub in the bathroom. A wooden sign, red with painted flames, hung dead center on the door.

Vail felt around in her pocket for the key they’d been given when they checked in fifteen minutes ago. “You sure?”

“Absolutely sure. I’m wiping it from my mind right now. Nothing but fun from here on out. Okay?”

Vail fit the key into the lock and turned it. “Works for me.” She swung the door open and looked around at the frilly décor of the room. She kicked off her shoes, ran forward, and jumped onto the bed, bouncing up and down like a five-year-old kid. “This could be fun,” she said with a wink.

Robby stood a few feet away, hands on his hips, grinning widely. “I’ve never seen you like this.”

“Nothing but fun from here on out, right? Not a worry in the world? No serial killers dancing around in our heads, no ASACs or lieutenants ordering us around. No job decisions. And no excess testosterone floating on the air.”

“The name of this room is The Hot Date, right? That should be our theme for the week.”

“Count me in.”

“That’s good,” Robby said. “Because a hot date for one isn’t much fun.”

Vail hopped to the side of the bed, stood up precariously on the edge, and grabbed Robby’s collar with both hands. She fell forward into him, but at six foot seven, he easily swept her off the bed and onto the floor, then kissed her hard.

He leaned back and she looked up at his face. “You know,” Vail said, “I flew cross-country to Napa for the fine wine and truffles, but that was pretty freaking good, Hernandez.”

“Oh, yeah? That’s just a tasting. If you want the whole bottle, it’ll cost you.”

As he leaned in for another kiss, her gaze caught sight of the wall clock. “Oh—” The word rode on his lips and made him pull away.
“Our tour.”

“Our what?”

“I told you. Don’t you ever listen to me?”

“Uh, yeah, I, uh—”

“The wine cave thing, that tour we booked through your friend—”

“The tasting, the dinner in the cave.” He smiled and raised his brow. “See, I do listen to you.”

“We’ve gotta leave now. It’s about twenty minutes away.”

“You sure?” He nodded behind her. “Bed, Cabernet, chocolate, sex . . .”

She pushed him away in mock anger. “That’s not fair, Robby. You know that? We’ve got this appointment, it’s expensive, like two hundred bucks each, and you just want to blow it off?”
“I can think of something else to blow off.”

Vail twisted her lips into a mock frown. “I guess five minutes won’t hurt.”

“We’ll speed to make up the time. We’re cops, right? If we’re pulled over, we’ll badge the officer—”

Vail placed a finger over his lips. “You’re wasting time.”

 

THEY ARRIVED FIVE MINUTES LATE. The California Highway Patrol was not on duty—at least along the strip of Route 29 they traversed quite a few miles per hour over the limit—and they pulled into the parking lot smelling of chocolate and, well, the perfume of intimacy.

They sat in the Silver Ridge Estates private tasting room around a table with a dozen others, listening to a sommelier expound the virtues of the wines they were about to taste. They learned about the different climates where the grapes were grown, why the region’s wind patterns and mix of daytime heat and chilly evenings provided optimum conditions for growing premium grapes. Vail played footsie with Robby beneath the table, but Robby kept a stoic face, refusing to give in to her childish playfulness.

That is, until she realized she was reaching too far and had been stroking the leg of the graying fifty-something man beside Robby, whose name tag read “Bill (Oklahoma).” When Bill from Oklahoma turned to face her with a surprised look on his face, Vail realized her error and shaded the same red as the Pinot Noir on the table in front of them.

“Okay,” the sommelier said. “We’re going to go across the way into our wine cave, where we’ll talk about the best temperatures for storing our wine. Then we’ll do a tasting in a special room of the cave and discuss pairings, what we’re about to eat, with which wine—and why—before dinner is served.”

As they rose from the table, Robby leaned forward to ask the sommelier a question about the delicate color of the Pinot. Oklahoma Bill slid beside Vail, but before he could speak, she said, “My mistake, buddy. Not gonna happen.”

Bill seemed to be mulling his options, planning a counterattack. But Vail put an end to any further pursuit by cutting him off with a slow, firm, “Don’t even think about it.”

Bill obviously sensed the tightness in her voice and backed away as if she had threatened him physically. Judging by the visible tension in Vail’s forearm muscles, that probably wasn’t far from the truth.

They shuffled through the breezeway of the winery, their tour guide explaining the various sculptures that were set back in alcoves in the walls, and how they had been gathered over the course of five decades, one from each continent. When they passed through the mouth of the wine cave, the drop in temperature was immediately discernable.

“The cave is a near-constant fifty-five degrees, which is perfect for storing our reds,” the guide said. The group crowded into the side room that extended off the main corridor. “One thing about the way we grow our grapes,” the woman said. “We plant more vines per square foot than your typical winery because we believe in stressing our vines, making them compete for water and nutrients. It forces their roots deeper into the ground and results in smaller fruit, which gives more skin surface area compared to the juice. And since the skin is what gives a red varietal most of its flavor, you can see why our wines are more complex and flavorful.”

She stopped beside a color-true model of two grapevines that appeared poised to illustrate her point, but before she could continue her explanation, a male guide came from a deeper portion of the cave, ushering another group along toward the exit. He leaned into the female guide’s ear and said something. Her eyes widened, then she moved forward, arms splayed wide like an eagle. “Okay, everyone, we have to go back into the tasting area for a while.” She swallowed hard and cleared her throat, as if there was something caught, then said, “I’m terribly sorry for this interruption, but we’ll make it worth your while, I promise.”

Vail caught a glimpse of a husky Hispanic worker who was bringing up the rear. She elbowed Robby and nodded toward the guy.

“Something’s wrong, look at his face.” She moved against the stream of exiting guests and grabbed the man’s arm. “What’s going on?” Vail asked.

“Nothing, sigñora, all’s good. Just a…the power is out, it’s very dark. Please, go back to the tasting room—”

“It’s okay,” Robby said. “We’re cops.”

“Policia?”

“Something like that.” Vail held up her FBI credentials and badge. “What’s wrong?”

“Who say there is something wrong?”

“It’s my job to read people. Your face tells a story, señor. Now—” she motioned with her fingers. “What’s the deal?”

He looked toward the mouth of cave, where most of the guests had already exited. “I did not tell you, right?”

“Of course not. Now . . . tell us, what?”

“A body. A dead body. Back there,” he said, motioning behind him with a thumb.

“How do you know the person’s dead?”

“Because she cut up bad, señora. Her…uh, los pechos…her…tits—are cut off.”

Robby looked over the guy’s shoulder, off into the darkness. “Are you sure?”

“I found the body, yes, I am sure.”

“What’s your name?”

“Miguel Ortiz.”

“You have a flashlight, Miguel?” Vail asked.

The large man rooted out a set of keys from his pocket, pulled off a small LED light and handed it to her.

“Wait here. Don’t let anyone else past you. You have security at the winery?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Then call them on your cell,” Vail said, as she and Robby backed away, deeper into the tunnel. “Tell them to shut this place down tight. No one in or out. No one.”

 

AS A FEDERAL AGENT, Karen Vail was required to carry her sidearm wherever she traveled. But Robby, being a state officer, transported his weapon in a locked box, and it had to remain there; he was not permitted to carry it on his person. This fact was not lost on Vail as she removed her sidearm from her Velcro fanny pack. She reached down to her ankle holster and pulled a smaller Glock 27 and handed it to Robby.

They moved slowly through the dim cave. The walls were roughened gunite, dirt brown and cold to the touch. The sprayed cement blend gave the sense of being in a real cave, save for its surface uniformity.

“You okay in here?” Robby asked.

“Don’t ask. I’m trying not to think about it.” But she had no choice. Vail had developed claustrophobia after the recent incident in the Dead Eyes Killer’s lair. Though she never had experienced such intense anxiety, it was suddenly a prominent part of her life. Going into certain parking garages, through commuter tunnels, and even into crammed elevators became a fretful experience. But it wasn’t consistent.

Sometimes it was worse than others. Overall, it was inconvenient—and no fun admitting you had such an irrational weakness. But she was now afflicted with the malady and she did her best to control it. Control? Not exactly. It controlled her.

Manage it was more accurate. Take her mind off it, talk herself through it until she could move into roomier quarters. Sometimes, though, she thought she might actually claw through walls to get out. Getting squeezed into an elevator was the worst. For some reason, people didn’t mind cramming against you if the alternative meant waiting another minute or two for the next car.

Vail slung her purse over her shoulder so it rested on her back, then moved the weak light around, taking care not to tread on anything that might constitute evidence.

“Maybe we should call it in,” Robby said. “Let the locals handle it.”

“The locals? This isn’t exactly Los Angeles, Robby. I seriously doubt they have a whole lot of murders out here. If the vic’s been cut like Miguel says, the local cops’ll be out of their league. They’re going to look at the crime scene but won’t know what they’re seeing.”

“Beyond the obvious, you mean.”

“The obvious to me and the obvious to a homicide detective are not the same things, Robby. You know that. When you encounter something unusual—no matter what profession you’re talking about—would you rather hire someone who’s seen that unusual thing a thousand times, or someone who’s only seen it once or twice?”

“If we do find something, we won’t have a choice. We’ve got no jurisdiction here.”

“Yeah, well, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

They turned left down another tunnel, which opened into a large storage room of approximately a thousand square feet. Hundreds of French oak barrels sat on their sides, stacked one atop the other, three rows high and what must’ve been fifty rows long. A few candelabras with low-output lightbulbs hung from above, providing dim illumination. The walls and ceiling were constructed of roughened multicolored brick, with multiple arched ceilings that rose and plunged and joined one another to form columns every fifteen feet, giving the feel of a room filled with majestic gazebos.

A forklift sat dormant on the left, pointing at an opening along the right wall, where, amidst a break in the barrels, was another room. They moved toward it, Vail shining the flashlight in a systematic manner

from left to right as they walked. They stepped carefully, foot by foot, to avoid errant hoses and other objects like . . . a mutilated woman’s body.

They entered the anteroom and saw a lump in the darkness on the ground. Robby said, “That bridge you just mentioned? I think we just came to it.”

“Shit,” Vail said.

“You didn’t think Miguel was pulling our leg, did you? He looked pretty freaked out.”

“No, I figured he saw something. I was just hoping it was a sack of potatoes, and in some kind of wine-induced stupor, he thought it was a dead woman.”

“With her breasts cut off?”

“Hey, I’m an optimist, okay?”

Robby looked at her. “You’re an optimist?”

As they stood there, Vail couldn’t take her eyes off the body. She’d come to Napa to relax, to get away from work. Yet lying on the cold ground a little over twenty feet away was an all-too-obvious reminder of what she’d come here to escape.

Then she mentally slapped herself. She was pissed at having her vacation ruined. The woman in front of her had her life ruined. Vail took a deep breath. “You have cell service? We need to call this in.”

Robby flipped open his phone. “No bars.”

“No bars in Napa? Some other time and place, that would be funny.” She shook her head. “I can’t believe I just said that.”

“Humor is the best defense mechanism. Honestly, this sucks, Karen. You needed the time away. It was my idea to come here. I’m sorry.”
“As our colleague Mandisa Manette is fond of saying, ‘Sometimes life just sucks the big one.’” Vail’s thoughts momentarily shifted to Manette, how she was doing in recovery. It didn’t last long, as the snap of Robby’s phone closing brought her back to the here and now. “Okay,” Vail said, “one of us goes, just to see if she’s alive. We don’t want to totally destroy the crime scene.”

“Might as well be you,” Robby said. “Get a close look, see if you see anything worthwhile.”

Vail stood there, but didn’t move. “I already see stuff that’s worthwhile.” She sighed in resignation, then stepped forward. “Like you said earlier, nothing but fun from here on out.”

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