A Karen Vail Novel (#4)
Copyright (c) 2011 Alan Jacobson. All Rights Reserved.
January 29, 1955
37 W. Rosedale Avenue
Northfield, New Jersey
Henry sat deathly still in the corner watching the life drain from his mother’s body, knees drawn tight against his chest, arms wrapped around his shins. He stared at the blood seeping from her pulpy head wounds, poking forth from between strands of matted hair.
The seven year old boy had told the policeman in so many words about the man in the black knit mask who came up from behind and struck his mother several times, then disappeared out the back door. Afterwards, Henry had sat frozen, unable to move, unable to comfort her in her last seconds before her body stilled, her eyes rapt in death.
A bottle of maple syrup, the lone weapon his mother had grabbed to fight off her attacker, lay shattered on the floor, oozing across the kitchen linoleum. In halting sentences, with shock-laden tear-filled eyes, Henry described how the masked man had knocked it from her hand before she could raise it.
It now sat impotent on the ground, like a cold revolver stuck in the deepest reaches of a holster, never given the opportunity to be of service.
Henry had finally eased forward, inching across the floor until the tips of his toes were a fraction of an inch from the pooled blood that encircled his mother’s head. He reached over and touched her ashen face, then poked it, despite the policeman’s admonishment to stay back from her body.
At his tender age, the finality of death was little more than an innate concept, like when an animal in the wild knows that one of its own kind is no longer among the living.
THE POLICEMAN, AFTER HAVING WAITED in the living room with Henry, walked outside into the winter evening. Moments later, he pushed open the door and then stepped aside so another man could enter.
Walton MacNally’s eyes instantly settled on the center of the kitchen floor, taking in the violence laid bare before him. A grocery bag dropped from his hand, glass bottles within shattering as it struck the hard floor.
“Doris?” He rushed to her side, caressed her face, felt for a pulse, couldn’t stop staring at her head wounds.
“Sir!” the cop said. “Mr. MacNally. Don’t touch the body—”
MacNally’s Adam’s apple rose sharply, then fell. Ignoring the cop’s directive, he lifted Doris’s hand and brought it to his lips, kissed it, and then started whimpering. He became aware of his son and pulled his gaze from his wife’s irreparably injured and abnormally still body.
The boy’s eyes coursed down to his mother. His lips made an attempt to move, but no sound emerged.
But there was little doubt as to what had transpired. His wife had met with severe violence, the overt damage to her head and brain unquestionably fatal.
A parched “Why?” managed to scrape from MacNally’s throat. “Who?”
“A detective should be here any minute,” the policeman said.
MacNally scooted over to Henry and took the boy into his arms. His life had been turned upside down, destroyed…his mother, his maternal presence, ripped from him like a doe taken down by a lion while her fawn watches.
MacNally swallowed hard. A whimper threatened to escape his throat, but he fought it back. A pain unrecognizable to him, unlike anything he had ever felt, emerged from deep in his soul and manifested as a plaintive, silent moan. He balled a fist and shoved it between his front teeth. He did not want to further traumatize his son by losing control.
Now more than ever, Henry needed him. He needed him to be strong.
A DETECTIVE ARRIVED TWENTY MINUTES later. Dressed in a charcoal suit with a narrow tie and a black fedora tipped back off his forehead, he stepped into the kitchen through the back door and surveyed the room.
Henry was seated in his father’s lap on the floor, against the far wall. The side of the boy’s head rested against his dad’s chest, a gathering of shirt stuffed into the palm of his left hand.
“I’m Detective George O’Hara. You’re Walton MacNally?”
O’Hara knelt carefully beside the woman’s body and felt for a pulse. “So what happened here?”
“I came home about, about twenty-five minutes ago. Henry—”
“No,” O’Hara said. “Your son. I want to hear from your son.” O’Hara took a knee in front of the boy. “You okay, Henry?”
Henry’s eyes moved about the room, then finally came to rest on the detective. “My mom’s not gonna wake up.”
“I know. I’m sorry, son.” O’Hara glanced at MacNally, then swung his gaze back to Henry. “Did you see what happened? Did you see who did this to her?”
Henry sucked on his bottom lip. Dropped his gaze to his lap. Nodded.
“Did you know the person?”
Henry spoke without looking up. “He had a mask.”
“What kind of a mask?” O’Hara asked. “Like the Lone Ranger?”
“Bigger. All over his face.”
O’Hara nodded. “Did he say anything? Did you know his voice?”
Henry shook his head. “He didn’t talk.”
“How big was he? Was he—was he as tall as your dad?”
Henry twisted his lips. “Same.”
“Close your eyes for a second, son. Go on.” He waited for Henry to comply, then said, “Imagine the man is right here, right now. I’m here, so he can’t hurt you. Picture him, look right at his face. Can you tell me anything more about what he looks like?”
Henry kept his eyes shut but shook his head.
“If your dad was wearing a mask, would the man look like that?”
“What kind of a—”
“Quiet, Mr. MacNally,” O’Hara said. He rose, sucked on his teeth a second, and then looked over at the woman’s body.
Henry tightened his grip on his father. MacNally shifted his weight and cuddled the boy. It was now just the two of them. Henry had been such a blessing that he and Doris had started discussing another child. But times were tough, and he had lost his job as a welder for a commercial building contractor three months ago. They were existing solely on Doris’s lean secretarial salary, so they decided to put off the idea of another child, at least until he had found employment. He began drinking to escape the pressures and feelings of inadequacy.
Then came a break: a week ago MacNally heard of a shipping company that needed an able-bodied man to work the docks unloading cargo. It was a waste of his artistic talents, but he needed the money. Though it had only been six days, he hadn’t had one drink and his boss took notice of his work ethic. Tonight he was going to tell Doris they should consider that second child.
Those plans were now gone. Forever lost, like the life that had drained from his wife’s body.
O’Hara pulled a long, narrow pad from his vest pocket and jotted some notes. He clicked his pen shut, and then stole another look at the body of Doris MacNally. “I’ll be right back. Gotta go find out what’s keeping the coroner. Don’t touch anything. Best if you two go wait in the living room.”
The door swung open and closed, a blast of frigid air blowing against MacNally’s face. The police officer who’d been there earlier stepped back inside and folded his arms across his chest.
MacNally did as he was told, taking Henry into the adjacent room and waiting on the couch. He cradled Henry against his perspiration-soaked body, oblivious to the chilled draft that swept through the house…the cold emptiness mimicking what he was now feeling.
“What’s in your hand?” MacNally asked softly.
Henry splayed open his fingers, and an opal brooch stared back at him. It was the only keepsake Doris’s grandmother had left her, and it was something Doris cherished and wore often. MacNally knew it was Henry’s attempt to be close to his mother, to have something of hers that he could hold onto. Emotionally, MacNally could relate: he wasn’t prepared to let go of his life companion yet either.
O’Hara was gone for several minutes, during which time MacNally numbly stared ahead at the wedding photo that sat in a wood frame on the fireplace mantle across the room. He stroked his son’s back, an action that felt pathetically inadequate. But he didn’t know what else to do. He had just turned twenty-four—what could he possibly know about helping a young boy deal with the loss of his mother?
In the space of mere seconds, the lives of Henry and Walton MacNally were shattered beyond repair.
But MacNally did not—could not—know just how much of a difference his mate’s death would make in their lives.
DETECTIVE O’HARA WALKED BACK INTO the house. His cheeks and the tips of his ears were red from the blistering cold, and his face was stern. The creases were more prominent, the brow rigid, the lips taut.
But it wasn’t until O’Hara was fully inside the kitchen that MacNally realized that the man had his service revolver in hand, at his side, poking out from behind his thigh. Concealing it.
“Mr. MacNally, can you please let go of your son and come over here for a moment?”
MacNally’s gaze was fixated on the tip of metal peeking from behind O’Hara’s leg. Whatever the detective had in mind, it was not good. But MacNally had nothing to hide, so he gave Henry a gentle pat on the back. “Son, I need to get up for a second.”
Henry unfolded himself and flopped down beside his father as MacNally pushed up off the sofa. He walked over to O’Hara.
“Sir, I’m placing you under arrest for the murder of Doris MacNally. Please put your hands behind your back.”
MacNally leaned back. “Arrest? For—Are you out of your mind? I loved my wife. We were going to—”
“I’m just following orders, sir. Now turn around and give me your hands.”
“How could you th— What could possibly make you think I did this?”
“Once we get to the station, we can talk about it in more detail, get it all straightened out.”
MacNally did as instructed. As he turned, he locked eyes with his boy. “Everything’s going to be okay, Henry. I’m going to clear up this misunderstanding and be back home as soon as I can. I promise.”
Walton MacNally soon learned not to make promises he could not keep. Because as it turned out, all would not be okay. MacNally was questioned at the station for hours. His alibi was thin at best—he repeated what he had told O’Hara outside, when he first arrived at the house—that he had gone shopping for groceries but then made a stop somewhere. He claimed it was a bar for his first drink in nearly a week to celebrate his new job—but couldn’t recall which establishment he’d visited.
O’Hara questioned the owners of local taverns in the vicinity, but none recalled seeing MacNally during the hours in question.
That lent credence to the prosecutor’s theory that the defendant had hired a prostitute, had sex with her in his car, then drove home and killed his wife when she confronted him with some form of evidence—errant lipstick, foreign perfume, or suspicion brought on by a pattern of such behavior.
Although Henry—the sole witness to the murder—had stated to O’Hara that the attacker did not speak before beating his mother, the prosecutor pointed out that it was only natural for a young boy to “cover” for his father, particularly once he realized the weight of the situation facing him: with his mother gone, his dad was his only remaining family.
And making the defense even more difficult was MacNally’s history—his father’s, to be exact—convicted of murdering a woman with whom he was accused of having an affair. That trial had made the newspapers, too, nineteen years earlier. And although MacNally’s defense attorney objected to the prosecutor’s mention of that old case during his opening arguments, it was a seed planted in the jury’s minds. More importantly, however, it brought his father’s legacy once again to the front pages of the newspaper and painted the MacNally family name with such distrustful strokes that it became a dirty image the public could not easily discard.
Henry MacNally, living temporarily in a local orphanage, was unable to provide any further description of the assailant…a description that could very well have been his father. Or—as the defense attorney claimed—it could have been thousands of other men of similar build.
Ultimately, Walton MacNally was found not guilty. But the job that MacNally had won in the days before his wife’s death was long gone. A man whose face had graced the local papers was a pariah, despite the prosecution’s failed bid to build a convincing case against him.
MacNally and Henry packed their belongings into two large suitcases and headed south. Where it would lead MacNally did not know. But perhaps it was better that way. Because had Walton MacNally known the turn his life would eventually take, he might very well have committed suicide. At least it would have eliminated years of incomprehensible pain and suffering.
The Marina District
San Francisco, California
San Francisco Police Inspector Lance Burden greeted the first officer on-scene with a firm nod. “What’s the deal?”
The man tipped back his cap and shifted his weight. “Pretty disgusting, if you ask me, Inspector.”
Burden yawned wide and hard, then said, “I did ask you, Simpson. Can you be a little more specific?”
“Victim is an old woman. I didn’t want to mess up the crime scene and shit, so I’m just eyeballing it, but she looks like she’s in her eighties.”
“Okay. Go on.”
“Kind of looks like my grandmother.”
“She’s old. I got that. What else?”
“Her pants and underwear are pulled down to her knees. She’s…uh…she’s been penetrated.”
“Penetrated—how? You mean sexually?”
Simpson rested both hands on his utility belt and hooked fingers around the gear. “Yeah. There’s something rammed up her, up her anus.” He looked away, shook his head, then continued. “Like I said. Disgusting. I mean, who’d want to rape and sodomize an old woman?”
Burden’s eyes widened. “Wait here.”
“Don’t worry. I’m not goin’ back in there,” Simpson said with a sardonic chuckle.
Burden lifted his two-way and got an ETA on the criminalist: fifteen minutes, best case. His partner was en route, as well, but he decided not to wait. He pulled a pair of blue booties from his pocket—he’d learned first day on the job as a detective years ago to carry the things with him. And they’d come in handy on more than one occasion.
He walked into the townhouse. A sour-stale odor flared his nostrils. It was a scent he’d experienced a number of times over the years—the way homes of elderly individuals can sometimes smell, particularly when mixed with the putrid cologne of death.
The place was well kept, orderly and clean. Oil paintings and dated knickknacks betrayed their age about as blatantly as the yellowing black-and-white photographs that sat on a bureau in the living room.
And then, in the bedroom…two bare feet visible from the doorway. Burden walked another couple of yards and had enough of a view to get a sense of what he was dealing with. He bit the inside of his lip.
Burden did not look away from the body. “What is it?”
“The criminalist made better time than he thought. He’ll be here in five minutes.”
“Yeah. Right. Send him in when he gets here.”
“See what I mean?” Simpson asked. “What kind of monster would do that to a poor old woman?”
Burden sighed deeply. “I think I know just the kind of monster we’re looking for. And I know who to call to help find him.”
George Washington University Hospital
900 23rd St., NW
FBI Profiler Karen Vail walked the hospital hallway with her son, Jonathan, and DEA Special Agent Robby Hernandez. Vail and Robby were both off duty, a rare Saturday when they had time to decompress, grab lunch at Charlie Palmer’s, and then a late afternoon movie. They left their case folders on their desks, their problems neatly tucked away in a file drawer, and all concerns of serial murders and drug cartels out of reach of their collective consciousness.
Robby’s shoulder was still in a sling, recovering from a gunshot wound he had sustained two months ago. But the injury had an unforeseen, nonmedical side effect: Jonathan got a kick out of handily beating the one-armed Robby in every videogame in the teen’s arsenal, so they played together at every opportunity. Robby represented the positive male presence Jonathan lacked, and Jonathan gave Robby the father-son relationship he had wanted but not yet experienced.
With various bruises and lacerations now healed and a knee that finally felt whole following recent surgery, Vail had found peace being at home after a tenuous two weeks in the Napa Valley. What started as a dream vacation had degraded into a recurring nightmare that, for a while, Vail had difficulty awakening from.
But Vail and Robby were not at the hospital for their ailments; they were visiting a friend and colleague, Mandisa Manette, who had been shot in front of the White House just before Vail and Robby left for Napa. It had taken three surgeries so far, but she was making steady progress and had begun rehabilitation.
Jonathan insisted on waiting in the hall, choosing instead to trade text messages with his friends.
“We won’t be long,” Vail said.
Jonathan already had his phone out, eyes riveted to the screen. “Take your time.”
Robby reached out to pull open the Physical Therapy department door, but Vail slapped her hand against the wood panel. “You think she’ll be glad to see us?”
“Why wouldn’t she be?”
Vail bobbed her head. “Every time she and I get together it turns into a major ordeal.”
“I could say the same thing, but that doesn’t stop me from seeing you.”
Vail elbowed him in the side. Robby pulled open the door.
Gripping two wooden parallel bars was Detective Mandisa Manette. Her normal cornrowed hair was pulled back into a bun, disheveled and in need of a shampoo. Rather than the lithe, athletic detective, Manette was having difficulty negotiating the normally automatic movement of walking. The therapist’s gaze snapped up—causing Manette to stop and twist her body.
“Jesus Christ. Kari, what the hell are you doing here?”
“Good to see you, too,” Vail said. She turned to Robby. “See what I mean?”
“Robby,” Manette said. “You still dating this crystal ball psychic magician?”
Robby grinned broadly, then stepped forward and gave Manette a hug. “How are you doing?”
“Better than you,” she said. “What’s up with the sling?”
“Same as you. GSW. No big deal, I’m back on the job already.”
“Sequestered in this hospital, I tend to be a little out of touch. Especially when people don’t visit you.”
“I was here last week,” Vail said.
“I don’t consider you ‘people,’” Manette said. “I mean real flesh-and-blood humans.”
“Sounds like you’re doing well,” Robby said. “Getting back to your old self.” He gestured toward her with a raise of his chin. “How’s your hip coming along?”
“I got me a brand new one, titanium or some shit like that. Bionic space-age technology. I’m going to be faster, stronger than before.”
“Yeah,” Vail said. “And she’ll be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.”
“I got a doc who’s got a bedside manner just like yours,” Manette said. “I slapped him upside the head. He’s much nicer to me now.” She shifted her weight and grabbed the parallel bars. “If he wasn’t such a hunk, I’da fired his ass the first day.”
Vail’s phone rang. Her hand sprung to the holster and silenced it, then pulled it free. Glanced at the display and said to Robby, “It’s your father.”
Robby rolled his eyes. “Will you stop saying that every time your boss calls you?”
Vail feigned innocence.
“What’s that?” Manette asked. “Vail’s ASAC’s your father?” She looked back and forth at both of them. “Man, Kari. You don’t tell me nothin’. Sounds like I missed some juicy shit wasting away in this here hospital.”
“Juicy shit, indeed.” Vail turned and answered the call.
“Karen,” Thomas Gifford said. “Sorry to bother you on a Saturday. But something’s come up.”
“I think this is the part where I make believe there’s static on the line and then press the END button.”
“I’m serious, Karen. I’ve got something here.”
“And you’ve got at least eleven other profilers you can call.”
“The one I really need has retired. And he’s out of the country so I can’t even give him a shout. So you’re it.”
“Robby and I have plans with Jonathan for a movie later.”
“Take a rain check. A detective just called the unit with a fresh eighty-two-year-old female, sexually assaulted and murdered.”
“So you want Mark Safarik. He’s the world expert on the sexual homicide of elderly females—”
“Yes, yes,” Gifford said. “But like I said, he’s unreachable. And I know you worked with him before he retired and coauthored his last paper.”
Vail sighed. “So I’m the pinch hitter.”
“For lack of a better term, yeah.”
Vail looked at Robby and gave him a thumbs down sign. “Where and when?”
“We’ve got you booked on a flight to San Francisco leaving out of Reagan in two hours.”
“San Francisco? Wait, I get it. This is a joke, right? I had the nightmare of my life in Napa, so you’re sending me back there a few months after I got out of that godforsaken place. Good one, sir.” She pressed END and disconnected the call.
“Problem?” Robby asked.
Her BlackBerry rang again seconds later. Vail looked at the phone, then at Robby. Brought the handset to her ear. “You weren’t kidding, were you.”
“No, Karen, I wasn’t. I’m emailing you the flight information. Pack whatever you need and get over to Reagan ASAP.”
“And—please, promise me one thing.”
“Only one thing, sir?”
“Only one thing,” Gifford repeated. “But it’s a big one. Stay out of trouble. This one time. That’s not too much to ask, is it?”
Karen Vail arrived at San Francisco International Airport at 11 PM. Her connecting flight in Atlanta was delayed due to weather somewhere over the country, so she’d picked up a copy of Nelson DeMille’s latest novel at an airport bookstore and devoured half of it by the time she touched down at SFO.
Robby had turned her on to DeMille. He’d said DeMille’s main character, John Corey, was a lot like her—a sarcastic, wise-cracking former detective. She told Robby he had his head up his ass. But now that she’d read DeMille’s novels, she realized that maybe she did share a few similar characteristics with John Corey—but she wouldn’t give Robby the satisfaction.
“First of all, I’m not a wiseass,” she started. He merely squinted at her. Fine, that wasn’t too convincing an argument. I wouldn’t believe that one, either. “Second, I’m a lot better cop than Corey.”
That was when Robby tilted his head and said, “You’re comparing your skill set to a fictional character?” And then he delivered his zinger, designed to put her in her place: “Besides. Come to think of it, I think maybe Corey’s a little smarter than you are.”
At that point, Vail fell back on the only card she had left to play. “Who would you rather sleep with. Fictitious John Corey, or me?”
Robby didn’t have a comeback for that—or he chose to keep it to himself. Wise choice.
Vail took a cab to the Hyatt Regency in the city, left a message for Inspector Lance Burden that she had arrived later than she had anticipated, and told him she would meet him at 8 AM at the Hall of Justice’s Homicide Detail on Bryant Street. Then she sent an email to her friend, Roxxann Dixon, an investigator with the Napa County District Attorney’s office, who served with her on the Crush Killer task force a few months back. Vail didn’t know if they would be able to coordinate a dinner together, but she wanted her to know that she was working a serial killer case in the city in case they had a chance to see one another.
The wind coming off the Bay struck her as she got out of the cab on California Street. Vail walked past the cable car, loading passengers in front of the Hyatt, and strode up to the hotel’s entrance, where the escalators carried her up to the third floor. As the moving stairs lifted her toward the lobby, the grandness of the central atrium left her jaw slack.
Ahead, a massive sculpture—it looked like a swirling copper sphere—sat atop a black marble base with water cascading down its sides. To her left, thousands of tiny lights, suspended from above, stretched what must’ve been a hundred feet in length by a hundred feet in width.
“Wow,” she said under her breath.
After so many sleepless nights on this coast, Vail was relieved to enjoy a restful evening, in a comfortable bed and no middle-of-the-night pages, texts, or calls. She dreamt of Robby and was disappointed when she awoke early to find that he wasn’t beside her. Despite the momentary letdown, she felt refreshed and ready to go to work.
She showered. Then, while wrapped in a bath sheet, pulled open the curtains and peered out the window for the first time. Her view was the finest she had ever seen: the room was on the fourteenth floor and overlooked the Embarcadero and Port of San Francisco. Maybe this trip won’t be so bad after all.
To her right stood the steel blue Bay Bridge, stretching from an island on the left all the way to the furthest reaches of her window’s field of vision on the right. A cargo ship marked Hanjin in enormous white letters set against a dark body ferried blue and red containers on its back. An escort tug tailed it a safe distance astern as both vessels passed beneath the farthest span of the bridge.
The sky was a thick gray, remnants of fog hanging low in the distance. While pondering the weather and what to wear, her wakeup call came, the automated voice welcoming her and informing her that the high temperature was expected to be a nippy 52 degrees. Actually, the recording omitted the adjective.
In her haste to pack—Gifford hadn’t left her much time—she’d neglected to check the weather. She pulled out the pair of form-fitting jeans that she had worn on the plane and snuggled into a tight-knit black sweater. She stepped into the cylindrical, windowed elevator and again marveled at the curtain of hanging lights as the car descended to the lobby. Curbside, she was about to hail a taxi when a text message from Inspector Burden hit her BlackBerry. He wanted to meet instead at the crime scene, in an area he called the Marina District.
Vail supplied the cab driver the address and asked how long till they arrived. It was only a few miles—a ten-minute ride, traffic permitting.
She arrived as promised, in front of a well-appointed line of charming row houses, decked out in muted colors of butterscotch and sapphire, each sporting their own variation of wrought iron-wrapped balconies.
Standing out front of a creamy avocado building marked with a brass “114” was a tall, thin man chomping on a slice of gum. Vail paid the taxi driver, then walked up to the house. “Karen Vail. Are you Burden?”
The inspector extended a hand. “With a lot of things, yeah.”
Vail took it. His grip was soft and quick. “A sense of humor. A bad one, but a sense of humor. That’s good.”
“My kids give me shit too.”
“About the weak handshake or your bad jokes?”
Burden drew back. “Man, you’re a fiery one. Give me a few minutes to adjust to that, okay?”
“Only a few minutes? You’re in danger of impressing me, Inspector.”
He eyed her cautiously. “Maybe a few days.”
Vail broke a smile. “That’s more like it. But if it helps, I’m told I grow on you once you get to know me.”
“I wanted Mark Safarik.”
Vail nodded. Hey, if it was me, I’d want Safarik, too. But she kept that to herself. “He’s not available. You get me.”
Burden pulled his leather jacket tighter as the wind whipping off the Bay blew through his thin shirt.
Vail shivered. “What’s up with your weather? It’s July. If I’d known it was gonna be this goddamn cold, I’d have packed a jacket and gloves.”
Burden pulled a key from his pocket and unlocked the door to the house. “Don’t you know the famous quote?”
Vail frowned. “I know a lot of famous quotes, Inspector. You have a particular one in mind?”
“‘The coldest winter I ever saw was the summer I spent in San Francisco.’ Mark Twain. At least, some believe Twain said it.”
“Nope. Never heard it.”
Burden moved inside the house. “The city’s weather is kind of like Australia, all messed up calendar-wise.”
Vail eyed him. “Okay. Right. San Francisco is Australia. Got it.” She followed him in through the door and up the stairs.
“Any security other than locks on the doors?”
“Nope.” Burden led her inside, to the mouth of the living room. “That bedroom there,” he said, gesturing down the hall with a nod of his chin. “That’s where the body was found.”