Karen Vail is no ordinary FBI agent. She’s a profiler, brought to life by Alan Jacobson’s seven years of unprecedented access to, and research with, the FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit. The 7th Victim has been raved about by reviewers, readers…even one of the founding fathers of the real Behavioral Analysis Unit.
The Library Journal named The 7th Victim one of the Top 5 Best Books of the Year (2008). So step into the world of Karen Vail and discover a character James Patterson called “as compelling as any created by Patricia Cornwell, or yours truly.”
The 7th Victim
A Karen Vail Novel (#1)
Queens, New York
“Dispatch, this is Agent Vail. I’m in position, thirty feet from the bank’s entrance. I’ve got a visual on three well-armed men dressed in black clothing, wearing masks. ETA on backup? I’m solo here. Over.”
“Copy. Stand by.”
Stand by. Easy for you to say. My ass is flapping in the breeze outside a bank with a group of heavily armed mercenaries inside, and you tell me to stand by. Sure, I’ll just sit here and wait.
FBI Special Agent Karen Vail was crouched behind her open car door, her Glock-23 forty-caliber sidearm steadied against the window frame. No match for what looked like MAC-10s the bank robbers were toting, but what can you do? Sometimes you’re just fucked.
Radio crackle. “Agent Vail, are you there? Over.”
No, I left on vacation. Leave a message. “Still here. No movement inside, far as I can tell. View’s partially blocked by a large window sign. Bank’s offering free checking, by the way.”
Vail hadn’t been involved in an armed response since leaving the NYPD five years ago. Back then she welcomed the calls, the adrenaline rush as she raced through the streets of Manhattan to track down the scumbags who were doing their best to add some spice to an otherwise bland shift. But after the birth of her son Jonathan, Vail decided the life of a cop carried too much risk. She eventually made it to the Bureau—a career advancement that had the primary benefit of keeping her keester out of the line of fire.
“Local SWAT is en route,” the voice droned over the two-way. “ETA six minutes.”
“A lot of shit can happen in six minutes.” Did I say that out loud?
“Repeat, Agent Vail?”
“I said, ‘A lot of sittin’ for the next six minutes.’” The last thing she needed was to have her radio transmission played back in front of everyone; she’d be ridiculed for weeks.
“Unit Five approaching, Queens Boulevard and Forty-eighth.”
Mike Hartman’s voice sounded unusually confident over the radio. Vail was surprised Mike and his new partner were responding to this call. She’d worked with Mike for six months and found him decent enough, but a marginal agent in terms of execution. At the moment, she’d take marginal execution . . . the more firepower the good guys had, the more likely the gunmen inside the bank would be intimidated, and the greater the odds of resolving this in the Bureau’s favor. Translation: she’d come out of this in one piece and the slimeballs would be wearing silver bracelets . . . tightened that one extra notch—just enough to make them wince when she ratcheted them down around their wrist bones, for all the trouble they caused her.
Dispatch replied: “Roger, Unit Five.”
Mike’s unit was a block away and would be here in seconds.
With her eyes focused on the bank’s windows, she heard Mike Hartman’s Bureau car screech to a stop to her left, about thirty feet from the front door. But as her head swung toward the BuCar to make eye contact with Mike, she heard the clank of metal on metal and she pivoted back toward the bank—
—where she saw the three armed men in black sweats blowing through the front door, large submachine guns tucked beneath their arms, and damned if she didn’t think she’d called it right, they were carrying MAC10s. But in the next split second, as she ducked down and as glass shattered and rained all over her back, she saw, out of the corner of her eye, Mike Hartman lying on the ground, face up, his right arm tracing the pavement as if searching for something. A glimpse of his expression showed raw pain and she knew instantly that he’d not lost anything but rather gained something—a few rounds of lead in his body. Still, Mike fared better than his partner, whose head hung limp, slumped back over the seat.
The bank robbers, machine guns and all, were arrayed in a triangle but not going anywhere, strategically positioned behind a mailbox and a row of metal newspaper dispensers, a pretty damn good bit of cover and a huge stroke of luck for them. But they’d just killed a cop—why weren’t they getting the hell out of Dodge?
Lying on the ground, with a bird’s-eye view of the pavement and Mike’s writhing body, Vail spied the cockeyed tires and sky blue rims of another vehicle, to the left of Mike’s BuCar. A local NYPD cruiser responding to the call. And where the hell was SWAT? Oh, yeah, six lonnnng minutes away. What did that make it, another four before they showed up? I told them a lot of shit can happen in six minutes.
Rounds continued popping all around her. Vail tried to stand— probably not the smartest thing to do while projectiles were zipping through the air at 950 feet per second, but she needed to do something.
As she rose, a couple of thumps struck her in the left thigh. The deep burn of a gunshot wound was instantly upon her, and a wide bloody circle spread through the nylon fibers of the stretch fabric of her tan pants. She didn’t have time for pain, not now. She grabbed the back of her leg and felt two tears in the fabric, indicating the rounds had gone right through. Assuming they didn’t hit a major artery, she’d be okay for a bit. But shit, right time or not, it sure hurt like hell.
She slithered to her left to gain a better view of what was happening in front of the bank—just as two of the slimebags dropped to the pavement… hit by the cops’ fire, no doubt. But the remaining asshole kept blowing rounds from his submachine gun, holding it like Rambo, shooting from his waist and leaning back, hot brass jackets leaping from the weapon like they were angry at being expelled for something as mundane as murder.
The final cop went down—she could see him fall from her ground-level vantage point—and the perp stopped firing. The silence was numbing in its suddenness.
Vail watched as the man bent over and lifted the large canvas bag from his dead comrade’s hand and turned to hightail it down the street.
Well, this wasn’t good. Mike and his partner down, a couple cops dead, and the shithead was about to make it away with the cash. Not on my watch.
Vail rolled left, got prone against the ground and brought her Glock to the front of her body. This would be an insane shot—below the cars and above the curb—but what did she have to lose? With all the shooting, there were no innocents around. She squeezed off several rounds, the weapon bucking violently in her weak grip. And gosh darn it, if the jerk-wad didn’t stumble, then limp—he was hit. Vail grabbed the edge of Mike’s car door and pulled herself up as best she could, her thigh burning like a red-hot poker, her muscles quivering as she groaned and pushed with her right leg to get herself upright.
Hanging onto the sideview mirror with her left hand, she took aim at the limping gunman and screamed, “Federal Agent. Freeze!”
Did that ever work? Nah. Usually not. But this guy wasn’t too smart, because he turned toward her, his submachine gun still in his grasp, and that was all she needed.
Vail fired again and took him out cold, flattened him against the pavement. And then let go of her hold on the mirror and joined him in a heap on the asphalt as she heard the uneven scream of sirens approaching.
She craned her neck back a smidgen and caught Mike Hartman’s pale gaze. He managed a slight smile before his eyes wavered closed. The next morning, after her release from the hospital, she put in for a transfer.
FAIRFAX COUNTY, VIRGINIA
Wisps of vapor hung in the frigid night air like frightened ghosts. He shooed away the apparitions, then checked his watch as he huffed down the dark residential street. He’d chosen this house, this victim, for a reason.
Within a few hours, pale-faced neighbors would be staring into news cameras, microphones shoved in their faces for commentary and insight. Tell us about her. Stir our emotions, make us cry. Make our hearts bleed. Make our hearts bleed just like the victim bled.
His right hand was toasty warm, curled around the leather FBI credentials case inside his coat pocket. But his suit pants were too thin to fight off the biting cold that nipped at his legs. He shivered and quickened his pace. In a moment, he’d be indoors, comfortably at home with his work.
At home with his victim. Flowing brunet hair and clear skin. Long legs and a turned up cute-as-a-button nose. But buried beneath the allure, the evil was there—he’d seen it in her eyes. The eyes were always the key.
Strong fingers palpated his fake moustache to ensure it was properly placed. He repositioned the small pipe holstered to the inside of his coat, then placed the loose-leaf binder beneath his left arm before stepping up to the front door. He’d been here a number of times over the past few days, inspecting the area. Watching the comings and goings of the neighbors. Measuring the arcs thrown by the streetlights. Gauging the visibility of the front door to passersby. Now it was a matter of flawless execution. Execution! Indeed.
He pressed the doorbell and brightened his face for the peephole. Rule number one: look pleasant and nonthreatening. Just a friendly FBI agent out to ask a few questions to keep the neighborhood safe.
An eye swallowed the small lens. “Who is it?”
Sweet voice. How deceiving these women-slut-whores can be.
“FBI, ma’am. Agent Cox.” He had to keep himself from smiling at the irony of the name he’d chosen. Like everything he did, there was a reason. Everything for a reason and a reason for everything. He unfurled the credentials case the way agents are taught to do, then leaned back a bit, helping her take in the whole package. A clean-cut FBI agent in a wool overcoat and suit. How easy could it be?
A second’s hesitation, then the door opened. The woman wore an oversize sweatshirt and a pair of threadbare jeans. She held a spatula in her right hand, a dishrag in the left. Cooking a late dinner. Her last supper, he cackled silently.
“Ms. Hoffman, we’ve had some reports of a rapist in your area. His attacks are escalating. We were wondering if you could help us.”
“A rapist?” pretty little Melanie Hoffman asked. “I haven’t heard anything about it.”
“We haven’t released it to the press, ma’am. We work differently than the police. We believe it’s best to keep it quiet, so we don’t tip him off that we’re on to him.” He shifted his feet and blew on his right hand as he hugged the binder close to his chest with his left. It’s cold, he was telling her. Invite me inside.
“How can I help?”
“I have a book of mug shots here. All I need you to do is look over the photos and let me know if you’ve seen any of these people in the neighborhood the past two months. Shouldn’t take more than a few minutes.”
Her eyes bounced from the binder to his face, on which she seemed to linger for just a bit longer than he would have liked. He decided to press ahead. He had a knack for creating a window of opportunity, and the window was now open. He had to move, and move fast.
“Ma’am, I don’t mean to be impolite, but I’ve still got a number of other houses to visit tonight, and it’s getting kind of late.” He shrugged a shoulder. “And the longer it takes to find this guy, the more women he’s going to attack.”
Melanie Hoffman lowered her spatula and stepped aside. “Of course. I’m sorry. Please, come in.”
HE SNAPPED HIS SHEARS CLOSED and lopped off a lock of brunet hair. He leaned back, admired his work, then grabbed Melanie Hoffman’s limp head by her remaining hair and clipped off another handful. Then another. And another.
Snip. Snip. Snip.
The sweet scent of blood was everywhere. He sucked it in and shivered. It was an intense feeling, a sudden euphoric rush. When he finished with her hair, he moved on to her fingernails. Down to the quick, and beyond. Blood oozed a bit, and he licked it, like a lover slowly lapping off the chocolate from his companion’s fingers. He repositioned Melanie’s hand, got it just the way he wanted it, then brought the shears up again.
Clip. Clip. Clip.
Blood oozed again, and he drank some more.
An hour must’ve passed, the need to make things right driving him to perfection. He’d always been like that, for as long as he could remember. Besides, he was in no rush to go back out to the cold. He snatched a sesame seed bun from Melanie Hoffman’s kitchen counter and slapped on some cream cheese, peanut butter, and ketchup from her fridge. He squirted on a generous helping—the symbolic affection for the red stuff wasn’t lost on him—and he took a large bite, careful not to leave any crumbs, saliva, or other identifiable markings behind.
A soft, tan leather couch that still smelled new sat in the living room. He sunk down into it and flipped on the television, surfed the channels for a bit and found wrestling. Such senseless violence. How could they allow this junk on TV?
He left the tube on and sauntered through the rest of the house, munching on the sandwich and admiring the pictures hanging on the wall. He liked Melanie’s taste in artwork. It had a looseness to it, abstract yet somehow structured. Organized, but with a randomness inherent in creative expression. He stood in front of one of the paintings and noticed her signature in the corner. She had created these herself. He clucked his tongue against his palate. Tsk, tsk, tsk. Too bad. He wondered what other works of beauty she might have created had she not been so damned evil.
He stood in the bedroom doorway admiring his work. He finished off the sandwich, then crossed his arms and tilted his head from side to side, finding the right perspective, sizing up the room. Taking in the whole view. Yes, it was a masterpiece. As good as anything Melanie had painted. The most complex work he’d ever created.
He moved to Melanie’s side and looked down at her eyes, frozen open, staring at the ceiling. No, at him. They were looking at him.
The evil had to be purged. Had to be. Had to.
He lifted the serrated knife and felt its weight—its power—in his hand. Melanie Hoffman had paid dearly, for sure. Just payback for an unjust crime.
It was, it was, it was.
Like a master painter inscribing his name at the bottom of a canvas, he brought back the knife and drove it through Melanie Hoffman’s left eye socket.
She must not see.
She must not.
What is it with me and banks?
Supervisory Special Agent Karen Vail’s weapon was aimed at the loser, who just stood there, his .38 Special pointing right at her.
Sweat pimpled his greasy forehead, matting dirty black hair to his skin. His hands were shaking, his eyes were bugged out like golf balls, and his breathing was rapid.
“Don’t move or I’ll blow your goddamn head off!” Vail yelled it a bit louder than she’d intended, but the adrenaline was pumping. She wanted the message to get through the perp’s thick skull that she meant business. The frightened patrons of Virginia Commonwealth Savings Bank got the message. Those who were still standing hit the ground with a thud.
“Drop the fucking gun,” the man screamed back. “Drop it now!”
Vail smirked. That’s exactly what I was going to say to him. As he shuffled his feet and held the hostage in the crook of his left arm, Vail flashed on Alvin, a skel she’d busted sixteen years ago while a member of the NYPD. It wasn’t Alvin—he was doing time at Riker’s Island—but, nonetheless, she thought he could be the guy’s twin.
“I’m not putting my gun down till you put yours down, pal,” Vail said to the perp. “That’s the way it’s going to work.”
“I call the shots here, bitch. Not you!”
Great, she thought, I got one who wants to fight. It’d been six years since she’d been a field agent, eleven years since she’d camped behind a detective shield. Though she still trusted her instincts, her skill-set was in the crapper. It wasn’t like putting on pantyhose every morning. Dealing with hostage situations took practice to know you’d do the right thing under pressure, without thinking. As Vail had often been kidded by the others in her squad, the “without thinking” part came naturally to her.
“Since you won’t tell me your name, I’m going to call you Alvin,” she said. “Is that okay, Alvin?”
“I don’t care what you call me, just drop the fucking gun!” He shuffled his feet some more, his eyes darting from the left side of the room to the right, and back. As if he were watching a table tennis match.
Alvin’s hostage, a thirty-something stringy blond with a sizable rock on her ring finger, began whimpering. Her eyes were bugged out, too, but it wasn’t from drugs. It was raw fear, the sudden realization that, FBI or not, Vail might not get her out of this alive.
And Vail had to admit that so far it was not going well. She’d already blown protocol about as well as any rookie could her first day on the job. She should’ve yelled “Freeze, scumbag, FBI!” and he would have then just pissed his pants and dropped the gun, surrendering to law enforcement and ending the nightmare before it started. At least, that’s the way it always happened in the old TV shows she watched as a kid.
But this was reality, or at least it was for Vail. For the Alvin lookalike standing in front of her, it was some speed-induced frenzy, a dream where he could do anything he wanted, and not get hurt. That was the part that bothered her.
She kept her Glock locked tightly in her hands, lining up Alvin’s nose in her sight. He was only about twenty feet away, but the woman he was holding, or rather choking with his left arm, was too close for Vail to risk a shot.
The other part of protocol she’d screwed up was that she should’ve been talking calmly to Alvin, so as not to incite him. But that was according to the Manual of Investigative and Operational Guidelines—known throughout the Bureau as MIOG, or “my-og.” In Vail’s mind, it should’ve been called MIOP, short for myopic. Narrow-minded. And if there was one thing Vail was sure of at the moment, it was that the guy who wrote MIOG didn’t have a crazed junkie pointing a snub-nosed .38 at him.
So they stood there, Alvin twitching and shuffling, doing what looked like a peculiar slow dance with his hostage, and the level-headed Karen Vail, practicing what was sometimes called a Mexican standoff. Was that a politically correct term? She didn’t know, nor did she care. There was no backup outside, no tactical sniper focusing his Redfield variable scope on Alvin’s forehead, awaiting the green light to fire. She’d just walked into the bank to make a deposit, and now this.
She let her eyes swing to Alvin’s left, to a spot just over his shoulder.
She quickly looked back to him . . . making it seem as if she’d seen someone behind him, about to sneak up and knock him over the head. She saw his eyes narrow, as if he’d noticed her momentary glance. But he didn’t take the bait, and for whatever reason kept his ping-pong gaze bouncing to either side of Vail. She realized she needed to be more direct.
She turned her head and looked to his left again and, reaching into her distant past as a one-time drama major, shouted (deeply, from the abdomen), “No, don’t shoot!
”Well, this got Alvin’s attention, and as he swiveled to look over his left shoulder, he yanked the hostage down and away, and Vail drilled the perp good. Right in the temple. As he was falling to the ground in slow mo, she was asking herself, “Was this a justified shooting?”
Actually, she was telling herself to get the hell over there and kick away his weapon. She couldn’t care less if it was a justified shooting. The FBI’s OPR unit—Office of Professional Responsibility, or Office of Paper-pushing Robots—would make the final call on that.
The hostage, though frazzled and rough around the edges, was alive. That was all that mattered at the moment.
Once Vail knocked aside Alvin’s weapon, she took a moment to get a closer look at his face. At this angle he didn’t look so much like Alvin. Could’ve been because he had the blank deer-in-headlights death mask on, or because of the oozing bullet hole on the side of his head. Hard to say.
Vail suddenly became aware of the commotion amongst the tellers and security guards, who had emerged from their hiding places. The hostage was now shrieking and blabbering something unintelligible. A man in a gray suit was by her side, attempting to console her.
“Don’t just stand there,” Vail yelled to the closest guard. “Call 911 and tell them an officer needs assistance.”
It wasn’t entirely true, but it wasn’t exactly a lie, either. Still, she thought the cops would come faster if they thought it was one of their own who needed help instead of an FBI agent. Sometimes they don’t like fibbies much, the locals. But with banks, the police had to share jurisdiction with the Bureau, so she didn’t anticipate much of a tiff over it.
As she stepped away from Alvin’s body, her BlackBerry’s vibrating jolt made her jump. She yanked it from her belt and glanced at the display. Her intestines tightened. Her heart, still racing from adrenaline, precipitously slowed. The brief text message sucked the air from her breath.
She had hoped she’d never see another day like this. She had hoped it was over.
But the Dead Eyes killer had claimed another victim.
In six years as an FBI profiler, Karen Vail had not experienced anything quite like this. She had seen photos of decomposed corpses, eviscerated bodies, bodies without heads or limbs. Seven years as a cop and homicide detective in New York City had shown her the savages of gang killings and drive-by shootings, children left parentless, and a system that often seemed more interested in politics than in the welfare of its people.
But the brutal details of this crime scene were telling. A thirty year-old woman lost her life in this bedroom, a woman who seemed to be on the verge of a promising career as an accountant. A box of new business cards from the firm of McGinty & Pollock was sitting on her kitchen counter, the toxic odor of printing press ink burning Vail’s nose.
She curled a wisp of red hair behind her right ear and knelt down to examine a bloody smear outside the bedroom doorway. “Whoever did this is one sick fuck.” Vail said it under her breath, but Fairfax County homicide detective Paul Bledsoe, who had suddenly materialized at her side, grunted. The baritone of his voice nearly startled her. Nearly startled her, because there weren’t many things that did surprise her these days.
“Aren’t they all,” Bledsoe said. He was a stocky man, only about five-eight, but plenty wide in the shoulders to make anyone think twice about screwing with him. Deep-set dark eyes and short, sideparted black hair over an olive complexion gave him the look of Italian stock. But he was a mutt, some Greek and some Spanish, a distant Irish relative thrown in for good luck.