A Karen Vail Novel (#3)

Copyright (c) 2010 Alan Jacobson. All Rights Reserved.



Old Tannery District
99 S. Coombs Street
Napa, California

He was not going to kill her immediately. No—if there was one thing he had learned, it was to savor the moment, to be deliberate and purposeful. Like a predator in the wild, he would waste no energy. He needed to be careful, efficient, and resourceful. And above all, he needed to be patient.

That’s what he was now: a hunter who satisfied his hunger by feeding on others.

He sat alone in the dark parking lot, drumming his fingers on the dashboard, shifting positions in the seat. Talk radio hosts babbled on in the background, but he remained focused on his task. Watching. Waiting.

That’s why he chose the Lonely Echo bar. Located in downtown Napa, the old Tannery District sat tucked away in an area devoid of scenic mountain views, posh wineries, or pampering bed-and-breakfasts.

That meant no tourists. And that meant city planners had little incentive to expend valuable resources attempting to polish a hidden, unsightly flaw on the nation’s crown jewel.

Drugs, alcohol, sex, and prostitution were in abundant supply—and in strong demand. While the valley’s profit-driving centers blossomed over the past two decades, the district had become an overlooked pimple slowly filling with pus.

Ideal for his needs.

His eyes prowled the parking lot, watching people enter and leave the bar. With only a single light by the building’s front door and one overhanging the quiet side street, he would be able to operate with relative impunity to roaming eyes—or mobile phone video cameras. With such scarce illumination, neither was much of a threat.

But it didn’t matter: during the hours he’d sat in his minivan, no one had approached to ask him who he was. No one had even given him a glance, let alone a second look. A few women had left the bar, but they walked in pairs, making his approach extremely difficult, if not impossible.

The long wait had given him a chance to reflect on what had brought him to this moment: since childhood, strange, misplaced feelings had stirred him, but he hadn’t known how to channel or utilize them. As he got older, although those urges persisted, the fear of making a mistake—shackling him with a very, very long prison sentence—held him back.

But given the right direction and tutelage, those needs took on substance, purpose, and direction. He was no longer fearful of failing. The only question was, could he do it? Could he kill?

The body that now lay in the shed in his yard was proof that he could do it, and do it well.

But killing a woman. He grinned at the thought. He was a virgin again, about to do it with a member of the opposite sex for the first time. Just like when he was a teen, his nerves were on edge, the fluttering in his stomach constant. Yet this was different. He was not going to chicken out like that time all those years ago. He was ready now. His first kill, waiting for him back home, provided all the proof he needed.


THE BARTENDER PLANTED two large hands on the nicked wood counter. “I’m not going to say it again. You’ve had enough, miss. It’s time you went home.”

“I told you my name before,” she said, running the words together. “Don’t you remember?” She scooped up the photo of her son and waved it at him. “My son. Remember me telling you? About him? You were all interested before. When you wanted a nice tip. Now, you’re all like, get out of my fucking place.” When the bartender failed to react, she wagged a finger at him. “You’re not a very nice man, Kevinnnn.” She drew out the last letter as if she were a scratched CD stuck on a note.

Kevin shook his head, tossed down his wet rag, then turned away.

A natural redhead whose hair sprouted from her scalp like weeds, the woman pushed back from the bar and wobbled as she sought enough balance to turn and walk out. She scrunched her face into a scowl directed at Kevin, then slid off the stool.

The woman swayed and groped for the steadying assistance of chair backs as she steered herself sloppily toward, and through, the front door. The painful brightness of a spotlight mounted along the eave blasted her eyes. She waved a hand to shoo away the glare.


THE MAN WATCHED the bar’s battered wood door swing open, revealing a disheveled redhead. The light over the front entrance struck her in the face and she swatted it with a hand to fend it off, as if it was a swarm of flies. In that brief instant, she looked pretty hot. At least at this distance.

Her gait stuttered, stopped, then restarted and stuttered again. Drunk, not oriented to her surroundings.

He could not have ordered up a more perfect dish if he had spent hours searching for the recipe.


A CHILL SWIRLED AROUND the woman’s bare legs. She swung her head around the parking lot, trying to recall where she had left her car. To the right? Yeah, the right. She stumbled off in the direction of a red sedan, concentrating on putting one foot squarely in front of the other.
Ahead, a man was approaching, headed toward the bar. “He’s mean,” she said to him. “Kevin is. He’ll take your money, then kick you out.” That’s what he did to me. Kicked me out.

As she passed him, something clamped against her mouth—grabbed her from behind—squeezed and—

Can’t breathe. Gasp—Scream!—can’t.

Heavy. So—tired. Go to sleep. Sleep.

Sleep . . .


THE REDHEAD’S MUFFLED SCREAM did nothing but fill her lungs with a dose of anesthesia. Seconds later, she slumped against the man’s body. He moved beside her, then twisted his neck to look over his shoulder, canvassing the parking lot to make sure no one had been watching.

The bar door flew open and a bearded man in jeans and flannel shirt ambled out. He stopped, put a cigarette and lighter to his mouth, then cupped it. As he puffed hard, the smoke exploding away from his face in a dense cloud, his eyes found the man. “Everything okay?” he asked, squinting into the darkness.

The man covertly crumpled the rag into the palm of his hand, out of sight. “All good. Little too much juice, is all.”

“I saw,” the witness said in a graveled voice. “Bartender sent her on her way. Need some help?”

“Nah, I got it. Just glad I found her. Been looking for two hours.

But—good boyfriend, that’s what I do, you know? One in the goddamn morning. Unfucking believable. Not sure it’s worth it, if you know what I mean.” He shook his head, turned away, and walked a few more steps, ready to drop and run should the witness persist in his questioning—or pull out a cell phone.

Since no one knew which car was his, if he needed to bolt he had time to circle back later and pick it up. Or he would leave it. It was untraceable to him, that much he’d planned in advance. If it was safer to abandon it, that’s what he would do. He was prepared for that. He was fairly sure he’d thought of everything there was to think of.

The flannel-shirted witness glanced back twice as he walked toward his pickup, then unlocked it and ducked inside. The dome light flickered on, then extinguished as the door slammed shut. His brake lights brightened, and a puff of gray exhaust burst from the tailpipe.

He shifted the woman’s unconscious weight and wrapped her arm around his neck. He walked slowly, waiting for the man’s truck to move out of the lot. Then, with a flick of his free hand, he slid open the minivan door. After another quick look over his shoulder—all was quiet—he tossed her inside like a sack of garbage.


AS HE DROVE AWAY, careful to maintain the speed limit, he swung his head around to look at his quarry. The woman was splayed on the floor directly behind him. He couldn’t see her face, but her torso and legs were visible.

And then she moaned.

“What the fuck? I gave you enough to keep you down for at least twenty minutes.”

Perhaps he had been too conservative in figuring the dosage. He took care not to use too high a concentration, as excessive parts per million could result in death—and he didn’t want to kill her.

At least not that way. His first time with a woman, it had to be special.

He bit down and squirmed his ass deeper into the seat, then gently nudged the speedometer needle beyond 45. Any Highway Patrol officer would give him some leeway over the limit. It was taking a little risk, but hell, wasn’t this all one giant gamble on timing, luck, planning, and execution?

Really—how can you kill a person and not incur some degree of risk? He rather liked it. His heart was thumping, the blood pulsing through his temples—and a look into the rearview revealed pupils that were wider than he’d ever seen them. What a fucking rush. All those wasted years. He had much time to recapture.

He checked all his mirrors. No law enforcement, as best he could see in the dark. Fast glance down at the woman. Her legs moved—she was waking.

Heart raced faster. Hands sweaty.

But really—what could she do to him? Scream? No one would hear her in this deathtrap. Scratch him? Big whoop.

He hit a pothole, then checked on her again—and in the passing flicker of a streetlight, saw a flat metal object poking out of her purse. What the—

He yanked the minivan over to the curb and twisted his body in the seat to get a better look. It was.

A badge.

He fisted a hand and brought it to his mouth. What to do? Is this good or bad? Well, both. He felt a swell of excitement in his chest and forced a deep breath to calm himself. Could this be better than sex? Sex . . . why have to choose? This really could be like his first time with a woman. But not just a woman. Some kind of cop.

He pulled away from the curb and had to keep his foot from slamming the accelerator to the floor. Slow—don’t blow it now.

A moment later, his headlights hit the street sign ahead. He flicked his signal and slowed. Almost there. He grinned into the darkness. No one could see him, but in this case, it didn’t matter. It would be another one of his little secrets.


HE LEFT THE WOMAN in an abandoned house at the edge of town. He thought about bringing her back to his place, where the other body was laid out in the shed. But he nixed that idea. One corpse was enough to deal with. It would soon start to smell, and he didn’t want a neighbor calling the cops on him. If they found one of their own in his house, they might kill him right there. Forget about a long prison term. He’d be executed. It was an accident, they’d claim. Resisting arrest. They did that kind of stuff, didn’t they? He wasn’t sure, but he couldn’t take the chance.

He needed to get to a coffee shop to sit and think all this through. Now that he was deeply committed, the reality of how far he’d gone began to sink in. And although he thought he had prepared properly, he was concerned he had rushed into it, letting the swell of anticipation cloud his planning. Certainly he hadn’t figured on killing a law enforcement officer. But how could he have known?

As he drove the minivan back to where he had parked his car, he wondered if he could use this vehicle again. There was no blood, and he could simply vacuum it out or take it to a car wash for an interior detailing. If they did a good job, there’d be no personally identifiable substance of the redhead left inside. And then he wouldn’t have to search again for an untraceable minivan. Still—what if someone had seen it in the Lonely Echo’s parking lot and that guy in the pickup was questioned by police? He could give them a decent description of him. No. Better to dump the vehicle and start from scratch.

But as he pulled alongside his car and shoved the shift into park, he realized he had made a mistake. No one would find the woman’s body for days, if not longer. He slammed a palm against the steering wheel. What fun is that?

Can’t go back—that would definitely be too high a risk.

Turn the page, move on.

He thought again of the evening, of what went right, and what he could’ve done better. He didn’t get caught, so, overall, he’d done a pretty damn good job. But something else he had learned this past week was that perfection was rarely there in the beginning. But it would come, eventually.

He would keep seeking until he found it. The next one he would do differently.

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