Serial killers aren’t born overnight. Their development is cultivated over many years, the murder of their first victim triggering a recurring cycle of death, depravity, and violence that continues until someone stops them. In Red Death, that task falls to FBI Profiler Karen Vail and Honolulu Detective Adam Russell.
Amid Hawaii’s idyllic paradise and island breezes, middle aged women are dying under suspicious circumstances. The medical examiner has found nothing that suggests anything other than natural causes, but Detective Russell, a fan of FBI Profiler Karen Vail’s work, requests her assistance. Shortly after arriving, Vail is convinced that a highly efficient and elusive offender is at work.
But even for someone as fluent in the language of murder as Vail, this case is hard to read. How were these women asphyxiated with no signs of trauma? How can she gather clues or collect evidence when the killer seems to strike during the briefest casual encounters?
New York Times bestseller Catherine Coulter calls Red Death “A unique and imaginative plot filled with witty dialogue and page-turning intrigue.”
“A unique and imaginative plot filled with witty dialogue and page-turning intrigue.”
—Catherine Coulter, New York Times bestselling author of DEADLOCK
“Karen Vail finds herself pitted against a killer with the most elusive profile of her career. Alfred Hitchcock once said that murder by the babbling brook was more shocking than on a dark and stormy night, and Red Death delivers the drama from that tension perfectly. Alan Jacobson is at the top of his form in this engrossing page-turner.”
—Rodger Nichols, Cover to Cover Book Beat, Gorge Country Media
“A puzzler of a tale, worthy of genre classics fashioned by the likes of Edgar Allan Poe and Agatha Christie, further solidifying Jacobson’s claim as heir to the throne of Thomas Harris.”
“Alan Jacobson is a hell of a writer, and his lead character, Karen Vail, is a hell of a lady: tough, smart, funny, and very believable.”
—Nelson DeMille, #1 New York Times bestselling author
“Karen Vail is one tough heroine!”
—Phillip Margolin, New York Times bestselling author of Violent Crimes
“[A] beautifully layered…brisk, suspense-filled ride.”
—Resident Magazine/Books du Jour
Red Death | A Karen Vail Novel (#8)
Copyright (c) 2020 Alan Jacobson. All Rights Reserved.
The man looked at his customer and asked for her name. She was in her sixties, he could tell that much. Her skin was sagging around the chin and her eyelids were losing their battle with gravity. The way she applied her makeup—thick and overdone to mask the lines and wrinkles—reminded him of his mother.
“Joanna,” she said.
“Joanna.” He tried not to let the disappointment register. He had considerable practice over the years, but even so, he knew that the human face gave away a lot more than age. He forced a smile. “Very nice.”
She grinned and thanked him. They made small talk about the time he spent in Iraq, then she wished him well and went on her way.
A half hour and four customers later, another woman approached him. About the same age as Joanna, a few inches taller and a bit more skilled with the makeup. They chatted for a moment, but it wasn’t until he asked her name—Mary—that he felt his spirits lift.
“Nice to meet you, Mary. Have you lived on the island a long time?”
Mary laughed . . . an easygoing chuckle. “You could definitely say that.” Her eyes canted up to the ceiling and her fingers moved, as if she were counting something. “Sixty-three years. Born in Los Angeles, but my parents moved to the island when I was two. Been here ever since.”
“Lucky you,” he said. “I’m thinking I might just stay here on Oahu. Live out the rest of my days in peace.”
Mary scrunched her brow. “But you’re so young. Why on earth would you even be thinking about living out the rest of your days when you’ve got so much life ahead of you?”
“Well . . .” He took a deep breath. “Darn, Mary. Nobody’s ever quite put it that way. I don’t have too many deep discussions with people, let alone people who remind me of my mother.” He looked away.
“Didn’t mean to make you feel uncomfortable, son.”
He waved her off. “Ah, no worries. And please, call me John. I’m fine, honest. But I’m really glad I met you, Mary. You made my day.” John smiled—and it was genuine this time.
“Me too,” Mary said. “And thank you again for your service. Oh—have you had a chance to visit the national cemetery?”
“Punchbowl? Of course. Quite the setting, isn’t it? Incredible views. So serene. Truth is, that’s the kinda place I wanna be buried, when all is said and done.” John held up a hand. “I know, you don’t think I should be talkin’ like that, but I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you it is something I’ve thought about.”
“Well, my mama used to tell me to make the most of life. Live each day like it’s your last. Enjoy every sunrise, every sunset. Because life is precious.”
John nodded thoughtfully. “That’s awful nice. My mother never said anything like that to me. Maybe that’s why you have such a great outlook on life.”
“The present is a gift. It’s a pun, but it’s so true.”
“You just keep your chin up. And you keep working hard. Every day will bring new surprises, new challenges. Things to live for.” She gently touched his hand. “And stop thinking about death. It’ll become all consuming.”
“You’re a wise woman, Mary. You have given me that challenge today. And you know what? I’ve got something special for you.” He pulled the cap off his red sharpie. “What’s your last name?”
“Burkhead.” She spelled it.
John wrote “Mary Burkhead” in flawless calligraphy and handed her a small package. “Made it myself. When you get home and open it, I want you to think of me.”
“How sweet. But I can’t accept this.”
“Yes you can,” John said. “Please. You brightened my day.” He held the gift out and she looked at it, then took it from him. “Try to use it soon, in the next few days. It’s got an organic floral scent that might not last.”
“No—thank you.” He looked deep into her eyes, his pinpoint pupils holding her gaze. “This means more to me than you could know.”
Mary gave him another easygoing smile, wished him aloha, and left.
John watched her walk away and knew that his work was done. For today.
The brisk cool breeze zipped around the buildings in downtown Honolulu, blocks from where the Kamehameha statue and Iolani Palace stood, known as the only royal palace in Hawaii. More colloquially, it was the fictional Honolulu police headquarters, the location of the iconic—but equally imaginary—Hawaii Five-0 task force.
Freshman detective Adam Russell stepped into the rear yard of his small house and pulled out a stick of gum. Earlier this year, it would have been a cigarette—but he figured he should do his part to help maintain Hawaii’s famed air quality. Actually, he quit tobacco for health reasons—and had been off it for six months.
As he felt the burst of mint hit his tongue, his phone buzzed. He knew the number and cursed under his breath as he answered the call.
“Dead body at the Iolani Palace.”
“My day off.”
“I know. Sorry.”
Russell tossed the gum in the garbage and headed into his bedroom to change his clothes. Nine minutes later he arrived at the crime scene.
The extravagant nineteenth-century Victorian-influenced palace was a fusion between Hawaiian and Western architecture: while exhibiting the sense of a medieval castle, its planners softened the look with large windows and doors.
Russell pulled into a spot and walked through the expansive parking lot to the area where the yellow tape was strung. Several humongous banyan trees were on a grassy knoll to his left. Thick vertical pole-like striations extended from the lower branches to the ground, joining and twisting around one another or enjoying a lonely solo drop straight down to the grass. Russell always marveled at the weight and density of the hanging wood posts—as immovable and as solid as the trunk itself, which sat somewhere behind the nature-constructed wall.
Russell joined a knot of crime scene personnel to the left of the banyans. A Gothic building—part of the palace complex—stood twenty feet away.
That was where he found the medical examiner, Keiki Kuoko. “Aloha, brah.”
“Aloha.” Russell blinked away a speck of dirt the wind had deposited in his left eye. “What’s the deal here?”
“Sixty-one-year-old female. Worked for the state archives, that building to your left. Superficial examination shows a fit middle-aged woman, no overt signs of disease. Or trauma.”
“Cause of death?”
“It’s a toss-up. Cardiac arrest or asphyxiation. But until I get her under the knife, I’d have to go with the latter.”
“Okay, so asphyxiation. But no signs of trauma?”
“Why are we thinking this is a murder?”
“Because there’s no reason for her to choke. Airway looks clear. I’ll confirm all this when we get her back to the morgue. But kind of looks like last week’s vic.”
“Hmm. So that’s two.”
“Yeah,” Kuoko said. “We can go years without seeing one and now we get two a week apart?”
“What do you make of that?” Russell asked.
“Nothing good, I’ll tell you that.”
“I don’t like it.” Russell pulled out his phone.
“Who you calling?”
“Buddy of mine I used to work with in San Francisco. Mentored me, kicked my ass about pushing to make detective when I moved here.”
“He know about asphyxiation deaths?”
“Nope.” Russell pressed send. “But he had a big serial killer case a few years back.”
“Whoa.” Kuoko removed his reading glasses. “Serial killer? You think that’s what this is? You’re assuming the vics are related.”
“Don’t know what we’re dealing with. That’s why I’m calling him.”
Russell waited as the number began to ring. The wind ruffled his blond hair and he brushed it out of his eyes. “Yeah, this is Detective Adam Russell with Honolulu PD. Lance Burden reachable by mobile?”
“I’ll put you through.”
A couple of minutes later, Burden answered. “Adam. Long time no hear. You haven’t been on Facebook.”
“I’m avoiding my ex.”
“Just un-friend her.”
“Already did. I divorced her.”
“No, I mean remove your Faceb—your social media connection to her. Or use the privacy settings to lock her out. All you have to do is—”
“Wait, wait, wait. This sounds like you’re trying to teach me some kind of technology thing. Must be, because my eyes are starting to glaze over.”
“You’re such a fucking Luddite.”
“Just TC. Technologically challenged.”
“Listen, Adam, I’d love to catch up but I’m in Colorado. Pulling into the convention center parking lot. I’m speaking at a conference on violent crime.”
“Can you spare a minute? Just wanna run a case by you.”
“A minute. Need be, I can call you back tonight.”
“Two murders. Both asphyxiations. Only a week apart.”
“How old are the vics?”
“First was sixty-five, second was sixty-one.”
“They look the same? Physically?”
Russell turned and studied the body. “Both were brunette, five-five to five-seven. Stout. Glasses.” He crouched closer and examined the head. “Maybe some similar facial structure.”
Russell heard a door open and then close.
“You could have a serial on your hands.”
“That’s what I was worried about,” Russell said. “Can you help me on this one?”
“Really not my forte. Blind leading the blind kinda thing.”
“C’mon, man, don’t sell yourself short.”
“Got a better idea. I’ll text you the name and number of Karen Vail. Call her.”
“Profiler at the Bureau.”
“Shit no, Lance. No FBI.”
“Trust me. She’ll do right by you. Worked with her on that Alcatraz case. Couldn’t have broken it without her.”
“Wait, the redhead?”
“I remember her. I was in the room when Friedberg went missing. Never got to meet her though. You know, face-to-face.”
“She’s worth the call. Trust me.”
He sighed audibly. “You better be right.”
“She’s a handful but all you gotta remember is that if she jabs you, jab her back.”
“Don’t I always hit back?”
“This is different. You’ll see what I mean.”
Russell grinned. “Miss you, brah.”
“Sweet Jesus. Please stop with that island lingo.”
“I’ll call you next time I’m in town to visit my parents. We can grab lunch at your favorite place, the one by the Ferry Building. Slanted Door.”
Russell laughed. “Don’t I always?”
“You always forget your wallet.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Russell grabbed hold of one of the banyan tree’s vertical branches. “Hey, don’t forget to text me that fibbie’s number.”
“Soon as I get inside.”
“Break a leg. And mahalo.”
Las Vegas, Nevada
Karen Vail was in an Uber on her way to McCarren International, an uneasy feeling settling in her stomach. Vail and airports did not get along well. It had nothing to do with air travel. If the place had been a person, she would have to admit, “It’s not you, it’s me.”
Her fiancé, Robby Hernandez, would say that she was always the problem. And she could not argue with him. Well, she could, and often did. But much of the time he had a point.
And sometimes I even admit he’s right.
Vail glanced back for one final look at the casinos. The last time she had been in Vegas she was working a wide-ranging case that exposed a criminal ring with roots in Northern California. It was one of those cases that stayed with you your entire life. The only positive to come from it was the realization of how she felt about Robby.
It was now time for them to get married.
As she examined her calendar and pondered potential dates, her phone rang. It was a number she did not recognize. She had been getting spammed by stupid robocalls so she recorded a new outgoing voice mail message: “I’m screening my calls, so leave a message and I’ll call you back. If you’re a robocaller, may whoever programmed you be struck with pestilence and cyber plague.”
Okay, so the announcement was not quite that harsh—but it was close. Robby suggested she make the outgoing message more, well, outgoing. More friendly, less angry.
She countered that suggestion by pointing out that her tactic had worked. People stopped phoning her. Even her friends.
Of course, that was her personal line. Her Bureau voice mail was another matter. That had to be professional. And she could not screen her calls because she never knew who might need to reach her.
She caught it before it clicked over to voice mail. “Karen Vail.”
“This is Adam Russell, Honolulu PD. San Francisco Inspector Lance Burden gave me your name.”
“You a hitman?”
“I’m a detective. Why would you th—”
“Never know with Burden.”
“So you’re a detective. Let me do some detecting. You’d like my help on a case.”
“A couple of cases, actually.”
“Two? Did not see that coming.”
“What would it take for you to sit down with me and look things over? On these cases.”
“I’m in Vegas on my way to the airport right now. Headed home. Virginia. Wrong direction—for you.”
“Can I convince you to change your flight? You’re already halfway here. Be a shame, you know? You’re so close.”
Yeah, a shame. “Not sure a five-hour flight is what I’d call close. There’s paperwork you have to fill out. And my unit chief has to approve it.”
“You think it’d be a problem?”
With my unit chief? You better believe it.
“Shouldn’t be. If it’s legitimately something the Behavioral Analysis Unit should be consulting on, we’re at your service. Tell me what you’ve got.”
Vail listened to the quick summary and absorbed it all. She did not offer anything of value because, well, she did not have enough information to reach any kind of conclusions. “Okay. Let me see what I can do. I’ll email you the forms, check with my boss, and call you back.”
Personally, diverting to Oahu was not a big deal. Robby was working long hours on a case for the Drug Enforcement Administration, so it was not like he would miss her much if she were gone another few days. Her son Jonathan, a student at George Washington University, could stop by the house and feed and walk Hershey, their brown—and gradually turning silver—standard poodle.
Professionally, Vail had no court appearances for the next ten days and she was current on all of her cases. But Oahu was not her decision.
She thought of calling her unit’s assistant special agent in charge, Thomas Gifford, and asking him, but she knew that would be overstepping. Now that she had a unit chief again, the request had to go through her. It’s not that Vail didn’t like Stacey DiCarlo. It’s just that she didn’t respect her. And DiCarlo could be a bitch at times, spiteful and jealous. She also overcompensated for being a woman and treated Vail with a double standard.
Hmm. So maybe it is that I don’t like her.
Vail’s call with DiCarlo went as she suspected.
“Agent Vail, this isn’t how we do things. It’s not how I do things. Have the forms submitted and I’ll review them. If it makes sense for the unit to take the case, I’ll put it into the system.”
“I understand that. But—”
“This detective needs to know we have procedures for a reason. Otherwise he’ll expect an immediate response from us going forward. And then other departments will find out that we pushed his case to the top of the pile and they’ll want us to drop everything too. You need to understand that as well.”
“I get it,” Vail said. “Wasn’t my idea, ma’am. He called me. And I am already out here on the west coast, so flying to Hawaii to get the lay of the land, see a fresh crime scene, and get a head start on this case is a big help. And a hell of a lot more efficient than flying ten hours again next week. Better use of my time. But believe me—I’d be very happy to come home.”
“Did you hear anything I just said?”
“Yep, I sure did. If you give me the go-ahead, I’ll make it clear to him that this isn’t the way we normally do things.”
And I’ll tell him you’re an anal administrator who doesn’t know the first thing about profiling, let alone policing.
“And I’ll let him know you’re making a special exception and that he owes you. Big-time.”
“It does make sense,” Vail said. “And it’ll ultimately be a lot more efficient for us.”
After a long moment, DiCarlo groaned. “Fine. Do it. Just don’t ask me for any more favors this month.”
“I’m not asking for a favor here. I’ll do whatever you prefer. If you want me to come right home, I’m very happy doing that.”
“Do you want to go to Oahu or not?”
Didn’t I just answer that? “Whether or not I want to go is irrelevant. It’s your call. Obviously.”
“That’s not an answer.”
I think I’d rather have a root canal than continue this conversation.
“Okay, I’ll just keep my scheduled flight and come home.”
“No. Divert to Oahu. Lenka will email you your new itinerary.”
“Yes ma’am.” Bitch.
Vail dialed Russell and told him he was in luck. “I got approval to take the case. I’m obviously not packed for a longer trip, so as long as you can point me to a Victoria’s Secret to get some clean underwear, I can be on the next flight.”
“We just had sensitivity training, Agent Vail. I don’t think I should touch that comment with a six-inch pole.”
Sensitivity training, eh?
“Sounds like you need another course. Forget Victoria’s Secret. Macy’s is fine. Or even a local laundromat where I can do a wash.”
“Boss wants you to get right to work. Tell me what size you need and I’ll pick up some underwear for you.”
“Maxi or mini?”
Russell laughed. “Let’s just say I have gone on shopping runs for the wife. You’d be surprised at some of the stuff I’ve bought. Tampons ain’t nothing. What about you?”
“Married? Was. Divorced. Or actually widowed. Doesn’t really matter, I guess, because I would’ve killed him anyway.”
I wasn’t joking.
“But I figured I can’t make the same mistake twice, so I decided to go for a sequel. Get it right this time. If my fiancé and I ever get our acts together.” Vail felt her Samsung vibrate: Lenka’s email. “Pulling into the airport. I’ll text you the flight info. Have someone pick me up?”
“Already got it covered.”
IF YOU HAVE NOT READ RED DEATH, PLEASE STOP HERE. THE FOLLOWING QUESTIONS contain SPOILERS!
Following are topics designed to provide a stimulating discussion:
- What did you enjoy most about Red Death?
- Given the abuse that the killer went through as a child and youth, is it understandable what he did? Not excusable…but understandable.
- The relationship between law enforcement and the media is a tricky one—especially nowadays. Whose position did you feel was most reasonable, Vail’s or the Waikiki Vacationer’s?
- This story was inspired by Alan Jacobson’s experience in his own neighborhood, where a man in a wheelchair would sell bars of homemade soap in his downtown area. Dozens of people purchased soap daily. Have you ever bought such things from people on the street? Have you ever thought that they could be putting a toxin in the product? (Alan’s a bit…different…as you can tell from his stories, so he has wondered about this! And that’s where the idea behind Red Death came from.)
- This novel is told in two timelines. Did you find that an effective way of telling the story of the killer and Vail’s efforts to catch him?
- Philip’s decision to enlist, and leave Scott, has catastrophic implications…for both Philip and for Scott. He couldn’t have foreseen dying in battle, but should he not have left Scott to fend for himself?
- Do you support Vail’s decision to enter Mary’s house? Do you think she should be disciplined?
- Alan always attempts to make the setting a “character” in the novel. After reading Red Death, did you want to visit Hawaii more, or less, than before?
- Would you like to see Vail pair up with Adam Russell again in a future novel? Of all his ancillary characters—Detective Roxxann Dixon, Inspector Lance Burden, Det. Paul Bledsoe, attorney P. Jackson Parker, Agent Robby Hernandez, who would you like to see featured alongside Vail?
- If you could ask Alan Jacobson one question about Red Death, its characters, or the plot…what would it be?
- Did you learn something you didn’t know before reading Red Death? What was it?