Authors: J. T. Ellison
he Pretender received the emails one by one, each coming at their assigned time. The pattern harkened back to the discipline ingrained in him by his old master—the Snow White had always wanted a full report as soon as a deed was done, would sit in his dank office with those disgusting cigars, smoking one after another with his bent hands, waiting like a spider in a vast web.
Wretched man. Always bellowing orders, yet too crippled to do his own dirty work. He needed a surrogate to live out his fantasies. When Charlotte had brought them together, for a time it seemed like a dream come true. But that dream quickly turned into a nightmare.
Troy. The name Charlotte had given him, thinking she was being clever. Dead bitch, dead bitch, dead bitch. He felt so much freer out on his own. Running his show himself, learning new and better ways to fulfill his own fantasies. It was like moving from sous chef to owning the whole restaurant, then a franchise chain. He was the master now, with his own acolytes.
But he kept the name. It was easier that way.
The first wave was complete. Tonight would be a second round, the second stage of his plan. It was all going so well. So perfectly.
He played the song, his iTunes set on repeat. Over and over it played, reminding him of his purpose, his goals. He was so lonely. He wanted.
He needed a distraction, so he prepared a cup of tea. The actions soothed him: setting out the thin bone china, heating the water to just below boiling, the delicate green tea measured and placed in the strainer, brewing for exactly one minute before being removed. He discarded the soggy leaves, added a tiny bit of sugar and sat at his computer. He had a new email. His heart sped up when he saw the address. Was she in?
He clicked on the subject line. The message inside was simple. “It didn’t work.”
He sighed loudly, set the tea in its saucer with a clatter. A curse formed on his tongue. It had been a long shot. That damnable FBI agent was too acute, too sensitive to those around him. He would be on an even higher alert now; penetrating the team would be more difficult. But not impossible. Not at all impossible.
He sipped his tea and debated his next move. He should send a message. Renee Sansom’s imposter had failed him, and she needed to be punished. He should put the well-rehearsed plan into action. All it would take was two clicks of his mouse, the directions would be sent, the operative engaged. She’d be dead before nightfall, her accounts scrubbed, all traces erased. No one would ever find the link to him.
There were too many variables, too many players, to allow mistakes to be indulged. If anything, eliminating part of the team would send a very clear message to the rest of them—failure was not an option.
The idea of killing her was so enticing.
He wouldn’t be able to see to the task himself, though. At least, not right now. Too bad. She would be a fun toy to play with. A ballsy broad, willing to step into the mix, to kill and impersonate a federal agent.
He really shouldn’t eliminate her just yet. She could still be an asset. She was a well-educated forensics master. With a new disguise—a change of hair, posture, contacts—he could utilize her skills again. He hated to admit it, but the truth was he needed her. She helped him play his role.
His finger hovered above the mouse, trembling with excitement.
He weighed the risks. He’d planned several demises for her. It would have been so simple to just discard her, like so many others in his past. The easiest manner of disposal, of course, was to arrange for the car she was driving with her compatriots to swerve away from oncoming traffic, go through the guardrail, land in the icy water below. There would be no time to save her from the freezing water. She’d drown before the rescue crews got on the scene.
Hmm. The idea of her flailing in the cold water…
His finger twitched on the mouse, then he pushed it aside.
He reminded himself that he was no longer a child, that an impulse was just that, a scant fraction of a second of desire that gets compounded into want. Want, want, want. Wanting got little boys into trouble.
But she did need to be punished.
And he left nothing to chance.
His grandfather clock bonged softly, pulling him from his reverie. Half past. The lunch hour was over.
He needed to get back to work. Needed to inhabit the identity he’d created.
He just had so many things to do. So many threads to pull. So many people involved now, hurtling them toward the final moments. It was too late to turn back—the game was in motion. He’d gotten bored with the cat and mouse. The challenge of it all just wasn’t enough anymore. He wanted to be impressed. He wanted to teach. But none of this was working for him. It was time to up the ante again.
As he pulled the lanyard over his head, he wondered if Taylor was frightened yet. Brave girl that she was, surely she was starting to feel the strain. He’d told that fuck Fitzgerald to relay his message, to make sure she knew that it was time to play. He was confident the point had gotten across. He’d been very persuasive.
He locked the town house behind him. The ride back to work would only take a few minutes. He wondered what was in store for him this afternoon.
He did love his job.
On his way back to the office, he stopped at the post office, sent the card he’d been holding for three months.
She would be so surprised.
olleen Keck looked at the clock. It was nearly time to get Flynn from school.
This was the biggest story she’d seen in years. Her Felon E email had been dinging constantly with new messages: new tips, new confirmations. The fax machine was whirring to life again, people sending diagrams of crime scenes, lists of names. There was something more to these murders, she knew that already. Years of instinct, of assimilating the truth from the annals of crap she had to delve through, gave her a keen sense of story. Plot. Something was definitely up, something big.
This morning’s disaster in North Carolina was locked down. A major crime event, too. She wasn’t pleased about being shut out, especially since several television news outlets were hovering around, broadcasting minute-by-minute relays of nothing. The only good news was they’d been unable to crack into the scene either. She talked briefly with a reporter from the CBS affiliate who told her the same thing she’d heard on the
radio, but nothing new. The names of the dead weren’t being released yet.
Frustrated, she called her 911 call-center contact in that area again and heard that next-of-kin notifications were the holdup. Apparently one of the victims’ wives was out of town with their kids—Disney World. They were having a hard time tracking her down.
Letting the families know who they’d lost before the world heard was hard in the age of the internet. Twitter was talking about it, but no new information was leaking. Some ghoul on Foursquare had driven to the crime scene and was standing outside the barricades, uploading photographs: “I’m Mayor of the Nags Head Dead!”
She abandoned the shots in distaste. It was snowing softly in Nags Head, the lights flashing sharp off the white ground. Pretty, but not at all helpful in efforting her story.
Colleen felt she had a grip on things again, at least for the time being. The Ativan had helped her refocus. She would come back to North Carolina in a bit.
The news hadn’t picked up on her copycat-killer story yet. She decided to go back to that, work all the angles she could find.
She took a sip of Diet Coke and set to work reviewing what she knew for sure, what she’d been able to mine from the various police departments. Last night, in San Francisco, California, there had been a double murder. The crime scene bore the signature of the Zodiac Killer. And late this morning, just a few minutes ago Nashville time, the
San Francisco Chronicle
had received a letter. A coded letter, signed with the distinctive cross inside a circle, the mark of the Zodiac.
He had returned, or someone was copycatting him. Not that there hadn’t been false alarms before… Either way, when she hit Publish on this afternoon’s blog, she was going to create a firestorm. She was going to beat the papers. The numbers on Felon E would go through the roof. Everyone loved a good Zodiac story.
Everyone but the victims
. She forced that thought away. Feelings like those would cripple her, like what happened this morning. She couldn’t worry about the victims or their families now, she needed to report the story.
Not that their loss was any less horrific than the loss in North Carolina, it was just…different.
She clicked the keyboard, the words spilling onto the screen. She’d double sourced this, and it was going to spread like absolute wildfire.
The headline was simple.
The Zodiac? He’s Back…
Colleen had no idea what she was about to unleash. She published the story, watched it filter through her systems, then begrudgingly laid her work aside. She turned off the computer to go fetch her son. Her mind was already on the work she’d do as soon as she got home.
The Boston case was up next, then New York. She could work on Boston while Flynn was in his room, focusing on his me time. It had taken her the best part of three hours to source the San Francisco story. Boston would hopefully go quicker since she’d already sent out the emails to her trusted sources. New York, too—her contact didn’t work the day shift, so she’d have to wait
>until after five to speak with him anyway. And the dam would break on North Carolina soon.
Good. She had it all planned out.
Was it really possible? Three serial killers come back to life, all on the same night? Or was her mind treading into fantasy territory? And who was responsible for the carnage in North Carolina?
Were they playing some kind of game?
She shook her head. That was crazy talk.
No matter. She’d get to the bottom of it soon enough.
She pulled on a thin cotton sweater and glanced ruefully at her unwashed hair in the bathroom mirror. A baseball cap was just the ticket. She ran back to the office and dug out her favorite battered FBI cap, the deep royal blue faded to denim after repeated cycles through the washer, and the gold FBI letters frayed around the edges. It fit her head perfectly, and she pulled her hair through the back. She’d scored the cap after a tour of Quantico years back, and Tommy had teased her unmercifully about it. “Cheating on Metro, are you darlin’?” he’d say.
Go away, Tommy,
she thought sternly, hoping his ghost would listen, for once. She needed to stay focused. Get Flynn, make him a snack, get him to take a nap. Then back to work.
She fumbled with her keys, still jacked up with excitement and dread, finally inserted them in the ignition. She needed one of those cars with the push button to start the engine. Hmm. How much would that set her back?
The Civic’s engine obligingly turned over on the first try, and she put it in Reverse. She realized she was smiling. Good. She didn’t do that nearly enough.
Flynn would enjoy seeing her in a good mood. Maybe she should take those pills more often?
She didn’t feel the eyes on her as she pulled out of the garage.
Everything is right on schedule. Worry not.
e sent the email, then wondered how long it would take for the delivery truck to be reported stolen. An hour? Fifteen minutes? Despite his research, he didn’t know how the specific delivery times were recorded. Were they followed in real time electronically? Or did the drivers upload their information at the end of their runs? The package’s tracking number had led him to the correct truck to hijack; he should have asked the driver about the system before he killed him. Hmm. Next time.
Should he deliver a few packages on his way to the kill site? No, he didn’t want any chance of his face being seen. If there were regulars on the route, they
might ask questions, or recall him when their memories were jogged. And killing strangers wasn’t on his agenda today.
No, today he had the pleasure of visiting Miss Frances Schwartz. Frances was a worker bee in a downtown accounting firm, a fancy woman prone to shopping when she felt down. She was horrifically in debt, though her fellow worker bees didn’t have any idea. They thought Frances was wonderful—stylish, put together. Just what every woman in her office wanted to emulate.
She’d be arriving home shortly, he needed to get into place. Around the corner from her house was an old parking lot. Empty, with cracked asphalt and no visible video cameras anywhere near. It was the perfect spot to wait.
He was surprised at his energy level. He figured the nine-hour overnight drive would wear him out. When he’d done the dry run, he’d barely been able to keep his eyes open. Must still be riding the adrenaline high from Boston. He had to admit, this was fun. The rush when he killed. The idea that there were others out there that he was competing against. He’d had his doubts about entering the contest, had thought about pulling out several times while the field had been whittled down from fourteen to three. But since he’d made the cut, he figured what the hell. He’d play along.
It gave him something to do, especially since the targets had been chosen for him. His responsibility was to kill them in the manner of the killer he’d drawn, the Boston Strangler, who was a sick fuck, no question about it. He’d researched and planned, run through the scenarios several times. The goal was to make the kills on the schedule provided and not get caught. Getting seen was an automatic disqualification—if a description
went out on the airways, he was out. Getting caught, well, that went without saying.
Stealing UPS delivery trucks was no small feat, but he’d handled it effortlessly both times. He was truly fond of this MO. No one looked twice at a delivery truck. He’d posted the packages himself before leaving Boston, to Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Indianapolis. He’d mapped the delivery system through the tracking IDs, saw exactly when each package was due to arrive. It was simple as pie—package goes on the truck, truck heads out on regular route, truck is intercepted, driver taken out, then the package was delivered. Tied with a big, beautiful bow.
He laughed at his joke. He knew how serious this game was, but truly, it was just a game. If he didn’t win, life would go on. He had plenty of money, that wasn’t his purpose in participating. He’d spent too many years alone, not knowing how many people out there were just like him. Thank God for the internet. He was able to find all types, all shapes and sizes and predilections. When he saw the ad, he deleted it, then thought twice. Once the idea got into his head, he couldn’t help himself. He was bored, and looking for a challenge. And it gave him a chance to meet some people. He’d become too isolated.
He checked his watch. Frances should be home any minute. She always got home precisely at 5:35 p.m. She’d change into lovely, tight-fitting Lycra, drink a protein shake, eat a banana, then head out for either a run or a bike ride. Frances was in training. Biathlon. She was strong. Capable. Not his usual type. Maybe she’d fight back. The thought excited him.
He pulled the electronic pad out from its resting spot, grabbed the bulky box. It was time. Time for Frances to say goodbye.