The Hunter

First published in Great Britain by Simon and Schuster, 2013

A CBS COMPANY

Copyright © Chris Carter, 2013

This book is copyright under the Berne Convention.

No reproduction without permission.

® and © 1997 Simon & Schuster Inc. All rights reserved.

The right of Chris Carter to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.

Simon & Schuster UK Ltd

1st Floor

222 Gray’s Inn Road

London WC1X 8HB

www.simonandschuster.co.uk

Simon & Schuster Australia, Sydney

Simon & Schuster India, New Delhi

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

ISBN: 978-1-47112-800-4

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual people, living or dead, events or locales, is entirely coincidental.

Typeset by M Rules

THE

HUNTER

Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

The Crucifix Killer

One

Two

Three

An Evil Mind

One

Two

Three

Four

Chapter 1

‘You have got to be kidding me,’ Detective Scott Wilson of the LAPD Robbery Homicide Division said, as if he’d just heard the world’s unfunniest joke.

Wilson was standing inside Captain William Bolter’s office, staring at the piece of paper the captain had just handed him.

‘You’re dumping a suicide case on me, captain?’ Wilson asked, still looking dumbfounded.

Captain Bolter was in his mid-fifties, but looked at least ten years younger. Tall, strong, and sporting a full head of peppery hair together with a thick mustache, the man was a menacing figure, respected by everyone in the force. He looked at his detective and shrugged matter-of-factly.

‘What are you complaining about?’ he said, returning to his seat behind his large and very messy desk. ‘I thought you all liked easy cases.’ He nodded at the piece of paper in Wilson’s hands. ‘They don’t come much easier than that. The woman sliced her wrists and bled to death in her bed. It’s an open-and-shut case.’

The law in the state of California stipulated that suicides had to be initially treated as homicides; therefore, a homicide detective would have to attend the site and commence investigative procedures to rule out foul play. Once that was done, the investigation, as far as the LAPD Robbery Homicide Division was concerned, could be closed and archived. It would be the work of twenty-four to forty-eight hours.

‘Yeah,’ Wilson said, placing the piece of paper back on the captain’s desk. ‘I love open-and-shut cases, but suicides are a hell of a lot of paperwork, captain, and you know it. Paperwork that needs to be done and filed ASAP.’ He pointed to the main detectives’ floor. ‘I’ve got fourteen open homicide investigations sitting on my desk right now, captain. I’m up to my eyeballs in crap. I barely have time to take a piss, and you want me to throw one, maybe two days away because some rich bitch topped herself?’

‘Well, somebody’s got to do it.’

‘Give it to Perez,’ Wilson suggested. ‘He loves paperwork.’

‘Perez is in hospital. He took a bullet last week, remember?’ Captain Bolter shook his head. ‘Sorry, buddy. You’re it. I’ve got no one else.’

A knock came to the captain’s door.

‘Come in,’ the captain called out.

The door was pushed open by a young man in his mid-twenties, wearing a dark suit that looked rather uncomfortable on him. He was about six-feet tall with broad shoulders and a very powerful-looking physique. His youthful face had a certain serenity to it, the kind that suggested trustworthiness and determination. His eyes possessed a penetrating quality easily associated with self-confidence, but not the cocky kind.

‘And who the hell might you be?’ Captain Bolter asked, narrowing his eyes.

The young man stepped inside, closed the door behind him, and approached the captain’s desk. ‘My name is Robert Hunter, sir, I’m your new detective.’ He handed over several signed forms he had brought with him.

‘Wrong floor, kid,’ Wilson said, pointing at the door again. ‘This is the Robbery Homicide Division – the big boys. You’re probably looking for Commercial Crimes or Support. Both of those are two floors below.’

Hunter nodded. ‘Yes, I know, thank you, but I’m on the right floor, and in the right division.’

Wilson chuckled. ‘You’re joking right? You don’t even look old enough to shave.’

Hunter wasn’t surprised by Wilson’s skepticism. In average it took a LAPD officer at least six years of street-crime-fighting before he was allowed to put in a request for a detective’s position. If successful, it would then take a detective another four to five years, together with an impressive track record and a captain’s recommendation, before he’d even be considered for a position with the Robbery Homicide Division’s elite. And even then, very few were accepted into the RHD. The division was considered to be the top of the ladder when it came to being a LAPD Detective. Wilson had never heard of anyone younger than thirty-something reaching that position.

Hunter was also well aware of that fact. His main goal, once he’d joined the LAPD, was always to make Detective for the Robbery Homicide Division. Deep inside he had to admit that he was very proud of having scorched through the ranks at record speed.

Captain Bolter had forgotten all about the new detective who was supposed to be starting today. Some sort of prodigy kid with a PhD in Criminal Behavior Psychology, who, according to what the captain had been told, had turned down a position with the FBI to join the LAPD.

The captain quickly flipped through the forms. The young detective’s records sure looked impressive, and all the documentation seemed in order.

‘Is this for real, captain?’ Wilson asked, pointing at Hunter. ‘Baby-faced, pretty-boy, bible-salesman-looking kid-in-a-cheap-suit here is joining the division?’

Hunter frowned and looked at his suit. He liked that suit. It was his best suit. His only suit.

‘That’s what the paperwork says,’ the captain agreed, placing the forms down on his desk.

Hunter turned and faced Wilson. ‘Robert Hunter,’ he said, extending his hand. ‘It’s a pleasure to meet you, detective . . .?’

Wilson ignored the newbie’s hand. ‘Yeah, I’m sure it is.’ He was still looking at Captain Bolter. ‘Damn, are we recruiting out of kindergarten now, captain? Is the department that despera . . .’ He paused, his eyes settling on the piece of paper he had placed on the captain’s desk just moments ago. ‘Problem solved,’ he said, shrugging at Captain Bolter and reaching for the note.

The captain hesitated for a split second and then shrugged back as if saying ‘why not?’.

Wilson turned towards Hunter. ‘I’m Detective Wilson, but you can call me “Sir”,’ he said, handing the note to Hunter. ‘Welcome to the Robbery Homicide Division, pretty boy. Enjoy your first easy case, because it will only get worse.’ He paused before reaching the door. ‘Oh, and do me a favor – get rid of that cheap suit, will you? You look like an idiot.’

Chapter 2

The apartment was on the twenty-eighth floor of a towering block in Cypress Park, a working-class neighborhood in Northeast Los Angeles.

Hunter exited the claustrophobic elevator and found himself at the end of a long corridor with brick walls, lined with doors on both sides – twenty-four in total. A strip of tube lights that ran down the center of the ceiling kept the hallway bright. The apartment he was looking for was number 2813, located about halfway down the corridor on the right-hand side. A uniformed officer was standing just outside the door. He looked bored. Hunter proudly flashed his new and shiny Detective’s badge at him and pushed the door open.

The first thing he noticed was that the safety chain hung from the door, its wall mounting dangling from the chain’s end. The doorframe had cracked and splintered where the four screws had once secured the metal mounting to the wood.

‘We had to kick it open,’ a senior police officer standing in the living room explained.

Hunter turned and looked at him.

‘I’m Officer Travis,’ the policeman said. ‘My partner and I were patrolling just a block from here when we received a call from Central Bureau’s dispatch to come knock on the victim’s door. Her mother, who is confined to a wheelchair, had been unable to get in touch with her for three days, which I know, isn’t that unusual, except for the fact that the daughter visited her mother every Monday without fail. Had done so for the past two years. According to the mother, if the daughter were going to be even a little late, she would always let her mother know in advance. If her car had broken down or something, she would’ve called. This afternoon the mother called the station worried sick. The daughter is bipolar, which can sometimes complicate things.’

Hunter’s eyebrows arched.

‘Anyway,’ Travis moved on. ‘We came by, knocked, but got no response. We called the building’s superintendent, who unlocked the door for us, but the safety chain was on, and there was this faint smell of putrid meat coming from somewhere inside. Obviously something was wrong. That was when we rammed the door and broke in. We found the daughter in the bedroom.’ He threw his thumb over his shoulder, pulling an ‘I’m sorry’ face.

‘Had she attempted suicide before?’ Hunter asked.

‘If she had, it wasn’t mentioned.’

Hunter nodded and allowed his eyes to circle the living room for an instant. It was spacious enough, decorated on a budget but with plenty of style. A black leatherette sofa, positioned at the edge of a fluffy black and red rug, faced a shiny black and white TV module. There was also a glass and chrome four-seater dinner table, a chest of drawers that matched the TV module, a stylish black console by the window, and a very elegant bookcase with no books, just decorative artifacts like vases, glass bowls and candle holders.

Crossing to the other side of the room, Hunter slipped on a couple of blue, plastic shoe-covers, a pair of latex gloves, a mouth and nose mask, and pushed the bedroom door open. Officer Travis followed him in.

The air inside the bedroom was hot, stuffy, and heavy with the sickening smell of dead flesh as it entered rotting stage.

Hunter’s attention was immediately drawn to the queen-size bed with its headboard pushed up against the north wall. Lying on the blood-soaked bed sheets was the naked body of a five-feet-six brunette woman. From the note Detective Wilson had handed him, Hunter knew that she was only thirty-three years old. Her name was Helen Webster, and she was a self-employed interior designer.

A Medical Examiner was standing by a dresser unit near the window, quietly speaking on his cellphone. He quickly terminated the call as he saw Hunter and the officer enter the room.

‘Are you from Homicide?’ he asked, looking a little dubious.

Hunter nodded and quickly introduced himself.

The doctor looked surprised but he refrained from asking the detective how old he was.

Hunter approached the bed, being careful to avoid the large pools of dried blood that had formed on the floor. The curtains on the window to the left of the bed were speckled with blood, and so were both bedside tables. Hunter noted the pattern, before his attention reverted back to the woman.

Blisters, caused by the release of gases from body tissues, had already started to form all over the woman’s body. Her skin had taken on a greenish-blue color, but body bloating was still in its very early stages. That, together with a few blowflies buzzing around the bed, told Hunter that she’d been dead for at least thirty-six hours. She was lying on her back. Her legs were close together and stretched out. Her arms were wide open, as if she was ready to hug a long-lost relative, but her wrists had both been cut horizontally. Two large and deep incisions that had clearly severed the main blood vessels in the forearms.

‘Rigor mortis has come and gone,’ the ME said. ‘From the state of the body I can tell you that she’s been dead for no less than thirty-six hours, and no longer than seventy-two. We’ll be able to get a better time frame after the autopsy.’

Hunter nodded, still studying the body. ‘What did she use on her wrists?’

‘This.’ The doctor showed Hunter a clear plastic evidence bag. Inside it was a blood-covered utility knife. ‘It was on the floor by the right side of the bed,’ the doctor clarified.

Hunter bent down to get a better look at the woman’s hands, wrists, and arms. ‘She’s been photographed, right?’ he asked. ‘Is it OK if I disturb the body a little, Doc?’

The doctor nodded before shrugging. ‘Suit yourself. My work here is pretty much done.’

Hunter used his index finger to clear some of the dried blood from the woman’s wrists, and took his time examining the cuts.

‘The incisions were deep and precise,’ the doctor offered. ‘Even before the autopsy I can tell you that they have severed both the radial and the ulnar arteries. Blood loss was intense and fast. Over fifty percent, I’d say.’ He indicated the pools of blood on the floor. ‘Which would have caused her to go into hypovolemic shock, leading to heart failure.’

‘Was there a suicide note?’ Hunter asked.

‘None that we have found,’ Officer Travis replied.

Hunter found that peculiar but carried on studying the woman’s hands and fingers.

‘Now,’ the doctor said, approaching the body. ‘Let me show you something interesting.’ From his coat pocket he produced a pen-sized Maglite and a small magnifying glass before using his thumb and index finger to pull open her eyelids. ‘Have a look,’ he said.

Hunter moved closer.

Travis followed.

Her corneas were cloudy and opaque, which was expected, but the eyes and their lids were dotted with tiny red specks.

Hunter frowned. ‘Petechiae?’

The doctor looked back at him, impressed. He wasn’t expecting a detective to recognize the condition he was looking at, especially such a young detective.

‘Pâté . . . what?’ Travis asked, trying to look over Hunter’s shoulders.

‘Petechiae,’ the doctor repeated. ‘They are tiny hemorrhages in blood vessels. They can occur anywhere in the body, and for a number of reasons, but when they occur on the eyes and eyelids like we have here, it is usually due to blockage of the respiratory system. In other words – suffocation.’

Hunter stood up again and started looking around the room.

‘What?’ The officer’s gaze moved from the doctor to Hunter, and then back to the ME. ‘But you just said that she died from severe loss of blood and heart failure. Are now you telling me she was strangled?’

‘Not to death,’ the doctor clarified. ‘She did die from blood loss from her wrist wounds, which led to heart failure, but this indicates that she suffered some sort of severe blockage of the respiratory system prior to death.’

Travis chewed on his bottom lip and looked at Hunter once again, who was now having a look inside a shoebox on the floor by the dresser unit.

‘So what are you saying?’ Travis asked with a slight headshake. ‘That she first tried strangling herself or something, gave up halfway through, and then went for “plan B” – slicing her wrists?’

‘No,’ Hunter replied, checking some drawers. ‘Someone else knocked her unconscious by suffocating or strangling her, before slicing her wrists and staging the suicide scene. This . . .’ He indicated the body on the bed. ‘Was a homicide.’

The officer’s eyes widened in disbelief. ‘A homicide? But the only way in or out of this apartment is through the front door.’ He threw his thumb over his shoulder again. ‘It was locked from the inside, remember? The safety chain was securely in place. We had to kick the door in. The windows in here don’t open due to safety regulations. This is the twenty-eighth floor, way too windy. If somebody killed her, how did he or she get out?’

‘That’s the part I still need to figure out,’ Hunter said.

Travis rolled his eyes. ‘Of course you do.’

Hunter could easily tell what Officer Travis was thinking: why did they have to send a rookie?

But Travis wasn’t finished yet. ‘And you are basing this homicide theory of yours simply on that pâté-whatever thing? Little blood dots on her eyes and eyelids due to oxygen restriction? Maybe it’s a sexual thing- erotic asphyxiation. Have you heard of it? Some people are into that. It’s supposed to heighten the ecstasy. Look, I’m sure that you would love to impress your captain, but I don’t think this is the case . . . sir.’ Travis put a lot of emphasis on that last word.

Hunter knew he didn’t have to explain himself to anyone in that room. He was the lead detective in the investigation, and that gave him the right to call the shots as he saw fit, but since this was his first ever investigation as a RHD Detective he decided, just for the sake of clarity, to better explain his reasons.

‘You said that there was no suicide note, right?’ he said.

‘That’s right,’ Travis confirmed.

‘Well, that’s problem number one – in ninety-nine percent of suicide cases, there’s a note. It follows an overwhelming feeling of guilt that comes with every suicide act. Victims will, inevitably, feel the need to explain their decision to go down such a drastic road. That note is their last ever statement in this world and, believe me, they all want to make it, even if it’s only an ‘I love you mom, and I’m sorry’ line. You said that the victim visited her wheelchair-bound mother every Monday. Had done so for the past two years. Trust me, she would’ve at least wanted her mother to know the reason why she decided to end her life.’

Travis stayed silent, considering Hunter’s words.

‘Problem number two is her fingernails and toenails,’ Hunter said.

Both the officer and the Medical Examiner’s gaze moved to the victim’s hands and feet.

‘What about them?’ Travis asked after a couple of seconds.

‘They’ve been recently manicured . . . professionally,’ Hunter said, still looking around the room. ‘Probably no more than three or four days ago. If she was depressed enough to consider suicide, I don’t think she would bother grooming herself for it . . . or buying a new pair of shoes, do you?’ He pointed to the shoebox by the dresser.

The officer and the doctor’s gaze shifted again.

‘There’s a receipt in the box. She bought them three days ago.’

Silence.

‘Now,’ Hunter turned and faced Officer Travis. ‘I need you and your partner to do a door-to-door on this floor. Get statements from everyone. Check if any of the neighbors were friendly with the victim, if anybody saw or heard anything . . . you know how it goes. Also, get the building’s superintendent up here again.’

Travis scratched his chin, nodded, and left the apartment.

‘You will still have to explain how the perp managed to escape through a locked and safety-chained door,’ the Medical Examiner said, looking intrigued now.

‘I know,’ Hunter replied, reaching for his cellphone and requesting a forensics team to come to the scene. Maybe they could help.

Because of the skin discoloration, the blisters, and the initial rotting state of the body, Hunter knew that there was no way the Medical Examiner could tell if the victim had been sexually assaulted without the proper examination and a lab swab test. For now, that would have to wait.

Hunter returned to the living room to re-examine the door and the safety-chain lock. There was no gimmick. The chain and the wall mounting were made of strong metal, and the chain was still securely locked in place. The door’s regular key lock hadn’t been tampered with, neither had the door hinges, which were tarnished with age. Somebody had really locked that door from the inside.

Time to look around.

Chapter 3

Hunter started searching through drawers and cupboards in the living room. The first thing he found were bank statements. They revealed that Helen Webster made a decent living from her Interior Designer business, and paid all her bills on time. She had been renting the apartment she lived in for two and a half years. Nothing indicated that she had ever fallen behind with any payments, but Hunter would check it with her landlord later. The finance on her five-year-old VW Golf had been paid off just a few months ago. Hunter later confirmed that the car was parked downstairs, and that it hadn’t been broken into. Helen only had one credit card. The latest statement showed a balance of $15.48 for a Chinese take-out five days ago. In short, Helen Webster didn’t seem to be burden by financial problems.

In a different drawer Hunter found a Valentine’s card with a simple message – To my beautiful girlfriend. With lots of love. Can’t wait to be in bed with you tonight.

Charming, Hunter thought.

The card was signed by someone called Jake. Valentine’s Day had been three and a half weeks ago.

The answering machine on the TV module had fifteen messages. Nine were from her mother. Her messages escalated from a little concerned to panicking. Three were from possible clients requesting a callback, and perhaps a meeting. One was from a friend named Mary, asking Helen if she was in the mood for a drink that night. One was from a different and clearly unhappy client wondering what had happened, as it sounded like Helen Webster had missed their meeting two days ago and hadn’t bothered calling to cancel or reschedule. The last message came from a holiday telesales team.

Hm . . . Hunter thought. Nothing from the boyfriend.

Hunter found Helen’s handbag on the corner, by her leatherette sofa. Inside it he found her car keys, her wallet, her driving license, a makeup bag, and her cellphone. The battery was on its last legs, but it still had some juice. There were several missed calls, mostly her mother’s, but again, not a single call from the boyfriend. Hunter checked the phone’s address book, where he found an entry for Jake Goubeaux. There was no address.

Next, Hunter opened the phone’s call log. Jake Goubeaux had called forty-nine times in the past two weeks, but funnily enough, he hadn’t called her once in the past three days. This was getting interesting. Hunter called the Operations office back at the RHD, requesting a file on Mr. Goubeaux.

Hunter moved on to the text messages – again, several from her mother, one from her friend, Mary, and one from a different friend, this one named Claudia.

No text messages from Jake Goubeaux.

On the black console by the window, Hunter found several photoframes neatly arranged. Many of the photographs showed Helen Webster with her mother, prior and post wheelchair. Helen had been a very attractive woman, with almost perfect skin, a petite nose and mouth, high cheekbones, a slim figure, and shiny raven-black hair that fell just past her shapely shoulders. The hazel eyes and the charming smile she had clearly inherited from her mother.

The other photographs showed Helen smiling, dancing, and having a good time with friends, all of them women.

Once again, no boyfriend.

Hunter paused and rubbed his eyes. Though a theory was starting to form in his head, he was also a little worried. Was he reading too much into this? Was it because, deep inside, he wanted his first ever case as a LAPD Robbery Homicide Division detective to be more than just an open-and-shut suicide case? Was Officer Travis right? Did he just want to impress his new captain?

Hunter thought about for a moment.

No, that wasn’t what his gut feeling was telling him – there was more than just an open-and-shut suicide case here – he could sense it. And Hunter had always been able to trust his gut.

But he could be reading this all back to front, and he knew it. What if Helen had been the one madly in love with Jake Goubeaux, and for some reason he had decided to break it off? What if he had told her that he was in love with someone else? That could’ve easily triggered a severe bipolar episode and in a rash moment she could have decided to kill herself. That possibility was still alive.

‘Study the scene,’ Hunter told himself. ‘Go with what it tells you.’

Hunter wasn’t ready to bring Mr. Goubeaux in for questioning just yet. The apartment could still reveal more, and so could the forensics team, once they finally got there. Also, Hunter wanted to check if the door-to-door, or the file he’d requested on Jake Goubeaux would return any valuable information. For now, the best he could do was to continue searching the apartment.

Still in the living room, he paused in front of the TV module again. Something didn’t seem right. The symmetry was wrong.

Frown.

Chin scratch.

Frown again.

The mini stereo system.

That was it.

One of its speakers was missing.

Hunter checked the cables at the back of the stereo. The speaker cable was still connected to the receiver.

‘Strange,’ Hunter said to himself, but left it at that, returning to the bedroom.

Helen had been a very organized woman. All her drawers and cupboards were impeccably stacked. Every item of clothing had been folded and placed in its designated location. Nothing looked to have been disturbed. The same could be said for the en-suite bathroom.

Her wardrobe held an ample variety of blouses, trousers, jeans, jackets, shoes, belts and handbags. Again, all neatly arranged in their specific places, except for a black silk blouse that had slipped off its hanger and fallen on top of some shoes.

Hunter closed the wardrobe door and turned to face the bed again.

Everything about that scene was wrong. Helen Webster was positioned with her legs fully extended and her arms wide open, in a human-crucifix shape. That would mean that she had sliced her wrists, lay perfectly still on the bed, and simply waited for death. One would need tremendous willpower to do something like that.

Also, suicide by slitting the wrists and bleeding out didn’t bring instant death. Many who attempted it, if they hadn’t numbed themselves with sleeping pills and alcohol first, ended up changing, or trying to change their minds once they saw and felt the blood fleeing their veins. There would usually be a lot of twitching and arm movement, which would create a very messy scene. Hunter had studied the photographs and attended enough wrist-slitting suicide scenes to know that. The scene in that room was messy, no question about it, but in the wrong way. Helen’s body was clear of blood. All the blood had pooled on the floor, or soaked into the bed sheets. That indicated that she hadn’t moved her arms at all once she had cut her wrists open.

The second problem with her body being so clean of blood was – as the doctor had said – the cut to both wrists had been deep enough to slice through both the radial and the ulnar arteries. That meant that, at first, blood would have squirted out of her wrists like a water gun. Since the mess of blood concentrated solely on and around the bed, Hunter knew that if he was really looking at a suicide scene, there were only two possible scenarios. One: Helen had cut her wrists while lying down on the bed. If that had been the case, her arms wouldn’t have been extended out in a human-crucifix shape at first. It was way too awkward a position for her to be able to achieve such precise cuts. She would have them close to her body, probably over her chest, with the wrists turned towards her. She should’ve been covered in blood. Two: Helen had cut her wrists in a standing or sitting position before sprawling herself on the bed. In that case, blood would’ve squirted up, hitting her face, hair, and torso. A blood-free body made no sense.

No, there was no doubt in Hunter’s mind. That suicide scene was all wrong.

‘Where the hell is my forensics team?’ he said to himself.

In the kitchen, Hunter checked the fridge. Nothing had gone bad. The sell-by-date on the milk carton was still valid. The apples and pears in the fruit bowl on the small kitchen table still looked fresh. There were a few dishes on the dish rack, and an open pack of cookies on the kitchen counter.

In a cupboard he also found several bottles of spirits, including an unopened bottle of Dalwhinnie 1973 29 Year Old single malt Scotch whisky. That made Hunter pause. Not because there was anything peculiar about it, but because he’d given his father an identical bottle for Christmas just a few years back – their last ever Christmas together. Hunter’s father had a passion for single malt Scotch whisky. A passion that, frankly, Hunter had never understood. He found whisky, any type of whisky, way too overwhelming for his palate.

Pushing the memories away, he pressed the pedal on the large chromed garbage can by the fridge, looked inside, and frowned.

At least the mystery of the missing stereo speaker was solved.

Hunter reached for it, or what was left of it. The small wood-encased box had been completely pulled apart. The tiny tweeter speaker was intact, but the subwoofer had been smashed to pieces, as if somebody had had a big beef with it.

‘What the hell?’ Hunter murmured, looking at it from all sides.

His cellphone rang in his pocket.

Hunter dropped the speaker pieces back into the garbage can before answering it.

‘Robbery Homicide Detective Robert Hunter,’ he said proudly.

‘What the hell are you doing, rookie?’

Chapter 4

Hunter immediately recognized Captain Bolter’s voice.

‘I send you on an easy, open-and-shut, zippidy-zip suicide case, and in no time you escalate it to first degree homicide and put in a call for a forensics team?’

‘Captain . . .’

‘That thing should’ve been wrapped up and sealed, and your ass should’ve been back here filling forms an hour ago. What the hell is going on?’

Hunter explained everything as quickly and as concisely as he could.

‘Wait a second here,’ the captain said when Hunter was done. ‘Are you telling me that right on your first, easy-as-they-will-ever-come case you’ve had a hunch?’

‘It’s more than a hun . . .’

‘No, it isn’t, rookie,’ the captain cut him short, his voice firm and authoritative. ‘Don’t even think about giving me that crap. If you’ve got absolutely no proof, it’s called a hunch. Do you have anything to substantiate your allegation?’

‘Not yet, but . . .’

‘Then it’s a hunch . . . on your first case. Just thinking about it is making my balls itch.’

‘Proof is coming, Captain,’ Hunter hit back, his voice just as firm. ‘If you give me an hour, maybe two, I’ll find proof.’

Hunter heard the captain breathe out heavily on the other side.

‘I read your whole file again, rookie,’ Captain Bolter said. ‘And I can already tell that you’re going to be trouble, aren’t you?’ He didn’t give Hunter a chance to reply. ‘With your, and I quote from the transcripts on your file, off the scale IQ and outstanding reasoning test results, you are going to want to prove yourself in every single damn case you are assigned to, aren’t you?’

‘I’m just trying to do my job, Captain.’

‘Oh, is that a fact? Well, let me let you in on a little secret that I want you to remember for the rest of your life, rookie. Are you listening?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Not every case is a goddamn, seven-headed monster mystery, you understand what I’m saying? The majority of criminals out there are thick as shit. Nine out of ten murders in this city are committed by someone who was too angry, too jealous, too drunk, too high, too desperate, too crazy, or a combination of the above. They aren’t criminal masterminds.’

Hunter was waiting for a pause so he could say something. It didn’t come. The captain simply steam-rolled on.

‘You already got the job, rookie. You don’t have to prove yourself to anyone anymore. I’ve checked, you are the youngest ever person to make RHD Detective in the history of the LAPD. Congratu-fucking-lations. That fact alone will already earn you the “pretentious little dick” look from every detective in this department. If you start trying to rub it in with that IQ crap and the Criminal Behavior Psychology bullshit in every case, including the simple suicide ones, I can assure you, you are not going to be a very popular guy around here, do you understand what I’m saying to you?’

‘I’m not trying to impress anyone, captain.’ Hunter was finally able to get a word in. ‘I’m not trying to prove myself to anybody either, but the scene here is all wrong. Nothing fits with a suicide motive. Trust me on this.’

‘Except for the fact that the only door that leads in or out of the apartment was locked from the inside, with a security chain firmly in place.’

Hunter said nothing.

‘We’re not the X-Files detectives’ division, rookie. Perps don’t walk through walls.’

‘I understand that, captain.’

‘Why did you join the LAPD, rookie?’

The question caught Hunter by surprise.

‘What?’

‘Why did you join the LAPD?’ Captain Bolter repeated it.

Hunter knew it was a rhetorical question, so he gave the captain the biggest bullshit answer he could think of. ‘To protect and to serve, captain.’

‘Of course it was,’ the captain shot back. ‘Nothing to do with your father’s death right?’

Hunter stayed quiet.

‘It’s not in your file, but I’ve checked. Exactly one week after your father died you joined the academy.’

Hunter still said nothing.

Two weeks after receiving his PhD in Criminal Behavior Analysis and Biopsychology, Hunter’s world was turned upside down. For the past three and a half years his father had been working as a security guard for the Bank of America branch in Avalon Boulevard. A robbery gone wrong turned into a Wild West gunfight and Hunter’s father took a bullet to the chest. He fought for twelve weeks in a coma, before his heart finally gave in. The person who shot him was never caught.

‘Anger and revenge is as good a reason as any, rookie,’ Captain Bolter said. ‘But you need to tread very carefully when that’s the main thing driving you. Do you understand what I’m saying?’

No reply.

‘Are you listening to me, rookie?’

‘Yes, captain,’ there was a harder edge to Hunter’s voice this time. ‘But you don’t have to worry. If I’m wrong about this case, I’ll put in a transfer request first thing tomorrow morning. You have my word. How does that sound?’

Captain Bolter was silent for a few moments. A rookie willing to put his whole career on the line straight off the blocks, based on something that he believed in – a hunch. The captain had to admit that he admired his conviction.

“Above all, trust your gut.” Captain Bolter had lived by that motto his whole life. And it had always served him well.

Hunter couldn’t see it, but a smile came to the captain’s lips.

‘Fair enough, rookie, I’ll give you some rope on this one. Let’s see if you hang yourself with it or not.’

He disconnected.

Chapter 5

‘Are you the lead detective here?’ a forensics agent asked as he stepped into the living room, looking at Hunter a little askance. He was tall and slim, with a thick moustache and bushy sideburns. A second agent followed him in. This one was short and round, with a shaved head.

Hunter nodded and quickly introduced himself.

Both agents scrutinized Hunter’s credentials for a long while.

‘Something wrong?’ Hunter asked.

‘No, not at all.’ The tall agent shook his head. ‘You just look a lot younger than any other RHD Detective we’ve ever met.’

This was getting old in a hurry, Hunter thought.

‘I’m Keith.’ The tall agent extended his hand. ‘And this is Matt.’ He nodded at his colleague. ‘Is this your first case?’

‘With the RHD, yes,’ Hunter replied, shaking Keith and Matt’s hands.

‘I’m not sure if “welcome” is the appropriate word but . . . welcome to the toughest detectives’ division in Los Angeles. So what have we got here?’

‘In the bedroom,’ Hunter said, and proceeded to explain everything he knew so far.

‘You’re definitely right about one thing,’ Keith said, approaching the bed and studying the woman’s position for an instant. ‘This suicide scene looks all wrong.’

Hunter paused his apartment search for a moment to observe both forensics agents at work. They took their time examining the body, the bed, and everything around it.

‘I know that her skin color and elasticity have completely changed,’ Hunter said. ‘Which makes identifying marks and bruises a lot more difficult, but do you think you would still be able to recognize any strangulation or ligatures marks . . . anything that could confirm that she suffocated prior to dying?’

Matt, the shorter of the two forensics agents nodded. ‘Using a UV light, probably. She’s been dead for three days, max. Decomposition hasn’t really started yet. As I’m sure you understand, death obviously interrupts processes like natural healing. So if she had any sort of bruise on her body when she died, it should still be there. Even with the skin color change, a high spectrum UV light should be able to detect it.’

He retrieved a hand-held, battery powered UV light from his case, switched it on, adjusted the intensity to a higher wavelength, and began studying the victim’s neck. After a few seconds, he lifted her head off the bed, and while Keith held her hair up, Matt shone the light on her nape.

Hunter waited patiently.

‘And here we have it,’ Matt finally said.

‘Have you got something?’ Hunter asked, feeling a tingle of excitement travel through his body.

Matt nodded. ‘Here, let me show you.’

Hunter moved closer.

‘See this long, darker mark here?’ Matt indicated the spot on the victim’s nape.

‘I see it,’ Hunter said.

‘OK, that would’ve been caused by something, or someone, applying strong pressure to the back of her neck.’

Matt lowered her head, returning it to its resting position on the bed.

‘And right here,’ he continued, now indicating a spot on her neck just about where a male’s Adam’s apple would’ve been. ‘We have the second mark.’

This one was oval in shape and much smaller – about half an inch in diameter.

Hunter had already put both bruise marks together in his head. The one on the front of the victim’s neck had probably come from a thumb. The longer one on her nape from the remaining four fingers in her attacker’s hand. While choking her, the attacker had kept the fingers close together, instead of spread apart.

‘I can tell you this right now,’ Keith said. ‘Whoever strangled her had pretty big hands. He only used one. There’s nothing here to indicate a double grip.’

Hunter nodded.

‘But she didn’t die from strangulation,’ Matt added.

‘Yes, I know,’ Hunter said. ‘But it could’ve rendered her unconscious.’

‘No question about that,’ Matt agreed. ‘All that was needed was a few seconds of the right amount of pressure and she’d be out like a light.’

Hunter left the two forensics agents to carry on in the bedroom and returned to the living room. Moments later, Officer Travis re-entered the apartment.

‘Anything from the door-to-door?’ Hunter asked.

The officer pulled out his pad and flipped it open. ‘OK, this apartment is sandwiched between apartments 2811 and 2815. The neighbor in 2815, Mrs. Peers, remembers some loud shouting coming from this apartment three days ago. She said the walls here are quite thin.’

‘Time?’

‘According to Mrs. Peers it was quite late, past ten in the evening.’

‘Is she sure about that?’

‘As sure as sure can be. She said she was already in bed, and she always goes to bed at ten.’ Travis shrugged and pulled a face.

‘Could it have been the TV?’ Hunter asked.

‘I did ask her that, and she said no. She recognized Helen Webster’s voice. There was also someone else here with her – a male.’

‘Sexual noises?’

‘I asked her that as well, and again, “no”. She said that they were pretty angry shouts from both parties.’

‘OK, how about apartment 2811?’ Hunter asked. ‘Did anyone hear anything?’

‘That apartment is empty at the moment. According to Mrs. Peers, it has been empty for some time,’ Travis explained.

Hunter nodded. ‘Anyone else?’

‘Yes, but it might mean nothing.’

‘I’m listening.’

‘Mr. Grant in apartment 2808 said that he saw a tall male leaving this floor late on Monday night, the same night Mrs. Peers heard the angry shouts.’

‘Time?’

‘Around a quarter past midnight. Mr. Grant, who looks like a professional bodybuilder, was returning home after dropping his girlfriend at her place. As the elevator doors opened on this floor, the male in question almost rammed into him. Mr. Grant said that whoever the man was, he was in a hurry, and he looked nervous.’

‘Would he recognize the subject if he saw a photo of him?’ Hunter asked.

‘He said he probably would.’

‘Good job, officer.’

There was a knock on the door.

Hunter pulled it open. Standing there was a short, plump man. He had a bandido moustache and slicked-back black hair with touches of gray. Hunter couldn’t help but think that if he were wearing a sombrero, he would’ve looked like a professional mariachi.

‘Detective,’ Travis said, joining Hunter by the door. ‘This is Mr. Valdez. He’s the building’s superintendent.’

Mr. Valdez extended his hand. ‘Miguel Valdez,’ he said.

Hunter introduced himself. ‘Thank you for coming up Mr. Valdez. Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?’

‘Please, call me Miguel.’

‘OK, Miguel, did you know Ms. Webster well?’

Miguel bobbed his head from side to side.

‘Not very well,’ he said. ‘I know she was an interior designer. Very pretty and very nice – always polite. She always said “hello” whenever she saw me or my wife, and she always asked about my little girl. My little girl is five, you see? She has just started kindergarten.’

‘Congratulations,’ Hunter said with a warm smile.

‘Thank you. But that’s pretty much all I know about Ms. Webster,’ Miguel added. ‘There are thirty-five floors in this building, twenty-four apartments per floor, a lot of people, you know? And everyone is always very busy, rushing around to get somewhere or to do something.’ He shrugged. ‘Including me. There’s always something to be fixed, or cleaned, or changed, or something. When I cross a resident in the hallway, or bump into them in the elevator or somewhere, the conversations are always very quick, you see?’

Hunter nodded.

‘But you should speak to Rashana Lewis,’ Miguel said. ‘She lives in apartment 1514 on the fifteenth floor. She’s a beautician. She and Ms. Webster were friends. Rashana has many clients here in the building, including my wife, and I know that Ms. Webster was one of them too.’

‘1514, you said?’ Hunter asked.

‘That’s right.’

Hunter made a mental note. ‘Does the building have a doorman at all?’

‘No, sorry.’

‘CCTV?’

‘No,’ Miguel shook his head, a little embarrassed. ‘We don’t have that either.’

‘OK,’ Hunter said, checking his watch. ‘Thanks for your help, Miguel. I might need to talk to you again later.’

‘That’s not a problem, you know where to find me.’

As the superintendent left, Hunter’s phone rang in his pocket again.

Chapter 6

‘Robbery Homicide Detective, Robert Hunter,’ he answered it.

‘Detective, this is Daniel Figueroa from Operations. I have the information on the subject you’ve requested earlier, but I don’t seem to have an email address for you.’

‘I don’t think it has been set up yet,’ Hunter replied. Thinking about it, he probably didn’t even have a desk or a computer set up either. ‘Just tell me what you’ve got.’

‘OK,’ Daniel said. ‘Mr. Jake Goubeaux, thirty-five years old, residing in Hawthorne, number thirty-one, West 129th Street. He works as a soundman in a place called Rooster’s in West Hollywood. They have live music every night.’

‘Yes, I know the place,’ Hunter said.

‘Well,’ Daniel continued. ‘Mr. Goubeaux has been arrested five times in the past four years – twice for drunk and disorderly conduct, and three times for assault. He put an ex-girlfriend in hospital, and that cost him five months in the CSP in Lancaster. According to the judge who sentenced him, one more strike and Mr. Goubeaux is going to be gone for a long time.’

‘Great job, Daniel. Have we got a mug shot of him?’

Daniel chuckled. ‘Yeah, we’ve got about five of those. The most recent is only about a year old.’

‘Give me a sec,’ Hunter said, covering the phone’s mouthpiece with his palm. ‘Do you have a fax machine in your black and white?’ he asked Travis.

He nodded. ‘I do, yes.’

Hunter return to his phone. ‘Daniel, can you fax the most recent one of those to squad car . . .’ he looked at Travis, who mouthed the numbers eight, three, five, one, seven. Hunter repeated them down the line.

‘On its way,’ Daniel said.

‘Thanks, Daniel.’

Hunter disconnected.

‘Any developments?’ the officer asked.

Hunter quickly ran him through the news.

‘OK,’ Hunter said. ‘I need you to go down to your car, wait for the photo of Mr. Jake Goubeaux, and then return to apartment 2808 to talk to Mr. Grant again. Show him the photograph, and see if he can identify Mr. Goubeaux as the person he saw leaving this floor late on Monday night. I’m going to go down to apartment 1514 and see if I can speak with Rashana Lewis. I’ll meet you back up here in about half an hour.’

Chapter 7

The door to apartment 1514 was opened by a black woman in her mid-thirties. Her shoulder-length hair had been smoothed with a hair iron and whatever product she had applied to it, gave it a delicate shine. She was wearing a baby-pink bathrobe and flip-flops. Her toe and fingernails had been painted in a bright, lemon-yellow color. She looked distraught. In the background, a little girl of about four years old was playing with a plastic doll.

‘Are you Ms. Lewis?’ Hunter asked. ‘Rashana Lewis?’

Her gaze dwelled on Hunter for a few moments before she nodded.

‘I’m Detective Robert Hunter of the LAPD.’ He displayed his credentials.

‘Is this about what happened to Helen?’ she asked. ‘Miguel, the superintendent, told me she committed suicide.’ Her voice carried total disbelief.

‘Yes, it is about Ms. Webster,’ Hunter replied.

Rashana nodded. ‘Please come in,’ she said.

The apartment smelled of recently cooked food – fried onions, bacon, a little hint of garlic, and various spices. The living room was small, much smaller than the one in Helen Webster’s apartment, and lit by two table lamps at opposite ends of the room. They cast shadows just about everywhere. The two-seater sofa facing the small TV set was draped with a sheet that had once been red, but now, after so many washes, all that was left was a faded, pinkish tone. There was only one armchair, also draped with a faded red sheet.

‘Please, have a seat,’ Rashana said, indicating the sofa. She took the armchair.

The little girl stopped playing with her doll and looked up at the new visitor.

‘Hello,’ she said, waving her little hand.

‘Hello there,’ Hunter said, smiling.

‘What’s your name?’ the girl asked.

‘My name is Robert. What’s yours?’

‘I’m Rachelle, and this is Lenita.’ The little girl showed Hunter her naked doll.

‘Rachelle, baby,’ Rashana said. ‘Why don’t you go play in your room for a little bit? Mummy has to talk to the nice policeman here for a few minutes.’

The little girl pulled a worried face. ‘He’s not a policeman, Mommy. He’s not wearing a uniform.’

‘I’m a different kind of policeman, Rachelle,’ Hunter said, before whispering. ‘Like . . . secret.’

The little girl’s eyes went wide. ‘A secret policeman. How coooool.’

Hunter brought a finger to his lip and continued whispering. ‘Yes, but remember, it’s a secret.’

Rachelle nodded vigorously before pausing and facing her mother with a stern look on her face. ‘Are you in trouble with the police, Mommy?’

Hunter smiled. ‘No, Rachelle, your mommy is helping the police.’

‘Oh, how coooool.’

‘OK, baby. Now, to your room.’ Rashana pointed to the bedroom door.

The little girl disappeared through the door, while whispering something to her doll.

When the bedroom door closed, Rashana turned to face Hunter again.

‘I won’t take much of your time,’ he said. ‘Mr. Valdez, the superintendent, told me that you and Ms. Webster were friends.’

‘Yes, we knew each other,’ Rashana replied. ‘You could say that we were friends. She was one of my clients, but we got along really well. I just can’t believe that she would kill herself.’

‘When was the last time you saw her?’

‘Three days ago. Monday afternoon. She came here for a full treatment – haircut, manicure and pedicure. She told me that she had a possible new client – someone quite rich, actually – that she was meeting on Tuesday, so she wanted to look her best. It makes no sense that she would kill herself.’

Hunter noted something down.

‘Did she seem depressed to you at all?’ he asked.

‘Depressed?’ Rashana breathed out. ‘Not even a little bit. I know that sometimes she would get depressed for no reason at all. She told me she was bipolar, but Monday wasn’t one of those days.’

‘Do you know if she was worried, or scared because of something . . . or someone?’

Rashana paused and pinched her bottom lip for a few seconds, clearly pondering something in her mind.

‘She was a little worried about her ex-boyfriend,’ she finally replied. ‘He was a good-for-nothing loser.’

‘Ex-boyfriend?’ ‘That’s interesting,’ Hunter thought. ‘Why was she worried about him?’

‘Well, she dumped his ass about two weeks ago. Just after Valentine’s. And she did the right thing, if you ask me.’

‘Did Ms. Webster tell you what happened?’

‘Yeah.’ Rashana crossed her arms over her chest. ‘They were out one night and he got too drunk, again. Apparently he is one of those men who just can’t handle his liquor, you know what I’m saying? He gets too drunk, and then he starts being mean to everyone around. Helen told me that they were in this cocktail lounge somewhere in Long Beach. She was chatting to an old friend – a guy. Well, Jake had one cocktail too many and that was it. He pushed the guy to the ground and dragged Helen out of the lounge like a caveman. He called her a “no-good whore”, a “dirty bitch” and worse.’ Rashana shook her head in disgust.

‘Do you know if that had happened before?’

‘It had,’ Rashana nodded. ‘Just before Valentine’s. You see, they hadn’t been going out for too long, and you know how it is, at first everyone is on their best behavior.’

‘The honeymoon phase,’ Hunter said.

‘That’s right,’ Rashana agreed. ‘And us women know that that phase lasts about three months before the real colors start to show. And Jake’s colors were ugly, let me tell you. But no matter, because after that day in Long Beach, Helen dumped his sorry ass for good.’

Hunter noted something else down. ‘You mentioned that she was worried about him?’

‘Yeah. After she dumped him, he never stopped calling her. She told me that he called about four or five times a day, saying that he was sorry, that that night was the liquor talking and acting, not him . . . you know, the same old bullshit. But Helen stood her ground. And she did the right thing. No man is worth having to put up with that kind of crap.’ Rashana pulled a sour face. ‘But what worried Helen was that she had given him a set of keys to her place.’

Hunter wrote that down.

‘I told her to change the locks,’ Rashana continued.

Hunter knew that Helen hadn’t followed Rashana’s advice. He had checked the door locks in Helen Webster’s apartment. They weren’t new.

‘Do you know if Ms. Webster’s ex-boyfriend had threatened her at all?’ Hunter asked.

‘If he did, Helen never mentioned it,’ Rashana said. ‘But the guy was a psycho. Give him a few drinks and God only knows what he would do. Trust me, I know the type.’

Hunter wrote a few more notes down and closed his pad.

‘Thank you very much, Ms. Lewis.’ He stood up. ‘You’ve been of great help.’

Rashana walked him to the door, but as they passed the door to the kitchen, something caught Hunter’s eyes and he paused for an instant.

Flashback.

His thought process skipped from A to Z in a fraction of a second.

‘Something wrong?’ Rashana asked.

‘Not at all.’ Hunter smiled.

Chapter 8

Back on the twenty-eighth floor, Hunter met up with Officer Travis again.

‘Any luck?’ Hunter asked.

The officer nodded, handing Hunter the photo that was faxed to his car. Jake Goubeaux was an attractive-looking man, with short dark hair, a strong jaw, expressive eyes, and a hint of a cleft on his squared chin. A thin scar sliced through his right eyebrow.

‘It’s a match,’ Travis said. ‘Mr. Grant confirmed it. This was the man he saw leaving this floor late on Monday night. He even remembers the scar.’

‘That’s what I thought,’ Hunter said. He told officer Travis about his conversation with Rashana Lewis. ‘And I now know how he did it. I know why the safety chain was securely in place when you and your partner got here.’

‘Really, how?’

‘Let me show you.’

They returned to Helen Webster’s apartment. The two forensics agents were still working the bedroom, but they told Hunter that they had collected a buffet of fibers and hairs, together with several fingerprints coming from what looked like two different sources. They could already confirm that one of those sources was Helen Webster. The second was someone with relatively large hands.

Hunter had no doubts that those prints would match Jake Goubeaux’s.

‘OK,’ officer Travis said, addressing Hunter. ‘I can sort of picture the scene now. Boyfriend gets dumped just after Valentine’s, doesn’t take it too well, keeps on calling the victim asking for a new chance. The victim keeps on saying “no”, but still he doesn’t take the hint. So, on Monday evening he decides to drop by for a little face-to-face chat.’ Travis shrugged. ‘Maybe he knocked and she let him in, or maybe he used his own key, because now we know that he had a set.’

Hunter listened, nodding every now and then.

‘He probably had a few drinks before turning up here,’ Travis continued with his deduction. ‘Which would only make matters worse. They argue, loudly. Some of it is overheard by Mrs. Peers from apartment 2815.’ He pointed to the next-door apartment. ‘The victim tells the ex-boyfriend that there’s no getting back together and he loses it. He goes for her throat and starts choking her, maybe not with the intention to kill her, but she passes out anyway, and he freaks. He knows that when she comes to, she will probably report him. Given his track record, he also knows that that would be strike three. He will be put away for a long time.’

‘So he comes up with a plan,’ Hunter said.

Officer Travis agreed with a nod and took over once again. ‘He knows that the victim is bipolar, going in and out of depressed states every now and then. Maybe she had even told him that, during one of those states she had considered suicide in the past.’

‘Possible,’ Hunter said.

‘So he figured that staging a suicide scene was his ticket out, especially if he could make it so it looked like she had been alone, locked inside her apartment. He puts her in bed, undresses her, and slices her wrists.’

‘Very good, Officer Travis,’ Hunter said. ‘I don’t think I could’ve come up with a better theory myself.’

‘Yes, but it still doesn’t explain how he did it. How did he get out and lock the door from the inside?’

‘Cleverly,’ Hunter said, walking back into the bedroom. The officer followed him.

Hunter returned to Helen Webster’s wardrobe and slid the door open.

‘See how everything is precisely organized,’ he said.

Travis nodded.

‘But look at this.’ Hunter indicated the black silk blouse that had fallen on top of some shoes.

‘OK . . .?’ Travis dragged the word out. ‘What about it?’

‘At first I thought that the blouse had just slipped off its hanger,’ Hunter explained. ‘But if you check the rack, there are no empty hangers, which means, there’s a hanger missing.’

Travis frowned.

Hunter reached for another blouse and slipped it off its hanger. ‘Then I realized that Helen Webster only used wire hangers.’ He exited the bedroom, taking the hanger with him. In the living room, he indicated the small stereo on the TV module.

‘Over here, we’re missing a speaker.’

‘Yes, I see that,’ Travis replied.

‘Well, Mr. Jake Goubeaux is a soundman, so I think it’s safe to assume that he knows a thing or two about musical equipment, including stereos like this.’

‘I’d agree.’

‘So he would know that these speakers are magnetic speakers, where strong magnets are part of the motor of the subwoofers.’

Travis chewed his bottom lip again. ‘I didn’t know that.’

Hunter quickly went into the kitchen, picked up the garbage can, and brought it into the living room.

‘I found the other speaker in here,’ he said. ‘Completely pulled apart.’ He dumped the garbage can contents onto the living-room floor. ‘The subwoofer, as you can see, has been smashed to pieces. And I bet that if we take our time collecting all the smashed-up magnet pieces and putting them back together like a jigsaw puzzle, we’ll find that there’s a small piece missing.’

‘Sonofabitch,’ Travis whispered. He was starting to get the picture.

Hunter gloved up, selected a small broken piece of the subwoofer’s magnet, approached the chest of drawers by the east wall, and opened the top drawer. It was full of stationery and office supplies. The topmost item inside the drawer was a tube of superglue.

‘And this is the last piece of our puzzle,’ he said, showing it to Travis.

Hunter reached for the wire hanger, unwound its hook, and unfolded it out. Thirty seconds later, he had a long, crooked piece of hard and strong wire in his hands. He re-twisted and reshaped the hanger until he had an L-shaped, foot-and-a-half-long piece of wire, with a small curved hook at the end of it. He then cautiously superglued the small magnet piece to the tip of the wire hook.

‘And here we have it,’ he said, walking over to the door. Holding the security chain’s wall mounting back in its original place, he tested his new device. The magnet at the tip of his wire hook firmly snapped itself to the circular metal piece at the end of the security chain. Using the wire device, Hunter then slowly and very easily slid the chain all the way across, until it was free from the lock.

‘He probably practiced a few times in here to get the hang of it before stepping out onto the corridor,’ Hunter said. ‘All he needed to do was to bring the door to. The original open-door gap that the security chain provides is more than enough for anyone to be able to push the wire device through, snap it onto the chain, drag the chain over to its lock, carefully prod around until it slots into its spot, and just slide it across to lock it. I’m sure it took him a few tries to get it, but it wouldn’t have taken him long. Once that was done, he closed the door, used his key to lock it, and got out of here. Luckily for us, he bumped into Mr. Grant as he returned home.’

‘Clever sonofabitch,’ Travis said, studying the wire device Hunter had created. ‘When did you figure this out?’

‘The idea came to me when I was leaving Ms. Lewis’ apartment on the fifteenth floor,’ Hunter said. ‘The fridge in her kitchen is covered by fridge magnets. Suddenly everything made sense.’

Travis looked back at the detective. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, extending his hand. ‘I’m sorry to have given you such a hard time earlier on. I allowed all the superficial scene readings to guide my judgment. Everything indicated suicide, so I assumed it had to be suicide.’

Hunter shook the officer’s hand.

‘But I guess that’s why you are a detective, and I’m not.’ Travis smiled. ‘So now what?’

‘Now we get a warrant, go arrest Mr. Goubeaux, and take it from there,’ Hunter said. ‘I’m sure that some of the hairs and fingerprints found in Ms. Webster’s room will have come from Jake Goubeaux. If we’re lucky, something might give us a DNA match. But if not, once we put a person like him inside an interrogation room and present him with what we have, it doesn’t take long for whatever bullshit story he had prepared to start showing its cracks. Trust me, Travis, we’ve got him.’

Hunter reached for his phone and called Captain Bolter.

Chapter 9

The captain had listened to Hunter’s entire report without interrupting once.

‘I’ll be Goddamned,’ he said at last. A surprised but satisfied tone found its way into the captain’s voice. ‘I stand corrected, and I guess I owe you an apology, rookie.’

‘No apology necessary, sir. Like I said, just doing my job.’

‘Of course you are, rookie. But I do indeed owe you an apology. You did prove me wrong. And in time you will learn that that doesn’t happen very often.’

Hunter said nothing. He heard the faint noise of pages turning coming from the captain’s end.

‘The warrant will be on its way to you soon,’ Captain Bolter finally said. ‘Now go arrest that piece of shit boyfriend . . . Detective Hunter.’

Hunter smiled. It was the first time the captain had called him by his proper title.

More pages turning.

‘When you get back to the RHD, I’ve got something else lined up for you.’

‘Another suicide case, captain?’ Hunter half joked.

‘Not this time, detective.’ There was no play in the captain’s voice anymore. ‘This time we’ll see how good a hunter you really are.’

One

Friday, August 3rd, 10:25 a.m.

‘Hello . . . Detective Hunter speaking.’

‘Hello, Robert, I have a surprise for you.’

Hunter froze, almost dropping his coffee cup. He knew that metallic voice very well. He knew when that voice called it meant only one thing – a new, mutilated dead body.

‘Have you heard from your partner lately?’

Hunter’s eyes quickly searched the room in vain for Carlos Garcia.

‘Has anyone heard from Garcia this morning?’ he shouted across the office after pressing the mute button on his cell phone.

The other detectives exchanged silent, puzzled looks and Hunter knew the answer even before it came.

‘Not since yesterday,’ Detective Maurice said shaking his head.

Hunter pressed the mute button once again.

‘What have you done to him?’

‘Do I have your attention now?’

‘What have you done to him?’ Hunter demanded in a firm voice.

‘As I’ve said, it’s a surprise, Robert,’ the metallic voice said laughing. ‘But I’ll give you another chance to make a difference. Maybe this time you’ll put more effort into it. Be at the laundry room down in the basement of the old number 122 Pacific Alley in South Pasadena within the hour. If you bring back-up, he dies. If you don’t make it within the hour, he dies. And trust me, Robert, it’ll be a very slow and painful death.’ The line went dead.

Two

Hunter raced down the stairs of the old building in east LA in giant leaps. The deeper he went, the darker and hotter it got. His shirt was covered in sweat, his tight shoes crushing his feet.

‘Where the hell is this laundry room?’ he whispered as he reached the basement.

A glimmer of light was coming from underneath a closed door at the end of a dark corridor. He ran towards it calling his partner’s name.

No answer.

Hunter pulled out his Wildey Survivor double-action pistol and positioned his back against the wall to the right of the door.

‘Garcia . . .’

Silence.

‘Rookie, are you in there?’

A muffled thud came from inside the room. Hunter cocked his gun and took a deep breath.

‘Fuck it!’

With his back still against the outside wall, he pushed the door open with his right hand and in a well-rehearsed move rotated his body into the room, his gun searching for a target. An unbearable smell of urine and vomit forced him to take a step back coughing violently.

‘Garcia . . .’ he called again from the door.

Silence.

From outside Hunter couldn’t see much. The light bulb that hung from the ceiling above a small wooden table in the center of the room was too weak to illuminate it properly. He drew another deep breath and took a step forward. What he saw made his stomach churn. Garcia had been nailed to a life-size cross inside a Perspex cage. The heavy bleeding from his wounds had created a pool of blood at the base of the cross. He was wearing nothing but his underwear and a barbed-wire crown around his head, the thick metal spikes clearly piercing his flesh. Blood streaking down his face. Garcia looked lifeless.

I’m too late, Hunter thought.

Approaching the cage he was surprised to see a heart monitor inside it. Its line peaking slightly and at steady intervals. Garcia was still alive – just.

‘Carlos!’

No movement.

‘Rookie!’ he shouted.

With great effort Garcia managed to half open his eyes.

‘Hang in there, buddy.’

Hunter surveyed the dimly lit room. It was large, fifty-five feet by forty-five he guessed. The floor was littered with dirty rags, used syringes, crack pipes and broken glass. In the corner, to the right of the entrance door he could see an old and rusty wheelchair. On the wooden table in the center of the room sat a small, portable cassette tape recorder and a single note that read play me first in large red letters. He pressed the play button and the now familiar metallic voice came blasting out of the tiny speaker.

‘Hello Robert, I guess you’ve made it in time.’ Pause.

‘You have no doubt realized that your friend needs your help, but for you to be able to help him you have to play by certain rules . . . my rules. This is a simple game, Robert. Your friend is locked inside a bullet-proof cage, so shooting it won’t help you. On its door you’ll find four colored buttons. One of them opens the cage, the other three – don’t. Your task is quite simple – pick a button. If you press the correct one the door will open, you’ll be able to free your partner and walk out of the room.’

One chance in four to save Garcia – definitely not great odds, Hunter thought.

‘Now here comes the fun part,’ the tape recorder played on. ‘If you press any of the other three buttons an uninterrupted high-voltage current will be sent directly to the wire crown on your friend’s head. Have you ever seen what happens to a human being while he’s being electrocuted?’ the voice said with a chilling laugh. ‘His eyes burst, his skin crinkles like bacon, his tongue recoils into his mouth ready to choke him to death, his blood boils, bursting vessels and arteries open. It’s quite an exquisite scene, Robert.’

Garcia’s heartbeat went into overdrive. Hunter could see the line on the heart monitor screen peaking faster.

‘And now for the really fun part . . .’

Somehow Hunter knew that the electric current trick wouldn’t be the only twist in that room.

‘Behind the cage I’ve placed enough explosives to obliterate the room you’re in. The explosives are attached to the heart monitor and if it gets to read a flatline . . .’ a longer pause this time. Hunter knew what the metallic voice was about to say next.

‘Boom . . . the room blows. So you see Robert, if you press the wrong button, not only will you watch your friend die knowing that you’ve killed him, but you’ll get to die soon after.’

Hunter’s heart was now beating viciously against his chest, sweat dripping from his forehead and stinging his eyes, his hands shaky and clammy.

‘But you have a choice Robert. You don’t have to save your partner, you can just save yourself. Walk away now and leave him to die alone. No one will know except you. Can you live with that? Will you gamble your life for his? Pick a color, you’ve got sixty seconds.’ A loud beep came from the tape recorder before it went silent.

Hunter saw a red digital display above Garcia’s head light up 59, 58, 57 . . .

Three

Five weeks earlier.

Jenny rubbed her eyes as she got up from the busy table at the Vanguard Club in Hollywood, hoping she didn’t look as tired as she felt.

‘Where’re you going?’ D-King asked, sipping his champagne.

Bobby Preston was the best known dealer in northwest Los Angeles, but no one ever called him by his real name, everyone knew him as D-King. The ‘D’ stood for ‘Dealer’ as he would deal in just about anything: drugs, girls, cars, guns – for the right price he’d supply you with whatever you wanted.

Jenny was by far his most stunning girl. Her body was flawlessly toned and tanned and her perfect face and smile could charm any men on this earth, D-King was sure of it.

‘I just need to retouch my make-up. I’ll be right back babe.’ She blew him a little kiss and left the exclusive VIP area still holding her champagne glass.

Jenny couldn’t handle any more alcohol, not because she was feeling drunk, but because this was her fifth successive night out partying and she’d had enough. She didn’t think her life would turn out this way. She never thought she’d become a hooker. D-King had always assured her that she wasn’t a working girl. She was a high-class entertainer for gentlemen with extremely good taste and obviously a lot of money, but at the end of the day she was having sex for cash. To her that made her a hooker.

Most of Jenny’s clients were perverted old millionaires looking for something they couldn’t get at home. Sex was never your normal run-of-the-mill missionary position. They all wanted their money’s worth. Bondage, BDSM, spanking, watersports, strap-on sex, it didn’t matter. Whatever they were into, she had to provide, but tonight was no working night. She wasn’t being paid by the hour. She wasn’t out with one of her deadbeat clients. She was out with the boss and she had to party until he said it was over.

Jenny had been to the Vanguard Club plenty of times. It was one of D-King’s favorite hangouts. There was no denying that the club was a magnificent luxurious extravaganza. From its enormous dance floor to its laser-light show and great stage. The Vanguard could hold up to two thousand people, and tonight the club was packed to capacity.

Jenny made her way towards the bar closest to the ladies’ room where two barmen seemed rushed off their feet. The entire club was a tremendous buzz of beautiful people, the great majority of them in their twenties and early thirties. Jenny was oblivious to the pair of eyes that followed her from the VIP area to the bar. Eyes that had been on her all night. In fact, they’d been following her for the past four weeks, from nightclub to nightclub and hotel to hotel. Watching her as she pretended to have a good time, as she pleasured each and every one of her clients.

‘Hi, Jen, are you OK? You look a bit tired,’ Pietro, the long-haired barman, asked as Jenny approached the bar. He still spoke with a slight Spanish accent.

‘I’m OK, hun, just too much partying I guess,’ she said unenthusiastically after catching a glimpse of herself in one of the bar mirrors. Her hypnotic blue eyes seemed to have lost some of their sparkle tonight.

‘No rest for the wicked, huh?’ Pietro’s comment came with a shy smile.

‘Not tonight,’ Jenny smiled back.

‘Can I get you anything?’

‘No, I’m OK. I’m still struggling with this one.’ She raised her champagne glass giving him a sexy wink. ‘I just needed to get away from the party for a little while.’

Pietro and Jenny had flirted a few times but he’d never made a move on her. He knew she belonged to D-King.

‘Well, if you need anything just give me a shout.’ Pietro went back to preparing cocktails and flipping bottles. A dark-haired woman who had been standing on the other side of the bar dying to get his attention gave Jenny an evil look that said ‘Back off, bitch, I saw him first.’

Jenny swept a hand through her long, wheat-blond hair, placed her champagne glass on the bar counter and turned around to face the dance floor. She enjoyed the club’s atmosphere. All those people having fun, dancing, drinking and finding love. OK, maybe not love, she thought, but at least they’d be having sex for pleasure, not money. She wanted to be just like them. This was definitely not the beautiful Hollywood life she’d dreamed of when she left Idaho six years ago.

Jenny Farnborough’s fascination with Hollywood started at the age of twelve. The movie theater became her shelter from the never-ending rows between her submissive mother and her overly aggressive stepfather. Films became her escape route, the vehicle that could take her places she’d never been before and she wanted to be a part of it.

Jenny knew that the Hollywood dream was nothing more than a fantasy. Something that existed only in clichéd romantic books and films, and she’d read and watched plenty of those. She had to admit she was a dreamer, but maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing. Maybe she’d be the lucky one. She had nothing to lose.

At the age of fourteen she started her first job as a popcorn girl. Jenny saved every dime she earned and by her sixteenth birthday she had enough saved up to leave that godforsaken town behind. She swore she’d never go back to Idaho. Jenny never found out about her mother overdosing on sleeping pills only a week after she’d left.

Hollywood was everything she’d expected it to be. A magical place full of beautiful people, lights and fantasies, but the harsh reality of life in the City of Angels was a far cry from the illusion she’d created. Her savings didn’t last long and with no professional training the rejections started piling up like dirty laundry. Her beautiful dream slowly began to turn into a nightmare.

Jenny was introduced to D-King by Wendy Loutrop, another struggling wannabe actress. At first she’d rejected every proposition he’d made her. She’d heard all the stories about beautiful women coming to Hollywood dreaming of becoming a star only to end up working the streets or for the porn-movie industry. Jenny was determined not to give in. She didn’t want to become just another failure story, but her pride had to play second fiddle to her survival instinct, and after several months of phone calls and expensive gifts D-King had himself a new girl.

Jenny never noticed the hand pouring a colorless liquid into her champagne glass. Her eyes were still set on the dancing crowd.

‘Hi there, babe, can I buy you a drink?’ a tall, blond man standing to her right asked with a bright smile.

‘I already have a drink, but thank you for the offer anyway,’ she replied politely without locking eyes with the stranger.

‘Are you sure? I can order us a bottle of Cristal. What do you say, babe?’

Jenny turned and faced the tall blond man. He was smartly dressed wearing a dark-grey Versace suit, a crisp white shirt with a stiff collar and a blue silk tie. His green eyes were his most striking feature. Jenny had to admit he was an attractive man.

‘What’s your name?’ she said forcing a smile.

‘I’m Carl and it’s a pleasure to meet you,’ he said offering his hand.

Instead of shaking it Jenny had a sip of her champagne. ‘Look Carl, you’re quite a handsome guy, I’ll give you that’ – her voice now taking a very sweet tone – ‘but trying to pick up a girl by flashing your money around is not a great idea, especially in a place like this. It makes us feel cheap, unless you are looking for a bimbo – is that what you are looking for? A pro?’

‘Oh . . . No!’ Carl fumbled with his tie nervously. ‘Sorry, that’s not how I meant it, babe.’

‘So you ain’t looking for a party girl to show you a really good time?’ she asked having another sip of her champagne, her eyes now fixed on his.

‘No, of course not, hun. Just trying to have a friendly drink, and if there’s any chemistry between us . . .’ He left the sentence hanging in the air with a shrug of his shoulders.

Very gently, she ran her fingers down his tie before pulling him closer. ‘It’s a pity you’re not looking for a party girl,’ she whispered into his left ear.

Carl’s smile evaporated into a confused look.

‘I could’ve given you my pimp’s number, he’s right over there.’ She pointed to the VIP area with a sarcastic smile on her lips.

Carl half opened his mouth as if about to say something but no words came out.

Jenny drank the rest of her champagne and gave him a sexy wink before moving away from the bar and into the ladies’ room.

The eyes still followed her.

It won’t be long now. The drug will soon show its effect.

Jenny was re-applying her lipstick when she started to feel faint. She knew something was wrong. All of a sudden she felt hot and feverish. The walls seemed to be closing in on her. She found it hard to breathe and moved towards the door as quickly as she could. She needed to get out of there.

As she stumbled out of the ladies’ room the entire place spun around her. She wanted to go back to D-King’s table but her legs weren’t responding. Jenny was about to collapse on the floor when a pair of hands grabbed her.

‘Are you OK, babe? You don’t look so good.’

‘I don’t feel too well. I think I need . . .’

‘You need some air. It’s too stuffy in here. Come with me, I’ll help you. Let’s step outside for a while.’

‘But I . . .’ Jenny had started to slur her words. ‘I need to tell D . . . I have to go back to . . .’

‘Later, babe, now you just need to come with me.’

No one noticed Jenny and the stranger walking towards the club exit.

One

‘Morning, Sheriff. Morning, Bobby,’ the plump, brunette waitress with a small heart tattoo on her left wrist called from behind the counter. She didn’t have to check the clock hanging from the wall to her right. She knew it would be just past 6:00 a.m.

Every Wednesday, without fail, Sheriff Walton and his deputy, Bobby Dale, came into Nora’s truck-stop diner, just outside Wheatland in southeastern Wyoming, to get their sweet-pie fix. Rumor had it that Nora’s Diner baked the best pies in the whole of Wyoming. A different recipe every day of the week. Wednesday was apple-and-cinnamon-pie day, Sheriff Walton’s favorite. He was well aware that the first batch of pies always came out of the oven at 6:00 a.m. sharp, and you just couldn’t beat the taste of a freshly baked pie.

‘Morning, Beth,’ Bobby replied, dusting rainwater off his coat and trousers. ‘I’ll tell you, the floodgates from hell have opened out there,’ he added, shaking his leg as if he’d peed himself.

Summer downpours in southeastern Wyoming were a common occurrence, but this morning’s storm was the heaviest they’d seen all season.

‘Morning, Beth,’ Sheriff Walton followed, taking off his hat, drying his face and forehead with a handkerchief, and quickly looking around the diner. At that time in the morning, and with such torrential rain outside, the place was a lot less busy than usual. Only three out of its fifteen tables were taken.

A man and a woman in their mid-twenties were sitting at the table nearest to the door, having a pancake breakfast. The sheriff figured that the beat-up, silver WV Golf parked outside belonged to them.

The next table along was occupied by a large, sweaty, shaved-headed man, who must’ve weighed at least 350 pounds. The amount of food sitting on the table in front of him would’ve easily been enough to feed two very hungry people, maybe three.

The last table by the window was taken by a tall, gray-haired man, with a bushy horseshoe mustache and a crooked nose. His forearms were covered in faded tattoos. He’d already finished his breakfast and was now sitting back on his chair, toying with a packet of cigarettes and looking pensive, as if he had a very difficult decision to make.

There was no doubt in Sheriff Walton’s mind that the two large trucks outside belonged to those two.

Sitting at the end of the counter, drinking a cup of black coffee and eating a chocolate-coated donut, was a pleasantly dressed man who looked to be in his forties. His hair was short and well kept, and his beard stylish and neatly trimmed. He was flipping through a copy of the morning’s newspaper. His had to be the dark-blue Ford Taurus parked by the side of the diner, Sheriff Walton concluded.

‘Just in time,’ Beth said, winking at the sheriff. ‘They’re just out of the oven.’ She gave him a tiny shrug. ‘As if you didn’t know.’

The sweet smell of freshly baked apple pie with a hint of cinnamon had already engulfed the entire place.

Sheriff Walton smiled. ‘We’ll have our usual, Beth,’ he said, taking a seat at the counter.

‘Coming right up,’ Beth replied before disappearing into the kitchen. Seconds later she returned with two steamy, extra-large slices of pie, drizzled with honey cream. They looked like perfection on a plate.

‘Umm . . .’ the man sitting at the far end of the counter said, tentatively raising a finger like a kid asking his teacher’s permission to speak. ‘Is there any more of that pie left?’

‘There sure is,’ Beth replied, smiling back at him.

‘In that case, can I also have a slice, please?’

‘Yeah, me too,’ the large truck driver called out from his table, lifting his hand. He was already licking his lips.

‘And me,’ the horseshoe-mustache man said, returning the cigarette pack to his jacket pocket. ‘That pie smells darn good.’

‘Tastes good too,’ Beth added.

‘Good doesn’t even come close,’ Sheriff Walton said, turning to face the tables. ‘Y’all just about to be taken to pie heaven.’ Suddenly his eyes widened in surprise. ‘Holy shit,’ he breathed out, jumping off his seat.

The sheriff’s reaction made Bobby Dale swing his body around fast and follow the sheriff’s stare. Through the large window just behind where the mid-twenties couple was sitting, he saw the headlights of a pick-up truck coming straight at them. The car seemed completely out of control.

‘What the hell?’ Bobby said, getting to his feet.

Everyone in the diner turned to face the window, and the shocked look on everyone’s face was uniform. The vehicle was coming toward them like a guided missile, and it was showing no signs of diverting or slowing down. They had two, maybe three seconds before impact.

‘EVERYBODY TAKE COVER!’ Sheriff Walton yelled, but he didn’t have to. Reflexively, everybody in the restaurant was already scrambling on their feet to get out of the way. At that speed, the pick-up truck would crash through the front of the diner and probably not stop until it reached the kitchen at the back, destroying everything in its path, and killing everyone in its way.

A chaotic mess of desperate screams and movement took over the restaurant floor. They all knew they just didn’t have enough time to get out of the way.

CRUUUUNCH-BOOM!

The deafening crashing noise sounded like an explosion, making the ground shake under everyone’s feet.

Sheriff Walton was the first to look up. It took him a few seconds to realize that somehow the car hadn’t crashed through the front of the building.

Frowning was followed by confusion.

‘Is everyone all right?’ the sheriff finally called out, frantically looking around.

Mumbled confirmation was returned from all corners of the room.

The sheriff and his deputy immediately got to their feet and rushed outside. Everyone else followed just a heartbeat later. The rain had gotten heavier in the past few minutes, now coming down in thick sheets, severely reducing visibility.

Out of sheer luck, the pick-up truck had hit a deep pothole on the ground just a few yards from the front of the diner, and had drastically veered left, missing the restaurant by just a couple of feet. As it detoured, it had clipped the back of the dark-blue Ford Taurus parked outside, before smashing head-first into a side building that housed two bathrooms and a storage room, completely destroying it. Thankfully, there was no one inside either of the bathrooms, or the storage room.

‘Holy shit!’ Sheriff Walton breathed out, feeling his heart race inside his chest. The collision had turned the pick-up truck into a totally mangled wreck, and the outside building into a demolition site.

Skipping over the debris, the sheriff was the first to get to the truck. The driver was its only occupant – a gray-haired man who looked to be somewhere in his late fifties, but it was hard to be sure. Sheriff Walton wasn’t able to recognize him, but he was certain he’d never seen that pick-up truck around Wheatland before. It was an old and rusty, early 1990s Chevy 1500, no airbags, and though the driver had been wearing his seatbelt, the impact had been way too violent. The front of the truck, together with its engine, had caved backward and into the driver’s cabin. The dashboard and steering wheel had crushed the driver’s chest against his seat. His face was covered in blood, torn apart by shards of glass from the windscreen. One had sliced through the man’s throat.

‘Goddammit!’ Sheriff Walton said through clenched teeth, standing by the driver’s door. He didn’t have to feel for a pulse to know that the man hadn’t survived.

‘Oh, my God!’ he heard Beth exclaim in a trembling voice from just a few feet behind him. He immediately turned to face her, lifting his hands in a “stop” motion.

‘Beth, do not come here,’ he commanded in a firm voice. ‘Go back inside and stay there.’ His stare moved to the rest of the diner patrons who were moving toward the truck fast. ‘All of you go back into the diner. That’s an order. This whole area is now out of bounds, y’all hear?’

Everybody stopped moving, but no one turned back.

The sheriff’s eyes searched for his deputy, and found Bobby standing all the way at the back, by the Ford Taurus. The look on his face was a mixture of shock and fear.

‘Bobby,’ Sheriff Walton called. ‘Call for an ambulance and the fire brigade now.’

Bobby didn’t move.

‘Bobby, snap out of it, goddammit. Did you hear what I said? I need you to get on the radio and call for an ambulance and the fire brigade right now.’

Bobby stood still. He looked like he was about to be sick. Only then did the sheriff realize that Bobby wasn’t even looking at him or at the mangled pick-up truck. His eyes were locked onto the Ford Taurus. Before crashing into the bathroom building, the truck had clipped the left side of the Taurus’ rear-end hard enough to release its trunk door.

All of a sudden Bobby broke out of his trance and reached for his gun.

‘No one move,’ he yelled out. His shaky aim kept jumping from person to person. ‘Sheriff,’ he called in an unsteady voice. ‘You better come have a look at this.’

Two

Five days later.

Huntington Park, Los Angeles, California.

The petite, dark-haired checkout girl rang the last item through and looked up at the young man standing at her register.

‘That’ll be $34.62, please,’ she said, matter-of-factly.

The man finished packing his groceries into plastic bags before handing her his credit card. He couldn’t have been any older than twenty-one.

The checkout girl swiped the card through the machine, waited a few seconds, bit her bottom lip, and with doubtful eyes looked up at the man.

‘I’m sorry, sir, this card’s been declined,’ she said, offering the card back.

The man stared back at her as if she’d spoken to him in a different language.

‘What?’ His eyes moved to the card, paused, and then returned to the checkout girl. ‘There’s gotta be some sort of mistake. I’m sure I still have some credit left on that card. Could you try it again, please?’

The checkout girl gave him a tiny shrug and swiped the card through one more time.

A tense couple of seconds went by.

‘I’m sorry, sir, it’s been declined again,’ she said, handing the card back to him. ‘Would you like to try another one?’

Embarrassed, he took the card from her and faintly shook his head. ‘I don’t have another one,’ he said shyly.

‘Food coupons?’ she asked.

Another sad shake of the head.

The girl waited as the man started searching through his pockets for whatever money he could find. He managed to come up with a few dollar bills, and a bunch of quarters and dimes. After quickly adding up all his change, he paused and looked back at the checkout girl, apologetically.

‘I’m sorry. I’m about twenty-six dollars short. I’ll have to leave a few things behind.’

Most of his shopping consisted of baby stuff – diapers, a couple of pots of baby food, a can of powdered milk, a bag of baby wipes, and a small tube of diaper rash ointment. The rest was just everyday essentials – bread, milk, eggs, some vegetables, a few pieces of fruit, and a can of soup – all of it from the budget range. The man didn’t touch any of the baby stuff, but returned everything else.

‘Could you see how much that comes to now, please?’ he asked the girl.

‘It’s OK,’ the man standing behind him in the checkout line said. He was tall and athletically built, with sharp, chiseled, attractive features and kind eyes. He handed the checkout girl two twenty-dollar bills.

She looked up at him and frowned.

‘I’ll get this,’ he said, nodding at her before addressing the young man. ‘You can put your groceries back in the bags. It’s my treat.’

The young man stared back at him, confused, and unable to find any words.

‘It’s OK,’ the tall man said again, giving him a reassuring smile. ‘Don’t worry about it.’

Still stunned, the young man’s gaze moved to the checkout girl, and then back to the tall man.

‘Thank you so much, sir,’ he finally said, extending his hand, his voice catching in his throat, his eyes becoming just a little glassy.

The man shook his hand and gave him a reassuring head nod.

‘That was the kindest thing I’ve ever seen happen in here,’ the checkout girl said once the young man had collected his groceries and left. Tears had also welled up in her eyes.

The tall man simply smiled back at her.

‘I’m serious,’ she reiterated. ‘I’ve been working at the checkout in this supermarket for almost three years. I’ve seen plenty of people come up short when it comes to paying, plenty of people having to return items, but I’ve never seen anybody do what you just did.’

‘Everybody needs a little help every now and then,’ the man replied. ‘There’s no shame in that. Today, I helped him, maybe someday he’ll help someone else.’

The girl smiled as her eyes filled with tears again. ‘It’s true that we all need a little help every once in a while, but the problem is, very few are ever willing to help. Especially when they need to reach into their pockets to do so.’

The man silently agreed with her.

‘I’ve seen you in here before,’ the checkout girl said, ringing through the few items the man had with him. It came to $9.49.

‘I live in the neighborhood,’ he said, handing her a ten-dollar bill.

She paused for a moment and locked eyes with him. ‘I’m Linda,’ she said, nodding at her nametag, and extending her hand.

‘Robert,’ the man replied, shaking it. ‘Pleasure to meet you.’

‘Listen,’ she said, returning his change. ‘I was wondering. My shift ends at six this evening. Since you live in the neighborhood, maybe we could go for a coffee somewhere?’

The man hesitated for a brief moment. ‘That would be really nice,’ he finally said. ‘But unfortunately, I’m flying out tonight. My first vacation in . . .’ He paused and narrowed his eyes at nothing for an instant. ‘I don’t even remember when I last had a vacation.’

‘I know the feeling,’ she said, sounding a little disappointed.

The man collected his groceries and looked back at the checkout girl.

‘How about if I call you when I get back, in about ten days? Maybe we can have a coffee then.’

She looked up at him and her lips stretched into a thin smile. ‘I’d like that,’ she replied, quickly jotting down her number.

As the man stepped outside the supermarket, his cellphone rang in his jacket pocket.

‘Detective Robert Hunter, Homicide Special,’ he answered it.

‘Robert, are you still in LA?’

It was the LAPD’s Robbery Homicide Division’s captain, Barbara Blake. She was the one who, just a couple of days ago, had ordered Hunter and his partner, Detective Carlos Garcia, to take a two-week break after a very demanding and exhausting serial killer investigation.

‘Right now, yes,’ Hunter replied, skeptically. ‘I’m flying out tonight, Captain. Why?’

‘I really hate to do this to you, Robert,’ the captain replied, sounding sincerely sorry. ‘But I need to see you in my office.’

‘When?’

‘Right now.’

Three

In lunchtime traffic, the 7.5-mile drive from Huntington Park to the LAPD headquarters in downtown Los Angeles took Hunter a little over forty-five minutes.

The Robbery Homicide Division (RHD), located on the fifth floor of the famous Police Administration Building on West 1st Street, was a simple, large, open-plan area crammed with detectives’ desks – no flimsy partitions to separate them or silly floor lines to delimit workspace. The place sounded and looked like a street market on a Sunday morning, alive with movement, murmurs and shouts that came from every corner.

Captain Blake’s office was at the far end of the main detectives’ floor. The door was shut – not that unusual due to the noise – but so were the blinds on the oversized internal window that faced the floor, and that was undoubtedly a bad sign.

Hunter slowly started zigzagging his way around people and desks.

‘Hey, what the hell are you doing here, Robert?’ Detective Perez asked, looking up from his computer screen as Hunter squeezed past Perez and Henderson’s desks. ‘I thought you were supposed to be on vacation?’

Hunter nodded. ‘I am. I’m flying out tonight. Just having a quick chat with the captain first.’

‘Flying?’ Perez looked surprised. ‘That sounds rich. Where are you going?’

‘Hawaii. My first time.’

Perez smiled. ‘Nice. I could do with going to Hawaii right about now too.’

‘Want me to bring you back a lei necklace or a Hawaiian shirt?’

Perez pulled a face. ‘No, but if you can manage to slip one or two of those Hawaiian dancers into your suitcase, I’ll take them. They can do the hula up on my bed every goddamn night. You know what I’m saying?’ He nodded like he meant every word.

‘A man can dream,’ Hunter replied, amused by how vigorously Perez was nodding.

‘Enjoy yourself over there, man.’

‘I’m sure I will,’ Hunter said before moving on. He paused before the captain’s door, and instinct and curiosity made him tilt his head to one side and check the window – nothing. He couldn’t see past the blinds. He knocked twice.

‘Come in.’ He heard Captain Blake call from the other side in her usual firm voice.

Hunter pushed the door open and stepped inside.

Barbara Blake’s office was spacious, brightly lit and impeccably tidy. The south wall was taken by bookshelves packed by perfectly arranged, and color-coordinated hardcovers. The north one was covered by framed photographs, commendations and achievement awards, all symmetrically positioned in relation to each other. The east wall was a floor-to-ceiling panoramic window, looking out over South Main Street. Directly in front of the captain’s twin-pedestal desk were two leather armchairs.

Captain Blake was standing by the panoramic window. Her long jet-black hair was gracefully styled into a bun, pinned in place by a pair of wooden chopsticks. She was wearing a silky white blouse, tucked into an elegant navy-blue pencil skirt. Standing next to her, holding a steaming cup of coffee, and wearing a conservative black suit, was a slim and very attractive woman, who Hunter had never seen before. She looked to be somewhere in her early thirties, with long, straight blonde hair, and deep blue eyes. She looked like someone who would normally be entirely at ease in whatever situation she found herself in, but there was something a little apprehensive about the way she held her head.

As Hunter entered the office and closed the door behind him, the tall and slim man who was sitting in one of the armchairs, also in a soberly dark suit, turned to face him. He was in his mid-fifties, but the heavy bags under his eyes and his fleshy, saggy cheeks, which also gave him a somewhat hound-like look, made him look at least ten years older. The thin flock of gray hair he still had left on his head was neatly combed back over his ears.

Taken by surprise, Hunter paused, narrowing his eyes.

‘Hello, Robert,’ the man said, standing up. His naturally hoarse voice, made worse by years of smoking, sounded surprisingly strong for a man who looked like he hadn’t slept in days.

Hunter’s gaze stayed on him for a couple of seconds before moving to the blonde woman, and finally to Captain Blake.

‘Sorry about this, Robert,’ she said with a slight tilt of the head, before allowing her stare to go rock hard as it honed in on the man facing Hunter. ‘They simply turned up unannounced about an hour ago. Not even a goddam courtesy call,’ she explained.

‘I apologize again,’ the man said in a calm but authoritative tone. He was definitely someone who was used to giving orders, and having them followed. ‘You look well.’ He addressed Hunter. ‘But then again, you always do, Robert.’

‘So do you, Adrian,’ Hunter replied unconvincingly, stepping toward the man and shaking his hand.

Adrian Kennedy was the head of the FBI’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime (NCAVC) and its Behavioral Analysis Unit – a specialist FBI department that provided support to national and international law enforcement agencies involved in the investigation of unusual or serial violent crimes.

Hunter was well aware that unless it was absolutely mandatory, Adrian Kennedy never traveled anywhere. He now coordinated most of NCAVC operations from his large office in Washington, DC, but he was no career bureaucrat. Kennedy had begun his life with the FBI at a young age, and quickly demonstrated that he had tremendous aptitude for leadership. He also had a natural ability to motivate people. That didn’t go unnoticed, and very early in his career he was assigned to the prestigious US President protection detail. Two years later, after foiling an attempt on the president’s life by throwing himself in front of the bullet that was destined to kill the most powerful man on earth, he received a high commendation award, and a “thank you” letter from the president himself. A few years after that, the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime was officially established in June 1984. They needed a director, someone who was a natural leader. Adrian Kennedy was the name at the top of the list.

‘This is Special Agent Courtney Taylor,’ Kennedy said, nodding at the blonde woman.

She moved closer and shook Hunter’s hand. ‘Very nice to meet you, Detective Hunter. I’ve heard a lot about you.’

Taylor’s voice sounded incredibly seductive, combining a sort of soft, girlish tone with a level of self-assurance that was almost disarming. Despite her delicate hands, her handshake was firm and meaningful, like that of a businesswoman who had just closed a major deal.

‘It’s a pleasure to meet you too,’ Hunter replied, politely. ‘And I hope that some of what you’ve heard wasn’t so bad.’ She gave him a shy, but truthful smile. ‘None of it was bad.’

Hunter turned and faced Kennedy again.

‘I’m glad we managed to catch you before you’d left for your break, Robert,’ Kennedy said.

Nothing from Hunter.

‘Going anywhere nice?

Hunter held Kennedy’s stare.

‘This has got to be bad,’ he finally said. ‘Because I know you’re not the sort to sugar-talk anyone. I also know you couldn’t care less about where I am going on my break. So how about we drop the bullshit? What’s this about, Adrian?’

Kennedy took a moment, as if he had to carefully consider his answer before finally replying.

‘You, Robert. This is about you.’

Four

Hunter’s attention wandered over to Captain Blake for a brief moment; as their eyes met, she shrugged apologetically.

‘They didn’t tell me much, Robert, but the little I know sounds like something you would want to hear.’ She went back to her desk. ‘It’s better if they explain.’

Hunter looked at Kennedy and waited.

‘Why don’t you have a seat, Robert?’ Kennedy said, offering one of the armchairs.

Hunter didn’t move.

‘I’m fine standing, thank you.’

‘Coffee?’ Kennedy asked, indicating Captain Blake’s espresso machine in the corner.

Hunter’s gaze hardened.

‘All right, fine.’ Kennedy lifted both hands in a surrender gesture, while at the same time giving Special Agent Taylor an almost imperceptible nod. ‘We’ll get on with it.’ He returned to his seat.

Taylor put down her cup of coffee and stepped forward, pausing just beside Kennedy’s chair.

‘OK,’ she began. ‘Five days ago, at around six in the morning, while driving south down US Route 87, a Mr John Garner suffered a heart attack just outside a small town called Wheatland, in southeastern Wyoming. Needless to say, he lost control of his pick-up truck.’

‘It was raining heavily that morning, and Mr Garner was the sole occupant of the truck,’ Kennedy added before signaling Taylor to carry on.

‘Maybe you already know this,’ Taylor continued. ‘But Route 87 runs all the way from Montana to southern Texas, and like most US highways, unless the stretch in question is going through what’s considered a minimum populated area or an high accident-risk one, there are no guardrails, walls, high curbstones, raised center island divisions . . . nothing that would keep a vehicle from leaving the highway and venturing off in a multitude of directions.’

‘The stretch that we’re talking about here doesn’t fall under the minimum populated area, or high accident-risk category,’ Kennedy commented.

‘By pure luck.’ Taylor moved on. ‘Or lack of it, depending what point of view you take, Mr Garner suffered the heart attack just as he was driving past a small truck-stop diner called Nora’s Diner. With him unconscious at the wheel, his truck veered off the road and drove across a patch of low grass, heading straight for the diner. According to witnesses, Mr Garner’s truck was in a direct line of collision with the front of the restaurant.

‘At that time in the morning, and because of the torrential rain that was falling, there were only ten people inside the diner – seven customers plus three employees. The local sheriff and one of his deputies were two of the customers.’ She paused to clear her throat.‘Something must’ve happened right at the last second, because Mr Garner’s truck drastically changed course and missed the restaurant by just a few feet. Road accident forensics figured that the truck hit a large and deep pothole just a few yards before getting to the diner, and that caused the steering wheel to swing hard left.’

‘The truck crashed into the adjacent lavatory building,’ Kennedy said. ‘Even if his heart attack hadn’t killed Mr Garner, the collision would have.’

‘Now,’ Taylor said, lifting her right index finger. ‘This is the first twist. As Mr Garner’s truck missed the diner and headed toward the lavatory building, it clipped the back of a blue Ford Taurus that was parked just outside. The car belonged to one of the diner’s customers.’

Taylor paused and reached for her briefcase that was by Captain Blake’s desk.

‘Mr Garner’s truck hit the Taurus rear hard enough to cause the trunk door to pop open,’ Kennedy said.

‘The sheriff missed it.’ Taylor again. ‘Because as he ran outside, his main concern was to attend to the truck driver and passengers, if there had been any.’

She reached into her briefcase and retrieved an 11x8-inch colored photograph.

‘But his deputy didn’t,’ she announced. ‘As he ran outside, something inside the Taurus’ trunk caught his eye.’

Hunter waited.

Taylor stepped forward and handed him the photograph.

‘This is what he saw inside the trunk.’

Chris Carter

The Executioner

Robert Hunter Book 2

Inside a Los Angeles church, on the altar steps, lies the blood-soaked, decapitated body of a priest. Carefully positioned, legs stretched out, arms crossed over the chest, the most horrifying thing of all is that the priest’s head has been replaced by that of a dog. Later, the forensic team discover that, on the victim’s chest, the figure 3 has been scrawled in blood.

At first, Detective Robert Hunter believes that this is a ritualistic killing. But as more bodies surface, he is forced to reassess. All the victims died in the way they feared the most. Their worst nightmares have literally come true. But how could the killer have known? And what links these apparently random victims?

Hunter finds himself on the trail of an elusive and sadistic killer, someone who apparently has the power to read his victims’ minds. Someone who can sense what scares his victims the most. Someone who will stop at nothing to achieve his twisted aim.

Ebook ISBN 978-0-85720-013-6

Chris Carter

The Night Stalker

Robert Hunter Thriller 3

If you think you’re safe . . . think again

When an unidentified female body is discovered laid out on a slab in an abandoned butcher’s shop, the cause of death is unclear. Her body bares no marks; except for the fact that her lips have been carefully stitched shut.

It is only when the full autopsy gets underway at the Los Angeles County morgue that the pathologist reveals the true horror of the situation – a discovery so devastating that Detective Robert Hunter of the Los Angeles Homicide Special Section has to be pulled off a different case to take over the investigation.

But when his inquiry collides with a missing persons’ case being investigated by the razor-sharp Whitney Meyers, Hunter suspects the killer might be keeping several women hostage. Soon Robert finds himself on the hunt for a murderer with a warped obsession, a stalker for whom love has become hate.

Ebook ISBN 978-0-85720-299-4

Chris Carter

The Death Sculptor

Robert Hunter Thriller 4

‘Good job you didn’t turn on the lights . . .’

A student nurse has the shock of her life when she discovers her patient, prosecutor Derek Nicholson, brutally murdered in his bed. The act seems senseless – Nicholson was terminally ill with only weeks to live. But what most shocks Detective Robert Hunter of the Los Angeles Robbery Homicide Division is the calling card the killer left behind.

For Hunter and his partner Garcia, there is no doubt that the killer is trying to communicate with the police. But what could the hidden message be? Then the killer strikes again.

Forced into an uncomfortable alliance with headstrong investigator Alice Beaumont, Hunter must race to put together the pieces of the puzzle . . . before the Death Sculptor puts the final touches to his masterpiece.

Ebook ISBN 978-0-85720-304-5