ALSO BY ALAN JACOBSON
The 7th Victim
As a toddler he called me “Onion”
As a teen it was “Herm”
But I’ll always call him my brother,
my best friend.
This one’s for you.
The only way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him.
—HENRY STIMSON (1867-1950)
You may be deceived if you trust too much, but you will live in torment if you do not trust enough.
It is better to suffer wrong than to do it, and happier to be sometimes cheated than not to trust.
—SAMUEL JOHNSON (1709-1784)
Old Tannery District
99 S. Coombs Street
He was not going to kill her immediately. No—if there was one thing he had learned, it was to savor the moment, to be deliberate and purposeful. Like a predator in the wild, he would waste no energy. He needed to be careful, efficient, and resourceful. And above all, he needed to be patient.
That’s what he was now: a hunter who satisfied his hunger by feeding on others.
He sat alone in the dark parking lot, drumming his fingers on the dashboard, shifting positions in the seat. Talk radio hosts babbled on in the background, but he remained focused on his task. Watching. Waiting.
That’s why he chose the Lonely Echo bar. Located in downtown Napa, the old Tannery District sat tucked away in an area devoid of scenic mountain views, posh wineries, or pampering bed-and-breakfasts. That meant no tourists. And that meant city planners had little incentive to expend valuable resources attempting to polish a hidden, unsightly flaw on the nation’s crown jewel.
Drugs, alcohol, sex, and prostitution were in abundant supply—and in strong demand. While the valley’s profit-driving centers blossomed over the past two decades, the district had become an overlooked pimple slowly filling with pus.
Ideal for his needs.
His eyes prowled the parking lot, watching people enter and leave the bar. With only a single light by the building’s front door and one overhanging the quiet side street, he would be able to operate with relative impunity to roaming eyes—or mobile phone video cameras. With such scarce illumination, neither was much of a threat.
But it didn’t matter: during the hours he’d sat in his minivan, no one had approached to ask him who he was. No one had even given him a glance, let alone a second look. A few women had left the bar, but they walked in pairs, making his approach extremely difficult, if not impossible.
The long wait had given him a chance to reflect on what had brought him to this moment: since childhood, strange, misplaced feelings had stirred him, but he hadn’t known how to channel or utilize them. As he got older, although those urges persisted, the fear of making a mistake—shackling him with a very, very long prison sentence—held him back.
But given the right direction and tutelage, those needs took on substance, purpose, and direction. He was no longer fearful of failing. The only question was, could he do it? Could he kill?
The body that now lay in the shed in his yard was proof that he could do it, and do it well.
But killing a woman. He grinned at the thought. He was a virgin again, about to do it with a member of the opposite sex for the first time. Just like when he was a teen, his nerves were on edge, the fluttering in his stomach constant. Yet this was different. He was not going to chicken out like that time all those years ago. He was ready now. His first kill, waiting for him back home, provided all the proof he needed.
THE BARTENDER PLANTED two large hands on the nicked wood counter. “I’m not going to say it again. You’ve had enough, miss. It’s time you went home.”
“I told you my name before,” she said, running the words together. “Don’t you remember?” She scooped up the photo of her son and waved it at him. “My son. Remember me telling you? About him? You were all interested before. When you wanted a nice tip. Now, you’re all like, get out of my fucking place.” When the bartender failed to react, she wagged a finger at him. “You’re not a very nice man, Kevinnnn.” She drew out the last letter as if she were a scratched CD stuck on a note.
Kevin shook his head, tossed down his wet rag, then turned away.
A natural redhead whose hair sprouted from her scalp like weeds, the woman pushed back from the bar and wobbled as she sought enough balance to turn and walk out. She scrunched her face into a scowl directed at Kevin, then slid off the stool.
The woman swayed and groped for the steadying assistance of chair backs as she steered herself sloppily toward, and through, the front door. The painful brightness of a spotlight mounted along the eave blasted her eyes. She waved a hand to shoo away the glare.
THE MAN WATCHED the bar’s battered wood door swing open, revealing a disheveled redhead. The light over the front entrance struck her in the face and she swatted it with a hand to fend it off, as if it was a swarm of flies. In that brief instant, she looked pretty hot. At least at this distance.
Her gait stuttered, stopped, then restarted and stuttered again. Drunk, not oriented to her surroundings.
He could not have ordered up a more perfect dish if he had spent hours searching for the recipe.
A CHILL SWIRLED AROUND the woman’s bare legs. She swung her head around the parking lot, trying to recall where she had left her car. To the right? Yeah, the right. She stumbled off in the direction of a red sedan, concentrating on putting one foot squarely in front of the other.
Ahead, a man was approaching, headed toward the bar. “He’s mean,” she said to him. “Kevin is. He’ll take your money, then kick you out.” That’s what he did to me. Kicked me out.
As she passed him, something clamped against her mouth—grabbed her from behind—squeezed and—
Can’t breathe. Gasp—Scream!—can’t.
Heavy. So—tired. Go to sleep. Sleep.
Sleep . . .
THE REDHEAD’S MUFFLED SCREAM did nothing but fill her lungs with a dose of anesthesia. Seconds later, she slumped against the man’s body. He moved beside her, then twisted his neck to look over his shoulder, canvassing the parking lot to make sure no one had been watching.
The bar door flew open and a bearded man in jeans and flannel shirt ambled out. He stopped, put a cigarette and lighter to his mouth, then cupped it. As he puffed hard, the smoke exploding away from his face in a dense cloud, his eyes found the man. “Everything okay?” he asked, squinting into the darkness.
The man covertly crumpled the rag into the palm of his hand, out of sight. “All good. Little too much juice, is all.”
“I saw,” the witness said in a graveled voice. “Bartender sent her on her way. Need some help?”
“Nah, I got it. Just glad I found her. Been looking for two hours. But—good boyfriend, that’s what I do, you know? One in the goddamn morning. Unfucking believable. Not sure it’s worth it, if you know what I mean.” He shook his head, turned away, and walked a few more steps, ready to drop and run should the witness persist in his questioning—or pull out a cell phone.