Sam Galloway died slow, and he died hard. His death was completely at odds with the way he’d lived his life, and completely at odds with the sort of death he should have had. Men like Sam slipped away peacefully in their sleep, or they were felled by a heart attack on the back nine of the golf course, they did not die because they’d been doused in gasoline and set alight. And they sure as hell didn’t die screaming their final breaths into a filthy rag while the flesh melted from their bones.
It would be easy to categorise Sam as a victim of circumstance, to file him away under ‘wrong place, wrong time’. This was a common mistake in these situations, one that was rooted in fear. Saying that Sam had been in the wrong place at the wrong time meant his murder could be blamed on fate, or chance, or the whims of the gods.
The alternative was that this murder wasn’t random, and, if that was the case, it became much easier to believe that what had happened to Sam could happen to anyone. Follow the logic, and it wasn’t that huge a leap to believe that you might be next.
But Sam hadn’t been in the wrong place at the wrong time. There was nothing random about his murder. Whoever had done this had targeted him. They’d fantasised about what they wanted to do, then they’d worked out a way to turn fantasy into reality. Most importantly, they’d looked long and hard at how they could burn Sam up and get away with it.
That last detail was crucial. Getting away with it. That’s what separates the amateurs from the pros. Committing a crime is relatively easy. Any fool can do that. Committing a crime and getting away with it, now that’s tough.
So far the plan was working just fine. Sam was dead and the guy responsible was out there somewhere, free to go on living his life as though nothing had ever happened. Right now, he was probably enjoying a celebratory breakfast in a diner somewhere. Eggs sunny side up, a tower of pancakes drenched in maple syrup, bacon crisped to perfection, and a gallon of coffee to wash it all down.
Or maybe he was at work, doing the nine-to-five thing. Handshakes and backslaps and a post-mortem of last night’s ball game around the water cooler, a game he hadn’t seen because he’d been busy elsewhere. A game whose details he’d picked up from the sports pages.
Until the email dropped into my inbox ten minutes ago, I’d never heard of Sam Galloway. Now all I could think about was Sam, and what had happened to him, and who might be responsible. Particularly that last one.
I glanced at the laptop screen, glanced at the suitcase on the bed. I’d been in South Carolina for the past two weeks hunting a killer called Carl Tindle, and now Carl was in custody it was time to move on to the next case.
Up until five minutes ago that had been a serial rapist who was targeting prostitutes in Honolulu. These weren’t your high-end girls, these were your nickel-and-dime whores, the lowest of the low, girls that the world had all but given up on. That didn’t mean they shouldn’t have justice. As far as I’m concerned every victim matters. You could be royalty or a junkie whore, it makes no difference to me.
The flights and hotel were booked, my suitcase packed, and I was more than ready to get out of Charleston. Not because there was anything wrong with Charleston. There wasn’t. It’s just that I’d been here for two weeks, and two weeks is pretty much my limit for staying anywhere these days.
I glanced at the laptop again. One thing I’d had to learn fast during my FBI days was how to prioritise. Resources were always stretched to breaking point because there were too many bad guys out there. The latest victim had just been found in Hawaii so time was on our side there. It would be a while before that guy struck again. But with this Sam Galloway thing, the clock was ticking loud and fast. The way I figured it, I could postpone going to Hawaii for a few days and it wouldn’t make that much of a difference to what was happening over there.
The email had come from Sheriff Peter Fortier of the Dayton Parish Sheriff’s Department, down in Eagle Creek Louisiana. I’d never heard of Dayton or Eagle Creek or Sheriff Fortier, which wasn’t surprising considering the US has a land mass of 3.8 million square miles and a population in the region of a third of a billion.
The video clip attached to the email was interesting because I rarely got to see killers at work. Usually all I saw was the end result. Sometimes there was a corpse, sometimes not. Sometimes there wasn’t even a crime scene. During my time with the FBI I’d interviewed dozens of serial criminals, so I had plenty of first-hand accounts stored away, albeit biased ones. But it didn’t matter how fresh the body was, or how detailed the account, there was no substitute for witnessing something with your own two eyes, even if you were only witnessing it through the lens of someone else’s camera.
This guy wasn’t the first killer to film his work, and he wouldn’t be the last. However, this was the exception rather than the rule. It’s common knowledge that serial killers often keep trophies to fuel their fantasies, but these tend to be obscure, innocent-looking mementos that hold significance only for the killer: an article of clothing, a lock of hair, maybe an earring. Filming was rare because it was risky. If the wrong person saw it, how the hell did you explain that one away?
I played the film clip a second time. The picture quality was good, sharp and defined. No shake, which meant the camera had been mounted on a tripod. It also meant that Sheriff Fortier was dealing with a single unsub here. If there had been two unknown subjects, one of them would have wanted to play with the camera and I’d now be watching something that resembled a badly shot home movie. There was no sound. In some ways it would have been less unsettling if there had been. My imagination had gone into overdrive, filling the silence, and what it was coming up with was probably way worse than the reality.
Most of the screen was taken up with Sam Galloway. He was lying on the floor, hog-tied and gagged and scared out of his mind. His face had turned bright red from the exertion, eyes popping. His suit was crumpled and dirty, the collar of his white shirt smeared with grime.
It was difficult to tell exactly where he was being held. The floor was dirt-streaked concrete, and the one wall I could see was constructed from cinderblock. I had a sense of an industrial, utilitarian space, and I also had a sense of confinement, which made me think this was some sort of garage or bunker rather than a warehouse. According to the numbers in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen, the video had been filmed at a little after eleven o’clock yesterday evening.
The clock on the screen jumped forward a minute to 23:04, and a short while later a second man appeared on the screen. The new guy was thin, slightly built, somewhere around five-nine.
And he was carrying a jerry can.
The thin guy walked up to Sam, careful to keep his back to the camera. Sam saw him and froze. He stared at the guy, stared at the can, then he started desperately thrashing around.
The guy unscrewed the jerry can’s lid and tipped the contents over Sam. Gasoline sloshed everywhere. It got into Sam’s eyes, his nose. He was drowning in the stuff. His clothes were drenched. His hair was dripping. The thin guy shook the last drops from the can and placed it on the concrete floor. Then he took out a matchbook. The cover was white and blank. No restaurant logo, no bar names. He lit a match, tossed it casually onto Sam, then disappeared from the screen.
It took Sam more than two minutes to die, which was two minutes longer than anyone should have to suffer. The pain would have been excruciating. Nobody should have to die like that.
The hyperlink in Sheriff Fortier’s email took me to a crude webpage. Large white numbers on a black background. 13:29:23. To the right of the numbers was a stick-figure diagram straight from a game of hangman. This particular game was almost at an end. All that was missing were the limbs.
The three became a two, then a one. Arms and legs appeared. Blip, blip. Two limbs for each second. The last digit turned to a zero, the diagram turned red, then it disappeared.
Twenty became nineteen, and the base of the gallows flashed up onto the screen. With each passing second more parts were added. The tall back post, the top beam, the diagonal brace, the rope. Head, body, arms, legs. The last digit changed from a one to a zero, the diagram turned red then disappeared, and the whole ten-second process started over again.
I ran the mouse over the screen, looking for hidden links. There hadn’t been any the first time I’d done this, and there weren’t any now. The web address didn’t tell me much, either: www.violescent.com. A Google search revealed violescent to be an obscure word that meant ‘tending to a violet colour’.
My guess was that that the unsub had used a random word generator. That’s what I would have done. If you try to think up a random word, it’s never going to be truly random because your subconscious gets in the way. The domain name would need checking out, but my money was on it being another dead end. Registering a domain name under a fake identity was a fairly straightforward process.
It had crossed my mind that this could be an elaborate hoax. There was no body, no crime scene, no physical evidence whatsoever. All the cops had was the video clip and the website. It wasn’t much to go on, but I was convinced this was the real deal.
First off, Sam Galloway was missing.
Secondly, the person on the film had been positively identified as Sam.
Thirdly, and this was the big one, what was the point? What did they have to gain? You don’t do anything without a reason. It was the effort/outcome principle at play. The benefit gained from an activity had to outweigh the amount of energy expended. If Sam wanted to fake his death, there were a lot of easier ways to do it.
Fourthly, and this was the clincher for me, there was no way that film had been faked. If it had been then you were looking at an acting performance worthy of an Oscar.
For a long couple of minutes I sat there considering my options, a steady stream of numbers and hangman figures filing across the screen. It was eleven-thirty in the morning here in Charleston. Dayton was an hour behind, so it was only ten-thirty there. The countdown was due to run out at the stroke of midnight Louisiana time. During that time another 4,860 stick figures would die.
Louisiana or Honolulu?
Swamps or beaches?
It was a no-brainer. I’ve always been a sucker for the dramatic gesture, and there was no doubt that this unsub had a flair for the dramatic. The truth was that this guy had got me at hello.
The question echoed around the vast hangar. I traced the sound to its origin and saw a giant bald black guy standing by the steps of a Gulfstream G550. The size of the hangar made the private jet look like a toy, yet this guy still looked huge in comparison to the plane. All the perspectives were wrong.
I walked over to the jet, my footsteps disappearing into the girders. Up close, the black guy really was a giant. Six-six and at least two-eighty pounds of solid muscle. I’m only five-nine, so he towered above me by almost a whole foot. The conflicting shadows cast by the overhead lights spread from his feet in all directions, creating a lake of grey with him standing slap bang in the middle. His black uniform had a shiny gold star on the chest, and Dayton Sheriff’s Department patches on both arms. It looked brand new.
He was younger than I’d first thought. Early twenties, maybe even late teens. He had one of those baby faces, a trust-me face. It was open and honest, and I wondered how long that would last. This job wore everyone down, some faster than others. Given enough time, the darkness always found a way in.
I was also wondering about that private jet. The FBI could afford a Gulfstream, it could actually afford two, but the FBI had an annual budget in excess of eight billion dollars. From what little I’d gleaned off the internet, it was a safe bet that the Dayton Sheriff’s Department was not operating on a ten-figure budget. Six figures was probably closer to the mark, and once the day-to-day expenses were taken care of there wouldn’t be much left for those little luxuries.
Like a Gulfstream.
There were no clues on the plane itself. Gleaming white paintwork, a number on the tail, and that was it. No logos, which was unusual. People who owned private jets wanted you to know who they were. They wanted to advertise their wealth and status. They wanted to fly that flag from the highest mast, and that mast went all the way up to 51,000 feet. Owning a private jet had nothing to do with getting from A to B, and everything to do with showing the world how important you were. There was a reason the president had his own 747 rather than flying coach, and, as much as the White House PR department would like you to believe otherwise, that reason had little to do with pragmatism.
The big guy was hiding his nerves well. There was an electrical buzz in his movements, and he kept checking the far shadows for snipers. He didn’t know what to do with his hands. Should he offer one so we could shake? Should he offer to take my suitcase? In the end, I made the decision for him. I put my case down and held out my hand. He hesitated, then shook it. His hand swallowed mine, completely engulfed it. At the same time, there was a gentleness that surprised me.
‘Nice ride you’ve got there,’ I said, nodding to the plane.
That deep resonant bear growl again, a low rumble that started way down in his diaphragm. The voice was still young enough to lack authority, but something about this guy hinted that this would come in time. There were no rank markings on his uniform, which meant he was right down at the bottom of the pecking order. The spark of intelligence in his eyes indicated this was a temporary state of affairs.
Big, yes. Stupid, not a chance.
‘What’s your name?’ I asked.
‘That’s it? Just Taylor?’
A nod. ‘Just Taylor.’
‘Which means your first name must be something really embarrassing.’ I grinned. ‘You might as well tell me now. I will find out.’
‘No you won’t,’ he said, mirroring my grin.
An airport worker appeared from nowhere and magicked my suitcase off into the hold. Everything I needed to get through the day was in it. Since my father’s execution I had spent my life travelling the world hunting serial criminals. These days home was whatever hotel suite I found myself booked into, which suited me fine. Some were more comfortable than others, but that didn’t worry me. Even the most basic suite was going to be better than a crappy motel room, and believe me I’d seen more than my share of those.
I did own a house. It was up in Virginia, within easy commuting distance of Quantico. I hadn’t been back there in years, and had no intention of doing so any time soon, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to sell it. I’m sure a psychiatrist could give a dozen good reasons why I hadn’t, and I’m sure some of those might even have been valid. I guess that everyone needs somewhere they can call home, even if it is an empty gesture.
Before I quit the FBI I was their lead profiler, the youngest in the history of the Behavioral Analysis Unit. I had the G-man suit, the shiny shoes and worked from dawn until dark for a faceless master I respected less and less with each and every passing day. The execution was my personal Road to Damascus. A couple of days after the state of California pumped a lethal chemical cocktail into my father, I quit.
Whenever I picture my father, it’s in that execution chamber. It took six minutes and twenty-three seconds for him to die, and for most of that time he was unconscious. Unlike Sam Galloway, he got off far too easy.
I’ve seen the case files. Seen the photographs. My father murdered fifteen women before he was caught. He abducted them and took them to the wide rolling forests of Oregon, then hunted them down with a high-powered rifle and a night scope.
My father had left those girls where they died. He hadn’t even bothered to dig them a shallow grave. Exposure to the elements had sped up the decomposition process. The insects and animals had feasted on their flesh. It’s amazing how quickly Mother Nature can strip away beauty, how merciless she can be.
In my opinion, they should have skipped the pentobarbital. My father should have left this world struggling for his last breath, fully awake and fully aware. That still wouldn’t have come close to making amends, but it would have been a start.
‘Marion,’ I said. ‘Your parents were big John Wayne fans.’
‘Not even close.’
Taylor laughed and made an ‘after-you’ gesture and we climbed the stairs. The flight attendant who greeted us when we ducked into the cabin was in her early fifties. Hair dyed black to disguise the grey, sensible flat shoes. She’d been hired for her ability to do the job, not her looks, which said a lot about the person who owned the plane. There was a time for looks and a time for efficiency. When it came to flight attendants, I’d take efficiency over looks any day. Flying was tedious enough without adding incompetence into the mix.
The interior of the Gulfstream was understated and subdued and reminded me of the FBI’s jets. There were none of the ostentatious touches you associated with rock stars or the Hollywood glitterati. None of the bling.
Toward the back there was a table with four black leather chairs surrounding a walnut-topped table. I got comfy in the forward facing window seat and put my laptop case on the table. Taylor folded himself into the aisle seat opposite and stretched his legs out as far as he could. The jet started rolling and he reached for his seatbelt.
‘I wouldn’t bother,’ I told him. ‘One perk of flying in a private jet is that you don’t have to wear a seatbelt.’
‘What if we crash?’
‘If we crash, we die. That seatbelt won’t save you. Twenty-five tons of metal smashing into the ground at five hundred miles an hour, you really think that tiny strap is going to save your life?’
Taylor gave me the look. His eyes were narrowed, his brow furrowed, and he was staring at me like I’d grown an extra head. It was a look I was used to.
‘The reason the FAA insist you wear a seatbelt on take-off and landing comes down to crowd control,’ I continued. ‘If there’s an emergency the last thing you want are three hundred hysterical people running up and down the aisles. The same thing goes for the oxygen masks. That’s all about crowd control, too. Those things pump out pure oxygen. Breathe that stuff in and it leaves you feeling euphoric. Would you rather your last moments were filled with terror, or would you rather believe that you were about to reach out and touch the hand of God?’
Taylor looked at me again.
A minute later we turned onto the runway and stopped. The engines whined, and then we were propelled forward like a pebble from a slingshot. The Gulfstream lifted off in a fraction of the distance a passenger jet needed. A grind and a whine as the undercarriage retracted, then we carried on climbing at a comfortable twenty degrees. Whoever was at the stick knew his stuff. The take-off was a textbook civilian effort. No drama, no fuss, and boring as hell.
Outside the tiny porthole window, Charleston shrunk to toy-town size and Carl Tindle became nothing more than a memory. Carl wasn’t the worst I’d come across, but that didn’t make him a saint. Far from it. Carl had a thing for co-eds, and once he’d done his thing he suffocated them with a plastic bag and a leather belt. By the time I came on board his body count was up to eight.
Identifying Carl was straightforward enough and I’d managed that by the end of day one. The big challenge was catching him. There was plenty of empty space in South Carolina, lots of places to hide. We eventually tracked Carl down to a remote cabin near the coast, and when he realised he was surrounded he came in quietly enough.
Unlike my father, Carl would not live long enough for the death sentence appeals to play out. Carl Tindle was a small man, a weak man, a dead man walking. He wouldn’t see the end of the year. There was every chance he’d be dead before the week was out, suicide or shanked. Prison justice was harsh and brutal, and so much more effective than the courtroom variety.
When it came to getting the job done, I knew which one I put my faith in.
The flight attendant appeared shortly after we’d passed through the clouds. She handed us a couple of menus, asked what we wanted to eat and drink, then disappeared to the galley at the rear. When she returned with our drinks we were still climbing. I was thinking about who owned the Gulfstream again. If I owned a private jet I’d be fussy about who borrowed it. The local sheriff’s department would be way down the list. The easiest thing would be to ask Taylor, but I wasn’t ready to go there yet.
I booted up my laptop, clicked open the film clip of Sam Galloway’s last moments, hit play and turned the computer around so Taylor could see the screen. The smell of beef bourguignon drifted from the back. If the smell was anything to go by, I’d made a good choice.
‘Watch carefully, then tell me what you see.’
I reached for my coffee and took a sip. It had come from the Blue Mountains of Jamaica and was spectacularly smooth. The conditions in the Blue Mountains are perfect for growing coffee. Rich soil, good drainage, and a climate that’s cool, misty and wet. Put that all together and you end up with some of the finest coffee known to man.
Taylor was drinking a Pepsi. He didn’t know what he was missing.
I looked over at him. Light from the screen flickered and reflected in his eyes, a series of warped, indistinct images. His discomfort was obvious in his facial expressions, and a couple of times he winced as though what he was seeing on the screen was happening to him. Taylor would also be overcompensating for the lack of sound. He wouldn’t be able to help himself. His imagination would be providing a soundtrack that owed more to every horror movie he’d ever seen than what he was actually watching.
The grey and white in his eyes turned to orange and yellow and he winced again. He rubbed his hands together like there were flames on his fingertips and he was trying to extinguish them. Orange turned to black and he turned the laptop back around so it was facing me.
‘So?’ I asked.
Taylor shook his head. ‘I don’t get paid enough to have opinions on something like this, Mr Winter. This goes way above my pay grade.’
I let loose with a mock yawn, really milked it.
‘Look, I’ve been a cop for six months. I know how to write tickets. I’m so integral to the running of the department that they can afford to send me all the way up to Charleston to meet you. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but this isn’t a sheriff’s uniform I’m wearing.’
‘First off, call me Winter. Secondly, interesting choice of words. You could have chosen any rank, but you chose sheriff. The man at the top. That means at some point in time, probably more than once, you’ve stood in front of a mirror and imagined yourself in a brand new sheriff’s uniform.’
Taylor’s cheeks darkened with a blush. The contrast was nowhere near as pronounced as red on white skin, but it was definitely there. For a moment it wasn’t a two-hundred-and-eighty-pound giant sitting opposite me, it was a school kid who stood out because he’d always been a foot taller and a hundred pounds heavier than his classmates.
‘Also,’ I added, ‘you’re smart enough to realise the chances of that happening in northern Louisiana are zilch. So your game plan is to keep your head down, work hard, and progress through the ranks as far as you can until you’ve racked up enough experience to move to a more racially enlightened part of the country.’
Taylor reached for his Pepsi and took a drink.
‘I’m not hearing any rebuttals,’ I said.
‘There’s nothing wrong with being ambitious.’
‘Nothing at all. What’s more, I promise that if you answer my question I won’t let on to your colleagues how smart you really are.’
Another long look, but, again, no denials.
‘You dumbed down on the entrance exam, didn’t you? Played it so you passed comfortably? You could have excelled, you probably could have got the highest score in the whole history of the Dayton Sheriff’s Department, but you didn’t because the last thing you need is for your colleagues to feel uncomfortable when they’re around you. My guess is that you’ve got that whole dumb, gentle giant act down to a fine art. You’ve had plenty of practice, right?’
Taylor didn’t deny this, either, but he didn’t have to because the guilt was written all over his face.
‘George,’ I said.
‘Like Steinbeck’s George?’ Taylor shook his head. ‘I credited you with more imagination.’
I nodded to the laptop. ‘Okay, back to business. What do you think?’
Taylor sighed and chewed at his lip, then he shook his head and said, ‘Nobody should have to die like that.’
Which echoed my first impressions. Unfortunately that was an emotional response, and no use to us whatsoever. ‘Try again, but this time put your emotions aside.’
Taylor went to say something. He hesitated, smiled. ‘Emotion.’
‘The killer could be a robot for all the emotion he’s showing. He comes onto the screen, tips gasoline all over Sam Galloway, tosses a match on him, then walks off. He could have been lighting a barbecue. This guy’s a psychopath. It’s textbook.’
I shook my head. ‘You’re right about one thing. The lack of emotion is key here. Where you went wrong was your assumption that our firestarter is a psychopath. He isn’t.’
‘Of course he is. He didn’t just murder Galloway, he torched him. He could have killed him a dozen ways that were quicker, a bullet to the head, for example, but he didn’t. He set him on fire, and the only reason you’d do something like that is because you want your victim to suffer.’
‘And you’ve just put two and two together and got five. Sometimes that’s a good thing, but not this time.’
‘So what does four look like?’
‘You’re not going to answer, are you?’
A couple of clicks was all it took to navigate to the webpage.
This game of hangman had just started. At the moment there was just the base of the gallows and a tall back post. Another second passed and the top beam appeared. It was currently eighteen minutes after one in Dayton. Time was marching on, getting ever closer to midnight. The fact that this unsub had chosen midnight as his zero hour was another example of his flair for the dramatic. I turned the computer around so Taylor could see the screen.
‘And what do you think of this?’
White light flickered in Taylor’s eyes. One flash for every second, like a slow, steady, relaxed heartbeat. Ten seconds passed, twenty. Two more stick figures bit the dust. Taylor stared at the screen, entranced.
He looked over at me, grim-faced. ‘It’s a promise. He’s telling us that Sam Galloway was just the start. He’s going to kill again.’