Plot Synopsis: Mission District Murders

These are the worst of times for Lieutenant Chris Spell, once acclaimed as San Francisco’s premiere homicide investigator. At the heart of his beat, the City’s chaotic Mission District, women are being systemically murdered, their bodies mutilated and dumped on neighborhood doorsteps. Spell can find no connections in the case, no leads, and no way to stop the carnage.

Understaffed, desperate, and beleaguered by the press, the Lieutenant quickly assembles a rag-tag task force to take on the investigation. He recruits the station’s forensic psychologist, borrows an old friend and fellow investigator from a neighboring District, and convinces a young, inexperienced beat-cop to join his team. Unfortunately, they are no match for the careful, determined killer.

Over the next two months, the murders continue, with Spell’s investigators always a step behind. The serial killer becomes more brazen, more lethal, and begins sending cryptic, threatening letters to the press and Spell’s task force. In a stunning act of mayhem, he kidnaps the youngest member of the team, a woman who has an uncanny resemblance to the half dozen victims he has already claimed. Out of options and out of time, Spell formulates a plan to get her back and bring the killer down, but the price of the plan could cost the life of a second member of his team. Worse, Spell’s prey has already made a last, shocking plan of his own—one that none of his pursuers had considered.

In a final confrontation orchestrated by the serial killer, Spell’s world collapses when he learns the real motivation behind the murders and realizes that the means to put an end to the bloodshed has been within his grasp since the first day of the investigation.

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Introduction: The Millennium Murderer

As Americans, we have become accustomed to living in a society that is perennially reinventing itself, inherently complex, and sometimes extreme in its actions. In truth, there is nothing simple about America, despite the fact that we typically describe ourselves in rather prosaic and seemingly straightforward terms. If it was the intention of our founding fathers more than two centuries ago to establish a caldron of ceaseless change and diversity, history has proven the success of their experiment. Today, we are a nation of citizens who rush toward the future with blind optimism and unquestioned determination, and we have adapted ourselves to the expectations of success and the pain of failure that such a compulsion implies.

The benchmarks of our national achievements are impressive in their meaning and scope. Our attainments have dramatically impacted the lives of American citizens, particularly in the last few decades of the twentieth century. We have evolved into a society that is unparalleled in its ability to gather knowledge and exchange data about the minutest details of everyday life. Our institutions and traditions of education, entertainment, and free enterprise are well established, eminently successful, and envied by many other nations. Without question, America has achieved an overwhelmingly prominent role in world affairs, and deservedly so. Our grand experiment in democracy has, by any reasonable standard, proven to be inspired and workable.

However, our national accomplishments have also been costly and at times debilitating. On a global scale, we have incessantly demanded a position of world leadership and, in so doing, we have committed ourselves to sacrifice too many of our children to achieve this goal. On the national front, we have often overlooked entire segments of our society in our incessant drive for economic fulfillment and physical comfort. In many, perhaps most, American communities, we have learned to accept undercurrents of separatism, bigotry, economic inequality, poverty, and crime as co-partners in our drive to achieve and maintain the American Dream. Too often, we have learned to tolerate extremism as the price of progress, so long as its impact somehow comported with our grander vision of a perfect society. Sadly, too many of us have been left behind and forgotten in this rush toward the horizon.

As Americans, we place a high value on progress, forward movement, clear direction, meaningful achievement, and ultimate success. We are not an exceptionally thoughtful or profoundly introspective people. Rather, we richly reward innovation and evolution, competition and advancement. We have become accustomed to expect the exceptional of our society and ourselves. Often, in our efforts to satisfy this thirst for progress, we have turned away from each other and sacrificed the deep interpersonal connections that were a cornerstone of our early efforts at democracy. In essence, we have distanced ourselves from our fellow citizens as we have pushed the evolution of our society beyond even our own expectations. As we enter the new millennium, we have become fundamentally disconnected from each other, and this separatism has spawned new and ominous challenges to the health of our nation.

Despite our vastly powerful economic climate and information exchange capabilities, we have lost much of our ability to work together toward a common goal. Even worse, we have become tolerant and passively accepting of activities that threaten the essential fabric of our society because we have proven ourselves too willing to sacrifice the one for the many. We have pushed the evolutionary process of our society beyond its natural limits and, as a consequence, we have accrued both unexpected benefits and unforeseen challenges that have impacted our citizens in unanticipated and sometimes harmful ways.

One of the darkest byproducts of our fascination with progress and its resultant depersonalization of American society is the subject of this book—the Millennium Murderer. In the past two decades, he has risen unannounced and, until recently, has remained largely unrecognized. However, this criminal has now taken his place as the most vicious internal threat that our society has faced in the last years of the twentieth century. The Millennium Murderer, whose numbers are growing and whose horrific crimes are largely directed at victims unknown to him, has taken our nation by siege and threatens to redefine our understanding of this most violent of crimes. More troubling, this murderer thrives in America and benefits by our unwillingness to recognize his presence or the potentially disastrous impact he may have on future generations.

In recent years, many Americans have become somewhat familiar with the gruesome exploits of American serial killers, mass murderers, and most recently, young schoolyard killers who target strangers as their victims of choice. Ironically, the crimes of the Millennium Murderer have already become a foundation piece for large and profitable segments of our entertainment industry. However, the frightening exploits of this new breed of killer have not been recognized for what they represent—a deeply troubling shift in what it means to take the life of another in our society. In effect, the crime of murder has been redefined in the waning years of the twentieth century. Today, this most vicious of crimes is often committed by a fearsome and as yet unacknowledged perpetrator, who has quietly made significant inroads into our national experience.

Over the past few decades, we have experienced relentless and often unanticipated waves of evolution that have impacted our society on a broad front and our lives at a deeply personal level. This is the price of progress in America. However, in the case of the Millennium Murderer, we have inadvertently managed to create a new kind of monster in our midst, and he has now turned his wrath against his creator. Now is the time to recognize him for the real threat that he presents to our national health. Now is the time to come to an understanding of what his horrific actions mean to each of us, and to the next generation.

Who is the Millennium Murderer and why does he so often attack strangers with such profound vehemence and vicious determination? Why, in the last few years of the twentieth century, has he suddenly made his appearance, and what does this mean to each of us? Why is it that our country continues to spawn new and horrific criminals who turn upon our society with such unspeakable brutality? Most importantly, why does the strongest, most progressive nation on this planet continue to be victimized from within by its own population, and what can we do about it?

This is the story of the Millennium Murderer—a profile of America’s most recent and perhaps greatest threat to our future. Its final chapter has yet to be written, and its authors are us.

 

Excerpt: Side of the Road

Prologue

For Chris Spell and Sam McCannell, it had all come apart last January. For Spell, especially, it was all gone: career, friendship, the whole thing. For the others—Mary Boor, Sandy Janus, and Joe Mendoza—it had been a painful time, a horrible time. But that was the nature of the job and they were expected to get over it. Herbert William Jamieson, the Mission District Monster, was the only one who had come out a winner—or so it seemed. He had walked away from it all. He had gotten away with murder and that wasn’t the way things were supposed to work for the homicide team. Each of them knew that, even though they never discussed it openly.

For Spell, the news about his friend was even worse than the murders. Jamieson had utterly destroyed McCannell. He had left the San Francisco Police Department psychologist curled up on the sidewalk, catatonic and whimpering—buried so deeply within himself that he seemed more like a vegetable than a man. None of this was good for Spell’s head. None of it made any sense. The two men had been friends far too long for it to end this way. It didn’t matter to Spell that McCannell’s lies and secrets—and, yes, his incredibly bad blunders during the murder investigation—were at the root of his self-implosion. Friends rarely see things for what they are, and friends who happen to be cops almost never do. From Chris Spell’s point of view, Jamieson had claimed five victims, not four. To his way of thinking, the one victim who had survived Jamieson’s handiwork was in the worst shape of all.

It had all come apart in January and Spell couldn’t let it go. He didn’t want to let it go.

Just a month after Jamieson had disappeared from his Bernal Heights flat and McCannell had been unceremoniously shunted off to the state sanatorium in the valley, Spell resigned from the force. He said nothing to Captain Markley. His resignation letter was only one sentence long and he hadn’t even bothered to deliver it in person. There was no ceremony. He just handed over his Lieutenant’s shield, his weapon, and a set of keys to the Watch Commander and asked for them to be delivered to the Captain. He went straight back to his disheveled office, stuffed a few papers and two or three wrinkled photographs into an overused brown paper bag, took the phone off the hook, and walked away from the Mission District Station, just like Jamieson had done. That night, he went to Mary Boor’s house in the Bayview District and drank Valpolicella until his eyes crossed and he passed out dreamlessly on her couch. There was nothing else to do. There was no one else waiting for him.

Markley never bothered to call Spell. It was a simpler thing to just let the Lieutenant go. The Jamieson affair had left the Captain and the Homicide Division with a noticeable black eye and Spell had put himself in just the right posture for a fall guy. As soon as he received the resignation letter, Markley telephoned Jane Riordan at the San Francisco Call and told her the hot news about Spell. She had covered the Jamieson investigation and had been good to Spell in her articles. However, when Jamieson disappeared and left the Department with egg on its face, Riordan had jumped on them with both feet. Now, Spell had given the Captain a way to spin some good news out of the bad. Hell, it was the way things worked and the Captain wasn’t about to let the opportunity slip by. When he spoke with the reporter, Markley was tactful but managed to get his point across. Spell had fucked up and that was why Jamieson was loose. It was a simple, ugly story. However, Markley assured the reporter that his new Lieutenant would soon set things right.

After he called Jane Riordan, the Captain summoned Joe Mendoza to his office and told him to meet with his ex-boss and personally relay Markley’s best wishes:

Sorry to see you go . . . I understand . . . Great loss to the department . . .

When the two detectives met, Mendoza really couldn’t remember much about what Markley had said. For his part, Spell didn’t care anyway. That night they drank at Spell’s house, just the two of them, pretending to be closer friends than they were. However, for Chris, Mendoza was no replacement for McCannell. He was too tall, too good-looking, too preoccupied with sex, and, well . . . just too unpredictable.

For the first few months after he quit the SFPD, Spell would visit McCannell every other week. He would make the three-hour car trip on a Friday morning, working his way south, out of San Francisco, through the interminable chaos of the Peninsula and finally into the steamy, flat Central Valley. He would arrive at the state hospital by ten in the morning, when visiting hours officially began. Spell would sit on a flat, backless wooden bench in the stark white waiting room, watching the attendants shuffle by and grumbling under their breath. They never seemed to notice him waiting on the bench and he learned to hate them without even knowing their names. Spell would wait nervously and listen for his name to be called—sometimes for nearly an hour. Eventually, a speechless, sickly-looking attendant dressed in white would lead him down the chilly, endless, impersonal hallway to McCannell’s room.

Each time it was the same—or worse. On good days, McCannell would sit on his cot, hunched up against the mottled beige concrete blocks of his meager, perfectly square chamber. His knees would be pulled tightly up to his chest and his arms twisted uncomfortably around his shins. The Red Man never looked at his old friend. In fact, his eyes never seemed to move at all. They just stared down at his thickly socked feet, unfocused and unseeing. From time to time, a sharp shudder would race through McCannell’s once pudgy arms and legs, rippling them in quick spasms—shocks emanating from somewhere inside his tortured soul. Still, his eyes would never move, even when the rest of his body trembled uncontrollably. The whole scene sickened Spell and reminded him of the one fear that he had never been able to shake: having to look into the faces of all those murder victims. Sometimes their eyes would be open, unseeing and unfocused—just like McCannell’s were now.

On the bad days, Spell would find his friend tightly buckled down to his meager cot with fat, white leather arm and leg restraints, his body rigid and racked with the same tremors. On these days, the shaking was more intense and more frequent. Still, McCannell’s eyes never moved and he never spoke a word. In all those long, depressing trips, Spell never heard a sound from his old friend, and their eyes never met.

By the end of summer, Spell hadn’t seen McCannell in three months. There was no point. He forced himself to not think about it anymore. In his mind, he repainted and rearranged the Red Man’s face with dozens of others he had met, blotting out what McCannell had looked like when he was truly alive. He had forgotten the singsong play of McCannell’s teasing voice and the aura of fattened redness that began at his friend’s crown and seemed to permeate his entire frame. Spell had relegated his old friend to the dead and made him just another one of Jamieson’s easily forgotten victims. He had built his belief carefully and tenaciously and, for the most part, it worked, except very late at night.

After he quit the Department, Mary Boor had taken Spell’s old job and his old office. She held the Homicide Division Lieutenant’s shield now, and his small cadre of detectives had become her flock. True to her nature, Mary had made immediate changes. The aging, cluttered office had taken on a more austere, streamlined façade. For Boor, there would be no junk, no waste, and nothing without a point. Everything would be straight ahead, just like the new Lieutenant herself. These were good changes, and Spell approved. Next to McCannell, Mary was his oldest and most trusted friend. He was genuinely happy for her and he told her so. From time to time, when she worked her way free of the Station for an evening, he would even show her that he cared.

The Jamieson investigation had made heroes and villains out of nobodies, like most sensational murder cases do. Sandy Janus had made her mark during the affair by confronting the murderer in his lair. Now she reaped the reward. Janus was made a full-fledged detective, free of the droll life of a beat cop that she had so desperately wanted to shed. Of them all, Sandy had been the biggest surprise to Spell. Barely an adult—or so it seemed to him—she had been the only one to directly deal with Jamieson and get out intact. Only she had rubbed up against the real horror of what he had done. That encounter had not only made her career, it had changed her for the better. To Spell, she seemed to instantly grow older and wiser. After Jamieson had disappeared, Sandy took on a pleasant seasoning that was well beyond her years. Almost unnoticed by everyone at first, an aging but graceful soul made its presence known from inside the nearly pristine body of a woman only in her twenties. Spell found it alluring and secretly envied Mendoza’s ability to get into her pants at will.

It was a bizarre twist, Spell thought. McCannell had become a vegetable and Janus a heroine. Strange and unfair, he thought. Spell hadn’t seen Sandy as clearly as he should have, or even his old friend McCannell for that matter. Only Mary had seen it all accurately, and he hadn’t listened carefully enough to her advice. Stupid, senseless, twisted history.

For his part, Mendoza still spent his free time chasing Sandy around his bedroom—or hers. They seemed to genuinely care for each other, although Spell could never bring himself to understand the attraction. Sure, there was the physical thing. They were a matched set of bookends, straight from a glossy, six-dollar magazine cover with their good looks and perfect bodies. Still, it seemed like there should have been something more for a woman like Janus. Mendoza was a solid, intelligent cop but, off the job, he was strictly ruled by his penis. She had much more going for her than that, or so it seemed to her old boss.

They had been a tight group, his team of detectives, and he missed each of them. They had been friends from the start, made close by the mayhem and horror they shared each day. Now that Mary was ruling the roost, the Homicide Division seemed to settle down and even out. There wasn’t much talk about Jamieson or McCannell anymore. Spell was rarely a topic in the Division. Mary had brought more focus to the team—a stronger emphasis on organization—and it showed almost immediately. Things were settling into a new routine at the Mission District Station and memories were beginning to fade.

However, for Chris Spell, not much was right with the world, despite Mary’s success, Sandy’s unexpected promotion, and the passing of time. McCannell was worse than dead and Spell was out of the mix forever. Now, the Lieutenant was nothing more than a forgotten, tainted ex-cop with no reason to get up in the morning. He was bored, alone, often depressed, and angry more days than not. Jamieson had walked away from it all and even the indefatigable Mary had admitted more than once that there was nothing left to chase in the case. Joe and Sandy fucked their brains out when they weren’t working, and that should have made things somewhat right with the world. Still, it didn’t help Spell. Nothing did.

To this displaced, middle-aged man, everyone he knew and cared about seemed to be acting very strangely. They all seemed to be waiting by the side of the road—waiting for something they couldn’t recognize or that may have already passed them by. There were days when all his friends seemed like they had quietly slipped into the same frigid abyss that imprisoned McCannell. The only difference was that they managed to crawl back out again the next morning. The Red Man never did.

To make things worse, Jamieson had walked away from it all, and that was making Chris Spell crazier by the day.

Excerpt: Deal Me Dead

Big game or small. Penny bingo, dollar chess in the park, or high-stakes poker. In the end, it’s all the same. Everything comes down to connections. If you can see the connections—really see them—you’re in the game, you’re a player. Miss them and you’re out, you lose. Life is all about connections. So is death. So is everything in between. You either see the connections or you don’t. You win, or you lose.

I retired from the Bureau on my fifty-first birthday because I knew I was losing the game. Somewhere along the way, I stopped looking for connections. All I could see ahead of me was more bodies—disconnected, dead bodies. I didn’t even know who was dealing the cards, or why. My life had come loose. But, that was two years ago—a lifetime ago from today. I’m getting reconnected now, somewhat. I have a pretty good idea who’s dealing my hand these days. I’m feeling better about things.

This worn out joke of a bookstore grounds me. Keeps me safe. Gives me a reliable connection. The beauty of owning a business that does no business is time. Lots of time. That’s a new kind of connection for me—one I can depend on, no matter what comes along. Ground Zero. Home. Cheap game.

Cody’s a connection. He’s a teacher, too. Tough duty for a three-year-old Jack Russel terrier whose view of the world is always ankle-high. Still, he’s a true wizard. He’s the Master of the Shelves, nearly empty as they are. In Cody’s world, all connections are known. Everything is understood. What’s obscure for me—for the rest of the world—is obvious to him. Smell answers a lot of his questions, sounds tell stories, sight isn’t something that blinds him or cheats his sense of purpose. Everything is connected, unquestioned in his mind. Master of the Shelves, master connector, my friend.

Then, there’s Alexis Mandell. We’re connected. Out on Kentucky Street, out there beyond my crusty windows and stale, secondhand books, folks would say we’re partners—a kind of nondescript association that specializes in chasing down killers. Truth is, the connection is not that complex, not that deliberate. Japanese food, Valpolicella, long talks that start around midnight, scratching Cody’s ears when things go quiet. It’s really a simple situation. We’re friends. That’s the connection. It didn’t matter that the Kiraa Killer case brought us together, dealt us into the game at the same time, made us an “item” around town, and beyond. We would have found each other anyway—some way. That’s how the best connections happen. My only beef is that she’s a lawyer. But, I can overlook it. I’m sure she has a lot more to complain about when I cross her mind.

This town’s a connection. Petaluma. I’m comfortable here, somewhat. It’s a workable place, warm in the summer, tolerable in the rainy season. In some ways, it’s an old, faded picture postcard, still surrounded by sprawling cattle and chicken ranches, still sexy in a neo-Victorian way on the West side. Too bad the place is so boxy and beige across the river, out on the East side. The flatlands over there have been gobbled up by too many houses snuggled up against each other, all with too few colors and too much noise. The bright side of the situation is that the few remaining ranchers who hang on to their rolling Eastside land take their revenge during the hot months. They spray their open fields with watered-down cow poop two or three times a week, knowing that the predictable afternoon breezes will waft the stench right down on top of all those boxy, beige palaces. Farmer’s revenge. I see a connection here, and it makes me smile. Even better, it doesn’t stink on my side of town.

Still, this is a pleasant enough environment, even across the river. Nameless faces smile at you on the Boulevard, just the way they did thirty or forty years ago. Folks stroll across Walnut Park on warm Sunday afternoons. Lovers still hold hands in public, including the old ones, like me. There are lots of good places to eat. Not too expensive, either. Petaluma even has a real bookstore just two blocks north of my place, so I’ll never be accused of stealing business. It’s a guiltless life, and I like that. Here, at least, things don’t seem as disconnected as they do in the rest of California. I’ll call Petaluma home, for now. Besides, it’s Cody’s birthplace—his very first connection—and that means something to me.

Here’s one more to think about: those connections that everyone seems to miss. The ones that slither under every nose, slide by every eye, silently, sometimes deadly. These are my favorite connections. These are what I live for.

That’s what’s on my mind today.

* * *

I have a habit of not opening my mail. No reason to. If it’s important enough, it’ll come around again next month, then the month after, each time with a bigger, noisier headline on the envelope. Whatever it is, it can wait. It’s one of my habits that drives Alexis up the walls. There are others.

She’s over here a few times a week, feeding Cody something Japanese and yammering away at me about all kinds of things. Between sips of Valpolicella, she’ll usually wander through my mail, tossing away the junk and berating me for ignoring the bills. It’s become a tradition for both of us. Usually, it’s routine. Sometimes it’s not. This time, it was a shocker.

* * *

She sat across the old mahogany table at the back of the bookstore and went white staring at the envelope. On its face were three lines of hand printing. Childlike, straight up-and-down, oversized and irregular. Addressed to me, but no return address. Just three initials in the upper left-hand corner: “AAM.” Postmarked from San Francisco a few days ago.

“Oh . . .” she groaned, turning the envelope over in her hands, carefully studying both the front and back. “Oh . . .” she repeated.

I set my glass down and pulled my bulk closer to the table. “What?” I asked her.

She just rolled her head back and forth and gawked at the face of the envelope.

“Jesus,” I grumbled. “What’s the deal, Alexis? What?” I pressed.

She dipped her head and ran her left hand through a tangle of thick, black hair, brushing it away from her face. “I know this writing, Emmet,” she said, pushing the envelope across the table in my direction. “I’d know that scrawl anywhere. I know those initials. They’re the same as mine.”

I picked it up and stared at the printing. “Looks like a twelve-year-old wrote it,” I mumbled. “Besides that, no one I know calls me ‘Dr. Troop.’” I shoved the envelope back across the table, unopened. “Whose writing is it?” I asked.

“My father’s . . .” she whispered. “Anyway . . . it sure looks like his. No . . . I’m sure it’s his. Those are his initials, too.”

She rested her left hand on the table, close to the envelope, and looked up at me, her chin cupped in her right palm. Something was wrong—very wrong. She was giving me all the signals. Alexis wasn’t one to talk about herself, and never about her past. True, she could chatter up a mean streak on just about any subject, but never anything really personal. That had always been fine with me. But, tonight, that rule went right out the window. Something was wrong. Very wrong.

“You want me to open it, Alexis?” I asked as quietly as I could. “You want me to do it?”

She nodded and offered me a tight, tiny smile. The vulnerability was all there, right out in the open. Her usual uptown, tan and chocolate brown, precisely tailored suits—her assured, almost cocky posturing—her nice leather briefcase, jammed with all kinds of seemingly important papers . . . all the trappings, all the lawyer stuff, all that poise. Behind it all, she was frightened. Really, deeply frightened. I’d seen it before, that look. It was all there tonight, across my table, close enough to reach out and touch. There was a child hidden down there, trapped, scraping at the sides of a bottomless, vertical tunnel—the one that she usually kept away from everyone’s sight. Tonight, it was a gaping hole. Tonight, she was naked, and frightened.

Abandoning my usual indifference to things in envelopes, I carefully slipped the edge of my pinky under a loose end of the flap and teased it open. Turning it upside-down, I jiggled its contents loose. Two newspaper clippings slid onto the table, one fresh, the other frayed, more yellow than white, and obviously older. I moved the envelope closer to my eyes and inspected the inside. There was nothing else to be found. Just those clippings.

“Strange,” I muttered, reaching for them.

I was too late. Alexis grabbed both with her left hand and snatched them away from where they had fallen. She picked them up, noisily shoved her chair away from the table, and began to read. Her usual open, at-the-ready expression was dark and confused. For several moments she read the words, barely moving her lips, her hands trembling slightly, that same worried expression frozen on her face. Finally, she finished, and set them down between us. I wasted no time in getting my turn with them.

“I have no idea what it’s all about . . .” she said softly, hunching up her shoulders. “No note, right, Troop? Nothing else in the envelope?”

“Nah . . .” I answered, finishing up with the second clipping. “Just these two . . .”

“It’s still from him,” she interrupted. “That’s his writing on the outside,” she said, her pitch growing higher with every word. “That’s him. Goddamnit! Those are his initials, Troop!”

* * *

There they were—the pieces—the first few shavings of a bigger puzzle, staring me in the face. Just the hint of some kind of a connection looking back at me, laughing at me, taunting me. Alexis, her father, two short clippings from the San Francisco Chronicle, two dead men, each murdered years apart. Not much in the way of an opening hand, but a hell of a teaser for an old fart like me. Besides that, my friend was obviously hurting. Something was going on across the table, and I didn’t like the feel of it. Whatever it was, I couldn’t let Alexis just drift along on her own. This was one connection in my life that would never be broken.

I could tell by Cody’s squinting stare and taught lips as he circled around her chair, staring up at her, worried. He had already made up his mind. This was something we’d have to look into. This was not a piece of mail we could ignore.

 

Introduction: Three Times Dead

Habits. Rituals. They slither through your life, noiselessly, unseen, endlessly. They silently redefine you, subtly change your course, reshape who you think you are. They take you away from yourself, lead you to some vague, unexpected landscape. Sometimes, they leave you wandering alone, uncertain, unable to recognize the path home. At others, they steal your soul and then abandon you, giving you up to an uncaring, indifferent, purposeless existence.

They can even kill you, so easily and secretly.

Chasing habits has been my life—following the slithering snake’s trail, wherever it would lead me. It’s been my life, and my curse. For too many years, I would doggedly sniff along the ground, only occasionally looking upward, always searching for that far horizon, trying to hunt down the last obstacle to clarity, to throw open the sanctuary in which the darkest, most violent men sought refuge. To find a killer you must consume his habits and drink deeply of his rituals. You have no choice. You must breathe his air, rub your face in the dank slick that trails behind his evil, and be forever on the lookout for the mark of the slithering snake. Worse than this, you must adopt his very soul, make it your own, breed his secret intentions in your heart, nourish his evil, care for him, love him, hate him, fear him, and somehow stop him. Then, in the ultimate moment, when you finally stand at that awful horizon for the first time and see what has been done—and why—you must instantly abandon him, absolutely and forever.

After a time living this way, there comes a quick end to it all. The will is drained away to nothing, without warning. The drive of the hunt is lost along the way. It all becomes too difficult, too unbelievable, too painful to continue. In the end, you must make a choice—to live or die, with your rituals or his, on your terms or his.

Habits make you vulnerable. Rituals make you predictable. In the end, it’s all the same. They both lay you open to approach from the outside. They destroy your invisibility and make you the prey. They can kill you, or make you kill, or both. That’s why I quit the Bureau three years ago. Too many bodies had been piled outside my door. There were too many places for the killers to hide, and no place left for me to run. All I could do was throw off my badge, toss away my weapon, and get the hell out of the game, forever.

Back then, all I wanted from life was to excise the perennial ache from my back, stand straight for a time and see nothing evil on the far horizon. For that brief, wonderful moment, there would be no dark places. No more bodies. The only habits in sight would be my own, and my rituals would remain safely unrecognized, undiagnosed, and meaningless for the rest of my days.

Like most decisions in life, this one proved to be mundane when its time finally came. Obvious, in fact. I had probably given it too much thought over too many years. The decision came easily, in the form of a forgotten, narrow, bankrupt bookstore one block off the Boulevard. From the first, I knew that this place had no hidden horizons, no secret, lurking shadows—and no business to interrupt my life. It was, in every way, perfect for me, except for one detail. It was soulless.

Plants have no conscience, I presume. Maybe they have consciousness. I don’t know. I deal in habits, and they are mostly a human foible. My personal landscape is unfettered by metaphysics, although it’s certainly cluttered with other, more ominous things. In the end, this was another simple problem, given some time to think it through. My bookstore needed soul, and I needed something to keep my sanity intact. This choice was another easy one.

I adopted an abandoned Jack Russell terrier one month after I opened the doors to my new business. He was just two years old when he found himself a ward of the shelter—and on the short list to die. True to his breed, this fellow was exceptionally bright—a big dog in a little dog’s body—and for the most part, uncontrollable. Still, like the bookstore itself, he was ideal—a creature whose habits were wholly superficial but whose real motivations were perfectly hidden within himself.

I named him Commander Cody, but I don’t know why. It just seemed to fit. Without any celebration beyond my customary bottle of Valpolicella, I appointed him Master of the Shelves, which were mostly empty anyway. He took to the job with absolute enthusiasm, spending his hours roaming the tall, dusky racks, sniffing out the occasional unlucky mouse, or barking at shadows that only he could see. Thanks to Cody, my business now had a real soul, and I had a companion. Even better, our existence was rarely intruded upon by anyone from the outside world. We were, in every way, at home.

Cody had special talents. He was quick to learn my habits. Even those I tried very hard to hide from him. He was relentless in searching out those vague, amorphous horizons that I had long tried to forget. In fact, Cody was much better as his job than I had ever been at mine. He was a true magician at reshaping my rituals and redefining them into something that he could use for his own purposes. Twenty plus years of chasing killers and I could never accomplish that goal on my own. In the end, I couldn’t even distinguish their nefarious, soulless habits from my own. Cody did much better. He had that skill down pat within the first month of his arrival.

Now, in the late spring, Cody senses that the time has come. This special moment has evolved from a simple habit into a tradition, and he seems to understand the difference. Some would call it a ritual, but that would be giving it more than its due. This is the time of the year when the sun swings south, finally breaking the bonds of the endless cold, gray rain from the coast. Its life is much longer these days, its warmth more comforting and easy. This is when I move the maroon, overstuffed chair from its usual place against the west wall, hidden back among the empty shelves. I drag it across the battered hardwood floor, black with age and forgotten traffic, and push it close to the dingy front window. I carefully align it, facing northwest, its back to the glass to receive those rare, pleasant, late-day rays. This is when Cody pays strict attention, when he recognizes his own awakening interest in that old chair—a piece of junk that never even catches his eye throughout the winter months.

Now, with the big move, Cody positions himself directly in front of the overstuffed wreck. His eyes grow small and intense as he fixes them on its tattered cushion. He is waiting, stalking, considering the meaning of what is to come. Cody is patient. He sits motionless by the chair, sometimes for long minutes, until I move near to it and finally slump into its worn arms. I slide around a bit and try to settle my aches, working my way into that perfect position to feel the warm, filtered sun on the back of my head. Still, Cody waits, watches, assesses my movements. Then, it’s time. Without a sound, he leaps upward, as gentle as the lightest breeze, and settles into my lap. This is all accomplished is a single, determined motion that has become his own, deeply personal ritual. In just a moment he will be asleep, protected, satisfied, clear in his mind that he has done well. For Cody, there is nothing but bliss on the far horizon. The landscape ahead is clear and free and without worry. Behind him there are no lasting memories.

It is I who will stay unsettled, no matter how pleasant the afternoon. I am vulnerable in that window, rippled and cloudy as it is. I am unprotected from the outside world, open to their scrutiny, undefended against their will. Worse, I am uncertain about the shadows that seem to constantly pass behind me, driven along the quiet street by something unrecognizable and uncertain. Cody doesn’t notice these comings and goings. Perhaps he doesn’t care. He senses nothing untoward on the street beyond my window. But I wonder about those shadows, turning their images over in my mind until I finally doze, worrying that they are the secret souls that have been stolen away too soon, too cruelly—the wispy remnants of what little is left of life when the killer finally flaunts his upper hand.

Introduction: Dead for No Reason

Anyways, my birthday’s coming up soon and then I’ll be 15 yrs old. I’m growing up way too fast and soon I’ll be dead. (Valessa Robinson writing in her journal on March 21, 1998, three months before the murder of her mother.)

No one has ever argued that Vicki Lyn Robinson’s murder was anything but utterly senseless, unthinkably brutal. No one would dare think it. Not those who were there as she died, in her own home. Not those who could have saved her life in those last chaotic moments, but didn’t.

Not even those who killed her.

* * *

The bailiff ushered Jon Whispel out of his windowless holding cell on the third floor of the Hillsborough County Courthouse Annex into Circuit Judge J. Rogers Padgett’s packed courtroom. It was the fourth day of Valessa Robinson’s first-degree murder trial in the death of her mother, Vicki Robinson — the day that both the prosecution and defense teams knew would be crucial to their cases. Everything depended on the State of Florida’s star witness. It all came down to his credibility with the jury, and each side knew it well. Each side had spent months in preparation for this day.

Whispel took the oath, sat down, and began to shuffle around in his chair, rotating his shoulders underneath the blue prison jacket that covered his orange jumpsuit. His eyes darted across the back of the courtroom, flashing over the crowd of spectators, seeing none of them. But they were all fixed on him and he sensed it, dreaded it. They all knew that what he had to say could make all the difference in the world for Valessa Robinson, just as it had for Adam Davis.

Jon didn’t bother to look over at the defense table where Valessa and her attorneys sat, staring up at him, waiting for direct to begin. He didn’t look at Judge Padgett above and next to him, not even a glance. He just glowered straight ahead and a bit downward, waiting. Waiting for her voice to offer him the first question.

Pam Bondi, the prosecutor, stood behind the lectern in a muted, tasteful suit, her blond hair pulled neatly back into a full pony tail, her notes at the ready. She was the consummate professional, obviously comfortable in the courtroom, assured, always prepared.

Now, finally, after two frustrating delays in setting Valessa’s trial date, it was time for the show to begin. It was time to hear from the man who claimed to know everything about how Vicki Robinson had been murdered.

After briefly going over the deal that Whispel had made with State prosecutors, Bondi got right to the point. She wanted the jury to hear for themselves what happened on June 27, 1998, to hear from the man who had allegedly witnessed the crime firsthand. Who was involved? What was his role in this brutal crime? Who struck the fatal blow? Why?

Whispel told his story, cool and even for the most part, a bit edgy here and there. He pointed to diagrams of the Robinson house that Bondi had set up to help the jury understand the crime scene, put two fingers to his neck to show where Vicki had been stabbed, held his head in his hands once or twice. It was a story that nearly, but not exactly, matched the one he had told at his best friend’s trial less than 6 months earlier. Now, that friend, Adam Davis, was facing the death penalty, convicted of murdering Vicki Robinson by choking her, stabbing her in the neck with a syringe filled with bleach, and finally stabbing her again in the neck with his knife when she refused to die.

It was Whispel who had been the star witness back then, and it was his turn to do it all over again, to help the jury relive that horrific night, this time at Vicki’s daughter’s trial. It was part of the deal that he had made with prosecutors and now it was time to pay up. Spare his life, take the 25 years in prison, testify against the two best friends he had in the world, do what he had to do. That’s what was on Whispel’s mind.

In fact, Jon had run out of options long ago, even before the night of Vicki’s murder. Since then, the months in jail awaiting the trials and serving out the beginning of his sentence had taken their toll, physically and mentally. Today, he was pale and just recovering from a bout of anxiety so debilitating that his hair had fallen out by the handful. He had lost weight and moved more stiffly now than he had a year ago. The tan smile, lean, easy gait and air of cockiness that he had carried with him when he prowled the Tampa area with Adam Davis, and later Valessa Robinson, had vanished. To make it all worse, he had little left to look forward to for the next two decades.

Still, he did what he had promised he would do. He talked. He had no option.

Whispel’s testimony dragged on through a second day. Direct, cross, a short redirect. It was strong stuff, words and images thrown out to a silent courtroom and a transfixed jury. Bespectacled, gaunt, and obviously more nervous on the second day than the first, Whispel was sometimes testy with Dee Ann Athan, Valessa’s defense attorney. Yet, he survived the ordeal, for the most part.

Jon Whispel wasn’t the strongest suit in the deck. In the end, the jury wouldn’t buy his story, at least not altogether. They would only accept what they needed in order to come up with a compromise verdict that they thought they could all live with. The rest they would throw out. Jon wouldn’t make all the difference, but he would make some. In the end, neither the prosecution nor the defense would be happy with what he had to say. Many in the Tampa area would rage about the outcome of the trial; others would shake their heads and wonder how it had all gone so wrong. Whispel would wait out his sentence, his job finished.

The year previous to Valessa’s trial, Whispel had told a different story than he did in court, just different enough to make him an unreliable witness. Still, he had never been a reliable guy when it came to setting a direction for his own life, so this wasn’t out of character. His story, like Vicki Robinson’s, her daughter’s, and her convicted killer’s, Adam Davis, was dark and doomed. He witnessed Vicki’s death, he said. That was for sure.

Or, he didn’t, he said. It depended on when you asked him. It depended on who laid out the question.

Adam had killed Vicki alone, he said.

No, Valessa had also done her share in the horrible attack on her mother, he said.

It depended on who was asking. It depended on . . .

In fact, Jon was all over the map on some points, consistent in others, and always out of options. It was the story of his life. This day in court, when it really counted, there would be no exception to the Whispel way.

* * *

A year before Valessa’s trial, Prosecutor Shirley Williams had taken Jon Whispel’s statement. Like Pam Bondi, she wanted to know what had happened on the night of June 27, 1998. She had a deal for Whispel, she said. A deal that he just couldn’t refuse. So, he was more than willing to talk. The choice was simple enough since the charge against him was first-degree murder. Whispel talked about that horrific night, and much more:

“While we was at Denny’s,” he said, “Adam seen this waitress that he knew that works there and talked to her about, you know, getting Ecstasy and everything. And she said, well, her boyfriend could probably get it, but she has to wait for him to get there.”

“So, we waited there, smoking cigarettes, talking and whatnot. And her boyfriend pulls up, and . . . you know, he’s like, ‘Well, let me make a phone call.’ Talks – talks to him and says, ‘I can’t get Ecstasy, but I can get you some liquid acid on sugar cubes.’”

“And we’re like, ‘All right.’ You know, ‘We’ll do it.’”

It was about then that Valessa pulled up to Denny’s, riding her bike. She was less than 3 months past her 15th birthday. Jon and Adam were both 19. Both had criminal records, although Davis was clearly the heavy player of the duo.

The three went to the dealer’s house, bought the acid, dropped it, and headed back to Denny’s. Jon ordered food and orange juice. The juice was supposed to enhance the high from the LSD. It was a ritual that all three had taken part in before this night. It was nothing new, even to Valessa.

According to Jon, the conversation soon took a lethal turn.

“And then, you know, the food comes, orange juice comes,” he told Shirley Williams. “And then, you know, we’re talking and drinking. And then, you know, Valessa smiles, you know, jumped up and down and is like, ‘Let’s kill my mom.’ And Adam’s like, ‘What?’

“You, know, Valessa’s like, ‘Let’s kill my mom.’ And he’s like, ‘Okay.’”

It was that simple, according to Jon. No problem. Just an ordinary conversation about murder during a routine LSD trip. Later, he would claim that he didn’t believe it would ever happen. It was all just nonsense, he would say. It was the drugs talking. But, within a few hours, it did happen, and it was horrific.

Jon was there, body and soul.

Later, Whispel would change his story. When he would testify in court, there would be a few paths not yet taken, a few twists not foreseen. Small but significant changes. Just enough to make everyone a little uncertain.

For now, though, Williams wanted to know every detail. How about the murder? How did that go down? Who was involved?

Whispel told her that the three returned to Vicki Robinson’s house and went to Valessa’s bedroom. They wanted to “trip out” on her black light, hang out, listen to music. When they arrived, Vicki was in her bedroom, apparently asleep.

It didn’t last long, though. They had made too much noise:

“About a minute later, you know, Vicki comes knocking at the door and says, ‘Valessa.’” Nobody said anything or moved or opened the door or nothing, so she knocked again and said, ‘Valessa.’”

“Adam opened the door and, you know, she – she’s like, ‘Well, what are you two still doing here? I thought y’all left . . .’ And she was like, ‘Valessa, get your sleeping bag now.’ Vicki wants her daughter to sleep in her own bedroom in the sleeping bag and be away from Adam and Jon.

‘So nobody moved, and then she said, ‘Valessa now!’ So Adam went to grab the sleeping bag and give it to her.”

“And then Vicki turned around and walked into the kitchen, and Adam followed – followed her, at which point I – we heard whispered voices. We couldn’t understand what was being said, but we heard whispered voices.”

Then, sounds like someone gasping for air.

The prosecutor pressed him for even more, and Jon was willing to oblige. He had everything to lose if he didn’t:

“So me and Valessa, we run out into the kitchen.” According to Whispel, Adam now had Vicki in a chokehold, strangling her. She was gasping for air.

“And Valessa’s like, ‘What do we do?’”

“He’s [Adam] like, ‘Give me the syringe!’ So me and – Valessa , we turned around, go back into the room and knelt down on the floor, you know, acting like I was looking for the syringe and everything, I said, ‘I can’t find it.’” Earlier, Adam had planned to buy heroin and inject Vicki to “put her to sleep.” He was never able to purchase the heroin and decided that household bleach would do just as well.

“Valessa [was] all afraid, and she’s screaming, ‘I can’t find the syringe, Adam! I can’t find the syringe!’ I looked out the door, and I seen – I seen Adam and Vicki in front of the door but in the kitchen area but by – by right next to the cabinets where the sink is.”

Jon went on, and on. How Valessa went to the kitchen to help subdue her mother by sitting on her legs. How the syringe reappeared. How Adam slammed the syringe filled with bleach into Vicki’s neck. How Adam screamed, “It’s not working! It’s not working!” How Jon turned away from the kitchen, ran into Valessa’s bedroom, grabbed a knife and handed it to Adam saying, “Here. Use this.” How Adam raised the knife and plunged it into Vicki’s neck.

How they stood there and watched her die.

And, it was done. Valessa’s mom was gone, her carotid artery and jugular vein severed.

Jon and Adam cleaned up the kitchen, the house, themselves. They stuffed Vicki’s body into a garbage can from her basement, took her down a dirt road, abandoned her. With Valessa’s help, they went on to steal her minivan, rob her account, use her money to buy drugs and tattoos, flee the state, and end up finally being arrested in a wild chase and shootout down a Texas highway. They were tracked by investigators the whole way, leaving a trail of ATM transactions and ATM videotapes showing Adam Davis making withdrawals, with Vicki’s minivan in the background of each frame.

And that was how it had happened, Jon said. That was the witness for the prosecution months before he sat next to Judge Padgett at Valessa’s trial. That was the truth and the whole truth, he swore.

It should have been that simple, but it wasn’t.

Jon had earlier told investigating officers that he had not even seen Vicki murdered, that he had been lying on Valessa’s bed with Valessa when Adam killed her mother in the kitchen, alone.

Later, he changed his story.

Valessa had told her arresting officers that she had murdered her mother by stabbing her in the throat, stabbing her twice in the back, all while holding her down. She had done it all alone. Her lover, Adam, was innocent of the crime, she calimed. Amazing and unbelievable to all who even remotely knew the details of the murder. Somehow, Valessa had committed this horrific crime all by herself, at 5’2” tall and weighing 115 pounds, while her two male companions just waited for the outcome in her bedroom. Somehow, she had managed to subdue her mother and stab her to death, while her friends sat around tripping out on the black light only a room away, oblivious of the death struggle. It was a story with no hint of believability.

Most of the investigators in the case believed that she was just protecting her lover, Adam Davis. How could anyone believe anything else? But, Jon disagreed.

For his part, Davis initially told investigators that all three had killed Vicki. It was a combined effort, a conspiracy, and they all took part. They were all guilty and should all be treated equally in the eyes of the law, he claimed.

Then, Adam Davis also changed his story.

Suddenly, it was Valessa who had done it all. Suddenly, he was not even in the room at the fatal moment. It was not a persuasive change of story. In the end, it combined with his earlier confession and Jon Whispel’s testimony to earn him the death penalty.

And Valessa? Yes, she changed her story, too. She hadn’t killed her mother, she finally said. Her ex-lover, Adam Davis, had been Vicki’s murderer. She would never have killed her mother. That was the truth and the whole truth.

The dancing and weaving of stories, the frightened young girl, the two adolescent males, one with a hefty record, the other following in his footsteps, all combined to create confusion, uncertainty, and outrage. Much of that outrage still lingers, much of the uncertainty still enshrouds Vicki’s memory. All of the despair, the desperation, and the sense of cruelty of the crime continues as strong today as it did in 1998.

Still, there is one certain fact that remains – the one that will always rise above the doubts. Vicki Lyn Robinson, a woman loved by everyone who knew her — including the daughter who many believe murdered her — is dead for no reason.