The homeless man’s murder had been ritualistic, brutal, and efficient.
Megan Elliott swatted flies that swarmed near the body next to the Dumpster as she squatted beside the victim. It was midmorning and the temperature was already eighty degrees. The bullet had gone in clean, execution style, behind the ear. All signs suggested that he’d been killed right here, in a narrow alley separating a parking garage from the historic Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament.
There didn’t appear to be signs of struggle, but here in the decrepit underside of Sacramento, that was difficult to determine. While the city did a fairly good job at keeping most of the streets clean, on the north side of downtown, away from the Capitol building and closer to the soup kitchen, the grime and unwanted bred. Here, homeless weeded through the garbage off K Street for something edible when the city rolled up the sidewalks; or they slept against brick walls, clutching their meager possessions in a desperate grip.
No sign of struggle, and based on the lack of blood spatter, the victim had been prone when shot at close range. But he had the same outward injuries as the other two known victims. His hamstrings had been cut clean through, incapacitating him. His wrists had been duct-taped to something, as evidenced from the chafing and band of missing arm hair. And he was barefoot.
“What are you thinking?”
Megan stood and, though she was five foot eight, she had to look up at Detective John Black, who had to be close to six and a half feet tall.
“All the appearances of an execution, but you’re absolutely right. The M.O. matches the murders on the recent FBI hot sheet.” And to maintain good relations with local law enforcement, she added, “You were right on the money there. Thanks.”
“His hamstrings weren’t cut here. Not enough blood. No spray or cast-off.”
Megan glanced around, but there was no blood on the brick wall or in the alleyway. Where had he been attacked?
Without touching the filthily clad victim, she inspected the deep gash in the back of his legs. She mim?icked a slicing motion with her hand and then said, “I’ll need the coroner’s report, but it appears that the killer sliced right to left, cutting both legs with an even, fluid motion.” She stood and said, “Turn around.”
Black did, looking over his shoulder. She said, “You’re much taller than the victim. If the victim was walking, the killer would have had to have walked up behind him and—slice—cut the hamstrings.” She mim-icked the motion against the back of Black’s knees. “It’s the only thing that makes sense. If the vic was lying down, why would the killer slice his legs across?”
“It would help if we could locate where he was attacked.”
Megan agreed. “If the vic went down on his knees, that should be obvious at the autopsy with bruising or evidence on his pants. But why shoot him here? Why did the killer move him at all after the inital attack?”
Wearing latex gloves and plastic booties over her shoes, an attractive, well-dressed woman who may have been thirty on her last birthday approached. “Nice theory, but maybe you should wait for crime scene analysis.”
Black’s lips twitched. “Simone, FBI Supervisory Agent Megan Elliott. Agent Elliott, Simone Charles, CSU Supervisor.”
Megan nodded. She’d worked with the prickly perfectionist before. “We’ve met. So, what does the evidence show, Simone?”
“My team just came off a triple murder in the Pocket. Sorry for being late.” She didn’t sound sorry, but Megan noticed the red eyes and tight expression. She’d heard about the murder-suicide before she’d left FBI headquarters. A man came home early in the morning, drunk, and shot his wife and two kids while they slept, then blew his own brains out.
“You’re not late,” Megan said.
Simone motioned for one of her team to photograph the scene and the body. “I’ll walk the area and be right back. You have a wide perimeter,” she noted to Detective Black. “Any reason?”
“To keep the vultures at bay.” He nodded toward the KCRA-3 van parked at the edge of the crime scene tape.
She grinned and walked away, dropping markers at specific spots.
Black said, “So was he killed here or not?”
Megan clarified. “He was definitely shot right here, small-caliber handgun is my guess, twenty-two caliber, behind the left ear. A twenty-two is very effective at close range.”
Megan had seen far too many execution-style murder victims when she was part of the national Evidence Response Team that went to Kosovo ten years ago. Which led to the question of why disable the victim first if only to shoot him?
If the evidence held true compared with the first two known victims, Megan already had the answer: between the time the victim’s hamstrings were cut to when he was shot, someone had received sick pleasure from torturing him. Handicapping the victim was to keep him from escaping.
“We need to find out where he was attacked and tortured,” Megan said.
The two previous victims had no visible marks until their clothing was removed. Then dozens of tiny pinpricks were obvious. “He plays before he kills.”
Megan had forgotten that she wasn’t alone. The members of Squad Eight—the Violent Crimes/Major Offender Squad that she headed—were used to her talking to herself; she had to remember she was out of her element here, assisting SPD.
“Just thinking out loud.”
Megan itched to inspect the victim’s feet, but she didn’t want to touch the body until the coroner’s unit arrived.
First Austin, Texas, then Las Vegas, Nevada. Now Sacramento, California. The only thing those three places had in common, on the surface, was that they were large cities. The victims were single, male, between the ages of thirty-five and forty-five, tortured and murdered in their homes. While most serial predators stayed within one race, the first victim was black and the second and third were white. The first vic owned his own business and, though divorced, was by all accounts a devoted father. The second vic had never married, had a rap sheet for minor drug charges, and worked as a mechanic. There was some indication that he had a gambling problem, which delayed the local police from reporting the crime to the national database, mistakenly believing it was payback for an uncollected debt. The hot sheet possibly linking the two had only been sent out late last week.
As if reading her mind, or simply breathing too deeply, Black got on the radio and said to someone, “This body is cooking and it’s only going to get hotter. ETA of the coroner?”
A gender-neutral voice replied, “On scene.”
“Great.” Black looked around, frowned, and said to Megan, “I’ll find him.” He stalked off.
It wasn’t standard procedure for an FBI agent to go out to crime scenes alone, even aiding the local P.D., but there had been no initial certainty that this homicide was connected to the two other murders. Because her squad was already spread extremely thin, Megan had opted to check the scene herself.
But there was no doubt in her mind after viewing the body that the murder of this homeless man was connected somehow to the murders in Texas and Nevada. Why and how were the two big questions other than, of course, who.
She would wait to call it in until she had more information.
Megan frowned as she visually inspected the body again. Something else struck her as odd. Because the victim was homeless and had been living on the streets long enough to disappear into the backdrop of Sacramento, his age was indeterminate. At first glance, he could be as young as thirty, but the ravages of drugs and alcohol or simply the hard years living on the streets aged him. His clothes hadn’t been washed in weeks or longer, so his hands stood out.
They were clean.
She looked around for someone from the CSU or SPD, but all she saw were uniforms, and they eyed her apprehensively. Her boss, Bob Richardson, had made great inroads working with local law enforcement, but there were always a few who blamed the “Fibbies” for everything bad that happened on a call.
She took out her BlackBerry and snapped a couple photographs. Not SOP, but she didn’t plan to use the photos as evidence. She wanted to remember to ask the CSU about the hands, and this was Megan’s reminder.
Were clean hands part of the killer’s ritual? Or was this something new? Or special for this victim? Did this homeless man have some sort of hand-washing compulsion?
Or maybe there had been evidence on his hands and the killer had cleaned them. Very little could destroy evidence if the lab and technicians were good enough. But bleach or another caustic cleanser could be a sign that the victim had fought back and the killer had tried to conceal the evidence.
She knelt down and sniffed close to the hands.
Excerpted from Sudden Death by Allison Brennan. Copyright © 2009 by Allison Brennan. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.