Rowan Smith learned about Doreen Rodriguez’s murder from the reporters camped out in her front yard Monday morning.
A car door slammed and she awoke with a start. Instinctively, she reached for the gun that was no longer under her pillow, searching the cool cotton sheet before remembering it was in her nightstand. Hesitating briefly, she retrieved the cold Glock. She couldn’t think of a good reason for needing her gun, but it felt right in her hand.
She’d slept in sweatpants and a T-shirt, an old habit of being ready for anything, and padded down the stairs in bare feet to look out her den window and see who was visiting so early in the morning. The grating sound of a sliding van door shutting told her she had more than one visitor. She used her index finger to bend down the blinds a mere inch to peer out.
She could tell from their rumpled attire and notepads they were print reporters. Television hounds were far more concerned with appearance. Three vans and two cars crammed the driveway of her leased beachfront home. She despised reporters. She’d had more than enough of them while working for the Bureau.
The doorbell echoed, startling her. Though she could see the driveway from her den, she couldn’t see the door. Presumably one of the bolder reporters had summoned the courage to ring her doorbell.
What did they want? She’d just given an interview about the premiere of Crime of Passion two days ago; surely they didn’t need a group session.
She started for the door, then remembered she was carrying her gun. She imagined the headline: Paranoid Former Agent Armed for Interview. She slid the gun into the top drawer of her desk and briskly walked to the front door, barely registering the coolness of the tile under her bare feet.
Her phone rang at the same time the doorbell repeated its obnoxious ding-dong. Great. Reporters coming at her from every direction. She’d dealt with them before; she’d have to again. It was only as she opened the door that she feared something bad had happened and that maybe she shouldn’t talk to them.
“Do you have a comment on the murder of Doreen Rodriguez?”
“I don’t know Doreen Rodriguez,” she said automatically, even as alarm bells went off in the back of her head. The name was familiar, but she couldn’t place it. A sick feeling ate at her gut as she tried to connect the dots. As she was shutting the door, another question rang clear:
“You don’t know that a twenty-year-old woman named Doreen Rodriguez was killed in Denver Saturday night in the same manner as the character Doreen Rodriguez was murdered in your book Crime of Opportunity?”
Rowan slammed the door shut. She didn’t fear reporters walking in uninvited; she’d have them arrested for trespassing without a qualm. She simply wanted the resounding finality of her “no comment” to ring loud and clear.
The phone finally stopped ringing. Then, thirty seconds later, the incessant ring-ring started again. She ran back to her den and glanced at the caller ID: Annette. Her producer.
Picking up the receiver she said, “What in the hell is going on?” She heard yet another car screech to a halt in her driveway.
“I have a bunch of reporters on my doorstep, more arriving as we speak.” She peered out the blinds again. Television van. She pressed a hand to her stomach. Something was very wrong.
“I got the details from a reporter in Denver.” Annette said rapidly, emphasizing some of her words. “A twenty-year-old waitress named Doreen Rodriguez was killed Saturday night. They found her body yesterday in a Dumpster outside of, and I quote, ‘a small Italian café off South Broadway that could have been called quaint if not for the blood drying on the white brick façade.’ ”
Rowan listened to the words she’d penned years ago. Rubbing her temple, she craved a cigarette for the first time since she’d quit the FBI four years ago. “This is some kind of sick joke.”
“I’m so sorry, Rowan.”
“Dear God, I don’t believe this is happening.” She squeezed her eyes shut in an effort to absorb what Annette had told her. Her breath caught, and she placed a hand over her mouth. It had to be a coincidence. Some idiot reporter taking a violent crime and trying to sensationalize it by comparing it to one of her novels.
The image of Doreen Rodriguez’s bloody, dismembered body flashed in her mind. She opened her eyes immediately, her vision of the murder far too real because she had created it. It couldn’t have been a similar crime. Just the name was the same.
“Rowan, she was killed with a machete against the restaurant wall, her body thrown in a Dumpster!” Annette’s voice took on a feverish pitch. “She worked in Denver and was born in Albuquerque. Some crazy person copied the crime exactly as you wrote it.”
Rowan pressed fingers deeper into her right temple. Someone had copied her fictional crime? It couldn’t be possible. How had the killer found someone so exactly like her fictional character?
More important, why?
She sunk to the floor next to her desk and buried her face in her arms, holding the phone with her shoulder. She took another deep breath and held it. She had to get hold of herself; then she’d get to the bottom of this.
There had to be a mistake.
“Are you okay?” Annette’s voice was full of concern.
“What do you think?” Her voice came out a raspy whisper.
“I’m worried about your safety, Rowan.”
“I can take care of myself.”
“I’ll come right over.”
She almost grinned at the thought. Petite fifty- something Hollywood producer Annette O’Dell rushing over to protect her star screenwriter from a pack of vicious reporters. Rowan shook her head. “No, after my run I have to go to the studio and talk to the director about reworking a scene.”
“The reporters will follow you. They’re probably staked out there now.”
“Damn the reporters! I have no comment. Period. Nothing, nada, zero. I don’t want you saying word one about this to anyone. I am going to the studio and going to do my job. I’m not a cop; let them take care of this.” She didn’t want to play cop anymore. She didn’t want any more blood on her hands.
But there it was. She wiped her hands on her sweats until Lady Macbeth came to mind, madly scrubbing her hands of blood that wasn’t there.
Doreen Rodriguez. Rowan didn’t kill the poor woman, but she had somehow caused her death just the same.
“Rowan, let me hire a security—”
Rowan cut Annette off with a click as she replaced the receiver in its cradle.
She took a minute to gather herself before getting up from the floor. Outside, another car drove up, more vultures ready to pounce. It made great copy, she thought wryly. Real-life murder mystery: The Fiction Copycat. The Copycat Killer. The press seemed to actually like murders. Especially high-profile, gruesome crimes. Nothing exciting in a typical domestic dispute, a hit-and-run, or a routine gang drive-by. But being sliced and diced by a machete against the side of a quaint Italian café . . .
She shook her head. Was she any better? She wrote violent murder mysteries. Even if her corpses were fictionalized, didn’t she do the same thing as the reporters? Capitalizing on people’s interest in gruesome crime? The human fascination with death went back thousands of years. Violent Greek and Roman myths had relieved people’s fear of the unknown. Similar gruesome entertainments could be found in every generation since.
Doreen Rodriguez. Could the murder possibly have been the same as Rowan had written it? Her heart beat double-time as she imagined the pain and horror that poor young woman had suffered.
It would do her no good to dwell on the victim now. Rowan mentally summoned more than ten years of training to distance herself. When it got personal, that’s when mistakes happened.
Ignoring both the door and phone, on her laptop she logged onto the local Denver newspaper website. She hoped against hope there was a mistake, some misunderstanding. But the press was on top of the story. Bad news travels fast, evidence of which was parked in her driveway.
Everything Annette had told her was there on the screen. Rowan wondered what details had, in fact, been withheld. She wondered how long it would take for the police to come and interview her. With the press already showing an interest in the coincidence, the police wouldn’t be far behind. She’d get more details from them once they tracked her down.
No. No, she couldn’t get involved. She had a meeting at the studio in two hours. She had made a new life for herself, a quiet life. Damn if she was going to let a murdering lunatic control her future. Again.
She started for her bedroom to dress for her run when a familiar pounding on the front door interrupted her. Cops.
That was fast.
“Ms. Smith!” a mumbled voice called. “Ms. Smith, this is the police. We need to talk.”
She turned toward the door. It had started.
They sat at the dining room table, in front of the picture window that framed the blue-green Pacific Ocean. From here, twenty feet above the beach and a good hundred feet inland, one could still see the individual waves and whitecaps, tossed up by a light wind. The tide was out, the beach empty of people.
Rowan placed two mugs of hot black coffee in front of the detectives, then opened the window. The tangy, salty sea air relaxed her as she breathed in deeply. She needed to be calm and alert, but above all else, she needed to maintain control.
Excerpted from The Prey by Allison Brennan. Copyright © 2005 by Allison Brennan. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.