Read The 1st Victim Online

Authors: Tami Hoag

Tags: #Fiction, #Crime, #Mystery & Detective, #General, #Thrillers, #Suspense, #Women Sleuths, #Psychological

The 1st Victim

Also by Tami Hoag

Down the Darkest Road

Secrets to the Grave

Deeper Than the Dead

The Alibi Man

Prior Bad Acts

Kill the Messenger

Dark Horse

Dust to Dust

Ashes to Ashes

A Thin Dark Line

Guilty as Sin

Night Sins

Dark Paradise

Cry Wolf

Still Waters

Lucky’s Lady

Sarah’s Sin

Magic

The 1st Victim

A Sam Kovac and Nikki Liska Story

A Penguin Special from Dutton

Tami Hoag

DUTTON

Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street,

New York, New York 10014, USA

USA / Canada / UK / Ireland / Australia / New Zealand / India / South Africa / China

Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

For more information about the Penguin Group visit penguin.com.

Published by Dutton, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

Copyright © 2013 by Indelible Ink, Inc.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.

E-book ISBN 978-1-101-60977-4

While the author has made every effort to provide accurate telephone numbers, Internet addresses, and other contact information at the time of publication, neither the publisher nor the author assumes any responsibility for errors or for changes that occur after publication. Further, the publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.

Contents

Also by Tami Hoag

Title Page

Copyright Page

 

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

 

Excerpt from
The 9th Girl

About the Author

1

Sam Kovac had been to more crime scenes than he cared to count. Homicides, suicides, assaults. He’d been a cop for a lot of years. He had worked homicide for most of those years. One might have imagined that after all those murders that the details would have blurred and run together, that the names and the faces of the victims would have faded from memory, but no.

The same way baseball players remember every big game they’ve ever played, Kovac remembered his homicides. He remembered what he had been doing when he got the call-out. He remembered the weather. He remembered the scenes—they were indoors, outdoors, in houses, apartments, fleabag motels. With some cases he remembered the smells—dinner left cooking on the stove, a body left decomposing in a hot attic.

Always he remembered that initial picture—the location, position, and condition of the body. These images were filed away in his brain like a macabre photo album. Some pictures were sharper than others, but none had faded entirely. So, as he stood in the cold that January morning, looking down at his victim, he knew this image would never leave him.

The body lay at an odd angle in the ditch, arms and legs flung this way and that like a ragdoll’s. Her hair appeared to be a deep burgundy red, about shoulder length. It surrounded her head in a puddle. Her face was obscured by blood. Her features had been partially smashed in by something—a brick, a fist, a hammer. She was a study in red: red hair, red face, red coat. Bloodred on white. Like a broken rose discarded in the snow.

A rose in winter.

Strange thought. Kovac wasn’t given to poetry. He was just a regular Joe, an old-school copper. There were no surprises to him. He had no hidden talents. He was no secret novelist or secret millionaire or secret computer genius, as cops in mystery novels often are.

He was just a guy working a job he believed in . . . in the freezing freaking cold. His mustache had grown icicles. The hairs in his nose had frosted over. His feet were starting to go numb.

It was 7:22
A.M.
, January 1. Most of the residents of Minneapolis and its environs were home in bed, sleeping off hangovers, waiting for the Rose Parade to start on television. Kovac knew he would still be working this crime scene while the New Year’s hams roasted in the ovens. Maybe he would make it home to see the last of the bowl games.

“Happy fucking holidays,” he said as his partner arrived.

Nikki Liska glanced down into the ditch. A petite pixie bundled up in a wool coat with a scarf wrapped around her neck and a furry Elmer Fudd–style cap pulled down over her head, she looked more like a little kid about to waddle off to school than a veteran homicide cop.

Her heavy sigh became a cloud in the cold air. The temperature was supposed to reach a daytime high of twelve degrees. It hadn’t gotten there yet.

“There’s no good time to be dead,” she pointed out.

She thrust a Caribou Coffee cup at him with one gloved hand, keeping one cup for herself. “What do we know?”

“Not much. A truck driver saw the body, stopped, and got out to see what was what. Thought it was a mannequin.” He took a sip of coffee, burning the tip of his tongue, and scowled. “I don’t know why people always think that. How many mannequins do you ever see on the side of the road?”

“Dead bodies never look real to normal people.”

“Mannequins don’t bleed, Elmer.”

“Don’t make fun of my hat,” Liska said. “Sixty percent of your body heat escapes through the top of your head. ID?”

“It’s forty percent, and less if you’ve got a good head of hair,” Kovac returned. The subject was an old joke between them. Kovac’s hair was like an old bear’s pelt: thick and brown, liberally threaded with silver. He’d had it cut by the same Norwegian barber for twenty years.

“No ID,” he said. “No purse, no wallet, no nothing.”

“Great. Our first Jane Doe of the New Year.”

The forensic team swarmed around the body, taking photographs, shooting video, planting evidence markers in the snow.

“What do you think?” Liska asked. “Was she a pedestrian that got clipped by a car?”

“Why would anyone be walking out here?”

They were on a truck route, nowhere near a residential or commercial area. There was nothing around here to walk to or from.

“If her car broke down . . .”

“But there is no car.”

“It’s a dump job,” Liska concluded.

They both heaved a sigh. They had no crime scene. No crime scene meant little evidence—little evidence and a victim with no name. No name, no family, no friends, no witnesses.

They joined the forensics team in the ditch. Their Jane Doe looked to be five-feet-six or so, slender-to-medium build—hard to tell with the bulk of the red winter coat. Age? Hard to say with the damage to the face. The Medical Examiner would have to figure that out.

Nothing resembling a murder weapon had been found in the immediate area.

The trucker who had spotted the body and called it in was sitting in the cab of his vehicle some yards down the road. The truck’s engine grumbled to itself like a sleeping dragon. It was a beat-up old U-Haul–type box truck, twenty feet long or better, with Iowa plates. Liska and Kovac walked over to it, and Kovac knocked on the door and showed the driver his badge as the window opened, warm air and cigarette smoke escaping from the truck’s cab.

“Kovac. Homicide. You are . . .?”

“Frank Fitzgerald,” the driver said. “Call me Fitz. Everybody calls me Fitz.”

He was an earnest-looking kind of guy, in his thirties, with a round, open face and wide brown eyes that lent him an expression of mild surprise. He was balding, had a pug nose and a couple of chins, and a dark beard and mustache cut so short the stubble looked more like metal filings than hair.

“You called this in.”

“Yeah,” he said. “I’m coming down the road and I see what looks like a pile of clothes or something down the side here. At first I didn’t think nothing of it. But as I’m going by, I look, and I think: Geez, that looks like a body. But what the heck, you know? How can it be a real person? It must be a mannequin or something.”

He glanced across the cab of his truck. Kovac glanced across, too. In the far side-view mirror he could see the forensics team tromping in the snow around the victim.

“She must have got hit by a car or something, huh?” Fitz said. “That’s what she looked like. Like she got bashed by something big.”

“You went down to the body?” Liska asked.

“Yeah. What if she was still alive?”

“But she wasn’t. Did you touch the body?”

Fitzgerald popped his thick eyebrows up and grimaced. “No-o-o-o. It seemed pretty clear there wasn’t anything I could do for her.”

“Were there any vehicles on the road ahead of you before you saw the body, Mr. Fitzgerald?” Kovac asked.

“No. I had the road to myself. Who’s out on the road at the crack of dawn on New Year’s Day?”

“You are,” Kovac pointed out. “What brings you to town, Mr. Fitzgerald?”

“Big antiques show starting tomorrow. I wanted to get into town early, check into my hotel, and watch the bowl games. Have a nice relaxing day, you know? This is a hell of a way to start.”

“We’ll need you to come downtown and make a formal statement,” Kovac said. “And—don’t take this the wrong way—but we’d like to have a look inside your truck.”

“Whatever you need to do,” Fitz said. “I got nothing to hide. I buy and sell vintage junk. That’s what’s in the back. Vintage business signs, automotive collectibles, old toys—that kind of thing.

“You don’t think somebody just dumped her here, do you?” he asked. “It had to be an accident, right? What kind of sick son of a bitch does that?”

“The kind we like to put in prison,” Liska said.

“Why did you stay?” Kovac asked. “You could have called it in and just kept going.”

“And left her there alone?” Frank Fitzgerald shook his head. “People shouldn’t die alone. I don’t want to die alone.”

“She was already dead.”

“I don’t want to be left dead, either,” Fitzgerald said. He pointed a stubby, gloved finger at a photograph taped to the dashboard. A blond girl in her late teens smiled shyly at the camera. “I’ve got a daughter, myself. Melissa. If something like that happened to her, I’d want someone to stop. I’d want someone to care. Wouldn’t you?”

2

No one cares,
Jeannie Reiser thought, astounded. She was living in a nightmare, screaming for help, with no one seeming to hear her. She held the phone away from her head and stared at it, incredulous. Maybe it wasn’t working. Maybe the person on the other end of the line in St. Louis literally hadn’t heard her.

“I don’t think you understand, Sergeant,” she said, struggling to stay calm. “My daughter is missing. I need to file a missing persons report. I need you to
do
something.”

“How long did you say it’s been since you heard from her?”

“Three days, but—”

“And your daughter is how old?”

“Eighteen, but—”

“She’s a legal adult, ma’am.”

“She’s just eighteen,” Jeannie said. “She’s a freshman at SLU. She calls me
every
day. If not every day, every
other
day,” she corrected herself. “I didn’t hear from her on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day. She would never
not
call me on a holiday.”

The cop on the other end of the line was unmoved. “It’s not against the law not to call your mother, ma’am.”

Jeannie wanted to reach through the telephone all the way to St. Louis and slap him. Tears rose up in her eyes. Fear rose up in her throat.

She knew what he was thinking: that she was an overprotective mother, that she was being ridiculous. An eighteen-year-old college girl living in the big city, out from under her mother’s thumb for the first time in her life, was probably out partying with her friends, having fun, or sleeping it off. She was probably more likely
not
to call her mother, just to prove her independence. He was probably thinking
Girls Gone Wild
.

He didn’t know her daughter. He didn’t know their relationship. He didn’t know their family.

On the table in front of her, photos from Christmas lay scattered like playing cards. They had tried hard to have a happy holiday—their first since Dean had lost his battle with cancer. But there had been more sad moments than happy ones. Too many memories that, at this stage of grief, brought more pain of loss than remembered joy.

Unwilling to take the one-two emotional punch of back-to-back holidays without her dad, her daughter had decided to go back to St. Louis early, to spend New Year’s with her new friends from school.

When Jeanie didn’t hear from her daughter during the evening on New Year’s Eve, she hadn’t really worried about it. The kids would be going out, heading to a party. When no call came on New Year’s Day, she tried to talk herself out of the fear that was beginning to stir inside her. New Year’s Eve parties meant New Year’s Day hangovers, or just sleeping the day away. When no call had come by the evening of New Year’s Day, every rationalization that began to form in her mind was quickly cut off by her growing panic.

Calls to her daughter’s cell phone had gone directly to voice mail—her daughter’s happy, giggling voice telling callers she would get back to them as soon as she could. And when the mailbox filled with Jeanie’s increasingly frantic messages, only the anonymous voice of the phone company answered her, informing her that there was no more room for her pleas to be recorded, then called back as soon as possible.

“Have you spoken to any of your daughter’s friends?”

Jeanie had been so lost in her own thoughts, she startled at the voice.

“Her roommate is out of the country.” On a cruise someplace warm with her family. Which cruise line? What islands? She couldn’t remember.

“Have you gone to your daughter’s apartment?”

“I’m in Wichita. I’m seven hours away. Can’t you send someone to check on her, at least?” she asked, already knowing that even if he said yes, she was going to pack a bag and leave for St. Louis herself the minute she got off the phone.

“What if she fell in the bathtub or something?” she said, the panic rising like a flood tide within her. “What if she’s sick? Can’t you please send someone to check on her?”

The man on the other end of the line breathed a long sigh, like a teenager being asked for the tenth time to take out the garbage. “Does your daughter have a medical condition?”

“Yes,” Jeannie lied, seizing on the opportunity like a starving person on a crust of bread. “She’s diabetic. She could be in a diabetic coma!”

The cop was skeptical. “Why didn’t you say that before?”

“For God’s sake!” she snapped. “I’m out of my mind with worry! What do you want from me?”

“What’s your daughter’s name, ma’am?”

“Rose. Rose Ellen Reiser.”

•   •   •

Rose was a beautiful child, like a character from a fairy tale, with waves and waves of strawberry blond hair, big blue eyes, and a mouth like a rosebud. She was an artist and a fashionista from an early age. She had a flair for adventure during her tomboy years—she tumbled from a tree when she was eight, from a pony when she was twelve.

They had gone through their trials with Rose. Hormones inspired a bout of rebellion starting in junior high, a period Rose now referred to as “The Angry Years.” She’d dressed in black, dyed her hair, and dabbled with drugs, alcohol, and bad boys. She’d taken off for several weeks with a couple of sketchy friends the summer before her junior year just to show how independent and adult she was. The road trip had ended with a car accident and a sudden, sobering fear of God. She had come out of it like a person waking from a terrible dream, and then she was their Rosebud again.

Then had come her father’s illness, and the pressure and strain of that time had compressed a child filled with terror and a young woman struggling for courage into one heartbreakingly strong yet brittle being. Jeannie and her daughter had leaned on each other, their relationship deepening and growing stronger.

Life was so unfair, Jeannie thought as she drove toward St. Louis. So unfair to take her husband—a good man, a good father. He should have lived to see his daughter graduate, to watch her fall in love and have children of her own. So unfair to steal those last years of childhood from her daughter. Now every holiday, every special milestone of Rose’s life would be touched and tempered with grief for not being able to share it with her father.

Jeannie tried not to look at how unfair life might have been to her. She had lost her husband, her best friend, her partner. And now her daughter was missing. She tried not to think of that even as she raced toward St. Louis.

She might have flown directly there and damned the cost. But Rose had driven over these roads in their old Ford Focus. Jeannie wanted to go where she had gone, stop where she had stopped for lunch, for coffee, to use the restroom. She wanted to show her daughter’s photograph to the waitresses and the clerks at the wayside rest stops.

Have you seen this girl? Did she seem all right? Was there anyone watching her, following her?

She told herself she was being unnecessarily dramatic. She had spoken to Rose several times as her daughter drove. They had both pretended to be cheery. Jeannie had pretended she thought it was a good idea for her daughter to spend New Year’s Eve with her newfound friends at school. Rose had pretended she wasn’t dreading the holiday just the same. Both of them had pretended to be brave.

Now Jeannie tried to pretend she wouldn’t need to be brave. This would be a fool’s errand. She would get to St. Louis, and Rose would be in her apartment, both embarrassed and secretly glad her mother had come.

She called her daughter’s cell phone every fifteen minutes.

The last time she had spoken to Rose, her daughter had stopped for coffee near Columbia, refueling before the last push east on I-70. She was going to meet friends for dinner at a pizza place downtown.

What friends? What pizza place? Had she even made it into the city?

The sergeant called and informed Jeannie that officers had gone by Rose’s apartment but found nothing suspicious. What did that mean? Had they gone inside? No, ma’am. They couldn’t do that. Then what good were they? There was no sign of anyone being home at the apartment. There was no sign of anyone having tried to break into the apartment. Her daughter’s car was not occupying its assigned spot behind the building.

What if the car had been stolen? Jeannie suggested. What if her daughter was lying wounded or worse on the floor of her apartment, and the perpetrator had made off with her car?

“With all due respect, ma’am, you watch too much television.”

•   •   •

The short winter afternoon had gone dark by the time Jeannie made it to her daughter’s apartment building near the campus of St. Louis University. It seemed to take forever to find a parking spot on the street. She had to walk three blocks into a cold wind to get back to the building. And when she got there, then what?

She didn’t have a key. She had no way to get inside the apartment. The doorbell rang unanswered. Her knocking finally brought an angry neighbor into the hall.

“What the fuck, lady?” he said, scowling. “No one’s home. Give it up.”

Jeannie’s heart was pounding like a drum, the sound reverberating inside her head. She paid no attention to the neighbor. It was as if he were nothing but a two-dimensional character in a dream. She wanted to wake with a start and be in her own bed.

She felt dizzy and short of breath. She had hardly eaten or slept in three days. Fear was like a wild animal inside her, spinning around and around, looking for a way to escape.

Her legs gave way, and she crumpled to the floor.

The neighbor called 911.

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