The Valentine Killer.
The killer clicked off the computer and the room went black. He sat back in the chair and breathed in the darkness. He loved the night, and wished it would never get light. During work hours he was forced to endure the company of fools whether he wanted it or not, and he didn’t want it. The only thing he could honestly say it did for him to be around people was to provide fodder for his darkest fantasies. Some nights when he wasn’t able to go out…or he didn’t get called out…he would lie quietly on his pillow and picture all of their faces, one at a time, as he killed them. Just picturing it excited him and he’d lie there in the dark, trying hard not to wake up his wife as he let his mind play through it in intimate detail as he brought himself to climax.
“Hey! Are you in there?”
Shit! He opened his eyes at the sound of the grating voice. It was like nails on a chalkboard and he’d grown to despise it. “Yeah, what do you need?” The door handle moved back and forth but the door didn’t open. He had locked it specifically to keep the nosy bitch out. This was his domain and she had no business in here.
“Why is the door locked? And why are you sitting there in the dark? You’re acting so strange lately.”
“I just needed a few minutes of quiet time. Thanks for ruining it,” he said, standing up and stretching out his long limbs. He ran a hand through his thinning dirty blond hair. It was touching his shoulders. It was past time for a haircut.
“Dinner’s ready. Are you coming out?”
“Yeah, in a minute,” he said. He waited until he heard her footfalls recede down the hallway and then opened the French doors quietly and slipped outside. He walked quickly until he was away from the house. He would have to hear her nag later…but that was nothing new. He’d just tell her that he got called out and she would accept that. One of these days he would kill her too, but for now he still might have some use for her.
He walked down the quiet street with his hands in his pockets, whistling a tune that he couldn’t even remember hearing before. He was nobody during the day. Just another unhappily married man working at a job that he hated and no one appreciated. He had shuffled through his life unfulfilled. But when nightfall came, it cocooned him in its protective folds and allowed him to rejuvenate, and one night it allowed him to finally do something that he knew now to be his destiny. Who knew what might happen? Maybe one day, he would become invincible.
He turned into the dark alley, reveling in the way that he could all but disappear into its murky blackness. His incredible eyesight was what first prompted him to seek out nocturnal delights. He could see as well as a cat in the darkness and he was learning how to stalk his prey just as astutely.
The woman lay against the wall, huddled underneath the blanket that he had left for her the last time he went out. He wanted her to be familiar with him when it was. He hated having to chase them. He wasn’t as young as he used to be, so getting to know them first was something that he had learned by trial and error. Success takes hard work and practice…effort that he was willing to put forth, at least for this job. He realized when he was only a few feet from her that she must have just used the syringe she still held in her hand. She’d started the party without him. She had her eyes half open, but she had no clue that he was there. He sat down next to her and took the syringe out of her hand. The touch brought her around a bit.
“Hi, baby,” she slurred.
“Hi there, beautiful. Been partying tonight?”
“Just a little bit, baby. I’m trying to quit.”
“That’s okay, baby,” he said, pulling her head over into his chest and petting her hair. “After tonight, you won’t have to worry about it anymore. You’ll be singing in the holy choir.” The knife blade was as black as the night and even if she hadn’t been wasted, she would have never seen it coming. He let it gently glide across her neck and then he waited. He loved to watch as the life slipped away. It took her a few minutes to realize what happened. When she did, her hands went to her throat and her eyes actually opened wide. The only sound she made was a small gurgle before she fell over. He kissed her on the side of the face and then stood up and pulled the plastic bag out of his pocket. He took off his clothes and put them into the bag. Then, naked and excited, he went behind the dumpster and pulled the loose brick out of the wall. He reached inside and brought out another plastic bag. Inside were baby wipes, which he used to clean himself up a bit, and a fresh set of clothes. He put the t-shirt on and then sat the bag with his dirty things on the ground in front of him. Closing his eyes he pictured her face as the life drained out of it. It only took a minute or two before he was exploding in ecstasy. After another minute to recover, he reached down and pulled the tie, closing his DNA up with it. He slipped on the rest of his clothes and with a quick glance to make sure he was still alone in the alley, he headed out. He only paused long enough to drop a tissue into her lap as he passed by. Then, unfortunately, he went home to his wife.
Phoenix Skulls Clubhouse
“You really don’t have a problem with that cop hanging around here all the time?” Jace was working on a bike, customizing it for one of their return customers. Vic, always suspicious of everyone, had sat down on the stool next to Jace’s oversize toolbox and was looking across the shop at Noah Campbell, who was a PI and not a “cop,” and another man who had been hanging around the club a lot…Collin Kelly. Collin was a friend of Finn’s, Jace’s VP. Jace didn’t have any hard and fast rules about who his guys could be friends with. He did have the final say before they took them in as “hang-arounds” but Finn had come to him about Collin a few months earlier and Jace had given him the okay. Collin was a firefighter, and Finn had met him when he’d come out to inspect some of the new buildings they’d put up on the club’s property. Collin was from a fairly traditional, Catholic, Irish-American family, so he’d homed in on Finn’s thick Irish accent at once and they had started talking. Finn had a hard time making friends, so when he asked Jace about Collin hanging around, Jace checked the guy out and didn’t find any reason to deny him.
Noah was a different story. Jace had first met him in a bar that the Skulls had since bought. Jace was there to meet with the owner and finalize the purchase and Noah had been there meeting a client. After Noah’s client left, Noah mentioned to Jace that he was friends with Collin, and the conversation took off from there. By the time they’d had a few beers, Noah was talking about buying a Harley and Jace told him about the customizing work he did and invited him out to the shop to see some of the bikes they had restored, customized, and put up for sale.
After that, Noah had started coming around to just bullshit, or have a beer on the weekends, and when Noah told Jace he used to be a cop, Jace hadn’t seen a problem with it. Jace started his career as a Skull in Boston, where the president’s old lady and her entire family had all been cops. So Noah’s past as a cop, or his present as a PI, didn’t worry him. Jace actually thought it could be a relationship they might all benefit from in the future, and of course, if Jace had anything to hide, he knew how to hide it. It wasn’t like they were going around terrorizing the city or having turf wars. They more or less minded their own business, and Jace knew how to keep their business at home.
“Take off the tinfoil hat and get to know him,” Jace told Vic, not looking up from his project. “He’s a cool guy.”
Vic snorted. Jace might think after spending so many years in the Navy that Vic wouldn’t be so paranoid about “authority figures”…but in his case it seemed to have the opposite effect. “What about the firefighter? You going to let him prospect? Can the guy even ride?”
Jace chuckled and shook his head. “Why don’t you go ask him?” Collin didn’t have his own bike yet, but Finn had told Jace Collin could ride and planned on buying his own, so Jace had no reason to doubt him.
“I might.” Vic said it like it was a threat. Jace chuckled. Collin hadn’t been anything but fun and polite since he started hanging around, but he looked to Jace like he could hold his own if hot-headed Vic wanted to pick a fight with him.
“Good,” Jace said with a grin. “Then after that, maybe you can get some work done? I thought you were helping Boots and Bubba on the greenhouse today.” Phoenix was hot…almost all the time. Jace thought the shop felt like a fucking greenhouse itself. But Jace was taking a page from the Southside Skulls playbook. For decades, thanks to Dax’s mother Dallas, they had grown the best weed in the state and it was a huge source of revenue for the ranch and club. The key had been underground, climate-controlled greenhouses. Dax had given Jace a copy of the blueprints to the ones they used, and the Phoenix club had been working on constructing their own. It was slow going since it wasn’t really something Jace could hire a construction crew for. Cannabis wasn’t exactly legal in Arizona.
Vic sighed. Jace got the feeling he was bored. The Phoenix Skulls was a fairly new chapter with just over a dozen members now. Jace had been working hard on recruiting and building, but he was a patient man. He could look into the future and see where he wanted to be, make plans to get there and work toward it, slowly, if that’s what it took. Men like Vic wanted immediate gratification, and lived for the chaos. The Skulls hadn’t had any real chaos in months, not since they’d had to rescue Madison Benning, and Jace got the feeling Vic was craving it.
“Yeah, I’ll go see if they need any help,” he said. Jace looked up as he went, watching him stop by and say something to Finn as he passed. Finn laughed, but Vic wasn’t smiling. Of course, where Vic was always serious, Finn was almost the opposite. The kid was so happy with his second chance at life once he got to Phoenix, that there was hardly anything that upset him anymore. Sometimes he was too fun-loving, and that got him into a little bit of trouble from time to time.
“Hey, Jace,” Noah said as he came over to Jace’s work station. “I don’t want to interrupt, but do you have time for a question?”
“Sure.” Jace picked up a rag and wiped the oil off his hands as he stood up. His body was beginning to stiffen up on the floor anyway. He was having a hard time admitting that he wasn’t as young as he used to be. Of course, being around all his new young recruits every day, coupled with the fact that he and Beck had hardly gotten more than three or four hours a night’s sleep since their baby was born, added to it. “What’s up?”
Noah hesitated. Since Jace met him, he hadn’t seemed to have any problems speaking his mind, so his reluctance made Jace curious. “Finn told me that you’re reopening Sirens this week.” Sirens was the bar where Jace and Noah had first met. Jace had closed it down after they bought it and had his friend’s construction company do a lot of renovations to it, inside and out. It was in kind of a crappy neighborhood and the place had been a dump. Jace hoped it would turn into a comfortable place for bikers and the like to hang out, so he wasn’t worried about the neighborhood, but he didn’t want the roof to fall in on them.
“Yep. Friday is our grand opening,” Jace said with a little laugh. “I’m not sure ‘grand’ is the right word, but the place is at least structurally sound now.”
Noah smiled. “Good to know. I admit I was a little worried when the client wanted to meet there that day.”
Jace laughed. “Well, I still won’t be able to vouch for the neighborhood.”
Noah was smiling, but Jace detected something sad in his eyes as he said, “Well, the neighborhood is actually the reason for my question.” Noah looked around like he was making sure no one else was listening and he said, “You’re going to think I’m one hell of a private eye when you hear this…but I was hoping maybe if I give you a picture, you wouldn’t mind keeping an eye out for…a young lady I’ve been looking for. She spends a lot of time in that neighborhood, but I haven’t been able to find her lately.”
Jace did think it was an odd request, especially since Noah had said “lately” as if he had found her before and then lost her. “Sure…who is she? If you don’t mind me asking.”
Noah looked around again and then took out his wallet and handed Jace a small photo. Noah was in the picture and he had his arm around a girl that looked a lot like him. She had long brown hair, brown eyes, and Noah’s smile. “She’s my sister,” Noah said. “Her name is Ciara and this picture is an old one. I can get you a more recent one and bring it out next time I come…but it’ll be a mug shot.” Jace kept his face neutral and waited for Noah to go on. He finally said, “She’s a heroin addict and she’s been on the streets for a while so she looks a lot different now.” Noah sighed and the sadness in his eyes suddenly looked more like guilt as he said, “I’ve tried to help her, but it always turns out that I just enable her…or push too hard and she gets pissed off and disappears again. Anyway, this time it’s been longer since she’s shown up than before and I’ve checked and she’s not locked up, or in any local hospitals. I’m guessing she’s just getting better at fading into the background out on the streets and maybe so strung out that she’s avoiding me on purpose. All I want is to know is that she’s okay, without her knowing I’m checking up on her.”
Jace could understand worrying about a little sister. He had worried about his since the day she was born. Of course Rosie was autistic and not addicted to drugs and on the streets…but a brother’s love was just that. “Of course I’ll keep an eye out. Do you want me to give the others a heads-up too, and my bartenders and waitresses?”
“Just as long as she doesn’t know,” Noah said. “Knowing I’m checking up on her only seems to push her further away lately. There’s something else, Jace, and this part I’d like to keep just between us if we can?”
“You got it.”
“I’m pretty sure she’s turning tricks to support herself…she was arrested for solicitation a while back. At that time she wouldn’t tell me who her dealer or her pimp were…if you were to hear anything like that…”
“I’d be happy to arrange the introductions,” Jace said.
* * *
“Noah?” It was late Wednesday morning and Noah was in the office. Ava’s voice floated out of the speaker and he closed down the spider solitaire game on his computer, as if she could see what he was doing across the intercom. He had to keep reminding himself that the little green-eyed, red-haired fiery Irish woman was not his boss. It was hard sometimes though, because she was so bossy.
“There’s someone here to see you.”
“Okay, send him in.” He ran a hand through his hair and one across his face. Now, he wished that he had shaved. They hadn’t had a real paying client in a few weeks and he knew that he should be more worried about business than he was, but he was an optimist at heart. Despite the recent slump, he firmly believed that things were going to get better. He also believed that he was the best damned PI in the city of Phoenix, and he could get rich, if only people would realize it.
He looked up as the door opened and saw Ava. Her long curly red hair was pulled neatly up into a professional-looking bun and she had on a finely tailored navy blue skirt and a crisp white blouse. He was glad to see at least one of them looked professional…especially after he got his first look at the “client.” She couldn’t have been over twenty-five or six and she was wearing an aqua blue silk suit that fit her like a second skin. A strand of gray pearls adorned her long, delicate-looking neck and her eyes were the darkest shade of blue that Noah had ever seen. Her long blonde hair had a glossy shine to it and lay cascaded across her shoulders, reaching just above the swell of her ample breasts. She wasn’t overly tall, but the short skirt she wore emphasized her legs and they seemed to go on forever.
“Noah, this is Kyla Peterson. Mrs. Peterson, this is Noah Campbell.” Ava introduced them and Noah stood up and took the young woman’s soft, warm hand into his. She wore only one ring and that was on her other hand. It was a simple silver wedding band. Her sapphire eyes met Noah’s brown ones as they shook hands, and he found himself hesitant to let go. Ava cleared her throat, bringing him back to the moment. He didn’t dare look at her face. He already knew which of her disapproving looks would be there.
“It’s a pleasure, Mrs. Peterson. Please, have a seat.”
“Thank you. Please call me Kyla,” she said.
“Do you need me to stay?” Ava asked.
Noah looked at Kyla and asked, “Would you feel more comfortable with my associate Ava in the room…?”
“I’m comfortable either way,” Kyla said.
“I have some work to attend to,” Ava said. “I’ll let you two talk.” She smiled at Kyla and left, closing the door behind her. Noah wondered what “work” she could possibly have to attend to.
“Please have a seat,” he told the young woman. She sat down in the chair in front of his desk and crossed her pretty legs, drawing the short skirt up even higher. He reminded himself that she was a client and obviously married and he was still staring at her legs. Damn! “How can I help you today, Kyla?” Noah took his seat and realized that it was hard to look directly at her. Her eyes were so intense that they were almost intimidating. The strangest thing about it was that nothing intimidated him. Okay, Ava intimidated him, but that was it.
Kyla looked a bit intimidated herself, or overwhelmed. Noah either hadn’t been what she was expecting, or she hadn’t known what to expect at all. She finally said, “Have you heard of Carrington Bio Tech?”
“Yes, of course.” Carrington Bio Tech had a hand in the design of practically every yard in the upper class sections of Phoenix and the outlying areas. They were very rich people.
“That’s my family.”
“I need a PI but I can’t hire anyone who might know my family on a personal level.”
“Okay…Are you concerned about discretion?”
“Very much so.”
“I can promise you that won’t be a concern here.”
“Thank you. That’s why I came to you.”
“You were referred by someone?”
“Hayden Brandt.” Hayden was Noah’s best friend and his old partner. They’d graduated the police academy together back in the day.
“Hayden’s a good friend of mine.”
“Yes, he told me.” The wheels in Noah’s head were spinning. He was trying hard to figure out how in the world Hayden would know a woman like her. Hayden was married and had been since he was nineteen years old. He was the same age as Noah, who just turned thirty-six. They’d known each other since right before his third anniversary. Noah had never known him to cheat on his wife, or even think about it.
“So Kyla, would you like to tell me what it is you need a PI for?”
“I think my husband is the Valentine Killer.”
“Oh.” No fucking way! “I see.” He really didn’t. Why isn’t she calling the cops? “And you want me to…?”
“Follow him. Find out for sure.”
“Okay…can you tell me why you would think your husband is involved in this?” The “Valentine Killer” was a serial killer who had been operating in the city for almost five years already. He was partially the reason why Noah was no longer a cop. He was dubbed the Valentine Killer because after he slit the woman’s throat, he would leave a tiny silver necklace wrapped in a tissue behind. The pendant was shaped like a heart with wings. Noah had spent hours trying to track down where the killer bought the necklaces while he was working the case…but to no avail.
“He leaves the house at night…at very odd hours.” She stopped. Noah really hoped that wasn’t all she was basing her suspicions on.
“Is that it?” he asked her.
“No, um…the times that he leaves the house at night correspond to when the bodies have been found. He also doesn’t…I mean he’s not interested in…he can’t get aroused when he returns home.” Noah had to make himself close his mouth. She apparently knew that she was hot. So much so that she believed her husband to be a killer for not wanting her. He was almost impressed by her arrogance. He also didn’t really want to be the one that had to tell her that so far this was sounding like the man was sneaking out and getting lucky. Hot wife or not, some guys stray.
“He’s just been acting so strange, and he suddenly hates everyone.” She let her eyes run across Noah’s desk as if she was looking for something and then she said, “Can I smoke in here?” His stomach clenched. Ava was going to have a conniption fit.
“Of course,” he said, as if he had a right to in his own office. She fished a case out of her purse. It was an expensive purse. He knew that for a fact because his former fiancée had one just like it. Noah had paid for it, in more ways than one. She opened the case and took out a Virginia Slim. He realized as she placed it between her lips, how full and plump they were…ripe for kissing…
“Is that okay?”
“I’m ready to go on,” she said.
Damn it! He had been so focused on her lips that he hadn’t heard her say a thing. “I’m sorry, yes, go on.”
“Ethan works for my family, but even after being married for almost ten years, he hasn’t developed any kind of relationship with any of them.” Ten years? Hell, maybe she wasn’t as young as he thought she was. Maybe he needed to drink some of that water. “He doesn’t have any friends,” she said, taking a long drag of her cigarette and then exhaling. It was a sight to behold. “He collects knives…”
“Noah…” Ava opened the door and stopped in her tracks. She was staring at Kyla and the long, and if he had to add, sexy, cigarette dangling from her lips.
“Yes?” Noah tried to play it off casually. Ava narrowed her eyes at him and said:
“I’m so sorry to interrupt. Can I see you in the outer office for just a moment?”
“Hmm, I’m a little…”
Trying hard not to roll his eyes like an insolent teenager, Noah looked at Kyla and smiled. “Would you mind excusing me for just a moment?”
“Not at all,” she said. She smiled at Ava. Ava gave her a tight-lipped smile back. He followed his receptionist, who believed she was his boss, back out the door. She closed it behind them, and then it was on.
“She’s smoking in your office? There are ordinances in this city against that. I could sue you for having to work in a hostile environment…or something like that.”
Noah tried not to laugh. “She’s a client, Ava. A rich client. We need the business. If she wants to smoke, so be it.”
“She’s hot. You don’t care about her money or my lung cancer.”
He did smile then. She was so dramatic sometimes. “I care very much about your lung cancer,” he told her. “And yes, she is hot. Now, can I get back to my client?”
“No, I mean…I didn’t call you out here to talk about her smoking. Hayden called. He wants you to meet him for lunch and he says it’s about a ‘referral’ he made to you. I’m assuming since she is our only client for the past three weeks, he must be talking about her.”
“Okay, that might help,” he said. “I don’t think I’m really wrapping my head around what she’s trying to tell me anyways. Maybe Hayden can explain it.”
“At least when you talk to Hayden you’ll be listening with the head on your shoulders.” He did roll his eyes then. He’d never admit it to her, but she was kind of right.