It was in the spring, on a dark April evening, when Detective Thomas DelVecchio Jr. learned that nightmares could in fact make the jump out of the mind and into real life.
Unfortunately for him, it wasn't exactly a news flash.
Blood was everywhere. Glossy and crimson in the moonlight, it was as if a gallon of paint had been cracked open and spastic-splashed all over not just the forest floor ... but the man who lay shredded and unmoving on a bed of decaying leaves.
At Veck's feet.
All that red shit was not a premium interior latex, however. Or an oil-based trim. Or a hearty exterior barn paint. You couldn't buy it at Home Depot or Lowe's, and you didn't clean it up with turpentine or use it in some B movie.
That was real life, right there. Leaking out all over the f**k.
What had he done? Dear God ...
Ripping off his leather jacket, he wadded the thing up, knelt down, and pressed it against the man's exposed thorax. Gurgling sounds mixed with the hard bursts of Veck's own breath as he stared down into eyes that were going opaque. Fast.
"Did I kill you? Did I?"
No response. Then again, the bastard's voice box was probably hanging from a branch somewhere.
Shit ... oh, shit ... it was like the night his mother had been killed.
Except in this case, he'd actually come to slice up someone.
That much he knew for sure: He had gotten on his motorcycle, driven out here, and waited in the forest for this psychotic POS to show up - all the while telling himself the lie that he was just going to take the "suspect" into custody.
His palm had told the truth. When his prey had finally arrived, his knife had been in his hand, and he'd made like a shadow in his deliberately black clothes, closing in... .
The Monroe Motel & Suites was only fifteen yards away, on the far side of this thick stand of brush and pines. Illuminated by piss yellow security lights, the seedy lineup of rent-by-the-night-or-the-hour was the reason both he and this sieve of a murderer had come out tonight.
Serial killers often took trophies from their victims. Incapable of forming proper emotional attachments to people, and needing physical representations of the fleeting power they enjoyed over their prey, they vested emotion in the objects or remains of the people they butchered.
David Kroner had lost his collection of souvenirs two nights ago. When his work here had been interrupted and the police had swarmed in.
So of course he would return to where he'd last been in control. It was the closest he could come to everything he'd once had.
"I've called an ambulance," Veck heard himself say, unsure who he was talking to.
Shifting his eyes, he focused on the motel's last room, the one at the end that was closest to where they were and farthest from the office. An official Caldwell Police Department evidence seal was plastered on the door and the jamb, and crime scene tape whistled in the breeze all around it. Between one blink and the next, he saw what he and the other CPDers had found there the night before last: another young woman, freshly killed and in the process of being picked over for mementos of the flesh.
He looked back down. The man bleeding out beneath him was wiry and thin, but then again, David Kroner's victims had been young women aged sixteen to twenty-four so it wasn't like he needed to be built like a bouncer to get the job done. Sandy blond hair was thinning at the crown. Skin that had been white-boy pale was now going gray - at least where it wasn't covered with blood.
ping into his databanks, Veck tried to remember what the hell had just happened. After waiting for what had felt like days, a snapping of sticks had shifted his eyes around and he'd found Kroner tiptoeing through the pines.
The instant he saw the man, his hand had gone for his knife, his body had crouched down and then he'd -
The headache came on sharp and fast, like someone had pounded a roofing nail into his frontal lobe. Putting a hand up, he listed to the left, and thought, well, great. When the ambulance came, the medics could treat him for an aneurysm.
At least it would give them something to do - Kroner was going to be a stiff by the time they got here.
When the screaming pain faded a little, Veck took another run at remembering ... only to slam temple-first into the land of Excedrin and blackout drapes again. With the fresh round of agony blooming in his skull like a bright red bouquet, he closed his eyes, and considered throwing up - and while the to-boot or not-to-boot debate raged in his gut, he figured it was time to be honest with himself. As much as his short-term memory had a big-ass hole in it, the fact was, he had come out here to kill this perverted bastard who, as the tally stood now, had defiled at least eleven young women from Chicago to Caldwell in the last year.
Horrific, of course. But amateur night compared to Veck'sown father - who'd done that in a three-month span once: Thomas DelVecchio Sr. wrote the book for guys like Kroner.
And it was precisely that lineage that had gotten Veck on the horn to not just the ambulance, but his partner at Homicide.
As much as he hated to admit it, he was his father's son: He had come to kill. Period. And the fact that his victim had been such a violent ass**le was nothing but a socially acceptable filter over the real picture.
At its core, this had not been about avenging those dead girls.
And for f**k's sake, he'd known this night was inevitable. All his life, the shadow had been behind him, guiding him, seducing him, pulling him toward this very scene of destruction. So it made sense he didn't remember anything. His other half had finally taken over, and hadn't ceded control of the wheel until the violence was done. The proof? Somewhere in the back of his head, laughter was echoing, maniacal and satisfied.
Yeah, well, get your jollies on now, he thought at the stuff. Because he wasn't going to let himself follow too far in his father's footsteps -
The sounds of sirens bubbled up from the east, and got louder, fast.
Apparently, he wasn't the only person who heard the approach. A man burst out of one of the motel rooms, and raced around the hood of a ten-year-old beater that had open latticework for quarter panels. Kind of tough for him to get his keys out, considering he was yanking his pants on at the same time.
Next up on the flee-parade was a rough-looking woman who scrambled into an old Honda Civic while pulling down her miniskirt.
Their screeching departures meant the parking lot was good and empty when the ambulance bumped in off the road and halted in front of the office.
As the passenger-side medic got out, and what had to be a manager opened the glass door, Veck whistled loud and clear. "Over here!"
The manager apparently had no intentions of getting involved and ducked back inside. But the medic jogged over and the ambulance trundled across the parking lot. And as they zeroed in on him, Veck became utterly calm - dead calm. As untouchable as the cold, distant moon that watched over the inky black night.
Fuck his dark side. He had done this. And he was going to make himself pay.
Internal Affairs officer Sophia Reilly was going like a bat out of hell in her unmarked, shooting through the backwoods of Caldwell's scruffy edges. As she rode the twists and turns of Route 149 at a dead run, the fact that she was on her way to a crime scene didn't account for the high speed: She drove fast. Ate quick. Hated to wait in lines, wait for people, wait for information.
If she could just avoid hitting a deer before she got to the Monroe Motel & Suites -
When her cell phone went off, she had it to her ear before the second ring. "Reilly."
"Detective de la Cruz."
"Hey. Guess where I'm going right now?"
"Who called you?"
"Dispatch. Your partner's on my list of things to do - so when he dials in for an ambulance and backup in the middle of the night, and says he doesn't know what happened to the victim, I get a ring-a-ding-ding."
Unfortunately, itwas something she was getting familiar with. Thomas DelVecchio Jr. had been working Homicide for only two weeks, and he'd already brushed up against a possible suspension for coldcocking a paparazzo who'd tried to sneak a pic of a victim.
That was child's play to this mess, though.
"How'd you find out?" she asked.
"He woke me up."
"How'd he sound?"
"I'm going to be honest."
"You always are, Detective."
"He sounded just fine. Complained of a headache and loss of memory. He said there was a lot of blood and that he was one hundred percent sure that the victim was David Kroner."