Noise was one of the few things that moved freely inside a prison. The haunting echo of my own footsteps followed me down the long, windowless corridor inside the maximum security wing of Florida State Prison in Starke. I’d visited many prisons, and the smell was always the same: a choking mixture of piss, shit, fear, and desperation, wiped down by harsh antiseptics. Walking through an electronically operated steel door, I was patted down by two stone-faced guards. Satisﬁed that I was not carrying weapons or contraband, they passed me off to a smirking inmate with a hideous purple birthmark on the side of his face. He took off at a brisk pace, and I followed him into the cellblock that housed death row inmates. “What’s your name?” I asked. “Garvin,” he replied, not breaking stride. “What are you in for?” “I shot up my family during Thanksgiving dinner.” I walked past the cells in death row with my eyes to the ﬂoor, feeling their occupants’ presence like a ﬁst pounding on my back. When we arrived at an empty cell, Garvin slid back the door, and stepped to one side. “Wait inside here,” he said.
“What if no one comes?” I asked.
“Make some noise, and I’ll come get you.”
I entered the cell, a ten-by-ten concrete square with two wood benches anchored to the ﬂoor, and a small wood table. Garvin slammed the door behind me, making me jump. He chuckled as he walked away.
I took the bench nearest the door, and stuck a piece of gum into my mouth. I chewed so hard it made my jaw ache. I’d put scores of bad guys into Starke, and I didn’t want to be here any longer than I had to.
I stared at the table. Inmates were not supposed to have anything sharp, but the table said otherwise. Names and dates and ugly epithets were carved into every inch of wood. One name stood out over the others.
I had been involved in Abb’s case, and I knew his story. A Fort Lauderdale native, he’d quit high school at seventeen, done a stint in the navy, gotten married and had a kid, and gone to work driving a newspaper delivery truck–an ordinary guy, except that he liked to kill young women.
Abb’s killings followed a pattern. Late at night, he left his house, and walked to the neighborhood grocery. There, he’d hidden behind the Dumpsters. When a young homeless woman would show up looking for food, he’d drag her into the woods, rape and strangle her, then stuff her body in a large garbage bag, tossing her into a Dumpster.
As mass murders went, it was nearly perfect. The victims were women no one cared about, and the bodies were disposed of for him. It might have gone on forever, only one night a surveillance camera ﬁlmed Abb with the body of a victim draped in his arms. As was his custom, the store manager viewed the tape the next morning. Seeing Abb, he called 911.
The police found the woman’s body in the Dumpster. They got a search warrant for Abb’s home and in his garage they found a cardboard box containing women’s underpants. Each of the pairs was different.
Their next stop was the Pompano Beach landﬁll, where trash in Broward County was taken. Using earth movers and cadaver dogs, they’d moved several acres of trash, digging up the bodies of seventeen strangled women.
Eleven of the women were carrying ID. As head of the Broward County Sheriff’s Department’s Missing Persons unit, it had been my job to contact their families. It had been one of the hardest things I’d ever done.
The remaining six women were still Jane Does. I had hoped to identify them one day, and put their memories to rest. Only I’d lost my job after beating up a suspect, and never gotten it done.
It ate at me.
Hearing footsteps, I went to the cell door. Wearing leg irons and handcuffs and ﬂanked by two guards, Abb shufﬂed down the hall. Tall and powerfully built, he had an angular jaw and dark, deeply set eyes. During his trial, the prosecution had called him “The Night Stalker,” which had been a TV show that had lasted one season. It had scared the hell out of everyone who’d seen it. The nickname ﬁt.
“Stand back,” a guard ordered.
I retreated, and the three men entered. Abb dropped down on the opposing bench and looked at the ﬂoor, while the two guards remained standing.
An attractive brunette clutching a leather briefcase came in next. She was young and looked a little scared, and I found myself admiring her. It took guts for a woman to enter a prison ﬁlled with a thousand hardened criminals.
“I’m Piper Stone, Abb’s attorney,” she said.
“Jack Carpenter,” I said.
“Thank you for coming.”
We sat on the bench, and faced Abb. As strange as it sounded, he was my client, so I waited for him to start. Abb cleared his throat. He had a voice like gravel, and I guessed he didn’t use it much.
“I’m going to die soon,” Abb said. “Did my lawyer tell you that?”
“No, she didn’t,” I said.
“They’re going to execute me in four days,” Abb said. “Think you can ﬁnd my grandson before then?”
Abb’s grandson, three-year-old Sampson Grimes, had disappeared from his bedroom three nights ago. I’d read about it in the Fort Lauderdale newspapers, and knew that the police had been stymied in their efforts to locate him.
“I’m going to try,” I said. “Now, why don’t you tell me what happened.”
“I get an hour each day to exercise in the yard,” Abb said. “Two days ago, a photograph of my grandson and a ransom note got slipped into my back pocket. I didn’t see who did it.”
“Do you still have the note and photo?” I asked.
“I gave them to Ms. Stone.”
I looked at Stone. “I’d like to see them.”
Stone unclasped her briefcase and handed me the items. The photo showed a tow-headed little boy with a face like the Gerber baby lying on a blanket. His clothes looked clean, as did his face and hands, and his eyes showed no sign of fear. I took these as a sign that his captor was not abusing him. Lying on the blanket was a copy of the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel with the date prominently displayed. It was a trick used by kidnappers to show that their victims were still alive.
I shifted my attention to the ransom note. Written in pencil, it said, “Stop talking to the FBI or Sampson will die.” The handwriting surprised me. Most kidnappers used typewriters, or glued letters cut from a magazine. Whoever had kidnapped Sampson obviously didn’t think he was going to get caught.
“What are you talking to the FBI about?” I asked.
“I’m in their VICAP program,” Abb said. “I was supposed to go under hypnosis to help them identify those Jane Does. I still don’t remember the things I did.”
VICAP was the FBI’s Violent Criminal Apprehension Program. Cops had an expression when criminals entered programs like VICAP, and agreed to help the police. They called it taking a shot at heaven.
“Does the FBI know you were contacted by your grandson’s kidnapper?” I asked.
Abb shook his head.
“How about the police?” I asked.
Abb shook his head again.
“Why haven’t you told them?”
“Because I want you to ﬁnd him,” Abb said.
“Why?” I asked.
“I’ve met six guys in Starke who are serving life for kidnapping little kids. You put them here. That’s why.”
I slipped the ransom note into my pocket.
“You’re going to take the job?” Abb asked.
“Yes,” I said.
I stood and so did Stone. She went over and placed her hand on Abb’s shoulder. Under her breath she said, “I’ll call you tomorrow, and let you know how the appeals are going.”
Abb gazed up at her and nodded.
One of the guards slid back the cell door. Stone and I started to leave. I saw Abb look directly at me. Something resembling hope ﬂickered in his eyes. I decided to level with him.
“Your grandson’s case is three days old,” I said. “That’s a long time when it comes to a kidnapping. I need to do a lot of groundwork, and talk to a lot of people.”
“What are you trying to say?” Abb asked.
“I may not ﬁnd Sampson before they execute you.”
“Four days isn’t enough?”
“I won’t know until I start looking.”
“I was hoping you–”
I cut him off. “I don’t make promises.”
“That’s the deal,” I said.
Abb cast his eyes to the ﬂoor. He had asked me here because he did not want to go to his death knowing he’d caused an innocent child to suffer. I had to think it was one of the more decent things he’d done in his life.
“Okay,” he muttered.
He was still staring at the ﬂoor when we left.
From the Hardcover edition.