Read an Excerpt
The PERFECT SCREAM
By James Andrus
PINNACLE BOOKSCopyright © 2013 James Andrus
All right reserved.
Chapter OneDetective John Stallings shifted in the seat of the county-issued Impala so his Glock didn't bite into his hip when he turned to look at his partner, Patty Levine. It had taken him a while to get used to the blond hair and pretty face, but now he viewed her like any other cop—only meaner and with a better punch. The Police Memorial Building, or PMB, rose in front of them.
Patty was studying a document in the battered gray-metal pad case where she stored notes and calendars that went back years. She held up a photo and said, "Zach Halston, twenty-one, senior at the University of North Florida. May be out at the beach with some fraternity nerds. Mom hasn't heard from him in ten days and she's worried."
"Great, so now we babysit frat boys?"
"What else do we got going on? This is a nice, lower-stress change of pace."
Stallings gave one of the noncommittal grunts that had gotten him through nineteen years of marriage. Well, eighteen with a year sabbatical. What he didn't say out loud, what he'd never mention to another cop, was that he did have better things to do. He had conducted a relentless, secretive search for his daughter, Jeanie, who had disappeared three years earlier when she was sixteen. If his bosses at the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office knew he was working his own daughter's case he'd have a lot to explain. As it was, the command staff and his immediate supervisors had gone above and beyond the call to help Stallings. The case was open and a detective still did some checking, but Stallings had a schedule of talking to other missing-persons detectives across the country and searching the Internet for any clues on sites about missing kids and runaways. That's why he resented this jerk-off assignment.
After a minute of brooding, Stallings said, "Any idea where the frat boys are?"
"The father says they're at one of the mom-and-pop hotels over in Atlantic Beach. It might be slow checking on partying college kids in the morning. Maybe we should grab an early lunch if we don't find the right hotel in the first few tries."
Stallings nodded and sighed.
"You look tired. What's wrong?"
"What's your favorite phrase? Is today the day?"
"C'mon, I know you went through the academy ten years after me, but they had to still be preaching it."
She shrugged her muscular shoulders.
"Is today the day that changes your life?" Stallings shook his head. "Just a way to keep you alert and not fall into complacency." He had said the phrase at the start of every assignment since his early road patrol days. Lately, he'd taken an active role in changing his life and it was showing results. His wife, Maria, had been much more open to talking and his father, whom he had not seen in twenty years, was now part of the family again. Sort of.
Patty looked out the window and said, "You think we should consider another assignment for a while?"
"It doesn't bother you that the other units call us the 'spring break patrol' or 'runaway round-up'?"
He snorted. "And looking for burglars in Hyde Park is better?"
"You know nothing we do here can undo the past."
Stallings looked down and sighed. "But it can make me feel better about the present."
Patty didn't answer, but he sensed her frustration. This was his choice. She'd had to take any detective bureau assignment she could to get off road patrol. She didn't have the same perspective as him. At least she had gotten some homicide experience with a few cases that required all the detectives in crimes/persons to work together. No one would've guessed that Jacksonville, Florida, was the crossroads of the South for deviants and killers.
Stallings said, "Let's see what happens today and worry about tomorrow later."
Lynn mumbled the common "yeahs" and "un-huhs" as she absently listened to her mom go on and on about the problems she was having with the built-in vacuum system at their house in Hyde Park. Then she heard her mother say, "Are you still there, sweetheart?"
"Yeah, Mom, I hear you." She may have heard the words, but all of her attention was focused out the windshield of the blue Chevy Suburban she'd borrowed from work. The Thomas Brothers Grocery and Supply chain treated her well. They paid her top dollar to keep their books, gave her time off when she needed it, and did little things like loan her a giant killing machine without asking any questions whatsoever. Again she heard her mom say, "Can you hear me, sweetie?"
Lynn smiled. She could tell how old she was when she'd met someone based on if they called her by her first name, her middle name, or a nickname. Her parents and siblings as well as anyone she knew as a very young girl, before she started school, never called her Lynn. Everyone else did. Her mom called all the kids "sweetheart" or "sweetie."
Before she realized it, the conversation was over and her mother said, "All right, sweetheart, you be careful." Lynn knew her mother was paranoid about her children's safety, even a twenty-four-year-old child like herself. The slight tremor in her mother's voice ate away at Lynn a little bit at a time.
She closed her cell phone and looked down the nearly empty street leading out to International Speedway Boulevard, one of the main roads of Daytona Beach. And she thought downtown Jacksonville was shitty. This hellhole seemed to be nothing but rednecks and bikers. Every block along US 1 was jammed with strip bars and tattoo parlors. She couldn't believe she'd liked this place when she was a kid. Even the boardwalk down by the beach was a second-rate parody of a real boardwalk like Atlantic City's.
But she had to remember why she was here and what she was trying to accomplish.
This was a mission, not a pleasure trip.
The morning was a wash, but looking for the missing frat boy got easier after lunch when a lot of the fall break crowd started to stir after a night of club hopping. That's what caught Patty's eye as they drove past the Pelican Harbor Inn—a line of buff, tanned young men leaning against the cheap metal rail of the two-story motel along the eroding beach east of Jacksonville.
Patty smiled. "Fraternity nerd alert."
Stallings whipped the Impala into a spot at the next hotel a few feet away from the hedge that separated the rundown buildings. "Don't kids go home for Thanksgiving break anymore?"
"Not when there are a few extra days off school. Now they party."
"Hey, you can't park there," called a dark-skinned, Middle Eastern man when he saw the two detectives turn toward the Pelican Harbor Inn.
Stallings held up his badge from his belt without a word and the man waved him on. He could hear the music blaring from an open door as he and Patty took the outside stairs up to the second floor. The windows pulsed to the heavy bass as the detectives approached the boys in the outdoor hallway.
The closest boy, wearing a T-shirt that said REHAB IS FOR QUITTERS, turned his head slowly toward them, his eyes moving to the guns and badges on their belts; then he hopped off the railing to greet them.
"Is there a problem, officer?" asked the young man in a voice loud enough to be heard over the music as he waved his hand behind his back to get the others off the railing.
Stallings shouted, "Cut the music," and waited as one of the boys scampered into the first room. A few seconds later there was silence. His ears still rang, but now he could hear the waves break over the narrow beach. He smiled and said, "That's better."
"Was that it?" asked the group's spokesman.
Patty often used the imposing Stallings to get someone's attention, then handled the details. The young men were obviously nervous around her stern-looking partner.
Patty stepped forward and said, "What's your name?"
The boy paused.
Stallings stared at him.
"Bobby Hollis." He couldn't say it fast enough.
Patty calmed him with a smile. "Well, Bobby"—she held up a photograph she slipped out of her metal case—"he here with you?"
The young man took the photo and said, "Zach Halston?"
"No, I thought he was home visiting his parents. Haven't seen him in a while."
"We stopped at your apartment complex. No one was around." The apartments acted as the fraternity houses for all the small, local universities.
"Everyone either went home for a few days or came out here."
"Why vacation so close to J-Ville?"
Bobby gave Patty a sly smile. "We grab these rooms cheap, then make up stories about being graduate students from Stanford or Harvard. The local chicks eat that shit up."
Patty just nodded. She knew all the scams guys put on to meet women. This was just a tad more shallow than most. She said, "Got any idea where he might be or anyone who's close to him?"
"Why? Is he in trouble?"
Now Stallings stepped forward. "Does it matter? We need to find him. Is there anything about that you don't understand?"
"We're gonna look around. Which rooms do you have?"
The young man pointed to the open door and the room next to it.
Patty said, "Just two for all of you?"
He smiled at her and stepped closer. "We're struggling college students. This was all we could afford."
The detectives each took a room. There were sleeping bags piled on the floor and the bed, separated so the box spring and mattress could each hold bodies. After peeking in the empty bathroom, Stallings headed back out to the crowd on the railing. Before he reached the door, he heard a crash. As he stepped outside, a shirtless, muscle-bound young man flopped out into the hallway. Patty stepped out behind him.
"Problem?" asked Stallings, already knowing what had happened.
Patty smiled. "I just had to show him that you don't make cracks to the police."
"What'd he say?"
She looked down at the dazed young man and nudged him with her petite foot. "Go ahead, tell him."
The young man shook out the ringing in his ears and mumbled. "I didn't know who she was. I asked her if it was true that lots of fun came in small packages."
Stallings shook his head and said, "Dumbass." He turned back to Bobby Hollis, knowing that Patty's little demonstration would've loosened some tongues. "Tell me who could help us find Zach."
Bobby's eyes shifted up from his friend on the cement walkway. He didn't hesitate. "Connor Tate. He was left at the house to keep an eye on things, plus he's trying to save some cash, so he didn't come over here with us. He shares an apartment with Zach some of the time."
"What do you mean 'some of the time'?"
"Zach has an apartment away from the apartment complex that houses the fraternity. It's closer to Arlington." The boy sketched out a map to the apartment at Stallings's urging.
"He has a place at the fraternity complex too, right?"
The boy nodded. "That's the one with Connor."
Patty asked, "Why two places?"
The kid shrugged. "You'd have to ask Zach."
Now Stallings said, "Give me Connor's number."
Patty understood Stallings's personality after a couple years of working with him. He had lost the ability to ask for information a long time ago. It was faster to just tell people to give him information.
Bobby blurted out a cell phone number.
"Where was Connor when we went by the frat house?"
The boy shrugged. "You know how it is. We got time off, we party. He's a hard sleeper."
Stallings threw a glare over the scared young men. Patty had to smile. He had gotten his point across without saying a word. If they had to talk to these boys again they'd be too scared to hold anything back. It was like bringing a big, mean dog with you on interviews. She wanted to reach over and pat him on the head.
Lynn waited, her eyes glued to the front of the bank, considering her actions. She knew there were consequences to everything someone did in life. That's what drove her. It wasn't like this would be the first time. She hated to admit the satisfaction she'd gotten from the fire she'd set in Atlanta. The Internet really did have the answers to everything.
Movement caught her eye and she sat up straight in the seat of the big SUV. Someone was at the front door to the bank. It was him. Lynn didn't know why she was so certain it was him. He paused at the door, looking back inside. His face was not visible, but she knew exactly who was stepping out of the crappy little bank a block off International Speedway. She'd already scoped out his BMW parked across the street in the parking lot that served the strip mall as well as the businesses grouped near the bank.
She felt a wave of excitement at the prospect of what she was about to do. This was going to be sweet.
Chapter TwoAlan Cole paused for a moment as he was about to burst through the front door of the bank and into the bright, beautiful sunshine of Central Florida. It was two o'clock and he wasn't going to close any more loans or open any more investment accounts today. It was time to hit the beach and put in some time on his board. But he had to stop and turn to make eye contact with the hot little Puerto Rican chick working behind the far end of the counter today. She had a wild-ass look in her eye that matched the outrageous fake boobs she liked to show off. He'd love to roll into the next big fraternity party and show the young punks what an alumnus like him could find if he trolled the right waters.
He waited at the front door just long enough for her to give him a flash of those dark eyes with just a tad too much makeup around them. Somehow in just that casual glance she said to him, "Come for me whenever you're ready." At least that's how he chose to interpret the look. He probably wasn't wrong. She had seen him race up in his tight 320i and noticed the tailored suits and the way his arms popped in them, because of all the time he put in at the gym.
He took a final, quick glance around the lobby and noted only one decent-looking MILF waiting in line for the next teller. He wouldn't mind moving to a branch farther east and picking up more customers with bodies made for the beach. But at least out here he had a chance to show off his ability at writing loans and hooking investment clients.
The humidity wasn't as bad as it usually was when he cleared the door and stepped out onto the cracked sidewalk. He barely looked as he stepped into the street. Why should he? Even though they were near the Daytona Speedway no one ever drove above twenty on this twisting side street.
Then he saw it. A big blue Chevy Suburban. It seemed like it was right on top of him and moving fast down the middle of the street. He thought about sprinting forward but then turned on the ball of his Bruno Magli shoes instead.
That was his mistake.
The massive SUV didn't swing wide to miss him as he thought it would. It rolled directly toward him like a shark about to hit a helpless swimmer in the open sea.
He caught a flash of the driver's smiling face. Could it be? No shit. He knew her. But in that second of recognition he could not recall exactly where he knew her from. He had a clear idea it was not a positive connotation as the steel bumper of the Suburban struck him just above his right knee and the grille swept him up like the teeth of a shark. For a moment he had the sensation of flying as he tumbled through the air toward the uncut grass swale in front of the bank. He lost sight of the truck as the ground filled his field of vision and rushed up to meet his face.
Then everything went black.
Lynn was disappointed all she heard was a short yelp of terror instead of a more satisfying scream. She had been spoiled by her first victim. That had been a healthy scream. She glanced in the rearview mirror to see his crumpled heap lying across the strip of grass and sidewalk in front of the bank.
One more asshole dealt with.
A smile crept across her face as she casually pulled out onto International Speedway Boulevard and turned toward I-95. In about an hour she'd pull back into the main parking lot of Thomas Brothers, toss the keys to the fleet manager, and go back to work like she had only been out running a few errands.
No muss, no fuss, no regrets.
Now she could focus on who was next.
Chapter ThreeJohn Stallings was still annoyed at his assignment finding the wayward fraternity nerd. As far as he was concerned Zach Halston was a spoiled rich kid whose friends couldn't keep their yaps shut. They had given up his secret apartment off campus with hardly any argument at all. Now that Patty had sweet-talked the key out of the manager, Stallings thought the boy was just trying to keep a low profile and stay off his parents' radar for some reason. Patty and he had jointly decided to come here before going by the fraternity house again. Their first visit to the Tau Upsilon house had been a bust except they had discovered most of the brothers were over at the hotel on the beach. One of the brothers who stayed at the house, a young man named Connor Tate, was supposed to be close to the missing Zach Halston. They had a few questions for Connor.
Excerpted from The PERFECT SCREAM by James Andrus Copyright © 2013 by James Andrus. Excerpted by permission of PINNACLE BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.