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Nothing in life is quite as exhilarating as hunting people.
Agent Robbie Sanchez’s mind flickered with the remembrance of her college days at the University of Miami when she and her girlfriends’ idea of fun and excitement was to hit the bars and go dancing. Now, with nearly ten years of experience as a homicide investigator, she’d long since amended her naïve notions of fun and excitement. The addictive, adrenalinedriven world of catching killers stole any possibility she might have of returning to the pleasantly ignorant days of her youth. She was a cop junkie with little chance for rehabilitation.
Robbie rubbed her hands together. Not that she was cold; it was the best way to release the pent-up energy without revealing her position in the bushes. The nearly full moon illuminated the canal bank just enough to form phantoms out of shadows and give substance to the low, clinging fog crawling out of the water onto the shore. Hiding among the dense foliage along the bank of the now infamous Tillman Canal, Robbie’s dark camouflage jacket covered her Florida Department of Law Enforcement bulletproof raid vest and her gun belt, which pinched against her hip if she moved just right.
She checked her watch: 3:34 a.m. Another slow, possibly wasted night. They’d set up their surveillance every night for nearly three weeks with nothing resembling a lead. She needed to be patient, no matter what it took. The killer would return.
The muggy Florida air and occasional sounds of fish breaking the water’s surface added a little ambiance to her secluded, all-night venture. She tucked an errant tendril of her black hair back into the elastic band and tightened her ponytail. She was a city girl, not some rustic chick. Just because she was on a stakeout didn’t mean she had to look uncivilized.
Squeaking brakes called from the darkness. A shadowy silhouette of a car, lights off, crept toward her down the pitted, bumpy service road along the canal bank. Maybe one of the other agents was changing position? The car stopped, but no brake lights came on.
“I’ve got some movement here,” Robbie whispered into her radio mic as she stepped behind a palm tree and aimed her night-vision scope toward the car. “Is anybody moving out there?”
“Everybody’s still in position.” John Russell was a half mile west of her location. “If something’s moving, it’s not one of us.”
Robbie adjusted the volume on her radio and tightened her earpiece. FDLE agents from the Melbourne field office were stationed at intervals along the six-mile-long canal bank. The Tillman had many entry points–some from neighborhoods, some from wooded trails. Florida Power & Light used it to check their power poles, and ATV and motorcycle riders enjoyed the road during the day. Boaters and fishermen trolled along the canal itself, but it was the nighttime activity that concerned Robbie.
In the last four months, three homicide victims surfaced at different points along the canal–one was found underneath a private dock, another in a patch of reeds. And just over a month earlier, the last victim was discovered floating facedown in the middle of the channel. By robbie’s estimate and profile, the killer worked on a thirty-day cycle.
He was past due to strike again.
His victims were prostitutes working the Melbourne and Palm Bay area: women of the night who could disappear and not be missed for days, weeks, months–and sometimes never. As if murdering the women wasn’t bad enough, the ghoul had tortured them first.
It was an impossible task to try to keep watch on the alltoo-numerous potential victims strolling up and down the U.S. 1 corridor. Another consistent factor of his MO was the dumpsite.
This place meant something to him. Maybe he grew up around here. Maybe he lived within a block or two or possibly right along the canal. Robbie didn’t know what it was, but something attracted him here–and he’d surely return.
The car stopped about two hundred feet away. No one came out here this time of night just to sit in a car by himself. Robbie zoomed in on him with the night-vision scope. The driver fumbled with something in the front seat. Even if he wasn’t their suspect, this guy was up to no good. The man opened his door and used the roof to hoist himself out of the vehicle.
He checked up and down the desolate roadway. The green hues of the night vision made a positive identification impossible, but he was a white male, maybe midthirties, medium build, wearing blue jeans and work boots. Definitely not one of her team. He paced to the front of the car, then quickly to the rear doing “the felony look-around.” Whatever he was up to, it should be a treat. Robbie’s pulse quickened as he jammed his key in the trunk’s lock and whipped it open.
“All units, move up.” Robbie hugged the shadows of the tree line as she inched closer and whispered into the mic. “He’s opened the trunk. We have to block him in.”
The man bent over and pulled a log-sized lump half out of the trunk, resting it on the edge. Squatting down, he lugged the object out onto his shoulders. Hunched over and staggering like a drunk trying to dance, he two-stepped his way to balance, the limp load draped over his shoulders like a thick, malleable yoke. Lumbering down the canal bank, he picked up speed, and with a primitive grunt, he launched the object into the waiting waters of the Tillman. The loud splash told Robbie what she needed to know–they’d just found their suspect.
“It’s him! It’s him!” Robbie silently sprinted from the darkness and drew her 9 mm, crouching down as she ran to intercept him. “All units, move in. Repeat, all units, move in.”
“Wait for backup!” Special Agent in Charge Alan Cohen commanded. “We’ll be there in just one minute.”
The suspect marched up the steep bank toward his car. He glanced back at the disturbed waters lapping at the shore, and he rubbed his hands along his jeans. He was nearly in the car. She didn’t have a minute.
It’s easier to beg for forgiveness than to ask permission.
She skulked along the road about twenty yards from the vehicle without acknowledging Alan over the radio. She had the element of surprise and couldn’t wait for backup. The suspect would be gone by then, maybe forever. She had to move now. She lit him up with the flashlight. “Police! Get on the ground. Now!”
He twirled around, his arm splayed out like he was preparing for a tackle. His eyes narrowed and focused in on her. This guy wasn’t going down without a fight. Robbie marched toward him, gun and flashlight freezing him in place. He stole a furtive glance at the open car door. Could she cut him off before he made it to the car?
“I know what you’re thinking.” Robbie quickened her pace. “Don’t do it. On the ground now!”
Raising his hands high, he glanced behind him, then back at Robbie. She was alone, and he had to know that by now. With a smirk and two quick bounds, he hopped into the driver’s seat, slamming the car in gear before his rear hit the seat. The spinning tires sprayed a rooster tail of dirt as the vehicle swerved, front door still open, and barreled toward Robbie, who backpedaled but would never make it out of his path.
“Stop!” She trained her flashlight and 9 mm on the driver’s head. His hateful, sadistic eyes bore down on her, and he gunned the engine. She had no choice. Crack. Crack. Two rounds spiderwebbed the windshield just as the driver ducked down, jerking the car to the right at the last second.
Robbie dove and rolled down the canal bank, splashing into the murky soup of the Tillman. He missed her by mere inches, and his car rocketed along the clumpy canal bank like a skier taking moguls.
As Robbie struggled for footing, her hand brushed against an object bobbing in the water. Cold and smooth. She didn’t have to see it to know she’d just touched another victim. She pulled up her flashlight, hoping it still worked, and shone it on the water. The milky white figure floated facedown in a way no live human could.
Robbie grabbed the woman’s wrist, heaved her up onto the shore, and made a quick search for vitals. They were long gone.
Another victim. One more woman forced to pay for this suspect’s sick, deluded fantasies. He was going to be stopped–tonight. Robbie crawled up the canal bank, weighed down by her saturated vest and gear.
Another car raced down the dirt road toward her, the dashmounted red and blues flashing, then skidded to a stop. “Are you okay?” The dust that John’s car kicked up overtook them.
“I’m fine.” Robbie lit up the victim’s body on the shore as she struggled to catch her breath. “But he’s killed another one. We’ve got to get him, John. We can’t let him escape again.”
“Hop in!” He revved the engine and white-knuckled the steering wheel, his ink black hair slicked back. The suspect’s vehicle was back on the dirt road and nearly a quarter mile away. Robbie sprinted around the car and shook her pistol, hoping the water wouldn’t damage it. She might need it again soon.
“He’s getting ready to turn onto Fallon Boulevard,” John called on the radio as he pulled away before Robbie could shut the door.
“I’ve got him.” Agent Tim Porter’s voice brimmed with excitement. “He’s turning west. A blue Honda. Florida tag FDC4439. I’m in pursuit. Get the sheriff ’s helicopter here.”
“Catch up, John.” Robbie holstered her pistol and then pounded a damp fist on the dash. “I fired at him twice, but I don’t think I hit him.” She’d been on this guy for too long now to let him slip away like this. But Porter was a good cop. He wouldn’t let the suspect escape.
Robbie snatched John’s microphone off the dashboard. “We have a confirmed victim, and he tried to run me down. We have at least one more count of murder plus attempted murder on me. Do what you have to do to stop this guy. He’s not getting away tonight.”
As the dirt road turned into pavement, John’s car smacked a dip, scraping the bottom and jostling Robbie. The Buick screamed as they raced toward Tim, who was keeping up with the killer, turn by turn.
“He’s heading north on Babcock Street.” Tim’s voice was a pitch higher than normal, the adrenaline amping up on everyone.
The Brevard County Sheriff ’s Department helicopter thundered overhead, its powerful spotlight tracking the suspect’s car as if it were daytime. He was just ahead of them.
John floored it. Alan Cohen’s car fell in behind them. All the agents converged on the suspect as he zigzagged and barreled down the four-lane road, desperate to elude their pursuit. At least the late hour gave them some insulation from killing an innocent civilian in a car crash. The streets were empty save the cops and the killer.
“I’m gonna ram him,” Tim’s voice crackled over the radio. “Wait and follow him a little longer. We’ve got the copter here. Let’s be smart.”
“Forget smart, Alan. He tried to run over Robbie. I’m taking him out.” Tim accelerated alongside the suspect, who swerved into Tim’s lane, not letting him get next to him.
“Watch it!” Alan called out. “This guy’s desperate. He knows he’s going down. Be careful.”
Veering out of his way, Tim eased closer and lined up his front bumper just off the suspect’s left rear tire. Tim swerved, nailing the suspect’s car just behind the tire, sparks flying like two sabers clashing in battle. The suspect spun out of control and crashed into a tree.
Tim’s car careened off Babcock Street in the opposite direction, taking flight as he struck the curb and splashing down into a retention pond nose first. John skidded to a stop just behind the suspect’s crumpled heap. Robbie leaped out and raced toward the car, her pistol trained on the man. Smoke billowed from the crushed car, and the suspect’s head wobbled back and forth as he fought to open the crinkled door.
“Get your hands up!” Robbie tickled the side of his head with her pistol. Blood trailed down his battered, defeated face, his hands trembling as they extended out of the smoldering wreck.
John seized one arm, Alan the other, and they wrenched him from the car via the smashed-out driver’s window. Planting him facedown on the asphalt, they cuffed him. The sirens from the backup units wailed into the night, announcing the end of this killer’s reign of mayhem and murder. Robbie pulled his wallet out of his jeans pocket. Gerald Williamson. No one she’d ever heard of. But they would become very familiar soon.
She rolled him onto his side. “Mr. Williamson, I’m Agent Roberta Sanchez with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. You’re under arrest for the murder of the young woman you just dumped in the Tillman Canal, and we’re going to talk about all the others as well.”
Gerald’s head dropped to the concrete, echoing like a hollow coconut.
“Hey, is anyone gonna help me?” Tim asked as John passed off Williamson to the Palm Bay police officers for transport. “I need some help over here.”
“I almost forgot about Tim.” Robbie holstered her pistol. Then she, Alan, and John jogged across Babcock Street’s four lanes to where Tim tanked his car.
Tim’s Buick, his pride and joy fresh off the line, lurched in the water in a manner reminiscent of the last moments of the Titanic. Tim perched on the trunk with his legs dangling off. His back window appeared to have been kicked out.
“Did you get him?” Tim pulled his knees to his chest as the car sunk a little more in the water. Water droplets glistened on his short-cropped afro like a crown, and his thick frame struggled for balance atop his Buick bobber.
“He’s bagged and tagged.” Robbie slipped off her camo jacket and then her FDLE raid vest and dropped them to the grass. “But it looks like you’re gonna have to swim in to see him.”
“That ain’t right.” Tim shook his head. “This is my first new car since I don’t know when.”
Alan massaged his gray beard as he gawked at Tim’s predicament. “Porter, you’re not gonna see the inside of a new car as long as I’m here, which, luckily for you, happens to be only six weeks.”
“Boss, what else was I supposed to do?” Tim shrugged. “He’s a killer who tried to run Robbie down. I couldn’t let him get away. Give me a break.”
Alan slapped his hands on his hips, his mostly bald head shining under the streetlights. “That’s what you said when you smashed the car into the convenience store, and when you wrecked the retirement home, and when you–”
“I get it, I get it.” Tim crossed his arms. “But for now, can you just get me outta here?”
Tim’s car floated in the middle of the retention pond, a good fifteen feet from shore. Robbie flashed her light all around the shoreline. “Well, big guy, I think you’re gonna have to wait for a wrecker or swim your way out.”
“Man, I don’t want to wait out here an hour for some wrecker.” Tim rose, balancing on the bumper like he was riding a wave on a surfboard. “I think I can make the jump.”
“No way.” Robbie laughed. Tim was so stubborn and just about crazy enough to try. “Just wait and someone will pull you out.”
“I can make this jump.” Tim rubbed his brown hands together. He was in good shape for a man in his late forties, but he had a bit too much bulk for that kind of leap.
Robbie shook her head. “It’s not going to happen. Better wait for the tow truck.”
“Russell, can I make this jump or what?”
“My friend, if you try it you’ll be very wet and very angry.” John ripped the Velcro and shed his raid vest, letting it slide to the ground. He stretched out his lean, sinewy frame. “It’s not worth the attempt.”
“Bah to both of you.” Tim pointed to the murky chasm that separated them. “I was a fine athlete in my day, and I can do this.”
“I’ve got ten bucks that says you’ll splash down before you touch down.” Robbie held up her wallet. For all they’d been through, this would be money well spent.
John leaned toward her and whispered, “Don’t do that. It’ll only encourage him.”
“I know.” Robbie smirked. Pushing Tim’s buttons was so easy. “Do you have your camera here?”
“You’re a really bad girl.” John crossed his arms. “It’s in the car. Want me to get it?”
“Hey, we’ve been working this case day and night for four months. It’s time we had some fun. Go get it.” John hustled across the street to his car.
Tim pulled his wallet out and waved a ten at Robbie. “Show me the money, lady.”
Robbie retrieved a ten of her own and grinned as the currency flapped in the early morning breeze. “Okay, Kermit, let’s see if you can make that jump.”
Alan walked to the pond’s edge. “Please tell me he’s not going to do what I think he’s going to do.” He lifted his vest over his head and dropped it on the ground. His sweat-soaked T-shirt clung to his broad chest. Sporting a good build for a man in his early fifties, Alan often told Robbie that his daily workouts were the only thing that kept him sane. John jogged back to Robbie and handed her his digital camera.
“Oh yeah.” Robbie raised the camera and focused in on Tim. “And Porter’s going to be paying for breakfast too.”
Tim alternated his gaze from the bumper to the shoreline. He swayed and worked his arms back and forth. Eyeing the shore, he leaped with all his might. Robbie snapped the photo.