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By Meryl Sawyer
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2004 M. Sawyer-Unickel
All rights reserved.
"Aren't there any normal guys around?"
Jessica Crawford and her two friends' laughter floated above the noise in Peaches, the trendy bar near the San Francisco Herald where they worked. Several men turned to watch them, but Jessica didn't make eye contact. There were better ways to meet men than in bars.
"Seriously," Zoe said, arching one dark eyebrow the way she often did. "I need to find a normal guy who wants to settle down and have a family."
"Why?" Jessica asked. "Has your biological clock become a time bomb?"
"You bet," Stacy replied. "Hey, we're all thirty-something, right? So —"
"None of us has seen the big three-three," Jessica said. "Why rush marriage? Let's enjoy dating."
Her two friends stared at Jessica. She gazed back, checking a grin.
"Okay, Jess, what gives?" Stacy, a green-eyed redhead, frequently zeroed in on things others often missed.
"Tell all," Zoe demanded. "You've been so down on men."
Jessica had to admit her acrimonious divorce from the cheating, lying skank Marshall Wolford had left her angry and distrustful of men.
"We need to be careful, but if we screen properly, we can meet great guys."
"I have a fab guy," Stacy informed them as if they weren't totally aware of her year-long relationship with Scott Reynolds.
"Hip-hip-hooray for you!" Zoe lifted her wineglass. "I guess I'm the only one missing out. It sounds like Jessica has met a guy."
Jessica smiled fondly at her friends. Each Thursday night they met for dinner. And true confessions.
She honestly didn't know what she would have done without them, when Marshall had left her. The two of them had been so caring, so supportive. There was no way she could possibly repay them.
The three of them hadn't known each other until they'd been hired by the Herald. In the last seven years, they'd become close. A blonde, a brunette, and redhead. All of them were attractive, Jessica had to admit. When they were together, the trio drew stares from men.
"I have met someone," Jessica confessed. "An attorney."
Stacy shook her head, her shining red hair shifting across her shoulders. "Did you ever notice the term 'criminal lawyer' is redundant?"
They shared a laugh, which drew more male glances in their direction.
"You both told me to start dating again," Jessica said.
"You must admit that it seems strange for you to take up with an attorney ... considering."
Jess mentally completed Zoe's sentence. Considering Marshall had been an attorney and had left her for an attorney in his firm. She'd been angry, broken-hearted, and she'd sworn off all men — especially attorneys.
Jason Talbott was different.
"How did you meet this man? I want to find a guy," Zoe said.
Jessica hesitated, thinking these were her closest friends, but still ... there was something unconventional about the way she'd met Jason.
"I met him on-line," Jessica confessed, "on Matchmaker.com."
Her two friends stared at her slack-jawed.
"Well, what did you expect me to do?" Jessica knew she sounded defensive, but she couldn't help herself. I don't want to hang out in bars and meet losers. My friends have introduced me to the three single men they know. Two of them were heterosexual."
"You're right," Stacy said. "I met Scott at the Daily Grind when I bumped into him and spilled my latte on his slacks. Fate, I guess."
"Okay, tell all," Zoe said in the businesslike voice she used when interviewing people for her financial column published by the Herald.
"Well, I subscribed to that online dating service to research an article."
Jessica was an extremely popular columnist who wrote New Millennium LifeStyles, a column examining the evolving American culture in a witty, off-beat way. Many of her articles focused on personal relationships.
People in the Bay Area had taken to calling her the Love Doctor. It was a stupid title, considering her own love life was a big fat zero. She'd been concentrating on writing articles that weren't about relationships so that she could ditch the nickname.
"What happens when you sign up for an Internet dating service?" Zoe asked.
"Scan your picture, then fill out a form about your likes and dislikes."
"I dislike men who aren't good at oral sex," Stacy said with a giggle.
"Stop it. I need to know about cyber-dating," Zoe said.
Jessica smiled, then took a sip of her pinot grigio. "Guys contact you or you contact guys through e-mail."
"I'll bet that's how the Final Call Killer found his victims," Stacy said.
Jessica groaned out loud. Two women had been murdered in the last six months. Each had been strangled with a telephone cord.
"Fuhgettaboutit," Jessica told her friends in her best Sopranos' voice. "The second was probably a copycat killing. Internet dating is perfectly safe."
"How do you know?" Stacy asked.
"All that shows on the screen is the special name you select for yourself. No one knows who you are or where you live unless you tell them."
"I think Marci does the Internet dating thing," Stacy said. "I remember her saying she met men for the first time at a public place like Starbucks."
All three of them rolled their eyes heavenward. Marci — with an i — wrote the society column and was a total airhead.
"As much as I hate to admit it," Jessica said, "Marci is right. You e-mail first, but it doesn't last long. Men are anxious to meet you."
"Sure, they want to check out your boobs," Zoe said.
"No wonder Marci loves the Internet. Her new bustline must be a hit," Stacy said.
You betcha', Jess thought. Marci's silicone implants probably did attract a lot of shallow men.
"Okay, so you meet," Zoe said. "It must be awkward."
Jessica shook her head, sending a strand of long, blonde hair across her face. She hooked it behind one ear. "No worse than your usual blind date."
"What did you do with this lawyer?" asked Stacy.
"We shot back and forth a few e-mails, spoke on the phone, then met for drinks at Carmelo's. We decided to have lunch the next day. That's how it started."
"So how do you know he isn't the Final Call Killer?" Zoe asked.
"Pul-leeze. After we met for lunch, Jason invited me to his office. He's an attorney with a big firm in the Transamerica Pyramid."
"So why does he need an Internet dating service?" Stacy asked.
Jessica put her drink on the small table and leaned closer to her friends. "Jason has been introduced to all the singles his friends know. We live less than half a mile apart, but we don't have mutual friends. We would never have met except on-line."
"Has he ever been married?" Stacy asked.
"No. He's thirty-eight and single. I think he wants to settle down."
"See! There are normal guys around," Stacy said.
"Yikes!" Zoe cried, glancing at her watch. "We're outta here. You know how Grant obsesses when anyone is late."
Grant Bennett was executive editor at the Herald. He'd invited his staff to dinner at Stars. They paid their bill and rushed out to catch a taxi.
Inside the cab, Jessica gazed out the window at the city where she'd grown up. September was her favorite month. Tourists thought summer was the time to visit. Locals knew better. Summer was cool, foggy. Fall brought warmer days and clear skies.
"Anyone want to bet on why Grant invited us to dinner?" Zoe asked.
They'd discussed this earlier. Grant usually had his "team" to dinner to celebrate something important.
"Could Marci be getting married?" Stacy speculated. "That would thrill Grant no end."
Grant Bennett had hand-picked all his reporters except for Marci Haywood. She was Throckmorton Smith's niece. The owner and publisher of the Herald insisted Marci write the society column.
"She's made no secret of her man hunt." Jess couldn't suppress a smile at the thought of Marci leaving. "She also claims a wedding takes a year to plan."
The trio giggled as the taxi bullied its way up the hill through the evening traffic toward Stars.
"I'll bet Grant has replaced Warren Jacobs," Zoe said.
"Sheesh! You're probably right," Stacy told them. "If a serial killer really is stalking women, the paper needs a first rate investigative reporter ... like Dick."
Just hearing her father's name caused a lump to blossom in Jessica's throat along with a swell of pride. Until Parkinson's had forced him to retire, Richard Crawford had been the best, earning three Pulitzer prizes in his career.
The cab crawled to a halt and double parked outside of Stars. They paid the driver and winnowed their way through the crowd at the door. Grant had reserved the private room in the rear. Just inside the door a waiter greeted them with flutes of champagne on a silver tray.
Jessica knew Grant didn't usually go all out like this. Throckmorton — call me Mort — Smith rarely read his own newspaper, but he was notorious for keeping his eye on the bottom line.
All smiles, Marci Haywood bounced up to them. "Isn't this, like, fab? Totally fab?"
Jessica averted her eyes from the blonde's surgically enhanced breasts which were pushed upward like pagan offerings above the leopard print sheath's plunging neckline.
"I think somebody has won a prize," Marci said, breathless enthusiasm bubbling over the way it usually did when she spoke.
"Pulitzers are awarded in the spring," Zoe pointed out.
"Well, it could, like, be a new prize or something."
Jessica could almost hear her father saying: Having Marci Haywood at the Herald has deprived a village somewhere of its idiot.
A waiter arrived with a tray of seasoned scallops wrapped in a thin crust of wasabi filo dough.
"Yummy," they all agreed.
"Get the recipe," Marci said to Stacy. "I'll use it at my wedding."
Stacy headed off toward the kitchen. As the paper's culinary expert, she wanted the recipe — not because Marci had asked for it.
"You're engaged?" asked Zoe.
"Not exactly, but I have met someone."
"Really? Who is —"
"Find seats everyone," Grant called from the front of the room.
Jessica and Zoe turned and motioned to their buddy, Duff Rutherford, the health columnist, to save places for them. Zoe held up three fingers because Stacy had yet to return from the kitchen.
They went a few steps. Jessica stopped and turned, saying, "Sit with us, Marci."
Marci's thrilled smile touched Jessica in spite of herself. Marci was flighty and boring, but harmless. Despite her family's money and social position, Marci was terribly insecure.
As they sat down, Duff asked, "Do any of you know what PID is?"
Jessica sighed inwardly. Duff was a sweetie, but he rarely talked about anything but weird health problems and office gossip. She knew he had a crush on her even though she did her best to treat him like a friend.
"PID. It must be a new SUV," Marci said.
"It's a rap group," Zoe answered, her tone teasing.
"No," Duff responded. "It stands for a pelvic inflammatory disease. It's one of the leading causes of infertility."
Stacy slipped into the seat beside Jessica, whispering, "What's this about infertility?"
"Don't ask. You'll just get Duff going."
Up front, Grant tapped on a glass to get their attention. "I'm sure you're all wondering why I invited you tonight."
Tall with a patrician bearing, Grant Bennett had been blessed with razor-sharp intelligence. His pewter gray hair was wisped with silver at the temples, and he wore it a little too long. It brushed the back of his collar, the way it had years ago when Jessica's father had led her by the hand into Grant's office.
The morning after her mother had walked out of their lives — forever.
Grant was talking about the value of the independent newspaper — an endangered species — in a world dominated by media conglomerates. It was one of his favorite topics, and Jessica forced herself to listen.
"The Herald can't pay the same salaries the chain papers do, but we don't have to sacrifice our views to satisfy the suits who live on the other side of the country."
So true, Jessica thought. The Herald's reporters had freedom, but to make ends meet, they often wrote more than one column. New Millennium LifeStyles appeared three times a week, but Jessica also wrote New Millennium Travel, published each Sunday. If a pool reporter was needed and no one was available, Jessica went.
"Once in a while I can help out by getting a column syndicated, but it's becoming harder all the time."
Jessica knew the chains liked to syndicate their own people, not the competition. Occasionally it happened. Hank Newman, the Herald's sports columnist had been syndicated for several years.
"I've managed to get another Herald columnist syndicated." Grant paused, obviously enjoying the way everyone was collectively holding his or her breath.
Jessica said a silent prayer for Zoe. She was a better financial analyst than anyone at the Wall Street Journal, an unqualified success in a male dominated world. She also murmured a prayer for herself — a long shot.
"The Triad Media Group is eager to syndicate this column."
A buzz rippled across the room. Everyone knew this was the largest, best-paying, and most prestigious syndicator.
Grant cleared his throat and silence fell over the room. "Starting next month, Triad will be syndicating New Millennium LifeStyles."
It took a moment for his words to register. Suddenly, all the air was siphoned from Jessica's lungs. Her first thought was how proud her father would be.
"They wanted to syndicate Jessica because she has a distinctive voice and unusual articles," Grant added when the applause died down.
Oh, my God, she thought. Her column would be read across the country. Maybe her mother would see it and discover Jessica had made something of herself.
Everyone at the table began to congratulate her. She couldn't help being pleased. Not only had syndication been a goal, the extra money would mean that she could take care of her father.
Jessica was so lost in her own thoughts that it took a moment to realize Grant was still standing before them, his expression now grave.
"Just before I came here, I received a very disturbing e-mail," he told them. "The sender claims to be the Final Call Killer. He says he strangled a prominent psychiatrist."
"Who?" someone shouted.
"I can't say until the police check out the information. If this isn't a hoax, we'll have a scoop in the morning edition."
For a moment a stunned silence filled the room. A real, honest-to-God scoop these days meant getting a story before television, which was usually impossible. TV had the ability to go with "breaking news" the instant it happened. Newspapers were forced to wait for the presses to roll.
"Why wouldn't the killer e-mail a TV station?" Marci whispered to Jessica.
"He wants to see it in print, so he can save it."
"Doesn't everyone have a VCR?"
"Probably, but serial killers often keep clippings."
Marci didn't look convinced, but she didn't argue. She probably realized Jessica had learned a lot during the years her father had worked as an investigative reporter.
"Arinda Castro, a high profile criminal attorney," Duff said. "Vanessa Filmore, a biochemist who'd won a Nobel Prize at the astonishingly young age of thirty-eight. Why would a serial killer go after them?"
"It's hard to say," Jessica replied, "but we'll know more when we find out who the latest victim is."CHAPTER 2
Zoe Litchfield stared at her computer screen in her office, waiting for the courier. Stock market numbers scrolled by, but she didn't really see them. She told herself not to be jealous of Jessica.
"No one could hope for a better friend," she whispered to the screen. "Jessica deserves to be syndicated."
Still, not being chosen hurt.
Zoe had been born Mary Jo Jones in Cottonwood, Texas. Until she was fourteen, she'd assumed she would grow up to be like her mother who was a waitress at Pie 'N' Burger. She worked the late shift so her husband could drink beer and baby-sit their six kids.
A state mandated aptitude test had placed Mary Jo in the ninety-ninth percentile nationwide. When heaven doled out the genes for brains, it skipped the rest of the family and dumped them all on Mary Jo. Her parents didn't understand the test scores and couldn't care less, but the school made a big deal about it.
One teacher in particular, Miz Hoover, an old crone if ever there was one, insisted Mary Jo enroll in advanced placement classes. There, Mary Jo discovered she loved learning, especially math. She didn't consider it a ticket out of tumbleweedville until Miz Hoover explained how scholarships worked.
Mary Jo became the first and only student from Cottonwood to attend Yale. En route from Texas to New Haven on a Greyhound bus that spewed diesel fumes, Mary Jo Jones vanished and Zoe Litchfield appeared thanks to a book she'd discovered on how to change your name.
Excerpted from Lady Killer by Meryl Sawyer. Copyright © 2004 M. Sawyer-Unickel. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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I enjoy books by this author -- the tempo is fast paced, the characters somewhat quirky. The intricate weaving of the main and secondary characters keep you interested.