Excerpt from The Black Chamber

The Black Chamber

 

 

Chapter 1

 

 

Standing on a corner in lower Manhattan FBI Special Agent Jennifer Kingsley felt her life slipping away. She was oblivious to her surroundings, her head was cocked up as if she was soaking up the warmth of the sun on her face, but she felt nothing. Kingsley didn’t hear the sounds of the traffic or the comments from other pedestrians, or feel the gentle breeze on her face. She was just staring into space, her mind going over her dilemma, futilely grasping for a way out.

There was no question that she had screwed up. She knew the moment she had reacted that she had screwed up big time. She had let her anger and pride get the best of her. It had not been the first time that had happened to her, but it was likely the worst. It was that damn photo that had triggered her reaction. Until she saw the photo, the victim’s death had been abstract, unreal. The photo had changed that. It made it all too real.

She had come back from a late lunch to find a case folder on her desk, which wasn’t out of the ordinary.   Kingsley was an expert investigator with great attention to detail. Her boss frequently asked her to review files to see if another agent had missed anything. Her mind sorted and retained details, found connections, patterns and inconsistencies others did not see. Her mind had a great capacity to remember obscure details and find patterns in chaos. Unfortunately, this talent didn’t make her popular in the squad room.

She had picked up the file and glanced through it. As she had flipped through the pages, she scanned the dry description of the crime scene and of the victim. The verbiage was dominated by police jargon, describing the scene, the wounds, and the victim while never putting a name to her. The concise clinical narrative was a way an investigator remained detached. Remaining detached was the only way an investigator could look at the carnage he saw every day and stay in the game. Once you became attached to the victim, their loss ate away at your soul which was why the suicide rate was so high for law enforcement personnel.

As she had read the narrative, a feeling of dread or foreboding had begun to build in her. At the time it was a feeling she could not understand, but in hindsight it was her subconscious warning her.   She should have known who the victim was, but the identity had been obscured by the detached clinical style. White female, age thirty-eight, five-five, one hundred seventy pounds described a nameless corpse, that way the investigator could read the horrific details and do his job.

The photo of the corpse had taken her breath away. It felt as if all the oxygen had been sucked from the room. It had plunged a knife into Jennifer’s heart. It had been a photo of her suspect, Betsy Meyers, a woman suspected of bank fraud. Jennifer, who saw so much in case files failed to see this coming. Betsy Meyers would no longer be considered a suspect, now she would forever be a victim. Jennifer’s mind had reeled, how could this have happened? And then she had known. Instinctively she had known the cause of the woman’s murder, and the knowledge had pushed the dagger blade deeper into her heart. It had made her feel like she had let the woman down, that she had caused her murder. And in a sense she had.

The file’s first photo had been a long shot of Betsy Meyers on her bed. She was unmistakably dead. Jennifer had picked the photo up gently, keeping it at arms-length as if it were diseased. She had stared at it for a long time, her face blank but her heart pounding. She had held the photo, rubbing her hand over the glossy finish as if the action would change the image. The sharp details of the photo were etched permanently into her mind. The woman’s silky white flesh, her blood red lips, the look of astonishment frozen on her face. The multiple stab wounds were visible on her naked body as was the blood that had pooled beneath her. The look in the woman’s eyes, frozen in the photograph spoke of betrayal. She had been betrayed by her killer but Kingsley felt as if she had betrayed the victim also. Her mistake had led to the woman’s death. It was a simple as that.

The file had screamed at her that the woman was dead because of Kingsley’s actions, that Kingsley had made a horrible, terrible mistake. She knew without a doubt that it would haunt her for the rest of her life. It was the kind of mistake that you don’t come back from. All those thoughts had flashed through her mind as she had held the photo of Betsy Meyer’s body.

Too late she had realized that the file had been left on her desk to provoke a response. After all, her temper was legendary.   Kingsley’s team lead had put the file on her desk to rub it into her face, to point out the mistake to her and to everyone.   The purpose of the file was to humiliate her.   He had shamed her in public and she had reacted with anger. Now she had to figure a way out of her mess, if there was one.

Her team leader was an incompetent investigator and a terrible administrator who owed his position to nepotism. He was a toad who Jennifer managed to work around. Other than recognizing and exploiting the weaknesses in others and grabbing credit for closing cases he had nothing to do with he had few talents. For his own perverse pleasure he would select a victim in the office and push his chosen victim’s buttons until the victim reached a breaking point. He got away with it because everyone was afraid of his connections. Early on Jennifer had recognized him for what he was and had managed to stay clear of his mind games. The man was known to have a mean sense of humor but the file was beyond vicious.   The man had found her buttons and had pushed them hard, her anger had boiled over and she had reacted with disastrous results.

Jennifer had looked around the office at that point looking for support, but her colleagues refused to meet her gaze and some even snickered. That moment drove home the fact that she had no friends in the office. She was alone. It was also when she had lost her battle to control herself. Her anger and guilt had boiled over.

A car horn blared and startled Jennifer, she moved forward and almost stumbled over the curb but she continued on, the walk home would take every ounce of her strength. She was determined not to breakdown. She did not like to cry, period, and to do it in public was something she would not allow herself to do. So she trudged on, the weight of the events of the day making each step an agony.

A wave of emotion hit her and she choked back tears. They were not tears for herself but for the victim. Kingsley shook her head to chase away the emotion and regain her composure. There was a time to grieve and reflect on the harm she had caused, but now was not it. She would do that privately, she had been taught early in life that when you showed weakness, people exploited it.

Her thoughts were pinballing around in her mind as she fought to find the solution to her situation. All her hard work, all her dedication, all her success would go down the drain because of her lack of control. The men in the office would sneer and say that she was just an impulsive woman.

Kingsley was the kind of woman who turned heads when she entered the room. She had long auburn hair, dazzling blue eyes and a trim figure most women would kill for. She had fought hard to be taken seriously at her work. To not to be treated as a good looking woman who her colleagues secretly thought was sleeping with the boss. She wanted only to be treated as a competent colleague. Now her stupid impulsive act would allow them to dismiss her actions as a hissy fit, something a weak emotional woman would do. Her creditability and her image in the office were shot. The fact that the incompetent toad had played her was humiliating. She had always thought she was the one in charge, that she was the one holding the strings. Her team lead had baited her and she had taken it. She had lost control. The emotions that the photo had brought up had caused her to snap. His betrayal may have been expected, but she had thought she was tougher than that. She blinked back the tears and willed herself not to cry, at least not yet. The last time she cried was when her father died, many years ago. She prided herself in being tough, in her line of work you had to be. Any sign of weakness could lead to disastrous consequences. That was just the way it was, and she accepted it, even thrived on it. Still, the weight of her actions and the responsibility of what happened was more than even she could stand. Betrayal or not, her response may get her fired.   That damn photo had made her face the truth.

Normally twilight was her favorite time of day, when the sky turned an azure blue and the street lights painted the buildings in lower Manhattan with a golden brush. A quiet descended on the city, the semi darkness hiding the harsh reality of the day. Today though, Kingsley noticed little of her surroundings. She noticed only the ugliness, the trash in the gutter and the homeless crack addict hassling people for money, the obscenities some taxi driver was shouting. She looked to the sky to calm herself, to clear her troubled mind. She was marshalling every ounce of her resolve not to crack.

The image of Betsy Meyers from the photo popped into her mind without warning. Her throat constricted and her chest tightened, making it difficult to breathe. It took all her willpower to hold it together as she crossed the street. Each step was an effort, her feet feeling as if they were coated in cement. She wanted to give up and sit down where she was, but something deep inside her would not allow it. She absolutely refused to let the outside world see her pain.

Head down she trudged on, inwardly struggling with each step. Jennifer had never felt anything like this before. The weight of her mistake mixed with the intense feelings of betrayal and shame was overwhelming.   When she collided with a man talking on his cell phone, she almost erupted but managed to hold it in. Even when the jerk turned and yelled some rude comments she managed to hold it together. All that mattered was that she reached her sanctuary, her home, without breaking down and then she could release her emotions.

The first step was to regain control of her mind, to stop the second guessing. The situation was in the past, she now had to figure out how to deal with the present. Slowly at first, her mind began to get ordered. The image of Betsy Meyers fought for her attention but she pushed it away. She ran over the events of the last two days and dispassionately ran over the facts. At lightning speed, she weighed alternatives and variables and she began to plot her strategy to overcome the situation.   Her mind began to calm down and she began to reassert her control.

Immersed in her thoughts, her head still down, she reached her brownstone and without thinking she struggled up the steps with her keys in her hand.   At the door, with her back turned on the street, when she was most vulnerable, she did not bother to check out the reflection in the glass. Usually she would never let that error occur, but today it was not business as usual. Every fiber of her being was focused on her problem. Her hands trembled as she inserted the key and tried to work the lock. Her hands seemed to have a mind of their own not obeying her instructions. She took a step back and breathed deeply. This time the door opened easily.

The brownstone had been renovated and was in good condition. The other residents, like her were young professionals. Together they kept on the management company to keep the place well maintained, well lit and clean. She felt at home here but today Jennifer cursed the fact that there was no elevator. She was lean and fit but today her feet felt like they weighed a ton as she clumped up the stairs. She sensed more than heard that someone was coming down the stairs, without a glance she moved right to let them pass. Normally she would have been alerted by the minor hesitation as the man passed her on the stairs, but not tonight, not now. Kingsley was accustomed to unwanted men approaching her, alert to all the signals and warning bells in her head, but tonight was different. She was too immersed in her own thoughts, her head down oblivious to her surroundings. It was a deadly mistake. She never heard the change in rhythm of the footsteps as they receded and she never noticed that the sound of footsteps had disappeared.

Her hand was shaking as her key slid into the lock on her door. As she opened her apartment door, a hand grabbed her shoulder. Instinct took over. Kingsley grabbed the wrist, twisted and spun. With the spin, she was behind the assailant with his arm wrenched painfully upward. With all her strength she drove him into the door jamb. He grunted as she released the arm. Her foot lashed out and connected with his ribs, the man staggered and turned. He took a step forward, his arms coming up. The pressure from the day became rage as a low animal growl escaped Kingsley’s mouth as she stepped into the charge and delivered a series of blows to the man’s midsection. He collapsed to the ground gasping for breath. Suddenly she was in control. She had reacted to the threat, her mind now clear and unencumbered by doubt and betrayal.

It was pathetic how easy it had been. Kingsley stepped back and watched as the man tried to push himself to his feet. She produced her Glock and pointed at his forehead.

Through gasps for air he said, “I need help.”

“You’re not hurt that bad.” She growled.

“Are you Kingsley?”

“What?” The use of her name surprised her. It made her step back and look down the hallway.

“Are you Special Agent Jennifer Kingsley of the FBI?”

She looked at the man pushing himself up from the floor. He was a little over six feet, broad shoulders, a trim waist, dark brown hair and a face that had a healthy outdoor look. “Who are you and why did you attack me?” She demanded as she pointed her weapon at him.

“I didn’t attack you.”

“You grabbed me from behind. What is a defenseless woman to think?”

He managed to get to his feet, swayed and put out a hand to steady himself against the wall. “Defenseless?” He wrapped his arms around his ribs. “Are you Kingsley?”

“What do you want?” She demanded.

“I need help.”

“You’re not hurt.”

“No!” He snapped. “I need help with something else.”

She waved the gun at him. “Temper, temper, I still haven’t decided if you will make the newspaper as a tragic lesson for trying to rape someone.”

“I wasn’t going to rape you.”

“It’s your word against mine.” She smiled sarcastically at him.

“Kingsley, I need help!”

“I am not in the help business.”

“You are an FBI agent. I need your help, I need justice.”

She laughed at him. “I’m not in the justice business either. Find yourself a judge. Now get lost.” She lowered her weapon and stepped backwards through her apartment door, watching him carefully.

He managed to get to his feet but was still unsteady, leaning on the wall. “Please Kingsley, hear me out.”

His tone was pathetic and weak but as the adrenaline washed away she felt bad for roughing him up. “What kind of help?”

“A friend of mine was murdered.”

“Go to the police.”

He grimaced as he straightened. “They won’t listen.”

Something stirred inside her, something she did not quite understand. The sadness in his voice and the thought of a killer walking around free made her change her mind. “You’ve got two minutes.” She waved him inside. Gone were the emotions of the day and her failure on the job, at least momentarily. She led him into her living room, keeping her weapon in her hand.

“Who are you?” Jennifer barked.

He reached for his wallet, in his coat pocket.

“No.” She barked, the weapon snapped up.

He froze, his hand suspended in the air.

“Good boy. You can follow directions. Now who are you?”

“David Turner. Are you Kingsley?”

The gun barrel shifted and she gave him a sharp tap on his head with it. Instinctively he grabbed his head.

“I ask the question, you answer them. With any luck I won’t kill you.”

“You’re not going to kill me.”

She wrapped him lightly on the head again. “You never know.” The chill in her voice was unmistakable. It was menacing and conveyed her anger and contempt.

“Please, stop with the gun.”

“You barge into my home and then give me orders?”

“You invited me in.”

“How do I know that you’re not some dangerous stalker, or felon?”

He rubbed his head and looked up at her. “Do I look dangerous to you?”

“Who can tell? Look at Ted Bundy, he seemed innocent and likeable to many, like the ideal man.”

“Are you afraid you couldn’t handle me?”

Kingsley snorted. “So what do you do Mr. Turner?”

“I’m a reporter.”

A chill passed through Kingsley’s body. “A lie jockey? Get out! I won’t help you with a story.” She grabbed his arm and pushed him toward the door.

He stopped abruptly. In a low sad voice he said, “This is not about a story, it’s about a friend. She was murdered.”

The tone in his voice, the agony it conveyed stopped her from throwing him out. After a moment of thought she gestured for him to sit in the only empty chair in the living room. She felt a momentary surge of resentment for this stranger invading her sanctuary. To the untrained eye her apartment might seem stark and cold with few personal mementos, but to her it was warm and comfortable. It was safe, like the old furnishings that she should have replaced years ago. Her eyes strayed over to the roll top desk that had been her father’s and she had to clench her jaw as emotions flooded her again. She spotted a book that was out of place, walked to the shelf and put it in its proper place. There was no clutter; one thing Kingsley could not live with was disorder.

“I need your help Agent Kingsley. No one will believe me.”

She looked at him coolly. Outwardly he seemed strong and masculine, but there was softness to him that she could not put her finger on, maybe it was the way his shoulders sagged. “I told you before I’m not in the help business.”

“You are in the justice business.”

She snorted again. “There is no justice in this world.”

“That’s very cynical.”

“Yes.”

“At least hear me out.”

“Who are you Turner?”

“What an attitude.” He shook his head.

The remark surprised her. She smiled and then clamped her jaw tight. “Attitude, you want attitude? I’ll give you attitude.” She stepped toward him, eyes blazing.

“Whoa? I didn’t mean anything, it just…” He defensively held out his arms as he took a step backwards.

“Just what?”

“I came here looking for…”

“Did I ask you to lurk in the shadows outside my door?”

“I wasn’t lurking. I rapped on the door, when you didn’t answer I left. I passed you on the stairs.”

“How did you get in?”

“I buzzed one of the other tenants, they let me in.”

She shook her head in disgust. “You’re soft, Turner.”

He shot her what was supposed to be a menacing look and turned away, as he flushed red.

In a soft mocking voice she said, “What’s the matter little man, did the big bad girl embarrass the little boy?”

Anger flashed across his face. “I need someone to listen to me.”

“Is that right stalker boy?” The anger of the day was swelling inside her again.

“I need someone to listen. I need someone who will help my friend Virginia Samuelson. She was murdered.”

The name stopped Kingsley cold and stirred deep emotions in her. It was a horrible case. Her killer had done terrible things to her. “Her killer has been caught, convicted and sentenced to die.”

“I don’t think Elton Dean killed Virginia. I think someone else made it look like he did it.”

“Who would do that? Who would have a motive to kill Virginia?”

Her eyes bored into him until he glanced away. “I don’t know.”

“Elton Dean has admitted to killing at least fifteen women. Virginia Samuelson was one of them.” She stood her ground, her feet apart, confident, and defiant.

“No, he never admitted to killing her.” He shifted from foot to foot and had trouble meeting her gaze.

Kingsley was tall and very attractive and used it to her advantage. She challenged people with it, daring them to hold her gaze.

Again Turner failed the test. He lowered his head. He picked up one of the books next to the overstuffed chair. She could see that it was a book on human motivation and deviation. She was always working even while home. She constantly studied the human mind and its motivations.

“Put that down.” She commanded. “Dean is suspected in the killing of at least eleven more women in the New York state area, these are killings he has not confessed to. He plays games with the investigators. He loves the attention, so he strings along anyone who will listen to him. You are wasting your time and worse you are wasting my time.”

“I don’t think Virginia was killed by him. She did not fit the victim profile.”

Kingsley shook her head sadly. “The victim profile is a guideline. It is not set in stone, especially with a killer like Dean. She was a vulnerable young woman. That was all Dean needed.”

“He didn’t kill her.”

“What’s really going on here, Mr. Turner?”

“What do you mean?”

“What were you, a boyfriend?”

He shrugged.

Kingsley’s voice softened little. “You miss her?”

“It’s not that.”

“Feeling guilty?”

“What do you mean?”

“Survivor’s guilt, do you feel that if you had done something, anything, she would not have been killed? Who are you to Virginia? Your name never came up in the investigation so you were not that close to her.”

“I was close.” He pleaded. “We went to school together and stayed in touch. We would not see each other for a while and then catch up over a dinner. It was an easy friendship. We were in the same business.”

She advanced on him and he retreated, backing into some furniture.

“Are you afraid of me Turner?” She demanded.

“No.” He was unconvincing.

“Answer my question or stop wasting my time. Who are you to Virginia Samuelson?”

“I told you.”

“Not really.”

“Maybe I should go.” He made a move toward the door but she cut him off. “Please move out of the way, I don’t want to hurt you.”

She laughed with contempt, challenging him. The aggression was still coursing through her body, she ached for more action.

“You’re only tough because you have that gun.”

Kingsley nodded, unclipped the holster from her belt and placed the weapon on the table that served as her dining room. She took her jacket off, threw it on a chair and motioned Turner to come.

“Don’t be ridiculous I’m not going to fight you.”

“Are you scared, lie jockey?”

“No, you will arrest me for assaulting a Federal Officer.”

“No, I won’t. This is a freebie.” She took a couple of steps toward him.

“What’s your problem, Kingsley? I’ll just leave.” He made another move to leave but she blocked him again.

“No, now I’m curious. What was Virginia Samuelson to you?”

“I told you, I was a friend.”

“Something tells me there is more to it than that.”

“I’m leaving.” He said forcibly. He was larger than her and appeared strong but she was an experienced fighter.   He tried to go right through her. He walked forward and moved to brush past her. She sidestepped and pushed him so he stumbled. He caught himself on the chair and whirled to face her.

“Are you crazy? Did you have a bad day and need to take it out on me or do you just hate men.”

“Not all men but a significant number.”

“So you have to take it out on some innocent bystander?”

She paused a moment, “Yes, I had a bad day, but you are no innocent bystander. Something tells me you are not so innocent, Mr. Turner.”

“You’re not going to help me. It’s time for me to leave.”

“Not until you answer my question. Who are you to Virginia Samuelson?”

“I’m leaving.” He said forcefully.

As he drew up next to her she placed her hand on his chest. “No you’re not.”

He grabbed her hand suddenly and twisted; he stepped forward and made to push her out of the way. Kingsley was sure he never had a clue that she had trapped him. As he twisted she moved her body fluidly to counter his move. She sent a jab into his side. He grunted and swung back at her still trying to push her out of the way. She blocked his swing easily and countered with a jab to his stomach. He sank to his knees gasping for breath.

“Pathetic.” She positioned herself for another strike but stopped abruptly. She knew she was punishing the wrong person, a wave of guilt swept through her. She had let her anger get the best of her so she walked away. She took a couple of deep breaths to calm herself. She walked to the table, turned a chair around and sat down staring at him as he sucked greedily for breath.

“Someone is getting away with murder, and you’re playing macho games.” He said still kneeling.

“Dean’s killing signature was matched to Virginia’s body. That’s why we know he killed her. He signed every trophy. It was his way of letting us know it was him. By signing every body he was bragging, flaunting his superiority to us. He let us know it was the same guy killing all those women. He was laughing at us. More mind games from the master.”

“Someone else killed her Kingsley. The mark was faked.”

She shook her head. “The signature was never publicized. The authorities kept it secret so if a copycat started killing they would know it. The signature was never in any news report.”

“There were so many cops and federal agents involved that you can’t know for sure if someone talked about the mark, someone heard about it and used it when he killed Virginia.” She could hear the desperation in his voice. “I have a question for you Agent Kingsley. Was the signature an exact match to the others?

“There was variation in all the victims. The mark was never exactly the same from one victim to another.”

“So it is possible that the mark was faked.”

“Answer my question, Mr. Turner. Who are you to Virginia?”

As he struggled to his feet, he winced and grabbed his side. “I was someone who wasn’t there for her.”

“What do you mean?”

“We had a thing. It was brief, when we were in school. I’m not big on relationships. She trusted me and I let her down.” He refused to look at her.

“So you got your rocks off and dumped her.” She said with contempt.

“No, it wasn’t like that. She wanted to be exclusive and I didn’t, we were young, I wanted to explore life.”

“So you wanted to play the field.”

“I cared for her.”

“But not enough.”

He looked down and said softly. “Later we both got jobs in the city. We would talk occasionally, mostly about the stories we were working on, sometimes about the people we knew. Near the end she seemed distracted, like something was bothering her; she came to me and said she thought she was being followed. I thought she was playing games, you know to get me to be all concerned so I would protect her.” He looked down and would not meet her eyes. “I thought she was trying to rekindle our relationship.”

“Why did she think she was being followed?”

“She didn’t say. I didn’t give her a chance. I showed her the door.”

“Time for you to leave.”

“You’re not going to help me.” It was a statement, not a question.

“Mr. Turner, I’m sorry.” She really meant it. “Virginia was killed by a sociopath. Nothing you did caused that. If you had listened to Virginia and tried to protect her then Dean would have waited until he had another opportunity. You both had lives. You both had to go to work, go to the grocery store, or out to a movie. Once he picked a victim it was only a matter of time until he found his opportunity. The stalking was part of his method. He derived pleasure from anticipating what he was going to do to each victim. If you would have tried to protect her, it would have just fueled his killing passion even more. It would have only been a matter of time.”

“He could have been stopped before he killed her. You stopped him.”

“This is something that you must deal with yourself, I can’t help you.” She ushered him into the hallway and closed the door on him. She understood his grief but she had her own guilt to contend with.   She wondered if she the image of Betsy Meyers’ dead body would let her sleep.