The day Danny Morrison walked into his office, Rick didn't think much of him as a prospective client. He didn't come across as a rich man with deep pockets and appeared average as an average guy could be, leading an average—and boring—life.
Danny had straw-colored hair, somewhat similar to A.J.'s, but the similarity between them ended there. While his brother was attractive, youthful, urbane with refined social skills, Danny was homely with a tanned, deeply lined face that had prematurely aged from long hours of manual labor under the sun and socially awkward, showing every bit of his Iowa farm boy roots. Naturally, it came as a surprise for Rick when Danny revealed he was an investigative reporter.
His request of service was even a bigger surprise. Rick had pegged him as an insecure husband—he was wearing a wedding band—that was fretting over his wife's frequent and unexplained outings. What Danny wanted, however, was a leg up in his crime investigation.
"Have you been following a couple of stabbing…assault/homicide cases? Two young women were killed, one in La Mesa and the other in Valencia Park?" Danny inquired tentatively.
"I know of them," replied A.J. "What I read and heard in the media is the extent of my knowledge though."
"Are you working for the victims' families, or doing the consultation work for the police?" Rick asked.
"Not really. I did a lot of freelance work in the past, but right now, I'm working for a local TV station." Danny identified the station and which program he was assigned to. "As you can see, I'm not exactly TV material, and I don't aspire to be. So I do the legwork and the talking-heads do the reporting on TV."
"What would you like us to do for you then, Mr. Morrison?" asked A.J.
"Please call me Danny. No one calls me Mr. Morrison except my boys' friends." Danny smiled shyly. "And before I get into the nature of work I'd like you to perform, let me tell you more about what I found."
Rick and A.J. nodded their heads in unison.
"As you may know already, those two cases I mentioned may or may not be connected according to the police but they don't want to announce it to the public prematurely without any proof. They have certain similarities such as the choice of weapon, but the MOs are not quite the same."
"One of the victims was sexually assaulted while the other had been tortured for hours, maybe days before she was killed but not raped," recalled A.J.
"What made the police believe those cases are related?" asked Rick.
Danny licked his lips. "Well, you know they routinely ask the media not to release certain information in every crime investigation."
"Yes, and we will keep anything you tell us confidential whether you hire us or not," said A.J.
"Oh, I'm… I'm not doubting your professionalism," Danny stammered blushing. He then said to Rick, "To answer your question: missing body parts."
"You mean the perpetrator has a fetish?" asked A.J.
"Probably not." Danny seemed ill at ease talking about his investigation. "It's more like keeping trophies. Whoever committed these crimes took the right little finger from one victim, the left ear from the other."
A.J. seemed as repulsed as Rick felt.
"Last month, I had to take some time off and go see my folks in Las Vegas when my father had a bypass surgery. I had a lot of idle time at the hospital and at my parents' home waiting for his recovery. And that's how I stumbled upon a few articles and TV reports on unsolved homicide cases in the area."
"With similar but not identical MOs? Missing body parts?" Rick asked.
"Yes, the MOs are similar, but the police wouldn't talk to me in detail about the cases, and the local law prohibits the full release of autopsy reports to the media."
"So, you want us to go to Vegas to poke around?"
"Maybe in the near future, but I have something more to tell you," Danny said to Rick with a smile. "I hadn't been able to gather enough information on the murder investigations in Las Vegas before I came back, but I started to see a different angle to look at our cases here."
"That the perpetrator could be a serial killer wandering from state to state?"
Danny nodded to A.J. "Yes. So I widened my search along the I-5 corridor—Oregon, Washington. I also checked Idaho as well." He paused and took his notebook out of his shirt pocket. "There are two similar unsolved murder cases in Oregon, three in Washington, five in Idaho, and two other cases in other parts of California."
"Why don't you alert the local authorities so that they'll be able to compare notes and work together?" A.J. looked puzzled.
"I said the same thing to the producer of the show and the network CEOs, but they dismissed the idea saying that there's no clear evidence to connect all the cases." Danny's face was becoming flushed with indignation perhaps.
Rick and A.J. shook their heads sympathetically. They knew the pooh-bahs at the TV station were reluctant to cooperate with the police because they were after a big scoop and high rating.
"But they're willing to fund my research. As a matter of fact, money's no object."
"They want a splashy, exclusive coverage, huh?" Rick secretly hoped that a portion of the funding would be diverted to fatten his wallet.
Danny nodded unhappily. "What I would like you to do is prove some or all of the murders that took place in these states were committed by the same individual. When you gather enough evidence, I want you to go straight to the police."
Danny's face was set in defiance and anger. "I don't care if I get fired for that."
Rick realized that, although they did not look alike, Danny and A.J. shared the same ethical standards and integrity.
"I want you to stop this subhuman before he kills again." Suddenly, Danny's stern countenance crumbled. "In one of the cases in Idaho, a young boy was killed, and he was… He was scalped."
"Good Lord!" Horrified, A.J. cried out.
"All right, let's get it started right away." Rick said. "We'd like to take a look at whatever you have on the cases you mentioned."
Danny nodded. "Come to the station with me. I'll give you a whole set of copies of my research data."
Shortly after that, the three of them left the office of Simon & Simon Investigations, driving towards the westering sun.
When Rick arrived at the Morrisons', the house was cloaked in the darkness; no porch light, no night lights for the two young boys. He killed the engine and got out of the pickup. Should he pick the lock and see what he'd find in the house?
Then he heard someone, a woman, sobbing quietly somewhere inside—maybe in the living room.
He tapped on the front door softly and announced himself in a low voice. "Mrs. Morrison? Rick Simon."
The sobbing stopped abruptly, but no one came to answer the door.
"Mrs. Morrison… Diane. Please let me in. I know you're in there." His request was met with silence. "Listen, if you don't open this door, I'm coming in. I know you went to see my brother tonight…"
Before he could say any more, he heard the distinctive sound of the door chain and the deadbolt getting disengaged.
The door cracked open revealing one of Diane Morrison's hazel eyes. It was bloodshot and puffy from crying.
"Diane, you've got to tell me what you said to A.J." He demanded. "Where did he go? What happened to your husband? And don't even think about lying—I'll know."
Diane's lower lip trembled, but nothing came out of her mouth.
"Has Danny been kidnapped? Did Whitaker call you tonight?"
She nodded and lowered her head, breaking the eye contact. Tears started to fall anew. Out of the blue, a cold fist of devastating insight hit him in the gut.
"Did he… Did Whitaker give you the direction to A.J.'s and instruct you to tell him he'd have to come alone?"
"Yes…" She whispered hoarsely, eyes downcast.
Lance Whitaker was not only murderous but also highly intelligent—a lethal combination for a criminal. He knew how tough it was to have the Simon brothers on his tail. They had almost caught him six months ago. So instead of facing them together, he seemed to have devised a divide-and-conquer plan. He was also a vengeful man, Rick recalled with a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.
Rick felt sudden and irrational anger towards everyone: A.J. for shunning him, Danny for getting him and his brother involved in this, Diane for sending A.J. to the violent lunatic, but most of all, he was angry with himself for leaving emotionally vulnerable A.J. at home by himself tonight. Had he been with his brother, he never would have let him go to face the sadistic serial killer alone.
"Mom? Who're you talkin' to?"
A young voice startled both Rick and Diane. She quickly wiped her tears.
"Is Uncle A.J. back with Dad?"
"No, Kenny. It's Uncle Rick."
"Is he going to help Dad too?"
She told her son a lame lie trying to send him back to bed. Kenny was the older of her two boys, a smart, thoughtful ten-year-old like A.J. used to be at his age.
A.J. had always been the bright one, Rick freely admitted without bitterness. His brother was intelligent enough to be able to wage a battle of wits with Whitaker, but his compassion was also his vulnerability that his enemy could take advantage of. Whitaker was now manipulating A.J., who was unselfish to a fault and knew what it was like to lose a father at a very young age.
Sick bastard! Rick bit his lower lip. "Diane, please listen to me. If… If something happens to my brother, he won't be able to bring your husband back. They need all the help they can get, or, at least mine." He carefully used a measured tone and neutral language not to frighten the boy who might be listening in on the adults' conversation somewhere inside though it didn't sound like Kenny was aware of the grave situation his father was in.
Diane finally lifted her face and looked at Rick, her eyes swimming in tears. After what felt like an interminable stretch of silence, she told him.
A.J. parked his Chevy several blocks away from the shipyard—one of several that dotted the shoreline—where Whitaker had said he and Danny would be, according to Diane Morrison. He wanted to avoid being spotted when getting in. The gate was locked, but he was going to climb over the fence in order to set foot in the shipyard regardless of the accessibility anyway.
It was relatively small compared to other shipyards and did not have enough space for building huge tankers, but A.J. could see several new luxury charter boats and super yachts in the works as well as a few in disrepair that cried out for a total makeover.
He knew full well he was walking into a trap, but he also knew not doing so would mean, without a doubt, a death sentence for Danny Morrison.
I may be able to get the upper hand if I sneak in and check the layout of the place before Whitaker sees me.
He tried to talk himself into buying the idea, but, of course, he was only kidding himself. There was more than a good chance Whitaker would claim two lives instead of one before dawn; however, A.J. could not let Danny die as the result of his non-action and indifference.
Scaling the chain-link fence, he looked around to see if the security guards were making their rounds. Seeing none, he began searching Warehouse No. 13. Whitaker surely had a sick sense of humor.
He stopped dead in his tracks when he caught a glimpse of a couple of still forms lying on the shadowy ground. At first, he feared he was looking at a couple of guard dogs sleeping on the job, but soon he realized they were neither sleeping nor breathing.
He cautiously took several more steps forward for a closer inspection. What he saw sickened and enraged him; the dogs—huge Doberman Pinchers—were butchered with apparently a large knife. One was eviscerated, its intestines hanging out of its abdominal cavity. The other's throat was slashed so deeply it was almost decapitated.
Near the carcasses, there were small chunks of steak: uneaten portions of their last meal laced with sedatives.
At least, they didn't suffer.
A.J. wanted to believe the poor dogs had been unconscious when Whitaker had started cutting. He knew, however, there was no way he and Danny would be so lucky.