“The Darkness of Evil” by Alan Jacobson (A Karen Vail novel: special excerpt)

The Darkness of Evil: An FBI profiler Karen Vail novel

by USA Today bestselling author Alan Jacobson

Karen Vail is no ordinary FBI agent. She’s a profiler, brought to life by my seven years of unprecedented access to, and research with, the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit. The background of how I got into Quantico is a story in itself, but suffice it to say that it changed my career, and in many ways, my life.

The Karen Vail series has been raved about by reviewers, readers, law enforcement officers of all stripes, real FBI profilers…and even one of the legendary founding fathers of the Behavioral Analysis Unit. That said, let me give you a brief intro to the excerpt you’re about to read.

As I noted above, I’ve lived and breathed serial offenders for going on 24 years now. Although my intensive research lasted seven years, I’ve continued my relationships with two of the senior profilers to this day, who’ve become close friends. Before I start on a Vail novel, I chat with them to make sure what I want to do is feasible, reasonable, and accurate. I work with them as I make my way through the story and one or both reads the first draft when I finish.

The Darkness of Evil is the seventh book in the Karen Vail series. It came about because I was fascinated by the fact that most of these heinous killers have families—wives, sons, daughters—who are oblivious to their loved one’s deviant, violent ways—and their deeply buried, carefully kept secrets and perversions. I keyed in on a serial killer’s daughter—what it’s like for a girl to grow up idolizing her father, as many daughters do, only to later discover he was a violent killer of 14 women and men. Against that background, the story behind The Darkness of Evil took shape. It’s got Karen Vail’s trademark humor, memorable characters, heart-pounding suspense, and a twist or two to get your adrenaline flowing.

The Karen Vail novels have been named to the Top 10 Best Books of the Year lists for The Strand Magazine, Library Journal, Suspense Magazine, and The Los Angeles Times. Below you’ll get a taste of Karen Vail, the character James Patterson called “As compelling as any created by Patricia Cornwell or yours truly,” Nelson DeMille described as “A hell of a lady: tough, smart, funny, and very believable,” and Michael Connelly referred to as “My kind of hero.”

More info on the Karen Vail series, as well as my OPSIG Team Black series (which features a group of covert “black” operatives), visit www.AlanJacobson.com. I’m also on Facebook (www.Facebook.com/AlanJacobsonFans), Instagram: alan.jacobson, and Twitter: @JacobsonAlan. And if you’re interested in staying safe, FBI profiler Mark Safarik and I coauthored an eBook on personal safety that’s available on my website—for free.

Enjoy The Darkness of Evil!

The following excerpt is copyright © 2017 by Alan Jacobson

 

3901 Nebraska Avenue NW

Washington, DC

 

 

“Did he ever sodomize you?”
The bright lights in the television studio bore down on Jasmine Marcks and caught a glistening tear as it coursed down her cheek.id he ever sodomize you?”

FBI profiler Karen Vail clenched her jaw. How could this woman be so callous?

“No,” Jasmine said. “He saved that for his victims, the ones he killed.”

Talk show host Stephanie Sabotini waved her hand in the air, as if dismissing Jasmine’s answer. “You never really say in your book that you feel guilty. Don’t you feel remorse? An ounce of guilt?”

Jesus Christ. What’s she supposed to feel guilty about?

Jasmine wiped at her moist cheek with a couple of fingers and tilted her head. “What?”

Vail tried to remember the cute floor director’s name she was introduced to shortly after arriving. Theo. Vail stepped quickly to her right and elbowed him.

Theo was focused on his cameraman and startled a bit as he turned to Vail.

“That’s enough. Tell Ms. Sabotini she’s gone too far.”

“Nothing I can do, Agent Vail. Miss Marcks agreed to the interview.”

Vail wondered if Jasmine’s publicist, munching on catered food in the green room, was watching the show. “Jasmine’s been through enough. She’s here to promote her book, not be interrogated and chastised.”

Sabotini leaned forward in her seat. “I find it hard to believe that you and your mother were oblivious to what was going on. I mean, your father was a serial killer. You were his daughter and you say you loved him, that he was a good father.”

Vail grabbed Theo’s arm. “Now. Tell her to back off. Or I’ll go over there and tell her myself. While the camera’s rolling.”

Theo repositioned the headset mic in front of his lips. “Stephanie, the FBI agent’s having problems with your questions. She wants you to back off.”

Sabotini’s eyes narrowed slightly and her head jerked slightly right, as if she took umbrage at Theo’s remark. She refocused on Jasmine, who was answering the host’s question.

“I was a kid. He treated me like I was a queen. I was like any other girl who loved her daddy. How could I know he was a serial killer?”

Sabotini glanced into the darkness and found Vail, whose angry gaze was fixed on her face. She cleared her throat and said, “How about we get back to your book, Jasmine?”

What a terrific idea. Vail nodded a thank you to Theo, who winked at her and arched his brow flirtatiously. Vail scratched a phantom itch on her cheek with her left hand, showing him her engagement ring. Taken. Sorry, buddy. She turned back to Jasmine, who was already answering Sabotini’s follow-on question.

“It’s not like my father turned to me one day and said, ‘Honey bear, I killed fourteen people.’ But he did say some weird things that, when I was older, started to make me think, reevaluate some of the things he’d said to me over the years.”

“When you were a teenager,” Sabotini said, “you found some duct tape with blood on it. And you went to the police.”

“Well, when combined with the other things, yeah, the tape made me think something wasn’t right. I saw articles in the paper, reports on the news about the Blood Lines serial killer in Virginia. They said he used a knife to carve parallel lines on his victims’ stomachs—and they also said he used duct tape to tie up his victims. I saw my dad come home once with blood on his shirt. Wasn’t much, but my mom saw it. He told her he cut himself on his truck and she didn’t need to worry about it. But I started thinking, duct tape, blood…what if my daddy was the killer? I got scared. I thought the police could tell me if he was the one.”

“You were only fourteen. Did they believe you?”

“Not really. They brought him in and questioned him along with a bunch of other men from the area, to make it look like they weren’t targeting him. And they didn’t let on that I was the one who told on him. But…”

“But they didn’t arrest him.”

“They said they had no evidence.”

“Right,” Sabotini said, “but four years later, you found some more duct tape.”

Jasmine nodded, her gaze off somewhere behind Sabotini, into nothingness, like she was reliving the memory. “I found it in the trunk of his car. There was blood on the roll, on the inside, on the cardboard. I went back to the police and told them, again, that I was worried my father was the killer.”

“And they believed you this time?”

“No. But I told them I was not leaving until I talked with the detective. So I sat there for an hour and the detective finally came with a social worker because I wasn’t eighteen yet. I started telling him things my dad did over the years, times when he’d disappear for hours at a time, late at night. I’d wake up when he came home, three or four in the morning. I once came out of my room and asked him where he’d been. He didn’t smell like booze, so he hadn’t been out drinking.”

“What’d he say?”

“His favorite answer. ‘Don’t worry about it, darlin’.’”

“Maybe he was having an affair.”

“Maybe. But it always happened the night before another body was found. I started writing all these things in a journal, just in case I was right, in case he was the killer.”

“What other things were there?”

“Those are in my book, Stephanie,” Jasmine said with a wry smile.

“They are indeed. Let’s get back to that roll of duct tape you found. The second one. It later became key evidence.”

“Right. The DNA was contaminated, so that was a problem. But there was something else. An issue with forensic procedure. Chain of custody.”

“Even if it was considered ‘tainted’ evidence, why didn’t they question him?”

“They told me they didn’t want to tip him off. So they looked into his background and investigated without him knowing.”

Sabotini leaned back slightly in her seat. “But that still got them nowhere. Isn’t that when they called the FBI?”

“Their profiling unit. The police never could find much in the way of forensics at the crime scenes, so they needed someone to find another way to identify the killer. The agent gave them a profile that turned out to be very important.”

“Thomas Underwood,” Sabotini said. “We invited him to appear with you, but we were told he was unavailable. Instead, we’ve got his stand-in, Karen Vail, who’s going to join us in a few moments to talk about ways of keeping ourselves safe from people like your father.”

I’m a stand-in?

“Another three years passed before he was arrested,” Sabotini said. “How did you handle that, living with your father, someone you suspected of murdering eleven women and three men?”

“The police told me they couldn’t find anything linking him to the murders. The duct tape had only his blood and DNA on it. Bottom line, they said they had nothing proving, or even suggesting, he was the killer they were looking for. I believed them and started to relax. I started questioning everything. I was young, I told myself. Maybe I misinterpreted the things my dad told me. I realized, being older now, that there were different ways of taking what he’d said.” She took a deep breath. “It was only me and my dad. My mom had passed by this time, and you know, like I said, he always treated me like a queen. Even when I thought he might be the killer, it made me apprehensive—I really just wanted to know, one way or another. But I never felt like I was in danger.”

“What about after the police told you they had nothing connecting him to the murders? Did that ease your mind?”

“Well yeah, I felt relief, of course. But I also felt stupid.” She looked up at the ceiling, took a breath. “I felt like I betrayed my own father. Going to the police…” She shook her head. “I felt really, really guilty over that for a long time.”

“When the police came to your door to arrest him, what was that like?”

Jasmine hesitated a moment, looked up again, searching for an answer, the bright white lights reflecting off tears pooling in her lower lids. She came off as articulate, honest, and photogenic: an athletic blonde with Nordic features. Easy to promote, easier to book on TV, with a compelling story.

“I went through a range of emotions. Shock. Anger at the police for getting it wrong—I mean, he’d killed a lot more people since I first went to them. Then there was betrayal—I mean, Roscoe Lee Marcks, my father, my dad, the man who tucked me in at night and gave me hugs and kisses, really was a serial killer. He murdered people. Lots of people. And he wasn’t just any serial killer. He was the Blood Lines killer, a man who kidnapped women and men, tossed them into a panel van, tortured them, reviving them repeatedly, before slicing their bodies and cutting off their genitalia.” Her voice caught and she looked down.

Sabotini tilted her head in mock empathy, bit her bottom lip, and waited for Jasmine to compose herself.

Jasmine looked up and dabbed at her teary eyes. She cleared her throat. “It’s hard to explain what it feels like knowing that this coldhearted, brutal killer was my loving father. You start thinking, Why didn’t he kill me? Was I ever in danger? When he got mad at me when I broke his favorite watch, was I—was he thinking of killing me?”

Vail glanced at the clock. They were due for a commercial break and then the focus of the show would pivot to her. She could not wait; Jasmine looked stressed and needed the interview to end.

“At first I had a tough time accepting it,” Jasmine said. “But when Detective Curtis came to my house with Agent Underwood and they started going through things, what they knew, the type of person they were looking for, it sounded like a match for my father. That’s when I realized it was not going to end well.”

Vail snorted. Depends on your perspective. It certainly did not end well for Roscoe Lee Marcks.

 

 

Ninety minutes later Vail walked into her office in Aquia, Virginia. Her boss, Assistant Special Agent in Charge Thomas Gifford, was chatting in the hallway with her new unit chief, Stacey DiCarlo.

“How’d she do?” Gifford asked.

“The host really laid into her, asked some tough, very direct questions. Not exactly what she needed. I took care of it. She backed off but it was still emotionally trying.”

“And I still think this hand-holding is a waste of Bureau resources,” DiCarlo said.

Vail had been through this with her multiple times during the days leading up to the interview and did not feel like getting into it again.

“The reason for having Agent Vail there,” Gifford said, “was to support our mandate to educate the public on staying safe. Not to hand-hold a witness.”

Hmm, an assist from an unlikely source.

“I still don’t think it’s a good use of our time,” DiCarlo said. “Or taxpayer money.”

Gifford shoved both hands into the pockets of his slacks and rocked back on his heels. “Your concerns are noted. Thanks for your input.”

DiCarlo frowned, then turned and huffed off down the hall. Gifford gestured with his chin for Vail to follow him into his office. On the way in, Vail nodded at Lenka, Gifford’s assistant, and took a seat.

“How do you like your new unit chief?”

Vail glanced around. “Is this a trick question, sir?”

He threw out his hands. “Just trying to take the pulse of the unit.”

“We think she’s an asshole. She knows nothing about criminal investigative analysis and wouldn’t know a valid profile if it struck her in the face. And I’ve been tempted, let me tell you.”

“Tempted?”

“To strike her in the face.”

Gifford struggled to subdue his smile. “Off the record, she wouldn’t have been my first choice to lead the unit. But…well, you know.”

Vail tilted her head. “Know what?”

“We’re supposed to increase the female head count. And with the success they’ve had with you, they’re not only less reluctant to do so but they feel confident it’ll work out well.”

Smile and nod, Karen. That was a compliment.  

“It’s about the person, not the gender,” she said. “Best person for the job, that’s what matters. Sometimes that’s a woman. Sometimes it’s a man. But yeah, I think we do need more women in the BAU. We bring things to the table you men don’t.”

“I agree—but don’t give Agent DiCarlo a hard time, okay? Let’s give her a chance to find her legs.”

Vail looked at him.

“Is that too much to ask?”

Maybe.

“That was not a rhetorical question, Agent Vail.”

“Are you going to call me ‘Agent Vail’ when I’m your daughter-in-law? Just curious.”

“In the office? Absolutely. Well, to your face, that is. You don’t want to know what I call you when you’re not around.”

Funny.

“So let’s get back to Jasmine Marcks. You think she’s going to be able to handle herself on book tour when you’re not there to run interference?”

Vail thought about that a moment. “She made it through a childhood with a father who was a serial killer, and she dealt with the emotional stress of the trial and the intense media scrutiny. She’ll be fine. She’s tough.”

Vail’s Samsung vibrated. She glanced at the screen and saw Jasmine Marcks’s number. “Guess who.”

“Go on,” Gifford said with a wave of his right hand. “Take it.”

She swiped to answer and brought the handset to her ear. “Jasmine. Everything okay? I’m in a—”

“I got a message from him. When I got home, it was in the mail.”

“Message from who?”

“My father.”

Vail glanced at Gifford. “What’d he say?”

“It’s not what he said, it’s what he didn’t say.”

Vail got up from her chair and began pacing. “Let’s start with what he wrote. Then we’ll worry about interpreting what he didn’t write.”

“That’s just it. He didn’t write anything.”

Vail stopped and looked up. “Your father sent you a blank letter?”

“Right.”

“Jasmine. Are you overreacting? I mean, if there’s nothing in—”

“He’s playing with my head. Trying to get even because of what I wrote.”

“You got all that from a blank piece of paper?”

“Do you think I’m wrong?”

“Other than mentally screwing with you, is there anything else behind this? Are you in danger?”

After a second’s hesitation, she said, “He’s in a max security prison a hundred miles away. No. I don’t think I’m in danger. It just—it unnerved me.”

“I get it.” Vail pinched the bridge of her nose. “How ’bout I stop by, you can show me the letter. And we can talk.”

“I’d like that.”

“Give me a few minutes to get some things squared away. I’ll see you soon.”

Vail hung up and turned to face Gifford, whose face was scrunched into a squint. “I assume you figured out what we were talking about.”

“I did. You’re going over there because her father sent her a blank letter.”

Vail sighed. “It spooked her.”

“So much for being tough.”

“We all have things that get under our skin. She’s been through a lot. Hard to know what’s gonna be a trigger.”

Gifford muttered something unintelligible, then rose from his seat and turned to face his window. He rotated a thin rod and the green miniblinds opened wider, revealing the fresh snow that had fallen that morning. “You’re not her therapist, you know.”

“Don’t say it, sir.”

“Say what?”

“That I’ve been reduced to hand-holding.”

Gifford let that hang in the air a moment—he was not verbalizing it because he did not need to. “Go. I’ll tell DiCarlo I asked you to take something to headquarters for me. But this is a one-time thing. Your involvement with Jasmine Marcks is in the eleventh hour. We have pending cases that need your attention.”

“I know.”

Gifford turned to her. “Besides, we don’t want to give your unit chief any reason to gloat.”

 

 

Vail arrived at the Bethesda, Maryland, home of Jasmine Marcks an hour after she called. The house was a modest two-story colonial among larger and more robust residences, some a hundred years old and others recently constructed or remodeled. Jasmine came to the door wearing the same stylish black below-the-knee dress she had selected for the morning’s television interview.

“Karen. I feel so silly to make you come down here. For a blank piece of paper, no less.”

“You didn’t force me. You didn’t even ask me. I came because I thought it was important.”

“Come in,” Jasmine said, standing aside and allowing Vail to pass.

Vail had been here a couple of times seven years ago when Jasmine’s father was about to stand trial. Jasmine testified and Vail accompanied the prosecutor when she questioned Jasmine about what she observed as a teenager.

“You’ve still not met with my father,” she said.

“I’ve asked. Every couple of years I make another request. Each time I get the same answer: ‘We’ll see.’ He’s purposely leading me along, yanking my chain. He leaves it open-ended so I have to keep coming back and asking. It’s about the only power he’s got left in a situation where he’s told when he can wake up, when he can go to sleep, when and what he can eat.”

“That sounds like something he’d do.”

Roscoe Lee Marcks was the last case that profiling legend Thomas Underwood handled before he retired from the Bureau, just prior to Vail joining the unit. Gifford gave her the file to help get her feet wet, to ease her into the flow of things—and, Vail was sure, to see if she had the stomach to handle the brutality the agents in the BAU lived and breathed regularly.

Since the profile had already been finalized and reviewed with the Fairfax County Police Department, Vail was able to study, and learn from, Underwood’s notes, analyses, and case management.

When Marcks was arrested, Vail began developing a rapport with Jasmine. After he was convicted, she and Jasmine stayed in touch periodically, mostly through email. But their contact grew less frequent.

“Coffee?” Jasmine asked as they sat down in the kitchen.

“I’d love some.”

“How’s Jonathan? How old is he now?”

“Almost nineteen. He’s a freshman at George Washington University.”

“No way. How did that happen? College? And a hell of a good one, at that. Smart boy. Like his mom.”

“I’d say he certainly didn’t get his smarts from his dad, but that’d be disingenuous. Deacon was many things, but before he started having problems, he was a bright man.” Not that it got him anywhere.

“What’s he studying?”

“Criminal justice.” Vail chuckled. “Go figure.”

“Uh-oh. Another cop in the family?”

Vail laughed again—but she clearly did not find it humorous. “Not if I can help it. Too dangerous.”

Jasmine opened the cabinet and removed a filter, then placed it in the basket of the coffee maker.

“He’s looking at law. Which would suit me just fine. A whole lot safer. And generally speaking, a whole lot more lucrative.”

“Well, you know how that goes, right? You can try to influence your kids but in the end they do what they want. And let’s not forget that whatever they choose to do in their careers, they’ve gotta be happy.”

“Can’t argue with that.” But I still don’t want him carrying a badge and gun. She glanced around. “So where’s that letter?”

“Go on, take a look. That’s it right there on the table.”

Vail picked it up. It wasn’t evidence—there was no crime—but she almost felt like she should be wearing gloves while handling it. She pulled out the paper and unfolded it. What the hell did I expect? She said it was blank. But that did not fit a man like Roscoe Lee Marcks. There was also a photo of a stuffed animal—torn from a magazine of some kind. “What’s this?”

“What’s what?” Jasmine stepped closer and brought a hand to her mouth.

“It was still inside the envelope. You didn’t see it?”

She shook her head, still staring at the image.

“Why would he send you a picture of a stuffed animal?”

Jasmine turned away and went back to the coffee. “I had one just like that growing up. I used to go to bed with it every night.”

“And your father sent this to you. With no note.”

Jasmine set a mug of steaming java in front of Vail, purposely averting her eyes from the clipping.

“Did this stuffed animal have any special meaning?”

Jasmine stopped what she was doing and stood there. “Yes.” She hesitated, then said, “I found it cut to pieces one day, in my bed.”

“You’re joking. You never told me about this.”

Jasmine pulled a bowl of sugar from the cupboard. “It upset me. A lot. I remember crying, not understanding who would do it. Or why.”

“Did you ever find out?”

“Never. My mom wasn’t very nice about it. She said she’d buy me a new one, which she did. And she thought that made it all better. I loved Sparky. The new one wasn’t Sparky. I had nightmares about seeing him all cut up for weeks. That’s why I could never have a dog. Or a cat, or an animal of any kind. I just can’t—” She shivered. “It’d just make me think of Sparky.”

“You think your dad did it?”

Jasmine snorted. “What do you think?”

“Who else knew about what happened to Sparky?”

“I didn’t tell anyone. It really freaked me out. I was afraid to talk about it. Besides, my dad told me to keep it to myself.” She chuckled. “He said people may think I’m weird. They wouldn’t understand. Hell, I didn’t understand.”

Vail set the magazine clipping aside and examined the blank piece of paper again. “You got a pencil?”

Jasmine drew her chin back. “Maybe. I mean, if you’re not a draftsman or a sketch artist, who still uses pencils?” She rummaged through her drawer and handed Vail an old, yellow, chewed-up Eberhard Faber number two.

While Jasmine busied herself with pouring the coffee, Vail held the writing utensil at an angle, covering the white paper with soft, parallel strokes until she had shaded a good percentage of the surface a charcoal gray. “It’s not exactly blank.”

“What do you mean?” Jasmine came over and sat down next to Vail.

Oh shit. Shouldn’t have said anything. “Mind if I take this with me?” Vail said as she folded it and placed it back into the envelope.

“What’d you find? What does it say?”

“Not sure. I think there are impressions. Like when you write, it leaves latent or visible marks on the pages below it. It’s called indented writing. I’m going to take it over to the lab, have our techs take a look. Okay?”

“Yeah, of course.”

Vail swallowed a mouthful of coffee. “Are you going to be okay on this book tour? The questions may not get any easier.”

Jasmine cupped the warm mug between two hands. “I brought it on myself. Writing The Serial Killer’s Daughter was cathartic in a lot of ways. I can’t explain it, but it was something I just had to do. I had to write it. Obviously there are some unforeseen consequences.”

“Stay away from the reviews. You don’t need to subject yourself to that kind of abuse. There are some nasty people out there who think they know it all, who have nothing better to do but comment on things they have no clue about. Do yourself a favor and don’t read that garbage. It’ll just upset you.”

“Okay.”

“And I don’t care if it’s TV or radio, a local or national show, if there’s anything you don’t want to answer, if it’s too sensitive or painful, turn it back on them. Tell them they’re being cruel and you’ve been through enough. People will understand.”

Jasmine took a drink.

“Did you get time off work for the tour?”

“I took my accumulated sick time. Almost three weeks.”

“Still working for the state, right?”

“I’ve changed jobs a few times since you—well, since my father was convicted.”

“Something in computers?”

Jasmine managed a slight smile. “You remember.”

Now it was Vail’s turn to laugh. “It doesn’t happen often these days.”

“I was a computer science major my first two years of college. Then I realized I wasn’t very good at it, so I sat down with my adviser and, well, I cried in her office. She asked me some questions, gave me some forms to fill out, and told me I should become an accountant.” Her eyes glazed over as she got lost in thought. “I looked at her like she was speaking a foreign language. But she said, trust me on this. So I did. And she was right. I have a thing for numbers.”

Vail snapped her fingers. “Now I remember. Tax department?”

“My first job out of school. I’d interned for the state and showed a knack for finding things others missed. When I graduated they hired me. My supervisor liked me so much that he promoted me in, like, nine or ten months. Two years later I got a call from the state correctional system. It really wasn’t any different from what I’d done at the tax department, but they were looking for someone with my skill set. Pay was better, hours were better, and the opportunity for advancement was pretty high.”

“When was that?”

“Seven years ago. But two years after that a friend at work told me about this position at the Bureau of Prisons. Doing basically the same thing, only they paid a lot more. That was right around the time I started writing my book. Every night after dinner, 8:00 till 10:00.”

“So instead of dating, you were writing a book.”

“Instead of just about everything.” She sat down, took a drink of coffee. “Once I got started, it was like freeing my soul from a self-imposed prison.” Jasmine set her coffee down and laughed at her own comment. “I know that sounds silly. But when I shut my laptop every night, I slept better than I’ve slept since—well, since I was a teen.”

“It didn’t bother you being around a prison, being that your father was in a correctional facility?”

“Just the opposite, actually. I had a lot of pent-up anger. I really should’ve gotten help. But the book took the edge off. And going to work every day, seeing the prison, gave me a sense of comfort, knowing that my father was locked safely away just like the criminals where I worked.”

“I can understand that.”

Jasmine took another drink. “Besides, I was in the admin offices. I didn’t have any direct contact with the inmates. Minimum-security facility—completely different animal. And it’s not like my father was anywhere close. He was in North Carolina at the time, hours away, in a max facility.”

“And now he’s doing his best to reach out and touch you, making the seventy-five miles seem like a few blocks.”

Jasmine closed her eyes. Her hand shook slightly and she quickly set the mug down. “It caught me off guard. I didn’t expect to get that letter from him. And those questions this morning were…well, now I know what I’m up against.” She laughed nervously. “I’ll be fine.”

Can you please be a little more convincing? Stop it, Karen. Shit, maybe DiCarlo was right.

“You will be fine,” Vail said as she hugged her.

 

 

Vail drove to the FBI lab at Quantico to consult with Tim Meadows, the senior forensic scientist who had provided her with key assistance on many cases over the years.

The lab was a modern, free-standing facility down the road from the Academy constructed a dozen years ago. By the time the FBI was ready to move in, it had outgrown the building.

She found Meadows sitting on a stool peering into a microscope. Music was blasting from an iPod paired wirelessly with a speaker. She approached from behind and tickled his back with a finger. He startled and nearly fell off the seat.

She pressed “stop” and laughed. “Sorry, you had that thing turned up so loud I didn’t think you’d hear me.”

“Thank your buddies Uzi and DeSantos for that. I still haven’t regained my hearing completely after that explosion.”

“That was, what, three years ago? Hate to tell you, Tim, but it’s not coming back.”

Meadows frowned. “When did you get your medical degree, Dr. Vail?”

She raised a hand in contrition. “You’re right. I apologize again. I just figured, three years, you know? It’s done healing. What’d your doctor say?”

“He told me my hearing loss is just that: a loss. It ain’t coming back.”

Vail looked at him.

“I’m not ready to accept it. I’m taking some kind of herbal tincture my friend stirred up.” He leaned in close. “It’s got cannabis in it. Some specially grown strain to help the auditory nerve. Said it’ll help.”

“I thought you were a man of science.”

“I’m willing to try anything.” He pressed “play” on the iPod and glanced back at her. “No, I don’t mean that literally.”

Vail pressed “stop” again. “I’m not here to visit.”

“Of course not, because that’s what a friend would do.”

“Tim, I’m hurt.”

“No you’re not.”

Vail could not help but smile. “No, I’m not. But I do miss mixing it up with you.”

“Well, get to it, Karen. I was in the middle of one of my favorite songs. Not to mention one tough case. What do you got for me?”

“Something easy.” She unfurled the letter from the envelope.

“What the hell is that, some preschooler’s scribble?”

“Try again.”

He took the paper and glanced at it. “Oh, don’t tell me you were playing forensic scientist again. You’ve gotta stop watching that CSI bullshit. You know it’s bullshit, right?”

“Why, because you can’t solve every case in fifty-nine minutes?”

“Don’t get me started.”

Vail gestured at the paper. “This was sent by Roscoe Lee Marcks. To his daughter.”

“And why are we handling this without gloves?”

“There’s no case.”

“You sure of that?” He lifted an eyebrow.

Vail felt perspiration beading on her forehead. “No. But I can track the letter in other ways. Through the prison. They scan incoming and outgoing mail unless it’s from, or going to, an inmate’s attorney.”

“Let’s first see if we’ve got something to be concerned about. What do you want to know?”

“It appeared to be a blank piece of paper. But now it looks like there’s something written there.”

“Hmm. You can see that through the mess you made scribbling with that crayon?”

“Pencil.”

“Whatever.” He shooed her away and hit “play” on his iPod. “Now go and leave me for an hour. I’ll do my thing and text you when I’ve got something.”

Vail was gone only twenty minutes—she had run into a friend on her way down the stairs and never made it out of the building—when Meadows’s message came through:

you shoulda worn gloves

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