Night Fire (First Three Chapters)
By Bill Cronin
Copyright © 2017, William J. Cronin
All rights reserved
Enrique Malefico sat in front of a makeup mirror. His face and head were void of hair as was the rest of his body. His dark brown eyes scanned the contours of his face, which he’d scoured and scrubbed with vigor. His face was lean and tanned; his nose was narrow like his face. His mouth was a straight line with thin lips. Taped to the corner of the mirror, was the picture of a homeless man he’d captured with a telephoto lens in the woods behind a shopping center. Along with several other similarly situated men, his target had established a camp of sorts, constructed of ragged tarps and cardboard. The man in the picture was in the State of Florida sex offender database and had a build similar to his. He would be the first person the police would suspect and interview. He’d searched local thrift stores to find clothes and a ball-cap similar to the homeless man. While they weren’t an exact match, with a little makeup and a wig, witnesses seeing the homeless man’s picture would identify him as the man they saw. Malefico’s goal was not to incriminate the man whose picture hung from his mirror, but to lead the police down a path that would devour their precious time. While they thrashed about, he would execute his plan.
Malefico had been in Coronado Beach for three weeks, identifying potential victims, delving deep into their lives to find others he could frame. Not that any of his created-suspects would withstand scrutiny for long. The police would soon realize the murders were the work of one person, which is what he wanted. However, they’d have to investigate each of Malefico’s created-suspects. At the time of his choosing, he would kill his intended target and his lust for revenge would be satisfied.
Three weeks hadn’t been a lot of time. It would take weeks, if not months, to find the perfect victims, but he didn’t have that kind of time. As he checked into a hotel in Daytona Beach, a picture of an attractive blond-haired woman in an advertising rack in the lobby caught his attention. “Looking for a home in Coronado Beach? Call me.” The picture of the woman could have graced the cover of any fashion magazine. Below the title was her name, web address and telephone number.
After he checked into his room and connected to the hotel’s WIFI, he accessed the Coronado Island Properties website. He clicked on the tab entitled, “Staff.” He identified several women who might fit his profile. Within a few moments, he had accessed the sites of all the other Realtors serving Coronado Beach. All of the larger firms had a rogue’s gallery of their agents. He couldn’t believe his good fortune. Browsing through the online versions of each of the realty companies was like shopping online for his victims. Within several hours, he had a list of twenty women who fit his desired physical profile. Not only did the victims have to have the right look, he had to find people in their lives who the police would suspect as their murderer, if only temporarily. After a detailed investigation, Malefico reduced his list to five women who were, blond-haired, the right height and physical type. Over the last week, he’d followed each of his intended victims making notes of the manner in which each prepared to show a property. He went through the Multiple Listing Service and identified vacant condo properties he could lure his women to. The condo parking lots gave him cover. No one would give a thought to a cleaning service van parked there.
After having broken into a real estate broker’s office, a Realtor’s lockbox infrared remote was easy to acquire. Most Realtors were replacing the infrared remotes with smart phones that used an app and Bluetooth to open the lockbox, so they were in abundance. Upon entry to the property, he would have to key in a personal security code to the remote to unlock the box. He hacked into the county’s MLS lockbox database to find unassigned codes and assigned several to fictitious names, populating the fields in the database with bogus information. When someone accessed the lockbox, the MLS system would send an email to the listing agent documenting the time the party opened and closed the box and who accessed the device. The dozen codes he created, would give him unfettered access to vacant properties. By the time they discovered he’d compromised the MLS system, it would be too late. He accessed the Volusia County property appraiser’s website to get copies of the general floor plans for each of the properties. Under the guise of a cleaning service, he’d use the remote to access the lockbox, enter each of the properties to reconnoiter the interior and develop a strategy on how and where he would overpower his victims.
He applied a wig he’d colored and cut it to match the hair of the homeless man in the picture. He applied eyebrows, makeup and glued a closely cropped beard to his face. He positioned a soiled navy blue ball-cap to his head, inspected himself in the mirror and smiled, satisfied with the result. This wouldn’t be the first time he’d faced the incompetence of the police. They were no match for him. He’d developed his skills over many years. He would move with speed. Before the police had a clue, he would be gone. The damage he would leave behind would equal the pain he’d suffered and then some.
Before he was done, he wanted them to know who he was. It would be too late, of course. He would be in Bogota, with a fresh, printed Colombian passport and a new identity. They’d never find him.
Andrea Roberts used her cellphone to open the Realtor’s lockbox at seven-thirty in the morning, dropped out the inner chamber and retrieved the key to the property she’d show later in the day. She always pre-inspected listings several hours before a showing, in particular foreclosures. Illegal squatters, vandalism and disgruntled property owners could leave foreclosed properties in shambles. Ocean front condos weren’t exempt. Legitimate owners and freeloaders enjoyed the splendor of an ocean-view with equal enthusiasm. One would think the ocean front condos, with residents living so close to one another, would be spared the plight of squatters. Many of these condos were used as short term rentals and the comings and goings of strangers were commonplace.
Roberts slid the key into the deadbolt lock, turned it and pushed in the door. The unmistakable odor of death set her back before the door was open the width of a slice of pie. Stifling a gag, she pulled a handkerchief from her pocket, covered her nose and mouth and pressed ahead through the hallway toward the living room. She’d found dead pets or rodents or other wild animals in abandoned properties before. An involuntary scream echoed off the hallway walls as she passed the master bedroom on the right. Seated on the floor, her back against the wall was a partially clothed blond-haired woman, her head slumped forward, hands at her side and legs spread apart. From the gray color of the woman’s skin there was no doubt she was dead, and had been for some time. Roberts stifled her scream and swallowed hard to quell her nausea. She covered her mouth and withdrew down the hall. “What should I do?” she said aloud to herself. As she ran the picture of what she’d just seen through her mind, there was something about the woman – a familiarity. Summoning courage, she pulled her cellphone from her suit-jacket pocket and inched down the hall again to the master bedroom.
As she edged into the room, she was sure she knew the woman. The dead woman’s chin was down on her chest so she couldn’t see her face clearly. With trembling fingers, she dialed 911 and stooped to get a better look at the woman’s face. A wide red line of lipstick began at one ear, ran down through her lips and up to the other ear. An exaggerated smiley face, punctuated by large C’s on the ends of the arc. Then she recognized the woman, another Realtor in their small town of twenty thousand.
She fumbled with the phone, “911, what’s the nature of your emergency.”
With a trembling but determined voice, Roberts described the scene in front of her and gave the address when asked. Ignoring the order to leave the scene and wait outside until the police arrived, Roberts stretched to the right and the left from her position just inside the door to take a better look. The woman’s unbuttoned blouse covered her breasts, but her skirt was up almost to her waist. She wore no underwear, and she noticed the dead women held her bra in one hand and her panties in the other. The killer had cut or ripped the woman’s pantyhose in two at the crotch and bundled them up at her ankles just above a pair of flat shoes. There was a black cross on her forehead made with a marker. The full horror of the scene in front of her choked the air from her lungs. She vomited into her handkerchief. Roberts almost fell backwards into the doorframe as she scrambled to her feet and bolted from the room. She sprinted to the front door before emptying the remaining contents of her stomach on the front stoop of the Condo.
It was ten a.m. when Jed McCain passed the exits for Daytona Beach and Port Orange on Interstate 95. He slowed his black Ford pickup and black utility-trailer containing all his possessions to exit at Coronado Beach. After two days of packing, cleaning up his rented house in the Bronx and more than twenty-six hours on the road he was nearing his new home.
He eyed his NYPD Identification badge with name and badge number and DETECTIVE printed across it. Now that he was retired, it hung from the rearview mirror of his truck as a souvenir. The narrow face on the I.D. stared back at him sporting light brown hair cut Marine Corp short, clear blue eyes, ears set close to his head, thin nose and a deep cleft in the middle of a square jaw. He adjusted the rearview mirror to look at himself to check the damage from two days without a shower or a shave. His hair was longer now but neatly cut, crevasses shot out in all directions from the corners of his eyes, deep lines of stress punctuated his forehead and crimson framed the pupils of his eyes from lack of sleep.
At 41, he’d been retired from the New York City police department for less than two months and was to start his new job tomorrow. He’d been in Coronado Beach the month before for a series of interviews with the chief of police and city manager.
Every NYPD cop dreamed of retirement after twenty years, moving to another state, working another twenty years and retiring again at another PD. Double-dipping was a cop’s Holy Grail. Landing in Florida and double-dipping was like finding the golden Ark of the Covenant.
Jed would have settled for anything. A patrol position would have sufficed after the crushing pressure of the senior homicide detective position he’d left in New York. His landing a detective’s position was more than he hoped. Coronado Beach had a small PD and an opening for a fulltime homicide detective. He would be Coronado’s first. One of the side effects from the growth in Central Florida was the corresponding growth in all categories of crime. The economic meltdown of the Great Recession, while stunting growth in the area, had given violent crime a boost. Coronado had relied upon the Volusia County sheriff and The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, or the FDLE for investigative support with homicides and other major crimes.
Violent crimes were infrequent in Coronado Beach, a drowsy resort town an hour from Orlando, and thirty minutes from Daytona Beach. The city promoted its “beachside,” a long narrow island wedged between the Intracoastal Waterway and the Atlantic Ocean, where condos and seasonal rentals filled the city’s coffers with real estate taxes and local sales taxes. Coronado Beach’s sidewalks might roll up by ten at night, but with more than twenty thousand permanent residents, and double that number during the winter months, there were still eight homicides per year.
The federal government, eager to stimulate a stagnated economy, had poured billions into law enforcement around the country. Coronado Beach used its share of stimulus funding on new equipment, to add to the ranks of their fledgling force, and to create the position for which Jed was hired.
Before he flew back to New York, the Coronado Beach city manager offered him the homicide detective position, which he accepted. He stayed an extra week and found a modest, furnished, two-bedroom, one-bath home on the water. While the house was a ramshackle, it backed up to a sturdy thirty-foot dock that jutted out into Intracoastal Waterway that could handle a large boat. The house had been the winter home of an older couple who — because of poor health — hadn’t used the home in over ten years. When they passed away, their estate sold the home to clear probate. The roof leaked, the yard was overgrown and the exterior paint had faded from the sun and lack of attention. Had the structure been in good condition, he couldn’t have afforded it. On a large island a quarter-mile from the ocean, this house was the foulest looking structure in the small neighborhood.
Jed turned off I-95 and headed east on the state road toward Coronado Beach. As he merged onto the highway, his cellphone rang and vibrated around on the seat next to him.
Out of professional habit he answered, “McCain.”
He recognized the gravel voice of his new chief, Bo Grizzle, “Where are you?”
“Just got off the Interstate heading into town,” Jed said.
“I know you’re not supposed to start until tomorrow, but we have a situation here. Can you come straight to the PD?”
“I’m hauling a trailer, but if that’s not a problem I’ll be there in ten minutes.”
“Good,” Grizzle said and hung up without explanation.
Jed ended the call and tossed the smart phone back on the seat.
Coronado Beach was a town divided by the Intracoastal Waterway. The “mainland” side was home to the seat of government and most commercial business, while condos, hotels and residences populated “beachside.” The PD was located on the mainland in the city center across the street from a marina. Jed circled the block and found space in the PD parking lot long enough to park his truck and trailer. He had no card for the card-lock to the PD building, so he passed up the employee entrance. He traipsed around to the public entrance at the front of the building and admired the view of the sailboats and masts rocking in the marina.
Jed introduced himself to the desk sergeant and she ushered him into the chief’s office.
As soon as Jed presented himself, the chief bolted from his chair, hitched his belt up over his well-nourished belly, “We’ll talk on the way. We’ve got folks waiting.”
Jed swung in behind the man long out of shape, who waddled down the hall to the rear exit. “Consider yourself sworn in,” he said over this shoulder, his breathe labored by the brisk pace. Jed judged Grizzle to be in his mid sixties. When Jed interviewed for the job, Grizzle sweated profusely and often wiped his brow and lips with a handkerchief. Grizzle kept his gray hair short on the sides and what little there was he had neatly combed.
“We got a 911 call an hour ago. A local Realtor found a dead body in a condo on the beach. FDLE crime scene people are processing the scene now, but I wanted you to see it before they moved the body. We have a decision to make before we leave the scene, whether to investigate this homicide ourselves or turn it over to the county or FDLE. It’s your call. That’s why I had you come in now.” Grizzle said all this as soon as they were in the chief’s unmarked Crown Victoria and accelerating out of the PD parking lot.
As they drove, they paralleled the Intracoastal Waterway, turned left onto a causeway that carried them over the waterway to beachside. They turned south and paralleled the ocean along A1A for a mile before they turned into the Tidewater, an eight-story condo on the ocean. A knot of state and local law enforcement vehicles with all their red and blue lights flashing clogged the entrance to the aging building. Jed could never understand the need for the showy display. The body was not going anywhere; no one around the crime scene had any doubt from all the emergency vehicles that something was afoot.
“I know you have friends at the FDLE, but I hate like hell having these guys up my ass if I don’t have to.” Grizzle wasn’t waiting for Jed’s answer; he was out the door, hiking up his gun-belt, willing his body to where several uniforms milled around the front entrance to the building.
They took the elevator to the fourth floor. The control panel in the elevator still had black dust where the crime scene tech had lifted fingerprints. More uniforms stood outside the fourth-floor condo and one acknowledged the chief with a nod. Someone had asked Jed once to describe the smell of decomposing human flesh. It was beyond description. Even the common practice of spreading Vicks Vapor Rub under the nose failed to cut the noxious smell. Even after all the murder scenes Jed had visited, the smell still turned his stomach. He’d found that the odor permeated clothing and clung to his hair, even his fingernails for days following exposure to a decomposing human corpse.
FDLE crime scene techs handed each of them surgical gloves and footies to preserve the integrity of the crime scene. It looked like they’d been invited to a surgery rather than a show and tell for a death squad.
Damon Hunter, the county’s medical examiner, a tall, thin man arrayed in his surgical garb, met the chief at the door to the master bedroom. “Bo. I have to tell you it’s been a while since I’ve seen one this bizarre.” Hunter’s gaunt cheeks, sunken eyes, and graying hair contributed to his frail appearance. Hunter looked at Jed with a raised eyebrow.
“Doc, this is Jed McCain our new homicide detective. He just got here today.” Gesturing to the medical examiner, Grizzle said, “McCain this is Damon Hunter, ME Been around forever.”
“Doc.” Jed nodded and extended his hand then realized where the ME’s glove covered hands had been and retracted it. The doc nodded and gave Jed a thin smile.
“I expect you’ll want to see the body,” Hunter said, and moved from the opening of the doorway. As Jed moved into the room with Grizzle in-tow, Hunter began his briefing on what he’d found.
Jed moved into the room, positioned himself about three feet from the body then squatted down on the balls of feet with his butt resting on his heels. As Hunter started, Jed began with the feet of the dead woman in front of him and worked his way to the head, taking in all the details he could.
“Our victim is white female, late thirties and five-foot six-inches tall. I give her weight to be one hundred ten to one hundred twenty pounds. From bruising around her neck and broken blood vessels in her eyes, I would venture a preliminary cause of death to be strangulation. From the state of decomposition, she’s been dead about thirty-six hours give or take. Bruising on the inner thighs would indicate sexual assault, but I won’t know for sure until I get her back to the shop. Bruising on the arms and back of the hands suggest she tried, without success, to defend herself. I can’t say much about the attacker until I can do a thorough exam. She was not a large woman. Even a small man would be able to overtake her. When I can get a better look, I may be able to give you more information.”
Thorough and concise, Jed thought. “The smiley face and cross, have you ever seen anything like this before?” Jed directed his question to Hunter.
“Pretty bizarre isn’t it? Sick, even. I’m no shrink, but it looks ritualistic to me. The killer applied lipstick, black eye makeup and the cross on her forehead post mortem. This was no crime of passion. The sick bastard who did this enjoyed what he was doing. The scene is super clean. There is no apparent semen from the rape. I’m not seeing trace evidence on the body, but I won’t know for sure until I do a more detailed exam. The killer scoured and meticulously cleaned the scene.”
“Anyone know who she is?” Jed, still in a squatted position, pivoted on the balls of his feet first looking at the ME and then to one of the FDLE crime scene techs.
A young woman stepped around the M.E. “The woman, who found her, Andrea Roberts, knew the woman. They’re both Realtors. She gave us the name, Paula Mitchell. There was no identification on the body or anywhere in the condo; just some car keys. We’re checking DMV records to see if her car is in the parking lot. We haven’t found it yet.”
Jed reached for one of the woman’s hands, the one clutching the panties and turned it over. Someone had clipped the fingernails back to the quick.
Hunter anticipated Jed’s question. “The killer knows the drill. I’m guessing the fingernails were clipped postmortem. From the abrasions at the fingertips, once her fingernails were clipped, they were scrubbed with some kind of brush. I was just about to bag her hands. Maybe we can get some DNA evidence from her fingers, but I doubt it.”
“Doesn’t look too promising, does it?” Jed picked up the other hand and found the same clipped fingernails.
“No. Do you need to see anything else on the body, McCain? I’d like to get her bagged up and back to the shop. I have a long day ahead.”
“Any chance you can tell us the size of the attacker from the strangulation marks on the neck?” Jed lifted the woman’s chin up to get a better look at the neck.
“Just a guess. Maybe six feet. If I can get to work, I can tell you a whole lot more this afternoon.”
“I won’t hold you up.” Jed stood up, backed away from the body.
Hunter signaled for an assistant who’d been waiting in the room with a heavy, plastic, black bag. The ME bagged the hands and he and the assistant slid the body away from the wall onto the floor. They maneuvered the dead woman into the bag, and zipped it up. The assistant left and returned with a stretcher. The ME helped load the body on the gurney and he and his assistant wheeled the woman out of the room, leaving behind the chief, Jed and the crime scene tech.
“My name is Torres,” the female tech said. “They found the woman’s car in the parking lot. Do you want to look at it first before we tow it back to our lab?”
“You have pictures of all this I assume, Torres?”
“First thing we do, McCain,” Torres said with irritation.
“Chief, you need anything else here from Torres?” Jed asked.
“Nah, I’m good. Any thoughts?”
“This is a serial killer; an experienced one. Everything in this room screams it. This isn’t the first, and it won’t be the last.” Jed had seen too many of these methodical, ritualistic killings. The way the killer had staged the body was familiar to him. Staging a corpse in serial murders was common and perhaps that contributed to his feelings of familiarity.
The chief turned to the tech and said, “What McCain said will not be repeated to anyone. You have that?”
“Sure,” Torres said, “McCain is right, though. This is no ordinary homicide. We’ll hear from this guy again. It may not be in your fair city, but it just might.”
The chief shot an irritated look at McCain.
Jed held up his hands, “Hey, you asked.”
Grizzle spun on his heels, and plodded heavy-footed out the door mumbling, “This is all I need.”