Jack Kilborn, J. A. Konrath
A Psycho Thriller
TRUCK STOP takes place before the events portrayed in AFRAID by Jack Kilborn, SERIAL UNCUT by Jack Kilborn & Blake Crouch, and FUZZY NAVEL by JA Konrath. Reading the authors’ previous work isn’t necessary to enjoy TRUCK STOP, though both authors encourage you to buy everything they’ve written. They also encourage you to buy them beer.
Taylor liked toes.
He wasn’t a pervert. At least, not that kind of pervert. Taylor didn’t derive sexual gratification from feet. Women had other parts much better suited for that type of activity. But he was a sucker for a tiny foot in open-toed high heels, especially when the toenails were painted.
Painted toes were yummy.
The truck stop whore wore sandals, the cork wedge heels so high her toes were bent. She had small feet – they looked like a size five – and her nails matched her red mini skirt. Taylor spotted her through the windshield as she walked over to his Peterbilt, wiggling her hips and wobbling a bit. Taylor guessed she was drunk or stoned. Perhaps both.
He climbed out of his cab. When his cowboy boots touched the pavement he reached his hands up over his head and stretched, his vertebrae cracking. The night air was hot and sticky with humidity, and he could smell his own sweat.
The whore blew smoke from the corner of her mouth. “Hiya, stranger. My name’s Candi. With an I.”
“I’m Taylor. With a T.”
He smiled. She giggled, then hiccupped.
Even in the dim parking lot light, Candi with an I was nothing to look at. Mid-thirties. Cellulite. Twenty pounds too heavy for her skirt and halter top. She wore sloppy make-up, her lipstick smeared, making Taylor wonder how many truckers she’d already blown on this midnight shift.
But she did have very cute toes. She dropped her cigarette and crushed it into the pavement, and Taylor licked his lower lip.
“Been on the road a long time, Taylor?”
“Twelve hours in from Cinci. My ass is flatter than roadkill armadillo.”
She eyed his rig. He was hauling four bulldozers on his flatbed trailer. They were heavy, and his mileage hadn’t been good, making this run much less profitable than it should have been.
But Taylor didn’t become a trucker to get rich. He did it for other reasons.
“You feeling lonely, Taylor? You looking for a little company?”
Taylor knew he could use a little company right now. He could also use a meal, a hot shower, and eight hours of sleep.
It was just a question of which need he’d cater to first.
He looked around the truck stop lot. Pretty full for late night in Bumblefuck, Wisconsin. Over a dozen rigs and just as many cars. The 24 hour gas station had a line for the pumps, and Murray’s Eats, the all-night diner, appeared full.
On either side of the cloverleaf there were a few other restaurants and gas stations, but Murray’s was always busy because they boasted more than food and diesel. Besides the no-hassle companionship the management and local authorities tolerated, Murray’s had a full-size truck wash, a mechanic on duty, and free showers.
After twelve hours of caffeine sweating in this muggy Midwestern August, Taylor needed some quality time with a bar of soap just as badly as he needed quality time with a parking lot hooker.
But it didn’t make sense to shower first, when he was only going to get messy again.
“How much?” he asked.
“That depends on -”
“Half and half,” he cut her off, not needing to hear the daily menu specials.
She didn’t look worth twenty-five bucks, but he wasn’t planning on paying her anyway, so he agreed.
“Great, sugar. I just need to make a quick stop at the little girls’ room and I’ll be right back.”
She spun on her wedges to leave, but Taylor caught her thin wrist. He knew she wasn’t going to the washroom. She was going to her pimp to give him the four Ps: Price, preferences, plate number, parking location. Taylor didn’t see any single men hanging around; only other whores, and none of them were paying attention. Her pimp was probably in the restaurant, unaware of this particular transaction, and Taylor wanted to keep it that way.
“I’m sorta anxious to get right to it, Candi.” He smiled wide. Women loved his smile. He’d been told, many times, that he was good-looking enough to model. “If you leave me now, I might just find some other pretty girl to spend my money on.”
Candi smiled back. “Well, we wouldn’t want that. But I’m short on protection right now, honey.”
“I’ve got rubbers in the cab.” Taylor switched to his brooding, hurt-puppy dog look. “I need it bad, right now, Candi. So bad I’ll throw in another ten spot. That’s thirty-five bucks for something we both know will only take a few minutes.”
Taylor watched Candi work it out in her head. This john was hot to trot, offering more than the going rate, and he’d probably be really quick. Plus, he was cute. She could probably do him fast, and pocket the whole fee without having to share it with her pimp.
“You got yourself a date, sugar.”
Taylor took another quick look around the lot, made sure no one was watching, and hustled Candi into his cab, climbing up behind her and locking the door.
The truck’s windows were lightly tinted – making it difficult for anyone on the street to see inside. Not that Candi bothered to notice, or care. As soon as Taylor faced her she was pawing at his fly.
“The bedroom is upstairs.” Taylor pointed to the stepladder in the rear of the extended cab, leading to his overhead sleeping compartment.
“Is there enough room up there? Some of those spaces are tight.”
“Plenty. I customized it myself. It’s to die for.”
Taylor smiled, knowing he was being coy, knowing it didn’t matter at this point. His heart rate was up, his palms itchy, and he had that excited/sick feeling that junkies got right before they jabbed the needle in. If Candi suddenly had a change of heart, there wasn’t anything she could do about it. She was past the point of no return.
But Candi didn’t resist. She went up first, pushing the trap door on the cab’s ceiling, climbing into the darkness above. Taylor hit the light switch on his dashboard and followed her.
“What is this? Padding?”
She was on her hands and knees, running her palm across the floor of the sleeper, testing its springiness with her fingers.
“Judo mats. Extra thick. Very easy to clean up.”
“You got mats on the walls too?” She got on her knees and reached overhead, touching the spongy material on the arced ceiling, her exposed belly jiggling.
“Those are baffles. Keeps the sound out.” He smiled, closing the trap door behind him. “And in.”
The lighting was subdued, just a simple overhead fixture next to the smoke alarm. The soundproofing was black foam, the mats a deep beige, and there was no furniture in the enclosure except for an inflatable rubber mattress and a medium-sized metal trunk.
“This is kind of kinky. Are you kinky, Taylor?”
“You might say that.”
Taylor crawled over to the trunk at the far end of the enclosure. After dialing the combination lock, he opened the lid. Then he moved his Tupperware container aside and took out a fresh roll of paper towels, a disposable paper nose and mouth mask, and an aerosol spray can. He ripped off three paper towels, then slipped the mask on over his face, adjusting the rubber band so it didn’t catch in his hair.
“What is that, sugar?” Candi asked. Her flirty, playful demeanor was slipping a bit.
“Starter fluid. You squirt it into your carburetor, it helps the engine turn over. Its main ingredient is diethyl ether.”
He held the paper towels at arm’s length, then sprayed them until they were soaked.
“What the fuck are you doing?” Candi looked panicked now. And she had good reason to be.
“This will knock you out so I can tie you up. You’re not the prettiest flower in the bouquet, Candi with an I. But you have the cutest little toes.”
He grinned again. But this wasn’t one of his attractive grins. The whore shrunk away from him.
“Don’t hurt me, man! Please! I got kids!”
“They must be so proud.”
Taylor approached her, on his knees, savoring her fear. She tried to crawl to the right and get around him, get to the trap door. But that was closed and now concealed by matting, and Taylor knew she had no idea where it was.
He watched her realize escape wasn’t an option, and then she dug into her little purse for a weapon or a cell phone or a bribe or something else that she thought might help but wouldn’t. Taylor hit her square in the nose, then tossed the purse aside. A small canister of pepper spray spilled out, along with a cell phone, make-up, Tic-Tacs, and several condoms.
“You lied to me,” Taylor said, slapping her again. “You’ve got rubbers.”
“You lying little slut. Were you going to pepper spray me?”
“Liar.” Another slap. “I think you need to be taught a lesson. And I don’t think you’ll like it. But I will.”
Candi’s hands covered her bleeding nose and she moaned something that sounded like, “Please… My kids…”
“Does your pimp offer life insurance?”
“No? That’s a shame. Well, I’m sure he’ll take care of your children for you. He’ll probably have them turning tricks by next week.”
Taylor knocked her hands away and pressed the cold, wet paper towels to her face. Not hard enough to cut off air, but hard enough that she had to breathe through them. Even though he wore a paper face mask, some of the pungent, bitter odor got into Taylor’s nostrils, making his hairs curl.
It took the ether less than a minute to do its job on the whore. When she finally went limp, Taylor placed the damp towels in a plastic zip-top bag. Then he took several bungee cords out of the trunk and bound Candi’s hands and arms to her torso. Unlike rope, the elastic bands didn’t require knots, and were reusable. Taylor wrapped them around Candi tight enough for her to lose circulation, but that didn’t matter.
Candi wouldn’t be needing circulation for very much longer.
While the majority of his murder kit was readily available at any truck stop, his last piece of equipment was specially made.
It looked like a large board with two four-inch wide holes cut in the middle. Taylor flipped the catch on the side and it opened up on hinges, like one of those old-fashion jail stocks that prisoners stuck their heads and hands into. Except this one was made for something else.
Taylor grabbed Candi’s left foot and gingerly removed her wedge. Then he placed her ankle in the half-circle cut into the wood. He repeated the action with her right foot, and closed the stock.
Now Candi’s bare feet protruded through the boards, effectively trapped.
He locked the catch with a padlock, and then set the stock in between the floor mats, where it fit snuggly into a brace, secured by two more padlocks.
Taylor lay on his stomach, taking Candi’s right foot in his hands. He cupped her heel, running a finger up along her sole, bringing his lips up to her toes.
He licked them once, tasting sweat, grime, smelling a slight foot odor and a faint residue of nail polish. His pulse went up even higher, and time seemed to slow down.
Her little toe came off surprisingly easy, no harder than nibbling the cartilage top off a fried chicken leg.
Taylor watched the blood seep out as he chewed on the severed digit – a blood and gristle-flavored piece of gum – and then swallowed.
This little piggy went to market.
He opened up his mouth to accommodate the second little piggy, the one who stayed home, when he realized something was missing.
Where was the screaming? Where was the begging? Where was the thrashing around in agony?
He crawled around the stock, alongside Candi’s head. Ether was a pain in the ass to get the dose right, and he’d lost more than one girl by giving her too big a whiff. Luckily, Candi was still breathing. But she was too deeply sedated to let some playful toe-munching wake her up.
Taylor frowned. Like sex, murder was best with two active participants. He gathered up the whore’s belongings, then rolled away from her, over to the trap door.
He’d get a bite to eat, maybe enjoy one of Murray’s famous free showers. Hopefully, when he got back, Sleeping Homely would be awake.
Taylor used one of the ether-soaked paper towels to wipe the blood off his chin and fingers, stuffed them back into the bag, then headed for the diner.
“Where are you?”
“I have no idea.” My cell was tucked between my shoulder and my ear as I drove. “I think I’m still in Wisconsin. Wouldn’t there be some kind of sign if I entered another state?”
“Don’t you have the map I gave you?” Latham asked. “The directions?”
“Yeah. But they aren’t helping.”
“Are you looking at the map right now?”
The map might have done me some good if I’d been able to see what was on it. But the highway was dark, and the interior light in my 1989 Nova had burned out last month.
“You can’t see it, can you?”
I heard my fiancée sigh. “I just bought you a replacement bulb for that overhead lamp. I saw you put it in your purse. It’s still in your purse, isn’t it?”
“And you can’t replace the bulb now, because it’s too dark.”
“That’s a good deduction. You should become a cop.”
“One cop in this relationship is enough. Why didn’t you take my GPS when I insisted?”
“Because I didn’t want you to get lost.”
A billboard was coming up on my right. MURRAY’S – NEXT EXIT. That was nice to know, but I had no idea what Murray’s was, or how far the exit was. Not a very effective advertisement.
“My interior light works, Jackie. I could have used Mapquest.”
“Mapquest lies. And don’t call me Jackie. You know I hate it when people call me Jackie.”
“And I hate it when you say you’d be here three hours ago, and you’re still not here. You could have left at a reasonable hour, Jack.”
He had a point. This was my first real vacation – and by that I mean one that involved actually travelling somewhere – in a few years. Latham had rented a cabin on Rice Lake, and he had driven there yesterday from Chicago to meet the rental owners and get the keys. I was supposed to go with him, and we’d been planning this for weeks, but the murder trial I’d been testifying at had gone longer than expected, and since I was the arresting officer I needed to be there. As much as I loved Latham, and as much as I needed some time away from work, my duty to put criminals away ranked slightly higher.
“Your told-you-so tone isn’t going to get you laid later,” I said. “Just help me figure out where I am.”
Another sigh. I shrugged it off. My long-suffering boyfriend had suffered a lot worse than this in order to be with me. I figured he had to be incredibly desperate, or a closet masochist. Either way, he was a cutie, and I loved him.
“Do you see the mile markers alongside the road?”
I didn’t see any such thing. The highway was dark, and I hadn’t noticed any signs, off-ramps, exits, or mile markers since I’d left Illinois. But I hadn’t exactly been paying much attention, either. I was pretty damn tired, and had been zoning out to AM radio for the last hour. FM didn’t work. Sometimes I wish someone would shoot my car, put it out of my misery.
“No. There’s nothing out here, Latham. Except Murray’s.”
“I have no idea. I just saw the sign. Could be a gas station. Could be a waterpark.”
“I don’t remember passing anything called Murray’s. Did the sign have the exit number?”
“Are you sure?”
I made a face. “The defense attorney never asked me if I was sure. The defense attorney took me at my word.”
“He should have also made you take my GPS. You see those posts alongside the road with the reflectors on them?”
“Keep watching them.”
“Why should -” The next reflector had a number on top. “Oh. Okay, I’m at mile marker 231.”
“I don’t have Internet access here at the cabin. I’ll call you back when I find out where you are. You’re okay, right? Not going to fall asleep while driving?”
I yawned. “I’m fine, hon. Just a little hungry.”
“Stop for something if it will keep you awake.”
“Sure. I’ll just pull over and grab the nearest cow.”
“If you do, bring me a tenderloin.”
“Really? Is your appetite back?” Latham was still recovering from a bad case of food poisoning.
“It’s getting there.”
“Aren’t you tired? You should rest, honey.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m sure. I’ll call soon with your location.”
My human GPS unit hung up. I yawned again, and gave my head a little shake.
On the plus side, my testimony had gone well, and all signs pointed to a conviction.
On the minus side, I’d been driving for six straight hours, and I was hungry, tired, and needed to pee. I also needed gas, according to my gauge.
Maybe Murray could take care of all my needs. Assuming I could find Murray’s before falling asleep, running out of fuel, starving to death, and wetting my pants.
The road stretched onward into the never-ending darkness. I hadn’t seen another car in a while. Even though this was a major highway (as far as I knew), traffic was pretty light. Who would have thought that Northern Wisconsin at two in the morning on a Wednesday night was so deserted?
I heard my cell phone ring. My hero, to the rescue.
“You’re not on I-94,” he said. “You’re on 39.”
“You sound annoyed.”
“You went the wrong way when the Interstate split.”
“You drove three hours out of the way.”
I yawned. “So where do I go to get to you?”
“You need some sleep, Jack. You can get here in the morning.”
“Three hours is nothing. I can be there in time for an early breakfast.”
“You sound exhausted.”
“I’ll be fine. Lemme just close my eyes for a second.”
“That’s not even funny.”
I smiled. The poor sap really did care about me.
“I love you, Latham.”
“I love you, too. That’s why I want you to find a room somewhere and get some rest.”
“Just tell me how to get to you. I don’t want to sleep alone in some cheap hotel with threadbare sheets and a mattress with questionable stains. I want to sleep next to you in that cabin with the big stone fireplace. But first I want to rip off those cute boxer-briefs you wear and… hello? Latham?”
I squinted at my cell. No signal.
Welcome to Wisconsin.
I yawned again. Another billboard appeared.
MURRAY’S FAMOUS TRUCK STOP. FOOD. DIESEL. LODGING. TRUCK WASH. SHOWERS. MECHANIC ON DUTY. TEN MILES.
Ten miles? I could make ten miles. And maybe some food and coffee would wake me up.
I pressed the accelerator, taking the Nova up to eighty.
Murray’s here I come.
Taylor paused at the diner entrance, taking everything in. The restaurant was busy, the tables all full. He spotted three waitresses, plus two cooks in the kitchen. Seated were various truckers, two with hooker companions. Taylor knew the owners encouraged it, and wondered what kind of cut they got.
He saw what must have been Candi’s pimp, holding court at a corner table. Rattleskin cowboy boots, a gold belt buckle in the shape of Wisconsin, fake bling on his baseball cap. He was having a serious discussion with one of his whores. The rest of the tables were occupied by truckers. Taylor didn’t see any cops; a pimp in plain sight meant they were being paid off.
The place smelled terrific, like bacon gravy and apple pie. Taylor’s stomach grumbled. He located the emergency exit in the northeast corner, and knew there was also a back door that led into the kitchen; Taylor had walked the perimeter of the building before entering.
With no tables available, he approached the counter and took a seat there, between the storefront window and a pudgy, older guy nursing a cup of coffee. It was a good spot. He could see his rig, and also see anyone approaching it or him.
Taylor hadn’t been to Murray’s in over a year, but the printed card sticking in the laminated menu said their specialty was meatloaf.
“Meatloaf is good,” the old guy leaned over and said.
“I didn’t ask for your opinion.”
“You were looking at the card. Thought I’d be helpful.”
He examinedthe man, a grandfatherly type with thinning gray hair and red cheeks. Taylor wasn’t in the best of moods-one toe was barely an appetizer for him-and he was ready to tell Grandpa off. But starting a scene meant being remembered, and that wasn’t wise.
“Thank you,” Taylor managed.
A waitress came by, wearing ugly scuffed-up gym shoes. Taylor ordered coffee and the meatloaf. The coffee was strong, bitter. Taylor added two sugars.
“Showers are good here too,” his fat companion said.
Taylor gave him another look.
Is this guy trying to pick me up?
The man sipped his coffee and didn’t meet Taylor’s stare.
“Look, buddy. I just want to eat in peace. No offense. I’ve been on the road for a long time.”
“No offense taken,” the fat man said. He finished his coffee, then signaled the waitress for a refill. “Just telling you the showers are good. Be sure to get some quarters. They’ve got a machine, sells soap. Useful for washing off blood.”
All of Taylor’s senses went on high alert, and he felt himself flush. This guy didn’t look like a cop-Taylor could usually spot cops. He wore baggy jeans, a plaid shirt, a Timex. On the counter next to his empty cup was a baseball cap without any logo. A few days’ worth of beard graced his double chin.
No, he wasn’t law. And he wasn’t cruising him, either.
So what the hell does hewant?
“What do you mean?” Taylor asked, keeping his tone neutral.
“Drop of blood on your shirt. Another spot on your collar. Some under your fingernails as well. You wiped them with ether, but it didn’t completely dissolve. Did you know that ether was first used as a surgical anesthetic back in 1842? Before that, taking a knife to a person meant screaming and thrashing around.” The man held a beefy hand to his mouth and belched. “‘Course, some people might like the screaming and thrashing around part.”
Taylor bunched his fists, then forced himself to relax. Had this guy seen him somehow? Did he know about Candi in the sleeper?
No. He couldn’t have. Tinted windows on his cab. No windows at all in the sleeping compartment.
He took a casual glance around, trying to spot anyone else watching. No one seemed to be paying either of them any attention.
Taylor dropped his hand, slowly reaching for the folding knife clipped to his belt. He considered sliding it between this guy’s ribs right there and getting the hell out. But first Taylor needed to know what Grandpa knew. Maybe he could lead him to the bathroom, get him into a stall…
Taylor froze. His knife was missing.
“Take it easy, my friend,” said the old, fat man. “I’ll give you your knife back when we’re through.”
Taylor wasn’t sure what to say, but he believed everyone had an angle. This guy knew more than he should have. But what was he going to do with his information?
“Who are you?” Taylor asked.
“Name’s Donaldson. And you probably meant to ask What are you? You’ve probably figured out I’m not a cop, not a Fed. Thanks, Donna.” He nodded at the waitress as she refilled his coffee. “Actually, I’m just a fellow traveler. Enjoying the country. The sites. The people.” Donaldson winked at him. “Same as you are.”
“Same as me, huh?”
Donaldson nodded. “A bit older and wiser, perhaps. At least wise enough to not use that awful ether anymore. Where do you even get that these days? I thought ether and chloroform were controlled substances.”
“Starter fluid,” Taylor said. This conversation was getting surreal.
“So what is it exactly you do, Donaldson?”
“For work? Or do you mean with the people I encounter? I’m a courier, that’s my job. I travel all around, delivering things to people who need them faster than overnight. As for the other-well, that’s sort of personal, don’t you think? We just met, and you want me to reveal intimate details of my antisocial activities? Shouldn’t we work up to that?”
So far, Donaldson had been the embodiment of calm. He didn’t seem threatening in the least. They might have been talking about the weather.
“And you spotted me because of the blood and the ether smell?”
“Initially. But the give-away was the look in your eyes.”
“And what sort of look do my eyes have, Donaldson?”
“This one.” Donaldson turned and looked at Taylor. ”The eyes of a predator. No pity. No remorse. No humanity.”
Taylor stared hard, then grinned. “I don’t see anything but regular old eyes.”
Donaldson held the intense gaze a moment longer, then chuckled. “Okay. You caught me. The eyes don’t tell anything. But I caught you casing the place before you walked in. Looking for cops, for trouble, for exits. A man that careful should have noticed some spots of blood on his shirt.”
“Maybe I cut myself shaving.”
“And the ether smell?”
“Maybe the rig was giving me some trouble, so I cleaned out the carburetor.”
“No grease or oil under your nails. Just dried blood.”
Taylor leaned in close, speaking just above a whisper.
“Give me one good reason I shouldn’t kill you, Donaldson.”
“Other than the fact I have your knife? Because you should consider this a golden opportunity, my friend. You and I, we’re solitary creatures. We don’t ever talk about our secret lives. We never share stories of our exploits with anyone. I’ve been doing this for over thirty years, and I’ve never met another person like us. A few wannabes. More than a few crazies. But never another hunter. Like we are. Don’t you think this is a unique chance?”
The meatloaf came, steaming hot. But Taylor wasn’t hungry anymore. He was intrigued. If Donaldson was what he claimed to be, the fat man was one hundred percent correct. Taylor had never talked about his lifestyle with anyone, other than his victims. And then, it was only to terrify them even more.
Sometimes, Taylor had fantasies of getting caught. Not because he harbored any guilt, and not because he wanted to be locked up. But because it would be nice, just once, to be open and honest about his habits with the whole world. To let a fellow human being know how clever he’d been all these years. Maybe have some shrink interview him and write a bestselling book.
How interesting it would be to talk shop with someone as exceptional as he was.
“So you want to swap stories? Trade tactics? Is that it, Donaldson?”
“I can think of duller ways to kill some time at a truck stop.”
Taylor cut the meatloaf with his fork, shoved some into his mouth. It was good.
“Fine. You go first. You said you don’t like ether. So how do you make your-” Taylor reached for the right words ”-guests compliant.”
“Blunt force trauma.”
“And what if you’re too… aggressive… with your use of blunt force?”
“An unfortunate side-effect. Just happened to me, in fact. Just picked up a tasty little morsel, but her lights went out before I could have any fun with her.”
“Picked up? Hitcher?”
Donaldson sipped more coffee and grinned. “Didn’t you know about the dangers of hitchhiking, son? Lots of psychos out there.”
Taylor shoved more meatloaf into his mouth, and followed it up with some mashed potatoes. ”Hitchers might be missed.”
“So could truck stop snatch.”
Taylor paused in mid-bite.
“Your fly is open. And I saw how you were measuring the resident pimp.” Donaldson raised an eyebrow. ”Have you relieved him of one of his steady sources of income?”
Now it was Taylor’s turn to grin. “Not yet. She’ll be dessert when I’m done with this meatloaf.”
“And once you’re finished with her?”
Taylor zipped up his fly. ”I like rivers. Water takes care of any trace evidence, and it’s tough for the law to pinpoint the location where they were dumped in. You?”
“Gas and a match. First a nice spritz with bleach. Bleach destroys DNA, you know.”
“I do. Got a few bottles in the truck.”
Taylor still couldn’t assess what sort of threat Donaldson posed. But he had to admit, this was fun.
“So, here’s the ten-thousand dollar question,” Donaldson asked. “How many are you up to?”
Taylor wiped some gravy off his mouth with a paper napkin. “So that’s where we stand? Whipping out our dicks and seeing whose is bigger?”
“I’ve been at this a very long time.” Donaldson belched again. “Probably since before you were born. I’ve read about others like us; I love those true crime audiobooks. They help pass the time on long trips. I collect regular books, too. Movies. Newspaper articles. If you’ve done the same research I have, then you know none of our American peers can prove more than forty-eight. That’s the key. Prove. Some boast high numbers, but there isn’t proof to back it up.”
“So are you asking me how many I’ve done, or how many I can prove?”
Taylor shrugged. ”I lost count after forty-eight. Once I had one in every state, it became less about quantity and more about quality.”
“You’re lying,” Donaldson said. “You’re too young for that many.”
“One in every state, old man.”
“Can you prove it?”
“I kept driver’s licenses, those that had them. Probably don’t have more than twenty, though. Not many whores carry ID.”
“No pictures? Trophies? Souvenirs?”
Taylor wasn’t going to share something that personal with a stranger. He pretended to sneer. ”Taking a trophy is like asking to get caught. I don’t plan on getting caught.”
“True. But it is nice to relive the moment. Traveling is lonely, and memories unfortunately fade. If it wasn’t so dangerous, I’d love to videotape a few.”
That would be nice, Taylor thought, finishing the last bit of meatloaf. But mytrophy box will have to suffice.
“So how many are you up to, Grandpa?”
“A hundred twenty-seven.”
Taylor snorted. ”Bullshit.”
“I agree with you about the danger of keeping souvenirs, but I have Polaroids from a lot of my early ones.”
“Dangerous to carry those around with you.”
“I’ve got them well hidden.” Donaldson stared at him, his eyes twinkling. ”Would you be interested in seeing them?”
“What do you mean? One of those I’ll show you mine if you show me yours deals?”
“No. Well, not exactly. I’m not interested in seeing your driver’s license collection. But I would be interested in paying a little visit to your current guest.”
Taylor frowned. ”I’m not big on sharing. Or sloppy seconds.”
Donaldson slowly spread out his hands. ”I understand. It’s just that… you know how it is, when you get all worked up, and then they quit on you.”
Taylor nodded. Having a victim die too soon felt like having something precious stolen from him.
“You don’t seem like the shy type,” Donaldson continued. “I thought, perhaps, you wouldn’t mind doing your thing when someone else was there to watch.”
Taylor smiled. “Aren’t you the dirty old man.”
Donaldson smiled back. “A dirty old man who doesn’t have the same distaste of sloppy seconds as you apparently have. I see no problem in going second. As long as there’s something left for me to enjoy myself with.”
“I leave all the major parts intact.”
“Then perhaps we can come to some sort of arrangement.”
“Perhaps we can.”
Donaldson’s smile suddenly slipped off his face. He’d noticed the same thing Taylor had.
A cop had walked into the restaurant.
Woman, forties, well built, a gold star clipped to her hip. But even without the badge, she had that swagger, had that look, that Taylor had spent a lifetime learning to spot.
“Here comes trouble,” Donaldson said.
And, as luck would have it, trouble sat down right next to them.
After filling my gas tank and emptying my bladder, I went in search of food.
The diner was surprisingly full this late at night. Truckers mostly. And though I hadn’t worked Vice in well over a decade, I was pretty sure the only women in the place were earning their living illegally.
Not that I judged, or even cared. One of the reasons I switched from Vice to Homicide was because I had no problems with what consenting adults did to themselves or each other. I’d done a few drugs in my day, and as a woman I felt I should be able to do whatever I wanted with my body. So the scene in the diner was nothing more to me than local color. I just wanted some coffee and a hot meal, which I believed would wake me up enough to get me through the rest of my road trip and into the very patient arms of my fiancée.
I expected at least one or two catcalls or wolf whistles when I entered, but didn’t hear any. Sort of disappointing. I was wearing what I wore to court, a brown Ann Klein pantsuit, clingy in all the right places, and a pair of three inchKate Spade strappy sandals. The shoes were perhaps a bit frivolous, but the jury couldn’t see my feet when I took the stand. I left for Wisconsin directly from court, and wore the shoes because Latham loved them. I had even painted my toenails to celebrate our vacation.
Maybe the current diners were too preoccupied with the hired help to know another woman had entered the place. Or maybe it was me. Latham said I gave off a “cop vibe” that people could sense, but he assured me I was stillsexy. Still, a Wisconsin truck stop at two in the morning filled with lonely, single men, and I didn’t even get a lecherous glance. Maybe I needed to work-out more.
Then I realized I still had my badge clipped to my belt. Duh.
I quickly scoped out the joint, finding the emergency exit, counting the number of patrons and employees, identifying potential trouble. An absurdly dressed man in expensive boots and a diamond studded John Deere cap stared hard at me. He gave me a look that said he hated cops, and I gave him a look that said I hated his kind even more. While I tolerated prostitutes, I loathed pimps. Someone taking the money you earned just because they were bigger than you wasn’t fair.
But I didn’t come here to start trouble. I just wanted some food and caffeine.
I walked the room slowly, feeling the cold stares, and found counter space next to a portly man. I eased myself onto the stool.
I nodded at the waitress. She overturned my mug and filled it up. I glanced at the menu, wondering if they had cheese curds-those little fried nuggets of cheddar exclusive to Wisconsin.
“The meatloaf is good.”
I glanced at the man on my left. Big and tall, maybe fifteen years older than I was. He had a kind-looking face, but his smile appeared forced.
“Thanks,” I replied.
I sipped some coffee. Nice and strong. If I got two cups and a burger in me, I’d be good to go. The waitress returned, I ordered a cheeseburger with bacon, and a side of cheese curds.
“Never seen you here before.”
The voice, reeking of alpha male, came from behind me. I could guess who it belonged to.
“Passing through,” I said, not bothering to turn around.
“Well, maybe you can hurry it along, little lady. Your kind isn’t good for business.”
I carefully set down my mug of coffee, then slowly swiveled around on my stool.
The pimp was sticking his chest out like he was being fitted for a bra, a few stray curly hairs peeking through his collar. One of his women, strung out on something, clung unenthusiastically to his side. Her concealer didn’t quite cover up her black eye.
“I’m off duty, and just stopped in for coffee and some cheese curds, which I can’t get in Illinois. I suggest you mind your own business. This isn’t my jurisdiction, but I’m guessing the local authorities wouldn’t mind if I fed you someof your teeth.”
The older fat guy next to me snorted. The pimp wasn’t so amused.
“The local authorities,” he said it in a falsetto, obviously trying to mimic me, “and I have an arrangement. That arrangement means no cops.” He gave me a rough shove in the shoulder. ”And I’m sure they wouldn’t mind if I fed you-”
I drove the salt shaker into his upper jaw with my palm, breaking both the glass and the teeth I’d promised. Besides being hard and having weight, the shards and the salt did a number on the pimp’s gums. Must have hurt like crazy.
He dropped to his knees, clutching his face and howling, and three of his women dragged him out of there. I did a slow pan across the room, looking for other challengers, seeing none. Then I brushed my hand on my pants, wiping off the excess salt, and went back to my coffee, trying to control the adrenalin shakes. I hated violence of any kind, but once he touched me, I didn’t have any other recourse. I didn’t want to play footsie with the local cops he was paying off, trying to get an assault charge to stick. Or worse, wind up in the hospital because some asshole pimp thought he could treat me the same way he treated the women who worked for him.
Better to nip it in the bud and drop him fast. Though I didn’t have to feel good about it.
I took a deep, steadying breath, and managed to sip some coffee without spilling it all over myself, all the while keeping one eye on the entrance. I’d hurt the pimp bad enough to require an emergency room visit, but if he were tougher and dumber than I’d guessed, he might return with a weapon. I set my purse on the counter, my.38 within easy reach, just in case.
“You’re Lieutenant Jack Daniels, aren’t you?”
I glanced at the fat man again. Even though I’d been on the news many times, I didn’t get recognized very often in Chicago, and it never happened away from home.
“And you are?” My voice came out higher than I would have liked.
“Just a fan. You got that serial killer Charles Kork, the one they called the Gingerbread Man. How many women did he kill?”
“Too many.” I turned back to my coffee.
“I saw the TV movie. The one that became the series. You’re much better looking than the actress who played you.”
I was in no mood to be idolized. Plus, there was something creepy about this guy.
“Look, buddy, I don’t want to be rude, but I’m really not up for conversation right now.”
The fat man didn’t take the hint. ”And you got Barry Fuller. He killed over a dozen, didn’t he? He was both a serial killer and a mass murderer, due to all those Feds he took out at that rest stop.”
I sighed. The waitress came by with my cheese curds. She set down the basket and winked at me. “These are on me.”
“Thanks. I could use some salt.”
I tried a curd. Too hot, so I spit it back out into my palm and played hot potato until it cooled off. My biggest fan refused to give up.
“There were others in the Kork family as well, weren’t there? A whole group of psychos. I heard they killed over forty people, total.”
I really didn’t want to think about the Kork family, and I really didn’t want to have a late-night gabfest with a cop groupie.
But, on the plus side, knocking out that pimp’s teeth really woke me up.
When the waitress brought me the salt, I asked for my meal to go. The fat guy apparently didn’t like that, because he gave me his back and had an intense whisper exchange with his buddy; a younger, attractive man in a flannel shirt. The young guy nodded, got up, and left.
“Just one last question, Lieutenant, and then I promise I’ll leave you alone.”
I sighed again, glancing at him. ”Go ahead.”
“Did you ever try to take on two serial killers at once?”
“I can’t say that I have.”
He smiled, lopsided. ”Too bad. That would have been cool.”
The fat guy threw down some money, then followed his buddy out.
No longer pestered, I decided to eat there, and settled in to eat my cheese curds.
Taylor hadn’t ever killed a cop. He came close once, a few years ago, when a state trooper pulled him over, and asked him to step out of his truck. Taylor had been ready to pull his knife and gut the pig, but the cop only wanted him to do a field sobriety test. Taylor wouldn’t ever risk driving drunk, and he easily passed, getting let off with a warning and pulling away with a dead hooker in his sleeping compartment.
But he was itching to get at this cop. Taylor liked strong women. He liked when they fought him, refusing to give up. They were so much fun to break. Especially when they had such adorable feet.
As Donaldson suggested, Taylor had left the diner and gone back to his rig to grab the ether. Candi with an I was still out cold, but she held far less fascination for Taylor than this new prospect.
I’m going tohave a little nip of Jack Daniels, he thought, smiling wildly. Maybe more than one. And maybe not so little.
For helping out, he’d let Donaldson have Candi. While Taylor wasn’t into the whole voyeur scene, it might be interesting to watch another pro do his thing. Hopefully, it didn’t involve any sort of sex, because he had zero desire to see Donaldson’s flabby, naked ass.
Taylor grabbed the plastic bag-the ether-soaked paper towels still moist-and met Donaldson in the parking lot.
“The best spot is here, in the shadow of this truck,” Donaldson said.
Taylor didn’t like him calling the shots, but he heard the man out.
“She thinks I’m a fan,” Donaldson continued, ”so I’m going to call her over here, ask for an autograph. Then you come up behind her with the ether.”
“She’s armed. Her purse was too heavy to only be carrying a wallet and make-up.”
“I saw that, too. I’ll grab her wrists, you get her around the neck. We can pull her to the ground here, out of sight. How close is your truck?”
“The red Peterbilt, a few spaces back.”
“When she’s out, we throw her arms around our shoulders, walk her over there like she’s drunk.”
Taylor shook his head. “Only when we’re sure no one is watching. I don’t want a witness getting my plate number.”
“Fine. We can walk her around until we’re sure we’re clear.”
Taylor stared at Donaldson for a moment, then said, ”She’s mine.”
Donaldson didn’t respond.
“I’ll give you the whore for helping me, Donaldson. But the cop is mine.”
Donaldson eventually nodded. “Fair enough. Is the whore cute?”
“Too old, fat thighs, saggy gut from popping out kids.”
Donaldson raised his eyebrow. ”She’s got kids?”
Taylor laughed. “You into kiddies, Donaldson?”
“Any port in the storm. But you can have fun with kids in other ways. Did the whore have a cell phone?”
“Give it here.”
Interested in where Donaldson was going with this, Taylor dug the phone out of his pocket and handed it over. Donaldson scrolled through the address book.
“Calling home,” Donaldson told him.
“Can’t calls be traced?”
“They can be traced to this cell phone, but not to our current location. To do that requires some highly sophisticated equipment-which I highly doubt the local constabulary possesses.”
“Put it on speaker.”
Donaldson hit a button, and Taylor heard ringing.
“Hello?” A child’s voice, pre-teen.
“This is Detective Donaldson. I’m sorry to inform you that your mommy is dead.”
“Mommy is dead, kid. She was horribly murdered.”
“Mommy’s dead?” The child began to cry.
“It’s an occupational hazard. Your mom was a whore, you know. She had sex with strange men for money. One of those men killed her.”
Donaldson hit the disconnect button.
Taylor shook his head, smiling. “Man, that is low.”
“I’ll call him back later, see how he’s doing. This phone has a camera, too. Maybe I’ll send him some pictures of Mommy when I’m done with her.”
“What about the babysitter sending the cops here?”
“You think the babysitter knows what Mom’s job is? And even if she calls the cops, Murray’s pays them to stay away. Besides, we’ll be in your truck by then.”
Taylor thought it was reckless. But still, calling up a kid and saying his mother was dead was pretty funny. Taylor considered all of the cell phones he’d thrown away, and cursed himself for the fun he’d missed.
Donaldson dug into his pocket and produced a pair of small binoculars. He held them to his face and looked at the diner.
“The cop is still working on her burger. She is a sweet piece of pie, isn’t she? Jack fucking Daniels. What a lucky day indeed. It’s a small world, my friend.”
“Not when you’re driving from L.A. to Boston.”
“Funny you should mention that. One of the reasons I’m a courier is to have a wide area to hunt in. I’m assuming you got into trucking for the same reason.”
“The wider the better. You shouldn’t shit where you eat.”
“I agree. I don’t think I’m even on the Fed’s radar. And cops don’t talk to each other from state to state. A man could keep on doing this for a very long time, if he plays it smart.”
“So, what’s your thing?” Taylor asked.
Donaldson lowered the binocs. “My thing?”
“What you do to them.”
Donaldson did the eyebrow raise again, which was starting to get annoying. ”Have we reached that point in our relationship where we can share our methods? You haven’t even told me your name.”
“It’s Taylor. And I want to know, before I invite you into my truck, that you aren’t into some sick shit.”
“Guts are okay, but don’t puncture the intestines. That smell takes forever to go away.”
“I’m not into internal organs.”
“How about rape?”
Donaldson smiled. “I am into rape.”
“I don’t want to see it. No offense, but naked guys are not a turn-on for me.”
“That’s fair enough. We can take turns, give each other some privacy. My thing, as you put it, is to cut off their faces. One little piece at a time. A nostril. An ear. An eye. A lip. And then I feed their faces to them, bit by bit. You?”
“Biting. Toes and fingers, to start. Then all over.”
“How long have you kept one alive for?”
“Maybe two days.”
Donaldson nodded. “See, that’s nice. I do all my work outdoors, different locations, so I never have time to make it last, enjoy it. You’ve got a little murder-mobile, you can take your time.”
“That’s the reason I’m a trucker, not a courier.”
Donaldson got a wistful look. ”I’m thinking of renting a shack out in the woods. Out in the middle of nowhere. Then I could bring someone there, really drag it out. You remember that old magic trick? The girl in the box, and the magician sticks swords in it?”
Taylor nodded. “Yeah.”
“I’d love to build one of those. Except there’s no trick. Wouldn’t that be fun? Sticking the swords in one at a time?”
Taylor decided it would.
Donaldson peered through the binocs again. “Here she comes. Let’s get in position.”
Taylor nodded. He felt the excitement building up again, but a different kind of excitement. This time, he was sharing the experience with another person. It was oddly fulfilling, in a way his dozens of other murders hadn’t been.
Maybe tag-team was the way to go.
He clenched the ether-soaked paper towels, crouched behind a bumper, and waited for the fun to start.
The burger was good. The coffee was good. The cheese curds were heavenly. I had no idea why they weren’t served in Chicago.
I paid, left a decent tip, then tried calling Latham to tell him I felt good enough to keep driving.
Still no signal. I needed to switch carriers, or get a new phone. It especially bugged me because I saw other people in the diner talking on their cell phones. If that Can you hear me now? guy walked into the restaurant, I would have bounced my cell off his head.
The parking lot had decent lighting, but all of the big trucks cast shadows, and I knew more than most the dangers of walking in shadows. I pulled my purse on over my head and tucked it under my arm, then headed for my car while staying in the light. The last thing I needed was the pimp to make a play for me. Or that-
– fat guy from the diner, who approached me at a quick pace, coming out from behind one of the rigs. I stopped, my hand slipping inside my purse and seeking my revolver. Something about this man rubbed me the wrong way, and at over two hundred and fifty pounds he was too big to play around with.
He slowed down when I reached into my handbag-a bad sign. People with good intentions don’t expect you to have a gun. I felt my heart rate kick up and my legs tense.
“Don’t come any closer,” I commanded, using my cop voice.
He stopped about ten feet in front of me. His hands were empty. ”I wanted to ask you for your autograph.”
My fingers wrapped around the butt of my.38. Confrontation, even with over twenty years of experience, was always a scary thing. Ninety-nine percent of the time, de-escalation was the key to avoiding violence. Take control of the situation, be polite but firm, apologize if needed. It wouldn’t have worked on the pimp, who was showing off for the crowd, but it might work here.
“I’m sorry, I don’t give autographs. I’m not a celebrity.”
“It would mean a lot to me.” He held up his palms and took another step forward.
I was taught that you never pull out your weapon unless you intend to use it.
I pulled out my weapon.
“I told you not to come any closer.”
“You’re kidding, right?” Another step. He was six feet away from me.
I pointed my gun at his chest. “Does it look like I’m kidding?”
He put on a crooked grin. “Is this how you treat your fans, Lieutenant? I don’t mean any harm. You want to shoot an innocent civilian?”
“I don’t want to. But I will, if I feel threatened. And right now I feel threatened. Where’s your buddy?”
He was lying, I could see it on his face, and I swirled around, sensing something behind me. I caught a flash of movement, someone ducking between two parked cars. I spun again, storming up to the fat guy, grabbing two of his outstretched fingers and twisting. My action was fast, forceful, and I gained enough leverage to bend his arm to the side and drive him onto his knees, my gun trained on his head.
“Get on the pavement, face down!”
He pitched forward, and I had to let him go or fall with him. Rather than face-first, he dropped onto his side and swung his leg at me.
I should have fired, but a small part of me knew I could be killing a guy whose only crime was wanting my autograph, and I had enough of an ego to think I could still handle the situation. I side-stepped his leg and rammed my heel into his kidney, hard enough to show him this wasn’t a joke.
That’s when his partner dove at me.
He hit me sideways, knocking me off my feet in a flying tackle that drove me to the asphalt, shoulder-first. His weight squeezed the air out of me, his hand pawing at my face, a cold, wet hand covering my mouth and nose, flooding my airway with harsh chemicals. I held my breath, bringing my weapon up, squeezing the trigger-
The trigger wouldn’t squeeze. The gun didn’t fire.
Now the paper towels were in my eyes, the sting a hundred times worse than chlorine, making me squeeze my eyelids shut in pain. I felt my gun being wrestled away, and the small part of my brain that wasn’t panicking knew the perp had grabbed my.38 by the hammer, his grip preventing me from shooting.
I still refused to breathe, knowing that whatever was on my face would knock me out, knowing when that happened I was dead. That made me panic even more, thrashing and pushing against my unseen assailant. I tried to kick my feet, get them under me to gain some leverage, but then they were weighed down the same as my upper body-the fat guy had joined the party.
So I went for the fake-out, letting my body go limp.
The seconds ticked by, each one a slice of eternity since I was oxygen-deprived. I could hold my breath for over a minute under ideal conditions. But terrified and with two psychos on top of me, I wouldn’t be able to last a fraction of that…
One second at a time, Jack. Just don’t breathe.
I felt that vertigo sensation in my head, my mind seeming to stretch out and twist around.
“Is anyone coming?”
Stay still. Don’t breathe.
My eyes were stinging like crazy, and I wanted to put my hands to my face, rub the pain away.
Don’t. Move. Don’t. Breathe.
My chest began to spasm, my diaphragm convulsing and begging for air. In moments it wouldn’t be under my control anymore. I would breathe in those toxic fumes whether I wanted to or not.
Hold it in don’t breathedon’t breathe DON’T BREATHE-
“Too much and you’ll kill her.” The fat guy talking.
The hand over my face eased up, the noxious rag being pulled away. I wanted to gasp, to suck in air like a marathon runner, but I managed to take a slow, silent breath through my nose.
The fumes still clinging to my face smelled like gasoline, and by sheer will I didn’t sneeze or cough. I kept my breathing slow, like I was sleeping, even though my heart pounded so loud and fast I could hear it.
“She’s out. Grab an arm.”
I felt myself lifted into an upright position, my arms over their shoulders. Then I was dragged, my feet scraping against the asphalt, which tore at my bare toes like sandpaper. I bit my inner cheek. If I made a peep, they’d use the rag again.
“Her feet! Watch her feet! I don’t want them messed up!”
“Shh! Lift higher.”
Then I was completely off the ground. I tried to peek, to see where we were, but everything was blurry and opening my eyes made the pain worse. I could feel the weight of my purse still hanging at my side, and I had a dull throb in my shoulder where I’d hit the pavement, but it didn’t seem dislocated or broken.
“It’s this one.”
My body was shifted, and I heard the jingle of keys and a vehicle door opening.
“I’ll get in first, pull her up.”
“Check around for witnesses.”
“We’re alone out here, brother.”
Another shift, and then strong hands under my armpits, pulling me up, hands on my ankle, my right shoe coming off, and then…
Something warm and wet on my big toe.
Jesus… he’s got my toein his mouth.
His tongue circled it, once, twice, and then I felt the suction. Heard the slurping. Heard him moan.
This freak is sucking my toe.
Wet and sloppy, like a popsicle. I wanted to flinch. I wanted to scream.
Stay still, Jack. Don’t kick him. Don’t move.
His teeth locked on, scraping along the top and bottom, not enough to break the skin but enough to hurt, the pressure increasing…
I felt a surge of revulsion unlike any I’ve ever experienced, and my muscles involuntarily locked and my stomach churned, threatening to upload the burger and curds. I was half-hanging out of a truck, and I couldn’t see, but I was going to take my chances and kick this bastard in the face, hopefully burying my shoe heel into his eye socket. It was two on one, and they had my gun, but I wasn’t going to let him chew my toe off without a fight.
“Taylor, let’s hold off until we get her inside.”
My toe was abruptly released, and then I was violently shoved upward onto the fat guy’s lap. I assumed he was sitting in the driver’s seat of a semi. I felt his hot breath on my ear, and then the clammy touch of his lips. One hand pawed at my chest, tugging at my bra through my shirt. The other slid up my leg.
“Such a pretty lady,” he said, nuzzling my neck. “I’m going to love feeding you your face.”
When his lips touched my cheek it was like a taser shock, and my bile began to rise again.
“Take her in the back,” Taylor said. “We’ll bring her up to the sleeper.”
The fat man gave my knee a final squeeze, then grunted as he hefted me up in his arms and shifted his bulk. Once again I was lifted, tugged, and pushed. I chanced a peek, everything dark and blurry, wanting so badly to rub my eyes, and all I could make out was a ladder of some sort.
“There’s a handle on the trap door. Turn it.”
“Right above your head.”
I was shoved through an opening in the ceiling of the cab, then dropped unceremoniously onto a mat. It was hot. I smelled bleach, cheap perfume, and the copper-pennies stench of fresh blood. Also, underneath everything, was an odor that scared me to my core, an odor I recognized from hundreds of cases from more than twenty years or cases. A cross between meat gone bad and excrement that all the bleach on the planet couldn’t ever fully erase.
The stink of dead bodies.
People havedied in this room.
“Warm up here.”
“When we get started, I’ll put the air conditioning on. I’ve also got recessed stereo speakers, for mood music, and an AC outlet up by the fire alarm, if you want to plug in any power tools.”
“I like power tools.”
“Give yours a tap, see if she’s awake yet.”
I heard a slapping sound, skin on skin, and then a feminine whine.
“She’s still groggy.”
“She’ll be up soon. I know she’s not much to look at, but that really doesn’t matter once you get started, does it?”
“Actually, Taylor, as grateful as I am to you for inviting me into your home, I’ve been reading about Jack Daniels for years. She’s every killer’s wet dream.”
There was a long pause.
“What are you saying?” Taylor said.
“I’m saying I want the cop.”
“We already agreed, she’s mine.”
“You can have her feet. I want her face.”
“Maybe I want the whole thing.”
Donaldson laughed. “You know, you remind me of my younger brother. I miss that kid, so much that I sometimes regret killing him. But I remember something my father used to say when we were fighting over a toy. He said, If you can’t share, then neither of you can haveit.”
Then I heard the unmistakable sound of my.38 being cocked.
Standing on the ladder, with his upper half through the trap door, Taylor stared at the gun in the kneeling fat man’s hand. It was pointed at the cop’s head, but Donaldson’s eyes were focuses on him.
Goddammit, why did I let him grab the gun?
Taylor felt himself go dead inside, like his body turned to ice. He chose his words carefully, keeping his voice even. ”You know what, Donaldson? Maybe you’re right. Sharing seems like a fair thing to do, and it might even be fun. Besides, it would be a shame to deprive such a famous lady of either of our company. But I have to say that seeing you holding a gun makes me a bit nervous. We don’t want to make enemies of each other, do we?”
Donaldson smiled, shrugged, and then uncocked the gun and shoved it into his front pocket. “I appreciate your generosity, Taylor. Really, I do. And normally I wouldn’t be so ungracious to a fellow traveler. But this woman just doessomething to me. I haven’t been this excited in years.”
“I can see that.” Taylor was eye-level with Donaldson’s crotch. “Or maybe that’s the gun.”
“So let’s have a meeting of the minds.”
Taylor relaxed a notch now that the weapon was out of play, but he had no doubt Donaldson would use it again. His original fantasy of tag-team action had been replaced by the unpleasant image of Donaldson tying him up and feeding him his own face. When there are too many foxes in the henhouse, the foxes kill each other. A shame, because Taylor was starting to like the older man.
“Since you agree to sharing,” Donaldson said, ”would you be adverse to both of us going at her at the same time? You take the bottom half, I take the top?”
Taylor reached a hand behind his back and touched the folding knife clipped to his belt-Donaldson had given it back to him in the parking lot. Killing him right now would probably be the best bet, but the guy was big, and the knife blade was short. Unless he died quick, Donaldson would fight back and be able to grab his gun.
No, the knife wasn’t the way to go.
But Taylor did have a sawed-off shotgun under his passenger seat. All he needed to do was jump down, lock the trap door, and grab it.
“Sharing would be okay.” Taylor tried to look thoughtful. “But I want to look her in the eyes when I’m doing my thing. Be tough to do if her eyes were gone.”
“They wouldn’t be gone. They’d be in her mouth.”
Taylor shook his head. ”That wouldn’t be good for me.”
“I could leave her eyes alone. Maybe just take off her eyelids so she’d be forced to look. It could work. We could do a trial run on the whore, here.”
Donaldson kicked Candi in her side. She moaned.
Taylor figured there were three steps beneath him. He would need to grab the door and tug it closed before Donaldson pulled his gun. He didn’t know if the cop’s bullet would go through the half inch steel the sleeper was made out of, but his shotgun slugs certainly would. Lots of damage, though, and it would make a lot of noise.
“I’m not exactly keen on a two on one. If you promise to leave her eyes alone, and that she’ll stay conscious and not die on you, I could let you go first.”
Donaldson’s face remained blank for a moment, then he raised his eyebrow.
“I appreciate your offer. I sincerely do. But I can’t help but think that while I’m doing my thing, you might make some sort of effort to do me harm. Or perhaps lock me in here.”
Taylor began to wish he never parked at this truck stop.
“We seem to be at an impasse.”
“No,” Donaldson shook his head. “I believe we can work this out. I have no desire to harm you, Taylor. And I am grateful for this opportunity. I shouldn’t have flashed the gun. That was a mistake. I’ve been playing this game solo for so long, I wasn’t thinking clearly. I know you have a knife on you, and probably some other weapons in the truck, and I fear I just began a war of escalation.”
“I don’t want to kill you either.” It was the truth. Not that he had any real affection for Donaldson, but trying to muscle the dead fat man out of his sleeper and drag him to a river didn’t seem like a fun time.
“We don’t know each other well yet. But we’re kindred spirits. Maybe we could even become friends.”
“How long will the cop be out for?” Donaldson asked.
“A few minutes, probably more. Pinch her, see if she flinches. When they’re really under, they don’t flinch.”
Donaldson leaned over Jack Daniels and squeezed her breast. She didn’t move.
“She’s out. You have some rope?”
“More bungee cords in the trunk.”
Neither man moved to get them. Eventually, Donaldson raised an eyebrow. “Are you a gambling man, Taylor?”
“I’ve been known to play the odds.”
“Let’s flip a coin. Winner gets first crack at the cop.”
Taylor considered it. ”I’d be up for that, if it were a fair toss.”
“We could go in the diner, have our waitress do the flipping. I’ll even let you call it. Would be good to get out in the fresh air, clear our heads.”
“Let’s say I agree. You still have me at a disadvantage.”
Donaldson nodded. “The gun. Firing it wouldn’t be smart for either of us. Cops might already be on their way, after what Lieutenant Daniels did to that pimp.”
“I’ve got a solution.”
“An empty gun isn’t a threat. Hand me the bullets. But do it slowly, or else I might get nervous and lock you up here for a few days with no air conditioning or water.”
Donaldson gently reached back into his pants and removed the gun. He held it upside-down by the trigger guard, and swung out the cylinder. Then he dumped the rounds onto his palm and handed them to Taylor.
Maybe this tag-team thing willwork out after all.
“Are we good?” Donaldson asked.
“We’re good. Let’s hogtie this pig.”
Taylor climbed into the sleeper, and after an uneasy moment of sizing each other up, the two of them began to bind the cop. Donaldson quickly got the hang of it, and they soon had Jack suitably trussed.
“You sure she’s safe here?” Donaldson asked, admiring their handiwork.
“Never had an escape. Bungee cords are tighter than rope. The enclosure is steel, the lock on the door is solid. She’s not going anywhere.”
Taylor grabbed the cop’s purse, wound it over his shoulder, and crawled down out of the sleeper after Donaldson. He made sure the trap door was locked, took what he wanted from the purse, and together they walked back to the diner.
The moment they were gone I rolled onto my belly and inch-wormed up to my knees. My hands were behind my back, the bungee cords so tight my fingers were tingling. I strained against the elastic, trying to twist my wrists apart, but couldn’t free myself.
More cords wound around my chest and upper arms, and encircled my knees and ankles. I flopped onto my side, wincing at the pain. My shoulder still hurt, and there was a throb in my left breast where Donaldson had pinched me. If he’d done it for a few seconds longer, I would have screamed.
Pretending to be unconscious seemed like a better choice than really being unconscious, but when they tied me up I realized that maybe fighting back and yelling for help when I had the chance might have been the better move.
Panic threatened to overwhelm me, and I began to hyperventilate. Fear and I were old adversaries. There was no way to squelch it, but if I kept my focus I could work through the fear. The goal was to not think about any potential outcome to this situation other than escape.
Still unable to open my eyes because of the stinging, I rolled to my left, hoping to bump into anything that would help me free myself. I hit something soft. I brushed my cheek against it. Foam of some kind. I rolled right instead, eventually coming up against something more suitable. Something hard, stuck into the floor. After maneuvering around onto my knees, I rubbed my hands against the object.
It felt like a board, only two feet tall, and thin. Midway down the side was some sort of protrusion. Though my hands were quickly getting numb, I could tell by the sound when I jiggled it that it was a padlock.
I got my wrists under the lock, trying to wedge it in between my arms and the bungee cords. Then I took a deep breath and violently tugged my arms forward.
The elastic caught, stretched.
I pulled harder, feeling like my arms were pulling out of their sockets.
Then, abruptly, my hands were free, and I pitched forward onto my face, bumping my forehead against the padded floor.
I spent a few seconds wiggling my fingers, wincing as the blood came back, and made quick work of the other cords around my arms. Then I spit in my hands and rubbed them against my eyes. The stinging eased up enough for me to have a blurry look around the enclosure. There was moderate lighting, from an overhead fixture. I saw beige mats. A black slanted ceiling covered with sound baffles. A trunk. And a bound woman, her feet in some sort of wooden stock, my wrist bungee cord wound around a padlock on the side.
I unwound my legs, tugged off my remaining shoe, and crawled over to her, unhooking her bindings. ”Can you hear me?”
The woman moaned softly, and her eyelids fluttered.
“You need to wake up.” I gave her a shake. ”We’re in trouble.”
“My… foot… hurts…”
“What’s your name?”
I cupped her chin in my hand, made her look at me.
“Listen to me. I’m a cop. We’re in a truck sleeper and some men are trying to kill us. What’s your name?”
“Candi. I… I can’t move my feet. It hurts.”
I turned my attention to the stock. I crawled around to the other side, wincing when I saw the blood. I took a closer look because I had to assess the damage, then wished I could erase the image from my mind.
“What’s wrong with my foot?”
“You’re missing your little toe.”
I studied the stock. Heavy, solid, the padlock and latch unbreakable. So I looked at the hinge on the other side. Six screws held it in place.
I scooted away from the stock, on my butt, and reared back my right heel.
“Stay still, Candi. I’m going to try to break the hinge.”
I shot my leg out like a piston, striking the top of the stock once, twice, three times.
The stock stayed solid, the screws tight. And if I tried kicking any harder I’d break my heel.
“Don’t you have a gun?”
I ignored her, turning my attention to the trunk in the corner of the enclosure. I crawled over to see if there was anything inside I could use.
“Don’t leave me!”
“I won’t leave you. I promise.”
I found paper towels, paper masks, starter fluid, plastic bags, and a large Tupperware container. The lid had brown stains on it-dried blood-and I got an uneasy feeling looking at it. Fighting squeamishness, I pulled the top off.
It was filled with rock salt. But I could make out something brown peeking through. I shook the box, and it revealed a few of the brown things, small and wrinkled. They looked like prunes.
Then I realized what they were, and came very close to throwing up. I pulled away, covering my mouth. There had to be dozens, maybe over a hundred, of them in there.
That sick bastard…
“Did you find anything?”
“Nothing helpful,” I said, closing the lid.
“What’s in that box you were holding?”
Taylor was smart. He didn’t leave any tools, weapons, or keys lying around. I eyed the starter fluid.
“Candi, do you smoke?”
“Do you have matches on you? A lighter?”
“In my purse. He took it.”
Dammit. But starting a fire in the enclosed space probably wasn’t a good idea anyway. However, the chest itself had possibilities. It was made of wood, with metal reinforced corners. I picked it up, figuring it weighed at least fifteen pounds.
“What was in the box!”
I muscled the chest over to Candi and knelt next to her.
“Hold still,” I said. “If I miss I could break your leg.”
I reared back, clenched my teeth, and shoved the chest into the top of the stock. There was a loud crack, but both objects stayed intact.
I did it again.
My shoulder began to burn, and the corners of the chest were coming apart, but the hinge on the stock was bending.
Two more times and the chest burst open, spilling its contents onto the mat, the Tupperware container bouncing next to Candi.
I hit the stock one last time. The chest broke into several large pieces. I grabbed one of the slats used to make the chest, and wedged it in the opening I’d made between the top and bottom of the stock. I used it like a crowbar, levering at the hinge.
It was slowly giving… giving…
Then the stock popped open like a shotgun blast.
Candi sat up abruptly, grabbing her ankle to see her injury for herself. Then the tears hit, fast and hard.
“Ah shit… that fucker.”
“We need to find a way out of here.”
“My toe…” she sobbed.
Her eyes locked on mine.
“We need to start rolling up the mats,” I ordered, “find the way out of here before they come back.”
She sniffled. ”They? I only know one. Taylor.”
“He’s got a buddy now.” I made a face. “And they’re armed.”
I watched Candi’s face do an emotion montage. Anger, pain, despair, then raw fear.
“I have kids,” Candi whispered. “A boy and a girl.”
“Then we need to find the exit, fast. Start pulling up the mats.”
“What time is it? My man, Julius, he’ll come looking for me when I don’t report back.”
I thought about the pimp, running out of the diner with his teeth in his hand.
“Julius, uh, probably won’t be coming to the rescue. Do the mats. Now.”
She wiped her nose on her arm, and then reached for the Tupperware container.
“I want to see.”
She popped off the lid and squinted at the objects in the rock salt.
“What are these things?”
“We need to look for the exit, Candi.”
“Are those… aw, Jesus…”
“Don’t worry about that now.”
“Don’t worry? Do you know what these are?”
“These are… nipples.”
“I know, Candi. That’s why we need to get the hell out of here.”
That seemed to spur her to action. I joined Candi in pulling up mats, and we soon found the trap door. I pulled on the recessed handle.
I tugged as hard as I could, until the cords on my neck bulged out and I saw stars.
It wouldn’t budge.
“We’re going to die up here.” Candi was hugging her knees, rocking back and forth.
I blew out a breath. “No, we’re not.”
“He’s going to bite off our toes. Then our tits, to add to his collection.”
I reached up overhead, tugging at the baffling stuck to the ceiling. Under it was heavy aluminum. I did a 360, looking at all the walls.
There was no way out. We were trapped up here.
Then we both felt it. The truck cab jiggle.
Oh, shit. They’re back.
Fran the waitress was happy to flip a coin for the two gentlemen who had tipped her so well.
“Tails,” Taylor called.
Fran caught the quarter, slapped it against her wrist.
“Tails it is. Congrats, handsome.”
Taylor gave her a polite nod, then turned to judge Donaldson’s reaction. There wasn’t one. The fat man’s face was blank. Taylor left the diner, his cohort in tow. It was still hot and muggy outside, and the lot was still almost full, but there weren’t any people around.
“Are we cool?” Taylor asked as they walked to his truck.
“Yeah. Fair is fair. You’ll let me watch?”
Taylor shrugged like it didn’t matter, but secretly he was thrilled at the idea of an audience.
“And you’ll let me do her face?”
“Her face is all yours.”
“You should try it once. The face. You peel enough of the flesh away, you can see the skull underneath. I bet Jack Daniels has a beautiful skull.”
Taylor stopped and stared at him. ”You’ve really got a hard-on for this cop, don’t you?”
“I’d marry her if she’d have me. But I’ll settle for a bloody blowjob after I knock her teeth out. Do you still have Jack’s phone?”
Taylor had pocketed her phone and wallet. He tugged the cell out.
“Does Officer Donaldson want to inform the next of kin?” Taylor grinned as he handed it over.
“That’s a possibility. Might also be fun to call up her loved ones while you’re working on her, let them hear her screams.”
“You’ve got a sick mind, my friend.”
“Thank you, kindly. Let’s see who our favorite cop talked to last. The winner is… Latham. And less than an hour ago. Shall we see if Latham is still up?”
“Put it on speaker.”
The phone rang twice, and a man answered.
“Jack? I was worried.”
“And you have good reason to be,” Donaldson said. “Is this Latham?”
“Who is this?”
“I’m the man about to murder Jack Daniels. She’s going to die in terrible pain. How do you feel about that?”
There was silence.
“What’s wrong, Latham? Don’t you care that…” Donaldson squinted at the phone. “Dammit, lost the signal.”
Donaldson hit redial. The call didn’t go through.
They stood there for a moment, neither of them saying anything.
“I hate dropped calls,” Taylor finally offered. ”Drives me nuts.”
“I hate cops, too.”
Taylor spun around and froze. A Wisconsin squad car rolled up next to them. Its lights weren’t on, but the driver’s side window was open and a pig was leaning out. White male, fat, had something on his upper lip that an optimist might call a mustache.
“Did you men happen to witness a disturbance in the diner earlier?”
Taylor thought fast. But apparently so did Donaldson, because he spoke first.
“Seems an Illinois cop got into a tussle with one of the locals.”
“We’re just passing through,” Donaldson said. “Didn’t see anything.”
The pig nodded, then pulled up next to the diner. He let his fellow cop out, then began to circle the parking lot.
“I had to lie,” Donaldson said, “or else we’d have to give statements. I don’t want my name in any police report.”
“I’m with you. But now we’ve got a big problem. One of them is going to talk to our waitress, and she’ll mention us. The other is taking down plate numbers. He’ll find Jack’s car, realize she’s still here, and start searching for her.”
“We need to move our vehicles. Right now.”
Taylor nodded. “There’s an oasis thirty miles north on 39. I’ll meet you there in half an hour. You’ve got the whore’s phone, right?”
“Give me the cop’s,” Taylor said. “We’ll exchange numbers if we need to get in touch.”
After programming their phones, Donaldson offered his hand. Taylor shook it.
“See you soon, fellow traveler.”
Then they parted.
Taylor hustled into his cab, started the engine, and pulled out of Murray’s parking lot. He smiled. While he still didn’t fully trust Donaldson, Taylor was really starting to enjoy their partnership. Maybe they could somehow extend it into something fulltime. Teamwork made this all so much more exciting.
Taylor was heading for the cloverleaf when he saw the light begin to flash on the dashboard.
It was the fire alarm. The smoke detector in the overhead sleeper was going off.
What the hell?
Taylor pulled onto the shoulder, set the brake, and tugged his sawed-off shotgun out from under the passenger seat. Then he headed for the trap door to see what was going on with those bitches.
The moment the cab jiggled, I began to gather up bungee cords and hook them to the handle on the trap door, pulling them taut and attaching them to the foot stock. When that door opened, I wanted it to stay open.
Then the truck went into gear, knocking me onto my ass. Moving wasn’t going to help our situation. At least at Murray’s we were surrounded by people. If Taylor took us someplace secluded, our chances would get even worse.
I looked around the sleeper again, and my eyes locked on the overhead light. Next to it, on the ceiling, was a smoke alarm. I doubted it would be heard through all the soundproofing, but there was a good chance it signaled the driver somehow.
“Candi! Press the test button on the alarm up there!”
She steadied herself, then reached up to press it. The high-pitched beeping was loud enough to hurt my ears. But would Taylor even be aware of it?
Apparently so, because a few seconds later, the truck stopped.
I reached for the Tupperware container and a broken slat from the chest, and crawled over to the side of the trap door. Then I waited.
I didn’t have to wait long. The trap door opened up and the bungee cords worked as predicted, tearing it out of Taylor’s grasp. The barrel of a shotgun jutted up through the doorway. I kicked that aside and threw a big handful of salt in Taylor’s eyes. He screamed, and I followed up with the wooden slat, smacking him in the nose, forcing him to lose his footing on the stepladder.
As he fell, I dove, snaking face-first down the opening on top of him, landing on his chest and pinning the shotgun between us.
He pushed up against me, strong as hell, but I had gravity on my side and I was fighting for my life. My knee honed in on his balls like it lived there, and the first kick worked so well I did it three more times.
He moaned, trying to keep his legs together and twist away. I grabbed the shotgun stock and jerked. He suddenly let go of the weapon, and I tumbled backwards off of him, the gun in my hands, and my back slammed into the step ladder. The wind burst out of me, and my diaphragm spasmed. I tried to suck in a breath and couldn’t.
Taylor got to his knees, snarling, and lunged. I raised the gun, my fingers seeking the trigger, but he easily knocked it away. Then he was straddling me, and I still couldn’t breathe-a task that became even more difficult when his hands found my throat.
“You’re gonna set a world fucking record on how long it takes to die.”
Then Candi dropped onto his back.
Taylor immediately released his grip, trying to reach around and get her off. But Candi clung on like a monkey, one hand around his neck, the other pressing a wet paper towel to his face.
He fell on all fours and bucked rodeo bull-style. Candi held tight. I blinked away the stars and managed to suck in some air, my hands seeking out the dropped shotgun. It was too dangerous to shoot him with Candi so close, so I held it by the short barrel, took aim, and cracked him in the temple with the wooden stock.
I gasped for oxygen, my heart threatening to break through my ribs because it was beating so hard. Candi kept the rag on Taylor’s face, and part of me wanted to let her keep it there, let her kill him. But my better judgment took over.
“Candi.” I lightly touched her shoulder. “It’s over.”
“It’ll be over when I bite one of his goddamn toes off.”
I shook my head. ”Give me the rag, Candi. He’s going away for the rest of his life. Depending on the jurisdictions, he might even get the death penalty.”
She looked at me. Then she handed over the rag and burst into tears.
That’s when Donaldson stepped into the cab. He took a quick look around, then pointed my gun at me.
“Well what do we have here? How about you drop that shotgun, Lieutenant.”
I looked at him, and then got a ridiculously big grin on my face.
“You gave him the bullets, asshole.”
Donaldson’s eyes got comically wide, and I brought up the shotgun and fired just as he was diving backward out the door. The dashboard exploded, and the sound was a force that punched me in my ears. Candi slapped her hands to the sides of her head. I ignored the ringing and pumped another slug into the chamber, already moving after him.
Something stopped me.
Taylor. Grabbing my leg.
Candi pounced on him, tangled her fingers in his hair, and bounced his head against the floor until he released his grip.
I stumbled out of the cab, stepping onto the pavement. My.38 was on the road, discarded. I looked left, then right, then under the truck.
Donaldson was gone.
A few seconds later, I saw a police car tearing up the highway, lights flashing, coming our way.
“Thank you, honey.”
I took the offered wine glass and Latham climbed into bed next to me. The fireplace was roaring, the chardonnay was cold, and when Latham slipped his hand around my waist I sighed. For a moment, at least, everything was right with the world. Candi had been reunited with her children. Taylor was eagerly confessing to a string of murders going back fifteen years, and ten states were fighting to have first crack at prosecuting him. No charges were filed against me for my attack on the pimp, because Fran the waitress had sworn he shoved me first. My various aches and pains were all healing nicely, and I even got all of my things back, including my missing shoe. It was five days into my vacation, and I was feeling positively glorious.
The only loose end was Donaldson. But he’d get his, eventually. It was only a matter of time until someone picked him up.
“You know, technically, you never thanked me for saving your life,” Latham said.
“Is that what you did?” I asked, giving him a playful poke in the chest. “I thought I was the one who did all the saving.”
“After that man called me, I called the police, told them you were at Murray’s and someone had you.”
“The police arrived after I’d already taken control of the situation.”
“Still, I deserve some sort of reward for my cool-headedness and grace under pressure, don’t you think?”
“What have you got in mind?”
He whispered something filthy in my ear.
“You pervert,” I said, smiling then kissing him.
Then I took another sip of wine and followed his suggestion.
Donaldson kept one hand on the wheel. The other caressed the cell phone.
The cell phone with Jack Daniels’s number on it.
It had been over a week since that fateful meeting. He’d headed southwest, knowing there was a nationwide manhunt going on, knowing they really didn’t have anything on him. A description and a name, nothing more.
He’d been aching to call the Lieutenant. But it wasn’t the right time yet. First he had to let things cool down.
Maybe in another week or so, he’d give her a ring. Just to chit-chat, no threats at all.
The threats would come later, when he went to visit her.
In the meantime, he’d been so busy running from the authorities, covering his tracks, Donaldson hadn’t had any time to indulge in his particular appetites. He kept an eye open for likely prospects, but they were few and far between.
The hardest thing about killing a hitchhiker was finding one to pick up.
Donaldson could remember just ten years ago, when interstates boasted a hitcher every ten miles, and a discriminating killer could pick and choose who looked the easiest, the most fun, the juiciest. These days, cops kept the expressways clear of easy marks, and Donaldson was forced to cruise off-ramps, underpasses, and rest areas, prowl back roads, take one hour coffee breaks at oases. Recreational murder was becoming more trouble than it was worth.
He’d finally found one standing in a Cracker Barrel parking lot. The kid had been obvious, leaning against the cement ashtray near the entrance, an oversize hiking pack strapped to his back. He was approaching every patron leaving the restaurant, practicing his grin between rejections.
A ripe plum, ready to pluck.
Donaldson tucked the cell phone into his pocket and got out of the car…
For a continuation of Donaldson’s adventures, read SERIAL UNCUT by Jack Kilborn & Blake Crouch.
For a continuation of Jack’s adventures, read FUZZY NAVEL by J.A. Konrath.
For a continuation of Taylor’s adventures, read AFRAID by Jack Kilborn.
J.A. Konrath Interviews Jack Kilborn
Jack Kilborn is as secretive as he is enigmatic, and was tough to get a hold of. This interview was conducted by J.A. Konrath via email.
JA: Thanks for taking time to answer some questions, Jack.
Jack: I remember you. You write those chick novels, right?
JA: I write about a female cop who chases serial killers. Some folks think they’re pretty scary. Both men and women enjoy the series, but it’s a bit harder-edged than the average suspense novel. Jack Daniels was the lead in the story we just wrote together, TRUCK STOP. Weren’t you paying attention?
Jack: She sort of sounds familiar. Aren’t you the guy that visited 600 bookstores in one summer? Signed thousands of books?
JA: That’s me.
Jack: I haven’t seen your name on any bestseller lists.
JA: So, how would you describe your first novel, AFRAID?
Jack: I tried to write a thriller that included every kind of fear possible. Fear of the dark, or being chased, of drowning, of authority, of burning, of losing a loved one, of pain, of disfigurement… and, of course, fear of being horribly murdered.
JA: What’s the plot?
Jack: A helicopter crashes near the small town of Safe Haven, Wisconsin. It’s so tiny it has a population of 904. But not for long.
JA: So the helicopter lets something loose in town?
Jack: Something horrible. The town can’t defend itself either-no police force. Soon it’s quarantined, and everyone is fighting for their lives.
JA: I was lucky enough to read an advanced reader copy of AFRAID. It scared the hell out of me.
Jack: Thanks. I predict that at least 25% of people who start the book won’t be able to finish it because it’s too frightening. It gave me nightmares when I was writing it.
JA: There certainly are some memorable scares.
Jack: I didn’t use any chapters in the book. My goal was to go from one high point to another without any breaks. I hope it worked.
JA: It worked for me. You call it “technohorror.” What is that?
Jack: The technothriller genre is about fusing modern day science and technology with big thrills. Michael Crichton perfected the form, which has been used to great success by Dan Brown, James Rollins, Steve Berry, and many others. Technohorror views technology in a more sinister way.
JA: Do you think the scenario in AFRAID could happen?
Jack: I wouldn’t be surprised if it already has.
JA: You’ve sort of come out of nowhere. Care to share your writing background?
Jack: It’s probably similar to yours. Bitten by the writing bug at a young age, getting a lot of rejections, finally landing a two-book deal with a big publishing house.
JA: I like the Afraid Game on your website.
Jack: Thanks. It’s a fun little Flash thing I did. People seem to enjoy it.
JA: There’s also an excerpt from AFRAID on www.jackkilborn.com.
Jack: Almost forty pages worth. A healthy dose of horror. I’ve already gotten some hate email, people saying it’s too graphic. But it’s not really graphic. It’s violent, sure, but I leave most of the details up to the reader. Do you have excerpts on your website?
JA: Yes, at www.jakonrath.com. But I’m not doing an excerpt from my new book, CHERRY BOMB. That’s because at the end of my last Jack Daniels novel, FUZZY NAIL, there was a cliffhanger, so I don’t want it to spoil what the big secret is.
Jack: Can’t people just search on the Internet and find the answer?
JA: So what’s the next Jack Kilborn book?
Jack: I just finished TRAPPED, my follow-up to AFRAID. It’s sort of a sequel, and explores many of the same themes. The people who have read it believe it’s scarier than AFRAID is.
JA: I don’t see how that’s possible.
Jack: I’ll send you a copy.
JA: Thanks. I’d be happy to blurb it.
Jack: I’m sort of holding out for blurbs from bestselling authors, if you don’t mind. No offense.
JA: No offense taken. Maybe you’d like to blurb one of my books, if you have time.
Jack: One of those chick books? Sure. But I can’t promise I’ll like it.
JA: CHERRY BOMB has a four page sex scene, several torture-murders, and an extended woman-on-woman fist fight.
Jack: I’ll give you my address so you can send me a copy. The cover makes it look harmless.
JA: None of my books are harmless. If you want proof, there’s an excerpt following this interview.
Jack: I thought you didn’t want any excerpts.
JA: This one doesn’t contain any spoilers.
Jack: What’s CHERRY BOMB about, by the way?
JA: Jack Daniels chases the most brilliant and sinister serial killer she’s ever faced. One who killed someone dear to her, and plans to kill more.
Jack: How come the serial killers always have to be brilliant? How about having a serial killer with average intelligence?
JA: They’d get caught too quickly. Make for a pretty short book.
Jack: True. So can anyone just pick up CHERRY BOMB and start reading, or do they have to start at the beginning of the series?
JA: You can begin anywhere in the series. But for those who want to read them in order, it goes WHISKEY SOUR, BLOODY MARY, RUSTY NAIL, DIRTY MARTINI, FUZZY NAVEL, CHERRY BOMB.
Jack: Maybe we should talk about this e-book thing. We’re both doing well with e-books on Kindle.
JA: I noticed you had the #1 Kindle bestseller for over three weeks. The novella SERIAL, that you wrote with Blake Crouch.
Jack: Yeah. I think I remember Crouch. Good writer. It’s got Donaldson from TRUCK STOP in it.
JA: And Taylor from TRUCK STOP is a character from AFRAID.
Jack: I know. I wrote it, remember?
JA: I’ve noticed SERIAL has gotten a lot of one-star Amazon reviews.
Jack: People think SERIAL is too sick. It probably is. No worse than TRUCK STOP though. Or AFRAID. Or your books, from what you say.
JA: Do the negative reviews bother you?
Jack: They amuse me. I love the ones from people who give it one star and stopped reading on page 3.
JA: It’s a nasty little story, but fun. And it’s free, right?
Jack: SERIAL is 100% free. So I see from searching Amazon.com that you’ve got a bunch of books you put up on Kindle yourself. You’ve priced them all under $2.00. Why so cheap?
JA: I don’t feel ebooks should be expensive. There’s no cost to print or ship. Why should I charge the same price as a print book?
Jack: I agree. Cheap and free are what readers want. What’s ORIGIN about?
JA: It’s technohorror. The US government is studying Satan in a secret research lab. He’s the Dante version: horns, hoofs, wings, eats live sheep. The book is sort of JURASSIC PARK meets THE EXORCIST.
Jack: What’s THE LIST?
JA: I don’t want to spoil it. Let’s just say it’s a technothriller about some very famous good guys and bad guys. Jack Daniels also has a cameo.
Jack: Jack Daniels is in another one of your exclusive Kindle books, SHOT OF TEQUILA.
JA: She’s the co-star in that. It’s sort of an Elmore Leonard-type crime novel, with a lot of action.
Jack: How about DISTURB?
JA: Another technothriller, with a medical slant. A pharmaceutical company invents a pill that replaces a full night of sleep. But it has some pretty horrible side-effects.
Jack: Violent and gruesome?
JA: Of course.
Jack: What is 55 PROOF?
JA: A collection of fifty-five short stories. It has some previously published Jack Daniels shorts, and also some horror stuff. Some of the horror is pretty hardcore. Tread lightly.
JA: Another Jack Daniels novella, that I wrote with Henry Perez.
Jack: PLANTER’S PUNCH?
JA: Jack Daniels again, a novella I wrote with Tom Schreck.
Jack: You’re really milking this Jack Daniels thing. Is she in SUCKERS too?
JA: I wrote SUCKERS with Jeff Strand. Jack isn’t in it, but one of her series regulars, Harry McGlade, is the hero. It’s funny, and pretty sick.
Jack: Finally, you got this poetry collection called DIRTY JOKES & VULGAR POEMS for only eighty cents. Does it suck?
JA: I’d have to say that’s the greatest thing I’ve ever written. Some of the jokes and poems are so disgusting, so bad, so totally wrong, that I expect it will someday become a TV series.
Jack: Poetry is stupid.
JA: This isn’t like the crap you had to read in school. This is funny stuff.
Jack: For eighty cents, maybe I’ll try it. So are you working on another Jack Daniels novel?
JA: It’s called SHAKEN. There’s an excerpt in PLANTER’S PUNCH. What are you working on now?
Jack: Another in-your-face technohorror novel.
JA: Go figure. Should we discuss what it was like working together on writing TRUCK STOP?
Jack: Why? You think anyone is actually still reading this?
JA: It’s possible.
Jack: Working with you was fine. No problems. Except for that dumb pun you wanted to keep in the story.
JA: At the end, I wanted Latham to say to Jack, “First you hit that pimp with the salt shaker, then you threw salt in Taylor’s face. So, technically, you asalted two men.”
Jack: Yeah. That pun. There’s something wrong with you.
JA: I like it. Maybe I’ll stick it back in the story.
Jack: So, we done here?
JA: I think so.
Jack: Good. This was getting kind of long. Besides, I’ve got plans later that involve sleeping with your wife. I think she likes me more than you.
JA: I think you’re right…
Jack Kilborn is the author of the technohorror novel AFRAID, already released by Headline Books in the UK, and Grand Central in the US. Visit him at www.jackkilborn.com.
JA Konrath is the author of the Lt. Jack Daniels thrillers. His sixth, CHERRY BOMB, was just released in hardcover by Hyperion. Visit him at www.jakonrath.com.
All of Jack’s and JA’s books are available as ebooks, and as audiobooks from Brilliance Audio. And if you haven’t figured it out yet, JA Konrath and Jack Kilborn are the same person. Ask their wife.