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"NIGHT OF THE RIPPER"

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~~~⊰X⊱~~~

 

~~~⊰X⊱~~~

November 25, 1982—Thanksgiving Day – 5:00 p.m.

It’s still early in the evening, but the landscape is already awash in an inky darkness, the days growing shorter as the winter solstice draws ever nearer.  The outlines of trees are visible in the distance as a full moon rises and backlights them in silver.  A cold breeze blows and fans through the tall yellow grass, which seems to wave at him in a beckoning call toward the house that sits nestled at the base of a valley looking bright and warm and welcoming. 

Up the hill hidden behind the tree-line Hannibal Lecter stands, relaxed with his hands in the pockets of his wool coat, studying the landscape below.  The house is Victorian, lovingly preserved, and he admires the gables, dormers, and decorative millwork under the eaves that look recently painted.  The house is surrounded by about 20 acres of land, and the forested terrain around it and the mountain behind it create a sense of privacy—privacy Hannibal very much appreciates for the work ahead.  The landscape immediately around the house is well tended, and pots of fall mums decorate the porch, and a big wreath hangs on the front door made from colorful leaves, berries, pine cones and acorns, topped off with a big gold bow.  So very welcoming.    

The owners of the house, Dr. David Miller, and his wife, Kathryn, live in the house year-round, and their daughter, Sarah, visits occasionally from Baltimore, where Hannibal knows she lives and works.  It’s Thanksgiving Day and Hannibal had known that Sarah would be driving down to join her parents for the long holiday weekend.  Her red Mustang is currently parked in front of the house and he can imagine the delightful family reunion taking place inside. 

He has seen no sign of dogs or any other pets.  There are no neighbors close enough to hear any loud or unusual noises that might occur tonight.  Nodding with satisfaction, he turns around and heads back through the trees to his RV to comfortably wait out the hours ahead for the time when all the family members will be asleep thinking they are safe and snug in their beds.  As it so happens, he already has someone in his RV patiently awaiting his attention that he can begin his fun with.  A hitchhiker he picked up. 

He breathes deeply of the cold, crisp air and smiles in anticipation.  His senses are especially attuned when he’s on the hunt, and he can smell the small animals in the forest cowering in their burrows knowing a predator is near.  He can hear the whisper of feathers carving the wind as a hunting hawk circles hundreds of feet overhead, also looking for prey.  And he can almost taste the blood and fear and pain of what’s to come.  He smiles and licks his lips in anticipation.    

~~~⊰X⊱~~~

“Hey, Will,” Officer Bobby Cooper called out, looking up from his desk at the Wolf Trap Police Station as he watched fellow officer Will Graham dragging a resisting and handcuffed Dexter Gore toward their lock-up room in the back.  “Dexter again, huh?  What’d he do this time?” 

“Dexter here was down at Chester’s Bar watching a football game when he got into an argument with Leroy Avery over whose defensive line was better,” Will answered.    

“That bastard said the New York Giants have a better defensive line than the Detroit Lions!” Dexter said loudly, slurring his words heavily despite the early hour.   

“And, he would be right,” Bobby said smiling over at him. 

“Well, then you can just kiss my ass too!” Dexter shouted out belligerently, twisting around to glare at the other officer.  “And how come I’m the only one got arrested?” Dexter asked as Will pulled him on toward the back.  “How come you didn’t arrest Leroy?” 

“Because Leroy didn’t pick up a chair and throw it at someone,” Will answered evenly, taking the handcuffs off and putting him in one of the three empty cells.  “And the way I heard it, the chair almost hit Emily Thompson, so it’s a good thing it missed her or you would have been picking your teeth off the floor after her boyfriend got through with you.  Now you just sleep it off and someone will drive you to your car in the morning,” he said, closing and locking the door. 

Will went and sat at his desk across from Bobby’s, leaning back and letting out a big sigh.      

“Chester pressing charges?” Bobby asked. 

“No.  He just wanted me to lock him up before he threw any more furniture around and ended up hurting someone.  Anything happen while I was gone?” Will asked, looking over at him.  

“Nope.  All quiet so far.  Unless you count Gladys’ usual call.” 

“Even on Thanksgiving Day, huh?  And what did our local busybody call to report today?” Will asked, looking amused.  “She spot Melissa Childs and Sam Fulton up at the point making out again?  I’m pretty sure teen pregnancies in this town have dropped dramatically since she purchased those binoculars and that telescope of hers.  That woman is better than birth control.” 

Bobby chuckled.  “No, it wasn’t horny teenagers this time around.  Says she spotted one of them big fancy RVs on the outskirts of town, cruising slow-like.” 

“And why does Gladys find an RV cruising on the outskirts of town suspicious enough to report it to Wolf Trap’s finest?” Will asked, leaning back in his chair with his hands laced behind his head, smiling. 

“She said it was suspicious because no one around these parts owns anything like that, and there ain’t no trailer parks around here to park something like that at.” 

“Well, she would know.  Nothing gets by Gladys.  And why doesn’t she think it was just passing through?” 

“She says if it was just passing through with no intentions of stopping somewhere in town, then there was no reason to get off the interstate in the first place.” 

“I guess Gladys never heard of sightseeing,” Will said. 

“She thinks whoever is in it is cruising around looking for young girls to snatch up and sell into white slavery or prostitution, or some such.  She said it definitely looked like it was up to no good.”   

Will chuckled and shook his head.  Gladys was an 80-year-old widow whose house sat on top of a hill, so she had a pretty good view of a large portion of Wolf Trap.  After her husband died two years ago she had bought a pair of binoculars to take up bird watching to help her pass the time.  Only she found out binoculars were also good for spying on her neighbors without them knowing about it.  She bought a telescope shortly after that, and with the telescope she could spy on people clear across town.  Every day now she called the station with something new to report, from teens making out up at the point, to poachers out in the woods.  Will just figured she was bored since her husband died and this was how she filled her empty days, but more than a few of the town folk wished Gladys would hurry up and join her husband in the great beyond so that at least if she snooped on them from heaven they wouldn’t have to hear about it.   

“So, what do you think, Bobby?  Should we put out an APB on a suspicious-looking RV?” Will asked, smiling over at the other man. 

 

November 25, 1982—Thanksgiving Day – 11:00 p.m.

Hannibal stood looking down at the house.  The lights had all gone out 15 minutes ago.  An overabundance of Thanksgiving food and drink had the family turning in early.  That was fine by him.  The sooner he could begin, the sooner he could finish his work here and head for home.  But, just to be safe, he would wait another hour to make sure everyone was sleeping soundly.  Pulling his coat tighter around him he looked up at the night sky.  It looked like a storm was on its way.  How fitting.  He smiled and headed back to the RV to make his final preparations for the night ahead. 

~~~⊰X⊱~~~

“Hey, Will, thanks for working over your shift tonight so I could spend Thanksgiving with the family,” Captain Walsh said.  “I really appreciate it.”      

“Not a problem, Captain.  Thanksgiving should be spent with family.  How was it?” he asked. 

“It was great.  Sally came in with the grandbabies from Vicksburg, and my wife outdid herself with the cooking.  Can’t even button my pants I’m so full,” the captain said, rubbing his protruding belly, which hung several inches over his belt. 

“Glad to help out,” Will said, getting up from his desk to head on out.  It was only right that the captain got to spend the holiday with his family.  Will didn’t have a wife or kids—not even a girlfriend.  But having no ties or complications actually made things a lot easier now, because when he arrived home from work last night he had found a letter waiting for him in his mailbox from the FBI Academy saying that he had been accepted into their next 20-week training program starting in January.  In a few short weeks he would be headed to Quantico, and then in less than a year he would hopefully be fulfilling his dream of becoming an actual FBI agent.   He was so excited he could hardly contain himself.  He hadn’t told the captain yet, not wanting to spoil his holiday.  He would wait until after the weekend and tell him first thing Monday. 

“Oh, and Will?  Do me a favor.  Get a haircut, for chrissake,” the Captain said.  “You’re starting to look like a damn girl.” 

Smiling sheepishly and running a hand through his unruly curls, Will said, “I’ll take care of it this weekend, Captain.  See you tomorrow.” 

Will hated going to the barber because no matter how many times he told Floyd not to cut it too short, he always felt scalped afterwards.  But, on the bright side, if he got it cut now, that should give it enough time to grow out a bit and look decent by the time he left for Quantico. 

He headed to the men’s room to change out of his uniform.  He didn’t feel like heading home just yet.  He was still too wound up about the FBI letter to just go home and sit around; plus the holidays were always a bit depressing when you lived alone.  So he changed into a comfortable olive green long-sleeved two-button cotton shirt, a pair of well-worn jeans, his sneakers, and a quilted plaid flannel shirt.  He then headed out to Chester’s Bar to have a couple of celebratory drinks before going home to his empty house. 

 

November 26, 1982 – 1:30 a.m.

Hannibal took a moment to admire his handiwork.  It had been quite an eventful and satisfying night, but it was time to start packing up and head home.  He had a long drive ahead of him and he had to work tomorrow, so it would be good if he got home early enough to get in a few hours of sleep so he would be at his best.  

~~~⊰X⊱~~~

Will decided it was time to call it a night.  He had spent over two hours at Chester’s drinking whiskey and snacking on peanuts while watching various sports programs on the bar’s TV with the other people like himself who had no one to spend Thanksgiving with, but he had to work tomorrow so it was time to go home and get a little shuteye.  He got up and tossed some money on the bar, feeling pleasantly buzzed after having four whiskeys when he should have stopped at two.  Chester had pursed his lips at him in disapproval at the third drink, and by the fourth drink he could clearly hear the man thinking ‘Keep that up and you’re gonna end up a drunk like your old man.’  But he didn’t care.  Today had been a special day—not just a holiday, but a day of celebration, of new beginnings.  Plus, the whiskey would ensure that he slept like a baby tonight.  And then in a few short weeks he would kiss Wolf Trap good-bye and show these people that he could make something of himself, that he was nothing like his old man.    

After saying goodnight to Chester and the others in the bar, he went outside and headed for his car.  He shivered and buttoned up his quilted flannel shirt as the night air was especially chilly after being in the warm bar for so long.  Still, the weather wasn’t too bad for this time of the year.  He got in his car and started it up, waiting a few minutes for the engine to warm up and the windshield to defrost.  Then he headed for home, looking forward to a good night’s sleep. 

He was driving down the county road fifteen minutes from home when he happened to glance out his right-hand window and catch a peek of something through the trees that had him chuckling.  “Well, I’ll be.  What do you know?”  He pulled the car over onto the shoulder of the road and got out, looking down through the trees into the valley below.  He could just make out that big RV that Gladys had reported.  It was sitting off to the side of Doc Miller’s house.   And there was Sarah’s red Mustang parked in front.  He’d know that car anywhere.  Her folks had gotten it for her as her high school graduation present, and it was Sarah’s pride and joy.  He’d been in the same class as Sarah in grade school, and they’d gone to the local high school together.  He knew she lived in Baltimore now, but it looked like she was visiting her folks for the holiday.  The RV probably belonged to Doc’s brother.  Will knew he lived in South Carolina now and liked to travel, so he probably drove up here to spend the holiday with the family.  

There were lights on in the house, so it looked like some of them were still up.  Despite the hour, Will suddenly thought it would be a good idea to go down there and see if Sarah was still up and say hello, the idea no doubt encouraged by those four shots of whiskey still coursing through his system.  He figured if Sarah was heading back to Baltimore tomorrow, he might not get another chance to see her before he headed off to Quantico.  Maybe he would give the family a good laugh by telling them how Gladys had called the police and reported that RV as being suspicious. 

He had already driven past the gravel road turnoff that went down to the Miller house, so he decided as long as he was out of the car anyway to just cut through the woods and head down there on foot. 

The incline was fairly steep, and despite a full moon out tonight he stumbled on a few tree roots he didn’t see.  Truth be told, he was a bit unsteady on his feet.  He definitely shouldn’t have had that fourth whiskey, especially on an empty stomach.  Still, the air was crisp and he was enjoying the sound of fall leaves crunching beneath his shoes. 

It was a pretty good walk and he was a little out of breath by the time he broke through the forested area into the clearing, but he was smiling thinking how nice it would be to see Sarah again.  He’d had a major crush on her from the sixth grade on, as soon as he hit that stage where girls weren’t yucky any longer.  But Sarah’s father was the town doctor, and her mom was a schoolteacher, and such a girl had no business being interested in a boy who was the son of a waitress who had up and run off with a trucker passing through town when Will was eight, and a father who had buried his grief in the bottom of a bottle.  No, Sarah had been way too good for him and he had always known it.  But all that was about to change now that he was on his way to becoming an FBI agent.  Maybe he would go ahead and tell Sarah and her family the news first, see how impressed they would be.   

He walked across the manicured lawn, looking over at the RV.  It was at least thirty feet long, and he thought how nice it would be to travel around the country in something like that.  Maybe someday he would be able to afford to buy one of his own, and then he could go on vacations in it, maybe visit the Grand Canyon.  He’d always wanted to see the Grand Canyon.  Maybe he would even have a family by then to go with him.  He smiled at the thought. 

Climbing the stairs onto the wraparound porch, he walked around toward the side of the house where the RV was parked and where he knew the kitchen door was located.  He had been to this house twice before so he knew the layout.  Once was for Sarah’s sweet 16 party, and the other time was for a high school graduation party that Sarah’s parents had thrown.  He knew whoever was up was probably in the kitchen, as that’s where most folks tended to congregate to have late night talks.  He imagined Sarah and her mom sitting at the kitchen table with a couple of hot chocolates laughing and catching up on each other’s lives.  Will wondered if Sarah had a boyfriend now.  If not, maybe she would be willing to exchange phone numbers and stay in touch. 

When he got to the kitchen door, hand raised to knock, he was surprised to see the door open, which was strange as it was a chilly night.  He walked through the door into the kitchen, but it was empty.  He could still detect the faint foodsy aroma of sage and cinnamon from their meal, and his stomach gave a loud rumble as all he’d had to eat this evening were those peanuts at the bar.  Maybe he could sweet talk Mrs. Miller into making him a turkey sandwich, if there were any leftovers. 

He walked over to the living room next, but it was empty as well.  Huh.  Maybe there had been a medical emergency of some sort and they had all rushed out of the house and left the door open in their panic.  He hoped Doc or Mrs. Miller hadn’t suffered a stroke or something. 

He walked back to the kitchen door and quietly closed it.  The Millers wouldn’t appreciate coming home to a cold house.  Thinking he should just go ahead and leave, he froze when he heard what sounded like a floorboard creaking upstairs.  Maybe one of them had stayed home.  Maybe it was Sarah.  Or it could be Doc’s brother.  He would be in his 70s now. 

Thinking he’d just go upstairs and see if everything was okay, he went to the staircase right off the kitchen and headed up, the thick carpeting on the stairs muffling his footsteps.  He reached the top of the stairs and was about to call out when that open door popped back into his head, causing a trickle of unease to break through the whiskey haze that was causing his brain synapses to fire a little slower than normal. 

If someone had stayed home, why would the kitchen door be open? 

He frowned, then shook his head feeling foolish.  Whoever was home just wasn’t aware that the door had been left open, that’s all.  It was still warm upstairs. 

Nonetheless, he stood there for several seconds hoping to hear the sounds of talking or a record player or something coming from one of the rooms, but it was eerily quiet and he suddenly felt a prickle of unease.  Something about this just felt … off.  He swallowed and licked his lips and told himself he was being stupid.  After all, this was Wolf Trap, not some big city.  The worst things that happened here were bar fights, domestic altercations, and the occasional hunting accident.   He forced himself to move but decided to keep quiet. 

He had never been upstairs before.  The upstairs hallway was long and had doors on both sides, then looked like it turned off to the right at the end in an L-shape.  The hallway was dark and deserted, but light was coming from two open doors.  He headed toward the first open door on the left.  He passed a small table sitting against the wall with a fancy bowl full of potpourri sitting on it, and it had the air up here smelling like cinnamon and cloves and oranges and pine.  It was very nice.  Very homey. 

Right before reaching the doorway, Will hesitated, listening again, hoping to hear talking, or even snoring, that there was an explanation for the open kitchen door and he was about to be soundly chewed out by the doc or his wife, or some member of the family, for frightening them half to death. 

Finally, he stood at the threshold of the room.  The door was halfway closed, blocking his view.  He brought his hand up to lightly rap on the door, then lowered it.  There was something on the part of the wall that he could just see through the half closed door.  A splash of red that didn’t look like it belonged.  The hair on the back of his neck suddenly stood up, and he automatically reached for the firearm he usually wore on his side, but then realized it was currently locked in the glove compartment of his car as he was off duty. 

He put his fingertips on the door and pushed.  The door swung open silently on well-oiled hinges and Will froze, putting a hand over his mouth to stop the scream that was trying to get out.

This was Doc and Mrs. Miller’s bedroom.  He knew this immediately because they were both currently dead in their bed, crimson streaks staining the wall, bed, and the colorfully patterned ginger jar lamp with pleated shade that was the source of the light he had seen and that was now highlighting their bodies. 

He took his hand away from his mouth and stepped further into the room, fighting the nausea that had his stomach churning.  An acidic burning rose in his chest, and a bitter taste filled the back of his mouth.  He had never actually been to a murder scene before, only read about them.  Not quite the same thing.  Especially when you knew the victims personally.  Not the same thing at all.  He swallowed, suppressing the urge to vomit. 

He moved closer.  Not only were Doc and Mrs. Miller both dead, their bodies had been posed, creating some sort of macabre tableau. 

Will frowned as tendrils of familiarity swirled around trying to make connections through the whiskey fog in his head.  He had seen this particular killer’s MO before.  But where?   

He walked over to Mrs. Miller’s side of the bed first.  She was lying flat on the bed, as if asleep, and looked pale, as if she had lost a lot of blood, but looking at her Will could find no blood on her.  He lifted a piece of cloth that was lying across her throat and he could see that it had been slit.  So it was her blood staining the wall and bed, but whoever killed her had cleaned her up, put a clean gown on her, and had tucked her into bed with a sheet pulled up to her waist and had placed a bunch of fresh purple hyacinths in her hands.  He knew they were hyacinths because this particular flower grew wild around these parts. 

Will saw the scene play out in his head.  The killer had snuck in here while the couple was sleeping and went to Mrs. Miller’s side of the bed first and had quickly slit her throat.  He hadn’t necessarily wanted to kill her, but he had to ensure she didn’t interfere with his intended target.  She had simply been collateral damage.  As such, when the killer was finished with his work up here, he had cleaned her up and placed these particular flowers in her hands as an apology.  Will would bet his next paycheck this type of flower meant ‘forgive me,’ or something to that effect. 

Walking around to Doc Miller’s side, it was a very different scene altogether.  Doc Miller was clearly the intended target.  His throat showed signs of strangulation, a much more personal method of killing someone.  After the killer had cut Mrs. Miller’s throat, he had gone to Doc’s side of the bed and probably pinned him down until he was awake enough to know what was happening, and then slowly choked the life out of him. 

The doc was posed sitting up on the bed wearing his white doctor’s coat and stethoscope.  The killer had placed what looked to be a handmade papier-mâché mask over his face painted in swirls of bright lime green.  The mask was frowning or grimacing, he couldn’t tell which.  The green color and expression made Will think of envy or jealousy.  The Doc’s coat was open and his chest was bare and had been opened up and the organs removed.  In place of the organs were shards of glass and crushed flowers.  The flowers looked like yellow carnations and orange lilies.  He didn’t know the meaning of these flowers, but the fact that they were crushed might indicate crushed hope or crushed dreams.  The broken glass might represent pain or broken promises.  He would have to go to the library and research the meanings of these particular flowers to get further insight.   Whatever the meaning, he sensed anger from the killer, and perhaps even a touch of petulance.   

As someone with aspirations of joining the FBI, Will studied everything he could get his hands on regarding cases the FBI was involved with, and he knew he had seen pictures similar to this:  a killer who took his victims and created a tableau that was horrible, yet had artistic flair.  A tableau that had meaning if you could look deep enough into the killer’s mindset to interpret it.  A killer who removed organs …

Will’s eyes widened, and despite the warm temperature upstairs he broke out in a cold sweat and felt his knees grow weak.  As unlikely as it seemed, this was the work of the Chesapeake Ripper, a killer who had first made headlines in all the papers worldwide two years ago when he had killed a Supreme Court judge and his wife and then displayed them very publicly in front of the courthouse.  Other kills had followed which were equally sensational, and the Ripper had quickly risen in the ranks of the FBI’s most wanted, earning him a place on their ten most wanted list.    

The Ripper’s kills were unique and unmistakable.  And now the Ripper had decided to pay a visit to Wolf Trap, Virginia and kill a small-town doctor and his wife. The question was, why?      

Will came out of his thoughts when he heard a sound coming from a room down the hall and remembered what brought him up here in the first place.  He had heard a noise up here.  And in his shock at finding Doc and Mrs. Miller, he had forgotten all about Sarah.  Was that her down the hall?  Is it possible she had managed to hide, avoiding the Ripper’s detection?  Or maybe it was Doc’s brother. 

Will started toward the door and then paused as the image of that open kitchen door came back to the forefront of his thoughts yet again, and a horrible thought suddenly occurred to him.  What if the Ripper hadn’t left yet?  What if his work here wasn’t finished and he was still in the house somewhere, perhaps down the hall in the other lit room arranging Sarah in a similar tableau, or even now cutting her open to remove a trophy?  What if he’s the one who had left the kitchen door open? 

For a moment Will couldn’t breathe.  It was a terrifying thought, one that made him want to get in the nearest closet and close the door and hide like a frightened child.  If the Chesapeake Ripper was still in the house, Will knew he was no match for him, especially when he didn’t even have a weapon. 

But then another thought occurred to him.  What if the Ripper had Sarah in the other room but hadn’t killed her yet?  Or what if Sarah had woken up when the Ripper was killing her parents and had managed to hide from him?  Maybe the kitchen door was open because she had managed to escape the house. 

There was only one thing certain:  there was someone else alive in the house besides him right now. 

Will fought to remain calm, to remember his police training.  Panicking could get him killed.  He wished he had his gun on him, or at least had had the presence of mind to grab a knife or some other weapon when he was down in the kitchen. 

Okay, first things first.  Before he checked that other room to find out who was in there, he needed a weapon.  He had seen one of those wooden blocks full of knives on the kitchen counter. 

Gathering his courage he walked back to the doorway and stood there, listening for any sound.  Seduced by a long silence that seemed to promise safety, he poked his head out the door, looking left down the hallway toward the other lit room—and his heart nearly jumped out of his chest when he saw a man standing ten feet away outside the other lit room.  The Ripper.  Even though the man was facing away from him Will knew it was him because of the long, wicked-looking knife he was holding by his side.  A knife that had red streaks on it. 

Will froze, petrified, afraid that if he moved the Ripper would catch a glimpse of the movement out of the corner of his eye and come after him.  He opened his mouth to breathe, afraid the Ripper would hear his stuttered breathing through his nose. 

Although terrified, Will remembered his training and studied the man, gathering as many details as possible to report later.  Assuming he was still alive, of course.  The Ripper was a big man.  Six feet two, maybe even taller.  Wide shoulders, narrow waist.  He was wearing some sort of dark jumpsuit that stretched tautly across his broad back.  His hair was thick and appeared to be dark blond in the dim light, neatly barbered against the nape of his neck.  Will couldn’t see his face, and in all honesty he hoped never to see it unless it was behind bars. 

He tensed as the Ripper suddenly lifted his head, scenting the air like a dog, and Will had the sudden fear that he could smell the alcohol on his breath and closed his mouth quickly, taking a chance and pulling his head back inside the room.  There he stood, frozen in place, terrified that any movement might cause a floorboard to creak and alert the Ripper to his presence.  He realized then how extremely lucky he had been up until now.  The floors here were covered in thick padding and heavy carpeting that had hidden the sound of his footsteps and, more than likely, saved his life. 

Listening intently, he finally picked up faint sounds of movement that sounded like they were coming from that other lit room down the hall and he let out a shaky breath he didn’t realize he was holding.  He listened again but didn’t hear any cries from Sarah, or any muffled screams.  But if there was even the slightest chance that Sarah was still alive, he needed to help her.  He had taken an oath as an officer of the law to serve and protect its citizens, no matter how ill equipped he felt going up against a killer of the Ripper’s caliber. 

Still hearing movement in the next room, he poked his head out the door and, seeing the hallway empty, exited the room and partially closed the door so it looked like it was when he found it, then walked back down the hall toward the staircase and quietly descended the stairs back to the kitchen.  He remembered then that he had closed the kitchen door and quickly opened it, realizing that if the Ripper had seen that door closed he would have known someone was here. 

He selected a large knife from the wooden block on the kitchen counter and headed back up the stairs.  The knife was long, sharp, and of good quality with a solid handle.  He remembered the knife the Ripper was holding, coated in blood, and nervously swallowed.  He hoped that blood belonged to Doc or Mrs. Miller and not Sarah.  And he really hoped his blood would not be joining it.    

When he neared the top of the stairs he paused to listen, then peeked around the corner and, finding it empty, walked quietly down the hallway past Doc and Mrs. Miller’s room, headed for the second lit room.  He held the knife up at the ready should the Ripper suddenly pop out of the room.  He kept telling himself that he had the element of surprise on his side, but his whole body was trembling with fear.  When he was close to the lit room he paused and took a couple of fortifying breaths, trying to envision every scenario he might come upon.  He wasn’t a fool, he knew there was a good chance that if he came face to face with the Ripper he could wind up dead.  But how would it look, him going into FBI training with everyone knowing that he, a police officer, had been in the same house with the Ripper and hadn’t even tried to stop him? 

He just needed to move quickly before he lost his nerve.  After taking one last breath, he gripped the knife tightly and stepped through the doorway into the room expecting anything.  But what he hadn’t expected was to find the room empty.  He let out a shaky breath and lowered the knife, looking around.  The bed was mussed as if someone had been sleeping in it.  It looked like a girl’s bedroom with its beige, peach and lavender décor.  He walked to the dressing table and saw pictures of Sarah and her friends tucked into the sides of the mirror, so it appeared that this was Sarah’s old room.  But where was she? 

He walked to the window and peeked out the side and moved back quickly when he saw the Ripper carrying someone in his arms toward that RV—his RV, Will realized.  It was a woman wrapped in a bedsheet, one pale arm trailing limply, head lolling to the side, face concealed by her golden hair.  Sarah.  He couldn’t tell if she was dead or merely unconscious.  

He remembered then another Ripper case around six months ago where the Ripper had killed a couple up in Minnesota and their 15-year-old daughter had never been found.  The FBI initially thought she had escaped and run off to hide and would turn up eventually, but she never did.  Everyone assumed then that the Ripper had taken her for some nefarious reason. 

And now he was taking Sarah. 

But how had the Ripper gotten past him without them seeing each other?  He exited the room and walked to the far end of the hall and looked around the corner where the L-bend was and saw another staircase there.  While he had been coming up the stairs after retrieving the knife, the Ripper must have been going down these stairs carrying Sarah.  What if the Ripper had instead chosen the other stairs to go down just as he had been coming up?  The Ripper would have thrown Sarah at him, knocking him down the stairs where he would have then easily overpowered him.  Or, what if the Ripper had gone down before he had and seen the kitchen door closed?  He would have known someone was in the house and put Sarah down and quietly snuck back up the stairs and found him.  And then there was his car.  What if he had driven his car down here instead of walking?  The Ripper would have heard the car and been lying in wait for him.  That knife would most likely be coated in his blood now. 

The thought of all those close calls had his stomach twisting further.  Still, miraculously, none of that had happened.  He had been unbelievably lucky so far. 

He had seen a phone in the other bedroom on the nightstand next to Doc Miller, and now that Will knew the Ripper was outside, he could make a call to the police station without fear of being overhead.  He raced back to the bedroom, not sure if the Ripper was finished with his work here or would be coming back, and picked up the receiver.  Dead.  Of course it was dead.  The Ripper wouldn’t have left that to chance.  Since the phone cord was intact, the Ripper must have cut the phone line outside before entering the house, which meant all the phones would be dead. 

He opened the drawer on the nightstand, hoping Doc might have a handgun.  With a gun maybe he would be brave enough to go outside and confront the Ripper.  No such luck.  Nothing but a bible, a pair of reading glasses, a tube of lip balm, and a box of tissue. 

He started moving again, heading back down the stairs into the kitchen.  If he didn’t keep moving his mind and body would freeze up.  He looked out the corner of the kitchen window toward the RV and saw that two doors were open on the motor home now: one at the passenger side of the cockpit, the other on the same side but two-thirds of the way toward the back.  

Will couldn’t tell where the Ripper currently was because all the windows in the RV were curtained.  The Ripper had probably taken Sarah through the back door to get her situated.  There was a chance he would exit back through the back door as well, and maybe if Will positioned himself next to the door he could surprise him as he came out and stab him through the neck.  He gripped the knife tightly in his hand and exited out the still open kitchen door, praying the Ripper wouldn’t exit the RV as he was creeping toward it. 

He reached the motor home and pressed his back to the wall beside the open rear door, waiting for him.  If he came outside again, he’d go at him even as his foot was reaching for the ground.  The element of surprise was still working for him, maybe better than ever because the Ripper was close to a clean getaway and feeling so good about himself that he might be careless.

Maybe he wouldn’t come outside again, but at least he would have to reach out to pull the door shut. Standing on the step, leaning out to grab at the handle, he would not be well balanced, and Will would have the knife deep into him before he had a chance to jerk back.  At least this is what he hoped. 

Movement inside.  A thump.

Will tensed.

He didn’t appear.

Silence again.  What was he doing in there? 

The aluminum wall of the motor home was cold against his spine, and he shivered because it seemed that some of the coldness of the man inside was seeping through to him.

Waiting, he began to lose his nerve.  He had too much time to think about all the things that could go wrong.  Maybe he should just sneak back up to his car and wait for the Ripper to leave and then follow him at a discrete distance.  Yes, that was the smart thing to do.  If Sarah was alive the Ripper would wait until he got her to his lair to carry out whatever he had planned for her.  And if she was already dead, it wouldn’t matter.  And if anything happened in-between, he had his gun in the glove compartment. 

But before he could act on that thought, the Ripper came out of the motor home.  Unfortunately, he didn’t use the exit Will was standing next to.  He stepped from the open cab door at the front of the vehicle.

Will’s breath caught in his throat, and the chill wind from an oncoming storm seemed bitter with the scent of failure.

Once again the Ripper had his back to him.  Will thought about trying to sneak up on him, but he was too far away.  He would hear Will coming and he would lose the element of surprise, which he knew he needed to even the odds.

The Ripper stood just outside the cab door, twenty feet from him, stretching almost lazily.  He rolled his shoulders as if to shake the weariness from them, and he massaged the back of his neck.

If he turned his head to the left, he would see him at once.  If he didn’t remain absolutely still, the Ripper would surely spot his slightest movement even from the corner of his eye.

The Ripper was downwind of him, and remembering how he had scented the air, Will was half afraid that he would smell his fear.  He seemed more animal than human, even in the fluid grace with which he moved. 

Finished stretching, the Ripper moved briskly toward the house.  Up the walkway.  Onto the porch.  Inside.

He never looked back.

Will’s pent-up breath stuttered from him in a tattoo of fear, and he inhaled with a shudder.

He glanced at the house, wondering how long the Ripper would be gone.  He was probably double-checking everything to make sure he had left no evidence behind.  That might give Will enough time to get Sarah out of the motor home and head for his car.  Even if she were unconscious, she was petite and he could carry her fairly quickly.  Once they entered the forested area the Ripper wouldn’t be able to see them. 

In addition, if the Ripper had drugged Sarah, he might not even check on her again, might not even realize that she was missing right away.  Will could race back to town with her and they could set up roadblocks.  Call the FBI and get them in here, get a helicopter out looking for him.  The one good thing about the Ripper riding around in this vehicle was that it was big and would be easy to spot

Gripping the knife, his heart raced as he pulled himself in the back door, quickly moving to the right out of the doorway in case the Ripper happened to look out the window and see him. 

Moving right, toward the front of the RV, he quickly took in the layout.  Behind the driver’s chair was a small open closet with hooks where a long wool coat and a rain coat were hanging, a pair of boots sitting on the floor below them.  Next to that was a long sofa upholstered in dark material.  Opposite the sofa on the passenger side was a kitchen area with a small refrigerator, microwave, sink, cabinets.  The step well he had entered was next to that.  Then on the back wall was a cozy dining booth upholstered in red vinyl.  Running off the battery, a lamp hung aglow over the table.  Behind that wall Will imagined there was a bedroom.  That must be where Sarah was. 

He started moving.  The steel floor was carpeted, of course, but it still creaked softly under his feet.  Will had expected the place to smell a bit like a butcher shop, but instead the air was redolent of rich, dark coffee and expensive cologne.  How odd—and somehow profoundly disturbing—that a man like this should find any satisfaction at all in innocent pleasures.

Will quickly took a peek out the open door toward the house, and seeing no one looking out the window he crossed the open doorway and headed toward the back of the RV.  There was a short narrow hall on the passenger side of the RV illuminated by a low-voltage safety fixture, and Will could see it led all the way to the back of the RV.  There was also a skylight overhead, and he got a little light from the moon.  On the right were two closed doors, and at the end a third stood ajar. 

“Sarah!” he whispered, as though the Ripper might hear him all the way from the house. 

The first door opened into a tiny bath. The space was a marvel of efficient design: a toilet, a sink, a medicine cabinet, and a small shower stall.

Behind the second door was a closet.  A few changes of clothes hung from a chrome rod.  The Ripper had been wearing what appeared to be a dark one-piece jumpsuit that was no doubt what he wore to protect his clothes when he was on one of his hunts.  These clothes must be what he wore when he wasn’t working.  He saw polo shirts and Hawaiian-style shirts with bold patterns and casual slacks—the perfect clothing for a tourist just out traveling around in his RV.  Another part of his disguise.

At the end of the hall was a small bedroom with imitation-wood paneling and a closet in the back with an accordion-style vinyl door. The meager light from the hall didn’t brighten the place much, but Will could see well enough to identify Sarah, lying face down on the bed, swaddled in a sheet, with only her small bare feet and her golden hair revealed.

Urgently whispering her name, Will stepped to the bed and dropped to his knees.  If she wasn’t drugged and he could wake her, they could move faster to his car than if he had to carry her. 

Sarah didn’t respond.  

“Please let her only be unconscious,” Will prayed softly as he brushed the hair off her face, smelling the lemon-scented shampoo she was always partial to. 

He knew right away she was dead.  As his fingers brushed her skin, it was already cooling to the touch.  Then he was looking into blue eyes that were open and staring at him in death. 

Will’s eyes filled with tears as he looked at this girl who he had known pretty much all his life.  She had been so bright, so full of life, so loved by the entire town. 

“Oh, Sarah, I’m so sorry,” he said, stroking her hair, grief threatening to overtake him. 

But then rage overtook his grief at the thought of this sick bastard taking Sarah even though she was dead.  Maybe she was something he could touch and look at and talk to for a few days to remind him of the kill.  A souvenir much more substantial than the surgical trophies he took from his victims.  If the Ripper had indeed taken that girl up in Minnesota, then she must be similarly dead. 

Will’s stomach cramped painfully, wondering if he hadn’t stayed to have those last two drinks at Chester’s if he might have arrived in time to stop this from happening.  He was suddenly filled with guilt and self-loathing.  He let her hair fall back over her face to hide eyes that stared into his and seemed full of accusation. 

Still, now that he knew she was dead, he could concentrate on nailing this sick fuck’s ass right to the wall.  He would head back to his car and follow the RV back to the Ripper’s lair.  Then he would find a phone and call the police and the FBI and they would come and surround wherever this monster called home and either capture him or kill him, Will didn’t care which.  In this way he would find justice for Sarah and her parents and the girl up in Minnesota and all the others he had killed. 

Nearby a door slammed hard, shaking the thin metal walls around Will.

The Ripper was back.

Something rattled.  Rattled.

With the butcher knife in hand, Will swiftly backed away from Sarah to the wall next to the open door.  He was burning with fury, afire with the need to hurt this man, slash him, spill his guts, hear him scream for daring to come to his town and kill his people. 

He’ll come into the room and I’ll cut him.  He’ll come and I’ll cut him.  It was a prayer, not a plan.  He’ll come.  I’ll cut him.  He’ll come.  I’ll cut him.

The shadowy room darkened and Will held his breath.  The Ripper was at the door, no more than an arm’s length from him, blocking the meager light from the hall. 

Silently, he white knuckled the knife in his hand to keep the trembling at bay. 

The Ripper was at the threshold.  Right there.  Right there.  He would come in for one more look at his trophy, for one more feel of her cool skin, and Will would get him when he crossed the threshold, cut him.  He would aim up, under the chin. 

Instead, the Ripper closed the door and went away.

Aghast, Will listened to his retreating footsteps, the creaking as the carpeted steel floor torqued under his shoes, and he wondered what to do now. 

He heard what sounded like a zipper, and then cloth rustling and he imagined the man peeling off that jumpsuit he wore that would be coated with evidence from his crimes tonight. 

After another minute he heard the driver’s door slam.  The engine started.  The brakes released with a brief faint shriek.

And then Will’s stomach dropped as he realized that they were moving, and he was now trapped inside a moving vehicle with a dead body and one of the most ruthless and cunning killers in the nation.