CATCH ME IF YOU CAN


By C. S. Challinor



Dan Slaker pulled up a safe distance from the driveway, casually looking around the quiet street of upscale homes under construction. The workers had left for the day. No cars anywhere, other than the realtor's white Camry, gleaming at the curb outside the builder's model. Slaker extracted the open house sign from the grass and hid it behind a bougainvillea hedge. He walked up the paved driveway to the mahogany door, which beeped as he entered.

He just had time to lock it before a frosted blonde — older than depicted in the photo on her Web site — approached and greeted him with an outstretched hand and a plastered smile.

"Forgive me for not shaking," he said, slipping his hands into the pockets of his expensive jacket. "There's a lot of that flu going around."

"No problem," the realtor gushed. "You can't be too careful!"

Sandy Wilson, Associate Broker, Platinum Properties, read the name badge pinned to her salmon pink blouse, which gave off a cloying scent of gardenia. Her eyes, lidded with shiny white makeup, swept over him, assessing the youngish man's potential as a buyer.

Playing his role, Slaker gazed with feigned interest at the faux-finish tray ceiling showcasing a teardrop chandelier.

"Are you in the market for a turnkey home of this quality?" the realtor asked.

"Yes," Slaker lied. "My company relocated to Southwest Florida. I'll need a den that I can use as a home office."

"You've come to just the right place." Her eyes bulged at the prospect of a large commission. No doubt she was getting an additional bonus from the builder as extra incentive to move this inflated-priced home. "Let me show you around," she invited.

Slaker already knew the floor plan, having taken the virtual tour. "My wife stayed behind with the kids," he explained following the realtor down the hall. He flexed his hands in the snug latex gloves, all but imperceptible to the eye, but artificial to the touch.

"Seen anything you like so far?"

"Not as nice as this," he replied, entering a living room stuffed with Robb & Stucky furniture and profuse floral arrangements. He began to feel claustrophobic and surreptitiously tugged on his silk tie. Beyond a set of sliding glass doors shimmered a pool whose near side spilled over a ledge into a paddling basin. "My six-year-old would love that," Slaker said.

"The area out back is completely enclosed and private, perfect for kids and entertaining. Come and take a look." A new energy put a spring into the realtor's step. Evidently, she took him for a live one.

A "live one!" Slaker thought with irony. That was more than could be said for Sandy Wilson five minutes from now.

* * *

On the other side of Alligator Alley in Miami, the FBI profiler regretted her lunch of Reuben Sandwich with fries as she surveyed the male-dominated incident room. Most of the law enforcement officers were in shirt-sleeves, exposing their shoulder holsters. Tugging subconsciously at the jacket panels of her dark pants suit, designed to have a slimming effect on the hips, Dr. Crystal Waters addressed the attendees seated at the desks and leaning up against scuffed white walls. Mingling with the miasma of male sweat and testosterone, an aroma of sugared-down coffee drifted from Styrofoam cups strewn among the notebooks, photostats, and cell phones.

"So, while I emphasize that there is no blueprint profile of a serial killer," she lectured, "I think it safe to assume our offender is a white male, articulate and personable enough to pass as a buyer for these homes and inspire confidence in the real estate professional." Crystal Waters would bet on the perp being white. Home buyers of color were not thick on the ground in upscale Florida communities. Such a buyer would have been conspicuous. Heck, she felt conspicuous in this room of whites and Hispanics, and she was as light-skinned as Obama. "In none of the open house cases is there any indication of a struggle. Each time, the realtor must've felt comfortable enough to turn her back on him."

"He's doing this for the thrill of the kill?" a young female investigator asked.

"Or the killings could have been motivated by a trigger, and now he can't stop. He chooses the same type of victim, a female realtor, but within this category the victims vary widely in age, body type, and race." Dr. Waters turned toward a laminated marker board where a captioned photo gallery of the seven victims spanned March through May. She pointed in rapid succession. "Five are Caucasian, one Hispanic, one Asian. Once the self-gratification wears off, the desire to act resurfaces, just like any compulsion or addiction."

Sheriff's Captain Steve Drake, co-commander of the joint task force, walked up to a map studded with colored pins concentrated in Southwest and Southeast Florida. A heavy-jowled man with bluish bags under his eyes, he stabbed a stubby finger at various locations. "The nature of the murders suggests the Open House Killer is acting alone. He hits isolated homes in counties east and west of the Alley, and as far north as Sarasota County on the other coast and St. Johns on this side. Could be someone traveling around selling Jacuzzis, or just about anything. By now, real estate agents are on the alert and are doubling up, or have panic buttons. Some builders have greeters showing their homes. Those haven't been targeted. Folks, he's only going after licensed agents."

A brief silence ensued while the homicide investigators digested this information.

"Maybe he has a personal vendetta against realtors," someone suggested.

"Wouldn't be the only one," another cop joked weakly.

Dr. Waters wished she could add something more constructive to the investigation, but there was so little to go on. The scenes were squeaky clean, the perpetrator careful and methodical.

"So we got someone personable and presentable, posing as a customer," a veteran detective summed up. "Probably a psychopath." His tone led Dr. Waters to suppose he had found her profile less than illuminating. However, caution was paramount in her estimation, and jumping to conclusions could prove counterproductive to the investigation — even though Mr. Open House did appear to fit the Hollywood stereotype of a white male serial killer of superior intellect and extraordinary instinct.

"Could be someone disguised as a repairman. An electrician or plumber." This from Cory Peretsky, a square-jawed, clean-shaven detective sergeant.

"These homes are new construction," Drake countered. He addressed the whole task force. "We need a revised list of upcoming open houses along the coast, gated communities and all. Let's get the visitors' license plates cross-referenced again and recheck the security videos in case we missed something." He volunteered someone to collate the information and reiterated the merits of old-fashioned police work. "We got a shit-load of pressure from the governor's office, the victims' families, and the media, but don't let that distract you. Your job is to pursue every tip and lead. No shortcuts, no oversights. We don't want to be listing another dead realtor."

* * *

"I'm a bit pressed for time," Slaker told the fakey Sandy Wilson. "Can you show me the master bedroom?"

"Oh...fine. This way."

The realtor's tone and slumped shoulders denoted hesitation and disappointment. She led him back into the hallway, where a pair of solid core doors opened on to a spacious bedroom dominated by a California canopy bed smothered with tasseled cushions and pillows. Slaker stretched his neck in his damp shirt collar. A door led to the pool area. He noted it was locked.

"His and Her closets," Sandy Wilson announced, flinging open opposite doors off a short corridor leading to a marble-tiled bathroom.

"Wall safe?"

"In here." She walked into the smaller closet lined with brand new racks and shelves, and fitted with carpet where a vacuum cleaner had left a series of swathes in the dense pile.

Slaker followed, loosening his blue-striped tie. The realtor's heady gardenia fragrance overpowered him in the confined space.

"You enter your code on the keypad," she demonstrated, opening the built-in safe in which she had stored her pocketbook.

Her back turned, he slipped the noose over her head and yanked tight. He'd have to get rid of the tie later, contaminated as it was by the stink of perfume.

* * *

"He strangles the victim, most likely with his tie — an innocuous and accessible weapon — and leaves by the front door," Captain Drake stated at the brainstorming session.

"So this guy sees an open house sign, walks in, makes nice to the lady realtor who never suspects anything, and before she knows it, she's strangled in some remote part of the house and left there until someone finds her body." DS Peretsky scratched at his dimpled square jaw.

Dr. Waters found herself wishing she were ten years younger and ten pounds lighter. "Over half these women weren't married," she interposed. "And weren't reported missing for days."

"Four of the seven victims weren't found for two days," Drake specified, "until either a cleaning crew or another realtor showing the property turned up. Or in one case a builder who noticed the lights were still on. In any event, the killer clearly doesn't want the bodies found until he's made a safe getaway-with the victim's pocketbook. But whether he needs the money or just wants to make the murders look like they're motivated by money, we can't be sure. So far none of the credit cards have been used, which would've helped pinpoint his itinerary."

"Our perp may have independent means," Dr. Crystal Waters pointed out. "Or works from home and has a flexible schedule." A delicious chill crept up her spine. She wanted so desperately to interview this guy and find out what made him tick, it felt like the stirrings of an obsession for an unattainable lover.

"It's like chasing a shadow," Drake groused. "There are no prints common to all or any of the murder scenes. We can assume he wears gloves, which would look kinda obvious in Florida, so they're probably Latex. And he probably changes his shoes. We got nothin' on this guy. Some of these homes have ultra-sophisticated security systems, but none with hidden CCTV."

"Some security information is available on the property listing sites," a male cop at the back volunteered.

Captain Drake nodded wearily. "We already checked out the security companies and personnel that installed them. He's managed to avoid detection by targeting higher end homes, which get less traffic, especially out of season, but still, he's taking a risk. Chances are he locks the front door while he's perpetrating the crime, having first disposed of the sign."

* * *

One open house had been canceled. There had been no sign, and Slaker had driven off quickly. He slipped through the front door of his back-up property in a neighboring community, and bolted it. A second later, he heard the click of high heels on the stone floor, and a lovely young woman in a beige skirt-suit appeared. The stilettos were red, the legs slender. She was not the realtor advertised on the listing, which put him on guard.

"I was expecting to meet with Laura Lee Goldstein," he told her.

"Laura had an appointment and asked me to stand in for her this afternoon." The young woman proffered a hand. Pretending not to notice, he slipped his own into his pants pocket and gazed intently around the foyer.

The model homes were all the same. Same features, same neutral decor, same pointless ornaments. He'd been insane to agree to buy one for his ex-wife. The housing market had gone into free fall shortly after the closing, and once he lost his high-rolling position at Berner Investments, he'd been unable to meet the mortgage payments and the extortionate maintenance fees and golf membership.

The young realtor introduced herself. "Here's my card."

Slaker craned his neck, leaving his hands in his pockets. No wedding ring on Melissa Clarkwell's hand and no photo on the card. She might not want time-wasters calling for dates. "Well, I'm sure you'll do just as well," he said with the boyish smile he knew rarely failed to disarm women. Sweet Me-li-ssa. Funny; he had been listening to the Allman brothers last night in his sparely-furnished rental apartment. "I'm looking for a three-bedroom, three-bath home, preferably with a Great Room," he told her.

"The Caledonia absolutely fits that description," she enthused. Her dimpled smile enraged him with memories of Catherine from when he still had it all. "You're going to love it," she told him. "Do you have kids?"

Slaker tried to place the flat vowels. It was the one unattractive facet about Melissa. "Two," he replied. "A boy and a girl."

"This is going to be a gorgeous neighborhood." She moved off down the hall toward the main reception room, her copper-colored ponytail swinging behind her. "And there's a wonderful lake view."

Slaker considered the lakes in Florida communities a joke, mere holes dug out for fill and substituted with water to create the illusion of nature, which was being egregiously displaced. The punch line was that the builders charged a premium for a view of these artificial craters. He toyed with the idea of throwing Melissa Clarkwell's body into it, but thought better of it.

He followed her shapely legs into the Great Room, divided by a lustrous black granite breakfast bar from a restaurant-scale kitchen fitted with custom cabinets and stainless steel appliances. It bore every resemblance to a fully functioning kitchen, down to jars of gourmet preserves and a gleaming set of carving knives hanging from a rack. His skin began to prickle inside his starched collar.

"I'm more interested in the bedrooms," he told Melissa Clarkwell. "Although my wife will appreciate the layout of the kitchen. She's a cordon bleu chef."

"I can't even make an omelet," the realtor lamented with a self-deprecating smile before leading the way upstairs.

He admired her ascending derrière even as he deplored the nasal tonality of her vowels while she gave him the sales pitch. She should be silenced forever. He felt a paroxysm of desire, a dark and primal urge to exert ultimate control and squeeze the delicate white neck to death. Conscious of a tensing up in his body and a quickening of breath, he forced himself to inhale deeply, composing his bland good looks into a relaxed smile as he loosened the knot of his camel-brown tie.

"Wow, it's real roomy up here," he remarked.

"Go ahead and take a look round." Melissa Clarkwell gestured toward the open doors.

"After you," he told her, standing aside and giving her no option but to comply if she wished to make a sale, as apparently she did. He followed closely. The window, draped with white gauze, overlooked the lake. No one could see inside the bedroom.

"Is this the best view from upstairs? Melissa?" he inquired when she didn't join him at the window. "Anything wrong? You seem nervous."

"There's been a spate of murders in Florida," she faltered. "Realtors holding open houses have been strangled. Well, you may not have heard about it if you're not from around here, although it has been all over the national news."

"Not very good for business," Slaker conceded. "Oh, you don't think...? That's too funny! I couldn't even bring myself to take my daughter's cat to the vet to be euthanized when it was dying of cancer. My wife had to do it."

Where had that come from? He had no love of animals. The tabby kitten he had received for his ninth birthday he had strangled and ground to a pulp in the garbage disposal, blaming its disappearance on his older brother. That was when he had discovered he could get away with murder if he was clever and persuasive enough. Hugging him to her, his mother had kissed away his tears and called him her "poor little angel," and promised to buy him another pet.

"You never know," Melissa Clarkwell was saying. "Obviously the realtors were too trusting."

"I assure you I'm no serial killer." He laughed again, but this time the laugh sounded hollow even to himself.

"Is there something wrong with your hands? You haven't taken them out of your pockets."

"I'm just concerned about picking up germs. I have a bit of a phobia about it, actually."

"I have hand sanitizer if you need it."

She was babbling nervously. Slaker felt he had the ascendancy. He felt loose and relaxed, totally in control of the situation.

"And I noticed you didn't sign the guest book downstairs."

"I don't want realtors calling up and harassing me, is all." Look, Melissa, he thought; sweet and pretty as you are, you are seriously getting on my nerves, and I don't have time to waste. On the other hand, she might be a cop and wearing a wire. "Look, I don't want to make you uncomfortable — I'm leaving right now." He acted all peeved. "Shame, as I really like the house."

He walked around her and headed down the stairs. As he turned the corner into the hall, the front door opened and a youngish man in suit and tie walked in carrying an assortment of brochures.

Slaker just had time to whip on his sunglasses. "Looking for the realtor?" he asked, maintaining his cool.

The man closed the door behind him. "Is she around?"

"Upstairs."

As the man disappeared, Slaker ducked into a broom closet across from the front door. Almost immediately he heard Melissa's voice, and the pair came into view through the slit between the closet door and frame.

"Thanks again," the man said, and left.

She locked the door behind him. Slaker smirked. She must think he'd left when the man arrived. Ms. Clarkwell was too dumb to be a cop. Noiselessly, he exited the broom closet and crept up behind her just as she turned around. The shock in her hazel eyes was priceless, but she didn't scream.

* * *

At that moment Captain Drake was updating the task force. "Erica James' husband called his wife six times on her cell phone when she didn't come home. Failing to get a response, he goes to the address where he knows she's holding an open house that day. Her car's outside and he discovers her body hidden behind the frosted glass door of a shower off an upstairs guest bedroom."

The FBI profiler aimed the wooden pointer at a photo of a nude woman crumpled in a fetal position in the shower stall. "Erica James was a petite 33-year-old blonde," Waters said. "The other murders haven't been sexual in nature and there is no evidence of sexual assault in this case. Even so, this might indicate an escalation."

"Why did he take her clothes?" eager-beaver DS Peretsky asked. "And did he force her to undress or did he strip her after she was dead?"

"We don't know the answer to those questions," the sheriff's captain replied, ignoring the suppressed guffaws and lewd comments, which received indignant glares from the small female contingent. "Could be he was concerned about his own hairs or fibers being left on the victim's clothes, and that's why he took them."

"He may have taken them as a trophy," Dr. Crystal Waters suggested. "This killer is careful, but it looks like he might be starting to take risks. He may be getting a sense of invincibility. Possibly this last case was his idea of a joke, or maybe a challenge to the cops. A 'See what I might do next if you don't catch me.'"

* * *

"You can make this hard or easy on yourself, Melissa. Your choice." Slaker pulled the knot through his tie and grabbed it at both ends, stretching it taut.

Gaping incredulously, Melissa Clarkwell took a step backward. "You're joking, right?"

"I never joke," he snapped.

She glanced toward the front door, just paces away, knowing she wouldn't get far in her heels.

He sprang at her. "What the...?" he exclaimed when he saw the semi-automatic pistol in her hand.

As he wrested it off her, she bent down and, removing a shoe, flung the stiletto heel up into the side of his neck. His hand went to the wound, dropping the gun. He touched sticky wet blood. "Bitch," he muttered, recovering the weapon and slotting it into his jacket pocket. Looping the tie around her neck, he jerked at each end while she choked and clutched at the silk. Her body slumped to the parquet floor.

He dragged her into the broom closet and, blotting the blood on his neck with the tie, fled into the laundry room leading to the garage. He had the floor plan memorized and knew all the exits.

As he slipped through the side door, he spotted a S.W.A.T. team at the far end of the driveway, converging on the previous visitor with assault rifles leveled. The man sank to the ground, hands raised in surrender, protesting his innocence. "Don't shoot! I'm previewing for a client!"

Turning up the collar of his jacket, Slaker skirted the back of the house, dodged behind a privacy hedge at the next-door property, and by an indirect route, regained the Lexus SUV. He stowed the gun in the glove compartment and slapped a large Band-Aid from the first aid kit on his neck, and then made for an undeveloped parcel of land adjacent to the community.

Thank Christ she'd missed his jugular vein. One hand on the steering wheel and an eye in the rear view mirror, he cleaned up the blood smears with the wipes he kept handy. Not that he was unduly concerned. The used cars he borrowed from his brother's dealership in Delray Beach had tinted windows and, in any case, the cops were busy arresting that schmuck in the suit.

He shook with mirth, wincing suddenly at the pain in his neck. He would need to lie low for a while. The male realtor would describe the man he'd seen in the house as a white male, late thirties, medium build, sandy hair, wearing a tie and sunglasses. If he'd been observant, he would have noticed a zigzag scar on Slaker's temple from when he'd fallen out of a tree at age six and almost died.

Killing the woman cop had been as satisfying as the others, Slaker was surprised to discover. More so, in fact, as the adrenaline had been pumping sky high. A pity he'd had to rush off before he could follow through on part two. That had been a close call.

Turning onto the main road, Dan Slaker blended into the traffic, home free.


C.S. Challinor, a licensed Florida real estate agent, sold new homes before launching into a full-time writing career. She is the author of the Rex Graves Mystery series, featuring a Scottish barrister-sleuth. The debut novel, Christmas Is Murder, garnered a starred review from Booklist. Her short stories have been published in the United States and the United Kingdom.


Copyright © 2011 C.S. Challinor. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!


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