SAN FRANCISCO. FALL, 2007.
Will Finch saw the corpse less than a minute after he heard the horrible noise. He never imagined that death could sound so leaden. And yet, so wet. The punch of a heavy body splatting onto flat concrete. A splash punctuated by a gasp. Then a faint wheeze as the lungs released a final breath into the city night.
At first, he couldn’t see the body. Four people stood on the sidewalk blocking his view. Their heads tipped down at an angle as they absorbed the catastrophe that sprawled next to their feet.
“What happened?” Finch pushed forward and stepped around the blonde girl. She held a hand to her mouth and let out a cry.
“I don’t know.” The boy next to her glanced at the building above them. “He fell,” he offered with a stony expression. Finch studied them a moment. Two couples in their midteens, white, vibrant, all well-bred and dressed for dinner at an upscale restaurant in nearby Jackson Square. Probably making their way down to the Embarcadero where they could catch a street car or train back to their suburban homes. He checked his watch. 11:18. These kids were probably trying to beat their midnight curfews.
But now he observed the change coming over them. The reality seeping in. One by one, the cold hand of death caressed their faces and forced them to look again at the bloody pulp on the ground. Turn and watch. This is what I can do.
“Did you see him fall?” Finch studied their shocked expressions.
Two girls and two boys, standing stock-still. They all shrugged and glanced away from the corpse. One of the boys lurched to the sidewalk curb and vomited into the gutter.
“Yeah. I did.” The blonde rubbed a hand over her mouth, her trance now broken. “Just in the last second.”
“Do you have a phone?”
“What?” She glanced at him for the first time. Her eyes swept over his face as if she were memorizing the features of his eyes, nose, mouth.
“To call 9-1-1.”
Her look suggested some uncertainty. Then she rummaged through a small purse that hung from her shoulder by a chain strap.
“Here.” She offered Finch her Nokia.
He made a mental note of her number on the flash screen, then placed the call. The dispatcher advised him that a response team would be by as soon as possible. Meanwhile, he should remain on the line and not leave the scene. As he waited, he leaned his buttocks on the door of a parked car, pressed his ear to the cellphone and stared at the building. He counted fourteen stories which rose above the Bank of America outlet on the corner of Stockton and Washington Streets. He tried to determine how many apartments had open windows. Maybe six. His eyes swept from room to room, scanned for fluttering curtains or someone above who might be peering back at him. Nothing.
Then he detected something unusual. Behind the curtains in an apartment on the eleventh floor a lamp clicked on, then off. On and off. As the pattern continued Finch tried to time the periods of each interval. Five seconds, seven, ten. Then the apartment blinked into darkness. And lit up again.
Finch made another calculation: the intermittent flashes came from the sixth window along the left side of the building. He guessed that each apartment had two windows facing the street. The third apartment in from the north side on the eleventh floor had one window open, one closed. The room behind the closed window was the source of the flashing light.
He took the phone from his ear and passed it to the blonde.
“What’s your name?
“Winkler,” she added.
“All right, Alice. My name’s Will Finch. The 9-1-1 dispatch said someone should be here soon. They want you to stay here and stay on the line.” He gave her a serious look. “Now I think I saw something up there, so I’m going to see what happened.”
“Okay.” She said this as if she were making a polite concession and then held the phone to her ear and nodded. She turned to her friends. Both were tending to the boy who’d lost his dinner.
Will walked along Washington Street past the bank and approached the glass doors that led into the apartment building. He tugged on the handles. Both doors were locked. He stepped to the curb and turned his attention back to Alice and her friends. Three pedestrians had come to their aid, and then an older couple coaxing a Shiatsu on a leash paused to provide more support. Another minute passed, and Finch saw a couple approaching the apartment doorway from the interior elevator bay. He stepped up to the door. When it opened, he smiled at the two women strolling past him and said, “Thanks. I don’t seem to have a key.”
He rode the elevator alone up to the eleventh floor and wondered if he’d counted everything correctly. The car door opened onto a hallway illuminated by covered fluorescent ceiling lights. The carpets bore a floral pattern of braided roses that stretched from one end of the empty corridor to the other. As he eased toward the north side of the tower, he detected the flat odors of fried food. Years of fried chicken and beef dinners had added their heavy flavors to the stale air. He guessed that the building was about thirty years old. Perhaps it had once been an impressive residential tower, but years of wear and disrepair had tarnished its pedigree.
He stepped along the passageway counting off the numbers on the street-side apartments. 1110, 1108, 1106. He approached 1104, the third door from the end of the hallway. Like all the others, it was closed. He knocked once, twice — and again.
Nothing. He pressed an ear to the wood panel. From the apartment’s interior, he could make out a quiet mewling. The sound of a puppy whimpering? In the distance, he heard the wail of approaching sirens.
He hesitated for a moment and wondered what he was doing. What business is it of yours? Good question, he decided and made a bargain with himself. He would try the door handle, and if it were locked, he’d go back to the street and tell the emergency responders what he’d discovered. On the other hand, if the door were unlocked, he’d go in. He turned the handle. The door opened.
He stepped onto the beige carpet and closed the door behind him. He paused a moment to assure himself that he was making the right move. Who could know? The apartment appeared to have a standard one-bedroom layout. To his right stood a galley kitchen with an eating nook that faced into the living room. On the left, a bathroom. Adjacent to the bathroom a closed door — which Finch assumed led into the bedroom.
Directly in front of him, he could see the living room window had been pulled open. The sheer drapes, drawn tight to the side window frames, lofted slightly in the breeze coming off the bay. Finch sniffed the air. It smelled fresh, full of life. He heard the emergency vehicles stop on the street as the blare from their sirens wound down. The whimpering noise he’d heard from the corridor was detectable again.
He walked to the open window and stood to the left of the window frame. From there he peered onto the street. Directly below him lay the corpse, which from eleven floors up, appeared to be little more than a sack of flattened pulp leaking a dark stream of blood that slipped toward the curb. A crowd of fifteen or twenty people made way for the ambulance crew. A fire truck pulled up behind the ambulance. One of the attendants approached Alice, who still held the phone to her ear.
They began to talk and she slipped the phone into a pocket. Her friends moved to the corner across the street. One of the boys waved to her, a gesture to let her know they were still present, if not at her side.
The trucks left their flashers on alert. The silence surprised Finch, and for a moment he tried to grasp the conversation of the ambulance crew as they attended to the body. He could make out a few words, some standard commands, he guessed, but no complete sentences.
Then he heard the mewling again. He turned from the window and approached the bedroom door.
“Hello?” He tapped the door panel with a knuckle and said, “There’s been an accident. I’m here to check on you.”
The whimpering now turned into something more human.
A gasp of surprise.
“What? See-See, is that you?” A woman’s voice, rigid with fear.
Finch eased the door open. The bedroom was half the size of the living room. The curtains were pulled tight across the window. With her left hand, the woman clutched the bedpost opposite the door. Her left leg was poised on the floor as if she was about to stand. The right calf was curled under her thigh and resting on the bed. She wore a bra and panties. Nothing else. Her almond-blonde hair was disheveled. It appeared as if she’d just showered but hadn’t had time to dry and brush her hair. From where he stood Will thought that she could be leaning on the post to support herself.
“Jeez. Who are you?”
Her question came out with another whimper. Finch felt confident she was the source of the cries he’d heard from the hall.
“Do you need some help?”
“Help?” A startled frown crossed her face, then a rising awareness that something had changed. “Get me that key,” she demanded and shook her wrist against the bedpost. She flicked her free hand toward the bureau in the corner.
Finch now saw the handcuff that clamped her left wrist to the post. He moved to the bureau and examined a standard handcuff key that sat in a glass ashtray on top of the bureau. Will almost picked up the key, then thought again. He turned to face her.
“Who busted you?”
“Busted me?” A flash of panic gripped her face. “No one busted me. This is all a setup for some psycho with a rape fantasy.”
A stick lamp stood on the bedside table next to her. He assumed that she’d been able to reach the light with her free hand.
“Was that you clicking the lamp on and off?”
“Yes, damn it!” Her panic shifted to exasperation. “Now get the key so we can both get out of here before it’s too late.”
She tipped her head back toward the bureau.
“Before we both get thrown out the fucking window!”
The panic in her voice sent a chill through him and he knew he had to take her seriously. At the same time, his doubts and uncertainties multiplied. He didn’t understand what was going on. Not half of it. But he had to make a decision. Will grabbed the key from the ashtray and approached the woman.
“What’s your name?”
“Jojo.” She shifted her right leg off the bed.
“Joanne Joleena. Jojo. Get it?”
“Hey, look — I don’t need the attitude.” He examined the key and the handcuff fastened to the bedpost. It took a moment to determine how they fit together.
“All right. Just unlock me,” she pleaded with another gasp of exasperation. “Please.”
Finch unlocked the cuff from the post and took it in his left hand.
“What are you doing?”
He noticed that she had two script tattoos on her forearms. One read Forever Young. The other, Love Now. “Where are your clothes?”
“In the bathroom.”
He locked the free cuff around his right wrist and slipped the key into the half pocket in his jeans. “Okay, let’s get you dressed.”
“What the fu—”
“Come on.” He yanked on the cuff and pulled her toward the bathroom. “Let’s get going before it’s too late.”
FIVE KNIVES welds the intensity of Jack Bauer’s “24” to the scorching heat of THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET’S NEST.
“The author is a great talent.” — Aaron C. Brown, Amazon Top 1000 Reviewer
When a man plummets to his death from an apartment tower, Will Finch’s shock soon becomes a nightmare. As he studies the open windows above the corpse, Finch notices a lamp blinking erratically behind a drawn curtain on the eleventh floor.
When he investigates the distress signal, Finch discovers a woman handcuffed to a bedpost. Over the following week, he uncovers a conspiracy that ties the murder to a series of bombshells. The victim’s bankruptcy. A global stock fraud. A murder spree that began in Baghdad and is now haunting the citizens of San Francisco. Is this the work of a serial killer, a copycat — or both?
But before he can file his report for The San Francisco Post, Finch’s leads evaporate. Within days, three victims are dead. Does a pattern of five knife wounds provide a clue? Can he unravel the mystery before he — and his fiancée — are caught up in the web of murder?
Five Knives is the prequel thriller in the Will Finch crime series — a novel that opens on the first day of Will Finch’s journalism career. Everything that Finch learns about crime reporting begins with Five Knives.
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*Learn more about D. F. Bailey at http://www.dfbailey.com/