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Turning Point

Jeffery Deaver

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

  Text copyright © 2021 by Gunner Publications LLC

  All rights reserved.

  No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.

  Published by Amazon Original Stories, Seattle

  Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Amazon Original Stories are trademarks of, Inc., or its affiliates.

  eISBN: 9781542021739

  Cover design by Adil Dara


  8:00 p.m., Tuesday, November 11

  Did he have everything he needed?

  He had already checked the contents of his backpack.

  But as he sat hunched over the bag, in the back seat of the car, he checked once more.

  This was Michael’s way.

  The vehicle in which he was riding was a Chevrolet, a sedan, and it was a real, old-fashioned taxi. Michael wouldn’t use Uber or Lyft for something like this. Ditto for his own car, a battered Honda, in faded red, approaching pink.

  He noted the cabbie glancing at him for the third time, taking in what Michael believed to be, with all modesty, a handsome, wrinkle-free face, if a tad jowly. He stared back, and at the fourth glance, the driver’s eyes returned to the road, where they should have been all along. There his gaze remained.

  Michael tugged the stocking cap snugger over his thick blond hair (mostly blond; he’d discovered a few gray strands recently—at thirty-seven, he thought this was unfair, but it could be attributed to recent stress, which he was working hard to eliminate). The month was November and at this latitude in this midwestern clime the evening was chill, so the cap was not suspicious, nor the gloves, though they were thin cloth; leather would have been warmer, but would interfere with his dexterity.

  Absently, he reached down and scratched the itchy spot on his ankle. The cream he’d put on earlier had worn off.

  “Here?” the cabbie asked, stopping at the curb in front of an empty lot. The brakes gave a high-pitched squeal.

  Why was he asking? This was the address he’d been given.

  And so Michael didn’t answer. He leaned forward and looked at the fare on the meter. He dug into the pocket of his black jeans, withdrew some money and counted out $22.75. He put the cash in the pass-through cup in the plexiglass divider. The driver fished it out. As Michael gathered up his backpack and got out, the middle-aged man, white and skinny, with dark circles beneath his eyes, barked an acerbic laugh. “Hey, buddy?”


  “That’s even.”

  Michael tightened his face. Confusion.

  “This’s even fare.” Lifted his fist, which gripped the cash. “You didn’t leave no tip.”

  “‘No’ tip? You mean any tip. Or a tip.” He slammed the door and looked around the deserted spot. The sun was down and this neighborhood was streetlamp-free. Why he’d selected it.

  “The hell?” The cabbie rolled down the window, as Michael pulled his backpack on. “Everybody leaves a tip.”

  Michael replied, “The cab stinks.”

  “What?” The man gaped.

  “I know, that cliché about taxi drivers who don’t shower. I’m not saying you stink but, then again, I’m not sure you don’t.”

  “Jesus. Listen, buddy, I’ve been working since six this morning.” He was speaking in a voice that was both angry and whining. He leaned forward threateningly—as intimidating as one can be, in the window of a dirty Malibu, looking up at the target of your scorn.

  Michael was a big man. He’d been called imposing. Even in prison, people hadn’t bothered him. He stared, as he’d done in the rearview mirror. The driver eased back and began to roll up the window, muttering, “I don’t make that much. I need tips.”

  “Whose fault is that? Get a better job.”

  The driver burned rubber, speeding away, using up gas and losing tire surface. Stupid man.

  Michael walked along the sidewalk in this threadbare part of town. It would be described as blue collar. Fifty feet along the deserted sidewalk he turned left, west, and then strode through the large parking lot, also empty, serving a forest preserve; the expansive place was fragrant with pine and he could hear the snap as leafless branches tapped against one another in the persistent breeze. He began walking quickly along a jogging path and in twenty minutes he broke from the woods.

  Michael surveyed what lay before him: a pleasant residential development. The houses were small, with two or three bedrooms, all one story, in good repair. Michael was living in a dingy and barren temporary apartment across town, in one of those neighborhoods that was changing but not changed. If pine scent wafted through his bedroom window it was from floor cleaner the workers used in the deli across the alley. Mostly he smelled hot grease and garlic.

  Yet ambience didn’t matter. The one-bedroom was a place to sleep, a place to work out of. He was presently unemployed but that didn’t mean he didn’t work.

  Keeping to the forest preserve side of Juniper Lane, under cover of the trees, he began hiking along the road toward his destination.

  Here, too, there were no streetlamps, nothing to dim the tiny, pulsing stars in the huge black expanse overhead.

  A line came to him: it was as if God had fired a shotgun into the dome of night . . .

  Michael had enjoyed only two courses in his time at college. One was creative writing, his preference poetry. The other was human anatomy.

  Across the street were several houses with kids’ toys in the yard. He felt an urge to ring the doorbell and say to the parents, “So, let me get this straight: You advertise to anybody driving by that you’ve got youngsters here? How stupid are you? And across from a come-over-here-sonny forest preserve? You do know there’s a registered sex offender two blocks from here.”

  The latter intelligence was fiction but it would surely have a terrorizing effect until they learned the truth.

  Michael tended to act on such impulses frequently. But not tonight, for obvious reasons.

  Headlights appeared behind him from the end of the street, a car approaching, then slowing as it passed him. The Toyota pulled up into the driveway of 12358 Juniper about fifty feet away. The house was dark green. The lights were presently out. There was an ADT sign in the front lawn but he knew that the account had been terminated by the landlord years ago; the house was presently being rented.

  The woman, in her midthirties, stepped out. Wearing a leather jacket and tight jeans—he loved the leg wear—Sonja Parker gathered her shoulder bag and purse from the back seat. She was blonde and about five feet, six inches tall, with an athletic build. He knew this from earlier observation; you couldn’t see much here in the dimness, even if God had blasted the sky with a scattergun.

  Sonja walked to the neighbor’s house and rang the bell. A figure Michael could not see came to the door. There was a brief conversation and he handed Sonja a package. She nodded her thanks and returned, crossing the driveway and fishing for her door keys.

  By now Michael was directly across from 12358.

  He stopped. He opened the backpack, and—because he couldn’t help himself—he checked everything once more, all the tidily sealed plastic bags. Michael loved Ziplocs.

  Yes, the hammer.

  Yes, the screwdriver.

  Yes, the floral wire, thin, green, and far stronger than you’d expect.

  Yes, the well-honed kitchen knife.

sp; And, yes, the delicate and colorful Russian nesting doll, whose face was not unlike Michael’s at the moment: placid and content and more than a little mysterious.


  10:00 a.m., Wednesday, November 12

  At around nine p.m. last night the woman renting this house became the fourth victim of RDK, the Russian Doll Killer.”

  Facing several dozen spectators and reporters, Detective Ernest Neville was outside the ring of yellow crime-scene tape cordoning off 12358 Juniper Lane. Still cameras buzzed and the video units sucked up pixels silently.

  Neville was forty-one years old, six feet, one inch tall and had never been an ounce over 170 pounds since reaching that weight at the age of sixteen. Striking blue eyes jarred with brown hair, a combination that must have some explanation in quirky ancestry. He couldn’t begin to explain how his forebears had passed such traits down, though Betsy could. Neville’s opinion was that women were born to understand that “genetic stuff,” which was itself, he’d joked, a genetic trait.

  “Her name, Detective?”

  “We’re not releasing the name until we’ve had a chance to contact the next of kin.” With the words, his breath came out as steam. Neville wished he’d worn his gloves.

  “Was there security-camera footage?”

  “We’re not aware of any yet.” He continued with his prepared remarks. “The killer followed the same MO. The victim was bound with floral wire and stabbed to death. She was not sexually assaulted . . . while alive. Just like at the other scenes. Here, too, he left a Russian nesting doll as a calling card.”

  He looked over the crowd. Neville knew it was possible that RDK himself would actually be present. But he didn’t see anyone who was acting particularly suspicious.

  “Following the murder the killer exited the house and stole the victim’s car, which was later found abandoned. There was one witness. A neighbor who saw a man across the street just after the victim arrived home. He could give no description beyond what we already have: a white male, of medium build and height, wearing gloves and a black stocking cap. He carries a dark backpack.”

  A reporter in his midthirties, in a three-quarters-length watch coat, was brandishing a digital recorder Neville’s way. There was no accompanying cameraman, which meant the man likely was from the evaporating world of print journalism. “Detective, the last murder was only two weeks ago. Isn’t it odd for serial killers to commit another crime so soon after the prior one?”

  “It is, yes. But sometimes serial perpetrators accelerate their killing. Often it’s when they’re nearing the end of a cycle and are planning on going to ground.” Neville had learned this fact in consultation with the FBI. Though he was head of the RDK task force of the County Sheriff’s Office, he had no personal knowledge of this aspect—or any other—of serial killers. There’d never been one in Handleman County’s 170-year history—if you discounted Broom Scudder’s shooting spree in 1978, though in that incident the six victims were not of the human variety; Scudder had grown tired of his neighbor’s cows coming to dine and defecate in his cabbage patch.

  A reporter—a man—asked, “Could you describe the postmortem sexual activities?”

  “We’re not releasing that information,” Neville said brusquely. That question was often asked—and the inquirer was invariably male.

  A woman wrapped in a bright-red parka, her hair in an anchorwoman flip, called, “Why the Russian dolls, Detective?”

  A question that had been asked by the press, public, mayor, county supervisors and Neville and his fellow task force members about a thousand times in the past months. Neville had heard a talking head on one of the cable networks say, “Oh, I’m sure RDK felt abandoned and victimized from a young age. Subconsciously, with each murder he opens up yet another doll in an effort to get to the innermost one, which represents him, the child before the abuse began.”

  The task force’s answer to the question was still, “We don’t know at this point.”

  Another man, stamping his feet against the cold, asked, “The doll he left last night, Ernie? Was it empty or were there other dolls inside?”

  Russian nesting dolls could be opened to reveal a smaller doll, which in turn held another and so on. “Like at the other murders this one contained five other dolls.”

  “Any message?”

  “No message.”

  “Have you considered if the killer is Russian?”

  He ignored that one, though the answer, had it been given by his six-year-old daughter, would be: “Duh.”

  “Can you tell us the brand of the doll? Was it the same as the others?”

  “I’m not at liberty to say. That’s all for now.”


  Ching-Hua Manufacturing, Michael Stendhal answered silently. He stood, shivering, at the edge of the crowd, watching Detective Neville fire up the cruiser and ease down Juniper Lane.

  Michael was in a jogging outfit. Last night, after driving the white Toyota from here to a vacant lot on the outskirts of Marshall, he’d taken a bus back to his apartment. This morning, he’d parked his own car in the lot on the far side of the forest preserve and jogged to Juniper, working up a good, authentic sweat. He’d been warm for a while but now the damp chill was seeping in.

  Ching-Hua . . .

  Odd that the Russian nesting doll had been made in China, given that the relationship between those countries had never been particularly rosy.

  Oh, and yes, FYI, it was the same brand that had been left at the other scenes.

  Not at liberty to say . . .

  Now, there was a tasty phrase for you. At. Liberty. To. Say. Archaic. Classic. Very Hamilton. A play that Michael had enjoyed a great deal. He’d pickpocketed a ticket from a scalper (hardly in any position to complain). He recalled upbraiding the couple next to him for whispering during the performance. One of the dramatic duel scenes, no less.

  Really, some people.

  “Excuse me, sir.”

  Michael turned. It was the reporter in the navy watch coat, the one who’d asked the detective about the acceleration of the murders. He had the focused eyes of someone who liked to ask questions.

  “I’m Jared Simms.” He tapped his press badge and lifted his recorder. “What’s your name, please?”


  Simms didn’t seem to know how to process this nonresponsive response. After a pause, he plowed ahead: “I’m trying to find the identity of the victim. Did you know her?”

  Instead of replying, Michael looked around at the crowd; he thought of them as leeches.

  No, sloppy metaphor. Leeches just snacked on the living. These were scavengers, lapping up dark satisfaction that Sonja was dead and they were not.


  Michael looked back. He’d forgotten about the man.

  “Did you know her? I’m trying to find her name.”

  “Didn’t that detective say they didn’t want it released until the next of kin were notified?”

  “They’re probably contacting them now. Probably have already.”

  In a voice as chill as the air Michael said, “But you don’t know if . . . they . . . have . . . already.”

  Simms blinked at the jab. “Well, no.”

  Michael was flexing his thinly gloved hands. The sun was bright but the temperature was midthirties. “I don’t know who she is. I don’t live near here.”

  “You care to comment on the crime?”

  “What’s the point of that?”

  “I’m sorry?” Simms had a narrow face and, though he seemed to be in good shape, wasn’t very insulated against the cold—with either fat or garment. His nose was a charming pink.

  Michael inhaled deeply and exhaled a Game of Thrones dragon torrent of steam. “You want me to comment on the crime?”

  “Yes, sir, what are your thoughts on the murder?” His dark hair was astonishingly thick and combed up in a pompadour like a cartoon character’s. Whatever could be said about the rest of his slim form, his scalp would stay
nice and toasty under that pelt.

  “Okay. I’ll go out on a limb here . . . Wait. Your little box is working?” Michael glanced down at the digital voice recorder.

  Simms verified that it was soaking up decibels. “We’re good. Go ahead.”

  Michael screwed up his face and thought for a moment. “My comment is this: her murder was a bad thing.” A pause. “And I’ve got a corollary. You know what a corollary is?”


  “A proposition that follows from a statement already proven or accepted as a given. My corollary is that all murder is bad. You can attribute that to an unnamed source.”

  Simms sighed out some steam of his own. “Look, mister, I’m just doing my job.”

  “Preying on the sorrow of others to sell newspapers is what you’re just doing.”

  “We’re online.”

  “Oh, you don’t sell ads?” Michael squinted as he looked at the house and the busy crime-scene technicians. “You can also use this quote: ‘The source further stated that it was his opinion that the victim would be better off if she were still alive, rather than dead.’”

  Simms clicked the recorder off. “Jesus.”

  “Don’t give me that exasperation. What the fuck do you think people are going to say when you ask them to comment on a woman’s murder?” Michael’s hands were cold but his heart was hot as a bonfire. “You’re a shabby little man, aren’t you?”

  “What?” Simms whispered.

  “Shabby. Look at those shoes of yours. They make polish, you know. You can’t do anything about the heels—except buy new shoes. Maybe if you could report your way out of a paper bag somebody might pay you real money.”

  The man stared. “Are you crazy?”

  Depends on who’s manning the scale, thought Michael.

  “You have no reason to talk to me that way.”

  Ah, that got to the crux of it. Reporter Simms was one hundred percent right.

  But no reason to talk to him that way was no reason not to.

  “You drink, too, I’ll bet.” Michael glanced at the man’s bare hands. “Not married either. She leave you because of the bottle, the tawdry clothes, the pauper’s salary or bedroom issues? You don’t seem like you’d be a Lothario in the sack.”