After Hailey Dean's fiance, Will, is murdered weeks before their wedding, the young psychology student copes the only way she knows how: by prosecuting violent crime in court. As she tires of the courtroom, a serial killer begins to stalk Atlanta, targeting young prostitutes. She vows that this will be her last case.
As a way to start over, Hailey moves to New York and becomes a therapist in Nancy Grace's "The Eleventh Victim." Soon after, several of her clients are brutally murdered in a similar style the killer in Atlanta used. Hailey realizes that she must return to her previous life or more people will die.
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1 Atlanta, Georgia
The piercing eruption of a telephone startled Special Prosecutor Hailey Dean, still at her desk late on a Friday night preparing for a Monday-morning trial.
It was probably Fincher, her longtime investigator and some-time bodyguard. Together, they worked felony investigations from inner-city housing projects to this latest, which involved one of North Atlanta's elite country clubs.
"District Attorney's Office, Hailey Dean speaking," she said absently into the receiver.
The silence that greeted Hailey on the other end of the tele-phone line caught her attention.
Realizing what was likely coming next, Hailey quickly reached for a notepad.
"Hello?" she repeated and waited for the recorded announcement that the call was from the prison. After she accepted the call, which she always did, an inmate would come on the line to offer information in exchange for a full dismissal of his own charges or, at the least, a lighter sentence or a transfer to a better facility.
As if a dismissal would ever happen. No way would Hailey go to hell to get witnesses to put a devil in jail ... she said so up front to each and every snitch.
Still, she'd talk, listening carefully, turning their tips into evidence in court—if she believed them. Then it would become necessary, like it or not, to cut some kind of deal.
She had never broken a deal, and so far, her snitches in turn had displayed a certain degree of decency. Not one had ever backed down on the stand, even when things got tense in the courtroom or behind jailhouse bars, where her informants lived day to day with the very defendants against whom they were testifying.
In fact, Hailey often trusted her rats more than her fellow attorneys, whom she routinely fed with a long-handled spoon, keeping them safely at arm's length.
"Hello," she repeated into the phone, wondering if the call got dropped by the prison switchboard. It wouldn't be the first time.
Just as she reached to hang up, she heard a faint, "Miss Hailey?"
An older, Southern woman was on the other end of the line, she realized—a woman who still functioned under the rules left over from the fifties that demanded a respectful "Miss."
"Can I help you, ma'am?" she asked, trying not to sound impa-tient, but she had a lot of work to do before she got out of here. "The DA's office is closed right now..."
"Excuse me for calling so late. This is Mrs. Leola Williams." Williams ... Leola Williams ...
Hailey's mind whirred like a computer trying to place the name. "LaSondra was my first baby girl."
Ah. Connection. Leola Williams as in LaSondra Williams.
Otherwise known as Victim Eleven.
Hailey instinctively started taking notes on the pad, neatly writing "V Eleven" across the top of the page and underlining it. Eleven women across Atlanta, all in their twenties, had been raped, sodomized, and strangled. As the coup de grâce, each woman was stabbed with a deadly, signature four-prong weapon, piercing the lower back, moving upward through the lungs.
LaSondra Williams was the final woman they knew of to die at the hands of a ruthless serial killer who evaded the Atlanta Homicide Division for well over a year, striking with no real pattern, but always the same MO. It had taken a long time for cops to even connect victims One through Seven, mainly because the victims were prostitutes.
Most of the city's residents dismissed the murders as the price streetwalkers paid to make a living. Even as the body count rose, there was little pressure on police to stop the killing and solve the murders.
The corpses of young women slowly piled up, necks mangled and torsos ripped, left in open fields behind strip bars, cocktail lounges, crack holes, and flop houses.
From the get-go, Hailey believed the murder scenes were staged. Once she started comparing notes from each murder, she realized that a "calling card" was left on each victim.
The autopsy reports referred to it simply as "string" found on or around the body—no detail, and no description whatsoever. No wonder nobody connected the dots.
Various rotating doctors had performed the eleven autopsies and, as a result, there was no big picture, no overview, no single go-to doctor at the Medical Examiner's Office with all the answers. When Hailey ran down one of the doctors who performed two of the postmortems, she had to press hard to actually view the effects, that is, every single item found "on or about the body."
But there it was. In separate plastic bags marked with an ME's Office case number, thin but sturdy string. She insisted on seeing the chief medical examiner, known across the jurisdiction as "Jack the Ripper." After a closed-door meeting, he ordered all the effects in each case assembled for Hailey's inspection. Her theory was laid out before her eyes.
Eleven of them were arranged on a sterile metal table there in the morgue.
A bow of twine was always there, sometimes on an ankle, some-times tied around a pinkie or toe. Victim Five was nearly excluded from the series of murder victims when no twine was found on the body. It was only during the routine dissection of the head that the twine was found, shoved up the left nasal cavity.
The twine was forced so deeply into the ear of Victim Seven that blood had trickled down the side of the woman's neck, indicating the bow had been painfully inserted during life while blood still flowed freely.
Hailey had the twine traced and analyzed by the FBI. It was high-end imported baker's twine. Sisson Imports, made in France, sold in tightly wound balls, three hundred inches of pure white linen kitchen twine—preferred by chefs because it neither burned nor frayed during the cooking process.
Each body was found cold, with an unmistakable wound to the delicate flesh of the lower back—four thin, perfectly symmetrical puncture wounds, like a quartet of exactly paralleled, venomous snake bites.
Callous headlines referred to each of the victims not by her name, but by her profession.
She was a hooker, so who really cared?
I cared. I still care.
It was all running through her head rapidly, like a home movie on fast forward. Hailey lit a fire under the Atlanta Police Department to at least attempt to make the women aware they were being stalked, but that was a daunting task. How do you effectively reach an underworld made up of streetwalkers, escorts, junkies chasing johns for a hit of crack, and strippers turning the occasional trick?
Finally, as a last resort and at Hailey's urging, the city's night court took action. Officials began reading a form warning to every woman processed through the city jail when she was booked in and fingerprinted for soliciting prostitution. The same warning, in writing, was then placed in the hand of every hooker at every guilty plea, court date, and trial. The Xeroxed warnings were subsequently found littering the courthouse steps, the ladies' bathrooms, sidewalks, and the bus and trains stations at the courthouse stop. But Hailey insisted that they continue handing them out. Begrudgingly, they were.
"Miss Hailey, I can't hardly bear you all calling her what you called her in the paper. LaSondra, she went to Mt. Zion Baptist real regular. She just got her a new job keeping the books for a man up in Tucker. She didn't walk no streets, Miss Hailey." The pain in Leola's voice cracked through the receiver, and Hailey's chest hurt hearing it.
"I know, Mrs. Williams, I know she was good." She tried her best to keep an impersonal, professional tone. She steeled herself. It was easy to forget that these women, these prostitutes, were once somebody's little girls.
But Hailey knew better than to let emotion get in the way of a case, or let sympathy cloud her decisions on a trial matter. Sentimentality in a courtroom angered judges. Anything but a cool head resulted in adverse rulings from the bench, botched cross-exams, bad trial tactics, and not-guilty verdicts.
Tonight, with a high-profile case looming on Monday's trial calendar, she couldn't afford to get emotionally attached to a voice on the other end of the phone line.
"You've got to make them stop saying those things about her, Miss Hailey. You don't know what it's been like for me, waking up every morning and remembering she ain't comin' home again."
Hailey swallowed hard. "No," she lied softly, "I don't know."
"Promise me you'll make them tell the truth about her. That she didn't walk no streets. Promise?"
Hailey didn't make promises she wasn't sure she could keep.
Instead, she said, "I'll get to work on it right now." Never mind that "now" was 10:30 p.m. on a Friday night, long past time to go home.
"Thank you, Miss Hailey." The woman's voice shook with gratitude as she gave Hailey her phone number. "You call me back, then, when you know more."
"I'll be up all night."
"Oh, no need to do that, Mrs. Leola."
"Miss Hailey," the woman said flatly, "I ain't slept through the night since I found out about my baby girl."
"I ... I'm sorry" was all Hailey could think of to say. That, and I know. I know how you feel...
But she didn't—couldn't—say that. Even after all these years, she never verbally acknowledged that she still suffered the same grief, the same sleepless nights, the same nearly disabling pain. Hanging up the telephone, Hailey spun around in her desk chair, toying with the silver Tiffany pen hanging from a black silken cord around her neck.
She had never been attached to many of her possessions, but the pen was a gift from Katrine Dumont, whose fiancé, Phil Eastwood, had been murdered.
It had been one of Hailey's very first cases. The newly engaged couple—both just twenty-two, with their whole lives ahead of them—stepped out onto the patio of their apartment to sip wine and watch the sun set over Atlanta. They toasted each other and their future and were about to call their families to tell them about their upcoming wedding—but they never got the chance.
Two brand-new parolees with heavy rap sheets ambushed them from behind a thick hedge surrounding the patio. Phil tried to fight back and was immediately gunned down at point-blank range. His fiancée was dragged into the apartment and repeatedly raped and beaten.
To complicate matters, Katrine had been so emotionally devas-tated, so weak and fragile, no way could she take the stand and survive cross-exam. Without an eyewitness to the shooting, Hailey knew a guilty verdict would be nearly impossible.
At the outset, Hailey rejected a lenient plea deal that both the defense and the trial judge, Albert Grimes, tried to push on her. A pushover on the bench, the trial judge had a reputation of always siding with defendants no matter how petty or brutal the crime, and for displaying his Harvard degree in the foyer of his chambers for all to see. After Hailey kicked back the deal Grimes had cooked up with the defense, the judge was in a foul mood at actually having to preside over a case throughout the weeks to come.
It had been especially tough for Hailey personally, dredging up all the old memories of Will's murder. But after a three-week presentation of evidence, the jury convicted. Hailey was exhausted and drained at the end.
Katrine came to see her not long after, still a fragile wisp.
"I'm sorry I couldn't be there to testify at trial," Katrine said, handing her a sky-blue velvet box.
Inside was the pen, etched with the words, for hailey, seeking justice, katrine dumont-eastwood.
They hadn't been married, but Katrine, Hailey learned, had officially taken his name after his death.
"I know it sounds crazy, but in my heart, I'm his wife."
No. It didn't sound crazy at all.
For the next ten years, Hailey wore the pen hanging on a black silk cord around her neck during every jury trial and often in between.
Now, she gazed out the window at bright lights shooting upward at Turner Stadium, slicing the dark sky. The night air hummed with cars flying past on interstate I-75.
Just for the moment, she allowed herself to consider the eleven women, long silenced, dead in their graves.
Hailey had studied the eight-by-ten crime scene photos, hundreds of them, at length, from every possible angle in the weeks leading up to trial, poring over each one to determine any possible probative significance she could use to State's advantage in court.
But tonight they haunted her, not as potential evidence at trial, but as photos of the suffering of real people. Now the media was circling the case like vultures, threatening to pick clean the bones of the women by exploiting them again, this time in sensational news accounts.
The headlights blurred, flying by outside her window. She thought of LaSondra Williams, strangled, her slender neck marred by three long, angry scratch marks and her torso ripped open. If the papers had their way, her name ... and lifestyle ... would make city headlines, maybe further if the Associated Press picked up on the trial from the death-penalty angle.
It's the least you can do, she told herself, leaving her office and heading to the record room to start running rap sheets. By midnight, Hailey's eyes were red and irritated from squinting at the computer screen.
Fingerprints don't lie, and they told Hailey that Leola Wil-liams's first baby girl, just twenty-four, was a crack hooker.
LaSondra worked motels near the strip clubs on Stewart Avenue skirting Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, the seediest piece of highway with the highest crime rate in the entire state. LaSondra was just part of the scenery outside strip bars, motels that rented rooms by the hour, and crack houses doing their business.
And LaSondra hadn't just been arrested. She'd been arrested over a dozen times for soliciting sex for the purpose of prostitution, pleading guilty or no contest under oath every single time.
In addition, her record was dotted with at least a dozen other charges for pandering, minor possession of cocaine, and one conviction for spitting on an officer at the time of arrest. They were all actually petty crimes, none warranting hard time ... maybe an occasional overnight in the city jail, maybe a fine.
Hailey could see how LaSondra's family had never known the truth. And what a series of mug shots. The girl was beautiful, thin, with gorgeous dark hair floating in waves down one side and pinned back on the other. But Hailey spotted telltale facial bruises on one mug shot and a gaunt, hollow-eyed searching stare in others. La Sondra was thin, all right. Cocaine thin.
As Hailey stared at the photos in the bright, overhead lights of the records room, the girl in the picture stared right back. She closed her eyes to block out the image, and another face, a beautiful face with chiseled features and deep blue eyes, appeared before her. Another murder victim.
It happened late on a beautiful, vivid, spring afternoon, three weeks before their wedding. Countless minor details were still etched in Hailey's memory, mundane things that unfolded in the minutes before her life was destroyed.
She remembered hurrying down the marble steps in the universi-ty's Psychology Department and out into the sunlight. She was elated, having just finished the last essay of her final exam for her Masters in Psychology. She'd actually finished a year early. Practically skipping home from campus, she burst through the door, tossing her books and her favorite coral-colored raincoat onto the scratchy plaid sofa.
Her last thought before she turned toward the answering ma-chine, with its blinking red light, was that she'd been wrong about the raincoat. That morning, she'd had the feeling she might need it, heedless of the forecast, but it hadn't rained after all. It was sunny.
The message was from Will's sister.
"Hailey—please call me. As soon as you can."
That was all there was to the message. Just nine strained words, and a click.
Hailey's hands shook as she reached for the receiver, fluttering over the dial like moths batting around a porch light in the dark. Instinctively, she knew.
Will was dead.
For months, it didn't register. Will was murdered. Murdered in a senseless act of what the police called "random violence"—a mugging. Hailey's beloved fiancé had taken five shots, four to the head, one to the back, over his wallet containing thirty-five dollars, credit cards, driver's license, and a picture of her.
The credit cards were thrown to the ground beside his body.
Her world skidded to a halt.
Nothing mattered anymore; the days, weeks, months that followed melted and blurred, one into the other. Hailey wouldn't eat, couldn't sleep, went days without speaking. Then days turned into weeks.
The clocks in her parents' home were removed when the ticking drove her crazy, and the house stood completely quiet. It was as if time stopped along with the clocks. Her wedding dress hung in the closet and no one dared suggest she put it away. She wouldn't pack away his clothes, his letters. Even her notebook of wedding plans sat unmoved at her bedside with the blue pen on top, as if there were more to write.
The fresh-faced girl with the world waiting for her was dead. She died alongside the man she loved on a sunny spring after-noon. Eight months later, the first, thick package in plain wrapping arrived, jammed into the mailbox at the end of the driveway.
It was from the first law school that wrote her back, answering her query with an application. That single envelope started a trickle that swiftly became a torrent, triggering long nights typing essays, researching scholarships, ordering transcripts, lining up references.
Her original plans—to teach college psychology or counsel patients in a quiet carpeted office—were out of the question, no longer even a remote option. The anger, the rage, but most of all the pain, were simply too big to fit into an antiseptic lecture hall or a muted psychologist's office.
One year to the day after Will's murder and with little fanfare, Hailey loaded her belongings—including her wedding dress, delicately folded into a big white box—into her car and left her family standing in the driveway, waving good-bye until they were just a tiny snatch of color in the rearview mirror.
Hailey opened her eyes and saw LaSondra still staring back at her.
Stuffing the photos into the back of the trial folder, she went padding in stocking feet out of the overhead fluorescent glare and into the lamplight of her own office.
There she dialed by heart the number for Christian Brown, managing editor of the Atlanta Telegraph, on his private office phone at his faux–Italian rococo behemoth on West Paces Ferry. His wife had dreamed it up. No children, just lifestyle.
No way would Brown budge on headlines for the sake of one bereaved mother's feelings in South Atlanta, but there was more than one way to skin a cat.
"Christian, Hailey Dean. Problem." Brown knew her well, so they dispensed with polite hellos.
"What's up?" He sounded sleepy.
"Listen, I'm doing you a favor."
She reached down deep ... and lied. She lied for all she was worth and in great detail delivered the news of a lawsuit hatched by a few personal-injury lawyers just that afternoon after arraignments.
"Christian, I hate to call you at home this late and on a weekend, too. But I knew you'd want to know immediately ... they're going up against the paper for twenty mill on libel, the hooker headlines on the murder case."
She made it up as she went along. She broke every cardinal rule of testimony on the stand, her story getting more and more elaborate.
"They're already sweet-talking the victims' families one by one, meeting in their homes and showing up with all the paperwork ready to be signed."
Receiver wedged between shoulder and ear, she pictured the usual clientless hacks roaming the courthouse halls, nursing Styrofoam cups of coffee, belts riding low to make room for girth.
If it were true, the suit against the Telegraph could easily pass the time while they waited for judges to hand out appointed cases to them. An appointed case was a fast three hundred bucks in exchange for a swift, easy, and unprepared guilty plea from inmates. Judges loved clearing their calendars and defense attorneys loved the three hundred dollars.
"But my God, they were hookers!" Christian exploded, as if that would get him out of a lawsuit.
"Yeah, if you can prove it," she followed up, "but imagine a jury when they see eight-by-tens of eleven murdered women, then listen to their families break down in tears on the stand one after the other, including their mothers, Christian. Can you imagine? Plaintiffs will have a field day, even though they normally can't try their way out of a paper bag. It's over, Christian, and it hasn't even started."
She knew Brown's head was spinning as he realized he'd shot his own foot for one day's circulation boost. Hookers in headlines always sold copy. He hadn't bargained on a lawsuit.
"Vultures, all of them, Christian," she went on. "Vultures. You should have heard them. A couple million in a settlement against you makes the good life possible for them. Watch out."
"I'll see what I can do," he told Hailey. Without the least bit of guilt over the huge lie she'd just told, Hailey placed the phone back in the cradle, then imme-diately picked it up again.
Rap sheets in hand, she dialed the number Leola Williams had given her. With a pang of hurt for the loss of Leola's first baby girl and no mention of LaSondra's extensive rap sheet, Hailey promised into the phone that Leola's daughter would not be mistreated by the press. Easier said than done, but she had to try.
"Thank you, Miss Hailey. You see that justice comes to the man who did this. You make sure he pays."
From THE ELEVENTH VICTIM by Nancy Grace. Copyright © 2009 Toto Holdings, LLC. To be published in August 2009 by Hyperion. Available wherever books are sold. All Rights Reserved.