New York Times best-selling author Nancy Grace draws from her own life and career in her debut novel, “The Eleventh Victim,” the first book in a new thriller series. The following is an excerpt.
Chapter 1: Atlanta, GeorgiaThe 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 sometime 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 telephone 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 impatient, 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.”
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, sometimes 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 devastated, 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.
Republished from “The Eleventh Victim” by Nancy Grace with permission. Copyright © 2009 Toto Holdings, LLC. Available Aug. 11, 2009, from Hyperion wherever books are sold. All Rights Reserved.