by Clay Jacobsen


Tuesday, March 16
6:27 PM, Malibu, California

The killer crept along the hallway leading to the only lighted room in the house. He listened for any strange sound that could interrupt his plans, but all he heard was the soft tapping of fingers on a computer keyboard coming from the small office just a few feet before him. Although the intruder had broken into countless places as he worked his way up through the criminal ranks, tonight those talents had not been called upon. It was a lovely spring evening, so all the windows and the patio doors at the back of the house had been open. Tonight’s only challenge would be in keeping with his orders: "It must look like a suicide. We can't afford anyone asking questions!" The words still echoed in his mind. That demand would make the next few minutes even more challenging.

Each time the typing stopped the killer froze, not making a sound. Only when he heard the soft patter of fingers again did he resume his approach. Reaching the end of the hallway, he peered around the door frame. He knew the desk faced the window, and, as he expected, the target had his back toward the doorway. The killer pulled out the unmarked .357 handgun he always had tucked behind his back, then entered the room quietly. Looking over the victim's shoulder, he stopped short as he saw what was on the computer screen. He smiled. Once again, his timing was perfect. If he'd waited any longer . . . well, he didn't want to think about that.

The man at the desk kept his focus on the task before him. He'd just completed writing the last sentence of his E-mail and moved his cursor to the address window at the top of the screen. He began typing in the familiar

The killer stepped into the pool of light cast by the lamp on the desk, and the target saw him for the first time. The man pulled his desk drawer open and lunged for the Taurus semi-automatic pistol he had stashed there. Just as he got a grip on it, the killer's large gloved hand engulfed his own--and the gun. Breaking into a smile, the killer slipped his own weapon behind his back.

"Wait . . . nobody has to know . . . I can explain . . ." the man pleaded. As he babbled, the killer tightened his grip and forced the gun around so that it pointed at the man's face.

"Please . . . just listen for a minute--"

"You don't have a minute," the killer whispered into his ear, enjoying his victim's terror. He brought more pressure against the arm and raised the gun toward the man's head. The victim's face reddened as he struggled to point the gun away, but he couldn't match the strength of the figure before him. As the gun was forced the final few inches toward the victim's mouth, the two men's eyes met. The man in the chair froze in horror as he looked into the eyes before him.

He recognized the face.

He kept his gaze on the killer as he reached for the computer with his free hand. If he could just enter the last character before. . .

The killer pushed the gun inside. His last thought was how bitter the metal tasted. It seemed odd that he would think of a thing like that when--

The blast echoed through the house. The chamber jammed into the back of the killer's hand when it recoiled, tearing a deep gash into his glove and flesh. Cursing, he let loose of the man's hand and the gun as the body jerked then went limp. The room was deathly quiet. The killer savored the moment, smiling-until a beep from the computer caught his attention.

He looked at the screen-paralyzed. "Your mail has been sent."

How could his mail . . . then the killer noticed the dead man's hand resting on the keyboard. He couldn't panic. He had to finish quickly. He had watched the wife leave a few minutes before he made his way around back and jumped over the wall. Still, someone next door could report the gunshot, and he might have a visitor within the next couple of minutes.

The killer pulled out his handkerchief and wrapped it around his left hand before any of his blood could drip to the floor. Then he reached for the computer. It was difficult working the track pad with his gloved hand, but he wasn't about to take the glove off. He quit the American Online application, disconnecting the computer from the service. Then he reached into his back pocket and extracted a three and a half inch computer disk. The victim's computer was a Macintosh Powerbook. The killer was more comfortable with an IBM or one of its clones, but he had spent the previous night on a friend's Macintosh preparing the disk.

He looked at the screen, surprised that a letter was now visible, addressed to David Bernstein. He was in luck, that was the name he'd seen on the e-mail. Now he had the full name and location: a law office in Beverly Hills. He memorized the information, then quit the document.

The computer beeped, asking if he wanted to save the changes before closing. He clicked "no" as he shoved his disk in the floppy drive.

The phone on the desk rang. He ignored it, allowing the answering machine to pick up the call instead. It was one of those models where the outgoing message couldn't be heard in the room, so the killer continued in silence. He copied a document titled 'Good-bye' from his disk onto the computer's hard drive. As he waited, the answering machine beeped, and a woman's voice projected through the speaker.

"Wade, it's Cassie. Josh wanted me to let you know he got out of here a little late, but he's on his way. With traffic, I'm guessing he probably won't get there until after seven. He thought you'd be there . . . I'll try your cell, so if I reach you on it, ignore this message."

The phone call disconnected and a male computer voice droned, "Tuesday, 6:35 PM." The killer removed his disk, then erased the document the man had been working on. In one fluid movement he moved the cursor to the document he'd placed on the hard drive and opened it, then selected "print". He'd noticed a laser printer sitting beside the desk in the corner, a green light steadily glowing from its top. That should add a nice touch.

Before leaving, he grabbed a box of computer disks and the victim's appointment book from the top of the desk. There had been a note made on today's calendar to call a Mr. Mortenson at 555-3764. He thought it best to take that with him.

The killer left the way he had come, through the back door and over the wall, grimacing from his injured hand as he scaled the stone wall. He heard someone knocking on the front door as he landed on the other side. Another job finished just in time. He quietly made his way down the hillside and found his car near the road, tucked behind a tree.

Back in the house, the knocking went unanswered as the lifeless head of the victim lay illuminated by the computer screen:


I've had it. Life just isn't worth it anymore.
For whatever pain this adds to your life, I'm sorry.
You'll find someone better for you. You deserve it.


Chapter 1

6:38 PM Hollywood

Cassie hung up the phone and glanced at the digital clock display in the upper right corner of her computer screen. If she was going to get over to Kathy's house in time for their weekly home fellowship meeting, she'd have to hurry. But something felt wrong. Wade should have been at home. He had called the office and talked to Josh less than two hours ago. Now, with Josh on his way to meet him, Wade should be there. She had tried his cell phone but only got the recording: "The cellular customer you have dialed is unavailable, or has traveled out of the service area."

Cassandra Petterson wasn't what people would call a classic beauty. She was more like the girl-next-door--the very cute girl-next-door type. She had wavy brunette hair that fell down over her shoulders, and an attractive figure that she usually concealed beneath conservative clothing. Her large hazel eyes and infectious smile complemented a personality that was the very opposite of the intensity-and-intimidation combo so often found in Hollywood.

She was the assistant to Josh Abrams, producer of "The John Harold Show," a late-night talk/variety show that was gaining popularity across the country. Recently Harold's ratings had surpassed Letterman's, and the show was now a close second to Leno in the late-night ratings race.

John Harold and Josh had become good friends after co-producing a comedy special for Showtime three years ago. They kept in touch, brainstorming ideas until they came up with their successful late-night format. The "John Harold Show" had the normal in-studio interviews and musical guests that allowed celebrities to push their latest project. But what set the show apart was one unique segment--a hard-hitting feature about an issue facing the nation. All the guests joined in a lively discussion centered around the topic. It was an unlikely combination, but the show had found a niche by adding substance to late-night entertainment--a balance between "The Tonight Show," "Nightline" and "Politically Incorrect."

Cassie had only worked in the entertainment industry a few years. She had intended to become a lawyer, but when her bank account continually slid to double-digit balances, she was forced to leave law school. A roommate who worked in television helped her land a couple of production assistant jobs.

During the pilot for "The John Harold Show" last spring, Josh had been so impressed with her work that when National Studios bought the show, he asked her to be his personal assistant. Now the excitement of the show's success had dulled the ache of not completing her law degree. Cassie found herself enjoying the controlled chaos that surrounded the production office and thinking less and less about becoming a lawyer.

Wade Bennett, the show's director, and the rest of the team were on hiatus for the week, airing reruns while taking a much needed break after a great showing in the February sweeps. It was quiet around the office. Normally they would have just finished up their nightly taping.

Cassie couldn't get the unanswered phone calls off her mind. Oh, well, maybe it'll all make sense tomorrow. She picked up her purse and began to hum "Give Thanks,” one of her favorite worship songs, as she began locking up the office.

She hoped they'd sing the chorus at the fellowship tonight. The thought lightened her mood as she let the unanswered phone calls drift from her mind.

6:45 PM, Burbank

Rick Treadway looked up from his script to the array of video monitors stacked in front of him.

"Ready two with Sam; we're coming to the close," he said.

Allan, the technical director sitting to his right, tensed the finger that was resting atop camera two's button on the switcher. The cameraman zoomed in and checked his focus on

Samantha Steel before framing the shot from the waist up, careful to include the stunning shape that kept Samantha's career on the upswing.

"Cue Sam. Two," Rick said, accented with a snap of his finger, Allan's cue to take the camera on-line.

The harried look on Samantha's face transformed into a brilliant smile the instant before the tally light on her camera flashed red.

"So remember," Sam said as the stage manager pointed to the lens giving her the cue, "all you have to do is call our toll-free number . . ."

"Dissolve to still store, stand by tape and Chyron with credits" Rick continued directions as she spoke.

". . .1-800 555-7887, that's 1-800-555-7887. Our operators are standing by to assist you in getting the home protection that your family deserves."

"Sell it, Sam. We’re almost through," Rick interjected with a laugh over the communication system.

"Thirty seconds to black," yelled Miguel, the associate director beside Rick.

"Dissolve back to two. Roll closing music. Cue Ted in," Rick instructed.

Samantha's co-host entered the shot and stood beside her as she continued, "So join the rest of the families you've seen tonight, who have chosen to be safe and secure within their homes. You'll sleep more peacefully. Call now."

Sam stopped speaking as Ted's name came up on the TelePrompTer in front of her. She smiled and turned her head toward Ted as he picked up the dialogue. "Please make that call today. I'm Ted Wells, for Samantha Steel and the rest of us here at Alert One, good-bye and be safe."

"Roll tape, key Chyron, and roll credits.” As Rick directed, the large color monitor in the center of the wall changed to images of an upscale house with lights coming on and alarms sounding as a would-be burglar ran down the street. The names of the production team scrolled over the footage on screen.

Miguel began counting backward from ten as they neared the end of the show.

"Stand by black," Rick said, then matching Miguel's count, "in three . .two . . one, and fade it out. Whew!"

Rick let the tension drain from his body as he released a deep breath. "That should do it. Nice job, everyone. I think this one is in the can."

He looked up at the digital display above the monitors that registered the time--6:52. Thank God, he thought, no overtime. Right on schedule.

"Great, that's a wrap, everyone," Rick said to his crew listening on headsets, then he pressed the red button that sent his voice over the speakers in the studio. "Sam, Ted, and everyone on the staff and crew, great job. Thanks for all your hard work. Let's hope we sell a lot of these so we'll all be back together making the Alert Two infomercial." Secretly he hoped it would happen quickly. He had been out of work for more than four months, and the money from this job would only put a small dent in his accumulating debt.

Rick Treadway ran a hand through his thick dark hair which, always looked half combed. Even when dressed for work, he kept as comfortable as possible with faded blue jeans and tennis shoes complementing his dress shirt and navy blue sport coat. A graduate of UCLA Film and Television school back in the mid '80s, he had forged a moderately successful career in television while climbing through the ranks of different productions. In the last five years he had been able to make the difficult transition from stage manager to director. Then last October, the daytime talk show he was directing got canceled abruptly . Now it was early spring, that time in Hollywood when the current shows were all fully staffed and it would be several months before the fall shows started production. Rick wasn't thrilled about taking the infomercial job when it came up, but his empty calendar helped make the decision for him.

"Nice job, Rick. We'll be able to get this on the air late tomorrow night as scheduled." Rick looked up as Norm Valentine came around the back bench to shake his hand. Norm was producing the show for Alert One and would be taking the project from here. Rick's work was done.

“It’s been great working with you, Norm," Rick responded. "I'll make sure Miguel gathers up the tapes and brings them to the production office. If I can be of any more help, just give me a call."

"Well, we don't have anything on the boards at the moment, but hopefully soon. We'll have your check mailed to you within a week. Thanks again," Norm said, then turned and stepped out of the room.

Rick turned to Miguel, Allan, and his production assistant, Sharon, "Thanks so much, gang, you make a great team. Hope we'll get the chance to do this again real soon."

"Always a pleasure, Rick”” Miguel said as he closed his script binder. "Do you have anything else coming up?"

"You know me, always something in the works. But the next few weeks are probably going to be pretty quiet," Rick said, grinning. The appearance of not working wasn't good for a freelance director's career.

“Well, the time off should do you some good," Miguel said, reading between the lines. "I'm off to Atlantic City for a few days for that boxing match on HBO. I'll give you a call when I get back."

"Sounds good. Let's get together for some golf. Well, I better head back to the office and get my stuff packed up,” Rick said as he walked out the control room door.

He made one last sweep through the studio, thanking the crew, then decided to go by the dressing rooms to say good-bye to Samantha and Ted as well.

One of the most trying aspects of his job was dealing with the egos of the celebrities he had to work with. Ted Wells wasn't so bad, having worked in a variety of game shows and commercials. Samantha Steel was another story. Everything had been a problem to her: she wanted rewrites on the script, her wardrobe wasn't right, the lighting was too harsh--and several other minor headaches. Still, in spite of it all, Rick found himself attracted to her. Coming from a modeling background, she was now a field reporter covering entertainment stories for a news magazine show on the ABC affiliate in Los Angeles. Like most on air-talents in LA, she was young and beautiful. She always portrayed just the right amount of perkiness when the lights and camera were on her. But the tension she had brought to the set had kept Rick enough off balance that he wasn't sure how to respond to her.

"You guys were terrific!” Rick put on his best smile as he entered the green room, the holding area for the principles of a show.

"Thanks, Rick, it was a lot of fun," responded Ted from the floral sofa.

"I'm just glad it's over. I can't believe my agent got me into this lousy piece of . . ." Samantha graciously decided not to finish the sentence. "It's just that some of the copy was so amateurish."

"Well, at least everything worked out," Rick said, "The producer seemed to like your suggestions." Rick tried to answer diplomatically.

"I'm thrilled." Samantha responded sarcastically, "But I know you had a big part in keeping this show on track."

Rick smiled. He couldn't tell if this was the sincere Samantha after the pressure was off or just a flirting comment to catch him off guard. He made a mental note to give her a call in the next few days to follow up on which way she intended her compliment. "I don't know about that. I was just trying to do my job,” He finally responded.

Samantha grabbed a glass of champagne and held it out for Rick, "Care for a celebration toast?"

He accepted the glass with a smile and raised it in the air. "To a wonderful job by both of you."

The three touched glasses and drank to the toast.

After a few minutes of small talk, Rick turned to go.

"I hope I'll see you soon." Samantha purred, smiling coyly.

"Take care, Rick," added Ted.

Samantha's eyes lingered on him, enjoying the view as he walked away.

7:05 PM, Beverly Hills

The man sat with his feet propped on top of a huge cherry desk and looked out his penthouse office window. The twinkling lights of the Los Angeles basin made a breathtaking view, yet he hardly noticed.

If he leaned back one more inch in his black leather chair, both the chair and his short massive body would be sent sprawling to the floor. He puffed on the Cuban cigar he had pulled from the humidor just moments before, smiling as he imagined how his biggest problem was in the process of expiring. The private extension on his phone lit up as the silence was broken by a ring. He slowly reached over and hit the speakerphone.


"It's done."

"Just like I said?"

"Yeah, and there's more." The killer, talking from his cell phone, sat on the hood of his car near a Union 76 station about 10 minutes from Bennett's ranch house in the Malibu hills. The handkerchief was still wrapped around his left hand, holding back the flow of blood. He winced as he spoke.

"Well, what?" The boss didn't like surprises.

"He'd put it all together and was in the process of spilling the whole can of worms."

"The Lasko interview? " he sat up, grabbing the receiver off the hook and bringing it to his ear.

"Yeah, he was working on a letter about it when I kind of interrupted him." The killer knew he had the man's full attention and didn't intend to offer up any information about the E-mail problem. "Now what's it worth to you?"

"Why don't we add another five grand, as long as you're sure that the file is destroyed.”

"Make it ten, and no one will ever know anything more about Lasko."

"Fine." The man in the office scowled, suddenly irritated. It wasn't the money; that was walking change to him. He just hated being manipulated by anyone. "But there's one more loose end you have to tie up for me. Come by tomorrow afternoon, and I'll explain it to you."

The killer watched as a red mustang pulled up and parked next to his BMW.

"Okay, I'll see you then."

"Rudy, one more thing-did you leave the place clean?"

"You know my work!" he shouted and cut the line. An attractive blonde stepped out of the Mustang and walked toward him. Rudy whistled as he stood to his feet and brushed by her. She didn't even bother to look up at him. On any other night that would have made his blood boil, but tonight it was just as well nobody noticed him. He still had one last job to perform in Beverly Hills, then he'd get a good stiff drink and find somebody to celebrate with. A sheriff's car sped down Las Virgenes Road toward Malibu as he calmly got into his car and drove away in the opposite direction.