Geraldine Hough is a woman who has tried several careers, but finally settles on that of a private eye. At her age, that takes guts, especially when she feels the icy cold steel of a gun pressed against the back of her head.
Geraldine Hough is offered a free week end at a b&b in the snow-covered Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania during skiing season, to keep an eye on a young man. Easy assignment, certainly, then one of the guests is murdered. Gerry comes to believe she knows who killer is, but it takes a ride on a child’s sled in the middle of the night down the side of a mountain to prove her right and for her to apprehend the murderer.
Gerry had not taken her eyes off Chief Yarnelle since he entered the room. He looked tired and his voice was raspy.
“Miss Hough, I wanted to speak to you again this morning.” He was trying, both by his tone and his body language, to appear casual. “I presume no one else knows you’re a p.i.? You’ve told no one else?”
“Douglas Kringer. And he promised to tell no one else.”
The chief nodded. “Good. Well, since the other guests do not know your... role... here, they might be less careful in what they say around you.”
“You mean, have I been snooping?”
“That’s putting it crudely, but yes, snooping.”
“Chief, I got into this business because I’m a born snooper. I’m trying to make a living butting into other people’s affairs. For a fee, you understand.”
“Last evening, I spoke to Sgt. Henry Romanski of the Philadelphia police. We had an interesting conversation.”
“You’re thorough, I must say.”
“I’m paid to be. There’s no fee this time. Unless you think being able to leave here sooner is payment enough.”
“I do require a fee,” she said. “In the form of some answers.”
He stared silently.
She continued: “First of all, have the media been told yet?”
He shook his head. “Like I told you in the dining room, we won’t release that information for a few more hours, around noontime at the earliest.”
“One more thing, Chief. In the dining room a little while ago, you told John Fulmore you were not linking Mrs. Jeffons’ murder to a serial killer. Is that true?”
Chief Isovle leaned back in his chair. “Miss Hough, what I’m going to tell you must not leave this room. If it does, I’ll know it came from you, and I’ll deny I ever told you. Second, I’ll say you are lying, that you made it all up for the sake of getting publicity for yourself and your agency. Finally, I’ll say you interfered with my investigation and use whatever influence I can muster to get your p. i. license in this State revoked. Understood?”
She nodded. She dared not speak for fear her voice would betray the nervousness she was experiencing.
“We do have a serial killer here,” he admitted as he leaned forward, his hands folded in front of him on the desktop. “Not just any serial killer. It’s the one John Fulmore mentioned at breakfast this morning, the one who killed in Florida. The one the media labeled ‘The Hothouse Killer.’ How do we know? My brother is a member of a national special task force trained in identifying and tracking serial killers. He knows serial killing is something of a study for me. He’s kept me informed almost from the moment we found the deceased. I can’t tell you everything, certainly not everything about the m. o., but this much I can say: the killings in Florida stopped a month ago. Certain evidence even I don’t know about indicated the killer was headed north. A team of forensic psychologists has drawn what they believe is a working profile. Killer is young, somewhere between early twenties and probably not older than mid- or late-thirties; moderately educated. There are several other characteristics I can’t go into right now.”
“Of the experts who drew up this profile, the verdict is split almost equally. That’s something that puzzles me. In all I’ve read on the subject, males specialize in serial killing hands down. Of course, there have been multiple murders that have similar m.o.’s in common where the killers have not been caught. For all the experts know, female serial killers may be better skilled at covering their tracks.”
“It doesn’t seem like much of a profile, considering the number of murders that have been committed.”
“Like I said, we do know more. I’m just not going to discuss it now. Some of what we know comes from traits most serial killers seem to have in common. Some of it comes from profiles of the victims. The victims have all been women, the youngest thirty-eight, the oldest fifty-nine.”
“You must know a great deal more about them than their ages.”
“Everything they could find out about the victims was fed into computers. Standard procedure. One way to determine if they have anything in common, anything that would point to a particular person as their killer. They gather every known fact about the victims, such as sex, race, age, occupation. You name it. Even the most particular things, like schools and churches they attended, where they shopped, who their neighbors were twenty years ago. If they can find out anything at all about a victim, it’s fed into the computers.”
“And did they find something in common?”
“Not a thing. Then one day a young woman who was working on it started concentrating on the victims’ families and the families’ activities. Pow! Right off the bat, it jumped out at her. The ones who call themselves detectives should have been ashamed. It was there, staring at them almost from the very beginning. Every woman who was killed had a grown son who was engaged to be married.”
“And the victims objected to their sons getting married. Or at least objected to the particular young women in question.”
“You got it faster than those detectives did. In every case, mother dearest was dead set against the marriage.”
“And ended up just dead. Which now brings us to Mrs. Jeffons. What’s her story?”
“We don’t know yet. We’ve been in contact with the authorities in her home town. We’ve asked for everything they can give us concerning her and her relationship with her family and associates. We can’t show our hand, not right away. Her death is being treated as a homicide, without any suggestion of a serial killing.”
“Then how...? If you don’t know about her family, even whether she had a son or not, how can you...?”
“Because there’s more. In each and every case, the killer left something--a signature, if you want to label it that--to let the police know the murders were related. That’s common among serial killers. Combination of ego; daring the police to track him down; and a cry for help, wanting to be caught.”
Gerry raised her eyebrows.
“I can’t tell you what it is,” he said. “Wish I could, but....” He shrugged.
“I suppose in all the previous killings the sons and their fiancés were brought in for questioning?”
“Everyone. Some more than once.”
“It didn’t help at all. Not one of them came close to being the likely killer.”
“That doesn’t surprise me.”
Yarnelle waited for her to continue.
“It’s my guess the killer is someone who imagines himself as Cupid’s Assistant, smoothing out the path of true love for those kids by eliminating the groom’s mother, who was trying to stop the marriage. Isn’t it possible, Chief, that your killer is neither a son of an interfering mother, nor his fiancee? It could be someone completely unrelated, someone who believes it’s his mission in life to help these young people find happiness, maybe the same happiness that was once denied him? On the other hand, it could be such a son or possibly his fiancee, but he--or she--hasn’t quite gotten around to killing off his own mother?”
“You’re saying... what?”
“Maybe I should just keep my mouth shut. I don’t know enough, only what little you just told me. But isn’t it possible there’s a young man somewhere who is engaged and he or his girlfriend--or both of them working together, for that matter--have been killing off women they think are interfering in their sons’ future happiness. Sooner or later, this son and his fiancee plan to be married, but before they do that, they’ll have to get rid of his old lady?”
The chief nodded, pushed a piece of paper to one side of the desk, then said, “Anything’s possible. We know a lot about this killer, except--”
“Except who he is. Now, I’m not trying to insult your intelligence, Chief, but are you aware that several of the men who are guests here this week end fit into the picture you painted? John Fulmore, Myles Tollivar, and Peter Gileen have mothers who object to the young women their sons want to marry. Even Mr. Truebody, it would seem, has a mother who doesn’t approve of his girlfriend. I don’t know anything about Wilbur. I don’t know anything about Douglas Kringer’s love life. Lenny Duff is already married and from what his wife told me, has a mother who’s very fond of her daughter-in-law.”
“We can’t rule out anyone who was in this house yesterday,” he said. “As you pointed out, the killer may think he or she has been called to help star-crossed lovers. Besides, the profile of the typical serial killer can’t be anything more than that, only a profile. There can always be exceptions. This killer could be anyone at all. That’s why we want to know who’s been where the past few months.”
“You want me to find out who was in Florida recently? This time of year, with the snow deep and the temperature often hovering near or below freezing, a great many people rush off to the sunny south. And with Disney and Epcot....”
“Not just Florida. We want to know who did any kind of traveling lately. Anywhere. If it happened to be in or near Florida, fine, but any kind of travel we can check up on will help. Our killer is intelligent. He might avoid mentioning a particular city. On the other hand, he might deliberately mention it, thinking we’d presume the killer wouldn’t. With today’s air travel, you can jump around from virtually any place in this country to someplace else in a matter of hours. Hell, from the northeast, someone could go to Florida and be back the same day and not be missed by family or employers.”
“People who stay at B and B’s are certainly travelers,” Gerry said. “I understand there are people who make B & B hopping something of a hobby so they can compare places, services, et cetera.”
“I sent the names of everyone staying here this week end to the special task force to track down airline records. It’s a long-shot, but it might pay off.”
“Do you have particular dates I could work on?”
“Pay special attention to the second weeks of October, November, and December.”
“There is one person here who was in Florida until a month ago: Hannah Kringer.”
He nodded. “I know and, frankly, that’s got me worried. I’m very fond of Hannah. And of Doug, too. I’ve known them most of my life. It’s gotta be someone other than Hannah.”
“Why did the media come up with the label, ‘The Hothouse Killer’?”
“The first victim was murdered in the hothouse on her property. She raised prize-winning roses.”
“And Mrs. Jeffons’ first name was Rose,” Gerry thought to herself. Aloud, she said, “But you won’t be able to keep everyone here indefinitely. Sooner or later you’ll have to let us leave, and that would mean the killer could leave, too. He could lie low in the meantime, and you’d never know who it was.”
“Our killer, if the same m.o. is used, might kill again and very soon.”
“Soon? As in...?”
“As in the next twenty-four to thirty-six hours at the most, that’s how soon. Maybe even sooner. The killer killed a total of eight times, and it was always in pairs. One killing, then no later than thirty-six hours later, another, either in the same city or very close by.”
“I should think that might show that the killer had limited time in which to strike, as though he was only free for a couple of days, then couldn’t strike again because... well for any number of reasons. He may have had only occasional windows of opportunity. Sex involved?”
“The experts pretty much believe virtually every serial killing has a sexual overtone. Several of the experts seem to think these dual killings are part of this particular serial killer’s sexual release. Something like multiple orgasms. But in none of the cases were the victims themselves sexually molested.”
“Well, you’ve made it obvious there’s still danger here,” she said. “Now, if you have nothing more with which to scare the hell out of me, I better get a move on.” She stood up. “I’ll have to start asking questions and make myself more obnoxious than usual.” She put her hand on the doorknob. “One more thing: I’d like to be allowed to go into town this morning.”
He was silent for a moment. “Any special reason?”
“Oh, yes, I have a special reason.”
He nodded. “I’ll tell Wilbur when he gets here that it’s o.k. for you to go. But I trust I don’t have to remind you of something.”
She waited for him to continue.
“Be careful. It’s the accepted wisdom that serial killers want to get caught. But at the very same time they also want to go on killing, and anyone who appears to be a threat to them has to be eliminated.”
“Thanks. You’ve just made my week end perfect.”
As she walked away from the office door, the full implication of what the chief had told her began to sink in. According to the killer’s past m.o., there would be a second murder within hours, “Unless,” she said to herself, half aloud, “unless I can stop him. Or her.”