With Lilith, the search for love can be deadly.
Someone is murdering Ohio men who use dating websites. The men are found in their homes, killed by a single gunshot wound to the back of the head.
Such is the work of the serial killer codenamed 'Lilith'. But who is Lilith? Is Lilith a 'she'? A 'he'? Or more than one person?
These are the questions that Alan Grooms must answer. Grooms is a detective in the Ohio Department of Criminal Investigation (ODCI).
Together with his partners, Dave Hennessy and Maribel Flynn, Grooms will enter the anonymous world of Internet dating to set a trap of his own.
This will eventually pit him against a homicidal young couple who kill men for profit, a couple who will kill anyone who stands in their way.
From the depths of sleep, Alan Grooms was first aware of his cell phone ringing. Then he saw the time on the digital clock atop the nightstand: It was 1:37 a.m.
He snatched the glowing phone from its place beside the clock. He sat half-upright in bed, perched awkwardly on one elbow, and said in a hoarse whisper:
Vicki, his wife of twenty-one years, stirred beside him, mumbling. She was still mostly asleep.
“Detective Grooms?” the voice on the other end of the call said. “This is Sergeant Rayburn, of the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Department. We were told to notify you immediately, no matter what the hour, in the event of another ‘Lilith’-related homicide.”
“So she got another one,” Grooms said, at a measured volume.
Although Alan’s work, true, was more often than not a matter of life and death, Vicki had to be up in four hours for her job at the accounting firm. There was no point in rousting her if he could avoid it.
“It sure looks that way,” Sergeant Rayburn said. “This one has all the characteristics.”
The sergeant had said the name ‘Lilith’ with the rising emphasis that is often applied to any makeshift, provisional term that is not universally recognizable.
Lilith, to be sure, was only a temporary name for the individual, or group of individuals, who had recently taken one life in Dayton and another in Columbus. And now Lilith had taken a third life in Cincinnati, if Sergeant Rayburn’s initial information was accurate.
“In Evendale,” Rayburn said, referring to a community near Cincinnati that most people regarded as part of the city. “You’re close by, right?”
“I’m about fifteen miles north of town.”
“The victim’s name is Robert Billings,” Rayburn continued. “I’ll send you a text message with the address and the other details I have. They aren’t much at this point.”
“Thank you,” Alan replied. “Will I see you at the crime scene, Sergeant Rayburn?”
“No. We’ve had a bad night in Over-the-Rhine. Double homicide. But two deputies who work under my supervision will be there. Their names are Lee and Page. They’ll help you with whatever you need.”
“Tell your deputies I’ll be there in about thirty minutes. Forty at the outside. Thank you, sergeant.”
Sergeant Rayburn terminated the call, and Alan Grooms’ mind began churning. He had known that this call would be coming, and likely in the middle of the night, given the way that Lilith worked.
Alan Grooms was a twenty-year veteran of Ohio law enforcement, and a ten-year veteran of the Ohio Department of Criminal Investigation (ODCI). He was a detective first grade. His task now was to take the lead in the interagency investigation of the murders committed by Lilith—to catch her, or him, or them. To stop Lilith from killing any more people as soon as he possibly could.
When Alan slipped out of bed, Vicki awoke. She rolled over, her gray- and copper-colored hair partially obscuring her face. Vicki was forty-five now, and she refused to dye her hair. But she still wore it long, as she had on the day that Alan first met her, twenty-five years ago. Vicki had been a civilian employee in the PX at Fort Benning, Georgia. She had also been a college student on summer break from the University of Georgia, just about to return to school for the fall semester. And Grooms, then an enlisted member of the U.S. Army Military Police Corps, had learned the previous day that he would soon be deploying to Saudi Arabia for Operation Desert Shield.
“Is it Lilith?” Vicki asked. She was as wide awake as Grooms was now.
“Yes. There’s been another one. In Cincinnati. I’ve got to go.”
Alan did not make a habit of burdening his wife and two daughters with the dark minutiae of his work. But he usually kept Vicki generally apprised of what he was working on, so she would not be alarmed in the event that he was called away at some strange hour—which was often the case.
“Do you want me to get up?” she asked. Alan knew that this was a strictly pro forma offer, but he appreciated it, anyway.
“No, you go back to sleep. I’m just going to throw on some clothes and go. I’ll try to get out of here without waking the girls.”
“Okay,” she said wearily. “Be careful.”
“Always,” Alan whispered, as Vicki rolled back over, away from him.
Alan did not need to turn on the light to get dressed. Since this was an emergency call and outside of his normal workday, he did not take the time to don the dress slacks, blazer, white shirt, and tie that he would wear during what corresponded to his “business hours”. Using the small amount of light that filtered through the closed drapes across the room’s main window, Alan located a long-sleeve, pullover shirt and a pair of gabardine pants that he had set out a few days ago for this eventuality. Then he slipped into a pair of ankle-high Red Wing work boots, and knelt in the darkness to lace them up.
Grooms both heard and felt his knees crack as he stood back up again.
He had come into the world in the now distant year of 1967. Grooms was not overly conscious of his age on a day-to-day basis, but he no longer had the immediate limberness that he once did when awakened in the middle of the night.
He was tall and thin, with dark curly hair that was rapidly thinning. Thirty years and a lifetime ago, he had been a high school distance runner of some reputation in the Cincinnati area. Three decades and some nagging knee problems had reduced his running to the occasional two-mile jog. But he still had the lanky build of a lifelong runner.
Grooms plucked his glasses from the nightstand, and then the wallet that contained his badge. Then he slid open the top draw of the nightstand and removed one of his spare service weapons: a holstered .38 special. It wasn't the gun he would want to have in a gunfight, but there would be no gunfights tonight.
Grooms strapped on the shoulder holster as he walked through the darkened house, stepping quietly past the bedrooms of his daughters, Emily and Frances. As this was a farmhouse, there was a side door that opened from the kitchen, and this was the one the family used for routine entries and exits. Grooms’ blue ODCI windbreaker and matching blue cap were hanging on the coat rack beside the door.
Alan stepped out onto the front stoop, squinting against the early March rain. It wasn't a rain, properly speaking, but a sort of mist that carried a chill and fogged up Alan’s glasses. He set off across the pebbles of the side walkway, then through the sallow late winter grass of the front lawn area, and finally onto the gravel driveway.
On the way to his vehicle, Grooms heard his cell phone chime. He pulled the cell phone from his pants pocket and saw the address that Rayburn had promised, as well as some very basic information: Robert Billings, male, Caucasian, age thirty-three.
There was another set of details that Alan could anticipate with reasonable certainty, given the pattern established by the murders committed in Dayton and Columbus: It would be established that Robert Billings had been a single, unattached, socially awkward male. Possibly overweight. It would also be established that Robert Billings had been engaged in online dating—as that was where Lilith seemed to identify and ensnare all of her victims.
Alan drove a white Ford Explorer. He kept a mountable siren in the back, but decided that it wouldn't be necessary. There would be light traffic at this time of night and he would make good time. Most of the local police knew his Explorer, so he wouldn't be delayed if he exceeded the posted speed limit on the highway.
Alan climbed inside the Explorer and started the engine. He nosed the car out onto the rural route where he lived, looking both ways for cars, but also for deer. Just last week, one of his neighbor’s cars had been totaled, and the driver had sustained moderately serious injuries, when a big buck had stepped out into the road from nowhere and there had been no time to stop. This was a common occurrence in the vast semi-rural regions of Ohio.
He turned onto the access road that connected to the interstate. As he had anticipated, there were few cars on the rainy highway at 2:00 a.m. Interstate 75 was mostly long-haul semis at this hour.
He gunned the Explorer’s engine, set the SUV’s cruise control to 72 mph and drove south, into the city.
Tonight, for the first time, he would come face-to-face with the work of the serial killer, or killers, whom the police referred to as Lilith. And the battle against time and the wits of Lilith would begin, with more lives hanging in the balance.