Because of the rush of excitement, Amanda Rivera felt more like flying than driving as her Honda sedan cruised on El Camino Real South. Exactly twenty minutes earlier, she had read the acceptance e-mail from Stanford. She was jubilant and screamed with joy when she realized that the university had confirmed MST, her requested major. MST covered music, science, and technology. She loved music, and her lifetime goal was to compose music for at least one Hollywood movie. She was also madly in love with technology. It seemed that most teenagers who lived in the San Francisco Bay Area were seriously thinking of starting the next social media venture or next Google. It may have been the water in Silicon Valley or the positive entrepreneurial vibe emanating from Apple headquarters in Cupertino—or a cute boy named Billy.
She was a senior at an all-girls Catholic school in Burlingame. Her father had pulled her out of public school in 2006 after the Pine Middle School shooting in Nevada. He was a brave man, fighting fires for Burlingame City, but not brave enough to deal with the trauma of losing his only child. Although the twenty grand he paid for tuition to the private school was not really affordable, he did not want to take a chance.
Amanda had loved music since she first started learning piano in the San Mateo Cultural Center at the age of eleven. She loved to go to all the music festivals in the San Francisco Bay Area and daydreamed about releasing an album. Her bedroom wall was fully covered with posters of Taylor Swift and Selena Gomez—just like many other teenagers. However, there was one difference. In the middle of the room, she had a poster of herself with the Grammy Award in hand, thanks to her photoshopping skills.
In a Catholic school, no one could escape religion class. It was a boring one for most of the girls, but not for Amanda. She loved the message of compassion and synergy. She also loved the fact that her music teacher, Ms. Ramirez, taught religion class as well. Ms. Ramirez turned boring religion lectures into musicals. Instead of making them memorize Bible verses, she composed rhyming songs by fusing the scripture with music theory. She was the guiding angel for Amanda. Whenever Amanda was down, she was always there for her, encouraging her and cheering her up. She preached “what you think is what you become,” and then gave the photoshop idea to Amanda and asked her to visualize herself every day holding the Grammy Award in her hand. It seemed to be working!
Amanda was grateful to Ms. Ramirez for another reason—proposing a policy to the school board to collaborate with the all-boys Catholic school in Burlingame for their annual theatrical performance. That policy helped Amanda to meet her sweetheart.
Amanda was a junior when she met Billy for the first time in her choir classroom during the rehearsal. They rehearsed along with twenty other students every weekend for a month. As per the original plan, Amanda was going to sing a solo and Billy would play the piano solo. God bless Ms. Ramirez. Just before the live event, she got the wonderful idea of having them do a duet, which was a hit. It also made them fall madly in love with each other. It had been almost nine months since Billy had declared that he could not live without Amanda. However, Amanda felt like she had known him for a very, very long time.
Two weeks earlier, Billy had told Amanda that it was possible that they were Pyramus and Thisbe in ancient times and had been reborn again to continue where they had left off. Amanda laughed nonstop when she heard that the first time.
“How do you come up with this kind of lame idea?”
“This is not lame, you know. It is very possible. I feel a strong connection when I sit next to you.”
“Really? Are all boys like this? This is how you guys trick girls?”
“Oh, Amanda! You think I am tricking you. I sense something powerful. Maybe we were not Pyramus and Thisbe, but there is something!”
Amanda smiled as she remembered Billy’s romantic gesture. She took a sharp left into Hillsdale Mall’s parking lot. It was eleven o’clock on Friday morning. Traffic around the mall was not bad. She drove the car to the parking lot closer to Sears and found a space. Sometimes, getting a parking space was like winning the mega million lottery.
Amanda jumped out of the car, clicked the remote to lock the car, and walked across a small lane to enter Sears. She was still on top of the world; Stanford admission was surreal.
Earlier in the day, she had called Billy as soon as she read the acceptance e-mail. He did not answer. So she left a voice mail. “Hey, Pyramus, call me back ASAP. I have important news!” without revealing the good news; she loved to keep him in suspense.
Billy was a computer geek. He talked about black-hat, white-hat hacking techniques and how he planned to start the next generation antivirus company. He even talked about moving to Russia to do an internship in Kaspersky. Amanda caught the tech bug from Billy. He was the one who had influenced her to apply for music and tech instead of just music. He would be so happy to hear the news.
Inside the store, she related every object she looked at to the college dorm room she imagined. When she passed through the appliance section, she wondered whether Stanford dorm rooms had microwaves. Her mind raced with the questions about the kind of room she would get in the university housing: single or double. She made a mental note to ask the housing people for a double room as she crossed the furniture section.
As she moved up on the escalator, she sent a text message. “Hey, lazy. Call now.” She waited for thirty seconds. Then, she sent another one.
After grabbing a couple of pairs of jeans, lots of tees, and two tall red mugs with Stanford University’s logo, she waited for a long time in the checkout line. It was pretty obvious that the woman at the checkout counter hated her job. No wonder Sears is closing shops. While waiting, she checked her phone every minute to see if there was a reply from Billy. Nothing. What happened to him?
Amanda came out of the store holding paper bags in both hands and walked toward the car. It was noon. The weather was nice although it seemed warmer than usual. The parking lot was sparsely occupied. A few people walked toward the store as she crossed the small lane in front of Sears to enter the open parking lot. She was more excited than she could ever remember and wondered for the tenth time how Billy would react to her Stanford news. She was just a few feet away from her blue Honda Civic when she noticed something odd.
A tall man, about six-foot-six, wearing a dark T-shirt and dark sunglasses stepped in front of her and grabbed her right hand tightly.
Panic set in. She thought someone was trying to steal her bag. Immediately, she shouted, “Help! Thief!”
The man tightened his grip and pulled her into the Lexus SUV parked to his left. Then, he slapped her face and pushed her inside through the back door, which was held open. She lost the grip on her bags and let those fall on the concrete floor next to the muddy wheel of the Lexus.
Her head bumped into the back of the headrest and rested on the backseat. She smelled rotten leather for a second. Then, she quickly bounced back and tried hard to push him away. She screamed from the top of her lungs, “Help! Help! Help!”
As she tried to push the ferocious man away and get out of the vehicle, she spotted an old couple walking behind the Lexus, looking confused. The woman gasped and looked at her husband, who stood speechless. The tall man came toward Amanda with something in his hand. She screamed again, crouched, pushed into his stomach, and emerged from the vehicle. He grabbed her hair with one hand, placed a small towel in her nose, and pushed her into the backseat. The chloroform-soaked towel fully covered her nose now. She saw herself holding a Grammy Award at MetLife stadium in Los Angeles. Then, the stadium went dark.
Patricia Gonzalo clenched her chest as she watched the Lexus SUV speed away from the parking lot. What just happened?
“Oh my lord! Did you see that? Did that man kidnap that girl?” She squinted her eyes and stared at her husband, who held their grandson’s hands tight.
“I don’t know. Call nine-one-one. What is this world coming to?” Mark Gonzalo was visibly shaken.
Five minutes later, at twelve past noon, two young police officers arrived at the scene. One was tall and big with lots of hair and a curly mustache. The other one was about five foot four, with a goatee and eyeglasses.
Patricia had trouble breathing. She could not forgive herself for what she did not do. “I am sorry, Officers. We did not know someone could do this in broad daylight. For a second, we thought these kids were just fighting. We did not know whether we should be involved.”
The officer with a curly mustache said, “Don’t worry, ma’am. No one would have expected a kidnapping here in an open parking lot. Don’t be hard on yourself. We will find the girl. Did you notice the license plate?” He was ready to note down the details.
Patricia sighed. “Gosh…How did we not see that? It was a Lexus SUV, light green, kind of faded green. Old car. It did not occur to me to note the license plate. It all happened so quick!”
The young boy raised his hand and said, “Grandma, I saw the license plate.”
The officer noted down the license plate details as Patricia looked at her grandson with pride.
The officer with the goatee knelt down and examined the paper bags lying on the floor. He looked up and asked, “This is where the SUV was parked, right?”
Patricia came forward and nodded. “Little further to the right.”
The officer pulled the wallet out from the paper bag. He opened it and found the driver’s license. He signaled Patricia to come closer and showed her the picture on the license. “This is the girl you saw, right?”
Patricia nodded sadly. She felt sweat over her entire body and pain in her heart. She glanced at her husband, who sat on the concrete, cross-legged with his hands on his bald head. She adjusted her pink top, placed her hands on her hips, and spoke in a louder voice. “Mark, get up now. This is not the place for you to faint. We need to go and find that girl.”
Mark looked up.
Patricia continued, “I told you a long time ago. We need to get that damn pepper spray.”
Samantha Cruz was busy finishing up her criminology assignment. She was supposed to write a three-page essay about serial killers and their motivations. She got distracted and annoyed when her mother kept switching channels on the television.
“Hey, Mom, just make up your mind and stick to one channel,” chided Samantha.
“Do you think the guy who invented the remote is an idiot? He knew that we can’t watch one channel for five minutes.”
“Mom! I can’t focus with all this noise. I need to finish this damn thing.”
“Watch your language, Samantha,” she said in a stern voice. “Go to your room and study. The living room is meant for TV.”
Just then, both Samantha and her mother looked at the television screen, which flashed “A seventeen-year-old girl was kidnapped from Hillsdale Mall parking lot at noon.” Samantha looked at her mother, who was instantly shaken.
“Oh my god, someone kidnapped her in broad daylight? No one was there to save the girl?”
For the next fifteen minutes, her mother was glued to the screen. Samantha had witnessed the tragedy parents had to go through when she volunteered for the National Center for Missing Children a few years earlier during her junior year in high school. Her heart and mind started racing. She looked at her mother and said, “Whoever kidnapped that girl won’t be able to hide for very long. You know, cops can draw a sketch of the man just by talking to witnesses.”
Her mother stared at the television screen in horror. She said nothing.
Manuel Bracamontes pulled the Lexus into the garage, shut the door, and looked around. The garage was littered with cardboard boxes, chainsaws, and tools. He opened the backdoor of the vehicle and found the girl, who was in a deep sleep. The chloroform was doing its job. He patted his shoulder in pride before carrying the girl inside the house.
A minute later, he stood inside the bedroom, holding her in his arms. He felt like he was holding a Vince Lombardi trophy. He stared at her face for a few seconds. Sleeping beauty.
He looked up and checked the time on the analog clock on the wall. Twenty-two minutes past noon. It would take at least one more hour before the girl would regain consciousness. He gently placed her on the queen-sized bed and adjusted the pillow to properly support her head. He jumped off the bed, stared at her one more time, closed the bedroom door, walked quickly toward the garage, and backed the Lexus into the street.
Three minutes later, he drove the Lexus to the corner of Laurelwood Lane and Sylvan Avenue. Then, he parked the vehicle in the small lane behind a Chinese restaurant and walked toward Laurelwood Park. There, he jumped inside a green Volvo, turned the engine on, and drove toward his house.
Jack Ackerman’s phone rang as he watched his three-year-old daughter, Rebecca, giggling and sliding down the elephant-shaped plastic slide in Laurelwood Park with both hands up. The park had been built in the seventies. It was popular among residents and was always packed during weekends. There were not many people around on Friday morning except for a few parents, who were pushing their children in strollers.
Officer Walker was on the phone. “Lieutenant, there was a kidnapping, seventeen-year-old girl, in Hillsdale parking lot.”
“That’s insane. In broad daylight? From a mall parking lot?”
“Yeah. It happened ten minutes ago. Captain asked me to check with you if you are available.” He quickly added, “It’s OK if you have other plans.”
Ackerman immediately answered, “I will be there soon. I just need to check with my wife about where to drop off my daughter.”
Ackerman sighed as he hung up. It was supposed to be a day off and a long weekend. He looked at Rebecca, who was running from one slide to another before dialing the number.
“Hey, seventeen-year-old was kidnapped in the parking lot in Hillsdale Mall…Yeah, just now. Captain asked me to come in.” He leaned against his Ford and looked around as he listened to his wife. “Sounds good. Thanks for understanding. I will drop Rebecca at your sister’s place and head to the station.”
As he clicked the end button on the phone, he saw a man nervously walking across the street. He kept looking around. For a second, Ackerman thought the man was going to cause some trouble. However, he got into a green Volvo parked closer to the park entrance and drove off without creating a scene, like a good citizen.
Manuel shut the garage door behind himself and walked across the living room to grab two beer bottles from the refrigerator. He wiped the sweat from his forehead and whistled as he made dance movements with the bottles in both hands. Time for a celebration. He slid onto the couch facing the television in the living room, stretched his legs on the Moroccan wool ottoman, and gulped beer as he switched on the television. What a day!
A proud smile formed on his face when he saw the news headlines. He raised the empty beer bottle in his right hand and said loudly, “Breaking news! I am breaking news today, baby!”
It was a thrilling experience, rather an adventure, to kidnap the girl in public view. He watched the news anchor speculating about how the kidnapper might have rehearsed it many times to carry out the act. He smirked and pointed his finger at the news anchor. “Really? Do you guys know I pulled it off just like that?”
He had been awake until four o’clock in the morning chatting in an underground Internet forum. During the nightly chat sessions with like-minded strangers, he was intrigued by a forum thread in which someone, masked by the username “horseman,” wanted handlers to kidnap girls in the Bay Area. Manuel had engaged in a good number of criminal activities in the past. But kidnapping was not one of them.
When he woke up at ten o’clock, the first thing that came to his mind was kidnapping a girl. Why not try that? While sipping a latte in a coffee shop in Hillsdale Mall, a few blocks from his house, he brainstormed a kidnapping strategy.
While walking back home, he saw the uncovered parking lot outside Sears. It was pretty big, but there were not too many cars. On the other side of the road, there was a furniture shop. The parking lot and the furniture shop were separated by El Camino Real, a four-lane road with a big median in the middle. It would be difficult for anyone from the furniture shop to spot someone quickly grabbing a girl.
He had hatched a perfect plan by the time he reached home. He took a quick shower and drove his grandma’s beaten-up Volvo to Laurelwood Park. After parking it near the park entrance, he roamed around the smaller lanes of the park area looking for the perfect vehicle to steal. He found an older model Lexus behind a Chinese restaurant in a small lane. It took him less than five minutes to hotwire the engine and another five minutes to drive it to the mall parking lot.
When he saw Amanda jumping out of her car so full of life, he decided that she was the girl. He had never seen anyone that happy. The girl’s enthusiasm and bright smile mesmerized him. He waited until she entered Sears and took a spot next to her car. Then, he waited.
His plan was simple and lethal. Let the girl walk to the car, surprise her, and grab her before she realized what was going on. He calculated that even if other people saw it, they would not realize what was going on at least for a few minutes. That time would be enough for him to drive through a small street behind Sears and head to his house down Sylvan Avenue.
So far, Manuel’s plan had worked just fine. No one could locate him. No one would have noticed the license plate of the SUV he drove. Even if someone noticed it, the cops would spend hours harassing the poor guy who owned that vehicle.
He planned the getaway and had chosen the route with no traffic cameras. He abandoned the stolen vehicle and switched to his vehicle seamlessly. It was all pretty quick. Now, he could keep the girl in the house for years before anyone found out.
He stopped staring at the beer bottle and looked at the television screen when the news anchor talked about the missing girl and the license plate of the vehicle that was used in the kidnapping. The girl’s picture flashed on the screen. The picture did not do justice to her beauty.
He switched off the television, trashed the empty beer bottles, and entered the bathroom, which was right behind the couch.
The San Mateo Police Department’s situation room was bristling with activity. Captain Sheldon stared through the window at the group of children walking into the Whole Foods store across the street and waited for the train horn from the nearby Caltrain station to subside before addressing the officers standing in front of him.
“We have the girl’s picture. We have the license plate of the vehicle. An Amber Alert has already been issued. A sketch artist is working with the witnesses. Once we have the sketch, we will release it to the press. Unfortunately, the witnesses had only a partial view of the suspect’s face.” He paused for a second and said, “The FBI has been notified. They are on the way.”
He shook his head in disbelief. “What the hell was this asshole thinking? Kidnap a girl in broad daylight with people looking?” He looked at Officer Walker. “Did you get anything from traffic cameras?”
“He didn’t come out of the mall. We have cameras on both sides of El Camino. There was no Lexus SUV coming out of the mall in the last thirty minutes. We are reviewing the tape again.”
“He might have taken roads behind the mall. Do we have any cameras on Thirty-First Avenue?”
“We do. We checked that too and got nothing.”
“OK. He can’t hide unless—”
“If he had a place to hide between the mall and the freeway. There are so many small streets, behind the mall. There are no traffic cameras. He could have planned that route.” Captain Sheldon bunched his right hand into a fist and struck the wooden desk. “I am pissed off, seriously pissed off. Kidnapping at noon in public view? It’s an insult to all of us.”
Manuel came out of the shower wearing a plush bathrobe and abruptly stopped when he heard the television news anchors talking about the abduction. He wiped off his face with the towel and frowned at the television. He remembered switching it off before entering the shower. Something is wrong. He threw the towel on the couch, quickly walked over to the bedroom, and opened the door. The girl was still sleeping.
As he sighed and closed the bedroom door slowly, he felt a sharp pain in his neck and lost his grip on the doorknob. He quickly looked over his left shoulder as he fell on his right on the hardwood floor. A monk with a shaved head, a round face, blue eyes, a sharp nose, and a red monastic robe stood tall.
Manuel’s adrenaline pumped up as he quickly stood up. He scanned to his left, searched for a knife on the dining table, and found none. His hip hurt from the fall.
“Who are you?” he shouted.
The monk stood still and signaled for him to come closer.
Manuel ground his teeth, shook his head, cursed, and lurched forward to beat the monk to death.
The monk quickly moved into action. He grabbed Manuel’s arm and shoulder firmly and pushed his right forearm against Manuel’s neck. Then, the monk pulled Manuel’s body forward and down while bringing his right knee up. The monk’s knee went hard and fast at a horizontal angle. He slammed his right knee first into Manuel’s ribs, then his stomach, and then his head.
When the monk finished his first round of knee strikes, Manuel felt intense pain and blood gushing from his nose, which added a good amount of confusion to the surprising attack. The monk did not stop. He continued to strike Manuel by keeping his firm grip on his right arm and shoulder. After three strikes, in a desperate attempt, Manuel grabbed the monk’s neck and choked him, which made the monk let go of his shoulder.
In a split second, the monk’s right palm moved at forty miles per hour and landed a powerful strike on Manuel’s chin, which caused his bottom middle teeth to separate from the gum.
Then, the monk quickly pulled back his right arm, rotated his left shoulder inward and upward, raised his right arm toward Manuel’s right cheekbone, and drove his legs upward to add power to the punch.
Manuel screamed after losing two more teeth.
The monk pulled back and delivered a straight punch to Manuel’s chest.
Manuel fell on the couch on his butt, closed his eyes, and cried in pain.
Next, the monk pulled rubber gloves, nylon rope, and duct tape from his red-colored mountain backpack and tied Manuel’s hands and legs with the rope before wrapping the duct tape around his mouth. Then, he grabbed the remote lying on the floor and pointed it at the television.
News anchors were seriously debating how long it would take to find the dead body of the girl in a typical kidnapping case. The monk shook his head, clicked his tongue, and switched off the television.
He walked to his right and slowly opened the bedroom door. He scanned the bedroom and the back of the bedroom door quickly to make sure there was no threat. Then, he gently walked toward the girl sleeping on the bed and checked her pulse. The girl is alive, thank God.
He scanned the living room as he closed the bedroom door. To his left was a filthy-looking kitchen with a small dining table and two chairs. On his right was the big living room with the couch in the middle. The house was silent except for the muffled moan coming from the man on the couch.
He quickly walked over to the kitchen and searched for something before spotting the faded blue jeans hanging on the dining chair. He searched the jeans pockets and retrieved a phone and a cigarette lighter. Then, he walked back to the couch, rolled the spark wheel of the lighter, and pointed the flame directly below Manuel’s clean-shaven chin.
He heard Manuel’s scream, loud and clear in spite of duct tape muffling it. He pointed his gun at Manuel. “Do you hear me?”
“Good. I am going to ask you a couple of questions. If you lie, I will kill you right here.” He removed the duct tape from Manuel’s mouth and maintained three feet of distance. He held his gun steady and pointed it at Manuel’s forehead.
“Did you think the cops would never find you?”
“You are a cop?” Manuel did not like his own question.
“I hate people answering questions with a question. Let’s do this again. What is the plan?”
“I don’t know. Why the hell do you care?”
“Have you ever thought about what the parents go through when a girl is taken by assholes like you?” He waved his gun at the bedroom door.
“Oh shit. You are the father?”
“Yes. I am.” He did not show any emotion as he calmly placed the silencer on the mouth of the gun.
“Hey, stop…” Manuel shook his head vigorously and struggled for the words. “I will do whatever you want. Take the girl. OK? It was just supposed to be fun and adventure, man!” He lowered his head after failing to meet the monk’s intense gaze. “How did you find me?” He stared at the nylon rope that kept his wrists together.
“I could have stopped you in Sears. I was following you to see if there are other guys involved. It’s time to end your adventure.”
A second later, the monk pulled the trigger. A bullet went into the center of Manuel’s forehead, took a little tour inside his head, and came out behind the sofa. Bullet casings hit the hardwood floor and created a mild ding.
The monk removed the duct tape and nylon rope and stuffed those in his backpack. Then, he scanned the living room and front door before checking Manuel’s pulse to make sure he was dead.
The monk took a deep breath, cocked his head to the right, and stared at the dead man on the couch. He pulled out the Glock he had shoved inside his robe and shot Manuel one more time between his legs. He paused for a second. Then, he shot him multiple times between his legs, until he emptied the chamber.
Next, he took out a small machine, a portable voice changer, from his backpack. He connected one end of the voice changer to Manuel’s phone, dialed nine-one-one, and started speaking to the operator. After a few minutes of conversation with the clueless young lady on the other side, he placed the phone next to Manuel’s dead body. Then, he calmly walked away and opened the front door before pulling up his hood. He put his head down, turned to his left, and walked toward Sylvan Avenue before climbing into a Honda Odyssey parked in the far corner. Then, he waited to hear police sirens.
Ackerman and Walker looked at each other when they heard the voice emanating from the police radio. “All units respond. We have the location of Amanda Rivera.” Walker listened to the address and sped up without speaking a word.
Ackerman continued to listen to the message coming through the police radio. Someone had called 911 and left a short message after giving the location of the girl. “Bad guy is dead. Justice is done. Send an ambulance. The girl is alive but sedated.”
They reached the house in less than five minutes and saw a few officers at the front gate of the house. Two teenagers from the neighboring house gazed at the officers, who were walking around the house with their guns drawn.
Ackerman walked quickly into the house. He saw the man in the plush bathrobe sitting on the couch; his dead eyes faced the ceiling.
“The guy is dead. He was shot multiple times,” an officer said.
Ackerman did not hear that. He was staring at the writing on the forehead of the dead guy.
“Stay away.” Two words were written using black permanent marker with a bullet hole in between.
Down below the waist, the man’s bathrobe was soaked in blood.
“No shit. That must have caused some serious pain,” Walker said as he pointed at the dead man’s genital area.
Ackerman nodded. “This is an overkill. Personal. Deep. The killer may be related to the girl.” He turned around and scanned the house for signs of the girl.
“The girl is still asleep in the bedroom. She is heavily sedated. An ambulance is on the way,” the officer said.
“No one else in the house?”
“Nope. We searched the entire house.”
“Check the bathrooms. Backyard as well. The killer must be somewhere close by.”
Ackerman stared again at the graffiti on the dead man’s forehead. In less than a week, two people had been killed in San Mateo. The killer had written the same warning on the forehead.
He ran his right hand through his hair as he watched the blood streak on the hardwood floor. The guy on the couch had been dragged from the bedroom to the couch. Did the killer kill him before dragging him?
He watched Walker pulling a wallet out from the jeans hanging on the dining chair.
“His name is, um—was Manuel Bracamontes.” Walker waved the driver’s license.
Ackerman looked closely. “We need to find out everything about this guy. This is similar to the killing in the Delaware apartment on Sunday. There may be a connection between these two murders. The FBI is on their way. Their CARD team should know that there is a killer out there who is doing their job.”