by B.K. Stevens
They’d brought him no joy, those first three murders. He’d wondered if he’d get a perverse thrill from taking a human life, if it would make him feel powerful or godlike, perhaps give him some kind of insight. But it hadn’t. It had been unpleasant and hard, and he’d just wanted to get it over with and leave. At this point, he wasn’t even looking forward to killing Margaret.
He’d go through with it, of course. It was the only reason he’d started this whole thing—stopping now would make no sense. And once Margaret was gone, his life would be significantly better. He still looked forward to that.
Charles had never actively thought about killing her, though, until that day at the orthopedic center. He’d been sitting in the large central waiting room with over a dozen other people, and he’d been leafing through one of the newspapers set out to keep patients docile. While he was skimming an article about some serial killer in Oregon, he heard a loud female voice and looked up. The woman, a few feet away, was the same basic physical type as Margaret, a petite blonde with a pale, pinched face. She was talking on her cell phone, frowning.
“Can you take a message, then?” she said in a strident voice—another similarity to Margaret. “Tell him Vanda Domokos called. That’s D-o-m-o-k-o-s. Tell him I can’t meet with him today. I’m flying to Houston in a few hours and won’t be back until Thursday night. I’ll call on Friday morning, set something up for next week.”
What an idiot, Charles thought. She’s sitting in a room full of strangers and announces her name, even spells it out. Then she says she’ll be out of town for three days. Anyone could look her up online in the white pages—wouldn’t have any trouble, since her name’s so unusual—and find her address. If I were a criminal, I could burglarize her house while she’s gone.
Or, he realized, I could kill her when she gets back.
He couldn’t have said why, but he found the idea charming. To test his theory, he took out his phone and looked her up. No trouble finding her, as he’d expected.
His doctor’s assistant called his name then. He put the newspaper down and took one last look at Vanda Domokos—really, quite a striking resemblance to Margaret.
His appointment went quickly. He’d told people at work he’d probably be out all day, so he had some time on his hands. And he hadn’t quite shaken off the idea that had started forming when he saw Vanda Domokos’s address. Half smiling at his own silliness, he typed it into his GPS, drove out there, and parked across the street from her house.
It could work. Quiet street in a Richmond suburb, small house—she might live there alone. Of course, if she had a security system or a dog, that would cause complications. And he’d have to find a discreet place to park. Well, it was all foolishness anyway. He decided to put it out of his mind and go somewhere for a drink.
By the time he got home, Margaret was making dinner. One of her odd, nasty little dinners—fish of some sort, a bowl of either couscous or quinoa, green things. She lifted an eyebrow when she saw him. Maybe she could smell the gin. That seemed unlikely, though, given the stink of the fish.
“How did it go with Dr. Kerwin?” she asked.
“Fine.” It irritated him that she remembered his orthopedist’s name. He’d seen the man only three times. Did she have to keep track of every last detail of his life? “He said I don’t need to go back.”
“Good.” She poured a careful half glass of Chablis for each of them. In all the years he’d known her, Charles had never seen Margaret take a second drink. He’d never seen her finish a dessert. “Then I guess,” she said, “there’s no reason you can’t fix those shelves in the garage this weekend.”
He didn’t bother protesting. He had no intention of fixing the shelves. “What is that stuff? Quinoa? Why did you make so much?”
“Because I’m going to Cleveland tomorrow. That means you’ll need leftovers.”
No, that means I’ll have a real dinner in a restaurant, he thought, and feed that crap to the garbage disposal. “What’s the problem in Cleveland? Sewage system acting up again? Will you have to wear big boots and thick rubber gloves?”
She sighed as she set plates on the breakfast bar and took the chair next to his. “I know you find some aspects of my work distasteful, Charles. But if there’s a problem with one of our buildings, I need to see the problem. I’m not just going to designate someone else to do it. I’m not that kind of CEO.”
I’m not that kind of CEO. He wondered if she’d stood in front of a mirror when she’d practiced that line. “What’s the fish?”
“Tilapia. And for your information, this time it’s got nothing to do with sewage systems. It’s a prospective client, a college adding a wing to its student center. I decided I should be there for our initial presentation.” She paused. “How was your day? Any new clients? Any prospective clients?”
God, she knew how to be sarcastic. “I had a doctor’s appointment, remember? I spent the rest of the day looking after my current clients.”
“Both of them?” She spurted out a laugh, then touched her lips with her napkin. “Sorry, Charles. I couldn’t resist. The fact is, you’re not a bad salesman. You could build your list if you hustled.”
“You’re probably right.” He picked up the remote and turned on the television. They watched the news through the rest of dinner, sitting side by side, not looking at each other, not commenting on the crises reporters described. He barely heard any of it, ate everything on his plate but tasted none of it. He was thinking.
After dinner, they loaded the dishwasher, and Margaret wiped the counter. “I should catch up on e-mail,” she said. “How about you? World of Warcraft, Squad Leader, one of the others?”
“Haven’t decided.” He knew he wouldn’t really play anything tonight. He’d go to the room he called his office and log onto something in case Margaret looked in, but he had a decision to make, planning to do. Vanda Domokos was flying back Thursday night. If he was going to use this opportunity that had fallen into his lap, he had to be ready.
He was amazed Margaret hadn’t divorced him yet. She clearly had no respect for him, no affection. Maybe it suited her idea of herself to be married, and he knew he was good-looking enough to be a presentable escort at the social events she thought she should attend. And she probably wasn’t interested in investing much time or effort in any marriage, had probably decided staying married to him was easier than looking for someone else. If he asked her for a divorce, he was sure she’d agree. But she’d protected her assets with a prenuptial agreement he knew he couldn’t break. So if he divorced her, he’d actually have to work at selling insurance. He’d hate that.
When he’d married Margaret, she’d been merely rich. Then her parents died in a car accident and left her over a million dollars. She’d used it to start her own architectural consulting firm—he still didn’t understand exactly what architectural consulting was, he really should Google it someday—and now she was worth several times that much. He enjoyed living in the house she’d bought and driving the cars she let him have, enjoyed wearing good clothes, enjoyed spending most of his time playing games that gave him constant opportunities to confirm his cleverness. If he didn’t have to put up with her bitchiness, his life could be quite pleasant.
Murdering her had always seemed out of the question, though, because he’d be such an obvious suspect. But if he could make her murder look like the work of a serial killer who specialized in petite blondes returning from the airport, that might work. There would be risks, of course. He’d have to kill at least three other women first to make the serial killer theory convincing, and each time there would be logistical challenges and the possibility of unexpected problems cropping up.
Even so, he thought he could pull it off. Lots of serial killers murdered more than four people before getting caught, and they were stupid or crazy or both. He was smart and perfectly sane. And he wasn’t lazy, no matter what Margaret thought. He knew she worked harder than he did—he’d be the first to admit that—but she’d had an unfair advantage. She’d inherited enough money to buy herself the exact job she preferred. If he’d been able to do that, if his own parents had left him anything worth mentioning, he might work hard too. Selling insurance bored him—many things bored him—but he could work hard on projects that interested him.
This project interested him deeply. He got started that night, making lists of challenges to figure out and mistakes to avoid. He made the lists on yellow pads, not on his computer. He didn’t use his computer for anything. He’d read an article about some mother who’d killed her daughter, something about police tracking down Google searches she’d done and using them as evidence against her. Whenever he needed a computer for this project, he’d use one at a library or another public place.
It bothered him that he’d used his phone to find Vanda Domokos’s address, his GPS to find her house. If the police suspected him for any reason, could they trace those searches? He’d take precautions, just in case. Not that he was terribly worried about the police. He’d chatted with a police detective once, at a charity event Margaret dragged him to. He hadn’t been impressed.
Charles spent the next three days researching Vanda Domokos, doing some quiet snooping in her neighborhood, developing a distinctive profile for his serial killer. He used cash to buy gloves and plastic-coated rope at Target, a ski mask and a heavy flashlight at Walmart. And he checked airline schedules. Probably, he decided, she’d return on the flight arriving at the Richmond airport shortly after eight Thursday evening. At dinner, he took out his cell phone and pretended to discover a text message.
“It’s from a prospective client in Lakeside,” he said. “He can never meet during business hours, wants me to come to his home tonight and go over life insurance options.”
“Fine,” Margaret said, probably figuring he’d go out drinking instead—he did that often enough, and he was pretty sure she knew. She squinted at him. “Is that a new phone?”
“Yeah.” Charles tried to look sheepish. “I did laundry while you were in Cleveland, left my phone in my pants pocket. I had to buy a new GPS too. Old one kept acting up.”
“The revolt of the machines.” She went back to watching the news, undoubtedly pleased by these fresh proofs of his incompetence. Maybe that was the real reason she hadn’t divorced him, because every day brought her new opportunities for feeling superior.
He’d rather enjoyed the planning—it had been like working out a strategy for a game—but he didn’t enjoy the murder itself. He felt tense the whole time. He’d done everything he could to make sure Vanda Domokos didn’t have a security system but couldn’t really know until he broke her kitchen window and crawled in. Then he had to wait in the darkness for her, wait for the right moment to hit her over the head with the flashlight and strangle her with the rope. The strangling took longer than he’d expected—five minutes, at least, checking her pulse repeatedly until he was positive she was dead.
Then he had to do all the serial killer stuff, meaningless details to mislead the police into thinking he had a psychotic fixation. Nothing too weird, nothing messy—he didn’t have the stomach for that, and he didn’t want to risk getting blood on himself. But he needed to establish a connection between the killings and the flights. So he opened her suitcase and dumped its contents on top of her body. He found her cell phone, took a picture of her, and placed the phone next to her head. After all, lots of travelers take pictures. He took a wheel of Brie from her refrigerator, broke off a piece and ate it, left the cheese on the kitchen table, left the refrigerator door open to plant the idea of someone returning from a trip and grabbing a snack. He’d thought about having a drink—he could use one—but couldn’t find any alcohol, not even a bottle of beer. Well, he’d stop at a bar or two on his way home to establish an alibi in case he needed one. But he didn’t think he would.
He left the flashlight and the rope behind, got rid of the ski mask and gloves at a McDonald’s dumpster, then changed his jacket and had a leisurely drink at a bar where the staff knew him well. Now he could relax. He really didn’t think he had anything to worry about.
The next day, he listened to news reports about the murder. No talk about a serial killer yet, of course—that wouldn’t start until next time. He grinned, thinking about how much every man who’d ever dated Vanda Domokos must be sweating right now. The police were probably giving them all a hard time.
Now, he had to find the second petite blonde; he couldn’t expect dumb luck to supply another one. But he was in no hurry. He started stopping at bars after work—second- and third-tier bars, not ones he usually frequented—taking off his wedding ring, looking for suitable candidates, and asking if he could buy them a drink. He chatted with them, introducing himself as Warren Grant, saying he was divorced and had a six-year-old son named Scottie, a golden retriever named Buddy. If the women responded with enthusiastic descriptions of their own kids and dogs, he glanced at his watch when he finished his drink and said he had to go. If not, he moved to stage two.
“I have to pick Scottie up from my ex’s house,” he’d say. “But I’d love to see you again. How about dinner this Saturday—or, if that won’t work, next Saturday?”
The first eleven women said this Saturday would be fine and gave him their phone numbers. He thanked them, kissed them on the cheek, left the bar, and threw their numbers away. Two of them were very attractive, and he felt tempted to call anyway and see how far he’d get—even after all he’d been through with Margaret, he still had a weakness for petite blondes. But no. This was business, and he couldn’t afford distractions or complications. And it amused him to think about all those women waiting for their phones to ring, so sad because Warren Grant never called.
Then Charles bought a strawberry daiquiri for a petite blonde named Cindy, and she said what he’d been hoping to hear: “This Saturday’s no good. I’m flying to Buffalo for my parents’ fortieth anniversary this weekend and won’t be home until Sunday evening. But next Saturday would be great. Here’s my number.”
It didn’t happen. He checked out her address the next day, and she lived in a gated condominium complex with guards on duty around the clock. “Close call for you, Cindy,” he thought, crumpling up her telephone number and throwing it out of his car window. All that work for nothing.
But on the way back to his office, he stopped at a coffee shop he’d never been to before, spotted a petite blonde sitting alone at a table, and decided he might as well offer to buy her a latte. He went through the routine, got satisfactory responses, and asked the question.
“Not this Saturday,” she said. “I’m flying to Omaha for my cousin’s wedding. But next Saturday—I’d love to. I’ll give you my number.”
He checked out her address. It was ideal. And Margaret would be in Raleigh on business that weekend, so he didn’t have to make up an excuse for going out. He made the same cash purchases at different stores, waited in the darkness again, did what he had to do, had two drinks at a favorite bar on the way home. On Sunday, Margaret came back, and they watched the evening news during dinner. Now people were starting to talk about a serial killer.
A persistent young reporter was questioning a police detective named Martinez. “Two single women living in the Richmond area were killed in their homes during the last three weeks,” she said, “both immediately after returning from airplane trips. Both were short and slender, both had blonde hair. Does that suggest a pattern?”
Martinez shook his head. “Two isn’t enough for a pattern. Might be coincidence.”
“Coincidence?” she echoed. “Both women were strangled with rope, right? Both had been hit on the head with a heavy object. Is that coincidence too?”
Martinez shrugged. “Might be.”
The reporter was fuming now. “Then how about this? Vanda Domokos’s brother found her body. He told me the contents of her suitcase had been dumped on her body. He said her cell phone was next to her head, showing a picture somebody must’ve taken of her after she was killed. I also talked to the second victim’s neighbor. She found Ellen Wald’s body, and she mentioned remarkably similar details—suitcase dumped out on the victim, phone showing a picture of the body. Coincidence?”
“Too soon to tell,” Martinez said, but he looked uncomfortable.
“Any other similarities that might be coincidences?” the reporter demanded. “Or might not?”
Martinez hesitated. “A large metal flashlight was found near each victim. Might be the heavy instrument the killer used, might not. And there was cheese on Domokos’s kitchen island with a chunk torn off, a rotisserie chicken on Wald’s counter with a drumstick missing. Plus their refrigerator doors were open. Might be coincidence.”
“Or might not.” The reporter turned to face the camera. “The police will not yet confirm our fears. But it looks like we have a serial killer preying on Richmond women, a killer people are beginning to call The Tourist. Does he lurk at the airport, watch for women who fit his profile, and follow them home to strangle them? Then he pauses to take a picture and eat a snack, as any tourist might. His first two victims have been short, slender blondes. Does that mean the rest of us can rest easy? Or should we all worry about who The Tourist’s next victim might be?”
Margaret switched off the television. “Media hysteria,” she said. “Hype. They’re trying to drive up ratings. Only two murders, only a few details in common, and already they’re talking about a serial killer. They’ve even given him a name. The Tourist? Really? There’s no reason to think he traveled. The women are the ones who traveled. So why call him The Tourist?”
“He might have traveled,” Charles said. He liked the name. The Tourist—concise, understated, quietly ominous. “He might have been on the same flights those women were on. Why would he be at the airport if he wasn’t traveling? Anyway, I’m surprised the police gave out so many details—the flashlights, the food, all that. I thought, with serial killers, the police always hold some information back, so they can spot copycats.”
Margaret laughed—briefly, harshly. “They’re holding information back. Trust me, if they think there’s a chance in hell they’re dealing with a serial killer, there are other similarities between the two murders, and the police are holding them back.”
And of course you know that, Charles thought, since you always know everything. No, Margaret, there are no other similarities. The police are so dumb they announced them all. Now I’ve got to worry about copycats.
Mostly, though, he had to worry about finding a third victim, to clinch the serial killer theory. He didn’t want to scout at bars again, didn’t want to use the same method twice. And this victim should be married. The reporter had remarked that the first two women were single. If the third one was too, Margaret wouldn’t fit the pattern.
He considered trying Facebook. Lots of people reveal travel plans on Facebook, foolish as that is. But he was reluctant to do anything involving computers. Even if he used a public computer, could the police trace Facebook sessions to him? He wasn’t sure. Margaret might know—she had a degree in engineering, as well as one in architecture—but he could hardly ask her.
He took to scouring local newspapers and magazines, looking for possibilities. After three weeks, he found an article about a romance novelist who lived in Bellwood and had launched a new book recently. She said she’d be promoting it at a convention in Boston, also said the trip would give her a chance to see her husband, who had a grant to participate in a yearlong research project at MIT Charles looked up her website. Pictures of the author signing books at the local Barnes & Noble, greeting guests at a launch party, and toasting her success with a cup of tea. Her hair was light sandy brown, not really blonde. But she was short and thin. She’d do. He checked her neighborhood, Googled romance conventions, consulted airline schedules, used cash to buy what he needed.
When the night came, he told Margaret he was going to see a science-fiction movie and asked if she’d like to come. She snorted incredulously. Margaret had no interest in science fiction—no interest in any kind of fiction, for that matter—and no time for movies. He went to the theater, bought a ticket and some popcorn, stayed fifteen minutes, drove to Bellwood, and finished in under an hour. He’d already watched the movie clear through the closing credits—at a different theater, three days ago, when he’d told his employer he had an upset stomach and needed to go home early. So if the police suspected him, he’d be ready to answer questions about plot. But naturally they never suspected him, and he never had to answer any questions.
Now, all the local papers and television stations talked constantly about a serial killer. He and Margaret watched a news report while eating tofu quiche. The same reporter was questioning Detective Martinez again, and again most of his responses were limited to “too soon to tell” and “might be coincidence.” At the end, though, when the reporter asked if he had advice for Richmond women, he looked straight at the camera.
“Nobody should panic,” he said. “We don’t know anything for sure. But it makes sense to be careful. Women traveling by air should be alert when they return. Watch for anything that looks suspicious, and don’t hesitate to call 911. If possible, have someone meet you at the airport or wait for you at your home. And if some pervert out there is haunting our airport, picking out victims, don’t get comfortable. We’re watching for you.”
Yes, Charles thought, I’m sure plenty of cops are putting in overtime at the airport, wearing all sorts of clever disguises, whispering terse messages to each other on their little walkie-talkies or whatever cops use these days. Good luck to them. I haven’t been anywhere near the airport in months, and I don’t intend to go there now. We’ve almost reached the climax.
He should probably make Concerned Husband noises. He shifted position on his stool to face Margaret. “Maybe you should scale back your travel plans. After all, you fly so often, and this guy seems to pick his victims at the airport. Maybe you should travel by train or—”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said. “I won’t let some stupid serial killer affect what I do. If there is a serial killer. This whole business doesn’t ring true to me. I bet there’s something else going on.”
Smart, Charles had to admit, but not smart enough. And too self-confident, too sure she can outthink everyone else—that’s her fatal flaw. She flew to Albany that week, and he let it pass; she flew to Charlotte the next week, and he did nothing. Her self-confidence was working against her. Propping it up made sense.
Then, one night at dinner, Margaret announced she’d be flying to New Orleans on Wednesday, to attend a conference for architectural consultants. Charles had been doing his homework. He was ready.
“Then maybe I’ll go to a conference too,” he said. “I’ve been reading about it—it’s a gaming conference, in Baltimore. They’ll have an immersive Escape Room set up. I’ve never tried one of those.”
Margaret speared a forkful of kale. “Of course it’s a gaming conference,” she said, “not an insurance conference. Not anything related to your job. But at least you’ll have some contact with actual people, instead of staring at screens all day long. I’ll fly back Saturday night. You?”
“I’ll drive to Baltimore Friday afternoon,” he said, “come back Sunday.”
Those were almost the last words they spoke to each other. He made the usual cash purchases, drove to Baltimore on Friday, checked in at the registration desk. He attended many events and panels but stayed in the background, never speaking up, making no acquaintances. Some people would have vague memories of seeing him there, but nobody would notice when he drifted away Saturday afternoon—he was just another nerd with a name tag. He drove to Richmond, broke a window in the guest bedroom, and killed Margaret. He’d toyed with the idea of waiting for her to regain consciousness after he hit her with the flashlight, of taking off his ski mask at the last moment, of letting her see who was strangling her. But he decided that was a melodramatic and possibly dangerous flourish. He carried things out sensibly and drove back to Baltimore.
On Sunday, he attended more events and panels, and this time he did make comments and ask questions. If people noticed him now, fine. After the last panel ended, he drove home, saw Margaret’s body in the dining room, and called 911.
No tears, he’d decided. He might not be able to make those convincing. He’d simply act numb. That should be easy. He did feel numb, with relief it was over. For a while, he’d thought about killing one more woman. If Margaret was the last of The Tourist’s victims, that might focus attention on him. But he’d decided the risks outweighed any possible benefits, since the police might start watching him now. So this ended it.
He talked to uniformed officers while people swarmed in the dining room, doing technical things. Then Detective Martinez showed up, with a woman who looked very young. As it happened, she was a petite blonde. Given the circumstances, Charles found that ironic.
“This is Detective Doherty,” Martinez said. “She got her badge last week—this is her first case as a full-fledged detective. We’re sorry about your loss, Mr. Crawford, but we have to ask some questions so we can catch the person who did this. Let’s start by going over what you did this weekend, what your wife did.”
Charles had expected this. He gave them full details, at one point taking out his phone to check the gaming convention schedule.
“Great-looking phone,” Martinez observed. “That’s the new model, right? Came out a few months ago?”
Charles shrugged, tried to blush. “Yeah, I left my old phone in my pocket while doing laundry, had to get a new one.”
“Too bad. But I hear those phones are fantastic. Now, remind me of when you arrived in Baltimore.”
They went over everything again. Charles wasn’t worried. This was what cops always did. Martinez asked questions about Margaret, too—her habits, friends, professional and social associations. But he didn’t say one word about the other murders. Good sign.
Finally, Martinez snapped his notebook shut. “Thanks for your cooperation, Mr. Crawford. I’m sure you’re exhausted. And you must have relatives to call, arrangements to make. When we know more, we’ll be in touch.”
“Thank you.” Solemnly, Charles shook his hand. This dimwit didn’t even suspect him of killing Margaret, let alone the others. He was in the clear.
Martinez and Doherty walked out to their car. “I already called that hotel in Baltimore,” Martinez said as he opened the driver’s door. “It’s got security cameras all over the parking garage. We’ll check Saturday’s tapes, watch for Crawford’s car leaving in the afternoon and coming back late.”
“So you think Crawford’s The Tourist?” Doherty said. “You think he murdered his wife?”
“No way he’s The Tourist,” Martinez said. “He’s a copycat. But he murdered his wife, yeah. We’ll get him for that, easy. She was rich, no kids, he’ll probably inherit everything. And his fancy new phone—you think it’s coincidence he drowned his old one? That’s where she found the kiddy porn, or the sexting messages from his girlfriend, or whatever made her start talking divorce and made him decide he’d better kill her before she changed her will.”
Doherty took a moment to absorb that. “What makes you so sure he’s not The Tourist?”
“Because the first three victims all belonged to Alcoholics Anonymous,” Martinez said. “That’s the real link connecting them, the link we never shared with the media. This idea The Tourist picks victims at the airport—that’s stupid. What does he do, trail them to the parking garage, hope they’re parked somewhere near him, hope he can find his own car in time to follow them home? And how did he know all those women would be alone in their houses? He couldn’t learn that at the airport.”
“You think he learned it at A.A. meetings?”
“Absolutely. I checked. The three victims went to different meetings—there are dozens of meetings, every week, all over the area. All the victims talked about travel-related worries at one meeting or another. ‘I’m under so much pressure at my job—I’m afraid I’ll be tempted to drink when I fly to our Houston branch.’ ‘Everybody will be toasting at my cousin’s wedding—it’ll be hard not to join in.’ ‘I’ll have only a few days with my husband in Boston, and then I’ll have to return to an empty house again. It’s going to be depressing—it might make me want a drink.’”
Doherty frowned. “And you think The Tourist was at all these A.A. meetings, and the things these women said made him kill them? Why?”
“For some twisted reason,” Martinez said. “Serial killers are always twisted. Not like Charles Crawford. He killed his wife for money, nothing else. He’s one cold bastard. So the tapes from that garage will give us reasonable grounds for arrest, and then we’ll scrounge around for more evidence. It’s not hard to find, once you know where to look. Meanwhile, we’ve got people watching at every A.A. meeting around. Sooner or later, The Tourist’s gonna surface.”
“Unless Charles Crawford really is The Tourist,” Doherty said slowly. “You called him cold—I felt that too. Maybe he murdered the other women so we’d think his wife was the victim of a serial killer. Maybe it’s a coincidence the first three belonged to A.A.”
He smiled at her tolerantly. “You learn one fact pretty quick on this job, Doherty,” he said. “There’s no such thing as coincidence.”
Copyright © 2019. The Tourist by B.K. Stevens