A serial killer murders lottery winners. Nigel wants to be the next Boston Pops conductor. A compulsive gambler, he’s deeply in debt. He’s also madly in love with Vicky, a Pops clarinetist. When he hits the jackpot, he thinks his problems are over, but they’re just beginning. Homicide Detective Frank Renzi is hunting a serial killer who murders lottery winners. Don’t miss the exciting showdown between Renzi and the killer.
“I liked the characters, and the story is thrilling and gripping. The writing is tight and builds to an effective and tense climax.” Julia Hopkinson for Readers’ Favorite
Jackpot is full of suspense, containing plots within plots. The story keeps unraveling and what starts out as a good thing, quickly turns bad. But then again, Susan loves to write about serial killers and does a fine job of it.
“The characters come alive on the pages as Susan Fleet leads us from one murder to the next. I am very familiar with Boston and the Cape, locations in Jackpot. As Susan’s words unfold on the page, my mind develops photographs of the passing scenery.” Sherry Fundin, blogger at Fundinmental
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
Given the problems that some jackpot winners experience, I decided to take it a step further. What if a serial killer was murdering lottery winners?
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
Billy, the serial killer, just grabbed me by the throat one day. He’s a total loser. He’s never been lucky, ever, and he hates people who are. Like lottery winners.
Nigel, the Brit conductor in the running for the Boston Pops conducting job, was inspired, in part, by Andre Previn, the outstanding pianist (classical and jazz) and conductor. As a freelance musician, I played with many of the Boston Pops players and wanted to give readers an insider glimpse into their world.
Frank Renzi, my series protagonist, is the sort of detective I would like to have investigate the murders in MY town, relentless but compassionate with great empathy for the victims.
EXCERPT JACKPOT CHAPTER 1
Tuesday, April 25, 2000 — Chatham, MA
Florence peered out her living room window. What a dismal day. No sun, just sullen gray clouds like yesterday. And no sign of the cable company van. At 9:30 a man from the cable company had called and said they were having problems in her area. As if she didn’t know.
Wavy lines filled the forty-six-inch screen of her new TV set, and static was hissing from the speakers. The man said he’d be here soon to fix it, but that was twenty minutes ago. Where was he? If he didn’t hurry up, she’d miss Regis and Kathie Lee. Poor Kathie Lee. Her husband had a roving eye.
Florence and Chuck had been married forty years, and she was certain he hadn’t so much as looked at another woman until the day he died.
She looked at the lumps of dirty snow on the driveway across the street. Ginny was in Florida and wouldn’t be back until Memorial Day. She sure did miss Ginny. This had been a long lonely winter, terrible storms, the snow piling up in huge drifts. Ever since Chuck died, she had to hire a man to plow her driveway so she could go out for groceries and visit her son.
Her heart skipped a beat as the cable company van stopped in front of the house. Halleluiah! Maybe she’d get to watch Kathie Lee after all. A short chunky man in a blue uniform got out and came up the walk lugging a big metal toolbox. Goodness, why didn’t he wear a jacket? It was chilly today.
She opened the front door, then the storm door. A gust of cold air made her shiver. “Thank goodness you’re here. Regis and Kathie Lee are on at ten and I’d hate to miss them.”
The man glanced at an order form on his clipboard and smiled at her.
“Don’t you worry, Florence. I’ll have it fixed in a jiffy. You don’t mind if I call you Florence, do you? My boss says it’s friendlier. We like to keep our customers happy.”
What a nice young man, thick blond hair, chubby round cheeks. But beads of sweat dotted his forehead. Strange. “Your name is John. It says so on your pocket. Come in. It’s cold out there.”
The man went in the living room, walked past her new recliner and set the toolbox down on the carpet in front of the television set.
“What’s wrong with the cable connection?” she asked.
“Just a little glitch. Don’t worry, I’ll fix it.” He knelt beside his toolbox and gazed up at her.
His blue eyes had an odd look in them, like a cat about to pounce on a bird. Why was he looking at her like that? It made her nervous.
“Could I have a drink of water? My boss sent me out early this morning because of the problems. I already helped three customers and I’m behind schedule.”
Florence hesitated. She wanted to keep an eye on him while he fixed the TV, but she didn’t want to be rude. “Goodness, here I am thinking you’ve got such nice rosy cheeks and you’ve been hard at work all morning. Wait a minute and I’ll get you a glass of water.”
She went in the kitchen and stood at the sink. She didn’t like being alone in the house with a stranger. Gary was worried about her. He said people might try to take advantage of her. Two days ago the ADT man was here, but he couldn’t install the security system until next week. Maybe she should call Gary and tell him a repairman was here. But what good would that do? Her son was miles away in a rehab facility. Her darling boy had come home from the Gulf War with both legs amputated above the knee.
Now Gary was hooked on drugs. Her throat thickened and tears filled her eyes. Half the time when she went to see him he hadn’t even shaved. Overcome with sadness, she bit back a sob. Freckles still dotted Gary’s cheeks, but now his face was gaunt. It seemed like only yesterday that her smiling six-year-old had gazed up at her with his gap-toothed grin after he ate one of her chocolate chip cookies, put his skinny arms around her and said: “You’re the best mom in the whole world!”
With a heavy sigh, she turned on the cold water. Lord knows she couldn’t change what happened to Gary. She’d give the repairman his glass of water and get him out of the house. That odd look in his eyes made her uncomfortable. But she was probably worrying over nothing.
Still, her hand trembled as she filled the glass with water.
Now that the old biddy had left the room he felt better. On his way to the door he’d put on a big smile. The smile was important. Reassuring. Before he rang the bell he’d made sure his name showed on the flap of his pocket. Then he’d delivered his bullshit lines to Florence. She let him in right away, but she’d been watching him like a hawk ever since.
He hated that. His mother watched him too, whenever she could.
He glanced around the room. Florence had money, but she had shitty taste. Her blue pantsuit was hideous. But she’d used her winnings to buy a sleek leather recliner and a big flat-screen TV. He assumed the beat-up sofa with the ugly blue-striped upholstery was headed for the dump.
So was Florence. His lucky winner.
He heard water running in the kitchen and opened his toolbox. Inside were the tools he needed to fix the cable connection. And the other items he brought along for his lucky winners. He took out a yellow plastic bag, spread open the drawstring cord and hid the bag behind the TV.
Footsteps sounded in the hall. His heart thrummed in anticipation. He mopped his sweaty face with his shirtsleeve. His uniform shirt stuck to his back, damp with sweat.
The old biddy came back and handed him a glass of water and gave him a prissy smile, a smile that disappeared when she saw the latex gloves on his hands. He gulped some water, made his eyes go wide with innocence and beamed her a big smile. “I’ve got eczema. My hands bleed sometimes. I wouldn’t want to mess up your carpet.”
“Oh. Well, that’s thoughtful of you. It’s brand new and so is the television set. I wish my husband were here to enjoy it with me. He passed on three years ago.”
“Pretty exciting hitting the jackpot, huh? Lucky you.”
She bit her lip, frowning at him now, a stooped old woman with wispy white hair tinged yellow. Why didn’t she go to the hairdresser? She had plenty of money. He set the empty water glass on the table beside the recliner. “I’m about done, but I need you to help me finish.”
“You do? Why?”
“I need you to unplug the TV and plug it in again when I tell you.”
Her frown deepened. “I don’t know . . . It’s hard for me to bend over. I’ve got arthritis.”
He gazed at her silently. Made his eyes go cold. Do as I say, you old biddy.
The flesh on her cheeks quivered and her shoulders slumped. He loved it when they realized he had the power. She was old and weak. He was young and strong. Alone together in an isolated house. Exquisite. A shiver racked him and he felt himself grow hard.
With a heavy sigh, she went to the electrical outlet on the wall. To steady herself, she held onto the table that held the TV set, got down on her knees and bent over the plug. Intent on her task, she didn’t hear him creep up behind her. Wisps of yellow-white hair curled over the collar of her blouse, and he could smell her perfume, a disgusting lilac scent.
He plunged the plastic bag over her head, pushed her facedown on the floor and yanked the cord tight around her neck. She screamed, but the bag muffled the sound.
She put up a struggle, thrashing violently. It took him by surprise. Before he could react, she rolled onto her back and lashed out at him, flailing her arms blindly. Her forearm slammed against his ear and sent pain shooting through his head.
Enraged, he punched her face. Even through the plastic bag, he felt her nose crunch.
She let out a muffled squawk and thrashed her legs, kicking at him.
How dare she fight him? He couldn’t hold her down! He pulled his toolbox closer, grabbed a heavy wrench and slammed it down on her head.
Her body went still. Moments later blood seeped out of a rip in the plastic bag. Disgusting.
He yanked the drawstring tighter.
Still she fought him, groping at the bag with both hands and moaning.
How dare she fight him! Enraged, he yelled, “Stop fighting me!”
With a mighty heave, he rolled her onto her stomach, pinned her arms behind her back and sat on her. She made grunting sounds and kicked her feet, thump-thump-thump, against the carpet.
Blood soaked the carpet beneath her head. He pulled the cord tighter, trying not to look at the blood. He couldn’t stand the sight of blood. He studied the wavy lines on the TV screen instead, counting the seconds.
Her struggles grew weaker. He pulled the drawstring tighter, savoring the power he had over her, feeling the ache build in his groin.
At last she lay still.
Aglow with triumph, he rose to his feet, unzipped his fly and stroked himself. His breathing grew ragged as the power swelled and intensified. The power and the glory.
He shuddered as the spasm coursed through him. A glorious release.
But there was no time to savor the moment.
He rolled her onto her back. Blood had seeped into the carpet in a widening stain. The sight of it sickened him. But she’d brought it on herself, fighting him, making his head hurt.
From his toolbox he took out the nip bottle of J&B with the red letters and the red cap. His autograph.
In her desperate attempt to breathe, her mouth had sucked a deep hollow in the bag. Just like the others.
He shoved the J&B nip into the hollow.
“I guess you weren’t so lucky after all, right, Florence?”
Now it was time to tidy up.
It took him less than a minute to reset the cable connection. He checked the television screen. The picture was fine, Regis and Kathy Lee joking about something.
Florence was lying face up on the floor with the yellow plastic bag over her head. He folded her arms over her chest and noticed the bracelet on her wrist, tiny oval scarabs in a gold setting.
Beautiful. She’d want him to have it, he was sure.
He undid the clasp, removed the bracelet and shoved it in his pocket.
His eyes swept the room. The water glass!
He put the glass in his toolbox and grabbed his clipboard.
Everything was perfect. He blew Florence a kiss and left.
Tonight he would look for his next lucky winner.
Seated at his desk with a telephone clamped to his ear, Frank Renzi watched a screen-saver airplane swoop across his computer monitor. A low hum purred from a ceiling vent, sending recycled air through his office. The voice on the phone droned on: “. . . no reason to kill her. My kids are devastated.”
Loath to interrupt, he swiveled his chair and studied a brass plaque on the wall. Anything to avoid the ugly crime scene photographs. The plaque cited Detective Franklin Sullivan Renzi for his work with underprivileged children. When he wasn’t hunting killers, he coached a middle-school basketball team in Mattapan. Now, two thick murder books sat on his desk.
A third case file lay open in front of him. Five minutes ago he’d called the victim’s son. He stifled a yawn. It had been a long day but he didn’t feel like going home, didn’t want to deal with more problems there.
He studied a snapshot on his desk, a photo of him with his arms around two boys, his rangy six-foot-one frame dwarfing them. The twins played on the basketball team he coached. Their proud mom had taken the picture and sent him a copy. Dad was AWOL, like a lot of black fathers these days. Too bad he wasn’t coaching them now. That was a lot easier than listening to the grief-stricken son of a dead lottery winner.
“Her necklace is missing.”
Instantly alert, Frank picked up his pen and jotted a note. “You’re sure?”
“Of course I’m sure. It was a birthday gift. She wore it when we went out for dinner. I took her picture.”
“A picture? Great! Can you send it to me?”
George agreed to Fed-Ex the photo, and Frank promised to call if he had any news.
Sickened by the brutal murders, he rubbed his eyes. Ross Dunn, an FBI agent he’d met at Quantico, had asked him to act as liaison on the case. Three murders in Vermont, Connecticut and, most recently, a town west of Boston. Three Caucasian females, the youngest fifty-nine, the oldest sixty-seven. Two were widows, one had never married, all lived alone.
The telling detail: before the murders all three had collected lottery prizes ranging from one million to six million dollars. In each case, cash and credit cards were readily accessible but not stolen. George’s mother was the first. A sixty-three-year-old widow, Lillian Bernard had lived in Vermont. George, her only son, lived in California.
George’s kids missed their grandmother. His daughter Maureen was in college, but she missed her grandmother, too. He clenched his jaw, recalling the final days when he visited his mother, a shadow of her vibrant self, wasted by the cancer that ravaged her. He missed her, missed confiding in her, telling her things he would never reveal to his father. Or his wife.
He left his office and rode the elevator downstairs. The District 4 lobby was noisy: police-radio chatter and the belligerent voice of a man mouthing off at the officer who’d collared him. Later it would be worse. District 4 covered the South End, Back Bay and the Fenway, a wide area with a dozen colleges and 27,000 residents. And after dark the thugs came out to play.
He went outside and lit up, his first cigarette in two weeks. The first drag gave him a head rush. Clouds hung low in the dusky sky. He hunched his shoulders against the chilly wind, listened to horns honking, drivers jockeying for position in rush-hour traffic. In the distance, a siren squawked, the distinctive whoop of an ambulance headed for Boston City Hospital a few blocks away.
He should call Evelyn and tell her he’d be late, but he didn’t feel like it. He didn’t want to go home. His marriage had been on life-support for years, held together by his daughter. Now it was dead, a dry husk with the juice sucked out of it. A pang of regret hit him. Eighteen years ago he couldn’t wait to go home and play with his daughter.
Now when he pulled into his driveway, he felt only dread, the essential question being: How would he get through another night with Evelyn? When he really wanted to be with Gina.
Was she home, he wondered, or still at work? He decided to call her, but when he took out his cell, it began to ring. He punched on. “Renzi.”
“Frank, you home?” The distinctive bass voice of Lieutenant Harrison Flynn, his supervisor.
“No, outside the D-4, getting some fresh air.” I’m in no hurry to go home these days.
“I just got a call from the State Police. We got another dead lottery winner down on Cape Cod.”
“Damn! I just got off the phone with the first victim’s son. Where was this one?”
“Chatham. Postman rang her bell around noon, got no response and called police.”
“Thanks for the heads-up, Hank. I’m on it.”
He flipped the cigarette in the gutter, returned to his office and studied the photographs on his desk. George’s mother sprawled on the floor, her head encased in a yellow plastic bag. The close-up of her face after they removed the bag was heartbreaking: a look of horror, eyes shut tight, her mouth open in a silent scream. He was glad George hadn’t seen it.
First Lillian, then another, and another. Now there were four.
He was no gambler, but he’d bet money the Jackpot Killer was already trolling for his next victim. A palpable feeling of outrage jumped his heart rate.
“You sick bastard,” he muttered. “I’m going to get you.”
For many years, award-winning novelist Susan Fleet worked as a trumpeter in the Boston area. While teaching at Brown University and Berklee College of Music she began writing crime fiction. In 2001 she moved to New Orleans, the setting for her Frank Renzi series. Her award-winning crime thriller Absolution was published in 2008. DIVA arrived in 2011. Natalie’s Revenge (2012) ,the Feathered Quill Book Awards’ Best Mystery of 2014 and Jackpot (2013).
Susan blogs about true crime at DARK DEEDS: Serial killers, stalkers and domestic homicides. Now there are two ebooks. http://darkdeeds.susanfleet.com/dark_deeds_book.html#.UYvV_MqYFaI
Her other passion is promoting talented female musicians. While teaching at Berklee, she created a course about 20th Century women musicians, jazz and classical. Her e-book, Women Who Dared: Trailblazing 20th Century Musicians, spotlights the careers of violinist Maud Powell and trumpeter Edna White. http://susanfleet.com/women_who_dared-vol1.html
Her favorite food? Well, who doesn’t like chocolate? But I ease my chocolate guilt by eating lots of salmon and vegetables. My favorite place to listen to music is in Symphony Hall in Boson for classical. For jazz, it’s a tossup between Scullers in Boston and Snug Harbor in New Orleans. I write at my computer in my office, tho I can revise anywhere. My favorite TV shows are Flashpoint, Nikita.
Have you read this book or others by this author? Tell us in the comments how you liked it!