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A troubled ex-sheriff's detective and a serial killer live on the edge in The Night Stalker.

Time is always the enemy for Jack Carpenter.

His job is finding missing children, and the longer they're missing, the slimmer the odds of finding them.

But this time Carpenter's client is running out of time, too. He's a resident of death row at Florida State Prison in Starke, due to be executed in four days. His 3-year-old grandson has already been missing for three.

That's the kickoff of James Swain's swift new thriller The Night Stalker. It's the second book about Carpenter, following last year's Midnight Rambler. Swain, a Tampa Bay area resident, had a string of bestsellers before that with his series about private eye and gambling expert Tony Valentine.

Carpenter is the former head of Broward County's Missing Persons Unit, now in business for himself, having left the Sheriff's Department on less than cordial terms.

Driven and workaholic, Carpenter is separated (unwillingly) from his wife, subsists mainly on coffee and burgers, lives in a Spartan room over a rowdy seaside bar and is closest to his dog Buster, a cranky but whip-smart Australian shepherd.

That client on death row would be Abb Grimes, sentenced to die for the murders of 18 women. He stalked runaways and the homeless, strangled them and tossed their bodies into Dumpsters, so they would disappear into the county landfill. Abb was caught because a surveillance camera behind a grocery store captured him on video carrying one victim's body.

Abb maintains he doesn't remember committing the crimes, but he has accepted his fate. Or he had, until someone snatched his grandson, Sampson, from the boy's own bed. Somehow, someone in the prison yard slipped a ransom note and a photo of Sampson into Abb's pocket. He can face his own death, but he wants to know his grandchild is safe first.

Abb Grimes may be a monster, but for Carpenter it's all about the child, so he takes the case.

The police are positive the abductor was Abb's son and Sampson's father, Jed Grimes, who is involved in a custody fight with the child's mother and has a troubled history. One of the most positive is a sheriff's detective named Ron Cheeks, who now has Carpenter's old job - and a really bad attitude. Another is an FBI agent who believes Jed fits into his theory of "savage spawn" of serial killers.

Carpenter isn't so sure Jed is responsible for the boy's disappearance. The veteran investigator knows the signs that point to a parent who has abducted, sold or killed a child, and he doesn't see them.

What he does see are some very disturbing signs about who may have taken Sampson - and some encouraging ones about the little boy's resourcefulness.

The Night Stalker runs at breakneck speed as Carpenter barrels through an investigation that involves pedophile chat rooms, drug dealers who take toddlers as collateral and stash them in dog crates, disused suburban septic tanks converted into hideouts and a rising total of murder victims.

Along the way, he detours long enough to search for three other missing kids, one snatched from a principal's office, one from a maternity ward and one from crackhead parents who don't even report her absence.

Swain has worked closely with a real-life specialist in finding missing children, Andrew Vita, to develop the Carpenter books, and that research gives them a sometimes creepy authenticity - like the detail about Milk Duds, a candy often chosen as a lure by those who abduct kids because they're large and chewy, so it's hard for a child to scream for help with a mouthful of them.

Swain's style in the Carpenter books is tighter and grittier than in the Valentine books, a shift that suits the character and the kind of crimes he tackles. Swain also does a fine job of capturing the subtle variations of South Florida's suburban sprawl and the secret places within it.

Carpenter is a tough but engaging hero, and so is Buster. And The Night Stalker is a thriller worthy of the name.

Colette Bancroft can be reached or (727) 893-8435.

The Night Stalker

By James Swain

Ballantine Books, 348 pages, $25

- James Swain will discuss and sign The Night Stalker at 7 p.m. Thursday at Inkwood Books, 216 S Armenia Ave., Tampa. He will sign at 3 p.m. Saturday at Haslam's Book Store, 2025 Central Ave., St. Petersburg.