He slips through the unlocked window. Creeps down the hall. A shadow standing in the bedroom doorway. Will you wake when death comes ripping?
A string of brutal home invasion murders terrifies Dade County, Florida. The killer strikes in the dead of the night, savages innocent people in their beds, wipes out entire families.
He attacks at random. Rich. Poor. Young. Old. No one is safe.
When the city sleeps, he comes alive. Stalks the night. Walks among us.
The investigation is hopeless. There's little physical evidence to work with, and the killer's chaotic behavior makes him as unpredictable as he is dangerous.
What drives someone to such violence? And how can anyone make sense of such brutality?
The task force leading the investigation needs a profiler, and there's only one man for the job.
Loshak. Special Agent Victor Loshak.
The 53 year-old likes his Dunkin' Donuts coffee shaken, not stirred. And now, for the first time, he's on his own.
But how far will this case push him?
In recent years, Loshak has slowed down some. He relies on more wit than grit these days, often playing a mentor role to his partner, Violet Darger. Until now, she always had more than enough grit for both of them.
But Darger isn't around this time, and a killer this aggressive will push Loshak to his limits.
Yeah, he'll need to find that grit again... or die trying.
This pulse-pounding thriller will have you holding your breath until the final page. Fans of John Sandford, Karin Slaughter, Michael Connelly, and Lisa Gardner should check out the Victor Loshak series.
Release date: September 20, 2018
Publisher: Smarmy Press
Print pages: 288
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Beyond Good & Evil
Coffee lurched against the inside of the Go Gators mug as Stan Murphy shuffled through his front door. He hesitated there, eased the door shut behind him, and stepped onto his screened-in front porch, one eye locked on the scalding liquid sloshing around.
In the near-darkness of the early morning, the coffee was a solid black that slopped and rolled like a mini sea in an invisible hurricane, but none of the waves made it over the flood walls. They never did. He might not be moving as fast as he did when he was a young buck, but even at eighty-one years old, he had compensation like a damn gyroscope.
A breath of cool morning air caused Stan’s skin to pucker all down his arms and back. Weatherman on Channel 7 said it was going to be a hot one today — 96 and muggy as a sweaty crotch — but in this hour before dawn, the humid breeze put a chill in his bones.
Well, it couldn’t be helped. Stan groaned as he lowered himself onto the swing, legs and back creaking, but still not spilling a drop of coffee. Cold breeze or not, if he didn’t get out there first thing in the morning, there wouldn’t be anybody to protect his lawn from those putrid little shits down the block. Riding their bikes across it, dragging their heels through it, tearing up all that lovely green sod like fucking heathens when there was a perfectly good sidewalk right there! Bullshit was what it was. Parents not beating their kids enough, letting the little thugs terrorize the whole neighborhood. By God, if he’d pulled that kind of crap when he was their age, you’d better believe there would’ve been consequences. None of this namby-pamby Jimmy or Jenny or whoever didn’t mean to, Mr. Murphy, surely it isn’t that big of a deal, Mr. Murphy, they’re just kids, Mr. Murphy.
Stan took a sip of his coffee, the hot, bitter liquid fighting off a measure of the chill. Vandalism, that was what it was. Didn’t matter how old they were.
He gave the porch swing an easy push with the toes of his house shoes and let the sway carry off the familiar rant. He’d made it outside before anybody else woke up. He had his cordless phone in the pocket of his bathrobe, ready to call the cops on any little miscreant who took a notion today.
Stan leaned his back against the wooden slats of the porch swing and drank his coffee as gray leeched into the blue-black sky overhead. Soon the pole lights all down the block would wink out, and another fiery orange Florida sunrise would vanquish the gauzy gray shroud.
Wouldn’t be long now, folks would start stirring around. Getting ready for work and school. Stan craned his neck toward the gray two-story a few houses down, the home of the most frequent offenders. The Nicholsons. Tom and Margie were good people. She brought him meals sometimes, and Tom always stopped to ask him how the Gators were doing, but they didn’t know shit about raising kids. Into all that sensitive New-age baloney, and it showed — their yard was a disaster area. Bike tracks across the grass, ugly brown grooves, and one time he’d seen their youngest digging a hole in it with a damned spoon.
Looking at the Nicholson lawn now in the early morning light, something seemed more offensive than usual.
Not just ugly. Wrong.
Gray rectangles lay strewn across the grass.
Were they frames? Stan set his coffee on the porch railing and pushed himself to his feet, his joints protesting. It looked like all the screens had been ripped out of their windows and thrown around. From this far away, he couldn’t tell whether the edges were bent or tore-up, but he couldn’t imagine a guy like Tom doing late night construction.
Stan shuffled out the porch’s screen door and down his steps onto the walk to get a better view.
From that angle, he could see the Nicholson’s door was open. Not wide. Just a touch. Something about that thin strip of black between the door and the jamb made him uneasy. It was almost suggestive, like parted lips.
The sound was more an exhalation of air as it left his throat, an admission of uncertainty. Something was wrong. The door should be open wide or shut all the way, not in between.
He fumbled to pull the cordless from his pocket. In the gray light, he could just barely read the number for Tom’s cell phone on the back. He had Tom’s and Margie’s. Just in case, Margie said when she wrote them down for him. Meaning, Just in case you slip and break your hip, old man. Not, Just in case our door’s hanging open a little ways, and you don’t know what to do, old man.
But that door. It wasn’t right.
Stan punched in Tom’s number and lifted the phone to his ear, listening to the ring. When Tom answered, Stan would say, “Sorry to wake you up, but did you know your front door’s open for God and everybody to look inside?” Something casual like that. And Tom would yawn and say something along the lines of, “Oh, one of the kids probably left it open.”
The ringing stopped. Stan opened his mouth to say the predetermined lines.
“You have reached the voice mailbox of [Tom Nicholson]. Please leave a message after the beep.”
No reason to get bent out of shape, Stan told himself. Tom probably kept his phone in the kitchen while he slept. Yeah, he’d probably been on his way to pick it up, tripping over toys and junk, and just didn’t make it before the answering machine picked up. He would give Tom a second to get to his phone, then call back.
Stan hung up and started down the sidewalk almost absently, trying not to think about the sweat moistening his armpits and prickling in the crack of his ass. When he made it to the Nicholson’s mailbox, he hit Redial.
After a couple buzzing rings from the earpiece, Stan’s hearing aide picked up something else. A shrill, brassy music, almost painful in the otherwise relative silence of the street.
It was coming from inside the house.
His skin broke out in goose bumps, and a shiver ran down his stooped spine.
“You have reached the voice mailbox of—”
Stan hung up and stared at the slit of blackness between the door and the jamb. Earlier he’d thought the opening was small, just cracked a little. Now that void seemed to take up his entire field of vision.
He twisted the cordless in his hands. Someone should’ve answered. With all that racket going on, there was no way Tom and Margie and their kids wouldn’t have heard it.
So, what? Should he call the cops? Stan swallowed hard, forcing the spit down past the dry lump in his throat. Yeah, call the cops was exactly what he would do.
But his worn house slippers started walking up the steps to their door. The weathered wood planks bent under his soles, moaning a little. His heart stuttered against the inside of his chest as he pushed the door the rest of the way open.
It swung away from him without a sound, a gray rhombus of light leaning in around him and illuminating the house’s innards. A hall table under a mirror. A carpeted staircase.
He stepped inside, but his foot landed wrong. The floor sort of squished and turned, twisting his ankle as it pitched him off.
Stan gasped and cried out. Watched the floor rushing up to clobber him.
His gnarled hands flew out in front just in time, the heels of his palms slamming against the corner of a stair, shooting bright jags of pain up his arms and into his back. Jolting. Stabbing. But his wrists miraculously didn’t snap.
His phone thudded over the carpet, then clattered onto the hardwood. It rocked back and forth on its rounded back, slowly going still. And the silence of the place thrust itself at him again. Hollow and ominous.
Red lights bounced around the hall in a weird flickery dance. All Stan could think of were twirling police lights, but they weren’t right. He knew they weren’t right.
As he pushed himself back upright, he followed the lights back to their source — a tiny child’s shoe with lights in the sole.
He wiped a hand across his mouth, suddenly ashamed of yelling. Just a damn shoe. It’d been left in the middle of the hall, and along he’d come and tripped over it like some bumbling old fart.
“Tom?” He grimaced at the weak, frightened sound of his voice. Like some kind of newborn kitten. He cleared his throat and tried again.
Silence answered him.
Stan wiped a shaky hand across the whiskers on his upper lip, brushing away a sheen of sweat. It was warm inside, the house holding onto yesterday’s heat for dear life.
Slowly, his twisted ankle throbbing, Stan padded through the living room and into the kitchen. A pinprick of blue light blinked at him from the counter. Tom’s phone.
Stan edged past, toward the hallway. He’d been over for Thanksgiving last year. Knew the bathroom was down that way, just before you got to the master bedroom.
“Hello?” he hollered down the dark hall.
He sidled into the darkness, eyes locked on the bedroom door at the end of the hall. Light poked out around the edges, gray with a touch of orange. Seeing it made him feel inexplicably better, like he’d been wandering through a dark forest and stumbled upon a welcoming campfire. He picked up the pace.
His hand settled on the door, trembling and grizzled-looking in the gray-orange light. Old. Weak. His pulse accelerated again, pounding in his throat as he turned the knob and pushed.
“Tom, your front door’s standing wide open—”
The door stopped short with a soft thud.
Stan poked his head through the crack to see what was blocking the door.
That gray-orange light streamed down through the skylights, illuminating the whole bedroom in predawn color.
A body lay in the door’s path, a thinning head of hair resting against the bottom, stopping it from opening all the way. It took several seconds before Stan realized it was Tom. Facedown. Arms folded under his chest awkwardly. The carpet around him dark and soggy with blood.
Eyes wide, mouth opening and shutting convulsively, Stan raised his head to the bed as if to ask Margie what happened.
She lay sprawled across a wet, red comforter, naked, her legs open wide. Smears covered Margie’s body where bloody hands had touched her. Groped her.
Sightless eyes bulged in her skull, bulbous and full of fright. And beneath that, her lips were pulled back in a frozen snarl, tongue lolling out of one side.
Her head canted at an odd angle, neck extended and bent too far back. Purple rings lined her throat. Dark, angry-looking stripes against the pale skin.
A sudden heat pounded in Stan’s temples, embarrassed for her, for seeing her like this. Then a wave of cold chased it from his body: The kids.
All thought fled, taking with it the aches and pains of age, as Stan dashed down the hall, back through the kitchen and living room to the staircase. His old joints creaked and cracked as he sprinted up the steps. He’d never been up there before, too hard on his knees, so he wasn’t sure which room the kids slept in, but he went on anyway, hell-bent on finding them.
Finding them alive, by God. Alive. The word was the only coherent thing he could cling to.
The first door on his left had princess stickers stuck to the jamb. He wrenched it open.
The little girl slumped in the corner, her pastel green pajamas marred by a streak of red stretching down from a gaping hole in her neck, a wound so deep and dark that he couldn’t even see the bottom of it. Flaps of ragged flesh hung along its sides. Torn.
The blood was everywhere. All over the carpet, spattered down the side of the toybox, the walls, on the sheets. Then he realized the boy was down there, half sticking out from beneath the bunk bed as if he’d tried to crawl under and hide.
Tom Junior. The name came to Stan in a flash, and he realized the boy had died face-down, just like his father.
A strangled sob made Stan jump, and he took an instinctive step backward, eyes darting from the girl — wasn’t it Jenny? — to the boy, searching for signs of life.
But no, they were gone. Dead. The sound had been him. Tears coursed down Stan’s cheeks, the awful sounds accompanying them. It felt like the sobs were being torn up from the bottom of his stomach.
He wasn’t sure how he made it down the stairs, but he knew he was outside when the oppressive heat of that house gave way and cold, wet air surrounded him. He stumbled over the curb, across the asphalt.
Green grass filled his vision. His perfect lawn.
He hunched over, hands on his knees, and vomited coffee all over the sod.
Victor Loshak crossed the parking lot toward the academy classrooms, his briefcase swinging lightly at his side, a cup of coffee he’d snagged from McDonald's in the opposite hand. Steam curled from the open hole and disappeared into the chilly fall day. He hadn’t taken a drink yet, but he knew what he’d find on that first sip. Watered-down. Weak. Hot water with coffee flavoring. Still, it beat gas station coffee. No matter what “blend” each cannister claimed to be, whatever you got always tasted like the chemicals they used to clean the machines every night.
An overcast day like today demanded the comfort of a hot brew in the hand, burning the taste buds and sliding down into the gut, and the McDonald’s on Russel had been the only handy drive-thru on his way to class.
Overhead, the sky was gunsmoke gray broken up by wisps of slightly darker stuff the shade of concrete, and threatening showers.
The thought of cold rain made him crave the scalding brown liquid, so he took a drink. No surprises there. The stuff was offensive in its inoffensiveness. The best thing that could be said about it was that it would probably stay hot for another twenty minutes before it cooled to lukewarm territory and he’d have to gulp what was left. That would get him through the first couple slides of his lecture at least.
Loshak took another sip as he stepped up onto the sidewalk.
In his breast pocket, his phone began to vibrate. An irrational part of him hoped it would be Darger, but when he slipped the smartphone out of his jacket, he didn’t recognize the number. He swiped the answer icon.
“Hello, Agent. This is Jevon Spinks. Crime reporter out of Miami. I’d like to talk to you about a series of murders taking place down this way. ”
The word reporter triggered warning bells. Loshak noted, half-amused, that he stood up straighter, made himself seem bigger as if to assert his dominance. He could even feel his brows come together in a grim line.
“I haven’t heard anything about these murders, so I can’t comment,” he said. Short, clipped. His no-dicking-around voice as his partner would’ve said. Probably former partner, soon.
He was already lowering the phone from his ear, his thumb approaching the red icon to disconnect when the reporter shouted, “Wait, I’m not digging for a quote!” as if he could see Loshak trying to hang up.
Spinks rushed on without taking a breath, “This guy massacred a whole family in their beds last night — mom, dad, two kids. One of the victims was a six-year-old girl. The killer cut her throat so deeply that he chipped his knife on her vertebra. And the Nicholson family is just the latest in this string. I’ve linked a total of three home invasion murders across the Dade-Broward-Palm Beach jurisdictions to this killer. The cops here are chasing their tails. Tripping all over each other. Nobody knows what anybody else knows, nobody’s talking to anybody—”
“Have you tried reaching out to the local FBI field office?” Loshak nodded to a pair of cadets passing by on their way to his lecture. “They can form up a task force and start getting the communication process between the departments streamlined.”
On the other end of the line, Spinks chuckled. “I did contact them, and I had a lot of fun playing runaround for about eight seconds. Then it started to get old. That’s why I called you. I’ve seen you in the papers, and I read your book on profiling by crime scene a few years back.”
A drop of wetness landed on Loshak’s eyelid. He blinked instinctively and headed for the shelter of the building before the sprinkles turned into a downpour.
“Then you know I mainly work serial killers, not home invasions gone wrong,” he told the reporter. “I don’t want to sound cold, but those are alarmingly common.”
“What about serial home invasions that result in a murder or murders?” Spinks didn’t leave enough of a pause for Loshak to respond. Like any good reporter, he pushed on, full steam ahead to the meat of his argument before he could be interrupted. “Ten days ago, a young woman was found dead in her home, throat slashed. Lacey Monroe. Pinecrest PD thought it was the ex-boyfriend; she took out a restraining order against him a month ago. Place was robbed, but they’re going with the assumption that he took the stuff to make it look like a robbery.”
“Staging the scene, yeah. Wouldn’t be the first time a killer thought he was being clever that way,” Loshak interjected when the reporter took a breath.
“No, it wouldn’t,” Spinks agreed. “Except the family I mentioned? He strangled the wife and stabbed the husband and son so many times the coroner couldn’t get a clean count. He put the official number of stab wounds at somewhere between forty and fifty. But the daughter’s throat wound, that was in exactly the same style as Lacey Monroe’s. And the Nicholsons were robbed, too.”
Another agent on her way out held the door for Loshak. He raised his coffee to her, waving a finger in thanks. She smiled.
“And that makes you think this is a serial case,” Loshak said as he stepped into the lobby, which was really more of a glorified wide spot in the hall.
A bank of elevators stood on one wall, and a stained gray couch of indeterminate material sat against the other, next to a fake plant. He knew it was fake because its leaves had failed the thumbnail test — he hadn’t been able to cut it with his nail the first time he was alone with it.
“That and the fact that there was a third attack six months ago.” The reporter sounded like he was really getting into this now, Peter Parker on a hot lead. “An older lady, Isabella Rodriguez, sixty-four. Raped, robbed, throat torn wide open just like the Nicholson girl and Lacey Monroe.”
“Right, but you seem to think these incidents were all carried out by the same perpetrator, and I’m not seeing a connection.” Loshak’s voice almost echoed in the stone and glass lobby. He dropped it to a more reasonable volume. “Do you know how many rapists cut their victim’s throats? It’s not rare.”
Spinks didn’t reply right away. Loshak couldn’t decide whether it was the guy’s natural storytelling instinct to play up the drama of the moment, but he doubted he had convinced the reporter to drop this. You never could talk these types out of it when they believed they had something no one else had thought of.
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