The first blast takes out an actor from a string of famous coffee commercials. A plain cardboard box in the mail blows when he opens it. Pumps hot nails through his face.
So begins the series of mail bombs that beckons FBI profiler Violet Darger to New York.
The bomber's plan is meticulous -- an ever growing spectacle of gruesome violence meant to spread his cryptic message piece by piece. And the clock is ticking.
Starting at midnight tonight, a bomb will go off roughly every eight hours, and a target will be neutralized.
The bomber has left chunks of his journal throughout the city. These not only articulate his twisted message, they contain clues about the bombs.
Clues for names. Clues for places.
Everything law enforcement needs to locate and disarm one of the bombs is there... if they can find it in time.
It's a race against the clock.
Understanding the bomber's psychology could be the key to deciphering the codes and riddles, the key to saving lives.
Darger faces a threat on a scale unlike anything she's encountered so far. If she doesn't solve the clues in time, thousands will die.
Let the countdown begin.
The novels in the Violet Darger series can be read as stand-alones. Scroll up and grab it now.
Praise for the Violet Darger series:
"The Violet Darger books are honestly the best detective novels I've ever read." -- Devin
"Wow, just wow! If you like scare-you-half-to-death mystery books this is the one for you. It starts with a bang and just doesn't stop." -- Ada Lavin
"Un-put-downable! I cannot wait for this series to grow. If you love Sandford, Slaughter, Kava, Stelljes and Deaver, you'll LOVE Vargus & McBain!" -- Melody M
"Vargus and McBain have, in Violet Darger, created a character that absolutely stands up with some of the greats -- Phillip Marlowe, Dave Robicheaux, Elvis Cole, Charlie Parker, August Dupin, Jack Reacher, Harry Bosch, etc." -- Lucinda E. Snyder
"If you liked Silence of the Lambs, you'll love Dead End Girl... At the same time, there's so much attention to detail and organic storytelling that this could easily compete with any of Stephen King's longer works. I found myself completely invested in every character, from the authorities to the killer to the victims themselves." -- eden Hudson
"This book reminds me of some of my favorite books in the crime thriller genre - Dark Places by Gillian Flynn, The Collector by John Fowles, the Mr. Mercedes trilogy by Stephen King, and of course Silence of the Lambs. It's not a glimpse...it's a good long look inside the mind of a killer. It's fast paced, it's scary, and it's satisfying." -- Rain
"I devour each installment in this series the instant it is available." -- Shelley R. Klouzal
Release date: October 8, 2021
Publisher: Smarmy Press
Print pages: 369
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Countdown to Midnight
Gavin Passmore waded through a cluster of decorative grass, a place where the foliage had overgrown the stone foot path in the yard. Blades of green brushed at the calves of his jeans. He’d have to get Daniel to give the landscaping a fresh manicure, get the shaggy stuff looking clean and prickly again.
Wait. Daniel? Or was the gardener’s name David? Shit. He couldn’t remember just now. Distracted.
He adjusted the phone against his ear and trudged up the hill toward the house. His eyes glided skyward from the ornamental grass to take in the mansion before him — his mansion — though he wasn’t really seeing it fully, the details remaining distant. His throat was dry. Palms clammy. Heart thudding in his chest.
He reached the brick facade of the house and stopped in his tracks. Then he spoke into the phone, interrupting the drone of his agent trying to ditch the call.
“No, Jerry. I don’t want you to call me back. I want an answer now, OK? Right now. I’ll wait on the line. I want to know. This is… this is everything.”
The producer would be calling any time now to let the agent know. The answer impending — his life, his career, hanging in the balance.
Gavin’s agent clicked off the line to take the call.
He swallowed. Told himself he hadn’t sounded desperate with the “this is everything” bit. That little waver in his voice at the end of his speech? Passion. That was all.
God. If he got this part… Cold bolts of adrenaline shot down his arms and snaked through his hands at the thought. Made his chest suck in a big shaky breath and hold it.
If they could settle on the contract terms, this part would make his career. It’d be what Fight Club had been to Brad Pitt, what Taxi Driver and Raging Bull had been to De Niro, what Han Solo and Indiana Jones were to Harrison Ford. No more talk about a sitcom reunion, no more underwear modeling on the side, no more villain roles in bullshit Lifetime romcoms, no more fucking coffee commercials. He’d be the megastar he always thought he would be. Should be.
He’d earned some money in his career. Enough to support his lifestyle in any case. Now he had a chance to get what he really craved: Respect. Reverence. Oscar noms. Magazine covers. Fame of the highest order. Just like all the people at the agency had promised him over and over.
Mark. The gardener’s name wasn’t Daniel or David. It was Mark. Jesus. Who had he been thinking of? Maybe the car detail guy. He was here now. Gavin turned his head to see the small figure in the driveway in the distance, waxing the Mercedes.
He licked his lips. Blinked a few times. Listened to the screaming silence of the phone in his ear. Then he started walking again.
Gavin had paced up and down the length of the yard a few times as he waited for an answer. Milled around the gated section of the grounds. Now he changed his path. Walked toward the driveway to check on his wheels. He liked to look at his reflection in the silver surface of the hood whenever it was freshly waxed.
His face was beginning to show some signs of age at long last. It’d grown longer, or so it seemed to him. A slight droop creeping into that skin between his nose and cheekbones. Nothing too bad yet.
In his profession, his face was his calling card. Headshots were sent around. The image of his visage piled up with the eight-by-tens of all the other wannabes at the various casting calls. Stacks of glossy photos for the casting director to sift through. An actor’s voice was in many ways where their real talent either existed or didn’t — but with the wrong face, it didn’t matter. The director, the producers, they’d all look on that promotional shot when they decided who succeeded and who failed — stare at the eyes, the complexion, the smile, the bone structure. One face got plucked out of the pile, the rest got thrown away.
Fresh butterflies swirled in his gut as he stepped foot on the brick driveway. The sound of his footsteps grew grittier, bits of stray gravel crunching and scraping.
The smell of the car wax hit then. Acrid. Chemical in a medicinal way. The cleanest aroma in the world as far as Gavin was concerned. Beautiful.
But then the worker’s technique caught his eye. He scrubbed a microfiber towel back and forth, smearing a film of wax around.
Gavin lifted the phone away from his mouth.
“Whoa… Hey, uh…”
Was this Daniel? David? Wait. Manuel? Something else? Fuck.
The worker turned and stared at Gavin, a deadpan look on his face. He had a bony brow, pitted cheeks over a big angular jaw. His head looked gigantic atop his scrawny cross country runner body, all stick-like. Couldn’t be more than 25.
Gavin lifted his free hand and pantomimed a circular motion in the air.
“Circular motion. Um… Shit. Circular-o? What’s the Spanish word for circular? Or, like, motion?”
He tried to think. Fucking language barrier.
“I speak English,” the kid said with no trace of an accent.
Gavin gaped at him.
“Oh, right, of course. Sorry, I, uh…”
“We’ve met a bunch of times, Mr. Passmore, but… My name is Mark.”
Wait. Shit. This was Mark. Who the hell was the gardener?
“Just, you know, use a circular motion. With the wax. That’s the, uh, proper technique.”
“You wax a lot of cars?” Mark said, his voice coming out as droll as the look on his face.
“Yeah.” Gavin felt his head bobbing up and down. “Well, not personally. No.”
“Got it. Consider it done. Circular motion.”
Mark went back to waxing the car, and Gavin turned toward the house, his mind already replaying the awkward exchange. Was that racist? Assuming the car guy didn’t speak English? Imagine if the tabloids got a hold of that. Should he try to say something else? Maybe suggest he was practicing for a role with a language barrier? That could bury it. Make Mark forget all about it.
Before he could go into damage control mode, he noticed a package on the stoop near the front door — a cardboard cube thrusting up from the marble slab. He must have been out back when the delivery was made.
Curious. He couldn’t remember what he’d ordered, but that happened often enough. Late-night Amazon shopping got forgotten so completely that by the time the items arrived, it felt like he’d sent himself a present. Especially if he’d taken one of his sleeping pills. A little surprise, courtesy of Ambien. Still, this didn’t look like an Amazon package. No smiley pointing arrow etching a black curve on the side or anything.
He scooped it up and tucked it under his free arm, grabbed the rest of the mail out of the box near the door, and took the pile inside. Flipping through the envelopes provided nothing of excitement — mostly junk mail to do with insurance and mortgage rates and the always thrilling electricity bill.
He passed through the foyer and living room, making his way into the kitchen as he picked out which mail to toss. Then he set the box down on the gleaming quartz of the island and looked it over again. The return address wasn’t familiar and didn’t feature a name. A P.O. Box in Dover, Delaware. Certainly not from Amazon then.
He realized, as he plucked a knife from the butcher block, that the phone call had mostly been forgotten now. The phone still smashed his ear flat to the side of his head, shifted over to the left side for the moment, but its silence seemed less important just now.
The tip of the knife probed the tape encasing the corners of the box. Then it slit down the seam at the top.
He held still and looked at the wounded package, at the freshly made slash that parted now like lips. He couldn’t help but hold his breath as he went to peel the thing open.
His shoulder now pinned the phone to his ear to free both hands. His fingers approached the cardboard in what felt like slow motion, something delicate in the way they touched the thing at last.
The phone clicked back to life then, and Jerry’s voice chirped in his ear. Something jubilant in his tone.
Gavin ignored him. Just for a second. His hands were already moving now. Sliding to that part in the center.
He stripped away the top flaps. Then unfolded the second, smaller set of flaps to lay the chamber bare at last.
A crinkled flap of packing paper still shrouded the contents of the box, the brown contours of wrapping material hinting at the knobby shape of what lay beneath.
He narrowed his eyes and leaned over the parcel now. Peered down into the compact cube. Rested his hands on the counter on each side of it. Moved his head closer as though zooming in on this open package until its open maw filled the frame of his vision.
He was breathless now. Rapt. Totally unsure of what this could be. Somehow drawn in by the mystery of this box.
He licked his lips. Pinched the papery sheath covering his boon, whatever it might be.
The voice in his ear sounded concerned now.
“You there, Gav?”
“Just a second.”
He peeled the paper out of the way. Heard the faintest click as the detonation was triggered.
All that suppressed energy unleashed in a fraction of a second. Discharged. Set free.
The explosion thrust upward. Ripped outward. Impossible concussive force.
Shrapnel flung out of the box. Miniature nails leading the wave. Each one 10mm in length. A little more than a third of an inch. Tiny.
The flash came next. Impossible white fading to orange the color of flames. Flaring. Radiating in a halo from the focal point of the box.
It buckled the quartz countertop. Shot cracks up and down its length. Cratered the place beneath the package. Punched a blackened pit into the cabinets beneath. Smoke coiling up from the ruins.
The boom seemed to come just a beat later. A breathy whoosh trailed the force, almost a whistle.
A clicking bang interrupted it. Percussive. Sharp. Metallic.
And then that sigh of wind finally brought the full-throated rumble, drawing it out. It roared. Bellowed. The subharmonic thunder shook the house on its foundation, made the floorboards moan, made the windows rattle. Its vibration felt through the earth up to a mile away.
Gavin’s face came apart even as the blast flung him back from the kitchen island. The bridge of the nose smashed flat to the skull. Cheekbones collapsing. Torn asunder. Hot nails ripping through teeth and eyes and flesh.
A human face going to splinters. A completed jigsaw puzzle fragmenting back into all those tiny pieces.
Shards of bone. Flaps of skin. Tattered meat.
Blown to bits.
By the time you read this, I’ll be dead, but what I’ve set into motion will only be beginning.
The first bomb has gone off by now. So it begins.
Starting at midnight tonight, a bomb will go off roughly every eight hours, and a target will be neutralized.
The targets are of no significance politically.
They are cultural icons. Celebrities. Actors. Reality TV figures and the like.
Be honest. Fiery death could make some of these folks more likable.
Doesn’t that bland host of the karaoke show become more compelling after he’s been blown to pieces?
How about the fashion model trying to break into the mainstream taking shrapnel to her jugular?
The juicy lead role of her dreams.
You piggies have a chance, however, to stop some of the carnage.
What better way to get attention to my message than to invite the police and public alike to play a little game?
Here’s how it works:
Chunks of my journal are strewn about the city. Hidden. Each one contains clues to the next chunk, and likewise, each one divulges the details of one of the little toys I’ve prepared for one of America’s sweethearts.
Clues for names. Clues for places.
Everything you’d need to locate and disarm one of the bombs is there.
All I ask in return is that you read the journal. Really read it. Consider what I am presenting.
Ironically, killing celebrities will make me a celebrity.
For the next 24 hours or so, as my bombs either go off or don’t, I may well be the most famous person on the planet.
An unflattering photo of my face will be plastered in a box just over the news anchor’s shoulder.
It will be worth it.
My ideas will be dissected and debated the whole world round, chunks of my journal translated into damn near every language on the globe.
The game begins.
Pour yourself a cup of coffee. And if you must sleep tonight, be sure to keep those DVRs rolling.
Violet Darger squirmed in her seat, walled in on all sides by auditorium seating filled to the brim. She swiveled her head to get a better view of the room full of cadets.
A little over 250 bright-eyed faces stared up at the stage, their bodies packed down in the theater-style seats. Smiling. Fidgeting. Coughing. Soft chatter filled the space with a whispery drone even as the ceremony continued on the platform at the front of the room.
After over twenty excruciating weeks of training, graduation had finally arrived for this class of FBI agent trainees. They’d earned it.
Each cadet had been punched in the face, sprayed with mace, and shot approximately 5,000 rounds of ammunition in the firearms course. They’d been grilled by instructors on every possible procedure in class and also in practical settings. They’d run through the Capstone counter-terrorism exercise. They’d even investigated a kidnapping and a bank robbery in the mock town on campus known as Hogan’s Alley.
Some hadn’t made it. Two cadets had quit and another pair had been dismissed.
Darger tried to imagine what that would feel like. Washing out of the program would be a brutal reality check. It was difficult to envision sacrificing so much, only to be found “not suitable” by the powers that be. And often, trainees were forced to quit their previous job before they began the grueling field training program. They’d have nothing to go back to.
Still, it might be worse to be one of those who had dropped out of training of their own volition. No one made it to this point without a tremendous effort. There was no waffling your way into the FBI. Being an FBI agent was a dream for every person in this room. Giving up on that dream would be heartbreaking.
Darger bounced her knee up and down. Let her eyes scan over the taut faces, the jittery smiles, the restless body language.
The tension in the room was beyond that of a normal graduation ceremony for good reason. The grads wouldn’t just be receiving diplomas today. They’d each get an envelope containing their first assignment. Anything from Anchorage, Alaska to Milwaukee to Honolulu to Jasper, Wyoming was possible.
She watched the final trainee cross to the podium. Darger recognized the woman from the class she and Loshak had taught on crime scene profiling. Venus Jackson. She had the most upright posture Darger had ever seen. Spine straight, shoulders square. She already looked the part of an FBI agent. Subconsciously, Darger sat up taller in her seat.
On stage, Deputy Chief Wickett handed Jackson a binder filled with paperwork and forms and her shiny new credentials. A photo was taken. And then she received the envelope.
Darger held her breath. Watched Jackson stare down at the rectangle of white paper in her hands.
The agent peeled the top flap up and pulled out the sheet of paper inside.
Darger remembered living through that moment. Standing in almost the exact place on stage. Clutching that piece of paper that held her first assignment. A single sheet of paper that seemed to weigh a thousand pounds. It felt so strange, to know that this wispy page held so much weight. It knew the next chapter of your life.
When she unfolded it, there would be Before and After.
Jackson licked her lips and opened the letter. Her eyes flicked back and forth across the page. Her eyelids fluttered. A subtle lift of the eyebrows. Surprise? Excitement? Alarm?
“Well, what is it, Jackson? Where ya headed?” one of the other newly-minted agents called out.
Jackson blinked again, startled from her private moment. Her cheeks went pink when she realized she was still standing at the head of the auditorium, all eyes on her. But she recovered quickly, holding the letter high.
The room erupted in applause, as it had after every previous announcement.
The deputy chief stepped to the podium and spoke into the microphone.
“I just want to say again, how proud we are to have these fine ladies and gentlemen joining our ranks. I know that each and every one of you will make a valuable asset to the Bureau for years to come. Thank you.”
There was more clapping as the formal portion of the graduation ceremony came to a close. The audience began to disperse. Family members of the new agents hurried over to congratulate their loved ones. The various instructors and supervisors headed for the refreshment area.
Loshak turned to Darger, eyes sparkling.
“Almost time for the best part of the ceremony.”
“Are you talking about the badge-shaped sugar cookies?” she asked.
“You’re god-damned right I am.”
He rubbed his hands together, eliciting a snort from Darger.
“I still don’t understand your obsession,” she said. “They’re good, but not that good.”
“Hey, I’m not the only one.” Loshak cocked his head toward the refreshment table. “Will you look at those vultures? They all know the cookies are coming out any second now, and they are ready to pounce.”
Darger shook her head.
“See, I have a theory about the cookies — about why everyone talks about them. It’s scarcity. They only get made for the graduation ceremony, right? For some reason, that captures all of your imaginations, turns you into raccoons clutching after something shiny. It’s like Girl Scout cookies. You know that Keebler makes those cookies? You can literally buy most of them in the store under different names. Thin Mints are Grasshoppers. Samoas are Caramel Coconut Dreams or something like that. People act like the ones they buy from the Girl Scouts are somehow superior, because they’ve made to believe they’re scarce. Only available certain times of year. But it’s not real. It’s an illusion.”
Loshak pursed his lips.
“Your analogy doesn’t hold up. The badge cookies can’t be bought at the store. They’re made fresh, right here in the kitchens, and those ladies down there protect the recipe like a dragon guards its gold.”
“You’ve actually tried to get the recipe?” Darger asked. She tried to imagine Loshak bribing a lady wearing a hairnet with a $50 bill or perhaps the promise of sexual favors.
“No, I just assume it’s a secret recipe. It has to be.” Before Darger could respond, Loshak elbowed her. “There they are. Let’s go.”
Two women had appeared with trays of cookies and Darger could see the other FBI personnel holding back the urge to mob them before they could even set the trays down.
Loshak was already on his feet, making a beeline for the cookies.
“Who’s the vulture now?” Darger muttered.
Loshak had already wolfed down half of his first cookie by the time Darger reached him. She poured herself a cup of punch.
“Don’t forget to chew,” she said.
“Keep cracking jokes,” he said, shoving the second half of the cookie into his mouth. “All that yapping leaves no time for eating cookies, and that means more for me.”
Darger chuckled and took a cookie.
Loshak scanned the room and gestured toward a slender dark-haired woman.
“Fabroa seemed to have a knack for the forensic psychology stuff,” he said. “Where’d she end up, again?”
“Dallas, I think.”
Loshak nodded and sipped his punch.
“I’ll keep tabs on her. See how she matures these first few years. She could be BAU material.”
“Looking to replace me?” Darger teased.
“Maybe,” Loshak said. “I’m not sure I can stay partnered with someone who doesn’t respect the cookies.”
They stood near the door, and Darger became aware of one of the new graduates having a phone conversation just outside.
“Thanks. I kind of can’t believe it’s over,” the man said and let out a strained laugh.
There was a pause.
“Uhhh… well. I got Cleveland.” The man waited for the other person to respond. “I know, but it’s not permanent, you know? They move people around all the time.”
Darger cringed, wondering for the first time what this process must be like for someone with a family. It was one thing to sign yourself up for the FBI Academy roulette wheel. It was something else to expect your whole family to go along for the ride with you.
“No, that isn’t how it works,” he was saying now. “They don’t take requests. And it’s kind of a take it or leave it thing.”
Loshak nudged her.
“So where’d you want to end up?”
Apparently she hadn’t been the only one eavesdropping.
“I didn’t care.” She shrugged. “Not really.”
“Come on. Everyone has a preference. They want exotic, like Hawaii. Or somewhere exciting, with a lot of action, like New York City.”
“I wanted to be here. At Quantico, with the BAU,” Darger said. “But no one gets that straight out of the academy, so I knew I’d have to work my way through those first few years. They could have sent me to Bumfuck, North Dakota, and I would have been happy.”
“Ah! So North Dakota was at the bottom of your list.”
“That’s not what I said.” Darger took a bite of her cookie before she went on. “Although it does seem very cold. And very rural.”
“See, I knew you wouldn’t want any of the quiet, out-of-the-way places. You wanted to be down there in the muck, getting your hands dirty.”
“That’s me. The Queen of Filth.”
Loshak smirked, and then his eyes locked on someone across the room.
“Is that Rodney Malenchuck? I haven’t seen him in ages. I should go say hi.”
Darger followed his gaze.
“I can’t help but notice he’s standing conveniently close to one of the cookie trays.”
“A serendipitous coincidence,” Loshak said, trying to sound innocent. “You coming?”
“I’ll be over in a minute. I want to hit the ladies’ room before everyone else has a bladder full of punch.”
Darger went across the hall to the bathroom. As she was washing her hands, Venus Jackson came in, sniffling and holding back tears.
Jackson halted abruptly when she noticed she wasn’t alone.
“Oh. Special Agent Darger.” She wiped her sleeve across her cheek. “God, this is embarrassing. I swear I don’t usually cry over this kind of thing.”
Darger tugged a paper towel from the dispenser and passed it to Jackson.
“New Orleans isn’t so bad, you know. Good food. Good music.”
“It’s not that.” Jackson shook her head and looked down at her feet. “I’m just…”
“You’re thinking: I can’t believe this is actually happening. I can’t believe I’m an actual FBI agent. And so there’s excitement. And the relief of the grueling tests being over, finally. You made it through the pepper spray. You completed the mile-and-a-half run. You took the punches to the head and came out on the other side. But then there’s doubt, too. A little voice that says, Wait. Me? I’m not an FBI agent. I don’t actually know what I’m doing. They handed me an assignment and some credentials, but that doesn’t magically transform me into a special agent. What if I’m not cut out for this? What if everyone figures out that I have no idea what I’m doing?”
Jackson’s eyes went wide.
“That’s exactly it! How did you know?”
“It’s called Impostor Syndrome. This irrational fear that you’re less competent than everyone thinks, combined with a fear that you’ll be found out. That everyone will learn you’re a fraud.”
“You had it, too?” Jackson asked.
“Oh yeah. I think everyone has it, on some level. I would bet that every cadet in that room has it, too. Well, maybe not the narcissists.”
Jackson cocked her head to one side.
“Wouldn’t a narcissist get weeded out during the Personality Assessment on the Phase 1 Exam?”
One side of Darger’s mouth quirked upward.
“Not always. I actually think the Bureau lets some narcissistic personalities in. How else are they going to fill the upper management positions?”
Jackson let out a surprised laugh and hurried to put a hand over her mouth.
“Making jokes like that seems like the kind of thing that would get you into trouble around here.”
“Oh sure,” Darger said. “If an ASAC heard that remark, I’d probably get a formal reprimand. I think it’s a requirement of any of the top brass jobs that you surrender your sense of humor.”
Jackson stepped to one of the mirrors and checked her makeup.
“OK, so if everyone feels this way — the impostor syndrome way — what do they do? Because I really don’t know what I’m doing.”
“Of course you don’t. This is all new for you. But you’ll figure it out as you go.” Darger put a hand on her shoulder. “And if you want to know a little secret: the FBI is a bureaucracy like any other. Learn how to color in the lines the way your boss likes, and you’ll be fine.”
Darger heard Loshak’s voice in her head: How is it you can dish out this kind of advice but are incapable of following it yourself?
Jackson dabbed at her eyes one last time and turned to face Darger. She put out a hand.
“Thank you, Special Agent—”
Darger took her hand, interrupting before she could finish.
“It’s just Darger now. And it’s no problem, Jackson,” she said with a wink.
Jackson smiled as she wadded up the paper towel and tossed it in the trash bin.
Back in the auditorium, Darger paused inside the door, searching for her partner. She spotted Loshak hovering near the refreshments table and wondered if he’d been stuffing down cookies the entire time she’d been gone. But then he turned and she saw the phone pressed to his ear and the grim set of his jaw.
Darger’s spine straightened. A case?
He caught sight of her and started her way.
By the time he reached her, he was already ending the call.
“Uh-huh,” he said. “We’ll head out immediately.”
He tucked the phone back into his pocket and met her eyes.
“We’ve got an assignment.”
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