When multiple murders terrorize a small town college campus, FBI profiler Violet Darger heads to rural Michigan to investigate. As soon as she arrives, a grim history begins to emerge.
The crimes have progressed steadily over a period of 18 months.
Indecent exposure to stalking.
Stalking to rape.
Rape to murder.
The UNSUB's emphasis on power and control rapidly verges toward full blown sadism. He grows ever bolder, ever more vicious.
What could be more dangerous than a killer aroused by expressions of rage? Increasing brutality. Overkill.
Understanding his psychological motivations will guide the efforts to stop him.
Darger digs into the history. Tries to figure out how the perpetrator advanced unchecked to graver and graver trangressions.
What she finds buried in the police records unsettles her as much as the murders themselves.
While a faceless killer terrorizes the campus, the school administrators remain focused on burying the story.
The revelation creates another complication: The students feel disenfranchised. Angry.
Prostesters gather on lawns. Ignore the citywide curfew. An uprising brewing all over campus.
Darger must navigate an uncooperative administration, a powder keg of a campus, and a killer as savage and dangerous as any she's ever faced.
When it all boils over, chaos descends on the townspeople. And the killer walks among them.
The novels in the Violet Darger series can be read as stand-alones. Scroll up and grab Couple Killer 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: March 31, 2022
Publisher: Smarmy Press
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
The blood gleams on the sidewalk. A patch of red wetness about the size of a silver dollar.
Brian stops and stares at it. Head angled so that his chin almost touches his chest. Shallow breaths billowing in and out of his nostrils.
Even partially lit in the streetlight’s glow, the pool looks dark on the concrete — like a puddle of chocolate syrup — but it glints red where the light reflects from it.
Could be fake, but… looks real enough.
He surveys the empty street around him. Scans up and down the block for any sign of life. Not sure if he wants someone else to be there or not.
There’s no one. It’s late. Coming up on 2 A.M., he thinks.
Brian is drunk. Shitfaced drunk. Vision blurry. Legs a little wobbly.
It’s rush week. Brian has just left an Asig party where he’d been forced to humiliate himself. Dropping on the ground and pretending to sizzle like bacon anytime one of the brothers shouted “oink.” Anything to make the cut.
He’d guzzled down more than a dozen Bud Lights to try to dull the indignity — a hell of a lot of alcohol by his standards.
The walk home has been a wavery affair to this point. His legs rickety beneath him. He had been about halfway back to the dorms, having just made a left onto Winchell, when he came upon the blood on the sidewalk and stopped in his tracks.
And now here he is. Standing still. Alone on an empty street.
He looks at the blood again. Really looks. Concentrating this time to make the drunk juddering of his vision smooth out.
He starts to trace his eyes down the cement path leading on from here, and a cold feeling creeps over him as he does.
There’s more blood. Drops and smears and patches making a dotted line over the sidewalk. The wet places sheening faintly under the orange of the streetlight.
A trail of blood stretching out in both directions from where he stands.
A voice speaks just behind Brian’s neck and makes him pogo straight up. His head cranks around to see who it is before he can process the words being spoken.
“What’s crackin’, preppie?”
The figure behind him — his roommate, Cody — recoils a little himself as Brian jumps. Staggers back a step and a half on drunken sea legs. Teeters.
“Whoa,” Cody says. “Calm down, weirdo. Jesus Christ.”
Cody extends his arms. Clutches Brian’s shoulders to steady himself. His stupid sandals scuffing at the concrete. Spiked hair bouncing. Frosted tips glittering under the streetlight.
“Damn, preppie. You’re jumpy as hell tonight. Even more spastic than usual.”
He calls Brian “preppie.” Makes no sense to Brian. Cody himself couldn’t be preppier.
Cody is a business major, and like all business majors Brian has met, he’s a total bro. Polo shirt. Puka shell necklace. Tribal tattoos. Basketball shorts year-round.
And those goddamn flip-flops always snapping against the bottoms of his dumb feet.
The bro fishes a pack of Marlboros out of his pocket. Lights one up. His face glows a deep orange as the lighter’s flame flickers beneath it.
Cody goes to Color Me Tan pretty much every weekend. Sprawls in a tanning bed. Bakes his skin to a deep hot dog shade somewhere between bronze and burgundy. He’s always asking Brian to go.
But all of Cody’s primping seems alien to Brian’s sense of style — strictly casual. T-shirts. Jeans. An English major.
“Seriously, though. Why are you standing here like a lobotomy case, homie?”
Cody refers to them as “friends.” “Homies.” Sometimes “boys.” A couple times he even called Brian his “main dawg.”
Brian strictly uses the term “roommates” to describe the relationship.
Now that they’re both rushing Alpha Sig, though, maybe they could be allies, Brian thinks. Maybe.
“There’s blood,” Brian says, regretting it even as the words leave his mouth. Stupid.
“There’s… blood?” Cody says.
“On the ground.”
Cody stumbles forward. Looks at the spot on the sidewalk. Bends at the waist to get a closer look. Head leaned forward, eyes squinted to slits.
Finally, he gets down on hands and knees. Practically sticks the tip of his nose into the red pool. Then he jerks himself up onto his knees. Twirls to look at Brian. Points two copper-toned index fingers at the bloodstain.
“Dude! This right here! Do you know what this is?”
Brian blinks before he answers.
“No shit. But it’s gotta be part of the hazing thing, man! You know it is. They knew a bunch of us would have to walk this way to get from the Asig house back to the dorms tonight, dude. Perfect setup.”
When Brian doesn’t say anything, Cody goes on.
“It’s like a scavenger hunt. We’ve gotta follow this blood trail. See where it takes us, right?”
Brian blinks again. Tries to process this.
“Mm… I don’t know.”
“It’s like a test of courage, kinda. If we bitch out, it’s… like… bad.”
“It’s just… Shit looks pretty real to me.”
“Don’t be a pussy, Brian. We’ve talked about that, haven’t we? How you’re a giant gaping vag all the time, and no one likes it?” Cody says, getting to his feet. “Come on.”
To Brian’s chagrin, this actually is something Cody has talked about numerous times. His roommate offers up a kind of bro wisdom, always telling Brian that being a coward is what drags him down, especially with girls. Maybe the tan idiot is even right about that last part — Cody certainly has more luck with the ladies than Brian does.
Still, no one would believe how many times the term “giant gaping vag” has come up between them in the time they’ve lived together. It’s been… excessive.
Brian thinks about asking which way they should follow the trail, since it leads both ways from where they stand. Instead he falls in behind Cody, who has already begun tracking the blood splotches heading toward campus and their dorm room — that’s probably for the best, anyway. Get this over with and go to bed.
They walk in silence. Both sets of eyes angling down toward the sidewalk.
Maybe Cody is right. Maybe it really is a hazing stunt. Still, Brian can’t help but feel slightly queasy as they draw closer to... wherever this leads.
He stumbles after Cody, and it occurs to him that the hazing rituals have gotten more creative of late. Ever since that freshman died during rush week a few years back, the frats have been forced to veer away from the strictly drinking-based antics.
The local news outlets plastered the kid’s face everywhere for weeks in the wake of his death. Brian can still see the picture in his head even now.
A sad-looking kid. Bony. Something lonely in his eyes. Poor bastard.
The name pops into Brian’s mind, unbidden. Devin Tait.
The guys in the TKE house had forced Tait to chug a fifth of Jim Beam in a half-hour or some shit. Acute alcohol poisoning. They said his face was black as a raven’s wing when they found him dead in the arboretum the next morning. Face down in one of the gazebos.
These days the various fraternities seem to compete with one another to see who can concoct the most elaborate — and sometimes bizarre — initiation challenges. No more simple chug-a-lug. Wild rumors spread over campus, hinting at details to the outlandish rituals, but it was all technically “top secret.”
The more Brian thinks about it, the more he has to admit that this whole blood trail scavenger hunt thing is plausible. Asig would do something like this.
Some poor kid dies, and now we gotta jump through all these crazy hoops and shit to get in.
Kinda fun, though.
It hits Brian that he feels drunker now. Spotting that first blood smear had shot adrenaline through his system, momentarily sobered him up a little. As the shock fades, he’s back to staggering along.
Shit. That’s no good. Especially with his roommate here to peer pressure him into bad ideas.
Cody mutters something that shakes Brian out of his introspection. Maybe a word. Maybe just a grunted syllable.
Brian follows his roommate’s gaze to the lump in the distance. Lets his eyes refocus.
Swallows when he sees it.
The blood trail leads to a car. A Toyota Corolla with its trunk hanging wide open.
“See?” Cody says. “What’d I tell you? Does this not have Asig written all over it?”
Brian still isn’t sure. But he remembers seeing a few horror posters in some of the bedrooms at the Asig house, now that he thinks about it. A horror scavenger hunt could make sense. It wouldn’t be a bad idea. Less degrading than some of the stuff he’d already done.
Cody picks up speed and Brian struggles to keep pace. They rush for the yawning trunk. Lean over the shadowy space.
More blood puddles on the scratchy black upholstery inside. Dark and thick. Looks like pools of hot fudge in the poor light.
Brian’s breath catches in his throat. Head going light. He thinks he might faint.
“OK. I think I get it,” Cody says. “This trunk is the starting point. Now we gotta see what’s at the other end of the trail.”
Brian cringes inside. Wants to go home already. Cody keeps talking.
“We can race back the way we came. Jog and shit. If we hustle, maybe we can still beat Simmons and his man servant.”
Ted Simmons is another kid from their dorm rushing for Asig. One of those precocious rich kids who gets pretty much whatever he wants.
Brian doesn’t often find common ground with Cody, but this is one thing they do agree on: Ted Simmons sucks ass. And Brian desperately wants to get into the frat over Ted and his minion, Tucker.
He shakes his head. Can’t believe he’s going to do this.
When Cody takes off running, Brian follows.
By the time they get back to that first blood swatch, Brian is sucking wind. Booze always kills his stamina. Not that he’s into cardio in sober times.
They slow to a walk and trace along the red trail again. Moving away from campus and back toward town.
The businesses here have all gone dark for the night. Shadowy and vacant and still.
It’s quiet. Eerie. Brian can’t help but feel like they shouldn’t be here. Almost feels like walking through a graveyard.
“Dude,” Cody says.
He points a deeply tanned finger that looks like a wet cigar in the dark.
The blood veers off to the left of the sidewalk. An arcing angle of red dribbles that leads over a strip of grass and moves into a mini-mall parking lot.
They look at each other. Cody grinning. Brian terrified.
The blood looks glossy and black on the blacktop — viscous like patches of fresh motor oil. Brian traces the splotches to the middle of the empty lot. There’s a bigger puddle of blood there. About the size of a dinner plate.
Without speaking, they rush to it. Kneel. Examine the sheening spot in silence — an imperfect bloody circle.
“Think this means anything?” Cody says.
“That someone bled here. A lot.”
But Cody is standing and pointing again. Not listening to Brian, which is actually pretty normal.
The trail leads away from the lamps over this shared parking lot. Tracks into a shadowed place.
And there’s something dark lying on the front stoop of the Auto Zone.
An inert bulk. Dark.
It’s a body, Brian thinks. Lying still.
Cody wheezes laughter between his teeth. Squishes it out of his nose.
“Oh shit. This is it. We got here first.”
Brian feels his face flush. Molars grinding together.
“What if it’s real?” he says, his voice low now. “Like just a, you know, badly injured guy. Mixed up in something… something dangerous. There are dudes running meth out here and shit, man. Bikers and shit. This is Michigan. I mean, Jesus, Cody. Everything here is meth-related.”
Cody laughs again.
“It’s not meth biker related. That Toyota back there look like a Harley to you? It’s a hazing prank, man.”
Cody holds up his hands before he goes on.
“Think about it. If something actually, like, violent happened, there would have been noise. Screaming. Gunshots. Someone would have called the police. But there wasn’t any of that, because it isn’t real. This is a set-up, man. It couldn’t be more obvious. I bet you, like, a thousand dollars that when we walk over to that dude, he’s gonna jump up and try to scare the shit out of us. It’s classic Asig.”
Brian shifts his weight from foot to foot, wishing he’d never spotted that blood on the sidewalk. If he’d just kept walking, he would be back in his room by now, passed out in his bed. Instead, he’s stuck here with Cody. Feels like no matter what he chooses to do, he’s going to end up looking like a dumbass or a pussy.
Cody keeps talking, which is also pretty normal.
“Shit, if we play this thing right, it could score major points with Trevor, man. All the Asig dudes, they’d know we’re cool under pressure and shit. The unprankable lords of Brimley Hall.”
“Nothing. Just stay cool, Bri. Trust me. We go through with this, our acceptance is a slam dunk.”
“OK, but what if it is real? Just, like… what if it’s that two-percent chance or whatever. We’re unarmed. I’ve never been in a fight in my life, and you have arms like two floppy tubes of Gogurt.”
An annoyed snarl flashes over Cody’s face.
“For the record, I bench like 150.” His features softened slightly. “But I take your point. Better to be prepared.”
Cody turns and scans the area. Walks over to a big tree on the edge of the lot. Grabs a thick branch from beneath it.
“This should do the trick.” He does a practice swing. Makes a noise with his mouth like a hammered fastball. “If anyone tries to get froggy with us, I’ll give ‘em the Bryce Harper treatment.”
They stand there a moment. Still some forty feet shy of the slumped body in the shadows.
Cody puts his finger in front of his lips and nose to shush Brian despite the fact that he hasn’t made a peep this whole time. Brian glares at him.
They start forward — Cody, then Brian. Approaching slowly, quietly. Crossing the line into the murky area.
Warped versions of their silhouettes reflect in the dark glass at the front of the Auto Zone. Blurry copies of everything they do — even Cody’s sick grin is visible in his mirror image. Makes Brian uncomfortable.
At about ten feet out, that smile falters some. Tan skin slowly closing over the bleach-white teeth.
Cody swallows hard, a lump bobbing visibly in his neck. He stops, and Brian stops alongside him.
Again, they wait. Listen. Brian’s pulse thunders in his ears.
Cody points to Brian, then points at the body. Wags the tree branch and then rests it on his shoulder.
The implication is clear. You check him. I’ll cover you.
Brian takes a breath. Closes his eyes. The fluorescent bulbs buzz behind them at the other end of the lot, glowing orbs which now seem miles away.
He stands there for several seconds. Thinking. Half trying to psych himself up. Half wondering why he’s going to do this.
This was all Cody’s dumb idea. If anyone should get close to this guy, it should be Cody.
But no. If Cody’s right — if this is an Asig prank — he has to do this. He can’t puss out now.
Finally he opens his eyes. Slides forward. Inches closer to the body.
His feet scuff, the soles of his shoes grinding against the blacktop. Sounds impossibly loud in the quiet. Each little piece of grit screeching out its own high pitched scream.
The body curls into a semi-fetal position, facing away from them. Head practically wedged against the bottom of the glass door. Even at five feet out, Brian can’t see the facial features. Can’t tell if it’s someone he might recognize from Asig.
He watches for signs of breathing. Any expansion of the ribcage. The vaguest twitch of the muscles there.
And his vision zooms in on that fallen figure as he draws closer and closer. Details coming clear as he closes in.
Something in the body’s shape tells him it’s a man. The slightly scrawny build visible beneath the polo shirt. The hard angles of bone and muscle.
The body looks scrawny, more boyish than manly. Definitely doesn’t look like any kind of meth biker.
When he’s less than a foot away, he stoops. Reaches out a hand in slow motion. Fingers moving toward the neck.
To what? Check for a pulse?
No. He needs to see first.
His hand settles on that ball of muscle on the side of the shoulder. He rolls the boy — is he a boy? — onto his back. The body slumps over. A slack thing slapping against the concrete stoop, head coming down too hard and making that dull melon thud that always sounds wrong.
Brian shuffles back a step like the thing might lurch at him. Feet scuffling again. Body rocking into some involuntary karate stance. Legs set all wide.
He takes a couple heaving breaths. Fists raised and shaking before him.
The kid doesn’t move. His face looks as slack as the rest of him. Young. Maybe Brian’s age or a couple years younger. Almost pretty looking, like one of those boy band types. Mouth hanging open. A little blood visible on the teeth.
It’s real. This has to be real.
After a second, a wavery voice whispers behind him.
“Is he… Is he dead?”
Brian doesn’t look back. Shrugs.
His comes out flat and distant.
“I don’t know.”
He shuffles closer again. Kneels. Kneecaps digging into the gritty sand, into the cold asphalt.
He brings his hands to the neck at last. Fingers feeling along cold flesh. Finding the spot along the throat.
There is something, he thinks.
The faintest tremor there?
Or is it his own adrenaline? His own blood knocking through him, confusing the issue.
He leans closer. Brings his face right down to the boy’s mouth. Listens for any faint breathing sounds.
Then the boy gags and coughs.
A wet cough.
Neck bucking. Lips parting wider.
Blood flings out of his mouth. A quarter cup of viscous fluid shooting into the night.
A sheet of red slapping Brian’s face.
“Married?” Violet Darger repeated the word, not sure she’d heard Owen correctly the first time.
Owen’s voice crackled out from the speaker on her phone.
“That’s what I said.”
She let it sink in. Pictured the long white dress. The veil flowing down. The church pews packed with friends and family.
“Well, good for her,” Darger said finally, nodding to herself.
“Good? My mother has barely known this guy for six months,” Owen said. “Shoot. I only met him two days ago.”
Darger put on her blinker and changed lanes to pass a semi-truck with “Keep on Truckin’” mudflaps. She was about ninety minutes outside of Detroit, headed to the college town of Remington Hills to assist on a case.
“But you said Claude seemed like a good guy,” she said, easing back into the right lane.
“That was before I knew he was planning on marrying my mother. I mean, don’t you think six months is awfully fast to up and get hitched?”
“Maybe. But your mom isn’t some naive 22-year-old. She’s a smart lady.”
Owen grunted something unintelligible and then went on.
“I just don’t see what the rush is. They already set a date for Christ’s sake.”
A large insect splatted onto the windshield, and Darger turned on the wipers. It took a deluge of wiper fluid to get rid of the smear, but after a few seconds, she’d cleared most of it.
“It’s alright, though,” Owen went on. “I have a plan.”
“I’m going to give him the Owen Baxter Special.”
“I thought I was the only one that got the Owen Baxter Special.”
“Ha. I’m talking about a background check. The full deep dive. I can guarantee you there’s dirt on this guy, and I’m gonna find it. Once I show my mother who he really is, she’ll have no choice but to call the whole thing off.”
Darger caught a glimpse of herself wincing in the rearview mirror. She knew Constance Baxter well enough to know the woman wouldn’t appreciate having her son meddling in her love life.
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” she asked.
“What do you mean?”
Darger chewed her lip, trying to figure out how to tell Owen to chill out without getting him more worked up.
“Your mom is a grown woman. She’s more than capable of making decisions in her own life. And on some level, her love life isn’t any of your business.”
“Come on, Violet. Don’t tell me you wouldn’t do the same thing if it was your mother shacking up with some strange man.”
“That might be true.” She held up a finger even though Owen couldn’t see her. “But I’d hope you’d be there to talk some sense into me.”
“This guy obviously doesn’t have good intentions,” Owen said with a snort. “Otherwise he wouldn’t be so hot to trot down the aisle. Piece of trash is probably after her money.”
“I thought you said he was rich.”
“That could just be part of the scam. He pretends he’s some hotshot millionaire with a penthouse in Palm Beach, but in reality, he’s in deep debt and looking for a sugar mama. I’ve seen it a hundred times.”
It was Darger’s turn to snort this time.
“Now you’re just being ridiculous.”
“Why is it ridiculous?” Owen asked. “For all I know, he’s got a whole scheme mapped out. As soon as the ink on the marriage certificate is dry, he’ll take out a life insurance policy in my mother’s name. They’ll fly down to Jamaica or somewhere for the honeymoon, and there’ll be a tragic scuba diving accident.”
“Oh boy,” Darger said. “Owen — and I say this with all the love in the world — you’re talking crazy right now.”
“How am I crazy? You admitted yourself that this is all happening too fast.”
“That’s not exactly what I said.”
Darger realized her current approach wasn’t working. She remembered a technique one of her college psych instructors had taught her for dealing with patients in a clinical setting.
“Logic and rationale don’t always work,” Dr. Mazar had explained. “Especially not with a patient in crisis. It is sometimes better to take a practical angle. Show the patient how your suggestions will benefit them.”
Darger listened as Owen continued on his rant against his mother’s new fiancé.
“You can’t expect me to just sit on my hands and allow this to happen. Not when my gut is telling me this whole thing smells bad enough to gag a maggot.”
“I get it,” she said. “And I’m not saying you shouldn’t do anything. But might I suggest you try to be discreet about it? If either your mother or her fiancé find out you’re poking around in his affairs, they’re not going to be happy.”
“If he’s as evil as you suspect he is, don’t you think you’d benefit from the element of surprise?”
“I guess so.” There was a pause on the line. “But I’m always discreet. That’s part of the job.”
“I’m only suggesting you do this quietly. And thoroughly. Get the full picture before you go running to your mother with his tax returns and whatever else you dig up.”
“Tax returns. Good idea,” Owen said.
Darger rolled her eyes. She could only hope that this irrational suspicion would fade over time. The news of his mother’s engagement had obviously given him a shock. Maybe he’d cool off once he had a chance to get used to the idea.
“Anyway, I’m gonna let you go so I can get to work on this. The clock’s a-tickin’.”
“OK,” Darger said. “Just… remember what I said?”
“Sure, sure. Tax returns. Oh… and discretion.” She could hear the impatience in Owen’s voice. “We’ll talk later?”
“Yeah. Bye now.”
Darger ended the call, shaking her head. Owen’s fervor was somewhat unexpected. He was usually so laid back and non-judgmental.
Then again, his mother was really the only family he had left. He was estranged from his father, and his twin brother had been killed a few years ago. It made sense that he’d be protective of his sole survivor of his immediate family, but there was such a thing as being overprotective.
Darger spotted the sign for Remington Hills and SMU. A moment later, the robotic voice of the GPS system on her phone told her to take the next exit.
She inhaled deeply through her nose and then heaved the air from her lungs. She could worry more about Owen and his mother later. She was almost to her destination, and that meant it was time to get her head in the game.
She ran through what she knew about the case so far. Three dead couples. The first had occurred in the neighboring town of Delphi. The two most recent attacks happened practically on campus, less than a week apart.
The killer targeted couples in cars, not unlike David Berkowitz or the Zodiac Killer. With no witnesses, they had to piece together exactly what happened based on the gory crime scenes. The working theory — he incapacitated the male victim first, binding his hands and forcing him into the trunk. Then he’d sexually assault the female victim. The killer’s final act was to shoot both victims in the head, first the woman and then the man.
The male victim in the most recent case had lived long enough to crawl away from the scene. A couple of freshman students found him draped over the front walk of an Auto Zone, barely clinging to life. He’d died before the paramedics arrived, not even twelve hours ago.
Darger steered her rental car down the exit ramp and took a right turn, passing by a gas station and a McDonald’s. Those two types of buildings had been just the only ones she’d seen for the past half an hour. Dense woods periodically interrupted by the glow of the golden arches or a truck stop sign advertising fuel prices.
And the trees only seemed to thicken now that she was off the interstate. Clusters of overgrown sumac and sassafras crowded the shoulder, and huge oaken boughs stretched over the road as if reaching for the cars down below. Even in broad daylight, the woods seemed somehow threatening.
She’d read once that human beings had a primordial distaste for such spaces. The species much preferred flatlands and prairies dating all the way back to the time of the Neanderthals. The woods closed off one’s field of view. Something claustrophobic in it. Humans universally found joy in having a clear view of the horizon in all directions, soothed by some ancient desire to be able to identify potential threats from a distance.
Staring out at the twisting ivy and clumps of ferns clogging the places between the trees, at the perpetual twilight beneath the canopy, Darger could understand it. Who knew what dangers might lurk in the dark of the forest?
But the real danger here in Remington Hills hadn’t come crawling out of the dark, dark woods. Forget lions and tigers and bears, oh my. This was a predator that walked upright, stalking its prey on two legs.
Ten minutes down the road, Darger spotted the first signs that she had entered SMU country. The first was a billboard for the SMU football team that said, “Beat The Ravens? Nevermore!” A few seconds later, she spied a flag on someone’s porch that read “Go SMU!” in the school colors of purple and green.
She rounded a bend and the seemingly impenetrable woodland suddenly opened up to reveal the small town of Remington Hills. A looming Wal-Mart sign marked the beginning of the urban sprawl, followed by a hospital that faced off with a row of strip mall standards: a nail salon, a Chinese restaurant, Biggby Coffee, Pizza Hut.
The GPS instructed her to turn left at the next intersection. She did so, rolling by a bowling alley and movie theater. Every fast food joint imaginable thrust its glowing sign out over the streetside. Lots of yellow and red signage offering everything the people in a small Midwestern town might want.
The car juddered as the tires rumbled over a bridge, where a sign marked the waterway below as the Muktypoke River. Up ahead, the steeple and bell tower of a church rose above the buildings and trees, a white lance jabbing its point into the sky.
As Darger traveled closer to the university district, the foot traffic grew heavier. Bodies dotting the sidewalk in thicker and thicker blobs. By the time she reached the first of the residence halls, fresh-faced coeds streamed everywhere. Flowing. Milling. Clogging the sidewalks and rectangles of lawn in front of the buildings.
Darger glanced out at them through the windshield. Backpacks slung over shoulders. Books clutched to chests. They all looked impossibly young to her.
She remembered returning to her alma mater just after she’d turned thirty and thinking that all the kids looked about sixteen years old. Now she swore they all looked about twelve.
Children, she thought. They all look like children.
And now a killer stalked them night after night. Taking them down in twos.
Darger drove through one of the student residential areas on her way to the most recent crime scene. Oaks and maples bordered the asphalt, and beyond them, the street was lined with large older houses that had been sliced and diced into apartment units to accommodate the ever-growing student body. Her first apartment had been on a street not unlike these.
If Darger squinted hard enough, she could almost see these homes as they once were — stately and impressive. Back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, they would have been marvels of craftsmanship, every ornate detail executed with precision and care.
But most had fallen into various states of disrepair as the decades rolled on. Peeling paint. Moss-covered shingles on the roofs. Missing shutters. Crumbling front steps. One house had some sort of hydraulic jack supporting the roof over the front porch to keep it from caving in.
The houses thinned as she rolled closer to a part of town that seemed to be a mix of industrial and commercial. She passed a convenience store, a Little Caesar’s, a sports bar, and a warehouse with a “For Sale” sign out front. Across the street, a place offered payday loans via big black letters on its red awning.
The flap of the yellow crime scene tape caught Darger’s eye as soon as she turned onto Vine Street. At the center of the cordoned-off area, a bunny-suited crime scene tech circled a newer model Corolla with a camera, snapping photos.
Darger parked behind a row of law enforcement vehicles and climbed out, studying her surroundings for a few seconds as a breeze tossed strands of her hair around her face.
The street felt more like an alleyway, with all the backs of the surrounding businesses facing this way — brickwork and dumpsters and hulking air conditioner units set like chess pieces atop pocked asphalt. No houses sat in the immediate vicinity, and a significant portion of the block was surrounded by a chain-link fence that isolated an active construction site — grooved concrete walls rose from the ground in what looked like the early stages of a parking garage to Darger.
Late at night, when the attack occurred, this section of street would likely be completely deserted even though it was technically part of the school’s grounds — only a mile or two from the heart of campus. No wonder they hadn’t found any eyewitnesses.
Darger spotted Loshak up ahead, talking to two men in SMU Police uniforms. One of the men sported the standard-issue crew cut and cop mustache. The other was clean-shaven and wore glasses. Both men looked fresh-faced. Almost as young as the coeds she’d seen crawling all over campus.
Loshak turned as she approached.
“Agent Darger,” he said by way of greeting. “Fine weather to investigate a heinous crime, no?”
She could see a smile flitting around the corner of his eyes. He always seemed like something very clever was occurring to him.
Loshak introduced Darger to the two officers standing with him.
Crew Cut’s name was Kirby, and his handshake was obnoxiously forceful, as though he thought he was proving something by trying to crush her metacarpals. The officer wearing glasses — Dixon — had a more gentle handshake, thankfully.
Kirby’s jaw moved up and down at a near-constant pace, working diligently on a piece of gum. Darger could smell the artificial watermelon flavor from several feet away, and the scent took her straight back to seventh grade. Probably the last time she’d chewed something as cloying as that. She wondered how Kirby could stand it.
“It’s pretty wild to have the FBI here,” Kirby said. “Me and Dicks-n-balls here were just tellin’ your partner the same. Feels like something out of a movie.”
The chatter continued, but Darger’s attention was drawn to the scene. Just a few yards away, one of the CSIs squatted in the road, dusting the rear door handle on the Corolla for fingerprints.
“You guys are free to look around,” Dixon said. “But if you want to go inside the taped-off areas, you’ll have to suit up.”
“I’m fine staying outside the tape,” Darger said.
She could see well enough from outside the barrier. Plus, the techs occupied most of the space inside the cordoned-off zone, and the last thing she wanted to do was get in their way.
She crept closer to the trunk of the Corolla, which still hung open like a gaping mouth. It was empty and clean except for a dark puddle on one side. Blood. It had begun to coagulate, with a mottled brown skin forming on top that reminded Darger of some kind of soup.
The men gathered around the trunk with her, and the four of them stared down at the gummy stain for several seconds without speaking.
“We recovered a nine-millimeter casing from the trunk,” Dixon said, finally breaking the silence. “Probably the bullet that killed Kyle Herbert, though not instantly, obviously. All of the five other victims were shot twice in the head. Herbert only took one bullet. We’re thinking that something spooked the killer — passing traffic or something — and he ran off after the first shot.”
Darger nodded silently, watching the tech pull a set of prints from the door handle. The woman mounted the lifting tape to a white card and handed it off to another tech, who logged and labeled the prints. The first tech swung the rear door open, raised her brush, and began swiping bichromatic powder over the inside of the door, focusing much of her attention on the window and latch areas.
Darger moved around to the side of the car to get a look inside now that the door was open. Her stomach turned at what she saw. The far end of the bench seat was spattered with blood droplets and flecks of gloopy tissue — brain matter?
Darger knew from the crime scene photos that this was where Layla Perlman had been shot. Dark smears of the girl’s blood marred the cream-colored synthetic leather upholstery. The stains appeared nearly black where they had soaked into the floor mat.
Aside from the bloodstains, little else occupied the backseat. No clutter. No mess. No stray French fries or crumpled Starbucks receipts like the floor of her own car. Inside and out, the car was very clean. Like new, despite being several years old.
She squinted into the front seat and saw it was the same. Not a speck of dust. No smears on the windows or windshield. Darger’s defroster was on the fritz, and she was forever clearing away fog with her hands, leaving smudges on the glass. The only foreign object in this car was an orange SMU parking pass stuck to the bottom corner of the windshield and a cell phone mount jutting out of the dash.
“Do we know anything about what the victims were doing last night before the attack?” Darger asked.
“Earlier in the evening — around 1900 hours — they went bowling across town with another couple. From the bowling alley, they came over here to hang out at Macbeth’s pub. That was at approximately 2100 hours.”
He gestured down the street to one of the squat brick buildings Darger had seen on her drive in.
“I guess it’s a regular thing for them, and they stayed almost until last call at 2 A.M. according to the friends they were with. The other people in their group parked a few streets over, so they parted ways outside the bar.”
Darger tried to imagine this spot late at night. Dark and isolated. She swiveled her head to face the construction area, noticing how the fence came within two feet of the next building. If the killer had tucked himself back in that gap, he could have lain in wait for a pair of victims to wander along, completely out of sight of anyone on the street.
She imagined him nestled there. The dark shrouding him. Watching as the unlucky couple approached their car. Marking them for death without them ever knowing until it was too late.
“Do we know anything about how he approaches his victims? Does he wait until they’re in the car, or does he approach them when they’re still outside?”
“Good question. Keys were in the ignition when we arrived on the scene, so I’d think the victims were in the car.”
Darger noticed a trail of yellow evidence markers extending away from the car and down the street, forming a crooked path that eventually veered into a parking lot just barely visible from where she stood.
“This is the path Kyle Herbert took after he escaped from the trunk?” she asked.
“Yeah. There’s a pretty clear blood trail from the trunk over to where he was found.”
He adjusted the aviators over his eyes.
“From the looks of it, the guy was just gushing blood the whole way.”
Darger followed the string of tent-shaped markers, the big bold numbers printed on them growing higher as she moved away from the car. Kirby was right about the amount of blood. Herbert must have been hemorrhaging as he ran from the car. Darger wondered if he’d even been fully cognizant or if he’d been in some kind of shocked survival mode, his legs moving of their own volition in a desperate attempt to seek help.
She and Loshak reached the parking lot in front of the strip mall, which had also been blocked off with tape. There were no techs here at the moment, which made sense. The killer was most likely to have left evidence in and around the car.
Another sticky-looking patch of blood stained the concrete just in front of the Auto Zone. Darger had seen the photos and knew this was where the two students had found Herbert.
Even half-conscious, Kyle Herbert must have been terrified as he lay there bleeding out, knowing that Layla Perlman was already dead and that he would likely soon join her.
Darger ran through the file in her head again. No fingerprints aside from those of the victims. No semen found on the female victims. But there had been trace amounts of spermicide and condom lubricant on the first two. She assumed the same would be true for this third woman.
Her heel scraped against the cement as she whirled to face Loshak.
“Have you heard about this forensic chemist at the University of Central Florida? The one who’s creating a database of the chemical makeup of condom residues for use in processing rape cases,” Darger said. “We should get in touch with her.”
Loshak licked his lips.
“That’s a good idea. Figuring out what type of condom he’s using doesn’t quite narrow the suspect list down the way a DNA profile would, but it’s better than nothing.”
The two policemen had caught up with them by then, and Kirby lifted the sunglasses from his eyes to peer at them.
“You mean you haven’t heard?” Kirby smacked the side of his head. “Shit, that’s right. It’s not in the report on account of the Chief wanting to keep a tight lid on it for now.”
“What’s not in the report?” Darger asked.
Kirby licked his lips.
“Well… not to get all technical with my forensic jargon, but we got a shitload of trace evidence this time around,” the big cop explained. “A water bottle, a cigarette butt, and a chewed-up piece of gum in a foil wrapper. All of it strewn about the backseat. Right where we think the rape took place.”
“What makes you think these items didn’t belong to the victims?” Loshak asked.
“You saw the car, right? It was immaculate. Kyle Herbert was a bit of a neat freak according to his friends. A germophobe and all that. Also, neither victim smoked, so we know for a fact the cig ain’t from either of them. The other thing the vic’s friends told us was that there’s no way he’d let someone smoke in his car. So… who else by the killer?”
Kirby hiked up his pants and nodded. Smiled a funny smile for just a second. Then he went on.
“Dude blew it. We’re thinkin’ that one way or another, something interrupted the killer while he was at work, and he not only failed to put the second bullet in Herbert’s head, but he also left all this stuff behind. Stuff he would normally clean up, you know? Big mistake. Could be the big break in the case. I mean, hopefully.”
“The crime lab up in Lansing is expediting all the DNA evidence,” Dixon added, crossing his thin arms over his chest. “We should have something as soon as tonight.”
Darger blinked, almost not believing what she was hearing. Three pieces of evidence that should yield DNA? They rarely got this lucky.
“That’s excellent,” Loshak said.
“Yeah,” she agreed.
Her heart thudded over the prospect of having a DNA profile on the killer so soon. Hard evidence for once.
The overly practical part of her brain reminded her not to get too excited. Even if they did get a profile, they still had to match it to someone. If their guy didn’t have a profile already on file, seeking him out would still be like searching for a needle in a haystack.
Still… it was something.
Darger stepped away from the crime scene. Away from the puddle of congealed blood.
Somewhere in the distance, she smelled burning leaves. People must still do that here. It made her think of fall when she was a kid. Corn mazes and hayrides and bobbing for apples.
Flitting white blotches drew her eyes back down the street, where the techs still hovered around the Corolla like ghosts in their pale jumpsuits. But she barely saw them. Her mind wriggled inside the file once more, flipping pages and recalling photos of the crime scenes.
She pictured Layla Perlman sprawled in the backseat, naked from the waist down, an exit wound on the back of her head the size of a grapefruit. Blood everywhere. Her mouth still frozen in a grimace.
It had been the same with the other two female victims. Found dead of gunshot wounds in the backseat of the vehicle. Sexually assaulted.
The attacks had been almost identical to one another, all the little details lining up just so. She supposed it was possible that he was re-enacting how the first one had gone, but her gut said this had all been calculated from the beginning. Forcing the man into the trunk at gunpoint. Assaulting the woman. Extending the suffering. Then killing them both. He’d thought this out. Done it this way on purpose. It was too precise. Too… mechanical.
So far, Kyle Herbert nearly escaping was the only outlier in the three cases. The only deviation from the agenda.
And the fact that the killer had apparently left behind multiple pieces of trace evidence in his rush to flee the scene. She wondered what had caused him to stray from his carefully crafted procedure.
Darger heard the scuff of feet on the cement and turned to find her partner approaching.
“Have you seen much of campus yet?” Loshak asked.
“Only what I saw on the drive in.”
“It’s got that mid-sized Midwestern college town vibe,” he said.
Darger tried to suppress a smirk at the word “vibe,” lest Loshak think she was making fun of him.
“Feels smaller than it is, you know?” he went on. “Of course, that’s probably in part because the population is what you might call ‘artificially inflated’ by the student population. Remington Hills is a town of about 75,000 during the fall and winter semesters, but that dwindles down to under 50,000 in the summers. Bet it’s pretty quiet from May to September. If it weren’t for the college, this would be just a dot on the map in the middle of South Michigan.”
“It is interesting how much a college town feels like a college town,” Darger said, nodding. “This place reminds me a lot like where I went to school.”
She snuck a peek at the two officers standing a few yards away.
“What kind of impression did you get from the locals?” she asked, her voice low. “Friend or foe?”
“Well, Chief Fleming was quick to admit that they were in over their heads. So I think friend. Though you know as well as I do that it always tends to be somewhat of a mixed bag.”
A half-snort escaped Darger’s nose.
“That’s for sure.”
Loshak gasped then, swiveling to face her more directly.
“Did you see Merle?”
“Merle the Mastodon! A few years back they found a nearly fully-intact mastodon fossil just outside of town. Some farmer was breaking ground for a new silo and dug up a tusk. Can you imagine that?” Loshak’s eyes twinkled. “The actual bones are on display at the Smithsonian now, but there’s a statue of Merle outside the university library. He’s considered a good luck charm by the locals. There’s a spot on his trunk where all the patina is rubbed off from people trying to soak up some of the good fortune.”
“So you’re saying we should go collect our allotment of good luck from this woolly mammoth in hopes it’ll help us solve this case?” Darger asked.
“Merle is a mastodon, Darger. Not a woolly mammoth.”
“What’s the difference?”
“Mastodons are smaller, and their tusks are straighter. They were also wood browsers, whereas the mammoths ate grass. So the teeth of the two beasts are radically different.”
Darger almost asked what the hell a wood browser was before deciding she didn’t really need to know.
“I didn’t realize you were such an archeology buff.”
“I’m not.” He shrugged. “Not really. But I always look into the local history of a new place. You never know what might end up being relevant to the case.”
“Oh sure. No doubt all those mastodon and mammoth facts will prove invaluable to our investigation,” Darger said.
Loshak narrowed his eyes.
“If you’re going to take that kind of scornful tone, then I’m not sure I’ll be sharing the juiciest nugget of local culture with you.”
Darger rolled her eyes.
“Oh come on. I was only teasing.”
Pressing his mouth into a thin line, Loshak crossed his arms.
“I don’t know. Your attitude in regards to local lore has thus far been very poor.”
“I’m sorry. Really.”
Loshak unpursed his lips and leaned in, too excited to withhold the information any longer.
“Back in the 80s, there were a whole slew of UFO sightings. There’s a documentary about it. Three separate families all have the same story about seeing these lights in the sky, and then waking up somewhere else, with several hours unaccounted for. All in the same night, right around the same time. Their accounts are remarkably consistent.”
“Which in our field is often a sign of it being rehearsed,” Darger pointed out.
Loshak waved her off.
“It’s fine. You can act cool and smug with your doubt all you want. I know at least one person who will appreciate it.”
“Ah yes. Spinks and his conspiracy theories.”
“Hey, the federal government has now confirmed the existence of UFOs. It’s not really a conspiracy theory at this point.”
Loshak glanced around the scene. Adjusted his aviators.
“Anyway, I think I’m all set here. How about you?”
Darger’s gaze wandered to the orange cones surrounding the place where Kyle Herbert had taken his last breaths.
“Yeah, I’m good. What do you think about talking to the kids that stumbled upon this scene last night?”
Loshak slipped his sunglasses on, a smirk dancing around the corners of his mouth.
“One step ahead of you. I’ve already set up the interview.”
We hope you are enjoying the book so far. To continue reading...