Desert Heat: A Gripping Serial Killer Thriller
A shocking death launches Special Agent Victor Loshak on a new investigation with an ominous message: They know everything. He heads to Tucson, Arizona, where a recent murder spree seems to be linked to the human trafficking conspiracy he's been working in secret for months.
Loshak still has dreams about the Kansas City case. Nightmares about the team of techs peeling up the floorboards in a suburban home. Finding the rotting bodies face down in the muddy earth of the crawlspace. A grisly discovery that ultimately led to more questions than answers.
Now he may be closer than ever to solving the puzzle.
If you follow the conspiracy rabbit hole all the way down, you eventually reach the bottom.
The task force working the desert murders seems oblivious to the conspiracy link, and Loshak must tread lightly. He doesn't know who to trust, what information to share.
The tendrils of the human trafficking ring lead in all directions outward from that Kansas City crawlspace. Their influence reaches the highest levels of government and law enforcement. They have eyes and ears everywhere.
Even with the complications, the Tucson case slowly unravels the web of connections behind the crimes, both the murders and the conspiracy.
Questions get answered. Names and faces are laid bare. Puzzle pieces snapping into place at long last.
But the revelations bring about the gravest danger yet.
The novels in the Victor Loshak series can be read as stand-alones. Scroll up and grab Desert Heat now.
Release date: February 6, 2022
Publisher: Smarmy Press
Print pages: 303
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Desert Heat: A Gripping Serial Killer Thriller
Special Agent Victor Loshak pushed through the door into the J. Edgar Hoover building. Felt the chill of the air-conditioned space reach right through his shirt and jacket and seep into his skin.
He worked his way through the bureaucratic barrier — parading through the usual gauntlet of metal detectors, sign-ins, and scans. Then he strode through a tiny bottleneck hallway into the main chamber of the building.
The lobby was strangely quiet, its cavernous interior empty despite the fact that it was just after two on a weekday. Loshak swiveled his head as though someone or something would surely appear there. This place was the HQ for the largest investigative branch in the United States. It should have been bustling with suits, messengers, and janitorial staff.
Justice never sleeps after all.
Instead, the space behind the circular reception desk sat vacant. Idle.
The whole room utterly stagnant. Cold and eerie.
The kind of quiet the annoying guy in the movies always deemed “too quiet.” As though the entire Bureau were at rest.
Loshak’s footsteps echoed off the marble as he headed for the elevators. It felt as if he’d wandered into a tomb.
He punched the elevator button, eliciting a muted electronic ping, then stepped back and waited.
He kept his head down. Purposefully ignored the glass eyes of the security cameras and tried to look nonchalant but impatient for the ones he couldn’t see but knew were there.
The air of impatience wasn’t difficult to conjure.
He wanted to get this meeting over with, and impatience happened to look almost exactly like the nervousness crawling around in his gut, tingling at the base of his neck.
Crossed arms. Thumb tapping on the biceps. Blowing his breath out in a tuneless series of puffs almost like a song.
The trick to keeping the body language from straying into worried territory was keeping the lines around the mouth and eyes hard. Aggressive. Angry rather than fearful.
A well-trained eye would spot the fear in a second, and even poorly trained ones could often sense the anxiety, even if they couldn’t put their finger on why.
No greenery around today. Most big government buildings like this liked to stick potted plants in the elevator lobbies. Something to break up all the metal and stone.
The last time Loshak had been through, they’d had a potted plant over by that door. A live one. He’d checked, giving one of the leaves a pinch with a thumbnail to see if it would tear or hold. Ripped a nice thin line in the skin. Nothing that would’ve killed it. They must’ve taken it out for some other reason.
The elevator pinged again, the two-note arrival announcement reminiscent of the closing-doors warning on the subway.
Loshak straightened up at the sound, thinking he probably looked like Jan’s little dog when it heard her car pull into the drive, ears perking up, brows high. Except Nags — the pup’s name was Maggy, but he’d started calling it Nags to tease Jan, and to his ex-wife’s dismay the dog seemed to love the name — was always looking forward to what lay on the other side of the doors.
Himself? Not so much.
Loshak boarded the elevator and thumbed the button. He leaned back against the handrail and rolled his head on his neck as the numbers flashed by. It didn’t help much for releasing the tension.
There weren’t a lot of reasons ASAC Conner would’ve called Loshak in. Not after the parting shot Loshak had given him the last time they were face-to-face. Since the confrontation on Loshak’s lawn, communication between them had been almost nonexistent, the rare exceptions coming through third parties or in the form of impersonal interoffice memos, sent these days via email.
No mention of what had happened. No repeat of Conner’s threats nor any repercussions for Loshak breaking his nose. The hammer was well overdue to drop.
The elevator spat Loshak out into another lifeless stone, metal, and glass lobby, this one with a plant. A fern. The easiest type to tell from the plastic and silk impostors, as a few stray brown leaves had fallen off the fronds to be swept up this evening by janitorial staff. According to Jan, ferns shed like that when it got too warm for them. Loshak thought it would have thrived in the year-round cool, drafty climate of the Hoover, but apparently not.
When he reached Conner’s section of the floor, the ASAC’s administrative assistant Rosa was on the phone. She gave a little start when she saw Loshak and flashed him a smile full of bright white teeth.
“You can go on in,” she stage-whispered, covering the mouthpiece with her hand. “He’s ready for you.”
Loshak sent her a friendly two-fingered salute as he passed.
Everyone around Conner seemed to favor the teeth bleaching route over the more natural shades that came from drinking high-octane coffee around the clock. But DC was a lot like Hollywood, Loshak supposed — you had to be ready to be caught on camera at any moment.
Little reminders of the political dog and pony show were everywhere when he visited, and it always made Loshak glad he’d gone the teaching route in Quantico instead of the ladder climb here in the Hoover building.
Switchable Smart Glass walls divided Conner’s office from the reception area out front, able to frost over at the touch of a button for privacy. Today the walls were clear, showing off the well-lit room, large wooden desk covered in papers, a computer, and a laptop. A massive wall of windows looked out onto the Capitol, just one of the many benefits of a corner office.
In spite of Rosa’s assurance that Conner was ready for him, the ASAC’s chair was facing away from the door toward the bank of windows, like a Bond villain studying the skyline and waiting for his cue to turn around in dramatic fashion.
Loshak stepped into the gap left by the half-open door and raised a hand to rap his knuckles on the glass.
Conner stopped him before he could.
“Agent Loshak.” The ASAC didn’t turn his chair away from the windows. “Come in.”
Loshak let his hand fall to his side. Conner must’ve seen him in the reflection.
Once he stepped inside, the office felt like a world unto itself. The sound of Rosa’s voice, the tap of computer keys, and the ring of distant footsteps became strangely muted.
Out the windows, a low gray sky hung over the bustling streets. Vehicles and the occasional bicycle jostled into lanes, and bug-like figures set a brisk pace at the crosswalk or traced familiar routes over the sidewalks. Most of them were in a hurry, as if they could smell rain on the air.
Conner sat there, watching it all go by.
Half-consciously, Loshak flexed the wrist that always acted up in this kind of weather.
“You wanted to see me,” he said.
Conner grunted and made an absent gesture toward his desk without looking back.
“Take a look at that file for me.”
The ASAC’s voice was distant, distracted. Something about it put Loshak on edge. He kept an eye on the man as he crossed the couple steps between himself and the desk and picked up the manila folder.
“Fresh from Tucson, Arizona,” Conner said.
Loshak flipped the cover open and scanned the contents. Grisly photos of a woman’s body draped naked across the arms of a cactus.
“BLM land?” Loshak guessed.
There was a lot of it down in the southwest, and the Bureau of Land Management would explain a single murder coming across a federal desk. Though given the positioning of the corpse, Loshak thought there was more to it. One-off murders didn’t usually involve this sort of theatrics.
The office chair shifted under Conner’s weight as he rotated it halfway toward the desk.
A few seconds passed, then Conner seemed to remember that Loshak had asked a question. He shook his head. The movement was sluggish, almost dreamy.
It crossed Loshak’s mind that the ASAC might be on something, Xanax or Oxy. Six months ago, he never would’ve considered it, but then six months ago, he would’ve doubted a human trafficking conspiracy might have its hooks in somebody in the Bureau.
“There have been other murders, then,” Loshak said.
“This is the latest. Possible links to three others locally. All the other vics show signs of professional hits. Clean, two in the back of the head type stuff.”
Conner met Loshak’s eyes for a brief second, then his gaze floated back to the window.
The ASAC’s pupils looked normal, at least. No dilation like Loshak would’ve expected from someone on a tranq or pinpoint the way you’d see with an opioid.
“Going from professional executions to a display like this would be quite the escalation.” Loshak frowned, dragging his eyes back to the file from the space cadet by the windows. He started flipping through the pages, scanning the black and white reports. “What’s linking them?”
Conner laughed. A low, sick sound that made the hair on the back of Loshak’s neck prickle.
“What’s linking any of us, Agent Loshak.”
He delivered it as a statement, bitterness seeping in where that dreamy distance had been.
Loshak swallowed. What the hell was going on here? He’d expected this meeting to be awkward, but this was just… weird.
Maybe Conner was having a stroke or something. Then again, the guy couldn’t be more than thirty-five, forty at the absolute edge of the ballpark, so that seemed unlikely.
“I told you,” Conner said, shaking his head. “Goddammit, I warned you.”
That was when the name of the victim finally clicked in Loshak’s head — Tina Barlowe. He’d glanced over it a few times already, but now it finally made sense. Conner calling him in, the weird attitude, the non sequitur reprimands.
Tina Barlowe was on the yarn board in Loshak’s storage unit, one of the names he and Spinks had turned up as a possible connection to the Kansas City conspiracy. She was one of only three women on the list.
Neither of them had known what to make of Barlowe. There had been at least one woman directly tied to the human trafficking case in Kansas City, but Tina and the other two women on the storage unit conspiracy board were just names. Loshak hadn’t been able to find any concrete evidence that they were actually connected to Kansas City… until now.
In his office chair, Conner was rubbing his face absently as he stared down eleven stories at the traffic jamming Pennsylvania Avenue. Loshak wondered if he hadn’t misread the signs. Maybe he was on something.
“She was part of the Kansas City thing, then,” Loshak said. “And when I check the names for the other victims down there…”
Conner’s mouth moved. Teeth flashing and disappearing quickly.
Loshak wasn’t sure if it was a smile or a wince. Maybe a little of both.
“Every goddamn one of them.” The ASAC nodded, a long breath hissing out of his nose. His chest deflated as the air left. “Pick your poison.”
The words didn’t make any sense, but they made Loshak’s pulse shift into high gear. He swallowed, the click loud in the muted silence of the office.
“See, the problem is he got sloppy,” Conner said, shaking his head again. “He left clues.”
He sat forward in his seat suddenly and locked eyes with Loshak. His brows bounced up and down now as he talked, suddenly animated instead of spacy.
“There’s every chance you could find him. If you don’t, someone else will.”
“That’s why you called me in?”
Loshak shuffled his feet to get the blood flowing again. His caveman fight-or-flight instincts were flashing the Prepare for Turbulence sign.
“To find this guy?”
Conner’s face shifted, the expression softening.
“I did what I could, Agent Loshak.” He ran a shaking hand through his sandy hair, mussing it up a little on the side. “They wanted to finish it in Chicago. You and the reporter both. I knew better, but I stuck my neck out anyway. Spoke up when I should’ve shut up. They sent pros after you. Had them tailing you all over town. If I hadn’t said something…”
He pulled his hand down his face, stretching the soft skin, then brought the hand down on his thigh in a fist.
“I just couldn’t keep my fucking mouth shut. And now? Now I’m paying the price.”
“Pros?” The meaning took a second to register. “Professional… hitmen?”
Loshak took an unconscious step forward, pointing the file at Conner, his index finger closed inside as if he was holding his place in a book. A portion of his brain registered that it was a ridiculous motion, like this conversation was a momentary distraction and when it was finished, he would go back to reading. His mind reeled, trying to piece the scattered bits of what Conner was saying together.
“Who hired them? Who are you talking about?”
Conner’s face went dark. His eyes dead.
“They know everything.” The ASAC stood up and faced Loshak squarely for the first time since he had come in. “Everything.”
That was when Loshak saw the younger man had a gun in his left hand. Had been holding it out of view since Loshak stepped into the room.
Agent Loshak felt a heaviness sinking in his middle.
“Hey, hold on.”
Loshak backpedaled, raising his hand and the folder in a placating gesture.
“Just hold on a minute. Let’s talk about this.”
There was a feminine gasp behind Loshak. He bumped into the small, soft form of Rosa. Felt her face thump against his shoulder blade and heard her glasses scritch against the fabric. Without thinking, he stuck out his arm like he was driving and had just slammed on the brakes and wanted to stop his passenger from banging her head on the dash.
Tears welled in the ASAC’s eyes.
“There’s nothing to talk about. Nothing anybody can do now. Sometimes you’ve got to take it into your own hands.” He sniffed. “I’m sorry. That’s all.”
Conner put the gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. The pop was too loud in the enclosed space, ringing and shuddering and echoing everywhere even though the muzzle was covered.
And then the ASAC pitched to the floor, the blowback flinging him forward, dropping his top half out of sight behind the desk.
Only his feet jutted into view. Pant cuffs ruffled around a pair of black dress shoes.
Loshak gaped. Lips popping as they parted.
He didn’t know if he blinked or if his brain whited out in panic, but the next thing he knew, he was staring at blood splatter trickling down the glass. It looked black against the gray of the clouds and cityscape, red highlights shining in the fluorescent bulbs of the office.
Behind him, Rosa let out a thin whine. Her fingers clamped down on his forearm, digging into the meat. Hand quivering against him.
“Call 911,” Loshak said, barely enough air behind his words to force them out of his throat.
“Oh my God,” Rosa whimpered. “Conner? Is he…”
“Go,” Loshak snapped, shoving the panic-stricken secretary back toward her desk. “Call 911, now!”
The sharper tone did it. Rosa lunged for the phone, one of her heels coming off and almost tripping her as she went.
Loshak turned back to what little he could see of the Assistant Special Agent in Charge.
A trickle of blood dripped down the glass. Tapped at the shoes. Soaked into the cuffs of his pants.
We hope you are enjoying the book so far. To continue reading...