When two fishermen discover a corpse floating in the Clackamas river, profiler Violet Darger heads to rural Oregon to hunt another serial killer. What she discovers in the woods might change the course of her life.
What secrets does the water conceal?
The girl in the water marks the third such case in the area -- all drowned with superficial stab wounds and discovered in a body of water -- and Darger feels certain she won't be the last.
The corpses are badly decomposed. The flesh purpled and softened from their time in the water. The forensic evidence distorted by decay and the elements.
But the victims share one more thing in common -- all were discovered roughly five days post mortem. A coincidence? Something with meaning to be discerned?
Darger suspects the timeline to be significant, but without evidence, she can only guess as to why. That sets up what might be the key to the case:
What is the killer doing to the victims for the four days between their deaths and dumping their bodies?
It's Darger's first case without Loshak, and it will test her like none before.
This pulse-pounding thriller will have you holding your breath until the final page. Fans of John Sandford, Karin Slaughter, Gillian Flynn, and Lisa Gardner should check out the Violet Darger series.
The books in the series can be read in any order, so grab Five Days Post Mortem and get started today.
Praise for the Violet Darger series:
"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
"The Violet Darger books are honestly the best detective novels I've ever read." -- Devin
"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
"I devour each installment in this series the instant it is available." -- Shelley R. Klouzal
"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
"Violet Darger is a unique, incredible character, and I immensely enjoyed taking this journey with her." -- Cat
"A rush of excitement, twists and turns." -- C. Munger
"Insightful, bloody. Page turner about the corruption of morality and warped thinking patterns." -- Bella from Readingnstuff.com
"Refuses to let go until you have read the last sentence." -- Bloodymummer
"Reading a Violet Darger novel always feels like coming home to an old friend—we hang out, we drink some coffee, we talk about her and Loshak’s personal lives, we interview victims’ families, we chase down some serial killers—all the stuff you normally do with your friends, except better. More exciting." -- eden Hudson, author of Revenge of the Bloodslinger
"These books are kind of a nice combination of crime fiction and horror. Ok nice might not be the right word to use. How about gruesome. Or thrilling? Terrifying? Gripping? They're all that. They suck you in right away. And you just can't put them down until it's over." -- Melanie
"If you are a fan of Silence of the Lambs, this book is a spiritual successor." -- Amazon customer
"Vargus and McBain spin a fine tale with characters I want to climb inside -- but not in a weird way." -- Jeanne Tarrants
Release date: January 3, 2019
Publisher: Smarmy Press
Print pages: 422
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Five Days Post Mortem
A voice in your head.
It sounds small just now. Tight and skittish.
Soon they will know. They will all know.
You walk now in the dark. Only the moon above to guide you.
You pick your way through the woods. Creep away from the dump site. From the surging water of the river, the rapids that tumble over each other endlessly.
You’re excited and scared and thrumming with a current of cold energy. Dark energy. Cruel impulses that you don’t understand. An appetite for violence and destruction.
An appetite for death.
Some wickedness pushed you here, and now it will push you somewhere else. Anywhere else.
The faint glow of the deed still burns in the hollow of your chest. A throb of pleasure that you can never hold on to, that never lasts.
And sweat leaks from your palms. From your brow. Sops the hair along your hairline. You are greased with it. Glistening with it.
You tell yourself your own story in your head — a rushing stream of words not unlike the river. That disembodied voice in your skull cataloguing and commenting on the things happening to you. Recording snippets of words and playing them back. Little whispers narrating for you.
And you watch yourself watch yourself. Consciousness of consciousness of consciousness. Shadows of shadows. Infinite levels. Echoes that overlap and drown everything out.
Soon. Soon. Soon.
They will know what you did.
The branches pop and crunch as you bend them out of your way. Crashing through. Too loud. You need to get out of here.
Sometimes you wish you could turn it off. That voice in your head. That self in your head.
But no. It doesn’t work that way. Once it’s off, it can’t come back.
The big sleep. The dirt nap. Like the girl in the river back there.
Gone for good.
You can still see the water pull her away from you. Sucking and ripping. The current a thrashing, violent thing. Wild. Aggressive.
The memory flares in your head. A searing flash of images. Burning so bright that it pulls you away from the here and now. Incinerates reality for a bit. Melts it right out of the way.
Stops your chest mid-inhale.
And she is there. In your head. The movie of her projected into your skull just as she was minutes ago.
Pale skin glowing purple in the moonlight. The dark of the water lapping at every side of her. A flutter of black wetness that seems excited to touch her, to take her away.
Tendrils of hair dance in the current like snakes, whipping around her face. Wet coils of darkness. Undulating.
She disappears under the surface like it was a magic trick. And you hold your breath. Wait. This overwhelming empty feeling pulsating inside of you like it could burst out of your ribcage in a bloody spray.
And then she pops up in the rapids a few beats later. Reappearing. Completing the magician’s illusion.
And she is already rushing away from you. Fast. Shrinking and fading. Bobbing along the water’s surface, the rapids flinging her limpness about like a toy boat. Rough with her.
She disappears around a bend. The white of her skin is the last pop of brightness you see in the half-light.
Reality coagulates before you. Overtakes the memory.
And your truck appears there. Parked in the dirt along the edge of the woods.
You climb in. Jerk the key in the ignition. The steering wheel cold against your hands.
You tear out of the parking lot. Dirt and stone flinging every which way. Tinkling against the undercarriage.
And your heart hammers in your chest. Jaw clenching and unclenching.
And little splotches spatter the edge of your vision. A pink and black quiver in the periphery.
The world will know.
The fishing lines flicked in and out of the water with little snaps and swishes. Hooked flies fluttered on the surface and retreated with each pluck of the appropriate string.
Dan and Jim didn’t talk for long stretches when they were out on the water like this. They just stood on the muddy banks of the river and fished and slurped down cans of Deschutes, listened to the sound of the river rushing past.
That was the point, though, Dan thought. To relax. Get away from life’s troubles. It was all either of them wanted. If they handled it right, they didn’t need to talk.
The sun crept over the horizon and kept climbing, dawn giving way to full daylight. Still, neither fisherman saw any returns on his line-flicking efforts. Not so much as a nibble.
“They ain’t bitin’ hardly at all today. Tell you what,” Jim said just above a whisper, breaking a long silence. He said “what” as though the word started with an h — “Tell you h-what.”
And there it was — what Dan thought of as Jim’s redneck accent making one of its cameo appearances. The twang didn’t dominate his friend’s speech patterns. It just poked its head out once in a while to say thang or purty or something about the po-lice.
These little linguistic flourishes never failed to amuse Dan. He didn’t look down on them. Didn’t judge. More than anything, he found himself at a loss as to where this way of speaking had come from in his friend’s case.
They’d been friends from third grade on, had experienced all the same things in life — more or less — for the next 26 years, and they were from Oregon for Christ’s sake, not Alabama. Even so, touches of this vernacular had crept into Jim’s speech somewhere along the way, laid down roots that seemed unlikely to be ripped out easily.
Life was full of mysteries, great and small.
Dan knew that this accent existed in varying degrees in any rural area in the country. It was just weird that it’d happened to Jim and not him.
“Ain’t too hungry, I guess,” Dan said, not sure why he felt the need to fall into an ain’t call and response. Maybe the dialect was infectious, like yawning.
Both men paused the casting of their lines and stared into the muddy water as though some explanation lay there, just beneath the surface. If the river knew why the fish were laying off, though, it offered them nothing. The water swirled and churned and moved along. Babbled out its endless wet sound.
Jim broke the motionless spell to get back to it, flicking his line out over the ripples and jerking it back, falling into an easy rhythm.
Dan took a break from casting to try to adjust his poncho. The seams along the shoulders had shifted forward and the fabric now restricted his throwing motion some, made him feel awkward.
Once he had that fixed, he fished a hand into the cooler for another can of beer, cracked it, brought it to his lips and slurped. Tasted good. Hoppy and bright. At least they had that to fall back on. Fish or no fish, they had good beer. He’d savor this one before he went back to his rod, he thought and let his gaze drift out over the water.
He watched the bobbing object a while before he really noticed it. A bloated looking thing upstream, slowly drifting their way. As it drew closer, the size of it started to become clear to him.
It was big. Puffy. Looked naked. Even before the notion of it being a body truly occurred to him, he thought it looked naked. Like a blowup doll bleached white.
Dan shifted his feet, the mud sucking at the rubber soles of his boots. The beer can remained frozen mid-lift, halted just shy of his lips and held there.
And now Jim saw it as well. He stopped casting his line, the faintest little sigh coming out of him as he did a double-take and locked onto the mass in the water.
“Goddamn but she’s all tore up,” he whispered, his words whistling a little between his teeth. He repeated the last three words but slower, dragging them out. “All tore up.”
They both stood very still, the sound of the river seeming to swell to fill the silence.
Dan remembered to breathe, the air making a ragged sound as it entered his nostrils and throat. He could feel his pulse squishing in his ears.
The dead body seemed to make sense to his eyes in stages.
A female, he thought. Pretty far gone to bloat and rot. The lifeless white of the thing going pale purple in places. Skin sloughing away in others. Soft and wrong and pulpy somehow. Like pulled apart wads of wet paper.
The body hit a surging spot in the current, and its bulk twirled in the water, the head now turning to face them. The river seemed hell-bent on sliding the dead thing toward them, and Jim took a step back instinctively.
The mouth was open. Gaping.
No. Not open exactly.
The jaw was gone. And the teeth on the top were missing too. Pulled away as the flesh went mushy. Swollen and colorless and as soft as the Friskies pâté he fed his cat this morning. Spongy.
The face sheared off at the gummy palate. The once-pink flesh draining to something pale and wrong. Pearly. The shade of a maggot with the faintest pink hue.
A floater, Dan thought, not sure where the words came from. A floater.
Darger sat in one of the hard-backed chairs at her dining room table. Her laptop rested on the table in front of her, its screen casting a diffuse glow over her face.
Her eyes flitted down to the corner of the screen, checking the time yet again. Any minute now.
She shifted in her seat, feeling fidgety. The chair was probably the least comfortable in her apartment, but in a way, that was good. It would keep her alert. She’d tried the sofa, but the soft cushions and throw pillows made her feel like she was slouching. Next she’d moved to one of the stools in the nook off the kitchen. Not bad, but the height was all wrong, causing her to hunch over the keyboard.
She adjusted the angle of her computer screen and suddenly noticed the layer of dust, lint, and dried splatters of God-knows-what on the surface. Pulling her sleeve over her hand, she wiped at the filth, resorting to scraping at some of the spots with a fingernail.
Why had she agreed to do this?
She already knew the answer: Because Loshak had asked her to.
He said he was worried about her. Felt responsible. And the guilt trip snapped onto her like a bear trap wrapping its jaws around an unsuspecting animal’s foot.
Well, she thought as she waited for the call to come in, at least I have nothing to lose. She didn’t need the job, after all. She was only technically “on leave” from the FBI. She could go back whenever she wanted.
But did she even want to go back? She still hadn’t decided.
She wondered if what Loshak told her was true. That consulting was different. Different rules, less bureaucracy. She was a student of psychology, after all. Any institution — whether a lumbering dinosaur like the FBI or a small private consulting firm — was a beast of bureaucracy. Humans were creatures of social order, which was just a more scientific name for bureaucracy. All of society was ruled by the arbitrary dictates determined by the top of the pecking order. So the question was not whether there was bureaucracy at Prescott Consulting, but what kind.
And if she didn’t want to return to the FBI, then she did need this job. Or a job. Her mother might have married into being independently wealthy, but Darger had not, and she would rather chew off her own foot than be financially dependent on someone else.
Yeah, she thought. She might need this job after all.
Maybe that was why she was so nervous.
An electronic jingle from the computer’s tinny speaker announced the incoming Skype call.
Darger took a deep breath and used the reflection on the screen to make sure she didn’t have anything in her teeth. Smoothing her hair with one hand, she reached out with the other and answered the call.
Dr. Margaret Prescott looked like she was in her late forties, but Darger thought she was probably older than that given the mandatory retirement age in the FBI and the fact that Dr. Prescott had been one of Loshak’s mentors.
She wore a cream-colored silk blouse with a matching jacket over it, and her blonde hair was sheared into a stylish pixie cut.
“Violet,” the woman said with a charming smile. “It’s a pleasure to finally be speaking with you.”
Darger nodded at the projection on the screen.
“Dr. Prescott. Thank you for the opportunity.”
The older woman waved a dismissive hand. Her fingernails were manicured, but unpainted and cut short. A gold watch encircling her wrist glittered in the light from a desktop lamp. It looked expensive.
“Call me Margaret, for Christ’s sake. Or just Prescott if you’re more comfortable with that. I reserve my academic title for when I’m on the stand as an expert witness or for my byline in the psych journals.”
“Very well… Prescott,” Darger said.
She wondered if it was a test. A real kiss-ass would try to ingratiate themselves by insisting on referring to her as “doctor.” And calling her Margaret given the circumstances would smack of over-familiarity. The simple surname acknowledged that they were peers but also maintained an air of professionalism.
It was possible Darger was over-analyzing, but Loshak had cautioned her that Margaret Prescott was shrewd and calculating. She’d hardly needed the warning. Dr. Prescott was a pioneer in the field of Criminal Psychology, and though Darger attended Quantico years after her departure as an instructor there, her reputation lingered on the campus.
Above all, she’d been known for her elaborate psychological cunning. Playing mind games with students and faculty alike. Constantly testing people.
Prescott rested her chin on a closed fist and leaned a little closer to her computer’s camera.
“I’d love to say Victor has told me so much about you, but that simply wouldn’t be the truth. He’s very tight-lipped about his protégé.”
“Yeah, well, I think Loshak might have been absent the day his preschool class learned about sharing.”
With her head thrown back and her mouth open wide enough that Darger could see a silver amalgam filling in one of her molars, Dr. Prescott laughed.
She had the laugh of a jackal. It made her sound slightly unhinged, like maybe she was such an expert when it came to criminal psychology because she was a little insane herself. In an odd way, Darger kind of liked her more for it.
Amusement lingered in her eyes when Dr. Prescott spoke again.
“What our dear Victor did tell me is that you’re frustrated with the red tape that hinders the Bureau all too often. If that’s the case, it might be that our operation is more to your liking. Of course, I don’t want to give the impression that I employ a bunch of trigger-happy cowboys. We always strive to be thorough and professional. We dot our i’s and cross our t’s, we just do it more efficiently than most law enforcement agencies.”
The muscles in Darger’s gut tensed. This topic was a potential minefield, one of Prescott’s famous traps. Answer too enthusiastically about being free from the limitations of the FBI, and she might come across as not only undisciplined but disloyal.
“I can appreciate that. And I don’t have a problem with the rules and regs. It’s the politics I’m not interested in. Not when it prevents me from doing my job.”
“I’m glad to hear you say that,” Dr. Prescott said with a frank nod, and Darger felt herself relax a little.
Settling back in her seat, the doctor blinked thoughtfully.
“I have a feeling this is going to work out beautifully for both of us. Are you married?”
The sharp left turn into personal territory threw Darger for a moment, and she didn’t answer right away.
A conspiratorial smirk spread over Prescott’s face.
“To be clear, I’m not asking as your employer. That would be illegal.”
The bark of her hyena laugh roared over the line.
“Um, no. I’m not married.”
“Girlfriend?” There was a slight arch of an eyebrow there, as if Dr. Prescott thought she was being salacious with this one.
Darger felt her jaw clench, the muscles tighten at her temples. Why was any of this Prescott’s business?
“Nope,” she said, and she almost left it at that. Almost. “I mean, I experimented some in college, but I’ve never been in a serious relationship with a woman. Are you terribly worried that might affect my ability to work for Prescott Consulting?”
Darger immediately regretted these words, and even more the taunting tone in which she spoke them. She’d meant to be on her best behavior, all smiles and non-threatening, and now she was challenging her potential boss in their first conversation.
For her part, however, Margaret Prescott seemed unfazed. Her smirk widened into a manic shark’s grin for a beat, and this time her head fully tipped back when she laughed.
“That’s great. I love that. You’re a firecracker, aren’t you? Victor told me, but goodness. You’re the real deal.”
Her voice sounded guttural with laughter now — like a giddy grandma, Darger thought. But within the time it took to clear her throat, Prescott had composed herself and returned to firing questions.
“And where are you from originally?”
“Colorado. Outside Denver.”
“Of course! The Leonard Stump connection. I’d forgotten all about that,” Prescott said.
The smile faded from Dr. Prescott’s perfectly made-up lips. Even transmitted over the screen from a thousand miles away, her crystal blue gaze was penetrating.
“Tell me, how are you holding up after that? From the little Victor told me, it sounded like it was a rather dramatic experience for you.”
“I passed all of the FBI fitness tests, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
Lowering her chin, Prescott’s stare intensified.
“Violet, dear, I’m not talking about the Bureau’s silly physical fitness exams. I’m talking about you.”
The sudden concern threw Darger, and she felt off-balance.
“Oh. I’m… fine.” She steeled herself, regained her composure. “The physical therapy sucked, if I’m being completely honest. I don’t recommend getting shot in the head if you can avoid it.”
Prescott threw her head back again and cackled.
“Jesus! He said you were tough, but I think that was an understatement.”
The tassels of gold chain hanging from her ears dangled as she shook her head back and forth.
“I don’t know how much he’s told you about our operation here, but Prescott Consulting is one of the top forensic psychology consultancies in the country.”
“You have quite the reputation. I followed the Mozes trial in the news. I understand it was your work that got him convicted?”
“A fascinating case,” Prescott said, running a hand through her short hair. “We’ll have to find a moment one of these days to discuss it. His mother is a classic narcissist. She’d make a fabulous case study for one of Victor’s classes at Quantico. But that’s for another time. We have a case out in Oregon — a very rural community with limited resources when it comes to this type of investigation.”
“And what type of investigation is that?” Darger asked.
“A suspected serial murderer. We’ve had three bodies turn up — all in bodies of water, the latest found in the Clackamas River by a couple of fishermen. The first body they chalked up to an accidental drowning. The girl went missing after some sort of school sports event, and no one could explain why she would have been anywhere near the river. Then again, these things do happen.”
Prescott picked up a shiny gold pen and toyed with it as she spoke.
“When the second body was found, people started to talk. Two women, gone missing miles from the river, only to end up being fished out five days later? It didn’t add up. By the time Shannon Mead — the third victim — went missing, the phrase ‘serial killer’ had started to pop up in the media, on the lips of the victims’ families. The locals couldn’t ignore the pattern anymore. And that’s where we come in.”
Darger was jotting down notes on a pad of paper.
“Where exactly in Oregon is this?”
“Sandy is the name. A small town outside of Portland. They’ve only got two detectives on staff, so this is a bit out of their league. All the deceased have been pretty far gone to decay by the time they’ve been found, which makes the forensics tricky, as you can imagine, so we’ve been assisting with that. But what they really need is a profiler, so I’d like to send you out there on a trial basis. It will give both of us a chance to see if this is a good fit,” Prescott said, and then her eyes narrowed slightly. “You’d be working as an independent contractor, just to be clear. And I have to remind you that you’re not technically working in the capacity of a law enforcement agent. I assume you’re licensed to carry a concealed weapon, but I wanted to be clear on that. I’m sure you know as well as I do that law enforcement personnel are creatures of habit. It can be a difficult transition for some to enter the private workforce.”
Darger gave a single nod.
“I doubt it’ll be a problem. How soon do you need me there?”
“Tomorrow, if you can be ready that quickly.”
“I can do that.”
The doctor clapped her hands together.
“Excellent. I’ll have my personal assistant coordinate with you to send over the case files and make the necessary arrangements. I do hope we’ll have an opportunity to meet in person soon, Violet.”
“Likewise,” Darger said.
Even after they’d said their goodbyes and disconnected the call, Darger swore she felt those piercing blue irises staring at her through the screen. The gaze was alight with the hunger of a keen predator, like a hawk or a lioness.
Something in those eyes told Darger to tread lightly with Margaret Prescott.
The rented Ford Fusion zipped through the twists and turns of the rural Oregon road. Darger followed the winding path of the Clackamas River, surrounded on all sides by green. There were the trees themselves - Grand Firs and Lodgepole Pines — but also the vines and moss clinging to nearly every surface. The foliage of the undergrowth almost seemed to explode from the ground.
She passed a lone farmhouse on a hill, bordered on each side by two massive Ponderosa pines. The house wasn’t small, but the trees were easily three times as tall, towering over the structure, dwarfing it.
It struck her that there was something wild about the trees here, the way they encroached on the road, reaching limbs toward the vehicles speeding by. It felt like a place that belonged to the forest. Like at any moment she might be swallowed up by a cluster of the conifers.
An uneasy feeling wormed in her gut. She wasn’t sure if it was the environment making her feel claustrophobic or her current assignment.
Was she nervous about the job? She was truly on her own this time. She’d always had Loshak there before. Always had a partner to lean on. But maybe it would be good to fly solo for once. Not that she blamed Loshak for any of her ill will toward the FBI. But sometimes change was good.
Then there was Margaret Prescott. Darger couldn’t help but feel like she was under the microscope for this case. It was a test, after all. And Dr. Prescott wasn’t known for grading on a curve.
She mulled over the details of the case as she drove. A floater — such an endearing term — discovered by two men out fishing on the river. The woman’s body was so badly decomposed, her entire bottom jaw had disintegrated while she lay submerged in her watery grave.
The body belonged to Shannon Mead, an elementary school teacher who’d gone missing five days earlier. She was the third dead woman to be pulled from the river in as many months.
A shiver ran up Darger’s spine at the thought.
Bodies found in water had always creeped Darger out more than others. She thought it could have something to do with a particular memory burned into her mind from childhood.
She and her mother had been visiting family in Minnesota. Their home was on a small lake, and one of Darger’s second cousins — once or twice removed, she could never remember — had taken her on a tour of the waterside.
They spent the afternoon plucking at lily pads and chasing frogs. And then they found the turtle.
It was a massive specimen, just the very top hump of its shell protruding from the water.
“Let’s see if we can catch him,” Darger’s cousin said.
The older girl crept to the water’s edge, plunged her hands into the water on either side of the shell, and grabbed hold.
“I got him!”
She lifted then, but as the shell cleared the water, they saw that something was wrong.
The turtle had no legs. Nor a head. In fact, it was just an empty shell.
Or almost empty.
Thick white clumps of tissue poured from the orifices, the liquefied remains of the dead turtle. This chunky matter was accompanied by a terrible odor. Death, decay, and rot.
Darger’s cousin shrieked and dropped the shell back into the water, and both girls ran back to the house where they fell into hysterics when trying to explain to their parents the horror they’d uncovered. Her cousin’s mother eventually calmed them down with Froot Loops, of all things. Darger could still remember clutching that paper Dixie cup filled with dry cereal, crunching away while tears congealed on her cheeks. Her mother had always refused to buy “sugar cereal,” so the little neon circles had been a rare treat for the young Violet. She was pretty sure that was why she remembered it so well.
Well, that and the smell of the dead turtle. It was fishy and foul, and her recollection of it was worse than the smell of any dead body she’d witnessed to this day.
Another reason for her to be feeling some amount of anxiety, she supposed.
She wondered if the locals would be more accepting of a consultant outside of law enforcement. The cooperation between the FBI and local jurisdictions was usually tenuous at best. Perhaps being on the case as a privately-employed consultant would be less threatening to the local cops. Not that she’d be doing her job any differently. Technically she and Loshak had always been acting as consultants. That was how the BAU operated. The cases they worked were still under the purview of the city, county, or state police force. But that didn’t matter to the local guys, who always treated them like double-crossing interlopers swooping in to steal their thunder.
There was also a possibility that lacking the shiny FBI credentials would mean they wouldn’t take her seriously at all. The thought caused her to glance down at the empty space formerly occupied by her badge.
“I’m a civilian now,” she muttered out loud.
Civilian. The word felt oddly-shaped on her tongue.
She could still picture her badge and ID tumbling toward the Detroit River. Flapping like moth wings all the way down from the MacArthur Bridge to the water.
She’d left that out when she’d talked to Loshak afterward. She wasn’t in the mood to explain that in the mindset she’d been in at that particular moment, tossing her badge away like an old candy bar wrapper had seemed like a perfectly reasonable thing to do. Loshak only would have chided her for being impulsive, which was true. She just didn’t want to hear it.
Working at the FBI had been her singular goal for most of her life. To be in a place where she was considering leaving that dream behind had her questioning her sanity some days.
The wooden sign for the small park appeared on the roadside to her left, sinuous vines winding around the lower halves of the posts. This was her destination. Darger turned onto the narrow lane and followed the path to a parking lot set only a stone’s throw from the river. The water sparkled in the early afternoon sunlight.
Darger parked and got out, glad to be able to stretch her legs after the long flight and then the drive out into the boonies.
A few other vehicles were scattered about the lot, but none of them seemed to be law enforcement. Good. She wanted a fresh, quiet look at the scene. By herself. It was how she worked best. Well, that wasn’t entirely true. But she was on her own now, and that was fine.
She walked closer to the water’s edge where a lichen-covered picnic table stood watch over the day use area. She recognized it from some of the crime scene photographs.
Flipping the file open, she paged through the photos, stopping when she reached those focused on the small park. The local police had been thorough, collecting what bits of possible evidence they could from the spot, in case it had served as the scene of the murder, though Darger was sure the killer would have opted for somewhere with more privacy. Under the cover of the nearby forest, for example.
Darger inhaled. It smelled like cedar and cool, clean water. Her eyes flitted from the glittering surface of the river to the green boughs that swayed gently in the breeze. It was the kind of setting she’d expect to see featured on a motivational poster, with a cheesy, clichéd phrase about nature and relaxation written beneath.
Relax. That was what the two fishermen had been trying to do a couple days ago when they discovered the body of Shannon Mead. The bloated, waterlogged corpse was a pale pinkish-gray, the color leeched from her flesh like a dead fish.
The file indicated the men had found the floater about a quarter mile upstream from the park. By the time law enforcement arrived, the body was mostly submerged, tangled up in the aquatic weeds and deadfall at the river’s edge.
Knowing of the many uncertainties an investigation faced when a body spent any amount of time in water, Darger figured they’d probably never know exactly where Shannon Mead was killed and dumped. Still, she wanted to see the place where they’d fished her body out of the river.
Fixing her gaze on the looming fir trees that bordered the parking lot, Darger tucked the folder under her arm, zipped up her parka, and stepped into the woods.
Darger threaded her way through the dense Oregon wilderness, a tunnel of greenery arching overhead. The towering trees cast a permanent shadow that caused an artificial twilight beneath their canopy.
The air was thick with a damp, mulchy smell. Fresh earth, still wet.
It felt like a jungle. Sounded like one, too, with all the birds calling and insects chirping. She thought of the farm she’d passed on the drive and the small field planted with a cover crop of alfalfa. She suspected that the farmers around here were constantly at battle with the encroaching forest.
Her footsteps barely made a sound on the soft carpet of moss and pine needles covering the forest floor. Though the parking lot was only a short distance behind her, she felt far away from the rest of the world. She looked over her shoulder, but the trees completely blocked the view of the small park. It was a little creepy the way the forest seemed to close in around her, cutting her off from her car, from civilization.
It felt different than most crime scenes she’d been to before. More claustrophobic. More secluded.
The file rested in her hand, a manila folder packed with gore. Darger glanced down at a photo of Shannon Mead’s bloated, fish-white corpse. Mottled. Skin sloughing off in places. There were wounds all over, too numerous to count — whether they occurred before death or were the result of being in the water so long would be almost impossible to determine at this point.
The photographs were grisly enough; she could only imagine how gruesome it would have been to see it floating down the river unexpectedly. A bulbous gray-white thing bobbing and flitting along with the whims of the water. Creeping ever closer.
She shuddered a little and glanced away from the folder, checking her location.
Just ahead she spied something flapping in the breeze. A stripe of yellow bisecting the natural greenery. Plastic tape emblazoned with big black letters: CRIME SCENE - DO NOT CROSS. It cordoned off the little area where they’d pulled the body out. Probably not much point in it, since she doubted there’d been many gawkers way back here in the woods. Just procedure, but….
A twig snapped, and Darger caught movement near one of the huge hemlock trees.
There was someone crouching in the northwest corner of the crime scene area, just at the water’s edge.
And her first thought was that serial killers often returned to their scenes. It was a way to relive the crimes, revisit the dark fantasies. To feel those violent impulses wash over themselves again and again.
Adrenaline spiked in her bloodstream. Made her pupils dilate. She sucked in a gasping breath.
Her hand moved to her hip, reaching for her Glock. Instead she found air.
Right. No FBI-issued Glock today, of course. She was carrying her personal weapon — an M&P Shield.
Different holster. Inside her jacket.
Her fingers found the grip of the weapon, latched onto it. She didn’t like the unfamiliar feel of it, but at least she was armed with something.
All of this confusion threw her enough that she reconsidered her actions. Her palm rested against the butt of the pistol but did not draw it.
She blinked a few times. Really studied the man squatted there near the river.
He wasn’t in uniform, but he was wearing semi-professional clothes: khaki pants, a shirt, and tie. And latex gloves on his hands.
And it clicked finally. Not the killer. A local detective, maybe.
Sensing her presence, he turned, looking surprised for a moment and then popping upright.
“Oh. Hello,” he said, raising a gloved hand.
Darger noted that he held a pair of tweezers and a small glass vial — the type often used to collect evidence — in the other hand.
A crime scene tech, she thought, relaxing another degree. But a new annoyance took the place of her earlier alarm. She’d wanted to be alone with the scene. Wanted to stand in the middle of this wooded area and hear only the sounds of the wind whispering through trees and the burble of the water. Wanted to know what the killer heard and felt when he trudged out here with Shannon Mead.
No small talk. No distractions.
But now? Now she’d be expected to shake hands and make polite chit-chat.
She couldn’t help but sigh as the man removed one of his gloves and extended his hand.
“Ted Fowles. Entomologist.”
He was tall and almost painfully thin, the most prominent features of his face being his prominent nose and hollowed cheeks. His Adam’s apple protruded from his neck like Mt. Hood in miniature.
Darger stepped forward and introduced herself in turn.
“Violet Darger. Criminal profiler,” she said, missing the Special Agent title. It carried a certain ring of authority. “Wait. Entomologist? So you’re one of those bug guys?”
“Yep. Bug Guy. That’s the preferred nomenclature, actually.”
Fowles seemed to find the exchange amusing, his mouth spreading into a lopsided grin. His blue eyes peered at her through a pair of eyeglasses, the kind with a rim of tortoiseshell on top and thin wire underneath. They made her think of a nerdy professor from the 1950s.
His good humor did nothing to rub off on Darger. She was still frustrated to be sharing the crime scene.
“Sandy PD didn’t tell me anyone would be out here,” she said, not able to keep a bit of the irritation from creeping into her voice. And maybe a little part of her was still coming down from being startled.
“Oh, I suppose they didn’t know,” Fowles said, running a hand through the thatch of dark, wiry hair on top of his head.
She raised an eyebrow, feeling a little suspicious now.
“They didn’t send you out here to collect evidence? So what is this? Extra credit?”
His head quirked to one side, an oddly bird-like movement.
“Sorry, I thought… well, Margaret didn’t tell you?”
It was a moment before Darger was able to process that question, feeling more perplexed than ever. What the hell did Margaret Prescott have to do with this?
“Tell me what?”
“I’m with Prescott Consulting.”
And the first thing Darger thought but didn’t say out loud, thankfully, was, No, I’m with Prescott Consulting.
He filled in the rest for her, in case she was too slow, which at the moment it seemed like she most definitely was.
“We’re going to be working together.”
To Fowles’ credit, he seemed to take a hint and left Darger alone with the scene soon after dropping his Prescott bomb, but not before Darger had a chance to ask when he’d been assigned the case.
“Two weeks ago,” he said.
Meaning that Dr. Prescott would have known Fowles was here already and certainly could have told Darger she’d be working with someone. Had she sent Darger in blind intentionally or had it simply been a detail she’d overlooked?
The more Darger considered it, the more she was certain that Margaret Prescott was not the type of woman that overlooked much of anything.
“More mind games courtesy of Professor Prescott,” Darger grumbled to herself.
It occurred to her that perhaps her prospective boss had heard rumors that Violet Darger wasn’t always the best at playing well with others.
Shooing a bug away from her face, she tried to refocus her attention on the scene. Annoying as this little plot twist may be, she couldn’t let her emotions distract her.
Time to get to work.
She studied the terrain, trying to imagine the killer dragging a victim out here. If she were still alive — and drowning as the cause of death would seem to suggest that — she must have been incapacitated somehow. Bound, certainly, if not unconscious. It would be hell either way. Carrying that dead weight through this dense forest would be no small feat. The killer would almost have to be a large man, strong. Even if the girl had walked back here on her own two feet, the killer would need to be able to overpower her during a struggle, if she tried to run or fight. And then there was the part where he had to hold her down as the water filled her lungs.
Strong. And brutal.
Darger suddenly flashed to her own nightmare memory — the feeling of water invading her body, sucked into the places where it didn’t belong. For a moment, she swore she could feel Clegg’s knees grinding into her back as he tried to drown her.
Goose bumps spread over her arms, and she put a hand out to steady herself against a tree.
Years had passed since that first case with the BAU, when a serial killer named James Joseph Clegg had almost added Darger to his list of victims. But he hadn’t. She’d won in the end. It had been pure, dumb luck, but Darger was alive, and Clegg was dead.
She closed her eyes and took a long, deep breath in.
Focus on the task at hand. Not the past. The here and now.
The smell of rotting leaves and a vaguely fishy odor from the river seemed to envelop her. Maybe it was her imagination, but the scent had been cleaner back at the park.
She exhaled and opened her eyes, feeling a little more grounded in the present.
OK. Back to work.
Dead leaves crinkled and crunched as she stepped closer to the edge of the riverbank and peered across the water. Nothing but more trees. It was a very isolated space, which made perfect sense for a dumping ground. Less sense for a kill site, if only because it took so much damn effort to get out here. It was planned, then. At least somewhat. The killer knew this place. Knew that parking in one of the small lots along the river during the off-hours — at night, most likely — would carry little risk of being seen. Knew he could walk into this stretch of woods and commit his dark deed.
A local then. Not surprising considering the three victims had all been from the area. That suggested a certain comfort with the place. It also meant it was more likely that he had some kind of personal connection to the victims. The three women themselves had little in common apart from their gender — a school teacher, an accountant, and a high school sophomore, ranging in age from 15 to 43.
So where to start? The killer’s connection to any of these women could be the smallest thing. He might have walked his dog in front of Shannon Mead’s house for all they knew, crossed paths with Maribeth Holtz at a grocery store, gone to the same church as Holly Green. It could be anything, or so it seemed.
The shimmering of the mirror-like surface of the water caught Darger’s eye, drew her gaze straight down. She stared at her wavering reflection and wondered if Shannon Mead had glimpsed the fear in her own eyes before her head was shoved under the current.
Again Darger flashed back to her own near-drowning experience, felt the cold, dark waters shroud her face, blocking out the light and sound of the world.
Her heart started beating harder and faster. A frightened thing trying to crawl up into her throat.
She remembered the burning in her lungs. The sound of her pulse booming in her head like a bass drum. The panic of knowing she was about to die, the animal urge to fight with all she had to try to prevent it.
She gasped and pulled herself out of the memory. The light of day returned, as did the chirping of the birds and the soothing babble of the water.
Gazing around at the lopsided rectangle outlined by the yellow tape, she decided she’d seen enough.
Ferns swished against her thighs as she picked her way back through the dense foliage. Her boot came down on a twig, breaking it in two. It sounded like a bone snapping.
A break in the trees ahead signaled to Darger that the parking lot lay just beyond. Pushing through the fronds of a fat fir tree, she found herself back on solid, paved ground.
The sky was overcast, but the light here in the open was so much brighter than under the canopy, Darger couldn’t help squinting. Through the slits of her eyes, she noticed she wasn’t alone. Dr. Fowles was sitting on the rotting picnic table. She hoped he wasn’t waiting around for her.
But as she approached her rental, his long legs unfolded, and he got to his feet.
“You’re still here,” Darger said.
It wasn’t exactly a question. More of a challenge. Just because Prescott had sent them both out here, Darger didn’t see why that meant they had to play tag-along with one another.
“See anything interesting back there?” he asked.
She glanced back at the wall of dense foliage before answering.
“A shit load of trees.”
He laughed, Adam’s apple bobbing.
Where Margaret Prescott’s laugh had been the harsh bark of a jackal, Fowles’ was an unrestrained, loose sound from deep in his chest. Relaxed. Pleasant.
At last Darger found herself warming up to him a little. It wasn’t really his fault if Dr. Prescott was playing mind games with them, after all.
“What’d you get?” Darger asked.
She pointed at the top of the vial that barely protruded from his shirt pocket.
“Oh! Calliphoridae.” Dr. Fowles pulled the glass tube out and held it out so Darger might get a closer look. “Lucilia sericata, to be specific. Third instar.”
He rotated the vial between his thumb and index finger as he spoke. Something small and white wriggled within its transparent prison.
It was a maggot.
A shudder ran through Darger, and she recoiled instinctively, letting out a quiet grunt of disgust.
“Not a fan of insects, I take it?”
“Not the creepy, crawly, squirming types. No,” Darger said, with perhaps too much conviction considering this was his bread and butter. “Sorry. Butterflies are OK.”
The corners of his mouth quirked into a smile, one side a little more than the other. It made him seem rakish, a little mischievous.
“Well now that we’re on the topic of maggots, I don’t suppose you’re hungry?”
The inside of Fowles’ car was a hodgepodge of clutter. Not necessarily dirty — there were no fast food wrappers or stray French fries that Darger could see. But there were vials and baggies and kits for collecting specimens. At least five bottles of water in various states of emptiness. An unopened box of disposable plastic food containers with lids. Three-ring binders. A flashlight. Two rolls of paper towels. A sweatshirt and a clean pair of socks rolled into a ball. Scissors. A package of batteries. And books — textbooks and paperback novels and spiral-bound sketchbooks.
Darger picked up one of the sketchpads and opened it. She was stunned at what she found inside: pages and pages of perfectly rendered insects. Some were done in full ink and watercolor, others just quick pencil sketches.
“Wow. These are great.”
“Oh. Just a little hobby.”
“It was what got me interested in bugs, actually. I had one of the old Audubon field guides for insects when I was a boy, and I would spend hours paging through it. Copying the drawings. Or trying to. When I got older, I thought I might go to school for art, but my practical side won out. I don’t think I would have fared well in modern art schools, only drawing bugs all the time.”
Darger smiled, admiring the work on the pages as she flipped past them.
“What do you mean?”
“What makes a guy decide to devote his life to—” she pointed at a black and white beetle rendered in pencil “—that?”
“Are you kidding? They’re fascinating! Such diversity. Did you know there are 1200 species of blow fly in the world? Eighty in America. Then there’s Drosophilae, fruit flies. To witness the evolution of a species in a matter of days… I mean, if that doesn’t excite you, what does?”
Chuckling at his enthusiasm, Darger let the sketchbook fall closed.
“You don’t have to share if you don’t want to,” Fowles said, “but I would be interested in hearing what you got from the crime scene.”
“Got?” Darger repeated and set the sketchbook back where she’d found it.
“You know. Observations. Feelings. Insights.”
Darger shrugged, a little surprised. The science geeks tended to look down on their profiling associates. Profilers relied heavily on intuition — something that was not easily taught in the classroom or replicated in a lab. And thus, the scientific circles of law enforcement often treated profilers as professional guessers, at best. At worst, they considered them snake-oil salesmen.
But sharing her thoughts with Fowles couldn’t hurt. Sometimes talking things out led to a surprise revelation.
“Well the water angle is probably the most obvious,” she started.
“What about it?”
“From a symbolic standpoint, I mean. Carl Jung considered water to be the most common representation for the subconscious.”
The trees outside her window whizzed by in a blur of green as she spoke.
“Jung? Isn’t he a little outdated at this point?”
She tried not to smirk at that. She’d been expecting it, really. It was a classic Science Geek response.
“All human behavior has a subtext, a second meaning beneath the surface of the action — that’s pretty much the heart of human psychology, past and present. Jung's central concept was individuation — essentially each individual’s development of their sense of self, and I’m certainly mindful of that as I examine criminal behavior. If there's one thing all serial killers have in common, it's a crisis of identity. Anyway, you’re a biologist. What’s the one thing every known organism requires for survival?”
Fowles nodded. “Water.”
“So it’s something of a paradox, the fact that we can drown in one of the things we need most to live.”
“You think the killer is trying to be ironic?”
“Not on purpose. I doubt he’s even aware of it. But I do think there are always reasons behind behavior. Sometimes those reasons are based on instinct. Old animal urges. Subconscious connections being made without our knowing it. Water has an elemental power. It’s just as capable of dealing death as it is of giving life. A flash flood or tsunami is equally as destructive as any volcano or earthquake.”
The tires hummed and bumped over the asphalt.
“Water also represents change. It has an almost limitless ability to shift, flow, or alter its shape to fit whatever holds it. I think many ritual murders are an ill-fated attempt at transformation, one way or another.”
A line formed between the doctor’s eyebrows.
“What kind of transformation?”
Darger shook her head.
“Hard to say at this point. It usually has to do with gaining control. Powerless to powerful. Weak to strong. Submissive to dominating.”
She let her thoughts snowball, talking through them out loud.
“Think of the commitment it takes to drown someone. A bullet kills instantly, and you can do it from a distance. Just move a single finger, pull the trigger. Easy. Mechanical. The killer is detached from the physical act. Drowning, though, would prolong the violent act, and the killer has to be physically close to the victim. It’s very personal.”
A huge semi hauling a load of raw lumber whooshed past, jostling the car with a burst of wind turbulence. Darger barely noticed.
“I mean, just imagine what it would feel like. You drag a living person to the water. And you push her down, face-first over the edge of the riverbank. She’s struggling now, trying to fight. You climb onto her back to hold her under, and all the while, she’s writhing and jerking, fighting desperately to pull her head above the water. Every muscle of her body hell-bent on survival. You’d have to hold her there for three or four minutes… it would require an almost loving embrace. You would possess not only ultimate power over the life of another being, but an intimate closeness in that same moment. The frenzied movements of the victim probably arouse you, the death struggle becoming something like a sex act.”
She realized the car had come to a stop somewhere in there. They were in the city, parked on the street in front of a yoga studio. A couple strolled past on the sidewalk, walking a pair of enormous Great Danes.
This happened often when she got in the zone with a profile. She lost herself in it, and the outside world ceased to exist.
Her eyelids fluttered rapidly as she crawled out of her daze. She turned, found Fowles staring at her.
His forehead was riddled with a series of creases.
"You've got obscenities like that taking up space in your head, and you find bugs off-putting?"
Darger laughed. “To each his or her own, I guess.”
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