Thousands of girls go missing every year in Las Vegas. Taken. Bought and sold. Or worse.
And now the dead are calling.
These lost girls summon FBI Profiler Violet Darger to Sin City -- a new case. There are fresh dead to sort through -- two bodies burned beyond recognition in the trunk of a sedan -- and there’s reason to believe that there are missing girls waiting to be saved.
Rumors swirl that a legendary killer is responsible for these crimes. An escaped prisoner with a personal grudge against Darger -- one who wants her and her partner dead. One who disappeared for 20 years.
But the desert is full of deadly secrets -- horrors waiting beneath the sand.
If Darger finds the killer in time, the girls will live. If not…
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 The Girl in the Sand 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
"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
"This series is full of suspense, action, and lots of murder." -- EllenAn
"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
"I found myself completely invested in every character, from the authorities to the killer to the victims themselves." -- eden Hudson, author of Revenge of the Bloodslinger
"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
"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: March 19, 2018
Publisher: Smarmy Press
Print pages: 401
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
The Girl in the Sand
The city throbs around her. Burning bright all night long.
Emily walks the bustling Strip, thinks about getting home to the kids, tastes that faintest touch of yeast clinging to the place where her tongue meets her throat.
Neon signs shimmer above as always, flashing like strobe lights. The casinos make it plain enough that the party never ends — not in Las Vegas. The lights speak a pulsing language even the drunkest tourist could understand.
And they do.
Mobs of them clutter the sidewalks. Hawaiian shirts. Fanny packs. Fresh faces adorned with gentle expressions. Soft eyes like a cow's, she thinks.
Not like the locals she deals with. The wolves.
She navigates her way through the mob, turning sideways at times to squeeze through gaps in the wall of humanity. Twisting. Weaving. Darting.
Music blares everywhere, and the chatter of the crowd rises to match its volume. Loud enough to make her brain quiver and chime like a rung bell, but she keeps going, keeps going.
And before long the harsh glow falls behind her. The crowd thins. The sound fades.
She checks her phone.
She had told the babysitter, Vanessa, that it’d be an early night, that she’d be home before Austin’s bedtime. It’s going to be close.
And then it hits.
A block and a half away from the Strip, away from the bustle and the lights and the streams of tourists and degenerates, it hits her how tired she really is. Almost drunk with it.
It always works this way. The stimulation of downtown Vegas provides that little extra sizzle in her head, that drip feed of adrenaline to keep the full brunt of the exhaustion at arm's length. As soon as the sizzle fades, the fatigue washes over her, pulls her under, mutes her tongue and makes her legs shaky beneath her.
The few drinks she had at the end of the night surely didn’t help matters. Gabriela would be so pissed if she knew. Drinking on the job, Emily?
On the other hand, it was Coors Light. Did the thimbleful of alcohol in that fizzy rocky mountain water even count as a real drink?
In any case, the beers seem to be helping her exhaustion along, feeding the sleepy feeling now that she’s away from the crowd. The depressant finally depressing. She thinks of all possible depressions, alcohol is the great depression, no?
Her head grows heavy, eyelids sag, and her motor skills diminish rapidly. Still, she won’t be sick tonight, she thinks. That’s something. Five silver bullets aren’t enough for that.
And, anyway, it could be worse. The girls who work down here tend to get hooked on a variety of pills and powders. She's proud that it's only the drink for her. Same as it was before she got here.
The thought tumbles in her head as it often does during this walk home from work: How did she get here? A Stanford graduate living in the slums of Las Vegas, doing what she does? How did her life lead to this?
She waits at the corner, her neck struggling to hold her head up, eyelids drooping and smudging her vision, refracting everything so it snaps in and out of double.
So she doesn't entirely trust the blurred image of the Don’t Walk sign across the street, the one that won’t quite hold still, but it’s OK. She can watch the cars, watch the other pedestrians.
The light changes, and she falls in with the trickle of foot traffic crossing the way. No problem. She stumbles a little, but it’s all good. For now.
Alas, the crowd seems hell-bent on dispersing. The fledgling mob splinters further at each intersection. Within two and a half blocks, she’s on her own.
She banks to the right and moves into a residential zone, little adobe houses packed as tightly as possible. Quiet and dark and dead at this hour. Strange that just minutes ago she was encased in a throng of writhing human bodies, fanny packs touching like bumper to bumper traffic, and now she’s alone.
The faintest chill in the air grips her around the waist, slides its cold hand past her hip to touch the small of her back. She adjusts her shirt, but it’s no help. Cold night. Crisp.
And then she hears it.
The car engine grinds, slowing as it creeps up behind her.
Her skin crawls along the nape of her neck. This doesn’t feel right.
The car glides up beside her, engine growling out threats. She can see it out of the corner of her eye. A lurking darkness that matches her pace.
She hears the window retract into the door, the faintest whine and friction, but she keeps her eyes straight ahead, picks up her pace a little.
The driver is going to say something. Something sexual, maybe. Or something menacing, something suggesting violence. Any second now. Isn’t he?
Now the engine revs, the guttural whir hitting some higher note, and the car speeds up, passing her.
Not a car, she sees now. A truck. Either way, it moves on.
She takes a deep breath, watches the red of the taillights tint the world with their crimson glow.
She feels her abdominal muscles relax, her teeth unclench, her fingernails retract from her palms.
The truck jerks into a driveway four houses up, however, and she stops walking. Waits. Holds her breath.
The machine’s movements are somehow aggressive, she thinks. Savage.
She sways a little, some detached part of her finding her fear humorous — the part that tells everyone that of course they’re safe, of course nothing bad will happen, that it’s childish to be scared.
The driver’s side door opens, the truck’s cab shielding most of the rising figure from her view and the shadows swirling around what little she could see.
He was looking at her. She could tell that much.
A man. Tall.
And the rest unfolds in slow motion.
He walks around the truck, hands raised in front of him in a disarming gesture that seems odd and out of place in this after-dark scenario. He speaks, but she has retracted into some simpler version of consciousness that is entirely incapable of comprehending language.
Without thought, her fingers dig in her pocket until they find her phone. She grips it a moment, sweaty fingers clenching the cool plastic shell, but it squirts out of her hand like a fish.
The figure draws closer. Closer. Closer.
She blinks. Looks again.
The face is familiar. Smiling.
She can't quite place him, but once more the context clues are enough. This is someone she knows. Someone she can trust.
It must be. It must be.
He’s close now. Smiling, like he’s glad to see her. She knows him, has seen him before.
She never sees the punch. The looping hook that catches her on the side of the jaw and tilts not just her skull but all of reality, snaps the whole world hard to the right.
To her, it’s a twitch of his shoulders. A white flash.
And she slides along with the tilt, a violent lurch of gravity that pulls the ground right up to meet her. Someone’s front yard, or what serves for one here in the desert. A bed of mulch surrounding a feathery mesquite tree.
Her fingers claw at the wood chips. And she’s moving. Running. Before she really knows what’s happening.
The reality settles in slowly: It was him. He hit her. It had to be him. But why?
Her mind leaps to place him. So many faces in her line of work. They all blend together after a while, become one face, one mask. Featureless and unknowable.
Or maybe she just didn’t want to know them anymore.
She veers off to her right as the panicked thoughts gush through her head, stumbling over the curb and spilling onto the asphalt, her steps going choppy as she loses her balance. Again the ground jerks up toward her, smashing into her knees and elbows hard enough to rattle her bones, rough blacktop scraping away swaths of flesh.
And she hears him. Footsteps clattering toward her. Echoes ringing out everywhere.
She scrambles like a panicking squirrel, little jittery gallops that skitter her over the ground and get her to her feet. Her gait wobbles, stutters, sends her on a careening path.
But she’s upright, gaining speed, climbing the curb on the other side of the street.
Moving. Moving. Moving.
And then he’s on her.
His arms loop around her waist as his chest collides with her back. Her shoulders pitch forward, lifting her feet off the ground, and they float together, weightless and out of control.
He pulls up, rocking back onto his knees, rolling to his left and driving her shoulder-first to the ground with incredible force. Hugging her against him as their hurled bodies swish through a display bed of exotic grass, drifting over another Vegas lawn, wood chips flung everywhere.
They stop at last, her face down with his bulk resting on her legs, and the inertia is overwhelming. Jarring and violent. Like she was just in a car crash.
All is still for a beat. Her chest heaves, breath rushing into the void in her torso.
She feels his body slide up her back, cold and hard and reptilian.
A vicious punch cracks the back of her head, a thock sound filling her skull, reverberating, her cranium vibrating like a struck tuning fork. The sound overwhelms reality.
Her consciousness cinches up into something small, all of existence squeezed into a tiny box, a little compartment separated from the rest of the world. Tunnel vision. She looks out of the tiny opening, can just make out a patch of wood chips.
And the ground before her recedes. Wilts into darkness.
The palm trees lining the boulevard whipped in the wind. Violet Darger had seen the massive thunderhead looming in the distance from the plane, and now the storm was closing in on the city. From the air, the mass of clouds had looked as solid as stone. A strange roiling mountain that flashed like a strobe.
She thought she’d feel better once the plane touched down — that the gnawing anticipation in her gut would calm itself — but that wasn’t the case. And she knew it wouldn’t go away until the question was answered: What was she doing here? Loshak had called and told her she needed to be on the next flight to Las Vegas, but he’d refused to say more than that over the phone.
Her partner was always being cryptic like that, and just now she didn’t find it to be the most endearing trait of his. What she couldn’t decide was whether Loshak’s evasiveness was business as usual, or if he hadn’t wanted to say what was going on for a reason.
Her gut had been telling her all along that Loshak had been keeping something from her. Something big. All that crap about coming out to Vegas for some criminology conference she’d never heard of. A pile of horse shit.
And the more she wondered, the louder a single name echoed in her mind, no matter how fiercely she tried to quiet it.
The name of the most-feared serial killer in Darger’s lifetime had rooted itself deep in her thoughts, putting out new creeping shoots like some kind of carnivorous plant.
Of course, 5-7 adults were reported missing every day in Las Vegas — over 200 a month. And that was a number that didn’t include potentially double that in unreported cases from marginalized communities, mostly prostitutes. That left a lot of possibilities for their case here, didn’t it? It could be anything from a serial murder case à la Stump to something on the scale of human trafficking. But thanks to Loshak, she had no idea what she was heading into.
She reached a traffic light at the northern edge of the city, and the land opened up before her. There were no trees here, just low desert scrub and dusty-looking foothills in the distance. After the colored lights and rows of palmettos along the Strip, the landscape here felt barren. Vast and empty. The steel-blue sky cast a grayish light over everything. It leached the color from the world, leaving it pale and bloodless.
Thunder boomed and crackled, sounding like the mountains around her were being cloven by a great hammer. On average, there were only about a dozen rainy days per year in Las Vegas, and naturally she’d arrived to find they were getting hit with their biggest thunderstorm in years. What luck.
The first few drops of rain splatted on the windshield as she steered onto the highway. The cars heading the opposite direction were drenched, wipers on full blast. A bolt of lightning forked against the dark stain of the clouds, and then the storm was on her. A full driving rain that battered against the roof of the car and splashed onto the road.
The downpour itself and the extra wet kicked up by the tires of the cars in front of her made visibility on the road absolute hell. If not for the glow of taillights, she wouldn’t have been sure she was still on the road. As it was, the lights looked like glowing orbs hovering over the concrete.
Darger considered pulling onto the shoulder until the storm had passed. Aside from the fact that she could barely see past the hood of her own car, the amount of water on the road made hydroplaning a real concern. She’d already gone by half a dozen other drivers who’d decided to wait it out. But no. She didn’t want even five minutes delay. She was already behind. As if driving through this monsoon wasn’t stressful enough.
She wrapped her fingers a little tighter around the steering wheel and fixed her eyes ahead.
The mountains to the west had disappeared behind a veil of mist and clouds and rain. The barren feeling of the desert closed in on her, making her feel cut off from the rest of the world.
Rocketing along at 70 mph, she figured she might as well be the only person left on the planet, but then she changed her mind. She might not be alone at all.
Her eyes shifted to her purse, to the little box within, waiting to be used.
A pregnancy test.
Emily drifts in the black nothing of unconsciousness. Numb. Peaceful. Removed from the reality of her abduction.
Random dream images flit and bob up from the blackness in pulses, painted on the surface of her psyche and erased almost as quickly, gone before they can coalesce into any kind of narrative.
No story. No sound. Just a flicker of pictures fading in and out.
She sinks deeper into the nowhere, into the big nothing. Finds it tranquil. Almost totally still. Not unpleasant.
A woman’s voice speaks from somewhere beyond the darkness, interrupts her slumber.
“Probably ought to wake up, you know.”
The voice is harsh. A little bitter. Familiar. Emily knows right away that it’s Gabriela, even if it takes the conscious part of her mind a moment to grasp this fact.
“Emily. Open your eyes.”
Gabby sounds serious. A hard edge to her tone.
Emily tries to obey the order, but her eyelids won’t oblige her. She can feel them. The thin flaps of skin that shield her from the real world, the tiny muscles she can’t quite command, the lashes all mashed together and unwilling to budge.
Now the smallest quiver of panic worms its way into the nowhere place, breaking up the stillness that seemed so peaceful a moment ago. This is not good.
The first layer of reality invades her brain.
She is sleeping, to some degree dreaming, and she needs to wake up. The realization flares in her head, brightens, and finally settles over her.
Just like that, the nothing shifts from a peaceful void to something hostile. Something holding her against her will. Trapping her in the dark.
And her mind focuses on the blackness. The nothingness. Really seeing it instead of drifting in it without thought.
She hears the little snick of Gabriela lighting a cigarette. Can hear the tube of tobacco impeding her friend’s words as she speaks again.
“Jesus, Emily. He’s going to kill you. Seems like the least you could do is peel open those peepers.”
Wait. Why is Gabriela even here? Does that make sense?
She stares into the darkness, but it offers no answers.
She hears the smack of Gabby’s lips touching the butt of the cigarette again, the sizzle of the cherry as she inhales, the snuffle of smoke spiraling into her friend’s lungs, hesitating for a beat, and then venting like exhaust during a long exhale.
Gabby speaks again:
“Yeah, you’re pretty much fucked.”
Emily jerks awake, breath rushing to fill her mouth and throat with a ragged gasp.
Pain pulses in her head, little tendrils of current that jolt through the rounded bone at her temple. It makes her eye twitch on that side.
She blinks a few times. Fighting off the hurt. Eyes swiveling in their sockets, trying and failing to make sense of her surroundings.
All she can discern is black with green smears in it. The scent of stale cigarette smoke mixed with some indefinable masculine smell that she can only relate to the odor of a leather belt.
Her chest and shoulders heave, the rhythm of her lungs unsteady. Lurching and jerky like a drummer who can’t keep time.
She catches herself at the apex of an inhale. Holds her breath for just a moment to try to help things even out.
Calm down. She needs to calm down.
After another flurry of blinks, the blur of her surroundings slowly sharpens around her. Dark. Foreign.
She sits in the passenger seat of a truck. The glowing dash lights tint the interior pale green.
Rain pelts the windshield. The water beads and drains down the slope.
Looking through the glass, she can only make out shadows. Dark shapes that don’t make much sense.
And now the sound of the radio seeps into her consciousness. Deep, compressed voices murmuring on and on. Corporate rock radio based on the cadence and tone of the deejay, but in her panic she can’t make out the words. An endless babble. Meaningless.
The truck. The dark. The pain in her skull. None of this makes sense. Some crucial piece of this puzzle is missing.
At last, her head rotates 90 degrees to the left.
The driver’s seat next to her is empty. And that’s when it all snaps back for her.
The man. The chase. That final blow to her brain stem and everything fading to black.
Her heart lurches in her chest, trying to match the wildness of her breathing.
A fresh wave of panic whittles her thoughts down to primal urges. Feelings. Smeared images. Simple phrases.
Run. She needs to run.
But somehow she knows she can’t.
She looks down at herself. Sees the ring of plastic circling her ankles. Pinning them together and pulling them taut.
Her wrists are stuck together just the same, fastened behind her back.
Zip ties. Yes. Her hands and feet are bound. Cinched tight. Some part of her knew this. She could feel the ties even before she saw.
She pumps her legs a few times. Tests the strength of the plastic fastening her ankles. Strains muscle and flesh against it, but it’s no use. It’s secure.
Light glitters in the rearview mirror just then.
Wheeling, gazing through the back windshield.
The glow of the gas station shimmers on the other side of what feels like a narrow sea of asphalt. The building appears small and distant — the pumps even farther — all lit up in the lot on the opposite side.
All that light. So close but out of reach.
The paltry ring of illumination spilling out of the windows and crawling over the ground cannot reach her. The light doesn’t even make it halfway over the parking lot.
She takes a breath. Her chest shaking on the inhale.
She knows she doesn’t stand a chance.
Even if she manages to get the truck door open with her hands secured the way they are, she’d never make it into the light. Tied up like this, feet bound? Wriggling over the ground like a worm?
But she has to try.
She watches for movement in the gas station windows for just a moment. Looking for any signs of life. But there are none. Just static scenes of a beer cooler and a rack of magazines, all those colorful heads and torsos of celebrities on the covers staring back at her.
She skids her shoulders over the back of the seat. Wobbling. Arms poking around behind her like clumsy crab legs.
Fingertips and the heels of her hands skim over the door. Cold and textured. The plastic transitions to a rubbery handle. The joints of her fingers flex over these surfaces, seeking out the small metal door handle, finding it.
Air gulps into her all at once as she grips the handle. It makes her cough twice.
She wrenches her arms up, arcing her elbows out to the sides of her back, but it’s no use. She can’t reach the lock. Maybe if she dislocated her shoulders, but no.
And he’s there. A dark shape on the opposite side of the driver’s side window.
The door latch pops as he opens it, and she gasps once more.
It’s too late to play dead. Too late to move. Too late to pray.
His torso jerks into the car. A shadow stooping low. Almost touching the floor.
Through the tears she watches him jam an arm under the seat and root around. His hand comes back with a length of metal in it. A pipe or a club of some kind. Metal that seems to just keep spilling out from under the seat.
He speaks, his voice gruff but without malice.
“It’s going to be a long drive. Better keep still.”
He doesn’t hesitate.
His arm raises, draws taut like the string of a bow, snaps the pipe into the side of her head.
It’s heavy. Harder than his fist. The momentum rocks her face first into the dashboard.
The pain is enormous, a jolt of white current flowing through all of her.
It surges deep into her eye sockets, the wet of her lungs, the bones of her fingers, the squish of her guts, but just for a second, and then everything gets farther away. Numbed. Confused.
That familiar thock sound fills her skull, and all of her consciousness sucks back into that black hole all at once.
The rain was still coming down when Darger turned off the highway. The tires almost sounded resentful as they rolled through a pool of water collecting in a low spot on the road.
She leaned forward, trying to squint through the sheets of rain. The GPS said she was close, but she couldn’t see a damn thing out here.
And then she saw the first pulse of red and blue through the mist. Police lights.
She crawled up behind a fire engine and tugged the key from the ignition. The steady beat of the wipers cut out all at once, leaving her in the drowning white noise of pattering rain. It dribbled down on her arm when she opened the door, and she watched the water soak into the sleeve of her jacket. She hadn’t brought an umbrella. Who would on a trip to the desert?
Two open-sided police tents had been erected farther up the road. As she approached, Darger could see that a blackened car took up most of the space at one end. A cluster of police and other first responders stood out of the rain at the other. But it was the car that caught Darger’s attention.
Her heart started beating a little harder.
Quickening her pace, she veered only slightly from her path to avoid a large puddle of murky water. She was wet enough as it was, the last thing she needed was soggy boots and socks.
She stepped under the shelter of the canopy and flashed her ID at the group of men and women huddled inside, eyes never straying from the burned-out car.
A toxic perfume of scorched plastic, rubber, and automotive paint hung in the air. It was a sedan, but most of the exterior was so marred and blackened she couldn’t place the make or model. Where the paint hadn’t been consumed, it was bubbled or flaking off. Anything plastic or glass had melted or broken away — taillights, bumper, logo decals.
She could see where the flames had inched toward the front half of the car, igniting the paint before dying out. It was evident from this detail that the fire had started at the rear of the car. This more or less confirmed what she’d known as soon as she laid eyes on it: the fire had been set intentionally.
A strand of hair clung to the moistness near Darger’s temple, and she reached up to brush it away. She wondered where she’d find the courage to step around to the trunk.
The hatch was open, and likely it was practically welded that way now from the heat of the fire. She had a feeling what she’d find inside, but she wasn’t ready. No one was ever truly ready to see such things.
Another few seconds ticked by while she pulled on a pair of gloves, and then it was time. She couldn’t put it off any longer.
She took a deep breath through her mouth, trying to avoid the lingering smell of smoke and char. Instead, she tasted notes of scorched upholstery on her tongue. So much for that idea.
Careful to keep her boots out of the blackened bits of debris all over, she crept toward the rear end of the car.
A new odor joined the mix as she moved closer to the trunk — something that somehow registered as sweet, sour, and savory all at once.
When Darger was in middle school, she’d once forgotten a pan of Chef Boyardee ravioli heating on the stove. By the time the smoke filtered into her bedroom, there was a good one-inch-thick layer of pasta and sauce burned onto the bottom of the pan. The smell was awful, with a bitter note that reminded her of vomit.
The memory of that stink came to her now, as she leaned forward to gaze into the gaping maw of the trunk.
There were two bodies, small and shriveled. Both were curled into a fetal position, hands together as if in prayer, though she knew it was more than likely that their wrists had been bound. The flesh of the lips had burned away, leaving the teeth exposed in a permanent grimace. One mouth stretched open, frozen in a silent scream.
Darger swallowed, feeling hot and sick. She took a few steps back, eager to put even a small distance between her and the car and the burned up young women inside. The fact that the victims were female was another detail she didn’t need anyone to tell her.
The nitrile gloves clung to the moistness on her palms, snapping like rubber bands when they finally came free. She stuffed them in her pocket and dragged the back of her knuckles through the perspiration on her forehead.
Closing her eyes, photographs from the old Leonard Stump crime scenes flashed in her mind. The scene here was nearly identical. Two bodies curled in the trunk, burned beyond recognition. Could it really be him?
When her eyelids rolled open, she caught sight of her partner crossing the tent to meet her.
Loshak stopped when he drew even with her and took in the rain-spattered jacket and stringy hair.
Darger met his eyes. “What tipped you off?”
He smirked, but there was a tension in the line of his mouth that didn’t quite go away.
“What the hell is this, Loshak?”
Loshak glanced over his shoulder, ensuring no one was within earshot.
“I know you have a million questions, and I promise I’ll explain everything. But right now, I need you to do me a favor and not mention Leonard Stump.”
Darger blinked, trying to make sense of the words. After all this, he wanted her to not talk about Stump?
“Fuck that, Loshak. I want to know what’s going on.”
“I told you—”
Before he could say more, one of the uniformed men broke off from the nearby huddle.
“You must be Agent Darger,” the man said, thrusting a hand at her. “Assistant Sheriff Wayne Corby. Pleased to meet you.”
He had big, fleshy sausage fingers, and Darger watched her own hand disappear in his fist when they shook.
“I’ve seen a lot of shit in my time, but never anything quite as grisly as this.” He paused to adjust his belt, hiking it a little higher on his waist. “I imagine you two are privy to some things in your travels. Ever seen anything like it?”
Darger’s gaze flicked over to Loshak, who gave an almost imperceptible head shake. Again, warning her off mentioning Stump. Why the hell was he being so cagey?
“Only in pictures,” she said, not willing to lie outright. Her eyes fell back on the blackened remains in the trunk. “And I’d say they didn’t quite do the horror of it justice.”
“It’s the smell I can’t get over,” Corby said. “I’m the grill master in the family. Come Saturday afternoon, I’m on the back patio with an ice cold beer in one hand and a pair of kitchen tongs in the other.”
He pantomimed clutching each item in his meaty digits.
“But after this…” the man paused and shook his head. “Well, it’s gonna be a while before I can stomach firing up the grill. Let alone eating the, uh, meat.”
Not wanting to linger on the topic of chargrilled animal flesh, Darger pushed on.
“Do we know who the victims are? Or who the car belongs to?”
“Nothing on the car, yet. VIN numbers are obliterated, but the lab guys tell me they have some tricks. We’re gonna have a hell of a time IDing the bodies with the state they’re in, but we’ll do our damnedest. Figure it’ll come down to dental records, most likely. The medical examiner is waiting on the bodies as we speak. As soon as I give the word, they’ll start packing things up here. I think we’re set on our end, but if you need more time with the scene…”
With a wordless exchange, she and Loshak agreed that they were finished.
“We’re good,” Loshak said.
Corby nodded once. “Myself and the lead investigators are meeting back at my office in a few hours. We’d appreciate any insight you could bring to the table.”
“We’ll be there,” Loshak said.
With that, they turned to leave. Even though the rain had slowed to a sprinkle, Loshak produced an umbrella and insisted on walking Darger to her car. When they reached her rented Taurus, she rounded on him.
“What the fuck was that? If this is Stump, then they have a right to know who they’re dealing with,” she said.
Loshak glanced back at the tent.
With a growl, Darger slammed the door and started the car.
Darger spent the entire drive back to the city stewing in damp clothes and a sense of righteous indignation. He’d done it again. Loshak — the man who was supposed to be her partner — had left her out again.
And not just her. He hadn’t wanted her to mention Leonard Stump near the local cops. Why? She went over it again, trying to give him the benefit of the doubt. He’d waited until she’d taken in the crime scene before mentioning Stump. Maybe he hadn’t wanted to cloud her objectivity. But after one look at that car, her objectivity had flown out the window.
So he could have been trying to keep her from jumping to conclusions. That was fair, she supposed. She wasn’t being clear-headed about this. Stump had entered her mind as soon as she stepped foot on that scene.
But then why had Loshak run out here on his own? What had he been up to before this double murder landed in his lap? He’d known something.
The radio was on in the background, two DJs arguing about the college football playoff selections. Darger jabbed at the volume knob, thrusting the car into silence.
Whatever was going on here, the fact remained that Loshak obviously didn’t trust her.
Her mind flashed to Ohio, back to their first case together. Loshak had been sick, but refused to see a doctor, lied to her about just how ill he was. He’d almost died because of it.
She’d thought things had changed since then. That they’d grown to trust one another. But now here they were, back at square one with Loshak keeping secrets. Running off to do things on his own.
By the time she changed into dry clothes and went downstairs to meet Loshak in the lounge of their hotel, she was practically steaming with fury.
He must have seen it on her face. Before she even sat down, he was trying to smooth things over. He pulled a manila folder from his lap.
“I’ve got something for you. Fresh out of the hotel office laser printer. Still warm, even.”
This was classic Loshak. Holding back key information. Keeping her in the dark until he decided it was time to let her in. Then he’d wave some juicy bit of info in front of her, knowing her innate curiosity always got the better of her. Well, not this time.
“Oh no, you don’t. I’ve got something for you.” She tossed her phone down on the table in front of him.
“That,” she said, pointing at the text on the screen, “is the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary definition of the word partner. I thought you might need a refresher. Would you care to read it aloud?”
As usual, he seemed unruffled by her outburst. He only sniffed and looked away from the phone.
This only irritated her more. She snatched the phone from the table and started reading.
“Partner: one that shares. One associated with another, especially in action. Oh, here. I like this one. One of two or more persons who play together in a game against an opposing side.”
“Enough,” Loshak interrupted. “You’re pissed. I get it.”
He picked up the manila folder again and waved it at her.
“That’s why I’m trying to give you this. To bring you up to speed.”
“See, I don’t think you actually do get it. You lied to me about why you were coming out here. And it’s not just about this case. It’s about all of them. Ohio, Washington, Georgia. This isn’t an isolated incident. This is a pattern where you keep all the cards to yourself. And then, when you’ve decided you’ll let me play, you parcel out what you’re willing to give. And that’s usually only because you have some errand you want me to run. I’m not your fucking assistant.”
He was still wearing the mask of nonchalance, but underneath it, Darger thought she could see something else. A fierceness in his gaze.
“Are you done?”
She stared back at him, gritting her molars together. She knew what he meant, but just now she had an urge to be melodramatic. Anything to rattle that unflappable expression he was wearing.
“Maybe I am.”
His eyebrows finally twitched.
“What does that mean?”
“You’re gonna quit, then? Go back to teaching deep breathing exercises in OVA? If the Bureau would even let you, that is.”
She shook her head, not quite able to believe he could be such an asshole. At least not to her.
“Best of luck to you,” she said, scooping her phone from the table and rising to her feet.
When she reached the doorway of the lounge, she didn’t look back.
Darger flopped onto the hard hotel mattress and glared up at the ceiling. Loshak’s words repeated in her head.
Go back to teaching deep breathing exercises, if they’ll even let you.
But he wasn’t wrong. She didn’t know where she’d go at this point if she left her current position. She seemed to have a knack for losing the few friends she had in the FBI.
And leaving was the last thing she really wanted. Darger had never been the quitting type.
Her eyes wandered over to her purse, and she remembered the rectangular package inside. She sighed. Might as well get it over with.
But just as her fingers wrapped around the pregnancy test and slid it free, a musical jingle spurted out of her phone. She glanced at the screen, saw it was Owen, and winced.
“Hey,” she answered.
“You never called me back.”
“I know," she said, staring at the fuchsia box still clutched in her hand.
She hadn't told him about her missed period yet. Figured she might as well be certain before she dragged someone else into the mess. Still, she felt guilty about it. Like she was keeping secrets.
"I had to rush to make a flight, and then I forgot. I’m sorry.”
“So I’m assuming you’re now in some exotic locale?”
Darger’s eyes flitted to the window, catching a glimpse of the glittering lights of the Strip in the distance.
“Does Las Vegas count as exotic?”
“What’s in Vegas?”
Darger sat up, eyes roaming the flowered wallpaper border while she considered how she should answer. Owen would worry if he knew this was about Stump. He’d been there when she opened the letter and hadn’t stopped worrying since.
But he must have made the connection on his own.
“Does this have to do with Stump?”
“I don’t know. It might.”
No one had seen or heard from Leonard Stump since he’d escaped from a Carson City courthouse twenty years ago, after his first string of murders. It was one of the biggest unsolved mysteries of the last century, right up there with D.B. Cooper and Jimmy Hoffa.
True crime message boards on the internet were rife with theories: He lived in a remote cabin somewhere in the wilderness of Canada or Alaska. He’d gone to Mexico for radical plastic surgery and now sold life insurance in Fort Lauderdale. Many were convinced he was dead.
Even Darger might have entertained this last hypothesis up until a few months ago, when she received a letter signed by Leonard Stump. The FBI document lab analyzed the handwriting — comparing it to Stump’s jailhouse diary — and told her what she already knew: the letter was either authentic or an expert-level forgery.
I get the feeling, just now, that our paths may cross again. Perhaps soon, he’d written.
And now it looked like he was making good on his promise. Two female victims found burned in a car was textbook Stump.
Owen’s voice was tense. “I don’t like this, Violet.”
“No? I love it. Popping a trunk and finding two burned up bodies inside? Good times.”
“Yeah,” she said, dropping the sarcastic tone. “Have you ever seen pictures of Pompeii? The plaster casts of the bodies?”
“That’s the volcano in Italy, right? I’ve seen photos, yeah.”
“That’s what the bodies reminded me of. The way they were huddled in that trunk. All curled up.”
Darger shook her head, trying to shake the images loose. When that didn’t work, she let herself fall backward until she was lying flat again.
“Anyway, it’s probably all moot at this point. I think I’m off the case.”
“Loshak and I got into an argument. I may or may not have been a little overly dramatic.”
“Threatened to quit and then stormed out.”
“He knows you don’t mean it. It’ll blow over.”
She pressed a fist against her forehead. “Maybe I did mean it.”
“Seriously?” Owen asked. “You’d leave the FBI?”
“I don’t know. He lied to me about why he was coming out here in the first place. I’m sick of getting jerked around. ”
“I’m sure he has his reasons.”
“He always does,” she said. “Know anyone looking to hire a loose cannon criminal psychologist?”
“As a matter of fact, I know of a very talented PI firm that might be able to make use of your skills.”
She scoffed. “Yeah, I know the kind of skills you have in mind.”
“You make it sound as if I’m suggesting something untoward, Miss Darger.”
She smiled at the old nickname.
“That’s because I know you. There’d be fine print in the job description that requires me to work in the nude.”
“Please. This is a legitimate operation I’m running here. I’d provide a uniform.”
“What kind of uniform?”
“Well, I was thinking one of those little French maid outfits.”
She rolled her eyes but couldn’t keep herself from grinning.
Over the line, she heard the clack of lightning fast drums and a heavy distorted guitar.
“What are you working on right now?”
“How do you know I’m working?”
“Because I can hear the music in the background. You always listen to metal when you’re on surveillance.”
“Then you answered your own question right there, didn’t you? I’m on surveillance.”
“Well, what’s happening?”
“Nothing at the moment. I’m just sitting in my car waiting for the subject to come out of the house.”
“Who’s the subject?”
“I can’t really talk about it.”
Darger chuckled. “Cheating husband?”
“Trying to catch someone claiming a workman’s comp injury doing cartwheels through their front yard?”
“Something more illicit? Does it involve our favorite biker gang, the Nameless Brotherhood?”
“OK, I give up.”
Only silence answered her on the other line.
“I’m still here.”
“But you’re not going to tell me what you’re up to, is that it?”
“Hard as this might be for you to believe, Violet, I am a professional.”
She snorted. “Says the guy suggesting a prospective employee wear a French maid outfit.”
“Hey, I’m not really supposed to discuss these things. There’s a certain level of discretion and privacy inherent to the job.”
“Discretion and privacy… What about the girl that ran off to join the alien sex cult? Or the landlord that was convinced one of his tenants was a Russian spy?”
“That was different.”
“It just was.”
“You’re being shady.”
“I’m not discussing an ongoing investigation with you. How does that make me shady?”
“Because it’s not about being professional. You obviously have something to hide.”
“You’re being ridiculous.”
“No, I’m not. I can hear it in your voice. You’re all tense and defensive and, like, nervous. You never get nervous. You’re like… the Fonz.”
“The Fonz? Huh. I always thought of myself as more of a Han Solo.”
“Don’t try to change the subject. Are you doing something mildly illegal? Is that why you don’t want to tell me?”
Darger twirled a lock of hair around her finger.
“Alright, well then I’ll have to assume the reason you don’t want to tell me is that you’ve been rethinking our relationship and—”
She heard an irritated grunt over the line and then Owen said, “Oh, for crying out loud. It’s a cat, OK?”
“A cat? What’s a cat?”
“The client is apparently just dying to know what her cat does when she’s away from the house. Not for any particular reason, mind you. She’s just curious.”
“About her cat?”
“Lady’s a higher-up at Delta. One of those corporate jobs that sound so boring they have to give you the big bucks just so you won’t off yourself. So she’s bored and loaded, and now she’s paying me to follow her cat.”
“In this situation, you’d be remiss not to use the term tail. She paid you to tail the cat.”
“You know, I wouldn’t normally take on something this absurd. But it’s been a slow couple of weeks, and when I turned her down, she offered to pay double my usual fee.”
“What is the going rate for spying on a household pet these days?”
“I’m glad you’re so tickled by this.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize how serious this was.” She cleared her throat. “Maybe she’s worried that Muffin has been cheating on her with the cat lady down the street?”
“And you wondered why I didn’t want to tell you.”
“So what kind of cat is it? I’m picturing one of those overly inbred Siamese cats with the crossed eyes, because who else pays to have a cat followed around?”
“It’s gray and white.”
“How else can I describe a cat? He’s got four legs, two eyes—”
“No, I want to know if he’s done anything that’s going to get him in trouble with your client.”
“He’s a cat. He walks around and licks himself. Yesterday he chased a bird, and earlier today he used a neighbor kid’s sandbox as a toilet.”
“Hold on… he just came out through the cat door. I have to go. One thing I’ll say about following a cat is that he’s forced me to hone my shadow skills. Any little noise or sudden movement tips him off. I’ll be a ninja by the time I’m through with this job.”
Darger squeezed her eyes together, thinking.
“Sorry, I was trying to come up with a cat-related pun that would work as a goodbye, but I can’t think of anything.”
“Goodnight, Violet,” he said, only sounding a little annoyed. And she could tell he was smiling when he said it.
She’d been able to forget her fight with Loshak during the phone call, but as soon as the line went dead, it all came flooding back. Muffled voices passed by the door on the way to the elevator, and Darger realized the thing that bothered her most about the argument was how much Loshak hadn’t seemed to care. He’d shrugged her off like it was nothing.
Her hands clenched into fists, and it was then that she realized she still held the pregnancy test box in one hand.
She'd put it off long enough. It was time.
Three minutes the box said, but it felt more like three hours.
Darger paced the length of her hotel room, back and forth, trying to keep her mind clear.
What if it was positive?
The question forced itself to the churning surface of her thoughts no matter how much she tried to push it away.
It wasn't that she didn't want kids. She liked them well enough. Thought it might be nice to one day have a family. But now? She tried to imagine cooking up a stack of pancakes for the kids in the morning and then running out to the latest grisly crime scene.
And what would Owen think? They'd never discussed it. Hell, they'd only been together for a few months.
She checked the timer on her phone. There was still a whole minute left and then some.
The ability to create life, to produce a fully formed human being — a body and a soul — that was the real magic of the universe. It made every woman a potential Goddess. But what an incredible responsibility. Too much for her, perhaps.
And now she waited. Waited to find out if she would wield that power. Watched from her place on the edge of the threshold of life and death — stared down the well to see if any light flared in its depths.
Her phone screeched. Time was up.
She inhaled long and deep and then stalked over to the bathroom.
Darger paused just inside the threshold, not quite having the courage to look yet. The stick rested on the sink with the business end hanging over the edge of the basin. Two lines meant the test was positive. One line was negative.
She counted to three and took the last few steps across the tile floor. Her eyes scanned along the white stick, coming to rest on the small window.
A sigh filled her chest, relief mixed with a bit of sadness. She was glad, of course, for all the reasons she'd recounted a hundred times over the last day or so. But a very small part of her worried that she may never have a family of her own, whether by fate or by choice.
Knuckles rapped lightly at her door, interrupting her thoughts.
She tossed the test into the trash bin and dragged herself to the peephole.
It was Loshak, of course. Who else?
The latch clicked as she turned the handle and opened the door. Loshak met her eyes from across the threshold. She stared back. Neither of them spoke for a moment. She sure as hell wasn’t going to be the first one to talk.
Finally, he sighed.
“Can I come in?”
He lifted his arm then, and she saw that he had a brown paper bag in his hand.
“I brought beer.”
Darger stepped back to let him through.
“First, I owe you an apology,” he said. “This whole thing has me a little rattled. And you’re right. I haven’t been a very good partner these last few weeks. I’ve kept things from you. Lied about why I was coming out here. I hope you know that it isn’t an issue of trust.”
“Then why? Explain it to me,” she said, closing the door behind her.
Loshak set the beer down and slumped into the chair by the desk.
“It got to me. The Stump case, I mean. It was my first big one. I was young and ambitious, and when he got away, I took it personally. This is a wrong I’ve been waiting to right for almost twenty years, and I know it’s dangerous to be that far in, but I can’t help it.”
Darger didn’t speak. She wanted to hear him out from beginning to end.
“Not to mention, I made promises the first time around. Promises that are still hanging over my head.”
“But why not just tell me?”
“Because of the letter. When he sent you that letter, I knew it was as much for my benefit as it was for yours. He’s messing with me. It’s a test. He wants to know if he’s gotten so far in my head that I’d use my partner as bait. But I won’t. I won’t do that to you, Violet.”
“Letting me do my job isn’t using me as bait.”
“Are you sure about that?”
She threw her hands in the air.
“So what am I supposed to do? Not work the case?”
“Like you’d ever agree to that.”
“Besides that, when all is said and done, you’re still my partner. I need your help. Why else do you think I called you out here?”
“I don’t know, I figured you might have a hot gambling tip. A sure bet.”
Loshak raised his head finally and looked her square in the eye. “There’s no such thing as a sure bet.”
And Darger didn’t think he was talking about gambling anymore.
The house creaks. The timber breathing.
Shifting a little in her seat, the pain flares again. Makes everything go dark for a few seconds.
Emily takes deep breaths as reality fades back in.
She can only picture her skull as a broken eggshell. All spider-webbed like a shattered mirror. Shards of bone missing. Scalp flaking off at the edges like peeling wallpaper.
It’s probably not that bad. Almost surely not. She knows this. It hurts worse than it is. Like all those times as a kid she was sure she was bleeding but the fingers checking the point of impact came away clean.
Not today. This time there’s blood.
She tastes it at the corner of her lip. It’s caked there along the left side of her mouth. Crusty and dry.
She probes with her tongue. Investigates. No wounds that she can find.
The red must have drained down from the dome of her skull. The point where the steel made impact. Blinking a few times she can feel where the dried blood pulls her eyelid taut as well.
She opens her eyes wide. Sits up a little. Another stab of hurt jabs at her temple as soon as she moves. Pain so sharp it wobbles her reality. Shuts her eyes for her. Almost pulls her back into unconsciousness.
She takes deep breaths. Endures it. Watches everything go darker and fade back to bright again. Conscious of little but her breathing and the awful throb in her skull.
The pain makes it hard to think. Hard to open her eyes. Hard to exist at all.
She waits a time like that. Just breathing. Chin tucked almost to her sternum. And then she opens her eyes again. Careful not to move at all.
At first, she is only conscious that she is alone, at least in terms of her immediate surroundings.
This room is empty of other life. He isn’t here.
With that settled, the details of her surroundings begin to filter into her awareness.
A new feeling at her wrists has replaced the bite of the plastic zip ties.
They attach her to what looks like a typical school desk, the kind with the desktop and chair built as one piece. The chain of the cuffs is looped around one of the steel support bars under the laminated wood tabletop.
She jerks her arms a few times, metal rattling against metal, before all of this fully registers.
She takes a few breaths. Concentrates to keep the churning panic from taking over.
She needs to focus on the room around her. Needs to learn it. Needs to find a way out.
She finds herself in a great room almost barren of furniture. Almost. There are four more desks similar to hers, the others shoved into the corner behind her.
A cast iron stove mans the center of the wall across the room. Between that and all the wood showing, all the rustic details, she knows it must be a cabin.
Probably in the middle of nowhere. Somewhere up in the mountains, away from the city.
Thick bands of what looks like stucco surround the dark planks of wood that comprise the structure, striping the wall in light and dark. The messy edges where the white touches the lumber looks like foamy toothpaste in the half-light.
It’s dark. Is it still night? She’s not sure.
Gray shadows fall over the floors, climb up the walls, collect into clouds of black in every corner.
A single burning bulb in a track lighting fixture provides what little light there is, all of it angled away from her. A circle glowing on the far wall.
Boards block out every window. Heavy wood. Nailed or screwed in tightly. She couldn’t remove it without tools and time.
That leaves the heavy steel door off to her right as the only way out. A blue-gray thing that offers little hope of escape. The metal looks out of place among all the wood. Probably added by him. The finishing touch to complete his dream torture chamber. Really ties the room together.
A silent laugh emits from her nostrils, more injured than joyous. The sardonic thought is too scary to be funny. She cuts it off so she won’t start crying.
She stirs a little then, the pang of pain in her head not so bad as it was last time. Moving her feet, it occurs to her how cold they are.
Tiles the color of brick etch a grid into the floor. The little gray seams of grout dividing everything up into boxes. Into cells.
Appropriate, she thinks. This is her cell.
Again she rattles her cuffs against the bar. Makes the desk hop up and down a little, metal feet scratching at the tile with angry squawks.
But her headache flares back into blinding territory, and she gives it up.
Rest. For now, she will rest.
She will save her strength for the fight ahead.
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