The Violet Darger Series: Mystery Thriller Box Set
The serial killer thriller that "refuses to let go until you've read the last sentence."
The most recent body was discovered in the grease dumpster behind a Burger King. Dismembered. Shoved into two garbage bags and lowered into the murky oil.
Now rookie agent Violet Darger gets the most important assignment of her career. She travels to the Midwest to face a killer unlike anything she's seen. Aggressive. Territorial. Deranged and driven.
Another mutilated corpse was found next to a roller rink. A third in the gutter in a residential neighborhood.
These bold displays of violence shock the rural community and rattle local law enforcement.
Who could carry out such brutality? And why?
Unfortunately for Agent Darger, there's little physical evidence to work with, and the only witnesses prove to be unreliable. The case seems hopeless.
If she fails, more will die. He will kill again and again.
The victims harbor dark secrets. The clues twist and writhe and refuse to keep still. And the killer watches the investigation on the nightly news, gleeful to relive the violence, knowing that he can't be stopped.
A page-turning thriller packed with heart-stopping suspense. Fans of John Sandford, Michael Connelly, Karin Slaughter, and Lisa Gardner should get to know Violet Darger. Grab this discounted omnibus edition now.
Praise for the Violet Darger series:
"The Violet Darger books are honestly the best detective novels I've ever read." -- Devin
"Wow, just wow! If you like scare-you-half-to-death mystery books this is the one for you. It starts with a bang and just doesn't stop." -- Ada Lavin
"Un-put-downable! I cannot wait for this series to grow. If you love Sandford, Slaughter, Kava, Stelljes and Deaver, you’ll LOVE Vargus & McBain!" -- Melody M
"Vargus and McBain have, in Violet Darger, created a character that absolutely stands up with some of the greats -- Phillip Marlowe, Dave Robicheaux, Elvis Cole, Charlie Parker, August Dupin, Jack Reacher, Harry Bosch, etc." -- Lucinda E. Snyder
"If you liked Silence of the Lambs, you'll love Dead End Girl... At the same time, there's so much attention to detail and organic storytelling that this could easily compete with any of Stephen King's longer works. I found myself completely invested in every character, from the authorities to the killer to the victims themselves." -- eden Hudson
"This book reminds me of some of my favorite books in the crime thriller genre - Dark Places by Gillian Flynn, The Collector by John Fowles, the Mr. Mercedes trilogy by Stephen King, and of course Silence of the Lambs. It's not a glimpse...it's a good long look inside the mind of a killer. It's fast paced, it's scary, and it's satisfying." -- Rain
"If you are a fan of Silence of the Lambs, this book is a spiritual successor." -- Amazon customer
"I devour each installment in this series the instant it is available." -- Shelley R. Klouzal
Release date: January 12, 2020
Publisher: Smarmy Press
Print pages: 952
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The Violet Darger Series: Mystery Thriller Box Set
Corduroy pants swished between Teresa’s thighs as she crossed the parking lot. She had a headache. That drive-thru headset gave her a headache every damn time. The band squeezed her skull like an old man trying to find a ripe cantaloupe in the produce department. Pressing and pressing until her temples throbbed. When the headaches were really bad, she got the aura. And it was gonna be a bad one tonight. She could already tell. By the time she got home, she’d be nauseous from the skull throb along with the stink of fryer grease clinging to her clothes and hair and skin. Sometimes she swore she could feel it permeating her pores.
She placed a hand under the lid of the dumpster and lifted. The overhead lights in the parking lot glinted on the surface below. It looked like water, but it wasn’t. It was oil. Every night they emptied the fryers, dumping the used oil into this dumpster. It was a disgusting task. Worse than taking out the trash on a 90-degree summer day, when the flies got real thick, and the meat went rancid almost as soon as they put it in the bin.
It was dead out. No traffic. No noise at all but her fiddling with the dumpster and the bucket.
Her skin crawled a little whenever she was out here this late. In the dark. In the quiet. A feeling settled into the flesh on her back and shoulders, a cold feeling, a feeling like after watching one of those scary movies when she was a teenager. It might have been a thrill while she was watching, but later on that night she’d always get spooked. She’d tremble in bed, too terrified to walk down the hall to pee. The house never seemed so ominously still as it did on those nights. Anyhow, she couldn’t stand to watch horror movies anymore. Her weak stomach couldn’t handle the gore.
Bending over the metal cart she’d wheeled along with her, Teresa scooped one of the buckets of used fryer oil and balanced it on the edge of the dumpster. She tipped the bucket and watched as the gallons of brown grease oozed into the dumpster, disrupting the smoothness. Settled at the bottom of the bucket, there were clumps and chunks. Burned bits of fries and chicken tender crumbs. They splatted and splashed into the pool of liquid that looked black in the night.
That’s when Teresa saw it. Something rising out of the oil, disturbing the otherwise unblemished surface.
Great. Some dumbshit threw two bags of trash in the grease dumpster.
Probably that Simmons kid. She knew he went out to his car on his breaks to smoke pot. Everyone knew. He always came back reeking of mouthwash and skunk weed. He even had a bumper sticker with those rainbow Grateful Dead bears. He wasn’t fooling anybody.
She’d wanted to institute random drug testing, but the store manager wouldn’t allow it. Something about the Constitution. Whatever.
She set the empty bucket down and let out the breath she’d been holding. The reek of old oil was heavy in the air.
Standing on her tiptoes and holding her breath again, she leaned over the edge, her arm swinging into the dark space but coming up empty.
She hoisted herself up onto the side. With the edge of the dumpster jabbing her in the gut, she kicked one leg up onto the rim. One of her hands slid in a greasy residue, and she lurched forward, her upper body dipping into the darkness inside. For a split second, she was certain she was going in, all the way in, neck-deep into the foul muck. Her leg flailed behind her like a monkey’s tail, struggling to regain her balance, and Teresa was able to catch herself at the last moment.
Cheese and crackers, that was close. Too close. She imagined herself teetering over the lip, plunging into the dark pool. That would have been awful.
She wiped her hand on her pants and peered into the inky interior. She wouldn’t be able to reach the bags unless she got back up there, but she wasn’t willing to risk taking a swim in a vat of grease. No way, no how.
Cursing the Simmons kid under her breath, she strode back inside the restaurant. A few moments later, the back door swung open again, and she reappeared with a step stool from the walk-in freezer and a pair of tongs.
The stool clattered onto the concrete. She shoved it as close to the dumpster as it would go with her foot, and it clanged against the metal. The sound reminded her of waves thumping against the side of a boat’s hull.
Climbing atop the step, she gripped the tongs in her fist. Hovering over the gaping mouth of the dumpster, she swung her arm out, reaching for the first garbage bag. It rustled under her touch, and she clamped the tongs onto the flimsy black plastic. Tugging it a few inches closer, she felt the grip lose purchase. The bag was no doubt coated with a film of oil. Slippery as hell.
Damn it all. She should have brought a pair of gloves.
She clicked the tongs together in frustration, then redoubled her efforts. This time the tongs got a nice big bite of the plastic, as well as whatever was inside the bag. Clenching her fingers around the handle, she hauled the bag closer.
It was heavy. Probably the garbage inside was all sodden with oil by now. What a damn mess. She was going to end up driving home lubed up with the filth from head to toe.
The plastic crinkled as she lifted the bag. It was really gosh damn heavy. Something inside the bag bonged against the metal as she dragged it up along the corner.
She had it up on the lip of the dumpster now, and then she felt some resistance and a sort of stretching feeling and then the pop as the plastic ripped, and then the garbage was tumbling out, half on the ground and half back into the grease with a sploosh, and there was an odd thud of something hitting the ground — it sounded kind of like dropping a head of lettuce or something — and then she looked down, and it wasn’t a head of lettuce, but there was a head, alright. A mannequin head, still connected to the torso, though there was a big crack along the neck. The arms and legs were gone, and just as she started to wonder why in the world someone would toss a broken mannequin into their grease dumpster, she realized it wasn’t a mannequin at all.
It was a body. A limbless woman. Her eyes closed. Her skin as pale as bone. Red flaps of meat exposed where each arm and leg should be.
Teresa’s breath hissed in her throat. She clambered down from the stool and scrabbled back in a crabwalk, the corduroy seat of her pants dragging over the asphalt in jerks.
She retreated without thought. A blind panic that bashed her shoulder-blades-first into the steel door twice before she realized what she was doing and got a hold of herself.
Her eyes stayed fixed on the grisly scene, and one word reverberated in her mind:
The smell of solvent hung like a cloud over the workbench. She sprayed a cotton rag with Hoppes solution, attached it to the cleaning rod, and forced it into the barrel of her Glock 22. When the white rag had turned dark gray with carbon powder, she traded it for a new scrap of cotton, sprayed, and started again.
She’d done well on the range today, practicing with a QIT-99 target. She managed to score 96% despite the fact that she hadn’t shot in over a month. Well over the 80% required to pass her annual qualification test. She glanced over at the paper target riddled with bullet holes. Fat lot of good it did when she was stuck behind a desk most days.
Lately, she’d begun to question her decision to leave her position as a victim specialist. Violet Darger had spent her first four years at the FBI in the Office for Victim Assistance before giving up her position to become an agent trainee. She knew her colleagues thought she was nuts for making the move. Victim specialist jobs were highly competitive. To give that up just to have to start over at the bottom of the special agent chain was something almost everyone had counseled against. Not that she’d asked for their advice. “Impulsive” was the word her former supervisor had used. That was almost two years ago now, and she’d brushed them off at the time. They didn’t understand. She didn’t expect them to.
She moved on to the wire brush. She pushed the copper bristles through the barrel once, removed the brush tip, and then repeated the motion. A guy at a nearby table was using his wire brush as well, and he inserted it into the barrel and shimmied it back and forth. The sound of the wire fibers scraping against the inside of the barrel sent goose bumps scuttling over the flesh of her arms. Worse than nails on a chalkboard. Not because the sound was even so bad, but because she imagined the abrasive brush scratching the steel surface of the barrel, throwing off its accuracy micron by micron.
She mentioned this fear once, to the firearms instructor at Quantico. He’d laughed.
“You need a chemistry refresher, Darger. Brush is made of copper. Barrel’s made of steel. It won’t scratch.”
Darger didn’t care what he said, and she didn’t bother trying to correct anyone else either, but the sound of it still set her teeth on edge. Her brush went into the barrel only one direction: the same direction the bullet traveled. Out and only out.
After another pass with a fresh cotton cloth, she ran her bore snake through the barrel.
Her attraction to the FBI was something she’d never really tried to explain to anyone. Not in any kind of honest way. But deep down, she knew what pulled her in. She wanted to be part of the best. She wanted to spend her life fighting for something.
On the simplest level, a battle of good and evil still existed in the world. People did unspeakable things to each other. Rape. Murder. Human trafficking. Mankind devoured itself the same way it always had. The same way it always would. The big ones ate the little ones. The monsters defiled the meek.
And yet others existed who dedicated their lives to stopping the violence. To fighting the monsters.
Violet Darger wanted with all her heart to be part of that. She wanted to stare into the abyss, to do her part to keep the darkness at bay.
Twenty-some weeks at the training academy plus nearly two years in the Crisis Negotiation Unit, and she found herself looking around her beige cubicle and wondering, “Is this what I signed up for?” It was just another desk job most days, more bureaucratic than anything visceral. Hardly the change she’d been expecting when she transferred from OVA. She yearned to work the cases up close, but so far that hadn’t happened yet.
The FBI spent half of the training time telling them it’s not like what they saw on TV and in the movies. In other words, the prospective agents shouldn’t expect their days to be filled with car chases and explosions and shouting into walkie-talkies. More often, it was paperwork and court dates and an endless string of meetings with your superiors. And then in the next breath, the instructor would be telling them all about the crazy shit they’ve done — kidnappings, bank robberies, active shooters.
Darger worked over the frame with a toothbrush, then wiped up the excess solvent with a dried out baby wipe.
Just as she twisted open the top of the bottle of gun oil, her phone rang.
She removed one purple nitrile glove and tossed it on the workbench. She retrieved the phone from her pocket, saw that the caller was Cal, and swiped her thumb across the screen.
“Hot Pocket Ryskamp I presume,” she said.
She put the phone in speaker mode, set it in her lap, and slid her hand back into the glove.
Cal’s chuckle crackled out of the tinny speaker.
“Funny. But I don’t know if that’s the best way to answer when the new Deputy Assistant Director of CIRG calls.”
She stopped oiling the barrel and picked up the phone.
“Congratulations, Cal. Or should I say, sir. You’re a sir now, huh?”
“I guess so.”
“So for future reference, how should I answer the phone when you call from now on?” Darger asked.
“DAD Ryskamp would be fine.”
“Mister Critical Incident Response Group. Hot damn.”
“I know. So, hey, I didn’t just call to gloat.”
“Yeah, right.” She dabbed oil into the creases and the slide, then used another rag to oil the recoil spring.
“OK, it was mostly to gloat.”
“I knew it.”
“Seriously, though. I have something for you.”
She set the phone down again and returned to her task, working oil into the nooks and crannies of the gun frame.
“Is this like the time you set me up with that guy that thought that dinosaur fossils were a hoax?”
“You’re not ever gonna let me forget that one, are you?”
“It’s kind of unforgettable.”
“Yeah. Well, we’re consulting with the Athens County Sheriff’s Department out in Ohio on a case of theirs—”
Darger snorted. Of course. He was going to try to send her out to some BFE resident agency to play Sheriff’s pet.
Cal was still talking, ignoring her derisive sigh.
“—multiple cases, actually. The most recent victim was found in garbage bags in a Burger King dumpster. Dismembered. I don’t know if you’ve seen any of it in the news, but they think they have a serial murderer out there. They’re calling the killings the Trash Bag Murders or the Doll Parts Murders. But if you’re not interested, I can try to find someone else.”
The smirk on Darger’s face vanished.
“Are you jerking me around?”
“Nope. I’m dead serious.”
“You know, people always complain about cronyism,” she said, “but I don’t really see what’s so bad about it.”
“Ha. So listen. We already have an agent out there, and therein lies part of the problem. Guy’s a real piece of work.”
“Oh, he’s one of these BAU hotshots who thinks he’s Christ returned. Still thinks it’s 1982, and he’s hunting Ted Bundy or something.”
“Ted Bundy was arrested in 1978.”
“Whatever. You know what I mean. He’s the type that refuses to work with other agents, constantly submits reports late, if at all, and just generally drives guys like my new boss totally apeshit,” Cal said. He had a habit of cracking his knuckles when he was stressed out, and while she couldn’t hear it over the line, she still imagined him doing it while they talked.
“Victor Loshak, I’m sure you’ve heard of him,” he added.
A row of creases appeared on her forehead.
“Yeah. I’ve heard of him.” Who hadn’t, was what she didn’t say. She cleared her throat.
“So am I to take it that you want me to head out there and… what? Report on his findings?”
“Exactly. He hasn’t touched base with the liaison in the Resident Agency out there in three days, so we’re in the dark.”
That was disappointing. This was starting to sound a little more like a babysitting mission and lot less like her profiling dream job.
“And look, I hope you don’t think I’m just sending you out to the boonies to play nanny to some pain-in-the-ass old timer.”
“I didn’t think that.” She hoped he couldn’t hear the smile in her voice. He knew her too well.
“The truth is, I’m just as interested in hearing your take, and I suspect the local law enforcement would feel the same. You and I both know that you’re the best profiler in CNU. You were spot-on with that active shooter in Phoenix. You saved lives.”
She frowned and said, “He turned the gun on himself. I didn’t do anything.”
“What are you talking about? That was in your profile, that he’d take himself out. So we sat. Who knows what would have happened if we’d sent HRT in right away? He might have killed one of our guys. Might have killed another hostage,” Cal said. “Don’t get humble on me, Darger. It doesn’t suit you.”
There was a brief pause.
“Or are you trying to tell me you don’t want this assignment?”
“No. I want it,” she said.
“Good. Then have your butt on a plane to Columbus tomorrow morning. I’ll get a copy of the files ready for you before you head out.”
Darger was scribbling instructions for herself on a scrap of paper while Cal continued to talk.
“The way I see it, we’re killing two birds with one stone. We’re kept in the loop, and you get your foot in the door with BAU. I know the weirdo stuff is kind of your thing.”
“The weirdo stuff. Nice.”
Cal chuckled. “You know what I mean. What I’m trying to say is, I’ve gotten the impression that there are people that would love for him to be out of the Behavioral Analysis Unit. All the talent in the world is worthless if you won’t be part of the team.”
“And he doesn’t get reprimanded for… I don’t know, not playing well with others?”
“Yes and no. He has friends higher up the chain, and like you said, cronyism is alive and well in the FBI. He’s totally protected. For now.”
Personally Darger wasn’t interested in FBI politics. Actually, it was more than that. She detested it. But she kept her mouth shut and let Cal go on.
“Anyway, it was held back from the press, but there’s a witness. A failed abduction. The girl — Peters is her name, I think — gave a full account. With your experience counseling victims and witnesses, I figure who better to talk to her? I’d start there and see what you come up with.”
The conversation ended, and Darger dabbed her finger at the touchscreen to hang up. She went back to cleaning her weapon, her lips curling at the corners but not quite smiling. The new assignment was good news, she thought, but she wasn’t going to get excited about a one-off case like this.
Of course, the rapid beating of her heart said otherwise.
By the time she arrived in Athens, she’d gone over the files. Cal had them waiting for her at the front desk of his new office, along with a ticket to Columbus departing the next morning and a voucher for her rental car. She’d spent that evening acquainting herself with the crimes over a large cheese pizza and garlic bread from Giovanni’s.
Three girls, all from the Athens and Hocking county areas, kidnapped, murdered, dismembered, and dumped in public places.
The first victim, Cristal Munroe, was found in an empty lot next to a roller rink, her body wrapped in black plastic garbage bags. Cristal was from the poor side of town. She shared a trailer with two other girls. The three of them had all worked at the same strip club, a seedy joint that was well known to have girls who would do more than just take off their clothes. Despite the fact that Cristal had recently left her job at the club to enroll in classes at the local community college, police still initially suspected her murder was the by-product of a trick gone wrong.
It wasn’t until a second girl went missing that the media started speculating about a serial killer. Local law enforcement had no interest in the sensationalist murmurs from the press and denied any connection between the two girls. But when Katie Seidel’s body was discovered a few days later, mutilated in a strikingly similar fashion to Cristal Munroe, they were forced to reconsider the serial killer angle.
Less than a month later, a third girl named Sierra Peters was abducted. She was able to fight off her attacker and escape. Police suspected the man that tried to abduct her was the same man that had killed Cristal and Katie.
Then, nearly a week ago, the body of Fiona Worthington was found — also in trash bags — this time in the dumpster of a Burger King.
Fiona was a 27-year-old graduate student at Ohio University in Athens. Her parents lived nearby, her father being an English professor at the university. She was everything the first three girls were not — upper middle class, photogenic, and well-educated. The kind of victim the media always had a hard-on for.
Indeed, the third body started a media shitstorm, and that was when the local authorities called in the FBI.
The tires bumped over a railroad crossing, and Deputy Donaldson aimed a finger at a rectangular brick building. The structure looked dark, half the windows were broken, and the sign out front read “B I AM HOE ACE CO.”
“That there is the former Brigham Shoelace factory. It was a major blow to the local economy when that place closed down. Now, I know just what you’re thinkin’. Who’d imagine you’d need a whole factory just to make shoelaces? Well, you’d be surprised. That place was the backbone of this town.”
Darger grunted agreement. They passed another crumbling brick carcass, and the Deputy nodded toward it.
“Used to manufacture washing machines over there. They ship these jobs off to China or wherever, and then send us back this crap that lasts two years before it falls apart, so we constantly have to go buy new crap to replace it.”
“My parents gave me a toaster oven as a graduation gift when I went off to college. Lasted me 26 years before I decided it was lookin’ a little hairy. Figured I’d get something that looked of this century. So I go out to Wal-Mart and get me a slick-looking Black and Decker, same exact brand I had before, mind you. Piece of crap burns out in eight months. And the real kicker? I would have just gone back to the old one, but I already donated it to the Sally Am. I even went around lookin’ for it. No dice.“
Darger clenched her jaw, felt the muscles ripple. She wanted more than anything to be alone with the file and the crime scenes and her thoughts. She didn’t need someone else’s rambling observations gunking up the works. But Donaldson was a talker. She knew that the second he waddled out of his office to shake her hand and went off on a tirade about the “ongoing embarrassment that is the Bengals secondary.”
What she was most worried about was that they’d get to the crime scene, and he’d really go off. Spewing out his own pet theories. That was the last thing she wanted.
In her opinion, there was more than one way to contaminate the crime scene, and one of them was with talk.
She’d seen it plenty of times. Cops are on the scene. Someone says, “looks like the husband did it.” And based on the numbers, maybe it’s not a bad guess for a shot-in-the-dark. But that kind of guesswork often led to tunnel vision, no matter anyone’s best intentions. Suddenly people were looking specifically for evidence that backs up the narrative they’ve already accepted, excluding anything that didn’t fit.
As a rule, agents working on profiles made an effort to maintain the purity of their own assessments. Darger wanted to get a feel for things without outside opinions. She had explicitly skipped over anything in the file that leaned toward analysis. She wanted only the facts. It was also one of the reasons she wanted to visit the crime scenes before meeting with Agent Loshak.
She wondered, again, if she was overstepping. No one had specifically told her to work up a profile, and based on all she’d heard, she didn’t figure Loshak would be too keen on the idea.
A pothole in the road rattled Darger out of her thoughts. She realized the Deputy had stopped the running commentary somewhere a few miles back. She had a sense that her silence was becoming awkward. She forced herself to say something.
“How long have you been with the Sheriff’s Department?”
“Coming up on a quarter-century next year. And I don’t mind telling you I’ve never seen anything like this. We usually have a few cases of arson every year, and then there are the sexual assaults, the drug-related crimes, the domestic disturbances, but we’ve only had ten murders in-county in the last decade or so. Until now, of course.”
“Wow,” Darger said. “I guess that’s why you called us in.”
“Absolutely. If it were up to me, I’d hand the whole thing off to the FBI. This is… well, it’s not what I imagined when I signed up for the force.”
Donaldson took his eyes off the road to glance at her.
“I’m assuming you’ve read the book?” he said.
“The one Agent Loshak wrote? Killer Instincts?”
“Oh, right. Of course.”
He shook his head.
“I got it out from the library after I heard it was him who was comin’ down to help out. Figured it wouldn’t hurt to do my homework, so to speak. But I couldn’t do it. Couldn’t get through it.”
He suddenly looked more serious.
One of Darger’s eyebrows quirked upward.
“It wasn’t the writing, mind you, but the content. Crap gives me nightmares. I can’t imagine gettin’ in the heads of these sickos. I mean… I just don’t want to know.”
Darger didn’t know what to say to that.
“What’d you think of it?” Donaldson said.
“Of Loshak’s book?”
The deputy bobbed his head once.
“He kind of wrote the textbooks for the field, so… I’ve learned a lot from him even though we’ve never met.”
“Never met? How is that possible?”
“We’re in different units,” she said, “and Agent Loshak mostly works alone from what I hear.”
“Oh, I must have been way off. I thought you two were related.”
“What gave you that idea?”
“When I dropped off the files and photos at his motel room, I saw that he had a picture up on the night stand. It was a girl who looked quite a bit like you. I thought so, anyhow. Younger, of course, but I just thought…”
Darger thought about it a second before she remembered hearing the news about Loshak’s family.
“He had a daughter who passed last year. Cancer.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. I mentioned the photograph, even, and he didn’t say anything. I didn’t think much of it at the time. Me puttin’ my foot in my mouth is nothing new, I guess.”
The turn signal ticked as they waited to make a left turn. Looking down the hill, Darger could see the circular Burger King sign rising above the roofs of the businesses below. The marquee sported a message offering Buy One Get One Original Chickens.
It wasn’t until they wheeled into the parking lot that she realized Donaldson hadn’t actually talked about the case at all.
Deputy Donaldson slid the gearshift into Park but left the car idling. Darger moved to exit the vehicle, but she stopped when she noticed that Donaldson wasn’t stirring.
“I’ll, uh, sit this one out, if you don’t mind.”
“Alright,” she said, not minding at all.
“To be completely honest with you, I have a tough time with all of the… the blood and all.”
He gave a sort of sheepish twitch of his shoulders.
“I’m not proud.”
She didn’t know what to say, so she just gave him a curt nod and climbed out of the cruiser.
Rays of sunlight slanted down through the trees above. She took a breath, the charred smell of flame-broiled burgers filling her nostrils. Pretty gross. Something about the idea of meat and murder in close proximity to one another made her a little queasy.
Approaching the dumpsters, she noted the yellow crime scene tape fluttering in the breeze. Something about the tape’s flapping seemed serpentine to her.
She paused just shy of the dumpster itself. This was it. This was where a Burger King employee lived out a nightmare. Spilling a garbage bag of human remains onto the asphalt, blood and grease oozing in all directions. Darger closed her eyes and saw the crime scene photos in her head. Deep gouges pocked the torso, ranging from small slits showing red to gaping pits trailing off into the black of shadows. Fourteen stab wounds, if she remembered the autopsy findings correctly.
The angry slash across the neck went a step beyond the worst of the stab wounds, so deep it had nearly taken the head clean off. Had decapitation been his intent? She paged through the files until she reached the medical examiner’s report. They found marks indicative of sawing in addition to the slash across the neck that served as the fatal wound. Maybe.
Darger skirted around the perimeter of the dump site, taking in the crime scene from different angles. Traffic whooshed by, an almost constant source of background noise. But it wasn’t static. It undulated, like waves on a beach. Certainly not an isolated location. He picked it for a reason.
The faux shutter sound blipped out of her phone as she snapped photos from various vantage points. It was somewhat unusual for profilers to actually visit the crime scenes in person. Usually, they studied the case file, spit out a profile and move on. But she knew Loshak did it this way, and she wanted to do the same. There were things you could miss in police photographs. The atmosphere of a place.
That was the reason Darger also took her own set of pictures. She wanted visual reminders to bring back the feeling of actually being there. Personal documents. She wanted to be able to remember how busy the street was, what other businesses were in view, where the killer might have stopped or parked his car during the dump.
The dumpster of a fast food joint. The grease dumpster, she reminded herself. Might have been intentional. He might have thought the oil would further complicate things forensically. Or it could have been an accident. If he were in a rush, he may have mistaken it for a regular trash dumpster. He would have heard the splash of the first bag. But by that time, he’d already committed.
She moved closer to the dumpster now, imagining the course he would have taken driving into the lot. Parking. Getting out of the car. Opening the trunk.
There were dark oil spots on the concrete, and when she flipped open the file to the photos taken when the scene was fresh, she confirmed that these were indeed the places where the bags had rested upon being removed from the dumpster.
Emanating from the dark splotches were streams and smears. They were dry now, of course, but still unmistakably blood.
In the photos, the stains were wet. Glistening against the pavement. Pools of it, drying sticky and gelatinous. Gummy.
As quickly as the shutter on a camera snapping open and shut, a different image of blood on concrete flashed in her mind. And then the metallic scent of it, almost more a feeling in her nose than a true smell. Her breath caught in her throat.
The world blurred for a moment, pulse throbbing in her ears. She tasted stomach acid at the back of her tongue.
She crouched in front of the smears on the pavement and closed her eyes. From where the deputy sat in his car, it would just look like she was getting a closer look. But the truth was, she was a bit concerned she might faint.
Darger wouldn’t let it happen. She took a long, deep breath, and her mind flicked into an exercise to center herself.
My name is Violet Darger.
I was born on April 13th.
I am standing in the parking lot of a Burger King.
Today is Friday.
It is sunny out, barely a cloud in the sky.
By the end, her breathing had slowed. Her pulse still thrummed in her chest, and her hands felt clammy, but she no longer felt like she was going to throw up or pass out, at least.
The exercise worked. It always did. For now, anyway.
Violet took out her phone again and snapped a few photos of the stains. Looking at them through the lens of the camera helped calm her a little more. She felt once-removed from the scene.
She flicked backward in the file. The first two dump sites were entirely out in the open. No attempt at concealment. Did the move to a dumpster suggest he was ashamed of this one? Maybe something went wrong, and he was trying to cover it up?
Darger scribbled these questions on her notepad, then paused to chew on a fingernail.
Based on the lack of rigor mortis and the state of decomposition, the medical examiner estimated the time of death to be around 48-72 hours before she was discovered. She’d been missing around 72 hours.
How long had she been in the oil? Violet squinted, trying to remember the interview notes with Teresa Riley, the Burger King manager. The one who had found the body. She flipped through the file and confirmed that Ms. Riley stated that oil is deposited into the dumpster once a day after the store closes. That would suggest that the body was dumped the night before it was discovered, sometime after 11 PM. Although there was the suggestion by Ms. Riley that the oil may not have been changed then. Violet ran her finger under the letters of the interview transcript as she read.
DET. LUCK: So the dumpster would have been opened by one of your staff last night around the same time?
REILY: Well now, I didn’t close last night. And sometimes the grease don’t get changed, you see? Not when I’m here, of course. I make sure those fryers are cleaned out every night. But no one really likes to do it, so I know sometimes they aren’t doing it. I know it. Because I come in the next day, and there’s a smell, you know? The oil gets a bad smell if you don’t-
DET. LUCK: OK, but generally, the oil gets dumped every night. Is that right?
REILY: They’re supposed to. Yeah.
The misspelling of Ms. Riley’s name by the transcription program irked Violet. It was a computer mistake, she knew, but one that could have been quickly and easily fixed by whoever finalized the transcript. She didn’t allow for such errors in her own paperwork, and she didn’t like it from others. If they couldn’t be bothered to correct a simple spelling, what else were they missing?
She clicked and unclicked her pen and refocused on the task at hand. It wasn’t the time to get sidetracked by minutiae.
So in theory, the body was in the dumpster for less than 24 hours. That would mean the girl would have been dead for something like 48 hours before the dump. That was consistent with the findings for the other victims. The evidence suggested he was spending a lot more time with them after they were dead than he did while they were alive.
Of course, there were other possibilities. If the oil didn’t get dumped the night before, for example. She remembered another one of Ms. Riley’s lines from her transcript.
REILY: Sometimes I feel like I’m the only one holding this place together, you know? I’m the only one that cares. These kids, they don’t care. They don’t actually give a crap about doing a good job. And you know… you know, some of them are marijuana smokers. I know because I smell it on ‘em.
Violet tapped her pen against the file and walked around the dumpster. So it was possible the body had been in the dumpster for more than one day. But three? She thought not.
She looked at the photo of the garbage bags again. The crumpled black plastic with a sheen of oily residue. One torn, one intact. Bags for trash. And wasn’t that what these girls were to him? Human garbage? Disposable pieces of flesh and bone? Just here for him to consume and then throw out when he’s finished.
She doubted he was trying to say that explicitly. He likely chose the bags for the sake of convenience. The word echoed in her head. Convenience. She glanced at the Burger King sign towering above and thought about the significance of the body being dumped at what one might consider a Mecca of convenience. Your way, right away.
In the next series of photos in the file, the body was more clearly visible. At first glance, it really did look like an assortment of doll parts. Close-up shots taken after a destructive toddler has had his way with a Barbie doll. But upon closer inspection, the gruesome details became more clear: the stark white of protruding bone against a backdrop of torn red flesh. The pallor of the skin a mottled mixture of purple and gray. Strangely opaque.
Darger frowned at a picture focusing on neck wound. There it was again. That awful, jagged slash. Was he really going for a decapitation? A new part of his ritual? Or had he cut further into the neck by accident this time and figured he might as well go all the way, only to find he lacked the proper tools? Or the time. Or perhaps the stomach.
Her eyes ran over the carnage again. No, she thought. He certainly didn’t lack the stomach for it.
On the ride to the next dump site, Deputy Donaldson heaved a long sigh and broke his silence.
“I’ll be glad when this is all over. Haven’t had a good night of sleep since it started.”
Darger couldn’t remember having many restful nights in the past three years. But she said nothing.
“Wish I could stop thinking about it, that’s all.”
“Soon, hopefully,” Violet finally said.
It was bullshit, of course. These grisly details, the images of these dismembered girls wrapped in plastic, would stick with him forever. Same for all the cops who worked their piece of the investigation. Same, too, for most all of the people who lived in this little swath of the Midwest and had become familiar with the crimes. Hardly a day would go by without these nightmares opening in all of their heads.
She didn’t have the heart to tell him. A case like this would never be over.
Darger repeated her ritual at each scene. Taking photos, jotting notes, comparing what she’d read in the files with what she saw with her own eyes. When she was finished, she glanced at her watch, surprised to see that it was already early evening. She hadn’t meant to take so long.
By the time she climbed back into the deputy’s car for the last time, the sun had begun to set. Deputy Donaldson maintained a thoughtful silence as Violet consulted the file and scribbled in her notebook.
“Before we head back to the station, can you take me to the spot where the Peters girl was abducted?”
Donaldson wore a smirk beneath his sandy mustache.
“Sure, if you can tell me which one.”
“I don’t follow.”
“I suppose you don’t have the updated file. The Hocking County guys had her in two days ago for another interview, and she kind of canceled her prior testimony out.”
Darger flipped through the file until she found the witness statement for Sierra Peters. She scanned it again, refreshing her memory.
“Not exactly. But a lot of the details — which were fuzzy at best to begin with, mind you — changed.”
“Maybe she just started to remember things more clearly. I mean, what about her story changed?”
“The beginning, middle, and end, mostly. I expect it’s hard to keep the details straight when it never happened. Listen, when I drop you off, I’ll radio inside and have Marcie make you a copy of the most recent statement. You can go in and grab it before you leave.”
“But you think she made it up?”
“The girl has a history. On and off drugs. Meth and painkillers, depending on her mood. She calls our department. A lot. Filing noise complaints. Reporting suspicious activity in the neighborhood. Calling in ex-boyfriends for things and refusing to press charges two hours later. Crap like that. You take enough of these calls, and you start to take what she says with more than a few grains of salt. Add to that the fact that her supposed abduction happened the day after the press started up with all the serial killer hullabaloo?”
He shook his head as he finished his thought.
“A little too coincidental for my tastes.”
Damn it all. If she’d made up the story, that wouldn’t just scratch up her profile. It would mar the entire investigation. What doors had been closed because of her statements? What assumptions had already been made and hardened into fact in the minds of the investigators?
Donaldson was still rambling about the girl’s history as a troublemaker.
“She went away to a real rehab out in Arizona a while back. Forty days of peace and quiet around town without her calling something in every few days. It was heavenly. Rehab didn’t take, though. Two days after she gets back, she gets in a heated altercation at a convenience store and gets busted for possession.”
There was a pause, and she could hear the suctioning sound of him sucking his teeth before he continued.
“She’s a dead end girl, that one.”
Darger had been almost convinced to drop it until that last remark. Her history didn’t preclude her from being a victim. Besides, she’d met witnesses who had second thoughts before. It was scary to get mixed up in a murder investigation. Scary for a reason. Sometimes the risk involved was very real.
This thought triggered memories. Bad ones. Darger ground her teeth and blocked the worst of the lot before it had a chance to fill her head with images best forgotten. There would not be a replay of the spell she’d suffered in the Burger King parking lot. She wouldn’t allow it.
“That’s the thing about the boy who cried wolf, Deputy,” Darger said, returning her focus to Sierra Peters. “That last time he really had seen a wolf. I’d like to talk to the girl. See what I think.”
Deputy Donaldson scoffed.
“Be my guest. If you’re in the mood for a goose chase, that’s no skin off my nose. I don’t pretend to be an expert in homicide investigations. Barely seen one up close myself before all of this. I know people, though. About 80% percent of ‘em are good. Maybe not quite that many, but close to that. The other 20% can’t connect to anyone else. Some of ‘em lie and cheat and steal. Some of ‘em kill. I suppose some do all of the above. Our girl isn’t the worst of the bunch, but… I think you’re wasting your time if you go talk to her. Like I say, though. Maybe I’m out of my element. This is a rural county. A different way of life than what you’ll find a lot of places. But I’ve been patrolling these streets for 25 years. I’ve observed the human ape in his natural habitat.”
He fell quiet for a beat. The car thudded over black stripes of tar where the road had been patched.
“I guess they say people can change. I’ll let you know about that if I ever see it for myself.”
At the station, Donaldson stopped the cruiser near the front walk. Darger thanked him for accompanying her before she closed the car door behind her. Over the sound of her feet slapping against the sidewalk came the electric whir of a car window.
Donaldson called out through the open window.
“Oh, and Agent?”
“If you do go talk to the Peters girl, I’d suggest you keep a running inventory of anything that isn’t nailed down.”
Darger had stopped walking. She stood there on the pavement, squinting back at him.
“Our star witness is a bit of a klepto. Liable to steal whatever she can get her hands on. Pawn it for drug money and whatnot.”
He chuckled like it was a joke of some kind.
Before she could say anything in response, the cruiser propelled forward, coasting to the edge of the lot. Darger watched it wait there, turn signal blinking on and off like a lightning bug until it merged into traffic and traveled out of sight.
The manila envelope was ready for Darger at the front desk, just as Donaldson said it’d be. She thought about waiting until she got back to the motel to go over the newest witness statement, but her curiosity got the better of her. As soon as she was in her rental car, she pinched the metal tab securing the top flap and poured the papers and burned DVD into her lap.
She drummed her fingers impatiently on the center console while her laptop booted. The desktop background appeared, and she jammed the DVD into the drive, clicking a file named 11932_SPeters_Int_1.avi.
The first interview took place the night of the alleged abduction, and the girl’s appearance certainly backed up her story. In the video, Sierra’s hair was wet and disheveled. Smudges of black makeup ringed her eyes. She wore blue hospital scrubs, her own clothes certainly taken as evidence. Darger knew that the trace evidence found on her clothes had given them nothing useful.
DET. JANSSEN: OK, Sierra. Why don’t you start from the beginning? Where were you when he picked you up?
- PETERS: I was… on Vine Street. Savarino’s.
DET. JANSSEN: Savarino’s. The Italian place?
DET. JANSSEN: Can you answer Yes or No?
DET. JANSSEN: So you’re on Vine Street, near Savarino’s. And what were you doing there?
- PETERS: Walking.
DET. JANSSEN: Walking. Right. Where to? Where from?
- PETERS: Huh?
DET. JANSSEN: Well, you weren’t just out walkin’ for your health at 2 AM, were you?
- PETERS: No, I was at Jimmy’s.
DET. JANSSEN: Jimmy. Does Jimmy have a last name?
- PETERS: Oh God. He was gonna kill me.
DET. JANSSEN: Jimmy was gonna kill you?
- PETERS: No! The guy that took me! He was gonna kill me.
DET. JANSSEN: OK, so what happened at Jimmy’s?
Sierra abruptly stopped crying then.
- PETERS: Nothing. I just went there to see if he was home, but he wasn’t so I left.
DET. JANSSEN: And what had you walkin’ over to this Jimmy guy’s house at 2 AM? He your boyfriend?
- PETERS: What? No. I don’t… Forget Jimmy, OK? He wasn’t there. He wasn’t a part of it.
Darger throttled the pen in her hand. What the hell was this? She’d had the same feeling reading the interview the first time. The video was even worse. This Detective Janssen seemed like he was interrogating her more than taking a witness statement. She let her gaze fall back down to the screen.
DET. JANSSEN: OK, so you go over to this Jimmy’s house, for God knows what reason, and he’s not home, so then what?
- PETERS: So I started to walk back home. And that’s when this guy pulls up.
DET. JANSSEN: Can you describe him? What about his car?
- PETERS: He had dark hair. It was wet. Like he just took a shower or maybe had some mousse or somethin’ in it. And glasses. Big glasses.
DET. JANSSEN: And what about the vehicle? Car, truck, van?
- PETERS: Car.
DET. JANSSEN: Do you remember what color?
Sierra folded her arms over her chest and hugged herself like she might be cold.
- PETERS: It was dark.
DET. JANSSEN: The car was dark, or it was too dark to see the color?
Sierra shook her head, seeming confused.
- PETERS: Both? I mean, it was dark outside, but the car was dark, too.
DET. JANSSEN: OK. Big or small?
- PETERS: Um. Big? I don’t know about cars, really. It didn’t seem super old.
Janssen’s mustache quivered while he ponders this revelation.
DET. JANSSEN: So you think it was a newer car?
- PETERS: Not brand new, but… newish.
DET. JANSSEN: Darkish, biggish, and newish. Got it. And how did he get you in the car? He call you over, then grab you? Hit you or something?
- PETERS: Uh-huh.
DET. JANSSEN: “Uh-huh?” Does that mean, Yes, he grabbed you? Yes, he hit you?
- PETERS: Uh-huh. Yes. He hit me. I got in the car, and he punched the side of my head and put something that smelled like rotten fruit up to my face.
Sierra gestured to nose and mouth.
DET. JANSSEN: Did he say anything to you before that?
She brought a knuckle to her cheek and rubbed at it.
- PETERS: He asked me if I wanted a ride?
DET. JANSSEN: Is that a question? Or a statement?
- PETERS: What?
DET. JANSSEN: You just didn’t sound sure.
- PETERS: He asked me if I wanted a ride.
DET. JANSSEN: OK. And do you normally accept rides from strangers?
- PETERS: I don’t… I didn’t… I didn’t accept a ride from him.
DET. JANSSEN: You didn’t? Because you just said he asked if you wanted a ride, you got in the car, and then he hit you.
- PETERS: No. No. That’s not what happened.
Sierra’s chest started to jerk a little, like a child that’s just stopped crying but is thinking about starting up again.
- PETERS: I didn’t get in the car. He made me get in the car.
DET. JANSSEN: OK, OK. So you’re in the car. Does he say anything when you’re in the car?
- PETERS: Well, I wouldn’t know, would I? I was passed out.
DET. JANSSEN: And when did you wake up?
- PETERS: On the floor.
DET. JANSSEN: Not where. When?
Sierra spoke slowly and deliberately.
- PETERS: When he put me on the floor. How am I ‘sposed to know when? He took my phone. Wasn’t like there was a clock in there.
DET. JANSSEN: In where?
- PETERS: In the room.
DET. JANSSEN: What was it? Like a house? An apartment?
- PETERS: No. The floor was hard. And cold. Cement.
DET. JANSSEN: Like a basement? Or a garage?
- PETERS: Garage. I think. I think it had one of them doors that go up.
Sierra pantomimed a garage door opening.
DET. JANSSEN: And he didn’t have you tied up or anything?
- PETERS: My hands were tied, yeah.
DET. JANSSEN: Not your legs, though?
Sierra started to cry again, rocking back and forth.
- PETERS: I don’t know. Maybe. Oh my God. I should be dead. He was gonna kill me just like those other girls.
DET. JANSSEN: But he didn’t. Right, Sierra? Sierra.
Sierra wiped her nose and looked up at the detective.
DET. JANSSEN: He didn’t get you. Just stay with me for a few more minutes, and then we can take a break.
- PETERS: OK.
DET. JANSSEN: What could you see outside the door?
- PETERS: I don’t know. I don’t remember.
DET. JANSSEN: Just think about it for a minute. Were there houses? Other buildings? A parking lot?
Sierra shook her head.
- PETERS: The lights were too bright to see anything.
DET. JANSSEN: What lights?
- PETERS: The headlights. On the car.
DET. JANSSEN: So you were on the floor, tied up, and then what?
- PETERS: I could hear rain on the roof. Sounded like metal. I thought I was in my apartment, but the rain didn’t sound right. And I opened my eyes, and I was on the floor, and when I tried to touch where my head hurt, my hands were tied. And then I could feel that my feet were tied-
DET. JANSSEN: So your feet were tied?
Darger wished for a time machine so she could travel back just to jump in at this point in the interview and tell Detective Janssen to shut the fuck up and let the girl talk. Sierra had been on a roll there — the most lucid she’d seemed in the entire interview — and he had to go and interrupt.
- PETERS: Yeah.
DET. JANSSEN: It’s just that before, you didn’t seem to remember.
- PETERS: Well now I do. They were tied.
DET. JANSSEN: Go on.
- PETERS: I woke up, and I didn’t see the man. So I ran.
DET. JANSSEN: I thought your feet were tied.
- PETERS: They were. I got ‘em loose. Obviously.
DET. JANSSEN: What were you tied with? Rope? Duct tape?
- PETERS: Rope. Or more like… twine, I guess.
DET. JANSSEN: What did you see when you got outside?
- PETERS: Nothing, really. It was dark. And the headlights made it so I couldn’t see nothin’.
DET. JANSSEN: So you couldn’t tell where you were at all once you got outside?
- PETERS: No. Just that it was rainin’. And then I ran through some woods. And I was sure he was right behind me. I was so scared. I was so scared he was gonna get me.
DET. JANSSEN: Did he see you get away? Did you hear him or see him?
- PETERS: I don’t think so. But I just knew he was gonna kill me. I wasn’t ‘sposed to get away.
DET. JANSSEN: How long did you run through the woods for? Do you know?
- PETERS: Five or ten minutes? Maybe. I don’t know. It was dark. And I thought he was comin’ after me. I don’t know.
DET. JANSSEN: And did you find the payphone right away, or did you have to walk for a while?
- PETERS: I don’t remember. I just remember seein’ lights ahead, through the trees, and I thought, “Just a little farther, just a little farther.” And the whole time, I was sure he was right behind me. And he was gonna grab me at the last second and kill me just like he meant to in the first place.
Detective Janssen tilted his head to glance at the clock on the wall.
DET. JANSSEN: OK, Sierra. I think we’ll take a little break now. You want something to drink?
- PETERS: Diet Coke?
DET. JANSSEN: I’ll be back.
The tape cut out and began again some time later. An open can of Diet Coke rested on the table in front of Sierra, and she spun it around idly, tapping her finger against the aluminum.
DET. JANSSEN: Let’s talk a little off the record for a minute. And be honest, Sierra. You were partyin’ tonight, weren’t you?
- PETERS: No, I was not.
DET. JANSSEN: Come on, Sierra. Not even a few drinks? Maybe smokin’ a little somethin’?
- PETERS: No, sir. I been clean. I been clean two weeks!
DET. JANSSEN: OK. Alright. It’s just that your speech is a little slurred, you know?
- PETERS: I told you! He hit me in the head, and then he gave me that chloroform!
DET. JANSSEN: Chloroform? How’d you know it was chloroform?
- PETERS: Well, whatever! Isn’t that what they usually use? On a rag?
DET. JANSSEN: Isn’t that what who usually uses?
- PETERS: In the movies!
DET. JANSSEN: And what about this woman you saw?
- PETERS: Woman? What woman? There was no woman.
DET. JANSSEN: Says here you said you saw a woman jogging by. A witness, I guess.
- PETERS: No. There wasn’t a woman. It was just the one guy.
Darger cringed at that last bit about the chloroform. It sounded… fanciful. A detail thrown in for maximum drama. Darger could see how that — coupled with her history — might make someone look at Sierra’s testimony from the beginning and start to doubt it.
She double-clicked the next file.
As the second video played, Darger followed along with the written transcript. Sierra’s demeanor and appearance were much changed in the two weeks since her first interview. Her hair was dry, her makeup unsmudged. Her eyes were no longer wide and blinking with fear. If anything, she looked a little bored as she took a seat in one of the plastic chairs across from Detective Janssen.
DET. JANSSEN: We just wanted to go over a few things if that’s alright.
- PETERS: Fine.
DET. JANSSEN: Let’s start with where you were when he first got you in the car.
Sierra was combing her fingers through her hair as the detective spoke, and she stopped abruptly, hands floating back into her lap.
- PETERS: I was by McHappy’s.
There was a long pause as Janssen stared at the file in front of him.
DET. JANSSEN: McHappy’s? The bakery?
Sierra studied her fingernails and nods.
DET. JANSSEN: Now hold on a minute. Last time you said you were on Vine St. Near Savarino’s. Visiting someone named Jimmy.
Sierra’s head shook from side to side. She didn’t look confused or baffled by Janssen’s statements. She seemed utterly calm.
- PETERS: No. That was wrong. I said it wrong. I was at Jimmy’s, but earlier. Way earlier. When the guy got me, I was by McHappy’s.
Janssen crossed his arms over his gut with one fist over his mouth. He stared at Sierra for several seconds before moving on.
DET. JANSSEN: OK. Let’s talk about how he got you in the car, shall we?
DET. JANSSEN: There was some confusion last time we talked, about whether or not he offered you a ride. Did he offer you a ride?
DET. JANSSEN: And you got in the car with him, and that’s when he hit you?
SIERRA: No. I kept walking. I’m not an idiot. I didn’t get in the car with no stranger.
DET. JANSSEN: So he pulls the car up to you as you’re walking, asks if you want a ride, and you just keep walking?
SIERRA: Uh huh.
DET. JANSSEN: And then what? He stopped and got out, or what?
Sierra crossed and uncrossed her legs.
DET. JANSSEN: And you didn’t run then?
DET. JANSSEN: I’m just saying, some stranger asks you if you want a ride… probably creeped you out a little, right?
SIERRA: I guess.
DET. JANSSEN: And then when you say no, he doesn’t drive off. He keeps right along with you. Stops the car. Gets out. Seems like you’d know then that something was off.
SIERRA: Well, I…
DET. JANSSEN: I mean, it would make more sense, for example, if he had kept on driving, and maybe, I don’t know, pulled into an alley or something down the street, waited for you to pass, and then grabbed you.
SIERRA: Yeah. Well. That’s… that’s what happened.
DET. JANSSEN: It is?
SIERRA: Yeah. He went into a parking lot up ahead of where I was walkin’. Only I didn’t see him. And that’s when he got me. He came up behind me and grabbed my hair and put the rag over my mouth and then I passed out.
DET. JANSSEN: Last time you said he hit you on the side of the head.
SIERRA: Yeah. He hit me, too
Janssen licked his lips and glanced at the camera.
Darger tapped her pen against the screen through the next section, as if that might speed things up. Janssen and Sierra were stuck rehashing the vague details about the man and the car. Caucasian male. Hair, dark and wet. Big glasses. Car, dark sedan.
DET. JANSSEN: And you woke up where?
SIERRA: In the room. It echoed funny.
DET. JANSSEN: Echoed?
SIERRA: Yeah. Like the way his feet scraped against the ground.
DET. JANSSEN: The ground? Like dirt?
SIERRA: Umm… I guess.
DET. JANSSEN: Before you said the floor was cement.
A line of wrinkles arranged themselves across Sierra’s forehead. Her eyes squinted and closed and then she shook her head.
SIERRA: I don’t remember for sure.
DET. JANSSEN: What about the door. Before you said you remembered a door like on a garage.
Sierra blinked four times, eyes fastened on the tabletop in front of her. Finally, she spoke again.
SIERRA: Yeah. I think so.
DET. JANSSEN: So maybe a shed instead of a garage?
SIERRA: Maybe. It’s hard to remember.
DET. JANSSEN: And is there anything else you can think of?
Sierra scratched her eyebrow.
Janssen flipped the folder on the table closed and stood, moving to the door and opening it.
SIERRA: I can go?
DET. JANSSEN: Yeah. You’re done. Talking with you has been ever so helpful.
Janssen made no attempt to disguise his indifference. Sierra rose from the molded plastic chair and left the room.
Darger was about to close the video player when she heard something. She rewound the video and increased the volume on the computer. It was Sierra’s voice again. Softer now that she was away from the microphone in the interview room. She had to put the speakers at full volume to hear it.
SIERRA: Wait. I think…
Detective Janssen was still standing in the doorway. He rested his fists on his hips.
SIERRA: I think there was a pool nearby.
DET. JANSSEN: A pool? Why is that?
SIERRA: I don’t know. A feeling I guess.
DET. JANSSEN: And you just remembered this now?
SIERRA: I just… got a flash of it. In my head.
DET. JANSSEN: A pool, then. Got it. Thank you for coming in.
The screen went to black.
Darger frowned over the paper transcript. That last section wasn’t even on it. She rewound the last bit of the interview and replayed it. Then she leaned over and grabbed the file from where it rested in the passenger seat. She flipped open to one of the autopsy reports, skimming. She jabbed a finger at the page. Her eyes glittered like a cat stalking a bird.
Her motel room featured lush carpeting the color and texture of moss, and she thought the quilted floral bedspreads draped over the mattresses clashed with the moss quite well. All red and green and ancient like Freddy Kruger himself did the interior decorating circa 1984. The room had that stale smell Darger associated with all motel rooms: must and industrial cleaners and just a hint of old cigarette smoke from years gone by.
The bed springs squeaked as she dropped her suitcase on the nearer bed. She poked her head in the bathroom just long enough to see her reflection in the harsh fluorescent light, and that pretty much completed the tour.
Her palms went clammy again. She was nervous about meeting Agent Loshak.
Better to get it over with then, she thought.
She marched out the door and down the concrete catwalk that gave access to the second floor rooms. She paused in front of the neighboring room, fist poised to knock. She hesitated. The door suddenly seemed intimidating. Agent Loshak wouldn’t be happy to have another agent sent out here to check on him. Less than another agent, maybe. A glorified babysitter. She steeled herself for combat.
Her knuckles rapped against the door. One, two, three.
A grunt answered from inside the room, then the squeak of a creaky subfloor, and then silence. Darger figured Loshak was watching her through the peephole, and she made an effort to look official, standing straight and tall with her chin lifted slightly.
Finally, she heard the clatter of the door being unlocked. The knob turned and a pair of red-rimmed eyes surrounded by pale flesh peered back at her through the crack. Despite the sickly pallor, there was something striking in his gaze. A wry look. Clever.
“Special Agent Loshak?” Darger said. He just kept staring, so she continued. “I’m Special Agent Darger.”
She held out her hand, but Loshak made no move to take it or to open the door further.
“Let me see your badge.”
He made a gesture with his hand that indicated she should get on with it.
“Alright,” Darger said. She pulled it from her pocket and stepped forward to hand it to him. Something about this exchange made her feel as if she were a dog in a pack, being challenged by the alpha. She wondered if it was on purpose. On second thought, it was definitely on purpose.
Loshak took the badge, rubbing a paw over several day’s worth of stubble on his chin as he studied it. When he handed it back, they locked eyes. This time, Darger wasn’t going to let him dominate. She held his gaze, unblinking, and it was Loshak who looked away first. He opened the door a little wider, but he didn’t quite move to let her in.
“You know, you coulda called ahead.”
Darger noted that he was changing the subject. Defensive. Another sign of weakness. Odd. This wasn’t what she’d been expecting.
“I did. Both your cell and the room number. You didn’t answer.” She glanced over his shoulder and took in the room quickly. “Your phone is off the hook.”
“Well, yeah… I find it rings less that way.”
Loshak’s face pulled into a grimace, and he held up a finger.
“Excuse me for a moment.”
He turned, walking quickly to the bathroom at the back of the room. The bathroom door banged shut behind him. He left the front door open with Darger standing in it.
She heard a gagging sound and then the slap of liquid on liquid. He was vomiting. Delightful.
She looked both ways down the second story balcony, feeling awkward standing outside of the open door. Screw it. She took a step inside and pulled the door closed.
After about a minute, the toilet rumbled and flushed. Water ran in the sink, and then Loshak reappeared.
She blinked a few times, debating whether to address the puking elephant in the room or try to ignore it.
“Are you OK?”
Loshak waved her concern away as if it were a fly circling the potato salad at a Fourth of July picnic.
“Just a little under the weather. Want some advice? Stay away from Savarino’s in town. Bad scallops, I think.”
“Duly noted,” she said.
Loshak sat on the bed, tilting his head to look at her with a clever look about his eyes.
“I assume you’ve seen the file?” he said.
“Yep. And I visited the crime scenes in person.”
Loshak fell back into the bed with a groan.
“Well?” he asked.
She raised an eyebrow at him, not sure what he wanted.
“Oh,” she said.
She hadn’t expected him to want to hear her take. After all the talk about him being difficult, he seemed neither surprised nor particularly bothered by her presence. Maybe a little curious. She’d come prepared for a fight. In the absence of conflict, she felt a little shy.
She moistened her lips with the tip of her tongue and began.
“Based on the race and age of the victims: white male, between the ages of 25 and 35.”
“Uh-huh. What else you got?”
“Alright,” she said, swallowing. “The fact that there are extensive stab wounds present lends itself to an anger-retaliatory profile. These crimes are first and foremost expressions of rage, a fetishization of power that finds its voice in excessive displays of force. In this case, stabbing a corpse fourteen times and just about cutting off the head.”
“So he’s not a sadist?”
Darger felt her shoulders jerk, some involuntarily twitch of the muscles there.
She realized how visceral her reaction had been and made an effort to loosen up. Did he think the killer was a sadist? Or was he testing her? She started to worry she’d missed something.
“Why not?” he asked.
“Because aside from the fatal wound, the medical reports suggest almost everything else is post-mortem. If he were a sadist, he’d keep them alive for that. Looking at the probable timelines we have, he probably kills or incapacitates them quickly after the abduction. He displays no particular interest in making them suffer.”
“Agreed. Go on.”
So he was testing her. Darger bit her lip a little and continued.
“I found it interesting that the most recent victim had her head almost sawed off. Makes me wonder if he was interrupted.”
“Or gave up,” he commented. “Why do you think that’s significant?”
“He’s taking the dismemberment further. Wants it to last longer, wants to be more elaborate… with the time he spends defiling the corpses.”
For a moment, it was a little too real, this monster they were hunting. She tried to imagine the type of person who would find enjoyment in butchering a human body. She almost missed what Loshak said next.
“And so far, nothing’s missing, if you know what I mean. But I doubt that’ll last.”
Darger flashed back to the motel room.
“You think he’ll keep a body part as a souvenir?”
It would make sense, she realized. Like so many other serial killers — Bundy, Dahmer, Kemper, Gein, Kearney — much of the obsession was focused on the dead body itself. The product the killing rendered rather than the process of the killing itself. Many of these types wound up keeping body parts. Maybe even most of them.
“What else?” Loshak asked.
“He’s not stupid. The precautionary measures — choosing dump sites that ensure evidence contamination, the bleach to degrade DNA — those suggest at least average intelligence.”
Suddenly Loshak held up a hand, and Darger worried she’d made an error.
Again he got up and made for the bathroom. When he returned, he fell back onto the bed with a sigh.
“Are you sure?” she asked. “We can do this later.”
He ignored her.
“You don’t think the public dump sites might suggest that he’s a dum-dum? I mean, there are an infinite number of places out in the woods he could dump ‘em. Places where they might never be found.”
“It’s risky, yes,” Darger said. “But it’s clearly calculated. It’s a territorial display. These are his trophies, and he wants everyone to see them. He’s brazen enough to do it. Confident enough that he thinks it won’t get him caught. He likes taunting us.”
“Society at large. He’s a loner. He feels persecuted. Like society is shutting him out. Keeping him down. Dumping the bodies in public places is a way to direct the rage at everyone.”
“That’s pretty good, actually. You know, the lower intelligence, disorganized types are less apt to move the bodies. If they make any attempt to conceal their crimes, it’s usually near the scene and a poor attempt — a shallow grave, shoved under a porch, or in their basement. They do the bare minimum. Like a kid who spills grape juice on mommy’s white couch and covers it with a pillow. They know they have to hide it. They just don’t put a lot of time and effort into planning it. I guess they can’t.”
A sound like sandpaper on wood came from Loshak’s face as he rubbed at his unshaven cheeks.
“But this guy… he cleans up. Bags them. Puts them in his car. Drives around. And then, instead of going where no one would find them, he dumps them right out in the open. Where everyone will see. He covets the attention.”
Loshak rolled onto his side, propping his chin up with a fist, and fixed his gaze on Darger, those lines smiling around his eyes again.
“But this is supposed to be your profile. Go ahead.”
And now the meat of it, she thought.
“I would expect him to have had a traumatic home life with a domineering maternal figure who likely abused him — physically and mentally — mother, stepmother, or grandmother. Possibly foster care. That trauma created and reinforced a narrative of him being worthless. He’s conflicted in his feelings about women. He’s attracted to them, but he hates that the attraction gives them power over him. He’s intensely afraid of rejection. He’s convinced, in fact, that almost any woman would reject him, and that idea is what fuels his rage. He has a totally warped sense of self. He thinks of himself as an outsider. Someone somehow apart from the rest of the human race. Unlovable.”
Darger was staring at a painting of a lighthouse hung next to the bed, not really seeing it, but looking through it.
“As I said before, he is not a sadist. He kills them quickly because a dead girl can’t laugh or cry or recoil in horror. A dead girl is his completely to do with as he pleases. They can’t reject him. They can’t talk back or spit in his face. He has total control. That is his fantasy.”
He made a face, squinting at her.
“What’s your background? Academically, I mean.”
Violet looked up from her notes.
“I have a Masters in Forensic Psychology.”
Had she made a mistake? She frowned down at her notes. No. Her profile was sound. It was based upon the facts of the case. No profile was ever 100% accurate, but she was certain hers wasn’t straying far from the standard.
“And at the Bureau?”
“I started in Victim Assistance. Sex crimes and human trafficking, mostly.”
“You left OVA to become an agent?”
She shrugged, affecting an air of coolness. Inside, she was anything but. She hated that this always came up, anytime someone asked what she’d done before becoming an agent.
“I liked the job, but I got tired of sitting behind a desk. I wanted something… more proactive,” she said. Not totally a lie. “Less talk, more… hunt down the bad guys. Maybe I was jealous of you agents getting all the limelight.”
He studied her for a moment and then gave a nod.
“You can go on.”
“I’d expect him to be socially awkward, even with men. Not necessarily a recluse, but no close friends. Maybe a few acquaintances he socializes with on occasion. Drinking buddies. Hunting trips or a bowling league. But all of his relationships are superficial. No one really knows him. Though anyone that has spent any amount of time with him probably would have witnessed at least a few incidents of impulsiveness. Outbursts of anger. Violent behavior. These events would be perceived by his peers as out of character. Especially because his so-called normal demeanor is usually extremely controlled.”
Paper rustled as Darger brushed a page out of the way.
“Military experience is possible. The power and respect would appeal to him. If so, it likely ended in dishonorable discharge as he fails to get along with authority figures. He probably works a menial job that he considers beneath him and—”
Loshak interrupted a third time to go vomit. When he came back this time, Violet couldn’t ignore it any longer.
“Have you seen a doctor?”
“For food poisoning? It’ll resolve itself.”
Loshak laid an arm over his eyes, possibly an attempt to block out the light from the bedside lamp.
“And how long has this so-called food poisoning been going on? Quantico has been trying to get in touch with you for days. Food-borne illnesses generally run their course in 24 hours.”
He peeked at her from under his arm.
“You didn’t mention you were an MD.”
“Then don’t worry about it.”
There it was. A touch of the prickly disposition she’d anticipated. Still, she’d expected him to push back more, to challenge her. Maybe it was the sickness keeping him docile.
“Now what’s your take on his method of collection?”
“Collection?” she repeated, not sure what he meant.
“How he chooses the girls. How he takes them.”
“Oh,” she said. “I guess that depends on what we think of the interviews with Sierra Peters.”
“Pretend we don’t have a supposed witness. What would you guess, based on the rest of the profile?”
Violet scratched at the back of her head. She was winging it now. Most of her profile had been put together as she walked the crime scenes, and at that point, she’d been taking the legitimacy of Sierra’s story for granted. The ground beneath her feet suddenly felt less solid.
“This is based on gut instinct more than fact—”
“Every profile is, don’t you think?” he asked.
Violet chewed a fingernail.
“There are two options, really,” Loshak said. “Is it random? He sees a girl walking down the street and just grabs her? Or does he watch them a while? Figure out their patterns. Wait ‘til they’re alone.”
“I don’t think it’s random.”
“Me neither,” he agreed.
Loshak crossed one ankle over the other.
“And what about getting them in the car? Ambush? Or finesse?”
Darger thought for a second.
“If he talks them into the car, that suggests some sophistication — he’s confident in his ability to get what he wants with words.”
She thought of Ted Bundy and Charles Sobhraj, charming and conning women to get close. Ed Kemper made himself seem unimposing and dorky to disarm women, despite the fact that he was 6’9” and 300 lbs.
“But if he threatens them with a weapon, or maybe drugs them before they know what’s happening, that’s different. Forcing someone into a car — even if he incapacitates them or points a gun at them — is still risky on his part. Some of them are bound to scream or try to put up a fight. It could be that he gets off on the use of force. Or he might just lack the confidence to try subtler means.”
“If. You said ‘if’ before both scenarios. Which is it?”
“My gut says he does something to catch them off-guard. A con of some kind. Maybe he’s able to talk some of them into the car. I could buy that with Cristal and Sierra. Maybe Katie. But not Fiona.”
Loshak pinched the bridge of his nose and fell silent for a moment. Darger wondered if he was going to throw up again. When a minute passed by with no further expulsions or conversation, Darger cleared her throat.
“Speaking of Sierra Peters. What do you think of her statements?”
“Hard to say. She contradicts herself so many times. Makes it almost impossible to decide what might be true. I’m disposed to ignore all of it for the time being. It’s a shame, too. Having a failed abduction attempt could have been a real boon. That’s what got Bundy caught. The first time, anyway.”
“Even with what she said about the pool?” Darger asked.
“Have you seen the video of the second interview? Or only the transcript?”
Loshak lifted his head, frowning at her.
“The transcript. You got video?”
Darger held up a finger.
“I’ll be right back.”
She hurried next door, grabbing her laptop bag from the bed. In the mirror over her motel room’s dresser, she noticed the manic, gleeful look on her face. Violet reminded herself that three girls were dead. She’d do well to curb her enthusiasm.
Back in Loshak’s room, she skipped to the end of the video and cranked the volume.
SIERRA: I think there was a pool nearby.
DET. JANSSEN: A pool? Why is that?
SIERRA: I don’t know. A feeling I guess.
DET. JANSSEN: And you just remembered this now?
SIERRA: I just… got a flash of it. In my head.
“Well I’ll be goddamned,” Loshak said.
“I’m assuming the fact that they found traces of bleach on the bodies was held back from the media?”
Loshak bobbed his head once.
“Then she’s telling the truth,” Darger said, her voice coming out a bit more excited than she’d intended. So much for curbing her enthusiasm. “What are the odds she’d just randomly guess that? She didn’t smell a pool. She smelled the bleach he dumps on them.”
Loshak was still staring at the screen, the blue tinted light from the TV reflected in the wetness of his eyes.
“What do you mean, maybe?”
“I’m not disagreeing with you,” he said. “I’m just saying, she didn’t specifically say she smelled it.”
Darger chewed her lip again.
“What?” Loshak said.
“What if that’s why he took Fiona Worthington? Sierra was who he really wanted, but she got away. He was angry. Impulsive. Lashing out. And he happens to see Fiona jogging by. That could be why she doesn’t fit the victim profile as well.”
Loshak pondered the ceiling for a while.
“It’s possible. But your theory relies heavily on a girl known for telling stories.”
“That’s why I want to talk to her,” Darger said. “I think I might know why she changed her story.”
This finally snapped Loshak out of his trance. He ruffled a hand through his hair again and snorted, half-amused.
“Just what every junkie wants, right? A house call from a federal agent.”
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