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Shane’s debut novel, a national bestseller that won the coveted Best First Mystery award from RT Book Reviews, stars Emily Thompson, a rookie police officer in the leafy Chicago suburb of Naperville.
Emily, who’s finally pulled herself out of the emotional mud that’s suffocated her since the unexplained deaths of her husband, mother, and father, is finally looking forward to a celebration of life: her upcoming 40th birthday. Unfortunately, so is a serial killer, who terrorizes her city of 150,000 with a series of brutal murders staged to look like board games: the same ones Emily played growing up on Chicago’s Southwest Side. The killer is clearly someone from her past. But who? From “Time Bomb” and “Duck-Duck-Goose” to “Chutes and Ladders” and “Operation,” every corpse brings Emily and her police colleagues—Martin Benedetti, Annabelle Bates, Hercules Branch, and Police Chief Kendall Cross—one step closer to “Hangman,” the ultimate game in this blood-drenched contest. The killer promises to make Emily play for real: Hanging by the neck till she’s dead, dead, dead, to fulfill his psychopathic need to murder her. But, Emily and her pals have far different plans for him and her birthday celebration . . .
One year earlier
“Nine-one-one, where is your emergency?” Bertha Pruitt repeated.
Still no reply.
Bertha blew air through her nose. “Come on, talk to me,” she cajoled. “This is Boston nine-one-one, and, hey, you called me. So maybe you want our help and—oh Jesus!” The howl on the other end was so loud that several other operators snapped their heads her way, silently asking if they could help. Bertha waved them off.
“Talk to me caller, please,” she said. “I want to send assistance, so where is your emergency—”
“Actually, Boston,” a silky male voice interrupted, “the proper question is, ‘What is your emergency,’ not ‘Where is your energency.’ Understand?” Disgust crept into his voice. “Or maybe you’re just too stupid to comprehend my rules. Not uncommon with inferiors.”More
Bertha’s computer display began whirling like a slot machine. “Just what I need,” she muttered as numbers and street names from the Caller ID danced and disappeared. She punched the alert button and watched Trout Lips, the shift supervisor, run for a headset Normally, the E-911 software displayed the caller’s location till the dispatcher got cops, fire, gas, power, and other emergency workers to the scene. Now it changed every time she blinked—downtown Boston, Southie, Amherst, Cape Cod, downtown again, a nonexistent address in Boston Harbor, where they’d thrown all that tea.
She shook her head. She’d have to keep this loony talking until the techs fixed the problem or the loony gave up. Normally, she enjoyed playing Beat the Techs. Today, though, nine-one-one calls were stacked up like the flights over Logan because of the Nor’easter slamming the coast. Which meant she’d wind up pulling another shift. She blew out her breath. She’d been looking forward to spending Christmas with her husband, their five daughters, three sons-in-law, and eleven grandchildren. The first time in ages the entire family was home for the holidays . . .
“Sir, I’m sorry if I sound stupid,” Bertha began in her most sincere voice. “I’m just trying to help you. What was that scream? Do you have an emergency to tell me about?” No reply. “Or did you call me just to talk, see if we can figure things out?”
The man made a noise that didn’t sound like agreement. “I don’t have an emergency, Boston. But a friend of mine does.”
“A friend of mine,” Bertha repeated. Mirroring the caller’s words often speeded the process of establishing trust. “Is that who screamed? Your friend?”
“Does your friend need my help?”
“He needs someone’s help, Boston.”
“Okay, then,” Bertha said. “Where do I send my people to give your friend a hand—”
“It won’t work,” the caller said.
Damn. “Work? What won’t work, sir?” Bertha said, all innocence.
“You want my address. So you can stop the screaming. It won’t work.” The caller coughed. “Here’s the thing, Boston. My friend is a police officer. He’s badly hurt. He might die.” A low chuckle. “He will die. Because in three minutes, I’m going to saw out his heart.”
Bertha shuddered. In twenty-seven years of emergency dispatching she’d never heard anything so cold. “Sir, you don’t mean that,” she said, knuckle whitening on her chair arms. No answer. “Sir, are you still there?”
“Still here,” the caller said. “Still mean it.”
Her head began pounding from tension. “Tell me what you’re talking about. Please?”
A sigh from the other end. “Well, Boston, it’s like . . . you know, I really hate this.”
“Calling you ‘Boston.’ It’s so impersonal. What’s your name?”
“I can’t tell you,” Bertha said as Trout Lips shook his head. “It’s against departmental rules to identify ourselves to callers.”
“That’s a fine rule, Boston,” he said. “But tell me anyway.”
“I can’t, sir, I really—”
The bloody screams erupted again. “Come on, Boston, say it,” the caller shouted over the howls. “Be a good little girl and play along with my game—”
“Bertha. It’s Bertha,” she said, hating him for it.
The howls trailed off. “No fooling?”
“No fooling,” Bertha said. “Come down to the police station and I’ll show you my birth certificate.”
“Cute, Bertha,” the caller said. “Hmm. Bertha-Bertha Bo-Bertha. Remember that old novelty song? Where you set names to music?”
“Vaguely,” she said cautiously.
“Why don’t you sing your name for me?”
She stared at the computer. “Sing? Me? Sing my . . . name?”
“Yes, Boston. It’ll be fun. Here, I’ll start. Bertha-Bertha-Bo-Bertha . . .”
She hated to participate in this maniacal karaoke, but another scream convinced her. “Banana-Nana-Bo-Bertha, Fe-Fi-Fo-Fertha . . . Bertha,” she sang, not quite sure of the actual words.
“Not exact, but close enough,” the caller said as the other man’s screams faded. “Bertha what?”
Trout Lips shook his head and waved his arms, his mouth a grim line: Don’t you dare. Bertha debated furious with herself: Yes, save the poor officer. No, don’t risk your family.
“I can’t go further than my first name, sir,” she tried. “Honest to God, I can’t. I need this job, and they’ll fire me if I disobey that rule.” She closed her eyes, fearing the next sound.
“Well, we can’t have that,” the caller said, surprising her. “I know how tough it is to get a job these days, with health insurance and all. I just appreciate that you didn’t lie about your first name, my dear.”
“How do you know that, pal,” Bertha spat, incensed at his endearment. “You got ESP or something?”
“Who’d make up ‘Bertha’?” he said. A slight pause. “Mine is John.”
“Nice to meet you, Mr. Doe,” she said.
He laughed delightedly. “Hey, you aren’t stupid, are you?”
She ignored that, instead glancing at Trout Lips, who was growling into his phone, “Dammit to hell, my cop’s in deep shit. Get off your ass and fix the computer, you moron.”
She rolled her eyes. If cussing could fix the problem, she’d have done that already, in a thousand shades of blue. It wouldn’t. She had to talk to John. Listen. Talk some more. Coax, wheedle, flatter, threaten, tap-dance. Every trick in the book, anything to glue him to that line . .
“Now that we’re properly introduced, Mr. Doe,” she said. “Can we get back to the issue at hand?”
“Mister Doe?” he repeated, sounding amused. “No need for formality, this isn’t exactly a black-tie affair.”
“Okay . . . John,” Bertha said. “Then let’s get back to the—”
“Dead cop walking?”
“That’s exactly what I mean, John,” Bertha said. “What are you doing to this man, John? More important, why?”
“Very good questions, Bertha,” John said. “Thanks for asking, Bertha.”
She shook her head in frustration. The repetition of her name wasn’t a variation on “my dear.” He was telling her he knew the cop playbook and wouldn’t fall for her bonding techniques.
“Would you like the officer to tell you himself, Bertha?” John said.
She blinked in surprise. “Yes. I would. Very much.” Abducted cops were trained to shout their location to anyone within earshot. If they didn’t know, then describe what they smelled, heard, or felt. Stinking fish might mean a harbor or dock. Train whistles or heavy rumbles, a freight yard. That sort of thing. She hoped the officer was coherent enough to try. “Would you really allow me to speak with him?”
“Hey, darlin’, anything for you,” John Doe said breezily. “Hang on while I hold the phone to his ear. He’s kind of tied up at the moment. Ha-ha.” A short silence, then Bertha heard raw, wet breathing that skidded on every exhale. She willed herself to relax. Tension made you miss the critical subtleties, and she couldn’t afford to miss even one. “Hello,” she ventured. “Am I speaking to the officer?”
“Yes . . . I . . . I don’t . . . know where I am,” an impossibly boyish voice said.
“That’s okay, Officer,” Bertha said. “We’ll figure it out together. My name is Bertha. I’m a senior nine-one-one dispatcher with the Boston Police, and I’m going to get you out of there.”
“I . . . I hope so . . .”
“I promise. Can you tell me your name?”
“Tim. Timothy O’Brien. Massachusetts State Police. I’m—” He loosed an unearthly howl.
“What is that lunatic doing?” Bertha shouted. “Timothy, speak to me!” No reply, just screams to peel her scalp. Then he was back. “He just cut me . . . ohhhh, it hurts . . .” Gelatinous sobbing, fast and deep. “I was driving my car . . . Bertha, this hurts so awful . . .”
“Your car, Timothy?” she said glancing at the growing mob of police brass in the room. “Do you mean your police cruiser?”
“No . . . personal car. Driving . . . home.”
“Barracks. After work.”
She nodded. The 7,838 square miles of the Bay State were divided into thirty-nine state police districts called “barracks.” It was a yawning cop-to-acreage ratio, one she dared not think about right now. “What time did you leave the barracks, Timothy?”
“I think 8 . . . no, 8:15 . . . night . . . last night.”
“Good, good,” she enthused. “What direction did you drive?” No answer. “You know, after you left the barracks?” Still no answer. Too much for his terrorized brain to process. Break it into pieces. “Tim?”
“What direction did you go when you drove away from the barracks?” she said.
“After you got in your personal car and left the barracks.”
“Uh, I don’t know. I don’t remember the direction.”
“Okay, no problem, away from the ocean? Or toward the ocean?”
“Oh. I, well, um, I think.”
Garbled. Try again. “Was the sun in your eyes?”
“Yes,” Timothy said. “Setting sun. Big. Red. It was pretty.”
“Then you drove west,” Bertha said. “What happened after you started driving west?”
Long pause. “I stopped.”
“To do what?”
“C’mon, Timmy, I need to know,” Bertha cajoled. “I want to help you but you gotta help me back.” Still no answer. “Answer me, goddammit!” she roared in Full Metal Sergeant, drawing a glance from a startled brass. “I’m giving you a direct fucking order, Trooper O’Brien. Tell me why you stopped your car last night.”
“To . . . to . . . help a man change a flat tire,” Timothy replied. “Yeah! Highway 143, east of Chesterfield, next to the river bridge.” Trout Lips typed the location in the statewide emergency network. In seconds, every cop within a hundred miles would mash gas toward the tiny town in WestMass. “I squatted to work the tire jack,” the trooper continued. “He slugged me on the head. When I woke up, I found myself handcuffed to an operating table.”
An operating table? That chilled her. “When did you wake up?” she asked. “How long have you been awake?”
“One hour? Are you sure?”
“Yeah. Been counting minutes.”
She glanced at her watch. John Doe had this man for fifteen hours. Subtract one for the time on the table and . . .
Sigh. They could be right here in Boston. Or down along the Cape. Holed up on a coastal island, maybe stuffed in a spider hole in the Florida Panhandle. Maybe even Canada, though she believed this abductor was too smart to risk Homeland Security terror-hunters. She shook her pounding head. “You said an operating table, Timothy ?” she asked. “Can you describe it for me?” Any little thread could jog a local constable’s memory.
The trooper groaned. “I’m in an operating room. Handcuffed to a table so I can’t move. There’s a large overhead light with a reflector. Two big air tanks. A metal tray with tools. Hammer, scalpels, pliers. The room is small. The walls are . . . breathing.”
Before she could ask what that meant, his voice became deeper, more defiant. “He’s dressed in surgical scrubs, Bertha. Rubber gloves. A cloth bag over his head. Holes for his eyes. Another for his mouth. His lips are painted a girly cherry red so he can hide even that much. Hey! You! Take off these cuffs and fight me like a man—”
“Forget that. Tell me everything else,” Bertha interrupted. “Height. Weight. Eye color. Tattoos. Come on, you know the drill, Trooper.” She was amazed the abductor hadn’t stopped this conversation already.
“He’s tall. Almost seven feet. Mirrored sunglasses. Can’t see his eyes.” The trooper sounded weaker, like he’d blown through his adrenaline. “The damn walls, they keep breathing . . . what . . . what’s your name again?”
“I’m Bertha, honey,” she said. “Now, Timothy, this is important. What do you mean the walls are breathing?”
“He cuts me,” the trooper gasped. “With the tools. Ankle, throat, ribs, hands. Hurt so much—”
“I’ve been cutting the lad since he woke up, my dear,” John said. “Just surface cuts. In exactly the right places, of course. He’s not bleeding much.” Serene chuckle. “Not yet.”
Bertha thought of her father, who’d worn a Boston Police shield for thirty-two years before retiring happily to golfing and grandkids. Not one serious injury all those years, not one wacko whispering death songs in his ears. “What did Timothy do to make you hate him this much?” she asked.
“Nothing?” she said, genuinely curious. “Then why are you doing this to him?”
“Because I needed to know.”
She glared at the lead tech, who shook his head as if to say, Hell, lady, I don’t know why it’s hosed up and neither does anyone else. She went back to the caller. “Need to know what, John?”
“If I could do it,” he said.
“Kill a cop. It’s one thing to dream about it, Bertha,” John said. “You can plan and rehearse and dry-run all you want, and that’s fun. It’s another thing to actually, you know, do it.” He was extremely calm. Robotic. No, that wasn’t it, not exactly. Unsure.
“Soda,” she croaked, her throat parched. “Stat.” Trout Lips ran for one. Her supervisor was a good guy, but stunningly inept at his job. He survived because he was the mayor’s cousin. That guaranteed him two things: a city paycheck and a catty nickname. The latter came from his enormously chubby lips, which stuck out so far the resembled a trout’s.
The soda hit her desk. She drank fast, snorting bubbles out her nose as she sorted options. John Doe was approaching the center of the high wire, not sure if he should keep walking and risk falling, or scurry back to the stability of the platform. Forward, victory, backward, safety. She could play with that. Ask about his life, his dreams, what bothered him so much he’d execute someone in cold blood, someone he didn’t know. Let him unburden his soul if he had one. In return, she’d tell him all about herself. Everything John wanted she’d freely spill. She owed that much to the brave young man on the table.
But John was no longer tentative. “I drove past the trooper, pulled over, stuck a knife in my tire, and waited for him to come by,” he was crowing. “I brained him, threw him in my trunk, drove here, cuffed him to my operating table, and I’m carving him like a Christmas goose. I’m going to kill young Timmy in cold blood, Bertha, and there’s nothing you can do to stop—”
“You bastard!” Bertha screamed, praying that cursing John would work better than cursing the computer. “You no-balls, yellow-belly, shit-eating coward! You stop hurting that boy right now, do you hear me? Do you understand me, you goddamn lunatic?”
“Phew, honey, you eat with that mouth too?” John said, cheerful, not the least offended.
“Sorry, John,” she mumbled, tossing him the faux apology for delaying the kill. “You frustrate me, that’s all.” Her boss slapped the trooper’s personnel records next to her soda can, and she scanned it for clues to a counterattack. Timothy was twenty-four years old, and several months out of the academy. Like all newly minted troopers, he patrolled the boondocks where Massachusetts kissed New York State. He lived thirty-one miles from his barracks, with wife, son, daughter, three greyhounds, and a pony. Bertha wanted John Doe to know every one of those facts before he did something irreversible. “John, his nickname is ‘Legs.’ ”
“Legs?” he said. “What on Earth for?”
She studied the files. It wasn’t there. “I don’t know,” she admitted. “Ballet dancer? Basketball player? What I do know is he has two darling children, Alyssa and T.J. Timothy Junior. They’re twins, just a year old. Their birthday is today, in fact.” It wasn’t—not for another two days—but she decided to risk that small lie. “Do you really want to butcher their Daddy on their birthday?” she continued. “Make those angels cry on their special day for the rest of their lives?”
“Hey!” he snapped. “I have nothing against kids.”
“Of course you don’t,” Bertha said. “No real man does. So why don’t you let them go?”
He blew out his breath. “I’m disappointed, Bertha,” he said. “I thought you were taking me seriously.”
“I am, John,” she assured. “I heard Timothy’s screams. They’re real. They tell me you’ll go all the way.” She shook her head as if he could see. “But you don’t have to actually commit the murder. The fact that you can do it is enough, isn’t it? That you’re making the choice puts you in control. Isn’t that enough?” No answer. “Knock Timmy cold and dump him at a truck stop. We’ll find him. You’ll get away clean since he can’t identify you, and we certainly have no idea who you are.”
“But you’re figuring out where I am, Bertha,” John countered. “SWAT’s closing in on me as we speak, right?”
“No,” she said forlornly, eyeing the flop-sweating techs. “I’m trying to track you, sure. A young man I care about is in the tall weeds, and I want to find him. But I can’t.”
“Certain about that, Bo-Bertha?”
She cocked her head. For the first time the man’s tone and words didn’t match. It was subtle, but unmistakable—John didn’t sound as surprised as he should have at the “joyous” news the cops couldn’t track his location.
“Yes, I’m sure,” Bertha said. “You know why, John? Because my Caller ID’s busted.” She ground her knuckles into her throbbing forehead. “Ten million dollar piece of junk.”
“Never a cop around when you need one,” John said. “Cyber or otherwise.”
Bertha’s heart lifted a fraction. A joke was a good sign. “What’s important is you haven’t committed murder,” she said. “Only assault.”
“And kidnapping, Bertha,” he said. “Or did you repeal that particular law when I wasn’t looking?”
“Let him go and you won’t be charged with anything.”
The silence was so complete, she could her own heart beat.
“Now that’s interesting,” he said. “Tell me more.”
“You release Timothy without further harm. In return we give you a get-out-of-jail card that exempts you from prosecution in this matter. The chief of police has already confirmed it with the governor, and the feds are on board.” Her boss rolled his eyes. She shrugged.
John laughed. “No charges? After I tortured a cop? You’re kidding, right?”
“We want Timothy alive more than we want you in prison.”
“Huh. Might be worth considering at that. After all, I did prove my point.”
Bertha gripped her chair. “Yes, you did. So get out. Now. Caller ID will be fixed any minute, and frankly, the first copper that finds you will—”
“Shoot first and ask questions later?”
“You bet! When the Staties arrive, you’ll be shot three thousand times for resisting arrest!” Bertha barked. “So escape while you can. Timothy has those two darling babies and he’s never done you any harm—”
“Pay attention when I talk,” Doe interrupted angrily. “I told you I’ve never met this man.”
“Then why do this?” she asked. “Why torture this innocent—”
John Doe’s chuckle was so rancid she knew instantly he’d never intended to stop. This entire conversation had been an amusement for him. “It’s simply, Bo-Bertha,” he chirped. “Practice makes perfect.”
“Please, John, don’t. I’m begging you, don’t.”
“It’s unfortunate your trooper has to die, because I honestly have nothing against him,” John said. “But I need to know. For her. Anything less than perfection isn’t worthy of her.”
“Her?” Bertha said. “Her who?” But John was away from the phone. Tools clanged. Handcuffs ratcheted. Timothy whimpered. John sang Broadway songs.
Then he was back.
“Let me say for the record, Bertha, that there’s nothing you could have said to stop what’s happening,” John said. “I called you because I needed a live audience for this dress rehearsal. The only phone answered twenty-four hours a day is nine-one-one.” His laugh slashed like broken glass. “You’re a nice lady, Bertha. Clever. I mean that—if anyone could have convinced me to stop, it would have been you. But it wasn’t in the cards. Sorry you got stuck—”
“I don’t feel stuck, John, not at all. I just want you to think about this. About what you’re about to do. Please stop. I’ll conference in the chief right now, John, I’ll even get the attorney general on the line as a guarantee for your pardon. Please, I’m begging you . . . listen, here, here, my last name is Pruitt—”
“There’s no way you could have known about the signal generator I attached to my cell phone to scramble your Caller ID. Or the digital voice changer that lets me sound like anyone I want. For all you know I’m a woman. Or a kid.” She heard a hand slap flesh. “Oops! There go my trade secrets. Dang it to heck, Bertha, you wormed it out of me with your cleverness. Hope your chief gives you a nice raise for getting this far with me—”
“Pruitt! Pruitt! Born here in Boston as Bertha Bridget—”
“And last but not least, because you finally told me your name, I’ll let you be Timothy’s escort to the hangman. Just like I’ll be hers.” He cackled. “Merry Christmas, Bo-Bertha . . .”
“He’s slicing me!” Timothy screamed. “With the scalpel. Cutting into my chest . . . please, Bertha, help me, help.” The heavy whine of a power tool kicked in. “Oh my Christ it’s a circular saw! Don’t do this, Mister. My wife, my kids, they need me—”
The whirling steel blade hit home, and Trooper Timothy O’Brien’s shrieks couldn’t mask the industrial butchery of muscle and tendon and bone. Bertha smashed the blinking computer display with her soda can until the glass spalled, then collapsed into her chair, head exploding in viperous pain. “Sweet Mother Mary, he’s sawing out my heart,” Timothy gurled to the room’s utter horror. “You promised me, Bertha. You promised to save me . . . you . . . promised . . .”
72 hours till Emily’s birthday
Emily Thompson exploded off her back porch, ready to sweat. Buried in overtime the past three weeks as influenza knocked down more and more of her colleagues, she’d shoved her daily run to the back burner. That was stupid, she knew—six miles every morning provided the clear head she needed for her job. Keeps my thighs in check, too! But when she was under the gun, she tended to replace sensibility with the Four Horsemen—caffeine, sugar, fat, and sitting around. She’d vowed last night to rectify the situation, so here she was, running fast under the French vanilla sky that heralded dawn.
Her war whoops panicked spring’s first robins into flight as she sailed down her ski-slope backyard toward the DuPage River. Like an Olympic hurdler, she cleared the drainage ditch—twenty-nine strides from her back porch—and the low stack of seasoned firewood—forty-two strides—enjoying the burn in her knotted calves. The dank smell from the river sparked her adrenaline, and she reveled in the sensation of flight as Canadian geese flapped past so low she could practically rub their ivory bellies. She plunged into the narrow dirt path through the trees and tall weeds at the bottom of the hill and emerged a minute later at the Naperville Riverwalk, the brick walking trail that edged miles of the DuPage like dusky red eyeliner . . .
And immediately hit a puddle.
“Aw, man,” she grumbled as warm liquid cascaded up her legs. She glanced at the sky and waggled her finger. “Hey, Big Guy! You can’t give me one day without mud puddles?” Apparently not. If her fresh-from-the-box Nikes had been black or even navy blue, it would have been months before she crudded them up. But noooooo, her style only came in white. Sigh. She untied the left shoe, stripped the sock, wrung it like a dish rag . . . then wondered why there was a puddle at all. It hadn’t rained since March 1. Today was April 28. In the Chicago area, spring without rain was like pizza without cheese—the TV weather creatures were already chanting “Dust Bowl! Dust Bowl!” Puzzled, she looked closer at the sock.
The wet spots were pink.
She dropped her eyes to the puddle.
It was red.
Her pulse quickened. She knelt and sniffed. The coppery scent of old pennies wafted into her nostrils. She dipped two fingers and rubbed them together. Thick. Slippery.
“What the hell . . .” Emily whispered. She shook her chestnut hair off her face and listened. Rippling from the river. Gnats buzzing in her ears. Faint crashing in distant underbrush. Raccoon? Beaver? No; heavier; a deer perhaps. Honks from distant traffic, ducks muttering, doves mourning, squirrels scampering, geese flapping. Then even those hushed, leaving no sound but her own breathing.
She spun around. Nothing amiss. In front of her flowed the DuPage, the hip-deep river that divided the City of Naperville north and south. To her left was downtown. To her right, wooded parkland. Behind her, atop the north crest of the river, the two-story log home her husband, Jack, built as his wedding present to her. The front of their home faced Jackson Avenue, which started at their driveway, paralleled the river into downtown, and dead-ended at Washington Street, the main north-south arterial of Chicago’s biggest suburb. The back of the house faced the river and Riverwalk.
She turned back to the river to watch a V of geese land on the whitecaps at the precise angle Mother Nature spend millions of years perfecting. She shook her head. Except for the blood, there was nothing wrong with this picture—
Twenty feet ahead. Edge of the maroon paver brick. Two lumps. Before, they’d looked like matted leaves.
Now they didn’t.
She walked toward them, her stomach lurching. There weren’t two lumps, but three. One big, the others small. They had no color, but radiated an emotional intensity so fierce they couldn’t be anything but . . .
“Dead babies,” Emily whispered.
She clawed her Glock from under her Ramones T-shirt, the pistol’s front sight wobbling from the adrenaline tsunami slamming her body. She crept toward the lumps, trying to look everywhere at once. If the killer’s watching, he can kill you too, she reminded herself. Keep your head moving and your gun straight ahead . . .
She dropped her arms and rolled her eyes, glad nobody could see her flush of embarrassment. The lumps weren’t human. They were birds—one goose, two ducks, each so freshly killed it steamed in the riverine damp.
“Dummy,” she chastised herself as her heart sank down out of her throat. She recalled the recent memo issued about Riverwalk predators—owls, coyotes, dogs wandering off-leash. Foxes. The occasional bobcat. All forced onto human turf because their natural habitats had been bulldozed for homes, offices, and shopping centers. Any one of them was capable of killing these birds.
She picked up a winter-burned pine branch and tuned over the first bird to guess the predator from the bite pattern. She stared, then flipped the others. There were no bites. Each head had been lopped at the base of each graceful neck. Cleanly, too, with no tears or rips. A knife. An ax. A machete. Something manmade. Could a human have done this?
“No way,” she said, not believing a person could move quick enough to snare one of these wary birds. “A coyote killed these geese, plain and simple.”
Correction, Princess, her husband whispered. One goose and two ducks.
“Oh, Jack,” she murmured. “Where are you when I need you?”
Biting off the thought, she pitched the carcasses into the underbrush so the stroller moms arriving later wouldn’t have to explain things to their horrified kids. Then she blew out her breath and loped toward downtown. The river scent sharpened. She smiled. If Proust had his madeleines, she has her moss—the muddy-dog aroma that triggered delicious remembrances of her childhood on Chicago’s Southwest Side. Specifically, the constantly dank basement of their yellow-brick house, where her parents stored the board games they broke out every Saturday night for the “Thompson Family Game and Ice Cream Festival.”
She kept running.
She rounded the curve along the old limestone quarry that now served as Naperville’s municipal beach—complete with sand and beach house—as her bloodstained Nikes pounded cadence. Several minutes later she dipped under the Main Street Bridge, where her foot slaps echoed hollowly off the concrete. She closed her eyes and imagined being at this exact spot two centuries ago, when a thousand-year flood ripped the guts out of the spanking-new town.
She smiled. Her husband, Jack Child, a local-history buff, was forever taking her on the grand tour of city ghosts. “Here lies the Pre-Emption House,” he’d say as they walked through downtown. “Oldest tavern hotel west of the Alleghenies. Abe Lincoln guzzled beer and Grover Cleveland snored away the night.” He’d wave at the far north end of Main Street. “Yonder lies the Stenger Brewery, built 1848, bulldozed 1956. Its underground cooling tunnels are still there today, buried deep in the ground . . .”
Just like Jack.
God! Where is all this stupid melancholy remembrance coming from? “Stupid birds,” she hissed “It’s all your stupid fault.” She veered off the Riverwalk and sprinted south on Washington. Next stop, Naperville Cemetery, the halfway point of what her best friend Annie Bates called the “Jack-to-Jack Fun Run.” For ten straight years Emily had made this run from the house that Jack built to where he now made his eternal rest, and she hadn’t yet found a reason to stop.
“Hey, baby,” she wheezed as she pulled up to his grave. The lawn was lumpish here and there, the grass finally unknotting itself from its long winter hibernation. “How are you today?” She bent to straighten the roses and baby’s breath she’d placed here Friday, then traced Jack’s name in the tombstone, marveling at how well the deeply chiseled letters were holding up through the decade of Midwestern heat, wind, ice, and humidity. Today being Monday, the flowers were pecked ragged—the crows had undoubtedly gotten to them.
Cleanup done, she leaned against the chilled granite and told Jack about the goose, ducks, blood puddle, and weirdly sliced necks. She flinched at the shrill noise emanating from her hip. Straightening away from the tombstone, she unclipped the departmental pager from the gun belt that girdled her hips.
Hercules Branch, the chief of detectives, was calling. His “911” meant “call me back immediately.” But the Fun Run was the only time she didn’t carry a cell phone. She hated interruptions when talking with her dead husband. But a 911 summons was serious, so she needed a phone, pronto. She looked around. The cemetery office didn’t open till nine. She was south of the downtown business district. Okay, who’s awake this early?
Six hundred and twenty-two strides later—she always counted when she ran, it was good practice for measuring distances at car wrecks, crime scenes, or lost-child searches—she chugged into the lobby of Edward Hospital. “Police officer,” she panted. “Use your phone?”
The receptionist nodded toward the bank at the end of the desk. Emily punched in Branch’s number. Mid-third-ring, she heard a series of clicks, then a silky male voice boom:
Emily stared daggers at the phone. “Am I ever going to live that down?”
“Not if I can help it,” Branch said. “I take it from the delay in calling that you’re finally back to your morning runs?”
“Yes, Mother,” she said, rolling her eyes. “I’m exercising again. You can stop nagging.”
“No need for thanks, I’m only here to serve you,” Branch said. “Where are you?”
“Edward. Closest phone to the cemetery. What’s up?”
“You familiar with Vermont Cemetery?”
Her mental street map lit up. “Yes.”
“Good. Come join us.”
“Now?” Emily frowned. The long detour would make her late for morning roll call, and she wanted that as much as a root canal. Chief of Police Kendall Cross hated her enough as it was, always criticizing and nitpicking, demanding she “shape up or ship out.” Even one second’s tardiness would rekindle the fire, and she just wasn’t in the mood. “Branch, I don’t have enough time to get there, drive home, change for work and—”
“I already spoke to Ken,” Branch said. “He won’t give you any grief for being late.”
None? Geez, this is important. “All right, I’ll run home, grab a quick shower, then drive straight over. Figure forty minutes.”
“Twenty,” Branch said. “And forget the shower. It’s better you stay smelly for this.”
Monday, 7 a.m.
71 hours till Emily’s birthday
Emily drove in a blur as dawn hardened into morning. She spotted the copse of red lights and turned onto Normantown Road, the north-south arrow of blacktop that edged the western edge of the Vermont Cemetery. As she drew close, she noted the knot of sheriff’s deputies around the chain-link that surrounded the headstones. They were gawking at a silver Porsche convertible that had punched through the links and landed atop a medium-tall slab of black granite.
She pulled off the blacktop, hopped from the car, and waved at the cops she knew.
“This is the county sheriff’s jurisdiction, not ours,” she said as the familiar shape of her captain walked up. “Why are we here?”
“There’s a body in the front seat,” Branch said. “We’re gonna help Marty figure out why it’s there.”
“Marty,” Emily knew, meant Martin Benedetti, the burly homicide commander of the sheriff’s department. Her pulse quickened as the excitement of working her very first homicide mainlined into her bloodstream. “But what about the jurisdiction?”
“The corpse is so mutilated,” Branch said as if he hadn’t heard her question. “It’s hard to tell he or she.” He looked at the flies dive-bombing the wrecked car. He looked distinctly uneasy, which was not like the man at all, who relished a good crime scene. A skim of anxiety joined her pulse of excitement. Finally, he turned her way.
“Marty wants a gang bang,” Branch said, meaning a crime that required the expertise of more than one law-enforcement agency. “The chief agreed, and so did the sheriff.” He made a face she couldn’t interpret, but sensed it meant nothing good.
“Well, that explains you,” she said. Branch and Benedetti were their departments’ most highly regarded homicide investigators, and they were also best friends. “But why me?”
Branch’s quarter-smile made her shiver.
“Shane Gericke writes with the clear eye of hard-nosed reporter and the sweet soul of an artist. The power of Blown Away is visceral and unforgettable—you won’t want to miss this one.” Author Gayle Lynds
“His plucky heroine does evoke the spirit of Thomas Harris’ Clarice Starling . . . a taut, grisly slice of terror . . . a first-rate cops-and-psychos novelist.” Publishers Weekly
The first chapter is as good as or better than any novel you will read this summer. Shane Gericke has an eye for detail and this opening scene is cinematic.” Mystery Dawg
“A rambunctious, devious novel full of chutzpah, high energy and surprises. Forget roller-coaster; this one reads like a rocket. Once you pick it up it won’t put you down.” Author John Lutz
“Gericke has invented a police force that deserves to have its own TV show.” New Mystery Reader
“The perfect crime book. I have only one regret—the book ended.” Round Table Reviews
“Shane Gericke has created the ultimate ‘game’ of cat and mouse!” Author Alex Kava
“A rising star of the police-thriller genre.” Author Peter Haugen
“Gericke is an expert in providing suspense with horror, surpassing that of a Stephen King or Dean Koontz. Don’t miss this one!” Who Dunnit Mystery Review
“A shotgun start, an Indy 500 wild ride and an explosive finish. The pages will speed forward so quickly that readers are going to be disappointed to read the final word.” RT Book Reviews
“With plenty of wisecracking cops, loudmouth jerks, shootouts, fast cars, a bad guy who can think and a plot that will twist your mind, who needs more? Move over, Elmore Leonard, there’s a new sheriff in town!” Roy Huntington, American Cop Magazine
“I strongly recommend keeping an oxygen bottle nearby.” Amazon.com
“I find it incredible that this is Shane Gericke’s debut novel. Highly recommended!” Armchair Interviews and Rambling Readers
“This book made me jump at every noise, and I am looking over my shoulder a lot of late.” I Love a Mystery Newsletter
“A heart-pounding pace that rivals that of The DaVinci Code . . . never flags, falters or fails to deliver. Read it for a terrific ride on a thrill-mobile you’re not likely to forget any time soon.” Naperville Magazine
“Gericke’s smart and suspenseful book will keep you turning the pages . . . then get you up in the morning hiding your board games away. A remarkably strong first novel; I can’t wait for the next!” Author Deborah Blum
“Blown Away is exceptional. The characters, the pacing and the thriller aspects are all top-notch and indicate a very talented writer.” Reviewing the Evidence
“Gericke makes the story his own with a collection of well-drawn characters. Emily Thompson is an unlikely protagonist for a thriller, and thus all the more welcome . . . an entertaining read.” David Montgomery Reviews
“Made me feel like I was along as part of the investigation. The writing flows and the story kept me reading far into the night.” Crime Spree Magazine
“Stunning suspense tale.” BookRak
“The novel was one you didn’t want to put down, but the images it left in my mind were very upsetting.” XMLwriter Book Reviews
“High marks for action . . . the tautly written prologue is especially chilling . . . dynamic cast of characters.” Hidden Staircase Mystery Reviews
“Blown Away tightens the plot around detective Emily Thompson like a terrifying noose.” Author Thomas Frisbie
“The police are sophisticated, but one step behind a cold-blooded serial killer in a tale that weaves fast-moving action with a stunning conclusion.” Tim West, Naperville Sun
“As a veteran cop who’s also female, I approach such thrillers with a jaded eye. But Blown Away didn’t let me down! It’s one of the rare books where the female lead isn’t only a cop, she’s smart, savvy, and tough, too. Ditto for the SWAT sniper, her best friend and another highly competent female cop. We need more of this!” Suzanne Huntington, retired detective, San Diego Police
“Watch out VI Warshawski, there’s a new detective in town. Shane Gericke’s new thriller will keep you on the edge of your seat as some sharp cops take on a serial killer with a huge ego and deadly grudge.” Author Howard Wolinsky
Copyright, Shane Gericke. Published by New Word City and Mandevilla Press.