Victims (Alex Delaware Series #27)by Jonathan Kellerman
Acid-tongued Vita Berlin hadn’t a friend in the world, but whom did she cross so badly as to end up meticulously arranged in such a gruesome/b>/i>
“With his latest, [Jonathan Kellerman] not only brings his ‘A’ game but also ratchets it up a notch or three. . . . Victims will keep you up at night.”—Bookreporter
Acid-tongued Vita Berlin hadn’t a friend in the world, but whom did she cross so badly as to end up meticulously arranged in such a gruesome murder scene? One look prompts LAPD detective Milo Sturgis to summon his expert in homicidal maniacs, Alex Delaware. But even Alex is stymied when more slayings occur in the same ghastly fashion—with no apparent connection among the victims. And the only clue left behind—a blank page bearing a question mark—seems to be both a menacing taunt and a chilling cry for help from a tortured, savage soul. To end the bloody spree and prevent citywide panic, Alex navigates the secretive world of mental health treatment, from the sleek office of a Beverly Hills therapist to a shuttered mental institution where he once learned his craft. As each jagged piece of the puzzle fits into place, a portrait emerges of a sinister mind at its most unimaginable—and an evil soul at its most unspeakable.
“Expertly crafted, judiciously paced and echoing with larger social concerns.”—The Star-Ledger
“The combination of Alex Delaware [and] Detective Milo Sturgis . . . makes for the most original whodunit duo since Watson and Holmes.”—Forbes
Don’t miss the excerpt of Jonathan Kellerman’s Guilt in the back of the book.
Read an Excerpt
This one was different.
The first hint was Milo's tight-voiced eight a.m. message, stripped of details.
Something I need you to see, Alex. Here's the address.
An hour later, I was showing I.D. to the uniform guarding the tape. He winced. "Up there, Doctor." Pointing to the second story of a sky-blue duplex trimmed in chocolate-brown, he dropped a hand to his Sam Browne belt, as if ready for self-defense.
Nice older building, the classic Cal-Spanish architecture, but the color was wrong. So was the silence of the street, sawhorsed at both ends. Three squad cars and a liver-colored LTD were parked haphazardly across the asphalt. No crime lab vans or coroner's vehicles had arrived, yet.
I said, "Bad?"
The uniform said, "There's probably a better word for it but that works."
Milo stood on the landing outside the door doing nothing.
No cigar-smoking or jotting in his pad or grumbling orders. Feet planted, arms at his sides, he stared at some faraway galaxy.
His blue nylon windbreaker bounced sunlight at strange angles. His black hair was limp, his pitted face the color and texture of cottage cheese past its prime. A white shirt had wrinkled to crepe. Wheat- colored cords had slipped beneath his paunch. His tie was a sad shred of poly.
He looked as if he'd dressed wearing a blindfold.
As I climbed the stairs, he didn't acknowledge me.
When I was six steps away, he said, "You made good time."
"Sorry," he said.
"Including you." He handed me gloves and paper booties.
I held the door for him. He stayed outside.
The woman was at the rear of the apartment's front room, flat on her back. The kitchen behind her was empty, counters bare, an old avocado- colored fridge free of photos or magnets or mementos.
Two doors to the left were shut and yellow-taped. I took that as a Keep Out. Drapes were drawn over every window. Fluorescent lighting in the kitchen supplied a nasty pseudo-dawn.
The woman's head was twisted sharply to the right. A swollen tongue hung between slack, bloated lips.
Limp neck. A grotesque position some coroner might label "incompatible with life."
Big woman, broad at the shoulders and the hips. Late fifties to early sixties, with an aggressive chin and short, coarse gray hair. Brown sweatpants covered her below the waist. Her feet were bare. Unpolished toenails were clipped short. Grubby soles said bare feet at home was the default.
Above the waistband of the sweats was what remained of a bare torso. Her abdomen had been sliced horizontally below the navel in a crude approximation of a C-section. A vertical slit crossed the lateral incision at the center, creating a star-shaped wound.
The damage brought to mind one of those hard-rubber change purses that relies on surface tension to protect the goodies. Squeeze to create a stellate opening, then reach in and scoop.
The yield from this receptacle was a necklace of intestines placed below the woman's neckline and arranged like a fashionista's puffy scarf. One end terminated at her right clavicle. Bilious streaks ran down her right breast and onto her rib cage. The rest of her viscera had been pulled down into a heap and left near her left hip.
The pile rested atop a once-white towel folded double. Below that was a larger maroon towel spread neatly. Four other expanses of terry cloth formed a makeshift tarp that shielded beige wall-to-wall carpeting from biochemical insult. The towels had been arranged precisely, edges overlapping evenly for about an inch. Near the woman's right hip was a pale blue T shirt, also folded. Spotless.
Doubling the white towel had succeeded in soaking up a good deal of body fluid, but some had leaked into the maroon under-layer. The smell would've been bad enough without the initial stages of decomp.
One of the towels beneath the body bore lettering. Silver bath sheet embroidered Vita in white.
Latin or Italian for "life." Some monster's notion of irony?
The intestines were green-brown splotched pink in spots, black in others. Matte finish to the casing, some puckering that said they'd been drying for a while. The apartment was cool, a good ten degrees below the pleasant spring weather outside. The rattle of a wheezy A.C. unit in one of the living room windows was inescapable once I noticed it. Noisy apparatus, rusty at the bolts, but efficient enough to leach moisture from the air and slow down the rot.
But rot is inevitable and the woman's color wasn't anything you'd see outside a morgue.
Incompatible with life.
I bent to inspect the wounds. Both slashes were confident swoops unmarred by obvious hesitation marks, shearing smoothly through layers of skin, subcutaneous fat, diaphragmatic muscle.
No abrasions around the genital area and surprisingly little blood for so much brutality. No spatter or spurt or castoff or evidence of a struggle. All those towels; horribly compulsive.
Guesses filled my head with bad pictures.
Extremely sharp blade, probably not serrated. The neck-twist had killed her quickly and she'd been dead during the surgery, the ultimate anesthesia. The killer had stalked her with enough thoroughness to know he'd have her to himself for a while. Once attaining total control, he'd gone about choreographing: laying out the towels, tucking and aligning, achieving a pleasing symmetry. Then he'd laid her down, removed her T shirt, careful to keep it clean.
Standing back, he'd inspected his prep work. Time for the blade.
Then the real fun: anatomical exploration.
Despite the butchery and the hideous set of her neck, she looked peaceful. For some reason, that made what had been done to her worse.
I scanned the rest of the room. No damage to the front door or any other sign of forced entry. Bare beige walls backed cheap upholstered furniture covered in a puckered ocher fabric that aped brocade but fell short. White ceramic beehive lamps looked as if they'd shatter under a finger-snap.
The dining area was set up with a card table and two folding chairs. A brown cardboard take-out pizza box sat on the table. Someone-probably Milo-had placed a yellow plastic evidence marker nearby. That made me take a closer look.
No brand name on the box, just PIZZA! in exuberant red cursive above the caricature of a portly mustachioed chef. Curls of smaller lettering swarmed around the chef's fleshy grin.
Ooh la la!
The box was pristine, not a speck of grease or finger-smudge. I bent down to sniff, picked up no pizza aroma. But the decomp had filled my nose; it would be a while before I'd be smelling anything but death.
If this was another type of crime scene, some detective might be making ghoulish jokes about free lunch.
The detective in charge of this scene was a lieutenant who'd seen hundreds of murders, maybe thousands, yet chose to stay outside for a while.
I let loose more mental pictures. Some fiend in a geeky delivery hat ringing the doorbell then managing to talk himself inside.
Watching as the prey went for her purse? Waiting for precisely the right moment before coming up behind her and clamping both his hands on the sides of her head.
Quick blitz of rotation. The spinal cord would separate and that would be it.
Doing it correctly required strength and confidence.
That and the lack of obvious transfer evidence-not even a shoe impression-screamed experience. If there'd been a similar murder in L.A., I hadn't heard about it.
Despite all that meticulousness, the hair around the woman's temples might be a good place to look for transfer DNA. Psychopaths don't sweat much, but you never know.
I examined the room again.
Speaking of purses, hers was nowhere in sight.
Robbery as an afterthought? More likely souvenir-taking was part of the plan.
Edging away from the body, I wondered if the woman's last thoughts had been of crusty dough, mozzarella, a comfy barefoot dinner.
The doorbell ring the last music she'd ever hear.
I stayed in the apartment awhile longer, straining for insight.
The terrible competence of the neck-twist made me wonder about someone with martial arts training.
The embroidered towel bothered me.
Had he brought that one but taken the rest from her linen closet?
Yum. Bon appétit. To life.
The decomp reek intensified and my eyes watered and blurred and the necklace of guts morphed into a snake.
Drab constrictor, fat and languid after a big meal.
I could stand around and pretend that this was anything comprehensible, or hurry outside and try to suppress the tide of nausea rising in my own guts.
Not a tough choice.
ilo hadn't moved from his position on the landing. His eyes were back on Planet Earth, watching the street below. Five uniforms were moving from door to door. From the quick pace of the canvass, plenty of no- one-home.
The street was in a working-class neighborhood in the southeastern corner of West L.A. Division. Three blocks east would've made it someone else's problem. Mixed zoning allowed single-family dwellings and duplexes like the one where the woman had been degraded.
Psychopaths are stodgy creatures of routine and I wondered if the killer's comfort zone was so narrow that he lived within the sawhorses.
I caught my breath and worked at settling my stomach while Milo pretended not to notice.
"Yeah, I know," he finally said. He was apologizing for the second time when a coroner's van drove up and a dark-haired woman in comfortable clothes got out and hurried up the stairs. "Morning, Milo."
"Morning, Gloria. All yours."
"Oh, boy," she said. "We talking freaky-bad?"
"I could say I've seen worse, kid, but I'd be lying."
"Coming from you that gives me the creeps, Milo."
"Because I'm old?"
"Tsk." She patted his shoulder. "Because you're the voice of experience."
"Some experiences I can do without."
People can get used to just about anything. But if your psyche's in good repair, the fix is often temporary.
Soon after receiving my doctorate, I worked as a psychologist on a pediatric cancer ward. It took a month to stop dreaming about sick kids but I was eventually able to do my job with apparent professionalism. Then I left to go into private practice and found myself, years later, on that same ward. Seeing the children with new eyes mocked all the adaptation I thought I'd accomplished and made me want to cry. I went home and dreamed for a long time.
Homicide detectives get "used" to a regular diet of soul-obliteration. Typically bright and sensitive, they soldier on, but the essence of the job lurks beneath the surface like a land mine. Some D's transfer out. Others stay and find hobbies. Religion works for some, sin for others. Some, like Milo, turn griping into an art form and never pretend it's just another job.
The woman on the towels was different for him and for me. A permanent image bank had lodged in my brain and I knew the same went for him.
Neither of us talked as Gloria worked inside.
Finally, I said, "You marked the pizza box. It bothers you."
"Everything about this bothers me."
"No brand name on the box. Any indies around here deliver?"
He drew out his cell phone, clicked, and produced a page. Phone numbers he'd already downloaded filled the screen and when he scrolled, the listings kept coming.
"Twenty-eight indies in a ten-mile radius and I also checked Domino's and Papa John's and Two Guys. No one dispatched anyone to this address last night and nobody uses that particular box."
"If she didn't actually call out, why would she let him in?"
"Who discovered her?"
"Landlord, responding to a complaint she made a few days ago. Hissing toilet, they had an appointment. When she didn't answer, he got annoyed, started to leave. Then he thought better of it because she liked things fixed, used his key."
"Where is he now?"
He pointed across the street. "Recuperating with some firewater down in that little Tudor-ish place."
I found the house. Greenest lawn on the block, beds of flowers. Topiary bushes.
"Anything about him bother you?"
"Not so far. Why?"
"His landscaping says he's a perfectionist."
"That's a negative?"
"This case, maybe."
"Well," he said, "so far he's just the landlord. Want to know about her?"
"Her name's Vita Berlin, she's fifty-six, single, lives on some kind of disability."
"Vita," I said. "The towel was hers."
"The towel? This bastard used every damn towel she had in her linen closet."
"Vita means 'life' in Latin and Italian. I thought it might be a sick joke."
"Cute. Anyway, I'm waiting for Mr. Belleveaux-the landlord-to calm down so I can question him and find out more about her. What I've learned from prelim snooping in her bedroom and bathroom is if she's got kids she doesn't keep their pictures around and if she had a computer, it was ripped off. Same for a cell phone. My guess is she had neither, the place has a static feel to it. Like she moved in years ago, didn't add any newfangled stuff."
"I didn't see her purse."
"On her nightstand."
"You taped off the bedroom, didn't want me in there?"
"I sure do, but that'll wait until the techies are through. Can't afford to jeopardize any aspect of this."
"The front room was okay?"
"I knew you'd be careful."
His logic seemed strained. Insufficient sleep and a bad surprise can do that.
I said, "Any indication she was heading to the bedroom before he jumped her?"
"No, it's pristine. Why?"
I gave him the delivery tip scenario.
"Going for her purse," he said. "Well, I don't know how you'd prove that, Alex. Main thing is he confined himself to the front, didn't move her into the bedroom for anything sexual."
I said, "Those towels make me think of a stage. Or a picture frame."
"Showing off his work."
"Okay . . . what else to tell you . . . her wardrobe's mostly sweats and sneakers, lots of books in her bedroom. Romances and the kinds of mysteries where people talk like Noël Coward twits and the cops are bumbling cretins."
I wondered out loud about a killer with martial arts skills and when he didn't respond, went on to describe the kill-scene still bouncing around my brain.
He said, "Sure, why not."
Agreeable but distracted. Neither of us focusing on the big question.
Why would anyone do something like this to another human being?
Gloria exited the apartment, looking older and paler.
Milo said, "You okay?"
"I'm fine," she said. "No, I'm lying, that was horrible." Her forehead was moist. She dabbed it with a tissue. "My God, it's grotesque."
"Any off-the-cuff impressions?"
"Nothing you probably haven't figured out yourself. Broken neck's my bet for COD, the cutting looks postmortem. The incisions look clean so maybe some training in meat-cutting or a paramedical field but I wouldn't put much stock in that, all kinds of folk can learn to slice. That pizza box mean something to you?"
Meet the Author
Jonathan Kellerman is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of more than thirty bestselling crime novels, including the Alex Delaware series, The Butcher’s Theater, Billy Straight, The Conspiracy Club, Twisted, and True Detectives. With his wife, bestselling novelist Faye Kellerman, he co-authored Double Homicide and Capital Crimes. He is also the author of two children’s books and numerous nonfiction works, including Savage Spawn: Reflections on Violent Children and With Strings Attached: The Art and Beauty of Vintage Guitars. He has won the Goldwyn, Edgar, and Anthony awards and has been nominated for a Shamus Award. Jonathan and Faye Kellerman live in California, New Mexico, and New York.
- Beverly Hills, California
- Date of Birth:
- August 9, 1949
- Place of Birth:
- New York, New York
- B.A. in psychology, University of California-Los Angeles; Ph.D., University of Southern California, 1974
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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Wonderful Book I enjoyed reading. kept me entertained all the way through.
Loved this book. Now I'm sad it's over, it feels like good friends are going away & I won't see them for awhile. I couldn't put it down once I started reading it. Excellent story, excellent characters. Can't wait for his next book.
Excellent read. Couldn't put it down. It was a long time coming and worth the wait.
This book was very disappointing and BORING! Read the whole thing for a book club but had to force myself. Cannot think of ONE redeeming part................sad that Mr. Kellerman couldn't have put more effort into writing it.
I loved this as I do all Alex Delaware books. I would have preferred, however, more antics by Milo.
Homicide detective Lt. Milo Sturgis, along with the LAPD consulting psychologist Dr. Alex Delaware, have been called to a murder scene, where the female victim has been disemboweled in a particularly grotesque manner. Although it first blush it would seem to be a revenge killing, as they gather information about the woman, Delaware is skeptical that this is the case. When, as the title implies, another victim is found, killed in precisely the same horrific manner, and the police are unable to find a single thing in common between the two victims, they must look elsewhere for leads to follow. This is the 27th in this series, and as with the previous entries, it is a police procedural of the highest order – the police doing their thing and Alex Delaware providing insights into the victims and the kind of twisted mind that might be responsible for these murders. The plot and characters are well-developed, and the writing as good as ever. On arriving home one evening, e.g., he speaks of their home in Beverly Glen: “the sinuous silence of the old bridal path leading up to my pretty white house, the prospect of kissing my beautiful girlfriend, patting my adorable dog.” [That would be, respectively, Robin, and Blanche, their little French bulldog.] He describes another character as having “the anxious nobility of a Velasquez prince,” and one particular scene where “the sky was charcoal felt stretched tight. A few stars peeked through like ice-pick wounds.” This was a fast, thoroughly enjoyable read, and it is recommended.
The last few books in this series was a struggle to finish. This book was awesome. I couldn't put it down.
All of the Alex Delaware novels are good, and this is no exception. As always, we have the team of psychologist Alex and his best friend Milo the police detective. This book has a particularly creepy and gruesome killer! I think what made this book so scary and suspenseful was the investigation into old mental health institutions and the people who were locked away for their own (or the public's) safety. The clues leading up to the conclusion were great, the entire plot held me at the edge of my seat. I especially love how Alex and Milo are not unrealistic “perfect” crime solvers, they make errors, go down blind trails, follow red herrings, but keep trying and working at it until the exciting and disturbing ending. It is generally hard to predict what's going to happen in Kellerman's books, and this one was among the most suspenseful, with several twists that I didn't see coming!
Not one of my favorite books by Mr. Kellerman and keep in mind I have been reading his books since when the Bough Breaks. We have Alex, Robin, Milo, Petra and a few other secondary characters from his previous books but to me this book was missing something. I do believe that Mr. Kellerman was trying to write a different type of book. I wouldn’t say that he failed significantly because some people probably gave this book 5 stars but I can’t. There wasn’t the normal rapport between Milo and Alex. The story in the book is these people are getting murdered in a nasty way and the only thing that is left behind is a ? for the clue. There are no witnesses and the murders take place all over. So who is doing the murdering. We know that most of Kellerman books the characters are all tied in some way or another. Well this book nope, you have a bitter divorce woman, an accountant, a married couple, and a street person. I personally didn’t want to hug any of the characters as a matter of fact I didn’t even like the victims are all. All the loose ends weren’t tied up as they usually are in his books. The book kept my interest but that’s about it. So the most I can give it is 3 stars. All in all not a bad read since. You do want to find out why they are getting murdered but I personally didn’t care.
too many characters and over analyzing, repetitive.
I liked the part where Milo was eating all the strange leftovers that Alex had.
I enjoyed this book from beginning to end.