by Ellison Cooper


by Ellison Cooper

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“A pathologically twisted tale…for fans of Patricia Cornwell and Kathy Reichs.”—Library Journal

FBI Special Agent Sayer Altair would rather conduct research on criminality than catch actual criminals. But when she’s offered a chance to work on the high-profile Cage Killer investigation in Washington, D.C., she can’t refuse.

During Sayer’s work in the field, clues emerge connecting one of the female victims to Sayer herself. Is someone trying to send her a message? Has the past come back to haunt her? Now, the deeper Sayer is drawn into a dangerous web of secrets and lies, the closer she comes to crossing paths with the killer. Sayer may be the only one who can crack this case. But before she can seek justice for the victims, she must find a way to save her own life…

“A lightning bolt of a read…unputdownable.”—San Jose Mercury News

“Cooper’s relentless energetic storytelling elevates Caged beyond the typical serial killer novel as the author weaves in real science to create some unique twists.”—Associated Press

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250173843
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/30/2019
Series: Agent Sayer Altair Series , #1
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 322,081
Product dimensions: 4.20(w) x 6.70(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Ellison Cooper has a Ph.D. in anthropology from UCLA, with a background in archaeology, cultural neuroscience, ancient religion, colonialism, and human rights. She has conducted fieldwork in Central America, West Africa, Micronesia, and Western Europe. She has worked as a murder investigator in Washington DC, and is a certified K9 Search and Rescue Federal Disaster Worker. She now lives in the Bay Area with her husband and son.

Ellison is the author of Caged.

Read an Excerpt



The D.C. police cruiser idled on an empty residential street. Officer Wilson Tooby sipped his scalding coffee and squinted in the early-morning light. Blooming cherry blossoms arched over the road, casting long shadows along tended lawns and well-kept homes.

Unlike some corners of southeast Washington, this neighborhood was quiet. Idyllic even.

Wilson and his partner, Mike, sat directly out front of the only run-down place in sight.

Wilson leaned toward the passenger seat to get a better look at the abandoned town house. Boarded-up windows and a rotting front porch were common enough in D.C., but he was sure he recognized the rusty green-and-gold FOR SALE sign hanging out front.

"Isn't this the same damn house we checked last week?" he asked.

"What?" Mike slumped over his cell phone, still texting his new girlfriend.

"Remember, we came out for that 911 call. Girl all confused, sounded drugged out."

"Maybe." Mike shrugged.

Mike was the kind of guy who lifted weights obsessively but couldn't run half a mile. Not the best cop Wilson had ever worked with.

Wilson pulled up the file on the dash computer and read the note he'd written twelve days ago. "Yeah, this is it. Was all quiet when we came by."

"What's the call this time?" Mike leaned over to read the computer screen as well.

"Bad smell."

They both looked back up at the town house. Not a good sign.

Wilson tapped the screen and brought up the 911 call. God love newfangled technology. He hit play and a girl's voice filled the car.

"Hello?" in a tentative whisper.

"911, what's your emergency?" the dispatcher barked.

"H ... hello? Someone please help me."

"What's your emergency, dear?" The dispatcher softened her own voice.

"I don't understand what's happening. There's ..."

"Where are you, sweetheart?"

"I don't know." She began to cry. "I don't know ..."

A loud sound shook the speakers in the car, and then the call disconnected.

"That a dog barking?"

"Dunno." Wilson read his own report. The call had come from an old landline that was supposed to be inactive, so they weren't sure where it originated. This address was as close as they could pinpoint, but they weren't sure.

Wilson and Mike had knocked repeatedly. Circled the property. Spoke with a neighbor who said the address was empty, no one coming and going. There was no sign of disturbance and the place was locked up tight. Since they weren't even sure this was the right location, they closed the file. Wilson remembered that had been his daughter's birthday and he'd wanted to get home to her party.

Now people reporting a smell.

"Well, damn," Wilson muttered as he hefted himself out of the car, desperately hoping they weren't about to find some dead addict. The two cops carefully made their way up the uneven stairs and Wilson banged hard on the door.

"Hello. Police. Open up."

As he knocked, the unmistakable stench of dead flesh oozed out around the door.

"Oh damn," he murmured again.

"That ain't good."

"You think?" Wilson was about done with his partner. "Call it in, I'm knocking it down."

While his partner spoke into his radio, Wilson kicked the old door right above the lock. It splintered under his first kick. Despite the circumstance, he couldn't help but let out a "Yeah!" Kicking down a door could be downright embarrassing when it didn't budge.

He stepped in and gagged. Though it was a cool spring day, the air trapped in the house felt thick and hot.

Mike stepped in and retched. "Jesus!"

"Don't puke, man. Step outside if you need to," Wilson said.

"No way I'm clearing this place. Just call in the wagon."

"Can't call it in until we've got a body. Could be a raccoon or something."

Mike cursed.

Wilson's entire body tingled with apprehension. Trusting his instincts, he slid his gun from its holster. Mike raised an eyebrow but did the same.

"Hello?" Wilson called out. He swallowed furiously, fighting the urge to gag again.

They fell into a natural rhythm clearing the house. Wilson moved down the dim hallway, head swiveling back and forth. The first floor was empty. The smell grew stronger and became more acidic in the kitchen. Wilson's eyes watered and he gestured toward a door. Mostlikely led down to the basement. A shiny new slide bolt stood out against the grimy walls of the town house.

With a nod, Mike slid the bolt. The door swung open and a wave of rancid air ballooned out, enveloping the cops. They both took an involuntary step back and flung their arms up over their noses, guns forgotten.

Through his shirtsleeve Mike called out, "Let's just get down there and find the damned body so we can get out of here!"

He stepped down onto the first stair, looked down as though he'd just stepped on something, and said, "What the —" at the same moment the shotgun hanging just inside the door went off.

Standing directly behind Mike, Wilson was shielded from the full blast. A few pellets hit his left arm and the left side of his face, but it hit Mike head-on.

His partner screamed in pain and instinctively jerked away. With flesh sloughing away from his face and chest, the muscle-bound cop backed into Wilson and both men toppled onto the floor.



FBI Special Agent Sayer Altair watched the killer through a narrow crack in the door. Dugald Tarlington sat out in the medical unit waiting room perched on a threadbare orange sofa with his head bowed over something in his lap. The man filled the space around him like a mountain forged from solid rock. Thick jowls hung like slabs of meat off his face. Matted blond hair sprung from his head like a bird's nest. Most terrifying were the killer's hands, with fingers like muscled eels.

Shuddering, Sayer took a small step back into the shadows of the exam room and glanced down at his file. It fell open to a photograph of one of Tarlington's victims. The woman's neck was mangled by repeated stranglings as he brought her to the edge of death over and over again. Sayer wrapped her fingers over the thick stack of photos, each one depicting a similar scene. Photos of the four young women Dugald Tarlington had murdered in an unthinkable way.

Under stark fluorescent lights the massive killer's body began to shake gently. The two uniformed guards in the room glanced up but then turned away, bored. Sayer leaned forward to see what Tarlington was looking at. When her weight shifted forward, the floor squeaked. Tarlington turned toward the sound and Sayer could see tears rolling down his ruddy cheeks.

In his lap, an old JCPenney catalog lay open to a page depicting a cheerful family barbecue. Bile rode up the back of her throat. She had no sympathy for a killer as deranged as Dugald Tarlington.

Putting on a blank face, Sayer pushed through the door.

"Mr. Tarlington, thank you for agreeing to let us go forward with this. Do you understand everything that's about to happen?"

He rubbed away tears while looking back down at the catalog. "Barely even get to see my kids anymore. Eldest is twelve, needs his daddy," he said with a deep southern twang.

Sayer fought the urge to say that he probably shouldn't have killed four innocent people if he'd cared about his kids. Instead she said, "Mr. Tarlington, I need verbal confirmation that you understand what the functional magnetic resonance imaging will entail."

He finally shifted his full attention to her. "You the FBI gal that studies killer brains?" "I am."

"But" — he paused, studying her — "you're a black lady."

"Thanks for noticing." Sayer bit back further comment. "Do I need to go over the procedure for you again?"

"No, ma'am, I got it. You want to see what the brain of a killer looks like. Am I allowed to ask what you wantin' to find?"

"According to my theory, the front of your brain, your prefrontal cortex, should be far less active than that of a typical male brain. I also theorize that your amygdalae, the glands that control empathy, will be smaller than average."

The killer contemplated this, then gave a short nod. "Good. So when you don't see that in my brain, will you know I'm innocent?"

"That's not how it works, Mr. Tarlington." He looked so sincere it was frightening, but Sayer had read his case file, DNA, fingerprints, the works. A forensic slam dunk. True psychopaths were frighteningly good at manipulating people's emotions, and she was clearly staring into the eyes of a true master.

He frowned in disappointment and ran his slithering fingers over the edge of the catalog. "I'll let you scan my brain if I can keep this."

Sayer's stomach did a flip-flop imagining that he would take some perverse pleasure in the images of young women, but the man was behind bars for the rest of his life, so she nodded. Let him have the damn thing.

"Thank you," he whispered with a crack in his voice. It was almost possible to believe that Dugald Tarlington had actual human emotions.

A few minutes later, the killer slid smoothly into the fMRI machine and Sayer watched on the small computer as it recorded his brain while he looked at a series of images. She pulled out her worry beads and slid the smooth amber pebbles between her fingers. The technician who had traveled from Georgetown University with the fMRI machine hovered over her shoulder, watching the image slowly forming.

"So, how's his brain look?" the technician finally asked.

Sayer frowned. She would obviously have to do a direct comparison, but she'd studied thousands of similar images and she could tell that Dugald Tarlington had been right, his brain looked perfectly normal. She was about to respond with a curt dismissal when her phone buzzed.

"Sayer Altair."

"Sayer, we've got a crime scene and I'm activating your unit. I've already sent an evidence response team and a hazardous-devices squad. I want you to hustle there." FBI Assistant Director Janice Holt sounded pissed. Her perpetual state of being.

"Assistant Director Holt, I'm in the middle of my scan on Tarlington. It should be done in less than an hour."

"Don't care. Research takes a backseat to a case. That's the deal."

Sayer fought the urge to disagree. "Fine." She squeezed the word out in almost-polite form. "What's up?"

"Murder site. At least one body found in the basement of a D.C. town house. Place was booby-trapped. Have two officers injured, one in critical condition."

"Oh no." Sayer's mouth went dry. She knew all too well what it would be like for the families of those cops.

"Yeah, shotgun set up with a trip wire. The scene is trashed. EMTs and DCPD all the hell over the place. But cooler heads eventually prevailed and they called us in."

"Why call us in?"

"They called it, and I quote, 'freaky.' I'm making you lead," Holt said.

Despite Sayer's frustration at being called away from her research, her heart beat faster.

"I want you front and center on this one. I'm sending Vik Devereaux from Crimes Against Children to be your partner since we don't know the age of the victim yet. Don't fuck up." Assistant Director Holt disconnected.

Sayer arranged for the technician to complete Dugald Tarlington's scan and stepped out in the crisp spring evening. She took a deep breath, enjoying the scent of honeysuckle wafting off the rolling hills to the southeast. Her phone rang. The screen said it was her grandmother calling, and Sayer decided she didn't have the energy to talk to the force of nature that was Sophia McDuff.

Ignoring the call, she let herself feel the potent mix of apprehension and excitement every murder case brought. With a quick look at her GPS, she pulled on her helmet, revved her motorcycle to life, and roared out of the parking lot.



A cluster of gawkers gathered along the crime scene tape. In the fading daylight, the ring of curious faces strobed red and blue in the flashing lights.

FBI Special Agent Vik Devereaux stood on the porch. His pale skin looked like a white balloon floating on top of a rumpled dark suit. The man had perpetual bags under his eyes and slightly hunched shoulders but managed to pull off the scruffy-yet- handsome-detective thing despite his undertaker vibe.

Sayer ducked beneath the police tape and raised a hand in greeting. "Looks like you're my partner on this, eh, Vik?"

"Hey, hotshot." Vik nodded, grim-faced. His comment wasn't meant as a compliment. Like Sayer, Vik was a special agent with the FBI's Critical Incident Response Group. The units there coordinated all the agency's serial killer investigations and risk management for things like school shootings and random gunmen. Though Ph.D.s were common at the FBI, most academic types were psychologists and a lot of agents didn't see the need for a neuroscientist on staff. It didn't help her popularity that Sayer was moving up the ranks faster than most. But Vik had a good reputation, known around the office as totally unflappable in high- stress situations. Sayer hoped he would handle being second fiddle.

"What've we got?" Sayer asked as she peeled off her leather jacket and sat on a low chair to gear up.

"We've got a nightmare is what we've got," he said with his mild Cajun accent. "Bomb squad had to go in and clear it and they tramped all over the place. Plus the EMTs up here with the injured cops. Thinking maybe we should just call in a zydeco dance troupe to perform a step routine while we're at it." He ran fingers through floppy brown hair. "Anyway, body's still in place while we wait for Joan to finish up and give the go-ahead to move her."


"Yeah, victim looks like a female. Could be young."

"Oh shit," Sayer said, pulling her puff of curls into a tight head wrap.

"Yeah. Anyway, rest of the house is empty, real show's down in the basement. It's pretty bad; you got any tricks to keep from puking, I'd use 'em."

"Nah." Part of Sayer's degree included a lot of medical work and she'd seen plenty of gore. Like anyone working with dead bodies, she could pull that curtain in her mind between her humanity and what she was about to see. A terrible truth, but necessary for her sanity. She'd seen what happened to people whose mental curtains weren't as solid as they thought. No other way to do the job unless you were a psychopath yourself.

"So," Vik continued, flipping open his notebook, "911 call twelve days ago. Young girl saying she was confused but then the call cut off. They couldn't trace an exact location. Thought it might originate near here. Uniforms did a routine check, banged on some doors, assumed it was some tweaker calling in high as a kite. Place looked deserted so they left."

"Oh man." Sayer checked for loose objects on her person, then finally pulled on a pair of gloves.

"I know!" He drew out the I so it sounded more like aaaah. "So, call comes in today about a bad smell. Same two cops kick in the door. Smell's coming from the basement. Guy trips a wire on the stairs rigged up to a shotgun. Blasts the poor guy full on. His partner took some rock too, but he'll be fine. First guy not so much. He's listed as critical."

Sayer and Vik moved slowly along the hall toward the kitchen in back, where two evidence technicians knelt on the floor.

She paused at the top of the stairs looking down into the basement. The shotgun still hung in place, where it would be recovered later. Floodlights shone up the wooden staircase, casting a long shadow behind Sayer across the bloody floor. The scent of death hung in the air like ancient creosote.

"Why call us in? One of their guys down, thought the DCPD would want to handle it themselves."

"You'll see. Nothing's been removed yet. Not even the dog," Vik said.

"The dog?"

"I know, right? They found a goddamned puppy down there."

"A dog," Sayer repeated as she descended into the basement.

The stairs came out at one end of a large windowless room. Floodlights glared off the concrete floor and plain brick walls. Across the room, FBI Chief Medical Examiner Joan Warren stood in front of a massive iron cage that hung from the ceiling. The cage looked like something you would expect to find in a torture chamber beneath the Tower of London. Big enough for a large animal, the black iron gave the cage an old-world Gothic feel. It hung from an equally heavy-looking black chain bolted to the ceiling on a shiny new hook.

Joan leaned into the open cage, hunched over something at the bottom. Though Sayer couldn't see her face, she knew that the medical examiner's expression would be the same serene smile she wore at every crime scene. Of all the people at Quantico, Joan was the only one who didn't seem to need a mental curtain to work with the dead. She firmly believed that people passed on to a better place. At every autopsy, Joan's face radiated with the comfort of a person tending to the mortal remains of a someone whose spirit had departed to heaven or nirvana or wherever they went. Sayer sure wished she could have some faith in that idea; maybe it would blunt the horror.


Excerpted from "Caged"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Ellison Cooper.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Anacostia, Washington, D.C.,
Coffeewood Correctional Facility, VA,
Crime Scene, P Street, Washington, D.C.,
FBI Headquarters, Quantico, VA,
Alexandria, VA,
Evidence Lab, FBI Headquarters, Quantico, VA,
Sayer's Apartment, Alexandria, VA,
Crime Scene, P Street, Washington, D.C.,
Unknown Location,
FBI Headquarters, Quantico, VA,
Rock Creek Parkway, Washington, D.C.,
Van Hurst Estate, NW Washington, D.C.,
Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.,
Assistant Director Holt's Office, FBI Headquarters, Quantico, VA,
Contractor's Home, Blue Ridge Mountains, VA,
FBI Headquarters, Quantico, VA,
Smithsonian Museum Support Center, Suitland, MD,
FBI Headquarters, Quantico, VA,
Alexandria, VA,
Sayer's Apartment, Alexandria, VA,
Unknown Location,
Sayer's Apartment, Alexandria, VA,
Constitution Avenue, Washington, D.C.,
FBI Headquarters, Quantico, VA,
Catacombs Below Mount ST. Sepulcher, Washington, D.C.,
Conference Room, FBI Headquarters, Quantico, VA,
FBI Headquarters, Quantico, VA,
Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.,
FBI Headquarters, Quantico, VA,
Unknown Location,
National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Washington, D.C.,
Sanctuary House, Washington, D.C.,
Road Back to Quantico, VA,
Hunter Street, Washington, D.C.,
Georgetown Hospital, Washington, D.C.,
FBI Headquarters, Quantico, VA,
Interrogation Room, FBI Headquarters, Quantico, VA,
Sayer's Apartment, Alexandria, VA,
Ezra's Room, Georgetown Hospital, Washington, D.C.,
Sayer's Apartment, Alexandria, VA,
Georgetown Hospital, Washington, D.C.,
Ezra's Room, Georgetown Hospital, Washington, D.C.,
FBI Headquarters, Quantico, VA,
Sanctuary House, Washington, D.C.,
Unknown Location,
Sayer's Apartment, Alexandria, VA,
Ezra's Room, Georgetown Hospital, Washington, D.C.,
Smithsonian Museum Support Center, Suitland, MD,
Van Hurst Estate, NW Washington, D.C.,
Road to Alexandria, VA,
Unknown Location,
Assistant Director Holt's Office, FBI Headquarters, Quantico, VA,
Vik's House, NW Washington, D.C.,
Ezra's Room, Georgetown Hospital, Washington, D.C.,
Vik's House, NW Washington, D.C.,
Unknown Location,
Road to Alexandria, VA,
Georgetown, Washington, D.C.,
FBI Headquarters, Quantico, VA,
Mountain Roads, VA,
FBI Headquarters, Quantico, VA,
Virginia Mountains,
Sayer's Apartment, Alexandria, VA,
Unknown Location,
Mountain Roads, VA,
Georgetown Hospital, Washington, D.C.,
About the Author,

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