A little girl has witnessed a mass shooting. What she knows may be the key to finding the man responsible. Jenna has been tasked with drawing her out, figuring out what she saw, what she remembers, what it means.
But Molly is an unusual child. She is sweet and bright, and eager to help, but she has a quirk of her own: an intense preoccupation with numbers. It helps her notice things that others don’t. It also leads Jenna into a maze of speculation that could turn into a wild goose chase while the body count continues to rise.
Jenna and Molly view the world through their own filters. In some ways, they speak different languages. Now Jenna must learn to communicate, to break Molly’s code, to understand the mind of a murderer…
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***
Copyright © 2015 Colby Marshall
“Nine-one-one, what is your emergency?”
“I’m at the grocery store, and someone is shooting people,” Molly said. She had no trouble remembering the number for 911. It was the date they went to the memorial in the city. The highest single digit and the lowest single digit twice. Her birthday.
“Honey, how old are you?”
“Six,” Molly answered. The number of strings on a guitar. Points in a football touchdown. One away from seven.
Molly pocketed the phone, climbed into the bin of refrigerated meats, and slipped into the other side, the side where the butcher cut them. She’d seen the hole where he could stick the meat through to refill the refrigerator once before. She ducked down behind the bin.
POP. POP. POP.
“I’m back,” she said as she held the phone to her ear again.
“What grocery store? Can you tell me where?”
“Lowman’s Wholesale,” Molly answered. She and Mommy never came here. Mommy said the crowds drove her batty, whatever that meant. G-Ma liked to save money, though. She told Molly a penny saved doesn’t do much good, but a hundred pennies is a dollar.
“What’s your name, hon?”
G-Ma also said don’t give your name to strangers, but this was the person on the other end of 911. He didn’t count.
“Help is coming, Molly. Stay on the phone, okay? Did you see the person who’s hurting people?”
“Sort of,” she answered.
“Is it a man or a woman?”
“Don’t know,” Molly whispered. Masks weren’t good for that kind of thing.
Quiet. Finally quiet.
“They might be gone,” she said.
“Where are you, Molly?” the 911 operator asked.
“Stay put, okay?”
But Molly couldn’t stay put. She had to see. G-Ma.
She peered up from behind the bin, peeked out. No one there. She stood, climbed out. People lay still in an aisle, and red slicked the floors. Don’t look at the red.
On tiptoes, she crept to the cereal row where she’d last seen G-Ma. A dazed man, probably about her Pop-Pop’s age, sat slumped against the shelves. Another man was closer to the far end of the aisle on the left side. The one close to Pop-Pop’s age wasn’t bleeding. He just looked scared.
“Have you seen my G-Ma?” Molly whispered.
Then, sirens wailing. Footsteps running. The person with the gun appeared at the far end of the cereal aisle, glanced toward the grocery store doors where the police sirens sounded in the distance.
The man closer to the far end of the cereal aisle yelled as the gun came up.
Molly dove under the half-filled bottom shelf, tuckinge her feet. Boxes crashed around her, and her head burned as it hit the back of the metal.
“Molly? Molly! Are you there?” Twenty-five-year-old Yancy Vogul yelled into the phone. Dispatchers were supposed to be calm under pressure, keep the callers calm, but this was a child. He wasn’t ready for this.
Ragged panting met his ears. “I’m here,” the little voice said.
Shit pickle. Thank you, God.
“Help is coming,” Yancy relayed again. He’d done his job, so the cops would know what they were walking into. They depended on him to get the information right, to make sure they knew enough so they wouldn’t be blindsided. Enough that they could go home to their families that night.
But damn if he wasn’t just happy right now to hear the six-year-old say she was alive.
“Are you hurt?”
“No,” she answered. “They ran away.”
“The shooter?” Yancy asked.
He wanted to ask which way the gunman had gone, what the child had seen, but for all he knew, if he asked her, she’d go gallivanting around the store trying to find out. Better to sit here, talk to her. Wait for reinforcements.
He entered the child’s latest update into his log, hoped it would be enough.
“Seven,” Molly’s voice said in his ear.
Yancy hadn’t asked anything. “Seven?”
“Mm-hm,” she said. “Seven shots.”
“How do you know?” he asked.
He heard Molly’s sigh on the other end of the phone. When she spoke again, she sounded confused, frustrated at his stupidity. “Because I counted.”
Jenna Ramey thrust a set of keys into her brother’s hand.
“And don’t forget to lock both the front door set and the side door set when you and Dad are in the house, and if you go out, leave the side set open. I reset the password today on the alarm, and it’s—”
“Sri Lanka 49 Captain C 2. I know, I know. You told me,” Charley grumbled, plucking Ayana from Jenna’s arms. “I thought you going back to the BAU meant you’d decided Dad and I could be trusted with the fortress. You did uproot us all and drag us to Virginia for this gig, after all. And we did do this for years.”
That was before. “I know, I know. Chalk it up to me being the nervous mother of a toddler, okay?”
The fact that her daughter happened to be a toddler had nothing to do with it, of course. When her dad and Charley had kept Ayana before, Claudia was safely locked away in a mental institution. Last year, her mother had managed to weasel her way out of the system, and now she roamed the streets unchecked.
Charley plopped Ayana onto the floor in front of the TV, pressed play on the DVD player. Ayana, pacifier still firmly attached to her lips at age three, clapped her hands as Finding Nemo’s opening graphics appeared on the screen.
Charley fast-forwarded until the scary part with the barracuda had passed, just like he always did. “Rain Man, I know why you do what you do, I’m just reminding you that we’ve already talked about it, I’ve consented to implement the iron will that is your weird key system, and we even took a home safety course designed by someone more paranoid than you. Now that’s saying something. This house is better protected from home invasion than that guy down the road who took the Halloween movies way too seriously. Now get out!”
Jenna kissed Ayana on top of her fine, blond hair, but the little girl didn’t notice. On the TV, Marlin instructed Nemo to swim into the anemone, out of the anemone.
“Love you!” Jenna whispered in her ear.
At this, Ayana unplugged her mouth. “Wuv oo!”
Then, the paci went back in, and Ayana’s eyes were back to the TV.
Charley shrugged. “Disney waits for no one.”
“Come lock me out,” Jenna said.
She waited patiently as Charley unbolted each lock. The key system was straightforward if you knew it well enough, but the instructions weren’t written anywhere. Each key was color coded, but the key colors didn’t match the colors of the locks. In order to know which key went with each lock, you had to have the combination memorized. Red key to green lock, orange key to light blue lock, yellow key to purple lock. In order to open them all, you had to open them in that order, too. Otherwise the bolts of the others would get in the way of the first, causing the door to remain locked. Only one set of the right keys existed and they were kept on the “lead person” in the house at all times. The set of keys could not be taken apart or copied, and it was attached to a tracking device.
The passwords were never written down, either, and Jenna changed them daily. That was why she went over them so many times before she left: her dad and brother had to remember them. They were explicitly forbidden from sending them over text, e-mail, or any other channel. The only way they should be passed was verbally and in person.
“I’ll pass along the message to Dad when he wakes up from his nap. Would you like me to perform a urine analysis to make sure he is actually Dad before I do so?”
“No, thank you, smart-ass. The blood test is plenty. See you in a few hours,” Jenna replied.
The door closed behind her, four clicks. And just like that, she was back in the game.
When Jenna reached the office at Quantico, she seemed to be the last team member of the Behavioral Analysis Unit in the door. The long conference table inside the glassed-in walls was already full. A few curious eyes glanced over as she closed the door and the buzz of the cubicles below them died, but no one said anything. They all looked so young, fresh out of the gate. A frat boy in a ball cap, a girl Charley’s age who looked like she could play linebacker for the Dolphins. This would be interesting.
Jenna sat in a chair by the wall, already an outsider.
Saleda Ovarez, special agent in charge and the only person in the room Jenna had worked with besides technical analyst Irv, tacked pictures to the giant whiteboard at the front. The dark-skinned woman glanced at her watch. “I wanted to wait for Agent Dodd before we continued, but it’s two after. We need to get started,” she said, her Boston accent thick.
So Jenna wasn’t the last one here. She filed away her superior’s jab about being two minutes late as a warning. Next time, she’d brief her dad and brother first thing in the morning, before a call had the chance to come in.
“Shooter came into the Lowman’s Wholesale on Grady, opened fire, and escaped on foot. Seven victims, but one in particular,” Saleda said, and she tapped the photo at the top left corner. “Miriam Holman, fifty-two.”
“As in Virginia Governor Miriam Holman?” the kid in the ball cap asked.
“One and the same.” Saleda nodded.
“Democrat, strong left. Shocked the hell out of everyone when she was elected. Shooter a card-carrying NRA member, perhaps?” the kid asked. He had to have just started shaving yesterday. How could he have possibly made it to the BAU already?
Saleda beat Jenna to the punch. “Seems likely, even probable that this was politically motivated since the governor was scheduled to speak next door at the public library in the next hour, but it’s too soon to assume.”
Jenna glanced across the board at the other six victims. All different ethnicities, sexes. “Other victims?”
“Their profiles are included in your briefs,” Saleda replied, and she handed a stack of folders to the kid in the ball cap.
He took one and passed the pile of case reports to his right. “Other high profiles?”
Saleda nodded, gestured to the picture next to the photo of the governor. “Frank Kuncaitis, mayor of Falls Church, came to show his support for the governor.”
“This couldn’t be about him?” the brutish girl with the long, hooked nose asked.
“Doubtful. He wasn’t well known or controversial. The rest are unknowns.”
“Witnesses?” the girl linebacker asked.
Saleda yanked the clip out of her hair, shook out her dark brown locks. She looked like she’d already had the longest day of her life. “As luck would have it, it was senior citizen’s day at Lowman’s. We have several witnesses, but most of ’em can barely remember what day it is, much less any important shooting details.”
“How many shots?” Jenna asked.
“We think seven,” Saleda said.
Seven up, seven down, huh? It spoke volumes. This guy wasn’t firing rapidly, hoping to hit any moving target. The shots were specific to a degree.
Jenna nodded to the governor’s picture. “Was Miriam Holman the first victim?”
Sure, she was tacked in the first spot, but it could be because of her stature.
“No,” Saleda replied. “Fourth. Kuncaitis was fifth.”
Fourth and fifth. Right in the middle. Jenna thought of Charley at home with Ayana, probably just now watching the part where Marlin meets the sea turtle. Why had she taken this position back again?
“How soon do we leave?”
On the way to the scene, Saleda finally took the time to introduce Jenna to the team, if only because they couldn’t do much else until they arrived at Lowman’s Wholesale anyway. Both the brutish Teva and Porter, the frat boy, gasped at Jenna’s name as though Saleda had sprouted tentacles when she said it.
“Sorry,” Saleda muttered from the driver’s seat of the black SUV.
“No worries. I get that all the time,” Jenna answered truthfully. Her name had been in psychiatry journals across the country for articles she’d published, but everyone in the field knew her more from stories of her teenage years that had made her a national legend. She’d used her unique skill set of associating days, numbers, even people and gut feelings, with colors in order to help the police catch a black widow killer—her mother, Claudia. Grapheme–color synesthesia had made Jenna famous, put her on the path to her career, and influenced countless cases since then. Either she embraced it or shunned it, and only one of the two would do her any good in life.
“Where’s Dodd, by the way?” Jenna ventured. Whoever the remaining team member was, he’d be due for a thwacking when he did show.
“No idea. And it’s his first day, too, if you can believe it,” Saleda said, a hint of disdain in her voice. “Rebuilding’s a bitch.”
Jenna’s cell phone vibrated in her pocket. She reached in and removed her Droid. Yancy. She’d texted to let him know she was en route to a scene, not to count on her for lunch, dinner, or any subsequent meals today because this one sounded huge.
Now she glanced at his message.
I know I’m not allowed to ask, but I’m gonna. Is it what I think it is?
With anyone but him, she’d doubt it, but given their history of being on the same page for random, inexplicable reasons, no telling. Besides, she’d dated him long enough and through enough investigations to know she could trust him with a detail or two.
She texted back:
Tell me the store thing hasn’t hit the news already.
His reply came back in less than twenty seconds.
Yes, it’s already on the news, but that’s not how I knew about it. I took the call.
Shit. Jenna typed back:
Anything worth knowing?
Definitely. Find a kid named Molly.
Jenna relayed Yancy’s information to Saleda as she flashed her credentials at the barrier set up by the local cops in front of the Lowman’s parking lot. One of the cops manning the blockade nodded, scooted the sawhorse aside for Saleda to drive through. Normally a massacre like this would be a case for the locals, but when two elected government officials were shot, it got high priority. Technically, this was still a local case, but the BAU had already been called in for a consult.
“We didn’t know the nine-one-one call came from a kid?” Jenna asked.
Saleda shook her head. “Still processing all the nine-one-one calls. They apparently got upward of a dozen from cell phones in the store. Why find the kid?”
Jenna shrugged. If Yancy thought she should talk to this kid, he must have a good reason. He knew the game—and how Jenna worked—well enough to know what she’d find useful. “We’ll see, I guess.”
Most of the cop cars in the city seemed to be in this parking lot, which meant the manhunt for the shooter couldn’t be high on the priority list.
Are the locals not used to dealing with this much blood, or do they have reason to think this shooter isn’t a danger? A dead suspect? One in custody? Jenna hopped out of the SUV and followed Saleda toward the store’s entrance.
“Special Agent in Charge Saleda Ovarez. This is Dr. Jenna Ramey, Special Agent Teva Williams, Special Agent Porter Jameson,” Saleda said to the cop who greeted them out front.
The reed of a man shook her hand.
“Lieutenant Daly, DCPD. Thanks for coming. S.A. Dodd is already inside.”
“What?” Saleda said, half question, half exclamation.
“He’s walking the grid,” Officer Daly replied, confused.
“Aha,” Saleda answered, and Jenna detected the way Saleda forced the anger back down in her throat. Already this Dodd character was a piece of work.
“Walk us through?” Saleda asked.
“Sure thing,” Daly replied. The team followed him into the store.
As Jenna entered the grocery store, the scene that met her eyes seared into her brain, keeping company with all of the other horrific crime scenes she’d taken in over the years. Smears of blood across the floor, footprints. Please let the CSIs have gotten to all this before the locals contaminated it to hell and back.
The first three victims were in the produce section of the store. The first two were close together in front of the apple and orange display, victim one’s head apparently at victim two’s feet.
“One and two, Clovis Carter and Lily Ross. Both female, fifty-eight and fifty-five, respectively,” Saleda recapped for the team.
The shooter had to have come in, turned right, and killed the first people he saw. Unafraid to shoot or so afraid that if he didn’t go ahead, he might not? Excited? In a rage?
“Cold,” Porter mumbled. “Ordered hit?”
“Too soon to say, I think,” Saleda replied.
Nearer to the back of the produce section lay victim three, Sherman Frost. The sixty-seven year old had originally been found draped over the summer squash, but someone had moved him to try to get him to safety. The bullet in his back made him bleed out before help arrived.
Next the shooter had hit the canned goods aisle, which Jenna now traveled quietly behind Officer Daly like it was a strange tourist attraction and he her tour guide. From the blood-spray angles of the shot to Miriam Holman’s face, the shooter had taken the shot from the end of the aisle. Her face was clipped on the left side, and the blood had shot over her left shoulder into a shelf of Ramen noodles. Weird.
“From the shot to the third victim, the shooter seemed shorter,” Teva commented.
The shooter had also fired at the first two victims at an angle consistent with a right-handed shooter. This shot, however, listed to the left. If he’d come here to kill this specific target—the governor—he sure did take a bad shot to do it. The job was done, but still . . .
“If you were the shooter, wouldn’t you be more precise with someone you showed up to pop?” Jenna asked.
“Where’s your head at?” Saleda asked.
Jenna bit her lip. “He’s not taller than the shot at the third victim made him seem. This one’s just different. He took out the first three victims with the gun in front of him. This almost looks like . . .” Her voice trailed.
“He shot it over his shoulder,” Porter filled in.
Jenna nodded. “Almost like an afterthought.”
“Could he have not seen her at first? Was afraid she’d get away?”
“Hm. Maybe,” Jenna replied. If he had seen her and didn’t want her to get away, it lent credibility to the idea that he was afraid of the shooting, lacked confidence. That told a different story from a killer who enjoyed the rampage. And yet . . .
Jenna didn’t attempt to pull up the colors trying to rise in her brain. She had feelings, but she’d wait for them to solidify.
“Next,” Saleda instructed.
Officer Daly led them to the right, past the cereal, baking, and cookie aisles. At the deli toward the end of the store, opposite the produce section, lay the body of victim five, Mayor Frank Kuncaitis.
“He was shot point-blank in the face,” Officer Daly reminded them.
“And we’re positive the mayor couldn’t be a target?” Teva asked.
“Never say never,” Jenna mumbled. Something about all this was so off. She forced herself to ignore the royal blue tones that tried to crash in. No analyzing colors until she’d had time to process.
Victim six was back toward the checkout line, a bullet between her shoulder blades that came from behind. Rita Keegan had landed facedown on the tile, though her blood had clearly been run through and dragged all over the front of the store by panicked customers, maybe even the shooter.
“Why head back toward the exit?” Porter asked. “His pattern of movement makes no sense.”
Saleda’s eyes trailed from victim six to the door. “And where’s victim seven?”
Officer Daly pointed toward the cereal aisle, which they’d passed earlier. “Back that way.”
“Paranoid that his shot at the governor didn’t do the job? Was going back to make sure?” Porter ventured.
Teva shook her head. “But why keep moving deeper into the store for the mayor and then come back for her? If she was your target, walk up to her, put one between her eyes, and leave.”
“For that matter, why not wait and shoot her while she’s talking in the library. She’d be a sitting duck,” Jenna mumbled. “Sure, there’d be a security team, but for a planned hit, it’s easier. Predictable. If the security was an issue there but not here, for that matter, wait until she’s walking into the library. You know she’s going in.”
“Maybe it’s more to do with the mayor than we thought,” Saleda said, standing up from where she’d been kneeling beside Rita Keegan, examining the angle of the blood spray. “Onward.”
In aisle seven, body number seven, Blake Spiegel, had been shot straight on, too, only he seemed to have been facing the shooter. He fell backward from the bullet to his chest, which had gone directly through him and lodged into a wall at the back of the store.
Some shots to backs, chests. Others hit faces, but not cleanly. “Training seems minimal. He hits seven for seven shots, but none of them executed perfectly. I’d say military background is doubtful.”
“The angle of the bullet that went through Spiegel was odd, too. It went through him, but entry point was a bit left of exit point. He seems to have shot him from a bit to the side the same way he did the governor,” Porter said.
The inconsistency of the shots, the victim order. Something about this whole thing didn’t mesh. Jenna wasn’t ready for colors to show so strong yet. In the past, crime-associated colors burned in her mind based on gut feelings, but only when she had enough information to resolve those feelings. This time, though, purple surrounded the shooting on the cereal aisle before she had seen or heard enough to trust it. An entirely different color from the blue that permeated the rest of the scene.
“This is the only young guy,” Teva pointed out. “The others were all over fifty.”
“Well, it is senior citizens’ day,” Officer Daly said.
Good point. But that didn’t mean this victim’s age should be discounted. In fact, the more Jenna looked at this scene, the more she wondered if the initial idea of the governor being the motive for the shooting wasn’t way off base. The first or last victims should be looked at harder, for sure. Chronological order was important to victim profiling, even if one of the victims was in political office. The vics could be random, but they could not be random, too.
Saleda was on her phone. “Irv, we need workups on the victims, more in depth than what we currently have. Backgrounds, family, friends. We’ll call with more specifics, but for now take the names and break down the usual on each—military, financial, occupation, stressors, etc.”
She hung up with the technical analyst, turned to the team. “Teva, you start with the witnesses in the parking lot. Porter, see what CSI has that might be of interest. Jenna and I will break down the witnesses who actually saw the shooter.”
“Any recommendations for my team as far as the manhunt?” Daly asked.
Saleda glanced at Jenna.
“Not yet. Keep looking, but proceed with caution. Suspect is armed and dangerous,” Jenna replied. She glanced at the seventh victim on the floor, pictured the bullet sailing through his chest at a strange angle toward the back of the store. As an afterthought, she added, “Armed, dangerous, and possibly unstable.”
What People are Saying About This
Praise for Color Blind
“[A] stellar debut…Marshall’s style is clipped and spare, her main character and her powerful perceptions an intriguing hero.”—Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“High stakes and frequent setbacks keep the action taut and demonstrate Jenna’s human frailties. Readers will eagerly await Jenna’s next adventure.”—Shelf Awareness
Praise for the novels of Colby Marshall
“Colby Marshall has written a book that deserves to be called thriller.”—R.L. Stine, New York Times bestselling author of the Goosebumps series
“An intricate puzzle that will keep you guessing until the very end!”—C.J. Lyons, New York Times bestselling author of Chasing Shadows
“Colby Marshall’s sterling debut may transpire over more than six or seven days, but like me you’ll probably finish it in a single night, racing the dawn to flip the last page. A classic concept updated to fit our politics wary world.”—Jon Land, bestselling author of Strong Rain Falling
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