In a riveting debut thriller, Brian Freeman's Immoral weaves obsession, sex, and revenge into a story that grips the reader with vivid characters and shocking plot twists from the first page to the last.
Lieutenant Jonathan Stride is suffering from an ugly case of déjà vu. For the second time in a year, a beautiful teenage girl has disappeared off the streets of Duluth, Minnesota—gone without a trace, like a bitter gust off Lake Superior. The two victims couldn't be more different. First it was Kerry McGrath, bubbly, sweet sixteen.
And now Rachel Deese, strange, sexually charged, a wild child. The media hounds Stride to catch a serial killer, and as the search carries him from the icy stillness of the northern woods to the erotic heat of Las Vegas, he must decide which facts are real and which are illusions. And Stride finds his own life changed forever by the secrets he uncovers. Secrets that stretch across time in a web of lies, death, and illicit desire. Secrets that are chillingly…immoral.
About the Author
Brian Freeman is the internationally bestselling author of psychological suspense novels featuring detectives Jonathan Stride and Serena Dial. His books have been sold in 46 countries and 18 languages. His debut thriller, Immoral, won the Macavity Award and was a nominee for the Edgar, Dagger, Anthony, and Barry awards for best first novel. His other novels include The Bone House, The Burying Place, In the Dark, and Stalked. Brian is drawn to complex characters, and says, “My stories are about the hidden intimate motives that draw people across some terrible lines.” Brian and his wife, Marcia, have lived in Minnesota for more than twenty years.
Read an Excerpt
By Brian Freeman
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2005 Brian N. Freeman
All rights reserved.
Jonathan Stride felt like a ghost, bathed in the white spotlights that illuminated the bridge.
Below him, muddy brown swells flooded into the canal, spewing waves over the concrete piers and swallowing the spray in eight-foot troughs. The water tumbled over itself, squeezing from the violent lake to the placid inner harbor. At the end of the piers, where ships navigated the canal as delicately as thread through a needle, twin lighthouses flashed revolving beams of green and red.
The bridge felt like a living thing. As cars sped onto the platform, a whine filled the air, like the buzz of hornets. The honeycomb sidewalk vibrated, quivering under his feet. Stride glanced upward, as he imagined Rachel would have done, at the crisscross scissors of steel towering above his head. The barely perceptible sway unsettled him and made him dizzy.
He was doing what he always did — putting himself inside the mind of the victim, seeing the world through her eyes. Rachel had been here on Friday night, alone on the bridge. After that, no one knew.
Stride turned his attention to the two teenagers who stood with him, impatiently stamping their feet against the cold. "Where was she when you first saw her?" he asked.
The boy, Kevin Lowry, extracted a beefy hand from his pocket. His third finger sported an oversized onyx high school ring. He tapped the three inches of wet steel railing. "Right here, Lieutenant. She was balanced on top of the railing. Arms stretched out. Sort of like Christ." He closed his eyes, tilted his chin toward heaven, and extended his arms with his palms upward. "Like this."
Stride frowned. It had been a bleak October, with angry swoops of wind and sleet raining like bullets from the night sky. He couldn't imagine anyone climbing on top of the railing that night without falling.
Kevin seemed to read his mind. "She was really graceful. Like a dancer."
Stride peered over the railing. The narrow canal was deep enough to grant passage to giant freighters weighted down with bellies of iron ore. It could suck a body down in its wicked undertow and not let go.
"What the hell was she doing up there?" Stride asked.
The other teenager, Sally Lindner, spoke for the first time. Her voice was crabbed. "It was a stunt, like everything else she did. She wanted attention."
Kevin opened his mouth to complain but closed it again. Stride got the feeling this was an old argument between them. He noticed that Sally had her arm slung through Kevin's, and she tugged the boy a little closer when she talked.
"So what did you do?" Stride asked.
"I ran up here on the bridge," Kevin said. "I helped her down."
Stride watched Sally's mouth pucker unhappily as Kevin described the rescue.
"Tell me about Rachel," Stride said to Kevin.
"We grew up together. Next-door neighbors. Then her mom married Mr. Stoner and they moved uptown."
"What does she look like?"
"Well, uh, pretty," Kevin said nervously, shooting a quick glance at Sally.
Sally rolled her eyes. "She was beautiful, okay? Long black hair. Slim, tall. The whole package. And a bigger slut you're not likely to find."
"Sally!" Kevin protested.
"It's true, and you know it. After Friday? You know it."
Sally turned her face away from Kevin, although she didn't let go of his arm. Stride watched the girl's jaw set in an angry line, her lips pinched together. Sally had a rounded face, with a messy pile of chestnut curls tumbling to her shoulders and blowing across her flushed cheeks. In her tight blue jeans and red parka, she was a pretty young girl. But no one would describe her as beautiful. Not a stunner. Not like Rachel.
"What happened on Friday?" Stride asked. He knew what Deputy Chief Kinnick had told him on the phone two hours ago: Rachel hadn't been home since Friday. She was missing. Gone. Just like Kerry.
"Well, she sort of came on to me," Kevin said grudgingly.
"Right in front of me!" Sally snapped. "Fucking bitch."
Kevin's eyebrows furled together like a yellow caterpillar. "Stop it. Don't talk about her like that."
Stride held up one hand, silencing the argument. He reached inside his faded leather jacket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes that he had wedged into the pocket of his flannel shirt. He studied the pack with weary disgust, then lit a cigarette and took a long drag. Smoke curled out of his mouth and formed a cloud in front of his face. He felt his lungs contract. Stride tossed the rest of the pack into the canal, where the red package swirled like a dot of blood and then was swept under the bridge.
"Back up," he said. "Kevin, give me the whole story, short and sweet, okay?"
Kevin rubbed his hand across his scalp until his blond hair stood up like naked winter trees. He squared his shoulders, which were broad and muscular. A football player.
"Rachel called me on my cell phone on Friday night and said we should come hang out with her in Canal Park," Kevin said. "It was about eight-thirty, I guess. A shitty night. The park was almost empty. When we spotted Rachel, she was on the railing, playing around. So we ran up on the bridge to get her off there."
"Then what?" Stride asked.
Kevin pointed to the opposite side of the bridge, to the peninsula that stretched like a narrow finger with Lake Superior on one side and Duluth harbor on the other. Stride had lived there most of his life, watching the ore ships shoulder out to sea.
"The three of us wandered down to the beach. We talked about school stuff."
"She's a suck-up," Sally interjected. "She takes psychology and starts spouting all the teacher's theories on screwed-up families. She takes English, and the teacher's poetry is so wonderful. She takes math and grades papers after school."
Stride silenced the girl with a stony stare. Sally pouted and tossed her hair defiantly. Stride nodded at Kevin to continue.
"Then we heard a ship's horn," he said. "Rachel said she wanted to ride the bridge while it went up."
"They don't let you do that," Stride said.
"Yeah, but Rachel knows the bridge keeper. She and her dad used to hang out with him."
"Her dad? You mean Graeme Stoner?"
Kevin shook his head. "No, her real dad. Tommy."
Stride nodded. "Go on."
"Well, we went back on the bridge, but Sally didn't want to do it. She kept going to the city side. But I didn't want Rachel up there by herself, so I stayed. And that's where — well, that's where she started making out with me."
"She was playing games with you," Sally said sharply.
Kevin shrugged. Stride watched Kevin tug at the collar around his thick neck and then caught a glimpse of the boy's eyes. Kevin wasn't going to say exactly what happened on the bridge, but he clearly was embarrassed and aroused thinking about it.
"We weren't up there very long," Kevin said. "Maybe ten minutes. When we got down, Sally — she wasn't ..."
"I left," Sally said. "I went home."
Kevin stuttered on his words. "I'm really sorry, Sal." He reached out a hand to brush her hair, but Sally twisted away.
Before Stride could cut short the latest spat, he heard his cell phone burping out a polyphonic rendition of Alan Jackson's "Chattahoochee." He dug the phone out of his pocket and recognized the number for Maggie Bei. He flipped it open.
"Bad news, boss. The media's got the story. They're crawling all over us."
Stride scowled. "Shit." He took a few steps away from the two teenagers, noting that Sally began hissing at Kevin as soon as Stride was out of earshot. "Is Bird out there with the other jackals?" he asked.
"Oh, yeah. Leading the inquisition."
"Well, for God's sake, don't talk to him. Don't let any reporters near the Stoners."
"No problem, we're taped off."
"Any other good news?" Stride asked.
"They're playing it like this is number two," Maggie told him. "First Kerry, now Rachel."
"That figures. Well, I don't like déjà vu either. Look, I'll be there in twenty minutes, okay?"
Stride slapped the phone shut. He was impatient now. Things were already moving in a direction he didn't like. Having Rachel's disappearance splashed over the media changed the nature of the investigation. He needed the TV and newspapers to get the girl's face in front of the public, but Stride wanted to control the story, not have the story control him. That was impossible with Bird Finch asking questions.
"Keep going," Stride urged Kevin.
"There's not much else," Kevin said. "Rachel said she was tired and wanted to go home. So I walked her to the Blood Bug."
"The what?" Stride asked.
"Sorry. Rachel's car. A VW Beetle, okay? She called it the Blood Bug."
Kevin's face was blank. "Because it was red, I guess."
"Okay. You actually saw her drive off?"
"And she specifically told you she was going home?"
"That's what she said."
"Could she have been lying? Could she have had another date?"
Sally laughed cruelly. "Sure she could. Probably did."
Stride turned his dark eyes on Sally again. She hooded her eyes and looked down at her shoes, her curls falling over her forehead. "Do you know something, Sally?" Stride asked. "Did you maybe go see Rachel and tell her to lay off Kevin here?"
"Then who do you think Rachel would have gone to see?"
"It could have been anyone," Sally said. "She was a whore."
"Stop it!" Kevin insisted.
"Both of you stop it," Stride snapped. "What was Rachel wearing that night?"
"Tight black jeans, the kind you need a knife to cut yourself out of," Sally replied. "And a white turtleneck."
"Kevin, did you see anything in her car? Luggage? A backpack?"
"No, nothing like that."
"You told Mr. Stoner that she made a date with you."
Kevin bit his lip. "She asked if I wanted to see her on Saturday night. She said I could pick her up at seven, and we could go out. But she wasn't there."
"It was a game to her," Sally repeated. "Did she tell you to call me on Saturday and lie to me? Because that's what you did."
Stride knew he wasn't going to get any more out of these two tonight. "Listen up, both of you. This isn't about who kissed who. A girl's missing. A friend of yours. I've got to go talk to her parents, who are wondering if they're ever going to see their daughter again, okay? So think. Is there anything else you remember from Friday night? Anything Rachel did or said? Anything that might tell us where she went when she left here or who she might have seen."
Kevin closed his eyes, as if he were really trying to remember. "No, Lieutenant. There's nothing."
Sally was sullen, and Stride wondered if she was hiding something. But she wasn't going to talk. "I have no idea what happened to her," Sally mumbled.
Stride nodded. "All right, we'll be in touch."
He took another glance out at the looming blackness of the lake, beyond the narrow canal. There was nothing to see. It was as empty and hollow as his world felt now. As he pushed past the two teenagers and headed to the parking lot, he felt it again. Déjà vu. It was an ugly memory.CHAPTER 2
Fourteen months had passed since the wet August evening when Kerry McGrath disappeared. Stride had reconstructed her last night so many times that he could almost see it playing in his head like a movie. If he closed his eyes, he could see her, right down to the freckle on the corner of her lips and the three slim gold earrings hugging her left earlobe. He could hear her giggle, like she had in the birthday videotape he had watched a hundred times. All along, he had kept an image of her that was so vivid, it was like she was alive.
But he knew she was dead. The bubbly girl who was so real to him was a hideous, flesh-eaten thing in the ground somewhere, in one of the deserted acres of wilderness they had never searched. He only wanted to know why and who had done it to her.
And now another teenager. Another disappearance.
As he waited at a stoplight, Stride glanced into his truck window and found himself staring into the reflection of his own shadowy brown eyes. Pirate eyes, Cindy used to say, teasing him. Dark, alert, on fire. But that was then. He had lost Kerry to a monster, and a different kind of monster had claimed Cindy at the same time. The tragedy deadened the flame behind his eyes and made him older. He could see it in his face, weathered and imperfect. A web of telltale lines furrowed across his forehead. His black hair, streaked with strands of gray, was short but unkempt, with a messy cowlick. He was forty-one and felt fifty.
Stride swung his mud-stained Bronco through potholes to the old-money neighborhood near the university where Graeme and Emily Stoner lived. Stride knew what to expect. It was eleven o'clock, normally a time when the streets would be deathly quiet on Sunday night. But not tonight. The blinking lights of squad cars and the white klieg lights of television crews lit up the street. Neighbors lingered on their lawns in small crowds of spies and gossips. Stride heard the overlapping cacophony of police radios buzzing like white noise.
Uniformed cops had cordoned off the Stoner house, keeping the reporters and the gawkers at bay. Stride pulled his Bronco beside a squad car and double-parked. The reporters all swarmed around him, barely giving him room to swing his door open. Stride shook his head and held up his hand, shielding his eyes as he squinted into the camera lights.
"Come on, guys, give me a break."
He pushed his way through the crowd of journalists, but one man squared his body in front of Stride and flashed a signal to his cameraman.
"Do we have a serial killer on the loose here, Stride?" Bird Finch rumbled in a voice as smooth and deep as a foghorn. His real name was Jay Finch, but everyone in Minnesota knew him as Bird, a Gopher basketball star who was now the host of a shock-TV talk show in Minneapolis.
Stride, who was slightly more than six feet tall himself, craned his neck to stare up at Bird's scowling face. The man was a giant, at least six-foot-seven, dressed impeccably in a navy double-breasted suit, with cufflinks glinting on the half inch of white shirt cuffs that jutted below his sleeve. Stride saw a university ring on the forefinger of the huge paw in which he clutched his microphone.
"Nice suit, Bird," Stride said. "You come here straight from the opera?"
He heard several of the reporters snicker. Bird stared at Stride with coal eyes. The floodlights glinted off his bald black head.
"We've got some sick pervert snatching our girls off the streets of this city, Lieutenant. You promised the people of this city justice last year. We're still waiting for it. The families of this city are waiting for it."
"If you're running for office, do it on someone else's time." Stride unhooked his shield from his jeans and held it in front of Bird's face, jamming his other hand in front of the camera. "Now get the hell out of my way."
Bird grudgingly inched away. Stride bumped his shoulder heavily against the reporter as he passed. The shouting continued behind him. The crowd of reporters dogged his heels, up onto the sidewalk and to the edge of the makeshift fence of yellow police tape. Stride bent down, squeezed under the tape, and straightened up. He gestured to the nearest cop, a slight twenty-two-year-old with buzzed red hair. The officer hurried eagerly up to Stride.
Stride leaned down and whispered in his ear. "Keep these assholes as far away as you can."
The cop grinned. "You got it, sir."
Stride wandered into the middle of Graeme Stoner's manicured lawn. He waved at Maggie Bei, the senior sergeant in the Detective Bureau he supervised, who was doling out orders in clipped tones to a crowd of uniformed officers. Maggie was barely five feet tall even in black leather boots with two-inch heels. The other cops dwarfed her, but they snapped to it when she jabbed a finger in their direction.
The Stoner house was at the end of a narrow lane, shadowed by oak trees that had recently spilled most of their leaves into messy piles. The house itself was a three-story relic of the 1920s, solidly constructed for the Minnesota winters with bricks and pine. A curving walkway led from the street to a mammoth front door. On the east side of the house, overlooking a wooded gully, was a two-car detached garage, with a driveway leading to a rear alley. Stride noted a bright red Volkswagen Bug parked in the driveway, not quite blocking one of the garage stalls.
Rachel's car. The Blood Bug.
"Welcome to the party, boss."
Stride glanced at Maggie Bei, who had joined him on the lawn.
Maggie's jet black hair was cut like a bowl, with bangs hanging straight down to her eyebrows. She was tiny, like a Chinese doll. Her face was pretty and expressive, with twinkling almond-shaped eyes and a mellow golden cast to her skin. She wore a burgundy leather jacket over a white Gap shirt and black jeans plucked from the teen racks. That was Maggie — stylish, hip. Stride didn't spend much money on clothes himself. He kept resoling the cowboy boots he had worn since he traded in his uniform to join the Detective Bureau, and that was a long time ago. He still wore the same frayed jeans that he had worn through nine winters, even though coins now sprinkled the ground through a tear in his pocket. His leather jacket was similarly weather-worn. It still bore a bullet hole in the sleeve, which aligned with the scar on Stride's muscular upper arm.
Excerpted from Immoral by Brian Freeman. Copyright © 2005 Brian N. Freeman. 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.
Q. Readers are calling Jonathan Stride the next "top cop" in detective fiction. Did you have a model in real life for him? Is he your alter ego or someone very different from yourself?
No, Stride is actually quite different from me. He simply sprang from my head without a role model. But he is classically Minnesotan, very much a product of the northern wilderness. When you spend your life in the shadow of a vast lake, that sometimes takes people and doesn't give them back, you have a sense of how fragile life is. And it becomes very important to you. When you spend six months of the year narrowing your eyes against the cold, and feeling your skin freeze, you spend a lot of time living inside your head. That's Stride. He's lonely in a lonely place.
Q. Did your work in a big law firm help you understand the relationship between the criminal mind and the justice system in writing a thriller?
Well, I worked at a corporate law firm, so the only criminals would be the lawyers. No, no, I'm just kidding - they were a superb group of people. Working at a law firm, you learn to break down complex facts into simple stories, so clients and juries can understand them and appreciate their drama. That's what lawyers do. And I think it's what detectives do, too - find the stories within the facts. As Jonathan Stride says, most human behavior leaves a trail. There are clues there, if you can sift them out from the remains left by everyone else.
Q. What do you find a bigger challenge for a thriller writer - the psychology behind your characters or the pure page-turning action?
The psychology, definitely. I don't want to say that writing action is easy, because you have to think in a very cinematic style and "direct" your scenes much the way you would in making a movie, in order to build the suspense. That's a challenge. But the heart and authenticity of a thriller arise inside the minds of the characters. A book with good action will be a great beach read. But a book with good action and deep, haunting characters will linger in your mind for a long time.
As an aside, I've posted several bonus scenes on my web site. Once readers have finished the book, they may want to visit the site to get some further insights into the characters. But no peeking! The bonus scenes will spoil many of the best secrets of the book.
Q. Sex is a major theme in your novel. You seem to focus on sexuality more than many thriller writers.
Most crimes arise from powerful emotions -- fear, revenge, desire. Sex is the most intense and naked emotion we have. That's why it's central to my books and why I write about it explicitly. Part of the "thrill" for readers is being aroused. I'm also attracted to plots that focus on the secrets of my characters. We all keep secrets about sex, don't we?
Q. You're working on your next Jonathan Stride book, due out next year. Will Jonathan and Serena still be a couple in your new novel?
Yes, Stride and Serena are together in book two. But they're both
facing personal challenges that will test their relationship. Serena has a
lot of secrets in her past - see the answer to the previous question!
Those secrets will put them both at risk.