"A gripping and powerful read. It is what we call an edge-of-your-seat, rollercoaster of a thriller. You will not be able to put it down before you finish it."—The Washington Book Review on The Vanishing Season
No Mercy is award-winning author Joanna Schaffhausen’s heart-pounding second novel.
Police officer Ellery Hathaway is on involuntary leave from her job because she shot a murderer in cold blood and refuses to apologize for it. Forced into group therapy for victims of violent crime, Ellery immediately finds higher priorities than “getting in touch with her feelings.”
For one, she suspects a fellow group member may have helped to convict the wrong man for a deadly arson incident years ago. For another, Ellery finds herself in the desperate clutches of a woman who survived a brutal rape. He is still out there, this man with the Spider-Man-like ability to climb through bedroom windows, and his victim beseeches Ellery for help in capturing her attacker.
Ellery seeks advice from her friend, FBI profiler Reed Markham, who liberated her from a killer’s closet when she was a child. Reed remains drawn to this unpredictable woman, the one he rescued but couldn’t quite save. The trouble is, Reed is up for a potential big promotion, and his boss has just one condition for the new job—stay away from Ellery. Ellery ignores all the warnings. Instead, she starts digging around in everyone’s past but her own—a move that, at best, could put her out of work permanently, and at worst, could put her in the city morgue.
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You kill one guy, one time, and suddenly everyone thinks you need therapy, Ellery Hathaway thought as she stood in the biting wind of the subway T platform overlooking the icy Charles River. Doesn't matter if everyone is glad he's dead. She debated again whether to follow through on her shrink's orders to show up at the group meeting for survivors of violent crime. "You want to get your job back, yes?" Her court-appointed psychiatrist, Dr. Sunny Soon, had kept her tone pleasant with the question, but the underlying threat was plain. Ellery shoved her hands in her pockets and turned her collar up against the cold and the curious gaze of the passing commuters as she headed for the long escalator down to the street. Her face had been on TV for weeks over the summer as the public tried to render a verdict on whether she was more of a victim or a killer. The man she'd shot would be devastated to know he'd been nearly written out of the conversation — the viewers only ever wanted more of Francis Coben and Ellery, the girl who got away.
On crisp fall days, the T station for Massachusetts General Hospital boasted one of the loveliest views in Boston, with the city skyscrapers on one side and the MIT buildings on the other. Trees and boat docks lined the banks, wending back and forth along with the river's curve. Today, however, everything was the same washed-out gray, from the polluted melting snow to the naked tree branches scratching overhead at the gloomy sky.
Ellery noted with some irony that this supposed survivors' group met inside a hospital, like the victims had all been infected somehow. Like violence was a virus. Then she remembered how she'd landed there herself, and considered maybe it was true.
"You should come to the group sessions because there's someone I want you to meet," Dr. Sunny had said. "I think you'll have a lot in common."
Ellery had tried not to roll her eyes at this idea. "No offense," she'd told Dr. Sunny. "But I really don't think that's possible."
"It can be helpful to talk to other people who are walking your same path," Dr. Sunny had countered, but Ellery knew all crimes were not created equal. There was getting mugged on the street, and then there was surviving an abduction by one of the world's most infamous serial killers. Ellery wondered if any of these other people had had their perp show up as an answer on Final Jeopardy!
She edged carefully around a murky puddle and jaywalked with the crowd across the street toward the hospital. Officially winter wasn't supposed to arrive for a few more weeks, but it had crashed the party early, blowing the doors off the city with howling winds and a foot of heavy snow. Ellery embraced the icy landscape, because a frozen world suited her just fine. Frozen was the crunch of snow under your boot and the glint of icicles on crystal-coated trees. It was clean and unspoiled and beautiful. The problem, Ellery thought as she trudged through the slushy streets of Boston, is the thaw.
She reached the glass doors and the forced-air heat hit her like a wall as she stepped inside the hospital. She unwound her scarf and went down the hall in search of the appointed therapy room. The police brass holding her job hostage could make her go to these stupid sessions, but they couldn't make her cooperate. Talking is pointless, she'd told Dr. Sunny at their first meeting. It doesn't change the facts. Ellery could ramble on until she was blue in the face and it wouldn't bring back any of the girls Coben had killed; nothing she could say now would keep her off the Chicago streets the night she'd turned fourteen years old. Nothing would change what had happened in Woodbury last summer.
She found the meeting room without any trouble. It was in the basement of one of the older buildings, and the scuffed-up linoleum floor and lone, crankshaft window reminded her of an elementary school classroom. The circle of chairs and blank whiteboard added to the effect, although the table at the back of the room appeared to have a hot plate with coffee on it. Dr. Sunny looked up from her notes with a pleased expression. "Ellery, welcome. I'm glad you could make it."
The others turned to look, too. Ellery glanced around at all of them in turn, curious about which person Dr. Sunny wanted her to meet. There was a tall, slim, African-American man wearing a conservative pullover sweater and Malcolm X–style glasses; a heavyset older white guy with shaggy graying hair and worn-out work boots; a couple of women, one Hispanic perhaps about Ellery's age who sported a shaved head and — Ellery squinted — a neck tattoo? The other woman looked like an average Boston suburban housewife: white, plump but not overweight, with soft hands, a tired perm, and a Target sweatshirt that did not match the designer handbag at her feet. They were all strangers to Ellery, but she found they were regarding her with recognition or expectation, as if her arrival had been scripted. She felt her face go hot and wondered if Dr. Sunny had told them her story, irritation flashing through her because she was at a disadvantage now, knowing nothing about them. Then she remembered they would have to have lived under a rock the past few months not to know who she was — which was why it was so stupid to have her come in the first place. Try being raped and then watching Hollywood make a movie about it, she told them silently. Where's the group for that?
Ellery crossed the room with her head down, making a beeline for the coffee table. She didn't actually like coffee but at least it would give her something to do with her hands. Her fingers had become clumsy from the force of her embarrassment, and she had difficulty getting a single paper cup free from the stack.
"Let me get that for you." Ellery glanced up to find the black guy standing next to her, holding his own cup of steaming coffee, which he set aside to assist her. He had the coffee poured before she could object.
"Thanks," she said, careful not to touch him as they made the exchange.
"Happy to help. My name is Miles, by the way."
"Ellery," she replied with a short nod. She wondered if she was supposed to ask what brought him to the group, or if it was off-limits, like asking a con in prison, So, what are you in for? She said nothing and instead set about adding cream to her coffee, filling it to the very brim, after which she added four straight packets of sugar.
Miles gave a low whistle. "I take it you don't really like coffee," he said with a smile. "You could set that outside in the snow right now and it'd turn straight into ice cream."
"Then maybe I would eat it," Ellery admitted. She took a sip and made a face.
Miles chuckled and sipped his own coffee. "It's not good enough to force it," he advised her. "This here is your very basic cup of joe."
"It all tastes like dirt to me."
"Hmm." He scratched at his chin thoughtfully and she looked him over for scars. She saw no obvious marks on him and became more intrigued for his story. "I suppose the java beans come from dirt," he said. "Like we all came from dirt — and one day we'll go back into the ground all together." He lifted his paper cup in mock salute. "To the cycle of life."
She raised her cup in solidarity, enjoying the morbid slant on the discussion. So far this was easier than she had expected, and she hoped that Miles was the one she was supposed to talk to so that she wouldn't have to make direct conversation with any of the others. "Have you, uh, have you been coming here long?" she asked, thinking he might volunteer something that hinted at a Dr. Sunny–arranged meeting. After all, he had been the one to approach her.
"About a year," he said soberly. "That's actually what I want to talk about today."
Miles didn't get a chance to say anything further because the door opened across the room and two people entered: an old woman in a wheelchair and an old man pushing behind her. They both wore hats — his, a tweed newsboy-style cap, and hers, a colorful knit that looked like it might be homemade. "That's Myra," Miles explained in a low voice as the old man helped the woman off with her coat. "She's been coming here the longest of any of us."
Even from a distance, Ellery could see that this woman had not emerged unscathed from whatever her ordeal was. Her facial features did not line up correctly, and the skin color on the right side did not match the color of the left. Burned, Ellery realized with a start. She's been burned.
"I think we're all here now, so let's get started," Dr. Sunny said, and Ellery chose a seat next to Miles. "We have a new face with us today, as I'm sure you've noticed. Ellery, would you like to say anything to the group?"
Ellery shook her head and slouched farther in her seat.
"That's quite all right," Dr. Sunny replied easily. "You are welcome to just listen, but of course feel free to join in the conversation if you would like. Everyone else, let's please go around the room and introduce ourselves to Ellery."
It was like circle time in kindergarten, Ellery thought as they all complied with Dr. Sunny's request. Miles went first. The shaggy-haired guy was Alex. Wendy was the one with the shaved head, and the housewife was called Tabitha. Myra volunteered her name with a smile, and Ellery noticed that the old guy who had pushed her in, presumably her husband, had not stuck around. "So you may remember that Miles asked us to talk about anniversaries this week," Dr. Sunny said. "Miles, would you like to start the conversation?"
Beside Ellery, Miles took a deep breath and leaned forward slightly in his seat. "Yeah, okay. I've got the one-year anniversary coming up. The crash was December eighteenth. I think on some level I've been trying to prepare for it all year long. How would I feel? How was I going to handle it when the calendar flipped over to December? I'm supposed to be in school teaching that day. Which is better — stay home and take the day for myself or go in and let the kids distract me? Like, maybe if I make a good enough plan I can get through the day without feeling destroyed."
The housewife, Tabitha, snorted. "Good luck," she said, and crossed her legs.
"Feeling destroyed," Dr. Sunny said. "What would that be for you? What do you think would happen?"
Miles was silent for a moment and then shook his head slowly. "Like before. Like right after Letitia died. I lay in bed in the dark, acting like I was dead, too. Maybe I was hoping I could be. Like if I faked it good enough, the Lord would take me with her."
Ellery looked hard at the floor and held very still. She remembered that feeling, lying on the closet floor in her own blood, praying God would kill her so Coben wouldn't do it himself. She wished suddenly that Miles would stop talking, but he continued.
"We can all tell since I'm sittin' here that it didn't work out that way," he said wryly. "Those kids at school needed me, so I got up one day and I just kept on getting up every day after that. Now it turns out it's almost a year later and I can't quite believe it's happened. This big chunk of rock has traveled all the way around the sun again with me here on it and Letitia gone. Makes me want to be Superman — pushing it back and back and back until we get to the place where we turned down Harvard Street and Ed Kleinfeldt came roaring through the intersection, high as a kite in July."
"That bastard," Tabitha muttered. "The drunks, they always walk away without even a scratch."
"He got taken to the hospital," Miles replied absently. "Probably for detox."
"He gets out pretty soon, doesn't he?" the man called Alex wanted to know.
"Next spring if he makes parole. That's what the lawyers told me. Five years, out in less than one-and-a-half. But don't worry: he's real sorry he killed her."
"Bastard," Tabitha said again. "How long before he's loaded up and behind the wheel of another car?"
"I think we're getting off course a bit," Dr. Sunny interrupted. "Miles wanted to talk about how to handle the anniversary of his wife's death — isn't that right?"
Miles nodded and sat back in his seat. "The thing is, I was prepared to be freaked by the date on the calendar. I didn't expect the rest of it."
"What do you mean?" Dr. Sunny asked.
"It's all the same," he answered, gesturing vaguely around him. "The tinsel decorations on the streetlights. The smell of frost in the air. It was so cold that night. But clear, you know? You could see the stars. Letitia put Christmas music on the radio, like she always did starting in about mid-November. It was playing 'Jingle Bell Rock' when those headlights came right out of nowhere. Now ... now when I try to cross a street in the dark, I see headlights and I flinch. I hear Christmas songs and they make me want to cry. Ed Kleinfeldt didn't just take Tetia from me: he took the snow and the music and the pine trees and every little reminder, because it's all tied up together."
Ellery forced down a swallow of coffee to clear the lump in her throat. For her, it was the summer, especially when it got so hot the concrete remained warm even after dark. The smell of her own sweat. The sight of a girl riding a bicycle always made her cold inside.
"I know what you mean," Alex said. "Nate and I weren't even supposed to be in the store when it got hit. We were just walking by and he said, 'Let's go in a sec. I want a Snickers.' We were only going to be there like maybe two minutes. Only two minutes later, he's lying on the ground, shot to the gut. It's been three years and I still can't friggin' stand the sight of Snickers."
"What did you do on the anniversary of the first year?" Dr. Sunny asked him. "What got you through the day?"
Alex grinned and Ellery saw he was missing a couple of teeth. "Jim Beam and ESPN." Then he faltered, his grin slipping away. "Nate hated ESPN."
"Let's talk about other strategies people have used to deal with tough anniversaries," Dr. Sunny suggested smoothly.
Ellery tuned out the resulting chatter because she became aware that the young woman with the shaved head, Wendy, was staring at her. When Ellery turned to look, Wendy glanced away in chagrin, as if she'd been caught with too many items in the express lane at the supermarket. Ellery wondered again whom she was supposed to meet at this gathering, and if Wendy could be the one. The others had all spoken during the session but Wendy hadn't said a word after introducing herself. She sat with one leg drawn up defensively on the chair in front of her. From this angle, Ellery could see that the neck tattoo read NO MERCY.
Privately, Ellery agreed with the sentiment. Take down the monster when you have a clean shot because you might not get a second one. This philosophy had landed her in hot water now, but she felt confident it would blow over eventually. Her crimes were small compared to those of the man she'd killed.
When the meeting broke up, Ellery cast a dubious look around at the other group members, men and women with their own small crimes. She edged closer to where Dr. Sunny was putting some papers away in her briefcase. "So who is it?" Ellery asked her. "Who's the one I'm supposed to meet?"
To Ellery's surprise, Dr. Sunny waved over the old woman in the wheelchair. "Ellery, meet Myra. Myra, this is Ellery. The two of you have something in common."
I can't imagine what, Ellery thought as she appraised the other woman up close.
Myra extended a gnarled hand that was covered on one side with bald, shiny skin — too tight to match the rest of her softly aging physique — and that's when Ellery realized the woman had been burned across more than just her face. "Pleased to make your acquaintance," Myra said in a hoarse voice. She tried to smile but the scorched half of her face wouldn't cooperate, so the result was akin to a grimace.
Ellery gave the woman's hand a perfunctory shake and then stepped backward again, shoving her hands in the pockets of her coat, lest she show off her own scars. "What is it we have in common?"
Ellery asked the question of Dr. Sunny, but it was Myra who answered. "I read about you in the paper," Myra said, looking up at her. "I read what happened with Francis Coben."
"Yeah?" Ellery glanced at the door, wondering if it was too soon to make her good-byes and escape back to the solitude of her apartment.
"You were the one who lived," Myra continued. "So was I."
Ellery swiveled her head around and regarded the woman with new eyes. "What did you say?"
"Myra received a lot of unwanted media attention as a result of what happened to her," Dr. Sunny explained as she took up her briefcase to leave. "I know the scrutiny is new for you, but she lived with it for years. Perhaps she has some advice."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "No Mercy"
Copyright © 2019 Joanna Schaffhausen.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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