"Explosive.” Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“A fantastic thriller from one of the best in the genre!” RT Reviews
A horrific crime. One witnessa fifteen year old girl from the wrong side of the tracks, one known for lying and her own brushes with the law.
Is it any surprise no one believed her?
Officer Miranda Rader of the Harmony, Louisiana PD is known for her honesty, integrity, and steady hand in a crisisbut that wasn’t always so. Miranda comes from the town of Jasper, a place about the size of a good spit on a hot day, and her side of the tracks was the wrong one. She’s worked hard to earn the respect of her coworkers and the community.
When Miranda and her partner are called to investigate the murder of one of the town’s most beloved college professors, they’re unprepared for the brutality of the scene. This murder is unlike any they’ve ever investigated, and just when Miranda thinks she’s seen the worst of it, she finds a piece of evidence that chills her to the core: a faded newspaper clipping about that terrible night fifteen years ago. The night she’d buried, along with her past and the girl she’d been back then. Until now that grave had stayed sealed…except for those times, in the deepest part of the night, when the nightmares came: of a crime no one believed happened and the screams of the girl they believed didn’t exist.
Then another man turns up dead, this one a retired cop. Not just any copthe one who took her statement that night. Two murders, two very different men, two killings that on the surface had nothing in commonexcept Miranda.
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|Publisher:||St. Martin's Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.20(w) x 8.70(h) x 1.10(d)|
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Harmony, Louisiana 3:10 A.M.
Harmony PD Detective Miranda Rader parked behind the two cruisers already at the scene. Their flashing blue lights violated the otherwise still, spring night, bouncing off the trees and surrounding homes, spinning and tilting like a carnival midway on crack.
She closed her eyes and for a moment she was fifteen again. Police lights bouncing off the trees. This knot in the pit of her gut, this sense that nothing was going to be the same, not ever again.
She let out a pent-up breath and flexed her fingers on the steering wheel. Shake it off, Miranda. Focus.
She grabbed the ponytail holder she kept in the car's front cubby and gathered up her shoulder-length brown hair. She couldn't work with her hair in her face and she sure as hell didn't want to leave any behind. She popped a piece of peppermint gum in her mouth and climbed out of her vehicle.
Victim was Richard Stark, an English professor at ULH, and even more important, the university president's son. In a college town like Harmony, that was as close to royalty as you could get.
Miranda breathed deeply, her gaze on the brick two-story and the crime-scene tape stretched across its entrance like a clown's freakish grin, beckoning: Don't be afraid. ... Come inside, see what thrills await.
Miranda slammed the car door and started up the walk. Gerald LaRoux, fresh out of the academy, manned the door. Judging by his greenish pallor, this was young LaRoux's first murder.
He straightened as she approached. "Detective Rader," he said and held out the log.
She signed in, then met his eyes. "How're you doin' tonight, LaRoux?"
"Hangin' in there, Detective." He handed her Tyvek booties. "Chief said you'd need these."
That meant blood, blood spatter, or other biological evidence. No wonder LaRoux was green around the gills. "It'll get better," she said. "You get used to it."
"Yes, ma'am. That's what they say."
She took the booties. "Cap's with the vic?"
"Yeah. Master bedroom. Through the great room and to the right."
The chief met her at the bedroom door. Buddy Cadwell, a fireplug of a man, broad and thick but short, filled the doorway despite his lack of height. He exuded confidence and sheer strength of will.
So it had to be the lighting, because Miranda could have sworn the thirty-year veteran of the force looked shaken.
"What've we got?" she asked, bending to slip on the booties.
He cleared his throat. "Stark was stabbed several times in the chest, his throat was slit, and he was —"
He bit it back. She glanced up from the booties. "And what?"
He hesitated, as if searching for the right word. "Let's call it dismembered."
It took her a moment to find her voice. "You've got to be kidding me."
"That's all I'm going to say. I want to get your take, unvarnished."
"Gotcha." She fitted on her gloves. "What about Jake?" she asked, referring to her partner, Jake Billings. "Is he on his way?"
Buddy shook his head. "Just you and me for now."
"You and me?" She cocked an eyebrow. "What's up?"
"Jake has ties to the university community, because of his parents being professors. I think it's best if you and I handle the initial investigation."
She hesitated a moment, still finding it odd that he'd be here instead of one of the other detectives.
As if reading her thoughts, he added, "Ian Stark and I have known each other for a long time. I thought it should be me here first, as a courtesy."
He moved aside and she stepped into the room. The vic lay face up on the bed, naked and spread-eagled, hands and feet tied to the bed rails. As Buddy had described, Stark had been stabbed multiple times; the blood spatter decorating the floor and walls would have done abstract expressionist Jackson Pollack proud. And, as a sort of cherry on the top of this blood-fest sundae, the perp had cut off Stark's penis and stuffed it into his mouth.
It peeked out at her like some one-eyed alien creature and her stomach lurched to her throat. She forced the queasiness back. Getting weak-kneed was a luxury she couldn't afford. It wasn't just that she was a woman in a man's field, needing to prove herself every single day. It went deeper than that, to the essence of who she wanted to be, the person she had crafted her life around: solid and dependable, good under pressure and cool in a crisis.
The person everyone trusted.
She focused, took in the scene; really took it in. The blood — on the ceiling, walls, and bedding. Stark's gaping throat, like an obscene second mouth.
Another wave of nausea threatened her and she forcefully tamped it back. This was a homicide, just like the many she'd worked before. Hell, just last week old Mrs. Tyson had whacked old Mr. Tyson on the head with an iron skillet. She hadn't meant to kill him, she'd tearfully told Miranda, she just couldn't take his criticism anymore. All it had taken was forty-two years of complaining and a chicken-fried steak dinner to cause a sweet old lady to snap.
That Miranda understood. But this bizarro kink-kill? No way. She stopped beside the bed. So, what had precipitated this perp's breaking point? Now, that was a question she could focus on.
Her gaze settled on the neckties that had been used to bind his wrists and ankles. Silk, from the look of them. Looked expensive. And judging by the bright splashes of color and bold patterns, Stark hadn't been the typical buttoned-down English professor. A peacock, she thought.
Miranda shifted her attention slightly. A sailor's knot. She bent, studied the knot. It was good and tight; the perp had known what he or she was doing. And Stark had struggled to get free. Raw skin on his wrists — and ankles, she saw a moment later — where the fabric had rubbed as he fought.
Miranda straightened. Most probably a woman, although they couldn't eliminate a man until they knew Stark's sexual orientation. Crime of passion. Enacted in a frenzy.
Problem. Miranda drew her eyebrows together. Something missing.
She moved her gaze over the scene again, slowly, absorbing. The passion in the crime, she realized. The frenzy in the frenzied act.
She looked toward the doorway, and Buddy waiting. "Where are the footprints? Whoever did this would've been dripping blood. Where's the trail?"
He nodded. "You tell me."
"This perp was mighty pissed off. No doubt it was personal. But being passionate about killing someone doesn't make a crime of passion."
"Our perp's a sailor. This is a bowline knot. Well executed, I might add," she said as the chief crossed to stand beside her. "The beauty with this knot: the harder Stark struggled, the tighter the knot became. He couldn't have escaped even if he'd managed to get, say, a hand free. This baby is impossible to undo when there's tension on it."
"Where'd you learn about sailing knots, Rader?"
"Old boyfriend. From my couple years in New Orleans." Another time in her life that she preferred to leave in the past. "My thinking is, if your bondage game's just for fun, a less serious knot will do. I'm going to call this strike one against the crime-of-passion scenario."
"With you so far," he said.
She motioned to the bed. "This is a king. Stark's in the middle. He's stabbed in the chest, his throat is slit. Perp's got to be on top of him."
Buddy agreed. "That'd be a long reach from the side of the bed, and even if our unsub could, the angle's wrong."
"Pattern of blood spatter seems to bear that out," she said, pointing. "Bet the angle of the wounds will as well." She motioned to the vic again. "So, she's straddling him, all nice and cozy."
"So, where was the knife?" he asked.
"She hid it beforehand. Maybe in her purse or with her clothes. She ties him up, nice and tight, then goes and gets it. He goes from hot and bothered to begging for his life."
Buddy pursed his lips. "Like you said, she's mighty pissed off. She wants him to be scared, to beg for his life, or cry like a little girl. That's part of the satisfaction for her."
"Which brings us back to the footprints," he said.
"Exactly. So she does the deed, climbs off him, and heads to the bathroom to shower off the blood."
"And there, her clean clothes are waiting, no doubt neatly folded."
"Right. But she cleans up before she dresses." Miranda smiled grimly, visualizing the crime being carried out. "She's thorough, takes her time. It's the middle of the night and she's not worried about being interrupted."
Miranda made her way to the master bathroom, Buddy behind her. The bath was large and luxuriously appointed. The walk-in shower was big enough for two — or even three — people. Party central. On the floor in the corner nearest the door sat a heap of bloodied bath towels. On the counter by the sink stood a bottle of spray cleaner with bleach.
"Look at the bottle," Miranda said. "It's all but sparkling. She wiped everything."
"One problem — the towels. Why didn't she take them?"
"She didn't take those towels. My guess is the towel she dried herself with is long gone." Miranda crossed to the shower, peered in. "Quite the little housekeeper. I can see practically see myself in the fixtures, they're so shiny."
She looked over her shoulder at Buddy. "This was no crime of passion, Chief. It was a premeditated, thoroughly planned murder."
"Strike three," he murmured, the corners of his mouth lifting, the way a parent's would at a child's achievement. "We'll get her. No way she didn't leave something behind. A hair, a drop of blood, saliva. A missed fingerprint. No matter how careful she tried to be, trace gets left behind."
"What's next?" Miranda asked.
"You're lead on this. Billings assists. You good with that?"
"Why wouldn't I be?"
"Call him in now. And as much as I hate to admit it, this scene is way bigger than the HPD can handle. We're gonna need the Parish's crime-scene unit for the biological and trace collection."
She'd already come to the same conclusion. "You want to call?" she asked. "Or should I?"
"You do it," he said. "I want a report as soon as you and Jake wrap up here."
Jake arrived moments after the crime-scene van. Miranda finished directing the evidence-collection techs and went to the door to meet him. "Billings," she said. "Welcome to the party."
He bent to fit on his booties. "I'd say thanks for the invite but I was in the middle of a pretty amazing dream."
"Sorry I screwed up your good time."
"Want to hear about it?" He glanced up at her, laughter in his eyes, "I'm happy to share. You may be surprised."
"It's a little early in the morning to plunder the depths of your perversions."
He straightened. "Heart. Broken. You're a cold-hearted woman, Rader. Just sayin'."
She rolled her eyes. "Yeah, I've heard that before."
His warm brown eyes crinkled at the corners. "I'll bet."
"LaRoux said Chief Cadwell was here earlier."
She motioned him to follow her. "Yup."
She looked over her shoulder at him. "Not so much. Victim's Richard Stark."
"You know him?"
"Met him through my folks. Seemed like a good guy but not someone I'd hang with."
"Seemed like he was his favorite subject."
"Gotcha." She stopped at the door to Stark's study. "We called in the parish techs to collect biological and trace evidence. They just got started."
"I saw that. Doesn't seem like a call you or the chief would make. What's up?"
"Vic's in the master. Take a peek, then ask me that question."
She watched him head off, then turned to Stark's cluttered desk. Organized chaos; obviously, Stark spent a considerable amount of time here. Open laptop. What looked to be a manuscript in process. Notes and notebooks, papers being graded. Half-full can of Red Bull.
She flipped through the stack of mail; nothing of note jumped out and she moved on to the computer. She tapped the return button; the device sprang to life. He'd been on Facebook. The page of a woman named Rhonda Peale. Miranda checked her profile: she was a fellow professor at the university.
Jake returned. "I could've lived my whole life without seeing that. For a moment I thought I was going to puke."
She looked up at him. "You are a bit green."
"Right. So why did our perp think he deserved that? That's what I want to know. Come take a look at this."
He crossed to stand behind her.
She indicated the monitor. "Time stamp suggests Stark was here at his desk, cruising around Facebook at midnight. Last thing he looked at was this profile."
"Yes. And guess what — she's a psychology professor here at ULH."
"Abnormal psych, by any chance?"
"Funny." Miranda clicked on Stark's messages. "Bingo. He contacted her just before midnight. 'Free tonight,'" she read, "'Come on over.' Looks like we've got ourselves a suspect."
"Could be, but she didn't reply. Wouldn't she have?"
Miranda frowned in thought. "Maybe she saw the message and called him."
"Maybe. What if she wasn't the only woman he messaged last night?"
"Good point." She scrolled through. Messages were almost all to — and from — women. Girls, a lot of them. University students — asking about a lesson, complimenting him on a lecture. Some obviously flirting, but to his credit he kept his responses professional.
"The guy was obviously a player," she said, "but nope, the lovely professor's the only one. Via Facebook, anyway."
"It's a start. Have you collected his phone?"
"Haven't even seen it but haven't searched. Bedroom is my guess."
He made a face. "Lucky me. You going to finish with the desk?"
"Yeah," she said, turning back to it, carefully sliding open the desk's center drawer. "Keep me posted."
Pens. A pack of teeth-whitening gum, two thumb drives, a pad of Postit notes, and several receipts, all from favorite hot spots around town. She bagged and labeled the items she felt could prove useful, then moved to the side drawers.
The first contained hanging files, each neatly labeled. Class schedules. Research. Expenses. Taxes. She stopped on the last. Passwords. That would come in handy, she thought.
She went to the opposite drawers. The top contained a mishmash of office supplies and, tucked way into the far corner, a bag of weed and a pipe. Recreational, obviously, and nothing to be killed over.
She moved on to the bottom drawer. Used yellow legal tablets, a dozen of them. She slipped out the first, thumbed through it. Notes, research for the novel he was writing. Character outlines.
Miranda flipped forward, skimming, and stopped on a character profile.
Ava Strong. Math teacher by day. Dominatrix by night.
Interesting, considering the way Stark's real-life story ended. She turned the pages. It seemed to be an intersecting story novel, each new character a client of Ava's. She wondered at the story's ending — would one of the clients end up dead?
Miranda looked over her shoulder at Jake. "Perp must have taken it." She indicated the legal pads. "Stark was writing a novel. Guess what the main character was? A dominatrix."
"Interesting. In a really creepy way."
She nodded. "I thought so, too."
"Research gone bad, maybe?"
"It's a possibility." She turned back to the legal tablets. "I'm going to bag them all. If nothing else, it'll be entertaining reading."
As she lifted them out, a yellowed news clipping fluttered to the floor. She retrieved it and her heart stopped. It was a short piece, not even a half a column, from the Harmony Gazette. About a teenager who'd sent the police on a wild-goose chase in an attempt to divert the authorities from her own infractions — possession of an illegal substance and underage drinking. The sixteen-year-old was charged in juvenile court and sentenced to six months in juvenile detention.
Not sixteen, Miranda thought. They got that wrong. Fifteen and scared out of her wits.
Jake, she realized. Looking at her from across the room, eyebrows drawn together in question.
"You made a sound."
Headlights slicing across the dark road. Pinning her.
He motioned toward the news page. "What's that you're reading?"
She glanced at it, then back up at him, meeting his gaze evenly. "An article about an out-of-control teenage girl. Someone I knew."
Excerpted from "The Other Girl"
Copyright © 2017 Erica Spindler.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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