We Were Killers Once: A Thriller

We Were Killers Once: A Thriller

by Becky Masterman


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"Former FBI agent Brigid Quinn, with her trademark toughness, raw humor, and human frailty, is back and better than ever in Masterman’s latest novel. As Quinn is drawn into an infamous cold case with a possible link to the two killers immortalized by Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, she finds danger closing in. A gripping premise, brilliantly executed—you won’t be able to put this one down!"—Shari Lapena, New York Times bestselling author of The Couple Next Door

In 1959, a family of four were brutally murdered in Holcomb, Kansas. Perry Smith and Dick Hickok were convicted and executed for the crime, and the murders and their investigation and solution became the subject of Truman Capote's masterpiece, In Cold Blood. But what if there was a third killer, who remained unknown? What if there was another family, also murdered, who crossed paths with this band of killers, though their murder remains unsolved? And what if Dick Hickok left a written confession, explaining everything?

Retired FBI agent Brigid Quinn and her husband Carlo, a former priest and university professor, are trying to enjoy each other in this new stage in their lives. But a memento from Carlo's days as a prison chaplain—a handwritten document hidden away undetected in a box of Carlo's old things—has become a target for a man on the run from his past. Jerry Beaufort has just been released from prison after decades behind bars, and though he'd like to get on with living the rest of his life, he knows that somewhere there is a written record of the time he spent with two killers in 1959. Following the path of this letter will bring Jerry into contact with the last person he'll see as a threat: Brigid Quinn.

Becky Masterman's unputdownable thrillers featuring unique heroine Brigid Quinn continue with this fascinating alternative look at one of America's most famous crimes.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250074522
Publisher: St. Martin''s Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/04/2019
Series: Brigid Quinn Series , #4
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 506,201
Product dimensions: 6.63(w) x 9.56(h) x 1.05(d)

About the Author

BECKY MASTERMAN, who was an acquisitions editor for a press specializing in medical textbooks for forensic examiners and law enforcement, received her M.A. in creative writing from Florida Atlantic University. Her debut thriller, Rage Against the Dying, was a finalist for the Edgar Award for Best First Novel, the CWA Gold Dagger Award for Best Crime Novel of 2013, the ITV Thriller Award, as well as the Macavity, Barry, and Anthony awards. Becky lives in Tucson, Arizona, with her husband.

Read an Excerpt


Little Brigid Theresa Quinn, with a Band-Aid on my knobby knee from jumping out of a banyan tree on a dare, and a ponytail of red hair that should have been washed four days ago — I'm only six years old when I first hear about the murder of the Walker family on December 19, 1959. Though the decades pass, and I have witnessed even greater horrors than were described that night, I still can't see a Christmas tree without feeling the crime scene, the tree with its ornaments, the glittery packages, the bodies in the living room. Then the memory quickly fades and I'm here and now again.

Whenever I go back there I still find that same little girl.

I don't hear about the Walker mass murder from the television. I get the scoop right in our own kitchen. You know, all the gory details that the news didn't assault you with in those days before they started showing the body bags coming back from Vietnam. Dad's friends from the Fort Lauderdale police department gather together on the Saturday nights when they don't have to work the following day.

I sit on Dad's lap at the Formica-topped kitchen table while he talks and drinks and smokes with his buddies. He smells of beer and cigarettes. The odors don't come from the original source as much as they're channeled through his sweat. December in Florida can be hot and muggy.

Dad's buddies are Ken, Rory, and Mitch. They all look alike as far as I can tell, with flattop haircuts, big hands and bellies. I'm allowed to call them by their first names despite being just a little girl.

Over Dad's shoulder I can see Mom far off in an armchair in the living room. There are only five days remaining before Christmas, and the multicolored lights on the tree cast a glow on her. Mom is needlepointing a seat cover with a big cluster of purple grapes in the middle. The background is blue, what she would call Virgin Mary blue. Mom is systematically covering everything in the house that can be covered with needlepoint. I don't want to grow up to be a needlepointer. It doesn't seem to make Mom happy. She frowns most of the time. No, I want to grow up to be like Dad, drinking and laughing and doing dangerous and heroic things. I don't know until years later that all Dad did was give out parking tickets and maybe get a cat out of a tree once in a while. He'd never even fired his gun except at the practice range.

Ken, Rory, and Mitch are all married, but our house is the only house they can come to and drink because the other wives won't allow "that kind of talk" around their children. That's not how things are run in his house, Dad always says. He says he "rules the roost."

The talk is brutal, all right. Axe murders. Gang rapes. Decomposing corpses eaten by alligators in the Everglades. I've grown used to this kind of talk that other children aren't privy to. These stories I've heard are no worse than the fairy tales I read, like where Cinderella's sister cuts off her own toe to fit into the glass slipper and the blood dripping on the road gives her away.

I think tonight will be just more of that. I can feel the excitement build along with the beer bottles and cigarette butts in the middle of the kitchen table. My heart speeds up with the clinking of glass and the restrained intensity of the talk, even the parts I don't understand. Go on, go on, I think. More.

The reason they're so excited is that this mass murder has happened right in Florida, our own state. It was in a little town called Osprey, on the west coast of Florida near Sarasota. When they talk about it being so, so close, it gives me a nice little shiver. Like watching Caltiki the Immortal Monster before it goes too far and the liver thing dissolves the guy's forearm down to the bone and that keeps me up all night.

"What about that Spencer who confessed?" Dad says, not because he didn't already know about Spencer, but just to encourage the conversation. It's one of the reasons the others like him, because he's willing to play right field. Ken, another beat cop like Dad, doesn't even leave the bench but sits silently sucking down beer after beer. Maybe the main reason he comes is for the beer.

Mitch says, "He was already discredited by the sheriff." He taps his cigarette in his ashtray with a hard tap that shows what he thinks of Spencer. Then he says, "A path-o-logical liar, made up everything. Buncha shit. Sorry, baby." He says that to me because I giggle at the word "shit."

I have gotten their attention with a giggle, so I giggle again to get more. I pull on the sleeve of Dad's white undershirt. I ask, "Who're the Walkers?" Dad says, "A family of four that was murdered near Sarasota. That's on the other side of our own state." He has never held anything back, or treated me like a little girl. But then he does. "It's like it's ... right ... next ... door." Then he tickles me. It feels more like a thumb punch in my rib than anything nice, but I giggle again even though it makes me jump.

Rory gets up and helps himself to a cold beer from the fridge. Dad passes him the bottle opener and he pops off the top into a separate little pile on the table. Rory says, "We all know who we're looking at for this one. Whoever killed the Clutters."

"Are they liking anyone yet for the Clutter murders?" Dad asks.

"Two guys," Rory answers with a scoff. "You don't know this already?"

If Dad wasn't on his fifth beer he might have taken offense at that. Now, not so much. He only shrugs.

Rory goes on. "Couple of parolees, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith. Some prison snitch came forward and told the FBI he had worked for Clutter. Snitch said that he told Hickock there was a safe with ten thousand dollars at the house. The FBI is looking for them all over the country. They'll find them, all right, but it's a crying shame they couldn't move faster. The Walkers could have been saved."

The rest of the men shake their heads and tsk. Damn that good-for-nothing FBI.

"It's a killing spree," Rory adds after downing half the bottle in one go before sitting down. He takes another bottle out of the fridge so he doesn't have to get up again so soon. "With the Walkers you got the husband and wife shot. You got the two kids shot, a three-year-old and the littlest one drowned in the bathtub. What kind of a bastard has to shoot a one-year-old and then not leave her alone, but drown her in the bathtub? Jesus H. Christ."

Mitch says, "But that's a difference, the drowning. Also the mother was raped. No one got raped before."

Rory says, "That's only because something stopped the killer. Remember the teenage daughter. What's her name?" The men talk for a while about why there was no rape at the Clutter house. They think maybe it was because the Clutter family were all home at the same time, so it was harder to wrangle everyone. No time for rape.

At the age of six, I don't know what "rape" is, though I've heard the word before. I'm certain from the tone of the men's voices that rape can't be good.

"Who're the Clutters?" I ask, confused. I'm also still wondering about rape, so the part about the baby in the bathtub doesn't immediately register. But now the men ignore me.

Mitch says, "Okay, maybe the kids were in the house and they got it first. But they were much younger so not as much trouble to manage, with that big teenage son. And with the Walkers, the husband came home after the three were killed."

Rory says, "No, that's not how it was. The wife was alone in the house, and the killer —"

"Killers," Mitch says.

Rory shrugs and goes on, "— killers got her, then got the father and the two kids when they came home."

Ken and Dad listen to Mitch and Rory talk as if they're experts. No one ever mentions that they're just robbery detectives and not homicide detectives. That would be rude.

Ken asks, "How do they know who got there when? There wasn't that much time between the deaths."

And Dad asks, "How can they even tell whether the baby was shot first or drowned first?"

Mitch says, "Oh, those medical examiners, they can tell."

All the men nod like they understand what Mitch means, but after hearing the second time about a baby shot and drowned all I can think of is right ... next ... door ... right ... next ... door ...

The talk goes on but I stop hearing it. I can't stop thinking about those children. What did the children see the men do to their mother? What did the mother see the men do to her children? Stop it, I think, no, I shout inside my head. Stop talking.

My little sister Ariel is four, and my brother Todd is two. They're about the same age as the Walker children. They've already gone to bed but I'm big enough to stay up later. Part of my brain is listening to what the men are saying about the older child, after being shot, crawling to die next to his father. Part of my brain is listening to Dad's voice repeating ... door ... right ... next ... door ... right ...

My face gets sort of numb and I guess my ears do, too, because the conversation is muffled and I stop being able to hear exactly what they're saying almost as bad as when I'm under water in the neighbor's pool and someone shouts "Marco Polo." That's okay because I don't want to hear them anymore. I hear a whooshing sound and my pulse is beating so hard in the side of my neck that I can feel it. I wish I hadn't heard what I heard. I only wish, I pray, Mom will come and tell the men to stop talking about killed children, or at least tell me it's time for bed and take me away from the table, because I can't seem to move on my own.

Prayer doesn't do any good.

Sitting at the table, in my mind I keep hearing shotgun blasts. I keep feeling the cold water in the bathtub sloshing against my face as it goes under. I see the water turn pink. My thumb moves over the coarse hair on Dad's forearm to stop imagining, but I can't get the children out of my mind and how much they make me think of Ariel and Todd. What if someone comes into our house and does that to them? To me?

After silently begging her for so long, I'm finally taken by Mom and put to bed. But of course I stay awake staring at where the ceiling would be if the light were on, with my sheet tucked up around my ears on both sides of my head, as if that can protect me from men who kill children. Men's voices continue to filter into my room. Then the voices finally die, doors open and shut with good-nights, lights go out, and the whole house is dark and still. When I figure my parents won't be coming out of their room I push aside my bedsheets. They're sweaty with my fear. I get out of bed.

Ariel asks, "Where you going?" We share a room and even at four she's a light sleeper.

I say, "Bathroom." I'm hopeful. "You want to talk?"

She says no and rolls over.

I creep down the hall, which is lighter than our bedroom thanks to the night-light plugged into an outlet. I spend that whole night in the hallway outside Mom and Dad's bedroom. You didn't wake up my parents if you were scared at night. They'd just get angry because Dad needed his rest. So I spend that night with my knees drawn up, as small as I can get. My back bones are pressed against their closed door. The muffled sound of my father's snoring is a little comforting.

Maybe I doze off some, but I'm awake to see the sky lightening out the window over Todd's crib in his room. I go in there. Short for my age, I can't reach over the top of the bars, but I can put my hand through them to touch Todd's stomach and feel it go up and down as he breathes. The combination of the dawn and Todd alive and dry tells me everything is okay for now. My vigil is over. I get back into bed by the time Mom opens her bedroom door to come wake us up for mass. She scolds me for my dirty hair, but that's overshadowed by Todd taking an unscheduled dump in his diaper and we're running late.

More than fifty years from now, that killing will touch me again, and with more than childish terror. Cold cases, they call them, as if they're frozen harmlessly in the past without any power to wreak new havoc. Open at your own risk.


I felt Carlo's hand find mine in the dark, and held it just tightly enough to remind myself that Brigid Theresa Quinn was past grown up now. This was the present, not 1959. And home was Arizona, not Florida. And we were safe in bed just telling the stories of our lives. So I felt more indignation than horror when I said, "Mom didn't come get me, she just kept working on that damn needlepoint, the big needle pulling that damn Virgin Mary blue thread up and down through the holes of the canvas. Why did she do that? Why didn't she save me?"

"You told me once that she had given up on your father influencing you," Carlo said. "Could it have been that early in your life?"

"I thought she gave up when I was about ten. I don't know, it all gets vague."

"You understand that was abusive, don't you? Psychological abuse."

"These days it's child abuse. In the fifties, it was just home."

"Oh, those wonderful fifties."

"Remember how we always went to eight o'clock mass because you couldn't have anything to eat before you received communion? Remember those days?"

"Pre–Vatican Two. So that case. The Walkers."

"I suppose I've been fascinated by the Walker family murder ever since that night. Of course, way before I grew up it had stopped terrifying me. Since then I've known other cases, some worse. But that case and its connection to the Clutters, that's the closest I've come to a cold case obsession."

Silence, but I could tell Carlo was thinking about what I had and hadn't said, keeping his breathing light so as not to shift my memory. I imagined I could feel his pulse pumping in his hand.

Then he said, "I remember the Clutters. I was an altar boy at a church not too far from Lansing prison, where Hickock and Smith sat on death row and were executed."

Now my pulse jumped. "You're kidding me. Why didn't you ever tell me this before?"

"It wouldn't have occurred to me that you'd be interested, we were both so young. I had the minimal interest for anything outside my world, like any other preteen boy. More interested in books and baseball ..."

Carlo's voice drifted off and I asked if he was thinking or falling asleep. Sometimes with him it was hard to distinguish the difference.

"Just remembering," he said. "Later I read In Cold Blood, of course. But I don't remember that Capote talked about the Walkers."

"He did. Just briefly because he was convinced that Hickock and Smith didn't kill the family even though they were practically in the same town when it happened. One month after they killed the Clutter family in Kansas, another family of four is killed in Florida. It's always felt like too much of a coincidence, their being so close. But Perry Smith denied it, and Capote believed him."

"The Walker case was never solved?"

"Never. Not in nearly sixty years. It's become sort of a hobby for cold case investigators in Florida. Every once in a while a detective with time on his hands goes back to it. Sometimes I google Walker family murders myself."

"When did you check into it last?"

I thought, finally committed to "Long time ago."


"Nothing new."

Silence again marked only by the swish of the ceiling fan. Carlo always listened for a long time after I finished one of my stories. He finally said, "You say you're no longer affected by that evening, but I would guess you are. I can hear it in your telling. I hear that child in you."

I was plastered against Carlo's side, our heartbeats long slowed, but his right arm around me drew me even closer. Then we talked. There's no imagining what kinds of postcoital conversations people can have, and there's nothing for honesty like talking while naked.

"My friend Weiss would agree with you, about those times affecting me." Weiss was a psychological profiler for the FBI and my longtime associate. "He says I became an FBI agent because I was chasing my personal demons."

"Did you ever catch them?"

I laughed and rubbed the side of my face against his bare shoulder. "No. They're slippery sons of bitches."

Carlo took his left hand away from mine that he'd been holding, and ran a line with one finger down my forehead. It felt as if I was being anointed. I wondered if he could feel the frowny line between my eyes. He said, "The Greeks believed the daemon wasn't a monster from hell. It was an inspiring force inside of us. Something that drives us."

Like I said, no telling where these conversations will go, especially when you sleep with a philosopher. I yawned. "This I did not know. Do you remember if we let the dogs out?"

"We did," he said. "Our anniversary is coming up next month. What do you want?"

"Such a romantic," I said. "I don't —"

Light snoring. Smile. I had probably worn him out. Our intimacy was usually reciprocal, but I had been the aggressor that night, giving to him what and when I chose and taking what pleasure I wanted. He never said, but I thought this might be a different way for him. I liked to imagine his first wife as something of a prig, passive in bed.


Excerpted from "We Were Killers Once"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Becky Masterman.
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.

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