The Next Victim
Copyright ©2015 by Cutter Slagle
All rights reserved.
This book or part thereof may not be reproduced in any form by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or otherwise, or by any information storage and retrieval system, except as may be expressly permitted in writing from the publisher as provided by the United States of America copyright law. Requests for permission should be addressed to Doce Blant Publishing, Attn: Rights and Permissions Dept., 32565-B Golden Lantern St. #323, Dana Point, CA 92629
Doce Blant Publishing, Dana Point, CA 92629
Cover design by Steve Smith
Interior by The Deliberate Page
CIP information on file at the Library of Congress.
Printed in the United States of America
This is a fictional work. Names, characters, places and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination and used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, including events and locations, is entirely coincidental.
For Mom and Dad —
Thank you for putting my dreams above your own.
Fiction is the truth inside the lie.
— Stephen King
“It’s happening again.”
The words tumbled out of Elle Anderson’s mouth in a haunting whisper. It’s actually happening again, she thought, spreading the first page of the local newspaper out in front of her. She could feel the dampness of the freshly printed ink smearing across her fingertips and then suddenly felt light headed, as if she might get sick from the glass of orange juice she had consumed only moments ago that now sat thickly in her stomach.
“Honey, what’s the matter?”
Elle turned toward her father and stared blankly at him. He was sitting there in his crisp blue shirt and perfectly knotted tie with his sandy colored hair slicked back; he seemed to only be half listening as he absently chewed on a piece of wheat toast and glanced over the sports section. His lack of interest only further upset her.
“The front page of the paper. Did you see it?”
John finally looked at her and then reached for his coffee mug. “What? Oh, no, I haven’t seen it. What’s happened? Something bad?”
“This is what’s happened,” Elle said. She shoved the paper across the peach kitchen countertop, allowing him to get a personal view. “The first ever murder in Gray’s Lane, Ohio! This has to mean…”
His heavy sigh quickly cut her off. “Crime is common, sweetie. And murder, well, murder happens in other places than New York.”
Living in New York City her entire life, she was well aware that crime was common. Rape, hit and runs, the recent string of bank robberies that, to her knowledge, still hadn’t been solved. But this was different. It felt different. Something was off and Elle wasn’t going to let it end like that. She couldn’t. Besides, how could her father act so casual after seeing the shocking news?
“Not in Ohio, Dad. And definitely not in Gray’s Lane. Did you even read what this reporter wrote?”
She watched as he ultimately gave up on his morning vices of coffee and local weekend sport’s scores. He stared at her and asked, “Who wrote that piece? Which reporter are you talking about?”
Elle craned her neck and scanned the page. “Mary Evans.”
“Ah,” John started and smiled. “Mary Evans. Well, that makes perfect sense now.”
“Why? Who’s Mary Evans?”
“She’s fame hungry. She’s lived here her whole life. She blows every story, every minor accident completely out of proportion to try and create more drama. She’s attempting to make a name for herself. I’m sure it’s not half as bad as she’s made it out to be.”
Elle shook her head; tears began to fill the corners of her brown eyes. Something wasn’t right. She just knew it.
Taking a look around the spacious kitchen, Elle tried to find a focus point, something to concentrate on that would help her calm down and gain an ounce of control. But all she was privileged to see were sparkling white appliances—basic stove, side-by-side refrigerator, dishwasher, trash compactor—that provided her with nothing more than a headache.
“I know what you’re thinking,” John said. “I know what’s going through your mind. But what happened here, what happened to…” he scanned the page…”Kim Sullivan, has nothing to do with you or your mother. That happened a while ago.”
“A month ago, Dad. It happened one month ago.” Not even, Elle thought, constructing a mental timeline in her head.
Her mother had been murdered on the fifteenth of September, a date she would never forget. How could she? Her life had pretty much ended the evening she had come home to find her mom stabbed to death. And then, of course, there had been the aftermath of the tragedy which had been no picnic either: moving from her home in New York City to live with her father in simple, small-minded, Gray’s Lane, Ohio.
“Regardless,” John began, “this is probably just some sort of accident. You know, a robbery gone wrong. The best way to get over the past is to leave it there, in the past.”
She took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and then shook her head. Her chin length, dark brown hair swayed slightly, and when she spoke, it was in a faint voice. “I know.”
John stood and Elle instantly welcomed the comforting arm he wrapped around her. “I’m so sorry you had to go through all of that back in New York. No seventeen year old should ever have to…” his words trailed off.
“Thanks, Dad,” Elle said. She reached for his hand and then tightly gripped it. “I guess seeing that article bold and center, well, it just brought up that night. I wasn’t expecting to see something like that. Not here, anyway, and not so soon.”
“I know. It’s bad timing and a horrible coincidence that this local woman was murdered so close to when your mom…” he stopped midsentence for the second time. His hold on Elle released and he resumed his seat beside her.
Elle wiped at her eyes, somewhat embarrassed that she had shown weakness, even though she knew that she was more than entitled to do so. Less than a month, she reminded herself. She didn’t have to be so strong. Not all of the time.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to do that, to go there.”
“I understand,” he said and nodded. “But Michelle, you’re safe here.”
Here it comes, she thought to herself. Whenever her father or any authority figure referred to her by her birth name, she knew that she was either in trouble or due for a serious conversation. Elle assumed that this time it would be the latter.
“What happened to your mother back home was random. It was a horrible nightmare that you are going to have to work through. And you will, over time, learn to live with it.”
Elle knew that her stern dad wasn’t being insensitive, but factual. Her smart, well-educated father was all about the facts, a by the book, play by the rules contestant that seldom did anything wrong. He had a well-known outlook on life that centered on responsibility.
Though it had never been said, she often suspected that that had been the sole reason as to why her mother had left her father and moved some five hundred miles away to New York when Elle had just been a couple of years old.
“How’s school going?”
That question, Elle recognized at once. That safe, generic question that was her father’s attempt to get her mind off of the pain of recent events and onto a lighter, friendlier subject.
“Fine,” she answered.
“Fine?” he repeated.
“Yes,” she said. “School is fine. Well, about as fine as high school can be.”
“Yeah,” John said, “but you’re a senior this year, the big dog on campus. This is supposed to be the best time of your life.”
Elle tilted her head and raised her eyebrows at his choice of words; the gesture seemed strong enough to make her point.
“Darn it,” he said and exhaled slowly. “I didn’t mean to—that came out wrong, Elle. I’m sorry.”
She shook her head, excusing the apology. “It’s okay. And school, well, it really is fine.” Elle wasn’t one hundred percent sure as to why he was asking her about school. Her father was there five days a week, eight in the morning till three in the afternoon; he should know exactly how it was going.
“Any hard classes? Or how about friends? Made any friends yet?”
“No, I haven’t really gotten to know anyone yet.” It would take time, Elle knew. She’d only been going to Gray’s Lane High School for a little over a week. Not to mention, she hadn’t made herself all that easy to approach, never once smiling or showing the tiniest bit of interest in other’s conversations.
“Well, give it time,” John said. “I’m positive that within a couple of weeks you’ll be going to football games and dances just like everyone else.”
“Sure,” she offered. And then, because she knew that he was trying and doing his absolute best to make her feel at ease, Elle decided to help her father out. “I like calculus, though. I’m finding the idea that there can only be one right answer kind of refreshing.”
“That’s great,” John said through a wide, toothy smile. “I was always big into math myself. I actually considered teaching it at one time.”
“Yeah, it’s…” Elle quickly lost concentration of the conversation as a sharp nudge in the back of her mind forced her to form a connection to what she had skimmed over earlier.
Kim Sullivan, she thought. Sullivan. Sullivan. Elle hastily put two and two together: she sat next to a Niki Sullivan in calculus. Could the two be related? They had to be, Elle guessed. In a town as small as Gray’s Lane, Elle knew that two people didn’t share the same last name without being associated by blood or marriage.
It didn’t take but a minute for Elle to figure it out: mother and daughter. Of course. She reread the last paragraph of the article and saw in black and white that Kim Sullivan was indeed survived by an eighteen-year-old daughter: Nicole ‘Niki’ Sullivan. Elle immediately felt pity for the poor girl.
“Hey, you still with me?” John said, waving his right hand from side to side. “You kind of zoned out there for a second.”
“What?” Elle asked, shaking off the last bit of her reverie. “Yeah, no, I’m fine. I was just trying to remember whether or not I finished my homework for today.”
“Well, I hope you did,” John said as he clocked his leather wristwatch, “because it’s time to go.” He drained the last of his coffee and then stood up. “Nothing says unprofessional like a late principal on Monday morning. Do you want to ride together?”
“No, that’s okay,” Elle answered. “Thanks, but I’ve got some errands to run after school. I should probably just drive myself.”
“Sure thing, sweetie,” John said. He bent down to retrieve his black briefcase that was neatly leaning up against the wooden barstool. “I’ll follow you out.”
“I have to run upstairs and get my bag and a couple of books. But don’t worry, I’ll be right behind you.” Elle felt as if she might have given herself away. She had never been great at lying.
“I’ll see you at school then, but don’t doidle. You don’t want another tardy slip.” He leaned in, kissed his daughter on the cheek, and then crossed over the tile flooring, exiting through the kitchen door. His deep musk scent lingered in the room.
Elle nervously sat with her hands folded together as she tapped her foot. She waited until she heard her father’s engine turn over, and then gave him a few more moments to back out of the driveway.
When she thought that she had given him enough time to get at least a mile from the house, she stood, raced to the front door where she had left her tennis shoes, and stepped into them.
Elle was out the door and headed toward her dark green Honda completely empty handed. She had no plans to attend school, deciding that she would just have to deal with the consequences at a later time.
So his little act of violence on Saturday evening had made the front page of the paper. He wasn’t surprised. In a town as small as Gray’s Lane, grisly news was bound to travel fast, that was for certain.
But it still didn’t change the fact that his mission could quickly turn into a three-ring circus, and that ultimately that nosey reporter, Mary Evans, might just have to be sacrificed. After all, he wasn’t in this shithole town to seek fame; he had hard, honest work to do.
The man paced around the dingy living room of his rented, two bedroom apartment, bored and unsatisfied. Maybe things should be sped up, he thought. Maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to veer off course just a little bit.
He flopped down onto the tattered couch, instantly sending small specs of dust into the air. He pinched the bridge of his nose, hoping that all of those distracting ideas that could eventually get him caught would evaporate from his overworked head.
Of course he couldn’t speed things up, and he definitely couldn’t veer off of his well-planned course. When people did that, when they became spontaneous and acted out on whims, they got caught. And he couldn’t afford to get caught. He had too much riding on this little operation. And far too much to gain.
Control was the clincher, the defining factor that separated him from the rest of the pact. Control was what would get him everything he needed and wanted, as well as help to point the finger at someone else, in a completely different direction.
Yes, control would, in the end, allow him to get away with murder.
He leaned back into the cushions of the couch, and crossed his right leg over his left. He didn’t want to lapse into thinking about what was already done, what had already taken place, but sometimes couldn’t help the matter. At times, it seemed as if his brain worked on its own accord, sending him places that he didn’t want to visit, but at the same time, he had no power of stopping.
He knew that he could make himself go crazy by rehashing the details of Saturday night. Had he left anything behind—bits of clothing or fibers, DNA of some sort, a possible witness, anything or anyone that could send the police over to his dump of a home with guns drawn?
There was nothing to worry about, he was sure of it. After all, it was Monday morning. If the Gray’s Lane Police Department had anything concrete or vital from Saturday evening—if they were worth a lick of salt—he had to assume that he would have already been sitting in a jail cell, sporting that disgusting color of orange, waiting to go in front of the judge with a court appointed attorney.
No, he hadn’t left anything behind. He was that good.
But he also knew that having the perfect cover, the perfect disguise, was just another useful aid, a tool that would only help him complete the task at hand.
He was good, and he was smart.
But no matter how good or smart he was, worry and second-guessing always seemed to find him. And sometimes he needed to take a moment to rethink his prior steps, if only to reassure himself that everything was going to be fine, that he hadn’t slipped up.
He stood, walked across the shag carpet, and swore that he could feel mold in between his bare toes. He headed toward the downstairs bathroom, the one that offered a claw foot tub, a toilet that often clogged, and a window that was nailed shut.
He splashed cold water onto his handsome face from the leaky sink, and let it cascade down over his toned, naked body.
It was time to begin his Monday morning. His day job came first, of course, and then, later, the act of planning who would be the next victim.
Sheriff Larry Douglas was having a bad day, a couple of bad days to be exact. A local woman had been found dead—murdered—in his territory. It was the first murder to have ever happened in Gray’s Lane, since he had been named sheriff anyway. There were no clues, evidence, or anything of the sort that pointed to a possible suspect. And to add insult to injury, Mary Evans had had the nerve to blast the news all over the front page of the morning paper as if it were some sort of event or parade for the whole town to take part in.
Sitting behind the large, scarred oak desk, Douglas became haunted by three little words that seemed to be set on repeat in his mind: one more year.
He had started telling himself “one more year” three years ago. Douglas had wanted to retire, had planned to retire. But instead, he was now nearing the dangerous side of sixty, with a wife that didn’t love him anymore, a teenage grandson that didn’t appreciate him, a murder investigation that he didn’t quite understand, and a new deputy that was almost fifteen minutes late.
Yes, life had quickly gone to hell in a hand basket over the past three years. And now, retirement was a just a distant, longed after regret that Douglas didn’t expect to see anytime soon.
“Hell, where is he?” the sheriff muttered aloud. Though the walls that enclosed him in the ridiculous space he was supposed to consider an office were thin, he didn’t expect any of the other employees of the Gray’s Lane Police Department to hear him.
Sheriff Larry Douglas grunted, crossed his short arms over his bulging stomach, and leaned back into the leather chair that had formed to him over the years. He refused to have another cup of the less than appetizing coffee that no one at the station really seemed to be fond of, but still didn’t bother to change. He was already on edge as it was and didn’t need any more caffeine pumping through his visible veins.
Douglas was many things and impatient topped the soaring list. However, his growing annoyance wasn’t just caused from being made to wait. He couldn’t help but believe that his new deputy, this Ben Andrews, was being down right rude, wasting his precious time like the absent man was currently doing. Especially when the sheriff had a murder to solve.
“Sheriff Douglas,” he corrected with emphasis on his well-earned title. Damn, the sheriff thought, shaking his head. Had everyone indulged in a spoonful of ignorance this morning?
“Yes. Sorry, sir. Benjamin Andrews is here to see you, Sheriff.”
“Well, it’s about time,” Douglas spit out as he rose from his comfortable seat. He contemplated giving the cocky deputy that stood tall and proud outside his office door a verbal tongue lashing on the theme of respect, but eventually decided to save his breath and rage for Andrews.
“Should I send him in, then?”
Douglas stared at the twenty something man for a few moments, looking him up and down, and then finally said, “Yes, Deputy Hall, send him in.”
It was all the sheriff could do to keep from screaming, “Shit for brains!” as Hall pivoted and headed for the waiting area of the station.
Douglas regularly regretted hiring the less than adequate deputy, but had long ago come to terms with the idea that in a town as small as Gray’s Lane, he had to take what he could get. Including the good, the bad, and the stupid.
The sheriff stood, hands on hips, trying to display a statue of importance. The last thing he needed was some other kid, new to town, not knowing right from wrong or high from low on the payroll disrespecting him. Douglas wanted it to be made perfectly clear that he was always right and high – in a matter of speaking, of course.
“Sheriff Larry Douglas?”
At least the label had been used, the sheriff thought, standing still, taking in the stranger’s appearance.
The new deputy had height most basketball coaches only dreamt of, dark hair that was an appropriate length to imply a serious attitude, and an in shape frame that only came with hard discipline in the gym and even harder discipline in the kitchen.
Douglas was impressed; Ben Andrews certainly looked the part. Maybe a little more Abercrombie & Fitch than the sheriff would have liked, but Douglas knew that in a running match with a suspect, the deputy would win hands-down.
“Take a seat, son,” the sheriff said, pointing toward the vacant chair in front of his desk. He, too, sat, and instantly cursed his word choice.
Son? When had he gotten into that filthy habit, calling everyone younger than him son or sport? When had he become that old guy?
“Thank you, sir.”
“You know, you are about twenty minutes late,” Douglas said, making quite clear that he wasn’t a pushover. “Not the best way to make a first impression.”
“I know,” Ben nodded. “I’d like to apologize for my tardiness.”
“Do you have a reason or an excuse? Or do you just enjoy making people wait?”
“No, sir, not at all. I got lost on the way here. I think I may have taken a wrong turn or…”
“Gray’s Lane’s not that big,” Douglas interrupted. “How in the hell did you manage to take a wrong turn?”
“I… I… I don’t know,” Ben stuttered. “I guess being new here and all, I didn’t…”
“You ever consider calling? Asking for directions or maybe letting me know you’re running a little behind schedule?”
“Sir, I’m sorry. I left the house at what I thought was an apt time to make it here…”
“Okay, okay,” the sheriff said and raised his hand. “I understand. I’m just giving you a hard time, buddy.”
Dammit! There it was again, another form of son or sport. “Now you know the station’s location and you won’t be late again. Correct?”
“Good.” Douglas half smiled. Even if he was getting older by the second, heavier, and less tolerant, he still had the power. He was still very much in charge.
“I know that we may have started out on the wrong foot, but I am very happy to be here and part of the team, sir.”
“Glad to hear it, Andrews,” the sheriff said and folded his hands onto his desk. “Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to ask you something. Why Ohio? Why Gray’s Lane? Of all the places in the world to transfer to, why here?”
They were questions that had been nagging at the sheriff like an annoying fly ever since he’d received that first inquiring phone call regarding Ben’s possible relocation. Douglas wasn’t too keen on outsiders coming into his town and lending a helping hand, never had been. He believed it showed laziness, the inability to properly get the job done. However, Ben’s record had spoken for itself, and the sheriff had to admit that having the young and rising cop on his side might not be such a bad thing. Especially now, at a time when professional assistance in Gray’s Lane was nothing short of a dire need.
“I don’t mind,” Ben answered and then shrugged. “I guess I just wanted to be some place small and quiet. Maybe even a little safer.”
“Safer?” the sheriff questioned and raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean?”
The deputy sighed, crossing one leg over the other. “I’m only twenty five, sir, and I’ve seen a lot—too much, actually. Now, I don’t want to get into specifics, but it’s been a rough year for me. I’ve had to deal with some personal issues, and I’ve come here looking for a fresh start.”
“A fresh start, eh?”
“Yes,” Ben said. “The city life with it’s nonstop crime and round the clock murders isn’t for me, not anymore. I suppose that’s what I meant by ‘safer.’ I want to be in a different environment than all that, like the environment offered by Gray’s Lane.”
The sheriff felt his heavy jaw fall open; he quickly tried to shut it again. He even bit down on his lower lip to ensure his mouth stayed closed, but from the frown on Ben’s face, Douglas was almost one hundred percent sure that the damage was already done.
“Did I say something wrong, Sheriff?”
“No, no,” Douglas coughed out, and then patted his chest. “You didn’t say anything wrong, but…”
“But what, sir?”
Douglas didn’t speak for a moment, choosing to stay silent and rack his brain for the right words. He even let the fact slide that the young deputy had interrupted him, another tedious pet peeve the sheriff harbored.
But how was he going to address this particular issue? That was the ultimate question. How could he break it to Ben that at this precise moment there was nothing safe about Gray’s Lane, Ohio? Not with a dangerous killer on the loose.
“What’s going on, Sheriff?” Ben asked. “I can tell from your expression that you’re trying to hide…”
“There’s nothing I’m hiding, son.” He didn’t bother chastising himself this time for the slip; he was too busy avoiding direct eye contact with the deputy. Instead, he glanced around his depressing office.
The walls were long overdue for a new coat of paint; the hardwood floors needed swept and scrubbed, and the couple of family pictures that he had nailed up in the past where now hanging crookedly. He’d had so many plans… so many aspirations when he’d first became the head of the department. What had happened?
“Sheriff, I don’t mean any disrespect by this, but you’re an awfully bad liar.”
The comment brought a crooked smile to Douglas’ face; Ben had pegged him. Who would have thought? If there was one talent the sheriff didn’t possess, it was lying. Which, of course, had been the sole reason he’d never taken up poker.
“Fine,” Douglas spoke up. “You deserve to know the truth. Now, I was going to tell you anyway, I just wasn’t sure how to break it to you. Not after you shared with me your reasons for coming here and all.”
“Break what to me?” Ben asked.
The sheriff took a deep breath, and then released in a speedy fashion exactly what the deputy needed to be told. “There’s been a murder.”
“Saturday night,” Douglas started. Then, staring Ben squarely in the eyes, he said, “A local woman was found stabbed to death Saturday night.”
“A woman was found here, in Gray’s Lane, stabbed to…”
Yet another hit! I’ve been reading work from Cutter for quiet sometime now. I’m excited to get my hands on his first novel and get sucked into the twisty/ suspenseful worlds he creates. Guarantee this book will be the first of many great novels from this author.
Did not see the ending coming! This book takes you on a ride the entire time. The reader will have to keep guessing what will happen next.
Fabulous read, thrilling novel, and an excellent first step for this author! Love how the author uses real world terms so that normal people can relate and understand the book without a dictionary close by! I’ve read the other reviews, and most seem to be in agreement- this is an awesome, easy read. One however, woke up grumpy AF, and decided she needed to piss in someone else’s wheaties. Meh- haters are gonna hate. Pure jealousy. Nothing more. Do not let one readers review deter you from experiencing this exceptional novel! I’m looking forward to future work from this author and cannot wait to get my hands on his next masterpiece!~
I really loved reading this book. The author takes you on a thrilling ride. The description of the characters is very well done. You can visualize exactly what each one looked like. It takes so many turns and twists and keeps you guessing until the very end who the killer is. I’m very interested in reading more from Cutter Slagle.