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Friday, November 2, 2012

A psychological thriller - Kindred Killers by Gary Starta


When I think about my newest release, KINDRED KILLERS, I can’t help but think about its protagonist, Stanford Carter. I feel maybe a back slap or a handshake is due. Carter’s appearance as the lead character in a full-length novel has been long coming.
Borne from a short story called ANIMAL INSTINCTS, Carter and his colleagues have grown more real for me since that time, some seven years ago. Jill Seacrest, his topnotch CSI, was right along with him for that case which just happened to introduce a feline character named Celeste into my writing universe as well.  Every instinct tells Carter and Jill a slew of suicides are really murders. A housing contractor reeks of guilt. Carter goes so far as to suspect an occult influence. It seems the contractor is lulling his victims into a hypnotic state and urging them to take their own lives. Carter’s doggedness pays off when Celeste the cat manages to tape the contractor chanting in satanic verse.
This won’t be the last time Stanford Carter considers extreme possibilities. He will meet Caitlin Diggs, an FBI agent, in the novella, MURDER BY ASSOCIATION. Caitlin’s been affected by an artifact and is developing telepathic abilities. Carter’s open mind cements an instant bond between the two investigators. Carter appears in the Caitlin Diggs’s series: BLOOD WEB, EXTREME LIQUIDATION and DEMON INHIBITIONS. In the latter, Carter’s alternate from a parallel universe is introduced. He also is responsible for introducing Caitlin to her favorite feline, Celeste. I’ve always loved this crossover and Caitlin makes a cameo in KINDRED KILLERS.
Carter is forever the unsung hero. He doesn’t boast about his convictions. He’s placid for the most part, at least until Jill starts making romantic advances toward him. The detective learned a long time ago that ‘the job’ will eat you up unless you find an outlet. Carter’s outlet is Zen meditation.
In KINDRED KILLERS, Carter is tested by not only a frustrating case but by bureaucracy. A departmental policy prohibits colleagues from marrying and Carter has just proposed to Jill. Their union may split them as partners. Each has saved the other’s life. Separation is unimaginable. But allowing killers to run loose is also unacceptable to both the detective and CSI. Carter and Jill fear this may be their last case together.
Before their wedding can become reality, Carter and Jill will risk their lives once again in an attempt to catch what they believe to be a team of serial killers. The murderers may be kindred killers but Carter and Jill are kindred spirits who never allow the perpetrators to walk away from justice.
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Please see excerpt!

Frustration mounting, PI Jay Fishburne immersed himself in his case. His search for the teen runaway, Cheryl Thomas had produced no results so far. Yet his frustration had nothing to do with his case and everything to do with Detective Carter’s suspicions—about his involvement in the murder of Dan Collins, the possible affair with the widow, Therese—and of course Lucy’s usually characteristic brash behavior.
Last night he visited several strip clubs in the city. He believed Cheryl was working at one of these bars. His lust, rather than his detective skills confirmed this. She had a dancer’s body. The photo the parents gave to him was still etched in his memory. He didn’t even have to consult it. It was a picture taken at a summer family outing. She had super abs, big breasts and well-toned legs. Her blue eyes, high cheekbones and full lips would have left any man dazed. Long raven hair fell in bangs over her forehead and slinked past her shoulders. On this day, she appeared happy, maybe just fooling the camera to get her parents off her back. Jay could picture Lucy manipulating her parents in this same fashion with a lie or perhaps plastering a phony smile on her face just to bask in a glow of her cynicism. In a way, Cheryl Thomas was a younger version of Lucy who ran away from home several times as a teen to take dancing jobs. Lucy confided this to him as a surreptitious cry for help. Perhaps he could reach out to Cheryl and help her as well. If only he could break the emotional veneer they had built around themselves, the protective shell they hid behind to mask their true feelings and vulnerabilities.

It was just a matter of time before Jay found her. The clubs he visited last night were in too close a proximity from Cheryl’s home. She would want to distance herself. The very notion gnawed at him. He envisioned Lucy seeking shelter at strip clubs. What kind of fucking shelter is that? Men ogling you with their eyes—or worse . . . What the hell was happening at home that made this lifestyle more appealing?
A horn beeped from behind. It was a big SUV. Impatient, its driver tailgated Jay as he slowly accelerated into an intersection a full five seconds after the light had turned green. The private eye rolled down his window, a waft of stale warm air penetrated his vehicle’s cabin. Boston was mired in the middle of a heat wave. He crossed the intersection and moved toward the shoulder, waving for the SUV to pass. The driver beeped his horn again hoping to rattle Jay’s cage. But it didn’t because the PI could no longer see the vehicle or the road for that matter. Jay continued thinking and driving, thinking and driving, still undecided where his search would take him. His air conditioning was running full blast and his driver’s side window was still open.
He had already preset the destination of several strip clubs in his GPS. He went to the main menu and pressed Spread Eagle. He knew nothing more about this establishment other than it was most likely another dirty dive, smelling of beer and cigarettes like all the other shit holes, preying upon the willingness of young women to earn a dishonest week’s salary in the span of a night. But there wouldn’t be a happy ending. Eventually it would suck their life force away from them. The graphic readout on the Garmin navigational unit told Jay the club was located in Methuen. A female voice came on and instructed Jay to begin driving the highlighted route. The automated attendant sounded quite confident Cheryl would be working there . . .

He was not surprised by what he found when stepped into the dive. A girl was on a runway, she was sauntering to the left, to the right. Eventually she would find her destination to the pole located center stage. She collected a ‘tip’ from an admirer. She smiled blankly at him as he stuffed it in her g-string. An INXS song boomed over loud speakers:
The devil inside, the devil inside,
Every single one of us, the devil inside . . .
No shit. This is the devil’s lair. Jay nudged the man in a brown T-shirt and dungarees next to him. “Is this the first girl?” he asked.
The man nodded at Jay. “Yeah. I’d like to make her the first of my night.” He paused to squish his left hand into his overly tight jeans and pulled out a fistful of dollars, keeping his eyes on the blond beauty. “I think I’ll have a little ‘dance’ with her later, if you know what I mean.” The man smiled again at Jay as if he was a long lost comrade.
“Sure,” Jay grinned back at him, sickened. He gleaned from the man that the girls also performed lap dances here. They probably made a good chunk of money every night, even after the owner and bouncers took their share.
Jay kept his eyes on the stage and away from his new companion, fearing he might create a high profile. He ordered a beer and settled in for a long night. He took a long draw from the bottle, theorizing it was best to make like he fit into the crowd. Spook the wrong person and they would probably have the girls ushered out the door faster than you can say Jose Cuervo. Underage girls probably danced here and the owner had probably paid off a few Department of Alcohol Beverage Control investigators to keep their mouths shut. But not every investigator is from the ABC.
Twenty minutes later, the dancer finished her routine to the upbeat pop ballad: Do You Believe in Life after Love?
When the music cut out, a DJ spoke.
“Please welcome something young and sweet. The Spread Eagle’s newest flavor . . . the girl who’ll surely cream any man’s jeans . . . ice and hot from Boston . . . Cherry Sorbet!”
Jay was distracted by the man next to him, stumbling off his seat to work his way to the backroom for a lap dance with the previous dancer, the voluptuous blond girl. When Fishburne returned his attention to the stage, he knew he had found her. The woman strutted out to the beat of a Kid Rock song, dressed in a blue cape, dark sunglasses and a tiara on her head. Although all her accessories screamed: ‘ridiculous’ and ‘cliché’; every man’s eyes stared at her with dead seriousness.
In a few minutes, she would remove all clothing and trinkets, revealing all her flesh save for her most private areas, still concealed by an aqua blue g-string. There was now little ‘wonder’ left for the imagination as the near naked ‘Wonder Woman’ before them grinded and thrust to a raunchy rock n’ roll beat.
Jay Fishburne fought to swallow, his mouth was parched. He ordered another beer, keeping his eyes riveted on the raven beauty. It was Cheryl Thomas in the flesh. He continued watching, unaware he had been leering at her like all the men around him and becoming quite aroused in the process. The sudden revelation made him feel revulsion. Patrons whistled and shouted at her, hoping to catch her eye. Hoping she’d take their money and put it next to her dirty spot. They had no conscience. He observed some more, then pushed aside his beer and ordered something stronger. “Give me a gin and tonic,” he told the bartender.

Fighting fatigue, Jay sat in his car waiting after all the dancers had danced, both on stage and in the backroom. Most of the patrons had left the parking lot. A rap on his window startled him. “Hey buddy, time to move it along.” It was one of the badass bouncers, a beefy man in a blond crew cut who looked like his T-shirt was about a size too tight.
“Oh, Jay,” answered demurely. “Just waiting for my buzz to subside, don’t want to drink and drive.” The PI feigned drunkenness sure the bouncer wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer.
The bouncer asked, “Got a cell?”
“Yeah.” Jay heard his voice in his head answer the bouncer, but it sounded different, somewhat muffled. He recalled the last time he heard this kind of voice in his head. He was drunk at his buddy Sid’s 10th wedding anniversary. Lightheaded, Jay realized he was not acting for the burly interrogator.
“Then call a cab,” the bouncer said. His face was dour.
Jay started his car. “Nah, I’ll be okay. Have a good night.”
Fortunately, Cheryl—or Cherry—has just walked out the bar. She was headed to a maroon Chevy. It appeared quite old. Her parents said nothing about a car. She entered it alone.
Jay watched the bouncer walk away. He put his car into neutral and glided across the lot to follow Cheryl’s vehicle.
The bouncer turned around. “Hey, buddy! Your lights,” he yelled to Jay.
Jay waved his arm out the window in mock appreciation and turned them on. He had purposely chosen to keep them out so as not to spook Cheryl. But it didn’t seem to faze Cheryl. She left the lot driving at an even speed.
He crept behind her Chevy Nova, keeping about five car lengths behind and followed a dark and winding wooded road. Steady as she goes, he told himself, his voice still sounded like a stranger’s. He smiled suddenly. Maybe it was the booze talking now. Maybe he was just happy at his luck. Found Cheryl on my second night. He wanted to gloat, throw it in the face of that pompous Detective Carter. Bet he couldn’t find her that fast.
Jay continued following until Cheryl eventually turned off the main road and entered an unpaved driveway. Her tires grumbled over gravel. He stopped his car and killed the lights. He gambled that the barely lit road was traveled by only a few people at such a late hour and his intuition was correct, no lights behind or ahead of him whatsoever. It’s a good hiding place for a runaway. The fuzz of white noise echoed in his head. Loud music always aggravated his tinnitus, a ringing in his ears that may have started from listening to loud music as a youth. It often overpowered even the chirp of crickets in the dead heat of the summer night. He waited for Cheryl to park. Whoever lived in the house was sure to have heard her car. He resisted the urge to tap his fingers on the steering wheel. His eyes scanned. The setting reminded him of a Grimm fairy tale. A porch light eventually flicked on confirming the PI’s hunch. Jay grabbed a pair of binoculars to home in on a man standing on an open porch. He seemed preoccupied, swatting away some moths that had gathered around his porch light. That’s about all he could glean. Maybe he was a boyfriend, maybe she drove his car and maybe he suggested she work at this club since it was in the area. The parents either didn’t know about this boyfriend or were in denial about it. Jay immersed in his thoughts, headed home. He would contact the parents tomorrow about his find. He laughed that he might need to take up drinking more often. He needed to muster some courage for tomorrow. Jay didn’t want Cheryl Thomas to haunt her parents anymore. He thought maybe—with their permission—he could reason with her. Maybe he could change things if he could just garner a little self-esteem and give her a heart-to-heart talk. The irony. If only girls like Lucy and Cheryl might find their self-esteem so they could tell their skuzzy bosses to go fuck off. But as his buzz subsided and he turned onto 93 South, the highway that would take him home, he conceded there might be only one remedy to end this cycle of pain for everybody.

24 hours later . . .
Cheryl Thomas had left Cherry Sorbet behind. A night of dancing for pay once again came to the end, a carbon copy of the night before and the night before that. Cherry—Cheryl’s sexy, mature, overly confident dancing persona—only existed under the spotlights of the Spread Eagle.
When she exited the door, she had become absorbed in the harsh reality of her life. It was as if the truth—which was sometimes equated with probability, or the way things most likely will end up—lived within the stifled air of the very hot and humid July night she walked into. It stuck to you, never giving you true freedom.
The truth—in fact—would not set people like Cheryl Thomas free. The truth, in this case, was often not a nice companion. It was the voice telling Cheryl that she’d never amount to shit in life. It was the voice that warned her not to tell her mother about how inappropriate a family member had acted. It was the voice that sounded an awful lot like Cheryl’s father—the very reason life as a topless dancer beat living rent free in the comfy confines of a two-story home in suburbia. The truth had a bitter ending. The truth was better kept pushed to the back of one’s mind. The truth—for Cheryl Thomas—sucked lemons and she was not about to make lemonade out of them in reference to the old adage.
She drove home wishing her fucking boyfriend’s car had a working air conditioning system. The bastard. He could have had it fixed for her. He could have let her slide on sharing rent. He could have strongly suggested her not to work at a strip club. To Cheryl, her boyfriend Tim was just another asshole. She hoped her true feelings wouldn’t rise to the surface. She was using him. She needed shelter. But she reasoned Tim deserved a phony girlfriend. He was a phony as well. He promised her (when she got enough cash together) she could quit and attend a community college. She nearly laughed the other night when he suggested it. The puppy dog eyes he made at her. The bastard just wanted to get laid. She had told him how exhausted she was from the dancing. She couldn’t explain why she felt her ass was literally dragging on the floor. She was tired because a bunch of assholes had leered at her all night. Their dumb faces, big eyes and hungry mouths made her think of them as animals. The really stupid ones—the ones with beer courage— had foolishly tried to lay their hands on her, inviting a nasty bounce out of the club. But they had to try. They had to behave like ‘men’ in front of their buddies. The more Cheryl thought about it the more she hated every fucking man who walked the fucking face of this fucking earth. She had given in to Tim’s wishes last night. He fucked her hard and mercilessly. He fucked her like she was his object. She didn’t want to hook up with Tim tonight. She began to fantasize an escape scenario. Maybe she would just keep on driving on, head to New Hampshire or something, right on the friggin’ spot. Spontaneous. Just like she had fled her father. Just like one half of Thelma and Louise.
A rumble of distant thunder caught her attention. High humidity had promised a thunderstorm, according to the Weather Channel. She had watched the forecast on the screen in the backroom while she gave a lap dance. The client didn’t give a shit she was watching it either. His eyes were too busy staring at her boobs.
The dark wooded streets she navigated were barely illuminated. She slowed her car. Up ahead she saw something. Her headlights bounced off it. It was a pair of wooden sawhorses. The kind police used to create barricades. But she couldn’t see any kind of police logo on the sawhorses. Suddenly a clap of thunder boomed directly overhead, surprising her. She could hear her heart beat in tandem with a heavy downpour that beat upon her car. It was raining very hard. The water hit the car with an intensity reminding Cheryl when she was five, a time when she still liked her dad. He would take her along when he visited the automated car wash. She recalled it was always on a Sunday. She remembered her father saying something strange one time, like: “God can’t be expected to get everything clean on His own.” He laughed strangely, scaring her. She stared ahead at the windshield, but couldn’t see anything through the shower of water. Nor could she open the door to escape.
Years later Cheryl would come to understand what that strange phrase had meant—physically. He began hating and hitting her, blaming her for his sick impulses. Blaming her for having blossomed into a woman so soon.
She thought she could swerve around the sawhorses. But she also thought if this were a roadblock a cop might write down her license plate number. If that happened, Tim wouldn’t be very happy with her.
A woman in a raincoat approached her. The hood covered the woman’s head, but Cheryl could identify the person as female because long copper colored bangs hung over her forehead.
“Hi, officer,” Cheryl stammered.
The woman shined a flashlight into Cheryl’s car as it idled noisily. No other ID was visible. Cheryl found this strange since police raingear was usually transparent so civilians could see their badges and uniforms.
But she refrained from asking for ID. The female cop squinted as her bangs were dripping with water.
“Where you headed?” the cop asked.
“Home? Uh . . . about a mile and half off the main road.”
“Lived there long?” the woman in the poncho asked.
Why the fuck should that matter?
When Cheryl didn’t respond, the rain soaked woman in the black poncho mumbled something inaudible.
Cheryl began to fish in a duffel bag for her driver’s license. Maybe if I cooperate she’ll let me go. I don’t need my fucking parents to find me. She hadn’t been drinking, but her clients had. Their stink of gin and vodka must have been all over her. And what if they do a car search? Cheryl was panicked. She didn’t want the officer to find her Spread Eagle outfit. She was so panicked she didn’t reason the officer had no probable cause.
“What’cha doing?” the cop asked.
“Getting my license.” Cheryl heard her voice shake, the way it quivered when she talked to her father.
‘Have you been drinking?”
She hoped the cop wouldn’t ask her where she’d been.
“I’ll take your license later, Miss. Right now I need you to slowly step out of your vehicle.”
Cheryl hedged, her foot was on the accelerator. The officer shined the flashlight into the car. “Turn the engine off first.”
Cheryl obeyed. She turned the key, twice, cutting the engine but keeping the car on battery power. She still hoped the cop would show mercy. She hadn’t done anything wrong, driving wise that was. And if she tested for alcohol, she’d find her sober.
“I want your hands where I can see them.” Cheryl held them up as the officer maneuvered herself behind her.
“Are you going to make me walk a line? I can do it. I’m as a sober as a nun, officer.”
“You may be sober, but you’re no nun.”
Cheryl couldn’t believe the officer’s rudeness. Her tone was malicious, hateful.
Cheryl stammered. “Do I know you?”
“No, but I know your family. You fucked them over royally, running away once a couple of years ago. Now you’re at it again. Do you even give a rat’s ass about your parents?” The officer waved a fist at air.
Cheryl realized the officer was capable of venting her hostility, not only verbally, but also physically. She had learned some psychology from working at the strip club. She would change tactics and speak with congeniality. She would try to reason with this lunatic if there was still time. She felt the woman’s breath on her from behind. It had a weight to it. Even through the pouring rain.
Lightning flashed. From the corner of Cheryl’s eye, she saw it had illuminated the sawhorses. Again, she couldn’t see a word or symbol on it. She doubted it was police issue. She also began to wonder where this woman’s car was. She had stalked out of the woods like some animal. But in the darkness of the storm, Cheryl couldn’t be sure a vehicle wasn’t concealed somewhere off the roadway, hidden by some brush or overgrowth. She began to plead with the officer. She kept a soft, even tone when pleading. She hoped a demure approach might garner her release. The officer grunted oddly, but Cheryl interpreted this as a confirmation of power. Just keep empowering this fucking bastard. She repeated this to herself.
“Look, officer. Do you want money? I’ll pay you. I just can’t let my parents find me. My father is abusing me.”
The woman behind her only grunted. This time, the grunt didn’t sound approving.
“Look, I love my family. But things are complicated right now . . . ”
“I don’t believe you’re sincere.” Cheryl heard the woman spit some rainwater out of her mouth.
“It’s time to come clean with me.”
Before Cheryl could think, the officer’s arm was wrapped about her neck as if it was a python, hoping to squeeze the life out of her.
“Uh . . . oh God . . . please . . . ” Cheryl heard the words in her head. She couldn’t be sure she was verbalizing them. She felt as if she was somewhere else watching what was happening to her. She felt her feet lift off the ground. She kicked them but her boots flailed harmlessly against the woman’s shins as she was dangling in the air. The officer had Cheryl in a bear hug. One arm wrapped completely about her stomach, the other tightening its vice like grip about her windpipe.
As Cheryl’s face turned blue, she wondered why she didn’t ask for the officer’s badge number. Did she cut the officer some slack because she was female? Did she think this woman would be any less unkind to her? And as the black of night engulfed Cheryl, she thought of this irony. She always thought she might die at the hands of some huge horny guy who thought the ‘no touch’ rule was for mamma’s boys; or perhaps at the hands of Tim, when she finally mustered the courage to betray him. The killer released her grip and Cheryl fell to the ground, lifeless as a marionette whose strings had been severed. The rain began to lighten and the only sound that could be heard was the slapping of windshield wipers on Tim’s beat up old Chevrolet.