Gina Webster tossed in her bed and punched her pillow. Sleep was being evasive, teasing her with its promise of nothingness once again. Her tears had dried up, but the anger simmering in her veins wouldn’t allow her to close her burning eyes.
Rhythmic music played softly from a small set of speakers tucked against her headboard. As a child, she had gotten in the habit of falling asleep to music. Even now that she was nineteen, being able to listen to music still comforted her, reminded her that things weren’t as bad as they could be. And it usually helped her sleep.
But not tonight.
Tonight had been one grade-A mixture of misery, and it didn’t seem to be getting any better. Because now, her parents were fighting. Again.
It was a few minutes after midnight and the new year had just arrived. She should be celebrating with her boyfriend at a local hotel instead of tossing and turning in her childhood bed. She should be listening to a swing band until two in the morning.
But at ten o’clock, while her parents had still been downstairs, being civil to each other, he’d texted her with an abrupt, Something came up, talk to you soon. And then the asshole had turned his phone off, letting her calls go straight to his voicemail, which she hated with a passion. “Sorry I can’t talk to you right now. I’m out prepping for the apocalypse. Leave a message.”
Every time she heard that damn message, she felt like he was hoping the world would end. It was only when the clock ticked midnight and she was still alone that she finally admitted Kyle truly wasn’t coming. She’d been ditched. On one of the most important holidays of the year.
Being stood up always sucked, but tonight was the worst time possible for it. She’d needed to talk to him. Have him hold her tight and promise her that this new year would be different. That he loved her, and everything would be all right.
Plus, she just needed to get out of this house. Her parents were driving her crazy, and she needed to vent. In person. She needed Kyle to hold her, to hear him talk about the future they would create together. Somewhere far away from this little shithole of a town.
Her parents were getting a divorce. For them and her, it was supposed to be a good thing.
Her mother’s voice penetrated the walls of her bedroom, and Gina could just imagine her face covered with tears and snot. “You are not going to take the couch, Marcus Webster! I bought that couch after you fell asleep on the old one while you were high as a kite and set it on fire!”
“What?” Her father sounded angrier than she’d ever heard him. “You didn’t buy that couch! I bought that couch after you had a mental breakdown and puked on the old one!”
It was so sad, and it was also ironic. Their family had survived so much, only to break up now.
Marcus Webster had been a drug addict and had wrecked Gina and her mother’s lives in more ways than one. After putting them in massive debt, he had lost their house and his job and had almost been arrested. Gina couldn’t remember whether he had actually set the couch on fire or not, but she had taken a smoldering cigarette off the fabric more than once during her lifetime.
But it could have also been what her father had said too. Her mother had been so shattered by the revelations of her father’s addiction that she’d had a mental breakdown. Gina wasn’t sure exactly what happened, but Olivia ended up in the mental ward at the local hospital, semi-conscious, seeing things, so dehydrated that it had taken bags of saline to get her to pee again.
Now, at nineteen, Gina wondered if her mom had been bulimic. A little schizophrenic. Neither of her parents had been completely sane, not that she would admit that out loud. Because mental health issues ran in the family…didn’t they?
And she had to be perfect. If any man would ever want her as his wife, she needed to be flawless each and every day. She would need to cater to him. Focus on him completely. She couldn’t nag, couldn’t ever show signs of despair.
Gina hadn’t learned those lessons at home, which was clear by the fighting taking place on the other side of her door. No, she’d learned those lessons at the ripe young age of fifteen, when her parents’ combined mental health issues had landed her in the foster care system for eight months.
“And what about the dining room set?” her father roared, bringing Gina back to her miserable present. “Let me guess. You’re going to claim that it wasn’t you who threw the old one out into the street!”
Gina moaned and tried to smother out their hateful words with her pillow. It didn’t work.
“It was a perfectly good table! You could have just washed it off!”
Gina knew they weren’t really fighting about the stuff. They were fighting about whether they loved each other or not. As far as she could tell, they were both trying to convince each other that they never had.
“Keep the new table, then, if that’s all it takes to make you happy!”
“It’ll take a lot more than a table to make me happy, you bitch!”
Gina just wanted it to be over.
They loved each other, but they weren’t in love with each other anymore. At least that was the spin they’d put on it when they broke the divorce news. Gina knew that her father was willing to wait to try to fall back in love again, but her mother wasn’t. She was done.
To give her some credit, Olivia Webster had waited until Gina graduated to make sure she didn’t have romantic feelings for her spouse—but there was nothing left.
“If you think I’m going to throw away the rest of my life so I can wait for you to succumb to your addictions again, you’re nuts!”
“I am not an addict!”
Olivia laughed harshly. “That’s not what you tell those kids, is it? Once an addict, always an addict!”
“I am not a damn addict!”
But he had been. Her father had dug himself out of addiction, out of debt, and out of unemployment. But the damage had been done. Gina couldn’t blame her mother for wanting a divorce, and now that Gina was old enough to be independent, her mother wanted to be free to find someone she could both love and trust. Her father couldn’t blame her, either. But that didn’t make it any easier for the two of them to end their marriage.
“No? I’ll believe it when I’ve been gone for six months. Didn’t you tell me that I was the only reason you were still clean?”
“Then why are you leaving me?” her father shouted. “What are you going to do without me? Have another nervous breakdown?”
They had been going around and around like that for days. Weeks. Months.
On the other hand, it was still better than when Gina had been in the foster care system. She had only been in the system for eight months and had only been in one foster home. It had been over three years ago.
But it had changed her forever.
Part of her, not exactly rational, was still worried that her parents getting a divorce would mean she had to go back into the system. She was nineteen and too old to get pulled back in. She had a job in an office and had been thinking about moving out on her own anyway. But when her parents had first started talking divorce, she started having bad nightmares about being fifteen again. Sometimes, she had to force herself to wake up from them.
Why did Kyle have to pick that night not to show? Had there been some emergency? Was he okay?
He knew she was upset about her parents fighting. Why did he have to ditch her just when she needed to get out of the house and away from the shouting and recriminations?
She’d thought he loved her. But now she wasn’t so sure.
Gina glanced at the clock. It was eleven minutes after one in the morning—1:11—which meant that the universe was trying to tell her something. She decided it meant that she wouldn’t be able to sleep without help and rolled over to the far side of her bed.
Tucked between the mattress and the headboard, concealed by one of her speakers, was a liter of cheap vodka. Gina had been keeping some in her room lately, for nights just like this. She opened the cap and took a swig. Clamping her eyes shut as she swallowed the not-so-great alcohol, she shuddered from the burning pain as it went down.
She didn’t like to drink. It reminded her of her dad’s addictions, but she didn’t know how else to cope. Closing her eyes against the bitter, complicated tears that burned them, she took another big swallow before putting the cap back on.
She had to get out of the house. Anywhere would be better than this.
Collapsing back on the bed, she tried to bury herself under the covers, pulling one of her pillows over her head, more to feel like she was safe in a cocoon than anything else. She reached under her t-shirt and held her locket, the one that held pictures of her and her parents from happier times. Focusing on it had often helped her get through the present moment.
Fortunately, her parents seemed to be winding down for the night. Now, they were shouting things like “If you’re sorry, I’m sorry!” and “It doesn’t matter now!” The volume was lowering too.
After what felt like forever, she finally drifted off.
A bang from out in the hallway woke her from an almost-doze. It sounded like a kitchen chair falling over.
Great. Her parents must still be fighting.
The clock read 2:22. She must have fallen asleep. For a brief second, she wondered if three 2s were symbolic of anything. She’d have to look it—
A door slammed, almost hard enough to rattle the walls. This time it was upstairs.
“No!” It was her mother’s voice, slightly muffled now, but high-pitched and filled with fear. “Don’t do that. Please, don’t!”
“No!” her father roared, rage making the sound echo through the small home.
Gina bolted upright in the bed, taking several deep breaths, hoping to still her suddenly racing heart. Had her father finally lost it? Had he relapsed?
Listening to her parents argue was one thing, but if her father had fallen off the proverbial wagon, that was something completely different.
Gina threw the pillow across the room and swung her legs over the side of the bed. Quietly, she slipped her jeans on, stepped into a pair of ratty sneakers, and slung her purse over her shoulder. She grabbed her phone off the bedside table, disgusted with herself for not charging it earlier. She’d been so upset at Kyle and her ruined New Year’s Eve that she hadn’t even plugged it back in.
Snatching up her charging cord, she checked that her wallet still held the “mad money” her mother had given her earlier for her date. Forty whole dollars. She checked her car keys. She just had a shitty Honda, but if her dad had relapsed, there was no way her mom would be okay to drive on her own.
“You don’t need to do that!” her mom begged, fear and anguish pouring through the words. “Oh, god, just…put that down. Please.”
“Olivia,” her father shouted, his voice tormented. “Olivia! Please don’t!”
Gina’s heartbeat picked up speed at her father’s words, the pain and fear that filled them. What did he mean? Was he begging her mother to stay?
Afraid to breathe too loudly, Gina tiptoed down the hall, trying not to step anywhere that the floorboards would creak. The door of her parents’ room was closed tight. Gina opened the door softly, in the way that only a kid whose parents fought at night knew how to do, by holding on so the latch didn’t scrape as she turned the handle.
When the door was open only a few inches, she gasped and covered her mouth with her hand.
Maybe she was still sleeping, and this was part of a dream. A nightmare.
Her father was kneeling on the floor in front of her parents’ iron bedstead, his hands tied behind his back. On the bed, her mother was tied to the bed frame. Through the crack in the door, Gina could only see half her mother’s face. The one eye was wide with absolute terror.
Nobody seemed to notice Gina standing there.
“Please,” her father begged, looking at someone Gina couldn’t see. “Don’t do this. This is not who you are.”
“You should have tried harder!” a male voice screamed from just out of sight.
Gina stumbled back as an arm appeared in her line of vision. She couldn’t see the rest of the person, and she watched in horror as the arm sliced through the air. Gina’s hands went to her mouth. Had the man slapped her mother?
But when the arm pulled back, it was so much worse. Blood gushed from her mother’s throat. It dripped from the long blade pulling away.
Screams pierced the air. From her father. From Gina too.
“Shit!” The curse came from the man.
As time seemed to warp and slow, Gina watched her mother’s blood gushing out of her body. The blood was pumping out incredibly fast, jetting into the air like she’d seen in movies.
Gina’s mother struggled for air, gasping and making terrible sucking, bubbling sounds.
Over the roaring in her ears, Gina heard the sound of the floorboards creaking as the attacker came her way. She needed to run. She needed to call for help. She needed to do something, anything, before it was too late.
Gina spun and ran back to her room. She slammed the door and locked it, knowing that it wouldn’t hold the attacker for long. She dug into her purse, pulling the phone and charger out, her hands trembling so badly she could hardly connect the cord.
“Hurry,” she breathed, her voice a raw sob.
She pushed the power button on the phone. The screen flashed on, but it showed the icon of an empty battery with only a thin line of red left. The second she tried to make a call, it turned itself off again.
Gina cursed then spun in terror as the doorknob began to rattle. She screamed at the sound of shoulder against wood.
It held. But the house her parents had rented after her father got his life back together again was a cheap one. The door wouldn’t hold for long.
The window was her only chance now.
She hadn’t climbed out a window since she had come back home from the foster care system. There had been no need.
On legs that felt like water, she flung herself across her bed toward the chest-high window and threw it open. She pushed at the screen, fumbling with the edges, but she couldn’t remember how to get it out of the frame. It wasn’t like the old window screens at their other home.
This time, the thump was followed by a cracking sound, and she knew she was out of time.
Grabbing her keys, she dug at the window screen, crying out in relief as she managed to slash the mesh in half. She pulled the halves open and stuck her head out. It was cold and wet and drizzling outside, but she didn’t care.
Gina turned and slung one leg over the ledge. When the door slammed open, she banged her head against the window frame hard enough that stars winked in and out of her vision.
She had to hurry.
Tossing her things to the ground, she was almost out when her jeans got stuck on the window ledge. She jerked her leg, listened to the fabric rip on the nail. She screamed as it tore into her skin.
But she couldn’t let it stop her.
Hurry, hurry, hurry, her mind screamed.
Inside the room, a shadow was heading her way. No, it was a ghost. Moonlight shown on the white figure coming in her direction.
Panic hit her even harder. She didn’t have enough time to lower herself from the window. She had to fall. Jump. Anything was better than what this monster intended for her.
She tilted over the edge, praying she wouldn’t break anything vital. She just needed to land on her feet and roll the landing, like she’d learned in volleyball.
Just as she went weightless, cruel fingers dug into her leg. Gina screamed and tried to kick herself free. They had neighbors, but it was late—and it was early New Year’s morning. She didn’t know if anyone would hear her.
She screamed anyway.
Kicking and twisting with all her might, she knew she was at a disadvantage. Her body was at an awkward angle, and she was quickly losing strength. The attacker gripped her arm, pulling her back, and her head crashed into the window frame as he pulled her through.
Pain ripped through her this time, and her vision blurred as darkness crept around the edges.
She kept screaming, hoping that someone, anyone, would hear her. As the attacker pulled her away from the window and threw her toward her bed, she got her first glimpse of him. It wasn’t much, but even that small glimpse was frightening.
A ski mask hid his face, and he was wearing a white suit like hazmat people wore. The white material was wet with her mother’s blood.
With a fresh surge of adrenaline, Gina bounced on the bed, doing a shoulder roll her high school coach would have been proud of. As soon as her feet hit the floor, she stumbled through the broken door. She needed to get downstairs and out of the house. She cursed herself. That should have been Plan A the second she’d seen her mother.
Her initial panic would probably get her killed.
Determined to make up for her mistake, she sprinted toward the stairs. She glanced back—which was her second mistake—and slipped on something wet on the floor. She didn’t roll properly this time, and her wrist wrenched as she tried to stop her head from crashing into the wall.
Then she screamed.
Her father was lying on the floor, halfway out of his bedroom. An island in a lake of blood, his pale face practically glowed in the dim light.
She crawled to him, then hesitated. There was something wrong with his eyes. They had gone dull and flat. They were unmoving. Even without seeing the blood all over the floor, she knew one thing for certain. He was dead. Good or bad, her father’s life was over.
“Daddy. No, please. No, Da—”
Strong arms grabbed her from behind, and as if she weighed no more than a child, the attacker swung her up and over his shoulder. Feet pounded down the stairs, her body jarring with his every step. Her head banged into the doorframe when he turned, causing her to see stars again. She was going to either throw up or pass out, maybe both.
Instead of running from the front of the house, the man ran into the kitchen. One of the chairs had fallen over, she noticed dimly. Mama will be mad.
It seemed inevitable. Once her parents had decided to get divorced, it was inevitable that something horrible would happen. This was something out of her nightmares.
This had to be a nightmare. She just needed to wake up.
The attacker carried her to a SUV, but it was so dark that she couldn’t recognize the make or model, or even the color. He opened the back gate and shoved her inside. She banged onto the interior carpet and flopped over. Her stomach lurched.
She rolled toward the back gate and puked. With a curse, her attacker skipped backward out of the way. When she was done, he reached forward to grab something on the floor of the SUV. Rope.
She struggled, but she was so dizzy and confused that it felt like she was swimming through a whirlpool of molasses. She cried in frustration. She couldn’t move quickly enough. Her attacker was stronger than she was, and he seemed able to guess her every move.
“Please stop, please stop,” she begged, the words tearing from a throat dry from screaming. “Is my mom okay? Where is my mom?”
What had just happened seemed muddled and mixed up. Not real. Please, God. Don’t let it be real.
He stuffed a smelly cloth in her mouth and then kept it in place by wrapping a rope around her head. Using her tongue, she tried to push it out, but it wouldn’t move. He fastened her arms and legs together with rope behind her back, and in what felt like seconds, she was completely immobile. He shoved her back onto the floor and began to close the gate when a pair of headlights swept over them both.
Gina didn’t hesitate, she began kicking and screaming, though the movements were muffled and hindered by the rope and gag. She couldn’t give up, though. She twisted and turned, pushing her body against the hands holding her back.
Please see me. Please see me.
But as the approaching vehicle grew closer…closer…the madman cursed and raised a fist. When it landed on the side of her head in a crushing blow, pain came…then nothing.
The private visitation room inside the Mosby Detention Center in Richmond, Virginia held a chair much like a school desk and featured a built-in table that attached to the seat. It was built so an inmate could be handcuffed by their wrists and ankles, allowing some freedom of movement, but not enough for him or her to jump up and attack their visitor.
Dr. Autumn Trent didn’t like the chair. In her line of work, she knew that many of the inmates had violent tendencies, but there had to be another way to handle the situation.
The chair certainly didn’t look very therapeutic. If she was going to work with accused serial killer Justin Black in this room until after the conclusion of his trial, she would need to ask for a different visitation room. Since it could take anywhere from one to two years, from arrest to the beginning of a trial, they needed something better. If that was even possible.
Autumn worked for Shadley and Latham, a full-service psychology consultancy that focused on threat assessment, insider threats, counterterrorism, investigative consultations, and operational training. Her company covered everything from stalkings to school shootings to workplace violence.
They created criminal profiles to assist in a variety of investigations, including building profiles for cold-case homicides. They identified at-risk employees for fraud and corporate espionage. When requested, they even researched radicalization techniques for the FBI.
She loved it all.
Autumn had always been interested in criminal justice. In fact, during her first years in college, she had majored in it. At that time, she hadn’t known what she wanted to do for a living. She just knew that she was sick and tired of bad guys hurting the good guys.
After an incident with a robber at gunpoint while she was in college, she discovered that the good guys and the bad guys weren’t as separate and distinct as she always thought they were. It wasn’t black and white. Some people on the wrong side of the law weren’t all bad. There were shades of gray that weren’t always easy to recognize.
That incident had led her to change her major, and eight years later, she had both her Juris Doctorate and Ph.D. in forensic psychology with a minor in criminal justice. Her bachelor’s and master’s focus had been on criminal psychology, and she loved that she had training in both methodologies. It gave her an edge that was already making her highly sought after in her field.
Criminal psychologists spent most of their time focusing on determining a motive and creating a profile of the perpetrator of a crime. Forensic psychologists specialized in the aftermath of a crime. Then, they’d be asked to evaluate a suspect’s mental state or even offer counseling to victims and their families.
Autumn hadn’t wanted to settle on just one or the other. She wanted to know it all, and she’d worked her ass off getting her degrees.
Her wealth of knowledge had landed her a fabulous job with a paycheck bigger than she ever imagined. She’d even been called on to work with the FBI on some special cases and had been tempted to join the bureau after helping them close a couple of intense investigations.
But…money had won out, and after landing a job with the prestigious Shadley and Latham, she was able to pay off her massive student loans on her more than comfortable salary in record time. And the position had enabled her to start thinking of criminal behavior on a bigger scale. Why did criminals do what they did? Was there any way to prevent it?
And most importantly…how could she help?
One of Autumn’s specialties was threat assessment. She was the person who went into schools and businesses and determined who, if anyone, might become a threat, and what to do to both prevent that from happening and to handle the emergency if it did. That made up the majority of her work at Shadley and Latham.
What she was doing now was different. She was in a detention center in order to interview Justin Black, who just happened to be the brother of her best friend, FBI Special Agent Winter Black.
Winter—and the FBI—had asked Autumn for a special favor: talk to Justin and try to see what made him tick. Interestingly enough, Justin’s defense attorney had signed off on her being the one to do this evaluation. Maybe the attorney thought that she would go soft on him since she was friends of the sister? Autumn felt the pressure from all sides, but she refused to let any of it influence her decision.
Thankfully, she wouldn’t be the only psychologist responsible for judging his competence for trial or providing an opinion regarding his sanity. She would also be using her finds for research. The number of serial killers who were willing to serve as research material for profiling projects wasn’t very high, and the fact that Justin was willing to talk seemed like a good sign.
Justin had been abducted as a young boy by a serial killer known as The Preacher, who was eventually revealed as a man named Douglas Kilroy. After killing Winter and Justin’s parents and attempting to murder Winter as well, he had abducted six-year-old Justin and raised him as a sort of heir to his mission as a serial killer: to punish women who were overstepping the bounds of “God’s place” for them in society.
It had recently come to light that Justin was biologically related to Kilroy as well. The Blacks hadn’t just been randomly targeted by The Preacher. They had been murdered by design.
In pop-psychology terms, Justin had been destined to be a serial killer, according to both nature and nurture. He certainly had become one. At this point, they still didn’t know the number of people he’d murdered. He caught the FBI’s attention when he was involved in a mass shooting before being captured by his sister and several other special agents.
Now that he was no longer a risk to society, it was Autumn’s task to assess whether Justin’s “destiny” could be changed. She had her doubts, but she wasn’t one to ever give up hope. And for her best friend, she would do her damnedest to try.
Autumn knew what it was like to lose those closest to you. She knew what it was like to lose a sibling. Though the stories of how Winter lost Justin and how Autumn lost Sarah were vastly different, a loss was a loss. The not knowing if they were alive or dead was a constant pain that lived deep in a person’s soul.
Autumn might not know where Sarah was, but Justin was right here within this building. She would focus on him…for now. Maybe someday, she could focus on her sister.
The visitor’s chair opposite the prisoner’s seat wasn’t bolted to the floor, but the guard had told her not to move it from its current location, or he would have to end the interview.
“I’ll stay put,” she told the older man with a buzz cut before turning to face him directly from the chair. “Can you share how Justin Black has been doing in his cell?”
The guard’s face turned grim. “It depends. At times, he lays curled on his cot, his hands over his ears. Other times, he’s hurling himself at the bars. The next day he’s talking to himself and sucking his thumb.”
“How is he sleeping?”
The guard scoffed. “He doesn’t. Not much, at least. Night terrors, sleepwalking, you name it.”
That was concerning, but before Autumn could question the guard further, the door of the therapy room buzzed, and two guards brought Justin in.
He had raven-dark hair, blue eyes, and pale skin. Where his sister, Winter, was pretty and feminine, Justin’s dramatic looks exuded evil.
Autumn reminded herself that looks could be deceiving.
The guards locked Justin into the secure chair, using a heavy steel staple under the desktop for his hands and a lockbar that swung over the chain between his ankle restraints to hold him in place. They let themselves out of the visitation room. They couldn’t hear what was being said, but they still had a full view of the room through the thick plexiglass.
“Hello, Miss Trent.” Justin swallowed nervously, his gaze flicking to everywhere but her. “You look nice.” He began to rock back and forth, moving as far as the chains would allow.
Autumn was wearing an olive green blazer with a demure cream-colored blouse. She’d dressed carefully that morning with the goal of being deliberately demure but not overbearingly professional. “Thank you, and it’s Dr. Trent. How are you today, Mr. Black?”
She’d used the name intentionally, interested in seeing how he reacted to being called something other than Jaime Peterson, the name given to him by his kidnapper.
She watched him stiffen for the slightest moment before he gave her a fleeting, nervous smile. “Call me…Jaime…no, Justin.” His voice sounded strained, and he began to rock harder. “You’re here to talk to me on behalf of my sister, right?”
“I’m here to speak to you at both your attorney’s and the prosecution’s request.”
“Why the…?” His nostrils flared, and his eyes flashed a glimpse of rage. He caught himself quickly and looked down at his hands, his shoulders softening as he exhaled a long breath, although the rocking didn’t stop. “I mean…why? It’s hopeless. I’m never getting out of here. This place is horrible.” He gazed pointedly around the therapy room. “If I hadn’t been crazy before I got here, this place would make me crazy.”
Autumn focused on the word. “Why do you say you’re crazy?”
“Not crazy.” He laughed, and the sound coupled with the look he shot her sent a chill of fear down her spine as he froze in his seat. This man was lethal, and if he hadn’t been bound to his seat, she had no doubt that she would be in serious danger. The laugh ended as abruptly as it began, but the blue eyes continued to pierce through her. The rocking began again. “I’m legally insane, right?”
She lifted her chin. “That hasn’t been determined yet.”
“And you’re the one who’s going to determine that?”
“One of them.”
He made a snorting sound. “Should I start drooling and banging my head against the wall? Is that what insanity looks like to you?”
“Insanity doesn’t have a particular appearance, and I think it’s important for me to point out that the word “insanity,” as used in this context, isn’t a medical term but a legal one. In my practice, for example, I would never diagnose a patient as insane. Legally, the term is used to protect morally blameless people from conviction for a crime that was beyond their control due to mental illness.”
Justin frowned and seemed to be searching for something in his mind. “My attorney said something about NIRG.”
Autumn smiled. “It’s NGRI, or Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity. But again, insanity is a legal term, not a medical one.”
“And you’re going to decide if I’m insane or not today?” He looked terrified, but Autumn couldn’t tell if he was feigning his reaction or not.
That would come at a later date, when she would work to determine if Justin was malingering, which essentially meant if he was intentionally creating false or grossly exaggerated physical or psychological symptoms motivated by external incentives. People did that in the hopes of using mental illness as a way of avoiding things like military duty or work. And yes…prison.
“First, I’ll determine your competency to stand trial.”
“And that matters?” The rocking continued, and he tried to put his hands over his ears and seemed frustrated when the chains wouldn’t allow him to do so.
Autumn nodded. “It does to me.”
“Because I believe in fairness. I don’t believe that the law should punish someone who, for reasons beyond his or her control, committed a crime.”
The rocking slowed, and he seemed to relax a little. “Okay.”
Autumn had thought about her questions before coming into this room. She wouldn’t be determining competency today. It would take several assessments with her using evidence-based measurement tools to make that final determination.
It wasn’t an easy thing to do. She needed to determine how well Justin communicated. How much he understood. Could he assist his attorney in his defense? How much did he remember? What would his behavior be like in court? The answers to such competency assessment questions required a thoughtful case-specific forensic expert consultation who was willing to take her time going through the consultation. She also needed to be open to input from a variety of sources.
And his competence could change in an instant. After all, how many times did a seemingly mentally healthy individual suddenly have some type of mental snap and do something they wouldn’t normally do?
This would be a long process, so she wanted to get started. “Justin, do you understand why you were arrested?”
He tried to put his hands over his ears again, then clasped them together when he couldn’t. The rocking escalated and his eyes grew wide. Terrified. “They said I murdered some people and did some really bad things.”
She wrote down his answer verbatim. “They said? What do you say about that?”
The rocking grew more urgent. If the chair hadn’t been bolted to the floor, he would have turned it over. “I was following orders. I was only trying to do the right thing.”
“Whose orders, Justin?”
His eyes clouded with terror. “Grandpa.” It was a whisper. A hiss. “He said I had to…had to…he said it was my mission to make the world a better place. He said that I’d be punished, punished, punished real bad if I let him down. If I let God down.”
“So, you killed people because Douglas Kilroy told you to do so?”
“Yes. He trained me to hate and fear women, and to have a strong desire to punish them for their sins in the eyes of God.”
For a moment, Autumn wanted to interrupt him. She’d already read his statement, and this was pretty much verbatim. But she let him go on, studying him closely. Beneath the arrogance, she saw…fear? Was he afraid of not getting his performance right? Of being punished? Or did the memory of Kilroy create such a response?
“Punish the sinners in what way?”
Justin leaned forward until he could reach his nose with his finger and gave it a good scratch, then the rocking continued, a little more slowly now. “For the wages of sin is death!” He screamed the words so unexpectedly that Autumn jumped a little. Through the window, she noticed one of the guards stiffen.
She raised a hand to let the guard know everything was okay before returning her attention to the rocking young man. “All sin?” she asked after taking a deep breath. “What about the sin of murder? ‘Thou shall not kill.’ What do you think about that?”
He stilled, his blue eyes narrowing almost completely. “There are layers of sin, and then there are layers of punishment. I achieved sainthood for doing what so many others failed to do.”
This was new.
“Where did the idea of sainthood come from?”
“Douglas Kilroy told you that you’d achieve sainthood for killing those who sinned?”
Rocking. Rocking. Rocking.
“What did Douglas Kilroy tell you would happen if you got caught killing those who sinned?”
His nostrils flared, but the back and forth movement continued. “He told me that the world only rewarded the wicked and prosecuted the good.”
“Do you believe that?”
“Yes.” He closed his eyes, and when they opened again, they burned with hatred. “Do you see all those sluts on TV? They flaunt their bodies and sleep with men and have babies out of wedlock. They do terrible things, and what do they get in return? They get fame and fortune is what!”
“So, they need to die?”
“Yes!” The scream vibrated in her ears. “All of them! They must follow the natural order of things. Follow the original laws. They must obey their husband and nurture their children. My mother was a slut. She laid with a man before she was married and whelped another sinner…my sister. My half-sister.”
Autumn stiffened against the memories of how close Justin came to killing Winter. “You tried to kill her too.”
“She’s a whore. She’s shacked up with a man who is not her husband.” He sneered. “It runs in the family.”
“Your blood is the same,” she reminded him.
“Half,” he corrected quickly. “Only half.”
They’d gotten off track. “You understand that you broke the law—”
“—and that you must be punished for your crimes.”
She ignored his sneering tone and the interruptions. “You live in The United States of America, and for that privilege, you must obey the constitution in order to—”
“I obey the commandments.”
She couldn’t help herself. “Thou shall not kill.”
His glare penetrated into her very soul.
Autumn blew out a long breath. “Justin, no matter your belief, you committed a number of crimes and there are consequences for that. As a resident of the USA, you will stand trial before a judge and a jury of your peers to determine whether you are guilty of those crimes. What questions do you have about that?”
He was mutinously silent for a moment. Rocking. Rocking. Rocking. “I have no peers, and therefore, I cannot be judged by them.”
Autumn mentally sighed. They were going round and round with this. This young man was clever. If he could convince her that he wasn’t competent to stand trial, she would have no choice but to recommend he be placed into a mental hospital for treatment until he was declared competent.
“Justin…do you realize that you are going to trial whether you want to or not? Whether you believe you should or not? We will soon be establishing competency, and if I assess that you aren’t competent to stand trial, that doesn’t mean you get a free pass. What that means is that you will enter an inpatient psychiatric hospital where you’ll receive treatment until you are determined to be competent to stand trial. That could take a month, a year, a decade.”
Justin’s eyes widened fractionally. Was this new news?
“Even if it takes fifty years,” she went on, “then you’ll stand trial then, at the ripe old age of sixty-nine.”
He laughed, then tried to lift his hand to cover his mouth.
She narrowed her eyes. “What’s so funny?”
He laughed again, but this time it sounded closer to a giggle. “You said sixty-nine.”
It took all her willpower not to roll her eyes. She had to remind herself that Justin was only nineteen years old. A boy. And she still didn’t know what mental or physical torture he was put through these past thirteen years.
Autumn wondered if a male psychologist would be more successful in this type of interview since Justin clearly thought women only belonged in the kitchen. But…no. Being a woman would also trigger him. It might even be the key to have him show his true colors.
After competence was determined and they were on course for a trial, Justin and his attorneys would try for an insanity defense. At that point, it would be Autumn’s job to see if the plea held any merit. No serial killer was truly sane, of course, but there was a difference between knowing what was right and wrong and having the ability to stop yourself from doing it.
In an insanity defense, the defendant admitted to committing the action but asserted that he or she had a lack of culpability based on mental illness. Justin Black had been laying the groundwork since the beginning, and she had no doubt that he would continue to do so.
Autumn needed to be careful.
Was the young man in front of her just incredibly clever…or was it true? Had the trauma of witnessing his parents’ and sister’s murder—they still hadn’t established at what point Justin knew that Winter was alive—and being kidnapped and trained by a madman broken his psyche in a very fundamental way?
How could it not?
That seemed to be the logical question, but Autumn knew to not take it at face value.
She smiled and crossed her legs, glad that she’d worn trousers when Justin’s gaze automatically zeroed in on the movement. “Justin, how much to do remem—”
A sudden cramp hit Autumn in the back of her neck, and she lifted a hand to rub at the painful knot.
Justin’s eyes seem to sparkle at the sign of her discomfort. Autumn studied him as she continued to press her thumb into the muscle. For a second, it almost seemed like he had caused her muscles to spasm.
No. She was imagining things.
Then she remembered Justin’s sister’s abilities. After Douglas Kilroy had bashed Winter on the head, she’d been in a coma. When she awoke, she possessed an ability to see and know things she shouldn’t be able to see or know. Had the brain injury caused the abilities? Or had Winter had those insights before, and the brain injury brought them to the surface?
A chill ran up Autumn’s spine.
And did Justin have those same abilities? Or different ones? Stronger ones?
Justin closed his eyes for a moment, taking a deep breath, as if getting himself back under control. The rocking hadn’t stopped, but it was growing slower as he watched her.
She cleared her throat. “How much do you remember from the night you were abducted?”
“You mean saved?” There wasn’t a hint of guile in his expression. Did he really believe that?
“Can you tell me more about that? How you were…saved?”
She was falling into psychology but couldn’t stop herself. At some point, this information would be relevant. Plus, if he truly believed being abducted by a serial killer was salvation, it would help her later ascertain his mental stability.
Justin lowered his head and tried to put his thumb in his mouth. When it wouldn’t reach, he grew frustrated, pulling then yanking on his chains.
“Let me go!” She’d been expecting the response that time and didn’t jump, even when spittle flew out of his mouth. “Let me go!”
The guards were moving behind the glass, and she held up her hand again. “Justin, we don’t have to talk about that right now. I can tell you a little about me instead.”
He calmed down a little, and she took that as a sign to go on. It was a long story, one that she wasn’t sure she wanted to go into just yet, but she needed to give him something.
“My sense of reality was originally defined by an abusive father. He hit me in the head, and I fell into a coffee table. I suffered a severe brain injury and ended up having to have surgery to relieve pressure on my brain.”
Justin just stared at her, and she could tell he was disappointed in her story. “And that’s what defined your sense of reality? Being hit in the head?”
“In some respects.” Autumn lifted her hands. “Some people don’t believe that violence really exists, or that people close to you can be violent. But I’ve never believed that. What’s more important, though, is that after I recovered from the surgery, I was put into the foster care system. I know what it’s like to be moved from family to family and be expected to change to fit their expectations. And I know what it’s like to finally be accepted by people who love you. The last couple who fostered me adopted me and treated me like their own daughter. I know what it feels like to have reality changed every time I was moved from one family to another. And I know what it feels like to finally find a safe home. Not everyone is so lucky.”
Justin stared at her, those blue eyes not even blinking. “And…?”
She sighed. She might as well tell him the rest. It might do them some good, having a commonality they could share.
“And…yes. I have had my reality influenced by a serial killer too. The neurosurgeon who repaired my brain was one. She actually implanted a tracking device in my stomach so that she could keep an eye on me. You see, she could see the results of her work. She wanted to study me, and I think she planned to eventually kill me like she had killed many others. She wanted to dissect my brain to see what kind of interesting changes my injury and recovery had produced.”
Justin leaned forward as much as the chains would allow. “What kind of changes? Personality changes?”
“I suppose you could say I have some heightened senses. I have very good hearing, for example.”
Autumn’s surgery had done more than that, though. It had given her an ability that she had never been able to explain, one that made her avoid getting close to people, either emotionally or physically.
Whenever she touched someone, she would pick up an intuitive impression from them. Sometimes, she had a hunch about someone—a hunch that always proved to be true. But sometimes, it manifested as a short vision about someone’s past. She had never been able to explain to herself whether her visions were “true” or just her intuition working overtime.
But Justin Black didn’t need to know any of that.
Justin reached up to rub his chin but was caught short by the chain on his handcuffs. “Maybe Kilroy did something similar to me.”
Another stabbing pain hit the back of Autumn’s neck, but she refused to give in and rub at it this time. “The main point here is not to let the tragedies of the past define how you act in the future. You have to take what you’ve been given and lift yourself above it, even if you can never quite shake it off. Take your sister, Winter, for example…”
She stopped. Justin’s eyes had filled with tears, and he seemed to be struggling to speak. “I didn’t want to be bad. I wanted to be good. I wanted to do good. How can someone who just wanted to do some good in the world go so wrong?”
Autumn wished she could comfort him, but she’d been cautioned not to approach Justin and had been told that if she did so, the guards would cut off the interview without any further warning, and her future visits might be terminated completely. She couldn’t so much as touch the back of his hand.
Instead, she gave in to the pain and pressed her fingertips into her neck muscles hard. “It happens more often than you’d think.”
“I hate myself,” Justin announced, tears streaming down his pale cheeks.
Whether he was playing her or not, Autumn’s heart broke a little. She forced her expression to stay professional, to show nothing of how she really felt, in case the guards responded. “In a way, it’s a good sign. Unhappiness with your current state of mind means you can start working to change it.”
Justin tried to put his head down onto his hands. It didn’t quite work because of his handcuffed situation. His shoulders shook.
“I’m so sorry,” he sobbed.
“Justin, I will work with you. I don’t know how much we can accomplish, but I can try to help you find some kind of peace.”
His head still down, he mumbled, “But not freedom.”
She shook her head but realized he couldn’t see her. “That will be determined in time, but please remember that you can still find ways to lead a productive life.”
“What does a productive life even mean for someone in prison?” Justin raised his head a little, another sneer warping his features. “Making license plates?”
“It’s hard not to feel cynical now, I know. But you can still go to college in prison. And Dante wrote books in prison. So did Oscar Wilde.”
Justin made a disgusted face.
It was so funny that Autumn almost smiled. “You don’t have to write books or go to college, but you get my point. Life goes on. You can spend the rest of your life mentally and emotionally trapped by Douglas Kilroy’s horrific example, or you can feed your mind and expand beyond it.”
Justin took a deep breath. “If all I ever do is learn how not to spend every night having nightmares, that’s something, at least.”
Autumn exhaled. She was about to ask him about his nightmares, but one of the guards tapped at the plexiglass and pointed to his watch.
“Time’s up already.” Autumn regretted that she didn’t have longer with Justin today. “It feels like I was only here a minute.”
Justin cupped his hands in front of him. “Miss…” He cleared his throat. “Sorry…I can’t remember your name.”
He nodded. “Dr. Trent, thank you. You’re a kind person. Compared to the people I’ve been spending time with lately, you’re an angel.”
She couldn’t help but wonder if he would, angel or not, kill her if he had the opportunity. “Thank you for the compliment.”
The guards came in and unlocked Justin from the chair, taking him out of the room.
For a moment, Justin was in arm’s reach, and Autumn almost reached out to touch him. Was he really as regretful as he seemed to be? Maybe her intuition would tell her if she made physical contact. But she changed her mind at the last moment. She didn’t want to get banned from seeing him.
What mattered was the chance to help him.
After the guards had led him out of the room, Autumn had to wait for someone to come to escort her out of the secure area to where she could pick up her belongings. Justin was deemed dangerous enough that she hadn’t been allowed to bring her purse, or much of anything else, with her.
While she waited, she thought about her own sister, Sarah. Autumn hadn’t seen her half-sister since she was nine and Sarah was seven. Autumn had been tossed into the foster system while Sarah’s biological father had won full custody of her. He had promised to come back for Autumn too, but he never did.
With her life more stable now that she had her new job at Shadley and Latham, she was starting to think about trying to track Sarah down.
In the meantime, she would work with Justin. Maybe she could get through to him. Maybe help him.
She sighed and rubbed the back of her neck.
Even if it killed her.
* * *
Justin curled up into a fetal position on his bunk and stuck his thumb firmly into his mouth. From the corner of his eye, he watched the guards walk away from his cell.
That had been a blast.
As far as he could tell, he’d made progress with the female psychologist today. She was one of those women who liked to try to use a sense of personal connection to encourage their patients to “open up.” It showed a pack-bonding mentality. Clearly, the woman thought of herself as projecting confidence and a strong individual personality. But she was just a cringing dog begging for love and attention.
She probably would have been shocked if she knew that Justin could see right through her.
She’d be easy to manipulate.
Unfortunately, he was starting to think that she was useless. She wouldn’t be able to convince a jury that he was too insane to stay out of prison, or safe enough to release back into the general public. He’d initially hoped that she had the power to do at least one or the other. But now, he was starting to doubt whether she’d be any use at all.
On the other hand, it was nice to have someone to play with.
The guards didn’t give a shit. They didn’t want to make conversation or have anything to do with him. Justin planned to keep working on them but didn’t expect much. The other inmates were more or less the same as the guards. They were more of a danger and held less opportunity for escape, either directly or indirectly. Justin had decided they were useless.
Which meant that the female psychologist, however essentially useless she was, was his best chance of being able to manipulate someone. Plus, if he could get her to declare him not competent to stand trial, he’d get moved to a cozy shrink hospital where he had no doubt he could escape.
So…fine. He’d play along with her and wait for an opportunity. It didn’t cost him anything and would probably help relieve the boredom.
It might even give him a chance to hurt her friend, his sister. Half-sister, he corrected himself.
The worst half.
Justin smiled, then turned toward the wall to hide his pleasure from the guards who were always watching.
He’d play along for now. And wait.
‘Till death do us part’ has never been so true…
Armed with a slew of advanced degrees and powerful intuition, forensic psychologist Dr. Autumn Trent is ready to conquer the world and touch the lives of its seven billion inhabitants. She’s prepared to fight for justice, right the wrongs…because she knows what it’s like to be wronged.
As a child, a single blow from her father left her changed forever. Her body survived the aftermath, but her brain was altered in ways that were both good and bad. Different from the world, she poured herself into her studies, accumulating all the knowledge she could, intent on whipping broken systems into shape. Take down criminals one by one, even if it means putting her own life on the line. Read More