Stella Knox Series: Book Three
All bets are off when a madman calls the shots.After Special Agent Stella Knox’s friend and FBI tech ace Mac drops a bombshell regarding the death of Stella’s father, she can’t wait to follow up on the lead. But that’s put on the backburner when six people are abducted from a dinner party—the door open, the table laid, and the meal started. Even more disturbing is that a two-year-old is among the missing.
read an excerpt
“What the hell did I do?”
Troy Harvey’s first thought upon waking was that he must have been arrested and thrown in the drunk tank from hell. Concrete, damp and stained with liquids he didn’t want to think about, surrounded him. The one exception was the single wall featuring thin bars set into a steel frame.
Jail. There could be no other explanation.
As he tried to sit up, tried to better understand his situation, pain as sharp as bolts of lightning shot through his head. His neck was so stiff he wondered if his spine had been replaced with metal. Movement equaled suffering, and no matter how much he longed to cradle his roiling stomach, he could only place a trembling hand over his gut.
None of this made sense. The party hadn’t been that wild. Had it?
No. Not for him, anyway.
Half a glass of wine was all he remembered drinking. Though he’d only been old enough to legally drink for a couple of years, he wasn’t that much of a lightweight. Was he?
The pounding in his head said otherwise.
He rubbed his eyes and blinked until the room came into focus. No, this couldn’t be a drunk tank. Not unless he’d been transported to some third-world concentration camp, at least.
With no toilet or bed, he sprawled on concrete as cold as ice, with only a bucket for company. Judging from the stiffness in his body, he’d been on the ground a while.
Fighting another wave of nausea, Troy pushed up to his hands and knees. Unable to walk, he crawled to the bars, attempting to get his bearings. A row of cells—more dog kennel than prison—lined the opposite wall. He blinked, unsure if he was seeing correctly.
Curled in a fetal position, Brenda Renelle lay in the cell directly in front of him. Her bright-red hair had lost all its normal vibrancy. Unnaturally still, her pale expression gave no hint of life. Was she dead? Troy couldn’t tell.
And she wasn’t the only one.
Darrel Dowers was sprawled in the cell to Brenda’s right, looking as if he’d fallen through the ceiling. Deathly pale, his chest moved, but barely.
Troy’s horror increased when he studied the cell on Brenda’s left. Dee Dee Bisgard’s face was pressed against the bars, her arm around the little boy curled next to her. Troy couldn’t tell if either she or Ashton were alive or…
What was a two-year-old doing in a cell? What were any of them doing here?
Standing on legs that felt like water instead of bone, Troy used the bars to pull himself up. The steel was cold against his skin, even where rust had turned the silver a coarse brown. He shook the gate, but the bars held firm. The kachink of metal on metal was the only sound in the quiet room.
“That you, Troy?” The booming growl coming from his right nearly caused Troy to piss his pants. “Forget it. I’ve tried. These bars don’t look like much, but they’re set like rock.”
Troy couldn’t see Ron Bisgard, but the familiar voice was both reassuring and disheartening.
“Where are we?”
The beats of silence that followed were interrupted by Ron’s long exhale. “I don’t know.”
Heart hammering like a drum, Troy dropped back onto the concrete floor and leaned against the wall. Everyone from the dinner party was there.
“What happened to us?”
Another long exhale. “I have no idea.”
His mentor’s confusion scared Troy more than anything had in a good long while.
Troy’s father died before his fifth birthday, and since Ron and Dee Dee had no children of their own—not until they adopted Ashton eighteen months back—they’d taken him under their wings. In those years, they’d become his extended family.
When the Bisgards had invited Troy over for dinner with a couple of their friends, Troy hadn’t been surprised. Ron was like a father to him. He’d coached Troy all the way through Little League, showing him how to wrap his fingers around the baseball and land his pitches right over the plate. He’d even given Troy his first job at the family grocery store, making him assistant manager a year later, a level of trust few people had ever placed in him.
Even though he was now an adult, he still ate at their house at least once a month, which was kind of funny. Neither Ron nor Dee Dee was much in the way of a cook, and usually didn’t even try, but they knew how to host. And order out.
The atmosphere was always friendly, relaxed, and full of gentle teasing. The conversation would start in the entrance hall, then build steam and laughter around the dinner table before shifting into friendly advice when dinner was done. Dee Dee would put Ashton to bed, and the adults would sit on the veranda, beers in hand, chairs rocking on the stained wood.
That was how those evenings always went, and Troy had expected no different this time.
So, what happened?
Thinking hard, Troy vaguely remembered feeling wobbly not long after tucking into his plate of fried chicken. It had been as though someone had spun him around too fast on a merry-go-round, then stopped it abruptly, magically.
He remembered Brenda losing her dimpled smile. She’d put her arm to her forehead as though the room had started spinning for her too. Darrel, a nice man Dee Dee had been trying to set Brenda up with, was quick to notice his date’s discomfort.
He’d draped an arm around the back of her chair. “You okay?” Darrel’s voice had seemed strange, the words waving up and down.
Dee Dee had been too busy with Ashton, who had fallen asleep in his highchair, to pay attention. Troy tried to pour Brenda a glass of water, but his hands wouldn’t work. From the corner of his eye, he saw Ron drop face-first into the mashed potatoes. The room spun and tilted, and, finally, the world turned black.
Now…here they were. Wherever here was.
Troy whacked the bars with the side of his fist. They rattled but didn’t move. “Do you remember anything?”
“There must have been something in the food.” Ron’s voice echoed off the concrete. “We ordered in last night and used some new delivery person who was recommended to Dee Dee. They must have drugged us.”
Fear rose in Troy’s chest and settled as a ball at the back of his throat. “Why, though? What could they possibly want with us?”
Silence ate at Troy’s sanity before Ron finally answered, “I dunno. But, listen, we’re going to be fine. I promise.”
Are we? You can’t know that. You can’t.
Whoever had brought them there had gone to a lot of trouble, and Troy couldn’t think of a single reason why. None of them were rich. Both Troy and Brenda, a cashier, made little more than minimum wage at Ron and Dee Dee’s grocery store, Bisgard’s Best.
Darrel, the newest member of their party, was an accountant. He didn’t work for a big firm or have billionaire clients who lined his pockets. They were all just regular folk. If they were being held for ransom, what could the kidnappers get? The good olives from the barrel at Bisgard’s Best?
At least Dee Dee and the little guy were together. Maybe whoever had taken them wasn’t a complete monster.
It took Troy a moment to recognize the sound. The footsteps that followed reinforced the idea that a door had just been opened. Alarmed, Troy shuffled over to the wall farthest away from the sound, like an animal crawling from its abuser. Pressing his face against the bars, he attempted to peer past the cages.
Who the hell was that?
The man striding toward them was tall and well built, with a shock of yellow hair that started at the top of his scalp and swooped into a lock hanging over his left temple. He was handsome in a blond Clark Kent kind of way. He wore a long, white coat and carried a metal clipboard, as though he were doing rounds on a hospital ward or had just stepped out of a laboratory.
He stopped in front of Ron’s cage. “Awake, are we?” The man’s voice was a scratchy alto, sounding strangely high and almost feminine in the confined space.
It set Troy’s teeth on edge.
“Who the hell are you?” Compared to the mad scientist, Ron’s voice was deep and resonant.
Ignoring Ron’s outburst, the mad scientist banged on the cage opposite, where Dee Dee and Ashton still lay unconscious on the floor. “Wakey, wakey. Time to rise and shine.”
“Hey!” Ron roared. “Leave them alone.”
Dee Dee groaned and pushed into a seated position. Her face, already pale except for a couple of angry bar-sized stripes on her cheek, turned ashen as she peered around her cell. “What the...where are…” Terror and confusion warred on her expression as she caught sight of her husband. “Ron! What’s going on?”
She pulled Ashton into her lap. The child, small for his age, yawned and rubbed his eyes.
Ron extended a hand through the bars and reached toward his wife. “It’s okay, honey. We’ve been drugged, but we’re going to be okay.”
In the cell opposite Troy, Brenda groaned as she pushed up enough to lean on one arm. Her eyes met Troy’s, and in that look came understanding.
“No!” The shrill scream that bounced off the walls was mercifully short before Brenda collapsed into sobs so deep they racked her shoulders. She curled into a ball, her forehead buried between her knees, breathing so hard Troy thought she might be having an asthma attack.
The scream woke Darrel, who, in spite of looking dazed and confused, touched the wall between them. “It’s okay. Deep breaths.”
Troy wondered if he even knew who he was comforting. Did it even matter?
Ashton’s face crumpled into the very picture of misery, and Dee Dee pulled the child even closer to her chest, soothing him the best she could. “Shh, shh, shh.”
The man in the white coat rattled his metal clipboard against Ron’s bars. “Oh, for the love of god, will you all shut up?”
The noise reduced Brenda’s sobs into quiet hiccups and drove Ashton deeper into his mother’s embrace. Or maybe the room only seemed quieter because of how loud Troy’s pulse hammered in his ears.
“That’s better.” Mad Scientist tucked his clipboard under his arm. “I’m sure you’re all wondering what you’re doing here.”
“You bet your ass.” Ron’s voice reminded Troy of a bear’s growl. “But no one’s wondering what I’m going to do to you when I get out.”
Mad Scientist rolled his eyes. “Oh, do shut your bleating. You’re not going anywhere, any of you. I brought you here because I’m a doctor.” He rocked on his heels and began pacing in front of the cages. “I’m engaged in groundbreaking research. You, all of you, are here to help me.”
What the hell?
Troy didn’t understand. “You brought us here to be lab assistants?”
The man peered down his nose at Troy as though he’d found an unusual mushroom during a woodland hike. “Of course not. None of you have the brains to so much as clean a test tube. I brought you here because I need subjects.”
The loud rattle from Ron’s cage suggested he was attempting to drag the bars out of their casing. Brenda sobbed into her hands while Dee Dee shuffled toward the back of her cell, Ashton still clutched to her chest.
“Do calm down.” The doctor had the audacity to sound bored. “There’s nothing you can do. The walls are soundproofed, the cages have been reinforced, and there is no chance of escape. None at all.”
“What are you going to do with us?” The question came from Darrel. He was calm and serious. Troy appreciated the man’s steadiness.
“I’m glad you asked.” The man reached into one of the deep pockets of his white coat and pulled out a revolver, its six-inch barrel pointed at the ground.
As Dee Dee gasped, Troy’s vision tunneled until nothing remained but the weapon and the man’s finger resting on the trigger.
“Don’t worry. I’m not going to shoot you. I don’t have to.” He turned in a circle, a false, benevolent smile showcasing too-bright teeth. His icy, reptilian, blue eyes didn’t smile, however. No emotion showed in his gaze. “Because you will shoot each other.”
Troy shivered as a cold spike settled into his chest. What the hell does that mean?
“You’re crazy. You’re a complete lunatic.” Ron’s voice contained just a hint of a tremble, a sign that his normally in-charge, capable manner was losing its grip.
The man turned his head toward the cage next to Troy’s. His legs and shoulders remained unmoving, like an owl that had spotted movement in the undergrowth but was still unsure whether the prey was worth it.
“And we have a psychiatric diagnosis from the owner of the grocery store. Are you familiar with the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders? Have you read it? Studied it?” His blue eyes were indeed dead, but his voice held the tone of an excited college professor.
“It was a figure of speech, jackass.” Ron sounded like he’d recovered some of his fight.
Mad Scientist’s enthusiasm didn’t waver. “Have you spent years with patients listening to them drone on about their childhood and their ridiculous traumas? No? If you had, you would understand that ‘lunacy’ is an obsolete term for mental incompetence or insanity. Any previous references to ‘lunacy’ as a theory that insanity is tied to phases of the moon are also incorrect. So, I would ask you to keep your uninformed comments to yourself.”
The man glanced at his watch. “It’s now midnight. At a designated time tomorrow morning, one of you will shoot a fellow subject in the back. You will shoot that person dead with a single bullet. There will be no namby-pamby wounding. You will shoot to kill. The game will continue each day until only two subjects are left.”
Mad Scientist is wrong. Lunacy is alive and well.
Troy pressed his face between the bars and spoke before good sense could keep his mouth shut. “Is namby-pamby technically a psychological term?”
Just as those cold eyes turned on him, Brenda’s sobs broke into a loud wail that echoed through the cages. Distracted by the noise, Mad Scientist’s white coat reflected the dingy light as he stepped over to her cage. Rubbing one ear, he turned to face the room. “For your own sanity, I recommend you shoot that one first.”
Darrel shot to his feet, his arm thrusting through the bars. His fingers were only an inch away from the madman’s coat before he could reach no farther. “Why would we do such a terrible thing? Why on earth would we agree?”
Mad Scientist chuckled. “A reasonable question. I wouldn’t expect you to cooperate if you didn’t have an incentive.”
He walked back to Dee Dee’s cage and cocked the gun. He pointed the muzzle at Ashton’s head.
“No!” Dee Dee covered the boy with her body. “No!”
“Stop it!” Ron rattled his bars, his voice trembling. “No! Don’t touch them!”
Troy had never heard Ron frightened before, and the older man’s fear spread like a contagion through the group.
Mad Scientist ignored Ron. “That will do you no good, Dee Dee. This gun holds .454 Casull bullets. Hunters use them to take down elephants. Squeezing this trigger is enough to blow a hole through both you and anything, or anyone, you attempt to hide.”
Watching Dee Dee plead broke Troy’s heart.
“If you agree to shoot each other, at the end of the experiment, one of you and the child will remain alive. If you don’t cooperate, the child will be the first to die, and the rest of you will follow.”
Mad Scientist raised his thumb and eased down the hammer with a slowness that could only have been meant to prolong the woman’s terror. He slipped the gun back into his pocket.
“Your choice now is simple. As a group, you will decide who will be the killer and who will be killed. I’ll let you enjoy the dawn, so your decision must be made before eight tomorrow morning. If you refuse to cooperate, none of you will see another day.”
The man removed a small clock from his left pocket and placed it on the concrete floor in the middle of the corridor. Both hands on the clock pointed straight up.
“Did I say the choice is simple?” Mad Scientist tsked as he walked to the door. Once he’d opened it, he faced them again. “That was an error. I think it will be very difficult. And quite fascinating to observe. You have until the morning.”
With a parting smile, the door clanged shut behind him.
No one spoke.
Tick tock. Tick tock.
The clock sounded more like a bomb.
Special Agent Stella Knox blinked away the dregs of sleep as she put her 4Runner in park. The Criminal Investigation Division of the FBI’s Nashville Resident Agency came into focus. She hadn’t slept well last night, not after Hagen Yates’s impromptu visit…
“Stella, I need to talk to you. About Joel Ramirez.”
She was so startled to hear the name of her father’s former partner come out of Hagen’s mouth that she very nearly slammed her apartment door in his face. She managed to keep her cool, though, and welcomed him in.
For years now, she’d believed her Uncle Joel was as dead as her father. But, recently, she discovered he might be alive and living in Atlanta under an assumed identity—Matthew Johnson—possibly a witness protection cover.
But she’d never mentioned that to Hagen.
“How do you know that name?”
The great Hagen Yates, super special agent of the FBI, actually blushed. “I overheard you talking with Mac.”
Mackenzie Drake was not only the team’s technical ace, she and Stella had become close friends in the weeks since Stella joined the Nashville CID. Due to their instant friendship and Mac’s technical expertise, Stella had enlisted the cyber tech’s help in her quest to find her father’s killer.
And Hagen had heard every word?
Before Stella could launch into a lecture about listening in on people’s private conversations, Hagen held up a hand. “I don’t know what it all means, but it sounds like a mess. And if you need help in Atlanta to sort it out, I’m happy to go with you.” He placed a hand on her arm and looked directly into her eyes. “Agents don’t investigate alone, Stella. They’re safer and smarter in pairs.”
The conversation was so strange. Why was he offering to help? Was he interested in her father’s case? Or did she interest him? The way he looked at her, she couldn’t tell.
During their last investigation, Stella thought she sensed an attraction. But as quickly as Hagen had grown warm, he’d become cold again, as though they were nothing more than acquaintances. She didn’t know what he was thinking.
And what had caused him to listen to her conversation with Mac in the first place?
The alarm on Stella’s phone went off, reminding her that she had a briefing in just a few minutes. Stella groaned in frustration but knew she couldn’t mull over the rest of what Hagen had told her last night. She had to focus.
Slamming her 4Runner’s door harder than the vehicle deserved, she forced her mind to the present. She had a job to do, even if it was seven in the morning.
Supervisory Special Agent Paul Slade had called last night with a new case. Multiple abductions from a small town called Stonevale outside of Murfreesboro meant they had a busy few days ahead of them.
She wanted to get started. And she wanted to get finished too. Not just because she was eager to find those missing people and bring them home safely, she needed to get to Atlanta…with or without Hagen Yates.
But questions about her father and her Uncle Joel would have to be put on the back burner. She’d chosen this career in part to find her father’s killers but mostly to save the innocent and spread justice. Today, that meant Atlanta would have to wait. She was going to Murfreesboro.
Swiping her ID at the door, she headed straight to the briefing room. The rest of the team was already there. Instead of sitting in their seats, though, they were standing along one side of the room.
Chloe Foster grinned as Stella entered. “Dani’s idea.”
Stella’s jaw dropped. “Chloe! What are you doing here? I thought you’d still be on leave.”
The last time she’d seen Chloe, her colleague had been unconscious on the floor, blood leaking out of a bullet wound. That was just three days ago. Was Chloe made of steel? Or did she just act like she was?
“Doctor cleared me.” Chloe shrugged. When the movement made her wince, she lifted a hand to her shoulder and looked sheepish. She adjusted the sling on her left arm. “It’s still a bit sore. But the bullet’s out, the hole’s sewn up, and I detest painkillers. I’d rather be here than wallow in bed all day.”
Stella swallowed hard against the ball of emotion creeping up her throat. “Right. Great. I was so worried, I—”
Chloe lifted a hand. “Tuck in.”
She stepped back to reveal a table covered with plates of croissants and pastries. A hot water dispenser and a pile of cups stood at one end.
Three pastries were already piled on Ander Bennett’s plate. A fourth was in the agent’s mouth. He put down his coffee and gave Stella a small wave.
Danielle Jameson stood next to him, one hand pressed into the small of her back. Now in her third trimester, Dani was limited to desk duty, which meant Stella hadn’t had much chance to get to know her. She regretted that.
Dani was always friendly, and she had welcomed her to the team with open arms. If they ever caught more than a one- or two-day break between cases before she gave birth, Stella would try to set aside some time to chat.
Dani raised a cup of chamomile tea. “Thought you guys deserved a bit of a treat this morning. I know you all had a rough week.”
Stella couldn’t disagree. “Thanks, Dani. You’re a gem.”
It was going to take more than a good breakfast to knock the memories of two multiple homicides, one after another, out of her system. But sugary goodness wasn’t a bad place to start.
“The cocoa’s right there.” Mackenzie Drake stood on the other side of Dani, her slight frame mostly hidden by Dani’s extended belly. She flicked a lock of white-blond hair over her shoulder and pointed to the plastic cup filled with instant hot chocolate packets. “I knew you couldn’t begin your day without at least one cup of cocoa. Since the rest of us only drink coffee and tea like grown-ups, Dani had to go to the kiddie store to get chocolate powder.”
“Ha.” Stella grinned, not insulted in the least as she poured her kiddie powder into a cup. “I’d have gone for a cocktail, but if you’re too wimpy to start the day with a dirty martini, I’ll just have to make do.”
Mac lifted her Nerd Alert mug. “Not on a workday. But when we’re old and retired and living in neighboring condos in Florida, that’s how we should start every day. By the pool with a cocktail and a view of the pool boy.”
The door swung open, and their laughter died as Slade’s deep voice filled the room. “All right, take your seats.”
Stella tossed a pastry onto a plate and took the seat next to Chloe. Hagen sat directly opposite her. He’d skipped the drinks on offer and had a small cup of espresso in front of him alongside a barely touched croissant. He gave her a curt nod of greeting before turning his attention to the SSA.
What’s wrong with him?
One minute, he was her best friend, ready to spend a couple of days with her in Atlanta searching for clues about her father’s killer and, the next, he was back to being cold and professional. A colleague and agent, not a friend or confidant. She’d never met anyone who could be so different in and out of the workplace.
“Listen up.” Slade rested his fingertips on the surface of the table. “We’ve got six abductees and a police chief who needs our help. Five adults and a two-year-old.”
“A toddler?” Ander exhaled out a heavy breath. “Jesus.”
“Yup. They were all taken from the home of Ronald and Dee Dee Bisgard in Stonevale, right near Murfreesboro.” The faces of a smiling couple appeared on a screen behind Slade. The Bisgards stood before a small mom-and-pop store. “They’re the owners of Bisgard’s Best, a family grocery that’s been in the town for almost thirty years. The two-year-old is the couple’s adopted son, Ashton.”
The picture changed to show a small boy with jet-black hair, sparkling, blue eyes, and a cheeky grin. He held an ice-cream cone bigger than his head.
Stella wanted to smile, but she knew when they found the family, there would be no smiles or ice cream for a while. Maybe never again.
“The other three are friends who’d attended a dinner party at the Bisgards’ house. Troy Harvey, a twenty-three-year-old assistant manager at Bisgard’s Best. Brenda Renelle, forty-seven, is a cashier at the store. And Darrel Dowers, forty-nine. He’s the only one not connected to the store. He’s an accountant and a friend of Dee Dee’s.”
Slade flicked through images of the three remaining abductees. Troy looked younger than his twenty-three years. Tall and lanky, he had an awkward smile and narrow chin.
Brenda leaned a forearm on the counter in front of her cash register, her red hair dancing on the edges of her shoulders. She cradled a certificate declaring her to be Employee of the Month.
Darrel reminded Stella of a slightly younger version of Jonathan, her mother’s husband. With his almost entirely bald head and crumpled, gray suit, Darrel looked every bit like a middle-aged man just waiting to buy an RV and take a slow retirement tour of the national parks.
“Troy’s mother reported her son and the Bisgard household missing at five thirty yesterday evening. She went to the Bisgards’ after her Bible study because she…” Slade glanced down at his notes, “was ‘concerned for my son’s moral well-being.’ When she arrived, the door was open. All the vehicles were there, but the place was empty. The table had been set, and the meal looked like it had started.”
The picture changed to show a dining room table covered in dishes and half-eaten food on the plates. One fork rested in a pile of mashed potatoes. A knife had cut halfway through the leg of grilled chicken. Peas were scattered across a baby’s highchair tray.
“There was no sign of a struggle, and the only fingerprints forensics have found belong to the Bisgards and their guests. Food samples have been sent off, but it will be a while before we get those results. Thoughts?”
Slade turned off the slides and faced the agents.
Stella was the first to speak. “At least we don’t have to worry about victim profiles for this one. Three are related, and the other three are friends. Maybe we’re talking about another relative or a friend? Someone with a personal vendetta or a dispute with the family.”
“It would have taken more than one kidnapper.” Hagen tore off the end of his croissant and rolled the pastry between his fingers. “Moving six bodies?”
Ander glanced at Hagen. “Five and a kid. A two-year-old won’t put up much of a fight.”
“My point is that moving one body is hard enough. Whoever did this didn’t work alone.”
“People cooperate with a gun in play,” Stella reminded him, wrapping her hands around her warm mug. “The unsub could’ve just pointed them toward the door.”
“Without one person in the party putting up some kind of resistance?” Hagen pushed the croissant away as though irritated by the pastry.
Stella knew Hagen was right. “Good point. If it’s a kidnapping, we should expect a ransom demand soon.”
Mac glanced up from her laptop. “I’ve got trackers on their cells and will work on tapping their home and work phones.”
“Good.” Slade stretched his back, and a loud crack sounded through the room. “The police chief in Stonevale is gathering all the surveillance they can find near the Bisgards’ home and store. They didn’t have a security system of their own, but Chief Houston thinks plenty of their neighbors do. Chloe…?”
The agent dropped her hand from her sling. “Yes, sir?”
“You sure you didn’t forge your doctor’s name on that medical release?”
A smile played at her lips before she pressed them together. “No, sir. I probably would have but didn’t have to.”
Slade stared at her so long that Stella started to sympathy sweat for her fellow agent. Chloe, cool as a cucumber, stared right back.
Finally, Slade sighed. “Okay, you’re with me. Stella, Hagen, and Ander, I want you three on the road to Murfreesboro right away. If we need them, I’ll call in the others. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. Go.”
Stella finished her hot chocolate with two long gulps and wrapped her pastry in a napkin, tucking it into her shoulder bag, keeping it away from her laptop and tablet. She knew she’d be hungry later but, mostly, didn’t want to waste a good pastry.
Chloe adjusted her sling. “Looks like we’ve got another strange one, huh?”“Six people taken from a dinner party? Yeah, that’s strange.” Stella hauled her heavy bag onto her shoulder. “But when was anything normal in this job?”