Rookie detective Frank Nagler has barely had time to arrange his desk, when a new homicide case is assigned to him. Could a serial killer be stalking his hometown of Ironton, N.J.?
One by one the bodies pile up. Nine victims are killed over several months, all from different walks of life and different parts of Ironton. Each killed in a different way, forming no clear pattern, as might be expected from a single killer.The Red Hand is the prequel to The Swamps of Jersey, the book that launched the Frank Nagler Mysteries. This investigation takes place before economic hard times, political corruption and a government money scandal hit the former industrial center of Ironton, N.J.
This story is atmospheric, moody, dark and thrilling.
Rookie detective Frank Nagler has barely has time to arrange his desk, when a new homocide case is assigned to him. Could a serial killer be stalking his hometown of Ironton, N.J.?
One by one the bodies pile up. Nine victims are killed over several months, all from different walks of life and different parts of Ironton. Each killed in a different way, forming no clear pattern, as might be expected from a single killer.
The Red Hand is the prequel to The Swamps of Jersey; the book that launched the Frank Nagler Mysteries. This investigation takes place before economic hard times, political corruption and a government money scandal hit the former industrial center of Ironton, NJ.
Here’s a free preview of what’s to come..
Someone is experimenting in death
The first mark had appeared after the third death: A red handprint dripping paint slapped on a wall of the busted-up hotel where cab driver Felice Sanchez had been found dead. Underneath, “HAND OF DEATH” splotched in an awkward scrawl.
Is that a joke? Detective Frank Nagler thought when he saw the mark for the first time. Pretty crude, but you might be in a hurry to leave your calling card after you killed a woman. But he wondered: Why where there no marks left after the deaths of Nancy Harmon and Jamie Wilson, the deaths that were now believed to be the first in this cycle?
Police Chief Robert Mallory had ordered the markings scrubbed from the wall, after the police work had been completed: Photos, samples, measurements, interviews; the victim’s family, don’t you know. Then he changed his mind: Who would know to place that mark at that exact spot? That made it a statement, a claim of ownership. Instead, the chief ordered the buildings with the marks to be included in daily foot patrols. “They’ll fade in time,” he had said. “The public will stop paying attention.” Was that a taunt, a challenge to the killer? Nagler wondered, the chief in fact saying “We know you’ve been here. We will get you.”
Of course, the public did not forget, but turned two of the marks — at the hotel and the old train station – into instant shrines with bundles of flowers, photos of missing friends and family and hand-made posters.
For Nagler, staring at the red mark on the hotel had been the door that had cracked open, exposing a dark and sinister place, but the call that a body had been found near the downtown train station was the moment that his new job became real.
He’d been a detective for a month following another round of police department layoffs. He had investigated a burglary or two, a potential arson that destroyed an empty house, and broken up a few husband-wife fights, but he felt was running just to keep up, slogging through the everyday stuff of what he didn’t know, what he couldn’t imagine, one hand outstretched to feel the fog.
And now, ready or not, he was learning the awful lessons of murder first hand.
“Where is she?” he asked a patrolman standing sentry at the dark edge of the train station.
“Half-way down,” the patrolman replied, his voice a drip in a tin can echo. He tipped his head to the left. “It’s bad, Detective. Just sayin’.”
“Thanks,” Nagler replied, trying to sound confident. How bad?
Dispatch had said she was carried or dragged to the train station.
And then, if there wasn’t enough for Nagler to absorb, Medical Examiner Walter Mulligan forcefully said this: “Someone is experimenting in death,” while leaning over the body of the latest victim.
That’s when Nagler felt the ground shift and a tiny hollow spot opened in his heart. We’re supposed to be dispassionate, professional, he reminded himself. Try as he might, that hole never closed.
He ran a shaky hand through his sweat-soaked hair and squinted into a golden haze of a rooftop spotlight across the railroad tracks from where the body was found, and then nodded to Mulligan, trying to appear that he knew what that meant. My first murder case, and it’s an experiment in death.
It wasn’t the statement alone that startled Nagler. It was the chilling tone, an end-of-the-world whisper, a voice inside a dark cave. And the certainty. How does he know that?
Three women, murdered, apparently weeks, possibly months, apart, killed in different ways, in different parts of the city; different jobs, lives disconnected from each other.
And now a fourth.
THE IRONTON RIPPER, an out-of-town newspaper headline had screamed when the third death had been announced.
Nagler absorbed the scene: Dim lights from the train station platform, silhouetted cops, shadows shifting, lighted than gone; faint grinding of late night city noise, bugs buzzing, heat as thick as syrup.
And she lay dead, slashed, exposed, dragged, discarded.
Crap, Nagler thought, shaking off the pity, seeking resolve. Where is this going?
Any doubt Nagler had about what was ahead dissolved when he looked into Mulligan’s face. He was wearing that face, the one experienced officers had warned about, a mix of resignation about the need for his services and a dark anger, a stay-out-of-my-way face.
“This death is related to the others,” Mulligan pronounced after he pulled Nagler aside. “Examine her body closely.”
“So that’s the experiment?” Nagler asked, nodding at the detail that according to the reports he had read, had been present previously. “That makes him a serial killer?” he asked, barely aware of what that term meant.
“A technical term for academics,” Mulligan said, as he shook his head in disgust, and then smiled, trying to encourage the new detective. “We have four deaths, Frank. Just follow the evidence. Don’t worry about the meaning yet.” He reached for Nagler’s arm. “But this is a detail you should keep to yourself. Knowing it, and the time to release it, could be critical to catching our killer.”
Nagler nodded and turned to speak with the first patrolman on the scene.
“Who found her?” Nagler asked.
The patrolman pointed to a man clinging to the side of a patrol car. “Our drunken friend.”
Oh, Great. Nagler approached the drunk. The man shifted, then leaned, then tipped back, arms folded, head nodding.
“Hey, thanks for calling us,” Nagler said.
The man squeezed his face into a grimace and through squinting eyes, looked up at Nagler. “I didn’t call. Just yelled. Your guy was driving past the train station and stopped. Hurray for me.” He tipped his head to the right and closed his eyes. “I’m tired, man.”
“Okay, where were you headed?” Nagler asked, admiring the man’s existential gallantry.
“An old shed, down in the rail yard. Got a…got a sleeping bag there.”
Nagler smiled. “Bet you do. Know what? We’ll put you up for the night.”
“Naa, that’s okay. Someone will steal my bag, and my, um, stuff, if I don’t … Maybe I can get a drink?” He leaned forward and nearly toppled.
“Ahh, no.” Nagler pushed him upright.
The man wiped his nose on his filthy jacket sleeve and shook his head again. “Too bad.”
“Yeah.” Softly. “Yeah.” Firmly: “Look at me.”
“Look at me. Got a couple questions. Did you touch her?”
“Who? Nooooo. Never. She’s dead, man. She was bleedin’ and all. No. Shit, I didn’t touch her.” Shrugged. “Okay, kicked her shoe to see if she was, maybe… naw… dead.” He jabbed out his right foot and nearly fell.
Nagler shook his head. “Maybe … if she had some money on her?”
The man shrugged, then wiped his nose. “Maybe.”
“Did you see anyone with her?”
The man closed his face as if the question was too hard.
He was fading, Nagler knew. Last chance. “Hey, buddy. Was anybody with her?”
The drunk grabbed a handful of his hair and yanked on it. Irritated. “I’m thinkin’.” He glanced up at Nagler and then off to the left.
“A guy. Ran off that way.” He waved in all directions. “‘Hey,’ I yelled. ‘You left your friend.’ Then I looked at her and she was pretty dead.”
“Big guy? Fat? Short? Skinny?”
“Shit, man, I don’t know. Little dude. Seemed so …” Voice fading. “Little dude … I … guess. But he was far away.”