Doubleday
Doubleday
Feb 23, 2015 · 15 min read

Signature Kill

An excerpt from the novel by David Levien


David Levien is an exceptionally talented thriller writer who manages to deliver gritty suspense in crisp, propulsive prose while populating his stories with vividly drawn characters, including the brooding and damaged private investigator, Frank Behr.

In this excerpt, we first encounter the victim, then Behr, and finally, the killer.


Indianapolis Police officer Denny Hawkins rolled his cruiser through Northwestway Park shining his prowl light past the dormant playground swings when the beam caught a shape, white and confusing, on the ground just before the tree line. Hawkins tapped the brake, refocused the light, and sat and stared for a long moment. There was something familiar about what he saw, but he couldn’t properly make out the featureless pile. He took his foot off the brake and rolled closer.

Flesh.

The lone word came to Officer Hawkins’s mind. He thumped the cruiser into park and stepped out, one hand wrapped around his six-battery Maglite, the other resting on the butt of his Glock .40 duty weapon. He walked closer, his feet making a slight crunching sound on the grass, crisp with frost. He passed his light over the pile, and what he saw made his mouth go dry. There was a racing in his chest and a sickening drop in his stomach. Sweat popped along his back and crotch as adrenaline hit him hard. It was a woman’s body, or parts of her body, naked in the night. He almost retched, then shined the flashlight around the vicinity. He stood and listened. All was quiet and still. He was alone. Finally his hand came off his weapon and reached for the radio mic on his shoulder and he found his voice.

“Fifty-two thirteen, I’m mobile at Northwestway Park, request assistance at my location. I’ve got a ten-zero . . .”

“Say again,” dispatch came back.

“I’ve got a body — I think it’s all here. Victim is unidentified white female. Request Homicide Unit and coroner.”

1

Movement in the pin oak on the hillside caught Frank Behr’s eye. He stood hidden in thick trees on a low rise two hundred fifty yards away, scanning the underbrush above the shallow bowl of a meadow. Gray and stealthy, the whitetails picked their way down toward the good feed, and the horizontal lines of their backs broke the vertical pattern of the trees. Behr felt the nerves along the still-healing left side of his collarbone call out in protest as he slowly raised his Remington 870 Express and used the four-by scope to get a better look. The deer were all doe. Even the controlled movement of his lifting the gun was enough to give them pause. They stopped, three of them, their heads perfectly still, save for their ears, the insides twitching white as they rotated around to capture a telltale sound. Behr stood there, gun steady, watching. After a long moment the deer continued, in serpentine fashion, down toward the edge of the meadow. When his arm started to throb, he lowered the gun.

Over the next half hour several more doe and a pair of forkies came out of the trees and began their evening graze. Behr waited. He’d been doing this a long time, and he was familiar with the habits of whitetail. The cagey big bucks often let the young ones, and the doe, go first. There was no change for several long minutes until, like a gray ghost of the forest, the senior buck of the herd became visible far up the hill. He was out of range and in the shadows of deep cover.

Behr carefully slung his Remington and pulled a pair of old antlers from his belt and began clacking them together. The rut was on, and he hoped to rattle the old boy out into the open looking for a fight. Behr slid a plastic tube up out of his coat and blew a breath into it, causing it to emit a low grunt. He saw the buck look in his direction, but felt the silhouette of his six-and-a-half-foot, two-hundred-forty-plus-pound frame was broken up enough that the buck couldn’t see him. As long as the wind didn’t change, Behr had a chance.

The buck picked his way down to the edge of the meadow, stopping behind a brake of prickly ash. Behr gave a final knock and scrape of the antlers, then tucked them into his belt and raised his Remington again, snugging the butt onto his shoulder. The last rattle had caused the buck to lift his head and scent the wind, and Behr finally got a clear look at the old boy’s rack. He was a ten-pointer with thick beams and a wide spread. Bramble slightly obscured the shot, but Behr was able to put his crosshairs square on the deer’s chest. He held. If the buck continued into the open and quartered broadside it’d be ideal, but this was a good shot, and one Behr had made before. He clicked the safety off and let out a slow breath, closing the valve on the anticipation and the pity and all other emotion in his chest. When hunting, a cold, clean killing edge is best. He was ready. The ideal time came and went. He should have squeezed. But something made him wait. He watched the deer for a long moment. The moment continued as the buck ticked forward a dozen more steps. Behr felt his mind drift.

Trevor. Six months old now, but one day I’ll be standing on a hillside like this with my boy, teaching him the ways of the woods, how to shoot, how to hunt.

Behr refocused his eye and the reticle. Then he saw the buck flinch, and a millisecond later the boom of another slug gun echoed off the hillside. The deer in the field scattered, and the old boy’s head whipped to the side and he disappeared into the foliage.

The crack of breaking branches and the thick chunking sound of hooves knocking against downed trunks reached Behr in his spot as the buck, hit and hurt, careened heedlessly into the deep timber.

Behr waited a few minutes, until he saw the blaze orange of Lester’s cap, atop a suit of Mossy Oak Break-Up pattern, make its way like a bobbing cork above the bramble, then he started down the hill and across the meadow to where he’d seen the buck plunge into the trees.

***

Behr reached the deer first and found him in a clearing, rolled up on his left side, face plowed into a carpet of dead leaves. There was a small hole just behind the shoulder that oozed only a trickle of blood. It was a near-perfect shot. Lester made the clearing seconds later, breathing hard.

“Hot damn,” he said over a lip full of Copenhagen when he saw what he’d collected.

“Well done, Les,” Behr said and gave him a whack on the shoulder. In his late sixties, Lester Dollaway was the father of one of Behr’s old college football teammates, Des, a reservist who’d died in Afghanistan five years back. The hunting trips had been a long-standing tradition between the three of them, and Behr hadn’t considered ending them just because his friend was gone. That first year when it was just him and Les pulling permits had been difficult. The pain in the older man’s darting black eyes was almost unbearable. Things had gotten easier with each passing year. A native Iowan, Les lived only an hour away from where they were now, and he knew all the landowners and got permission to scout in the spring and hunt in the early winter season.

“It’s the last day,” Lester said, taking off his cap and rubbing up his steel wool hair. “I can do this if you want to get on over the hill and look for them forkies or something.”

Behr gave some thought to his $400 nonresident antlered deer license that would go unfilled.

“Nah, I’ll help you and we can drag him down together.”

“It’ll be dark before long,” Les said. “You won’t get a shot.”

“Probably not.”

“I thank you.”

“Want me to dress him?” Behr offered and pulled the drop point skinner off his belt.

“If it’s no trouble,” Lester said. “These damn eyes . . .”

Behr nodded and removed his coat, then pushed up his shirtsleeves. “Seemed fine when you squeezed off on this old boy.”

He rolled the deer onto his back and made the first cut from sternum to crotch, his blade parting the white belly fur and whiter layer of fat beneath it before the red of muscle and blood leapt forth. Once the buck was opened up, Behr reached up into the warmth and wetness of the cavity and removed the organs. After splitting the pelvis, Behr cut the heart free. It came out thick and heavy and purplish in his hand, and he set it off to the side before he tilted the carcass downhill to drain. As the garnet fluid soaked into the dry ground, Behr looked at the battered forehead and broken brow tine on the old buck.

“See the Roman nose on this one? He was a fighter,” Lester said.

Behr absently rubbed his own nose with his upper arm. Had he not liked his shot? he wondered. He’d made many as difficult and some much more so. Maybe he’d seen too much gunfire recently, or perhaps an awareness of the damage a gun like the one he had brought could do was still just too fresh. He wasn’t sure and it didn’t matter. He hadn’t fired and hadn’t filled his tag after four days of hunting.

“Couldn’t believe you didn’t take him before he came on down toward me,” Lester said. “You’re in for some meat after I get him to the butcher.”

“Thanks, Les,” Behr said.

“Hell, you rattled him right in.”

Behr used the remainder of his water bottle to rinse the blood and gore from his hands and forearms. Lots of guys wore rubber gloves when field dressing these days, to prevent picking up infection, but not Behr. It wasn’t how he was taught. And he’d yet to catch a disease from a deer. He couldn’t say the same for people.

The sun throbbed crimson and dropped down over the hill, flattening out the light in the meadow to a pale purple as they each took a hind leg and dragged the deer a half mile to Lester’s truck.

2

It’s happening again . . .

The words come from a place deep within him. He feels that stuff down there, bubbling and stirring, as the thing inside him that is other looks to push up and outward. He has to take it for a ride.

It’s happening again and before long the red curtain will come down once more . . . Soon.

So soon it is almost confusing.

He should be at work by now, but he finds himself turning toward Irvington instead. He’ll have to make up the time on his own. His bosses just want results, they care less about his coming and going and being punctual as long as the work gets done. And he has seniority. Besides, he doesn’t know this neighborhood. Yet.

The streets are filled with cars this morning as people go to their jobs, the sidewalks populated with mothers and their children on the way to school, along with the occasional jogger bundled in a sweatshirt moving down the road, blowing cold clouds of breath. He rolls along, as slowly as he can without getting in the way, without becoming noticeable.

He turns the corner onto East Lowell, and sees a lone woman walking. In her late twenties or early thirties, she has blond hair streaked with light reddish brown the color of ground cinnamon. She isn’t out for a healthful stroll, he can see by the cigarette in her hand and the black leather jacket and jeans that look like they were worn to a bar the night before.

Dirty girl, dirty girl . . .

He slows, trolling behind her for a bit. She is petite, with a light stride. Young.

Go to work. Now. A voice inside tries to instruct him. But it is weak. Certainly not strong enough to win out, and it will soon fall mute.

He no longer feels the car around him. All is silent. He is flying, floating along next to her. He is near her, with her, of her . . .

Finally, his senses return. The steering wheel is in his hands, the seat beneath him, and the pedals under his feet once again. He speeds up and pulls abreast of her for just a moment before continuing on, her presence and her location filed away automatically in his mind. A certain fluttering sensation arrives in his gut — the one that comes along when he’s found a new project.

Hello, Cinnamon . . .

3

Behr cracked the window and allowed some winter air to blow into the car as he drove home along I-74.

The trip back from bluff country was six hours plus. He’d planned on leaving before sunup so he could get home comfortably during daylight, but the bottle of single-barrel bourbon Les had pulled out to celebrate his successful hunt had slowed Behr down by an hour that morning and the light was starting to fade by the time he neared Indianapolis and home.

He and Les had passed a pleasant final evening. They’d hung the buck on a gambrel to drain at the landowner’s barn until morning, when Les would take it to the butcher. Then they’d cleaned up and had gone for dinner at the good local restaurant they’d saved for the last night and talked about their lives over T-bones.

“I love them,” Behr said of Susan, his girlfriend and the mother of his son, Trevor, “that’s a fact. But it became clear pretty quick that that’s not enough to make things go smooth between her and me.”

“Well . . .” Les said.

“She moved out with Trevor after three months, when I’d healed up and my wing was working again,” Behr continued. He moved the arm and tested the clavicle that had been pulverized by buckshot half a year back.

After surgery, Behr had spent countless agonizing hours on “The Rack,” which was what he called the continuous passive-motion chair he’d rented, painfully regaining the mobility in his shoulder joint, as well as doing isometric exercises for strength. He was about ready to graduate to real weight training again and looked forward to it despite knowing how much fresh pain was coming his way.

“My place was never intended to be a home. We were all sup­posed to move to the new place together. But I . . . my job . . . if you can call it that — hell, I’ve only caught two cases in the past few months — doesn’t particularly lend itself to a happy family.”

“Well . . .” Les said again, tilting back his bourbon.

“So there’s the money thing on top of the rest.”

“Sure don’t help.”

“It never mattered before, but now . . . a little breathing room would be nice. To be able to provide all the things for ’em that they should have,” Behr said. “But I’ve tried the kind of jobs that make that happen, and you know . . .” Behr didn’t really have to go on. Les had been in the service as a young man and had then spent his life running a construction company, and his knowing, darting eyes had seen it all.

“Frank, if there’s one thing I’ve learned,” Les said, “it’s that pleas­ing everyone is pretty damn near impossible, but pissing everyone off is a piece of cake.”

Behr could only raise his glass to that. They laughed and pushed their plates away and accelerated the bourbon.

***

Behr clicked on his blinker and exited onto 465 to skirt Indianapolis and head toward his place when a woman’s face on a large billboard filled his windshield. She was a bit younger than Susan, also a blonde, though the woman on the billboard had more dark roots in her hair. The sign wasn’t an advertisement. There were words in block print along the bottom that read:

Do you know what happened to Kendra Gibbons? Reward for information leading to answers, arrest, conviction: $100,000.

Good luck with that flashed through Behr’s mind. The woman’s eyes were sparkling and alive. There was the hint of someone’s arm wrapped around her shoulder. Perhaps the picture was taken at a party and cropped. The billboard was visible in the passenger window for a moment, and then it was gone from Behr’s peripheral vision and thoughts, his concentration fixed in front of him. He decided not to head home, but to go see Trevor instead.

***

Behr knocked on Susan’s door and entered to find her preparing dinner.

“Hey! You’re back,” she said, turning her face toward his for a kiss before resuming the chopping of red peppers. Even though they were living separately, they were doing their best to try to make it work. A wok was on low sizzle on the stove and smelled delicious.

“There he is,” Behr said, crossing to the Pack ’N Play where his son, Trevor, sat, banging away with a block on a shape-sorter toy. The boy smiled up at him. “That’s a triangle, son. It goes in this slot.” Behr helped him and the wooden piece dropped away, then he picked the boy up and turned toward Susan. “Trying to fit the wrong peg into the round hole — just like his old man.”

“He’s six months old, what’s your excuse?” Susan asked.

Behr didn’t answer and instead lifted Trevor, tossing him aloft, pretending to miss the catch, before grabbing him up. The boy squealed in delight. Behr stared into his eyes and thought of Tim, his first son, long gone now, as he did every time he saw Trevor. Surging joy and piercing pain mixed inside him. It was something he’d been unable to escape in the past six months and doubted he ever would.

“So how’d it go?” she asked.

“Good,” Behr said, turning toward her. “Weather was perfect. Les got a big one. I didn’t fill. But it was good.”

“All right, a long walk in the woods then,” she said.

“Pretty much,” Behr said, his attention pulled to the television, which was tuned to the news. There were a slew of official vehicles behind Sandra Chapman, the reporter from WTHR, who was doing a stand-up from a familiar-looking park playground.

“Is that . . . that looks like Northwestway. What happened?”

Susan glanced over. “They found a body out there in the park. A woman. It’s been all over the news while you’ve been away.”

“Murder?” Behr asked.

“Yeah. Cut up in pieces. Awful.”

“Christ,” Behr said, turning away when the news switched back to the anchors and the next story, about a local high school basketball all-star team.

“I’m making stir-fry. You want to stay?”

“Sure.”

Behr sat at the table and bounced Trevor and watched Susan move about the kitchen as she finished preparing the meal. She was nearly back to her pre-baby weight, just a bit of extra fullness remained around her hips and breasts. Behr saw her wrestle with the cork on a bottle of Pinot Grigio.

“Trade you,” he said, handing her Trevor and opening the wine.

She poured and served, after putting the baby in a little bucket seat that rested on the table. Behr drank the white wine to keep her company even though he didn’t like it much. As they ate, they talked almost solely of Trevor and his activities and accomplishments, like rolling over and commando crawling, which were limited but endlessly fascinating to them. They finished eating and cleared the dishes, and then gave the boy a bath together. She fixed the milk while Behr read him Show Me Your Toes. Then Behr fed the boy the bottle, passing him back to Susan so she could burp him and put him down.

When all was quiet and they’d closed the door to his room, Susan bumped up against Behr in the hall with intent. He put his hand behind her head and pulled her in for a kiss. He tasted the wine on her lips and felt her respond. Soon they found their way to her bedroom and their clothes came off.

Afterward, once they’d dozed for a while, Behr’s mind returned to a state of restlessness. It was the crossroads moment of whether to head home or to stay where he was and try to go to sleep for the night. None of this was unexpected. A cycle of domestic bliss that came to its ultimate, restive end was their routine of late. Another moment passed and Behr extricated his arm from beneath her and swung his feet to the floor.

“You have an early morning?” Susan asked from half slumber as he dressed.

“They’re all early,” he said. It was true. Even though he wasn’t currently working cases, his nights often dragged on late before he managed to get in bed, and he was up long before the sun.

“Lock the door on the way out,” she said.

“Yep,” Behr said, bending and kissing her on top of the head. He stopped in Trevor’s room. It smelled of baby lotion and diaper ointment. He stood over the boy and watched his tiny chest rise and fall rhythmically. Behr reached in and touched his son’s hair, which was smooth as corn silk, and then he left.

Excerpted with permission from Signature Kill by David Levien. Published March 24, 2015 by Doubleday.

David Levien, author of 13 Million Dollar Pop, Where the Dead Lay and City of the Sun, has been nominated for the Edgar, Hammett, and Shamus awards, and is also a screenwriter and director. He lives in Connecticut.

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