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Red Mud River (Paperback)

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BOOK 0.5 OF THE CALLOW AND OAKLEY FBI THRILLER SERIES.

One body, two bodies, panic everywhere.

The latest victim was like the others — abandoned in the outskirts of El Paso.  Exposed to the elements, they’re left to die alone in the cold.

The FBI’s elite serial killer identification team, The Behavioral Analysis Unit, dispatches their top criminal profiler, Genevieve Callow and her esteemed partner, Marcus Oakley, to track down the elusive killer. The killer is crafty. Smart. Completely deranged.

In the midst of the investigation, another girl is taken, and the killer sets the countdown clock. People cower in their homes. Nobody feels safe. 

What could drive someone to such violence? And why?

Unfortunately for Agent Callow, the trail is as cold as the victim’s bodies — sub-zero. The case proves to be the most difficult she’s ever worked, and the bodies are piling up.

If she fails, blood will soak the ground. He won’t stop.

Can Callow piece the clues together before the killer claims another life?

Paperback 142 pages
Dimensions 5 x 0.36 x 8 inches
ISBN 979-8864077580
Publication date October 11, 2023
Publisher The Nightmare Engine

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Chapter One, Virginia

In Quantico, Virginia, snow was a constant disruption to the average commuter, causing them to draw up the collars on their expensive peacoats as frigid air hunted for exposed skin. Special Agent Genevieve Callow—Jenny to a select few, Callow to most—didn’t bring a coat today. Not because she hadn’t expected the snow; it had been there for the last week, painting the rolling hills around the mirror-windowed office building like whitecaps. No, she had forgotten her coat because she was distracted, and all the way from her car, through the parking lot, and into the lobby, she’d paid for her distraction with chattering teeth and frost-bitten fingertips.
Callow’s office was in the furthest corner on the second floor. It had windows to either side of her desk, which allowed her to look out upon other agents hugging themselves and dreaming of hot coffee. She wondered if they, too, were suffering from similar struggles.
She doubted it. It wasn’t every day you received your best friend’s autopsy results.
Callow steeled herself against what lay ahead by staring outside. The snow-swept landscape blurred at the edges, and the agents became little ants following a chemical trail left by their predecessors.
She enjoyed the view most days. It was hers. She’d earned it. The corner office came as a perk of the assignment—Senior Special Agent. It had a nice ring to it in her head, but was a mouthful to spit out. It rarely held sway in the field and only served to settle differences between agents in a pinch. That aside, in the FBI’s esteemed Behavioral Analysis Unit, Callow was considered a veteran. Senior. Not at all a reflection of her modest age of thirty-five.
Callow hated swinging the title around; she’d much rather let logic speak for itself. That’s what she was paid for: her logic. Her uncanny, borderline unnatural ability to profile killers with icy objectiveness. It was a skill derived from studious devotion: a somewhat obsessive fascination with serial killers. In her career Callow had caught two, and, so far, requests for parole had been denied, which suggested she’d made the right calls. The killers remained locked away—but never truly forgotten.
She eyed a commendation peeking out from behind her monitor, and a similar one next to it. They served not as mementos of a job well done, but rather as a reminder that time was an agent’s most valuable asset. The award on the left—three victims, all young women, over three weeks. Its twin—four victims, also women, over a month. Due to her profiling, Callow had been directly responsible for capturing their killers, and she had subsequently been presented with the awards.
They didn’t dry the tears of the victims’ families, however, and they didn’t make Callow feel any better. She was always left with questions. What if I had been faster? What did I miss? What if I’d had more time?
Today was yet another day where more time was back order. No matter how objective, uncanny, and unnatural her abilities, the Icebox Killer was more so—and he had claimed Callow’s best friend as his latest victim. Usually, cases seemed distant; a far-off land she was visiting. This one had struck home. 
Home wasn’t safe.
A digital clock on Callow’s desk beeped twice: 9:00 A.M. It had beeped twice an hour ago, too. Callow glared at it, as if the clock was wrong and she hadn’t just misplaced an hour. She jiggled the mouse for her computer and entered her password. Her hand had gone numb on the desk, and little bugs ran across the surface of her skin.
A news article was waiting for her on the screen.
Her profile of the clock had been wrong. Callow had lost an hour, somewhere in thought, the article adorning her screen clear and present evidence of it. It showed a digital clock, each number the page of a book, turning as the minutes passed on.
The article read: Remains of young woman found. Icebox Killer claims another victim.
Callow paused at the headline. ‘The Icebox Killer’ was not a name she had condoned but had, in fact, condemned—yet the media had decided to run with it after the second cooler containing human remains—namely the heads and fingers of young women in their twenties — had popped up on two separate intersections in a sleepy Maryland suburb called Colleyville. 
Now, a third.
Callow tore herself from the screen as loud footsteps down the hall caused her to look up. She didn’t need to give any more thought to the article; the man now striding down the hallway commanded her attention.
Special Agent Marcus Oakley carried two things of note into her office and set them down on her desk. The first was the dreaded, yet expected, manila folder that she forced herself to ignore in lieu of the second item: a steaming cup of black coffee. Callow took it graciously between her hands and inhaled deeply, then rolled her eyes and sat back in her chair.
“Thought you’d like that,” Marcus said.
His voice had a pleasant rasp to it, a chesty resonance which commanded all who heard him to listen when he raised it beyond casual conversation. From his voice to his athletic stature and borderline cocky strut, Marcus Oakley was more akin to a model than an FBI agent. They’d been partners for two years now, and Callow had seen Marcus adopt different parts of his personality as they were required. From seductive confidence to towering authority, he was good at what he did—on both counts. Luckily, Callow knew of his charm and had conditioned herself well enough to avoid it if she needed to.
“I was about to head down there for a refill,” Callow said, sipping loudly. The brew was watered-down, but it was hot, fresh, and livened her senses.
“No, you weren’t,” Marcus replied. “I’ve been down there for an hour. I may not have your cerebral skills, but judging by the blank screen and full cup you’ve got there”—he nodded toward a Styrofoam cup filled to the brim just north of her keyboard—“I’d say there’s something on your mind. Call it a hunch, or, God forbid—a clue.”
He smiled devilishly with just the corner of his mouth. Marcus’s pearl white, meticulously polished teeth contrasted with his jet black hair. He scratched at his five o’clock shadow—a feature he somehow managed to keep around the clock.
Callow took another sip. “You can stop with the smile. Coffee is not adequate bribery, and it certainly doesn’t erase the memories of what happened last night.”
It was Tuesday, and Oakley had called Callow at 3:00 A.M. that morning, needing a ride. He’d claimed not one, but all four of the tires on his Trailblazer had blown on his ride back from a place he wouldn’t disclose. But between the smell of cheap perfume and cigarettes permeating off his body and the pickup spot of Third and Brenton in the heart of Richmond, Callow could guess what he’d been up to. Despite the hour-long drive to pick him up, the same again to drive back to his house, and the thirty minutes it took to return home, she wasn’t tired. She couldn’t afford to be. Not right now.
“Fine. I owe you. But who else would I call?” He smiled again, larger this time. Callow detected that it was a bit forced, and there was something else there, too. The smile faded when she didn’t return it.
Marcus slowly reached for the file and held it in his lap, then he met her eyes. She stared back, then focused on her coffee. She had something to talk about; something he obviously didn’t. She dodged the obvious, attempting to thin the air of growing tension.
“A girlfriend, maybe? Your brother? I’m sure your mother would love to know what you were doing near Brenton.”
Now, it was her turn to sneer. Marcus didn’t have—and hadn’t had—a girlfriend since they’d had their little fling before becoming partners. He chose instead to seek out what he called ‘adventures’: seedy bars, extreme sports, even special assignments with inherently higher risk such as hostage rescue and deployments with the Critical Incident Response Group—the FBI’s SWAT team. From time to time, he sure could flip the coin and bet on recklessness or be ready to tear the room apart, and at others he was cool, calm, and collected.
“A girlfriend would never believe I popped all four tires. And my mother still thinks I’m in the Finance Division. She’d lose her mind if she knew I was in the field and at the strip …” He trailed off as Callow raised an eyebrow at him. Rather than listening to his banter any longer, her eyes trailed the front of his tailored suit and settled on the folder. It drew her attention, stealing every strand of her concentration. She sighed, deliberately loudly, and the room seemed to increase in temperature by several degrees.
“Autopsy?”
Marcus nodded curtly.
“Can I see her?”
No nod, this time—and no answer, either. Callow glared until he looked away, scanned the room for a distraction, found none, and settled on the folder. Marcus thumbed through its pages, flipping them over and quickly skimming through their contents. At the fourth page, he stopped, and all color drained from his face; something Callow was surprised someone as stoic as him was capable of.
“Are you sure you want to look at this, Jen?” His voice was low and somber now. “I can read the ME’s report. It’s the same as the last.”
Callow set the cup down as her heart began to race. She reached for the file but stopped halfway. She had expected this—prepared for it, even—yet it didn’t make the knowledge looming in front of her any easier to digest. The simple manila folder was no longer just that; instead, it was a coiled snake, ready to bite her outstretched hand, its venom the realization that what she had learned was, in fact, scientifically confirmed. A finality of sorts to a dreamlike state she wished she could settle in forever.
Callow became aware of the tremor building in her arm and pulled it back, sliding her now sweaty palm down the front of her pants. A sour taste grew in her mouth, and everything but the folder became out of focus. The wall and its many shelves became a kaleidoscope of colors; the two windows blending until they became white streaks; the plain door to her office twisting into a knot.
“Jen? Jen!” Marcus called. His voice echoed. Up became down. Her heel tapped rapidly, and her heart rate ramped up to marathon speeds. Her vision came in from the sides, her four walls closing in and growing dark.
She wasn't aware of the warm pressure, a comforting embrace, around her head until then. She nearly jumped, but the grip didn’t overly tighten. She reached up, felt soft fabric, and smelled the hint of amber wood. She felt a hand around hers, holding it dearly; a soft cradle.
“Come back,” said Marcus. “It’s okay. Come back.”
She could hear Marcus, his voice cutting over the sound of her own thundering heart. It had a strange echo, yet was more grounded in reality than her vision.
She started coming to.
First, her vision. But things in the room weren’t as they had been before. Marcus was gone, and the door was closed. Then her other senses convened with her eyes. The soft fabric against her cheek was from Marcus’s shirt, and the amber wood was his aftershave. The comforting grip around her head was from his soft embrace, and the cradle around her hand was his.
Tears streaked down her face, their remnants giving the room a watery appearance. She blinked hard once, then once more.
“Come back. Come back to me,” Marcus said as he held her, rocking gently.
But the damage was done. Her body had dived into the throes of a panic attack, acting as a prediction of what was to come; of what she would find in the closed file on the desk. She hadn’t looked at it yet.
But she had to see.
She had to see for herself, objectiveness be damned.
Even while Marcus did what he could to bring her back from her emotional whirlwind, Callow had to see.
She slipped her hand out from beneath Marcus’s and started reaching for the folder again, cramming a sniffle that then settled as a painful lump in her throat.
“No,” said Marcus. “You don’t have to.”
She continued to reach for the folder.
“Jenny, please. Don’t.”
She lifted the front of the file, then flipped it over slowly, like she was exposing a body in the morgue. The folder immediately fell open to an image, rather than the report.
A red and white cooler, its top open and stained with blood, was staged as the head of a decapitated woman’s body. She wore jeans, a cream sweater, and black mid-rise boots, and she was sprawled out in the snow like she was making a snow angel. Her skin was frosted over, bluish in some places, black and decayed in others.
But what drew Callow’s eyes the most was the simple silver bracelet on the woman’s left wrist. It carried one charm and a flat engraving plate, dividing the links. The charm was shaped into half a heart and marked with initials. Near the bottom of the image was an enlarged picture of the engraving on the bracelet. Callow mouthed the words. She knew them by heart.
In remembrance of a friend’s love.
The Icebox Killer’s latest victim was Carmen Watts, Callow’s best friend. She’d given Carmen that bracelet when they’d graduated from college. Callow’s charm had been engraved with her initials—C.W.—and its sister bracelet formed the complete heart. Carmen’s half was engraved G.C. The rest of the bracelet was identical.
In that moment, Callow lost control and didn’t just cry; she wailed into Marcus’s arm, a tortured, ragged scream muffled only by his suit jacket.
And not a soul in Quantico judged her for it.



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