The hiatus is over. The muse is back. I’m slinging words again. Coming in January 2024, the first book of a new series, The Mind Hacker will be released. Book 1, The Family Man, kicks off a new group of characters, part of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, as they take on the worst of humanity and try not to lose themselves in the process.
Click to keep reading for a snippet from Chapter One to kick off not only a new series, but a new chapter for AJ Rose!
Even in pixels, the crime scene was gruesome. A young woman lay across the bed on her back, her throat slashed so severely, she was nearly decapitated. Her open bathrobe revealed a blood-soaked t-shirt shoved above her breasts. Her shorts hung like an afterthought off one ankle.
The IT person responsible for this training program had taken the instructions “be convincing” to a whole new level. The victim, a fictional 22-year-old college girl named Jane, wore such an expression of horror and fear, the realism punched Special Agent Tracey Smith in the gut.
He swallowed as his stomach rolled, making him regret that breakfast donut. At least the scene was 2D on the wall-mounted flatscreen rather than 3D in person.
Focus. It’s the first day. Your team wants to see what you know. You can do this.
Tracey shifted his perspective from overall repulsion at what human beings were capable of—because however fictitious this particular case study was, it was based on a combination of actual crimes—and concentrated on the details.
Compartmentalization was his friend.
Instead of a brutalized dead woman, the scene became a jigsaw puzzle, its pieces shuffling into varying degrees of importance in Tracey’s mind.
The murder’s description was deliberately spare. The 9-1-1 call came from Jane’s equally fictitious boyfriend, Jake. He’d returned to their shared apartment early Sunday evening from a weekend trip with his friends to find Jane dead.
Her smartphone showed no activity after 1 a.m. Sunday, when she’d texted with a friend:
Made it home from the bar okay. You?
I’m home, too. Goodnight.
Police responded and found the bathroom window open. Jake said the front door was cracked a few inches. For the beginning of June in Texas, having any open doors or windows was odd. Air conditioners across the state would have been battling late night heat.
Tracey studied the screen more closely. A red handprint on the yogurt container on the bedside table screamed for attention. Coagulated blood coated one side of the interior. Apart from the bedroom, the apartment was clean. A knife from the kitchen block had been tossed carelessly beside the bed. Jane’s wrenched-aside clothing clearly indicated sexual assault, as did the obscene splay of her legs. Both her breasts bore bite marks.
Her killer had hacked off her ponytail near the hair tie, and the ragged, blunt stump resembled a bundled bushel of wheat. The tassel of hair was missing. Long blonde hairs clung to the bloody knife blade, and a clump floated on the floor in the breeze near the front door.
Aside from the slash in her neck, she also had a long, horizontal slice above her belly button. The killer had rummaged in her internal organs, partially pulling her intestines through the gash.
“Okay, SA Smith. Initial thoughts?” Supervisory Special Agent in Charge Ron Sutherland, Tracey’s new boss, sat relaxed across the table, peering over the top of his laptop screen.
This was an assessment of Tracey’s abilities in front of his new unit, like the interview process with the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, or NCAVC. He was to study the scene and give his preliminary profile of the perpetrator. Sutherland would tell him how closely he’d matched the person they’d created as Jane’s killer. His new team would see him in action.
There were five Behavioral Analysis units within the NCAVC. Tracey had landed one of the few highly coveted Special Agent positions in Unit 4, “Crimes Against Adults, ViCAP,” which stood for the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program.
Around the table were the other Unit 4 special agents, here to measure his aptitude. Based on this demonstration, they could get a read on how much supervision he’d need during his 18-month probationary period.
At 28, he was two years younger than the average agent considered for the NCAVC, giving him more to prove than most.
He tried not to let Sutherland’s beefy, former linebacker’s build, perfect hair, and piercing eyes intimidate him. Tracey was good at this, despite a measly three years of field experience. Before moving to D.C., he’d been the FBI’s Champaign-Urbana resident agency police psychologist for two years and mentored with the police psychologist for the FBI Field Office in Springfield, Illinois the year prior. All this while getting his PhD from the University of Illinois.
Tracey Smith was a go-getter, young to have earned the required degrees and work experience already. Out of who knew how many applicants, he’d been chosen. This was show-and-tell, plain and simple.
Taking the controls for the flatscreen on the wall, he zoomed out for a view of the fake apartment building’s surroundings. Time to begin his profile.
“Disorganized killer, white male, twenty-five to twenty-seven, skinny or even emaciated. Lives alone or in an isolated portion of his parents’ residence, such as a basement with a separate entry. His home will be remarkably messy, his clothes disheveled, and his hygiene poor. If he owns a vehicle, it will be in similar disarray.
“A loner with no friends, if he holds a job, it’ll be menial and mostly solitary, like a janitor. More likely he’s unemployed, on some form of disability, and living close to Jane and Jake’s apartment complex. Our guy is a high school or early college dropout. He’s likely suffering from a mental disorder with paranoid and delusional characteristics. You’ll find something from the victim at his residence. Something innocuous but distinctive, as well as the hank of Jane’s hair. Trophies. And if he’s not caught, she won’t be his last victim.”
The other agents nodded thoughtfully but gave no hint if Tracey had gotten the perp right. He went on, drawing a circle around the neighborhood on the screen. “I’d start by checking for pets injured or killed near the apartment complex and move outward from there. There could also be fetish burglaries in the vicinity or calls about prowlers and Peeping Toms. The farther away those get from the apartment, the closer they are to the perp’s residence.”
Sutherland swiveled and pointed a remote at the wall behind him. The crime scene shrank to half the screen and the other half filled with information, though it remained blurred. “Nicely done, Smith.”
The slight smile Sutherland bestowed on him finally betrayed the man’s mask of stoicism, and Tracey’s internal organs unclenched. He hadn’t fucked up on his first morning.
Sutherland turned toward the agent beside him. “Special Agent Anderson, would you care to give the details?”
Special Agent Jonathan Anderson stood ramrod straight, smoothed his tie, and took the remote Sutherland held out. He was striking, with dark hair and cheekbones so sharp, he could have been a model. The blue of his eyes was so light, it was almost ghostly.
Tracey focused on him intently enough that the female agent to his left snickered softly. Yeah, okay, maybe he was being a boy scout, but he had a lot to prove. Anderson didn’t seem to notice. He clicked the remote, and the blurred information came into focus.
“Our suspect is a twenty-six-year-old man the simulation programmer named Sam Serial. Sam is a paranoid schizophrenic residing three-quarters of a mile from Jane’s apartment. He’s an overnight cleaner-slash-maintenance man at the hotel across from the bar where Jane and her friend had drinks the night of her murder. He’s six-foot-three and approximately a hundred and seventy pounds.” He clicked the remote, and a mug shot zoomed up, overlaying the grisly details. A gaunt-faced man stared with dead eyes and a semi-slack jaw. Anderson’s gaze bored into Tracey, who sat straighter. “Can you tell us how you came to your conclusions?”
Tracey stood and approached the screen, using his stylus to point. Anderson minimized the mug shot so the crime scene was front and center. “The weapon came from Jane’s kitchen. It wasn’t his. He also didn’t care about leaving fingerprints on the knife handle.” He pointed to the bloody fingerprint evidence. “There’s no advanced planning, indicating Sam is disorganized.
“The brutality is another clue. Someone mentally stable wouldn’t be capable of this. Jane’s intestines pulled through her abdominal wound suggests a fascination with anatomy, as does the blood in the yogurt container. The bite marks on her breasts are numerous, suggesting enjoyment of her pain.
“This isn’t the focus of a mentally competent person. The blood pattern inside the yogurt container makes me think Sam drank some. Such a crazed attack would likely overwhelm the killer, rendering him incapable of driving home with any reliability. There are no reports of car accidents near the scene. All the cars in the parking lot belong to apartment residents. Sam must have walked home. He lives close. The blood on his clothes would have been noticed had anyone seen a car wreck.
“If Sam doesn’t live alone, he has to have some privacy near a caretaker. They’re aware of his mental instability but are giving him more freedom than he can handle. A paid caretaker would ensure he’s taking his medication, so he likely lives with a parent who wants to believe he’s managing well enough.
“Even so, anyone living with him would be suspicious of bloody or missing clothes, which means he has autonomy. Sam also wouldn’t risk discovery of a trophy or the hank of hair, so whoever he lives with can’t be too involved.
“Living near someone hands-off indicates Sam’s not getting reliable nutrition in his current mental state. He’s skipping meals or not eating for days in a row, making him too skinny and adding to his unkempt appearance.
“The paranoid and delusional mental state of most psychological disorders doesn’t manifest until the teen years, but it takes some time for the mental capacity to degrade to this point of violence. This puts Sam in his mid-twenties. Much older and his delusions would have totally overwhelmed him, making him incapable of committing the crime.
“If Sam graduated from high school, college would be socially difficult, and the responsibility of classes and coursework would be too onerous. Without a degree, employment options are limited. His social deficiencies make him unsuitable for customer-facing jobs like retail or hospitality. If he had romantic relationships, they ended in high school or just after, when his mental illness gained a foothold. He would have limited outlets for sex, and so would think nothing of stealing lingerie from neighbors or peeping through windows.”
Tracey carefully regarded his fellow agents, reasonably confident in his analysis. But these were skilled NCAVC agents or what Hollywood called “profilers.” They were the best of the best.
Anderson clicked the remote again, and the perp’s entire profile unblurred. He looked at Tracey and recited the details without reading the screen.
“Sam Serial had been under outpatient psychiatric care since he was eighteen, just after his high school graduation, when his girlfriend broke up with him to attend college in another state. At twenty-one his parents committed him to psychiatric care for nine months. His hospitalization took a toll on their finances. Because his medications were working, his doctors deemed him well enough to be discharged into parental care. Sam moved into the apartment above his parents’ garage, which has a separate entry. He found a job as an overnight stock clerk at Walmart. His stability didn’t seem to waver with the move.
“At twenty-three he lost the job at Walmart for absenteeism and began to job hop. He was a maintenance man for an apartment complex until he was fired for stealing women’s undergarments from tenants’ apartments. After that, he drifted. At the time of his arrest, he was in the process of applying for disability. A search of his apartment turned up Jane’s hair as well as a four-inch-tall ceramic ballerina figurine she’d had since childhood.
“Sam’s delusion involved his belief that his meds were poisoning him. He’d stopped taking them because he was convinced they absorbed his blood and prevented his body from replenishing it. This was the delusion that compelled him to drink the blood of animals and later Jane, to restore his blood supply. Several neighbors in the two years before his capture reported injuries to their pets, some of them fatal. Authorities also found two dog collars in his possession, the tags bearing addresses and phone numbers of neighbors who’d reported pets missing.”
SSA Sutherland stood and thrust out his hand to Tracey. “Knocked it out of the park, kid. Nice job.”
“Thank you, sir.” Tracey tried not to wince at the man’s tight grip. It wasn’t intentionally knuckle crushing, but he suspected his new boss didn’t always think about his own strength. Sutherland seemed pleased to have Tracey on board. He reminded Tracey of a stereotypical football coach. Stern with high expectations but gave praise where it was due.
“Welcome to the team. Anderson will go over your orientation and have you sign all the paperwork. When that’s done we’ll get you up to speed on our current case load.”
Tracey couldn’t read Anderson at all. Was he irritated by being appointed a temporary babysitter? Tracey shot him a sheepish look. The man was a blank wall. Helping the new guy was never fun, but hopefully Tracey could hit the ground running.
One of the many motivational phrases he’d grown up hearing echoed through his head in his dad’s voice: Tomorrow you’ll know more than you do today.
“Welcome to the NCAVC.” The agent who’d snickered earlier passed him on her way out the door. At least she was smiling.