The Ripper Gene is the debut thriller by Michael Ransom about a neuroscientist-turned-FBI profiler who's discovered a genetic signature that produces psychopaths (available August 18, 2015).
Dr. Lucas Madden is a neuroscientist-turned-FBI profiler who first gained global recognition for cloning the ripper gene and showing its dysfunction in the brains of psychopaths. Later, as an FBI profiler, Madden achieved further notoriety by sequencing the DNA of the world's most notorious serial killers and proposing a controversial “damnation algorithm” that could predict serial killer behavior using DNA alone.
Now, a new murderer-the Snow White Killer-is terrorizing women in the Mississippi Delta. When Mara Bliss, Madden's former fiancée, is kidnapped, he must track down a killer who is always two steps ahead of him. Only by entering the killer's mind will Madden ultimately understand the twisted and terrifying rationale behind the murders-and have a chance at ending the psychopath's reign of terror.
Every Halloween the ladies from Crossroads Baptist took us to different church members’ houses for trick-or-treating so no razor blades, rat poison, or liquid Drano would end up in our candy. My mother was always one of the chaperones, and that night she rode in the front seat of Mrs. Callahan’s station wagon with us.
The car rolled steadily beneath swaying fingers of Spanish moss as we left the swamps. Glowing faces floated in the backseat around me as we bounced over the rutted, gravel road. A ghost, a cowboy, a ballerina, a ghoul. One kid even wore a devil mask beside me.
I wore a knight’s costume, replete with a wooden sword and a breastplate of armor made from an aluminum trash can. The lid served as my shield.
Mara, my twelve-year-old girlfriend, sat beside me. She was dressed like a princess, a silver tiara glinting atop her raven-black hair in the moonlight. We’d stolen a kiss in the bathroom of the church basement earlier, during the apple-bobbing contest. There, in the darkness of the backseat, I could still taste the cinnamon from her glossed lips. The memory of kissing her, somehow finding her mouth with my own in that dark and forbidden bathroom, had sent pulsating waves of excitement through my young torso for the entire night.
We continued along the gravel roads, not speaking, just stealing glances in the moonlight. No man-made lights or lampposts punctuated the pine-choked countryside surrounding us. Out the windows a million stars spread across the Milky Way like a white paint explosion on a midnight-blue canvas.
Just as Mara leaned toward me to finally speak, the car slammed to a halt, screeching in the gravel and sliding a good twenty feet on the road. All the kids toppled to the floorboard and after a moment’s silence, Mrs. Callahan’s voice whispered in the dark. “Oh my God. What’s that?”
I poked my head above the backseat just as my mother replied, the thick curls of her black hair spilling over the seat and filling my view. “Oh, just some young boys horsing around up there. Wait. Is that blood, Margie? Drive on up.”
Mrs. Callahan shifted into drive, but didn’t take her foot off the brake. “Probably just a Halloween prank, Mrs. Madden. We best go on around.” Mrs. Callahan’s eyes were so intensely focused ahead that I craned my neck away from my mother’s hair to follow her gaze.
Two teenage boys, both in white T-shirts and jeans, stood illuminated on the road ahead. One of them turned toward us, shielding his eyes with a hand, the front of his T-shirt stained a deep red. A moment later the other boy staggered and fell sideways into the shallow ditch along the far side of the road.
“Margie, I think they’re really hurt,” my mother said. “Maybe they were in a car wreck.”
Mrs. Callahan’s eyes narrowed and her voice fell to a growl. “Ain’t no cars around here, Mrs. Madden. Why don’t we just go to the next house and call an ambulance?”
I inhaled the air behind my mother’s hair. She used Prell, and her hair smelled just like the green liquid in the bottle. She faced Mrs. Callahan, but caught sight of me out of the corner of her eye and cupped my chin in her hand as she spoke. “It wouldn’t be Christian, Margie. Drive on up, and I’ll roll down the window and ask them what happened. Go on.”
Mrs. Callahan eyed my mother as if to speak, but instead released the brake and we rolled slowly forward in the night, approaching the boys. The one boy still lay facedown in the ditch, unmoving. The other one stumbled at the edge of the road, moving in circles back and forth as though tracing the symbol for infinity.
My mother rolled down her window.
The boy who was still standing was crying. His blond hair hung in front of his face, and he whined, “Help us, please. There’s another boy on the other side of the hill. He ain’t moving, either. We had an accident. We were riding motorcycles.”
My mother unlocked and opened her door. “Margie. You stay with the children—” she began, but Mrs. Callahan’s hand shot across the seat and clutched my mother by the sleeve of her white sweater.
“Mrs. Madden. Really. I don’t know.”
My mother leaned back inside and smiled. But it wasn’t the genuine kind; it was the kind she always used whenever she was about to end a conversation. I knew it, and Mrs. Callahan knew it, too.
“Margie, these boys are hurt,” she said, “and I’m a nurse. It’s the only thing I can do. Y’all go on up to Nellie’s. Call nine-one-one and the ambulance. Then call Jonathan and let him know I’m all right. Leave the children at Nellie’s for the time being. When the police get there, bring them here. We’ll be waiting right here on the side of the road. Hopefully that poor boy in the woods isn’t hurt too bad.”
“Mama,” I said.
“Hush. Go on up with Mrs. Callahan and I’ll help these boys, then I’ll see you and daddy up at the house. I love you, Lucas.”
* * *
The memory always goes fuzzy then. The next thing I remember is my mother’s face receding into the dark woods as Mrs. Callahan drives away. I press my face against the glass of the window, a tear trickling for some reason over my cheek as the one bloodied boy holds my mother’s wrist and leads her into the overgrown grass and small trees. My mother looks back at me one last time, smiling the way only women can, the one that’s sad and frightened and turned in the wrong direction but is supposed to reassure you that everything will be fine.
It’s the last time I’ll ever see my mother’s face.
They disappear into the woods.
And just before our station wagon crests the hill, I see the other previously mortally wounded boy suddenly stand up in the ditch, not looking at all as sick and hurt as he’d appeared before. He looks furtively about to make sure no one is watching, then runs into the woods, sneaking behind my mother and her bloodied companion.
I wrestle and thrash in the car, begging Mrs. Callahan to stop, until she finally screams at the top of her voice, swearing at me with a stream of profanities that stun us all into silence, screaming at me to be quiet because I’m scaring the other children. She drives faster and I can still hear the sounds of children crying all around me as the dark forest envelops the empty gravel road behind us, separating me farther and farther from my mother, forever.
Anna Cross was a beautiful young woman, but if you looked at her long enough, her countenance soured, tainted by the pathos that only a wide-eyed dead girl could possess.
I started to stand, but found it difficult to remove my gaze. It was hard to imagine the young girl alive, before the crimson letter A adorned her otherwise unblemished forehead. The cuts covering her chest, arms, and legs were deep and nearly perfectly straight, but my eyes kept tracking back to her slender face and the obscene letter A smeared across her forehead—the tip of the A poised perfectly beneath her blonde widow’s peak.
I noticed, too, that her left hand clutched outward conspicuously in cadaveric spasm, as though she’d prepared to scratch a chalkboard in the moment before she died.
The headlights of a lone car on Highway 49 shimmered through a distant line of pine trees in the gray dusk, and the delayed Doppler of its high-pitched engine eventually droned behind. I remained in a crouched position beside the body, not yet willing to leave.
“So what do you make of it, Agent Madden?”
I shifted my weight slightly toward the sheriff’s voice behind me. The young girl’s body had been discarded fewer than two hundred yards from the highway. She was still clothed in a blue-jeaned skirt and short, black tank top but propped in a sexually suggestive pose nonetheless, leaned carefully against an ancient oak stump in a small clearing in the woods. Her forearms rested on her parted knees and her head was cocked slightly to the left, as though she were a careless, sultry model adorning the cover of the latest men’s magazine.
“Pratt,” I asked, instead of answering, without looking in his direction. “The fingers of her left hand look like she was holding something but there’s nothing there. Did your guys find anything I haven’t seen yet?”
In the gathering twilight the sheriff walked in a half circle into my line of view and stood there like an older Elvis in silhouette, his jelly-doughnut belly hanging over a thick utility belt. He adjusted the brim of his hat and managed to laugh and cough at the same time. “Well, now that you say it, before you got here one of the boys picked up an apple a few feet away from the body.”
I breathed in a short breath.
The sheriff’s voice went up a notch and he held out his hands in placating fashion. “Don’t worry, though. I had him bag it right away, all nice and proper. He signed and dated the Baggie, just like he’s supposed to. We can get it for you, if you want to see it.” His voice tapered off as he recognized that he’d just offered to make evidence from the crime scene available to me.
I was the criminal profile coordinator for the FBI’s New Orleans field office, normally lending my profiling skills to murder cases out of New Orleans and surrounding parishes. The recent retirement of the coordinator in the Jackson field office meant that I’d be pulling double duty in Mississippi for a while. Based on the circumstances of the present crime scene I wasn’t sure I was needed for this case, but I still wanted to cover all the bases.
I let a few more awkward seconds pass. “Yeah,” I finally whispered, holding back my anger with a calmness that I’d always found far more effective than shouting or spewing profanities. “That might be a good idea.”
His two deputies paced the perimeter of the taped-off crime scene, eavesdropping and casting sideways glances every few seconds to see my reaction. I assumed it was the one on the right who had picked up the apple, since he seemed more invested in the outcome of our discussion. He was looking over about twice as frequently as the other one.
I pursed my lips and finally smiled up in Pratt’s direction. “Why don’t you come with me for a second, Sheriff, so we can discuss this further in private,” I said. I walked over and lightly clapped him on the shoulder.
We left the crime scene and walked toward the edge of the woods. The leather of Pratt’s ancient belt and unused gun holster creaked as he followed along. “What’s on your mind, Agent Madden?” he asked when we stopped.
I kept my voice low, but now let my exasperation seethe through every word. “You know good and fucking well what’s on my mind.”
I flipped open my pocket notebook and took out a pen. “First. Did that deputy mishandle the apple? Did he pick it up bare-handed?”
Pratt held up his hands again and shook them downward in the negative, eager to defend himself and his crew. “Hell, no. I teach my men better than that. He had on gloves, and the apple’s in an evidence bag, all signed and dated, everything’s in order.”
“Okay, that’s good. Anything else removed from the crime scene? Anything?”
Again the placating hands. “No. As soon as I found out he removed that apple, I had them shut it down immediately. Nothing else was disturbed.”
I let out a barely audible sigh of relief. I needed only one more answer. “Okay, last question. Did your deputy get pictures of the crime scene before he picked up that apple?”
The beat before Pratt cleared his throat told me the answer before he even spoke.
“Oh, for shit’s sake.” I held up my finger to emphasize my next statement. “If that apple has the perp’s fingerprints or saliva on it, and we’re not able to use it in court because of some sort of evidence loophole…” I stared at him a moment longer and let the empty threat sit in the air, then left him without another word.
The two deputies leaped to attention as I reentered the clearing.
“Which one of you found the apple?”
The one I’d guessed, a blond kid in his midtwenties with a splotchy mustache, stepped forward. “I did, sir.”
“Show me exactly where you found it.”
“It was right here.” The deputy stepped a few feet away to the right of the body and pointed. I pulled out my pad and jotted down the approximate location of the apple next to the body. At that moment Pratt glumly reappeared.
I spoke without looking at him. “Go get me that apple, Pratt. I want to see it tonight, before it’s transferred to the forensics lab.”
He stopped midstride and, without another word, turned ninety degrees and walked back through the woods toward the police vans.
I was still angry, but as I watched him walk away I thought of something my chiropractor once told me, that anger only clouded the mind because it knotted the body. I fully endorsed that statement, as an expert in knotted body management. I used my hands to turn my head in either direction, attempting to release the tension in my neck. Anger never got me anywhere. Suppressed anger was even worse, and I’d had to employ it maximally to this point.
Later, I’d have to figure out a way to smooth things over with the local sheriff.
“Who do you think did it?” the young deputy beside me asked.
I flipped the pad closed. “Honestly? I think we’re looking for a guy who thought it imperative to smear a bloody letter A onto his girlfriend’s forehead. I thought of Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter when I first saw it. Maybe that’s what the killer wanted. Or maybe A for apple? Or A for Anna? Who knows? Whatever the meaning, it seems like a ‘Find the boyfriend, find the killer’ sort of case to me.”
“You think her boyfriend did it?”
“Boyfriend, husband, significant other. You just don’t see that kind of overkill every day. It’s usually associated with the victim and assailant having known each other. Lot of hate and anger, usually.”
The young officer shook his head. “I guess so,” he said, still staring at the body.
“So,” I said loudly, “we’ll assume boyfriend unless we find other evidence that tells us differently. Let’s get back over to the sheriff and wrap this up, okay?”
He nodded with that same blank stare, but then his face lit up. “You know, there was one other thing about that apple I forgot to mention.”
“What was that?”
“It had a slit in it, about two inches long. I didn’t look close because Sheriff Pratt yelled at me to bag it and take it to the van.”
“I’m sorry, did you say a slit?”
After a few moments I realized the deputy was still staring at me, waiting for a pronouncement or some sort of response. And I wasn’t about to reveal my thoughts.
“Okay, duly noted. Let’s head back,” I said, offering a forced smile that fell away as the younger man turned and made his way through the forest ahead of me.
I shook my head imperceptibly. I didn’t want an apple in this case. I’d initially hoped the apple might harbor a careless perpetrator’s DNA.
I had to fly back to Quantico in a couple days to give my yearly lecture at the FBI Academy. I didn’t need this complication in my life, not now. Full of self-pity, I looked back at Anna Cross. Her decomposing eyes stared through me until I looked away, ashamed.
In the distance I saw the shadowy form of the sheriff stomping toward me in the dusk, the apple in the plastic evidence bag swinging in time with his angry steps.
In less than ninety seconds my profile had been turned upside down—something sinister waited inside the apple left in that young girl’s dying grasp. An apple containing a thin, rectangular slit in its peel? I knew what lay inside.
I just didn’t know why.
Copyright © 2015 Michael Ransom.
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Michael Ransom is a molecular pharmacologist and a recognized expert in the fields of toxicogenomics and pharmacogenetics. He is widely published in scientific journals and has edited multiple textbooks in biomedical research. He is currently a pharmaceutical executive and an adjunct professor in the Department of Pharmacology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. Raised in rural Mississippi, he now makes his home in northern New Jersey. The Ripper Gene is his first novel.