What You Don't Know by JoAnn Chaney is a gripping, terrifying debut novel that follows those most affected by an infamous serial killer (available February 7, 2017).
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He didn’t take their lives—but he ruined them.
The final victims of an infamous serial killer may be the ones he didn’t kill.
Hoskins cracked the case of one of the most infamous serial killers—and then it cracked him. He’s in cold cases, as is his career.
Sammie was the lead reporter who broke the story, but now she’s selling makeup at the mall. She wants back on page 1.
Gloria claims she was the unsuspecting wife. She didn’t know a thing.
And as new murders shake Denver, this is a final chance to get their lives back.
December 29, 2008
If there is one thing Sammie Peterson has learned over the years, it is this: Everyone thinks the pretty girl is a moron.
That’s what they think of her, she knows, she can feel those thoughts coming off the men as they work, as if there are cartoon bubbles floating over their heads, right there for her to read. They’ve invited her to stay in the crawl space while they dig, to get a better sense of the crime scene, to watch what’s going on so she can report it all more accurately in her articles, but she doesn’t like it down there. It’s too small, too close, even though they’ve ripped up most of the floorboards and moved out the washer and dryer, so the crawl space isn’t actually under the house anymore but a part of it, a place where the men can stand upright as they look at what Seever has left behind, their hands perched on their hips or folded across their chests. And they watch her when she does venture into the crawl space, she can feel their gazes on her ass and her breasts and her mouth, but hardly ever on her eyes. She’s heard them talking, even though they’ve been quiet about it, whispering to one another while they’re smoking outside or walking to their cars. They don’t like her, not only because she’s from the Post, and all cops hate a reporter snooping around, but also because of Hoskins. They’ve been careful in front of other people, acting like they hardly know each other, never touching, never talking, even when they could get away with it, but somehow everyone still knows.
“Have you told anyone?” she’d asked, not that long before. They were in his bed, the TV on but muted. She likes having the TV on while they have sex, likes to have the room filled with flickering light. “About us, I mean?”
“Why would I do that, princess?” he asked. “It’s none of anybody’s business.”
“It—it feels like people know.”
“It’s probably Loren,” Hoskins had said, and he’d been smiling, but there was nothing kind about that smile, nothing familiar. Hoskins was a good guy, and that smile didn’t belong to him. But then she blinked and it was gone. “That guy knows everything and can’t keep his mouth shut.”
“It’s fine,” he said, reaching for the glass of water on his nightstand. She wished she could see his face. “You’re worrying over nothing.”
But she’s not all that worried, except when she thinks about her husband finding out about Hoskins. Not that she’s afraid of Dean, or that he’d do something bad, but she doesn’t want to hurt him, doesn’t want to see the look on his face if he finds out. It’s everyone else knowing that bothers her, because she knows what they’re all saying, she’s heard them say it.
The men think she’s fucking Hoskins so she can get into Seever’s house, so she can watch the investigation firsthand and write her articles for the Post and make them all look like fools, because that’s what the scum media does. The men all like Hoskins, they think he’s a hell of a good guy, but they’re not fools. They see exactly what’s going on. They’ve all seen the kind of tail Hoskins can typically pull, and Sammie’s pretty far out of his league. She’s a dime, a solid ten, and she could do much better. She’s only fucking him so she can get in here, they tell each other. She’s only sucking his dick for a story.
And it’s true. Some of it, at least.
But Sammie wouldn’t admit this, not even if someone put a gun to her head and demanded the truth. It’s not exactly something that she’s proud of, that she lets Hoskins touch her, that she puts on a show for him and then goes home and tells her husband lies so she can one-up every other reporter out there, panting to tell a good story. Besides, no one understands the position she was in at the paper, how it was to be there, day after day. Writing boring book reviews and fluff pieces on the local dog show, when all she wanted was to write a good piece, one that mattered. One that could make a difference. She’d hear her editor handing out assignments, but he’d pass right over her every time, and she’d go back to typing up her piece about the knitting club in Highlands Ranch that was donating their blankets to the homeless, or the dog with the prosthetic leg. She’d spent her whole life wanting to be a reporter, she’d thought she’d be big-time, that she’d be a glittering success, and when she’d been hired at the Post, she was sure she’d made it. The rest would be simple. But nothing in life is simple, and so she’d been patient, and she’d waited, and when she saw an opportunity she took it.
But it does embarrass her that all the men talk about her, that they call her names and treat her coldly when all she’s doing is her job, in the best way she can. So what if it involves sex? If she were a man, no one would care. They’d probably congratulate her, give her an award. Her connection to Hoskins allows her to duck under the police barricade every morning while the rest of the journalists are stuck in the cold, standing on the street far back from Seever’s house, with their notepads and recorders and cameras, and some of them have set up trailers and folding tables with steaming urns of coffee and cold doughnuts. There are journalists out there, important people with household names, flown in from New York or L.A., they have tents built in some of the yards and they spend all day out there, in the hopes that something might happen. She’s heard that some of the neighbors are charging the media a day rate for squatting in their yards, a flat fee for every time one of them needs a toilet. But she gets to walk right past them, all of them, gets to see everything that’s happening inside, is already writing her next article in her head as another body is zipped up in a black bag and carried out of the house.
This is something else Sammie has learned: If you’re going to fuck someone, at least make sure they’re important.
So the men keep whispering to one another as they dig up more bodies, and Sammie keeps writing, and she keeps fucking Hoskins. Keep on keeping on, as they say.
* * *
It’s strange to be in Seever’s house, surrounded by all the photographs of him, to see the dish towels his wife had hung from the hook beside the kitchen sink before she was forced to leave, and the ceramic Christmas tree still in the center of the dining-room table, one of the plastic lights sitting askew. But maybe it’s only strange for her because she used to work for Seever, years before, practically a lifetime ago, before college and jobs and marriage, she’d been a waitress at Don’s Café, one of the restaurants Seever owned. She’d already been working there a month when she saw Seever for the first time, when he stopped by to look over it all, make sure everything was running fine. He was wearing a nice tweed suit, expensive-looking, and his fingernails were polished and clean. He was handsome in those days, with his heavy brow and deep-set eyes and generous mouth, but even back then she’d noticed the weakness around his chin, the softness of his body, and she’d known he’d surely run to fat at some point; he was that type. Seever hadn’t said anything to her that first time—he’d come in during the lunch rush and it’d been too busy for introductions, with everyone running back and forth between tables and the kitchen with trays of chicken-fried steak and creamed corn, potatoes, and okra.
She actually met Seever the second time he came in, shook his hand and told him her name. He was in a clown costume that time, dressed up to entertain kids in the restaurant with his clumsy dancing and clumsier balloon animals. He looked silly; most men would hate to be all done up like that, but he seemed to enjoy it. That was the thing. He liked to make the kids laugh and clap, even if the joke was on him, and there was one little girl who abandoned her plate of pancakes to dance with Seever, and he spun her round and round like a ballerina, until her skirt stood straight out from her body and she was out of breath from laughing so hard. Sammie had watched the whole dance with the rest of the customers, a pot of coffee in one hand and a big smile on her face, the same as everyone else, but Seever had still singled her out when it was over, because he’d seen her looking—of course he had, he was always watching, even if it was only from the corner of his eye.
“You like kids?” he’d asked, coming up as she was clearing off a booth. He bent down, grabbed an empty straw wrapper from the bench and handed it to her.
“I don’t like them so much when they’re screaming,” she’d said, smiling. “But your dance with that girl was pretty cute.”
“Samantha, isn’t it?”
“Everyone calls me Sammie.”
“I like that.”
Later he twisted her a dog out of pink balloons, although it didn’t look like much of anything except two pink balloons. She didn’t tell him that though. And that afternoon, before he’d left for the day, he gave her the yellow daisy he had tucked into his lapel.
Seever was already killing at that time, Hoskins told her, although he was working carefully, picking his victims at random, people no one would miss, no one who could be connected to him in any way. It wasn’t like years later, when Seever had gotten lazy and sloppy, when he thought he was invincible and he’d let Carrie Simms escape, and things had started to unravel. Sammie sometimes wonders what Seever had been thinking when he gave her that daisy, if he’d been thinking about taking her to his house and tying her up, doing bad things before he killed her, the way he’d done with so many others. But when she thinks about Seever now—the Seever she thought she’d known, the guy in the expensive suit with the gilt-edged smile—she can’t imagine him killing anyone, even though she’s a writer, and aren’t all writers supposed to have big imaginations? And of course she knows, like everyone else, she’s been trained by a lifetime of television and movies and books that the bad guy is usually the one you’d least expect, the one who seems the most innocent, the guy who laughs a lot and opens doors for ladies and is never, ever rude.
Seven bodies have been taken out of the crawl space so far—five women and two men—and they’d all hoped that lucky number seven was where it would end, that they’d find nothing else down there but dirt and worms. Victim seven had been removed the day before last, patches of red hair still clinging to his weathered skull, a punk-rock shirt hanging around his wasted chest. Later, they’d learn that the kid’s name was Kenny Fitz, that he’d run away from home, like he had a million times before, but this time he’d never come back. Later, Kenny Fitz’s mother would give Sammie a photograph of him to run in the Post alongside her article, and Sammie would hate to look at it. The photo was a glimpse into the past, at the grinning kid who’d one day accept a ride from a guy wearing a tweed suit. She wished she could go back in time, warn the kid, tell him to go home, hug his mom and get his shit together. But she couldn’t, and she hoped that Kenny Fitz hadn’t known what was going on at the end, that he hadn’t been aware of anything when Seever had wrapped that extension cord around his throat and tightened down for the last time. She hoped that Kenny had spent his last few moments thinking good thoughts. About his mother. Or the dog he’d left behind, who still slept on Kenny’s empty bed, his snout twitching and his paws paddling uselessly through empty air.
“Someone cared about this kid. Loved him. You know how I know?” Hoskins said this after the boy’s body had been slipped into a plastic bag and wheeled away, before they knew who he was. Hoskins hadn’t been eating much, or getting much sleep, and she could see it in his face, in the gray skin under his eyes. “It’s his teeth. That kid’s got good ones. Lots of fillings. He had braces at one point. Good teeth aren’t free. Someone paid for all that work. Someone who loved him.”
* * *
They find the eighth body the next day, while Sammie is in the kitchen, pouring herself a cup of coffee and listening to one of the technicians bitch about his job.
“When I blow my nose these days, nothing but black shit comes out. It’s filthy down there. I don’t know how much longer I can take this.”
“Sorry,” she says. She wonders how many times a day she says that single word. “It sounds terrible.”
“That’s what you should write about. How fucking bad it is down there. I feel like I’m stuck in a nightmare and I can’t wake up.”
She’d discovered, not long after starting her daily visits to Seever’s house, that it was best to let the guys complain. At first she’d tried to reason with them, to point out they were doing their jobs, that they were getting paid to hunker down in that crawl space and dig corpses out of the ground. It wasn’t like anyone was expecting them to work for free. But the men would get angry when she said things like that, so she started keeping her mouth shut, acted sympathetic and apologized when the complaints started. That went over better.
“It’ll be over soon,” she says.
“I certainly fucking hope so.”
Someone shouts from the crawl space, words that she can’t understand, and she jumps, startled, and slams her hip into the counter, hard enough to bruise. She ignores the pain and sticks her head into the laundry room, where the crowd of men are, excited and high-fiving, pumping their fists in the air.
“They found another one,” the tech says, peering over her shoulder. His breath smells like wet cardboard. “Fuck, yeah. There’re more.”
She turns slowly, goes back to the kitchen. Her coffee is knocked over, although she doesn’t remember doing it, and the mug is on its side, lazily rollicking back and forth on the counter, as if it’s being pushed by a ghost. She grabs the roll of paper towels and drops to the tile floor, trying to ignore the excited chatter from the next room as she reaches for the steaming puddle.
Copyright © 2017 JoAnn Chaney.
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JoAnn Chaney is a graduate of UC Riverside’s Palm Desert MFA program. She lives in Colorado with her family. What You Don't Know is her first novel.