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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Cut to the Bone

A Novel

Agent Sayer Altair (Volume 3)

Ellison Cooper

Minotaur Books



The radio crackled in D.C. Police Department dispatcher Karla Haskell’s headphones. “This is Officer 2026 checking in. All’s quiet on the southern front.”

Karla’s cheeks warmed hearing Officer Frankie Graham’s voice.

“Evening, Frankie, I copy.” She tried to sound casual but they’d been talking more and more while he was out on foot patrol. Officers were only required to check in once midshift, but he’d called in a lot more than that lately. And last night he’d practically left his radio channel open. They’d chatted for hours between her steady stream of check-ins.

She could hear his soft footfalls and slightly labored breath. Walking night patrol in late December was a rough gig even in the best weather and it had been snowing on and off all day. She glanced at the clock. Not even nine thirty yet. It would be a long, cold night out there.

“It’s cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey out here.” Frankie paused. “I mean, excuse my bad language.”

She let out a breathy laugh. “I’ve been a police dispatcher for nineteen years, Frankie. In my world, brass monkey balls don’t qualify as bad language.”

He chuckled. “Well, thank goodness for that. Hang on, I might have me a graffiti artist here.”

“Where you at?” Karla shifted back into work mode.

“I’m at Constitution and 22nd. Looks like he’s defacing the Einstein Memorial. Let me run him off really quick. You mind holding on? There’s something I’d like to ask…”

“I’m not going anywhere.” Karla was glad he couldn’t see the red flush climbing up her neck. Frankie might not look like Patrick Swayze, but his toothy smile was genuine and he had a reputation as a good guy around the precinct. Plus, Karla hadn’t been on a date in years.

“Hey, buddy,” Frankie called out.

There was a long silence, then a sharp inhale. “What the—” Frankie said loudly.

Karla could hear the alarm in his voice. The sharp crack of a gunshot made her whole body jolt.

Frankie let out a cry so visceral that the hair on her arms stood up.

“Frankie? Frankie?” she screamed into her mic.

A crash followed by a ragged howl sucked the breath from Karla’s chest. Heart pounding, she listened with horror to a series of wet grunts. After an intolerable few seconds of nothing, she could just barely hear the faint sound of someone singing in the distance.

The soft atonal chant made her shudder.

As she shouted, “10-33, officer down!” Frankie’s radio went silent.


FBI Senior Special Agent Sayer Altair glanced at the clock at the back of the lecture hall. Her talk had ended almost thirty minutes ago and students were still asking questions. She pointed to a young man in the front row with his hand enthusiastically in the air.

“Agent … Doctor…?” He trailed off and blushed.

“Either is fine.” Sayer tried to smile, but probably bared her teeth instead. She’d agreed to do this guest lecture at the Georgetown University Department of Neurology as a favor to her old advisor, but she hadn’t expected it to become the never-ending question brigade. As a neuroscientist who studied the brains of serial killers for the FBI’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, Sayer was apparently far more interesting than most neurology guest lecturers.

“You said you found numerous differences in the brains of serial killers,” the student continued.

“Numerous deficiencies, yes.”

He glanced down at his notes. “So, they have less gray matter around the limbic system, smaller than average amygdalae, and less active ventromedial prefrontal cortices. My question for you is, do you believe we should be screening children for these brain markers?”

Sayer blinked. It was a good, though horrifying, question. She took a deep breath.

“What do you do with a child with a ‘psychopathic’ brain? My answer is … nothing. Though our brain structure dramatically impacts our behavior, a person can actually be a psychopath without being a serial killer. They probably won’t win a Mr. Congeniality award, but that child is statistically much more likely to grow up to be a surgeon or successful politician than a serial killer.”

A murmur spread through the lecture hall.

Sayer continued, “In fact, my most recent project involved interviewing what I call prosocial psychopaths—people with psychopathic traits that manage to channel their narcissism, lack of empathy, and preternatural calm into successful careers as CEOs, lawyers, police officers, and doctors. There are millions of people who qualify as psychopaths on the Psychopathy Checklist yet have never committed a crime.” She looked out at the darkened room. She could elaborate but she knew that a celebratory meal was waiting at home. Her recently adopted adult daughter, Adi, was leaving tomorrow for a trip to check out Stanford, and her neighbor and dog co-parent, Tino, had just graduated with their dog from K9 therapy school. Sayer was ready for a beer and some delicious food with her family.

“I’ll take one more question and then we’re going to wrap things up,” she said.

A dozen hands shot upward.

Sayer called on a mousy young woman sitting in the back row.

“You’ve interviewed hundreds of psychopaths, what was the most disturbing interview you’ve ever conducted?”

An involuntary shudder lifted the hair on Sayer’s arms as she thought about Subject 037.

“Funny you should ask that immediately after the last question. The most unusual and disconcerting interview I’ve conducted was with one of my noncriminal research subjects…” Sayer paused, trying to make sure she didn’t break confidentiality with her answer. “One of the people I interviewed for that project achieved a perfect score on the Psychopathy Checklist. Not even the most disturbed killer I’ve interviewed managed that dubious achievement.”

“Your creepiest interview wasn’t with a serial killer?” the young woman pressed.

“That’s right. The killers I’ve interviewed were generally not very smart and tend to have an inflated sense of self. Don’t get me wrong, they are monsters who destroyed innumerable lives, but they’re generally more pitiable than frightening. But this anonymous interview subject was”—Sayer struggled to find the right words to describe her interviews with 037—“chilling.”

“And you don’t even know who he is?” a student called out.

“That’s right, I allowed my subjects to remain totally anonymous. Otherwise many of them wouldn’t have been willing to talk to me,” Sayer said. “But psychopaths tend to be self-aggrandizing, and I found that many of them were thrilled to be interviewed. This particular subject, though, protected his anonymity very well.”

Sayer didn’t mention that, during her research, Subject 037 had taken an unhealthy interest in her life and career. In fact, he was clearly someone well connected in D.C., maybe even someone high up at the National Security Agency. And he had used those connections to save her career in the middle of a major FBI scandal. That he seemed inexplicably invested in protecting her was worrisome.

Any interaction with 037 felt like drawing the attention of a tamed tiger—a great opportunity to learn about the inner workings of a truly unusual mind, but also incredibly dangerous. A man like 037 could turn on her without warning.

“What was it about him that was so creepy?” another student asked.

Sayer was about to answer when her phone buzzed on the podium and she had never been so happy to be interrupted. Though she primarily worked as an FBI neuroscientist, she was also a field agent with the Critical Incident Response Group and she was always on call.

“Sorry, I have to take this.” She checked her phone and was surprised to read “Director Anderson” on the screen.

Sayer fumbled to answer.

“Agent Altair.” The man’s patrician voice did little to soften his harsh tone.

“Director Anderson…” Sayer waved apologetically to the students and hurried off the stage to the back room.

“There’s been a double murder downtown,” he continued without any small talk. “One victim is a D.C. police officer. They’ve got reason to believe that this might be a serial and they’ve requested that the FBI take the lead. Or, more specifically, your fans at the DCPD have requested you.” Blatant disapproval crept into Anderson’s voice. “Never one to disappoint local law enforcement, I’ve decided that you, as the media’s golden child, are lead.”

Ignoring the snide comment, Sayer read the incoming file on her phone. Officer interrupted the killer, shot in the chest. Single female body also found at the scene. Ritual elements.

“It says here ritual elements. Do you know what that means?” Sayer asked.

“Do I look like your dispatcher?” Anderson snapped. “This happened on the grounds of the National Academy of Sciences just across from the Mall. It’s the week after Christmas so the mayor is worried about spooking tourists. DCPD thinks the girl’s a teenager and there’s some kind of writing in blood. You’re on your own on this one. Keep me up to date.”

Anderson hung up with a click.

Sayer stared at the phone. Anderson’s comment about being on her own had been perfectly clear. Because she worked on her research most of the time, she didn’t have a full-time partner assigned and apparently she wasn’t getting one for this case. Which meant that no one would have her back. And the death of a police officer meant that this would be a high-stakes case from the get-go.

She let the weight of that heavy burden settle on her shoulders.

After a quick farewell to her old advisor and a thank-you to the students, Sayer grabbed her helmet and headed out into the cold night air.

She paused for a brief moment at the side of her motorcycle. The world felt perfectly still except for the snow drifting down around her, gathering along her eyelashes and in her short, dark curls. She enjoyed the silence knowing that she would probably not have another quiet moment for a very long time.

A dead girl and a dead cop. There would be families to notify, a heartrending job at any time, but this close to the holidays it would be even worse.

Shaking off the last bit of lingering warmth from the lecture hall, she yanked on her helmet and gunned her Matchless Silver Hawk so hard the back wheel skittered sideways before catching.

As she raced toward the scene, Sayer let herself dwell on what might be waiting up ahead.

Copyright © 2020 by Ellison Cooper