Mind Stalked: Mind Web Psychological Thriller Series, Book 1
Bloody hallucinations or a killer’s reality?
When Federal profiler Nico Sophianos has recurring nightmares steeped in horror and death, he’s convinced he’s losing his mind. Could he be this cold-blooded killer? Photos and case files can’t lie, and they expose his visions all too well.
Hiding the extent of his hallucinations from his staff grows increasingly difficult with each new case. Hiding from the perceptiveness of his clandestine therapist is even harder, until he enlists her help in separating chimeras from reality.
A master is pulling the strings, and victims are falling with increasing bloody frequency. How can Nico sever his connection to the mind web? Only by learning the truth and destroying the killer can Nico save lives, but the price might be his sanity.
Awareness returned like a slow moving train at the end of a distant tunnel, a pinprick of light growing larger as it approached. Vision blurred, reformed, and focused in front of him. Fingers glowed white on hands gripping a steering wheel. A faint shriek echoed in his brain.
Other sensations emerged gradually as his circle of sight widened. Reflective glass, gray vinyl, glowing lights. The sweat bathing him caused a chill, but his tremors had nothing to do with being cold. He was rarely afraid, but he could barely draw in enough air to keep the white lights dancing at the periphery of his vision from blocking out all else. It would be too easy to hide from the terror by giving in.
Bile, rancid and bitter, filled his throat and threatened to drown him, but swallowing was impossible. Movement was beyond his capability. He could not pry his fingers from their demonic hold on plastic. If he was honest with himself, he was afraid to lift them. What would he find?
The knock on the window startled him into a gasp.
“Hey mister, you having some sort of problem?”
He gulped hard, aware the shape outside the fogged glass wore a uniform.
Where was he?
“Sir? Can you open the door, slowly please, and keep your hands where I can see them?”
A light shown in his eyes, and he flinched as the bright beam blinded him. He dragged in a breath and closed his lids, unable to escape the dance of luminescence burned into his retina no matter where he looked. Then it receded, and with the darkness, he ordered himself to marshal some semblance of order.
“Sir, I’m asking politely. Out of the car with your hands up, now.”
The voice outside grew more determined, a hint of menace ragged at its edges, and in response, he pried his fingers off the steering wheel, one by one. Fear kept his gaze averted, registering the lit car dashboard and keys dangling from the ignition. But it was only human to want to look, just as he would steal a passing glance at a car wreck on the freeway.
His palms slipped free. He couldn’t avoid a hasty verification. What he found made him suck in air, the cold searing his throat. No marks. No evidence. No – nothing.
In the vague dancing colors outside the car windows, he saw a second form to the right, another uniform, and a flashlight with something underneath it as the person advanced on him with slow steps. To the left, the first officer approached the door, and the black gleam of polished metal was unmistakable. They considered him a potential threat. The black hole at the weapon’s muzzle might swallow him up at any moment.
Moving slowly, he pressed a quaking finger to the window lever. Nothing happened. He could open the door, but he doubted he could stand. The muted click of the door lock sent an answering thud into his bones. He pulled the door handle and the hinges swung silently, carrying the door outward. Its movement pushed the officer back three feet. The gun stayed on target, pointed at his chest. He put one hand on the doorframe, the bite of metal against his palm giving him better focus. Resting the other on the wheel again, he turned his body as much as he could to face the officer.
“I’m sorry. I was listening to music and didn’t hear you immediately. I thought you might be someone trying to jack the car.”
The officer’s eyes ran across his face, checked his hands in their neutral position, and flashed the light in rapid movements around the interior of the car.
“License and registration, please. Have you been drinking, sir? Are you currently under the influence?”
Had he been drinking? He couldn’t remember. He couldn’t recall taking any conscious actions in the past few hours. His last memory was of giving his presentation right after lunch, in the slot jokingly referred to as the pasta coma hour. Well attended, if he remembered correctly, with lots of young eager faces.
“Driver’s license and registration, please.” The cop wasn’t relaxing his stance, and his partner, a man younger by a dozen years, spoke into the mic at his shoulder as he walked around the vehicle in a deliberate gait. The man’s lips moved as he read out the license plate and waited. Moments later, he responded to whatever he heard and shook his head.
It was time to act, to leave passivity behind until he could pick up the vague memories again and examine them more closely. If he thought about the ramifications now, he would be screaming in agony and carted off to jail or the psych ward, identification notwithstanding. Identification. Show them his identification. It would explain everything.
“My identification is in the left breast pocket of my coat. May I take it out and show it to you?”
The officer gave a curt nod, lifting his aim a few inches at point blank range. Moving with deliberate slowness, his left hand brought the coat open as wide as he could in the narrow space, to communicate he was trying nothing hostile. His right crossed his body at a glacial pace until two fingers reached into his pocket and brushed against emptiness. Ignoring rising panic and digging further, he closed around smooth leather and produced the slim folded credentials.
At least they were where they should be. He wheezed out a sigh of relief.
He continued the slow arc of movement, stretching his arm out the open doorframe and opening the folio. The officer shined his light on it and frowned, stepping forward only far enough to grip the leather. He read the inserts carefully, flipping to the back and the photo. The bright beam blinded him again as it shown in his face, then lowered almost as fast to the leather.
“Well, well. A big wig. Hey Terry, guess what we got here? Want to take a guess and buy breakfast when you lose?”
The other man said something, his words garbled by a sudden influx of noise. Engines and tires and the more than occasional honk of a horn filled his hearing. He swore it had been so silent moments before, even with the door open. The stench of alley came next, rotting garbage and urine. It was as if his senses were returning, one by one.
Where was he?
“Nope, not even close. Though an alderman in an indelicate situation would have made my evening. Nope, we got us a Fed, a real live Fed.” The man returned his gun to the holster, leaving the snap open and keeping a palm close by, and approached the door. Slapping the fist clutching the leather folio on the car’s roof with enough force to make the sound echo in the interior, he leaned down, shining the light inside the vehicle in a patterned sweep checking every corner.
He handed back the credentials, staring with intense examination as he did so. His sniff was audible, as if checking for a hint of alcohol or pot. Squinting slightly, his gaze steadied eyeball to eyeball. Satisfied, he shook his head.
“So tell me, mister Federal agent, what are you doing on my turf?”
From the BookLife Prize for Fiction 2016
"This promising series debut makes the most of the author’s premise -- a man, who works for the National Security Agency, finds himself in a deserted Chicago street, unsure of how he got there, but with horrific memories. The author makes this improbable concept work, by dint of superior prose and thoughtful structuring of plot developments, which build up to a surprising but logical reveal that nicely sets up a sequel."