After years of paying her dues on the force, Beth Sturgis has earned her place as a detective for the Robbery-Homicide division of the Atlanta PD. Now, she’s heading up a major manhunt for a potential serial killer who’s working his way inward from the outskirts of the city. The copycat elements in the first crime scene lead Sturgis to retired FBI agent Jack Kale, who was responsible for apprehending and nearly killing the murderer known as the Scarecrow, the same Scarecrow who appears to be this new killer’s terrible inspiration.
A reclusive single father and university professor, Kale is trying to keep the demons at bay through therapy and avoidance. That is, until Sturgis shows up asking for his help. Against his better judgment, Kale is drawn into the most dangerous cat and mouse game of his life. Robert Daniels’s Once Shadows Fall, is a gripping thriller in the bestselling tradition of Silence of the Lambs and is sure to become a crime fiction classic.
Born and raised in Atlanta, Robert Daniels is a clinical psychologist. This is his first novel and currently he lives in Atlanta, GA.
“Daniels’ superbly entertaining procedural…lifts itself into a special place among psychological thrillers because of its evocative writing.”
—Booklist starred review
“The story’s execution is smooth…Daniels provides a killer with a believable back story and motive, bringing the mystery to a satisfying conclusion.”
“Stunning psychological thriller…Engrossing twists, a smooth writing voice and a villain evil enough to make Hannibal Lecter consider retirement.”
—RT Book Reviews, Top Pick
“An absolutely absorbing novel from first page to last, Once Shadows Fall showcases author Robert Daniel’s complete mastery of the mystery thriller genre.”
—Midwest Book Review
“A first novel that has the makings of a solid series…The denouement is somewhat like watching a Grucci fireworks spectacular, where the audience is wondering how he can top this. And as with fireworks, the buildup is spectacular.”
“You’re in for a real treat. What a novel! It takes your breath away and doesn’t come back until the book (or case) is closed… If this is his first novel, what is he going to write for the encore?! Dynamic action and suspense collide with intellect in this psychological thriller.”
—Night Owl Reviews, Top Pick
“Darkly intriguing and full of unexpected twists, Once Shadows Fall is a psychological cat-and-mouse game that’s both intense and emotionally resonant.”
–Meg Gardiner, Edgar Award winning author
“Once Shadows Fall is a complex and well-written thriller with plenty of suspense and lots of action. An impressive debut.”
–Thomas Perry, New York Times bestselling author of Forty Thieves
“Robert Daniels is the new Thomas Harris. With a villain that is as sinister, creepy, and fascinating as he is compelling. A wonderful new talent has arrived, fully formed. This is the future of the thriller.”
–Ken Bruen, awarding winning author of Green Hell
Luck: hard to plan for it, impossible to predict when it might show up. Driving through the town of Jordan in search of a suitable subject for her class assignment, twenty-year-old Melissa Harris was almost ready to concede her luck had run out. Less than a week remained before she had to turn her class project in, and she’d come up with nothing for her photo study.
Romantic farmhouses and barns? Really?
Professor Micklenberg, however, was serious. Submit a portfolio or flunk the class. Landscape photography was supposed to be a spring semester cakewalk at the University of Georgia. Instead, it was turning out to be a major pain in the ass. College professors, she had found, took everything seriously, particularly themselves.
The first farm Melissa came to was nondescript and ordinary. Basically, a crashing bore. The second was worse. But just when she was about to give up, her luck changed. The first thing she noted about the last farm was that it was abandoned.
Romantic? Maybe not, but, well…interesting. At that point, she was willing to take interesting.
Melissa made a U-turn and pulled her Prius onto the shoulder. She got out and stood there, absorbing the details. Several hundred yards away, at the rise of an amber-colored hill dotted with wild flowers, sat a faded white-and-gray house. Something straight out of Wyeth’s Christina’s World. To the right of the house, perhaps a quarter mile from it, was an ancient barn, a silo, and a windmill, its blades turning slowly in the cool afternoon air. Farther to the right, a line of trees ran parallel to a set of railroad tracks that disappeared in the distance. The tracks were seemingly forgotten like the farm itself. Once this place had been filled with people. Sound. Movement.
Melissa nodded to herself. Search over.
The following day, armed with two cameras, a tripod, and a traveling mug of coffee, Melissa returned to Jordan. Located some forty miles north of Atlanta, the distance between the two had little to do with Jordan’s historical distance from the twenty-first century. The town, like many southern towns, had a square, around which were a series of one- and two-story brick buildings and an old courthouse with white columns. In the middle of the square was a statue of a man she’d never heard of. Main Street, which was also State road 21, connected to the highway five miles away. If anyone were inclined to visit Jordan, they’d find a bank at one end and a convenience store at the other end that doubled as a post office. On the way out of town was a gas station with pumps that were probably two or three generations old. The gas station attendant maintained that the Donneley farm had been abandoned for at least fifteen years.
For the second time in as many days, Melissa parked her car on the shoulder, retrieved her camera bag and tripod from the back seat, and started across the field. The sun had been up for nearly an hour, pushing the long shadows back toward the trees.
Partway across the field, Melissa slowed and stared at a scarecrow some distance away, its arms and head akimbo. A large, black bird was sitting on its shoulder pulling at something with its beak. Hearing her approach, the bird looked up, decided she was far enough away to present no threat, and went back to whatever it was pulling at. Melissa tried to recall if she’d seen it on her last visit.
Probably wasn’t paying attention, she decided.
A moment later, a second bird glided in and landed at the scarecrow’s feet.
“Not doing a very good job, are you?” she said under her breath and kept on walking. The scarecrow had no comment.
The barn’s roofline was bowed in the middle, and the whole building seemed to be leaning slightly as if the passage of time was too much for it to bear. Its wood was gray and badly weathered. In the front was a pair of wide double doors faded to a barely recognizable shade of red.
Melissa placed her camera bag on the hood of a rusted Dodge Charger sitting up on concrete blocks near the entrance and proceeded to setup her tripod, breathing in the scent of jasmine in the air.
As she did on her first visit, she made a circuit around the barn, checking to see if there might be a better angle for her picture. There wasn’t. As she rounded the corner, her eye came to rest on an irregular brown stain on the ground about three feet across. Odd. She didn’t remember seeing that either. She looked around. There was nothing in the immediate area that could have caused it.
Guess I missed that, too.
The gas station attendant had assured her no one had been out there in years. Melissa shook her head and turned her attention to her camera and the task at hand.
One of the barn doors was closed, the other partially open, rocking back and forth in the morning breeze. Melissa approached the door and tentatively poked her head inside. Streaming through a broken window above the doors, sunlight lit portions of a dusty interior. A few insects buzzing around darted in and out of the diffuse light. Of course, nothing had changed. The barn was as empty as it had been a day ago. The stain continued to bother her, but she pushed it to the back of her mind because the light outside was changing rapidly. She tucked a strand of blond hair behind her ear and started back to the tripod.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw another black bird land on the scarecrow’s head.
“Jeez,” she muttered. “You’re supposed to scare them, not attract the stupid things.”
A thought occurred to her. Why put a scarecrow in an abandoned field? Melissa stopped and considered the scarecrow more closely. Something wasn’t right. For the first time, mixed in with the jasmine scent she’d smelled earlier was a foul odor unlike anything she’d ever smelled before.
Seemingly on their own, her feet began to move, drawing her toward the black figure.
No way those are crows, she thought. They’re too large.
One of the birds swiveled its head in her direction and fixed a pair of malevolent eyes on her. It was holding something red in its beak. Her mind began to race, conjuring up ghost stories and movies with dark images that scared her as a child. As she came closer and the wind picked up, the more ubiquitous the smell became, seemingly coming from the ground and grass at the same time. Incongruously, around the scarecrow’s neck was a thin, gold necklace. Without warning, the bird took off, startling her, its wings beating hard. Its companion let out a squawk of protest and followed suit. Melissa tracked their flight upward. Four more birds were now circling overhead. She forced her feet to keep going.
Thirty feet from the macabre figure, she came to a halt, staring in horror at a deathly white face under the scarecrow’s hat. A cry that tried to escape her throat turned into a croak as her voice deserted her. All the strength seemed to have drained from her legs. Rooted to the spot, she stood there.
“This is a joke,” she whispered. “Someone’s idea of a sick joke.”
The scarecrow’s hat, dislodged by the bird, finally slipped to the ground. It was no joke.
Melissa Harris began to scream.
Detective Beth Sturgis leaned against the rear fender of her police cruiser and watched as the crime scene techs took the man’s body down. Standing twenty yards away, Tony Colsart, Burton County’s medical examiner, and his assistant waited to load the corpse into a body bag. Their van was parked close by. Two deputies, also present at the scene, stopped what they were doing to watch. no one spoke.
Once the body was properly secured, Colsart broke away and came toward them. Flashing blue lights from the other cruisers reflected off his face, making his movements appear staccato. Colsart’s expression was grim.
Three months new to the Robbery-Homicide Division, thirty-four-year-old Beth Sturgis had worked a total of four murders during her brief tenure. The smell of death always got to her. It seemed to linger on her clothes and hair long after she was gone, a hazard of the profession. Being outdoors helped.
Next to Beth was Max Blaylock. Blaylock was a large man with a big stomach. He’d been Jordan’s sheriff for the last twelve years. Without being asked, he poured Colsart a cup of coffee from a thermos resting on the trunk of his car and handed it to him. The ME accepted it gratefully, nodding his thanks.
“Tony, this is Beth Sturgis from Atlanta. I’ve asked them to step in and help. I’m thinking this one’s too big for our little shop to handle.”
Colsart and Beth shook hands. She was dressed in a gray pantsuit and a light-blue blouse. At five feet nine inches, her eyes were nearly level with his.
“Anything you can tell us?” Beth asked.
A wiry man with sandy hair, Colsart was in his early forties. “Apart from the obvious,” he said, “not a helluva lot. There’s a small-caliber gunshot wound to the face, just under the victim’s left eye. Powder burns and ridging indicate it was made from close range.”
“What about the time of death?” Beth asked.
“Judging from the way rigor’s letting go, I’d estimate a little over thirty hours, give or take. We’ll know more once I get him on the table.”
“You think the bullet killed him?”
“Doubtful. It exited through the back of this neck and missed both the brain and spinal cord. I assume you noticed his pasty-white condition?”
“Hard to miss,” Beth said.
“He appears to have died from blood loss,” Colsart said. “Problem is, there’s not enough at the base of the cross or the barn to account for it. This is really weird.”
“You’ll figure it out, Terrance,” Blaylock reassured him. “Ain’t no vampires in Jordan.”
“I intend to,” Colsart said. “Goddamn birds did a job on his body. What the hell are they?”
“Turkey buzzards,” Blaylock said, looking up at the black shapes circling the field.
It was late in the afternoon, and the day had continued to brighten but without warmth. Yellow police tape declaring the area a crime scene had been stretched around the barn on stakes in a hundred-foot perimeter. The scarecrow and the house were similarly cordoned off. Five minutes after arriving on scene, Beth had called Ben Furman with Atlanta’s crime lab to come out. He and a helper were at the moment painstakingly going over the ground for anything that might yield evidence.
Beth turned to the sheriff and asked, “Ever see him before?”
Blaylock shook his head. “I don’t think he’s local.”
“Think you’ll identify him?” Colsart asked.
“Ben told me he got a clean set of prints off his good hand,” Beth said. “Assuming the vic’s in the system, there shouldn’t be a problem.”
“Good hand?” Blaylock said.
“The left one’s missing its ring finger.”
“I missed that completely. I was concentrating on the gunshot.”
“Not a problem,” Beth said. “Maybe we’ll catch a break and get some latents off the body.”
“Not likely,” Colsart said. “Your tech did a preliminary with the Polilight and didn’t look happy.”
“Sick bastard to do something like this,” Blaylock muttered to no one in particular.
When Colsart finished his coffee, he handed the cup to the sheriff, who crumpled it and tossed it onto the back floorboard of his car.
Beth said, “Tony, I don’t know your situation up here, but I’d like to move this to the top of the list if possible.”