Freak, Jennifer Hillier’s followup to her debut novel, Creep, is being released on August 7th, and we couldn’t resist taking a peek at it with this excerpt. Former Seattle police officer Jerry Isaac is now a private detective. Haunted — and physically scarred — by his encounter with Abby Maddox, the former lover of serial killer Ethan Wolfe, the last thing he wants is to have any contact with her. But when new victims start showing up with a message related to Abby carved in their bodies, Jerry might have no choice but to see her again.
Rosedale Penitentiary was a cold, lifeless place. Which was to be expected, considering it was a prison.
Abby Maddox sat facing her high-powered attorney, a man with a thick mop of silver hair and a ruddy alcoholic’s complexion. They were in one of the prison “conference rooms,” a laughable name for the space, considering it was only ten by fifteen feet, with painted concrete walls, a metal table, and four folding chairs. The steel was hard underneath Abby’s ass, and she shifted periodically in her seat as her lawyer droned on. He had been speaking non-stop for five minutes. The man loved the sound of his own voice.
Which wasn’t to say that Bob Borden wasn’t a hell of a defense attorney. He was, and that’s why she’d picked him. When word of Abby’s arrest last year in Florida leaked to the media, a dozen criminal attorneys from prestigious law firms had contacted her, all offering to represent her pro bono. She knew right away she wanted Borden. His success rate at trial was impressive, he was male, and he’d been married for over twenty-five years.
And that last part was key. The more married a guy was, the more pliable he tended to be.
Abby nodded every few seconds to show she was listening, which she was, for the most part. Borden’s animated gestures were difficult to ignore. Though he was in his mid-fifties, he was far from unattractive, dressed in a gray custom-tailored pinstripe suit and a teal necktie that brought out the bright blue of his eyes. The man was skillful, manipulative, and aggressive, and his intensity was exactly what she needed.
Borden’s only weakness? His ego. Men.
“So where do things stand?” she asked when he finally paused. She was careful to keep the impatience out of her voice.
“They don’t have much.” Borden’s gaze flickered to her lips, as they always did when she spoke. On cue, she licked them, watching as his breath quickened slightly. Really, it was too easy. It almost wasn’t even fun.
“What do they have, then?”
“It’s turning into a clusterfuck over there.” His gaze lingered on her mouth for a few seconds more. “No doubt they’re trying to find DNA and trace that will tie you to the murders of those homeless women. But if they haven’t found anything yet, they’re not going to. From what my sources are telling me, they’re not even finding any of Ethan’s DNA. He took great care to be clean, I’ll grant him that. So our focus is on Diana St. Clair.”
“And the professor’s testimony?”
Borden waved a manicured hand. “Sheila Tao won’t testify, I’ll see to that. Anything she has to say about you is hearsay. She was locked in Ethan’s basement for three weeks and nothing he said to her can be corroborated, so don’t concern yourself with her.”
Sheila Tao. The mere mention of the bitch made Abby want to scratch Borden’s eyes out, just because he was there. She kept her face composed. “So I continue to sit here and rot while we wait for the trial to start, and in the meantime the prosecuting attorney is still trying to pin the homeless women’s murders on me. It’s really not looking good for me now, is it, Bob? I’m already in for nine years because you said that was the best you could do.”
“It was, Abby. And it won’t be nine years, trust me. You’ll be out in four for good behavior, and since you’ve already served a year, that’s only three years left.” Borden’s smile was an attempt at reassurance. “It’ll pass in no time.”
The arrogant sonofabitch. Anybody in here could tell you that jail time was not quick time. The year Abby had spent in here already felt like ten.
“Actually, that’s why I’m here this morning.” The attorney folded his hands together. “There’s been an interesting development.”
“Tell me already.” Abby worked at keeping her voice soft. “Or do you want me to beg?”
Borden’s ruddy face turned a deeper shade of red. He adjusted his tie even though it didn’t need adjusting. “A dead body turned up this morning at the Sweet Chariot Inn in downtown Seattle. It’s an upscale boutique hotel, pricey but small. Adult female, twenties, Caucasian. The cops are coming to talk to you about it. My contacts at Seattle PD gave me the heads-up.”
He’d thrown in that last line just so she’d know how well connected he was. As if she didn’t already know all about him. Abby knew more about her attorney than he’d ever realize. She knew that his kids were Jessica, Christian, and Hunter, ages seventeen, fifteen, and twelve respectively. She knew his wife was named Natasha, and that she was forty-six, and that she was fucking their Mercedes mechanic. Abby might be in prison, but she knew everything she needed to know about Bob Borden.
“The police are coming to talk to me about a dead body? Which has what to do with me?” Abby raised an eyebrow and gestured to her prison attire. “Look where I am. They can’t possibly think I killed her.”
“Of course not.” Borden glanced up at the ceiling, as if to reassure himself that there were no cameras in here. There weren’t, but his voice dropped, anyway. “But is there any chance you know who did?”
Abby leaned back in her chair, appraising her attorney. “Interesting question. What was the victim’s name?”
“Brenda Stich. College student. She had more than a passing physical resemblance to you.”
Abby cocked her head. “And it grows curiouser and curiouser.”
“The name ring any bells?”
“Not remotely.” Abby drummed her fingers on the table impatiently. “Is this really what you came here to ask me, Bob? I live in a six-by-nine cell surrounded by guards all day. What could I possibly know about a murder?”
“I do have a reason for asking.” Borden continued to watch her intently. “It seems your name was found at the scene, carved into the dead girl’s body. I’m told the exact words were ‘Free Abby Maddox.’” He paused for dramatic effect. “I’ll confirm once I receive photos.”
She stared at him, tempted to ask him to repeat what he’d just said, even though she’d heard him perfectly. Keeping her face straight and her tone appropriately somber, she said, “You know I have some disturbed fans, Bob.”
“Yes, you do.”
Abby wasn’t being arrogant with her use of the word fans. She was well aware of her social media celebrity status. There was a fan website called FreeAbbyMaddox.com. Someone had set up a Facebook page and it currently had over a hundred thousand “Likes.” There were at least six fake Twitter accounts in her name. A bit twisted perhaps, but so what? After a year in here, she needed all the support she could get. Fans sent her all kinds of donations, which helped enormously in prison.
“Any fan in particular stand out?” he asked.
Abby allowed a small smile to play at the corners of her lips, never allowing it to fully materialize. “Nobody special comes to mind.”
“They’re going to check your mail. See who’s been writing to you.”
“That’s a ton of mail. They won’t find anything.”
“That’s their problem.” Borden put his hand over hers. A shudder of repulsion passed through Abby. Not that she let it show, of course. She didn’t like to be touched unless she initiated it herself. But it was important to let him think she liked him. She needed him to work hard for her, especially since he was doing it for free. She allowed his hand to remain.
“What’s happened here, Abby—as much as it’s a tragedy that a woman was found dead, of course—is not necessarily a terrible thing,” Borden said. “For you, I mean. There are indications that this murder wasn’t the first. Another woman, also resembling you, was killed a week ago, but I haven’t received definitive word from my sources yet as to whether the two murders are related. They likely are, though.”
Abby sat up straighter. “They think it’s a serial killer?”
“A serial killer who’s obsessed with you. Somebody desperately wants you out of prison. And whoever he is, he went to great lengths to send the police a message.”
Abby wanted to smile, but she held back. A smile would not be an appropriate reaction to news like this. “So the killer carved ‘Free Abby Maddox’ into the woman’s back. That’s a serious way of sending the prosecuting attorney a message, Bob.”
Her lawyer paused, a slight frown passing over his face.
Immediately, Abby bit her lip. Shit. The man missed nothing, which was exactly the reason she’d picked him. Had Borden specifically said that the carving was on the woman’s back? Maybe he hadn’t.
She squeezed his hand, and it immediately had the desired effect because his face reddened. “Those poor women.” Her voice was husky. “How did she die, Bob? Blood loss?”
“Actually,” Borden said, his tone matching hers, “she was strangled with a zip tie before she was carved. You know those long plastic doohickeys you can buy at a hardware store?” He grimaced. “It’s actually a very efficient way to kill somebody. The ties are cheap, they’re quick to tighten, and once they’re on—”
“You can’t get them off unless you cut them off,” she finished. “With scissors.”
“Exactly. No blood. No mess. No fuss.”
Abby said nothing as she processed this. It was a rather horrific way to die, wasn’t it? She closed her eyes for a moment, picturing what the death would have been like. She imagined the sound the zip tie would make as it was pulled tighter, ridged plastic against ridged plastic, and how it would feel cutting into her throat, cutting off air, cutting off the ability to even take a breath, small hands clawing at the plastic to try and tear it off, but to no avail. The world eventually going dark, until there was just . . . nothing.
A zip tie. Who knew something so cheap, so readily available, and so easy to hide in a pocket would be so effective? Fucking brilliant.
“There’s more,” Borden said. “Beneath your name was another message.” He paused again. He knew damn well he had her full attention and he was determined to soak up every second.
Jesus, how did his wife stand him? “Two numbers. A two, a slash, and then a ten.”
He let go of her hands and Abby resisted the urge to wipe her palms on her prison-issue slacks. She watched as he removed his pen from his breast pocket to scribble something on the yellow legal pad in front of him. He turned it around so she could read it.
“Two-ten?” Abby frowned at his handwriting, her finger brushing over the page where he’d scrawled. “Is that a date? February tenth? What happened on February tenth?” “Nothing, which is why they don’t think it is a date.” Borden tapped the notepad with his pen. “February ten doesn’t correspond to anything. It’s not your birthday, it’s not your incarceration date, it’s not linked to anything relevant they can find. Not even anything to do with Ethan, as far as they can determine.”
“So then what does it mean?”
“The police think it’s the kind of number you would see at the bottom of a limited-edition print.”
Abby waited. Her attorney interpreted her silence as confusion. “You know when artists make prints of their work?” Borden said. “And at the bottom, they sign it, beside the number of prints that will be in circulation? The dead woman who was found a week ago—who’s probably linked to this murder— was also strangled with a zip tie. Your name wasn’t on that one, or we’d have obviously heard about it then, but there was a number carved on that body as well. One-ten.” He scrawled it again for clarity.
“I see.” Abby picked up the piece of paper and stared at it, tilting her head. “So it’s a counter. As in, one out of ten. Two out of ten.”
“Yes. They think so.”
She spoke softly, almost a whisper. “So there’ll be eight more victims? Victims who look like me, with my name carved into them?”
Abby leaned forward and took both his hands in both of hers, enjoying the flush that spread across his cheeks once again. “So you’re thinking I might have some leverage here. The police are going to assume I know something.”
“Do you know something?”
She shrugged and said nothing. A moment passed. Borden didn’t push. She knew he didn’t care whether she was innocent or guilty—he was her lawyer, for fuck’s sake. All he cared about was winning.
Borden smiled at her, the rush from their skin-to-skin contact going straight to his head. “It’s okay. Even if you don’t know anything, there’s no reason to let them think otherwise. For now, anyway. This could definitely be to our advantage, if we play it right.”
“So tell me how to play it.”
He squeezed her hands tighter. “Just keep doing everything we talked about. I’ve been getting some calls from television shows wanting to interview you, and we can work with that, too. You might be in prison, but you are in control here, Abby. Don’t you ever forget that.”
Abby laughed. God, men could be so stupid. “Come on, Bob. As if I ever could.”