Exclusive excerpt: Red Sky Hill

Copyright © 2023 by Declan James Books

Chapter One

Pain is a song most cannot play. Most cannot hear. But make no mistake, there is a melody to it. A harmony. There is beauty of form. Each person is different. Like each instrument. No two notes sound exactly the same, if you know how to listen.

Tonight, it began when the killer stepped into the room. Slow. Quiet. Taking care not to let his victim know he was there. The element of surprise. Because fear is a type of pain. The power in bringing it formed the very first notes. The very first movement.

He stood there, watching. Waiting. His victim sat at his desk, typing up invoices in front of a large computer monitor. 

His victim was happy here. At peace. He’d worked hard for the things he had. Or so he told himself. The expanse of acreage at the foot of Southern Ohio’s Red Sky Hill. His hobby farm with horse stables and the chicken coop. The garden his wife liked to putter in. The very barn he worked in. He’d spent six figures converting it into a state of the art home office. A man cave. A warehouse for all of his extravagances. The vintage cars. From here, he could look out the window at the rolling hills, surveying his kingdom. Satisfied. Smug. 

The killer took another step. He waited. He wanted to. The longer he stayed undetected, the closer he got to his victim. It felt good. To be in control. 

The phone beside his victim’s computer rang. The killer froze. He took a step back but stayed directly behind him.

He answered, his tone one of annoyance.

“Hey Gemma. Rachel’s not here right now. Did you try her cell?”

Silence. His victim grew agitated, shaking his head.

“Yeah. I’m just finishing up a few things in the office. I’ll leave the keys in the lockbox when I go. Just make sure you don’t let anybody touch anything back here. I know what I have. I don’t want to see so much as a fingerprint on my Mustang. And you tell them if they’re really interested, they better be ready to write an offer.”

The killer took one step back. He slipped his 40 millimeter Glock out of its holster and aimed it at the back of the man’s head. 

“Yeah. Talk to you tomorrow morning. Call me as soon as the showing’s are over. Sure. I expect multiple bids as well. I’m counting on it. I expect you to deliver on your promises.”

He hung up the phone. He pounded something on his keyboard then shut his computer down. The killer waited. He took a step forward, then pressed the barrel of the gun to his victim’s head. 

He would wait. A moment. He would savor the fear in his eyes as he let him turn and realize who would end him tonight. 

Only it wouldn’t be quick. It couldn’t be. 

The killer’s blood heated. His whole body began to tingle with the promise of the kill. No. Not the kill. 

The coming pain. The music.

Craig Albright put his hands up and tried to rise up out of the chair. 

“I don’t know what they told you,” he said. “Let’s just calm down, okay?”

“The house,” Albright said, his voice cracking. “There are cameras all over the property.” The killer knew it was a lie. Albright thought he was safe out here in his fortress. 

The killer reached into his back pocket with his free hand and pulled out the first zip tie. 

“Tie your right wrist to the arm of the chair,” the killer whispered. He pulled the hammer back, letting Craig Albright fear that distinctive sound.

He wouldn’t shoot him. That wasn’t the plan.

“All right. All right.” He was too compliant. Almost calm. Almost like he had expected things to get to this point sooner or later.

Albright took the zip tie and secured his own wrist to the arm of his chair. It took him two tries. 

The killer stepped back. He delivered the first blow. A quick, clean snap across Craig’s temple with the pistol. He knew exactly how hard to hit. Not enough to knock him out. Just enough to make him see stars, stupify him so the killer could secure his other wrist and his ankles to the chair without him putting up a fight. As Craig’s head lolled forward, the killer rolled the chair into the corner. 

Now his work could truly begin. 

He holstered the gun. It wasn’t his weapon of choice for what had to be done. He slid his backpack off his shoulder. Took out his hammer. His blow torch. The drill.

His instruments of pain. 

The killer took a deep breath. Slowed his own pulse. He would not break a sweat. He would not let his heart rate go above seventy beats per minute. 

He checked his watch. It was seven p.m. exactly. He could take all night if he wished. But he would finish in exactly two hours.

When Craig came to the first time, he screamed, eyes widening with fear. The time after that, he cried. Then, as the killer applied the torch, Craig Albright merely moaned. 

“Why? Why? Why!” Craig whispered. He said a lot of things. The killer paid no attention. It only took the first burn to turn him. He sang out the combination to the safe in the corner. He told him where he would find the other thing he sought hidden behind the paneling in the corner of the barn. He made promises that were long past time to keep. 

He thought it would save him. He thought it would end things. Begged for it. 

The first hammer blow cured him of that hope. 

God. It felt good. The power. The rhythm. Each bone that broke. The tiny ones sometimes hurt the worst. Each drop of blood that fell. Even that felt like art. 

He bore up better than the killer would have given him credit for. He went numb. Hung his head low. His right eye had swollen shut. The left eye stayed wide and clear. The killer thought about ways to blind him.

But that was not the plan. 

“Please,” Albright said as the second hour drew to a close. He’d give so much of himself. His blood. His tears. His agony. 

Now there was just one last thing. 

As the killer approached, Albright tried to lift his head. Tried to meet his eyes. The good one anyway. 

“Please,” he said again. The killer put his weapons down. His instruments. He pulled the final one out of his pocket and arced it in the air, letting the blade gleam under the ceiling lights. 

Albright had moved through his fear. The killer had wrung it out of him. Or so Albright would tell himself. But as the killer held the blade to Albright’s neck, Albright tried one last thing.

“You have no idea what you’ve done,” he whispered, crying. “It’ll be the last thing you do. They’ll come for you. You think I don’t have a plan? They’ll take everything you love.”

It shouldn’t have mattered. They were just words. For the first time since the killer had walked in, his anger rose. He punched Craig Albright as hard as he could, bruising his cheek with the ring he wore under his gloved hand. 

“Shhh,” the killer said. “You’ve done well. You’ve done enough. The rest is up to me.”

And so it was. He slashed Craigh Albright’s neck in a single, clean cut, opening the vital arteries, so the last of Craig Albright’s blood became the final refrain. 

Because that was always the plan.

Chapter Two

The quickest way to spread gossip within the walls of the Worthington County Sheriff’s Department was to tell someone else to keep a secret. Though Detective Jake Cashen didn’t know what it was, he could see it on the faces of everyone he passed as he walked down to his office. There were whispers. Fake smiles. Conversations that stopped mid-sentence the moment he came into view. 

Jake just kept on walking. He didn’t have time for bullshit today. For the last week, he was the only detective Worthington County had working. Gary Majewski, who normally handled property crimes, had taken three weeks’ worth of vacation to go meet his first grandchild in Fort Worth. Ed Zender, Jake’s partner, had been in and out of the office on medical leave for the last six months. When he was here on the top of his game, Ed tended to leave the real detective work to Jake anyway. Jake himself hadn’t taken a single vacation day since he joined the department nearly two years ago on the back of his stint with the FBI. But that was a story for another day. Today, Jake had forty-three unanswered urgent emails and a full voicemail box. They would have to wait until tomorrow. He was already into his second hour of unapproved overtime.

“Jake,” Darcy the dispatcher called out as he made his way down the hall. Quite a few of his messages were from her. 

“I’m ten minutes from clocking out, Darcy. It’s been a long day.”


He froze. Darcy stepped out and stood between him and the door to his office.

“It can’t wait until tomorrow?” he asked. 

She had her hands crossed in front of her. She gave him her best school marm expression. “Trust me. I like to avoid dealing with you after a long day too. It’s the Sheriff. She wants to see you in her office before you go.”

“What’d I do now?”

“Beats me. But she’s practically wearing a hole in her carpet storming around in there. We need you to talk to her.”

“We? Who’s we?”

“We’re worried. She snapped at Moira down at the commissioner’s office. She practically bulldozed over the new civilian clerk trainees. Actually made one of them cry.”

“Landry?” Jake said.

“Yeah. That’s what I’m saying. It’s not like her.  Go talk to her.”

“Why me?”

“Because you’re her favorite,” Darcy said, batting her eyes at him. 

Jake grumbled. “Nice try. Y’all are just a bunch of cowards.”

“Come on,” Darcy said. She took Jake by the arm and turned him away from the door. “If you’re nice to me, I’ll bring you pastries tomorrow morning.”

“Well now I know hell’s about to freeze over.”

“I’ll even get them from Papa’s Diner. Tessa’s baklava?”

“And coffee. The biggest to go cup she’s got,” Jake said.

Darcy kept pushing him toward the stairwell. “Fine,” she said. “But then you come to me first when you’re done with the Sheriff. Let me know what she said.”

“So I’m a spy now.”

“Don’t be so dramatic.”

“Two pieces of baklava,” Jake muttered. “Big ones.”

By the time he got to Landry’s office, her door was closed. He could see her through the frosted window glass pacing, just like Darcy said. 

Steeling himself for whatever had Meg Landy angry enough to scare off the civilian clerks, Jake raised his fist to knock on her door. Landry swung it open just before he made contact with it. 

He’d never seen Meg Landry like this. Her face was flushed, lips pursed into a tight line. Behind her, papers were scattered over the floor as if she’d swept them off her desk in a rage. Maybe she had. 

“Jake,” she said. “Get in here.”

Jake looked behind him. Darcy and a couple of the other clerks darted out of view behind doors, desks, and down the hallway. 

Jake straightened his tie and went into the lion’s den. 

“Uh. How’s your day?” he asked, not bothering to hide the sarcasm in his tone. 

Landry turned on her heel and charged over to her desk. She picked up a tablet and thrust it at Jake, practically slicing it through his chest. He caught the thing and looked at the screen. 

“Sit down,” she said. 

“Okay.” Jake took a seat at one of the chairs opposite Landry’s desk. He had to side-step scattered paperwork. 

“It’s hitting the internet in about an hour,” she said. “A friend of mine at the Daily Beacon…some friend…gave me an advance copy hoping I’d be willing to comment.”

Jake scanned the article she’d pulled up on the tablet. The headline read, “Is Blackhand Hills’s Top Cop In Over Her Head?”

Before Jake could get very far, Landry pulled the tablet out of his grasp and started reading from it. 

“Meg Landry was never supposed to be a permanent replacement for beloved Sheriff, Greg O’Neal. Sources close to her say not even she wanted the job. Now, it appears the citizens of Worthington County may have to pay the price. In the two years since the interim sheriff…”

“Interim?” Jake interjected. “You’re not interim…”

“In the two years since the interim Sheriff clipped on her badge,” Landry continued over Jake’s comment. 

“Well more pinned, than clipped,” Jake said.

“Crime in the county has only risen. Call response times have tripled. And there is a growing dissatisfaction among the rank and file. The whispers through the halls of the public safety building echo with a common theme. Meg Landry may be in over her head.”

She tossed the tablet on an empty chair. 

“It’s a hit piece,” she said. “A three-part expose that’s rolling out this week.”

“Landry…since when have you operated based solely on public opinion? And that’s not even public opinion. That’s one reporter. And it’s not like the Beacon has ever been pro law enforcement.”

“Jake, they’re talking to people inside the department. The sources quoted have pulled details from private conversations I’ve only had behind these four walls. Internal statistics. Things that were never meant for public dissemination.”

She sat down hard in her desk chair. 

“They’re blaming me for everything that’s wrong with the county. Manpower issues. Slow response times.”

“Which are a direct result of county and state budget cuts and attrition outpacing new recruits. That’s a nationwide problem. Not something you caused.”

“The Beacon is gearing up to endorse whoever decides to run against me when I’m up for re-election next year. This is just them laying the groundwork.”

“Looks like it.” 

“It’s veiled misogyny. Phrases like, in over her head. There’s a passage where they call into question whether I have the right emotional temperament, for God’s sake.” 

“And I’ve known you to have a thicker skin than this, Landry. It’ll blow over. You knew you were probably gonna have a fight on your hands next term.”

“Jake, if the command and deputy’s unions don’t back me, I’ll be out of a job and you’ll be looking for a new boss.”

“Maybe so. But that’s not a problem you can solve today. Also, this sounds like one or two idiots bending some reporter’s ear. That bit about the rank and file? It’s crap. It’s not reality. It sure as hell isn’t what I hear.”

“Thanks,” she said. “But you’re probably biased. Everyone thinks you’re my favorite.”

Jake laughed, recalling Darcy’s earlier comment. 

“Thanks for letting me vent. I was gonna call you in here earlier, but not about this if you can believe that. This little turd salad just sort of dropped in my lap. There’s something else I wanted to talk to you about actually.”

“What’s up?”

“Ed Zender,” she said. “I had a long talk with him last night. It’s supposed to be hush-hush, but…”

“So that’s why I was getting all those looks all day,” Jake muttered. “What’s Zender done now?”

“He put in his paperwork. He’s planning on retiring at the end of the year.”

The news hit Jake like a thunderbolt. Zender had been threatening to retire for two years now and probably should have at least five years ago. But nobody thought he’d ever go through with it. 

“I know his timing couldn’t be worse,” she said. “We’re short staffed enough as it is.”

Jake didn’t want to say it, but even on a good day, Zender wasn’t much help to him. Jake had been carrying  Zender’s load for months. 

“I have an idea who I’d like to bring up to replace him but I wanted you to hear it from me. It impacts you more than anyone else.”

“Who’s your pick?” Jake asked, bracing himself for the answer. 

“Mary Rathburn.”

Jake took a beat. 

“What do you think?”

“I think that’s gonna ruffle more feathers than you probably want to right now. Gary Majewski has hinted for years he’d like to move over into crimes against persons. I’ve heard from Broadmoor and Corbin too. They’ve got more seniority. But…if you’re asking for my pure opinion.”

“I am.”

“I think you couldn’t have made a better choice than Rathburn. She’s solid. I’ve worked with her a few times. She’s smart. Tough. Ambitious.”

“You can work with her?”

“Absolutely. To be honest, if you’d asked me for my pick at the outset, she would have been on my short list.”

“Good. Your support is going to matter.”

“Yeah. You get you’re gonna catch heat for it though right?”

“I do. Mary’s young. She’s female. This place is still very much a good ole boys club. I know she’s not the safest choice.”

“But she’s the right one.”

“It could get ugly,” Landry said. “I could get some pushback. Mary could get some pushback. Are you up for that?”

“I’ll have your back,” Jake said. “More importantly, I’ll have Rathburn’s. When are you going to tell her?”

Landry’s office door opened. Deputy Mary Rathburn came in. 

“Pretty much now,” Landry said.

“Hey Jake,” Rathburn said. By the confused expression on her face, Jake guessed she had no idea why she’d been called up.

Jake’s cell phone buzzed. The caller ID told him it was his sister, Gemma. Jake clicked the volume off and slipped his phone back in his pocket.

“Thanks for coming up, Mary,” Landry said. “Have a seat.”

Rathburn came into the room and made her way to the empty chair beside Jake.

His phone buzzed again but Jake didn’t pull it out. At the same time, there was a knock on Landry’s office door. 

“Sheriff?” Darcy called out. “I’m sorry to bother you but I need Jake. It’s urgent. And you should hear it too.”

Jake and Landry exchanged a look. Mary Rathburn rose from her seat. Darcy opened the door. Worry lines creased her face. She held a small note in her hand. 

“What’s going on?” Jake asked. 

“We got a 9-1-1 call,” she said. “Out at the Albright farm at the base of Red Sky Hill. Jake, your sister’s out there showing the house.”

Jake got to his feet. 

“She’s okay,” Darcy said. “It’s not that. It’s…well…she found a body. It sounds pretty bad. There was a lot of blood and…”

“I’m on my way,” Jake said. 

“Mary,” Landry said. “You might as well go with him. Trial by fire and all.”

“What?” Rathburn asked. 

“Come on,” Jake said. “I’ll drive. I’ll explain on the way.”

Coming June 2023 – Pre-Order Your Copy Today!