Authors: Nikki M. Pill
Book One of the Darling Killer Trilogy
Anna Zendel is your average 32-year-old therapist, stressing about clinical exams and struggling to recover from an abusive relationship. But at night she transforms herself into the saucy burlesque dancer Velvet Crush, enchanting Chicago audiences with the art of the tease.
As Anna struggles to keep the therapy and burlesque worlds separate and get over her crush on the troupe’s emcee, a new danger threatens women across the city. The papers have dubbed him the Darling Killer, because after strangling his victims, he scrawls the word “darling” on their skin
When one of Anna’s fellow dancers is murdered in the dressing room, she realizes that Darling Killer could be closer than she thought. Could Max, Anna’s new therapy client who confessed to fantasizing about dead girls and obsessing over the Darling Killer, have anything to do with the murders?
As more women are murdered, and Anna begins receiving mysterious gifts, this burlesque dancer pits feathers and sequins against foul play in the deadliest dance of all.
For my father,
Stephen M. Pill,
who read to me when I was little,
bought our family’s first copy of
Silence of the Lambs
and, when he saw
in a crowded theater,
was the only one who clapped to save Tinkerbell.
He was only ashamed for the people who didn’t.
He reached for the buzzer and hesitated, savoring the way his heart throbbed a familiar rhythm.
Darcy. Darcy. Darcy,
it thumped. He wanted to ring the bell – God did he want to – but he knew everything would change. The delicious thrill in this moment would never come again.
He’d wanted to tell her for so long.
He put his hand in his jacket pocket and ran his fingertips over the ring, its silver band and the prongs around the gem, as he absorbed the familiar details one last time. The Ravenswood area of Chicago was quiet on weekday afternoons, but if he closed his eyes, he could hear the distant hum of traffic on Irving Park Road. Smells of gasoline and asphalt mingled with wet leaves and loam. The tired old juniper bushes under the windows didn’t give their sharp scent to the air, as if they were too bored and wet to bother. They scraped against the awful orange brick façade of Darcy’s apartment building when the September breeze marshaled its forces. Someone had just done laundry; a fuzzy hint of floral fabric softener wandered from a vent between houses. Brown paint flaked off the doorjamb around the bell. He rocked back onto his heels, feeling the bristly doormat under his feet. It was perfectly centered in the square of dry concrete underneath the faded green awning.
He loved it all. He especially loved the pearly just-rained sky, the way it made the colors stand out so true. As much as he looked forward to giving her something better, this house had so many memories.
A car drove slowly up the street, probably looking for a parking spot, bringing the muffled zipper sound of car wheels on puddles.
I should ring the bell,
I’ll look like a weirdo standing out here too long.
He let go of the ring, squared his shoulders, and pressed the bell.
Darcy opened the yellow interior door and looked out at him through the screen. Her thick, blonde hair swung free and settled around her jaw, creating a faint shadow under her cheekbone. “Hello,” she said, a faint smile on her face, her eyes quizzical and expectant.
He needed a moment to recover himself; he was gawping at her like a fool. “Hi,” he said. “Did you receive the flowers I sent this morning?”
Her face lit up. “They were from you?”
“They were,” he said. “With all my heart.”
• • •
She made Earl Grey tea, his favorite, in the old copper kettle he liked. She hadn’t changed after work. He didn’t mind. Her waitress uniform, a cheap, black polyester affair, hugged her waist and flared around her knees. The hem just brushed her calves, and her stockings whispered against each other as she moved. He longed to run his fingertips over the warm nylon, to brush his cheek against the lacy tops on her inner thighs. He longed for her to fall into his arms and sit in his lap so he could unzip that scratchy uniform and worship her porcelain skin.
He gazed around the cozy, familiar living room. She’d draped velvet cloth in maroon and rust over tables and covered it with cream-colored fringed lace shawls. The old Victrola sat in one corner, its golden horn pointed towards a bookshelf set directly into the wall. Fat volumes with gold writing overstuffed the shelves. Knicknacks topped the mantel: graceful Asian figurines of willowy women, cherubic nesting dolls, old sepia photos in elaborate frames. She sat in one of the tapestry wing chairs, so he sat in the one across from her. The roses he’d given her sat on the coffee table in front of a plush golden sofa. They were pink, for grace. He’d looked up the Victorian meanings of flowers to honor her old-fashioned sensibilities.
“I have a surprise for you,” he said, grinning.
Darcy looked up at him through her thick eyelashes. “That’s so sweet of you. This is all so… unexpected.”
She was a little overwhelmed. He could tell. She sipped her tea and set it down. Of course Darcy had a vintage tea set, pearly white with gold rims, delicate flowers in the center of each saucer.
Not the ring first
, he thought. He reached into his left jacket pocket and pulled out a necklace: an emerald in a gold setting.
“Oh,” she said, her fingertips flying to the sapphire pendant she usually wore about her slender neck. “It’s lovely…”
“I’m glad you like it,” he said. He loved the line of her throat, the shape of her shoulders, the hollows around her clavicle bones. “Try it on?”
She laughed shyly and unclasped the silver chain she wore. The bright metal traced the muscles about her neck. Then she fastened the emerald necklace and ran a fingertip over it. “How does it look?”
“It makes your skin look radiant,” he told her truthfully. So many men complained about their girlfriends wanting more romance in their relationships. Morons, all of them. He’d been waiting for years to find a woman like Darcy, a woman to shower with romantic surprises. He loved romance. He loved women.
She glanced at her tea, then back at him. “I don’t know what to say.”
“Your eyes say everything.” The closer he got, the more he could appreciate the shades of blue and grey mingling in them. Her eyes were so captivating. He decided to give her the ring next.
“I love the way you look in blue, and I thought this would be perfect for you.” He handed her the opal ring with a flourish. Orange and blue fire flashed through a milky surface.
“Very much,” he said. “Of course I love the way you look in anything.”
She looked down at the opal, then back up at him through her long tangled eyelashes. He loved the way her thick, blonde hair brushed her shoulders and jaw, accentuating her natural grace. Her movements were so effortless and fluid: the way she poured her coffee in the morning, the way she smoothed makeup over her face, the way she held out her clothes and frowned in concentration while dressing for the day. She had a trick of tossing her hair back over her shoulder and smiling that just killed him.
“This is one of my favorites,” he said, presenting her with a strand of blue-tinged pearls. He liked their symmetry, their unexpected hue. They reminded him of seeing Darcy in a crowd on a rainy day: something that drew your eye in an otherwise drab landscape. Something far lovelier than you had any right to expect.
“You’ve gone to so much trouble,” she said, her brows drawing together.
“Nonsense,” he said, smoothing the line between her brows with his fingertips. The touch was electrifying; she started from it. “Nothing’s too much trouble for you.”
“I’m… flattered,” she said. She seemed flustered.
“Flattered?” He forced a smile. “Darcy, that’s… that’s something you say to a presumptuous suitor, not to someone in a relationship like ours.”
A shadow of puzzlement crossed her face. “Like ours.”
He clasped her hand in his. “Special.”
She drew her hand away and stood, her stockings whispering against each other as she took two gazelle-like steps towards the door. “This is all very—generous,” she said, “but I have plans tonight. I think it’s time for you to leave.”
He wasn’t done. He had so much more to give her.
He stood and walked over to her. She took a step away, but he caught and embraced her, pressing her arms close to her sides. “I would never leave you, my darling,” he whispered into her ear.
o… is this goodbye?” Katie’s voice broke on the last word.
“A goodbye in some ways,” I said. The conversation had puttered into longer and longer pauses as the hour waned.
Katie leaned forward, hands clasped. Even though she still wore primarily neutral tones – that day, taupe slacks with a chocolate brown sweater – she was almost unbearably vivid, humming with vitality. My office décor was depressingly bland with its eggshell walls, mustard-and-brown curtains, nubbly brown-and-rust industrial carpet, and dark rust sofa. My desk and bookcase were dark wood in uninspired minimalist design. A faux Tiffany lamp I’d insisted on purchasing struggled to cheer its corner of my desk beneath a painting of sunflowers. I have no idea how a painter managed to make sunflowers look half-lit and dark, but he did. No painting hung above the sofa, which let me devote my focus to the client.
If I didn’t have clients to brighten the place up, I’d scream.
The plush sofa was upholstered with a soft microfiber, with deep comfortable cushions. It seemed like it would swallow Katie during her first appointment, when she crumpled into one corner, grisly blue and yellow mottling her face and neck, stitches in her split lip, sobbing and repeating, “I can’t do this, I can’t do this.” She could barely look at me. That day, however, her dark blue eyes were clear, her spine long, her shoulders relaxed. Her tawny hair, cut in a geometric bob, framed her heart-shaped face. Her bubbling laugh seemed to lurk just below the surface of her lips at all times.
“Can we… I don’t know, keep in touch?” she asked. She tugged at her silver Celtic trinity pendant. She used to wear an amber pendant her boyfriend had given her, but after leaving him, replaced it with the knotwork necklace.
I glanced at the form on my desk. TERMINATION INTERVIEW, it proclaimed in bold block letters. The handful of sentences in my handwriting seemed so paltry after the past year.
“Sort of,” I said. “Clients have sent me friend requests on Facebook and wedding invitations, but as kind as the gesture is, I can’t accept it. We’re not friends; it’s a different relationship. You can certainly contact me any time to let me know how you’re doing.” She already knew she could email me, and I would gladly respond, but that email is not secure and someone could hack it. She used it a handful of times to check on our next appointment, but never for anything personal.
“It won’t be the same, though.”
“And it shouldn’t. You’re ready. You can do this. And by maintaining that boundary, I’m always here if something happens. So if there’s a crisis, or if you feel like there’s something you want to process, you have a place to go where someone already knows your history and your strengths.”
“OK,” she said. “Thank you so much for everything. I look back on a year ago, and I can’t even…”
I waited to see if she would finish the sentence, but she just shrugged. “You did the hard work,” I reminded her.
She chuckled. “It was hard. I couldn’t have done it without you.”
. It’s been a real pleasure working with you. And it’s been great to do the termination interview, too. A lot of people just stop coming in when they feel better, so I rarely get the chance to reflect on the process with someone who’s come full-circle like you have.”
“No problem,” she said. “Umm… can I give you a hug?”
“Sure,” I said.
We stood, and she hugged me fiercely.
“I hate goodbyes,” she said, and dashed a tear away. “So, um – I’ll see you again.”
I walked her to the waiting room, noting with relief that the chairs were all empty. She gave me one last smile and walked into the hall. As she stepped out, she took a deep breath and squared her shoulders. I blinked hard, swallowing around a tiny cluster of bubbles in my throat.