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A Texas map marked with three red dots like drops of blood. A serial killer who claims to have dementia. A mysterious young woman who wants answers. What could go wrong? FINALIST FOR THE ITW THRILLER AWARD • “Fast and furious . . . You’ll never see what’s coming.”—The Washington Post
Years ago, her sister Rachel vanished. Now she is almost certain the man who took Rachel sits in the passenger seat beside her. He claims to have dementia and no memory of murdering girls across Texas in a string of places where he shot eerie pictures. To find the truth, she proposes a dangerous idea: a ten-day road trip with a possible serial killer to examine cold cases linked to his haunting photographs. Is he a liar or a broken old man? Is he a pathological con artist—or is she? You won’t see the final, terrifying twist spinning your way until the very last mile.
Praise for Paper Ghosts “A rich, hybrid work . . . a murder mystery, a road novel, a pair of psychological case studies and a meditation on photography.”—The Sunday Times (U.K.), Thriller of the Month “[An] artful and elegiac psychological thriller . . . riveting.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“[Paper Ghosts] elevates the often tawdry genre of the serial killer novel to a work of art.”—Sunday Express (UK) “Texas has yet again bred a major American noir writer.”—D Magazine
“[Heaberlin has] developed a distinctive literary voice, one that is on full display in Paper Ghosts.”—Houston Chronicle
“Strong characterisation, haunting images, a wonderful sense of place, and some dark comedy make this travelogue-cum-psychological thriller well worth the read.”—The Guardian
Under the Cover
An excerpt from Paper Ghosts
“Who the hell are you?”
I slide my queen one space closer to his king. “You know who I am.”
He swipes his right arm, the one that still fully cooperates, across the board. A single, swift movement. Pieces fly, bounce off the carpet, rattle into corners fuzzed with dust from a past decade. I don’t flinch, something I’m practiced at. Neither does the only other occupant of the room, a deaf woman knitting an infinite patch of blue. Or green or gold or pink. It could be any color.
She doesn’t have needles. Her hands work the air methodically while her invisible work piles up like an accordion. A wedding veil sits crookedly on the silvery threads struggling out of her scalp. The second hand on a plastic clock above her head jerks.
I’ve wanted to rip that clock off the wall on every visit. Time for the people in this house is meaningless. No need to travel beyond the triple-locked front door or wonder who or what made the three long white scratches that run down its wood veneer. No good reason to think about the people who never visit you or the horrible things you’ve done. So what if you can’t remember that you never liked dark bananas or the canned laughter of I Love Lucy but now you eat one while watching the other?
I wonder what Carl is thinking. Maybe about how he’d like to kill me. I’m twenty-four, in the age range. White. Slender. People say I look like my sister. The difference is, she was lit from the inside. Dramatic. Gutsy. A performer. People drifted to her. Loved her. Carl drifted to her, and snatched her life.
Maybe he thinks I am my sister come back to haunt him.
I am the understudy, Carl. A shell of her, loaded with dynamite, set on revenge. The nervous one in the wings about to jump onstage. You and I, we will be co-stars.
I am also a perfect stranger every time I come here, or he’s lying. Each time, he claims to forget my name. He won’t answer when I ask why, in June, he is wearing a Christmas tie leering with Grinch faces, or tell me where he bought his leaden, ancient boots, or the prettiest place he remembers they last took him. Boots always remind me of vistas. Of standing firm and steady on a dangerous precipice while beauty unfolds for miles before your eyes.
He’s unimpressed by any of my random musings on boots, or the Walt Whitman and John Grisham I read him by the only sunny window in this house, or the series of jokes about talking cows that I tell while we take walks around the neighborhood. Things any loved one would do. This afternoon at IHOP, I watched him drown his pancakes in strawberry syrup and knife them into a precise patchwork of bites. I wanted to ask, Does the syrup remind you of blood?
He’s trying to make me think his eyes are glimpses into a dark solar system where he retreats, alone, but I won’t be fooled. I wonder what he sees in mine. Anything familiar?
He’s a hell of an actor, according to old court testimony.
Right now, with a harmless bit of violence, he’s reminding me that he’s still strong. Relevant. I already know. I’ve studied him carefully. Weighed the risks. Searched his room while he was in the shower and found his secret stash hidden in a battered suitcase under the bed—the red rubber exercise band that keeps up that knotty little bulge on his right forearm, and the ten-pound free weights. The sharpened pocketknife and the silver lighter with the engraved N, tucked into the zipper pocket along the back with a single cigarette.
The 8X10 photograph, pressed carefully flat, under the lining. It could be 1920, or two years ago. Carl the photographer, whose Time Travel book of surreal images once hit the bestseller list, specializes in timeless. The corners of the paper are soft, and there’s a white crease in the middle that cuts the girl in two. She’s standing on a barren rusty landscape that’s probably never sucked up a drop of rain.
A tiny silver key charm nestles in her throat. The same key that I know hangs out of sight, somewhere in the graying curl of his chest hair. I saw it once, when it slipped out of his shirt and dangled over the chessboard. Is she one of his victim’s, too?
Old serial killers who roam free have to land somewhere, of course. I’ve thought about this a lot. They must get tired. Decide to pamper roses or grandchildren. Break hips and suffer heart attacks. Go impotent. Run out of money. Don’t see the car coming. Put guns to their heads.
The killers who publicly beat the system, and the unseen monsters who are never caught and slip around like silent, pulsing background music. Screeching oboes and pounding drums. Only a few ever hear their soundtrack, right at the very end, and then it’s too late.
It took a long, long time to find the man I believe killed my sister. Years. Dozens of interviews. Hundreds of suspects. Thousands of documents. Reading, stalking, stealing. It’s been a singular, no-holds-barred obsession since I was twelve and my sister’s bike didn’t make it the three miles in broad daylight from our house to her summer babysitting job. It was morning.
Two sweet little boys, Oscar and Teddy Parker, were waiting for her on the other end. Hard to believe, but they are in high school now. Several months ago, their mother found my address and mailed Oscar’s college application essay with a note saying she hoped she was right to send it.
I wasn’t sure. I didn’t unfold the piece of paper right away. I had no idea what it would say—I just knew that my sister was the subject. I tucked it in the frame of my bathroom mirror. I didn’t like thinking of her life as something to be critiqued and rated by college admissions personnel.
It took me a month to work up the courage. Nothing, Oscar wrote, was ever the same. I was only five, but her disappearance changed everything. I wore the friendship bracelet we made together until the threads wore through and it fell off. No babysitter ever lived up to her. If I’m honest, no girl ever has. No assurance will make me feel safe again, yet I think of her every time I need to be brave. She’s the reason I want to major in criminal justice.
I’d always thought of how deeply my sister’s death affected my family. Me. Even my physical body never felt the same, as if every cell was chemically changed, forever tweaked to high alert.
I’d never once thought of the pain of the two little boys who begged her to read Harry Potter because she was so good at the voices. When Mrs. Parker called at 9:22 a.m. to ask why Rachel hadn’t shown up, I was getting out the flour to make chocolate chip cookies.
My parents, both accountants, had left for work fifteen minutes before. I was twelve, charged with cleaning the house and making dinner in the summer. It was a normal day in a normal house.
Is Rachel sick? Mrs. Parker had asked on the phone. She wasn’t mad, I remember, just concerned. Does she have a fever?
An accident, I thought immediately. A car ran into her bike. She’s unconscious somewhere. The canister fell out of my hands onto the floor, scattering its powder across the black tile.
No one cleaned it up for a long time. In the chaos that followed, people tracked flour all over our house, footprints that stayed for weeks. Months later, there was still the light whisper of them. It was like Rachel was there with us, walking around as a ghost.
Now that I’m finally here with Carl, making my move, I wonder for the last time if I should call it all off. I’ve told no one of my plan to steal him out of this place and find the truth.
It wouldn’t be the first promise I’ve broken to myself. The girl in his suitcase, with the tiny key to nothing, seemed to be begging me with her eyes to leave and not look back.
I don’t want to think about what Carl could still do with two good hands.
The air conditioner clunks on. A lukewarm breeze is blowing out of the vent in the ceiling. The wedding veil drifts, a cobweb caressing a wrinkled cheek.
I kneel down to pick up the chess pieces and disappear under the card table.
“Who the hell are you?” He’s shouting now, pounding the card table so it jars the top of my head. His boot shoots out, and he presses down purposefully on my hand until it hurts. I jerk my fingers back, refuse to cry out, open my fist to the lowliest piece on the board. A pawn, of course.
“I’m your daughter,” I lie.
It’s the only logical way to get him in my custody.
Who the hell are you?
Ten visits in, I set my plan in motion. Carl is still adamant I’m not his daughter, but he’s remembering my name now, at least the pseudonym I gave him. I casually suggest that we take a little vacation. A couple of weeks, I promise him. A breather. We can get to know each other better. You can have a break from this claustrophobic prison.
“If I go, will you let me use a pen?” he asks. “Mrs. T has banned me from pens. She figures I might stick one in somebody’s throat.”
“And that would be a damn mess for me to clean up,” Mrs. T confirms from the doorway to the kitchen. Her “jiggling Polish behind,” as Carl calls it, always shows up silently and perfectly timed.
But it was Mrs. T who took him in thirteen months ago. Hers was the only halfway house of old felons that would say yes to a possible serial killer with dementia after a Waco cop found him rambling the highway.
The famous documentary and fine-art photographer Carl Louis Feldman, suspected of stalking young women and stealing them for years, said he couldn’t remember his own name. It took fingerprints and a sample of DNA to do that. A local hospital guessed a diagnosis of early onset dementia and sent him back out into the world.
Because even if he was “damn-sure-fire a sick Ted Bundy with a camera and a Ford pickup truck,” as a prosecutor once pounded out to a Texas jury, the state just didn’t care anymore.
He was declared not guilty in that missing girl case—the only one he was tried for, the only one with a bit of incriminating DNA evidence. Two days of deliberating, and the jury said he was good to go. And go he did, hiding out for years like a brown recluse in some dark corner while I patted my foot impatiently until he crawled out.
Who knew I’d end up here—crammed so tightly on a sagging couch with my sister’s killer and a woman who knits imaginary things that we can feel each other’s heat. The wedding veil is missing today, but her fingers are flying in frantic rhythm like there’s a whip at her back.
The other occupants of the house are scattered in the kitchen, the bedrooms, the bathrooms—away from the soundtrack of the TV, which starts the day at 6 a.m. The relentless, high-pitched buzz from deep inside its guts lives in my head for hours after I leave.
Carl rips his eyes from the screen in front of us, a Discovery Channel special. We have just learned about a tarantula that can exist for two years without eating.
Carl twists toward me, the bone of his knee purposely jutting into my thigh. I imagine that same knee holding Rachel down. I’m suddenly glad, for her sake, that the woman beside me is deaf and, for my sake, that her dangerously sharp needles are imaginary.
Carl’s hand drifts up. Mrs. T is gone. He’s going to touch me. I’m going to let him. Whatever he wants. Whatever it takes.
He slides the rough pads of his middle and index fingers lightly down my cheek while I stare ahead at the hairy spider on TV, now warring with a lizard.
Carl traces my chin, my ear. He drifts to my neck. When he reaches the hollow place beside my windpipe, he presses his two fingers into my flesh harder than he needs to.
“Bump, bump,” he says. “Bump, bump. That’s your carotid.”
I nod, swallowing hard. I know intimately about the carotid artery from reading hundreds of medical examiner reports. Its three layers—the intima, media, and adventitia. How the two carotids in the neck carry ninety percent of the blood to the brain. The TV shows aren’t lying. A ruthless jab to one of them can cause death in bare minutes.
Carl keeps his fingers glued to my throat even when there’s a rapid knock on the front door. Two shrill rings of the bell.
I bend down for my purse so Carl is forced to pull his hand back. So I can catch my breath and smooth out the loathing and humiliation on my face that I hope he hasn’t seen. My fingers scramble in my purse. I hear the creak of floorboards, the swish of Mrs. T’s skirt, the noisy clanks as she opens the myriad latches on the front door.
When I sit back up, the visitor is stepping over the threshold, a dark-haired teenager named Lolita with a rose tattoo etched on the delicate underside of her wrist. Lolita visits every Wednesday—the granddaughter of one of Mrs. T’s boarders. She has done a good job of trying to forget that her grandfather once set a house fire with six people inside. He’s docile now. Only out of prison because no one died.
I’ve noticed that Lolita keeps her head down around Carl. Today is no exception. As usual, she’s wearing a scarf stamped with pink and white snails. One time, the scarf was tied around her ponytail, another, scrunched through her belt loops. Today it dangles loosely around her neck. I overheard her tell Mrs. T that the scarf was a Christmas gift from her grandfather. She wears it to help him remember who she is.
Mrs. T and Lolita drift out of the room, chattering, without speaking to us. I hand Carl the pen from my purse, a favorite one with the ink that glides like blue oil.
“As requested,” I say. “So you will come?” I sound a little more pleading and hopeful than I’d like. Maybe more like a daughter. Maybe that’s good.
He jams the pen in the waist of his jeans, baring the intimate flash of black hair below his belly button. My heartbeat punches against my throat, harder even than when he pressed his fingers there.
Julia Heaberlin is an award-winning journalist. She has also edited numerous real-life thriller stories, including a series on the perplexing and tragic murders of girls buried in the Mexican desert and another on domestic violence. She lives with her husband and son in Texas.
Her previous novel, Black-Eyed Susans, was a Sunday Times number two bestseller and a Simon Mayo Radio 2 Book Club selection as well as Waterstones Thriller of the Month.