Darkness at the Edge of Town

An Iris Ballard Thriller

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A complicated, charismatic forensic psychologist tries to rescue her brother from the clutches of a maniacal cult leader in this edge-of-your-seat psychological thriller from the author of Beautiful Maids All in a Row.
 
After catching an infamous serial killer, Dr. Iris Ballard has become a TV sensation. Exhausted from her appearances on the talk-show circuit, she’s looking forward to some quality time with Luke Hudson, her former FBI partner and on-again, off-again lover. The last thing Iris wants is to get pulled back to her dying Rust Belt hometown, but after the frantic call from her mother, she doesn’t have a choice.
 
Iris is a disgrace in Grey Mills, Pennsylvania, but her twin brother has gone and outdone her. Billy has abandoned his fiancée, drained their checking account, and quit his job to join a cult called the New Morning Movement. Expecting to find something sinister at play, Iris is eager to destroy the quixotic hold they have on her brother. And that means outwitting the cult’s cunning, sadistic founder, Mathias Morning.
 
Iris has logic and reason on her side. But Mathias doesn’t play by society’s rules. Just as Iris begins to lose hope, her investigation leads her to cross path with the DEA. And now she needs to save Billy’s life before they’re both caught in the crossfire.
 
Don’t miss Jennifer Harlow’s first electrifying Iris Ballard thriller:
BEAUTIFUL MAIDS ALL IN A ROW

Under the Cover

An excerpt from Darkness at the Edge of Town

Chapter 1

I am going to throw up.

The doughnuts I ate in the show’s green room five minutes before churned like a washing machine inside my stomach, slowly making their way up to my throat. I knew it was a bad idea to eat four of them, but what could I do? There were sitting there, calling to me like the Sirens in The Odyssey. I couldn’t resist them any more than Odysseus could. It wasn’t like there was anything else to do in that room. I’d read all the magazines and was left entirely alone with no distractions except a full buffet of my favorite foods: eclairs, doughnuts, and candy bars. My willpower was only so strong.

I blamed my predicament on Miranda Holiday, my agent. If she hadn’t been so damn good at her job that she actually sent in a request for my favorite foods to be available, I wouldn’t have been willing the doughnuts to stay in my stomach where they belonged. If they were there, of course I was going to eat them. I ate when I was nervous; she knew that. I should have requested a fruit basket when I realized I’d gained almost ten pounds in less than a month. But no matter how many talk shows or interviews I did, I’d get nervous just before going on and pig out. I should have been over the pre-show jitters after five weeks of practically doing nothing but interviews, but no. I’d been on everything from CBNN to The Pierce Anthony Show to Today, but it never got any easier. But this, the show, was the one I’d been dreading/eagerly awaiting since Miranda first told me they’d contacted her. The Shelly Monroe Show.

Shelly Monroe, the queen of the airwaves, interviewed royalty, presidents, and dictators. She was the grandmother of the modern talk show. She paved the way forty years ago and had been a constant friend in millions of homes for decades, including mine. I’d watched her since I was seven years old with chicken pox. Her guests fascinated me. One day she had on a sex worker and the next a movie star—anyone with a story to tell. It was the hour she did on Ted Bundy that introduced me to the concept of profiling serial killers, which ultimately led me to the FBI. And if I hadn’t been with the FBI, I never would have crossed paths with Jeremy Shepherd, which landed me an entire episode of The Shelly Monroe Show. Talk about full circle.

My stomach gurgled again, that time loud enough for a PA on the other side of the room to hear. My babysitter, a twenty-something with a hoop through her eyebrow, had pretty much ignored me, but after the rumble she glanced over, that hooped eyebrow cocked. I smiled unevenly.

“You nervous?” she asked.

“A little,” I admitted.

“Shit, after everything you went through, this should be nothing.”

“One would think,” I said under my breath.

Chatter from her headset made the girl turn away from me. “Yeah, gotcha,” she said into her microphone. She turned back to me. “It’s almost time. Come on.”

Oh, f***, I thought. Here we go.

I swallowed down the regurgitated doughnuts and sighed. She was right. I’d gone toe-to-toe with some of the vilest people imaginable, but it was a stupid talk show that was finally going to give me a heart attack. The PA led me behind a curtain backstage, which hid me from the audience and vice versa. I wanted to peek out to see them all, especially after they began applauding, but I refrained. It was on the list of no-nos reiterated to me by the assistant producer. The clapping went up a notch—okay, it was bordering on frenzied—a second later. Shelly had strolled onstage, wearing her signature Anne Klein pantsuit. I couldn’t help myself. I peeked out and saw two middle-aged housewives dressed in floral skirts on their feet, hooting and hollering as if they were at a football game. Who didn’t love Shelly?

After what felt like ten minutes, the applause died down and both front and backstage were as quiet as a church during Mardi Gras.

Then she began to speak.

“Thank you, thank you for that wonderful greeting,” Shelly said in her Texas twang. “I hope y’all are as excited as I am to meet today’s guest. She is something special, without a doubt. Most of us have never encountered the darker side of life. Murder, violence, evil are just concepts we watch on television. And thank the good Lord for that, no?”

There was a collective chuckle through the audience.

“But our guest today has come face-to-face with pure evil more than once. In fact, she sought pure evil out. As an agent in the FBI’s elite Behavioral Analysis Unit, Dr. Ballard managed to profile and apprehend Sheriff Stephen Meriwether, also known as the The Rosetta Ripper . . .” She paused for dramatic effect. “A child killer who later escaped and attacked Dr. Ballard and her husband, tragically killing the young doctor. Yet even after this personal tragedy, Dr. Ballard returned to the FBI to help them track the man known as the Woodsman, the monster responsible for the deaths of five women along the Eastern seaboard, who was later identified as bestselling author Dr. Jeremy Shepherd, a former guest of this very show. Once again, Dr. Ballard put her very life on the line to bring Dr. Shepherd to justice. So please help me welcome an incredibly brave woman and true American hero to the show, Dr. Iris Ballard.”

My cue. I took a deep breath and stepped out from behind the curtain onto the iconic blue-and-white-decorated stage. The audience applause was as loud as it was for Shelly. That was humbling. I waved to my adoring fans as I walked toward Shelly. She was smaller in person than she looked on TV, shorter than me by a few inches, with her frosted blond hair falling into a pageboy cut framing her pointed face. When I reached the famous blue-and-white-colored couch I’d seen almost every week for twenty-five-plus years, I was almost giddy. I didn’t know if it was the wild cheering, the lights, or the fact that Shelly F***ing Monroe was hugging me as if I were an old friend, but I giggled like a little girl.

Somehow, when she let me go, I shut down my near hysteria. Shelly took her seat in the matching armchair and I sat on the couch, smoothing my red-and-white-plaid skirt out. My agent, Miranda the Cruel, insisted I wear a skirt at every interview. Something to do with playing up my femininity and toning down my image as a killer with two notches on my belt. I ceded to her expertise. Earlier in the day she had just gotten a publisher to agree to pay me over a million dollars for my autobiography. For that kind of money I’d have done interviews as Ronald McDonald if she told me to.

“Thank you for being on the show,” Shelly said, as she always did.

I gave the customary response: “Thank you for having me.”

“So, let me just start with asking how you’re doing,” she said as if we were old friends. “It’s only been six weeks since Jeremy Shepherd held you captive in your own home and you were forced to . . . defend yourself. I can’t imagine something that horrific occurring, let alone having to live through it.”

“Well, I almost didn’t,” I pointed out. This got a laugh. Who didn’t love gallows humor? “But, I’m okay. I’m fine. It was hell to live through, without question, but I’ve gotten so much support not only from my friends and family but from what feels like the whole of America. I can’t thank everyone enough who sent emails or messages with their support. They warm my heart.”

Keeping busy almost twenty-four/seven with interviews, meetings, and flying across America helped too. For almost six weeks there hadn’t been a day I’d had more than a moment to myself.

“As I mentioned before,” Shelly continued, “I met Jeremy Shepherd. He sat on that very couch, and let me tell you, just from my impression of him during our interviews, from our dinners together . . . I would have let him babysit my grandbabies,” she said, voice going up an octave. “He seemed so . . . nice. Together. It’s still almost impossible for me to think of him as a rapist and serial murderer.”

“He had everyone fooled,” I assured her. “Some serial killers can appear nice, charming even. That’s how they get close to their victims. Shepherd was especially skilled at this. A handsome, rich, famous sociopath? It was almost too easy for him to blend in. Not just blend in, but excel at life. But like all serial killers, he wore several masks. The pleasant, intelligent psychiatrist was one, the philanthropist another, but his real face? He hid that from everyone but those five women.”

“And you.”

“Yes, and me.”

Shelly sat back in her chair, and I knew they were coming. The hardballs. I was ready. “In other interviews, you were quite candid about your own personal demons: depression, alcoholism, prescription drug abuse, which all stemmed from a prior attack in which your husband was murdered right before your eyes. I have to ask because some of Dr. Shepherd’s supporters often bring it up: do you still struggle with those?”

“You never stop struggling with them, Shelly,” I admitted, “but strangely, what happened with Shepherd forced me to finally take control. I haven’t touched a pill harder than aspirin or had a single alcoholic beverage since I began working with the FBI again. Shepherd attacking me—taking on the case, actually—was a wake-up call. You never know how much you want to live until you’re about to die, I guess.”

“So something positive came from all your experiences?”

“Actually a lot of good came from it, and not just for me. The families of the victims called me right after the news broke, and thanked me for bringing their daughters justice. They had finally gained some sense of closure.
Everything I went through was worth just that.”

“And I’m sure the money pouring in isn’t a terrible thing either. I heard before coming out you just signed a seven-figure deal for a book and an Oscar-winning actress wants to produce a movie about your experience.”

My cheeks turned red from the blushing. “I’m not going to lie; those aspects do not suck.” The audience chuckled again.

Shelly turned to the camera with the red light on. “When we come back, Dr. Ballard will take us through her harrowing encounter with the Woodsman, Jeremy Shepherd. Stay tuned.”

Cue applause. I reveled in every second of it.

- About the author -

Jennifer Harlow spent her restless childhood fighting with her three brothers and scaring the heck out of herself with horror movies and books. She grew up to earn a degree in psychology at the University of Virginia, which she put to use as a radio DJ, crisis hotline volunteer, bookseller, lab assistant, wedding coordinator, and government investigator. Currently she calls Atlanta home but that restless itch is ever present. In her free time she continues to scare the bejeebers out of herself by watching scary movies and opening her credit card bills.

More from Jennifer Harlow

Darkness at the Edge of Town

An Iris Ballard Thriller

Darkness at the Edge of Town

— Published by Alibi —