Read my latest short story, “Anomalies,” in the inaugural issue of Black Works, an online journal by Underwood Press. “Anomalies” is the most recent installment of my series re-imagining H. H. Holmes’ childhood. If you like it, check out the others!
Another excerpt from The Devil Inside Me! Meet Detective Davis Dunleavy, our protagonist, as he encounters the first crime scene. I’d love to hear your feedback via comments, and if you’d like to read more, sign up for my emailing list here!
Detective Davis Dunleavy slammed his car door shut and promptly pulled his coat collar up around his neck. Crime tape stretched across the revolving entry doors, where the Museum of Science and Industry placed a sign apologizing for the temporary closure. He flashed his badge at the rookie positioned at the door.
The cavernous lobby was eerily quiet. He saw a few patrons, witnesses detained by the museum’s security guard, sitting just outside of the gift shop, and a dozen or so museum employees hanging around the ticketing registers. A giant steam locomotive looked as if it were coming directly at him. He headed for the escalator.
“Supposed to be your day off, Davis?” The voice came from behind him. He turned to smile at Adele Murphy.
“How’d you know?”
“Wrinkled shirt.” She winked and jabbed him in the arm. “Just like college.”
He jabbed her back, careful to avoid her massive camera bag.
“I’m just a stand-in. Armstrong and Bucalo from Organized Crime are knee-deep investigating that bid-rigging business. The FBI has set up shop on the 7th floor. And, since my stalwart partner is out in Montana for bereavement leave, Bowers sent me.”
“That’s too bad about Jon’s mother,” Adele said. “Wait–you’re back-up for Organized Crime now?”
“I guess I am today. Any clue what this is about?”
“They didn’t tell you?” she said, incredulous.
Davis shook his head as he stepped off the escalator. They flashed their badges to another rookie and were waved to a corner of the first floor.
A marvelous yet grotesque sight greeted them. This museum didn’t play: from three-story tornadoes to a full-size German u-boat, it was a place of learning and discovery for both children and adults, and it was enormous–one of the biggest in the world. The DNA and the Devil in the White City display alone was 3700 square feet in an octagonal space. Intended to be a supplement to the genetics exhibit (famous for its chicken hatchery), ten foot tall DNA helices stood on either side of the exhibit’s entrance, but the first thing visitors saw was H.H. Holmes’ now-familiar face gazing out from the wall furthest from the entrance–a full two-stories tall, eyes leering with the effect of watching a patron no matter where they stood. Along the bright white walls were explanations and hands-on activities relating to the collecting and extracting of DNA, and what genetic markers were and how they helped identify bodies and clear suspects. An infographic proclaimed, “Your genome is an instruction manual for how you grow throughout life. You get half your DNA from your father, and half from your mother. Did H.H. Holmes pass on a serial killing genome?” A replica of Holmes’ concrete-encased double-grave was at the center of it all.
Most of the police concentrated their attention along one of the side walls, titled “Identifying Murder Victims…and Their Murderers.” Davis nudged Adele and pointed.
“Fitting,” he said.
As they moved forward, a large, antique-looking steamer trunk at the foot of the display came into view, and in it was a body. At first glance, considering the macabre nature of the rest of the exhibit, it almost looked like it belonged–except it was freshly dead.
“Hey, Chapman.” Davis nodded in the direction of the officers standing guard. “Avery. You guys have been promoted from front door duty, I see?”
Avery grinned. “Yep. Only took six months.”
“How’s life, Dunleavy?” Chapman asked.
“Better than this poor soul’s.” Davis craned his neck at the crime scene as he pulled on latex gloves. Another infographic explained that DNA could have been collected from one of Holmes’ trunks to help identify both the victim and the killer if only the technology had been available–or if they still had one of the trunks because of trace DNA.
“Yeah, crazy, isn’t it? Never thought we’d get a call for a murder up here. Figured it’d be someone trying to steal something.”
“No kidding. What have you found so far? Fill me in.”
“Whatcha see is whatcha get,” Chapman said. “No one seems to know how this girl got here. And in the trunk no less.”
“M.E. on the way?” Davis asked.
“Any guesses on the time of death?”
“Not ’til the M.E. gets here, but we know there was no body in the trunk as of 6am this morning,” Avery pointed out.
“Oh?” Davis replied, walking around the trunk. “How do you know that?”
Avery tossed his head across the room.
“The tall brunette over there. Says she was the last one in here–at least before the body arrived. That guy–” Avery nodded in the opposite direction. “He checked in on things at 8am and 8:45am, but only to make sure the lights were on. He couldn’t say if there was a body there or not.”
Davis raised an eyebrow. Avery spread his hands wide.
“I know. Said he was checking the lights.”
“Do they have security tapes?”
“Working on it.”
“Thanks, Ave.” A bright flash lit up the already very white display as Adele began to photograph the scene. Chapman shielded his eyes.
“Man. Whoever created this show really went for the White City theme,” Chapman said.
“Like Burnham did,” Avery replied.
“Burnham?” Davis asked.
“He had all of the Exposition buildings whitewashed so they looked like they were glowing.” Chapman stepped aside to make room for Adele. “Plus they used streetlights on the Midway.”
“Exposition?” Davis asked again.
“The Columbian Exposition of 1893? The World’s Fair?” Surprise was in Avery’s tone.
“Ah. The World’s Fair,” Davis replied.
“You didn’t know that?” Chapman asked, eyes wide with doubt.
“Sounds vaguely familiar. Don’t know much about this–” Davis waved his hand around the exhibit.
“You live under a rock, Dunleavy? You almost can’t miss this stuff these days,” Chapman said. “I mean, no offense, but it’s everywhere.”
“No offense taken.”
“This sounds like one for you. Like the Petoskey case,” Avery said. “Who the hell would do this?”
“Not for me, boys. The Chief called up Organized Crime, but they’re busy with the Feds.”
“Organized Crime? Geez.” Chapman screwed up his face and hesitated. “Say, Ave, this doesn’t seem like Organized Crime to me. You?”
Avery was shaking his head. He turned to Davis. “I know we’re rookies and all, Dunleavy, but when’s the last time you saw any type of gangster put a body all nice and neat like in a trunk–and then put it in a museum for everyone to see?”
“Can’t say as I have, Avery.” He snapped off his gloves.
On April 4th, Fourth and Sycamore published my short story, “Downright Devilish,” which is the first in a series of shorts to re-imagine the childhood of Dr. H. H. Holmes, Chicago’s (allegedly) first serial killer. Holmes, whose real name was Herman Webster Mudgett, grew up in Gilmanton, New Hampshire, in the 1800s. (You can read more about him on this blog post.)
When I began learning about Holmes, what fascinated me the most was the eternal question of what makes a serial killer? Is it nature or nurture? Was his overbearing father enough to turn him into a quiet killer, or was he simply born without compassion and conscience? I found plenty of ideas in my research notes and the death records for Gilmanton which led to this short story series. After you read “Downright Devilish,” read “Diabolical” here!
Sign up HERE to get my blog posts delivered to your mailbox. You can always read them here, but email subscribers will receive extras along the way! Sign up today and receive a snippet of my current project: The Devil Inside Me.
Love mysteries? Crime novels? Whodunnits? Read on. If you like history as a basis for fiction, even better. AND if you like the psychology behind why people kill, especially serial killers, The Devil Inside Me is right up your alley. I’ve dedicated my posts thus far to my writing journey and advice for writers, but this one is for the readers!
What’s it about?
A purported descendant of Dr. H. H. Holmes resurrects his family legacy. Gruesome discoveries litter Chicago, and the murderer has no desire to hide these deeds like his (or her?) serial-killing ancestor. Instead, the modus operandi is all about bringing back the fame and glory of Holmes to the Windy City–and to the family name.
Detective Davis Dunleavy has his own family legacy: his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather all bled blue for the Chicago Police Department. Dunleavy is called in to make sense of the crime scene peculiarities, but unlikely suspects and scant evidence mean he doesn’t make the Holmes connection fast enough for the murderer’s timetable. When the killing spree collides with his past, Dunleavy must determine what his own legacy will be.
Frequently touted as “Chicago’s First Serial Killer,” if you don’t know who Dr. H. H. Holmes is, just Google. Essentially the good doctor was a scam artist and murderer who lured women to their deaths in his murder castle–yes, murder castle–with his charming personality. (Check out Holly Carden’s super cool rendition of the murder castle.)
Last year, my book club chose to read Erik Larsen’s Devil in the White City. I wasn’t thrilled with the choice. It’s non-fiction. I’d rather read, well, just about anything than non-fiction. But I began, and holy heck. Erik Larsen’s work does not read like a dry textbook–it reads like fiction and alternates between the intersecting histories of Holmes and the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition–also known as the World’s Fair–in Chicago. I had to kept reading the preface to ensure that it was indeed not fictional.
Reading Devil in the White City gave me dozens of ideas for writing about Holmes. Then the book club arranged a trip to Chicago for–yep, you guessed it–The Devil in the White City tour. Led by a charismatic tour guide who knew his stuff, the bus tour stopped at assorted locations that had some sort of connection to Holmes.
My interest piqued further.
THEN, the History channel’s American Ripper show arrived. Jeff Mudgett, H. H. Holmes’ great-great-grandson was the driving force behind the show, wanting to know if his murdering gramps might also be Jack the Ripper. (Mudgett has also written his own non-fiction, Bloodstains, about his family’s past.) I watched, then re-watched and took notes. At this point, my husband was questioning my sanity–and maybe his safety. I still wasn’t sure what my novel would look like, but I knew I had to write something about the man–not to glorify him or his actions, but to explore the whys behind it. (Disclaimer: Jeff Mudgett is not my inspiration for this murderous descendant of Holmes. He seems like a perfectly nice guy.)
My quest turned to reading whatever I could on this charmer. Adam Selzer, a Chicago native with a penchant for truth-telling, wrote H. H. Holmes: The True Story of the Devil in the White City. He was also a recognized expert on the American Ripper show, and he shares his vast knowledge and research on his website and in his Chicago walking tour about Holmes–totally different from the other, just as interesting and informative.
Somewhere in between American Ripper and going back to Chicago for Selzer’s tour (on a very brisk November day…brrrrr…), my plot bunny officially made its nest in my brain:
Our antagonist’s family made it their tradition to hide their salacious past. I mean, who wants to be known as the grandkid of a serial killer? But within the family, it was also tradition to pass on the stories of their ancestors: stories of power and might forged by being the first settlers of a small town in New Hampshire in the 1600s.
He has decided to eschew his name and live life as he feels his family should have been all along, by showcasing their talents to bring them power. His version of that? Murder, just like Holmes. Repeatedly, until everyone notices.
Detective Davis Dunleavy gets saddled with first one murder, then another. With crime scenes as clean as a bottle of Clorox, and no apparent connections among any of the murder victims, he is at a loss for leads. The only connection he can find: they’re all taking place in locations that have something to do with the World’s Fair, and they’re all taking place in a manner consistent with Holmes’ modus operandi. The problem? Everyone around him thinks he’s crazy for even thinking so.
Dunleavy struggles to get a break in the case until the killer decides to lend him a hand–just figuratively speaking–but with it comes a threat that could end Dunleavy’s flawless career. He must tread carefully to uncover the killer–because this killer has no problem continuing his spree for as long as it takes.
Whatcha think? Sounds good? Needs a different twist? Want to read a snippet from chapter one? Sign up for my emailing list here!