Tuesday, May 16, 2023

#Review - Killing Me by Michelle Gagnon #Thrillers #Suspense

Series: Standalone
Format: Hardcover, 336 pages
Release Date: May 16, 2023
Publisher: G.P. Putnam's Sons
Source: Publisher
Genre: Thrillers / Suspense

She escaped a serial killer. Then things got weird.

Amber Jamison can’t believe she’s about to become the latest victim of a serial killer. She’s savvy and street smart, so when she gets pushed into, of all things, a white windowless van, she is more angry than afraid. Things get even weirder when she’s miraculously saved by a mysterious woman . . . who promptly disappears. Who was she? And why is she hunting serial killers?

You’d think escaping one psychopath would be enough, but Amber’s problems are just beginning. Her close call has law enforcement circling a past she’s tried to outrun. She’s forced to flee across the country, ending up at a seedy motel in Las Vegas with a noir-obsessed manager and a sex worker as her unlikely companions . . . and danger right behind. She’s landed in the cross hairs of the world’s most prolific killer, caught up in a deadly game that’s been going on for years. To survive, she is forced to dust off her old playbook and partner with someone she can’t trust. The odds are against her, but sometimes you just have to roll the dice.

Michelle Gagnon's Killing Me is a suspenseful thriller with a bit of humor added in to make sure the story doesn't get too bogged down with darkness. The story begins in Johnson City, Tennessee with Amber Jamison being kidnapped by a serial killer. Amber, which isn't her real name, has a rather colorful past that she is trying to hide from. She's a con-artist who made a bad mistake which led to her arriving in Tennessee hoping to change her future. So, for Amber to be taken in broad light by the so called Pikachu Killer is just the perfect ending to a rather messed up life of mistakes.
Then the curious happens. After being shaved of all her hair, and painted blue, a woman wearing a mask shows up out of nowhere and saves her from becoming just another victim. Apparently, the woman was tracking the killer and arrived just in the nick of time to save Amber. Because Amber isn't as innocent as she seems, she has long history running cons--first with her parents and then on her own, until it ends in tragedy, Amber decides to pack her things and run away when an FBI agent comes sniffing around her door. 
A short time later, Amber ends up in Las Vegas, drawn there by ads left on her windshield, where there has been 3 victims so far, and Amber hopes she didn't make the biggest mistake of her life. Upon arrival, Amber befriends a woman named Dot who is part of a group known as Fatal Femmes. They are citizen sleuths trying to solve a series of murders. When Amber receives a warning, along with an envelope with her name on it, it seems as though yet another serial killer has taken an interest in her. An interest that might collect the women who she quickly becomes friends with, including Grace Grimes whose father was a serial killer
Killing Me is propelled by the push-pull relationship between its two compelling female protagonists whose father was a serial killer. This story can be compared to Hustlers meets Killing Eve. Morally ambiguous women are more popular than ever, and readers will love the wary friendship at the center of the read. Strong characters, including our protagonist, Amber and vigilante, Grace, drive a distinctive and quirky plot. The chemistry slowly builds between these two women, making the book even better. 
*Note* The overall story is interesting, and twisted, but it is time to walk away from authors who push personal feelings and politics into their stories.

Chapter One: You Only Live Once

The worst part was that I felt stupid.

Well, that's not entirely true. The real worst part was that I was tied up in the back of a van with a hood over my head, and based on recent news reports, something truly horrific was about to happen.

But feeling stupid was definitely second worst.

I'd followed every campus safety alert and obsessively read every news article. Johnson City, Tennessee, wasn't the kind of place where anything of significance ever happened, and then-whammo! It was the hunting grounds for a serial killer. The population of sixty-six thousand seemed to have doubled overnight: satellite news vans lined Main Street (yes, there was an actual, honest-to-God Main Street); the Holiday Inn was fully booked, which never happened outside of college reunion weekends; and the Johnson City Tribune finally had articles that didn't involve the school board or city council. The killings were all anyone talked about in the Foodtown checkout line, over drinks at the Crow Bar, heck, even at the local strip club (suffice it to say, I've explored the local adult entertainment options).

Like me, the victims were all petite brunettes in their early twenties. Those similarities had elicited a tingle of excitement-the "it could've been me" awe of someone who missed a flight that crashed. Although I was equally certain that only a real idiot fell victim to a serial killer. That sort of thing happened to wide-eyed innocents who offered to help a guy with a fake cast load something into his van. I wouldn't fall for the old "Can you give me directions?" or "Help, I'm on crutches!" tricks. Not me, no way.

Well, ha ha. The joke was on me. Because it turns out I'd been exactly as dumb as those other girls.

Will I be his fifth victim, or the sixth? It was a strange thing to focus on, but while I lay on the floor of the van (of course it was a van), rocking from side to side as we drove along a bumpy road, that number seemed terribly important.

Calm down, I told myself. There was an FBI task force dedicated to the case; the Tribune claimed they'd basically taken over the Johnson City Police Department. An intrepid agent was probably already on my trail, they'd surely find a critical clue just in time to save me-

Except there were no clues; we hadn't scuffled, and I hadn't dropped anything. Stupid, I chastised myself again.

The bastard hadn't even done something clever to trick me. Just past dusk I had been walking back to my crappy apartment in the University Edge complex, so named because it was inconveniently located at the campus's farthest reach. I'd been mulling over the meager contents of my fridge, wondering if putting strawberry jelly on leftover rice qualified as dinner. Consequently, I'd barely registered the white van pulling to the curb fifty feet ahead. A guy in a delivery uniform got out and lumbered around to the side panel, completely ignoring me. I considered crossing the street, but when he grabbed a vase of flowers from inside and turned toward the house, I figured I was just being paranoid. So I continued toward him.

Then he literally butted me into the van. For a second, I thought it was an accident. I was opening my mouth to chew him out when the panel door slid shut and he was on me. I struggled, but within seconds he'd slapped a piece of duct tape across my mouth and jabbed me in the neck with a needle. When I came to, I was bound up like a sushi roll.

If it hadn't been so terrifying, it would've been downright comical. Imagine a surveillance video (not that there were any in this podunk town) of me getting catapulted into a van by a guy's ass. If serial killers put out blooper reels, that would be on it.

I was about to chuckle when my brain helpfully reminded me, You're going to die.

I started hyperventilating, which, trust me, is not fun when you're gagged, hooded, and barely able to breathe through your nose. I was still getting over a cold, too, so survival depended on my marginally less congested left nostril.

Calm the fuck down, panicking won't solve anything. I was trying not to think about the other victims, but good luck with that when a spare tire is digging into your back. Horrific images kept intruding. (I hadn't seen anything, obviously, but you know how that can make it even worse?) Their heads had been shaved. No problem there, I'd done that back in high school. The FBI had been a little vague about the next part, but apparently there had been other shaving, too (don't think about it), and then their entire bodies had been painted to look like Pokémon characters.

Seriously. Pokémon. Like, lizards and shit.

The FBI was also vague about how the women were killed, but it involved strangulation. Hopefully super quick and painless strangulation.

After they were killed, the Pikachu Killer (yup, that's what they called him) dumped the body somewhere weird-like a mall parking lot, or a high school football field-then sent local news networks a GPS link.

Get it? Like they were playing Pokémon GO. That's the kind of asshole who was about to kill me. Someone obsessed with an app no one even used anymore.

Not me, I thought, gritting my teeth. When this dickwad opened the door, I'd fight like hell. I'd escape and lead the FBI back to him. I'd be a hero, the woman who took down the Pikachu Killer. Every talk show would want me as a guest. I'd smile bravely as they questioned me about the ordeal. Maybe even write a bestselling memoir. Eventually, this would just be an awful memory that I'd get past with the help of a fancy therapist.

The van abruptly lurched, hurling me sideways. Then it slowed down. My heart pounded faster-this was it. We were arriving at the creepy cabin/warehouse/underground lair, or whatever he used for a kill room.

Sweat broke out on my forehead. I desperately tried to remember the women's self-defense class I took last year. Was I supposed to go for his eyes first, or his balls? I should've paid more attention, but there had been this really cute girl who distracted me-

The brakes squealed as we lurched to a stop. My heart was racing so fast it felt like I might pass out, which wouldn't be helpful at all.

I might not remember self-defense, but I'd always been a good planner, and escape routes were my specialty. So come up with a plan, genius.

My hands and feet were also bound with duct tape, based on the gross sticky feel. I dimly recalled seeing someone on TV split duct tape bindings, but I'd been super stoned at the time and hadn't thought I'd ever need that particular nugget of information, so I couldn't remember how it was done. I tried everything I could think of, but the tape didn't budge. If only he'd used handcuffs; I'm a pro at getting out of those.

So: using my hands and feet was basically out. Which was far from ideal.

I had my head, though, which I knew from unpleasant past experience was unusually hard and concussion-proof. If I slammed it into his torso, I could knock him down and then I'd-what, hop away? Well, yeah, if I had to.

Five. He's already killed five girls who looked like me. I experienced a bizarre surge of satisfaction when that number popped into my head; then the van's door popped open, ushering in a blast of chill air.

Okay, Amber, I told myself. It's now or never. The minute he grabs you, you've gotta-

A sharp jab in my ankle made me scream against the duct tape. Goddammit, he was drugging me again.


On the plus side, when I awoke I no longer felt stupid. Unfortunately, that emotion was replaced by utter, abject terror, so it wasn't exactly an improvement.

The hood was gone. I was in a dark room lit by a bare bulb. The floor was cement, and the walls and ceiling were covered in bumpy noise-canceling foam. The periphery of the room was cast in shadow, but the illuminated circle contained enough to inspire nightmares for the rest of my natural life. Which, judging by how things were going, was probably not going to be very long. It looked like the set of a low-budget horror movie, and would've been campy if it weren't so gruesome.

Directly beneath the lightbulb was a steel worktable with leather bindings for hands and feet; it was covered with streaks of blood (was a tidy serial killer too much to ask for?). Beside the table stood a rolling surgical tray cluttered with sharp pointy things, including a buzz saw with an extension cord.

I was duct-taped to a chair a few feet away from all of that, which, when I thought about it, made very little sense. Why not just start with me on the table? Clearly organization wasn't this guy's strong suit.

A wave of nausea swept over me. I fought it back-my mouth was still covered with duct tape, and if I threw up, I'd choke to death on my own vomit. Focus, Amber. How long had I been out? Hours? Days? The drugs had left my head feeling swollen and sluggish. By now, maybe someone had noted my absence and reported it to the FBI. (My renegade agent was developing features now; she was a raven-haired beauty in her early thirties who favored pantsuits, with a no-nonsense demeanor that concealed her true sensitive nature.) They had an entire unit dedicated to finding this guy, right? Once I was reported missing...

...except it was Easter break. My roommate Joanie was with her family, and campus was empty. No one was expecting me anywhere. My best hope was that the pizza guy would find it weird that I hadn't ordered anything in a few days; but he'd probably assume I'd gone away, too.

Man, I'd kill for a slice of pepperoni right now.

My stomach rumbled. The last thing I'd eaten had been a stale donut swiped from the faculty lounge that morning. Was that really going to be my final meal? It hadn't even been a good donut, it was mealy and had no frosting.

That sparked another flood of tears. Christ. Now you're crying over a bad donut.

A loud thump from above. I stared at the (also soundproofed) ceiling, listening hard. There was a heavy tread that gradually receded. He could return at any moment; I was running out of time. I scanned the room frantically, struggling with my bonds. In movies this was always the point where the heroine found a way to save herself with a bobby pin or something...

The plastic chair was child-sized, so small that my knees were bent to an uncomfortable angle. My arms were taped to its back legs, my ankles and calves to the front. Must've been a big sale on duct tape at Home Depot, because he certainly hadn't skimped. I couldn't shift my limbs at all.

Still, this wasn't exactly the sturdiest piece of furniture, so maybe I'd get lucky. I rocked back and forth on the chair, pushing off hard until it tilted past the balance point and dropped to the ground. My back bore the full brunt of the fall, knocking the wind out of me.

The chair didn't break. I hadn't landed on anything critical, but it hurt like hell and now I was stranded on my back like some sort of turtle.

A door creaked open on my left. I froze, every muscle reflexively clenching: even my heart seemed to stutter to a stop. Breathe, Amber, I reminded myself. And get ready.

There was a long pause. I strained my eyes, trying to make sense of the shifting shadows. It was completely silent but I could sense him there, watching me. I felt powerless and hopeless. I started to hyperventilate, my stuffed nostrils flaring to draw in air.

The killer stepped into the square of light.

Approaching the van earlier, I'd clocked him as a stooped, middle-aged guy with a bit of pudge around the middle. He was wearing white coveralls, a ball cap, and sunglasses. Seemingly harmless, totally forgettable.

Not anymore. He was easily six-four, maybe even taller. He had broad shoulders, a barrel chest, and powerful hairy legs.

I could tell all that because he was basically naked, aside from a tiny leather apron strapped around his waist. Two thoughts popped into my head. One: Why bother? I mean, an apron that size wouldn't keep him from getting dirty (or bloody). And two, where the hell did one even buy such a thing?

This fearsome spectacle was mitigated by the only other thing he was wearing.

It was a Pikachu mask.

Like, the kind a little kid would wear on Halloween.

It was too much for my mind to process: terrifying and absurd and hilarious, which added up to me lying on my back thinking, Huh.

The killer stood there for a few long beats, as though inviting me to revel in whatever the fuck he was supposed to be. Then he strode forward purposefully. I wriggled frantically, trying to shift the chair, but all I succeeded in doing was scraping the back of my arms. He acted as if I were an annoying fish who had flopped out of a net onto the deck of his boat. Bending over, he grabbed the back of the chair, then set it upright with a hard yank that threw my head forward.

He was behind me, so close I could feel his breath on my neck. All the hairs on my body stood up. I craned my head, trying to see what he was doing, but he was out of my sightline.

He trailed a finger from the top of my scalp all the way down to my upper back. It was a creepily intimate, possessive gesture that made me shudder. Tears flowed down my face, and I sobbed against the duct tape. Fear drove every coherent thought from my head. When I felt the prick of a needle in my arm, I embraced the darkness it offered with relief.


This time when I woke up, my scalp was unnaturally cold, and I was lying on my back. The pounding in my head was a million times worse; it felt like someone was thumping my skull with a mallet. The light seemed brighter, too, but that might've just been the migraine. I was shivering; it was either much colder in the room or...

My eyes finally adjusted, confirming my worst suspicions. I was naked. He'd strapped me to that disgusting table, and the overhead bulb glared directly in my eyes. My hands and feet were bound so tightly by the leather restraints I couldn't lift them at all.

I could raise my head, though, enough to see that my entire body was bright blue. Intricate swirls on my skin looked like scales; they were actually kind of pretty, and clearly took some time to paint. Christ, how long had I been unconscious?

And what came next?

I realized abruptly that the duct tape had been removed. I flexed my jaw a few times, reveling in my newfound ability to breathe like a normal human being. Then I opened my mouth to scream...but hesitated. That would just bring him running, and if the tape was gone, there probably wasn't anyone close enough to hear, right? Not to mention all the soundproofing. He clearly wasn’t sloppy when it mattered.

The surgical tray was by my right elbow. I craned my head higher—the room seemed empty. Maybe Leather Apron was having a snack before getting down to it.

Ridiculously, the thought made my stomach grumble. I would seriously murder for a sandwich right now.

Murder. Ha, that's funny. I yanked at the restraints again, but they just cut into my flesh. My hands were so numb that I probably wouldn’t be able to use them even if I was free.

This is it, I realized. Victim number six, all teed up and ready to go.

An odd sense of calm settled over me; there was a strange sort of peace in simply accepting my fate. Relief, even. I hadn’t had an easy life, and I’d made some terrible mistakes along the way. People had been hurt. Someone had even died. Maybe this was fate’s way of balancing the scales.

And he might’ve made a mistake this time, somewhere along the way. One of my neighbors could’ve spotted the abduction out their front window; my money was on the creep across the street who mowed his lawn in jean shorts. It was too late to save me, but other petite brunettes would be spared the same fate, and my sacrifice would mean something.

The door creaked open again. He was back.

I closed my eyes and said a short prayer, asking for the end to be as quick and painless as possible. Then I lifted my head to glare at Leather Apron.

As he stepped forward, my confusion grew. No apron, no Pikachu. This person was smaller, too, dressed entirely in black and wearing a ski mask. They held a long, thin stick.

"Who the hell are you?" I croaked.

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