Striking Back

Striking Back

Mark Nykanen

$14.95 May 2011
ISBN: 978-1-61194-016-9

Our PriceUS$14.95
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Synopsis | Reviews | Excerpt

These men like to hurt women. Now it's payback time for an unknown murderer who's slaughtering the abusers in ways that mirror the ugly violence they forced upon the women in their lives. As the death count grows-and media interest explodes-innocent people could get caught in the killer's revenge.

Los Angeles therapist Gwyn Sanders keeps her ugly family history to herself. More than twenty years ago, when she was still a teen, her violent stepfather died a grisly, mysterious death. Gwyn knows all the secrets but she's not talking about the past--she's too busy trying to change the future by breaking the cycle of domestic violence. The men she counsels aren't saints, but maybe she can change the mindset that makes their lives--and the lives of the people closest to them--so miserable. But when someone starts killing her controversial clients, Gwyn becomes LAPD's primary suspect. After all, there's the unsolved mystery of her stepfather's bizarre death. Maybe Gwyn has a hidden desire for justice that's far from therapeutic.


"…a captivating thriller in Striking Back. The characters are all too realistic with their quirks and flaws." -- Vivian, The Book Diva’s Reads

"An exciting ride…Mark Nykanen has created a thriller that until the last page could have any number of results." -- Floyd Johnson, Pastor Patrick- Never On A Sunday

"a terrific thriller…fast paced and definitely not easy to guess the ending." -- Barbara Lewis, Net Galley

"This is a terrific amateur sleuth-police procedural...Mark Nykanen provides a gripping whodunit." -- Harriet Klausner, Genre Go Round Reviews

"Fast paced...Had me guessing." -- Heidi Gonzalez, Newspaper Adventure Blog


Chapter 1

The concrete path felt seamless and sure, wide and straight and fast before suddenly curving into the heart of the UCLA campus.

From the look of her rollerblading through the milling students, Gwyn Sanders could have been eighteen, twenty tops; but nimbleness alone would have proved a poor measure of her thirty-nine years. Definitely the downhill side of the fourth decade, she'd decided over her third glass of shiraz at her birthday dinner last month. But with her long brown pony tail now swinging side to side with every stride, and her long bare legs soaking up yards of concrete with every glide, she gave the distinct appearance of youth, vitality, and even exuberance.

And she felt all of that as long as she remained in motion, but for the past two months whenever her Blades rolled to a standstill, or her surfboard carved up the last of a wave, a flood of horrifying memories could overwhelm her.

She had no reason to hope for anything different as her wheels whipped her past buildings she hadn't entered since taking her masters in counseling in '94—"the OJ year," as she couldn't help thinking of it, the conflation of her studies and his grisly crimes an unnerving constant for her. Back then she'd wanted to help people understand themselves. Now she needed to understand herself.

She whizzed past a cyclist and wove through the slow stream of students as a series of wrenching images hovered in the wake of her awareness.

That's why you're here. You're doing something about it. This guy might have some answers.

"This guy" was Doctor Howard Harken. How many psychopathic killers has he studied? she wondered as she executed a quick step-turn around two dreamy undergrads.

Six men that she knew of, every one of them from southern California. She couldn't remember all of their names, but her mind had the unfortunate quality of recalling their crimes with indelible clarity.

Dr. Harken was offering a quickie course—three sessions on succeeding Wednesday afternoons—called Psychopathy, Normalcy, and the Violence Index. Glad she'd signed up early because the slots had filled up quickly.

"UNDERSTANDING AND INSIGHT." Keep it in caps, she'd told herself as she wrote in her journal last night. Doesn't matter how silly it seems, those are the two things you need the most, and have for a long, long time, though she'd been loath to recognize this.

But Alfred Croce's murder of his wife had forced Gwyn to face her needs. That's what savagery does to you, exhumes dead or dormant feelings and flies them right into your face. She'd worked hard cases—as inevitable as bad weather when you ran counseling groups for spousal abusers—but a full decade of challenging batterers hadn't prepared her for Croce's violence.

She edged her skates around an old and familiar fountain, embarrassed by the flash of herself as a fifteen-year-old in a tiny tube top making out with her boyfriend on the marble ledge, his hands busier than a busker on Venice Beach.

Right there. In full view. What was I thinking?

But remembering her awkward and needy adolescence felt almost benign compared to her recent hauntings.

She rolled up to Latimore Hall, zigzagging through a broad demographic of attendees, none of whom had to be students. Doctor Harken's lectures were part of the university's community outreach program.

She sat on a concrete bench to pull off her blades and slip on her espadrilles. Within moments she was scaling the stone steps of Latimore, arriving early enough to find the amphitheater only a third filled. She spotted a seat in the second row, self-conscious as she walked down the aisle in her running shorts and sleeveless top, though a good look at the younger women standing and chatting would have proved her persuasively modest. Most were dressed in low-slung skirts and jeans that revealed a titillating variety of thongs, whose seagull shapes flew above greatly compromised and well-tanned buns. And with starburst tattoos appearing on every other tailbone, it was as if nature herself had put on this gaudy display—to show that the sun really does shine down there.

She had to ease past three guys in fraternity tees to get to the empty seat, brushing past their bare legs while framing her fanny before each of their faces. One of them snorted, "A niner."

Slob. Some things never changed.

She settled in, organizing her space: blades in her pack by her feet, water bottle on the floor within easy reach, pen and spiral notebook on her lap. Just like in the days of yore. Except this was all about trying to understand Alfred Croce.

And yourself, a gentle reminder that issued from the cheap seats of her mind.

As the top of the hour drew near, the amphitheater filled quickly. The response to Harken's lectures had undoubtedly been fueled by a lengthy piece in the Los AngelesTimes Calendar section that included a photograph of the handsome forensic psychiatrist.

Though it was greatly unflattering to her sex, Gwyn wondered how many of the young women in the hall had signed up for the lectures precisely because of his appearance, and the reporter's brief note that Harken's young wife had died in a "tragic accident" (yes, the scribe had actually used that tired phrase) when he was in med school. His wife's death hadn't gone unnoted by Gwyn either, though she'd fill with self-loathing if she thought for even a second that a professor's painful loss had actually precipitated her return to campus after all these years. With the exposure she'd had to the men in her groups—and the savagery they'd directed toward their mates—a man's marital status had come to mean next to nothing to her.

Applause, hearty and sustained, greeted Dr. Harken as he walked to the podium. A single footlight lit him from below, casting menacing shadows from his chin to his brow.The effect made her think of all those vampire fans who run around on Halloween with waxy fangs and flashlights pointing up at their faces.

As if sharing her thoughts, Harken waved away the footlight with a laugh. It disappeared, replaced a moment later by lights from above that made his golden hair glow and eased the memory of those silly shadows.

"Well," he began, a smile as warm and soft as those overheads, "I see a little publicity goes a long way."

Gwyn heard traces of a refined British accent, but the greatly attenuated Brit-speak of a man who long ago had tried to cast aside his most obvious ties to the Isles.

He pointed to the first few rows, "I see two, three, no, wait, there's another one, four empty seats right up here amongst all these handsome people, so if you're single," he said with another quick smile, "come up front. Maybe you can 'meet cute' right here in Latimore.

"The rest of you are welcome to join us in the aisles or down there," gesturing to the floor in front of the first row. "Unless, of course, the fire marshal's in the building. In which case, I never said that!" More levity for the amusement of his instant fans.

Gwyn also found herself smiling, noticing without noticing that he was tall, taller than she at five-eleven (since she was fourteen). That meant he had some height, maybe six-two, three. Lean, too, probably from surfing, another tidbit taken from the L.A. Times piece.

Now that item had snagged her attention, the description of the "gleam in his eye" as he headed out every morning to surf a break by his beach house. Gwyn had spent a great deal of her southern California childhood on various lengths and shapes of fiberglass-wrapped Styrofoam. Even with a high center of balance, she had the style and skill rewarded by gravity sports and, in her late teens and early twenties, by sponsors.

When she looked back up, she could have sworn he'd just glanced away from her. She watched him closely, saw him eyeing the crowd—maybe that's all it was—then twisted her head for a peek over each shoulder.

"I have no illusions about why you're all here," he said. "It's to hear me speak about the normalcy in the title of this course."

Hugh Grant, that's who he sounds like, she realized as he raised titters from the crowd again, this time by toying with their expectations. But Hugh Grant acting as an American.

"Well, there's nothing particularly nor... mal," stretching out those two syllables till each could have been as lonely as a snowflake, "about any of us. And yet..."

Harken paused, as if lost in his notes, but Gwyn thought she knew better as she raised her water bottle to her lips.

"And yet..." he repeated, confirming her suspicion with a wink to the crowd (a "we're all in this together" gesture) "the men I've interviewed, those creatures we're most comfortable labeling 'psychopaths,' are a social fulfillment of our most abject and silent impulses. Now what do I mean by that?"

Another pause.

"What I'm saying, as long as you've asked," back to his entertainer mode, "is that the shadow heart, as I've begun to think of it, remains a firm fixture in each of us. Not the heart that pumps blood and sustains life, but the heart that sees in existence only the potential for pain. The metaphorical heart that stalks the alleyways and crawlspaces of our minds.

"Almost all of us have done evil in our lives, and I use the word 'evil' with great advisement." He leaned closer to the microphone, "Do think about that..." a curt Briticism, an imperious imperative, ". . . the evil you have done."

I didn't come here for this.

Gwyn gulped the chill water, felt its sinuous slide into her belly.

No, this is exactly why you came.

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