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After a string of brutal murders in Las Vegas, Cassie Hobbes and the Naturals are called in to investigate. But even with the team's unique profiling talents, these murders seem baffling: unlike many serial killers, this one uses different methods every time. All of the victims were killed in public, yet the killer does not show up on any security feed. And each victim has a string of numbers tattooed on their wrist. Hidden in the numbers is a code-and the closer the Naturals come to unraveling the mystery, the more perilous the case becomes.
Meanwhile, Cassie is dealing with an equally dangerous and much more painful mystery. For the first time in years, there's been a break in her mother's case. As personal issues and tensions between the team mount, Cassie and the Naturals will be faced with impossible odds-and impossible choices.
New Year’s Eve fell on a Sunday. This would have been less problematic if my grandmother hadn’t considered “Thou shalt gather thy family for Sunday dinner” an inviolable commandment, or if Uncle Rio had not appointed himself the pourer of wine.
There was a lot of wine.
By the time we were clearing away the plates, it was pretty clear that none of the adults would be driving themselves home anytime soon. Given that my father had seven siblings, all of them married, several with kids a decade or more my senior, there were a lot of “adults.” As I carried a stack of plates into the kitchen, the dozen or so arguments brewing behind me were almost, but not quite, drowned out by the sound of boisterous laughter.
Viewed from the outside, it was chaos. But viewed with a profiler’s eye, it was simple. Easy to understand. Easy to make sense of. This was a family. The kind of family, the individual personalities—those were there in the details: shirts tucked and un-tucked, dishes chipped but handled with love.
“Cassie.” My great-uncle bestowed upon me a beatific, bleary-eyed smile as I came into the kitchen. “You miss your family, eh? You come back to visit your old Uncle Rio!”
As far as anyone in this house knew, I’d spent the past six months at a government-sponsored gifted program. Boarding school, more or less. Parts of that were true.
More or less.
“Bah.” My grandmother made a dismissive noise in Uncle Rio’s general direction as she took a stack of plates from my hands and transferred them to the sink. “Cassie did not come back for old fools who drink too much and talk too loud.” Nonna rolled up her sleeves and turned on the faucet. “She came back to see her nonna. To make up for not calling like she should.”
Two guilt trips, one stone. Uncle Rio remained largely unfazed. I, on the other hand, felt the intended twinge of guilt and joined Nonna at the sink. “Here,” I said. “Let me.”
Nonna harrumphed, but slid over. There was something comforting about the fact that she was exactly the same as she’d always been: part mother hen, part dictator, ruling her family with baked ziti and an iron fist.
But I’m not the same. I couldn’t dodge that thought. I’ve changed. The new Cassandra Hobbes had more scars—figuratively and literally.
“This one gets cranky when she does not hear from you for too many weeks,” Uncle Rio told me, nodding at Nonna. “But perhaps you are busy?” His face lit up at the prospect, and he studied me for several seconds. “Heartbreaker!” he declared. “How many boyfriends you hide from us now?”
“I don’t have a boyfriend.”
Uncle Rio had been accusing me of hiding boyfriends from him for years. This was the first and only time he’d ever been right.
“You.” Nonna pointed a spatula—which had appeared in her hand out of nowhere—at Uncle Rio. “Out.”
He eyed the spatula warily, but held his ground.
Three seconds later, Nonna and I were alone in the kitchen. She stood there, watching me, her eyes shrewd, her expression softening slightly. “The boy who picked you up here last summer,” she said, “the one with the fancy car…He is a good kisser?”
“Nonna!” I sputtered.
“I have eight children,” Nonna told me. “I know about the kissing.”
“No,” I said quickly, scrubbing at the plates and trying not to read too much into that statement. “Michael and I aren’t…We don’t…”
“Ahh,” Nonna said knowingly. “His kisses, not so good.” She patted me consolingly on the shoulder. “He is young. Room for improvement!”
This conversation was mortifying on so many levels, not the least of which was the fact that Michael wasn’t the one I’d been kissing. But if Nonna wanted to think that the reason my phone calls home had been so few and far between was because I was caught in the throes of young romance, let her.
That was an easier pill to swallow than the truth: I’d been subsumed into a world of motives and victims, killers and corpses. I’d been held captive. Twice. I still woke up at night with memories of zip ties digging into my wrists and the sound of gunfire ringing in my ears. Sometimes, when I closed my eyes, I saw light reflected off of a bloody blade.
“You are happy at this school of yours?” Nonna made her best attempt at sounding casual. I wasn’t fooled. I’d lived with my paternal grandmother for five years before I’d joined the Naturals program. She wanted me safe, and she wanted me happy. She wanted me here.
“I am,” I told my grandmother. “Happy.” That wasn’t a lie. For the first time in my life, I felt like I belonged somewhere. With my fellow Naturals, I never had to pretend to be someone I wasn’t. I couldn’t have, even if I’d wanted to.
In a house full of people who saw things the rest of the world missed, it was impossible to hide.
“You look good,” Nonna admitted grudgingly. “Better now that I have fed you for a week.” She harrumphed again, then gently shoved me to the side and took over washing the dishes. “I will send food back with you,” she declared. “That boy who picked you up, he is too skinny. Maybe he will kiss better with a little meat on his bones.”
“What’s this about kissing?” a voice asked from the doorway. I turned, expecting to see one of my father’s brothers. Instead, I saw my father. I froze. He was stationed overseas, and we weren’t expecting him for another couple of days.
It had been over a year since the last time I’d seen him.
“Cassie.” My father greeted me with a stiff smile, a shade or two off from the real deal.
My thoughts went to Michael. He would have known exactly how to read the tension in my father’s face. In contrast, I was a profiler. I could take a collection of tiny details—the contents of a person’s suitcase, the words they chose to say hello—and build the big picture: who they were, what they wanted, how they would behave in any given situation.
But the exact meaning of that not-quite-a-smile? The emotions my father was hiding? Whether he felt a spark of recognition or pride or anything fatherly at all when he looked at me?
That, I didn’t know.
“Cassandra,” Nonna chided, “say hello to your father.” Before I had a chance to say anything, Nonna had latched her arms around him, squeezing tightly. She kissed him, then smacked him several times, then kissed him again.
“You are back early.” Nonna finally pried herself away from the prodigal son. She gave him a look—probably the same look she’d given him when he’d tracked dirt in on her carpet as a little boy. “Why?”
My father’s gaze flitted back to me. “I need to talk to Cassie.”
Nonna’s eyes narrowed. “And what is it you need to talk to our Cassie about?” Nonna poked him in the chest. Repeatedly. “She is happy at her new school, with her skinny boyfriend.”
I barely registered that assertion. My attention was fully focused on my father. He was slightly disheveled. He looked like he hadn’t slept at all the night before. He couldn’t quite look me in the eye.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Nothing,” Nonna said, with the force of a sheriff declaring martial law. “Nothing is wrong.” She turned back to my father. “You tell her nothing is wrong,” she ordered.
My father crossed the room and took my shoulders gently in his hands.
You’re not normally this gentle.
My brain ran through everything I knew about him—our relationship, the type of person he was, the fact that he was here at all. My stomach felt like it had been lined with lead. I knew with sudden prescience what he was going to say. The knowledge paralyzed me. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t blink.
“Cassie,” my father said softly. “It’s about your mother.”
There was a difference between presumed dead and dead, a difference between coming back to a dressing room that was drenched in my mother’s blood and being told that after five long years, there was a body.
When I was twelve, thirteen, fourteen years old, I had prayed every night that someone would find my mother, that the police would be proven wrong, that somehow, despite the evidence, despite the amount of blood she’d lost, she’d turn up. Alive.
Eventually, I had stopped hoping and started praying that the authorities would find my mother’s body. I had imagined being called in to identify the remains. I’d imagined saying good-bye. I had imagined burying her.
I hadn’t imagined this.
“They’re sure it’s her?” I asked, my voice small, but steady.
My father and I were sitting on opposite sides of a porch swing, just the two of us, the closest thing to privacy Nonna’s house could afford.
“The location’s right.” He didn’t look at me as he replied, staring out into the night. “So is the timing. They’re trying to match dental records, but you two moved around so much….” He seemed to realize, then, that he was telling me something I already knew.
My mother’s dental records would be hard to come by.
“They found this.” My father held out a thin silver chain. A small red stone hung on the end.
My throat closed up.
I swallowed, pushing the thought down, like I could unthink it by sheer force of will. My father tried to hand me the necklace. I shook my head.
I’d known my mother was almost certainly dead. I’d known that. I’d believed it. But now, looking at the necklace she’d worn that night, I couldn’t breathe.
“That’s evidence.” I forced the words out. “The police shouldn’t have given it to you. It’s evidence.”
What were they thinking? I’d only been working with the FBI for six months. Almost all of that time had been spent behind the scenes, and even I knew you didn’t break chain of evidence just so a halfway-orphaned girl could have something that had belonged to her mother.
“There weren’t any prints on it,” my father assured me. “Or trace evidence.”
“Tell them to keep it,” I ground out, standing up and walking to the edge of the porch. “They may need it. For identification.”
It had been five years. If they were looking for dental records, there probably wasn’t anything left for me to identify. Nothing but bones.
I tuned out. I didn’t want to listen to a man who’d barely known my mother telling me that the police had no leads, that they thought it was all right to compromise evidence, because none of them expected this case to be solved.
After five years, we had a body. That was a lead. Notches in the bones. The way she was buried. The place her killer had laid her to rest. There had to be something. Some hint of what had happened.
He came after you with a knife. I slipped into my mother’s perspective, trying to work out what had happened that day, as I had so many times before. He surprised you. You fought.
“I want to see the scene.” I turned back to my father. “The place where they found the body, I want to see it.”
My father was the one who’d signed off on my enrolling in Agent Briggs’s gifted program, but he had no idea what kind of “education” I was receiving. He didn’t know what the program really was. He didn’t know what I could do. Killers and victims, UNSUBs and bodies—this was my language. Mine. And what had happened to my mother?
That was mine, too.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Cassie.”
It’s not your decision. I thought the words, but didn’t say them out loud. There was no point in arguing with him. If I wanted access—to the site, to pictures, to whatever scraps of evidence there might be—Vincent Battaglia wasn’t the person to ask.
“Cassie?” My father stood and took a hesitant step toward me. “If you want to talk about this—”
I turned around and shook my head. “I’m fine,” I said, cutting off his offer. I pushed down the lump rising in my throat. “I just want to go back to school.”
“School” was overstating things. The Naturals program consisted of a grand total of five students, and our lessons had what you would call practical applications. We weren’t just pupils. We were resources to be used.
An elite team.
Each of the five of us had a skill, an aptitude honed to perfection by the lives we’d lived growing up.
None of us had normal childhoods. Those were the words I kept thinking, over and over again, four days later as I stood at the end of my grandmother’s drive, waiting for my ride to arrive. If we had, we wouldn’t be Naturals.
Instead of thinking of the way I’d grown up, going from town to town with a mother who conned people into thinking she was psychic, I thought about the others—about Dean’s psychopath of a father and the way Michael had learned to read emotions as a means of survival. About Sloane and Lia and the things I suspected about their childhoods.
Thinking about my fellow Naturals came with a particular brand of homesickness. I wanted them here—all of them, any of them—so badly that I almost couldn’t breathe.
“Dance it off.” I could hear my mother’s voice in my memory. I could see her, wrapped in a royal blue scarf, her red hair damp from cold and snow as she flipped the car radio on and turned it up.
That had been our ritual. Every time we moved—from one town to the next, from one mark to the next, from one show to the next—she turned on the music, and we danced in our seats until we forgot about everything and everyone we’d left behind.
My mother wasn’t a person who’d believed in missing anything for long.
“You’re looking deep in thought.” A low, no-nonsense voice brought me back to the present.
I pushed back against the memories—and the deluge of emotions that wanted to come with them. “Hey, Judd.”
The man the FBI had hired to look after us studied me for a moment, then picked up my bag and swung it into the trunk. “You going to say good-bye?” he asked, nodding toward the porch.
I turned back to see Nonna standing there. She loved me. Fiercely. Determinedly. From the moment you met me. The least I owed her was a good-bye.
“Cassandra?” Nonna’s tone was brisk as I approached. “You forget something?”
For years, I’d believed that I was broken, that my ability to love—fiercely, determinedly, freely—had died with my mother.
The past few months had taught me I was wrong.
I wrapped my arms around my grandmother, and she latched hers around me and held on for dear life.
“I should go,” I said after a moment.
She tapped my cheek with a little more oomph than necessary. “You call if you need anything,” she ordered. “Anything.”
She paused. “I am sorry,” she said carefully. “About your mother.”
Nonna had never met my mother. She didn’t know the first thing about her. I’d never told my father’s family about my mom’s laugh, or the games she’d used to teach me to read people, or the way we’d said no matter what instead of I love you, because she didn’t just love me—she loved me forever and ever, no matter what.
“Thanks,” I told my grandmother. My voice came out slightly hoarse. I tamped down on the grief rising up inside me. Sooner or later, it would catch up to me.
I had always been better at compartmentalizing than ridding myself of unwanted emotions altogether.
As I turned away from Nonna’s prying eyes and walked back to Judd and the car, I couldn’t banish the memory of my mom’s voice.
Dance it off.
Judd drove in silence. He left it to me to break it, if and when I was ready to do so.
“The police found a body.” It took me ten minutes to push those words past the edge of my lips. “They think it’s my mother’s.”
“I heard,” Judd said simply. “Briggs got a call.”
Special Agent Tanner Briggs was one of the Naturals program’s two FBI supervisors. He’d been the one to recruit me, and he’d used my mother’s case to do it.
Of course he’d gotten a call.
“I want to see the body,” I told Judd, staring out at the road in front of us. Later, I could process. Later, I could grieve. Answers, facts, that was what I needed now. “Pictures of the crime scene,” I continued, “anything Briggs can get from the locals, I want to see it.”
Judd waited a beat. “That all?”
No. That wasn’t all. I wanted, desperately, for the body the police had found not to be my mother. And I wanted it to be her. And it didn’t matter that those things were contradictory. It didn’t matter that I was setting myself up to lose, no matter what.
I bit down, my teeth digging into the inside of my cheek. After a moment, I answered Judd’s question out loud. “No, that’s not all. I also want to take down the person who did this to her.”
That, at least, was simple. That was clear. I’d joined the Naturals program to put killers behind bars. My mother deserved justice. I deserved justice, for everything I’d lost.
“I ought to tell you that hunting down the person who killed her won’t bring her back.” Judd switched lanes, seemingly paying more attention to the road than to me. I wasn’t fooled. Judd was a former marine sniper, always aware of his surroundings. “I ought to tell you,” he continued, “that obsessing over this case won’t make it hurt any less.”
“But you won’t,” I said.
You know what it’s like to have your world torn apart. You know what it’s like to wake up each day to the awareness that the monster who tore it apart is still out there, free to do it again.
Judd wouldn’t tell me I needed to let this go. He couldn’t.
“What would you do,” I said softly, “if it were Scarlett? If there were a lead, no matter how small, on her case?”
I’d never spoken Judd’s daughter’s name in his presence before. Until recently, I hadn’t even been aware she existed. I didn’t know much about her, other than the fact that she’d been the victim of a serial killer known as Nightshade.
The one thing I did know was how Judd would have felt if there were a development in that case.
“It was different for me,” Judd said finally, his eyes fixed out on the road. “There was a body. Don’t know if that makes it better or worse. Better, probably, because I didn’t have to wonder.” His teeth clamped together for a moment. “Worse,” he continued, “because that’s something no father should ever see.”
I tried to imagine what Judd must have gone through when he saw his daughter’s body and immediately wished that I could stop. Judd was a man with a high tolerance for pain and a face that hid nine-tenths of what he felt. But when he saw his daughter’s lifeless body, there would have been no hiding, no gritting his teeth through the pain—nothing but the roar in his ears and a devastation I knew all too well.
If it were Scarlett whose body had just been found, Scarlett whose necklace had just turned up, you wouldn’t sit idly by. You couldn’t—no matter the cost.
“You’ll tell Briggs and Sterling to get me the files?” I said. Judd wasn’t an FBI agent. His first and only priority was the well-being of the Bureau’s teenage assets. He was the final word on our involvement in any case.
Including my mother’s.
You understand, I thought, staring at him. Whether you want to or not—you do.
“You can look at the files,” Judd told me. He pulled the car into a private airstrip, then fixed me with a look. “But you’re not doing it alone.”
The private jet seated twelve, but when I stepped onto the plane, only five of those seats were filled. Agents Sterling and Briggs sat at the front of the plane, on opposite sides of the aisle. She was looking at a file. He was looking at his watch.
All business, I thought. Then again, if it had really been all business between them, they wouldn’t have needed the space provided by the aisle.
Behind them, Dean sat with his back to the front of the plane. There was a table in front of him and a deck of cards on the table. Lia was sprawled across two seats, catty-corner from Dean. Sloane was perched, cross-legged, on the edge of the table, her white-blond hair pulled into a lopsided ponytail on top of her head. If she’d been anyone else, I would have been seriously concerned that she was about to topple over, but knowing Sloane, she’d probably already done the math on her current position and taken whatever steps necessary to ensure the laws of physics fell in her favor.
“Well,” Lia said, shooting me a lazy grin, “look who finally decided to grace us with her presence.”
They don’t know. The realization that Briggs hadn’t told the rest of the team about my mother—about the body—washed over me. If he had, Lia wouldn’t have been lazily poking at me; she would have been jabbing. Some people comforted. Lia prided herself on providing distractions—and not the kind you wanted to thank her for.
My assumption was confirmed when Dean turned to look at me. “Don’t mind Lia,” he said. “She’s in a mood because I beat her at Chutes and Ladders.” A small smile played around the edges of his lips.
Dean wasn’t crossing the plane. He wasn’t putting a calming hand on my shoulder or neck. And that meant that he definitely didn’t know.
In that moment, I didn’t want him to.
The smile on his face, the way he’s teasing Lia—Dean was healing. Each day we were together, the barriers came down a little. Each day, he inched out of the shadows and became a little more himself.
I wanted that for him.
I didn’t want him thinking about the fact that my mother was a victim. I didn’t want him thinking about the fact that his father was a killer.
I wanted to hold on to that smile.
“Chutes and Ladders?” I repeated.
Lia’s eyes glittered. “My version is much more interesting.”
“That is concerning on so many levels,” I said.
“Welcome back,” Agent Briggs told me. Across from him, Agent Sterling looked up from the file she was reading and met my eyes. Briggs’s ex-wife was a profiler. She was my mentor.
If Briggs knows, Sterling knows. Within a heartbeat, my eyes went to the file in her hand.
“Grab a seat,” she told me.
I took that to mean, We’ll talk later. Sterling was leaving it up to me to decide what I wanted to tell the others—and when. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to keep this a secret indefinitely. Lia’s specialty was deception detection. Lying was out of the question, and no matter how firmly I locked this away, it wouldn’t take Dean long to realize that something had happened.
I had to tell them. But I might be able to put it off for a couple of hours—especially since the one person who would have known immediately that something was wrong wasn’t on this plane.
“Where’s Michael?” I asked, sliding into the seat next to Dean.
“Fifteen miles southeast of Westchester, due north of Long Island Sound.” Sloane tilted her head to one side, like her slightly off-center ponytail was weighing it down.
“He went home for Christmas,” Dean translated. Underneath the table, his hand found its way to mine. Initiating physical contact wasn’t easy for Dean, but slowly, he’d begun to reach out more.
“Michael went home for Christmas?” I repeated. My eyes darted to Lia’s. She and Michael had been on-again, off-again long before I’d arrived on the scene. We both knew—everyone on this plane knew—that “home” wasn’t a place Michael should be.
“Michael wanted to go home for a visit.” Agent Briggs inserted himself into the middle of the conversation, coming to stand in the aisle just behind Sloane. “It was his request and his choice.”
Of course it was. My stomach twisted. Michael had told me once that if you couldn’t keep someone from hitting you, the best thing to do was make them hit you. When Michael was hurting, when there was even a chance he might be hurt, he sought out conflict.
He’d taken my choosing Dean like a backhanded slap.
“He wanted to see his mom,” Sloane chirped up innocently. “He said he hadn’t seen her in a really long time.”
The rest of us understood people. Sloane understood facts. Whatever Michael had told her, she would have believed.
“I gave him a list of conversation starters before he left,” Sloane told me seriously. “In case he and his mom need something to talk about.”
Knowing Sloane, that probably meant she’d encouraged Michael to break the ice by informing his family that the last word in the dictionary was zyzzyva, a form of tropical weevil.
PRAISE FOR KILLER INSTINCT
"A welcome addition to the teen-sleuth genre."—Kirkus Reviews
PRAISE FOR KILLER INSTINCT
"Barnes knows how to keep the reader hooked, and fans will be eagerly reaching for this title and clamoring for the next in the series."—Booklist
PRAISE FOR KILLER INSTINCT
"This is a definite purchase for libraries...."—School Library Journal
PRAISE FOR KILLER INSTINCT
"Intricately plotted, this novel will keep teens guessing and leave readers eagerly waiting the next installment in The Naturals series."—VOYA
PRAISE FOR THE NATURALS
"The Naturals is Criminal Minds for the YA world, and I loved every page."—New York Times best-selling author Ally Carter
* "[A] tightly paced suspense novel that will keep readers up until the wee hours to finish."—VOYA, starred review
"This savvy thriller grabs readers right away."—Kirkus Reviews
"Barnes shows every card at just the right moment, catching readers off-guard at the final reveal. It's a stay-up-late-to-finish kind of book, and it doesn't disappoint."—Publishers Weekly
"In this high-adrenaline series opener...even a psychic won't anticipate all the twists and turns."—Booklist
- On Sale
- Nov 3, 2015
- Page Count
- 384 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers