Sacramento. Capital city of California. Named after its river, which was in turn named after the most holy offering in the Catholic liturgy. But there is nothing sacred and everything profane about the butchered corpse found on the river levee. Maybe ‘corpse’ is the wrong word for what lies at Detective John Penley’s feet. The pouring rain, caught in the glare of the crime scene halogen lights, patters remorselessly on a headless, limbless trunk. It had been a man. And that man, judging by the Aztec inspired tattoo spreading over what is left of the chest, was a member of a Latino gang, The West Block Norteños.
The remains of Daniel Cardozo are hauled off to the city morgue to join those of several of his professional associates who have met a similar fate in recent months. Penley and his new partner Detective Paula Newberry know only that the killer is also a butcher, perhaps not by trade, but certainly by intent. They also become aware that the human remains are minus their soft tissue organs – hearts, livers, kidneys.
Newberry and Penley make an uneasy pair. Newberry, because she is treated like a leper by fellow officers ever since she orchestrated a surveillance sting that ended the careers of a couple of corrupt cops in the department. And Penley? His mind is forever straying to thoughts about his young son Tommy whose life is slowly but inexorably drifting away as he waits his turn for a kidney transplant.
As the tale unfolds, there are echoes of England’s infamous and unsolved Whitechapel Murders. As with the person who slaughtered prostitutes in that fateful London autumn of 1888, Penley’s killer seems to have more than a rudimentary knowledge of anatomy. And, like the detectives in Victorian London, Penley is actually sent a kidney as a taunt, but unlike the Ripper’s handiwork, the one Penley receives is most definitely human.
L’Etoile’s story rapidly adds an extra dimension to the standard hunt for a ruthless serial murderer, as it become a medical thriller, too. The villain is, we soon learn, harvesting organs for the lucrative international trade in spare body parts. Like so many other aspects of life, the search for viable organs operates on two levels; the first is, of course, the regular – and highly regulated – world of transplant waiting lists; the second operates within the freemasonry of hard cash, and the opportunities afforded to unscrupulous traders – and their desperate customers – by The Dark Web.
It all too quickly becomes horribly personal for Penley and his family. His son narrowly avoids being given an intentionally damaged kidney, and it is clear that the detective’s personal anguish has handed the killer an invaluable tool with which he can torment the man whose professional job it has become to unmask him and bring him to justice. With someone hacking into hospital records and falsifying clinical data, Penley runs out of people he can trust, and is forced to play a dangerous game of deception with the killer, his colleagues and – worst of all – his own family.
The author (right) certainly knows his way around the American justice system, with his background in probation, parole, investigation and prison operation. An experienced Associate Warden, Chief of Institution Operations, Hostage Negotiator and Director of Parole, he has also done extensive homework on the medical background to the complex world of organ donation and transplants. The plot rattles along with scarcely a breath being drawn, and in Penley and Newberry, L’Etoile has created a partnership which is complex and attractive enough to feature in more adventures further down the line.
At What Cost is published by Crooked Lane Books and is out now.