The Stepping Stone Cycle

When forensic psychologist Dr. Jack Carter returned to consciousness, he and his wife, Sarah, had been missing for over a year. With no memory of their last days together, Jack became the prime suspect in her disappearance. Vowing to search for her to the ends of the earth, he is drawn to the site of a gruesome double murder in small-town Mississippi. Two normal teenage boys with no history of violence slaughtered two girls named Sarah in an occult ritual and their jailhouse confession idolizes the lyrics of a song by doom metal band The Metal Black. Blaming the teen’s violence on the song’s macabre lyrics, their grieving mother brings a lawsuit against the band. Brought on to the case as an impartial psychological consultant, Jack finds eerie similarities between the song’s descriptions of the violent death of a woman named Sarah, his wife’s disappearance and the teen murders. When Jack meets the songwriter, he discovers a mystery beneath the sleepy town that causes him to question his own fragile sanity.

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Chapter 1

Jack Carter woke to the sound of the house sighing as the central air kicked in. His eyes popped open with a startling suddenness and he stared at the ceiling for precious seconds. His conscious mind struggled to gather itself but one thought remained a resolute certainty. Jack had been dreaming again.

In the year since he’d returned to consciousness from a fugue state, he had been aware of dreaming only once. That time barely a month before in the coal-mining town of Logan, West Virginia had caused him to leave his hotel bed and visit the prisoner George Baxter. That visit had resulted in Baxter’s death and Jack’s encounter with a personality named Bob who claimed to have killed Jack’s wife, Sarah. The confession had not been recorded, nor had it been witnessed by anyone but Jack, leaving the suspicion that he had killed her still hanging over his head.

Even that night, Jack had not been able to remember more than vague impressions of his dreams. There remained only the sensation of claustrophobic fear in a vast empty space. His psychiatrist, Dr. Martin Dyer, had marked the dreaming as a positive sign, perhaps even of a breakthrough should Jack continue to remember any subsequent dreams.

This dream had been different. While he still felt the air of immense emptiness around him, he could firmly grasp specific imagery. In particular, two images came to mind. The first was a circle on the ground as if seen from directly above. The circle had been similar to the pattern of runic symbols on the floor of George Baxter’s killing room. Instead of being etched in blood-stained dirt, the surface had appeared slick. The more Jack examined it, the more he believed the surface to be composed of a black metal, so dark it swallowed light while at the same time shining with reflections from an unseen sun. Its darkness almost rippled like the metal itself was a pool of liquid and after moments circling the pool, Jack had dove into and through the blackness.

The other image disturbed him even more. Sarah’s chestnut hair tangled and knotted, clotted with a dark liquid. A single tear ran down her left eye and around towards her ear as if she lay on her side. The tear at first so clear became tinged with pink as it dripped down into her hair, into the blood pooling around her head. As he had realized that she lay dying, she sank slowly into the metallic pool of inky blackness.

Jack sat up and swung his legs out over the bed. There to his right on the nightstand was Sarah’s picture, a beautiful sun streaming light from over her left ear. Next to it was the black stone he’d found in Baxter’s killing room. He avoided the stone as he picked up the picture, holding it in his hands and staring for a long time. He tried in vain to elicit some emotional response from himself, from somewhere deep where he knew the grief waited festering until it could be released. Nothing came. No tears, no sadness, no longing. Finally he returned the picture to its place and looked at the clock. 5:42 a.m. He could sleep another hour or longer if he wished but he decided against it. He was no longer tired. Jack needed to move, needed to get some sort of routine going, something to maintain a normalcy in his life that losing his wife had taken from him. All too tempting was the desire to give up, to wallow in the bed as if nothing else mattered but he could not give up.

While his coffee brewed, Jack checked email on his phone. His schedule was clear until his lunch meeting with FBI Agent Bill West. At times, it felt like Bill was the only friend he had left. Most of his other friends had been ‘couple friends’ that he’d made through Sarah, and any time he spoke with them he couldn’t shake the feeling they all believed he had killed her. Jack would stand there speaking words but the words would echo around him as if standing alone in an empty field. The judgment, the doubt, the suspicion shadowed his friends’ expressions to the point Jack expected the next words out of their mouths to be “Why did you kill her?” A guilt he couldn’t be sure he deserved would drive an awkward wedge into whatever conversation had taken place and he would have to excuse himself before it got unbearable. And then, inevitably, the final words spoken would be some variation on “Keep your chin up,” which only served to make Jack feel both more uncomfortable and guiltier.

Bill was different. Despite being in charge of the investigation into his wife’s disappearance, he never doubted Jack or if he did, he hid it very well. Bill had gone to bat for Jack with the Bureau, allowing him to continue to work on murder cases like the Baxter case. Jack wasn’t sure what Bill wanted but he knew that working was the only way he could keep himself even close to sane.

He contemplated breakfast while standing at the window, staring into the fading darkness before sunrise. The boneyard of barren trees decorated the front yard like the desolate parade of memories he desperately struggled to recall. His coffee grew cold and he put it down in disgust.

“What did I do, Sarah?”

Chapter 2

“You’re looking well,” Bill said with absolute sincerity. “Better than the last time I saw you.” The last time they had seen each other had been a few days after Baxter’s death, and Jack had still been frazzled. “How are you sleeping?”

“I’m sleeping. Not a lot, mind you, but I am sleeping.”


“A few. Nothing clear,” Jack lied a little, “but I’m definitely dreaming again.”

Bill seemed nervous, his words tentative, almost as if he had something to tell Jack that he really didn’t want to say. “I made us some tacos for lunch if you can stand my cooking.”

Bill chuckled. “Cook better than my wife, but if you ever tell her that, I’ll deny it to my dying breath.”

“I would expect no less. Come on in and have a seat.” Bill walked into the kitchen and carefully pulled back a chair from the breakfast table before sitting. His every movement felt exaggerated, as if he was trying hard to prolong every movement before getting to the bad news. “Ok, Bill what is it? You obviously have something to tell me so out with it.”

He evaded the question. “Can I at least have a bite first?”

“That bad, huh?” Jack said as he threw the meat into the pan. It sizzled and smoked, filling the silence with a wonderful smell.

“The bureau has determined that your description of Baxter’s confession about Sarah doesn’t hold enough weight to close the case. You’re still a suspect.”

“I’m not surprised and you shouldn’t be either. I know what I heard but I can’t back it up with facts. Until they find a body or someone still living makes with a confirmable confession, there’s no way I’m getting off the hook. Are they freezing me out of new cases?”

Bill shook his head. “No, it’s not like that. They just don’t want me including you on any cases that might involve Sarah.”

Swearing under his breath, Jack slammed the pan down on the stove. “How am I supposed to find her if they won’t let me help?”

“There’s some that think if you did do it, working on those cases would be the perfect way to shift suspicion, destroy evidence.”

“That’s logical.” Jack set his hands to either side of the stove and sighed. “Frustrating as hell, but logical.” The meat done, Jack shoveled it into a serving bowl and brought the food over to the table. Bill dug in with zealous excitement.

After a few minutes of quiet eating, Jack broke the silence with another question. “So is that what you came over to tell me?”

Shaking his head, Bill spoke around a mouthful of taco. “No, I just found that out this morning. I’ve got something else for you to look into that might or might not have something to do with Sarah.”

“I thought I couldn’t work on any cases related to her disappearance?”

“That’s the thing. It’s not a case, at least not anymore. In fact, it’s such a tenuous connection to Sarah’s disappearance, there’s no way the bureau can object.” The agent took a tablet out of his bag and swiped at the screen. His first swipe didn’t seem to do the trick, so he swiped it again with a scowl. “Damn touchscreen crap. What was so wrong with my laptop?”

Jack just giggled. Bill was notorious around the bureau for hating every new piece of technology for at least a year before he got the hang of it. At that point, the marauding hordes of hell couldn’t pry it out of his hands. “Craig and Caleb Haines, ages 16 and 15 respectively, until a month ago residents of Quitman, Mississippi and normal if isolated teenagers. Until, that is, they took two girls from their high school out to a local camp site and ritually massacred both of them. Knives, runic symbols, bonfires, the whole nine yards of your garden variety serial killer style ritualistic sacrifice. Arrested and charged within two days of the girl’s disappearance. Seems the perps did nothing to hide the fact that they were the last to see the girl’s alive. Various parts of the bodies were found around the camp site or buried in shallow graves.”

“They confessed in jail. Before they could even be indicted or examined by a court shrink, they killed themselves in jail with goddamn sporks. One of them jammed the sharpened end of the thing into his jugular with the guards watching. The other one kacked himself while they were busy tending to the first kid.”

“There won’t be a trial, then,” Jack said, his brows furrowed in confusion. “What does this have to do with me?”

“I’m getting to that. No, there won’t be a criminal trial. Nothing indicates there were any unknown conspirators or any other bodies buried anywhere. However,” Bill paused and pulled up a picture on the tablet, “there’s this.”

Bill held up the tablet. On the screen was a playlist from his media player with a screen shot of an album cover. “How’s your heavy metal knowledge?”

“It’s great up until about 1993. That stuff got me through high school and most of college before the plaid grungy guys took over.” The cover was unfamiliar to Jack, a swirling mass of black with a veneer of artificial dirt and screen grist spattered across a logo.

“You mean you don’t know The Metal Black?”


“Exactly. Apparently not many other people know them. They’re a… what’s it called, doom metal band out of Virginia. What the hell is doom metal?”

Jack shrugged. “I don’t know, Slayer was about as metal as I got.”

“What the hell ever happened to music you could dance to? Some PFunk, hell even a little NWA or Boyz 2 Men or something.”

They both looked at each other with a grin. “You know these bands are like 15-20 years old, right? We are OLD.”

“Speak for yourself. At least I got taste in music. Anyway, this band’s not very big. They’ve sold maybe 200k records tops in the last 7 years. Their Wiki page is pretty bare and their web page doesn’t help much. They are deep underground.”

“What’s this got to do with two murdered kids in Podunk, Mississippi?”

“These two kids were huge fans. They had every album, wore the T-shirts, even went to see them once. They had posters in their room, logos drawn on their textbooks. These kids kill someone else then themselves. Queue the opportunistic lawyer who approaches the grieving mother and, presto, civil suit.”

“The suit needs a forensic psychologist?”

“Not exactly; both sides have their own pet shrink ready to testify. One is claiming imitable acts; says the kids were blameless, were manipulated by the evil band to become killers. The other one says that’s bullshit. So the court has put out a call for an impartial shrink to come in and settle the debate or at least add a non-biased opinion to the mix.”

“Ok, well that tracks. Why me? And what’s this have to do with Sarah?”

Bill sat pensively for a moment, his hand on his chin as if contemplating whether he should tell Jack the next part or not. “Both the girls they killed were named Sarah.”

Though taken aback, Jack still didn’t see why Bill would want him involved. “That’s… odd, but I still don’t see…”

“Listen to the song the mom is saying drove the kids to kill.”

Bill touched the screen on his tablet and music, or at least something approaching music, poured out of the tablet’s speakers. The track was incredibly heavy, with droning distorted guitars and oppressive low end. It was certainly heavier than anything Jack had listened to back in the day. When the “singer” began his part, Jack found it hard to follow the song as the words were more of a guttural growl than actual words. As it began to build through two choruses and into a bridge, Jack threw Bill a questioning look. Bill made a gesture asking for patience. “This is the part,” the agent said.

The singer’s voice became clearer as the music softened to a low drone. The interlude built from a low drone to a shrieking crescendo. Jack clearly understood the words.


Can you hear me Sara?

Is this your blood on my hands, Sara?

Why can’t I remember killing you

Oh Sara

Did you scream as I cut your throat

Did you see the nothing in my eyes

When I killed you with the Metal Black”

When the song had finished, Jack sat back and looked at the FBI agent. “Is that it?”

“Almost. That song? According to the band’s web site, the singer wrote that after having a dream. Guess what date he wrote it?” Jack raised an eyebrow. “Yeah, you got it. He wrote it the exact day you disappeared.”

“Ok that’s creepy but hardly means anything. It’s a coincidence.”

“Maybe. Maybe not. You want to know where the band was touring that day?”

“No.” Jack could not believe the coincidences that had been pieced together by the agent.

“Yes. They were in Maine.”

“That’s pretty tenuous.”

“That’s the reason I brought it to you without adding it to the official case. There’s nothing to say this guy had anything to do with it, or that either thing has anything to do with these kids killing two girls named Sarah. But…”

“It’s not a far trip from coincidence to synchronicity,” Jack interrupted. “Does the court gig pay?”

“Not much but it’s something. And they cover expenses like rental cars and hotel.”

“Then I guess I’m going to Mississippi.”