Killer Instinct is the sequel to The Naturals, a sort of teen Criminal Minds. This time The Naturals must confront a killer who seems to be a copycat killer following the MO of Dean's father. Can they catch the killer before he strikes again?
After surviving an attempt on her life, seventeen year old Cassandra (Cassie) Hobbes is back at the house in Quantico, VA that serves as headquarters for the rest of The Naturals that include Dean Redding, Lia Zhang, Michael Townsend and Sloane. Special Agent Veronica Sterling, daughter of Director Sterling, arrives at the house to replace Agent Lacey Locke, the rogue agent and UNSUB (unknown subject) the group never recognized and who wreaked havoc only six weeks earlier. Agent Sterling is now responsible for ensuring this group of special teens obeys the directives of the program. She has also been sent by the Director to evaluate the top secret Naturals program. Also present is Judd Hawkins, an ex-military man who is caretaker to both the Naturals and the house and who appears to know Agent Sterling very well.
Agent Tanner Briggs who is Sterling's ex-husband, tells her that The Naturals program has solved two cold cases in the past month, however Sterling remains dubious.
Briggs and Sterling are called away to investigate a new case, but do not provide any details to the Naturals. Instead Cassie and her fellow Naturals learn from a television news broadcast about the murder of a girl from nearby Colonial University in northern Virginia. The young female student was bound and tortured before being strangled and then secured to the hood of her car which was placed on the lawn of the University President. A professor at the school, George Fogle, who teaches a class on serial murder is considered a suspect. After a video of the body is leaked online, The Naturals watch it, using their innate profiling skills to learn as much as they can about the killer.
"Bodies were like messages, full of symbolic meanings that only a person who understood the needs and desires and rage that went into snuffing out another life could fully decode."
The Naturals are puzzled as to why the FBI has been called in, but Dean tells them one of the serial killers that Fogle lectures about is his father, Daniel Redding whose modus operandi (MO) is "Bind them. Brand them. Cut them. Hang them." Redding murdered at least a dozen women after his wife left him. Briggs and Sterling were the original agents on his father's case and are familiar with his MO. Dean is certain that the murderer of the Colonial University student is a copycat of serial killer Daniel Redding. This makes Cassie disturbed and she feels it is strangely coincidental that "six weeks ago, Locke was re-enacting my mother's murder, and now someone's out there playing copycat to Dean's dad?"
Dean begins to reveal to Cassie about what his life was like with his serial killer father. His father made Dean watch him torturing and murdering his victims, after Dean discovered what his father was doing. He tells her about how his father gradually attempted to involved Dean in the murders.
In an attempt to learn more about the Colonial U. murder, Sloane recreates the crime scene in the basement of the Naturals home. However, this is quickly discovered by Agent Sterling who tells them she will shut down The Naturals program if she finds them working on active cases. The Naturals was developed to solve cold cases, but Briggs has been using Dean on active cases, resulting in him almost losing his job. However, Cassie wonders if The Naturals can make a difference in active cases such as the one Agents Briggs and Sterling are now working.
After overhearing an argument between Agent Sterling and Dean who insists she tell him the name of the murdered girl, Cassie learns the girl's name is Emerson Cole. In an attempt to uncover information about Emerson's murder, Michael, Lia and Cassie attend a frat party at Colonial U. There they meet four people with connections to Emerson, none of whom really appear to be suspects.
Meanwhile, Sterling assigns Dean and Cassie to read a book on criminal psychology which outlines the characteristics of organized and disorganized killers. The former are charming, articulate, confident and socially adept people who have little empathy for others. They stalk their victims and are difficult to catch. Disorganized killers are impulsive and tend to attack from behind. This leads Cassie to realize that Dean's father is an organized killer.
Briggs and Sterling tell Dean that based on the similar modus operandi, it is likely that Emerson's killer has written to Dean's father in prison. They want to interview his father, but Daniel Redding has agreed to cooperate on one condition - that he talk to his son only. Dean agrees and accompanied by Briggs they visit Daniel Redding in jail. They learn that Professor Fogle interviewed him a few times and that he did most of his writing at a cabin in the mountains. He also tells Dean that "the only truly remarkable letters he'd received were from a student in that class."
Unknown to Dean, Sterling and Cassie watch the interview from an observation room. Later Sterling confronts Cassie about sneaking out of hte house the previous night she tells her that she's worried about Cassie becoming too involved in the current case, especially since she has feelings for Dean. Sterling also reveals her connection with Dean.
Based on the information from the interview with Daniel Redding, Briggs follows up on locating Professor Fogle, but they learn that the professor has been found dead. This results in Director Sterling becoming personally involved in the case and he orders The Naturals to scour social media to learn whatever they can about the three hundred and seven students enrolled in Fogle's class and who are now suspects.
As events continue to unfold, the Agents and The Naturals begin to realize that Daniel Redding has more than a casual connection to the case. In a race against time, they must unravel how he is connected to the murders and what the next move will be. Can they discover the identity of the serial killer in time to prevent the next murder?
Killer Instinct has all the ingredients of a great story - an interesting plot with many twists, conflict between the major characters and a disturbingly creepy villain. There is a gentle love triangle that never overwhelms the overall storyline of the novel which is a group of teens helping their FBI mentors solve a series of murders. The gentle drama of the love story contrasts with the intensity of the hunt for the copycat killer.
Barnes further develops her main characters in this sequel, particularly Dean Redding, as we learn more about his disturbing relationship with his psychopathic father, Daniel, and come to discover that Dean keeps a tight rein on his emotions out of fear of losing it and becoming like his father. Each of the characters is involved in some kind of conflict, some more than others. There is the romantic tension between Dean, Michael and Cassie, conflict between Lia and Cassie who struggle to get along, and between Cassie and Sloane who wants to be included in the group. Cassie also struggles to get along with Veronica Sterling, who threatens to have a ankle monitor placed on her for disobeying orders.
One of the more fascinating conflicts in the story is that between Dean and his father. Dean is determined to prove he's not his father's son, but Daniel Redding is hoping to demonstrate otherwise and he tries very hard to provoke Dean. Their series of meetings gives Barnes the chance to demonstrate the character of an organized serial killer; Daniel is articulate, smooth and manipulating, but like many killers his ego gets in the way. Readers will particularly enjoy the psychological sparing between Agent Sterling who was a victim of Daniel Redding but who managed to escape and and her revelation to Redding about what really happened and Dean's role in her escape.
Barnes ties in the plot in her previous novel, The Naturals to that in Killer Instincts, wrapping up the novel with a suspenseful ending that effectively ties together all the loose ends. Overall, Killer Instinct is an exciting, fast paced novel that fans of crime thrillers will enjoy.
Jennifer Lynn Barnes is a professor of psychology who has advanced degrees in psychology, psychiatry and cognitive science.
Killer Instincts by Jennifer Lynn Barnes
Los Angeles: Hyperion 2014