In TRIPLE CROSS KILLER, crime writer Rosemarie Aquilina, who recently made headlines for her bold, compassionate stance in the courtroom and historic judgment for survivor rights, takes us into the dark, shadowy life of a serial killer and those who hunt him out. We are honored to feature an excerpt from the book and a conversation between AFLW fiction editor Shilpa Agarwal and Judge Aquilina, in which she speaks about what inspired her to write her novel focused on children, voice and power, and her vision for creating real change in society.
CROUCHING AMONG LUSH RUSSIAN OLIVE trees behind a garage, several blocks from his Siesta Key condominium, Nick Mosiah Archer waited patiently. Ocean brine tanged the air, filling his lungs. He checked his watch. Any minute, mama would pull out of the driveway, with her daughter, Janie, riding shotgun. Stupid woman. Janie should still be in a car seat in the back. It was no wonder Janie’s mother didn’t know what was happening to her, what Janie had written to him, what Janie really needed. Why Janie needed him.
The garage door rose. Right on time.
Nick waited to make sure Janie and her mother drove far enough out of the neighborhood that they would not return for something forgotten as they had done on one other occasion when he’d performed his surveillance. He needed to verify the old man was alone. Nick had plenty of time. He decided to wait five minutes more for insurance—time enough to double check himself: khaki shorts, polo shirt, a day’s growth of beard, and a clipboard cradled in his left arm.
Nick checked his watch. It was time. He crept around the picture-perfect Cape Cod, strode up the walk, climbed the steps, leaned on the doorbell, and whispered, “Come on, rat bastard. I mean Rat Bastard, sir.”
The bolt clicked free.
Nick pasted on his your-new-best-friend smile. “Who’s there?”
Gruff old rat bastard. “A petition to stop expansion along the public beaches, sir. Some of your Crest Drive neighbors have signed it.”
The door creaked open, stretched the brass chain, and revealed the white hair and one wheel of the old man’s chair.
Nick grinned at Janie’s grandfather. He knew he was a good actor; good enough for Hollywood.
“There’s no damned expansion planned around here, you idiot.” The old man wheezed. He put an inhaler to his mouth and huffed a puff. He waved Nick away.
Unfazed, Nick slid his foot between the door and the jamb. “You can vote absentee ballot, sir.” In his softest voice, Nick forced the old fart to strain to hear. “If you’re registered.”
“I was registered to vote before you were registered for kindergarten. Hand me that damn petition.” The brass chain clattered free. The old man reached out his hand for the clipboard.
Nick pushed the door open wider with his left hand and with his right placed the clipboard into the welcoming withered hands. Take it, you old pervert. It’ll be the last thing you ever read. He paused until the aged eyes appeared to focus on the petition and the old man became absorbed in reading the fine print.
With practiced poise, Nick stepped across the threshold and planted both feet firmly inside the foyer. He shoved the wheelchair forward and kicked the door shut behind him.
The scrawny man gazed up, startled, then threw the clipboard at Nick. “Get out of my house.” He raised a gnarly fist, his head bobbling. The inhaler dropped and clattered along the tile floor.
Nick bent, his mouth close to the old man’s ear. “Janie hates your guts. She detests everything about you. She’s finished servicing you. She needs to forget you ever existed, you son of a bitch.”
The old codger was little more than blotchy skin stretched taut over knobby bones. Nick grabbed his open collar. “I know you prefer hair grabbing, but you just don’t have enough hair left.”
“Unhand me.” The old man’s voice warbled.
“Now you know how Janie felt each time you touched her.” Nick smashed the old man against the back of his wheelchair, wrapped strong fingers around his bony neck, and mumbled, “Just like an old turkey buzzard.”
The old man struggled, but in less than a minute, he gurgled, his eyes bulged, and he went limp, hands falling to either side.
With one expert snap, a quick arranging of the body, and a double check of the premises, Nick finished. He picked up the clipboard and opened the door. Backing onto the stoop, sporting his Sunday-School smile, he said, “It was a pleasure meeting you, sir. Have a wonderful day.”
Excerpt from TRIPLE CROSS KILLER by Rosemarie Aquilina reprinted with permission from the author and publisher, Fiery Seas Publishing.
Shilpa Agarwal: One of the dominant themes in this book is voice and the inability to speak. Children are silenced in the face of abuse, and the protagonist Rita isn’t able to speak truthfully with her controlling boyfriend. And quite literally, the victims can’t talk because they’ve had their windpipes crushed. How did the idea come to you for this book and what inspired this theme?
Rosemarie Aquilina: While my oldest son was helping his 2-year-old sister with a letter to Santa, he asked me what happens if Santa letters get into the wrong hands. I said: “Great story.” I sat and wrote the first few chapters. I also tuned into the hundreds of child abuse and neglect cases and family law cases I’d had in my law practice. Many people feel they do not have a voice, especially children. Nick sees himself as their protector and takes the law into his own hands, acting as judge and jury for those he perceives hurt the children. He didn’t let them speak. Power freak. Control freak.
SA: Despite this silencing, you show how these victims and/or survivors find alternative ways to speak out. For example, as the abused children write to Santa, even the cadavers “have the last word.” What happens, though, if there is no one to hear them? Why is the act of listening so vital?
RA: If no one hears the victims, there can be no change, and those who harm get stronger, more powerful, and continue to hurt others. When people listen and take the right actions, those harmful, violent people lose control and their power. Everyone must be courageous enough to take action on behalf of those who can’t speak, but we must go about it the right way. Vigilantes, like Nick, just create more damage.
SA: Silencing is its own form of abuse, as you show in the case of Nick, the serial killer. You write that he “crushes voice boxes because somewhere in his own life he lost his own voice.” How did you create the character of Nick, whom we sometimes feel compassion for, and sometimes loathe?
RA: Nick is a combination of many men. I have flavored the story with Nick’s special brand of self-importance, self-righteousness and need to have the last word. He is very handsome on the outside, but very damaged on the inside. Nick is so controlling; he is very mentally abusive to those he comes in contact with, especially women. He is not unusual and people like him have to be recognized for what they are, but that can only happen if they are called out for it and it is deemed unacceptable. Awareness in any form is a good thing. With awareness, change can occur.
SA: Your female characters, Rita and Jaq, are in male-dominated forensics and detective work, which take smarts, grit and fearlessness. Rita embodies these qualities but ends up with a man who treats her badly and eventually tries to kill her. What are you trying to show us?
RA: Many women love the wrong men. This happens for many reasons. Sometimes they are so happy to be with a man they overlook the flaws. Sometimes they believe they can fix the problems and live with the men until they are fixed. If the men can’t be “fixed,” and the women can’t work around the problems, this realization usually comes at a high price to the women. Rita likes to see the good in everyone and decides to finally take a chance on a man whom she believes is wonderful. Rita does not want to believe she is again with the wrong man, especially since she is learning to trust herself. Initially Rita overlooks the warning signs, not trusting herself, which is another common problem people face in relationships. Rita is not an unusual woman. Many women want to be caretakers, fix the man they are with, trust regardless of their instincts and stay too long. There is nothing wrong in loving another person, but loving with eyes and ears closed can be dangerous.
SA: Nick is a cold-blooded killer. He says, however, “Children trusted him to do what they couldn’t; protect them because they couldn’t; allow them to live a safe life which without him they couldn’t.” Is there some part of him that can be called a hero?
RA: Nick can be seen as being the voice of those who cannot protect themselves. He is the voice for those who do not have a voice. Nick could be heroic if what he did occurred in a lawful manner. Nick takes things to the extreme because of his own history. As a society we cannot ignore the effect of abuse: mental and physical. Abuse can last generations if not treated. Silenced abuse eventually shows up, and in Nick’s case it became lethal to others.
SA: Nick killed his victims and then delighted in setting up their bodies in a way that revealed their crimes, exposing them for the monsters they were for all the world to see. For example, a pedophile grandfather was arranged with his hand in his pants. Nick literally and figuratively crucified these people. Is there some sort of justice in this?
RA: Nick was sending a message to stop the violence and spoke out in his own unusual deadly way. He saw himself as a crusader, and in his own way he gave those children who were hurt a voice by arranging bodies and “crucifying” them and their actions. He also used the crucifix as his symbol of power over evil — not seeing what he was doing as evil, but as his obligation to judge harshly anyone who harmed a child in any way — real or perceived.
SA: Who or what influenced you to become an author? As an undergraduate you were an English and journalism major. Was reading and writing always a passion? Who are some of your favorite authors and why?
RA: My first memories are that I wanted to be an author. I grew up without much money. The few books we could afford I read dozens of times. I have three siblings, but my brother Joe is 11 months younger than me, and we were raised like twins. I spent many hours “reading” to him, anything in print, years before I could actually read. I read the newspaper, cereal boxes, pasta boxes — anything with writing. I told him I could read and then proceeded to make up a story as I pointed to the words. Seeing the joy on his face and hearing the constant requests to read more stories to him encouraged me from that tender age to become an author.
My major was English and journalism because I wanted to write. In the event I couldn’t support myself, I changed my major to English education and also became a reading specialist along with the journalism minor. I have been teaching for most of my career in one form or another. My degrees have helped me in the law as well as toward my goal of writing and becoming a published author. My varied experiences have allowed me to become a better writer over the years.
Reading fiction has always been a passion. When I can’t find time to read I listen to Audible downloads while I drive, cook, clean or spend leisure time outside.
My favorite authors include but are not limited to: Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Ray Bradbury, Jude Deveraux, John Grisham and James Patterson. I read a wide variety of authors and enjoy thrillers, cozy mysteries, romance and science fiction.
SA: We know many prominent authors who are also lawyers. How do you feel your work as a judge has influenced your writing?
RA: It makes me a better, more authentic writer. Hearing cases daily gives me storyline ideas and ideas for plot twists that I might not have otherwise thought of. It also exposes me to multiple ways of considering how people think, interesting ways to look at evidence and the development of criminal activity. This makes my writing more colorful and always gives me information to pull from so I don’t experience writer’s block.
SA: What are some messages you might have for young women in this climate?
RA: Choose wisely. Stay open to new possibilities. Don’t compromise yourself or your values. Take your time, and don’t let other people discourage what you honestly believe you can do. Don’t let other people try to shut down your feelings, voice, career choices, etc. Understand that you are not flawed, rather those who don’t support you want to undermine your power and are scared, lazy or jealous, which causes them to try to shut you down instead of promoting you.
By making good choices, working hard and staying true to yourself, you get stronger, accomplish a great deal and take your power back from the naysayers, who want to keep you down.
SA: Do you consider yourself a trailblazer as the first female JAG officer in the Michigan Army National Guard, a single mother by choice, a grandmother, judge and author?
RA: I’ve never thought of myself as a trailblazer. I’ve thought about what makes me happy, how can I support my children and teach them life lessons along the way, and about how I can serve my community — the community my children are a part of and that we live in. I don’t take no for an answer. Instead, I figure out how I can accomplish my goals and never let my gender, nationality, motherhood or anything else stand in the way of what I want to accomplish and what I think is right. I always want to be a role model for my children because I know that at some point I will die. I need to know that I have taught them to work hard, be strong, always be ethical and follow their hearts. Watching them learn those things I know they will be happy and strong in their lives.
SA: Do you think women can have it all? Or must something be sacrificed along the way?
RA: Women can have it all, within reason. It is about balance and choices. I would have liked to become a general in the Michigan Army National Guard and was on that track. However, my children said “enough,” and I listened to them and retired, after 20 years, as a major. There are always sacrifices, but I choose to give up my free time and spend it with my children and writing. I would like to find the right man, but I will not put my life on hold waiting for that. I strongly feel it is important to live a productive life and not wait for things to happen. I am in charge of my life, and I make decisions based on what is best for my family and myself, which has worked well for me.
SA: Please tell us a little about your forthcoming book.
RA: I am near completion with the next book in the series. Currently book two is named Circumstantial Justice and features four detectives who have been joined together by the Governor of Michigan as the State Detective Special Forces Team. Circumstantial Justice deals with illegal activities that are hidden deep in the underbelly of the cities of Lansing and Detroit.
I envision the detectives solving cases that get them recognized on a national level, causing them to be in demand by other states. In this way, the readers and I will have an opportunity to watch the team solve multiple unique crimes, sometimes with returning characters and always with a cast of new ones.
Rosemarie Aquilina is the author of Triple Cross Killer (Fiery Seas Publishing, 2017) and Feel No Evil (Porch Swing Press, 2003). A 30th Circuit Court Judge serving in the General Trial Division in Lansing, Michigan, Judge Aquilina rose to prominence in January after her landmark judgment sentencing former Olympics Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar to between 40 and 175 years in prison following 150 tried cases of sexual abuse. In 1986, Judge Aquilina became the first female JAG Officer in the history of the Michigan Army National Guard; she retired in 2006 as a major with 20 years of honorable service. She is an adjunct law professor at both Western Michigan University—Thomas M. Cooley Law School and Michigan State University College of Law and has earned teaching awards at both institutions. Judge Aquilina is the former owner of Aquilina Law, PLC, and former host of a syndicated radio talk show called Ask the Family Lawyer. She earned her bachelor’s degree in English education and journalism at Michigan State University and her law degree at Cooley Law School in Lansing. She is the mother of five children and two grandchildren.