The Badlands are located in North Philadelphia, comprised of neighborhoods that merge into each other and collectively live up to their name. Richard Montanari brings back Detective Jessica Balzone and her partner Kevin Byrne, who are assigned to solve a cold case that steeps them deeply into the underbelly of the Badlands.
An anonymous tip that contains information the police never released to the public re-activates the case of 17-year-old Caitlin O’Riordan, who was reported missing four months ago. The caller tells the cops just where to look…almost. Once they decipher the coded clues left by the tipster, they are overwhelmed by what they find. Balzano and Byrne discover the body of a young woman found "presented" in a glass box in a rotting abandoned building.
But then a second body is discovered, and the team realizes that these murders are not the killer's first. They quickly conclude that female runaways, barely out of their teens, are tasty prey and all too easy to lure into the assailant’s twisted web. The only consistent element to the killings is their inconsistency. No two victims seem to have suffered in the same way in terms of how they are murdered and how their bodies are displayed. As more bodies are discovered scattered throughout the city, the victims’ status as "lost youths" makes it difficult to track their backgrounds and families. The team agrees that they most certainly are looking for a cunning and demented serial killer.
When another tip comes into the roundhouse, Balzone and Byrne are on it. They follow the instructions until they finally decode the message and are sent to another location. This one leads them to a woman in her early 60s who is a puzzle addict. She is elegant and proud to show off her huge collection of both arcane and familiar puzzle games. Louise Somerville is pleased when Byrne shows an interest in an ivory box that is a “tangram puzzle,” a “rearrangement” game that can be traced to Archimedes in the third century B.C. Something draws Byrne to the challenge of solving the tangram, and Somerville shows him a book full of tangram games that look like blueprints. Byrne solves the tangram, which greatly impresses her.
After the interlude, the partners are back on track. They ask Somerville if she knows the decaying building on Shiloh Street, if she recognizes the name Caitlin O’Riordan, and if she can identify the girl in the photo. The answers to all these questions are a firm NO. The detectives explain to this seemingly harmless woman that the tip they got was traced back to her phone. At this point she excuses herself and retreats to the bedroom. Too much time passes. Balzano and Byrne are nervous and suspicious; they hear an explosion of shattering glass, and when they enter the bedroom, Somerville has thrown herself down 10 stories to her death.
Why? What did the detectives say that propelled her through a plate glass window? And what did the Scrabble letters she left on the sill mean: LUDO? Suddenly they smell smoke. Somerville had set her apartment on fire before she jumped and while the two detectives were still waiting for her.
The investigation reveals chilling details that allow readers a glance at the inner workings and thoughts of the monster behind the bizarre and violent murders. To dwell there is to enter a very dark place. Slowly, as the killer revisits the history of how his twisted mind was shaped, he garners no sympathy or empathy. Clearly he is