From the author of the “raw, ingenious, and utterly fearless” (Wendy Walker, USA TODAY bestselling author) Temper comes a dynamic psychological thriller about two women who give bad men exactly what they deserve—perfect for fans of Killing Eve and Chelsea Cain.
Scarlett Clark is an exceptional English professor. But she’s even better at getting away with murder.
Every year, Dr. Clark searches for the worst man at Gorman University—professor, student, or otherwise—and plots his well-deserved demise. Thanks to her meticulous planning, she’s avoided drawing attention to herself…but as she’s preparing for her biggest kill yet, the school starts probing into the growing body count on campus. Determined to keep her enemies close, Dr. Clark insinuates herself into the investigation and charms the woman in charge. Everything’s going according to her master plan…until she loses control with her latest victim, putting her secret life at risk of exposure.
Meanwhile, Gorman student Carly Schiller is just trying to survive her freshman year. Finally free of her emotionally abusive father, all Carly wants is to focus on her studies and fade into the background. Her new roommate has other ideas. Allison Hadley is cool and confident—everything Carly wishes she could be—and the two girls quickly form an intense friendship. So when Allison is sexually assaulted at a party, Carly becomes obsessed with making the attacker pay...and turning her fantasies about revenge into a reality.
“A gorgeously-written ragestorm of a thriller” (Wendy Heard, author of The Kill Club), They Never Learn is a feminist serial killer story that you won’t be able to put down.
Layne Fargo is the author of the thrillers Temper and They Never Learn. She’s a Pitch Wars mentor, Vice President of the Chicagoland chapter of Sisters in Crime, and the cocreator of the podcast Unlikeable Female Characters. Layne lives in Chicago with her partner and their pets.
Chapter 1: Scarlett
I’ll know it’s working when he starts to scream.
But for now, I wait. I snuck into the garage an hour ago, when it was still pitch-black outside. I’m dressed to match the shadows, a hood pulled up to hide my vivid red hair, face scrubbed clean of makeup. No need to look pretty for this.
There aren’t any vehicles in here, just some old exercise equipment sitting on scraps of carpet, stale sweat and mossy body spray hanging in the air. I’m pressed into the back corner behind a set of warped metal shelves. Enough to conceal me, if I stay extremely still. I keep my breathing steady, focusing my gaze on the peeling red vinyl of the weight bench, the small gashes in the material like open wounds.
Footsteps slap the pavement, and the side door to the garage swings open. Right on time. A young man comes in, swabbing the sweat off his brow with the hem of his T-shirt.
Tyler Elkin. Star athlete, and one of the worst students I ever taught in my Intro to English Lit class. As starting quarterback, he took the Gorman University football team all the way to the conference championship last season. That was before the rumors started.
He tugs his earbuds out and swipes his thumb across his phone screen. Music starts blaring from a small speaker set up on a crate beside the weights, a screamy white-boy wannabe punk rocker whining about some girl who broke his heart. That bitch, how dare she.
It sets my teeth on edge, but I don’t move a muscle. I can’t risk Tyler seeing me. Not yet.
Tunelessly humming along, Tyler walks to the dented mini fridge in the corner and removes a glass bottle. He tosses the cap onto the floor and takes a long pull of the liquid inside. It’s an energy drink he makes himself, with activated charcoal, cayenne, and several raw eggs. Smells awful, and tastes even worse. I tried it myself, after brewing up a batch based on the instructions on his Instagram. Then I added my own special ingredient, mixed right in with the rest of the bitter grit at the bottom.
He made a video on his “kickass morning routine” too. He starts his day the same way, even on weekends: up at 5:00 a.m., hours before his fraternity brothers, for a brisk run along the path by the river at the edge of campus. He always pauses to take a photo of himself with the sunrise saturating the background. Then he comes back here, to the garage behind the frat house, for weight training. He’ll down half his energy drink now, the other half once his workout is done, while he captions his sunrise selfie with some inane motivational message. Rise n grind. Make 2day yr bitch.
Tyler polishes off another gulp and wipes his mouth. He has full lips and long eyelashes, which renders his face almost feminine from certain angles. He could be a model, one of those sun-burnished Abercrombie boys tossing a ball back and forth in matching madras shorts. It’s clear from his social media he considers that his backup plan if the whole football thing doesn’t work out. A boy like Tyler, he could have any girl he wanted. But where’s the fun in that? It must get boring after a while. Not that that’s any excuse.
Tyler lies back on the weight bench and starts raising and lowering the barbell in time with the music. Until his rhythm slows, stutters. His fingers wrap tighter around the bar. Then they spasm, and he almost lets go of the weight, dropping it on his catalog-perfect face.
My breath catches. That would ruin my whole plan.
He barely manages to keep ahold of the barbell. With quivering hands, he sets it back on its stand and shuts his eyes for a second. He sits up, shaking out his wrists, his arms. But now his legs are spasming, his calf and thigh muscles clenching and unclenching like fists.
Tyler stands, trying to walk it off, rolling his neck, cracking his vertebrae. I shrink deeper into the darkness. It’s almost time, but not yet, not—
“Fuck,” he says, raking a hand back through his sweat-soaked blond hair. He picks up the bottle again, taking another swig, Adam’s apple bobbing as he swallows.
Still holding his drink, Tyler leans against the weight bench, trying to stretch out the strange cramps in his legs. It’s only a few seconds before he seizes all over and collapses. The bottle goes with him, landing beyond his outstretched hand. The glass doesn’t break, but the remaining contents flow out onto the concrete floor.
That’s fine. He’s had more than enough now.
Tyler’s body is no longer under his control. He’s twitching, contorting, spine arching, lifting his back off the floor so he’s supported only by his head and heels. He finally lets out a scream—throaty, guttural at first, then keening higher, turning into a sob.
If it weren’t for his obnoxious music, someone might hear. If he gets much louder, they might anyway. I step out of my hiding place, but he’s in so much pain it takes him a few seconds to put it all together—to recognize me in the first place and then to wonder why his literature professor is standing over him in his own garage at six in the morning, smiling while he screams.
“Please,” Tyler manages to choke out. “Help me, please h—”
Another convulsion takes hold of him. Soon he won’t be able to speak at all. This is the most I’ve ever heard out of Tyler Elkin’s mouth. When he bothered to show up to my class, he grunted one-word answers, slumping down in his seat with his legs sprawled across the aisle like he didn’t give a damn how much space he took up.
They never do, men like him. Well, he’s more of a boy, really. The garage’s fluorescent overhead light emphasizes all the still-adolescent features of his face: the downy excuse for a mustache on his upper lip, the pimple swelling in the crease between his nose and his cheek.
He’s a boy, and he’ll never become a man. Because in a few more minutes, he’ll be dead.
It’s risky for me to be here. I know that. I could have left the tainted drink in the fridge for him and slipped away while he was still out running. But the truth is, I enjoy this too much to miss it. It’s my reward for all the hard work. Besides, there’s one more step in my plan.
I pick up Tyler’s phone and hold it in front of his face. At first, the device doesn’t recognize him, his features are so twisted with agony. I wait for the convulsions to ease again, his body giving up the fight even before he does. After a few more seconds, the lock screen blinks away.
I open Instagram and crop Tyler’s latest selfie so only the sunrise in the background is in the frame, applying the filter he uses for all his posts. For the caption, I imitate the appalling grammar and spelling he employs.
last run last sunrise, so sorry 4 everthing
Tyler lies there panting, soaked through with sweat, blinking up at me as I methodically wipe all traces of my fingerprints from the device.
“Why—” he starts, but his throat is too constricted to speak.
I put the phone in his twitching hand and lean over him, my body casting his in shadow.
“Megan Foster,” I say.
Tyler’s eyes widen—and this, this is my favorite part. The abject terror that takes over their faces. That’s how I know they’re finally seeing me, realizing what I truly am.
I imagine what Tyler might say, if he were still capable of forming words. It wasn’t just me—that’s probably where he’d start. He wasn’t the only one who held Megan down on that filthy frat house mattress. They all did it—Tyler and four of his closest friends, half the starting lineup of the football team.
I didn’t start it. Who knows, that might even be the truth. Maybe Tyler was the second to take his turn, or the third, or the fourth, or the fifth. Maybe by the time he got there she’d given up fighting back, so he could almost pretend she was willing. He didn’t have bruises and scratches on his arms afterward, like his teammate Devin Caldwell did. But the police didn’t do a damn thing to Devin Caldwell either. They claimed there wasn’t enough proof.
For me, what Megan said was more than enough proof. True justice would have been bolting the fraternity house doors and setting the whole place on fire, burning every one of those boys in their beds. I might not even have needed to douse the place in kerosene first, considering every surface is sticky with spilled alcohol. But I can’t kill them all, not unless I want to get caught. I’ve spent the past sixteen years murdering men who deserve it, and I’m not about to get sloppy now.
So I made the logical compromise: pick one man and make an example of him. Tyler was the clear choice. Not because he’s the quarterback or the alpha male or any of that macho bullshit, but because, even though he and his four teammates all did something abhorrent that night, Tyler’s sin was the worst.
It was his Instagram that tipped me off, actually: photo after photo of Tyler at parties, leaning against walls and doorjambs and tree trunks, holding a bottle like the one oozing out on the floor beside his soon-to-be corpse.
Tyler believes clean living means a stronger game. So while his frat brothers got wasted on cheap beer and skunk weed, Tyler restricted himself to sipping his homemade energy drinks. Five boys raped Megan Foster, but only one of them did it while stone-cold sober.
Looking back, the signs were there from the first week of class—the way Tyler always picked the seat right behind Megan’s, flicked her curtain of brown curls back while she was trying to read. Told her, even as she shrank away from him, You’d be so pretty if you smiled.
He’s seizing again, but he’s gone silent now, eyes rolled back into his head. I crouch down beside him, careful not to touch anything else. It’s just a matter of time. No hospital could help him at this point, not with that much strychnine in his system.
There. Finally. Tyler’s body goes through one more bout of clenching convulsions, and his lips stretch back from his teeth, fixing his too-handsome face in a gruesome parody of a grin.
Who’s smiling now, motherfucker?