At the Virginia Central Penitentiary in Waverly, VA, a security guard comes off shift and goes to the locker room. Two of the incoming walk by at a distance, wave to their fellow guard Pete Davis as he leaves, and go into the penitentiary. They discover that someone has murdered the guards and sound the alarms. Meanwhile, prisoner Joe Carroll, wearing Davis' uniform, drives down the highway.
In Brooklyn, former FBI agent Ryan Hardy is woken up by the phone. When he sees who is calling, Ryan ignores it and turns on the news, and sees broadcasts about how convicted serial killer Joe Carroll has escaped. When the phone rings again, Ryan takes the call from Director Franklin at the FBI. He wants Ryan to go to Virginia to consult on Carroll's escape, and admits that he knows things didn't go well when Ryan left the bureau. However, Franklin points out that Ryan captured Carroll and wants him to consult with the investigators. Once he hangs up, Ryan fills a water bottle with vodka and packs his bags.
In Norfolk, Detective Warren and his men go to the house of Sarah Fuller. He tells Sarah that Carroll escaped from prison earlier that morning.
In court, Sarah testifies against Carroll. She explains that Carroll stabbed her with a knife and she couldn't pull it out, so she pushed it in so that she could kill herself and end the pain.
Warren sets up his men with Sarah's neighbor, Will Wilson, comes in. The police let him through and Will assure Sarah that everyone is there for her.
Ryan takes a helicopter to the penitentiary and meets with agents Jennifer Mason and Troy Reilly. They take Ryan in and explain about how they're sealing the area. Troy warns Ryan that the book he wrote about Carroll might raise some eyebrows and tells him to let them do the talking. Ryan asks how Sarah, Carroll's last victim, is doing. They assure Ryan that she's under 24-hour watch and Ryan asks to speak to her so he can find out how she's doing. Jennifer tells him that maybe they'll set it up later.
The trio goes to the security room where Deputy Marshal Scott Turner is going over the security footage. Turner explains that he was with the sheriff's office when Ryan brought Carroll in. They explain that Franklin called Ryan in and Turner tells them that Ryan is their problem. Next, Jennifer takes Ryan to Carroll's cell and the ex-agent looks at Carroll's collection of Romantic books, as well as a poster of a lighthouse on the wall. Among the books is a copy of Ryan's book, The Poetry of a Killer, and inside it is a note from Carroll telling Ryan that he enjoyed his book. Jennifer figures that Carroll is letting them know that he plans to kill again and says that she read Ryan's file. He warns her that she doesn't know him at all and Jennifer starts to walk off. Ryan asks if anyone has contacted Claire Matthews, Carroll's ex-wife. Jennifer tells him that she's under protection and being questioned.
In Richmond, Claire looks out the window at the film crews outside on the street. Detective Garcia tries to question her about Carroll but Claire tells her that she wants to wait for the FBI. She also insists on talking to Ryan.
Claire is in her bedroom when Carroll grabs her from behind and playfully throws her onto the bed. She tells him that the doctor confirmed that she's pregnant and they kiss.
Claire's son Joey runs in and asks why he can't watch TV. The babysitter, Denise, admits that she didn't know what to say and Joey realizes that it's his father.
At the FBI mobile command center in Waverly, one woman comes up and says that she needs to talk to someone about Carroll. The agent tells her to fill out a form and have a seat, and the woman hesitantly sits down. Meanwhile, Ryan, Troy, and Jennifer arrive and listen as Agent Mike Weston goes over Carroll's history. When Mike talks about how Carroll is aroused by stabbing flesh, Ryan mutters that he isn't right. Mike invites him to speak up if he has something to say, and then brings up Ryan's photo and his book cover. Ryan explains that Carroll was obsessed with the Romantic era, particularly his hero Edgar Allen Poe. Carroll believed in the insanity of art and how it had to be felt. When he killed fourteen female students, he was making art. Carroll cut out their eyes in honor of Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Black Cat." Ryan dismisses Mike's analysis as simplistic and Mike ends the briefing. He then shakes Ryan's hand, saying that it's an honor, and admits that he drew on Ryan's book for his college thesis.
As Ryan leaves, Mike tells Troy that Ryan was a hero, but Troy points out that the FBI let him go. Mike explains that Ryan is on disability after Carroll stabbed him in the chest, puncturing his left ventricular. Ryan can't be in the field anymore and relies on a pacemaker to stay alive.
Ryan walks back and notices the woman from earlier. Jennifer explains that she is one of 112 groupies that visited Carroll in prison. Mike comes over and confirms that Carroll mostly stayed in his cell preparing his own legal appeal. Carroll was taken to a law library once a week with access limited to digital files. Ryan points out that he had Internet access and could easily have bypassed any restrictions.
As Jennifer and Troy head for the library, the woman gets a call on her cell phone. She walks to the center of the room, takes a knife out of her purse, and then removes her dress, revealing her body covered in tattooed writing. Troy orders her to drop the knife but she ignores him, and Ryan tells her to look at him. When he tries to tell her that everything will be okay, she mutters a few words and then drives the knife into her right eye.
Afterward, Mike checks the body and confirms that someone helped the woman tattoo her body. Ryan takes a drink from his bottle and Mike notices, and then Ryan says that all of the words are lines from Poe's works. The last words she said were Poe's last words. Mike offers Ryan a mint as Jennifer comes over and informs them that the woman had seven identities in three states. She visited Carroll repeatedly and the last text message on the cell phone said, "Do it now." Mike figures that the woman was unbalanced and Carroll convinced her to kill herself.
Sarah calls and the FBI puts her through to Ryan. He takes the call privately and asks how she's doing, and promises that they'll find Carroll and keep her safe. Sarah thanks him for the call and they hang up. Jennifer tells Ryan that Claire will only talk to him and asks why, and Ryan claims that he doesn't know.
Will and his partner Billy Thomas make food for Sarah and the cops, and she sees a psychologist on the TV talking about how popular Carroll was with his female students.
Carroll is lecturing about Poe and how he equated death with beauty. Sarah agrees with him and Carroll nods to her, impressed at her insight.
Mike checks Carroll's browsing history but is unable to trace the IP addresses because of a virus. One guard, Jordan Raines, was with Carroll the most when he was at the law library. He works the night shift at the penitentiary but called in sick the previous night. They figure he helped Carroll escape and head for Raines' home. Turner and a squad of troopers go to the door and get no answer. The troopers break in and confirm that Raines isn't there. Mike checks Raines' computer and finds video footage of Raines with a dog, while Ryan finds missing dog posters on the refrigerator. Turner finds a workroom and brings the others in, and they discover that the room is filled with dog corpse. At least one dog is still alive and they realize that Carroll was teaching Raines how to be a serial killer.
As they search the house, Ryan finds a copy of Carroll's book with an inscription to Raines, telling him that he's capable of greatness. They figure that Carroll seduced Raines and Raines emulates the killer. He removed the eyes from the dogs in honor of his patron. Ryan explains that he didn't have any evidence on Carroll at first, so he started following him everywhere. He watched Carroll inspire people, including Sarah, in the oom, and admits that the killer had a gift. Jennifer comes in and tells Ryan that they're going to go talk to Claire.
Sarah, Billy, and Will are watching a news report about the suicide and Billy finally turns off the TV. She says that she'd like to get some rest and they promise they'll be there for her. As she undresses, Sarah sees the scars on her shoulder and stomach.
After a night of barhopping, Sarah and her friend Annie return to their sorority house during the spring break. Annie goes to take a shower and Sarah hears a thud from the bathroom. Someone shuts off the water and Sarah goes to investigate. Annie staggers out and then falls down dead, Carroll standing behind her.
Warren enters the bedroom and hastily covers his eyes. He tells Sarah that there are two officers outside if she needs them.
Ryan arrives at Claire's house and greets Joey, who is clearly glad to see him. Claire comes down and sees Ryan.
Ryan comes to see Claire at the university where she teaches. He tells her about how the victims have had their eyes cut out and Claire suggests that he check the works of Poe for his eye allegories. She recommends her husband as the expert and Ryan is surprised that she's married. Claire jokingly wonders if he's flirting with her and Ryan assures her that he isn't.
Jennifer refuses to let Claire talk to Ryan alone but Claire insists. They go to the study and Claire asks how Ryan's heart is doing. She realizes that he's drinking too much but Ryan refuses to discuss it and asks if Carroll has contacted her. Claire shows him a letter and when Ryan reads it, Claire wonders how Carroll knows. Ryan figures that he's guessing and says that it won't help them find her ex-husband in any case. When Ryan tells her that Carroll is apprenticing serial killers, Claire admits that it makes sense because he was always a teacher. They both figure that Carroll will keep killing and Ryan admits that he doesn't know how to catch Carroll again. Ryan then apologizes for not calling and Claire says that she understands how difficult it was when the FBI found out the two of them were together. He tells Claire that he didn't call because she deserved more and he should stay in her past. After a moment, Claire asks about Sarah and Ryan assures her that Sarah is safe. Claire figures that bothers her husband because he wrote his novel as a homage to Poe's last unfinished work, The Lighthouse.
Ryan heads for the SUV and Jennifer asks what they talked about. He says that it's personal and insists that they have to get to Sarah because Carroll will finish what he started.
That night, Ryan, Mike, and Jennifer arrive at Sarah's brownstone. Warren tells them that Sarah went to bed an hour ago and lets them in. They go upstairs and find one of the two officers on guard, his throat slit, and no sign of Sarah. Ryan follows the blood trail to a closet and finds where someone has cut a panel out of the wall into the closet in Billy and Will's apartment. Jennifer and Ryan go through and hear someone moving downstairs. As Troy and his men burst in, Ryan follows the blood trail down to the garage and finds the second officer, dead. The word "Nevermore" is written on the wall in blood.
The FBI cleans up the crime scene and Turner confirms that Billy and Will left 40 minutes ago, and no one searched the vehicle. Ryan figures that the couple wasn't gay and that Carroll placed them there to watch over Sarah until he was ready. Turner doesn't buy that two men would pretend to be gay juts to watch a woman, but Ryan figures that Carroll is drawing followers to him and creating a cult. He snaps and starts demanding that they track the GPS, and finally storms off. Ryan goes to the side of the house and throws lawn furniture around.
Ryan is prowling the campus at night, looking for the killer, and bumps into Annie and Sarah as they go up to their sorority house. Acting on a hunch, he goes up to the house and hears Sarah scream. When he breaks in, Ryan finds Sarah lying on the floor, a knife in her stomach. She whispers a warning just as Carroll attacks Ryan, throwing him into the cabinet. Carroll pulls the knife out of Sarah and stabs Ryan in the chest, and then goes back and prepares to cut Sarah's throat. Ryan manages to draw his gun and shoot Carroll before he can succeed.
Ryan goes back into the couple's house and asks Mike what he has. Mike confirms that both men were on Carroll's visitors list, but all they have now on background are some properties that the men owned at Lake Whitehurst. Ryan notices a photo of Billy and Will together at The Lighthouse Bed & Breakfast and confirms that it's at Lake Whitehurst. He goes outside and drives away when no one is looking.
At Lake Whitehurst, Ryan drives to the bed & breakfast, now scheduled for demolition. The ex-agent finds a gap in the fence and goes inside. He hears someone moving around and instinctively goes for his gun, only to remember he's no longer an agent. Ryan calls out to Carroll, saying that he's alone, and Sarah screams from the darkness. He follows the sound, clutching at his chest, and Carroll clubs him down from behind. The killer beats him repeatedly, curious to see how his heart is holding up, and then boasts that he cut Sarah's eyes out one muscle at a time. Carroll then plays a recording of Sarah's screams and releases a rope, dropping Sarah's eyeless corpse from the ceiling.
Furious, Ryan charges at Carroll, slamming him into the wall. Carroll immediately surrenders but Ryan chokes him. Jennifer, Troy, and Mike arrive and order Ryan to stop, and Troy finally has to pull Ryan away. Carroll kneels on the floor, smiling and insists that he is surrendering.
The next day, the forensics teams attend to the crime scene and Carroll is taken away in chains. Jennifer tells Ryan that Carroll will be placed in federal detention, and the ex-agent regrets all of the mistakes that he made even though he saved Sarah in 2003.
At the detention center, Ryan meets with Mike, who has confirmed that Carroll had 47 dedicated websites that they've found so far. Jennifer comes in and tells Ryan that Carroll will only talk to him. Ryan goes in and Carroll tells him that Sarah had to die. He's disappointed with Ryan's book, and Ryan cuts to the chase and asks what he plans for a sequel. Carroll tells him that the two of them will write it together for much wider audience, and that his "friends" will be helping. He points out that according to FBI estimates, there are 300 serial killers active in the U.S. on any given day.
A girl is going into her sorority when Raines, posing as a security guard, comes up behind her, startling her. He suggests that he come inside and look around even though they caught Carroll.
Carroll asks Ryan if he has any friends, and offers to be his friend... even though Ryan slept with his wife.
Claire watches the news and learns that her ex-husband has been caught.
Carroll asks if Claire showed him the letter, and Ryan glances up at the security cameras. Meanwhile, the killer tells Ryan that Claire is very important.
Claire goes to bed, saying goodnight to her security detail. She checks in on Joey and discovers that he's gone.
Carroll wants to see Claire, the only woman he's ever truly loved. When Ryan says that she'll never agree to it, Carroll says that she just might change her mind. Meanwhile, he plans to cast Ryan as the flawed hero in his new book and explains that he killed Sarah for Ryan. Ryan tells him that he'd better plan for a rewrite if the book doesn't end with his death and then breaks Carroll's finger.
Claire realizes that Denise is gone. Somewhere in the night, Denise drives away with a sleeping Joey in the back seat. She meets Billy and Will in a parking lot, gets in the car with them, and they drive off with Joey.
The guards run in and restrain Ryan, and Carroll tells him to call Claire.