slow-mounting dread from acclaimed author Mary SanGiovanni . . .
It begins with a freak snowstorm in May. Hit hardest is the rural town of Colby, Connecticut. Schools and businesses are closed, powerlines are down, and police detective Jack Glazier has found a body in the snow. It appears to be the victim of a bizarre ritual murder. It won’t be the last. As the snow piles up, so do the sacrifices. Cut off from the rest of the world, Glazier teams up with an occult crime specialist to uncover a secret society hiding in their midst.
The gods they worship are unthinkable. The powers they summon are unstoppable. And the things they will do to the good people of Colby are utterly, horribly unspeakable…
Praise for the novels of Mary SanGiovanni
“A feast of both visceral and existential horror.”—F. Paul Wilson on Thrall
“Filled to the brim with mounting terror.”—Gary A. Braunbeck on The Hollower
“Nightmarish and vivid.”—FearZone on The Hollower
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About the Author
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By Mary SanGiovanni
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Mary SanGiovanni
All rights reserved.
Jack Glazier had worked Colby Township Homicide for going on nine long New England winters, but he had never seen blood freeze quite like that.
It certainly had been cold the last few nights; it was the kind of weather that cast phantom outlines of frost over everything. That hoary white made grass, tree branches, cars, even houses look fragile, like they might crack and shatter beneath the lightest touch. An icy wind that stabbed beneath the clothes and skin had been grating across the town of Colby for days now, and the place was raw.
Jack hated the cold. He hated it even more when his profession brought him out on brittle early mornings like this one, where the feeble sunlight did little even to suggest the idea of heat.
He had caught a murder case — a middle-aged John Doe found hanging upside down from the lowest branch of a massive oak tree at the northeastern edge of Edison Park. The body had been strung up off the ground by the right leg with some type of as-yet-unidentified rope. A crude hexagon had been dug roughly in the torn-up grass beneath the body. Scattered in those narrow trenches, he'd been told, the responding officers had found what they believed to be the contents of the man's pockets, which had been bagged as a potential starting point for identification.
Jack glanced up at the silver dome of sky with its gathering clouds of darker gray and listened for a moment to the low wail of the wind slicing at the men gathered near the body. They worked silently, their minimal conversation encased in tiny breath-puffs of white. The air carried a faint smell of freezer-burned meat that agitated Jack in a way the smell of dead bodies never really did. It made him think of lost things, things forgotten way in the back of dark, cold places and left to rot slowly. There was no closure and no dignity in it.
Of course, he supposed that closure and whatever little dignity he could scrape together for the victims of murder was part of his job.
It took an effort to focus on the body again, to duck under the strung- up lines of police tape and move toward it. He found that the closer he got to a decade of dealing with dead, clouded eyes, gelid, mutilated flesh, and distraught loved ones, the more energy it took to give himself over to getting cases started. He wanted them solved — that drive had propelled him to the rank of detective lieutenant and it made him good at what he did — but it was the starting of the investigations he had lost the taste for. It was getting harder and harder to stare the next few months of brooding and nightmares in the face.
As for the body itself, the throat looked like it had been cut — bitten, really — and there were lacerations on the naked torso, shoulders, bare arms, and face. Jack, who did his best to suppress his morbidly imaginative streak in these situations yet frequently failed, could imagine the John Doe dangling in the glacial night air, wracked with shivers as his blood poured from his wounds, cooling the fire of life in his body until there was no movement, no feeling. He was an end scene, frozen before the roll of the credits, his screen time cut suddenly short.
All of the John Doe's blood had formed, drop by drop, fringes of crimson icicles from the lowest-hanging parts of his body, as if every part, every tissue of the man had struggled to escape that branch and its pain and death. The overall effect stripped the humanity from the corpse, leaving it a gross caricature of what it once had been.
A uniformed officer whose name slipped Jack's mind — Morano or Moreno, something like that — nodded at him as he made his way up to the crime scene. Crouched beneath the body a foot or so from the outline of overturned grass clumps, Colby's thin, bald, and bespectacled coroner, Terrence Cordwell, was packing up his kit.
"They're calling for about eight to ten inches of snow, starting around midnight. Can you believe that? Probably keep up most of tomorrow," Cordwell was saying to Dave Brenner, his assistant, who had switched from the digital camera to the film. Dave was documenting the churned-dirt hexagon and the body with another series of close-up photos. Both men nodded to Jack as he joined them.
Brenner stepped carefully into the hexagon's center and took a close-up photo of the body's neck wound, a gaping tear like a second frown across his neck, then stepped outside the core of the crime scene, around to the back of the torso. He whistled, holding up his pocket ruler beneath the body's shoulder blades, and took another couple of photos. "Hey, Glazier. Where's Morris?"
Jack crouched and peered closer at the neck wound. It looked deep and uneven, like several serrated sharp objects had torn and gouged at the neck at once. It reminded him again of a bite. "Nephew's baptism. He's the godfather, I think."
"Poor kid. Hey, shit weather, huh? Too cold for May."
"Cold, yeah. Not unheard of, though, I guess."
"No," Brenner offered grudgingly over his shoulder, and Jack heard the whir and snap of the camera taking another picture. "Up north, maybe. But still awful late in the season for more snow around here. It's a sign that the planet is fucked, if you ask me. Global warming and shit."
Jack didn't answer. He wasn't particularly fond of Brenner; the guy always seemed to have one more thing to say than Jack had the patience to hear.
Instead, Jack rose and turned to Cordwell. "So what's the deal with this guy?"
The coroner peeled off his rubber gloves. "No ID, no wallet — but he's got teeth and fingertips, so if he's in the system, we should be able to find him. Dead eight, maybe nine hours. With the cold, it's hard to say for sure until we get him back to the cave. What I can tell you is that he froze to death before he had a chance to bleed out, although the hypothermia was likely accelerated by the blood loss. These lacerations and that neck wound were meant, I'm guessing, to speed up the process. They're animal, most of them. Not certain what kind yet, but we bagged and tagged what I'm pretty sure is a tooth."
"Animal bites? So what, someone fed him to something and then strung up what was left?"
Cordwell shrugged. "More likely, it happened the other way around. Someone strung this guy up and left him to ... whatever did that to him."
Jack frowned, moving slowly as he examined the body. One of the hands was missing. When he pointed it out, Cordwell shook his head; they hadn't found it. The leg from which the John Doe was strung up was virtually untouched. Jack imagined a man would know that it would have to be kept intact to support the weight of the body, but how the animal or animals managed to avoid it, Jack could only guess. Likely, it was simply too high for them to reach. The other leg was mangled, but not nearly as badly as the head, arms, and torso. Those wounds alternated between slashes Jack figured for a knife and more of those ragged tears, right down to the bone in a lot of places. Jack shook his head at the brutality of it and moved around to the back of the body.
Then he saw the brand. In the entire space between the shoulder blades, ugly, angry pink swells of skin formed a large kind of symbol Jack didn't recognize, featuring asymmetric swirls crossed with an irregular lattice of lines. It looked deliberate; in fact, it surprised Jack that the design was as clearly and intricately formed as it was.
"Hey, Brennan, you get a picture of this?"
"The burn marks? Yeah. Creepy shit. Occult?"
"Maybe. Looks pretty new."
"You know," Brenner said with a careful, measured tone, "if this is some kinda devil-worshiping thing, they'll probably want to bring Ryan in on this."
Jack frowned, glancing at the younger man. "Don't think we'll need Ryan, necessarily."
Brenner shrugged. "Maybe not. Maybe the brand doesn't mean anything at all, other than deluded satanist fantasies of some nut job thinking he's some grand high wizard or something. But you know, if it's not —"
Jack turned the full attention of his gaze on Brenner and the rest of the sentence dropped off.
It wasn't that Jack didn't like Ryan; they'd worked very closely a few years back busting a child sex ring that had strong connections to a radical Golden Dawn sect working out of Newport. She'd also been called in to work with him on collaring a big-name drug dealer in Boston whose specialty product, in addition to persuasive pulpit revelations delivered in an abandoned Russian Orthodox church, was a powder rumored to make devoted users both see and attempt to kill demons. Occult practices, ancient grimoires, devil worship, blood sacrifices, and rites to archaic gods and monsters — that was Ryan's thing, her specialty. She'd worked all over the country as a private consultant to law enforcement evaluating occult involvement and assessing risk, and was known to be efficient and discreet. She also was apparently able, through resourcefulness or mystery connections, to skirt a lot of red tape and paperwork regarding freedom of religious pursuit that usually hung up other investigations. Jack thought she was brilliant, aloof, and intense, but the kind of woman one was dismayed to be inexorably drawn to.
Ryan was good at what she did, although to say she was popular with the people she worked for or with might be pushing it. How she'd come into her line of work or developed a reputation for being one of the country's leading experts in it was something she guarded closely. Jack suspected it contributed to what made her eyes dark and her smile fleeting, and any true attempt at getting close to her impossible. Her experiences formed the ghosts of truly haunted expressions beneath those she offered the world. And Jack thought she was a bottle of vodka and a .38 away from blowing all that she'd seen and learned about the fringes of the world out the back of her head.
Cordwell clapped him on the shoulder, jarring him from his thoughts. "I'll have a prelim report for you in a day or two. Stay warm."
Jack nodded as the men moved away, ducking under the police tape. He saw Cordwell motion to one of the technicians, say something, and then gesture in his direction. Jack assumed the tech had been told the body was ready for transport.
He stood a few moments, his eyes drawing over the details of the body, the contorted features of the face, the wounds already starting to take on that freezer-burn-like quality to match that smell that, when the wind shifted, found its way inside his nose on the back of the cold, dry air. He made his way over to the small blue tent top that had been set up over a folding table, designated as the detectives' safe area. He figured Detective Reece Teagan would already be there, getting a jump start on examining the items Cordwell said had been found in the dirt.
And so he was — Teagan's scuffed sneakers were propped up on the corner of the evidence table as he leaned back in a metal folding chair. He was squinting intently at the contents of a plastic evidence bag with a red label, an unlit Camel cigarette hanging out of his mouth. With his free hand, he absently ran his fingers through his hair, a quirky little habit that sent it up into dirty-blond spikes. When he noticed Jack's approach, he nodded a hello, which sent those spikes drifting back, more or less into place. Jack noticed for the first time that some of those spikes had the occasional strand of gray — not nearly as much as Jack had seen mixed in his own black hair the last year or so, but enough to remind him again just how many cases had come and gone for him with Teagan, Morris, Cordwell, and their winters in Colby.
"Jack. You seen these yet? Right feckin' warped."
Teagan had grown up in Westport and Inistioge in Ireland before going to Oxford and then working as a detective sergeant, and although he'd been almost ten years in the States, his brogue was still strong. It seemed a continuing source of amusement to him that American women swooned and giggled when he spoke to them, calling them "love." His accent and accompanying rakish grin never ceased to earn him confidences, phone numbers, and, when need be, forgiveness from the "birds" he occasionally dated. That he was a pretty good-looking guy beneath the facial scruff, with a lean, strong build to boot, didn't hurt his cause, either.
"How's that?" Jack pulled up a folding chair next to him and leaned in toward the evidence table. Nodding at Teagan's light jacket, he said, "Aren't you cold?"
"Fresh air, mate. Take a look at this stuff." Teagan gestured at the evidence bags. Jack examined the contents of the first few, taking note of some change (thirty-four cents), a key ring with car keys (although the Toyota they belonged to was conspicuously absent), and a receipt for chips and coffee from the nearby convenience store.
"Not sure what I'm supposed to be seeing here. Looks like the stuff on the floor of my car."
"Not those," Teagan said. "These." He slid a few bags over to Jack. The first bag contained what looked to Jack like a chunk of splintered wood about six inches long and three inches wide. He held it up by the bag and turned it over, then saw what Teagan meant. The back side of the wood was flat and smooth, and into it was burned or carved a series of runic marks that formed neat lines across the whole surface. Jack looked at Teagan questioningly, and the other man shrugged.
"Cordwell says this one's a tooth." He handed Jack another bag with a slightly curved bit of ivory substance about five or six inches long. One end held the remains of a rough kind of root while the other tapered to a very sharp point.
"What the hell has teeth like this around here? Is he serious?"
"Damned if I know," Teagan said. He slid another bag toward Jack. "And there's this card, here."
It was the size of a business card, although it was entirely black and there was no writing on it on either side. Jack studied the matte finish on both sides for signs of fingerprints but couldn't even find a smudge.
"Calling card, maybe? Business card?" Jack asked.
"No idea. Though, whoever it belongs to might want to be rethinking their business plan."
Jack handed it back. "Maybe they can get something off it. Or off that piece of wood there. Cordwell seems pretty sure this was some kind of orchestrated animal attack."
There was a pause. "Cordwell's saying they might call Kathy in on this," Teagan said, his gaze fixed on the piece of wood.
"Yeah, Brennan said the same thing to me," Jack replied. "For her sake, I hope all this black-magic bullshit is coincidental. Last I heard, she could use a break from it."
"Her input couldn't hurt," Teagan said thoughtfully, handling the bag with the wood sliver. "Even if she only identifies this ... language, or whatever it is."
"You know superficial involvement, at least in cases, isn't how she operates."
Teagan reined in a small smile. "Yeah, I know."
Jack prided himself in thinking he understood the thoughts, feelings, and motivations below the surface — the ones others wore in their eyes and their smiles and nowhere else. He was fairly certain Teagan was in love with Kathy. The way he looked at her, the softness that crept into his voice when he said her name — it wasn't an investigative stretch to see his longing for her, however smooth and subtle he thought he was. Kathy, though, likely had no clue. In spite of their individual eccentricities, or maybe because of them, Teagan and Kathy were probably soul mates, but knowing her as Jack did, he was pretty sure she never allowed herself to entertain the thought. And Teagan ... he approached his job with the relentless instinct and perseverance of someone resigned to giving up anything like a normal life. To Teagan, there were dead folks and the folks who killed them, the psychology behind how and why, and not much else.
"Well, I'm off. Could eat the ass of a low-flyin' duck," Teagan said suddenly. "We on this thing together, yeah?"
"Yeah, looks like," Jack said, leaning an elbow on the table. "You, me, and Morris. Tomorrow, nine a.m. My office."
Teagan nodded and jogged off to his car. Jack watched him go, then turned his attention back to the chunk of wood in the bag. He took a deep breath, frigid in his nose and throat, and let it out in little white puffs. It was time, he knew, to start the job.
* * *
Although the official start of summer was a month away, the forecast of eight to ten inches of snow for Colby, Connecticut, raised few eyebrows, as late in the season as it was. It had been a particularly harsh winter; temperatures often dropped into the negatives and a leaden sky had dumped snow by the foot on a weekly basis for months. When it didn't snow, the rain during the day turned to black ice at night. The children's spring break had been eaten into by the accumulation of snow days. The county had run out of salt for the roads by early March and had been having a tough time acquiring more to clear them.
Excerpted from Chills by Mary SanGiovanni. Copyright © 2016 Mary SanGiovanni. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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