It's hard to recognize the devil when his hand is on your shoulder. That's because a psychopath is just a person before he becomes a headline….Psychopaths have preferences for Starbucks or Dunkin' Donuts coffee, denim or linen, Dickens or…well, you get the point.
Ex-FBI agent Brigid Quinn has seen more than her share of psychopaths. She is ready to put all that behind her, building a new life in Tucson with a husband, friends, and some nice quiet work as a private investigator. Sure, she could still kill a man half her age, but she now gets her martial arts practice by teaching self-defense at a women's shelter.
But sometimes it isn't that simple. When her sister-in-law dies, Brigid take in her seventeen-year-old niece, Gemma Kate. There has always been something unsettling about Gemma-Kate, but family is family. Which is fine, until Gemma-Kate starts taking an unhealthy interest in dissecting the local wildlife.
Meanwhile, Brigid agrees to help a local couple by investigating the death of their sonwhich also turns out not to be that simple. Her house isn't the sanctuary it used to be, and new dangersincluding murderseem to lurk everywhere. Brigid starts to wonder if there is anyone she can trust, or if the devil has simply moved closer to home.
Becky Masterman's Fear the Darkness is the masterful follow-up to the Edgar Award and CWA Gold Dagger finalist Rage Against the Dying.
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Fear the Darkness
By Becky Masterman
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2014 Becky Masterman
All rights reserved.
When I got the news about my sister-in-law I was heading back from the abused women's shelter situated outside the town of Marana, a thirty-minute drive west from where I live north of Tucson, Arizona. The shelter was called Desert Doves, or some bullshit name like that. When I wasn't working on an investigation, I volunteered to teach the women at the shelter they didn't have to be doves.
There were four of them that day, one with the bruises still purplish fading to green at the edges. All of them with the look of the victim stamped on their faces. In that respect, at this stage they were interchangeable, and I couldn't keep their names straight in my head. Maybe soon I would. A young man, midtwenties with two percent body fat, stood in the corner to watch. I hadn't seen him before and guessed he was security.
I stepped onto the rubber mat in the middle of the small room that contained a manual treadmill, an elliptical, and some light free weights, all of which looked donated. I had put the women through a little stretching and some cardio warm-up, but that was just to reacquaint them with their bodies. Now we were going for the basic defense move.
I pulled my white ponytail into a bun with a scrunchy and gave my most motherly smile. "Would one of you like to volunteer?"
Their eyes shifted away from me. I had the sense those eyes were used to doing that more often than not.
I said, "Look at me. Look at me. I'm going on sixty years old. Do I look like someone who can hurt you?"
The youngest of them, taller than me but with the muscle mass of a bird, stepped onto the mat.
"What's your name, honey?" I asked.
"Anna." It sounded like an apology.
"Anna, you come at me like you're going to attack me. Can you do it sort of in slow motion? That's good, just like that. It's okay, you can giggle if you want to. I'll move slowly, too, and when we've done it once that way I'll show you what it's like in real life. Now see how Anna is coming toward me with her right hand pulled back like she's going to slap me to kingdom come? That's fine, but it doesn't even matter whether her hand is out or her fist is coming up to clip me under the jaw or even whether she has a knife. Because all she's concerned with is her attack, and she doesn't realize that I'm not going to stand here and take it.
"See, I'm not backing away but going toward her ... making my strike area smaller by holding my head low, ducking my shoulder under that arm and ... this may startle you a little, but I promise you won't get hurt, Anna ... grabbing you by the waist and rolling you over my hip. Women's hips are where it's at. We've got more power there and in our thighs than any man no matter what his size. See, I used Anna's forward momentum against her."
It made things a little more difficult to do this in slow motion while talking, so I stopped to take a quick deep breath and went on. "Now Anna is upside down before she knows what happened, and you can imagine what it's like if we were doing it fast. No, I'm not going to drop you on your head. See, if I put my foot out this way, Anna comes down onto her shoulder, while I simultaneously thrust my leg out under her. It may seem like the purpose is to keep from injuring her, and it actually does prevent her hitting the floor hard, but the main reason I do that is so I can drop to the floor and put my other leg over her in a choke hold. See how my body is perpendicular to hers?
"Your opponent can't move when you've got him like this. Your options are either to get up and run like hell while the guy is still wondering how he got on the floor, or to keep choking until he passes out. No permanent damage. I recommend the second option just to let him know you mean business. Thanks, Anna. See, in order to do this you don't have to be big, and you especially don't have to be male."
As Anna stood, smiling despite herself, the girl with the freshest bruises asked, "If I do that to my husband, what do you think will happen after that? What will he do?"
The others looked keenly interested in my answer. I could sugarcoat it, say that hubby would be respectful and bring them flowers even when he hadn't abused them first, and they'd live happily ever after. But the movies had already handed these women a lie about love, and it was time for the statistics.
The harsher the words, the gentler the tone. "Sweetheart, he won't say thank you."
She said, "He'll kill me."
I ignored the sensation that she said those words with a little thrill, something akin to pleasure, as if she was saying He'll love me. I said, "That's the funny thing about bullies. You think he'll come at you again, but he won't. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred he'll just go away. Leave you for someone else. He'll go look for someone he can control, someone he can beat up who won't fight back."
The girl crossed her arms in front of her. I could tell she didn't like that answer. She preferred the lie, and one day she would fall victim to it. I could tell she was already lost, and maybe already dead. I grieved all in an instant, and then turned away because you can't save everybody. Sometimes you have to be cruel to fight another battle.
I turned to the guy in the corner, a good head and a half taller than me, with eyes that spoke not at all. He was pretending to slouch, but the taut muscles stretching the sleeves of his T-shirt gave him away. The thousand-yard stare made me sense he had gotten his body someplace other than a gym.
"Iraq or Afghanistan?" I asked.
He nodded. "Afghanistan."
"What's your name?"
"Dennis." Even two generations removed from me, his eyes flickered a warning not to say "the Menace."
"Want to show them how it's really done?"
He stepped onto the mat.
He came for me with both fists up. No problem. I put him down the way I did Anna, only with a faster one-two, and the women applauded. They had started enjoying themselves. But when I helped Dennis off the floor he gripped my wrist and swung me into the wall over the treadmill. I was unprepared, and it rattled me so I slid down the treadmill onto the floor. The women gasped, but softly, and did nothing. After all, they had seen this before.
I recovered and got up better prepared for his next assault. He came at me again with his fists balled. It must have been that slam on the mat with my legs clamped around his throat that awakened his kill-or-be-killed reaction. I could see that he had gone back to some village in Afghanistan where he had seen and done things he couldn't live with, and my whispering, "Dennis ... Dennis," didn't slow him down.
I hated to shame him in front of the women, but this guy could hurt me bad. I threw two punches up high, not for the purpose of connecting but just to get his arms up so I could go for something more vulnerable. He didn't fall for it. Instead of covering his face, he whipped his right arm back and delivered a haymaker.
Nearly delivered. I slipped the punch, and before he could connect I threw him a liver shot. He dropped to the floor in a faint.
The women looked first stunned and then surprisingly enthused to see a large man down, but I made a note to self: Next time do not use a new veteran for demonstrations. I told the women Dennis would be fine and that we were just displaying more advanced maneuvers. I brought him to when the others left the room. We spoke our understanding briefly, really seeing each other for the first time. I told him I could use a sparring partner for the exercise because I was rusty. He doubted that, but agreed.
On the way out, when no one was looking, I stretched my neck and rubbed the spot where my shoulder hit the wall, but overall I felt good — hell, I felt great! But I also felt relieved that I was still fit after all those years undercover with the FBI, followed by a desk job, followed by my first marriage at the ripe age of fifty-eight to a Catholic priest turned philosophy professor. Life with Carlo DiForenza had all the serenity I craved, but recent experience had shown you never know when you'll need a body tuned for defense. I needed to make sure it stayed that way, and if I could combine mixed martial arts practice with helping Dennis over his PTSD, that would be double cool.
To reward a job moderately well done and nobody getting seriously hurt, I stopped for coffee from a caravan shop on Thornydale, headed north to Tangerine, and turned east to come back across the valley, on a straight road that undulated as softly as an infant roller coaster. When you first come out to this part of Arizona you think Good grief, it's all fifty shades of beige, but you're wrong. On this late afternoon in spring the rosy glow the setting sun cast on the Catalinas in the distance made me think of my friend Mallory's wisdom, "When the mountains turn pink, it's time for a drink."
I looked forward to a glass of red wine and a hot bath with some Tired Old Ass Soak after the tussle with Dennis. One of my peeves is people who kill time driving by calling other people on their cell, but I admit that while sipping at my coffee and holding the wheel steady with my knee, I phoned my husband to let him know I'd be home in about twenty minutes.
Carlo told me he'd gotten the news that my sister-in-law, Marylin Quinn, had died.
My heart dipped along with the road, like when a plane gets caught in an air pocket.
In the movies, that's when the pilot comes on the loudspeaker and says there's a bit of turbulence up ahead and everyone should stay buckled in their seats, but not to worry. The wit behind you makes a joke about Bette Davis.
Then the plane explodes, the fireball snatching the air out of the passengers' lungs before they know what hit them. Everybody dies.
I was headed toward a time like that. A time of betrayal, wasting disease, and the nature of evil. Because now was the time to keep the promise I'd made to Marylin.
Enjoy the coffee, toots.CHAPTER 2
It's hard to recognize the devil when his hand is on your shoulder.
That's because a psychopath is just a person before he becomes a headline. Before he opens fire in a church or tortures and kills in more secretive ways. Psychopaths have preferences for Starbucks or Dunkin' Donuts coffee, denim or linen, Dickens or ... well, you get the point. If they're successful in controlling their more destructive urges, often they become surgeons who tingle as they hold a scalpel over a beating heart, or investment brokers who thrill at the games played with people's life savings, or even religious ministers who smile privately at a confession of adultery. Most of the time these creatures live out their lives with only those closest to them suspecting they feel nothing for anyone but themselves, and do nothing except for their own gain.
I admit from the start it's at least embarrassing to not recognize the devil, but I can understand because I've been there. Partly it's because few people manage to be pure evil. During my time with the Bureau, I lived among killers who cheerfully attended their daughters' ballet recitals, and men who trafficked in human flesh while baby-talking their parakeets. The guy buying cuttle treats at PetSmart smiles shyly at you as if his only shame is to be caught loving a bird; it's a stretch to picture him selling Guatemalan women to Las Vegas casinos. Even the worst of us has moments of empathy. Maybe the devil dotes on a Maltese.
Similarly, you don't expect to run into evil at, say, a charity fund-raiser, or in the living room of a friend's house, or in a doctor's office. Especially not in a church, and especially not in someone in a position of trust. Especially not in yourself.
When people in my business talk about the One Percent, they're not talking about the filthy rich. They're talking about evil, well hidden. That's what makes it so hard to spot. In my career that only made the game more interesting; that is, when I could forget that innocent human lives were at stake.
I didn't always think this way. Life was simpler in a time when the most important thing was to avoid being discovered, tortured, or killed. But maybe being married to a philosopher has made me think through things a little more than I used to. That and being retired from the Bureau, which gives me more time to stare at stars.
Staring at the night sky makes you think about death, about whether there's actually some place you go. Someone else's demise makes you think about the times you could have died, too. Marylin died from multiple sclerosis at the age of fifty-one. She had been living in Florida with my little brother, Todd, aged fifty-two, their daughter, seventeen, and my parents.
I wanted to go to the funeral by myself so I wouldn't subject Carlo to my family, but he insisted. We had been married two years. About time to meet your family, he said in his softly blunt way, a way he'd become more comfortable with as we got to know each other better.
I would have done anything for Marylin because I loved her. Despite knowing how screwed up we all were, all of us except Mom in some kind of law enforcement, she married into our cop family and showed me how good we actually could be; how people could be soft with each other instead of like brittle glass that cracks whenever you get close. But we didn't have long to enjoy the lesson. Four years after she married Todd she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She insisted on living till she died, though, and even on having a child though the doctors warned her the trauma of childbirth would affect her adversely. She slowly declined after the birth of Gemma-Kate, going to a wheelchair and then to a hospital bed, lasting another seventeen years before she died.
The promise I had made concerned that child. Marylin had called me at the start of the year and asked if Gemma-Kate could stay with Carlo and me for a few months if something happened to her, so she would qualify for in-state tuition at the University of Arizona.
"How's she been?" I had asked, not mentioning what I'd heard about her from Mom. Nothing serious, a little shoplifting, a little flirting with spring breakers on the beach when she was fourteen.
"Good. That business was just some early adolescent rebellion," Marylin had said, knowing that families talk.
"You realize I have no experience with children."
"You'll find her quite grown up. You'll like her."
I had agreed. And here it was less than three months later and Marylin was gone; now I had to make good on that promise.
* * *
Todd didn't cry at the funeral, but he sweated a lot, as if by keeping the tears back from his eyes they were forced to come out everywhere else. Throughout the funeral service he used the too-short jacket sleeve on either arm to swipe at the opposite side of his face. Could have partly been the Florida humidity combined with his weight. Todd always said he needed to lose fifteen pounds when what he needed to lose was thirty. And stop drinking. And stop smoking.
The funeral was crowded, mostly Marylin's family members plus a considerable contingent of officers from the Fort Lauderdale Police Department, where Todd was employed as a detective. The guys looked uncomfortable, not so much in the presence of death as in having to wear the suits. They kept their jaws so stiff they would have cracked a tooth if they were startled.
Afterwards, Todd was still wiping at his neck with a handkerchief as we sat in the living room that Marylin had decorated thirty years before, and which had kept accumulating the pictures and the knickknacks over the years without ever getting rid of anything.
The scent of cooling lasagna and chopped chicken liver hung in the air. Marylin's family had already escaped, leaving Carlo and me trapped with the rest of the Quinns because we were staying at Todd's place. We'd started drinking vodka over ice because that was the easiest, and the initial stimulant effects that made us tell good stories about Marylin and laugh, like a proper Irish wake should, were starting to give way to depression.
We weren't bad people, as far as I knew at the time. Maybe it was all of us being in law enforcement, a little too much like empty glasses with stress cracks too fine to be seen. And at this moment we were packed a little too close together. It was anybody's guess what would happen, but just for today, for Marylin's sake if not our own, we were trying hard to be decent and not break each other.
Excerpted from Fear the Darkness by Becky Masterman. Copyright © 2014 Becky Masterman. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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