Tess Grey and Nicolas ‘Po’ Villere return to Louisiana to confront Po’s tormented past in this tense, action-packed thriller.
Ex-con Nicolas ‘Po’ Villere has no love for the mother who abandoned him as a child. Yet when she asks to see him on her deathbed, he returns home to Louisiana with his partner Tess Grey to try to reconcile their troubled past.
But Po is not prepared for the news his mother gives him: that he is not the last of the Villere family line. He has a younger sister, Emilia, whom he’s never met. But Emilia is missing, and Tess and Po must track her down before it’s too late.
Tess and Po aren’t the only ones looking for Emilia. As they are to discover, Emilia has disappeared for a very good reason – and if Po has any chance of finding her alive, he must join forces with his most hated enemy in order to prevent his little sister becoming the next victim of a deranged, cannibalistic killer.
About the Author
Matt Hilton worked for 22 years in private security and the police force in Cumbria. He is a 4th Dan blackbelt and coach in Ju-Jitsu. He is the author of ten previous thrillers in the Joe Hunter series.
Read an Excerpt
A Tess Grey Thriller
By Matt Hilton
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2017 Matt Hilton
All rights reserved.
'This place gives me the creeps.' Emilia peered out of the insect-dotted windshield at the swamp. It was after sundown and the Ford's headlights only added to the eeriness as mist swallowed their lights. The mist coiled and writhed on a breeze that swirled between the trees, forming wraith-like shadows that melted away in one instant, only to twirl up elsewhere the next. 'It feels as if we're being watched by unseen eyes. It's horrible, Jace. Like we're only a few seconds away from being grabbed.'
Jason glanced at her, his mouth turning up wryly. 'You don't believe all that superstitious bullshit people are talking about?'
'I'm more worried about the cops catching us.'
'The cops ain't interested in staking out a few guys selling weed. They have bigger fish to fry.'
'Yeah ...' Emilia's tone dropped with foreboding. She tugged distractedly at her strappy top. 'The sooner they catch that crazy son of a bitch the better. I really don't think we should be out here with a rougarou on the loose.'
'Rougarou my ass! I thought you said you didn't have any truck with that BS. Next you'll be telling me you believe in the Skunk Ape, and the damn Tooth Fairy.'
'You can laugh all you want. But whether or not it's a rougarou, something's responsible for all those animal attacks.'
Jason snorted. 'Probably coyotes. Or one of them hybrid coy-wolves I've heard about.'
'Coy-wolves? You're making that up. What, are they shy or something?'
Jason snorted again, but this time in humour. 'No. They're a cross between a coyote and a wolf. Bigger and badder than the usual coyotes we get around here.'
'Now who's talking BS?'
'It's true ... I saw it on the Discovery Channel.'
'Oh, yeah? Well, I saw something about the rougarou on TV too. So who's to say it doesn't exist?'
'Jeez, and that's before you get started on the good weed.'
Branches strung with Spanish moss scraped the cab of Jason's truck. The sound was reminiscent of nails on a washboard, but so familiar to the truck's passengers that it passed without notice. They'd often driven similar routes, though they weren't intimate with every dip and rise in this track. Subconsciously they adjusted their body weight in the seats, riding out each sway or pitch as they were jostled uncomfortably. Alongside her boyfriend, Emilia clung to the handle above the door. She felt nauseous, and fought it by clenching her abdominal muscles. They'd come off the levee road into the wetlands surrounding Bayou Chene, west of the Atchafalaya River, just about as far as Jason's 4x4 could carry them before they'd be forced to switch to a boat to go deeper into the swamp. Emilia had no intention of getting her feet wet though, not for all the cannabis in Iberia Parish. Thankfully the Thibodaux brothers hadn't set up their trapping camp too far into the bog.
'Don't see why you can't just buy off one of the dealers in town,' Emilia griped for the tenth time since Jason had picked her up from home, 'instead of hauling our asses all the way out here.'
'I told you.' Jason winked at her. 'Only the best for my girl. Why have schwag when we can have headies?'
'It's all just weed to me.'
'You'll know the difference when you smoke the good stuff. Trust me.'
'Trust you? If I had any sense I wouldn't be here at all. Maybe we should go back, Jace ...'
'We're almost there. Stick it out. You'll thank me in a few minutes.' Jason wiggled one eyebrow.
'So how's it a couple of retards like the Thibodauxs have the best weed in Louisiana, anyway?'
'They ain't retards. Well, not really. Being uneducated doesn't necessarily make them stupid.' Jason took his foot off the gas and the truck coasted to a halt at the entrance of a small clearing in the woods. 'They have contacts in N'awleans who supply them. Comes in straight off the ships, I heard.'
'So they're not growing their own crop?'
'No. They just keep the stuff out here. Any closer to town and they'd be beating every stoner in New Iberia off with a stick.'
Jason hadn't moved the truck further.
'So what are you waiting for?' Emilia prompted.
'I don't like this.'
She followed his gaze across the clearing. There was a ramshackle hut, barely picked out in the headlights. There were no lamps burning behind the window shutters. The hut was strung with netting and surrounded by various wooden trestles and other equipment particular to a trapping outfit. She had little idea of what any of it was used for. A truck, not dissimilar to the one Jason drove, but with more wear and tear showing on its paintwork, sat abandoned in front of the shack. One door hung open.
'So where are they?' Emilia asked. 'I thought you said the Thibodauxs were expecting us.'
Jason didn't reply. He stared harder at the shack, before his gaze slid towards the vacant cab of the truck. He visibly jerked. 'I really don't like this.'
'What's up?' Emilia tried hard to make out what had concerned Jason. She saw it a moment later. An amorphous heap lying ten feet from the truck. In the glow of their headlights the shape steamed. One clawed hand was all that was immediately recognizable, it jutted up from the eviscerated corpse as if its final act had been in trying to ward off an attacker. 'Oh my God! Is that ...'
'I think it's Hal Thibodaux!' Jason croaked.
'He ... he's dead!' Emilia's stricken gaze alighted on another shapeless form, on the porch. Jamie Thibodaux sat with his legs splayed, hands in his lap as though he'd died attempting to push his intestines back into the gaping wound in his abdomen. Emilia had struggled to contain her sickness. Now it bubbled up her throat. She coughed, gagged, then swallowed bile before she could speak. 'Jesus Christ! What happened to them, Jace?'
Without clarifying, Jason rammed the truck into reverse. He hit the gas and the Ford raced backwards, the engine whining. But he had no hope of steering the truck all the way up the tortuous trail like that. Cursing under his breath, he halted, the tires skidding on the wet earth. Then the truck shot forward again. Emilia stared at him as if he was insane.
'I need to turn us around,' he said.
'Shouldn't we help them?' Emilia's question was pointless. The Thibodaux brothers were beyond any help.
'No. We have to get the cops out here.'
'Are you mad, Jason? We came here to buy drugs! We'll be locked up!'
Jason snapped a frown of dismay on her, as he spun the truck in the glade. Emilia blinked rapidly, as if realizing the inanity of her words. 'Yes. You're right. Let's just get the hell out of here. We can call the cops anonymously when we get back to town.'
Jason hit the gas.
Then he stepped on the brake and they were both thrown forward against their seatbelts.
'What the hell?' Emilia demanded, but it wasn't at his reckless driving.
A figure had stepped from the woods and barred the entrance to the trail.
It was painted by the glow of their headlights. Emilia's horrified gaze swept upwards. He was shaggy with hair, and huge. Blood glistened wetly on his broad chest and up his thickly knotted forearms, but her eyes travelled higher, held on the face and glaring eyes. Behind the windshield Emilia and Jason would be indistinct, but it was as if the piercing eyes of the figure zoned in on Emilia, and his mouth opened wide, showing bloody teeth.
'I ... I don't believe it,' Jason croaked, even as Emilia moaned in recognition.
The figure lurched towards them, and in that moment Emilia knew exactly who the killer of the Thibodaux brothers was, and that they would not be allowed to leave that place alive.
She screeched in terror.CHAPTER 2
'Nuh-uh. By hand, I guess.'
In a house west of Portland, Maine, Tess Grey crouched for a closer view of Ron Bowen. She held her breath so she didn't smell him.
Standing at the other side of the unkempt room Nicolas 'Po' Villere appeared untroubled by the sweet stench of decomposition, but then he wasn't the type who was ruffled by violent death. He'd seen enough in the past to haunt most people, and his hand had dealt some of it. But that didn't make him a bad guy, not when Tess understood the circumstances behind those killings.
'How can you tell from way over there, Po?'
'There's no obvious bruising to the throat.' Po nodded at the corpse without advancing. 'Take a closer look. I bet you won't even find thumb prints.'
Pulling a sleeve over her fingers, Tess worked down Bowen's collar to inspect his neck. Po was right about the lack of bruising. She looked instead at Bowen's face. The capillaries in his eyes had ruptured, little threads like bloodworms star-bursting outward from the tear ducts. His mouth was wide, the palate was ridged and pale, the colour of a fish's underbelly, but the tongue was distended and swollen. The force of his dying had dislodged a row of dentures in front, and now two snaggle teeth were all that framed the fattened tongue. It sure looked as if he'd been strangled.
'How exactly was he killed, Sherlock?' she asked.
'From behind, I bet,' said Po. 'Someone looped an elbow around his neck, pressured the life outta him. One of those jiu-jitsu holds, f'sure. Want me to demonstrate?'
'No thanks. I'll take your word for it.' Standing up, Tess again looked down at the body before casting her gaze in an ever-widening sweep. The living room was untidy, but even through the squalor it was apparent that some of the furniture was off-kilter, and some unopened mail had been scattered, swept possibly off one of the tables near the entrance. 'The place is a mess. There was quite a struggle before Bowen went down.'
'Yup. His killer wasn't an expert,' Po said. 'Applied correctly, a hold like that can render the victim unconscious in seconds. Looks as if there was a bit of a ruckus before the killer got an arm around Bowen's neck.'
'So we aren't looking for a rogue black belt, then?'
'Black belts aren't infallible. The fight coulda started, Bowen coulda got his licks in, then the killer managed to apply a finishing hold. It'd explain why the furniture has been shoved about. But that wasn't what I meant. When I say expert, I mean a professional with a capital "P". As in "someone who kills for a living".'
'Professionals aren't infallible either,' Tess cautioned. 'Bowen could have fought with a pro killer, too.'
'Maybe. But I doubt it. What are the chances of a hitman coming after him with their bare hands? Smacks more of a personal killing to me.'
'Spur of the moment?'
'Maybe. Maybe not. There are no signs of forced entry, so Bowen must have let his killer in. That says the killer is known to him, or he was somebody he was expecting at least.'
'Maybe Bowen was a trusting guy. Could've been a random stranger for all we know.'
'Coulda been. Maybe a neighbour who called round for a cup of sugar and got pissed when Bowen only had Sweetex.'
'There's no need for sarcasm. Or was that what you call a saccharine wit?'
'Sorry. I was only kidding.'
'So was I. You seriously need to check your irony button, Po. I think it's got stuck in neutral.'
Po raised an eyebrow, and Tess caught a twinkle of humour in his turquoise gaze. He loved it when he got a rise out of her. She turned from him with a grunt and crouched again at Bowen's side. As she often did when in contemplation she clucked her tongue, and rubbed distractedly at a scar on her right wrist. The injury was old now, but severe enough that it periodically troubled her. Frequently she suffered pins and needles when her damaged nerves misfired. Right then her hand was numb.
'You want me to call the cops?' Po asked.
'Yeah, but give me a minute or two. I want to take a look around first.'
'Leave it to the cops,' Po said. 'We came here to serve notice on the guy, not find his murderer.'
Her partner was right. They'd visited Ron Bowen with the intention of serving a court summons on behalf of his estranged wife. She was chasing him for alimony, and previous attempts at getting him in front of a judge had failed. Through Tess's employer, Emma Clancy, whose firm contracted to the local District Attorney's Office, Tess had been tasked with locating Bowen on behalf of the Office of Child Support Enforcement. She'd accessed the Federal Parent Locator Service, an initiative to assist state and local child-support agencies in locating case participants, and had discovered his current address easily enough. He wasn't exactly hiding, but serving papers on the deadbeat father had always proven tricky before. Now it was impossible.
'You don't suppose this had anything to do with Mrs Bowen?' she wondered.
'She's after his cash, ain't she? What purpose would it serve having him strangled to death before he paid up?'
'Remind me to check if he had a policy, will you?' said Tess.
'Leave it to the cops,' Po warned again.
Tess grimaced. Sometimes she forgot she was no longer a sergeant with the Cumberland County Sheriff's Office, other times she was just being stubborn. Po was right. Investigating Ron Bowen's death wasn't her responsibility. Still, how could she not be intrigued by the man's sudden death and want to discover the truth behind it? It wasn't as if Bowen had walked into speeding traffic; he'd been choked to death in his own home, and that made for a mystery Tess wished to solve.
Po took out his cell. 'I'm ringing the police now.'
'For an ex-con you're quick to summon the cops,' Tess muttered. 'I thought you guys usually avoided them at all costs.'
'There's a clue in the name. "Ex". As in I no longer have any beef with the law.'
Tess squeezed him a grimace. 'Remember that irony button I mentioned?'
He shook his head. 'And some people think I got my name through being po-faced.'
'I don't even know what that means,' Tess muttered.
'I heard it from some Brit guy once; who said it was the distasteful expression you adopt when presented with the contents of a chamber pot. Over there some Brits call a baby's potty a po.'
Tess stared at him. 'As much as I find this all very fascinating ...'
'You asked,' said Po.
'So the guy intimated you had a face like the contents of a potty? Yeah, I can see that.' She chuckled.
'Weren't you listening?'
'Not really. Anyway, I was lying. I know what po-faced means, just wanted to hear your take on it.'
'I'm confused,' said Po. 'D'you want to hear or don't you?'
'How to distract a dim-wit ...' Tess grinned. She licked her forefinger and swiped it in the air in front of her. 'One–nil to me.'
'Son of a bitch,' Po said, and turned away, pulling up the saved number for the local police office in his cellphone.
Her humour dissipated as she again studied Bowen. Behind her Po called in their discovery, but his words were a murmur and she paid no attention. She concentrated on the dead man's features, wondering at Po's conclusion on the manner of death. Her partner was probably right. When it came to the mechanics of rendering someone unconscious, he understood his subject well. To suggest who was behind the killing was a different matter, and one they'd probably never know until a full pathological and forensic investigation was concluded. Nevertheless, it didn't stop her wanting to know who the killer was now.
She remained in a crouch alongside the corpse, taking care not to disturb anything on the floor that might prove evidential, and stared into the bloodshot eyes. More than the identity of his slayer she wanted to figure out the motive behind Bowen's murder, but there was nothing in the cataract stare to enlighten her.
Finally she stood, distractedly rubbing her wrist as she watched Po slip away his cellphone.
'Cops are on their way,' he said.
'We should get our stories straight,' Tess said.
'And I'm supposed to be the lawless one.'
Ignoring his snarky comeback, she indicated the door. 'Take a step outside and pull the door to where it was when we arrived. Tell me if you can see anything of Bowen from there.'
'Not possible.' Po wasn't being insubordinate; he was stating fact. The direction the door swung on its hinges, there was no possible way they could have spotted Bowen through the narrow gap before they'd entered. Tess didn't want to admit to trespassing in the house without good reason. They were there to serve a summons but with no legal right to enter the premises uninvited. 'Take a deep breath, Tess.'
Excerpted from Raw Wounds by Matt Hilton. Copyright © 2017 Matt Hilton. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is 3rd in a series featuring Tess Grey, an ex-cop, now a Private Investigator. Her partner is Nicolas Villere, better known as 'Po'. These two are like the odd couple. Tess has always wanted to be in law enforcement, but an on-the-job injury obliged her to leave the force. Po is an ex-con. He served several years for murder. He has served his time and now is on the right side of the law. Tess and Po are also partners outside of their work. In this adventure, the reader gets the whole story of Nicholas 'Po' Villere. In the first two books of this series, we learn a little of his background, but in RAW WOUNDS, we learn the truth, the whole truth and what has shaped him into the man he is today. His mother abandoned him and his father when he was young, but she sends a message that she is dying and would like to see him before she passes. He and Tess make their way back to his home in Louisiana. Much to his surprise, he learns that he has a full blooded younger sister that he never knew about and has never met. But Emilia is missing and Po and Tess must find her fast ... there are others who are looking for her, as well. But they aren't planning a happy reunion. Emilia has seen and heard things she was never meant to see. Her life is on the line and all she knows is to run .... Po must face his old enemies if he wants any chance to find his sister before she becomes the victim of a cannibalistic killer. This is an excellent addition to this series! Tess and Po are terrific characters ... both are strong individuals that are working through their personal issues. The books contains a whole lot of action that keeps the reader glued to their favorite chairs and rapidly turning pages. I have it on really good authority that the 4th book in this series ..... WORST FEAR ... will be out later this year. Many thanks to the author / Severn House / Netgalley for the advance digital copy of this book. Opinions expressed here are unbiased and entirely my own.