Ben McKelvie had a good job, a nice house, a beautiful fiancée . . . until a bloodthirsty shapeshifter took everything away. Ever since, he’s been chasing supernatural phenomena all across the country, aided by dedicated zoologist Lindsay Clark and wealthy cryptozoologist Richard Severance.
Now they face their deadliest challenge yet. In the New Jersey Pine Barrens, a man named Henry Drexler operates a private compound called Välkommen, which is Swedish for “welcome.” Indeed, Drexler welcomes all visitors—so long as they’re racists, neo-Nazis, or otherwise in cahoots with the alt-right. But Drexler is no mere Hitler wannabe. Once he was Severance’s mentor, and his research may well have summoned a monster to the Pine Barrens.
To find out the truth, Ben and Lindsay must enter the camp incognito. There, under the watchful eyes of Drexler’s bodyguards and sociopathic son, they will learn that the most dangerous beasts lurk in the human heart.
Don’t miss any of Bill Schweigart’s gripping supernatural thrillers:
THE BEAST OF BARCROFT | NORTHWOODS | THE DEVIL’S COLONY
Praise for The Devil’s Colony
“Stunning . . . satisfying to thriller fans as well as horror aficionados.”—Into the Abyss
“[Bill] Schweigart did a fantastic job on The Devil’s Colony. . . . Well done, sir. Well done.”—Sci-Fi & Scary
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Lance Whelan stumbled through the sand and tangled undergrowth, panting, checking behind him as he plowed forward. He didn’t know if he was being pursued, or if the others had even registered he was gone, but he took no chances. It was during one of these glances over his shoulder that he missed the rivulet in front of him. The moon, a sliver as thin as the side of a dime, provided scant illumination. It was March in the Pine Barrens, not quite winter and not quite spring, and his foot smashed through the barest rime of ice into frigid cedar water.
“Shit,” he hissed.
He planted his foot on the other side of the small stream and pulled it from the muck. His shoe came off with a sucking sound. He did not need this. He was already freezing. His leather jacket served him well in Boston, when he was going from the shitty apartment he shared with his older brother, Danny, to a warm car to a packed bar and back again. Now the mist in the air left it sodden and heavy, weighing him down. When Danny had told him they were going to the Pine Barrens, Lance had scoffed. How cold could it get in South Jersey? Wasn’t it the South, after all? But Lance had never been out of Massachusetts, let alone New England, and his heart sank when he and Danny boarded the bus and found the winter’s snow barely abated as they traveled south. Not exactly what you’d call tropical. Danny had nabbed the window seat, but Lance glanced past him through the Greyhound windows. It was overcast that afternoon. The highway itself was a powdery gray, the salt crystals pulverized by a winter’s worth of vehicles passing through, and the snow along the side of the road was stained black. Beyond that, the landscape looked lonely and desolate. In the distance, there were fields of white snow with stalks of dead plants Lance couldn’t name poking through. They looked like thin, reedy arms that might snatch you and pull you under the snow if you wandered too far into the field.
He wanted to reach over and shake his dozing brother awake, tell him they should just go home. But Danny had made up his mind and waking him was a quick way to catch a beating. Growing up, Lance had caught quite a few beatings from Danny, who was three years older and six inches taller.
Danny had always been an angry kid: Dad split, Mom drank herself into an early grave, and the brothers shuffled from one relative to another, each more reluctant to take them in than the last. Lately, Danny found new reasons to be angry. When that shit went down with the marathon, the whole city banded together and neighbors Lance had once been predisposed to hate he now saw in a different light. They were all neighbors, weren’t they? But Lance kept that shit to himself, because Danny sure didn’t see it that way. For Danny, it simply confirmed everything he believed in. He disappeared into chat rooms and online forums, which is how he found out about the settlement.
On the white power message boards, the conspiracy sites, the doomsday blogs, references started popping up about this place . . . a haven. It was all Danny talked about. Finally, Lance got on their old computer, fired up the dial-up, and scoured the sites himself. He was skeptical, but there was one word that had intrigued him.
There were testimonials about how chill the place was, which did not seem to be pushing any agenda beyond “all are welcome.” Clearly not all were welcome given the sites this haven was mentioned on . . . but a community where everyone worked for the common good? A safe place for like-minded people? A bulwark against a world that was devolving into chaos? Even Lance began to believe.
Finally, one winter morning, Lance looked at his brother, shitfaced and passed out on the couch of their squalid apartment, then out the window to another interminable winter day in Dorchester, and risked shaking Danny awake.
“F*** it, bro. Let’s do it. Let’s go.”
Within a month, they found themselves on the Greyhound heading south. Night fell, the temperature dropped, and they disembarked at a truck stop somewhere in South Jersey. They stood shivering beneath a large “76” sign that poked higher into the darkening sky than the surrounding fast-food signs, clutching their duffel bags stuffed with clothes and waiting for a ride.
“Wicked cold,” said Lance.
“Don’t be a pussy,” said Danny, but he was smiling. There was a gleam in his eye. In that moment, Lance would have followed his older brother to the gates of hell.
An hour passed. Finally, a large pickup truck screeched to a halt in front of them. The driver’s-side window slid down. When Lance saw the man’s face, he nearly gasped. Tattoos, emanating from below the collar of his coat, threatened to consume his face.
Danny stepped forward. “I’m Danny. This is Lance.”
“What’s the password, Danny and Lance?”
The brothers looked at each other, unsure.
After a tense moment, the man laughed. “Just f***ing with you. Throw your shit in the back.”
They did as they were told but when they climbed in, the man said, “Gonna need your phones though.”
“Seriously?” asked Danny.
The man didn’t laugh this time.
It was cold outside. Lance wondered if asking for the phones when they were already inside the warm cab of the truck had been intentional.
Danny passed his over first. The man opened the back, removed the small SIM card, and pitched it out the window.
When the tattooed man saw his expression, he said, “Don’t worry, you’ll get a new one.”
He introduced himself as Hendrix and put the highway behind him as quickly as the pickup would allow. After that, he stopped talking entirely in favor of blasting death metal that was incomprehensible to Lance, navigating down even smaller back roads until he abandoned those altogether for forked dirt lanes. They plunged deep into a forested area. The rutted dirt roads narrowed until bare branches and pine needles scratched at the sides of the truck. Between the trees closing in on them, the jostling of the roads, and the punishing music, Lance felt nauseated and claustrophobic. Eventually they came to an archway guarded by two armed men. Hanging from the archway was a wooden sign with a single word of script burned into it in large letters.
A guard waved Hendrix in. Beyond the archway, the Pine Barrens opened up again. Lance leaned forward in his seat and peered through the windshield. What struck him immediately was the scale. Having grown up in South Boston, he did not understand acreage, but he guessed the cleared area to be the size of a couple of city blocks.
At the far end of the clearing stood a large yellow home that seemed to have been added to incrementally over the years. Everything emanated from the house; all of the other structures in the clearing seemed to be tentacles of it or satellites to it. Several low outbuildings radiated outward: garages, storage sheds, a barn, and new buildings—cabins maybe—under construction. The central lane to the house was immaculately kept, with smaller lanes branching off to the other structures. He tried to put his finger on what this place reminded him of, and he remembered the old westerns his grandfather liked to watch. It was like a small town on the frontier, expanding, carving order out of chaos. Lance looked out across empty fields to the perimeter. At this hour, the woods seemed to create an impenetrable wall around the space, but they encroached no farther, as if maintaining a respectful distance. There was a lone structure in the middle of a large empty field. It looked like a stage, but at this hour and recalling those westerns, it could have been mistaken for a gallows.
They pulled to a stop in front of the large house, where several men milled around. One old man in particular seemed to be waiting for them. He clapped his hands and was laughing as soon as the brothers emerged from the truck. Danny had his defenses up, offering nothing, not even a smile, but the man rushed over to him nonetheless and shook his hand vigorously. “Welcome!” he boomed. “Look at the size of you! I’m so glad you’ve come. . . .”
He turned to Lance. By now Lance was completely disoriented from their journey, hungry, and tired. Worse, he had never felt more conspicuous, out of place, and downright stupid than at that moment, for having gone along with this. But all of that fell away when the old man grasped Lance’s hand in both of his and said “Welcome” with such genuine warmth and affection that Lance realized how much he had longed for such things. It felt like a laying on of hands.
Lance’s eyes instantly brimmed with tears and he found he couldn’t speak. He looked down at the ground and cleared his throat.
The old man put his arm over Lance’s shoulder, blocking the view of everyone else. Then in Lance’s ear he whispered, “My name is Henry. It’s going to be all right, I promise you. You’re home now.”
That was two weeks ago and now Lance was running for his life.
It had begun well enough. They bunked down in one of the low outbuildings, a garage, among others just like them. By his count, there were about two hundred people in the burgeoning camp, with more coming every day. Within a few days though, most of Lance’s belongings were stolen. When Lance reported it to the guards, the Black Cadre, they just stared right through him.
Then Danny was stolen from him. The other men, the truly hardcore types, seemed to have their own gravity, and it pulled the brothers apart. Danny only had two modes now: bottomlessly hateful or spaced out on whatever drugs were circulating around the camp. A week in, Lance summoned enough courage to tell Danny that they should go home, maybe come back when things were stable, more built up, but Danny was now convinced forces were mobilizing against them out there. They may already be in the Pine Barrens, he declared.
Välkommen was the only place they were safe. But not to worry, his older brother assured him, there were things in the woods that would protect this place. Powerful things. Lance told him to lay off the drugs. Danny reared back to hit him but lost his balance and toppled over. On his back, he laughed like a loon. Lance just walked away.
The morning of his escape, Lance awoke at dawn and stepped out of the garage and saw three men gathered at the far end of the clearing, helping a drunken man down from a tree. It took him a moment in the early light to see the noose around the limp figure’s neck. Lance watched as the men cut him down. He went off to find his brother, who had been up all night with his new friends. When he finally found Danny, he was not at his work detail building a new cabin, but near the yellow house. Same slicked-back black hair, same birthmark on his jawline, same crooked nose from dozens of brawls, but he was different somehow. Dressed all in black. Just like one of them, the Black Cadre. And when Danny looked at Lance, he looked right through him like he had never seen him before.
As soon as the sun set, Lance fled.
Now Lance reached into the muck to retrieve his shoe. He panicked for a moment when he couldn’t find it and considered leaving it behind. Just as he had left his brother behind. Henry too. He had sometimes taken walks with the old man or talked to him in his office and they had confided in each other. Lance had wanted to tell him that day what life in the camp was really like, that his brother and some of the others were unraveling, that despite the old man’s best intentions it was all getting away from him, but Henry had been off on an errand. I’ll come back for them, Lance told himself. He would bring a crew from Dorchester and they would take Danny back by force if necessary. He would tell Henry that Välkommen was a grand idea, but he was one candle in a whole lot of dark.
He found his shoe finally and tugged hard. The muck fought him. It was as if the whole state had been conspiring to pull him down, swallow him whole, since the moment he stepped off the bus. In his panic, he abandoned all thoughts of ever returning to Välkommen. He swore that as soon as he found the road, he would get out of the Pine Barrens and not look back until he was out of f***ing Jersey. And once gone, he would never come back for as long as he lived.
The shoe finally came loose.
He shook the mud out and fit his foot into the soggy boot. He was getting to his feet when he heard a faint sound on the wind. A cowbell. He thought maybe he had stumbled onto the property of a neighboring farm and it filled him with hope. Maybe they would be friendly. Maybe they would have a phone. He never did get the new SIM card Hendrix had promised. He continued through the underbrush until it emptied into a small clearing.
He heard the cowbell again, but it came from a stand of trees in front of him. He saw no cows.
He took another step forward and a figure emerged from the trees.
It was a shaggy mass.
Lance’s heart slammed in his chest, but he froze, and the figure stood stock-still as well. The figure didn’t look like it had stepped from the brush but rather had disengaged itself from it. In the darkness, he craned his head, using his peripheral vision to pick up more detail. Lance couldn’t tell if the thing was covered in wicker or moss or some combination of the two. All manner of bells hung from its hide. It had a head, but no eyes or face to speak of, just a gash filled with teeth.
Lance chanced another step and the figure mirrored him, his bells tolling. They sounded rusty and lonesome.
Through its awkward movement, Lance realized it was a man. A man in a bizarre costume and a stitched hood, standing alone in the woods in the middle of the night, but still just a man. He remembered his brother’s claims of strange sentries roaming the woods. For our protection.
“Look, man, more power to you. Just tell Danny I’m going home.”
The figure said nothing, remained motionless.
Lance took another step. The figure mirrored him again, bringing them closer together.
Lance stopped. He held up his hands.
“Hey, no trouble. I just want out. I’m not going to say shit, all right?”
The figure stood as silent and motionless as the surrounding trees, as if he had been there for centuries.
“F*** your cult bullshit,” said Lance. He tried to sprint past the figure. The shaggy, wild man moved so quickly Lance didn’t even see the club. It hit him in the face and he crumpled instantly. He did not understand what had happened. One moment he was fleeing, the next he was on his back.
He brought a shaky hand to his face. His features did not correspond to the places they had been just a moment ago and his hand came away wet. He tried to look around, but something was wrong with his eyes. He saw the figure, club in hand—or was it a branch?—advancing toward him now. His other eye peered off in another direction entirely.
The figure seized him by the ankle.
“Home,” choked Lance through broken teeth, blood already running down his throat.
The figure dragged him into the trees.