When the two strangers turn up at Rowena Cooper's isolated Colorado farmhouse, she knows instantly that it's the end of everything. For the two haunted and driven men, on the other hand, it's just another stop on a long and bloody journey. And they still have many miles to go, and victims to sacrifice, before their work is done.
For San Francisco homicide detective Valerie Hart, their trail of victims—women abducted, tortured and left with a seemingly random series of objects inside them—has brought her from obsession to the edge of physical and psychological destruction. And she's losing hope of making a breakthrough before that happens.
But the murders at the Cooper farmhouse didn't quite go according to plan. There was a survivor, Rowena's ten-year-old daughter Nell, who now holds the key to the killings. Injured, half-frozen, terrified, Nell has only one place to go. And that place could be even more dangerous than what she's running from.In this extraordinary, pulse-pounding debut, Saul Black takes us deep into the mind of a psychopath, and into the troubled heart of the woman determined to stop him.
About the Author
Saul Black is a pseudonym for Glen Duncan, the author of By Blood We Live, I, Lucifer, and many other books. He was chosen by both Arena and The Times Literary Supplement (London) as one of Britain's best young novelists. He lives in London.
Read an Excerpt
The Killing Lessons
By Saul Black
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2015 Glen Duncan
All rights reserved.
The instant Rowena Cooper stepped out of her warm, cookie-scented kitchen and saw the two men standing in her back hallway, snow melting from the rims of their boots, she knew exactly what this was: her own fault. Years of not locking doors and windows, of leaving the keys in the ignition, of not thinking anything like this was ever going to happen, years of feeling safe — it had all been a lie she'd been dumb enough to tell herself. Worse, a lie she'd been dumb enough to believe. Your whole life could turn out to be nothing but you waiting to meet your own giant stupidity. Because here she was, a mile from the nearest neighbor and three miles from town (Ellinson, Colorado; pop. 697), with a thirteen-year-old son upstairs and a ten-year-old daughter on the front porch and two men standing in her back hallway, one of them holding a shotgun, the other a long blade that even in the sheer drop of this moment made her think machete, though this was the first time she'd ever seen one outside the movies. The open door behind them showed heavy snow still hurrying down in the late afternoon, pretty against the dark curve of the forest. Christmas was five days away.
She had an overwhelming sense of the reality of her children. Josh lying on his unmade bed with his headphones on. Nell in her red North Face jacket standing, watching the snow, dreamily working her way through the Reese's Peanut Butter Cup she'd negotiated not ten minutes ago. It was as if there were an invisible nerve running from each of them to her, to her navel, her womb, her soul. This morning Nell had said: That guy Steven Tyler looks like a baboon. She came out with these pronouncements, apropos of nothing. Later, after breakfast, Rowena had overheard Josh say to Nell: Hey, see that? That's your brain. "That," Rowena had known, would be something like a cornflake or a booger. It was an ongoing competition between the two of them, to find small or unpleasant things and claim they were each other's brains. She thought what a great gift to her it was that her children not only loved but also cagily liked each other. She thought how full of great gifts her life was — while her body emptied and the space around her rushed her skin like a swarm of flies and she felt her dry mouth open, the scream coming ...
don't scream ...
if Josh keeps quiet and Nell stays ...
maybe just rape oh God ...
whatever they ...
the rifle ...
The rifle was locked in the cupboard under the stairs and the key was on the bunch in her purse and her purse was on the bedroom floor and the bedroom floor was a long, long way away.
All you have to do is get through this. Whatever it takes to —
But the larger of the men took three paces forward and in what felt to Rowena like slow-motion (she had time to smell stale sweat and wet leather and unwashed hair, to see the small dark eyes and big head, the pores around his nose) raised the butt of the shotgun and smashed it into her face.
* * *
Josh Cooper wasn't lying on his bed, but he did have his headphones on. He was sitting at his desk with the Squier Strat (used, eBay, $225, he'd had to put in the $50 his grandma sent for his birthday three months back to swing it with his mom) plugged into its practice amp, laboring through a YouTube tutorial — How to Play Led Zeppelin's "The Rain Song" — while trying not to think about the porno clip he'd seen at Mike Wainwright's house three days ago, in which two women — an older redhead with green eyeshadow and a young blond girl who looked like Sarah Michelle Gellar — mechanically licked each other's private parts. Girl-girl sixty-nine, Mike had said crisply. In a minute, they go ass-to-ass. Josh hadn't a clue what "ass-to-ass" could possibly mean, but he knew, with thudding shame, that whatever it was, he wanted to see it. Mike Wainwright was a year older and knew everything about sex, and his parents were so vague and flaky, they hadn't gotten around to putting a parental control on his PC. Unlike Josh's own mom, who'd set one up as a condition of him even having a PC.
The memory of the two women had made him hard. Which was exactly what the guitar tutorial had been supposed to avoid. He didn't want to have to jerk off. The feeling he got afterwards depressed him. A heaviness and boredom in his hands and face that put him in a lousy mood and made him snap at Nell and his mom.
He forced himself back to "The Rain Song." The track had baffled him, until the Internet told him it wasn't played in standard tuning. Once he retuned (D-G-C-G-C-D), the whole thing had opened out to him. There were a couple of tricky bastard reaches between chords in the intro, but that was just practice. In another week, he'd have it nailed.
* * *
Nell Cooper wasn't on the porch. She was at the edge of the forest in deep snow, watching a mule deer not twenty feet away. An adult female. Those big black eyes and the long lashes that looked fake. Twenty feet was about as close as you could get. Nell had been feeding this one for a couple of weeks, tossing it saved apple cores and handfuls of nuts and raisins sneaked from her mom's baking cupboard. It knew her. She hadn't named it. She didn't talk to it. She preferred these quiet intense encounters.
She took her gloves off and went into her pocket for a half-eaten apple. Snow light winked on the bracelet her mother had given her when she turned ten in May. A silver chain with a thin golden hare, running, in profile. It had been her great-grandmother's, then her grandmother's, then her mother's, now hers. Rowena's distant family on her maternal side had come out of Romania. Ancestral lore said there had been a whiff of witchcraft, far back, and that the hare was a charm for safe travel. Nell had always loved it. One of her earliest memories was of turning it on her mother's wrist, sunlight glinting. The hare had a faraway life of its own, though its eye was nothing more than an almond-shaped hole in the gold. Nell wasn't expecting it, but on the evening of her birthday, long after the other gifts had been unwrapped, her mom came into her room and fastened it around her left wrist. You're old enough now, she'd said. I've had the chain shortened. Wear it on your left so it won't get in the way when you're drawing. And not for school, OK? I don't want you to lose it. Keep it for weekends and holidays. It had surprised Nell with a stab of love and sadness, her mother saying "you're old enough." It had made her mother seem old. And alone. It had, for both of them, brought Nell's father's absence back sharply. The moment had filled Nell with tenderness for her mother, who she realized with a terrible understanding had to do all the ordinary things — drive her and Josh to school, shop, cook dinner — with a sort of lonely bravery, because Nell's father was gone.
It made her sad now, to think of it. She resolved to be more help around the house. She would try her best to do things without being asked.
The doe took a few dainty steps, nosed the spot where Nell's apple core had landed — then lifted its head, suddenly alert, the too-big ears (they were called mule deer because of the ears) twitching with a whir like a bird's wing. Whatever the animal had heard, Nell hadn't. To her, the forest remained a big, soft, silent presence. (A neutral presence. Some things were on your side, some things were against you, some things were neither. The word is neutral, Josh had told her. And in any case, you're wrong: things are just things. They don't have feelings. They don't even know you exist. Josh had started coming out with this stuff lately, though Nell didn't for one minute believe he really meant it. Part of him was going away from her. Or rather he was forcing a part of himself to go away from her. Her mom had said: Just be patient with him, honey. It's a puberty thing. Another few years, you'll probably be worse than him.) The doe was tense, listening for something. Nell wondered if it was Old Mystery Guy from the cabin across the ravine.
Old Mystery Guy's name, town gossip had revealed, was Angelo Greer. He'd shown up a week ago and moved into the derelict place over the bridge, a mile east of the Coopers'. There had been an argument with Sheriff Hurley, who said he didn't care if the cabin was legally Mr. Greer's (he'd inherited it years ago when his father died), there was no way he was taking a vehicle over the bridge. The bridge wasn't safe. The bridge had been closed, in fact, for more than two years. Not a priority repair, since the cabin was the only residence for twenty miles on that side of the ravine and had been deserted for so long. Traffic crossing the Loop River used the highway bridge farther south, to connect with US-40. In the end, Mr. Greer had driven his car to the west side of the bridge and lugged his supplies across from there on foot. He shouldn't be doing that, either, Sheriff Hurley had said, but it went no further. Nell hadn't seen Mr. Greer. She and Josh were at school when he'd driven out past their house, but it couldn't be much longer before he'd have to go back into town. According to her mom, there wasn't even a phone at the cabin. When Sadie Pinker had stopped by last week, Nell had overheard her say: What the hell is he doing out there? To which Rowena had replied: Christ knows. He walks with a stick. I don't know how he's going to manage. Maybe he's out there looking for God.
Nell checked her pockets, but all the nuts and raisins were gone. The doe sprang away.
A gunshot exploded in the house.CHAPTER 2
Telling herself it wasn't a gunshot.
Knowing it was.
The ground was a cracked ice floe in a fast current moving against her. Her face was overfull, her hands crammed with blood. There was a busyness to the air, as if it were filled with whispering particles. Details were fresh and urgent: the soft crunch of the snow; the kitchen's smell of just-baked cookies; a complicated knot in the oak floor's grain; the deep maroon of Josh's Converse sneakers by the living room door, light coming through the lace holes.
Her mother lay on her side at the bottom of the stairs. Blood pooled around her, jewelly dark, with a soft sheen. Her skirt was off and her panties were looped around her left ankle. Her hair was wrong. Her eyes were open.
Nell felt herself swollen and floating. This was a dream she could will herself out of. Kicking up from underwater, you held your breath through the heaviness until you hit the thin promise of the surface, then sweet air. But she was kicking and kicking and there was no surface, nothing to wake to. Just the understanding that the world had been planning this her whole life, and everything else had been a trick to distract her. The house, which had always been her friend, was helpless. The house couldn't do anything but watch, in aching shock.
Her mother's bare legs bicycled slowly in the blood. Nell wanted to cover them. It was terrible, the pale flesh of her mother's buttocks and the little scribble of varicose veins on her left thigh uncovered like that, in the front hall. Her mouth went Mommy ... Mommy ... Mommy ..., but no sound came, just rough breath, a solid thing too big for her throat. Her mother blinked. Moved her hand through the blood and raised her finger to her lips. Shshsh. The gesture left a vertical red daub, like a geisha's lipstick. Nell staggered to her and dropped to her knees.
"Run," her mother whispered. "They're still here."
Her mother's eyes fluttered closed again. It reminded Nell of all the times they'd given each other butterfly kisses, eyelashes against cheek.
Her mother's eyes opened. "Run to Sadie's. I'm going to be all right, but you have to run."
There was a sound of furniture moving upstairs.
"Now!" her mother gasped. She sounded furious. "Go now! Quick!"
Something moved much closer. In the living room.
Her mother gripped her by the wrist and spat: "You run right now, Nell. I'm not kidding. Do it or I'm going to be angry. Go. Now!"
To Nell, backing away from her mother, it was as if a skin that joined the two of them was tearing. She kept stopping. There was a fierce emptiness in her ankles and knees and wrists. She couldn't swallow. But the farther away she got, the more vigorously her mother nodded, Yes, yes, keep going, baby, keep going.
She made it all the way to the open back door before the man stepped out of the living room.CHAPTER 3
He had coppery hair in greasy curls that hung all the way down to his thinly bearded jaw. Pale blue eyes that made Nell think of archery targets. His face was moist and his dirty-fingernailed hands looked as if they'd thawed too fast. Dark oily jeans and a black Puffa jacket with a rip in the breast through which the soft gray lining showed. His feet would stink, Nell thought. He looked tense and thrilled.
"Hey, cunt," he said to Rowena, smiling. "How're you holding up?"
Then he turned and saw Nell.
The moment lasted a long time.
When Nell moved, she thought of the way the doe had sprung away into the forest. Its head had jerked to the right as if it had been yanked on an invisible rein; then it had twisted and flung itself as if the rest of its body was a fraction slower and had to catch up. It was the way she felt, turning and running, as if her will were a little maddening distance ahead of her, straining to haul her body into sync.
The space around her was heavy, something she had to wade through. At the beach once on vacation in Delaware, she'd been standing on tiptoe in the ocean, the bottle green water up to her chin, and Josh said, Oh my God, Nell, shark! Right behind you! Hurry! And though she'd been certain — or almost certain — he was kidding, there was the agony of the water's weight, soft and sly and fighting her, slowing her, in cahoots with the shark.
I'm going to be all right, but you have to run.
I'm going to be.
"All right" meant later, tomorrow, Christmas, days and weeks and years, breakfast in the untidy kitchen, the smell of toast and coffee, TV in the evening, drives into town, Sadie coming over, the scent of her mother's hand cream, conversations like the ones they'd been having lately when they talked woman-to-woman, somehow —
Something crashed behind her. She looked back into the house.
The red-haired man was picking himself up from the hallway floor, laughing, saying: "What the fuck, bitch?" Then shaking his left leg to dislodge Rowena's hand from his ankle. Something in Nell knew it was the last of her mother's strength. It was the last of her strength. And yet out of her exhaustion an impulse pushed her and her legs moved, barely touching the packed snow she and Josh had beaten down on their walks to the forest.
She was running.
It seemed impossible, she was so empty. The lightest breeze would lift her into the air like a fall leaf.
But she was running. She had twenty yards on him.
The word was dark and thick with dirt. She'd heard it maybe twice before in her life; she couldn't remember where.
How're you holding up? His smile when he'd asked that meant nothing you could say would stop him doing what he was doing. It would just make him do it more.
She wanted to go back to her mother. She could stop, turn, say to the man: I don't care what happens, just let me cover my mom's legs and put my arms around her. That's all I want. Then you can kill me. The longing to stop was so powerful. The way her mother's eyelids had closed and opened, as if it were a difficult thing she had to concentrate on, very carefully. It meant ... It meant ...
The swish of his arms against the Puffa jacket, the thud and squeak of his boots in the snow. He was very close behind her. The twenty yards had been eaten up. How stupid to think she could outrun him. The long legs and grown-up strength. For the first time she thought: You'll never see your mother again. Or Josh. Her own voice repeated this in her head, You'll never see your mother again, mixed with the man's Hey, cunt, and her mother saying, Yes but how much do you love me ...?
She knew she shouldn't look back, but she couldn't help it.
Excerpted from The Killing Lessons by Saul Black. Copyright © 2015 Glen Duncan. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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