A California vacation town holds a terrifying secret in this novel from the international bestselling author who “writes much better than King or Straub” (Village Voice).
When Max and Louise Untermeyer rent a house in the remote pine forests of Northern California, they figure it’ll be a perfect escape from the city, especially for their twelve-year-old son, Denny. Their neighbors, Dick and Charlotte Summer, are an elderly couple who certainly seem nice enough. And while they positively dote on the boy, plying him with sweets and gifts, it’s a shame there are no other children Denny’s age to play with. Louise is beginning to wonder why, but no one in town likes to talk about it.
But that’s not the only thing troubling Louise. A parent expects a boy of Denny’s age to go through changes—just not like this. Day by day, his innocence seems to be draining away, replaced by something unhealthy, even perverse. Now, the closer Denny gets to Mr. and Mrs. Summer, the closer he is to being lost forever in their dark secret. And anyone who comes looking for him hasn’t got a prayer.
The international bestselling author of the Glasgow novels and the Frank Pagan series, Campbell Armstrong has won a Scottish Arts Council Award and a nomination for the Prix du Polar. Any one of his novels “belongs in the permanent collection of horror/thriller fans” (Kirkus Reviews).
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About the Author
Born in Glasgow and educated at the University of Sussex, Armstrong worked as a book editor in London and taught creative writing at universities in the United States.
Campbell Armstrong (1944–2013) was an international bestselling author best known for his thriller series featuring British counterterrorism agent Frank Pagan, and his quartet of Glasgow Novels, featuring detective Lou Perlman. Two of these, White Rage and Butcher, were nominated for France’s Prix du Polar. Armstrong’s novels Assassins & Victims and The Punctual Rape won Scottish Arts Council Book of the Year Awards.
Born in Glasgow and educated at the University of Sussex, Armstrong worked as a book editor in London and taught creative writing at universities in the United States.
Read an Excerpt
By Campbell Armstrong
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1986 Campbell Black
All rights reserved.
Louise could think of only one thing—the need to get out of this city, far away. The prospect created a pressure she could feel at the back of her head like a buzz saw cutting bone. There was still so much to do, so many last-minute items to attend to, and she was sure she'd forget something extremely important.
She looked at Mr. Banyon. He was a small fussy man in a dark blue suit. A white carnation was perched in his buttonhole. His hair, greased back and center-parted in the style of another age, reflected the light from the window.
"These," Mr. Banyon said, "are the keys."
He placed a ring of keys down on the surface of his desk and Max picked them up.
Louise watched her husband stick the key ring inside the pocket of his old tweed jacket. The damned pressure in her head was rising.
She studied Banyon's small hands a moment. Manicured nails, a big fat ring on the middle finger of the left hand, glassy skin. Ever since the Strangler's exploits had begun to appear in newspaper headlines, Louise had found herself examining the hands of strangers she saw in restaurants, checkers in supermarkets, bag boys, noticing the shapes of fingers, bulbous joints, gnarls.
The Strangler had killed his first victim in a parking lot near Fisherman's Wharf. A twelve-year-old girl. His second victim had been a boy of nine whose body was found in Golden Gate Park. The killer, whose speciality was that of assassinating his victims with short lengths of five-and-dime-store twine, had been active for about three months. Four kids were already dead. And the shadowy character known as the Strangler had been reduced in her mind to a pair of large disembodied hands she couldn't visualize with any precision—and yet she could always sense them nearby, as if by divination.
"You take Interstate Five to Redding," Banyon was saying. "Then Highway 299 as far as Carnarvon. Beyond Carnarvon, say nine miles or so, you'll come to a roadhouse called the Ace of Spades."
Banyon paused and smiled. He had a realtor's smile, thin and yet convincing. "Take a left at the roadhouse. The pavement runs out. Go twelve miles down the dirt road. The house is easy to find. Redwood. Sun deck. There's an old-fashioned sundial out front, I recall. Anyway, you can't miss it. It's the only property out that way."
Louise looked at Max, who was gazing out of Banyon's window, seemingly lost in contemplation of the San Francisco skyline. The late afternoon sun was red.
She thought how typical it had become of Max lately to tune himself out. He drifted away from the core of things. His eyes would glaze over, and although he might nod his head and make noises, you could tell he wasn't really paying attention. Burnout: he had worked too hard and too long without any kind of a break and he'd forgotten how to relax. There were times when he looked quite unhealthy, almost haggard.
Banyon said, "It's a pleasant house. Pleasant countryside. You'll enjoy it." A wistful pause: "I haven't been up that way in, oh, let me think, years ..." He waved a hand and the rest of his sentence faded out. He stood up and looked at Max and his tiny red face creased into a beam.
"I expect you're looking forward to this vacation, Dr. Untermeyer," he said.
Max changed the position of his long thin legs. "My wife keeps telling me I need some peace and quiet."
"And you'll find it, Doctor. You'll certainly find it up there." Banyon caressed his carnation briefly.
Louise asked, "What kind of town is Carnarvon?"
Did it make sense to rent a house for a whole summer without ever having seen the place? She wondered briefly, then turned the question aside. Banyon had shown them a bunch of color photographs of the property, and the place looked absolutely perfect for what they wanted. Maybe the indefinable unease she experienced had another source. Maybe the real question was whether it made sense to bury oneself in the countryside for three months, connected to all the things you knew only by a frail telephone line.
But we need this break, she thought. We all need it. Max and me and Dennis. We need to get out of this city....
She rubbed her eyelids. The buzz saw was droning against the fragile surface of skull bone. There were still so many things left to be done before they could leave in the morning—and suddenly her life seemed an assortment of lists written on scraps of paper she'd somehow contrived to misplace or lose completely.
Banyon said, "Carnarvon is a picturesque place. It has a significant tourist trade during the summer months. Local crafts. Arts. That kind of thing. I'm sure it will provide anything you might need, Mrs. Untermeyer." He rubbed his hands together and smiled at Louise. "When do you intend to leave?"
"Tomorrow," Louise answered. She saw Banyon's hand move across the desk. His fingers came to rest on the check she'd made out for the rent.
"Allow about six hours for the trip," Banyon said. "Splendid drive. Wonderful countryside."
There was a brief silence in the room. Louise glanced at her husband. Max was rattling the keys in the pocket of his jacket; it was a nervous little sound and it contributed to the slight edge of anxiety she felt. It wasn't just the trip. There was also the fact she wasn't altogether happy about having rented their own house to a rather weird professor of anthropology from Georgia in the Soviet Union.
There was, she had told Max, something a little sinister about Professor Zmia. It was in his secretive dark eyes and the odd way he smiled, as if he knew something about you that you didn't know yourself. And his extraordinary politeness, which bordered at times on the unctuous, wasn't quite as charming as she should have found it. But Banyon, who'd suggested the professor as a tenant when they had first come to see him, said that the man's references were impeccable, they couldn't possibly find a better tenant, and moreover didn't it make good economic sense to rent their home while they were gone? There was also a security factor, Banyon pointed out: an occupied house is less attractive to a potential burglar than one obviously empty. Banyon had a smooth way of making the obvious seem utterly irresistible.
Max was standing up, looking at her, and she realized the transaction with Banyon was over. The realtor followed them across the rug to the door of his office.
"Call me if there's anything," he said. "Plumbing. Leaks in the roof. That sort of thing. Call me."
"We'll call," Max said.
There were handshakes, quick flutters of Banyon's tiny fingers.
"Enjoy, enjoy. Have a good summer. I know Professor Zmia will take exquisite care of your property. Worry not...."
Then they were outside in a long fluorescent corridor and walking toward the elevators.
They rode down to the street level in silence. When they were on the sidewalk Max looked this way and that, trying to remember where he might have parked the station wagon. A gust of wind tugged at the hem of Louise's light cotton dress. When they found the car Max unlocked the door. Louise slid onto the passenger seat.
Max slipped the key in the ignition. He stuck the Volvo into first gear and joined the late afternoon traffic. When he braked for a stoplight a tall girl in a red dress walked in front of the car. She had long brown hair that floated behind her, tendrils caught in an updraft. He rubbed the back of his wife's hand, feeling the warm metal of her wedding ring.
Louise said, "I keep wondering about Professor Zmia."
Max smiled at her. "I bet he's going to hold wild orgies as soon as we're gone. Girls in every room. Strange Eastern sexual rites. Incense sticks. The whole thing."
"Then maybe we ought to stay," Louise said. "We might be missing out on something."
Max watched the girl vanish on the other side of the street. There was a dryness in his mouth and at the back of his throat. His hands felt unsteady against the wheel.
He was not even thinking about Professor Zmia. He was not pondering Louise's odd little misgivings about the man. He was thinking how he had his own very private reasons for getting far away from San Francisco.
Louise surveyed Professor Zmia's belongings, which cluttered up one corner of the entranceway to the house. The professor had been moving his stuff in on a daily basis from his temporary living quarters in Oakland. For a while Louise had wondered if the neighbors perhaps suspected illicit undertakings when they saw a small man come and go at odd hours with canvas bags, suitcases and bizarre carvings—fertility statues the professor claimed he had brought from an expedition to Borneo.
Louise leaned against the wall and sighed. How could one man possess so much? The statues were brutal and primitive, squat faces suggestive of ancient magical powers. They had been crudely hewn out of wood. The unsettling thing about them was in their eyes, which were blind and blank and yet still seemed capable, in some unnatural way, of sight. She stepped over suitcases and made it to the living room.
She flopped on the sofa, her legs spread, her arms dangling by her side. She looked around the room with a slight feeling of dispossession. Already Professor Zmia had taken over the house; his physical tenancy was the only thing left to make the takeover complete.
Louise heard a tiny strident voice inside her skull. Cancel, it screamed. Stay here in San Francisco.
She rubbed her eyelids and watched Max flick through the pages of one of the many arcane medical journals to which he subscribed. "Do you think we're just a little crazy?"
Max looked over the edge of his magazine. "Crazy?"
Louise said, "Let's face it, we don't really know anything about where we're going. We don't know what life up there is going to be like. We're not woodsy people, are we?"
"Woodsy," Max said, amused by the word. Sometimes he'd suck on a word like a lozenge, turning it over in his mouth as he tasted it.
"Well, we're not. Especially you," she said.
"Your idea of the great outdoors is a backyard barbecue, Max." The pain in her head was located behind her eyes. "At least I was a Girl Scout once."
Max smiled at her. "We're renting a house, Louise. A solid structure. Wood. Masonry. We're not going to be sleeping under canvas. A house, dear. A telephone. TV. Washer and dryer. Electric stove."
She said, "I know what's in the house, Max. I read Banyon's little brochure. Just the same ..." She let her sentence slide away, unfinished business. She looked at her watch. It was almost five, which meant Dennis would be home soon from the roller-skating rink.
Max put his magazine down. "It's the right thing, Louise. It's a good decision. I won't be sorry to get out of this town for a while." He stared across the room at his wife. "I'm sick of broken bones and varicose veins and drug salesmen. And Ed Stallings is a damn fine doctor, so I've leaving the practice in pretty good hands. I was lucky to find him."
Louise, restless, stood up. She walked to the window, folded her arms under her breasts and looked across the street. The narrow frame houses were stacked one against the other like so many dominoes. It's the right thing, Louise.
She thought of Dennis out there someplace and felt a small panic at the idea that she wasn't one hundred percent certain of his exact location at this precise moment. The Strangler was always out there these days. Sometimes he would even take on a specific characteristic in her mind—cold green eyes, a harelip, a certain kind of walk—but mainly he remained a terrifyingly oblique menace with nothing else on his mind but the murder of her own son, whom he had obsessively singled out from hundreds of thousands of kids in the San Francisco area.
"It's not as if you won't be able to do your own work, Louise."
"You're right," she said, turning to her husband. She smiled. "You've absolutely right." She walked across the room and, bending from the hips, kissed Max on the lips. Then she went to the kitchen and poured a cup of coffee. She sat at the kitchen table, lit a cigarette, sipped the stewed brew, swallowed two Tylenol. She gazed at a scrap of yellow paper attached to the refrigerator door by a magnet in the shape of a tiny bird. It was a list of things still to be done.
spare key for Zmia
So many trifling last-minute chores and tasks. So many little demands. Spare key for Zmia ... She shut her eyes. The professor had told her he lived a spartan vegetarian life; he gave the distinct impression of surviving on nothing but lentils and oxygen and she wasn't even sure about the oxygen. Zmia gave new resonance to the word "ascetic."
Max appeared in the kitchen doorway, leaning against the frame. "It's the perfect situation," he said. "It's absolutely the perfect situation. Do you know how sick I am of sick people?" He approached the table, sat down, took her hand between his own. The quiet pressure of his fingers had a soothing effect. For a long time she didn't move; in her mind she had left San Francisco and was living in a house surrounded by the mysterious silences of a forest. She could feel the darkness of trees press against her and smell air that had been purified by the pines. She could hear the furtive crying of birds.
The vision was rudely broken by a loud clattering sound from the hallway. The explosion of a twelve-year-old boy.
She opened her eyes and smiled at Max. "Here comes the Menace," she said, and rose from the table.
"Bobby Pinkerton says Professor Zmia is going to keep a harem here," Dennis said.
Louise stepped back against the wall as the kid roller-skated past her. She was about to say that skates should not be worn indoors, and most certainly should not be used as a means of transport on an expensive old oak floor, but she let it all slide away.
Not today, she thought. Today she didn't have the energy for haranguing the boy or arguing about Bobby Pinkerton's claims, which were frequently of a preposterous nature. She wondered if Dennis ever believed anything his best friend ever told him. A harem, she thought. She saw rooms filled with veiled women who drifted back and forth awaiting a summons to sexual activities. Professor Zmia naked. Her mind swiveled.
"Bobby Pinkerton's full of it," Dennis added as he rolled into the kitchen.
From the kitchen she could hear Max welcome the kid, followed by an assortment of noises—china rattling, water splashing inside the sink, a refrigerator door slamming shut, and the constant accompaniment of small wheels.
Louise moved to the kitchen doorway. Dennis, leaning against the wink, chewed into an apple. She studied his small, serious face a moment. Sometimes she could see Max in there, a little reflection. At other times she caught a slight glimpse of herself, as if in a mirror at the end of a long hallway. You fall in love with your kid on a daily basis.
"How was the skating?" she asked.
Dennis shrugged. His world was filled with tiny indeterminate gestures. A shrug, a flip of a hand, a twist of his mouth. She wondered if there was a special meaning attached to any one of them.
"Does that mean it was good? Bad? Indifferent?" she asked.
"It was the usual," Dennis said.
"I'm glad you clarified that," Louise said.
She moved to the table and set down, reaching out with one hand to caress Max's wrist. Her husband, her kid, this family; she lowered her face and caught the faint familiar aroma of Max's cologne.
This family. Suddenly it seemed to her an indestructible entity. Inviolate, protected by love.
And she realized that she was afraid of the city. It wasn't simply the fantastic notion of a killer moving through dark streets—no, it was the city itself, the way it grinds you down like rough metal rubbing on rough metal, the way it makes you spin so that you are always hurrying, always rushing to defeat some clock, always moving as if the concept of just sitting still were too terrifying to contemplate. The separation of lives, the individual schedules that erode the structure of family.
Everyone had his or her separate commitments. Max had his patients, the sometimes impossible demands of the practice. Dennis took guitar lessons twice a week and baseball practice on three nights. And she was always working upstairs in her office, always seemingly threatened by the guillotine of some deadline or other or forever running back and forth with her portfolio in her car and going to endless meetings with editors and publishers. These were more than separate commitments. They were separate lives.
Excerpted from The Wanting by Campbell Armstrong. Copyright © 1986 Campbell Black. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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