In true horror tradition, that which is scary isn't the monster itself. In detective fiction, we must go through the darkness with the main character. Seeck paces out Jessica Niemi’s pursuit of a serial killer at a breakneck speed, all balanced by Niemi’s backstory. Her origins, the things that motivate her and her secrets are all carefully meted out in such a way that we become even more involved in the story. Current story and backstory align as we head into the final chapters of the book. It’s an exhilarating journey.
A shocking murder in an affluent Helsinki suburb has ties to witchcraft and the occult in this thrilling U.S. debut from Finnish author Max Seeck.
A bestselling author’s wife has been found dead in a gorgeous black evening gown, sitting at the head of an empty dining table. Her most chilling feature—her face is frozen in a ghastly smile.
At first it seems as though a deranged psychopath is reenacting the gruesome murders from the Witch Hunt trilogy, bestsellers written by the victim’s husband. But investigator Jessica Niemi soon realizes she’s not looking for a single killer but rather for dozens of believers in a sinister form of witchcraft who know her every move and are always one step ahead.
As the bodies start piling up, Jessica knows they won’t stop until they get what they want. And when her dark past comes to light, Jessica finds herself battling her own demons while desperately trying to catch a coven of killers before they claim their next victim.
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The wind has picked up, and the corners of the massive glass-and-skimmed-concrete house wail restlessly. The tap-tap carrying from the roof has gradually intensified; the faint pops call to mind the spitting of an open fire. The incredible speed with which the accumulation of white dunes on the patio now vanishes speaks of the gusts' force. Maria Koponen knots her cardigan tightly around her waist and stares out the floor-to-ceiling windows into the darkness. She gazes at the frozen sea-which at this time of year is remarkably reminiscent of a vast, flat field-and then at the path plowed down to the dock, illuminated by knee-high yard lights.
Maria curls her toes into the plush carpet that reaches almost to the edges of the expansive floor. It's warm inside the house, cocoonlike. Even so, Maria feels uneasy, and the tiniest grievances strike her as unusually annoying tonight. Like those damn expensive yard lights that still don't work the way they should.
Maria is roused from her reverie when she realizes the music has stopped. She walks past the fireplace to the enormous bookshelf, where her husband's collection of four hundred records has been organized in five neat rows. Over the years, Maria has gotten used to the fact that, in this household, music is not played from a smartphone. Vinyl just sounds a hell of a lot better. That's what Roger said to her years ago, when she paused in front of the collection for the first time. There were more than three hundred albums then, a hundred fewer than now. The fact that the number of records has grown slowly, comparatively speaking, during their shared existence makes Maria think about how much life Roger lived before her. Without her. Maria was with only one man before Roger: a high school romance that had led to marrying young and ended with her meeting the famous writer. Unlike Roger, Maria has never tasted the single life. Sometimes she wishes she'd also had a chance to experience irresponsible floundering, finding herself, one-night stands. Freedom.
Maria is not the least bit bothered by the fact that Roger is sixteen years her senior. But a thought has begun to nag at her: that she might one day wake up to a sense of restlessness, the sort that will not die until she has plunged into the unknown a sufficient number of times. And Roger already had the chance to experience that in his previous life. Now, suddenly, on this stormy February night Maria spends pacing alone around their massive waterfront home, she sees this as a threat for the first time. An imbalance that could cause the ship of their relationship to list dangerously, were they ever to drift into a true storm.
Maria lifts the needle of the record player, takes the vinyl disc between her fingertips, and slides it carefully into its cardboard sleeve, where a young artist in a brown suede jacket and a black-and-white-checked scarf looks directly into the camera, self-assured and surly. Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde. Maria returns the record to its place and picks a new one at random from the end of the alphabetically organized collection. A moment later, after a brief crackle, Stevie Wonder's honeyed, compassionate voice reverberates from the speakers.
And then Maria sees it again. This time out of the corner of her eye. The yard light closest to the shore drifts off for a moment. And comes back on.
It goes dark for only a fraction of a second, just as it did a moment before. Maria knows the lighting elements glowing inside the fixtures were replaced before Christmas. She remembers it well, because she is the one who paid the electrician's tastelessly inflated invoice. And for that reason, this trivial matter kindles an inordinate pique in her.
Maria grabs her phone and taps out a message to Roger. She isn't sure why she feels the urge to trouble her husband with such a matter, especially since she knows he is on a stage addressing his readers at this very moment. Perhaps the cause is a fleeting flurry of loneliness, mingled with a dash of uncertainty and unjustified jealousy. Maria watches her sent message for a moment, waiting for the little arrows at the bottom edge to turn blue, but they don't; Roger is not paying attention to his phone.
At that moment, the record gets stuck: What I'm about to. What I'm about to. What I'm . . . Wonder's voice sounds uncertain, thanks to the bit excised from the beautiful sentiment. Some of Roger's records are in such poor condition they aren't worth keeping. Doesn't anything in this goddamn house work?
And then Maria feels a cold wave wash over her. Before she has time to make sense of what she has just realized, she looks out the sliding doors and sees something that doesn't belong there. For a moment the contours line up with those of her reflection. But then the figure moves, transforming into a distinct entity of its own.
Roger Koponen sits himself in a chair upholstered in a coarse, perspiration-inducing fabric and squints. The spots hanging from the ceiling of the conference center's main auditorium are shining right into the eyes of those onstage. For a moment all he sees is blinding light; he forgets that before him and his two author colleagues sit four hundred curious readers who have packed into this auditorium to listen to their favorite boozers' thoughts on their latest works.
Roger understands that the event is important in terms of promoting his book. He understands why he would bother to drive four hundred kilometers in heavy snow to spend the night at a serviceable dump slapped up on Savonlinna's main square, its mediocre fast-food restaurant on the ground floor dolled up with tablecloths and table service. But what Roger doesn't understand is why the good people of Savonlinna would bother to show up on a night like this. Even though his books have sold millions of copies worldwide, he is never going to be an idol besieged by shrieking fans. Few people ever reflect that musicians and authors do very similar work-same shit, different package-but only the former inspire middle-aged women to toss their panties onstage. But people still show up. The majority are seniors, tilting their heads slowly to one side and then the other. Aren't they tired of the sportscaster-style banalities and superficial analyses authors spew about their own work? Apparently not, as it appears to be a full house: not a single empty seat.
Roger's latest psychological thriller, launched the previous spring, is the third and final book in his enormously popular Witch Hunt trilogy. His books have always sold relatively well, but the Witch Hunt series blew up. No one anticipated this sort of megasuccess, least of all his agent, who originally held a skeptical view of the entire project, or his former publisher, whom Roger dumped prior to the publication of the first installment due to their lack of confidence in its prospects. But in the space of a few years, translation rights for the trilogy have been sold in almost thirty countries and more deals are in the pipeline. Although he and Maria were doing fine before, now they can buy themselves whatever they want. Suddenly all possible luxuries and pleasures are within reach.
The evening goes predictably; Roger has heard the questions hundreds of times during his promotional tours and answered them in four different languages, intermittently modulating his cadence, intonation, and minor details with the exclusive aim of keeping himself awake amid the fog of bright lights and forced laughter.
"Your books are quite violent," a voice says, but Roger doesn't look up from the pitcher he's using to fill his water glass for the third or fourth time. He hears this a lot too, and there's no denying it: brutal murders, sadistic torture, sexual violence directed at women, and nightmarish dives into the depravity of sick minds are described in Roger Koponen's works in graphic detail.
"It reminds me of Bret Easton Ellis, who has said he processes his angst by writing detailed depictions of violence," the voice continues. Now Roger shifts his gaze to the man sitting halfway back in the auditorium, microphone in his hand. Roger raises the glass to his lips and waits for the man to ask his question. Instead, there's an awkwardly long pause as the man collects his thoughts.
"Are you afraid? Is that why you write?" the man finally asks in a flat, reedy voice. Roger puts down the glass and takes a closer look at the balding scarecrow of a man. Surprising and interesting. Almost brazen. Now, this is a question he has never heard before.
Roger leans in, bringing his mouth closer to the flexible microphone on the table. For some reason, he feels a pang of hunger at this instant. "Am I afraid?"
"Have you written your own fears into your books?" the man asks, then lowers the microphone to his lap. There's an annoying smugness to the guy. There's not a hint of the jittery respect, the certain reverence fame brings and that Roger has grown accustomed to.
"Right," Roger says, and smiles thoughtfully. For a moment he forgets the person posing the question and allows his gaze to wander across the sea of faces. "I think that something of the author always finds its way into the work. You can't help writing about what you know about or think you know about. Fears, hopes, traumas, things left undone, and then of course the things you did and justified to yourself too easily . . ."
"You're not answering the question." The gaunt man has raised the microphone up to his lips again. Roger feels first surprise and then irritation cutting through him. What is this, a fucking interrogation? I don't have to listen to this shit, regardless of the circumstances.
"Could you please be more specific?" Pave Koskinen, the ineradicable literary critic who organized this event and is serving as moderator, has intervened. He no doubt feels that he has handled his role with panache and gusto but is now afraid that his star guest, the red-hot thriller writer who has written three international bestsellers, will take offense.
But Roger raises a pacifying hand into the air and smiles self-confidently. "I apologize. Perhaps I didn't understand the question. Do I write about what I'm most afraid of?"
"No. The other way around," the man says in an unusually cold tone. Someone in the front row coughs maddeningly.
Roger hides his confusion behind an idiotic smile. "The other way around?"
"Yes, Mr. Roger Koponen," the man continues mechanically, and the way he utters Roger's name is not only sarcastic, but vaguely chilling. "Are you afraid of what you write?"
"Why would I be afraid of my own books?"
"Because truth is stranger than fiction," the thin-faced man replies, then sits back down. An awkward silence falls over the room.
Ten minutes later, Roger takes a seat at a long table covered with a white tablecloth in the lobby, which is abuzz with people and chatter. The first fan in the line of those hoping for an autograph is Pave Koskinen. Who else?
"Thanks, Roger. Thanks. And sorry about that one knucklehead. You handled it beautifully. Unfortunately, not everyone is blessed with social skills. . . ."
Roger smiles. "No worries, Pave. There's one in every crowd. The only thing any of us is responsible for in this world is our own behavior." He registers that Pave has lowered all three books of the trilogy to the table for signing. As he scrawls out something ostensibly personal along with his name on the title pages, he glances up at the snaking line in front of him and silently notes that the thin-faced crackpot is nowhere in sight. Luckily. He wouldn't necessarily be able to handle a face-to-face provocation as diplomatically.
"Thank you, Roger. Thank you. We have a table reserved at the hotel restaurant at nine. They make a mean rack of lamb." Pave smiles and stands there in front of Roger, clutching the books to his chest like an eager schoolgirl. Roger nods slowly and lowers his gaze to the table, a prisoner who has just received his sentence. It shouldn't be hard for Pave to realize that Roger would rather retreat to his room. He has come to despise the banal chitchat and forced wine swilling that as far as he can tell has zero impact on sales of his books. He could just as easily decline the invitation and allow himself to be branded an asocial asshole.
"Sounds great," Roger says wearily, twisting his face up in an almost credible smile. Pave Koskinen nods in satisfaction, revealing teeth that are more or less white, thanks to new crowns. He seems unsure of himself.
Then he steps aside, making way for the winding centipede of book-cradling readers.
Sergeant Jessica Niemi ties back her shoulder-length black hair into a ponytail and pulls on a pair of leather gloves. A bright signal sounds as she opens the passenger door; the engine is still running.
"Thanks for the ride."
The man at the wheel yawns. "It's probably best if no one knows who dropped you off."
They look at each other for a moment as if each is expecting a kiss. But neither will make the first move.
"This was so fucking wrong."
Jessica steps out of the car and narrows her eyes; the icy wind scrapes her face. It has snowed heavily, and the plows rumbling over at the school haven't made it to the waterfront yet. Jessica shuts the car door and sees a large contemporary house looming before her: a compact front yard, an arborvitae hedge clipped at eye level, a wrought iron gate. Two police vans are parked on the street out front, and based on the sirens howling in the distance, more are on their way.
"Hey there." A man decked out in heavyweight blue police coveralls steps out from behind one of the vans and walks up to Jessica. "Officer Koivuaho."
"Jessica Niemi." She shows her badge, but her colleagues in uniform have already recognized her. She has caught a few of the nicknames in passing. Sergeant Sweetcheeks. Lara Croft. PILF.
"What happened?" Jessica asks.
"Goddamn it. . . ." Koivuaho takes off his navy blue cap and rubs his bald head.
Jessica waits patiently for the officer to pull himself together. She glances over at the house and sees that the front door is ajar.
"We picked up the call at ten fifteen. Taskinen and I were pretty close, so we were the first patrol to show up." Koivuaho gestures for Jessica to follow him through the gate. She does, acknowledging the officers waiting near the van with a nod.