Madeline Keye’s gift—to touch someone and see flashes of the past—has helped her track missing people. It’s also set her apart from her family and most of the people in her hometown.
So Madeline, already alone, turns to the wilderness for sanctuary. In the backcountry of Glacier National Park, she has always found peace and solace, away from all human contact. Until the day she is caught in a flash-flood and almost dies. Rescued by a handsome stranger, she should feel safe one again.
But she doesn’t. She can’t shake the feeling of being watched…of being hunted. Something is out there in the shadows. Something...hungry. Something...not human. And it wants Madeline.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Table of Contents
Chapter 2 - Several weeks before
Chapter 3 - On the mountain
“With Voracious, Alice Henderson has created a gripping, atavistic supernatural thriller, a sexy, sensuous, and terrifying dark fantasy. It’s breathtaking and merciless, and I can’t wait to see what she does for an encore.”
Bram Stoker Award-winning author
“Heralds the arrival of a major new talent in the dark fiction field. Henderson brings tremendous tension, suspense, and atmosphere with this modern twist on the shape-shifter tale. This is one cool book.”—J. A. Konrath, author of the Jacqueline “Jack” Daniels mystery series
“A terrific debut. Alice Henderson has the talent to evoke nature as an extraordinarily potent force that is nothing short of breathtaking. [Her] vivid evocation of wilderness places is superb in this page-turning story. A writer to watch.”
British Fantasy Award-winning author
“A polished and well-focused novel of raw animal terror. It pits a gutsy, outdoors-loving protagonist against an alluring, shape-shifting demon out of time who lusts not only for her flesh, but also for her extraordinary talent. Alice Henderson deftly crafts her own convincing mythology while telling a compelling, page-turning adventure that makes Glacier National Park itself into a character. Offering crisp action and tingly eroticism, Voracious also boasts an environmental subtext blended with astute philosophical explorations of the predator-prey symbiosis. Henderson’s first novel is both accomplished and a shining promise of more to come. A winner!”—William D. Gagliani, author of Wolf’s Trap and Shadowplays
“You will tear through this book the way Alice Henderson’s monstrous creature tears through its prey. A combination of awe-inspiring setting and deeply personal terror, Voracious is irresistible.”—Richard Dansky, author of Firefly Rain
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
A Jove Book / published by arrangement with the author
Jove mass-market edition / March 2009
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For Norma, who always supported;
Gordon, who ever encouraged;
Becky, who tirelessly read;
and Jason, who always believed
I’d like to thank my agent, Howard Morhaim, for all his work. At Berkley I’d like to thank my editor, Ginjer Buchanan, for being such a pleasure to work with. Thanks to my phenomenal copyeditor, Sandy Su, who did a fantastic and thorough job. I owe much of my inspiration to Glacier National Park, with its jagged, snowy peaks, high alpine trails, and phenomenal wildlife. I hope fellow lovers of this area can forgive the few small liberties I took in my descriptions of the park and its surrounding areas. My deepest gratitude to Jason, for believing in me and being so supportive. And finally, I’d like to thank Norma, my traveling companion, friend, and mother. It was during one of our stays in Glacier National Park that the seeds of this novel were sown. I will always treasure the memories of us hiking along the steep Highline Trail and climbing to Grinnell Glacier.
MADELINE was sure she was being watched. She squatted at the edge of the icy river, pausing a moment to dip her hand into the cold water and glance around behind her. For the past half hour, she’d had the most peculiar feeling that someone was following her, keeping just out of her sight. But she was in the wilderness, the far backcountry, and hadn’t seen another hiker in two days.
She paused at the bottom of a cliff, a waterfall streaming from the top and plunging a hundred feet to form the river at her feet. Mist plumed around her, beading in her eyelashes. The icy bite of the glacial meltwater stung her hand, but it felt good. The air was so hot. She’d never known it to be so hot in the mountains. For the past five days it had been well into the upper nineties. A strenuous four-hour hike had brought her up high into this mountain pass, where waterfalls cascaded over brilliantly green mossy slopes, and marmots scurried through wildflower-strewn meadows before darting back into their safe homes inside rocky slopes.
The feeling of being watched faded. Madeline glanced around her. No one was in sight, just the cloudless blue sky above her and the mountains, immense and snow-covered. It wasn’t like her to get jittery in the backcountry.
She let the water cascade over her hand. It made her feel more than cool; she felt free. She was in the mountains, away from her problems and the pressure of decisions. The wind was stronger by the current, sweeping along the water and bringing with it the cold from the glaciers above.
As she sat at the edge of the water, watching the sun bathe the brilliant yellows and reds of the wildflowers, a tremendous rumble thundered against the mountain. She peered upward toward the sound, where the waterfall disappeared above the cliff face. A resonant crack shook the mountain again, making her jump. She went off balance and crashed onto her knees. Icy water swallowed her hands. Quickly she scrambled away from the river’s edge and got to her feet. Another deep boom cracked against the mountain, sending a shower of pebbles and sand down on her from the cliff above. Madeline readjusted her backpack and looked up nervously to the top of the waterfall. It was definitely coming from up there. But what could it be? She wasn’t close enough to the snowpack for an avalanche.
The earth quaked beneath her.
A sudden shrill symphony of whistles echoed up from the marmots. She glanced over to the nearby rockslide remains, and to her surprise saw marmots fleeing down the side of the mountain, at least twenty of them, skittering and leaping and running.
She suddenly knew that she didn’t have time. She should have run when she first heard it.
Madeline turned and leapt away from the river, the weight of her backpack slamming against her back as she ran, thump, thump, thump.
And then the rumble became a roar, the roar a deafening cacophony of thunder, and in her peripheral vision Madeline saw a wall of water rising up at the top the waterfall, a tremendous wave of white turbulence. And she saw trees in the whiteness, their skeletal roots writhing in the tumult, like gigantic, fleshless hands, flexing and grabbing the air.
Madeline ran, muscles burning with the effort.
She tore across the mountainside, not going down, but going up and across, thinking the water would be less likely to reach her there. If one of those trees hit her in the head, she’d never survive. The air was burning in her lungs now, veins standing out on her neck as she struggled against the weight of her pack that wanted to pull her back.
She thought of dumping it, but there wasn’t time. Madeline raced on, trying not to think about the weight or the crashing water, trying just to flee.
And then the water hit her.
With tremendous force she smashed face-first toward the ground, but before the rocks there could cut her, she was swept off her feet in a torrent of water, tumbling and twisting and going under. Her nose filled with water, and she gasped for breath as her head went down into the frigid torrent. The fierce current whipped her around mercilessly, as if she weighed no more than a leaf.
As Madeline struggled to right herself beneath the water, her feet tangled in something hard and unyielding with a million fingers that snaked out to grab her. Rough wood and branches cut into her legs and arms, and she realized it was a tree, rolling in the current beneath her.
The air burned in her lungs. She had to get a breath. Twisting and contorting, she couldn’t even flip herself over. It was as if something was holding her down, trying to drown her. She struggled more, pushing against the rough bark of the tree while struggling to hold her breath. But she couldn’t wriggle free. Her backpack caught in the branches, holding her fast.
Forcing herself to calm down, she unbuckled the straps around her hips and chest, then slipped her arms out. Kicking out vigorously, she broke branches and got free. She desperately swam toward what she thought was the surface. But her grappling hands found only branches and the rough rocks. She bounced against them painfully, cracking her knee and bashing her elbow.
Over and over she somersaulted in the freezing water, until she was so disoriented she had no idea which way was toward air. Tumbling, crashing, pounding over rock after rock, plunging ever downward, down the mountain.
She grasped desperately at branches and rocks as they passed by over and under and next to her. And then she was careening head over foot, arms flailing in the frigid water, legs scraping painfully against passing granite beneath her, bones connecting painfully with solid rock, jutting edges and boulders and slabs of scraping roughness.
She coughed involuntarily, her lungs out of air.
She tried to swim in the other direction, kicking out frantically. For a second she was fighting through a maze of branches, and then a hard slap of water hit her in the face. Her head reached air. She gasped deeply, saw a moment of blue sky just before the tremendous trunk of a tree spun into her line of sight and connected violently with her head.
A blinding light erupted behind her eyes, and her muscles refused to work as she sank down into the frigid darkness.
Several weeks before
WHEN the knock sounded on Madeline’s door, she started so badly that tea sloshed out of her cup and onto her book. She looked up from the couch, seeing the outline of someone behind the door curtain. She glanced down at her watch. It couldn’t be George. He wasn’t due back in town until later that day.
Her stomach went sour as she rose, trying to make out the shape behind the curtain: a woman.
The knock came again, but Madeline stood frozen in the middle of the tiny apartment. After a moment’s hesitation she sat back down, opening her book once more. Then the knocking started again. Incessant knocking.
“Madeline?” came a woman’s voice from the other side of the door. “Are you in there?”
Who the hell?
“Please, Madeline. It’s a matter of life and death. We need you.”
Need her? No one had ever needed her before. Avoided her at all costs, but not needed her.
“It’s my daughter. She’s missing.”
The book fell out of Madeline’s loose fingers. Slowly she rose to her feet, then walked numbly to the door. Pulling aside the little curtain, she saw Natalie Stevenson, a young mother who had often whispered about Madeline at the grocery store or in the line at the post office.
“Your mom told me where I could find you,” Natalie said through the glass.
“My mom?” A daze filled Madeline’s head. She didn’t realize her parents knew anything but her PO address.
“Please.” Natalie’s tearstained face was pitifully red and swollen.
Then Madeline felt herself opening the door though everything inside her screamed to just lower the curtain and walk away.
Ten minutes later, Madeline raced across a field behind the Stevensons’ house, clutching the last thing little Kate Stevenson had been known to touch; a small robot action figure. She tried not to stumble, speeding faster and faster as she leapt through the tall grass. Clearing her mind, she let the images come to her freely.
The little girl in a white dress, playing and laughing behind the Stevensons’ house with a stuffed dinosaur and the robot toy.
Two older boys approaching. Teasing the little girl about her dad. “He’s a drunk.”
The girl, defiant at first. “No, he’s not.”
The boys continue taunting, malice in their eyes. “Saw him. Wrecked the company car. He’s a useless drunk.”
The girl, sobbing. “No, he’s not!”
“Didn’t you hear? Old Man Taggert fired him. You’re going to starve. He won’t work in this town again.”
“No!” The little girl dropping the robot, running out of the yard, clutching her dinosaur. Entering the field at the edge of the property.
The boys laughing, staying behind.
Madeline ran on. The blond grass whipped and stung her bare legs below her shorts.
In a place where the grass was smashed flat, she spotted something brown. She raced to the spot and looked down. The brown, furry face of a brontosaurus smiled up at her. Bending over, she picked up the toy. Emotions swept over her. Images.
The little girl in the white dress sobbing uncontrollably in the grass, chest heaving, thinking about her dad, of the stink of alcohol on his breath.
Memories of a time the girl had spied on him from the stairs as he pulled a bottle of vodka out from behind the worn couch cushions and took a long, deep drink.
The girl kneeling in the grass for a long time, sobbing until her chest shuddered when she inhaled.
Then dropping the dinosaur and running on, toward her secret place, a lightning-scarred hollow tree beyond the old dam.
The girl had left for it just a few moments before.
Clutching the brontosaurus tight under her arm, Madeline raced forward. Ahead lay the edge of the woods. Beyond that burbled the rushing white water of the North Cascade River and the old cement dam, abandoned in the 1940s. She raced to the edge of the woods and entered the forest, the rich scent of sun-warmed pine greeting her. Following the worn path that dam workers had used decades before, she strained her ears for any sound of the girl, but the gentle whisper of wind in the pine needles muffled the sounds around her. A pounding cacophony erupted, slowing her pace, but she realized instantly it was a woodpecker, high in the trees, thrumming away on a decaying tree. She ran on.
Soon the roar of white water replaced the whisper of wind. The air temperature dropped noticeably as the cool air blew off the river. The old dam came into view, a narrow expanse of concrete built over the tumbling teal water. The large turbines had been removed in the ’40s, leaving large holes through which the water now filtered.
On one side of the dam the glacier-fed river ran wide and deep. In the beginning of the century, when the dam was still relatively new, a lake had formed on that side of the barrier. But over the years it slowly drained away as more and more cracks opened in the old cement. On the other side of the dam, water gushed from the turbine holes with explosive force, returning to its native river form, free from its man-made confines.
Madeline stopped, staring at that white churning water, a vivid memory of her friend Ellie floating down those seething depths. She couldn’t do this. Not the river.
She stopped short of crossing the dam and looked around for the girl. “Kate!” she yelled. The roar of the water filled her ears. Even if the girl yelled back, Madeline might not be able to hear her.
The hollowed-out tree lay on the other side of the dam. To reach it, Madeline would have to walk out over the top of the dam, a narrow ridge of concrete spanning the rapids below. She hadn’t crossed that dam since the day she lost Ellie. She couldn’t do it again. “Kate!” she called.
Kneeling down into the soft bed of pine needles, she touched the edge of the dam, hoping to get an image that would tell her if the girl had run this far. Her fingers rested on the rough concrete, and images rushed into her.
Kate, reaching the dam and starting across it, hands thrust out to maintain her balance, eyes blurring with tears, barely able to see the concrete ridge under her feet.
Balance failing, arms windmilling, the girl, terrified, falling over the side.
Freezing water engulfing her, desperate swimming, rough rocks banging her knees and scraping her arms.
Then the black mouth of the turbine hole fast approaching, the water sucking her inside. Crashing into a clump of sharp debris on the opposite side of the hole, held there, stuck there, lungs burning with lack of air as the water flooded past her body, stealing her warmth.
Trying to scramble free, but too weak against the strength of the current, too hung up in long, snaking arms of old, slimy branches.
Madeline gasped and straightened up.
The girl was drowning.
Or dead already. Ellie.
Without thinking, she dropped the stuffed dinosaur and robot, tore off her boots, threw them to the side, and ran onto the dam. Leaping off where the girl had fallen, she drew in a breath as she plunged into the icy cold below. Instantly the numbing water knocked the air from her chest. She fought to the surface, gasped in fresh air, and then plunged back in, swimming up next to the dam. The force of water against her was incredible, and for a moment she didn’t think she’d be able to move where she wanted. It slammed her against the side of the dam and held her there.
The turbine holes lay on the bottom of the dam, and she managed to creep downward, using the force of water to steady herself against the dam. Her eyes wide in the clear water, she found the edge of an opening and pulled herself downward to peer inside.
White fabric filled the hole, plastered against the tumble of branches and mud beyond, and she realized it was the little girl’s dress, tossed in the powerful current. The hole reached back at least three feet, and Madeline could barely make out the girl’s hair-plastered face, just a hint of pale in the turbulence among a dozen twigs and sticks and leaves spiraling madly inside. While the openings in the debris were certainly large enough for water to get through, they weren’t large enough for a human to escape.
Snaking her arm into the opening, she attempted to grab Kate, Madeline’s arm whipping violently in the current. The little girl wasn’t moving. Her hair parted in a gust of current, and Madeline saw with horror that her eyes and mouth gaped open.
Pulling herself down farther, she managed to make contact with the girl’s arm. She tugged fiercely, but couldn’t even budge her. The current was both helpful and harmful; while it kept her plastered against the side of the dam, it was just too powerful to yank Kate out.
But Madeline tried again, this time reaching both arms into the large hole and grasping one of Kate’s legs. Suddenly Madeline slid down farther, crying out underwater for fear that she, too, would be sucked into the hole. But then her position stabilized. Pulling with all her strength, Madeline squeezed her eyes shut, no air left in her lungs. Kate’s body gave a little, but she realized there was no way she’d be able to pull her free from the hole and then around the lip and up to safety.
She had to think of something else.
Letting go, she crawled up the side of the dam and burst into the air above. Gasping, she didn’t stop to recover, instead gripping the edge of the dam and pulling herself up dripping onto the top.
The glacial meltwater had robbed her of every bit of warmth, her cold muscles rebelling with every movement. She peered over the other side of the dam. If she couldn’t pull Kate out, maybe she could yank the debris free from the other side.
Knowing she couldn’t fight the current if she just leapt in, Madeline dashed back to the bank of the river, ran around the dam, and waded into the frigid water on the other side. Before her the water roared out of the four turbine holes. Kate lay trapped in the second. Pressing against the wall of the dam, Madeline waded out to the first out spout in thigh-high water. It was too high to leap over, and she couldn’t crawl under it because it rushed out flush with the riverbed. Her only option was to wade out farther into the torrent where the current would be less powerful and then burst across the outpour. Leaving the safety of the dam wall, she cut out diagonally, reached the rushing column of water, and then made a dash across it. Instantly her feet swept out from under her, and she desperately kicked and swam, angling back toward the dam. Her feet hit large rocks beneath, and she used them to spring-board back into the shallows next to the dam.
Now she was between the first two turbine holes. She ran toward the second one. Roughly four feet across, the dark hole erupted water at a violent rate. She wasn’t sure if she could even thrust her hands into the outpour. Approaching the opening from the side, Madeline braced one foot against the dam and forced her arms into the frigid water. Immediately the water spat her hands back out. She tried again, more quickly this time, and her fingers laced around a thick, knotted branch inside the hole. She pulled, straining, to no avail, the algae on the wood making the branch too slippery to hang on to. The angle was too awkward, not giving her enough leverage.
Not letting go of the branch, Madeline moved forward, plunging her entire body into the outflow and bracing her legs on the dam below the opening. Cold water exploded over her body, bursting up under her chin and spraying out behind her. Throwing her back into the effort, Madeline strained against the branch, gritting her teeth, gasping for air when she got the chance.
The thick branch slipped and shifted a little to one side, and she strained harder. It shifted again and came free in a wave of debris, hurtling Madeline backward into the river with explosive force. Twigs and branches lashed at her arms and legs as she gasped for breath and went under, releasing the heavy branch to the depths below.
Turbulent water tossed and somersaulted her, dashing her against slippery rocks. She found her bearings and righted herself in the current, head bobbing above the surface. Desperately she looked around for Kate, for a hint of white fabric among the deep teal and thrashing whitecaps of the river.
Sun-bleached branches floated by her, twigs, leaves, and then she saw the girl, bobbing facedown on the surface a few feet away. Just like Ellie. Madeline swam toward her, coughing up icy water and struggling against the current. Her hand closed around gauzy fabric, and she pulled, reeling the girl in against her body. She turned her over quickly, horrified to see the wide-open eyes, the blue lips of the tiny mouth.
Angling an arm beneath the girl’s chin, Madeline swam on her side toward the shore, a tangle of sodden logs, pine needles, and kinnikinnick bushes. She reached the bank, hauled the girl out in front of her, and then crawled onto the soggy earth beside her.
Immediately she felt for a pulse and was relieved to find one, though it was very weak. But the girl was not breathing.
Madeline’s father was a wildlands firefighter and emergency medical technician and had taught her CPR when she was just a kid.
Madeline went to work.
She remembered she had to check three things: airway, breathing, and circulation. Rolling the girl onto her side, Madeline reached into her mouth and checked for obstructions. Her index finger hooked around a small twig and a plug of mud, and she fished them out. Squeezing the girl, she forced water from her lungs. A stream of fluid escaped between the blue lips, followed, to Madeline’s great relief, by a small gasp. Quickly she worked to stabilize her, administering a ten-count of mouth-to-mouth. Kate coughed and sputtered, drawing in a ragged breath, her eyes fluttering, blinking, and tearing up. Madeline checked her pulse. It was stronger.
The girl coughed again, flecks of water raining from her mouth.
Madeline had to get help. Knowing it was too dangerous to move her, she spoke softly to her. “Can you hear me?” After a moment, Kate’s eyes turned and attempted to focus on Madeline. “I have to get help. You have to lie here very still while I’m gone, do you understand? You could have other injuries, and moving around might make them worse.” The girl didn’t speak, just continued to breathe raggedly, her eyes dazed and wide. “I’ll be back as fast as I can.” Madeline didn’t like how blue the girl’s skin was. Hypothermia. She had to move quickly.
Trying to determine how far they’d drifted downstream, she stood, shivering in her own soaked clothing. “I’ll be back,” she said, looking back down at the girl reassuringly.
The girl’s mouth moved, a whisper escaping her lips.
“What?” Madeline bent down to listen.
“Winthrop,” the girl whispered.
Madeline raised her eyebrows. “Winthrop?”
“My . . . my dino.”
Madeline thought of the smiling brontosaurus she’d found in the field. “He’s fine,” she told Kate. “I found him myself. He’s waiting for you.”
The girl shuddered and coughed again.
“Try to stay awake,” Madeline told her, and then dashed off along the riverbank in her sock feet. Avoiding sharp rocks and pointed branches, she soon reached the dam and the worn path. Grabbing her shoes, she slid them on, not bothering to lace them. Stooping again, she grabbed Winthrop and the robot and took off for town.
Madeline reached the Stevensons’ house in under ten minutes, a painful stitch in her side and her lungs on fire. Kate’s parents summoned the paramedics. The minutes stretched endlessly as they waited. Madeline knew her father would likely be one of the respondents, and she dreaded seeing him, not knowing what to say. The ambulance roared up, and he jumped out of the back, saving her the awkwardness of talking to him by completely ignoring her. Even as she led them back to Kate, he didn’t so much as meet her eyes. On the riverbank, the EMTs immobilized Kate on a gurney and transported her back to the ambulance. Madeline placed Winthrop next to Kate’s thin arm as they loaded her inside.