A Darkness Absolute by Kelley Armstrong is the 2nd book in the Casey Duncan series (available February 7, 2017).
When experienced homicide detective Casey Duncan first moved to the secret town of Rockton, she expected a safe haven for people like her, people running from their past misdeeds and past lives. She knew living in Rockton meant living off-the-grid completely: no cell phones, no Internet, no mail, very little electricity, and no way of getting in or out without the town council’s approval. What she didn’t expect is that Rockton comes with its own set of secrets and dangers.
Now, in A Darkness Absolute, Casey and her fellow Rockton sheriff’s deputy Will chase a cabin-fevered resident into the woods, where they are stranded in a blizzard. Taking shelter in a cave, they discover a former resident who’s been held captive for over a year. When the bodies of two other women turn up, Casey and her colleagues must find out if it’s an outsider behind the killings or if the answer is more complicated than that … before another victim goes missing.
We’ve been tracking Shawn Sutherland for almost two hours when the blizzard strikes. That’s the common phrasing. A storm hits. A blizzard strikes. Like a left hook out of nowhere. Except that’s not how it usually happens. There’s always warning. The wind picks up. The sky darkens. At the very least, you sense a weight in the air. When the snow starts, you might curse at the suddenness of it, but you know it wasn’t sudden at all.
This blizzard is different. Deputy Will Anders and I are roaring along on our snowmobiles, following a clear set of footprints in newly fallen snow. I’m glad Sutherland’s prints are obvious, because it’s such a gorgeous day, I struggle to focus on my task. The sun glitters off snow and ice as I whip along, taking my corners a little too tight, playing with the machine, enjoying the ride on what has become a rather routine task.
Rockton is a secret off-the-grid town, a safe haven for people in hiding. If a resident keeps his head down and doesn’t cause trouble, we don’t notice him. Until last month, that was Sutherland. Then the first snow came, and he snapped, declaring that he wasn’t spending another winter in this town. He’s run twice since then. Our boss—Sheriff Eric Dalton—warned Sutherland that if it happened again, he would spend the winter in the jail cell instead. Protecting citizens is our responsibility, even when it means protecting them from themselves.
Yesterday, Dalton flew to Dawson City on a supply run and, yep, Sutherland bolted again. But he’s too afraid of the forest to actually leave the path, which makes him very easy to track after a light snowfall. Hell, I’d have taken the horses instead if Dalton wasn’t due back before nightfall; I need Sutherland caught by then. Given that the sun starts setting midafternoon, we don’t have much time.
We’re ripping along when I catch sight of a dark shape ahead. Anders doesn’t see it—he’s gawking at something to the left, and I flip up my visor to shout at him. Then I see what he does: a wall of white. It’s on us before I can react, a cyclone of driving snow and roaring wind, and I hit the brakes so hard my ass shoots off the seat and nearly sends me face-first through the windshield.
The sled’s back slides—right into a tree. I curse, but on a path this narrow, striking a tree is damn near inevitable. I’m just lucky I wasn’t the one hitting it.
I hear Dalton’s voice in my head. Stay on the sled. Get your bearings first.
When I lift my leg over the seat, I hear him say, Stay on the sled, Butler. I ignore him and twist to look around.
White. That’s all I see. Blinking against the prickle of ice pellets, I close my visor. Even with it shut, I hear the howl of the wind, an enraged beast battering at me.
I slit my eyes, turn my face from the wind, open my visor, and shout “Will!” but the storm devours my words. When I open my mouth to yell again, the wind whips rock-hard ice pellets into my face, and I slap the visor shut.
The first lick of panic darts through me, some primal voice screaming that I’m blinded and deafened, and if I don’t move, don’t do something, I’ll die in this wasteland, buried under ice and snow.
And that’s exactly the kinda thinking that’ll get you killed, Casey.
Dalton’s voice in my head again, a laconic drawl this time. He switches to my given name as his temper subsides, knowing all I need is a little bit of guidance from the guy who’s spent every winter of his life in this forest.
I take a deep breath and then try the radio. Yes, that should have been the obvious first response, but four months up here has taught me that our radios are about as reliable as the toy versions I used as a kid. The second I pull off my helmet, the driving snow has me closing my eyes, hunkering down, and blindly raising the receiver to my ear.
“Butler to base,” I say. “Anyone there?”
“Anders?” I say. “Will? You copy?”
I’m not surprised when silence answers. Unless his helmet is off, he won’t hear his radio.
I squint in front of me, where he’d been only minutes ago.
He’s there. He must be. I just can’t see through this damn snow.
The howl of the wind responds.
I put my helmet back on and push the ignition button. As soon as the engine fires up, I know that’s the wrong move. Anders was in front of me. I risk bashing into his sled. Or into him.
Dalton would tell me to stay on the sled. But if Anders is doing the same thing, maybe five feet away, we’ll freeze to death out here.
Which is why I told you not to go chasing Sutherland. Maybe if he loses a few fingers to frostbite, that’ll teach him.
Okay, so I screwed up. Live and learn. But I need to do something, because there’s no way in hell I can sit tight and pray this blizzard ends before I die of exposure.
Hanging on to the handlebars, I pry my ass off the snowmobile, fighting a wind that wants to knock me into the nearest tree. My snowmobile suit billows, and threatens to send me airborne. The snowsuit is militia gear, meant for guys twice my weight.
I fight my way off the sled. Gripping the seat back with one glove, I open the saddlebags and root around until I find the rope. Then I remove my gloves, and the moment I do, I can’t feel my fingers and panic starts anew, every cold-weather warning about exposed skin racing back and—
As long as it’s snowing, it’s not actually that cold.
Dalton’s voice rattles off statistics about northern temperatures and windchill and snowfall. I manage to tie the rope on the seat back. I stop to rub my hands briskly before double-checking the knot. Then, gloves on, I set out, hunched and hanging on to the rope, my oversized snowsuit snapping around me like a sail. A gust whips down from the treetops and the next thing I know, I’m flat on my back, staring into swirling white as I struggle to catch my breath.
Up, Butler. This isn’t the time for snow angels.
I flash Dalton a mental middle finger and roll onto my stomach. Then I crawl, my head down against the gale.
They did not prepare me for this in police college.
Yeah, yeah. Move your ass.
I’m a homicide detective, not a tracking hound.
Well, then, maybe you shouldn’t have tried tracking him.
I grumble and keep inching along as the rope plays out behind me. I spot an elongated dark shape ahead. Anders’s snowmobile. I pick up my pace, and as if in answer, the gale picks up too, snow beating from every direction. I grit my teeth and keep going, focused on that dark shape even as snow piles on my visor. Finally I’m there and I reach out and—
Something grabs my hand. Grabs and yanks, and I fall with a yelp. I look up, ready to give Anders shit, but when I wipe my visor, all I see is the dark shape of his sled.
The wind dies, just for a second, and I hear a whining. The wind? I spot something whizzing past right in front of me, and it takes a moment to realize I’m seeing the snowmobile track running. The sled is on its side. The track is what “grabbed” my hand—I’d reached out and touched it.
Sled. On its side. Still running.
I struggle to my feet and yank open my visor, yelling, “Will!” as I stumble forward. I grab the nearest part of the sled that isn’t the running track belt and fight that wind to get around the snowmobile. That’s when I see the windshield. The broken windshield. And I see the tree that the sled almost skimmed past, the left side hitting just hard enough to stop the snowmobile dead, and Anders …
Anders did not stop.
There was a six foot two, brawny man riding that snowmobile, without any restraints, and when it hit the tree, the force flung him through that windshield into the endless white beyond.
Copyright © 2017 Kelley Armstrong.
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Kelley Armstrong graduated with a degree in psychology and then studied computer programming. Now she is a full-time writer and parent, and she lives with her husband and three children in rural Ontario, Canada. She is the author of City of the Lost, the first book in the Casey Duncan mystery series.