Face Off: New Excerpt
Face Off by New York Times-bestselling author Brenda Novak is the next installment of Dr. Evelyn Talbot and her murderous home for psychopaths.
Tortured and left for dead at 16, Evelyn Talbot turned her personal nightmare into her life’s work―studying the disturbing psychopathy of some of the world’s most vicious serial killers. Now a leading psychiatrist at Hanover House in a small Alaskan town, she tries to believe the past will never come back to haunt her―until a woman goes missing from a cabin nearby, and every clue points to the man who once brutalized her…
As her boyfriend, who is the area’s only police, begins to investigate―and finds not one but two bodies―Evelyn can’t forget that her would-be killer, Jasper Moore, was never caught. But there are no new faces in tiny Hilltop, no one who seems suspicious or potentially violent. In this twisted game of cat and mouse, Evelyn is certain of only one thing―Jasper must be hiding in plain sight. And if she can’t find him before he comes for her, she won’t be lucky enough to survive twice…
The weather was turning.
Sierra Yerbowitz stood at the window of the small, rustic cabin she’d rented with her brother and his two friends and felt her stomach muscles tighten as she watched a sea of dark clouds roll toward her. She’d always wanted to visit Alaska, had wondered what the last frontier was like. With climate change and population growth, she knew it wouldn’t remain unspoiled forever. Because it was vastly different from Louisiana, where she and her family lived, it intrigued her. So when her brother offered to take her on the hunting trip he’d been planning for ages, she’d readily agreed.
She would’ve preferred visiting in the summer, when daylight lasted longer and bad weather wasn’t much of an issue. But Leland and his friends Peter and Ted were each determined to bag a moose, and their permits specified that they could hunt only from September 15 to October 15. They’d hoped to come in September, but a conflict in schedules left them with no other option than to take the trip after October 8.
“Where are you?” she muttered, searching for any sign of the men driving through the trees beyond the snow that covered the ground immediately surrounding her. Surely Leland and his friends had spotted the clouds and were heading back. They’d taken the Ford Expedition they’d rented in Anchorage, along with a trailer carrying two ATVs, down a dirt road to a river. Sierra couldn’t remember the name of the river because there were rivers everywhere in Alaska and she hadn’t been paying attention when they were plotting their route. None of it pertained to her, since she wasn’t interested in hunting. All she knew was that they planned to branch out from the SUV and go wherever the moose scat or tracks led them.
She hoped they hadn’t wandered too far from their staging area. If so, it could take a long time to get back, and by then the storm would be upon them.…
She checked her watch. Noon. Her brother had said they’d return at four, which had sounded early when he’d mentioned it that morning. Now she feared it wouldn’t be early enough.
“Come on, Leland.” It would be like her brother to discount the weather, push his luck. He’d always been a risk taker and, after coming so far and going to so much expense, he wouldn’t give up easily. They hadn’t gotten a bull yet, and this was their last chance. First thing tomorrow, they had to leave for Juneau so they could see other parts of the state before going home.
Alaska could be unpredictable. She’d read that in all the literature. What if Leland and his friends got turned around and couldn’t make their way back to the truck? What if they got separated trying?
If they didn’t return, she couldn’t even call for help. There was no cell service in this area, no phone service at all. And they’d taken the only vehicle, so she didn’t have a car. Hilltop, the closest town—not that a few squat buildings and five hundred people constituted much of a town—wasn’t far as the crow flew. But she’d have to use the roads, which made the trip significantly longer. She wouldn’t be able to walk that distance even if it wasn’t storming.
Determined not to let herself get too worked up, she moved away from the window. They’d been at the cabin for three days and were low on firewood. She needed to figure out how to get more from the shed behind the cabin, so she could be prepared, if necessary. But when Leland had gone out last night to do just that, he’d come back empty-handed. He’d said the combination they’d been given wouldn’t open the lock, which hadn’t been good news. The cabin had a generator for lights and hot water, but the wood-burning stove served as the only source of heat.
Still, they hadn’t been too worried. They were leaving soon and had a few sticks they could use to get by. They’d thought they could make it. But a storm changed everything. They could get snowed in, be stranded for days.…
Sierra yanked on her heavy coat, shoved her feet into her boots and, when she left the cabin, closed the door behind her to preserve what heat there was before trudging across an icy bank of snow that rested in the shade of a thick stand of western hemlock and spruce trees. She hoped to get into that shed before the wind blowing at her back grew any stronger and the snow began to fall. Nervous as she was about being alone in this storm and having her brother and his friends out in the open, she’d feel a lot better if she at least had some firewood.
The lock was a simple padlock. She tried the combination provided by the rental company to no avail, proving Leland had been right.
Had the rental company accidentally transposed two digits?
She tried different options, stood there for twenty minutes, struggling to find the right combination.
“Damn it!” she cried, but wasn’t willing to give up.
She supposed the combination could be written somewhere as a fail-safe. They’d already looked inside, but now she searched outside, too—on the shed itself, under the rocks nearby in case there was a note, on the tiny back porch of the cabin—hoping to discover it tacked up somewhere.
Her ears were ringing from the cold by the time she went back in to warm up. Blowing on her hands, which felt like blocks of ice, she checked the front window. Still no sign of the men, and the sky was growing ever darker.
They were in for a big one. She could feel it in her bones. When they’d been gathering up all the gear they needed for the hunt, the locals in Anchorage had told them that winter was coming early this year and to be careful. They’d mentioned having their “termination dust,” or the first snowstorm signaling the end of the summer working season, on the tenth of September, an entire month before it usually came. She hoped her brother was thinking about that right now and getting himself back to the truck …
“What should I do?” she asked herself. She got out all the food, water and candles they had left, in case the generator failed or they ran out of propane, and set it on the counter. There wasn’t a lot, but they could stretch their supplies for a day or two.
Maybe the storm would blow over quickly.
Either way, they’d need more wood. So how would she get it?
She’d have to break the shed door.
She went back out to the shed, where she shoved, pulled and yanked, even rammed her shoulder into the panel, hoping to make the latch give way. But it was too sturdy; she didn’t have the strength. She was walking around the small building, looking for any loose boards she might be able to pry away, when she remembered the ax hanging on the wall of the mudroom.
Although she’d been hoping to keep any damage to a minimum, she’d exhausted her other options. It wasn’t her fault they hadn’t been given the correct combination to the lock! That wood could be a matter of life and death; in her mind, she had every right to go after it.
Once she got the ax and returned, she swung it as hard as she could. The wind was nearly blowing her down, so it wasn’t easy to wield such a heavy object, especially since she’d never used one before. The blade landed with a satisfying thwack, but the metal head bit so deep, she broke several fingernails trying to get it out, and she still couldn’t manage.
For a moment she feared that would be the end of this idea. But after considerable effort, she managed to dislodge it. Then she swung again and again, until she’d completely destroyed the door.
If the storm didn’t turn out to be a bad one and she was doing this for nothing, her brother wouldn’t be happy if they got stuck paying for the damage. But she wasn’t willing to take the chance of freezing to death when there was wood in this shed.
Once she formed a hole large enough to step through, she dropped the ax and went inside. The sunlight, already nearly obliterated by the roiling clouds outside, could scarcely penetrate the cracks between the slats. Even the big opening she’d made afforded almost no light. But she found wood. Plenty of it. Although she could barely make out the dimly lit pile, she could smell the sap.
“Thank God.” Relief swept through her as she bent to pick up an armful. It wasn’t until she stood and turned to go that she glanced anywhere else, but when she did she saw a shape that caused her to scream and drop the logs she’d gathered.
She wasn’t alone. Unless her eyes deceived her, someone else was curled up in the corner—naked.
* * *
“Are you sure you want a baby?”
Now that the doctor had finished her pelvic exam, Evelyn Talbot sat up and straightened the lap covering she’d been given, along with the paper gown she was wearing. She and her boyfriend, Amarok, a nickname that meant “wolf” in the language of the native Inuit people around whom he’d grown up, had been sleeping together without birth control for the past eight months. Yet nothing had come of it. She was beginning to think nothing ever would. “I’m approaching forty, Dr. Fielding. If I’m going to have a child, it should happen soon, wouldn’t you say?”
He peeled off his latex gloves. “I agree with you from a timing standpoint.”
“But … I’m not physically capable? Is that what you’re saying?” During the hour-long drive from Hilltop, where she both lived and worked, she’d worried about the news she might get today. She hadn’t even told Amarok she’d made this appointment. If she couldn’t have kids, she wanted a chance to absorb the blow before having that talk with him. He knew about her background, understood there was a possibility she might be sterile, of course. Since she’d been kidnapped and tortured—by her own boyfriend—when she was only sixteen, she hadn’t had regular periods. But she and Amarok had been holding out hope that she might be able to conceive in spite of that. The doctors she’d seen before leaving Boston had indicated children were still a possibility.
“There’s some scar tissue from … from before.” He stepped on the pedal that opened the trash can and tossed his gloves inside. “It could cause problems.”
She let her breath seep out. “You don’t sound optimistic.”
He rested a hand on the counter. “I wouldn’t go that far, Dr. Talbot. You went through medical school before becoming a psychiatrist. You know human bodies are amazingly resilient, sometimes more resilient than human minds.”
“You could make a case for that in certain situations,” she agreed.
“Your body seems to have healed well.”
Given his reticent manner, she felt a moment’s confusion. “That’s good, isn’t it?”
“Perhaps. But may I speak frankly?”
“I admit I wouldn’t have this conversation with just any patient. It might be going too far, even for someone I consider a colleague of sorts. But I respect who you are, what you’ve been through and what you’ve done as a result. So I’d advise you to think carefully about this. You study—interact with—psychopaths on a daily basis. From what I heard and saw of you on TV when you were lobbying for Hanover House to be built a few years ago, you’re incredibly dedicated to your work.”
“I am. There’s no question about that.” She had to be. Psychopathy was on the rise. Someone had to figure out why—and how to stop those who preyed on the innocent. After what she’d endured, she’d made it her life’s work.
“You’re still that committed?” he asked. “Even after so many close calls?”
She assumed he was talking primarily about what had happened with Lyman Bishop last winter, since that incident had been highly publicized in Alaska. “What happened with Bishop won’t happen again. He had a brain hemorrhage while he was in the hospital trying to recover from … that night. These days he’s in an institution. He can hardly speak.”
“But you deal with hundreds of psychopaths, many of them extremely dangerous. Men who kill for pleasure. There could be another Lyman Bishop.”
Or Jasper Moore could show up. Fielding didn’t mention that, but she was always wondering when her former boyfriend might strike again.
“You’re a bright, well-educated, attractive woman, and an authority figure, in a prison with an entirely male population—”
“A lot of people become infatuated with their doctor, preacher, teacher, et cetera,” she broke in. “That’s not unusual, even outside prison. Granted, with the men I study, it’d be more of a fixation than a true infatuation. But I’m well aware of the dynamic.”
“I would guess that you are.” He slid his glasses higher on the bridge of his nose. “What if you’re carrying a baby the next time a sadist gets hold of you? Have you thought about that? You could be setting yourself up for some real heartbreak. And you wouldn’t be the only one to suffer. Think about your family—and your partner.”
She wanted to claim there was no chance of her being attacked again. The situation with Bishop had been unique. The institution was set up to protect the psychology team while they studied “the conscienceless,” so it wasn’t the convicts at Hanover House, the men behind bars, who worried her. It was Jasper Moore. He’d never been caught, was still out there somewhere, and she knew he’d like nothing more than to finish what he’d started when he’d killed three of her best friends, and tried to kill her, while they were in high school. The fact that he’d made another attempt to kidnap her two years ago told her he hadn’t forgotten her. She hadn’t seen his face that night. He’d been wearing a mask, so she had no idea how the years might’ve changed him, but he’d made no secret of who he was. He’d wanted her to know he was back.
She’d be dead now if she hadn’t escaped almost immediately.
What if she’d been pregnant when that happened?
“I can’t let fear stop me from living my life.” She told herself that all the time. Told other victims they couldn’t allow fear to paralyze them, either. But did that advice apply when an innocent child was involved?
Dr. Fielding drummed his fingers on the counter. “Then you’re willing to accept the risks—and the consequences—if something goes wrong.”
“Yes.” She wasn’t as certain as she made it sound, but she didn’t want him to know that.
He seemed to accept her answer. “Well, then. I see nothing from a biological standpoint to indicate you can’t get pregnant. Generally, we wait until a couple’s been trying for twelve months before recommending any type of fertility treatment, but considering your background and your age, I think we’re justified in starting sooner. Our first step would be to test Amarok, so we can get a clear picture of the entire situation.”
After the terrible things Jasper had done, she had to be the one with infertility problems. But she understood why Amarok would need to be tested, as well. Although chances were small, he could have a low sperm count, low mobility or something else that contributed to the problem. He’d never been checked out, not for that. He’d told her he’d only been to a doctor twice in his entire life—and both instances were for broken bones.
Dr. Fielding didn’t ask, but she could tell he was curious as to why she hadn’t mentioned marrying Amarok if they might be having a child together. No one else could understand how truly complicated her situation was. She loved Amarok. There was no question about that. But at this point she wasn’t committed to spending the rest of her life in Alaska. She had responsibilities back in Boston, where she was from, and she knew he’d never be happy anywhere else. He’d been born and raised in Hilltop, was a sixteenth-part Inuit, on his father’s side. He was the town’s only police presence, too, and he thrived on living in such a rugged part of the world. Alaska was in his blood. Dragging him down to the Lower 48 would be like caging a wild animal.
And yet her biological clock was ticking. She wouldn’t leave Hilltop for another three or four years. By then, it’d be too late to have a baby, especially since she’d have to wait for another relationship to develop like the one she had with Amarok, which probably wouldn’t happen. Other than Jasper, way back when, Amarok was the only man she’d ever truly loved. He was also the only man she’d ever been able to sleep with. After the violence she’d suffered at sixteen, she struggled with trust issues. If she eve wanted to be a mother, this could be her one chance. She didn’t want to be childless without even considering her options. And if she did get pregnant? She’d simply have to stay in Alaska; that would make the decision for her.
“I’ll speak to him about it,” she said. But she wasn’t sure how to bring up the subject. If she did, she knew Amarok would want to talk about marriage. He had every right to ask for a lifelong commitment instead of gambling with his heart.
Copyright © 2018 Brenda Novak.