Fear the Darkness: New Excerpt

Fear the Darkness by Becky MastersonFear the Darkness by Becky Masterman is the second thriller in the Brigid Quinn series about an ex-FBI agent whose niece has some glaring psychopathic tendencies (available January 20, 2015).

It’s hard to recognize the devil when his hand is on your shoulder. That’s because a psychopath is just a person before he becomes a headline….Psychopaths have preferences for Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, denim or linen, Dickens or…well, you get the point.

Ex-FBI agent Brigid Quinn has seen more than her share of psychopaths. She is ready to put all that behind her, building a new life in Tucson with a husband, friends, and some nice quiet work as a private investigator. Sure, she could still kill a man half her age, but she now gets her martial arts practice by teaching self-defense at a women's shelter.

But sometimes it isn't that simple. When her sister-in-law dies, Brigid take in her seventeen-year-old niece, Gemma Kate. There has always been something unsettling about Gemma-Kate, but family is family. Which is fine, until Gemma-Kate starts taking an unhealthy interest in dissecting the local wildlife.

Meanwhile, Brigid agrees to help a local couple by investigating the death of their son—which also turns out not to be that simple. Her house isn't the sanctuary it used to be, and new dangers—including murder—seem to lurk everywhere. Brigid starts to wonder if there is anyone she can trust, or if the devil has simply moved closer to home.

We have an exclusive audio excerpt of Chapter 1. You can continue the story by reading Chapter 2 below.

Chapter 2

It’s hard to recognize the devil when his hand is on your shoulder.

That’s because a psychopath is just a person before he becomes a headline. Before he opens fire in a church or tortures and kills in more secretive ways. Psychopaths have preferences for Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, denim or linen, Dickens or … well, you get the point. If they’re successful in controlling their more destructive urges, often they become surgeons who tingle as they hold a scalpel over a beating heart, or investment brokers who thrill at the games played with people’s life savings, or even religious ministers who smile privately at a confession of adultery. Most of the time these creatures live out their lives with only those closest to them suspecting they feel nothing for anyone but themselves, and do nothing except for their own gain.

I admit from the start it’s at least embarrassing to not recognize the devil, but I can understand because I’ve been there. Partly it’s because few people manage to be pure evil. During my time with the Bureau, I lived among killers who cheerfully attended their daughters’ ballet recitals, and men who trafficked in human flesh while baby-talking their parakeets. The guy buying cuttle treats at PetSmart smiles shyly at you as if his only shame is to be caught loving a bird; it’s a stretch to picture him selling Guatemalan women to Las Vegas casinos. Even the worst of us has moments of empathy. Maybe the devil dotes on a Maltese.

Similarly, you don’t expect to run into evil at, say, a charity fund-raiser, or in the living room of a friend’s house, or in a doctor’s office. Especially not in a church, and especially not in someone in a position of trust. Especially not in yourself.

When people in my business talk about the One Percent, they’re not talking about the filthy rich. They’re talking about evil, well hidden. That’s what makes it so hard to spot. In my career that only made the game more interesting; that is, when I could forget that innocent human lives were at stake.

I didn’t always think this way. Life was simpler in a time when the most important thing was to avoid being discovered, tortured, or killed. But maybe being married to a philosopher has made me think through things a little more than I used to. That and being retired from the Bureau, which gives me more time to stare at stars.

Staring at the night sky makes you think about death, about whether there’s actually some place you go. Someone else’s demise makes you think about the times you could have died, too. Marylin died from multiple sclerosis at the age of fifty-one. She had been living in Florida with my little brother, Todd, aged fifty-two, their daughter, seventeen, and my parents.

I wanted to go to the funeral by myself so I wouldn’t subject Carlo to my family, but he insisted. We had been married two years. About time to meet your family, he said in his softly blunt way, a way he’d become more comfortable with as we got to know each other better.

I would have done anything for Marylin because I loved her. Despite knowing how screwed up we all were, all of us except Mom in some kind of law enforcement, she married into our cop family and showed me how good we actually could be; how people could be soft with each other instead of like brittle glass that cracks whenever you get close. But we didn’t have long to enjoy the lesson. Four years after she married Todd she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She insisted on living till she died, though, and even on having a child though the doctors warned her the trauma of childbirth would affect her adversely. She slowly declined after the birth of Gemma-Kate, going to a wheelchair and then to a hospital bed, lasting another seventeen years before she died.

The promise I had made concerned that child. Marylin had called me at the start of the year and asked if Gemma-Kate could stay with Carlo and me for a few months if something happened to her, so she would qualify for in-state tuition at the University of Arizona.

“How’s she been?” I had asked, not mentioning what I’d heard about her from Mom. Nothing serious, a little shoplifting, a little flirting with spring breakers on the beach when she was fourteen.

“Good. That business was just some early adolescent rebellion,” Marylin had said, knowing that families talk.

“You realize I have no experience with children.”

“You’ll find her quite grown up. You’ll like her.”

I had agreed. And here it was less than three months later and Marylin was gone; now I had to make good on that promise.

* * *

Todd didn’t cry at the funeral, but he sweated a lot, as if by keeping the tears back from his eyes they were forced to come out everywhere else. Throughout the funeral service he used the too-short jacket sleeve on either arm to swipe at the opposite side of his face. Could have partly been the Florida humidity combined with his weight. Todd always said he needed to lose fifteen pounds when what he needed to lose was thirty. And stop drinking. And stop smoking.

The funeral was crowded, mostly Marylin’s family members plus a considerable contingent of officers from the Fort Lauderdale Police Department, where Todd was employed as a detective. The guys looked uncomfortable, not so much in the presence of death as in having to wear the suits. They kept their jaws so stiff they would have cracked a tooth if they were startled.

Afterwards, Todd was still wiping at his neck with a handkerchief as we sat in the living room that Marylin had decorated thirty years before, and which had kept accumulating the pictures and the knickknacks over the years without ever getting rid of anything.

The scent of cooling lasagna and chopped chicken liver hung in the air. Marylin’s family had already escaped, leaving Carlo and me trapped with the rest of the Quinns because we were staying at Todd’s place. We’d started drinking vodka over ice because that was the easiest, and the initial stimulant effects that made us tell good stories about Marylin and laugh, like a proper Irish wake should, were starting to give way to depression.

We weren’t bad people, as far as I knew at the time. Maybe it was all of us being in law enforcement, a little too much like empty glasses with stress cracks too fine to be seen. And at this moment we were packed a little too close together. It was anybody’s guess what would happen, but just for today, for Marylin’s sake if not our own, we were trying hard to be decent and not break each other.

“You had a really good turnout,” I said, thinking that was what a person wanted to hear, wishing there were preprinted scripts so I didn’t have to make the conversation up as I went. The men in our family were never much for conversation that wasn’t yelled. Imagine someone barking their good-nights and you get the picture.

“Only guys from the force,” Todd said, struggling to keep his voice low and ending up with just a bit of an edge. “Not so many of Marylin’s friends. People don’t hang around when a person is sick a long time.” Todd wouldn’t focus on all the people who were there, only on the people who weren’t. His first inclination has always been to curse the darkness when somebody else would scrounge for a match.

I wanted to helpfully point this flaw out to him but managed to say instead, “Does Ariel know?” Ariel is the middle child, a sister I used to be friends with until she chose the CIA as her career. We sort of lost contact. These days I couldn’t even tell you what she looks like, let alone where she is.

“I left a message on her home machine,” Todd said. “She might be out of the country.” He violently stubbed out a cigarette in an ashtray on the table next to his chair. Most of the ashes made it. Nobody said anything. Here and there we jiggled our melting ice and sipped from our glasses to fill the quiet. While I searched in my head for something else to say I cocked my head to the right and looked at the books on the shelf under the table. I always look at people’s books. You can find out so much more than they want you to know. But on this shelf, an old St. Joseph’s Missal, two cookbooks, and a book called How to Raise an Emotionally Healthy Child When a Parent Is Sick. Don’t tell me anything I didn’t know already.

I hoisted myself out of one of those armchairs just low enough to throw off your center of gravity so you have to use your arms to stand up. I followed the chicken-liver-and-lasagna smell to the dining room. The Early American table was laden with potluck containers courtesy of the cops’ wives. I spread some of a drying nut-covered cheddar cheese ball on a munchkin-sized piece of pumpernickel and ate it. We all have our own way of mourning.

Gemma-Kate had been working on a glass of tonic that may or may not have had vodka in it. I hadn’t noticed her pouring, and she didn’t seem tipsy. She joined me at the dining room table and started to pick at the sliced deli meats, unrolling a slice of roast beef, laying a piece of yellow cheese on it, lining three green olives in the center, and rolling it back up again. Methodical. I took another sip from my drink with the precision of an anesthesiologist, just enough to keep the pain away without slipping into whisky remorse.

“All older people,” I said to Gemma-Kate, watching her slowly chew the roll she had constructed. “None of your friends, Gemma-Kate?”

My father, Fergus, heard me from across the room. He has uncanny hearing for such an old man, maybe from all those years as a beat cop, staying on alert for someone behind him. “We’re not the kind of people who have friends, are we, Cupkate?” He didn’t say it as criticism of either the family as a whole or Gemma-Kate individually. He sounded like it was a point of pride, the old bastard. It was true that Dad didn’t make friends. He was one of those people whose main topic of conversation was recounting how he had told somebody off. As children we took him seriously and, when we were bad, feared his glare. Seeing him slumped with his frown set like a bow in his face, I wondered if anyone else ever had. He had as much power to frighten me now as a cartoon witch. But for the sake of peace I kept pretending he could.

Gemma-Kate ignored him. She took another bite of the roll and swallowed. “I pictured you taller,” she said to me.

“I used to be,” I said. When she didn’t seem to get the joke I said, “Plus last time I saw you, you were shorter.” Sizing her up as well, I thought how appropriate the nickname Cupkate was. She was small like the rest of the Quinn family, nowhere near a whole cake.

She finished her cold-cuts-and-olive roll and wiped her fingers across the top of a nearby stack of black cocktail napkins. I spread another piece of pumpernickel, this time with what Mom would have called liver mishmash, and turned my attention back to the living room. I didn’t think Todd was nervous, but the sweating made him appear so as he started to speak about his wife’s final days.

“Marylin had a downturn recently, what would you say, Mom, last year or so?”

“Gemma-Kate was so good with her,” Mom said. “She’s a good little nurse with invalids. Marylin never had one bedsore.”

Todd nodded. “I would come home from work and find GK reading to her. But Marylin was declining faster than before, and we were starting to talk about hospice care.”

While he spoke Gemma-Kate looked past the group, through the jalousie windows of the living room, as if she was seeing something just on the other side of the glass that none of the rest of us could see. I couldn’t tell for sure, but it looked like she had heard the drama of her mother’s death so many times she’d lost the feeling for it. The word that came to mind was “controlled.”

“And then she died,” Todd said. “It seemed to take so long, years, and then in the final days it went fast.” He swallowed.

There was a sudden silence. Filling the void, Carlo came up with some church-speak. “It’s tragic for those who have to keep living, but there’s an uncanny realization that comes to the dying. They understand the process. We have to let them go.”

Gemma-Kate brought her steady gaze back to the room and let it rest on Carlo. “Aunt Brigid says you used to be a Catholic priest.”

Carlo said, “That’s right, or partly. I left the active ministry nearly thirty years ago. But technically once you’re ordained you can’t stop being a priest.”

“But you can get married.”

“Well, actually you can’t.”

“But you did.”

“Yes. I did.”

Todd may have feared Gemma-Kate was going to ask next if that meant Carlo and I were living in sin. That was probably Todd’s opinion. God only knows what he would think if he knew we’d been married by a justice of the peace. He sweat a little more, and then cut short anything else Gemma-Kate might say by jumping to the topic he had in mind. “Gemma-Kate didn’t want to go off to school while her mother was so sick. But Marylin was hoping Gemma-Kate could stay with you and Carlo for a few months before she starts the biochemistry program at the University of Arizona.”

I’d been waiting for this, and I’m going to fess up that I wasn’t happy about it. After growing up the eldest child in an alcoholic cop family, and spending my entire career as an FBI agent, I would still give my life for a child, but found I had little in common with them, never having been one myself. Plus I had finally begun to enjoy the world I had been serving and protecting. After a period of adjustment I finally felt I was getting the hang of marriage, and hesitated doing anything at all that might upset the equilibrium. When I made the promise to Marylin I hadn’t expected I’d be keeping it this soon. I hesitated.

Carlo, on the other hand, didn’t hesitate for a moment. “Of course,” he said, smiling at me, expecting me to be pleased that he was supportive of my family. “That would be fine with us. We have a spare room.”

Todd went on as if he hadn’t known it would be that easy and needed to say everything he had planned. “It’s been so hard on GK for so many years,” he said, gesturing to the girl, who was staring passively out the window again while her life was being decided for her. “Not much of a mother around, and”—he ducked his head in a confessional manner—“not much of a father either. You know how the business goes.”

“Todd, I already—” I started.

“It was Gemma-Kate’s idea. Hers and her mother’s,” he said. “They talked about it before she … That it would be good to go to a school someplace, completely different. Staying with you will allow her to establish Arizona residency so she doesn’t have to pay out of state.”

I had ceased listening by this point, and had only begun to marvel that he managed to restrain himself from yelling for this long. But Mom finally put him out of his misery by stopping him. “They said yes,” she said, with an impatient jerk of her hand, and stood up without trouble. Mom could hold her liquor better than any of us. “Brigid, come help me put some of this food away.”

I did as I was told. I may have received awards and honors from presidents. I may have been in life-threatening situations so many times I stopped feeling life-threatened. I may have busted some of the most heinous villains in FBI history, but no matter how old I got, here I was just the oldest girl. So I obediently got the Tupperware tops from the kitchen and fastened them over the containers on the table.

Mom and I talked a little while we worked. She hadn’t gotten the memo that we were being delicate with each other. Either that or she could only last at it so long.

“How are things in Arizona?” she asked.

“Good. Really good, Mom.”

“Carlo tells us you left the Church,” she said.

For all the care I was taking, rather than explain how similar the Episcopal church we were attending was to Roman Catholicism, I felt myself the first to go crack. “I was never in the Church, Mom.”

Well, that was effective. She pushed trembling lips together into what I think they call a moue. It made all the old smoking lines radiate out, though she had given up the habit some decades before. “You received First Holy Communion,” she said. “You had a little white veil and white Mary Janes.”

I put my arms around her and gave her a hug, something I had learned not from anyone in my family but from Carlo. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

I felt her pliable aging skin get a little more taut over her bones, probably rejecting not me but the unfamiliar contact of another body. Out of mercy I let her go.

I could tell she forgave me by her change in tack. “Who’s watching your dogs?”

“A friend.”

“You have a friend?”

I didn’t answer, and it only took me a moment to get back into peace-loving Brigid mode as I scrubbed the plastic tablecloth and got caught up in musings and family small talk. We all stayed safe until Todd dropped the three of us off at the Fort Lauderdale airport two days later.

* * *

This was Gemma-Kate’s first plane ride ever. On the Dallas-to-Tucson leg she got sick, and there were some adolescent histrionics as she scrambled from the window seat over Carlo and me to run down the aisle to the head. But when she came back looking more subdued and pale I got her some ginger ale and a blanket, no small feat in coach, and let her fall asleep on my shoulder while I watched the New Mexico mountains plod past below us.

Too bad, she was missing her first look at mountains, too.

I softened, always a sucker for the small and weak. But also there was Marylin. Part of engaging with the world was helping your family, keeping your promises. Besides, Gemma-Kate could probably use a change. She’d practically been her mother’s caregiver all those years. Couldn’t be a good way for a kid to grow up. “Devastated,” Mom had said about her at the funeral, a word she must have picked up from those news reports about natural disasters. But my brother said, “She’s a tough one, that girl. Tough little kid.” Apparently that’s the highest praise one Quinn can give another. Tough.

I could do this. I was tough. I may be small and have prematurely white hair, but I’m as psychologically and physically fit as you can be at my age. And as I’ve explained, I can disarm a grown man before he could say … anything.

How can I put this?

Next to somebody like me, Chuck Norris is just a wuss. How hard could it be to be a good aunt?

Copyright © 2015 Becky Masterman.

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Becky Masterman, who was an acquisitions editor for a press specializing in medical textbooks for forensic examiners and law enforcement, received her M.A. in creative writing from Florida Atlantic University. Her debut thriller, Rage Against the Dying, was a finalist for the Edgar Award  for Best First Novel, the CWA Gold Dagger Award for Best Crime Novel of 2013, the ITV Thriller Award, as well as the Macavity, Barry, and Anthony awards. Becky lives in Tucson, Arizona, with her husband.