Sample text for The Darkening / Chandler McGrew.

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I do not care to see my soul,

There's never light upon it.

Last time I looked it was still whole,

But I wish I had not done it.

--Night Land by Cooder Reese

From Dead Reckonings

Lucy Devereau spent her days worming information out of people she didn't trust, searching for men and women she didn't like, on behalf of clients she rarely connected with. She was a private investigator specializing in tracking down birth parents for adopted children, and she worked diligently in their employ, often not clocking her hours or her miles. But a strange and indefinable void kept her from viewing her clients as anything other than two-dimensional, cardboard cutouts.

She existed in a constant state of tension, waiting for some unseen ax to fall, some magic bullet to burst through the wall of her foggy past and blow a giant hole in her head to match the one in her heart. From her earliest childhood she had sensed that something as deeply rooted within her psyche as her spine was rooted within her flesh had been stolen from her, but without knowing what it was, she had little real hope of ever getting it back.

A little after midnight the darkness outside her window--illumined only by the glow of one dim streetlamp lighting the tall hedges between her and her neighbor's house--mirrored her own gloom, and a cool night wind rustled under the eaves, stroking the old soffit boards softly, like raven feathers.

A copy of The Universe in a Nutshell lay open but untouched on her nightstand. Although Stephen Hawking usually left her gasping for air and with a severe headache she had managed to worm her way through A Brief History of Time and was now struggling diligently to comprehend the sequel. If anything could relax her mind it was contemplating how to fit an eleven dimensional cosmos into a three dimensional space.

But she could not bring herself to lift the book that night. Some morbid intuition forced her to lie docilely atop the covers in her cotton nightshirt, her short brown hair as disheveled as her thoughts, watching the cable news into the wee hours instead. The stories were all the same, Palestinian Muslims murdering Israeli Jews, Irish Catholics murdering Irish Protestants. Religious zealots killing and dying for a myth. Useless bloodshed, wasted lives.

When sleep finally took her she dreamed of an emaciated old man who chased her across a vast, empty plain screaming that he was a friend of God, that he would reveal to her the secrets at the end of the rainbow.

At two a.m., men broke down her front and back doors, the noise blasting through her dream like thunder, the sound of booted feet slapping hardwood floors echoing down the hall. She barely had time to reach for her robe before bright lights blinded her, and she was whipped around and forced facedown into the mattress so hard the wind blasted from her lungs. Powerful hands jerked her arms behind her, binding them with something thin that gouged painfully into her wrists. A balled sock was shoved into her mouth and secured with a strip of duct tape, so that her first scream was little more than a feeble moan. The lights went out as a cloth sack slipped over her head, tightening around her throat. Her mute assailants lifted her from the bed, dragged her through the front door and tossed her unceremoniously into a vehicle.

The engine roared to life, and she was pressed back into the seat, and in no time at all the car had made so many turns she was hopelessly lost. Just when she was certain she was going to die from asphyxiation, rough hands untied the bag and slipped it off. She blinked and sniffled. A giant of a man on the seat beside her regarded her with eagle eyes. He wore a coal black jumpsuit with a gunbelt and a large knife in a scabbard. His thick red moustache glowed like neon in the reflected headlights.

"You going to struggle anymore?" His voice sounded like boots crunching sand.

She shook her head.

"Gonna scream?"

Another shake of her head.

The man reached out and ripped the tape off her mouth, taking some skin with it. She spit the sock onto the floorboards, gagging.

"We on time?" said the man beside her, glancing at the driver.

The driver nodded.

"What do you want with me?" asked Lucy.

"The Boss wants to see you," said the man, frowning.

"Who? What is going on?"

The man shrugged.

She glanced quickly around, memorizing details as a way to control her fear. The car was new. From the interior it was apparently a Crown Vic. Black-leather seats. Tan carpet. The night outside exhibited the sullen darkness of deep countryside. She could see the lights of town in the distance behind her, barely illuminating a small bowl of sky, but there were no road signs, and she had no idea where she was or in what direction they were traveling. Studying the well-armed kidnapper beside her and his taciturn partner in the front seat, she tried to convince herself that the whole thing was a case of mistaken identity. They were probably working for some drug dealer and had gotten the wrong address, although which of the middle-aged couples living around her might have rightly been this pair's target she couldn't imagine.

"My name is Lucy Devereau," she said. "I live at Forty-two Mayfield Lane--"

"We know all that."

"I'm not who you think I am. I'm a private detective."

"And I told you we know all that. You think we drove all the way to a shithole like Ruredaga, Alabama, to get the wrong address?"

"Then why--"

"I told you we're taking you to see the Boss," he said, smirking. "And you don't want to disappoint the Boss. Does she, Frank?"

The driver glanced over his shoulder, smiling like a wolf and shaking his head. "I can guarantee that, Ed," he said. His voice was just as raspy as the first man's. Lucy wondered if they were on some kind of drugs that affected their speech. The fact that they didn't mind using each other's names in front of her bothered her as well.

"Whoever the Boss is, I don't want to meet him," she said, using the window to brush her short brown hair out of her eyes.

Ed frowned. "You don't have any choice, lady. Or at least you wouldn't like the other choices."

The road outside was a country lane, skirting rolling fields lit by bleak yellow moonlight. Other than the car they were in, there was no traffic. Even so, Ed kept glancing quickly to front and rear. Suddenly he reached across the seat, tapping the driver on the shoulder.

"Pull over," he said.

The car decelerated and stopped, and Lucy's breathing slowed with it. In the distance she could see the faint lights of a farmhouse. She leaned forward a millimeter and noticed a bright screen on the dash between the driver and passenger. Words scrolled along the bottom, but they seemed to be in some foreign script.

"We got company," said Ed, opening his door. He stepped outside, then leaned back into the car. "Get out."

She shook her head. Why get her out of the car now, in this deserted place? She'd already flunked lesson one of Lucy Devereau's Important Rules of Self-Defense: Never get into a car or go anyplace with men you don't know. She wasn't flunking lesson two: Never get out of said car on a deserted road.

"I mean now!"

The driver slipped out of the vehicle with a fluid grace surprising in a man the size of a two-legged rhinoceros. Her door jerked open, and she was dragged around the car onto the shoulder. She struggled, but her hands were still bound tightly behind her back, and the man's grip on her arms was as hard as steel manacles.

"Shove her under the car," said Ed, pulling a rifle out of the trunk.

Frank complied. Maybe they weren't going to kill her after all, but apparently no one cared if she was scraped or bruised. Pinned painfully close to the hot exhaust pipe, she twisted her head enough to stare back down the road, but no one seemed to be coming from that direction, and she hadn't noticed any oncoming headlights, either.

"I'll do anything you want," she gasped.

Both men laughed.

"What?" said Frank. "You think we want you? If we did we'd have had you already."

"No, you wouldn't," she whispered.

These men were hired muscle with plenty of experience. Whoever the Boss was, he had most certainly paid them well to bring her to him, so she was supposed to at least arrive untouched.

Only silence came from above. In the narrow slit between the back bumper and the road, headlights suddenly appeared like twin dawns. The trunk lid slammed shut, and Lucy heard what she thought was the rifle bolt clacking into place. She could see Ed's boots where he crouched beside the rear tire, and twisting her neck she spotted Frank's shoes ahead and on the other side of the car.

"Take them out," said Ed.

The headlights grew brighter. The rifle fired. Then a pistol opened up, but beneath the sound of gunfire Lucy noticed a distant rumble--another vehicle approaching fast from the other direction. Suddenly she heard the whine of ricochets bouncing off the asphalt. She hoped to God the other shooters were police. Of course, it didn't matter who they were if she got caught and killed in the cross fire. She began nudging her way out from under the car into the gravel on the shoulder.

Frank was by then prone in the ditch, firing at the second car that had stopped two hundred yards ahead. Ed had his back to her, blasting away in the other direction. She rolled as quietly as possible down the incline, coming to rest on her side in the bottom of the ditch, gasping for air, struggling ineffectually with the bindings on her wrists. As she glanced back toward the car she saw Ed turning in her direction.

"Fuck!" he shouted, waving at Frank and shouting for him to get her as she stumbled to her feet and staggered toward a barbed-wire fence.

Frank took two lumbering steps toward her and fell flat on his face, blood blossoming from his forehead and chest like bubbles in hot spaghetti sauce. She glanced quickly up and down the road, but there were no flashing lights, no bullhorns, and she had the sinking feeling that rather than a police assault, she had stumbled into the middle of a gangland shooting. The bullets whizzed closer around her, and she dropped to the ground again, pressing her body into the dry grass, trying to belly-crawl under the sagging lower strand of wire, as Ed cursed and crouched beside the car again.

A barb caught on her bindings, and the rusted metal sliced into her wrist. She cried out but kept shoving herself along with her bare feet until she was clear, struggling to her feet, then racing toward the dark shape of a copse of trees in the distance, running for her life, her heart pounding, lungs stretching to bursting, afraid to glance over her shoulder again lest Ed be there to drag her back to the car.

Behind her she heard someone shouting, but she had reached the trees before she realized that the voice calling her name didn't sound like gravel at all.

The night was even starker within the shelter of the woods, a world of dim, limb-slashed sky and even darker, looming shadows, dangerous paths filled with grasping brambles and treacherous footing. Lucy sprinted through the trees, certain that any second a bullet would find her, or that one of her mysterious abductors would leap at her out of the gloom, that each shaky footfall would be her last. But the ground was solid and reassuring beneath her feet, a reality that she clung to in a world that had changed in minutes from depressing and confusing to dangerous and deadly.

Because she kept herself in shape--running six miles or more a day--she was winded but not exhausted when she made it through the woods and onto a starlit side road. Pebbles stabbed her feet as she frantically searched for hiding places in case headlights appeared behind her. When she reached a sandy drive leading to a dark farmhouse she raced up the steep slope, pounding on the doorbell with her elbow until an old man and woman opened the door only enough to peer out with sleepy eyes. The woman finally jerked the man out of her way and drew Lucy inside. Lucy insisted they turn off the porch light before calling the police. While the old man gave directions over the phone, she shivered with residual terror, peeking through the curtains in the living room.

"You poor thing," said the woman, squeezing Lucy's shoulders, reminding her of her mother. "I can only imagine how terrible an experience this has been for you."

"I'm all right, now," lied Lucy, still counting to ten with each breath.

"The Lord was surely watching over you tonight."

Lucy bit her lip. The old woman's faith was writ deep in the lines on her face, in the warmth of her soft green eyes. But if anyone had come to her rescue out on the road it wasn't the Lord but men with guns to match the goons' who'd taken her prisoner. More than likely they had their own agenda that had nothing to do with her. Irony and burlesque were the watchwords of Lucy's cosmos, not fate or faith.

When they finally came to get her the cops questioned her for hours. They, too, seemed to believe that she was either part of a drug ring or the whole thing had been a case of mistaken identity. They had no ideas when she told them what Ed and Frank had said about the Boss, other than to question her about her business, and after a while Lucy got the feeling that they were just dragging the interview out in order to convince her of their thoroughness. The detective in charge assured her that her case was top priority--as she could imagine it would be in a town the size of Ruredaga--that something was bound to turn up, and in the meantime she'd have police protection. But she had the distinct feeling that the cops still believed it was somehow her fault.

A uniformed officer gave her a ride home a little after noon, and she insisted that he search the house while she watched, even though he made it clear that they'd been all through the place as soon as she'd informed them it was a crime scene. Yellow tape still hung across the front porch. The cop pointed out the unmarked car parked down the street, and she breathed a little easier when she saw the steely-eyed man behind the wheel. His presence seemed to promise at least a few hours' respite for her to decide her next move.

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Private investigators -- Fiction.
Martial artists -- Fiction.