Happy pub day!
Thanks to Quercus Books for the free copy in exchange for my honest review.
SWEET AFTER DEATH – Valentina Giambanco (out today!)
Something evil has crept into the small, tranquil community of Ludlow, deep in the mountains of Washington state.
In the dead of winter, homicide detective Alice Madison is sent to the remote town of Ludlow, Washington, to investigate an unspeakable crime.
Together with her partner, detective sergeant Kevin Brown, and crime scene investigator Amy Sorensen, Madison must first understand the killer’s motives, but the dark mountains that surround Ludlow are the perfect refuge for anyone trying to keep their secrets.
When the killer strikes again, the three Seattle police officers find themselves under siege. And as they become targets, Madison and her team realize that in the freezing woods around the pretty town, a cunning evil hungers for their deaths.
Read an Excerpt:
Twenty-four hours earlier, in downtown Seattle, the weather had been overcast with a chance of aggravated assault. Alice Madison’s feet hit the ground hard and slipped as she felt the crunch of glass. She swore under her breath. Bottles, perhaps shards from the broken windows in the alley. Maybe so, but she didn’t have time to care. The figure ahead of her flying toward the mouth of the alley was going at full tilt and Madison was going to catch up and grab the runner if it was the last thing she ever did. She righted herself and kept going. Behind her she heard someone scramble over the same chain-link fence she had just climbed.
“Watch the glass!” she yelled over her shoulder. She heard Andy Dunne land heavily, slip in the glass, and swear under his breath, then a moment later his steps were thundering behind hers.
Ten minutes ago they were on their lunch break, sitting at the Grand Central Bakery in Occidental Square, talking about mortgages and the Seahawks. Then the call came in, the worst call possible: one officer down, another in need of assistance, two attackers on the run.
Detective Alice Madison and her partner, Detective Sergeant Kevin Brown, were in the car and driving in less than thirty seconds; Detectives Andy Dunne and his partner, Kyle Spencer, were close behind them. They were all Homicide, but that was the kind of call that got everybody to come running.
The radio in their car squawked and crackled with the back- and-forth between dispatch and the different responding units, while every officer in the area converged on the same place, wondering about one thing: Who had been hurt and how badly?
The International District sat a stone’s throw away from the more picturesque Pioneer Square area with its new art galleries and expensive restaurants, but it held none of the charm: boxy concrete warehouses followed grocery stores and shuttered businesses under the shadow of the interstate.
They saw him streak out of the back of a Chinese store and they gave chase. The kid—how old could he be?—was white, skinny, wore jeans and a black hoodie, and probably right about then had realized the magnitude of the trouble he was in. His partner was already sit- ting in a patrol car with a bloody nose because he had had the good sense to stop when four uniformed officers with their weapons out had told him to. He had dropped the metal pipe and stretched out on the ground in the middle of the road. The nosebleed was cour- tesy of the small envelope of white powder in his back pocket.
“Let me out here,” Madison had urged Brown. The alley was too narrow for a car, anyway—never mind the chain-link fence—so Madison and Dunne had continued on foot while Brown and Spencer tried to cut off the attacker from the other side.
Madison ran almost every day; however, the guy was fast. She wondered briefly what kind of drugs he was on, and what had happened with the officer who had been hurt, and then she pushed the thought away. She could run and catch the guy, or she could examine the intricacies of the drug war in downtown Seattle, but she really could not do both at the same time.
The alley was covered in litter, and the two buildings on either side were tall enough to cut out most of the sky except for a strip of gray above them. Madison tried to avoid the flattened card- board boxes and the empty food cartons and worked through a mental checklist. Is he armed? Is he injured? Is he on drugs? How far does he want to take this? She could see his hands, and there was no weapon there—just clenched fists and arms pumping to get speed.
The alley opened into a street and the runner rushed across the sudden glare, ignoring the horns from the cars driving in both directions. Madison blinked. The man dived into another alley and disappeared. Madison crossed the road and followed as Brown and Spencer’s cars shrieked to a halt beside her, five seconds too late.
The alley was as narrow as the previous one and just as long and, Madison noticed, completely empty. She stopped abruptly and Dunne almost bumped into her back.
“He couldn’t have made it to the end. He was out of my sight for no more than a few seconds. He’s still here.” A part of her was pleased that she could speak almost normally.
Dunne, gulping air, nodded. Somewhere in the background sirens were approaching.
They each took a side and proceeded slowly. There was a dumpster at the other end, but aside from that there was noth- ing but fire escapes and boarded windows. Madison’s heartbeat was slowing down after the run and the adrenaline was already kicking in: there were no hiding places before them, which could only mean that the runner had managed to break into one of the buildings. Soft steps behind her told her that Brown and Spencer had joined them.
A dank, earthy smell permeated the alley and occasionally a puff of white steam was released by a grid a few feet above their heads—somewhere on the other side of the building a Chinese restaurant was serving lunch, and the air was thick with garlic and spices.
They were about a third of the way up the alley when they saw it: a broken pane on a door, big enough for a person to squeeze through.
“What is this place?” Spencer whispered. “Warehouse,” Brown replied. “Been empty for years.”
Well, Madison thought, at least he didn’t run into the restaurant. She bent and looked into the darkness behind the broken pane: nothing but a murky glow.
“No time like the present,” Brown said, then unholstered his weapon and edged himself into the opening.
Brown and Madison had worked together in the Homicide Unit for just over two years, since she had joined it, and he had never lost the chance to be on point—one of those times, early in their partnership, it had almost cost him his life. She reached out to stop him and go first, but he was already inside.
The small room was dim, with paint coming off the walls, and it stank of dead rat. The only light came from narrow horizontal windows way up near the ceiling. Whatever had been stored here was long gone and the place had been taken over by the gods of dust. Even the sounds from the street only a few yards away didn’t seem to reach it.
An open door in the corner led to a cavernous space, and in the distance, somewhere in the heart of the building, metal clanked against metal. As the detectives went deeper into the warehouse four thin beams from their flashlights crossed and parted on the concrete. Spencer pointed. Someone had been coming and going and had left a number of tracks on the floor.
Madison examined her surroundings: it might have been the middle of the day outside, but inside the empty warehouse the world existed in a state of perennial gritty dusk. Time had stopped the day the workers had left, and it wasn’t by chance that the young man had ended up in that alley and found that broken pane. He had intentionally gone back there. The notion that this desolate, abandoned building might be somebody’s “safe” place was more than a little troubling.
Madison’s train of thought was interrupted because they had reached the other side. The only way forward was through a single door, and a stairway that led to the floor above. Natural light flooded in through frosted windows. They put away their flash- lights and peeked: the tall shaft that went all the way up to the building’s roof was deserted.
Madison and Brown started climbing the metal stairs, with Spencer and Dunne bringing up the rear. Their weapons were unholstered and pointing at the ground. Let him come easy, Madi- son pleaded silently, let him come without fuss. Behind them and back in the alley Madison heard the crackle of police radios.
Let him come easy.
They reached the landing and something moved beyond the door into the main room. Madison made sure she took the first step inside and her piece was half raised.
“Seattle Police Department,” she said, loud and clear. “Come on out now.”
Spencer and Dunne were on her left, Brown on her right. Madison’s eyes were slowly adjusting to the gloom when a timid cough rang out from the other side of the room.
“It’s okay,” a soft voice said from inside the dimness. “It’s okay.” Feet shuffled toward them and a woman appeared with her gloved hands raised. “It’s okay,” she repeated.
She was wearing layer upon layer of clothing, and her gray- ing hair was shorn close to the scalp. And then it hit them: the scent of stale sweat and unwashed human beings. The woman’s skin was flushed pink and her bright-blue eyes were the only points of light. Even bundled up, as she was, she was tiny com- pared with the detectives. Madison instinctively put her Glock away and tied the safety strip. She raised her hands so that the woman could see them, so that she could see she meant her no harm.
“Where is he, ma’am?” Madison said. “He’s a good boy,” the woman said.
I’m sure he is.
“Where is he?” Madison repeated. She was aware that the others had lowered their pieces but had not put them away.
“Come,” the woman said, and she turned.
They followed her into a room that a long time ago had been an open-plan office—some desks and chairs were still piled in the middle, some had been broken up, and Madison could see the evidence of small fires that had been lit to keep out the worst of the cold. They crossed the wide room all the way to the opposite side of the building.
“Oh boy,” Dunne whispered.
The group had huddled against the far wall and created a kind of fort with the discarded furniture, the sort a child might make out of sofa cushions. Ten, maybe twelve, figures reclined and sat on the vinyl flooring; some were bundled up in clothing, others wore cheap shelter blankets wrapped around their shoulders. They all looked at the detectives with fearful, startled eyes. Someone had pushed discarded food wrappers, empty bottles, and cups into a corner in an attempt at straightening up.
The woman pointed and, behind an upturned table, the young man they had followed lay with his arms around his knees, rolled up into a ball and covered with an old coat. His eyes were squeezed shut. I don’t see you, you don’t see me.
There were loud steps behind them and four uniformed officers flanked the detectives. The two groups eyed each other.
“Tommy, is that you, man?” one of the officers said, and headed straight for a shape sitting against the wall.
At first, bundled up as they were, Madison couldn’t even tell their gender, let alone their age.
“I haven’t seen you around in months,” the officer continued, crouching next to the man. “Where have you been?”
“On vacation,” the man croaked, and he chuckled. “On the Riviera.”
“Who got hurt?” Brown asked the patrol officer next to him. “Scott Clarke from downtown, broken collarbone. He was
checking out a public disturbance call and his student officer took his eyes off the ball for a second. Told us enough before going to the Emergency Room, though, and he,” the officer pointed at the young runner on the ground, “didn’t do anything except look scared and scamper when his pal went nuts.”
“It’s okay,” the woman said to no one in particular.
No, Madison thought, it’s really not.