A demonic detective novel best devoured in a single sitting--from acclaimed TV writer Stephen Lloyd.
Welcome to Danforth Putnam, boarding school for the elite, sprawled across its own private island off the coast of New England. Sam, a war vet who feels sure he’s seen it all, has been called here to find a stolen rare book. But as he corners D&D nerds, grills steroid-raging linemen, and interviews filthy-rich actresses, he soon senses that something far stranger—“witchy”, in fact—is afoot. When students start to meet mysterious and gruesome deaths, Sam realizes just how fast the clock is ticking.
After joining forces with plucky, epilepsy-defying school reporter Harriet, Sam ventures into increasingly dark territory, unravelling a supernatural mystery that will upend everything he thinks he knows about this school—and then shatter his own reality.
Toss Dracula into a blender, throw in a shot of hard-boiled detective fiction, splash in a couple drops of Stranger Things, and pour yourself a nice tall glass of Friend of the Devil.
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A Wham-O Frisbee with a spinning yin-and-yang symbol sailed over the quad, disappeared for a moment in the sun, then wafted downward until a leaping Rottweiler dragged it to earth in its jaws. A gaggle of barefoot teenage boys with facial hair dyed unnatural colors and twisted into pitchforks or pincers tousled the Rottweiler's head. A dozen starved-looking kids from the cross-country team, punished by the unfairly warm October day, sprinted past in a glistening blur of Dolfin shorts. An Asian boy with an orange Mohawk wearing a sleeveless Black Flag T-shirt, camo pants, combat boots and a dog collar dabbed at fresh piercings with a Union Jack bandanna he moistened in rubbing alcohol. He scuttled between a pair of glossed and pretty teenage girls who shared grimaces and "Icks" with their glossed and pretty teenage boyfriends, the four of them tall, blond, tanned and sockless in Top-Siders, khakis and pastel Lacoste tennis shirts. A tall, pimply kid wearing a navy blazer and a Ronald Reagan button the size of a hubcap marched up to a small girl with a crewcut and dressed in a flannel shirt who was waving a pink triangle poster. He attempted to rip the poster, but she smacked his glasses off and called him a Nazi, and he skulked away, cursing.
It was a diverse group, Sam noted, in every way but one. They were all filthy rich. At least that's what Sam assumed. He didn't really know what the tuition at a school like this was, but it had to be astronomical. They had their own island, for Christ's sake, twenty square miles off the Massachusetts coast. On it were indoor and outdoor tennis courts, basketball courts, squash courts, Olympic-size pools, a soccer field, a football stadium, a hockey rink, horse stables (for the polo and equestrian teams), a television studio, three theaters and a science lab you could probably smash atoms in. Every building looked like it had been painted yesterday, and the surrounding lawns, hedge paths, rosebushes and topiaries were so meticulously groomed they made his marine buzz cut look shaggy.
Sam sparked his Zippo and lit a Kent. A squat, imperious woman leading a dozen small kids (too small to be in high school, he noted) scowled at him and sniffed at his cigarette. He smiled at her with a lascivious wink and French-inhaled luxuriously until she huffed away, her small train in tow.
"What'd the cops say?" Sam asked the headmaster as they ambled across the quad.
Thomas Arundel was a large man with what Sam noticed was a great head of hair for a guy his age. It had gone gray, some of it white, but every follicle he'd ever had appeared to still be rooted. Tom's head, Sam thought, did not match his body. Above the neck, with his distinguished silver mane, wire-rimmed glasses and unblemished skin, he was the picture of an effete academic. Below the neck, with his rough, powerful bulk and hands the size of catchers' mitts, he looked like a dockworker or a former defensive tackle.
"They sent a patrolman. Not a detective. A kid in uniform barely old enough to shave," the headmaster said. "He did a full twenty minutes of investigating, which mostly involved striking up conversations with pretty female students. Since then, I've left five unreturned messages."
The yin-and-yang Frisbee bounced off the headmaster's chest and into one of his giant hands. Several players froze, staring at him and cringing.
"Gentlemen," the headmaster said. He closed his hand and snapped the Frisbee in half, as though it were made of tinfoil, the hard plastic cracking like gunfire. "Do be more careful." He neatly stacked the Frisbee halves and handed them to a chastened lad, who silently backed away.
Sam caught himself gaping and clamped his lips around the cigarette just before it tumbled out of his mouth. "Cops know how much the book's worth?"
Tom sighed. "Danforth Putnam is technically in West Cabot County. Last year, West Cabot County had three murders, two dozen rapes, nearly four hundred aggravated assaults and eighteen arsons. I called about a stolen book. Trust me, Mr. Gregory, they don't care what it's worth. As far as anyone on that side of the Atlantic is concerned, this is an island full of spoiled rich kids with spoiled-rich-kid problems, and a stolen book, even a valuable one, fits firmly in that category."
Sam more or less agreed with those on that side of the Atlantic. "A place like this, obviously you have your own security."
"And they're very well-paid," said Tom irritably. "So far, they've turned up nothing."
"Well, wait till I get their reports before you fire any of them," said Sam. His eyes fell on the Asian kid with the orange Mohawk and piercings. "Halloween a few days early this year?"
The headmaster glanced at the Asian boy and sighed. "Today's youth, Mr. Gregory."
Sam found himself before the same woman who'd glowered at him for smoking on the quad. There were five feet to her, tops, carried mostly in the torso with her enormous bosom and bullfrog neck. She looked unnaturally white, with wet black eyes pushed deep into her pale, doughy face beneath eyebrows that seemed frozen in angry arches. She looked like a snowman that had been brought to life and was none too happy about it. When she saw Sam, her mouth twisted into a citrus pucker. "May I help you?" she asked in a voice that could freeze pipes.
"You're Ms. Lee, the head librarian?"
"I am," Ms. Lee said with a slow blink, fingering her necklace.
"My name's Sam Gregory," he said. "I'm an insurance investigator for SATCO Mutual."
She snorted. "I know what you are."
Sam tilted his head and gave her a smile. "You know, as a private investigator, I've gotten very good at reading people. So let's stop playing games. Obviously, you're into me. Is there a Mr. Ms. Lee?"
"I just think that, perhaps, we resorted to you rather quickly," Ms. Lee said. "We might have made some effort to find the book ourselves before summoning the likes of you to prowl about the school grounds."
The likes of me, Sam thought. Charming. He wasn't entirely sure of his ancestry. It was likely a mishmash of things, because he confused pretty much everyone who looked at him. Maybe she didn't like being confused. Maybe his tattoo read a little more roughneck than she liked. Or maybe he was there because of her screwup and she just didn't want that coming out. Time would tell.
"I'm awful sorry you find my presence here so distasteful, Ms. Lee, and I will do my best not to sully the school grounds with my prowling. In fact, I can wrap this up real quick if you want to withdraw your insurance claim. How's that sound?"
Ms. Lee fingered her necklace again and muttered a few words.
"Excuse me?" Sam asked.
"Please get on with your investigation, Mr. Gregory," she said.
He took out a notebook and pencil. "You recently reported the loss slash theft of an eleventh-century manuscript, is that right?"
"There was no loss slash, just theft, and would you mind refraining from that disgusting habit while on school grounds?"
Sam looked from her to his notebook. "Writing?"
"Smoking," Ms. Lee said. "Children live here."
Sam smiled. "Yeah, the ones I saw on the quad with you looked a little young for high school." He glanced around. "Ashtray?"
She took his cigarette between her thumb and forefinger, holding it at arm's length as if it were the tail of a dead rat, and stubbed it out in a teacup saucer. "I oversee all the children from the lower campus," she said. "That's for grades three to seven."
"You have third-graders at a boarding school?"
"There are women who marry men with children from previous marriages they don't want to be reminded of," Ms. Lee explained. "There are wealthy foreigners who want their children well away from the dangers of their homeland. And then there are the foundlings."
"Orphans," said Ms. Lee, pronouncing the word slowly and loudly as though for someone new to English. "Danforth Putnam isn't merely an elite boarding school. It also runs the oldest, continuously operating home for orphans in the United States. Since 1654, boys and girls as young as eight have been boarded and raised and taught here for free. Danforth Putnam is first and foremost a philanthropic institution."
Sam nodded. "Your cat is drinking your tea."
Ms. Lee turned to see a black cat, having noiselessly leapt onto her desk, now whiskers deep in her Earl Grey. "Crowley, down!" she said, shoving the cat airborne.
Sam tapped his notebook with his pencil. "Report says the book was in a safe?"
Ms. Lee sniffed, grabbed a cane propped against the wall behind her and walked over to a large portrait of a Puritan with a broad, flat nose, a square jaw, shoulder-length brown hair and the smuggest smile Sam had ever seen. The smile seemed wildly out of place on a Puritan. He had assumed Puritans spent their whole lives scowling with disapproval. The frame was inscribed "Mason Alderhut-Founder."
Ms. Lee removed the portrait, revealing a wall safe, which she opened. "I'm not sure how they cracked it, but I plan to write a very strongly worded letter to the manufacturer."
Sam glanced at the safe, then returned to writing. "What you have there, Ms. Lee, is an Etson 5000 series. It has nylon wheels, false tumbler notches and a bunch of other neato stuff that means it can't be cracked without explosives. And since parts of it aren't strewn all over your carpet, whoever opened it had the combo, which ain't the manufacturer's fault. So, who knows the combo?"
"Well . . . just the headmaster and I," she said.
"You write it down someplace someone might have seen?" asked Sam.
"Why, yes, Mr. Gregory," said Ms. Lee, "that's exactly the kind of careless boob I am. Normally, I just leave the combination on a Post-it note stuck to the safe. That's, of course, when I bother to close it. Generally, I just leave it wide open with a hand-painted sign over it that reads rare books inside: please steal." She slammed the safe closed. "I didn't give anyone the combination, Mr. Gregory, mistakenly or otherwise, and neither did the headmaster."
Sam kept writing. "They take anything else?"
"Not that I've noticed," said Ms. Lee. She nodded at the window behind him. "That's how they got in."
"Tried the door first," Sam murmured as he made notes.
"Excuse me?" asked Ms. Lee.
Sam looked up as though noticing she was still there. "There are scuff marks around the spring latch in your office door from a screwdriver." Ms. Lee moved over to the door and bent to squint at the bent lock strike.
Sam gestured behind him with the eraser on his pencil. "Same scuff marks are on the window latch."
She drifted over to examine those as he went on.
"When he couldn't pop the window," Sam said, "he lost patience and punched through a couple of glass panes, which you had replaced." He indicated some slightly newer-looking glass panes. "Lucky for us, he cut himself doing it. I can see where you tried to get his blood out of the carpet. I say he, but it might have been a girl with big feet. What's left of the muddy footprint you mostly got out of the rug came from a man's 9½ or a woman's 11 shoe."
She stared at him quietly. "Anything else?" she asked, pouring herself some tea.
"Well, I think we can assume it's someone who's got a pretty personal beef with you," Sam said, "since they pissed in your teapot."
Ms. Lee gagged on her tea and recoiled, letting the cup and saucer crash on her desk.
"Just joking," Sam said as he closed his notebook. "Which way's the infirmary?"
The planetarium was, by design, windowless. Its location, further, was at best vaguely known to anyone not in the astronomy club. This, combined with its proximity to two well-stocked vending machines (one of which sometimes gave up bonus Drake's cakes with a well-timed hip check), made it an ideal meeting place for the Dungeons & Dragons club (which overlapped with the astronomy club to a convenient degree).
Brad, Kapui and Niloofar studied a map. Harriet, the dungeon master, reviewed the hazards facing them behind a security screen. "You want to lose a level, Rob?" Harriet asked without looking up.
"Huh?" said Rob, who had drifted nonchalantly toward her flank.
"Try peeking at my notes again, I'm docking you one hundred thousand x.p."
Rob returned to the map, venting his pique on a bag of Fritos.
"At the base of the foothills is a towering pile of fist- size rocks," Harriet said. "Etched into each rock is a strange symbol."
"What do the symbols look like?" Niloofar asked.
"You pick up one of the rocks to examine it-" Harriet replied.
"Wait!" Kapui piped up. "She didn't say-"
"The symbol begins to glow, the rock becoming so hot you have to drop it," Harriet plowed on. "The symbol in every other rock in the pile begins to glow as well. Roll a dexterity check."
The party groaned, each rolling a twenty-sided die.
"I'm calling bullshit on that," Kapui griped.
"I'm getting tired of the whining," Harriet said. "Six D4 damage if you fail the check."
Kapui alone failed the roll. He pounded his head against the carpet. Niloofar offered him a plastic orc skull full of Junior Mints, but he would not be consoled.
"From the pile of rocks emerges what looks like a giant lizard made of fire," Harriet continued.
"A fucking salamander?" cried Brad.
"You wish," Harriet answered. "Hang on to your headgear, Brad-this is a Balrog."
There were gasps, naturally, followed by an electric state of readiness.
"The demon brandishes its flaming whip," Harriet continued, "and-"
The room went dark. The club froze.
"What happened?" asked Brad.
Harriet felt her way to the light switch and juddered it. "Power's out," she said. She got a strong whiff of...melted fuse, maybe? But also leather, pine and camphor.
A pained moan from the corner.
A low growl from the back row. A hiss from near the fire exit.
"Who's in here?"
A scream from Niloofar.
"What's going on?" yelled Harriet.
A face, lit from below, bobbed near the audio console, snout and horns glistening. "You have summoned me and my minions from hell," it rasped. "You will pay for your blasphemy!"
Another face, lit from below, appeared by the projector, moaning and fanged.
Another face, by the chalkboard, wailing and lighting something. “I cast a Protection Against Nerds spell!” The speaker lobbed a firecracker toward the middle of the map. The D&D club scattered to avoid the explosion. In the dark, Niloofar collided at full tilt with a Foucault pendulum. Its cymbal-like brang and her pained moans brought belly laughs to the intruders.
“You assholes!” Harriet shrieked. She wrenched Pluto off a solar-system model and hurled it at the largest of the assholes, who wagged his tongue luridly through a werewolf mask, a flashlight held below his chin. She reached for Neptune, intent on working her way to Mercury, when her body betrayed her. Her jaw locked, her limbs began to jerk, and she crashed to the ground.
“Fucking A,” said the one in a werewolf mask, sweeping his flashlight over Harriet’s convulsing body, “she’s, like, totally spazzing out.”
“She’s having a seizure!” shrieked Niloofar. “Help her!”
Instead, the marauders fled, taking their flashlights with them.
“Harriet?!” Niloofar yelled, “Oh, Jesus!”
“I’ll get help!” Kapui said, feeling his way out the door.
“Hold her, or something!” Niloofar said, who had followed the sound of Harriet’s moaning, and was forcing her sweater under Harriet’s head to keep her from bashing it against the floor.
Rob and Brad found their way to Harriet and each grabbed a leg. Harriet’s tremors slowed, then stopped. Everyone exhaled.
Then, as Rob would later describe it to Dr. O’Megaly, “Harriet just, like, freaked out.”
He reported that Harriet jackknifed into a sitting position, dazing Niloofar with a headbutt. Then, Harriet “started saying these weird words really fast, but, almost like, if you played a record backwards.” Then she whipped one leg so forcefully that Brad left the floor and lost his right shoe before crashing into a row of chairs. “I let go at that point,” Rob admitted, “and then Harriet did this like handspring thing and landed on top of the star projector. Which is like eight feet tall.”
This could not be corroborated. And, as everyone admitted, it had been dark in the room.