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The Instruments of Darkness
BOOK 21 Parker's efforts to help a woman accused of kidnapping and killing her own child draw him deep into the forests of Maine, where a house holds an old evil.
In Maine, Colleen Clark stands accused of the worst crime a mother can commit: the abduction and possible murder of her child. Everyone—ambitious politicians in an election season, hardened police, ordinary folk—has an opinion on the case, and most believe she is guilty.
But most is not all. Defending Colleen is the lawyer Moxie Castin, and working alongside him is the private investigator Charlie Parker, who senses the tale has another twist, one involving a husband too eager to accept his wife’s guilt, a group of fascists arming for war, a disgraced psychic seeking redemption, and an old, twisted house deep in the Maine woods, a house that should never have been built.
A house, and what dwells beneath.
Coming April 2024 from Hodder & Stoughton (UK/Ireland)
Coming April 30, 2024 from Hachette Australia (AUS/NZ)
Coming May 7, 2024 from Atria/Emily Bestler Books (US/Canada)
Moxie Castin was easy to underestimate, but only on first impression. He was overweight by the equivalent of a small child, didn’t use one word in public when five others were loitering nearby with nothing better to do, and had a taste for ties with patterns reminiscent of the markings of poisonous insects or the nightmares of LSD survivors. He subsisted largely on fried food, coffee, and the Maine soda that had given him a nickname now long since passed into common usage; since he had been christened Oleg, Moxie sounded better to him. He lost cases, but not many, and his friends far outnumbered his enemies.
Currently, Moxie was sitting in a booth at Becky’s on Commercial, performing a vanishing act on his patented version of the Hobson’s Wharf Special, which basically meant changing “or” to “and” when it came to the options: hence, bacon and sausage, two pancakes and french toast, along with the requisite two eggs over easy, home fries, and regular toast. Any cardiologist who had yet to slip Moxie a business card was missing a trick.
He looked doubtfully at my dry toast and coffee as he squirted ketchup on his bacon.
“Are you trying to make me feel bad?” he said.
“That depends on how bad you already feel,” I said. “I wouldn’t want to be responsible for tipping you over the edge.”
“I get my heart checked regularly.”
“You get your heart restarted regularly. It’s not the same thing.”
“Ha-ha. I ought to have met you after breakfast. You’re raining on my food parade.”
One sausage link, a slice of bacon, and half an egg met their fate while I was still lifting my coffee from the table to my mouth. If I was ruining Moxie’s appetite, it probably just meant he wouldn’t be able to eat the plate.
“I have a new client,” he said.
“It’s Colleen Clark.”
“I take it back.”
A week earlier, Colleen Clark had been questioned by the Portland PD in connection with the disappearance and suspected death of her two-year-old son, Henry. The actual evidence amounted to a bloodstained blanket discovered beneath the spare tire of her car ten days after the boy went missing, and the testimony of her husband, Stephen, who told police that Colleen had been struggling with anger issues and depression relating to her son. He had also, he claimed, discovered bruises on the child’s arms, which his wife had attributed to Henry’s undeniably rambunctious nature; the boy was a little ball of energy, and when he wasn’t running, he was falling.
Regardless, Stephen Clark had been on the verge of reporting his suspicions to the family physician when Henry disappeared.
As in every parent’s nightmare, Henry Clark had seemingly been abducted from his toddler bed while his mother was asleep in the next room and his father was away on a business trip to New York. An exhausted Colleen told investigators that she’d slept comparatively late on the morning in question. A night of undisturbed rest was a rarity for her, and on those occasions when Henry didn’t look for attention during the night, her body went into shutdown. She woke shortly after seven and went to check on her son, only to find the bed empty and the window standing open. She immediately searched the garden, in case he had somehow managed to climb out, however unlikely this might have been — she admitted that, in her panic, she hadn’t been thinking straight — before calling her husband, quickly followed by the police.
Both parents made appeals for Henry’s safe return, but it was noted by some observers that the husband was more tearful than his wife, who appeared oddly detached and unemotional. It didn’t matter that there was more than one way to respond to trauma, and shock and guilt could make mannequins of the best of us. The mob wanted a show, but only one of the actors was prepared to provide it. Within days, rumors were already beginning to circulate. They were unfounded, but that was no obstacle, unfounded rumors being the best kind.
It was only after Stephen Clark persisted in raising his concerns about his wife with the police that her car was searched more thoroughly than before, and the blanket found concealed in the well. Tests subsequently revealed it to be soaked with Henry’s blood. Colleen was interviewed by police without a lawyer present. She was convinced she didn’t need one, which, as any lawyer will tell you, is one of the signs that a person probably does. She denied all knowledge of how the blanket came to be in her car, although she did recognize it as one that had been given to the Clarks a few Christmases earlier. The blanket had been placed in storage in the attic because Colleen didn’t like it and would permit it to be put on display only when she knew the givers might be coming to visit. Even this little detail was added to the testimony being used to damn her in the popular imagination: her husband’s family presented her with a nice blanket— expensive, too, not just a reject from the closeout shelves at Marshalls — but, ungrateful hypocrite that she was, she kept it hidden away from all eyes but theirs.
Anonymous sources muttered disapprovingly about Colleen keeping herself to herself, of her failure to participate in joint community endeavors and her reluctance to join other young mothers for coffee, or shopping trips and stroller pushes at the Maine Mall. Thus a quiet, shy woman with better taste in furnishings than her in-laws, and with no fondness for the smell of mall disinfectant or Yankee Candle, was slowly transformed into a cold bitch capable of killing her child before concealing the body and concocting a fairy tale of infant-snatching.
But Colleen stuck to her story, even as the police set about picking it apart, and the media reported on it, with the result that she was virtually singlehandedly keeping the Maine newspaper industry afloat. In addition, vloggers, amateur detectives, web sleuths, and would-be podcasters, along with protesters of various stripes and sympathies, continued to haunt her neighborhood. If some entrepreneur had set up a stall selling pitchforks and flaming torches, the picture would have been complete.
“You think she’s guilty?” asked Moxie, as he progressed to the french toast.
“I don’t have an opinion either way,” I said. “I only know what I’ve read.”
“So why the long face about adding her to the client list?”
“She’s a mother suspected of killing her child. Whoever represents her is in for a world of pain — which is not to say you’re wrong to take the case, just that it’ll bring the crazies down on you. But my understanding is that she hasn’t yet been charged with any crime.”
“She hasn’t,” said Moxie, “but she’s about to be: criminal restraint of a child younger than eight, a class C felony; kidnapping, a class A felony; and manslaughter, another class A felony. If convicted, she’s looking at thirty years on the class A charges, and that’s assuming she receives concurrent sentences; consecutive, and Christ will have returned to claim His kingdom before she gets out.”
“Why not murder?”
“I wouldn’t put it past the state, but they’d have to prove malice aforethought. They’re on safer waters with manslaughter, and the additional charges for ballast.”
“Difficult to prove all that without a body.”
“Difficult, but not impossible. They have the bloodstained blanket, the absence of an alibi, and public opinion is against her, which counts for something in a case like this. Justice may be blind, but it’s not deaf. Jury selection will be like picking daisies in a minefield.”
“Are you the first lawyer she’s consulted?”
“Does that tone suggest I should have been the last?”
By now Moxie’s plate was more than half-empty, while I’d still barely touched my toast. I’d only ordered it so Moxie wouldn’t feel bad, but then I remembered that it took a lot to make Moxie feel bad.
“I think you’re becoming more sensitive to criticism as you get older” I said. “Admittedly you couldn’t become any more insensitive, but it’s still troubling. I’d grown comfortable with the status quo.”