by Meghan O'Flynn
Genre: Crime Thriller
”Dark and intense, with an M. Night Shyamalan-level twist.”
~Kristen Mae, bestselling author of the Conch Garden series
OLD SINS. NEW BLOOD.
Deputy Sheriff William Shannahan doesn’t feel like a detective, at least not like the ones he admires on TV. Not that he needs to be; the small town of Graybel, Mississippi, is a peaceful place, with acres of farmland, neighbors who always take care of their own, and noise from the outside world muted by a hundred miles of forest.
That silence is about to be broken.
When a child is found dead in the woods, the medical examiner deems it a dog attack. But the paw prints belong to something far larger than any creature in the Mississippi forests, and what animal would remove the victim’s eyes? Though no one believes him, William can’t shake the feeling that a human killer lurks in the shadowed woods.
And his girlfriend, Cassie, has a son the same age as the victim.
Cassie Parker was raised amid horrors she’s long pushed from her mind, but her scars won’t let her forget. Nor do the hallucinations, dreams so vivid she can feel and smell and taste them. And no one is more terrified than Cassie when another victim is found mauled to death—because this body has been drained of blood. She knows exactly what type of person would sacrifice a child, and why they’re after hers. But how can she explain it to William?
This is William’s chance to act like a detective, to protect the woman and child he’s desperate to save. Pushing back against prejudice and presumption, he uncovers a trail of cruelty that spans decades, but each clue brings him closer to a truth more horrifying than killer beasts in the forest. For concealed beneath small-town politics is knowledge that will shatter everything he knows to be true about his town—and the people in it.
A compulsively readable thriller in the vein of Cujo, The Girl on the Train, and M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village, Shadow’s Keep is a mind-bending exploration of obsession, desperation, and how far we’ll go to protect those we love.
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And that morning, the moment came and went, though he didn’t recognize it, nor would he ever have wished to recall that morning again for as long as he lived. But he would never, from that day on, be able to forget it.
He left his Mississippi farmhouse a little after six, dressed in running shorts and an old T-shirt that still had sunny yellow paint dashed across the front from decorating the child’s room. The child. William had named him Brett, but he’d never told anyone that. To everyone else, the baby was just that-thing-you-could-never-mention, particularly since William had also lost his wife at Bartlett General.
His green Nikes beat against the gravel, a blunt metronome as he left the porch and started along the road parallel to the Oval, what the townsfolk called the near hundred square miles of woods that had turned marshy wasteland when freeway construction had dammed the creeks downstream. Before William was born, those fifty or so unlucky folks who owned property inside the Oval had gotten some settlement from the developers when their houses flooded and were deemed uninhabitable. Now those homes were part of a ghost town, tucked well beyond the reach of prying eyes.
William’s mother had called it a disgrace. William thought it might be the price of progress, though he’d never dared to tell her that. He’d also never told her that his fondest memory of the Oval was when his best friend Mike had beat the crap out of Kevin Pultzer for punching William in the eye. That was before Mike was the sheriff, back when they were all just “us” or “them” and William had always been a them, except when Mike was around. He might fit in somewhere else, some other place where the rest of the dorky goo#alls lived, but here in Graybel he was just a little…odd.
Oh well. People in this town gossiped far too much to trust them as friends anyway.
William sniffed at the marshy air, the closely-shorn grass sucking at his sneakers as he increased his pace. Somewhere near him a bird shrieked, sharp and high. He startled as it took flight above him with another aggravated scream.
Straight ahead, the car road leading into town was bathed in filtered dawn, the first rays of sun painting the gravel gold, though the road was slippery with moss and morning damp. To his right, deep shadows pulled at him from the trees; the tall pines crouched close together as if hiding a secret bundle in their underbrush. Dark but calm, quiet—comforting. Legs pumping, William headed off the road toward the pines.
A snap like that of a muted gunshot echoed through the morning air, somewhere deep inside the wooded stillness, and though it was surely just a fox, or maybe a raccoon, he paused, running in place, disquiet spreading through him like the worms of fog that were only now rolling out from under the trees to be burned off as the sun made its debut. Cops never got a moment off, although in this sleepy town the worst he’d see today would be an argument over cattle. He glanced up the road. Squinted. Should he continue up the brighter main street or escape into the shadows beneath the trees?
That was his moment.
William ran toward the woods.
As soon as he set foot inside the tree line, the dark descended on him like a blanket, the cool air brushing his face as another hawk shrieked overhead. William nodded to it, as if the animal had sought his approval, then swiped his arm over his forehead and dodged a limb, pick-jogging his way
down the path. A branch caught his ear. He winced. Six foot three was great for some things, but not for running in the woods. Either that or God was pissed at him, which wouldn’t be surprising, though he wasn’t clear on what he had done wrong. Probably for smirking at his memories of Kevin
Pultzer with a torn T-shirt and a bloodied nose. He smiled again, just a little one this time.
When the path opened up, he raised his gaze above the canopy. He had an hour before he needed to be at the precinct, but the pewter sky beckoned him to run quicker before the heat crept up. It was a good day to turn forty-two, he decided. He might not be the best-looking guy around, but he had his health. And there was a woman whom he adored, even if she wasn’t sure about him yet.
William didn’t blame her. He probably didn’t deserve her, but he’d surely try to convince her that he did, like he had with Marianna…though he didn’t think weird card tricks would help this time. But weird was what he had. Without it, he was just background noise, part of the wallpaper of this small town, and at forty-one--no, forty-two, now—he was running out of time to start over.
He was pondering this when he rounded the bend and saw the feet. Pale soles barely bigger than his hand, poking from behind a rust-colored boulder that sat a few feet from the edge of the trail. He stopped, his heart throbbing an erratic rhythm in his ears.
Please let it be a doll". But he saw the flies buzzing around the top of the boulder. Buzzing. Buzzing.
William crept forward along the path, reaching for his hip where his gun usually sat, but he touched only cloth. The dried yellow paint scratched his thumb. He thrust his hand into his pocket for his lucky coin. No quarter. Only his phone.
William approached the rock, the edges of his vision dark and unfocused as if he were looking through a telescope, but in the dirt around the stone he could make out deep paw prints. Probably from a dog or a coyote, though these were enormous—nearly the size of a salad plate, too big for anything he’d expect to find in these woods. He frantically scanned the underbrush, trying to locate the animal, but saw only a cardinal appraising him from a nearby branch.
Someone’s back there, someone needs my help.
He stepped closer to the boulder. Please don’t let it be what I think it is. Two more steps and he’d be able to see beyond the rock, but he could not drag his gaze from the trees where he was certain canine eyes were watching. Still nothing there save the shaded bark of the surrounding woods. He took another step—cold oozed from the muddy earth into his shoe and around his left ankle, like a hand from the grave.
William stumbled, pulling his gaze from the trees just in time to see the boulder rushing at his head and then he was on his side in the slimy filth to the right of the boulder, next to…
Oh god, oh god, oh god.
William had seen death in his twenty years as a deputy, but usually it was the result of a drunken accident, a car wreck, an old man found dead on his couch.
This was not that. The boy was no more than six, probably less. He lay on a carpet of rotting leaves, one arm draped over his chest, legs splayed haphazardly as if he, too, had tripped in the muck. But this wasn’t an accident; the boy’s throat was torn, jagged ribbons of flesh peeled back, drooping on either side of the muscle meat, the unwanted skin on a Thanksgiving turkey. Deep gouges permeated his chest and abdomen, black slashes against mottled green flesh, the wounds obscured behind his shredded clothing and bits of twigs and leaves.
William scrambled backward, clawing at the ground, his muddy shoe kicking the child’s ruined calf, where the boy’s shy white bones peeked from under congealing blackish tissue. The legs looked…chewed on.
His hand slipped in the muck. The child’s face was turned to his, mouth open, black tongue lolling as if he were about to plead for help. Not good, oh shit, not good.
William finally clambered to standing, yanked his cell from his pocket, and tapped a button, barely registering his friend’s answering bark. A fly lit on the boy’s eyebrow above a single white mushroom that crept upward over the landscape of his cheek, rooted in the empty socket that had once
contained an eye.
“Mike, it’s William. I need a…tell Dr. Klinger to bring the wagon.”
He stepped backward, toward the path, shoe sinking again, the mud trying to root him there, and he yanked his foot free with a squelching sound. Another step backward and he was on the path, and another step off the path again, and another, another, feet moving until his back slammed against a gnarled oak on the opposite side of the trail. He jerked his head up, squinting through the greening awning half convinced the boy’s assailant would be perched there, ready to leap from the trees and lurch him into oblivion on flensing jaws. But there was no wretched animal. Blue leaked through the filtered haze of dawn.
William lowered his gaze, Mike’s voice a distant crackle irritating the edges of his brain but not breaking through—he could not understand what his friend was saying. He stopped trying to decipher it and said, “I’m on the trails behind my house, found a body. Tell them to come in through the path
on the Winchester side.” He tried to listen to the receiver, but heard only the buzzing of flies across the trail—had they been so loud a moment ago? Their noise grew, amplified to unnatural volumes, filling his head until every other sound fell away—was Mike still talking? He pushed End, pocketed the
phone, and then leaned back and slid down the tree trunk.
And William Shannahan, not recognizing the event the rest of his life would hinge upon, sat at the base of a gnarled oak tree on Tuesday, the third of August, put his head into his hands, and wept.
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