Charlie Donlea’s brilliant investigator Rory Moore returns in The Suicide House, which will be published in July 2020 by Kensington Books. When two students are horrifically murdered just outside the grounds of their exclusive prep school, Rory sets out to solve the case and tracks her efforts by recording a podcast (which you can listen to here). See the stunning cover below, and read on for an exclusive excerpt.
Westmont Prep Boarding School
Friday, June 21, 2019
A fingernail moon floated in the midnight sky, its tarnished sheen intermittently visibly through the foliage. The moon’s erratic presence penetrated the interlocking tree branches with a pale glaze that painted the forest floor in the lacquered finish of a black-and-white film. Visibility came from the candle they carried, the flame of which died every time they picked up their pace and tried to jog through the woods. They tried to slow themselves, to be careful and deliberate, but walking was not an option. They needed to hurry.
The one with the candle cupped his hand in front of the flame, which allowed them a few minutes of uninterrupted searching and brought them to a row of suspicious-looking trees. As they stood perfectly still and scanned the tree trunks, looking for the key they so desperately needed, the flame of their candle expired again. No wind was present, and they hadn’t so much as taken a step in any direction. The candle’s flame simply died, leaving a plume of smoke that filled their nostrils with the scent of burnt wax. The sudden and unexplained eclipse of the candle meant The Man in the Mirror was close. By rule—rules no one ever broke—they had ten seconds to relight the candle.
They fumbled with the matches—the rules allowed only matches, no lighters. One of them struck a matchstick across the phosphorous strip on the side of the box. Nothing. His hands shook as he swiped again. The match broke in two and fell to the dark forest floor. He reached into the matchbox, spilling several others to the ground in the process.
“Dammit,” he whispered.
“Hurry up,” the other said.
They couldn’t afford to waste matches. They’d need them again if they made it back to the house and into the safe room. But right now they were alone in the dark woods with an unlit candle and in great danger, if they believed the rumors and folklore. The tremor in their hands suggested they did. The one with the matches steadied his hand and made a smooth sweep against the phosphorous, which caused the match to light in a sizzling blaze. The eruption gave off a cloud of sulfur-tinged smoke before calming to a controlled flame. He trembled as he touched the match to the candle’s wick, happy for the light it provided. They calmed their breathing and moved their attention back to the shadowed forest around them. They listened and waited, and when they were sure they had beaten the clock, they slowly made their way forward, carefully shielding the flame as they went—a lighted candle was the only way to keep The Man in the Mirror away.
They made it to the huge sequoia tree and saw a wooden box at its base.
“There!” one of them said, falling to his knees. He opened the lid and found a key inside. His heart pounded with powerful contractions that rushed blood through the bulging vessels in his neck.
The one holding the candle blew it out—the rules stated that guidance candles could stay lit only until a key was found—and they both took off through the woods. In the distance, a train whistle blew into the night, fueling their adrenaline. The race was on. They crashed through the forest, twisting ankles and unsuccessfully shielding their faces from the branches that whipped their cheeks. As they continued through the woods, the rumble of the approaching train shook the ground beneath them as it roared past. The vibration brought more urgency to their steps.
When they reached the edge of the forest, the train was charging along the tracks to their left in a metallic blur that erratically caught the reflection of the moon. They broke free from the dark foliage and took off toward the house, their grunting and panting silenced by the roar of the train. They made it to the back door and pushed inside. They crept through the black hallways until they saw the door to the safe room.
One of them inserted the key into the doorknob and twisted. The lock surrendered and the door swung open. They entered the safe room and closed the door behind them. Inside was pitch black, much worse than what the forest had offered. One of them fell to the floor and, on his hands and knees, felt along the hardwood until his fingers came to the row of candles that sat in front of a tall, standing mirror. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the book of matches. There were three remaining. Striking the matchstick along the edge of the box, the tip ignited. He lit one of the candles and stood to face the mirror, which was covered by a heavy tarp. The rules stated that the mirror could only be uncovered after a team had made it back from the woods.
He took a deep breath and nodded to his partner, who pulled the tarp from the mirror. Their reflections were shadowed by candlelight, but they noticed the horizontal lacerations on their cheeks, and the blood that streamed perpendicular from them. They looked eerie and battle worn, but they’d made it. The rumbling evaporated as the last of the train passed the house and continued off to the east. Silence filled the room.
Looking in the mirror, they each took one last breath hoping they were not too late. Then, together, they whispered:
“The man in the mirror. The man in the mirror. The man in the mirror.”
A moment passed, during which neither blinked or breathed. Then something flashed behind them. A blur in the mirror between their reflections. Then a face came into focus, and a pair of eyes bright with ricochets from the candle’s flame. Before either could turn, or scream, or fight, their candle went out.