This is probably the scariest opening chapter of any novel that we’re publishing this year. If your ideal novel lives in the intersection between horror and police procedural, then head to your local bookstore for Richard Montanari’s new Byrne and Balzano novel, Shutter Man.
Who are you?
I am Billy the Wolf.
Why did God make it so you can’t see people’s faces?
So I can see their souls.
At the moment the black SUV made its second pass in front of the Rousseau house, a tidy stone colonial in the Melrose Park section of the city, Laura Rousseau was putting the finishing touches to a leg of lamb.
It was her husband’s fortieth birthday.
Although Angelo Rousseau said every year that he did not want anyone to make a fuss, he had been talking about his mother’s roast lamb recipe for the past three weeks. Angelo Rousseau had many fine qualities. Subtlety was not among them.
Laura had just finished chopping the fresh rosemary when she heard the front door open and close, heard footsteps in the hall leading to the kitchen. It was her son, Mark.
A tall, muscular boy with an almost balletic grace, seventeen-year-old Mark Rousseau was the vice president of his class’s student council, and captain of his track team. He had his eye on the 1,000- and 5,000-meter events at the 2016 summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
As Mark entered the kitchen, Laura slipped the lamb into the oven and set the timer.
‘How was practice?’ she asked.
‘Good,’ Mark said. He took a carton of orange juice out of the refrigerator and was just about to drink from it when he fielded a withering glance from his mother. He smiled, pulled a glass from the cupboard and poured it full. ‘Shaved a quarter-second off my hundred.’
‘My speedy boy,’ Laura said. ‘How come it takes you a month to clean your room?’
‘See if you can find an egg in the fridge,’ she said. ‘I looked twice and didn’t see any. All I need is one for the apple turnovers. Please tell me we have an egg.’
Mark poked around in the refrigerator, moving plastic containers, cartons of milk, juice, yogurt. ‘Nope,’ he said. ‘Not a one.’
‘No egg wash, no turnovers,’ Laura said. ‘They’re your father’s favorite.’
Laura glanced at the clock. ‘It’s okay. I’ve been in the house all day. I need the exercise.’
‘No you don’t,’ Mark said.
‘What do you mean?’
‘All my friends say I’ve got the hottest mom.’
‘They do not.’
‘Carl Fiore thinks you look like Téa Leoni,’ Mark said.
‘Carl Fiore needs glasses.’
‘That’s true. But he’s not wrong about this.’
‘You sure you don’t mind going to the store?’ Laura asked.
Mark smiled, tapped the digital clock on the oven. ‘Time me.’
Forty-five minutes later, Laura stepped out of the shower and looked at herself in the steamed mirror. The image was blurred, smoothing over all the imperfections.
Maybe Carl Fiore is right, she thought. Maybe I am the hottest mom.
By the time she toweled off and dried her hair, the mirror was clear, and soon-to-be-forty-herself Laura Rousseau was back.
As she put the hair dryer in the hall closet, the house seemed strangely quiet. Usually at this time of the early evening Laura could hear Mark playing music or video games in his room, or Angelo watching SportsCenter in the den.
Silence. A flat, unsettling silence.
When Laura turned the corner, heading toward the stairs, she saw shadows spill across the floor. She glanced up to see two men standing in the hallway. They were too old to be Mark’s friends, too rough-looking to be Angelo’s acquaintances or customers. She’d never seen them in the neighborhood. Both in their thirties, one had close-cropped hair, the other had hair to his shoulders.
Something was not right.
‘Laura Rousseau,’ the one with short hair said. It was not a question. It was a statement. The man knew her name.
Before Laura could stop herself, she said, ‘Yes.’
The man with long hair flipped on the hall light, and Laura saw that he had a handgun tucked into the waistband of his jeans. The other man held a straight razor.
‘Your family needs you in the living room,’ the long-haired man said.
When they stepped to the side, Laura ran past them, into the living room, into hell.
Her husband and son were seated on dining room chairs in the center of the room, slumped forward, their feet and hands bound with duct tape. There was also duct tape over their mouths and eyes.
The floor beneath them was soaked with blood.
As the world began to violently spin from her grasp, Laura felt herself being forced onto a chair by strong hands.
‘What . . . have . . . you . . . done?’ Laura managed. Her words sounded small and distant to her ears, as if someone else was whispering to her.
The man with long hair knelt in front of her. ‘Do you know my face?’ he asked.
The horror uncoiled within Laura, threatening to burst from her body.
This is real, she thought. This is really happening.
The man took a photograph from his pocket, held it next to her face. In that moment Laura thought she saw something in his cold blue eyes. A reluctance, perhaps. A moment of hesitation.
‘Put this on,’ the other man said.
Laura turned to see that he had one of her blouses in his hand.
After she put on the cowl-neck top, the long-haired man again looked at the photograph. He nodded, stood and slowly walked behind her. He bound her to the chair with duct tape, put his hands on her shoulders.
‘I saw a stranger today,’ he said. ‘I put food for him in the eating place. And drink in the drinking place. And music in the listening place.’
Laura dared to glance at her dead son. Mark Rousseau was suddenly a toddler again, stumbling his way around this very room, steadying himself on the wall with one tiny hand.
‘In the Holy name of the Trinity He blessed myself and my family . . . ’
She looked at her dead husband. Angelo David Rousseau, the love of her life, her pillar. He’d proposed to her on his birthday—nineteen years ago to the day—telling her she’d be the only present he would ever want.
‘And the lark said in her warble: Often, often, often goes Christ in the stranger’s guise.’
The man took his hands from Laura’s shoulders, circled back in front of her.
‘O, oft and oft and oft, goes Christ in the stranger’s guise.’
He racked the slide on his weapon. The click of metal on metal echoed like the murmur of wasps, and soon fell to silence.
He placed the tip of the barrel against Laura’s heart.
Do you know my face?
In her last moments Laura Rousseau remembered where she had seen the man’s face before.
It was in her nightmares.