Read the exclusive web-only prologue to Seven Devils, the new thriller from Steve McManus: 

12.11.18

 

Twin glowing rivulets bled through the blackness in a hurtling pitch, rapid saccades zigzagging a desperate descent.  They flickered like nocturnal eyes blinking fearfully, sometimes disappearing for long seconds before piercing the darkness again lower, closer.  

The brutal wind brought a solitary noise—a single struggling engine making a hunted, mournful howl, as if the vehicle itself knew it couldn’t sustain its flight.

 

Distance yawed in high beam white-out.  Swirling flakes became blind albino bats blanketing the windshield with a multitude of spasming wings, smothering the wiper blades that fluttered like the eyelids of the imperiled cast into the maelstrom alone.

 

But not alone.

 

Two pairs of lights pursued the first, one pair atop the other, cold blue Xenon teeth chasing yellowish Tungsten tails.  Gaining on them, following the tracks connecting them like a shortening leash.  

 

The lead vehicle’s brake lights flashed like beacons.  The second vehicle closed relentlessly, careening through the corners until it surged forward in a brief straightaway.  

 

For an instant the lights merged into a single flare.  

 

They came apart, wobbling, then converged again.  The lights veered sharply apart, then met a third time.  Like a predator swiping a fleeing animal’s rear legs out from under it, the lead vehicle went sideways and smacked through the snowy embankment left by a plow.  

 

Its engine revved wildly in open air as it plummeted through explosive cracks of branches and twigs finished by the weighty crunch of compressing metal and plastic, the motor grinding until it came apart and stopped for good.  

 

Hissing as it settled, the hot wreck ticked and popped in the snow.

 

Up on the highway the second vehicle skidded to a stop, then reversed up the empty road until its double lights came to rest on the hole in the embankment.  Snowflakes rushed into it like the beginning of a cover-up. After a minute the vehicle executed a very deliberate three-point turn and drove back up the way it had come, sullen as a fighter unwillingly conceding a draw.

*  *  *  *  *

 

Dawn crept through the trees in a pale blue mist.  Tiny ice particles danced in the air, defiantly suspended despite the lack of wind, diffusing the soft light over the silent forest.  

 

Car tires crunched to a stop on the highway.  The ruts had almost been filled with fresh snow overnight but they were still visible, pale as ghosts caught on camera.  The breach in the embankment gaped like a mouth with a secret to tell.

 

The driver got out, an older man in a double-breasted cashmere overcoat and leather gloves.  He stood in the middle of the hole, peering over the edge.  The ground dropped away but it wasn’t sheer—there were trees and rocks all the way down its bumpy slope to where it ended in a rocky gully below a clear hole in the canopy of snow-covered trees.  A giant black puncture wound in the whiteness. 

 

His knees smarting, he lowered himself into a squat and carefully dropped a leg over the side.

 

Gravity took care of the descent.  He slipped, slid and tumbled to the bottom, landing painfully in the snow and dirt with scratches on his face and the wind knocked out of him.  He was sure he’d broken a leg or a rib or suffered some other irreparable damage.  He’d be trapped down here until someone saw his car.  

 

But the thought of who that someone might be spurred him to get up.  

 

The unnatural silence made his skin prickle.  Despite the cold he was sweating beneath his heavy coat.  He limped over to the crumpled, snow-covered pickup wedged into the rocks like a ruined husk left by some enormous insect.  It was as cold and still as if it had already been here for a hundred years already.  

 

The driver’s side was inaccessible so he tried the passenger door.  It didn’t move.  He belatedly realized the doors would have been locked while the car was driving.  If he couldn’t get inside this absurd folly would be worse than perilous—it would be pointless.  

 

Using a rock the size of a baseball he smashed a jagged hole in the king cab’s rear passenger window, as startling as a flock of birds evacuating a tree.  He reached inside and felt around for the door lock button. Heard it click despite the severity of the damage.  He tried the front passenger door again.  With a groan it creaked open. 

 

Bracing himself, he stuck his head inside the gloomy cabin.  Both the male driver and female passenger were still buckled into their seats, their heads leaning sharply to the left with the tilt of the wreck.  The driver’s green John Deere hat hid his face and he might have been napping except for the steering column impaling him through his chest.  

 

The woman suddenly coughed.

 

He banged his head on the door frame as he reeled back from her and fell to the ground.  He scrambled away from the underside of the truck with his heart racing past its limits, fearing he was having a heart attack—his vision was blurred, his arm hurt, his chest burned.  He couldn’t feel the cold anymore, the snow sneaking into his gloves around his wrists, down his wool socks.  The trees encroached around him like a gang of bullies.  

He struggled to his feet and took a moment to compose himself.  Swat the snow off.  Calm down. Order his thoughts.  

 

Focus

 

He returned to the open door.

 

Glass shards glinted like tiny crystals embedded in the woman’s forehead and cheeks.  In the quiet he could hear the awful croaking of her breathing.  Her weary, bloodshot eyes were fixed on his.  

 

She moved a finger of the hand lying across her stomach.  He watched it rise, quivering, and straighten, then collapse, as if it took all of her strength to do even that much.  She was pointing at her phone, which lay on the floor by her feet amidst the fast food bags of last night’s dinner.  

 

Her cracked lips pursed as she mouthed a word.  He leaned forward with his ear close to her mouth.  Her weak exhalations barely reached his cheek.

 

Please, she whispered.  Please.

 

He reached down between her feet and picked up her phone, then stepped back, exhaling the breath he didn’t know he’d been holding as if she might steal it for herself.  

 

The display was cracked but the phone was on and still had battery strength, though no signal of course.  This was a particularly unforgiving place to have an accident.

 

She blinked at him with palpable gratitude, her anguished eyes wet with relief, as if she could already hear the thumping of the rescue helicopter’s rotors.  

 

The weight of the moment pinned him like a wrestler, the enormous irreversibility of their fleeting bit of chaos.  But it was fleeting, a brief eruption which would fade soon enough.  

 

He turned her phone off and slipped it into the inside pocket of his overcoat.

 

“No!”  Her shallow breaths sped up like the wheels of their truck as it left the road last night.  “No!  No!”

 

He slammed the passenger door shut with both hands, muting her tormented wail, the slippage of snow over the shattered window like the first shovelful of dirt onto a casket.

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© Steve McManus