Published: November 1st, 2020
Publisher: Poisoned Pen Press
Format: Paperback, Kindle, Audio
Genre: Apocalyptic Fiction, Dystiopian Fiction
I’m delighted to be sharing an extract for the latest book in the Black Winter Series today, which is out next month. Thank you to Amber at Midas PR for the invitation to take in the tour and for the extract.
“CLARE? IF YOU’RE THERE, please answer. It’s me. Beth.”
Clare stood at Winterbourne Hall’s kitchen sink as she stared, shocked, at the crackling radio. Gusts of freezing wind howled through gaps in the old mansion’s stone walls. Even wrapped in the cotton dress she’d inherited from one of the manor’s former maids and a fur jacket borrowed from Dorran, the kitchen would have been too cold for her without the fire. The blaze both warmed and illuminated the room, bathing Clare and Dorran in its orange glow.
Dorran stood close enough to touch. He still wore bruises and scratches from the monsters that inhabited Winterbourne, but his dark eyes shone in the candlelight as he looked toward the radio.
“Beth…” Clare’s heart missed a beat, then returned with a vengeance, thumping furiously until her pulse was all she could hear. The last time she’d spoken to Beth, she’d been driving to her sister’s house in an attempt to escape the spreading stillness. That had only been seventeen days before. It felt like half a lifetime. She had kept the radio running constantly since she’d retrieved it from her car, but her hope of hearing from Beth had been whittled down to almost nothing.
Dorran moved first. He strode around the wide wooden table filling the kitchen’s center and snatched the two- way radio off the shelf, then returned and placed it on the table in front of Clare. He didn’t try to speak but bent forward to listen, watching expectantly.
The radio crackled. Clare struggled to breathe. In a flurry of urgent panic, she dropped the dish towel and darted forward, then pressed the button to transmit her voice.
“Beth? Beth, I’m here. It’s me. I’m here.”
She released the button and bent close to the speakers. Her hands were shaking. Her throat was tight, and every nerve in her body felt on fire with a desperate need to hear her sister’s voice again.
Beth, who was the closest thing Clare had to a mother. Beth, who at the vulnerable age of twenty had taken Clare to dental checkups, to netball practice, to school recitals. Beth, who had never stopped worrying about her when she’d moved into her own home.
The transmission was faint and distorted by a weak signal, but the voice was unmistakable. Beth took a gasping, hiccupping breath. “Clare? Is that you? Is it really you?”
She’s still alive. She’s okay. “Yes! I’m here!”
Beth was crying, and Clare couldn’t stop herself from following. She wiped her sleeves over her face as tears ran. At the same time, a grin stretched her cheeks until they ached.
Dorran moved silently. He nudged a chair in behind Clare so she could sit, then a moment later placed a glass of water and a clean cloth beside her. She gratefully used the cloth to wipe some of the wetness off her face. Dorran took a seat on the opposite side of the table. He was tall, towering over Clare, but he moved smoothly and carefully, even his breathing nearly silent. He folded his arms on the table, his dark eyes attentive, his black hair falling around his strong jaw, as he listened to the conversation.
“Sweetheart, are you okay? Are you hurt?”
Beth never called her sweetheart unless she was frightened. Clare guessed, after more than two weeks of no contact, Beth was about as frightened as she’d ever been. “Yeah, I’m fine.”
That was a half- truth at best. She still had red lines running across her arm and abdomen from where the hollow ones had attacked her. She grew tired too quickly. Her muscles ached. A bite on her wrist and thigh still needed dressing every day.
But she was alive. And, if the hollows were as prevalent as they seemed, that was better than what could be said for a lot of the world.
“What about you?” She pulled the radio closer, struggling to make out Beth’s voice under the distortion. “Are you in your bunker? Are you okay?”
“Yes, don’t worry about me. I’m in my bunker and getting thoroughly sick of staring at these four walls.” Beth laughed. “I paid for every add-on I could for this place…air filtration, water filtration, generator, aquaponics system. The only professional I didn’t think to hire was an interior decorator.”
Hearing Beth’s laughter made Clare feel lighter. She couldn’t stop her own grin. “I guess people don’t really think about throw rugs and wall hangings when they imagine the end of the world, do they?”
Beth chuckled, but the noise didn’t sound quite natural. Clare’s own smile faded. For a moment, the only noise in the kitchen was the soft static and a distant drip.
“It’s all gone to hell, sweetheart.” Beth’s voice had lost its color. “Everything. It’s all gone.”
“Yeah.” Clare swallowed. “But you’re okay. And that’s what matters.”
“Are you at Marnie’s? Is she there? Can I talk to her?”
The questions were like being dunked in a freezing bath. Clare closed her eyes. She took a slow breath and tried to keep her voice steady. “I never reached Marnie.” “Oh.”
Clare’s aunt, Marnie, was the third piece of their tiny family. She lived on a farm two hours’ drive from Clare’s own home. On that last morning, Clare had been trying to pick Marnie up on her way to Beth’s. She’d never made it out of Banksy Forest.
“Well.” Beth sounded like she was choking. “At least you’re okay. At least…at least…”
“I’m so sorry.” Clare stared down at the chipped wooden counter and shivered. The kitchen no longer felt as warm as it had a moment before.
There had been very little chance to think about the world outside the forest during the previous few days. But whenever she had, her mind had turned to her family and what might have happened to them. She’d felt sick every time she imagined it.
She felt sick again, knowing that Marnie must have been waiting for her. Beth would have called her to say Clare was on the way. She’d probably been standing by her front door, a suitcase on one side and a cat carrier on the other. Clare could picture her easily. Brown hair that had started to develop streaks of gray. A body that had been made strong by a lifetime of working in the garden but was always a little on the plump side. She would have been wearing floral clothes and a knit cardigan, like she always did. She was a short woman but had a huge smile and an even bigger heart.
Did the hollow ones get her? Was it fast, or painful and slow?
A warm hand moved over hers. She met Dorran’s dark eyes as he squeezed her fingers.
“But you’re okay.” Beth’s voice crackled through the radio again. She seemed to have rallied. “After your phone went out, I tried reaching you through the radio almost constantly. For days. You didn’t answer, and I thought…I thought…”
“I’m so sorry. I left the radio in the car. It took me a while to get it back.”
“That’s fine. You’re alive. I can forgive everything else as long as you just stay alive. Where are you? If you didn’t get to Marnie’s, does that mean you’re in your cottage? It’s not going to be safe— ”
“No, no, I found a new house. It’s in Banksy Forest.”
She could hear the frown in Beth’s voice. “There aren’t any houses inside the forest.”
“That’s what I thought too. But it was well hidden. The owner,
Dorran, is letting me stay with him.”
Again, Beth hesitated. “Is he a good sort of person?”
“Yes, don’t worry. He’s nice. And we have plenty of food— and a garden. Winterbourne was designed to be self- sufficient and it’s hard to break into. I was lucky. Really lucky.”
“Be careful, Clare. Don’t trust him just because he’s friendly.”
Clare looked down at her hand, which was still enveloped in Dorran’s. She followed it along his arm, covered by the green knit sweater, and up to his face. Thick black hair, grown a little too long, framed a strong, reserved face. His dark eyes, shadowed under a heavy brow, smiled at her. She thought there was no one she trusted more.
“He’s good, I promise. You don’t need to worry about me. How are you doing there?”
“Holding up at least.” There was a speck of hesitation in Beth’s voice.
Clare frowned. “Are you sure? Do you have enough food and water?”
“Yes, that’s all fine. But the generator’s out. I’ve been trying to fix it, but it’s been a challenge without the lights.”
A chill ran through Clare. She pictured Beth, sitting in a dark box, having to feel her way through the space every time she needed food or the bathroom or water. There would be nothing to see. Nothing to do. Just her, alone, listening to the seconds tick by.
“I’m doing fine, sweetheart.” Her voice took on the familiar hint of warning she used whenever Clare was doing something she didn’t approve of. “I have a flashlight. I’m using it judiciously— apparently an excess of batteries still isn’t enough— but I’m hardly suffering down here.”
Clare wasn’t sure if she could believe that. But she tried to keep her voice bright for Beth’s sake. “We can talk on the radio as much as you want. I can carry you around with me and keep you company.”
Beth laughed. “Oh, that would be fun. But I think it’s better if we keep our chats short.”
That was unexpected. “Why?”
“Tell me, Beth.”
“Too much noise attracts them.”
Dorran’s fingers laced through Clare’s, trying to reassure her. She barely felt it. Her hands were turning numb. “The hollow?”
“Yeah.” Beth’s voice cracked. “I was the only person on my street who had a bunker.”
Clare understood. Without shelter, all of Beth’s neighbors would have been affected by the stillness.
Under the static’s crackles and her own too- fast breathing,
Clare thought she heard another sound. The noise had dogged her for weeks, following her even into her sleep, and every fiber of her being revolted against it. Fingernails, digging. Clawing.
Scratching. They were at Beth’s bunker door.
They’d heard them. They were hungry.
MEET THE AUTHOR:
Darcy is the USA Today Bestselling author of Hunted, The Haunting of Ashburn House, Craven Manor, and more than a dozen horror and suspense titles.She lives on the Central Coast of Australia with her family, cats, and a garden full of herbs and vegetables. Darcy loves forests, especially old-growth forests where the trees dwarf anyone who steps between them. Wherever she lives, she tries to have a mountain range close by.
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