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An audacious thriller from a major new talent
Life isn't panning out for Maureen Coughlin. At twenty-nine, the tough-skinned Staten Island native's only excitement comes from--well, not much. A fresh pack of American Spirits, maybe, or a discreet dash of coke before work. If something doesn't change soon, she'll end up a ''lifer'' at the Narrows, the faux-swank bar where she works one long night after another. But just like the island, the Narrows has its seamy side.
After work one night, Maureen walks in on a tryst between her coworker Dennis and Frank Sebastian, a silver-haired politico. When Sebastian demands her silence, Maureen is more than happy to forget what she's seen--until Dennis turns up dead on the train tracks the next morning. The murder sends Maureen careening out of her stultifying routine and into fast-deepening trouble. Soon she's on the run through the seedy underbelly of the borough, desperate to stop Sebastian before Dennis' fate becomes her own.
With The Devil She Knows, Bill Loehfelm has written a pitch-black thriller in a fresh, compulsively readable voice, with pages that turn themselves. This is the real deal: a breakout novel by a writer whom Publishers Weekly has praised for his ''superb prose and psychological insights.''
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BILL LOEHFELM was born in Brooklyn and grew up on Staten Island. In 1997, he moved to New Orleans. He is the author of the novels Fresh Kills, which won an Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, and Bloodroot. He lives in New Orleans' Garden District with his wife, writer A. C. Lambeth.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
THE DEVIL SHE KNOWS (Chapter 1)
Blood. Maureen sniffed again at the dark smears on her fingertips. Pungent sweetness and a hint of iron. Definitely blood. Not the answer she’d hoped for, but the fresh stains couldn’t be anything else. She studied the spray pattern of red dots peppering the outside of her windowsill. That’s the effect of sharp teeth, she thought, punching holes through skin. She hadn’t seen or heard anything, a surprise since she’d left the kitchen only for a few moments to answer the phone. Nothing left of the body but what looked like sticky feathers. The culprit sat in plain sight. These attacks had to stop.
“You’re killing me!” she shouted out the window, down at the fire escape landing a floor below her kitchen. Narrow yellow eyes stared back at her, fearless and devoid of mercy or empathy. “You’re absolutely killing me, you fuzzy little prick.” Maureen put the phone back to her ear, turning away from the window. “And you are too,” she said to her caller. “You know that, don’t you, Dennis? You’re gonna be the death of me.”
“You better not call me fuzzy,” Dennis said.
“I wouldn’t know about that.” Maureen headed to the kitchen counter. “And I don’t wanna know.” She grabbed a half-full beer bottle and carried it back to the window. “All I know is I worked the past five nights.”
Reaching out the window, she emptied the beer bottle over the skinny calico on the fire escape landing. With one twitch of its tail, the cat launched onto the railing and away from the beer shower. The cat looked down at the beer, up at Maureen, and then sailed without a sound from the railing to the leafless bough of a nearby tree. A dozen sparrows hit the air, chirping in panic and warning. “Sorry.”
“C’mon, Maureen,” Dennis said, teetering on the edge of whining. “I’m really stuck here. Help me out.”
Maureen sat at the kitchen table, jamming the phone between her ear and shoulder, crossing her ankles. “You’re totally murdering me. One more night might do me in, for real.”
She pulled a cigarette from the pack on the table and lit it, listening to the bar manager, her boss, apologize and then beg some more.
“I’ll tell you what’s wrong with Tanya,” Maureen said, “in three words: O. Pee. Ates. She’s either too high or too sick from getting high to work. Don’t believe that bullshit about her sinuses, please...Yeah, she told me she was done with it, too, but you know better. We both do.” Maureen leaned forward, pressing her forehead into her free hand. “Okay, I’ll come in, but not as a favor to you. I need the money. This is for me. Not for Tanya, not for you.”
She disconnected and tossed the phone on the table. Well, so much for the gym. Good thing she had maxed out her credit card renewing the membership yesterday.
Maureen got up from the table and went back to the window. Leaning out from the waist up, she grabbed the bird feeder and pulled it inside. She’d have to move it again. Taking the feeder down meant letting the cat win, and Maureen hated that, but it wasn’t fair to make the neighborhood birds pay the tab for her pride. Eliminating the cat, which Maureen knew damn well she couldn’t stomach, was the only other option. Besides, punishing the cat for doing what it was built to do wasn’t fair, either. I’m the person, she thought. It’s my job to be smarter, to find the high road. She was sure a situation existed where cats could be cats and birds could be birds and everyone could go about their business in peace. She just had to find it. She set the feeder on the counter, silently promising to get it back outside in a cat-proof location as soon as possible. She couldn’t let the situation linger; the birds needed her. Winter was coming.
On her way to the bedroom, she paused at the calendar hanging on the kitchen wall. For a full five seconds she let her eyes rest on the picture above the black and white grid of dates. The Outer Banks, at sunset. A vast pink and orange sky floated over the sea like a clean sheet floating over a bed. Silhouettes of seagulls hovered over purple water flecked with gold. What island was in that photo? Not this island, she thought, that’s for sure. It’s not cold, gray, late-November Staten Island. Well then, boohoo for you.
Her eyes dropped from the picture and she found the date. Who was playing the bar tonight? Full House. Okay. At least there’s a decent band, a great band, really, on the schedule. Old-school R & B. Large crowd, older crowd. Liquor drinkers, top shelf. That meant good money, possibly great. All she had to do was get there to make it. She walked into the bedroom where, arms crossed, she surveyed the contents of her closet. Two days ago she’d organized it. Work clothes, hanger after hanger of black, on the left. Real life clothes on the right, a few skirts, tops, dresses. Twice as much black as color, a depressingly accurate portrait of her life.
She slid her hands in among the blacks and examined her options, listing her selection criteria in her head. One week before rent. Her maxed-out Visa. And the electric bill was due yesterday. She pulled out a thin sweater and held it up. Tight and nearly see-through. Long sleeves but cut low at the neck and high at the midriff. With her free hand, she pinched the collar of her T-shirt and peered down. Already wearing the black bra. Sweater’s a go; she put it on. Now where was I?
Business, she thought, this is business. I need to make three hundred tonight. She tossed a brushed leather skirt, very short, extremely short, onto the bed. Let them think she looked like a slut. Probably did already anyway. She made four hundred dollars in that outfit last time she wore it. Can’t hurt to leave some room for error. Service would be surly tonight; she could tell already.
Maureen stuffed the skirt, plus black leather flats, black stockings, and her apron into her knapsack. She slipped out of her running shorts and into a pair of jeans. She paused for a quick look in the mirror. Her nose glowed red and raw around the false emerald stud she’d had punched through it a week ago. It was cute, it really was. A good birthday present, no matter what her mother said. “A nose ring? I gave you money for something nice. For chrissakes, Maureen, you’re freakin’ twenty-nine years old. Be an adult. You’re almost thirty.”
Yeah, I’m an adult, Maureen thought, leaning closer to the mirror, and I bought jewelry for my birthday. And it looks good. So leave me alone about it. If only it would heal up already. Really oughta put some powder over that red. Then again, why bother? The dim lights of the bar hid a multitude of sins, red noses being the least of them. Hopefully, the black circles under her eyes would disappear as well. Christ, she was exhausted. Her nose twitched. Something smelled stale, like an old book left in the back corner of the attic. Was it the sweater? Her? She yanked open her bureau drawer and dug through the socks and bras. One thing the bar wouldn’t do was make her smell better.
She pulled out a fistful of glass vials, her collection of scented oils, tossing them on top of the bureau. Lavender, patchouli, some junk she’d borrowed from Tanya called Wind Spirit that turned Tanya into a Turkish princess but had left Maureen smelling like a lamb kebab. Real perfume was out of her price range, but the oils came cheap from the Rasta shop over by work. Some of the vials had lost their labels so she twisted off the caps, smell-testing them. Nothing caught her fancy until she un-capped a bottle a quarter full of white powder. God, how long had that been in there? She couldn’t even remember who had sold it to her. She recapped the bottle but didn’t screw it shut, pausing instead to stare again at her boxer’s eyes. Fuck it.
Maureen made a fist and tapped out a dash, not even a dash, really, of coke onto her knuckle. To get her to work with a bounce in her step, so she didn’t show up snapping and snarling at everyone, ruining her night before it even got started. She lowered her nose to her knuckle and sucked in the coke, coming up blinking at the mirror. Ouch. Bit of a kick to it. Bitter fluid gathered at the back of her throat and she swallowed it down, rubbing her knuckle over her upper gums. All right then. Time to get moving. She swept the bottles back into the drawer.
She dug the gym membership card from her discarded running shorts and tucked it tight behind her maxed-out Visa in a pocket of her wallet. No sense losing it. Replacements cost thirty-five bucks, and during the late nights and early mornings when Maureen figured she’d most often be going, the membership card was the only way into the 24-hour gym. And she would go. She’d promised herself that, too. She would go.
She dropped her arms in front of her, made fists, and then turned her arms until clean-cut triceps surfaced and pushed up against her hard shoulders. Her arms felt strong and looked it. The clinging sweater made that obvious. She knew her legs were in good shape too, even if they did wake her up three nights a week with their complaining. She peeked down her shirt again; now, if only push-ups, running the floor, and humping drink trays did something for those. And her belly, flat enough for the short sweater but getting soft. Maybe she’d stop going to the diner with Tanya after closing. Start keeping real food in the house. What good could waffles and ice cream be doing her anyway, at four in the morning? Wouldn’t it be better, she thought, sniffling, the coke making her nose run, to wind down on the treadmill or the elliptical? Who in their right mind enjoyed trading a crowded, noisy, smelly bar full of d...
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